Golden-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird: Two Occasional Early December Birds

The completion this month of 15 years of bird watching in Eliza Howell Park (180 consecutive months and over 1370 different records) Park makes this a good time to review the seasonal presence of different bird species. Based on experience, I know fairly well which species I can expect to see in the park at any given time of the year, in any particular 2-week period. These can be considered Common for that particular “season.”

And I know the species that I do not usually see on my outings at a particular time of the year, but am not surprised when I do see them. These are Occasional birds, birds that I can expect to observe some years during this season, but not most years.

The current “season” is the first two weeks of December, a period of time characterized by cloudy days, with leaves on the ground but very few remaining on trees.


At this time of the year there are no flowers blooming, no developing seeds or fruit, little evident insect activity; I tend to concentrate my observations on mammals and, especially, on birds.


Recent sightings of two occasional bird species led me back to my records. The first is a Golden-crowned Kinglet, only the fourth time in the last 15 years that I have seen this bird in the park in December.


Photo by Margaret Weber

In my listing of Eliza Howell birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet is identified as a Migrant, a bird that passes through the park in the spring and fall each year, but is not present in either the summer or the winter. It is a late fall migrant, usually seen well into November.

As can be seen from the range map below (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), the southern part of Michigan is within its winter (nonbreeding) range. Some Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen in southern Michigan in winter every year, but my interest here is specific to Eliza Howell, the habitats in this particular location at this specific time of the year. Here it is occasional.


The second occasional December bird recently seen is Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are Summer Residents, breeding in the park. They have become more common in recent years.


Photo by Margaret Weber

This is only the third December I have seen a Bluebird in Eliza Howell. However, two of these three years are 2018 and 2019. As the species becomes more common during the breeding season, it may also show up on more occasions during the winter.
Similar to Golden-crowned Kinglet, the winter range of Eastern Bluebird includes southern Michigan, though most individuals migrate further south. (This map is also from Cornell.)


I typically see about 24-25 different species in the park in December, most of which are the usual Eliza Howell birds of winter: Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, etc. They brighten the gray days.

The occasional appearance of a different species adds to the brightness and adds to my knowledge about what to expect when.

A Tiny Patch of Cattails: Over the Seasons

About a year ago, I commented on the way the seed clusters of Staghorn Sumac persist into and through the winter (December 14, 2017). Another perennial plant in Eliza Howell Park that holds its seeds well into the winter is Cattail.

Now, in mid-December, most Cattail seed clusters look like this.


It is likely that many visitors to Eliza Howell Park never see cattails. There is only one small patch that I am aware of, at the edge of a wooded area, with only about 10 – 12 seed stalks a year.


Cattails thrive in wet soil and are usually found in or by wetlands. The Eliza Howell patch is in area that I would not call a marsh or wetland (or even a vernal pool), but does tend to be a wet spot in the spring.

Cattails spread by rhizomes (creeping roots) and by seeds. Since this patch is isolated, it probably started from seeds.

Last February, most of the seed clusters were still tightly closed, not yet dispersing seed.


In late winter, shortly before it is warm enough for the seeds to sprout, they finally open and the seeds are released, relying mostly on the wind for dispersal. The next picture is from March 22, 2018.


It would be interesting to know the source of the seeds that started the Eliza Howell patch.

The new growth on the established plants appears in April, and a couple months later seed stalks are evident. In July, they look like this.


By mid-August, the seed clusters look quite mature.


There are a number of plant species in the park that I check on regularly around the calendar year. Cattails are one, in part because of the manner and annual timing of seed dispersal. And they are a species that has observable change in winter.


Green in December: Winter Creeper

While I normally use the common name, rather than the scientific name, of the plants I observe in Eliza Howell Park, I have for some reason long thought of this plant as “euonymus” and have only this year begun to call it “winter creeper.” While walking in the park recently, I was reflecting on how well chosen the “winter creeper” name is.

Except for a few lingering leaves on some honeysuckle bushes, by early December the green has left the Eliza Howell woods until spring. It is gone, that is, except for one small area along the river where the evergreen winter creeper grows.


These green leaves on the tree may look like the tree’s leaves, but they are the leaves of the climbing vine that grows up the trunk and covers the branches. Winter creeper can grow up to 70 feet high, capable of reaching the tops of trees.

The vines are large and strong, sometimes several on the same tree.


Winter creeper was introduced in the U. S. about a century ago, imported from the Orient as an ornamental. Some have escaped into the wild. These Eliza Howell vines are very mature looking and have probably been here a long time.


In addition to having green leaves in December, winter creeper now also has fruit  on the vines. The berries are a lot like bittersweet berries (see “Bright Berries, Bright Birds on Gray Days,” November 8, 2018), but they mature even later. They are just opening now.


There is a second location in the park, outside the wooded area, where these evergreen vines are found. In this spot, the vines are much smaller, probably younger, and are not producing fruit.


Some published reports indicate that winter creeper flowers and fruits only in more mature plants. Based on the very limited examples I have seen in the park, this may be the case, but my experience is much too limited to confirm it. 

What I can confirm is that a December walk in the woods mostly means brown leaves on the ground (when not covered with snow) and bare branches on the trees…


… except for the small patch of winter creeper found some distance along the path that goes to the right after crossing the footbridge. Winter creeper is one big reason I take this particular path frequently in winter.