Red-tailed Hawks: “Stay Away”

The loud screeching screams of the two Red-tailed Hawks sent a clear message: I was in their nesting territory of Eliza Howell Park and I was not welcome.

The Red-tailed Hawk, a large raptor (about 20 inches long with a 45 – 50 inch wingspan), regularly nests in the park.

         Note: All the photos here were taken by Margaret Weber.

Red tail hawk closeup head

By the middle of February, the resident pair of Red-tailed Hawks has usually claimed its nesting territory and is protecting it. For most of their long breeding season, I avoid going close to their nest, but early in the year I usually walk the probable area once in order to verify that they are again intending to nest here and to observe their territory-protecting behavior.

I cannot decide if the call of this hawk is best described as a screech or a scream, so I think of it as a “screeching scream.” It has been used for decades in movies and on TV to depict the scary call of any large raptor, including a Bald Eagle. Listening to the call of the Red-tailed Hawk and the call of the Bald Eagle (via a Google search) will explain the movie maker’s preference for the hawk call to depict a scary atmosphere when showing a picture of an eagle.

20180212_151256

I was impressed again this year at how scary the loud screeching screams of the Red-tailed Hawk really are, especially when I know that the two birds circling overhead are screaming directly at me. As soon as I confirmed that the nest they used last year is still intact and that they are patrolling that specific area, I left, at an increased walking speed.

Their nest is made up of piled sticks with an inner cup of bark and vegetation. They often use the same nest more than once. The picture here is of one that they used in Eliza Howell a few years ago, before it fell.

redtail hawk nest 2.2016

Though it can often be identified by the reddish tail when flying (see picture above), the Red Tail is usually best recognized by the dark belly band clearly visible when it perches.

20200214_175356

Red-tailed hawks primarily eat rodents and other small mammals, occasionally including reptiles and birds. They have two hunting patterns, soaring or perching. They are the hawks most commonly seen perched on trees and poles along highways, apparently a good place to wait for a rodent to show.

Red tail hawk

If I have a bird-watching specialty, it is locating bird nests and showing them on field trips.

Red-tailed Hawks, probably the same pair, have nested for years in Eliza Howell Park. Yet I have very seldom guided others to see their nest. When they scream at me as loudly as they did last week, I have a definite sense that they are much more disturbed by nest watchers than most other species. I try to respect that.

And I don’t like being screamed at.

 

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.)

one merlin

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.

20200202_172557

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.

20200202_172700

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.

20200203_123947

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.

two merlins

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.

The Foraging Four: A Mixed Flock in Winter

According to the old saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” Sometimes. Sometimes flocks of birds are made up of different species, like the flocks of small birds that I look for – and frequently find – when I walk in the woods of Eliza Howell Park in winter.

The mixed flocks vary a little from one to another, but usually include the four species that I have come to think of as the winter woodland foursome. Clockwise from top left: Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch.

         Thank you to Margaret Weber for the use of her photos in this posting.

20200125_174131

The Eliza Howell flocks are typically small, usually just 6 – 8, made up of 2-3 chickadees and 1-2 of each of the others. They tend to somewhat scattered, a loose flock rather than a tight one. Since the first bird I see is often a chickadee, I tend to think of the Black-capped Chickadee as the flock leader.

20190406_191020

I always stop walking when I see a chickadee to watch it and to check for companions. It flits from small branch to branch to log, checking openings in the bark or wood, foraging for insect eggs and whatever else is available to eat. Sometimes it drops to the ground looking for seeds.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of the woodpeckers that live year-round in Southeast Michigan. They sometimes search for food higher in trees, but when moving with the mixed flock, they tend to forage quite low. Only the male has the red on the back of the head.

downy 123117

The Tufted Titmouse is perhaps the most striking in appearance of this foursome. It also has a name that might seem somewhat peculiar. The “tufted” part is not surprising; it refers to the crest. “Tit” is an old Anglo-Saxon wood meaning something small. “Mouse” apparently comes from a word referring to any bird.

Of the four, Tufted Titmouse is least common in Eliza Howell. If one of the foursome is missing, it is usually the titmouse.

titmouse in tree 0111

White-breasted Nuthatches are sometimes referred to as the upside-down birds. They forage mostly on tree trunks and large branches, often heading down the tree.

The nuthatch is the one of the four that is most commonly heard, repeating a loud “yank.”

nuthatch gets it 1209

The small woodland mixed flocks sometimes include another species or two (Dark-eyed Junco or Brown Creeper, perhaps), but these four are the regulars. As I stand and watch, they move through quickly, often gone minutes after I saw the first one. But I always look for them and the ‘foraging four” brighten many a gray day in winter.

Mulberries: Winter Observation, Summer Picking

During a recent winter walk in Eliza Howell Park, I stopped by some of the clusters of Mulberry trees that I visit in late June and early July, picking container in hand. Winter provides a good opportunity to note where and how they grow.

In Eliza Howell, almost all the Mulberry trees are found at the base of large trees that grow within the road loop. How close these trees grow to one another and to the larger tree is most evident in the winter when the leaves are off the branches.

20200119_164502

I thought of the nursery rhyme (“All around the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel”) when I noted how completely mulberry trees surround the trunk of one cottonwood tree. If I were more clever or creative, I might try to complete a line that begins with “all around the cottonwood tree….”

20200119_151807

Many mulberries are about 20 feet tall and, in their position under the taller trees, their branches spread and hang quite low. A lot of berries can be reached while standing on the ground. They progress from white to red to black, at which point they are ripe and ready.

Birds like mulberries, as do bird watchers.

20200117_103855

A comment I have heard from individuals who have come upon mulberries for the first time is “they look like blackberries.” They do have a similar shape, but they grow on trees (blackberries grow on vines), and the fruit stems are very different. The taste is also different, of course, but that is best experienced by eating newly picked berries.

There are three different black-colored edible summer berries in Eliza Howell Park: Mulberry, Black Raspberry, Blackberry (in the order in which they ripen). Black raspberry also grows on vines.

In this collage, Mulberry is on the left, Blackberry is top right, and Black Raspberry is bottom right.

20200119_191720

In my opinion, these three berries are the best foods to be harvested in Eliza Howell Park.

The first mulberry picking is at least 5 months away, but it is not too early to review the number and location of the trees. They may look to some like unwanted shrubs growing under larger trees, but they are worth getting to know.

20200121_093421

Winter is also a good time to enjoy one of the results of summer picking. 

20190624_191710

Jam made by Margaret Weber

Mammals in an Urban Park: Herbivores, Omnivores, and Carnivores

During my many walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit in recent years, I have confirmed the presence of 15 different mammals (not including smaller mammals like voles, deer mice, and bats).

When animals are classified by what they eat, they are usually identified as herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores. Among the Eliza Howell herbivores is the Groundhog. In this picture, an adult is on the left, an immature on the right.

20200106_181251

Herbivores eat plants and only plants, many having digestive systems that are able to digest many different kinds of plants, including grasses.

Of the 5 herbivores that I am aware of in the park, the White-tailed Deer is the most common. In the winter, when they are sometimes in herds, I have seen as many as 10 together. Here is a stag, watching me as I watched him.

20200106_160311

I do not (yet) have any pictures of the two aquatic herbivores found in EHP: Muskrat and American Beaver. Beaver is the mammal most recently added to the list of those found in Eliza Howell and their practice of eating the stems, bark, and twigs of trees is evidenced by the many small trees they cut down and remove along the river.

The Eastern Cottontail is a fairly common herbivore in the park.

20200106_160508

Omnivores are animals that eat both other animals and (parts of) plants. They may be primarily animal eaters or primarily plant eaters and omnivores make up the largest number of Eliza Howell mammal species.

The Virginia Opossum is largely nocturnal, but I do encounter one during the day from time to time. It is often slow moving and may allow one to get quite close.

20190520_133920

Many omnivores are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever food is convenient. These include the various squirrels found in Eliza Howell. Tree squirrels are Fox Squirrel, Gray Squirrel (black variation in the picture below), and Red Squirrel. The ground squirrel is the Eastern Chipmunk.  Squirrels eat seeds and nuts and fruit, but they may also eat eggs, insects, baby birds.

(Clockwise from top left: Fox Squirrel, Red Squirrel, black Gray Squirrel, and Eastern Chipmunk)

20200106_163751

Raccoons will eat almost anything, but they especially like small animals found in water, such as clams, crayfish, and frogs. I have seen them – and their tracks – most frequently by the river. They are also primarily nocturnal, sometimes seen resting in trees during the day. They also den in trees.

20200107_201255 (1)

Photo by Kevin Murphy

Striped Skunk, another omnivore found in Eliza Howell, is mostly active at night and rarely seen.

Red Fox and Coyote are two mammals that are often considered carnivores, but perhaps should more accurately be considered omnivores. They eat mostly animals and carrion, but also eat fruit and berries.

In the last few years, I have seen Coyote more frequently than Red Fox in Eliza Howell. This picture of a Coyote was taken in nearby Rouge Park in Detroit.

20200107_155226

Photo by Kevin Murphy

Carnivores are animals whose diet consists of other animals. The one mammal that I have seen in EHP that is strictly carnivore is Mink. It is semiaquatic (I have seen them only by the river) and eats fish, crayfish, mice, muskrats, birds, etc. I see it only occasionally.

—-

As noted above, these 15 species are not the only mammals in the park. There are some smaller species that I am aware of and, without a doubt, other species that I have not yet found. One example: I think the habitat is perfect for flying squirrels, but I have not yet seen any evidence of these nocturnal mammals.

There is much more to learn about my favorite urban park.

A Favorite Pin Oak Tree: 19th Century Origins

The Pin Oak tree at the edge of the road in Eliza Howell Park is one of my favorite trees. It stands alone, with enough room for its branches to spread. 

At this time of the year, the leaves are fallen and the branches are bare.

20191228_180048

I first started paying close attention to this oak because the birds are attracted to it. Warbling Vireos have nested here twice in recent springs and both Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Blue Jays are all over it in late September and early October, collecting acorns.

20181011_144616

Photo by Margaret Weber

This is a quite large – and old – Pin Oak, a species that does not live as long as some other oaks. After having been asked several times how old it is, I decided to try to find the answer. There is no exact method of knowing the age of a living tree, but there is a widely used method of estimating the age.

The steps in estimating tree age are these:

  1. Measure the circumference of the tree at 4 ½ feet from the ground.
  2. Divide the circumference by pi (3.14) to get the diameter.
  3. Multiply the diameter (in inches) by the “growth factor” that has been identified for the specific species, based on how fast growing it is. (Different organizations have published the growth factors for different species.)
  4. The resulting number is the approximate age of the tree, in years.

Pin Oaks are moderately fast growing and have been given a growth factor of 3.0.

It is difficult to measure the circumference of a large tree by oneself so recently, when accompanied by Charon, another Eliza Howell enthusiast, we undertook the measurement.

20191228_182304

At 4 ½ feet high, the tree measured exactly 12 feet in diameter (144 inches).

144 divided by 3.14 = 45.86.

45.86 times 3.0 = 137.58

Using this method to estimate age, the tree is about 137 or 138 years old.

137 years ago was 1883. This is just an estimate, but it is probably safe to say that this tree began to grow before the twentieth century, long before this property was donated to Detroit for parkland.

It was already over 100 years old when I started enjoying it, appreciating it in all seasons. On hot summer days, when someone else has not claimed the spot, I park the car in its welcome shade as I take my walk.

20191228_180526

Across the road is the prairie flower field and the Pin Oak sometimes makes a lovely background for a flower picture — Joe Pye Weed in this case.

20180726_112731

Pin Oak leaves turn late in the Fall, in November in Eliza Howell. The bronze (?) shade is not as striking as the leaves on some other trees, but there is something very attractive about it.

20181107_132537

As oak trees go, Pin Oak trees do not have a long lifespan. This one is perhaps older than average. I hope it continues to provide beauty, food, shade, and nesting habitat long after my nature walk days are over.

Praying Mantises in Goldenrods: A 2019 Highlight

As the year ends, I am reviewing some of the highlights of 2019 nature walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit. Observing Praying Mantises in patches of Goldenrods for three whole weeks in September is definitely one.

Looking ahead to 2020: The plan is to get the word out as soon as the 2020 “Praying Mantis in Eliza Howell Goldenrods” season begins, inviting anyone interested to come to observe at one of several different identified times.

I spent many hours in 2019 observing the fascinating behavior of Praying Mantises.

20191030_133830

I see Praying Mantises in Eliza Howell when the adults begin their end-of-the-year behavior – seeking mates and laying eggs – in September. This year I noted the first one on September 11, seen here in an upside-down position that they sometimes take as they wait for insects.

20190911_111835

The Praying Mantises seemed more common this year, though perhaps the timing of my visits and/or my observation skills improved; I saw several on almost every visit until the end of the month.

On September 16, I saw the first of the many mating pairs. Though the color of the male and female are different here, that is not always the case. The male is smaller and has longer antennae. They mate in upside-down positions or in upright positions or in horizontal positions.

20190916_184238

The female often multitasks while mating. Looking carefully at the above photo, one can see that she has caught and is eating an insect.

It is easy to get pictures of mating pairs because mating is not finished quickly. I have sometimes returned and found a pair still in the process 2 hours after I first noticed them.

20190921_1411411

Praying Mantises are attracted to goldenrods no doubt because so many insects are attracted to the blooms. A Mantis will wait patiently until an insect gets close and then strike with one or both of the powerful front feet. The next picture shows one starting to eat, head first, what might be a bald-faced hornet.

20190920_133420

Last year I wrote more extensively about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” (September 13, 2018) than I am here. While they sometimes attach their egg cases to goldenrod stems, they will often select a sturdier plant near the goldenrods. Here is a female making the egg case into which she then deposited eggs. The whole process took about 3 ½ hours. The position for egg laying is head down in every one that I have seen.

20191024_171222

It has only been in 2018 and 2019 that I have focused my attention on the close relationship between Praying Mantises and blooming goldenrods. In 2018 the mantises were present a little earlier in the season than they were in 2019, and for a shorter period of time. So I hesitate to predict when they will show up on 2020, but, as noted above,

the plan is to get the word out as soon as the 2020 “Praying Mantis in Eliza Howell Goldenrods” season begins, inviting anyone interested to come to observe at one of several different identified times.

20190918_154516