Ladies’ Tresses, Beech Nut, and More: A September Morning

On a recent morning walk in Eliza Howell Park, I documented in photos some of what I am observing at this time of the year.

Here are twelve images of late Summer / early Fall in the park, all photos taken on September 10, 2021.

1.Dew-covered Spider Web

If one walks toward the sun in a flower field early on a dewy morning at this time of the year, there is a good chance to see the details of spider webs clearly. Orb webs are a favorite.

2.Green Darner Dragonfly

This is one of the dragonflies that migrate and, because it is now migration time, they are more common here now. They are usually in flight (they feed on the wing), but this one was at rest.

3.Poison Ivy Foliage

The earliest Fall red leaves found on trees are not tree leaves, but the leaves on tree-climbing vines.

4.Beech Nuts

The nuts of the American Bee trees are ripening now and beginning to fall.

5.Milkweed Bug on Seed Pod

I often stop in patches of Common Milkweed at this time of the year to observe insects, especially the Large Milkweed Bugs that feed on the seeds.

6.Praying Mantis on Goldenrod

Praying Mantises, not noticeable for most of the summer, are now easy to find as they wait to snag insects that visit flowers.

7.New England Aster

Though not quite as evident and widespread as goldenrods, asters are common September flowers. New England Aster is perhaps the most striking of the asters here. This picture was taken in the shade; the flower appears a little different color in the sunshine.

8.Bald-faced Hornet Nest

I typically locate 8 or more hornet nests in park trees each year in the Fall, starting in early September. This is the first one this year, in a maple tree.

9.Staghorn Sumac Seed Cluster

A common stop in my walks is at sumac trees/shrubs, to admire the persistent seed clusters. They remain bright and attractive for many weeks.

10.Ladies’ Tresses

Single-stemmed, short, and scattered in fields, Ladies’ Tresses are easily missed when they bloom in late Summer and early Fall.

11.Pokeweed Berries

Pokeweed can grow 6 feet or more..The pink/red stems and the dark berries that begin to ripen in September are perhaps its most striking feature.

12.Monarch on Red Clover

Monarch butterflies have been common in Eliza Howell all summer, but the noteworthy point about seeing them now is that this is migrating time. Looking at this individual nectaring, I am thinking of its over 2000 miles flight to Mexico — on the lovely but delicate wings.

When I was thinking about referring to this collection of photos as “September Morning,” the phrase seemed familiar. It took a few minutes to remember the “September Morn” song by Neil Diamond, remembering an earlier occasion.

Nature’s calendar is such that all or most of the above observations are possible year after year in Eliza Howell Park. September Mornings are very similar one year to the next.

But nature’s calendar also means that things are constantly changing. October mornings will not be the same

Shagbark Hickory Nuts

Among the different trees that I visit regularly each year in Eliza Howell Park is one Shagbark Hickory tree. It is a tall tree with some low branches providing opportunity for close observation.

It is located in a mostly open area, with scattered trees, within the road loop. In this photo, the Shagbark Hickory is the tree in the center, on the right side of an oak.

Shagbark Hickory trees produce many more nuts some years than others. After a couple of less productive years, this particuler tree has an abundance of nuts in 2021. They are not yet ripe, but they have reached full size and a few have begun to fall.

Shagbark is not the most common species of hickory growing in Eliza Howell, but it is my favorite. It has large nuts that have long been prized by humans as well as consumed by many other animals. Yellow-bud Hickory is more common in the park, but its other name (“Bitternut”) suggests the judgment many make about its taste. Shagbark, on the other hand, is often described as having a sweet taste. It was my choice in a little taste test I did a couple years ago.

Recently I picked up a couple green Shagbark nuts from the ground under the tree and placed them next to Yellow-buds.The difference in size is dramatic.

Hickory nuts have an outer hull covering the shell, a hull that in the case of Shagbark is quite thick. So the nuts are not quite as large as they first appear.

When the nuts ripen and fall, or when the green nuts dry, the hull opens easily (separating into 4 parts) to reveal the nut inside.

The shell then needs to be cracked open for access to the nut meat.

Shagbark nut hulls slowly change from green to brown and the nuts can be harvested when they fall from the tree, at about the time of the first frost. “Picking” them means picking them up.

“Shagbark” Hickory got its name from the peeling strips of bark on the trunk, a characteristic that is very useful In identifying the tree when there are no nuts visible.

The leaves are not as distinctive, but are recognizable. The 5 to 7 leaflets on a stem are slightly rounded and come to a point.

Shagbark Hickory is native and grows wild in much of the Eastern part of the U.S. (The range map is from the U.S. Geological Survey.)

I often get asked by park visitors whether something is edible — usually berries, mushrooms, or nuts. The frequency of the question seems to indicate some interest in foragong, in finding food in what gows wild, as our ancestors did.

Those serious about eating some wild food might want to consider Shagbark Hickory nuts.

Watching Yellow Garden Spiders Trap Prey

In the last couple weeks, I located two different Yellow Garden Spiders in their webs during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. (They are sometimes called Black and Yellow Garden Spiders.) The large orb web is made by the female, who can usually be found in the center, in a head down position. She is more visible on the “back side” of the web (as in this picture) than on the side that faces the open area from which flying insects are more likely to come.

The web is large, about 2 feeet high and nearly as far across, and is placed across a small opening between plants, quite close to the ground. It has a very visible zigzag shaped section of thick silk in the center, over 6 inches long vertically, called a stabilimentum. Yellow Garden Spiders are among the largest web making spiders in our area.

The details of web construction are fascinating and parts of the web are rebuilt every night, (but the web remains in the same location). The Yellow Garden Spider is usually in her spot in the morning, on a clean web. partly hidden behind the stabilimentum, whenever I check.

She goes into action as soon as something becomes ensnared in the web. I arrived recently just as she grabbed a moth that had gotten caught. She quickly killed the prey, injecting a venum. Then, in a matter of seconds, she wrapped it in a cocoon of silk, to be moved away and later consumed.

I didn’t stay long enough to confirm, but it looked to me like this time she was starting to eat the moth as soon as she returned to her waiting spot on the web.

Not all spiders use webs to catch prey, but the Yellow Garden Spider is one that does and their webs are most easily found now, in late summer and early fall.

I am looking forward to a sunny morning with heavy dew because the webs stand out most, in all their intricacy and beauty, when each strand of silk is dew covered.

By the first frost, the Yellow Garden Spiders will probably be gone, with the new generation emerging in the spring.The next month is the best time to find their webs and observe their hunting technique. Here she just caught a fly.

Oak Bullet Galls: Protected by Hornets?

During my recent walks in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, I have been observing what strikes me as a fascinating phenomenon. On two different Swamp White Oak trees, there are many small round insect galls that are being regularly visited by Bald-faced Hornets.

The galls are known as Oak Bullet Galls and they encase the developing larvae of very small wasps. The types of cynipid wasps that produce them on the twigs and stems of Swamp White Oak and Bur Oak trees are best known for these galls.

Inducing plants to grow in a manner that provides space and food for larval deveopment, as insect gall makers do, is amazing enough. What these Oak Bullet Gall wasps do in addition is to have the galls exude drops of nectar.

Bald-faced Hornets seek nectar at this time of the year and they return repeatedly to these galls seeking the latest drop.

What a wonderful strategy for protecting the galls from predators that might try to get to the larvae — have the galls patrolled by large (stinging) wasps that don’t want anything happening to their food source!

Bald-faced Hornets are the most common of the large wasps that seek out gall nectar. There are a variety of others, three of which are shown here.

I stopped by the trees last week to check out the size and number of the acorns. It’s a good acorn year, but an even better bullet gall year. The buzzing of the hornets quickly pulled my attention away from acorns, and I have been returning frequently since to watch and try to photograph the insects

Nature study tends to reinforce my sense of wonder. What is happening with Oak Bullet Galls is pretty incredible.

Groundnut and Wild Cucumber: Two August Blooming Vines

In the last several days, I have been paying attention to two vines that are now flowering, two species that I have not been aware of in Eliza Howell Park prior to this summer.

One is Groundnut, sonetimes called Potato Bean or Hopnis (and other names). This Groundnut (not to be confused with the groundnut that we usually call peanut) is a native perennial that has been used as a source of human food for centuries.

As perhaps can be seen from the flower, Groundnut is a plant in the bean family.

Groundnut vines climb on other plants by twining, wrapping around and up branches of shrubs.

The beans, which will mature in the Fall, are edible, but it is especially the underground tubers, sometimes compared to small potatoes, that have been so long and frequently used as a food by many different native Americans, who then passed on this knowledge to European immigrants.

Now, in the middle of August, the vines look like this.

The second vine that I am watching is Wild Cucumber, an annual that is also native to this part of North America. Though the name might suggest that it is edible, the fruit is considered poisonous.

The numerous small white flowers are evident — even conspicuous — where they have climbed in a blackberry bramble.

Each of the flower stems contains clusters of many tiny male flowers.

A single female flower is found at the base of the flower stems. When fertilized, it will develop into a spiny cucumber-like pod, perhaps two inches in length. When ripe, it will “explode,” spreading seeds.

Right now, the individual female flower looks like this.

Though I have no idea how the seed that produced this vine came to Eliza Howell, I am impressed by its vigorous growth since spring. It climbs with the use of tendrils.

When I was anticipating my August observations this year, I did not expect that I would be focused on either of these two vines.

After hundreds of nature walks in the park, I continue to see something different often, even frequently. There is always more to observe and learn here!

Pollinating Beetles on Goldenrods: Locust Borer and Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

A few of the many goldenrods in Eliza Howell Park are starting to bloom and I have modified my walk to include these early blooming patches. Goldenrods attract many insects, which in turn attract me.

Pollinating insects include bees, wasps, flower flies, butterflies, and moths. In goldenrod season I am reminded that some beetles are also active pollinators.

Today I was watching two very attractive pollinating beetles in a goldenrod patch. One is known as the Locust Borer.

The Locust Borer is so named because it uses the Black Locust tree as the only plant species for the growing the next generation. It lays its eggs in a crevice in the bark of a Black Locust tree and, when hatched, the larvae burrow into the tree to spend the winter. (It does not use the Honey Locust trees also found in Eliza Howell.)

I do not know why, but it seems to favor goldenrod flowers when feeding on nectar and pollen.This preference makes for some good photo opportunities.

The other pollinating beetle I was watching today is the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle.

“Soldier beetles” are named that because the wings on their back reminded someone of the long coats worn by soldiers in the eighteenth century (“the redcoats”). This particular soldier beetle is identified with goldenrods because it forages frequently on goldenrods — where it sometimes meets the larger Locust Borer.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle adults also eat small insects and caterpillars, though much of their time is spent nectaring.

And though they are named for their foraging on goldenrod blooms, they can be found on other flowers as well. This one was on Joe Pye flowers today when I took a closeup.

I am pleased each summer to see these two colorful beetles when they appear, almost always in August. It is not often, though, that I get to see them in such close proximity.

Note the long horns on both.

Different species of goldenrods will be blooming over the next several weeks. And I will likely have more to report follwing my walks among them!

Twelve-spotted Skimmer: A Favorite Dragonfly

If I remember correctly, in the 250 posts in this series I have not once focused on an individual dragonfly species found in Eliza Howell Park. It is time to do so.

Dragonflies are strong flyers and fierce predators — “flying dragons.” The adults eat only live prey and almost always catch it on the wing.

One of the most visible species in the park is the large Twelve-spotted Skimmer.

This is a male on a perch, ready to fly out after an insect. Its name comes from the twelve dark spots on the wings, three on each of four wings.

The female looks a little different. She also has 12 darks spots on the wings, but not the light spots.

Twelve-spotted Skimmers are about 2 inches long and found in southern Canada as well as in every one of the 48 contiguous US states.

They are only found near water, however, because they, like all other dragonflies, spend the larval stage of their lives in water. In Eliza Howell Park, I usually see the adults from June through August.

Dragonflies are characterized by 2 pairs of veined wings, transparent but often with colored markings.

When I see a flying dragonfly, especially a large one, I try to follow its flight to see if it goes to a perch. If it does, I have a chance for a better look, through binoculars if needed. The various pictures used here were taken when the perches were close enough for photos.

Recently I was watching various activities around the enlarged meadow pond. Dragonflies and birds were both hunting the insects the pond attracts.

Dragonflies are, of course, themselves insect prey for the birds that are able to catch them. As I watched, an Eastern Kingbird flew from its perch and snagged a Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The dragonflies are skilled hunters, but they are also hunted.

There are a variety of dragonflies in the park, including at least two other, less common, skimmers: Widow Skimmer…

… and Common Whitetail.

Dragonflies are fascinating and often colorful. They might be compared to birds and butterflies as fauna that are enjoyable to watch and photograph.

I have not yet been part of a “dragonfly watching” group walk at Eliza Howell Park. When that happens, I am sure I will be looking for Twelve-spotted Skimmers. I have no doubt others will be as attracted to them as I am.

Signs of Late Summer

It is still July, but I couldn’t help noticing today during my walk in Eliza Howell Park that the end of the Summer is on the horizon.

The first Wild Black Cherry tree I came to was alive with noisy Robins, enthusiastically eating the fruit that ripens in late Summer.

Shortly after, I came upon a patch of blooming Wingstem, a tall wildflower that has its turn when many of the flowers that dominate in July are going to seed.

The most prominent wildflowers of late Summer are, of course, Goldenrods. They too were announcing today that their time is arriving.

Fall Webworm (note “Fall” in the name) is a moth best known for the webbing the caterpillars make in trees to protect themselves as they feed on the leaves. These webs are now appearing at the ends of some limbs, though the caterpillars are still so tiny that they can barely be seen inside. The webs are another sign Fall is approaching.

This appears to be a good year for Shagbark Hickory nuts, at least on the tree I visit regularly. The Fall- ripening nuts are plentiful and, in a sign of the impending end of Summer, already appear to be full size.

For the last month or so, Common Milkweed has been one of the most popular flowers in the park (popular with both insects and humans). Now many of these plants are developing seed pods, getting ready for the end of the growing season.

A number of trees that disperse their seeds in the Fall are clearly getting ready to let loose, including Sugar Maple

…and American Basswood.

The wildflowers and insects (especially butterflies) have so dominated my Eliza Howell time this month that I haven’t been thinking very much about what comes next.

Today I took some time to look at the signs and to start anticipating more of the annual wonders and joys as the cycle continues.

Red-spotted Purple: Beautiful with Wings Open or Closed

July is the best butterfly month of the year in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park. This year I have been especially pleased to get many good looks at one of my favorites — the butterfly called Red-spotted Purple.

Often when I am trying to get a good picture of a nectaring butterfly, I wait for it to open its wings so I catch see it at its most colorful. With this species, I am undecided whether it is more attractive with wings open or with wings closed.

It is fairly large (the wingspan is 3 – 3 1/2 inches) and, at first sight, it might remind one of a swallowtail. But it has no “tail” and, after meeting it a couple times, most butterfly watchers quickly learn to recognize it whenever it shows.

It is far from the most common butterfly in Eliza Howell Park, but this month I have had sveral good viewing opportunities. As is true of a good number of other species, it is attracted to Purple Coneflowers (above pictures) and to Wild Bergamot (below).

The common English name seems a little misleading. To me, it appears to be a blue butterfly with orange spots. I have to admit, however, that its questionable name has never lessened my enjoyment of it.

I can usually expect to see Red-spotted Purple between June through August, but only occasionally. Their range includes most of eastern U. S. and a part of the southwest. (The range map is from Gardens With Wings).

The Red-spotted Purple uses several different host plants for caterpillar food. One of these is Wild Black Cherry tree, of which there are a number in the park. The caterpillars overwinter in a hibernaculum (rolled leaf) on the host plant.

Black Cherry is one of my favorite trees, one of my stopping spots on many walks during the year. It seems fitting that a favorite tree serves as a host plant for a favorite butterfly!

I will try to explore this connection a little more at some orher time. For now, I am enjoying whatever opportunities I have for admiring the adult Red-spotted Purple.

Bird Nests: Different Styles and Locations

Every year I make note of the active bird nests that I see in Eliza Howell Park. The dozens of nests located in 2021 were made by 20 different species.

One of the fascinating aspects of nest watching is learning more about the varying places and structures used by different species. Here are seven examples from this year.

Eastern Bluebird Nest first observed April 5.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

Bluebirds nest in cavities, which they do not excavate themselves. Given their practice of selecting previously made cavities within several feet of the ground, they are easily attracted to human-constructed nesting boxes. This pair was using an old woodpecker or chickadee hole in a snag by the river.

Nest-making consists of placing a loose cup of grasses and small twigs in the hole, which the pair in the photo is doing.

Killdeer. Nest first observed April 6

Killdeer nest on the ground, out in the open, in short grass or in a sandy or gravely location. They do not really make a nest, just a shallow scrape, lined, if at all, by pebbles or twigs or whatever is nearby. Their protection strategy relies largely on camouflage. Even when I know that they are nesting in a certain area, I am not always able to find the nest.

Baltimore Oriole. Nest first observed May 15

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

I first spotted a Baltimore Oriole arriving in the park from its winter grounds on May 1 this year. Two weeks later they were nesting.

Baltimore Orioles build their nests in large trees, preferring those with hanging branches thick with leaves. In Eliza Howell, they use Eastern Cottonwood trees more than any species. The nest shown here, approximately 20 feet high, was in a Cottonwood that had been the site of a nest each of the last four years.

Baltimore Oriole nests are large pouches, about 6 inches long, bound to and suspended from forked twigs usually near the end of a branch. The female weaves long plant fiber and other materials into a deep cup.

The nest is entered from the top. In this photo, the female is bringing food to the nestlings.

Barn Swallow Nest first observed May 15.

Barn Swallows usually build their nests against a vertical surface, often on a upper ledge in buildings or other structures. In Eliza Howell Park, they nest under a bridge over the river and under shelters (this one was under a shelter).

The nest is a shallow and open cup, made of mud pellets mixed with some plant material. It is lined, minimally, with feathers.

The birds in this photo are young ones, about ready to leave the nest, still being fed by the adults.

Warbling Vireo Nest first observed May 19.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

Warbling Vireos nest in large deciduous trees, often high and almost always well out on a branch. Fortunately for nest watching, this one was well under 20 feet high.

The nest is a small open hanging cup, attached to twigs at the top. Vireos are small and, as can be seen in the photo, both the head and the tail of the incubating adult extend beyond the edge of the nest. The soft nest is constructed of a variety of materials — like plant down and grasses and lichen and hair — with spider webs helping to hold it together.

Song Sparrow. Nest first observed May 21.

Song Sparrows nest on the ground (as in this case) or in low shrubs / trees. The outer layer of the nest is made of dead grasses and other plant stems and finer grasses are used for the lining.

This nest was well hidden, under plant stems.I found it when the bird flew out at my feet as I walked through a part of the wildflower field.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Nest first observed May 23.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers nest in Eliza Howell Park every year and every year I try to find one of their nests that is visible enough to show to the participants of the annual Detroit Audubon nesting bird field trip here. Visiters find Gnatcatcher nests fascinating — as do I.

Some nests are built in a fork, but many saddle a branch, like this one. The nest is a compact rounded cup, deeper than it is wide. It is built of plant down, fine grasses, feathers, and other material, bound together and attached to the branch by spider webs. The outside is covered with lichen flakes, making it look like the branch on which it is placed.

The nest pictured here is leaning, but it was successful. The adult is feeding nestlings, who later fledged.

These seven nests provide a sense, I think, of the diversity found in the placement and construction of bird nests, a diversity that may account for the fact that I never tire of nest watching.