Goldenrods: A Special September Attraction

I have associated goldenrods with September for some 70 years, ever since I was in the early grades of elementary school and back-to-school days included a yellow-papered “Goldenrod Writing Tablet.”

Now, I enjoy many September hours in the midst of the different goldenrod species in Eliza Howell Park, watching the “critters” they attract.

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Many of the Eliza Howell summer wildflowers are nearing the end of their blooming season, but the insects appear to find goldenrod nectar plentiful and satisfactory.

Some of those attracted are large and iridescent. Here are two views of the same individual (Great Black Wasp, I think).

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Some are black and white (Bald-faced Hornet and Black and White Wasp).

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The Locust Borer Beetle is one that I do not remember from previous years. It is possible that I missed it or have forgotten, but I wonder if it is now becoming more common in EHP.

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Two that I do remember – and did an entry on last year – are the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle and the Ailanthus Webworm Moth, a moth that does not lead one to think immediately of “moth” when first seen.

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Sometimes the flowers get crowded, but most insects seem to be willing to share.

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It is not just insects that are attracted.

Sometimes there is a mammal (not pictured) wandering among the goldenrods, carrying a little camera.

Snails (Brown-lipped or Banded snails) prefer the stems to the flowers.

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Goldenrods were for years inaccurately thought to be a major contributor to “hay fever” symptoms. There is no reason to avoid and many reasons to enjoy a large path of goldenrods, definitely one of the highlights of September.

In addition to others not mentioned, the wasps and beetles and bees and moths and snails and I are grateful for their presence.

 

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Among Bees and Wasps: Close and Careful

I spend many hours from July into September walking among the wildflowers and among the insects in Eliza Howell Park. My interest in observing insects leads me to try to get very close to them, including to wasps and bees.

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When I show these kinds of pictures (taken with a phone camera), I often get asked about being so close, about the risk of getting stung. The risk is real, of course, and the questions have led me to reflect upon the fact that I have not (yet!) been stung during any of my many Eliza Howell nature walks.

I have given considerable thought on how to behave among stinging insects. The starting point is the understanding or belief that bees, wasps, hornets do not (normally) resort to stinging unless they are disturbed or threatened or perceive that their nests are threatened. Some threats are accidental, such as stepping on a bee, but our behaviors can greatly reduce the extent to which we are perceived as a threat.

Trying carefully to be non-threatening has led to many opportunities to place the camera within inches of a stinging insect.

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In trying to practice “non-threatening” behavior, I try to implement two practices: 1) approach insects slowly and deliberately, with no quick movements; 2) when insects focus their attention on me or when they are/appear to be disturbed, stay perfectly (non-threateningly) still.

The first is easier to implement than the second. A slow approach has resulted in dozens of close-up views, especially when the insect is fully engaged in foraging for nectar.

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The second practical principle (stay perfectly still when insects sense you are or might be a threat) is harder to implement. It requires resisting a tendency to run or swat.

Recently I was walking slowly in the flowers when I saw a large bumblebee flying toward me. It came right up to me, buzzing around as it checked me out, landing and crawling briefly on my binoculars and on my arm. I just stood there until it realized that this big old animal was no threat. I don’t know what would have happened if I had waved my arms.

My biggest scare came last year when I was trying to get close-up pictures of a bald-faced hornet nest that was very low on a tree.

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I did what I had not wanted to do. I disturbed the nest by accidentally hitting the branch that held the nest. A swarm of about 10 nest protectors came storming out. My practice of not moving to show that I am not a threat seemed to work. I just stood there while they flew around me for a while. Then they went back to the nest and I breathed a sigh of relief – and attempted no more pictures of the nest that day.

This posting is in the “since you asked” category. My approach seems to have worked so far, but I know that I might get stung tomorrow by some bee or wasp that just wants me to back off. I respect that.

September 7 Nature Walk

The second of the annual Detroit Audubon field trips to Eliza Howell Park takes place on Saturday, September 7, 2019, starting at 8:00 a.m. The public is invited; there is no cost.

Timed to coincide with the early days of the Fall bird migration, this walk give special attention to birds, especially warblers headed from the North Woods to Central and South America. Depending upon the weather conditions, we are likely to see several warbler species, perhaps including these three. (Thank you to Margaret Weber for these three photos.)

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Black and White Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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American Redstart

The fall warbler migration begins at the end of August and continues into October, with individuals of some 20 different species making short stops at Eliza Howell. The find from one day to the next is almost always different.

If September 7 is a good day, the birds will keep us quite busy, but we will also stop for non-bird observations. This is about the best time of the year to note the variety and nature of spider webs among the wildflowers and the shrubs. They vary in sizes and shape; this is a small one on a thistle.

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September is also the month when I most frequently see a Praying Mantis (or 2 or 3). They have reached maturity and may be seeking mates and/or laying eggs. (I wrote about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” on September 13, 2018.)

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Butterflies continue to be present. One of my favorite late-season butterflies is the Common Buckeye, which makes it appearance in Eliza Howell after the July butterfly peak.

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I usually find several Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park each year, beginning about this time. We may want to stop for a look (through lenses) to watch the hornets enter and exit the hole near the bottom of these amazing constructions. (For more, see “Bald-faced Hornet Nests,” December 12, 2017.)

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Blue Jays migrate in September and many spend days at Eliza Howell harvesting acorns, from the middle of September into October. (For more information, see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018).

September 7 might be a little early to see them at work, but we will check (this photo also courtesy of Margaret Weber).

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The seasons repeat themselves, so it is possible to predict what might be seen at any given time of the year. But it is also true that every day is different and almost every walk includes an element of the unexpected. Such is the nature of nature walks. September 7 should be fun.

The Amazing Queen Hornet

In the early 1950’s, my siblings and I sometimes listened to the radio crime-fighting drama, The Green Hornet. That was then. Now the hornet I am thinking of is the Queen Hornet.

November is the best month of see Bald-faced Hornet nests in Eliza Howell Park. I walked past some of these nests many times during the last several months, but they were so well hidden in the (often maple) leaves that, despite their larger-than-football size, I found them only after leaves have fallen.

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The number of different hornet nests I see in the park varies from year to year. This year it was only 7 (so far), compared with about twice that many in each of the last two years. The winter of 2017-18 was colder than the previous two years, which is the likely explanation for the decline.

The nests I am now finding are finished; they no longer contain living hornets. Fortunately, I did find an active nest in August, low enough in a tree for me to approach and photograph. I was, of course, conscious of the need to approach carefully; “worker” hornets will sting repeatedly to protect the colonies.

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The white on the face accounts for the “bald-faced” name. They are also sometimes called “White-faced Hornets.”

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As I was taking close-ups, trying to be very quiet and deliberate, all went well until I accidently touched a twig on the tree. The vibration brought out some 10 – 12 defenders that buzzed around looking for the problem. I stood perfectly still and they eventually returned to the nest, apparently not identifying me as a threat. I went my way unstung.

The nests began about 5 months ago, started by a queen. At the end of the season, the inseminated new queens are the only survivors from the colony. A new queen leaves the nest and finds a location (such as under bark or rotting wood) to hibernate. In the spring, if she survives the winter, she will start a new nest all by herself.

Earlier this month, during a Wild Indigo Detroit field trip to Eliza Howell, someone turned over a rotten log to observe the life hidden there. One insect found was a Bald-faced Hornet. The location and time of the year suggested that it was a queen, though she was very sluggish and not very regal appearing.

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In the spring, a surviving queen selects a location, usually in a tree, and starts a new nest, using wood fiber. The nest is small at first but big enough for her to begin laying eggs. The first new hornets of the year are sterile females (the “workers”) who then take over nest building and raising young. The queen has the responsibility of producing more offspring. Typically, a mature colony has over 100 hornets.

Now that the season is over, there is often an opportunity to take a look at the structure of the nest, the home of a whole colony for one brief season.

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Since the nests that we can now find are no longer maintained and birds often open them searching for food, they will soon fall. They remind me of the life they supported in the summer.

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These empty nests also remind me of the amazing queen, hibernating in some hidden and sheltered spot, capable of starting a whole new colony by herself.

An October Morning Walk: Today’s News

I arrived in Eliza Howell Park on October 9, 2018, at about 8:20 a.m. It was already warm, very warm for this time of the year, after a heavy dew. For the next three hours I walked about with my binoculars and phone camera, with frequent stops.

These are some of my observations on what is happening in the park today.

1.Sun and Dew

When the morning sun shines, it highlights the wet twigs and leaves, and the moisture rises in the air like fog. The temperature was unusual for October, but the picture is not.

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2.Honeysuckle berries getting ripe.

There are many honeysuckle shrubs (Amur honeysuckle) in the park. They have lovely white flowers in the spring, but are perhaps even more attention-getting in the Fall. They keep their leaves longer than most deciduous plants and will be mostly green with abundant red berries into November. They have been ripening slowly and more are red every day.

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3.Mushrooms continue in season.

I recently posted a report on some of the mushrooms in the park (October 4, 2018). Mushroom season continues and, in the last few days, there are even more to be found, in many shapes and sizes. This is just one of many I thought photo-worthy today.

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4.Migrating sparrows arriving.

As I noted in another post (September 28, 2018), part of my October focus is on the variety of sparrows that pass through the park. This morning I saw six different sparrow species, including a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos and my first-of-the-season Field Sparrow (pictured here in a photo from another time).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

5.Monarch butterflies are still present.

Monarchs have been in migration to Mexico for about a month now and I have been checking for them during each visit to the park to see whether there are any still present. Today I saw 4. So they have not yet all passed through, though that will happen soon.

I thought today of the Monarch caterpillar that I saw on September 12 (picture) and wondered then whether it would have time to make it to butterfly in time to head to Mexico with the others. Perhaps it is now on its way.

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6.Chestnuts are falling.

Many, maybe most, of the nuts and acorns in Eliza Howell have already fallen. When mature chestnuts fall, the outside shell (the burr) opens on its own – to the benefit of squirrels and others. Many empty burrs are now on the ground under the trees. Sometimes the burrs open before they fall; this one is still on the tree, with two of the three nuts having dropped. (For more about EHP chestnuts, see post of July 31, 2018.)

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7.Tree leaves are starting to turn.

Except for the species whose leaves turn red early (such as staghorn sumac and Virginia creeper), most of the leaves in the park are still green in early October. Today, however, there are definite signs that the change has begun on some of the large deciduous trees.

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8.Second hornet nest found.

Bald-faced hornets often build nests in a number of trees scattered around the park. I typically see 10 or more each year, starting to spot them in late summer but finding most in the fall when they become more visible with the leaves thinning or gone. This year I had only seen one so far, a small one, found on August 17 and pictured here, and have begun to wonder whether this year might be atypical. Today I (finally) found a second one.

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9.Purple love grass starting to tumble.

Anyone visiting the park in late summer or early fall is likely to notice the hue of the foot-high plants called purple love grass. When the grasses dry up, they (now brown) detach and blow across the ground like tumbleweed. Tumbling is now starting to happen. (The picture is from mid-September.)

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10.Snails feeding on stems.

The terrestrial snails common in Eliza Howell (perhaps a type of banded snail) have been active since April, when they emerged from hibernation. They seem to be especially abundant right now, climbing up several feet on plant stems (they feed on both live and dead plants). Here is a collage of four I saw today.

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These are some of my notes from a morning walk in the park.

 

An August Walk: Phenological Observations

As I wander the park these August days, much of my attention is focused on the beginning of fall bird migration and on the continued blooming of insect-attracting flowers. There is so much more to observe, however, and recently I noted a variety of other seasonal phenomena.

I saw all of the following on one recent morning walk.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest

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I came across this tiny nest that had fallen under the wild black cherry tree where I watched a pair of gnatcatchers as they constructed this twenty-foot high nest in late May. And I watched them, as well, as they fed the young in the nest in June. The fallen nest provides a good opportunity to note the construction, including the bits of lichen on the outside which helped to camouflage it on the tree limb.

Orbweaver and Web

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This is a great time of the year to find spider webs, often made more visible by dew drops or raindrops. This orbweaver (Marbled Orbweaver, I think), is hanging out upside down under the web as it waits for prey.

Virginia Creeper Berries

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One of the native vines that grow in the park is Virginian Creeper. It always catches my attention when the berries change from green to blue on red stems. Virginia Creeper is sometimes confused with Poison Ivy, but there are several differentiating characteristics. One is that creeper berries are blue when ripe while ivy berries, when ripe, are whitish.

Bald-faced Hornet Nest

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Every year I find a number of Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park, most them quite high in trees. This is the first one I found this year and it is quite low. These hornets, really a type of wasp, defend their nests vigorously if one gets really close, but I have found that a few feet away is safe. (For more, see my post on December 19, 2017: “Bald-faced Hornet Nests.”)

Variety of Mushrooms

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After rain in late summer, mushrooms pop up — in various locations and in various shapes and sizes. These are some that I saw on the walk. Maybe next year I will try to identity them, at least the most common ones. For now, I am just appreciating the variety.

Developing Acorns

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There are many different types of oak trees in Eliza Howell; this one is a type of white oak. The acorns are not yet fully grown in most species and it is fascinating to watch how they mature. In some cases, the nut has to grow out of the cap that originally covers it almost completely.

Snail Climbing Plant

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These land snails (Brown Lipped Snails) are common in the unmowed sections of the park on the south side between the road loop and the woodland bordering the river. In late summer, they often climb stems as they eat decaying plants and grasses. I almost always find them on my walks among the wildflowers.

Phenology is the study of the annual life cycle events of plants and animals. When I use expressions like “at this time of year” and “seasonal,” I am very conscious of how much awareness of the annual cycle is at the heart of nature observation and study.