Some Recent FOYs

“FOY,” meaning first-of-the-year observation, appears frequently in my notes about my visits to Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year. There is something new to be seen every day.

Here are a few selected FOYs from recent walks, each of which seems noteworthy in its own way.

1.FOY Wild Lupine.

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Lupine tends to be the first to bloom each year among the flowers in native wildflower field at Eliza Howell. It is starting to bloom now and I always note it both because of its attractiveness and as a herald of all that is to come.

2.FOY Baltimore Oriole Nest

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The nesting Baltimore Orioles are one of the highlights of the Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell each June. (This year it is Saturday, June 8, at 8:00 a.m. – free and open to all.)

These orioles typically arrive in the first week of May and begin building nests in the third week of the month. The picture here was taken on May 18; the female was weaving.

3.FOY Burrowing Crayfish Hole

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Crayfish (also called crawfish and sometimes crawdads) are gilled and clawed crustaceans, related to lobsters. Some are terrestrial, spending most of their lives away from bodies of water. They burrow down to groundwater and come up at night to eat on land. They are nocturnal and I have no pictures from Eliza Howell, but this hole is evidence that they remain present in the park. This one will probably continue to remove mud as it digs deeper, piling it up near the entrance in the shape of a chimney (or volcano).

4.FOY Common Milkweed

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The common milkweed is a wildflower made famous as a host plant for Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae. Right after I saw the FOY Monarch on May 15, I checked a spot where I have found early milkweeds in other years. They are up and growing and will be ready any time the Monarchs are ready to lay eggs.

5.FOY Fledgling Robins

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The day after I took this picture of 4 young robins filling the nest, they left it. While I have been observing a number of different bird nests this spring, this is the first that I have watched successful fledging.

6.FOY Opossum Encounter

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On a recent walk in the EHP woods, I met this opossum along the path. “Possums” are nocturnal mammals and this daytime encounter reminds me that they are sometimes visible during the day. Maybe someday I see a mother opossum with several young on her back. That would be a great lifetime first (designated in my notes by “L” for “lifer.”)

7.FOY Honeysuckle Blossoms

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The redbuds and the crabapples have already been blooming for some time, but one of my favorite blossoms, honeysuckle, is just beginning. Most of the honeysuckle in the park have white blossoms, but a few, like this one, tend toward pink. The picture was taken on May 21.

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This list of recent FOYs could be considerably longer, but it is time to get away from the desk and back to the park to see what is new today!

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Cardinal Nest Watch: Part 2

This is a continuation of the story of a Northern Cardinal nest in Eliza Howell Park and of my observations of it. For the first part, see “Cardinal Nest Watch,” May 7.

As reported then, my last look in the nest had been on May 2, when I took a photo of 3 eggs.

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The brooding female was on the nest every time I checked through my binoculars during the next several days, so I did not get a close look.

On May 9, she was absent when I looked, so I approached for a brief look at what was happening. There were now 5 eggs.

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While all the eggs are similar in color and markings, I think that only the larger one is a cardinal egg. The smaller four appear to be Brown-headed Cowbird eggs. Cowbirds often remove one of the eggs of the “host” species when they lay one of their own.

I was not at all surprised by the presence of a cowbird egg, but I was surprised by the presence of four. As is typical of birds generally, a cowbird lays one egg a day; it usually places them in different nests. It must have returned to this nest more than once and/or there was more than one female cowbird imposing upon this particular host.

The cardinal returned a little later (after I took the picture) and continued brooding on what is now more of a cowbird nest than a cardinal nest.

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The next development was on May 11.

The nest is located is the wildflower field that is, by design, kept unmowed. Over the last several years, saplings and vines have emerged and have begun to threaten the future of the open flower field. Earlier this spring, I had asked the supervisor of mowing for Detroit west side parks for a one-time mowing in the spring, before the perennials were growing. He said they could do that.

I didn’t know the timing in advance, but the mowing was done on May 11, when a powerful tractor-pulled mower knocked down everything growing taller than a few inches. I happened to be there and informed the tractor driver of the location of the nest. He said he would leave that shrub standing. And he did.

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The mowing naturally drove the cardinal from the nest and I again took a quick picture.

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I was unable to visit the park May 12, 13, and 14. Sometimes a major disturbance, like the mowing of the surrounding habitat, might lead a bird to abandon the nest; I do not know whether cardinal returned to the nest after the tractor left.

When I headed to Eliza Howell on the morning of May 15, I was aware that, if all had gone well, this might be the hatching date. But all had not gone well. I found the nest empty – no birds, no eggs.

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The nest was empty and I don’t know what happened. Something removed the eggs (or hatchlings) and left no clear evidence of what that something was. In my search around the nest, I found only one very small piece of egg shell.

It is tempting to think that it might have been an animal predator, of which there are several possibilities in the park – including crows, blue jays, raccoons, coyotes, cats, and squirrels. But from no information it is hard to draw conclusions.

When I first started my walk on the morning of the May 15, I heard cardinals singing. This nest was not successful, but the pair will nest again this year, probably very soon, and definitely in a different location.

 

Cardinal Nest Watch

The watch started on April 26, when I noticed a female Northern Cardinal carrying a twig into a small bush in Eliza Howell Park. Cardinals usually have two broods a year and April is the normal time for the first in southeast Michigan.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The closer look I took when she flew away showed a partially constructed nest. By April 28, the next looked finished or very nearly finished.

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Cardinals usually hide their nests in dense plant growth and in locations where they cannot be seen or watched from any distance. This one is quite well camouflaged, but it is low and visible (especially when using binoculars) on one side from about 30 feet. I immediately thought that this is a nest that I might be able to watch without disturbing the birds.

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The female Cardinal lays one a day until there are 3 – 5 eggs. And, like many birds, it doesn’t start incubating them until the clutch is (nearly) complete. This results in the eggs all hatching at nearly the same time.

On April 30, there was no bird present, so I approached the nest: 1 egg. On May 1: 2 eggs. On May 2: 3 eggs.

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Starting on May 3, the female has been on the nest every time I looked, so I have kept some distance and have not been able to discover the full clutch size.

Among cardinals, the female does all the brooding, while the male is nearby and feeds her from time to time (I have not yet seen him feeding her at this location).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinal eggs hatch after 11 – 13 days incubation, so I expect the next big development to be about May 14 – 16, if all goes well. Then both parents feed the young for about 10 days.

One of the questions I have is whether a Brown-headed Cowbird has laid an egg in the cardinal nest (and possibly displaced one of the cardinal eggs). Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other birds for incubation and feeding. Another cardinal nest I checked this year contained three cardinal eggs and one cowbird egg.

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Not all nests lead to the successful fledging of young. There are a variety of reasons for nests to fail, so I will be watching to see whether the nest is destroyed or abandoned, how many eggs hatch, how many nestlings fledge, and whatever else I might observe.

The location is one that makes it easier for me to watch this nest than others that I have found, but it seems a risky location, more vulnerable to predators. But it was selected by the pair together, without requesting my opinion, so I will  simply continue to enjoy my opportunity to nest watch!

 

Tulip Tree: The Bud Opens

One tree I visit regularly in Eliza Howell Park is a tulip tree. Perhaps I should say the tulip tree, since I am aware of only one in the park. I described the tree in my post on June 2, 2018 (“Getting to Know the Tulip Tree”).

During the last month, the tulip tree has been a primary focus of my observations on opening tree buds.

On March 26, 2019, the tulip buds still appeared dormant, with the same look that they had had all winter.

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In early April, the changes began. Note the progression in the next pictures.

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The “tulip” shape of the new leaves is now apparent.

In about a month, the flowers will be open. (This picture was taken May 29, 2018.)

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I expect to be there, watching and enjoying.

 

American Toads: A Few Wild Days, Then Solitary Again

My walks in Eliza Howell Park in the second half of April always include stops at the “Toad Breeding Pond.”

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When the weather gets to be just warm enough, male American Toads, having recently emerged from hibernation, head to the pond to call in females. I expect to hear/see them within a few days of April 20 (either before or after), usually beginning the day following a “warm” night rain.

On April 17 this year, there was a light rain at about 9 p.m. when the temperature was about 51 degrees, which counts as “warm,” and some toads were, in fact, present on April 18. The active breeding did not really begin until April 21, however, because the weather turned colder. The temperature did not get above 44 degrees on April 19 and April 20, too low for these cold-blooded animals to think about breeding.

The next three days (April 21, 22, 23) were warmer and filled with the loud calling of many voices and lots of activity, even in daytime.

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      Note: This toad photo and the next 3 below are courtesy of Margaret Weber

For 51 weeks in the year, toads are solitary and nocturnal (and they hibernate in burrows individually from November to April). During the brief breeding season, however, the sexually mature (2 or more years old) return to their natal pond, where the males compete in attempting to attract females by their calls.

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Some time is spent, of course, in considering the options or the competition.

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In mating, the male attaches himself to the back of the female and, while she lays eggs in the water (in strings), he releases sperm. Fertilization takes place outside the body.

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In 3 – 12 days (depending upon the temperature), the eggs hatch and the resulting tadpoles will spend up to 2 months in the pond before they complete metamorphosis and are able to leave the pond. Only a very small percentage survives the first year.

Last year egg-laying was later, followed by cold weather which delayed hatching. Then there was a May hot spell, leading to the drying up of the pond before the tadpoles were able to survive on land. (See “American Toad Breeding Pond: the 2018 Story,” July 23, 2018.)

So I was pleased to hear from another member of the Eliza Howell frog/toad survey team on April 21 this year that toads were calling in a different location in the park, an annually flooded area by the edge of the road, a spot that I am creatively identifying as “Toad Breeding Pond 2.” I don’t know how many years toads have been using this location, but they were present in large numbers this year and will probably continue to do so in the future.

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Typically, toads are loud and active in the breeding pond for 3-4 days. On April 24, all was quiet in both ponds. The adults have now gone their separate ways – till next April – catching insects mostly at night (the estimates are that one toad eats about 10,000 insects in the summer season), and hiding under leaves or logs in the daytime.

And I, instead of watching breeding adults, I hope to be watching tadpoles soon.

Cutleaf Toothwort: A Spring Flower with an Unusual Name

Cutleaf Toothwort is one of my favorites among the early wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park, a delicate woodland flower with a not-so-delicate name. It is beginning to bloom this week and will be finished blooming already in a couple weeks.

Note: The first public Eliza Howell nature walk of 2019 will include a look at this and some other spring wildflowers: Saturday, April 27, at 10:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome. We will meet near the nature trail, about ½ of the way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.  

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Cutleaf Toothwort (or Cut-leaved Toothwort) is a perennial that grows in moist soil that is undisturbed and rich with organic matter, typically found in areas that have dappled sunlight before they become shaded when the trees overhead have leafed out.

It often grows in patches and is quite common in Eliza Howell along the path in the woods.

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It gets to be several inches tall, with anywhere from 3 to 15 flowers bunched at the top of the stem. Each ½ inch flower has 4 white petals, sometimes tinged with pink. The flowers often hang down and may be only partially open on cloudy days.

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The “cutleaf” part of the name is clearly understandable when one looks at the leaves. “Toothwort” is less evident. “Wort” is a word used for a number of plants, especially those considered to have some medicinal value; an example is “St. John’s Wort.” There are a couple possible explanations for the “tooth” part of the name. One is that it is based on the reported use of the roots by some Native Americans to treat toothache. The most widespread explanation for “tooth” in the name, and the explanation that I usually give, is that the underground tuber resembles a tooth.

I try not to disturb native wildflowers growing in the park, but we have a little patch of Cutleaf Toothwort in our yard and I dug up a plant there.

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Cutleaf Toothwort is a true ephemeral perennial (short above-ground life cycle); about two months after the first growth appears, it has produced its seed, dies back, and does not show itself again until the next spring. It’s a plant to enjoy while I can.

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Other early woodland wildflowers that appear in Eliza Howell near the end of April include Spring Beauty, Trout Lily (2 types), Violet (a variety), and Wild Geranium. After a long winter, they are all most welcome. Cutleaf Toothwort is just one, but somehow it gets my special attention.

The Old Reptile Took a Walk

Turtles are not common in Eliza Howell Park, especially out of the river, so I was surprised a few days ago to see a large Common Snapping Turtle walking in the woods, headed away from the river. It was clearly a mature adult and my first thought was that it was seeking a place to lay eggs, since they place their eggs in sand or ground to incubate and hatch.

But I quickly had second thoughts: this is too early in the spring for egg laying and it was walking the woods where the ground is entirely covered with dead leaves and not suitable for turtles to place eggs. So I decided to wait to see where it would go and what it would do.

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I first approached for a closer look. It was one of the larger snapping turtle I have seen. The carapace (upper shell) was perhaps 13-15 inches long and the legs appeared enormous. I’m sure it is decades old, probably the oldest animal in the park (if you exclude some of us humans).

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It stopped walking when I was got close and, though its head and tail are too big to draw entirely under its shell, it closed down to the best of its ability.

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I quickly walked away to let it continue and observed the rest through my binoculars. When I first saw it, it was about 50 yards from the river. Over the next hour and 10 minutes, it traveled through lots of leaves, over some fallen logs, though a stump hole, and around trees, but in pretty much of a straight line. Since there is a large vernal pool in the woods in the direction it was headed, I guessed that to be the destination.

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Eventually, it did reach the vernal pool, a total distance from the river of about 200 yards. I think its journey ended when it reached the pool, but I don’t know for sure.

It is in the middle of this picture, apparently just resting in the water.

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I am curious about the nature of this trip at this time of the year. Was the snapping turtle returning to its spring “home” after spending the winter in permanent water (the vernal pool dries up late in the summer and snappers spend the winter in water) or was it possibly moving to a new location? I don’t know.

I have seen snapping turtles in Eliza Howell Park on a few other occasions, but I will now be on the lookout for another encounter with this specific big old reptile.