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.

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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.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: An Annual Quest

This is the eight consecutive year that I have found at least one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park. The nests are small, not easy to find, and I am fascinated by them, thrilled when I find one.

This 2019 nest (in the center of the picture) is in a maple tree, lower than many.

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The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a very small and very active bird with a longish white-edged tail. It winters in (or near) Central America and arrives in EHP in April each year.

     Photos 2, 3, and 5 are by Margaret Weber.

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By the middle of May, pairs are making their nests, the female and male working cooperatively on a neat, 2-3 inch-wide (outside dimensions) open cup placed on a horizontal branch, often next to a vertical or side branch.

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The nest is as tall as it is wide, flexible layers of material like grasses and strips of bark all held together and attached to the tree by spider webs or caterpillar silk. The outside is almost entirely covered with lichen and bark flakes, making it look more like part of the tree than like a bird nest. The camouflage is effective; even when I know where the nest is, I often have a hard time re-locating it.

This is one of my favorites among the nests I anticipate seeing annually. I am fascinated by the way in which the outside is “decorated,” and by the webbing used to attach it (some of which is visible in this picture).

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The approximately 1.5 inch-wide inside is lined with soft plant down. It is tiny, but big enough for 3-5 eggs/nestlings. The eggs are only 1/2 inch long. Both sexes participate in incubation and in feeding the young, just as they do in nest building. They sometimes have a second brood (in a different nest) a little later and they will build a second nest if, for some reason, they abandon the first one.

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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.

Note: This year the field trip is on Saturday, June 8, beginning at 8:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome.

 

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!

Thinking April during Winter Walks

I enjoy nature walks in the winter in Eliza Howell Park, especially when there is snow on the ground, but for 2-3 months the seasonal changes are minimal. Plants and many animals are dormant and the number of birds present is the lowest of any time during the year. Nature’s year begins later in the calendar year in Detroit, in March rather than in January.

So, during my quiet winter walks, I sometimes find myself thinking ahead and anticipating some of the special times that will be coming later this year, some of the best times to visit the park to observe, and perhaps to photograph, annual natural phenomena.

The first “don’t miss” days marked on my calendar are late April. (There will be a public nature walk on Saturday, April 27, at 10 a.m.)

In late April, the earliest of the summer breeding birds will have returned from their winter grounds and, like this male Red-winged Blackbird, will be claiming their territories and proclaiming their interest in a mate.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

Sometime in the second half of April (the exact time is temperature dependent), American Toads will return to their breeding pond in EHP and spend a couple of days and nights in loud calling and in mating / egg-laying. In 2018, the weather was too warm in May and the pond dried up before the tadpoles were fully developed, so it will be especially interesting to see what happens this year.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

Late April is also the beginning of the blooming wildflower season in the park, with a variety of small species found along the paths in the woods. The timing of this is also weather dependent, but on the basis of my experience over the last decade, the last week in April is usually a good time to see them. This collage of Violets is made up of pictures taken in 2018.

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The Mayapple does not usually bloom as early as April in Eliza Howell, but it is fascinating to observe how it emerges. There are several patches where its progress can be observed in the late days of April.

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Of the approximately 30 butterfly species that can be seen annually in Eliza Howell, the first ones usually show up in late April. The tiny Spring Azure, pictured with the wings up here, is a lovely blue when the wings are open.

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April is also the month when the earliest bird nests can be found (the Red-tailed Hawk nest earlier). Most song birds build their nests later (the annual Detroit Audubon field trip to Eliza Howell to observe nesting bids is in early June), but I often find a couple by late April.

These pictures were taken in April, 2018. The one on the left, a nest on the ground, is Killdeer. The one on the right, in a shrub, is Northern Cardinal.

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My walks continue all winter and I usually find something noteworthy each time, but the changes from one week to the next are nothing now like they are when spring has fully arrived. To avoid missing special developments – such as first butterflies, first wildflowers, first bird nests – it’s time to mark the calendar.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

 

Four Months Here, then Gone Again

Among the birds that breed in Eliza Howell Park and “winter” in or near Central America, I selected four and reviewed my records on first sighting and last sighting in the park each year from 2010 to 2018 (9 years). The dates indicate clearly that they are only short-term residents here, coming to breed, and longer-term residents elsewhere.

Note: All photos by Margaret Weber

Baltimore Oriole

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I do not get to the park every day and, of course, I miss some birds when I am present. Nevertheless, the record is quite consistent. Based on this experience, I expect to see the first Baltimore Orioles of the year the first week of May and will probably not see them after the first week of September.

Baltimore Oriole 2010 – 2018

First seen:     5/6    5/8   5/2   5/5   5/6   5/6   5/7    5/1    5/4

Last seen:     9/3   8/25  9/5  8/22  9/7   9/7  9/11   9/4   9/3

By the end of May, I start finding Baltimore Oriole nests every year in the large trees, often near the road, and find a total of five in a typical year.

Barn Swallow  

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Barn Swallows also nest in the park every year, at least one pair under a shelter and several under the Fenkell Avenue bridge over the Rouge River.

Barn Swallow   2010 – 2018

Fist seen:   4/24  4/23  4/19  5/1   4/17   4/26   4/22  4/29  4/25

Last seen:   9/2  8/28   8/24  8/22  8/24  8/23  8/20    9/9   8/31

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

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The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher arrival date (more exact, first sighting date) is spread over a three week period, not as consistent as with the Baltimore Oriole. The last-sighting date covers a shorter range of time. By the end of the second week of September, they have started their trip back to Central America (some to Florida) for a longer stay.

A couple pairs of gnatcatchers always nest in Eliza Howell and I have been successful most years in locating a nest to point out to participants in the June Detroit Audubon breeding bird field trip.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 2010 – 2018

First seen: 5/3  4/28  4/19  5/1  4/23  4/11  5/1  4/20  4/28

Last seen:  9/6  9/14   9/9   9/2   9/7   9/7   9/11   9/4   9/5

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

male ruby throated protrait

There are always a small number of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds that spend four month at Eliza Howell, but I have found an actual nest only once over these years. I am quite sure they nest here every year, however, based on the behavior of adults and on the slight increase in numbers by late summer. They spend the non-breeding months in Central America.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2010 – 2018

First seen: 5/12  5/8   5/10  5/14  5/10   5/15  5/13  5/11  5/4

Last seen:  9/6   9/5    9/9    9/14  9/14  9/13   9/16   9/9   9/22

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These four species are not the only birds that nest in the park and leave after breeding season, but these records may be sufficient for now.

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There are several points to be made based on the above records.

  1. Birds that migrate are amazingly consistent from year to year. It is often possible to predict when (within a week or so) a particular species will show up again.
  2. If someone wants to see any of these four species in October, don’t come to Eliza Howell.
  3. This information, along with the annual fly-through of the warblers, helps to explain why many bird watchers in this part of the country go a little crazy as May approaches. By then, it will have been a long time that some favorites have been gone.