Merlin: An Uncommon Falcon Winters Here

In January 2019 I again spotted a Merlin in Eliza Howell Park, the fourth straight winter that I have seen at least one in this Detroit location. A Merlin is a small falcon, about the size of a Blue Jay, that feeds primarily on small birds (estimated to be 80% of its diet).

(This picture was taken recently at Belle Isle in Detroit.)

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Merlins breed in the North (mostly in Canada) and winter in the West and deep South/Central America, uncommon throughout their range. According to most range maps, like the one below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, they are in southern Michigan only as migrants passing through.

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But some do winter here, probably more commonly now than in the past. As noted, I have seen them in Eliza Howell in each of the last four winters. But before that, I saw one in only two of the previous 10 years.

In reviewing other range maps, I did find one that recorded the Merlin’s Winter presence near Lake Erie, the map published by Audubon. Note the small blue area.

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Regardless of what range maps show, the Merlin is definitely (now) a Winter bird in Southeast Michigan. One should not expect to see one very often, however, given its overall low numbers. During the 2019 annual three-month-long count of migrating raptors at the Detroit River Hawk Watch, there were only 34 Merlins counted. Compare this number with 64,336 Broad-winged Hawks (the most common) and with 62 Golden Eagles, another uncommon bird in this part of the country.

A Merlin often perches in a tree near an open or brushy area, looking for small birds on or near the ground. I tend to check the scattered leafless trees during every Winter visit, looking for the silhouette. When I spot one, I try to walk close enough to identify and to watch. They are not spooked as easily as many other raptors, so one can sometimes get quite close before they fly away.

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Falcons are very fast flyers and a Merlin uses its speed to catch small birds in flight. On one of my first experiences of a Merlin in Eliza Howell, I watched as one flew into the woods with a bird in its talons, perched in a tree by the river, and spent the next half hour removing the feathers (which floated down to the river) and consuming its catch.

They are usually solitary, but on the recent Belle Isle occasion, we came upon a pair.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Merlin the bird is perhaps not as well-known as Merlin the wizard (in Arthurian legend). This is understandable, as it is not numerous anywhere and not typically a resident of the eastern half of the United States. But it is out hunting from a perch on Winter days in Southeast Michigan and it is great to occasionally have the opportunity to observe.

Gray Catbird: Predictable Departure Time

My October bird watching in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit is largely focused on birds Coming, birds Going, and birds Passing Through. “Coming” are those species that breed in the far North and spend their winters here; “Going” birds breed here and head south for the winter; “Passing Through” birds breed north of southern Michigan and winter to the south of us.

Very early October is the time to expect my last sighting of the year of one of my favorite park summer residents: the Gray Catbird.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

According to my records, the Catbird is typically here at the end of September but gone by the end of the first week of October. At this time of the year, I often walk through the wildflower field along the edge of the woods checking to see what birds have shown up overnight. The view is slowly transitioning to a Fall look.

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Birds like this area because it is a good place to forage for food, whether that food be insects or seeds (most of the wild flowers are now in seed) or berries from the many vines and shrubs at the edge. For most of the summer Catbirds eat insects, but when fruit is available as it is now, they eat a variety of berries.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

They are called “catbirds” because their wailing reminds people of a cat meowing. They are mimics, however, and especially when singing earlier in the season, can produce a great variety of sounds.

They spend the winter near the cost in the southeast U.S. or Mexico or in the Caribbean or Central America. (The Range Map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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Their spring arrival date is also predictable. I usually first spot one in the park between April 30 and May 4. Shortly thereafter they begin to seek out a nesting location; they place their nests in thickets, several feet off the ground. It often takes careful thicket searching, but I have had some success in finding their nests. Their eggs are a striking color (turquoise green?).

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Several pairs spend the summer in Eliza Howell Park. At least one Catbird was still present yesterday, October 1. It might have been the last day I see one in 2019, 5 full months after the first appearance in the spring.

Thank you for spending the time with us.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

One of the joys of nature watching for me is the predictability of the annual sequence of events. And very few events are more predicable than the time of  the annual departure from Eliza Howell of the Gray Catbird.

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.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: The Rest of the Story

On May 28 this year, I wrote about finding an easily visible Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park and concluded my comments this way:

“One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.”

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The field trip took place on June 8, which, according to my estimate based on observed behavior, was about day 10 of incubation (of a normal 11 – 15 day incubation period). When the our whole group stopped to look, the bird remained on the nest, watching us but not threatened enough by our presence to leave. Melissa Francese took this picture at that time.

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A few days later the eggs hatched. By June 18, when Kevin Murphy took the next two photos, the young were nearing the end of their in-nest development.

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It is difficult to tell because they were constantly moving, but my various efforts to count heads led me to conclude that there were probably 4 nestlings. While the female does most of the incubating, both female and male feed the young.

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They are now gone from the nest, successfully fledged as far as I can tell. While Blue-gray Gnatcatchers occasionally brood twice in a year, my nest watching of this species is likely over for the year.

They are nearly halfway through their stay of 4 + months in Detroit (arrive in late April and depart in September), spending the majority of their year far to the south. (Range map from Cornel Lab of Ornithology).

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I will continue to see them foraging in the park for a couple months (photo by Margaret Weber).

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And each time I see one, I will feel a sense of appreciation for weeks of enjoyable nest watching this year and for a highlight of the 2019 June Audubon field trip.

The Red Wings Are Coming

It was on “the eighteenth of April, in seventy five” (in Longfellow’s poem) that “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” occurred, when he spread the alarm that the Redcoats are coming.

As the first of March approaches every year, it is time to announce, with eager anticipation instead of alarm, that the Red Wings are coming to Eliza Howell Park (the Red-winged Blackbirds, that is, not the Detroit professional hockey team).

Usually the first of the summer residents to return for the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds often arrive when winter is still very much present. Twice in the last 10 years I have seen the first of them on February 27.

The males seem to be in a particular hurry to claim a breeding territory.

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       Note: The bird photos here are all by Margaret Weber.

As I enumerated in a posting last year (“The March 10 (or 11),” February 22, 2018), the bird population in the park begins to grow rapidly in March. Among these early arrivals, the Red-winged Blackbird is usually the first and often the most easily visible.

The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till late March. These females will find the males, with their bright red patches and singing loudly, ready to welcome them to the territories they have claimed.

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Females look very different. In fact, it can take some experience to identify them as the same species; they resemble sparrows in some ways.

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As can be seen from the range map, most RWBs winter in the states and some do not have far to travel to reach Detroit before spring does. (The map is taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In Eliza Howell Park, there are several nesting “pairs” each year. I put “pairs” in quotation marks because this is a species that does not breed as a simple one-male one-female pair. The male often mates with and protects several females in his territory and genetic studies have shown that quite frequently the nestlings are not all sired by the territorial male.

In marshes, Red-winged Blackbirds often nest in cattails. Outside of the marshes, and in Eliza Howell Park, they nest in tall grasses or in shrubs and small trees. The nests are open on top and often have 4 eggs. I found this nest in May a couple years ago.

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The picture is not very clear because I didn’t linger long enough to get a good shot. Red-winged blackbirds are very aggressive in protecting their territory and their nests. They chase much larger birds and animals of all sizes, including humans. It is advisable to have head protection of some sort when walking near nesting Red-winged Blackbirds. It is common to experience “dive bombing” that seems to be aimed directly at the head.

They come flying, not just to impress females, but also to protect against intruders.

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The Red Wings are coming. The spring birding season is beginning.

 

 

 

The Strange Case of Blue Jay Migration

Blue Jays have been a major presence in Eliza Howell Park during the last month, the time of their fall migration. Each year I anticipate their acorn harvesting frenzy (see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018) and this year they again worked the oak trees in great numbers.

Note: All bird photos by Margaret Weber

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Their month-long period of intense activity in Detroit is exciting to observe, but I am increasingly aware of their unusual – and not fully understood – migration behavior.

Most birds that migrate through our area in the fall leave all or much of their breeding ground for the winter. Blue Jays, by contrast, are found in the very same areas all year round. It is interesting to compare the following two range maps. The first is White-throated Sparrow, also moving through here in September, and the second is Blue Jay. (These maps are taken from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology website.)

White-throated Sparrow range

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White-throated Sparrows leave almost their entire breeding area in the fall.

Blue Jay range

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Blue Jays are found throughout winter in the very same areas in which they breed. A few scatter to the west, but the entire breeding area remains occupied.

Such a range map usually suggests that a species is non-migratory. Blue Jays, however, migrate and do so in great numbers. Every fall the raptor counters at the two locations by Lake Erie (Detroit River Hawk Watch at Lake Erie MetroPark and Holiday Beach Conservation Area in Amherstburg, Ontario) count Blue Jays as well as raptors. As of October 10 this year, Holiday Beach watchers had reported over 350,000 Blue Jays moving through since early September. And the migration wasn’t fully over yet.

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This is what is known (and/or thought likely) about Blue Jay migration, based on my review of some of the published research:

  • The species is partially migratory; only some migrate
  • Most that migrate go only a few hundred miles south in the fall
  • It is estimated that fewer than half migrate
  • Those that migrate (and those that don’t) include both young birds and older birds
  • Individual birds might migrate one year and not the next and then migrate again in the following year
  • The migration number in a particular year is suspected to be related to food sources

The jay numbers will soon decline in Eliza Howell as the migrants move on. But I do not know whether individual birds like this one, seen in an oak tree in September, will stay for the winter.

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I do not know whether this one, nesting here in June, will be around in the coming winter

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I had assumed, if I thought about it much at all in the past, that the same birds (the non-migrants) were present in summer and winter and the migrants all passed through. Now I doubt that.

One of my other questions, not addressed in the limited research I have reviewed, is whether some of the individual jays harvesting acorns in the park leave/migrate before the winter and do not ever go back to eat the acorns they hid. Is acorn harvesting possibly community and not just individual food-gathering?

The Blue Jay is a common bird, so it is tempting not to give it a second thought. But I rarely see jays these days without thinking about what I do not know about them.

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.