For many years, the American elm tree along the road loop in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit was my usual starting point for bird-watching walks. It is located near the beginning of the nature trail that leads to and over the Rouge River and so is a convenient place to park and to meet others. I no longer park under the tree, however. It dropped its last leaves in 2014 and is now beginning to drop a few of its branches.
The elm tree was both a convenient place to park and the first place I would check for birds. In this location, it has been a stopping point as birds as they move back and forth from the wooded area by the river to the more open area inside the road loop. It has also been a destination, an attractive foraging and nesting spot.
Over of the years, Baltimore Orioles regularly nested in the elm. This made for a great beginning of the Detroit Audubon field trip at Eliza Howell in June. I would simply ask the participants to look up as they got out of their cars to find and watch the orioles – and the field trip was off to a good start.
Photo by Margaret Weber
My favorite memory of nesting birds in the old elm tree is from June 9, 2013. As usual, Baltimore Orioles had built a nest there. And, in an exciting development that year, a pair of Orchard Orioles was also nesting in the same tree, as were robins. Three species nesting in one tree at the same time is very unusual, but on that day I noted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher high in the tree, moving out on a horizontal branch. It led my eyes to its tiny nest. The old elm tree was host to four nesting species at the same time!
The elm tree had survived decades after Dutch elm disease killed most of the American elms in Detroit, but in 2014 the tree was clearly dying. It leafed out, but the leaves began to fall shortly thereafter. Baltimore Orioles were again nesting there and the young had just fledged when the leaves were no longer present to shelter the hanging nest.
Though the orioles no longer nest there, the old elm tree continues to support life, from the perching birds to the shelf fungus that grew at its base in Fall, 2017.
As a large snag, still retaining most of its branches in 2107, the elm is now a popular perching tree, as well as a foraging spot for those birds that seek insects in crevices. During visits to the park in 2017, I observed 23 bird species in the tree, without any concerted effort to count them all. They included two hawks (Red-tailed and Cooper’s) and four woodpeckers (Red-bellied, Downy, Red-headed, and Norther Flicker). Male Red-winged Blackbirds watch over their territory from its branches during the breeding season. Whenever I am out with my binoculars, I check the tree from time to time, even from a distance, just to see what might have stopped by.
This year or next, assuming it continues to stand, woodpeckers will likely be drilling holes and the old elm tree will again be a nesting tree. I will be checking regularly.