Red-bellied Woodpeckers: Nest Excavation Has Begun

Near the beginning of April each year, I start watching Red-bellied Woodpeckers as they excavate nesting cavities in Eliza Howell Park.

(Once again I thank Margaret Weber for the use of some of her photos.)

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This year so far I am watching two pairs at work; I will likely find others in the next few days. Though they may use the same tree, they make a new hole each time they nest.

Some birds do not make a nest at all (might use a previously existing cavity or nest on the ground), but Red-bellied Woodpeckers undertake a major construction project each time.

It takes the pair about 10 days (plus or minus a couple) to dig out the hole, which is 8 or more inches deep and 3 – 6 inches wide. The entrance is about 2 inches across and slightly elliptical.

Resized_20190406_191238The male starts the excavation, pausing often to call, perhaps asking his mate to approve site selection. When the female begins to participate in the work, I am quite confident that this project is likely to be completed.

After hammering away from the outside for a few days, the hole is big enough for them to work on the inside. It is fascinating to watch them bring out the chips to scatter.

20200401_165515Red-bellied Woodpeckers select trees or limbs that are dead but solid, not rotten. The excavation involves many, many hours.

Here is a male looking out from a (nearly) completed nest.

20200401_130515When done, the female lays (usually 4) eggs and both sexes incubate.

Sometimes European Starlings take over a newly made nest before the woodpeckers can use it (a phenomenon to be commented on more fully at another time). When that happens, the woodpeckers start over from the beginning.

They work hard and their numbers demonstrate that they are successful breeders.

The Red and Black Forked Tongue: Watching Garter Snakes

The Common Garter Snake usually emerges from hiberation about the beginning of April in Southeast Michigan. I saw the first one in Eliza Howell Park this year a little early, on March 23.

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It isn’t always easy to get a good look at these snakes. Often, they move so quickly through the grasses that there is no opportunity to see much more than the disappearing body. Perhaps it is because they are just “waking up,” but  this seems to be the best time of the year for more extensive observation.

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As I watch, I find myself focused on the tongue, especially when the snake is looking at me. It flicks the tongue in and out repeatedly, a red tongue with a forked black tip.

20200323_174251The tongue is used to sense what is around it. According to herpetologists, the tongue collects chemicals from the environment and delivers them to organs in the mouth that are able to give a directional perspective on the chemical traces.

So it is observing the world around it when flicking the forked tongue.

20200323_1744421The garter snake is the only species of  snake that I encouter with any regularity at all in Eliza Howell Park. And, as I gradually get to know these reptiles a little better, I am finding them more and more amazing — especially that long tongue.

 

 

Arborglyphs on Old Beech Trees

American Beech trees have thin smooth bark even as they mature and this surface has been used by many generations of humans for carving or writing. The messages can remain visible for the life of the tree, which might be as long as 300 hundred years. Words/pictures carved into tree bark are often called arborglyphs.

Beech trunk arborglyphs are found in Eliza Howell Park, just as they are found in most other places in the eastern U.S. where old beech trees are found.

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Most appear to be initials or dates or declarations of love (initials in hearts), though there may be some art or other messages there that I have not recognized or deciphered. What makes them fascinating is that they have endured for so long and that they are often located 12 or more feet above the ground.

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In some western states (e.g., Nevada and California), many arborglyphs are found on aspen trees, another smooth bark species. There is a special interest among anthropologists in the tree art of nineteenth-century immigrants from the Basque region (border area between Spain and France) who worked as shepherds in the U.S. West, often alone among the aspens for long periods of time.

Beech trees are not the most common trees in EHP and their number may be decreasing as some of the old ones fall or break off.

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While there are some young beech trees in the park woods, often growing close to mature ones, I have not yet seen any carving on them.

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Perhaps carving on smooth-barked trees is no longer the preferred method of making a statement or expressing oneself in a natural setting. There is an old vehicle body that got deposited in the flood plain of the river some time in the past and recently I noted that someone has made use of this artistically.

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Ways of expressing ourselves, of leaving our mark in a natural setting, may change over time. Beech tree carving has been a common practice for a very long time, however, and the arborglyphs of Eliza Howell Park remain visible to park visitors who would like to view or study them.

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Finding Killdeer Nests: Two Methods

As part of my on-going effort to become more familiar with the behavior of the birds of Eliza Howell Park, I pay special attention to their breeding habits. Last week I commented on my so-far unsuccessful attempts to locate a Wood Duck nesting cavity. Since then, Killdeer, another of the March arrivals, has made its annual appearance.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I have had more success in locating Killdeer nests, though this is also a big challenge. Killdeer nest on the open ground, in a small depression with no nest structure. The nesting birds are so well camouflaged that they can only be seen when they move. And, like Wood Ducks, the young leave the nest immediately after hatching, so there is no feeding activity to help one locate the nest.

Killdeer nest very early in the year, before the ground plants grow. In each of the areas shown in this picture, I was able to locate a Killdeer nest, in three different years.

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I found this nest (next picture) by using the nest-hunting method I usually employ for Killdeer:

  1. paying careful attention to the area of the field where a pair of Killdeer is “hanging out” in late March/early April;
  2. watching them, from a distance, to try to find the location where one of the pair settles down on the ground, a possible nest;
  3. trying to fix that location in my mind (this is difficult because an open field provides very few markers to go by);
  4. going to the location when the birds are absent to try to get a close-up look (even when I know there probably is a nest there, it remains difficult to actually spot it).

This strategy takes a lot of time and patience, but it often works.

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Nest-finding method # 2 is not really a method at all. I refer to it as serendipity, making the discovery more or less by accident, by being in the right place at the right time.

Two years ago I was walking across the field in April with a park visitor, heading toward an area where I had been observing Killdeer. All of a sudden, a Killdeer few out from three feet in front of us. Looking down, I saw that we had almost stepped on a nest, at least 50 yards from the area I thought might be their nesting site.

After a quick picture, we left the area so that incubation could resume.

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Killdeer nest regularly in Eliza Howell, but, as far as I can determine, only one or two pair a year. They nest early and usually in the area of the park that is mowed. In some years, I am concerned that the eggs might not hatch before mowing begins.

Killdeer probably have another brood later in the nesting season, but I have not yet located a nest after April.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The pair that arrived within the last few days has already been engaged in mating activity; they are likely to nest soon.

And I have started my watching, noting that they seem to be favoring an area that has the kind of gravelly ground that Killdeer often like for their nests. I will be back, multiple times.

And, if my patient watching doesn’t confirm a nest, maybe I will discover one by method # 2?

Wood Duck Nest Quest

This year I saw the first Wood Ducks of the year in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit on March 7. A few Wood Ducks always arrive in March and spend the breeding season in the park. But in all these years I have not yet found one of their nests.

Maybe this year!

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     Note: All the bird photos here are from Margaret Weber.

In the last ten years I have kept a record of the active bird nests that I find in EHP. I have located the nests of 38 different species, several nests of many of them. But no Wood Duck nests, even though I annually see at least one female with young in the summer, evidence that they are breeding here.

Wood Ducks get their name from the fact that they nest in trees, in cavities. Their nests  are usually in woodlands near ponds and rivers. Eliza Howell is a good location for them, with the river running through a woodland that has many old trees with natural cavities.

The male is striking.

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And the female, more subtle, is likewise very attractive.

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I usually find bird nests by watching birds (1) building nests, (2) on or entering nests, or (3) taking food to young in nests.

Wood Ducks (1) do not build a nest; they find a hole in a tree that is suitable and line it with nothing but some the female’s own down. They (2) enter the nest very seldom. The female lays one egg a day until the large clutch (perhaps 8 – 10 eggs) is complete and then begins to incubate them, leaving the nest very little. They (3) do not feed the young in the nest. All the eggs hatch at about the same time and, when the ducklings are one day old, their mothers calls them and they climb out of the cavity and drop to the ground (sometime dozens of feet) and follow the mother to water.

So it is understandable that their nest is difficult to locate. I think my best chance may be when they are selecting the nest site, when the male accompanies the female as they check out possibilities. Two are easier to see than one.

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While Wood Ducks are regulars in the breeding season, they are not present in great numbers. My best estimate is that, in any given year, there are only 2 – 3 breeding pairs in the park. After eggs are laid, the male is not actively involved in caring for the young, as is typical of duck species. The female does not feed the young; she watches over them as they eat on their own.

The male spends the summer on his own or with other males.

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Because they are cavity-nesting birds, Wood Ducks will sometimes use bird boxes. In late 2018, thanks to the efforts of several friends of Eliza Howell, three Wood Duck boxes were installed in the park. Ducks did not use any of them in the first year, 2019, but they are now providing additional cavities near the river. 

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The Wood Ducks have returned and I renew my quest to locate a nest.

Maybe this will be the year.

I say this every year, but 2020 just might really be the year!

 

40 in 2020: A Bird Recognition Program

Eliza Howell Park is one of the locations included in a special bird learning series this year sponsored by Detroit Audubon. This program is designed to assist individuals who want to improve their ability to recognize and identify birds by sight.

The project goal is for all who participate to be able to recognize on their own 40 or more bird species by the end of the three field trips.

The field trips are designed to provide extended looks at many of the birds that breed in the Detroit area. One is the Wood Duck. Once seen, the male is usually remembered, but the female is not so distinctive.

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        I thank Margaret Weber, who provided all the photos included here.

The field trips are on Saturday mornings, from 8:30 – 11:00, at three different locations.

Saturday, April 25, Kensington Metropark

Saturday, May 30, Eliza Howell Park (in Detroit)

Saturday, June 20, Rouge Park (in Detroit)

Kensington is a good location for becoming more familiar with “sexual dimorphism” in birds (difference in appearance between females and males), such as in Wood Ducks. The Red-winged Blackbird is another species in which the female looks very different from the male.

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In many bird species, the differences in appearance between the sexes are slight or not visible.

Among the birds on the “40 in 2020” list, Barn Swallow is one example of minimal female-male difference in appearance. The field trip leaders (Grace Vatai and I) will assist individuals in recognizing how Barn Swallows differ from two other swallow species that we will likely encounter – and how to identify them in flight.

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One can, of course, enjoy birds without being able to name the species. But, at least in my experience, knowing “who is who” is an important step in learning about their behavior. In addition to bird identification, this project will include some discussion of breeding habitat and behavior.

Killdeer nest on the open ground and Belted Kingfishers nest in the ground, in a tunnel in a (river) bank.

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Participants need to register in advance and are expected to take part in all three Saturday trips. Individual field trips are not open to anyone who is not registered for all three.

The group is limited to 20 individuals. One does not need to be a member of Detroit Audubon to participate, but priority will be given to members if the group limit is reached. There is no program fee, but Kensington Metropark has an entrance fee.

Registration is managed by Detroit Audubon. The link:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/40-in-2020-beginning-birding-series-tickets-97580547043

The project is designed to focus on different birds in each of the three field trips. We are working with a list of some 60 different species selected from among those that breed in the Detroit area. Some are quite common; others less common. Some are colorful; some are not. The list will be made available to those who register.

The Green Heron is one of the “target” birds.

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Common Mullein: A Favorite Biennial

On an off-path walk on a recent February day, when the fields in Eliza Howell Park were temporarily snow free, I noted a few pale green plants in the mostly brown cover. Common Mullein looks ready to get an early start on the second year of its two-year life cycle.

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Its readiness is more evident in a close-up picture.

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Most flowers are either perennials (plants that live at least three years, dying back at the end of each season and growing again each spring from the rootstock) or annuals (plants that complete the life cycle from germination to seed in one year).

Far fewer flowers are biennials (growing roots and leaves in the first year and then producing the flowers and seeds in the second year before dying).

Common Mullein is an excellent example of how a biennial develops. By July of the second year, the plants are in bloom.

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Seeing the mullein rosette (the term often used for a somewhat circular arrangement of leaves near the soil) at this time of year is a definite reminder of what is to come.

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The flower stem (usually just one per plant) bolts up from the base, often reaching a height of 5 feet or more. Mullein is found widely dispersed in the sunny areas of the park and flowers, unevenly, over many days. I tend to stop repeatedly to look and sometimes to feel. The soft velvety leaves, sometimes called “rabbit’s ears,” have interested me since I was a child.

Others are attracted too. Here a mullein bloom is visited by a pollen-seeking Flower Fly (sometimes called a Hover Fly), if I am identifying it correctly.

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While Common Mullein has historically been used for a wide variety of medicinal purposes, both in the “Old World” and in the “New World,” I find it of special interest because of it is such a clear and easily found example of the life of a flowering biennial.

The picture at the top is of the beginning of the second year. This is what it looks like at the end of year one, before enduring a long winter.

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Common Mullein reproduces by seeds, which fall late in the second year. Individual plants take two years to reach maturity, but of course there are always some plants in the first year and some in the second year.

I don’t know why biennials fascinate me, but I do know that Common Mullein is a favorite among the biennials I know.