Golden-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird: Two Occasional Early December Birds

The completion this month of 15 years of bird watching in Eliza Howell Park (180 consecutive months and over 1370 different records) Park makes this a good time to review the seasonal presence of different bird species. Based on experience, I know fairly well which species I can expect to see in the park at any given time of the year, in any particular 2-week period. These can be considered Common for that particular “season.”

And I know the species that I do not usually see on my outings at a particular time of the year, but am not surprised when I do see them. These are Occasional birds, birds that I can expect to observe some years during this season, but not most years.

The current “season” is the first two weeks of December, a period of time characterized by cloudy days, with leaves on the ground but very few remaining on trees.

20191208_162858

At this time of the year there are no flowers blooming, no developing seeds or fruit, little evident insect activity; I tend to concentrate my observations on mammals and, especially, on birds.

20191208_183706

Recent sightings of two occasional bird species led me back to my records. The first is a Golden-crowned Kinglet, only the fourth time in the last 15 years that I have seen this bird in the park in December.

20180402_165219

Photo by Margaret Weber

In my listing of Eliza Howell birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet is identified as a Migrant, a bird that passes through the park in the spring and fall each year, but is not present in either the summer or the winter. It is a late fall migrant, usually seen well into November.

As can be seen from the range map below (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), the southern part of Michigan is within its winter (nonbreeding) range. Some Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen in southern Michigan in winter every year, but my interest here is specific to Eliza Howell, the habitats in this particular location at this specific time of the year. Here it is occasional.

20191208_211119

The second occasional December bird recently seen is Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are Summer Residents, breeding in the park. They have become more common in recent years.

IMG_7161

Photo by Margaret Weber

This is only the third December I have seen a Bluebird in Eliza Howell. However, two of these three years are 2018 and 2019. As the species becomes more common during the breeding season, it may also show up on more occasions during the winter.
Similar to Golden-crowned Kinglet, the winter range of Eastern Bluebird includes southern Michigan, though most individuals migrate further south. (This map is also from Cornell.)

20191208_190148

I typically see about 24-25 different species in the park in December, most of which are the usual Eliza Howell birds of winter: Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, etc. They brighten the gray days.

The occasional appearance of a different species adds to the brightness and adds to my knowledge about what to expect when.

The Oil Beetles of Eliza Howell Park

I see Oil Beetles — large, dark, metallic-looking beetles – in Eliza Howell Park only in October and November. They are not particularly photogenic or otherwise likely to catch someone’s attention, but their story is part of the fascinating natural world that exists right here in the neighborhood.

I last saw one in 2019 on November 25, as it and I were walking on the park road.

20191201_105915

Oil Beetles, a type of Blister Beetle, are nearly an inch long and, when I see them, are walking slowly on the ground in or near the fields in the park. My earliest 2019 observation was on October 17 (next picture). They are not numerous; even in their “season” I do not see them on every visit.

20191017_123631

Oil Beetles are flightless. The adults emerge in the Fall and proceed in their slow and somewhat cumbersome walk toward a good place to winter in the soil. Based on the published research I have consulted, I think the female lays eggs in the spring, but I have seen them mating in the Fall. This pair was photographed in early November.

20181106_080632

They are called “Oil” Beetles because, like other Blister Beetles, they can secrete oily droplets from their leg joints when threatened. This “oil” contains a toxic chemical (cantharidin) that can cause painful blisters on human skin.

They have no hind wings and the short front wings cover only a small part of the large abdomen.

20171021_154748

Some Oil Beetles spend the immature phases of life in parasitic fashion in the nests of ground-nesting bees, eating the food that is brought in for bee larvae. 

There is much I don’t know about these beetles, but they now have my attention. I am sure that I will think of Oil Beetles when I next see ground-nesting bees.

20180814_215336

 

Beaver!

For the first time in the years that I have been engaged in nature study in Eliza Howell Park, I am now seeing signs of beaver activity. There are some 20 small trees near the river (the largest are about 4 inches in diameter) that have recently been cut down and removed.

20191125_121352

Beaver were an important part of Michigan’s history; the pursuit of their pelts was a major factor in the movement of Europeans into this part of the country. Unlimited trapping resulted in their being extirpated from this area some 150 years ago.

Some are now returning. In the last decade, they have been found along the Detroit River (including on Belle Isle) and a few have appeared in the Rouge River system. Until now, to my knowledge, none has been reported this far upstream on the Main branch of the Rouge.

I have not yet actually seen a beaver in the park (they are largely nocturnal), but I know of nothing else that cuts down trees and leaves these teeth marks.

20191122_104521

Young beaver stay with their parents until 2 years old or so, when they leave to find a mate and establish their own lodge and colony. Perhaps the signs of beaver activity in Eliza Howell mean that a new pair is taking up residence here, for the first time since long before this area was established as a park.

There is a lot I do not know about beaver from personal observation. They were not in the various areas I have walked regularly during my life and my observations of them when visiting other locations were limited. There is much for me to learn.

While most descriptions of beaver lodges are of conical lodges in a pond formed by a dam, they also make lodges in banks, with under water entrances, especially along rivers where the water is deep enough for them to swim under water/ice. The water level in the Rouge in the park varies throughout the year and I do not know whether it sufficiently deep to meet beaver needs. This is what it looked like on my last visit in the area where the beaver had cut trees.

20191125_091507

If they stay here, my guess is that they will be “bank beaver,” but one of the things I will be watching to see is whether they act to raise the water level, perhaps by using a current logjam as the start of a dam.

20191126_095911

Beaver are able to change the environment in which they live and this has sometimes led to them being considered by some as a nuisance or a pest (for example, when their dams lead to flooded roads). Their overall impact on ecosystems and on sustainability has, however, been viewed by most researchers as very positive, as evidenced in a widely-endorsed, and very readable, book published last year.

20191125_145543

I will also be looking for additional signs of their presence and of their behavior. So far I have not seen clear tracks in the mud, perhaps because most of the mud along the river is currently covered with leaves. The hind track (webbed) is reported to be about 6 inches long and the front about 3 inches. These drawings are from The Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks.

20191125_150652

I cannot say definitely that beaver have taken up residence in Eliza Howell Park, but I will now have a different answer when asked whether any beaver live here.

I have been saying “not yet,” hoping that they would show up one of these years. Now I can say “there are definite signs; let me show you.” Perhaps soon I will be able to give an unqualified “yes.”

Oriental Bittersweet: November Fruit

When the bright red and gold leaves of the Fall have fallen by the middle of November, there remains another red and gold attraction in Eliza Howell Park: the fruit of the Oriental Bittersweet.

20191119_084715

20181107_105601

Though there are still a few remaining honeysuckle berries that the birds have not quite finished, bittersweet can be considered the last fruit of the season. As recently as September, it showed little indication of the starring role it would later play.

20180909_135404

Oriental Bittersweet is a vine that was brought to this country in the 1800s and has now spread widely. There is also a native North American Bittersweet vine, but the ones that I watch in Eliza Howell are the Oriental variety. It grows and spreads rapidly and can climb dozens of feet. The next picture shows the twinning nature of the vine; the following one gives an indication of its ability to climb trees.

20191118_104444

20191119_220307 (1)

The outer seed covering totally hides the fruit inside until late Fall. Birds are not attracted until the outer shells begin to open, allowing access to the red fruit, usually after the bittersweet leaves have already fallen. 

20191119_085144

The gold shell, which opens in three parts, remains attached for a time (contributing to the attractive red and gold look) and later drops to the ground. The red fruit may hang on well into winter.

20191120_141759

Though Oriental Bittersweet might make for an attractive home decoration at this time of the year, people are rightly advised not to pick and transfer. Unless the seeds are very carefully disposed of, new plants could sprout, spreading the aggressive and hard-to-control vine. It is considered an invasive plant that may damage the environment.

The word “bittersweet” means pleasure accompanied by some negative feelings, sweet with a bitter aftertaste. The pleasure of seeing the red and gold fruit of Oriental Bittersweet can indeed be a bittersweet experience.

 

The River, the Season, the Weather: Tracking Fall 2019

I often stop on the footbridge during my walks in Eliza Howell Park, stop and take a picture, looking upstream the Main branch of the Rouge River. These pictures help me track seasonal changes and fluctuations in water level.

Below are 8 photos taken on different days during the four weeks from October 16 to November 13, 2019. Some from sunny days and some from cloudy days, these pictures presdent the progress of Fall this year.

October 16, 2019  (9:47 a.m.   Approximately 50 degrees F)20191114_172805

October 20, 2019 (3:04 p.m.   Approximately 60 degrees F)20191020_150414

October 24, 2019  (11:23 a.m.  Approximately 50 degrees F)20191024_112318

October 27, 2019   (11:57 a.m.  Approximately 45 degrees F)20191027_115727

November 1, 2019   (9:31 a.m.   Approximately 35 degrees F)20191114_173423

November 4, 2019   (10:22 a.m.   Approximately 45 degrees F)20191104_102257

November 8, 2019   (10:07 a.m.   Approximately 25 degrees F) 20191114_173718

November 13, 2019   (10:52 a.m.   Approximately 15 degrees)20191113_124144

The changes from the middle of October to the middle of November, always dramatic along the river in Eliza Howell Park, were even more dramatic this year because of the unusually heavy snow of November 11.

 

Eastern Bluebird: Becoming a Regular Nesting Species

Earlier this November, I watched several Eastern Bluebirds feeding in Eliza Howell Park, birds that were probably on a brief stopover during their southward migration. This observation started me thinking about my other observations of this species over the last 15 years.

The difference between the female and male Eastern Bluebird can be seen clearly in these two photos by Margaret Weber. The female is shown first here.

IMG_7427

20180214_184041-1

Eastern Bluebirds were in serious decline throughout their range last century (especially from about 1920 till about 1970). They are insect eaters and a secondary cavity nesting species. Unable to make their own nesting holes as woodpeckers do, they need to find existing cavities. There were many reasons for the decline, including pesticide use, removal of dead trees, habitat change, etc. In addition, European Starlings, an introduced species that is also a secondary cavity nester, was much more aggressive about claiming tree cavities.

In the last 50 years, however, Bluebirds have gone from being endangered to being a conservation success story. One part of the turnaround has been the widespread use of Bluebird nesting boxes, made with an opening that is large enough for bluebirds but too small for the larger Starlings. Thanks to a birdbox making project of Sidewalk Detroit, there are now a couple such boxes in Eliza Howell Park.

20191110_155928

Fifteen years ago, I did not usually see Bluebirds in the park during the breeding season. Now I have seen them in most of the last 10 breeding seasons and they have probably been nesting here for several years (though I have not been able to make positive confirmation until recently).

The nesting box shown above was placed in the Spring of 2018 and has been used by Bluebirds both last year and this year. They usually have 2 broods per year, typically in the same nest. Note the evidence of the frequent use of the entrance hole.

20191111_163407

In late April this year, while the female was away from the nest, I put my camera in the box and took a quick picture.

20190424_114408

Recently, after nesting was finished for the year, I opened the box to clean it out for them to use again next year. My guess is that they added more nesting material after the first brood.

20191110_155754

The feather confirms the species that used the nest, if there were any doubt.

20191110_155428

Eastern Bluebirds migrate each spring and fall, but do not go very far south. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of the winter/year-round range. I occasionally see one or two in the winter in Eliza Howell, but I don’t really expect to see them again until March. (The range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

20191110_180317

In addition to helping bluebirds find “housing,” nest boxes provide a good opportunity for bird watchers to see these lovely birds. Bluebirds need some open area (ideally something like a field with scattered trees) for their insect hunting. They are not likely to nest in small urban backyards, but Eliza Howell is now one urban location where there is a good chance to watch them in the spring and summer.

The next photo, also by Margaret Weber, taken at a different location, suggests some of the pleasure in Bluebird watching in nesting season.

20191111_161249

 

Kentucky Coffeetree: Watching Seed Pods

Since August, I have been checking regularly two Kentucky Coffeetrees that grow in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, paying them much more attention than I have in other years. My main interest has been the developing seed pods.

These pictures were taken in August.

20190811_111217

Kentucky Coffeetree is a tree native to, though not very common in, parts of the mid-west. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of its original range. It is now sold by nurseries and used as a landscaping tree. The size and location of the Eliza Howell trees suggest that they were planted here long after the park was established. They are both female trees, producing seeds.

20190810_153747

The seeds (beans) of the tree have been used – roasted – as a food in some Native American cultures and the Meskwaki (Fox) are said to have ground them for use in a hot beverage. Early European colonists also tried it as a “coffee” as well. (Unroasted pods and seeds are reportedly toxic.)

The seeds mature slowly. When the leaves began to turn in October, the pods were darker in color, but remained firmly attached.

20191014_110813

The pods vary in length, most about 4 or 5 inches long, much shorter but thicker than the pods of the Honey Locus tree, often seen on the ground at this time of the year. I placed the two together for comparison.

20191106_124655

Now, in early November, the Coffeetree leaves are down. But the seeds remain firmly on the tree; I have not yet found a single one that has fallen on its own. (I picked those that I have examined.)

This picture was taken this week.

20191106_124252

The pods are not yet as tough as they will get and the seeds, though considerably changed since August, are not yet fully mature.

20191106_102023

I sometimes refer to my visits to Eliza Howell as “doing research.” It sounds more serious than “going for a walk.” One of my current research questions is: “When will the Kentucky Coffeetree seed pods fall?” My hypothesis is that it will not be for at least another month.

It’s an exciting life I lead – watching seeds mature!