Cottonwood Trees: The Fan Club

As I was thinking about the cottonwood trees in Eliza Howell Park recently, I recalled the old song, “Don’t Fence me In,” sung by “cowboys” like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. It includes these lyrics:

     “Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze; Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees”

I don’t know if the cottonwood leaves actually murmur, but they definitely get my attention at this time of the year.

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There are dozens of large Eastern Cottonwoods in the park, many of them quite close to the park road. One that stands alone next to the road is a favorite.

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The Baltimore Orioles that spend three months of the year in the park are also fans of the cottonwoods. Of the 44 Baltimore Oriole nests that I have found in the park in the last 8 years, 24 have been in cottonwoods. The others have been scattered among 5 other tree species, with no other species having more than 7.

In 2019 the preference for cottonwoods is even more evident: 8 nests found; 7 in cottonwoods.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

Cottonwoods are dioecious, separate female and male trees. This is the first year I have made note of the sex of the cottonwoods selected by the Baltimore Orioles for nests. 5 of the 7 are female trees. Without additional records, of course, I don’t know if this is typical.

The sex difference is easiest to notice in the spring, when the male trees have reddish flowers (catkins), which appear earlier than female catkins.

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The catkins on the female trees are green and the seed capsules are, at the beginning of June, getting ready to split open to release the seeds attached to the “cotton.” The cotton will soon be flying.

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The orioles are fans of the hanging branches in which to build and hide their hanging nests. I have become a cottonwood fan partly because of the orioles, but I also simply admire the trees:

– the shaking leaves with the sky as background

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– standing tall and leafless in January.

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I am proud to be a member of the Eliza Howell Cottonwoods fan club.

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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!

Black Cherry Trees: May to August

There are about two dozen large wild Black Cherry trees scattered over several grassy acres in Eliza Howell Park. They are mature trees, many of them more than 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide.

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While I pay some attention to these trees in my walks throughout the year, I devote considerably more time from May to August.

May is blossom time. These cherry trees have more fruit in some years than in others; the plentiful blossoms in 2018 indicate a very productive fruit crop this year.

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Even if they were not an indication of the fruit to come, the lovely blossoms would definitely engage my interest and attention.

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May and June are the main bird-nest watching months and the cherry trees are popular nesting sites. Even before the blossoms appear, Baltimore Orioles build their nests; I found 2 in cherry trees in 2018. Also in 2018, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has a cherry-tree nest and a bird box attached to a cherry tree this spring is being used by a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. There are no doubt other nests I have not seen.

This oriole below is feeding young in June in a cherry tree.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

As soon as the blooms fall, the green cherries are evident.

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Many birds cannot wait till the cherries are ripe (black), but begin eating them when they are red. By August, the trees are attracting numerous fruit-eating birds. American Robins and Cedar Waxwings are the most common and most dedicated cherry eaters.

Typically, about half of the robins appear to be juveniles with their heavily spotted breasts. And a number of the waxwings have blurry streaks and lack crests, indicating that they are youngsters as well.

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Black cherries are edible for humans as well, though they are quite bitter, at least until fully ripe (if the birds let them hang on that long). The reddish brown wood of the black cherry tree is often used in furniture and cabinet making.

By September other annual natural happenings in the park take up more of my attention and my walk route changes. But until then, the cherries are definitely part of my nature walks.

 

Nesting Birds: Female and Male Roles

Most of the songbirds that breed in Eliza Howell Park are nesting now and providing great opportunities to learn about bird behavior. Part of my observation is focused on the different role that female and male parents play in nest building, incubation of eggs, and feeding the young. It varies somewhat from species to species.

After returning from time in the park, I often check the published research to expand my knowledge and/or confirm my observations.

Note: All photos were taken by Margaret Weber. Thank you.

barn swallow love

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows nest every year under the Fenkell bridge over the Rouge River and sometimes under park shelters in nests that are made of mud and lined with plant material. Female and male Barn Swallows not only look alike, they also share many aspects of breeding.

They both build the nest.

They both incubate the eggs.

They both tend the nestlings.

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male ruby throated protrait

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The first picture is of a female on the nest; the second of the male in a perching position that is often taken during nesting season. The two sexes do not have similar roles.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

The female alone tends the nestlings.

The male is around, often perching (on guard?) on different trees in nesting territory, but does not assist the female.

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Baltimore Oriole

Several Baltimore Oriole hanging nests are made every year in large trees  in Eliza Howell. Based on the time this year’s nests were built, I expect that eggs will hatch very soon and the feeding nestlings phase will begin. The picture is of a female feeding the young.

The female does most of the nest building. I have seen males occasionally bring material for the female to weave.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

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Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are the most common (at least the most noticeable) woodpeckers in the park, boring new nesting holes in dead trees each year. The picture is of a male during the excavation process, which takes several days.

Both female and male bore the hole, but most of it is done by the male.

Both incubate the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

coming at you

Red-winged Blackbird

The male Red-winged Blackbird (pictured) is sometimes polygamous and watches over more than one nest in his territory. Many of us have had the experience of the male “yelling” at us and flying in low, often right above/at the head, to chase us away when we get close to a nest or to fledglings.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both female and male tend the nestlings.

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By contrast to migration time, when the focus is on identifying the different species as they appear, in nesting time my attention is much more on bird behavior. I find this even more interesting.

 

 

 

 

Bright Beautiful Breeding Baltimore Orioles

(Note: See below for information on the upcoming Eliza Howell nesting birds field trip — June 9, 2018)

Each year in May and June, visitors to Eliza Howell Park are treated to the sight and sound of Baltimore Orioles. The orioles spend the winters in Central America and arrive back in Detroit, with great regularity, during the first week of May. For those who are looking, their colors make them hard to miss.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

They begin to construct their intricately woven nests two to three weeks after the first arrivals. I noted the first Eliza Howell Baltimore Oriole this year on May 4 and saw a pair engaged in nest construction on May 18.

In a typical year, several different pairs nest in the park. From May 18 to May 21 this year, I have already seen 5 different nests under construction.

Most of the work of nest construction is done by the female over a period of 4 – 8 days. The nest is suspended from a twig, usually near the end of a branch. It is a pouch that looks something like a hanging sock. It is about 6 inches long, with a small opening at the top, and a bulging bottom (where the eggs are incubated). It is made of grasses, other plant fibers, and sometimes artificial material like yarn.

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The nest pictured above was made in the park last year, less than 10 feet from the ground. Usually they are much higher, in large leafy, deciduous trees, but not in a forest. Parks like Eliza Howell, with big scattered trees, are ideal spots. Over the years, I have come to know their tree preferences; this cottonwood by the road is definitely one. 

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The nests are easiest to find at this time of the year, during construction, when the bird is making frequent trips with nesting material. Without the bird leading the observer’s eye to the nest, it is very difficult to locate.

The following picture shows an incomplete nest in a typical location, hanging near the end of a branch. When the leaves are fully developed, it will be almost impossible to see from the ground. (This is also in a cottonwood tree.)

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Another good time to find a nest is during feeding time, when the adults (both male and female) make frequent visits to the nest to feed the young.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Detroit Audubon schedules an annual field trip to Eliza Howell for a guided look at nesting orioles and a number of other nesting species. It is timed for feeding hatchlings time. After the orioles complete the nests and lay the eggs, incubation (by female alone) takes about 12 – 14 days. 

     Detroit Audubon Nesting Songbirds Field Trip

     Saturday, June 9, 8:00 a.m. – approximately 10:00 a.m.

     Everyone is welcome, no cost. Audubon membership not required.

     Meeting location: about halfway around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The orioles are called “Baltimore” because someone was reminded of Lord Baltimore’s yellow and black coat of arms. To me, they look much more orange than yellow. Regardless, they and I will be in the park to welcome everyone on June 9. 

Red-tailed Hawk Nest: The Beginning of the 2018 Bird Nest Season

About the middle of February, I commented that the behavior of two Red-tailed Hawks indicated that they would likely nest in Eliza Howell Park again this year. I can now report that I have found the nest. It’s great to have this raptor nesting in the park again!

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The basic strategy for successful bird nest hunting is to let the bird lead one to the nest. Using three pieces of information:

  • where I have most frequently seen the hawks soaring during the last month;
  • the fact that they call/scream most when I walk in a particular section of the park;
  • the location of last year’s nest (they are one species that may re-use a nest from the previous year);

I knew the general area in which to look. The plan was for a one-time-only approach, simply to confirm the fact of nesting. After that I would observe only from a long distance to minimize disturbance.

Because there are no leaves on the trees yet, the nest was not hard to find.

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The nest is bulky, made of twigs with a finer lining inside, and may be over a foot deep. Hawks can be in a high nest like this without being visible from below. Right after I took this picture, a hawk flew out and scolded me. I headed away immediately, satisfied. It is likely that there are 2-3 eggs in the nest, which need to be incubated for about a month.

This begins one of my favorite annual bird-watching activities, locating active bird nests. I observe an “active” bird nest when I see it being built or see a bird on it or entering it/exiting it. I don’t consider a nest without the bird an active nest. In the winter, when leaves are down, I often see additional no-longer active nests that I have missed during the previous breeding season.

In each of the last three years, I have located the active nests of at least 16 different species in Eliza Howell Park. Over the years, I have found the nests of 37 different species here.

Most are song bird species and each year in early June, Detroit Audubon sponsors a breeding bird walk in Eliza Howell Park during which I can guide participants in their observation of nests and nesting bird behavior. Baltimore Orioles are among the EHP nesters each year.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Invitation:

The 2018 Detroit Audubon Breeding Bird field trip in Eliza Howell Park is Saturday, June 9, from 8:00 a.m. to approximately 10:30 a.m. Detroit Audubon membership is not required. Anyone interested is welcome.