Finding Killdeer Nests: Two Methods

As part of my on-going effort to become more familiar with the behavior of the birds of Eliza Howell Park, I pay special attention to their breeding habits. Last week I commented on my so-far unsuccessful attempts to locate a Wood Duck nesting cavity. Since then, Killdeer, another of the March arrivals, has made its annual appearance.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

I have had more success in locating Killdeer nests, though this is also a big challenge. Killdeer nest on the open ground, in a small depression with no nest structure. The nesting birds are so well camouflaged that they can only be seen when they move. And, like Wood Ducks, the young leave the nest immediately after hatching, so there is no feeding activity to help one locate the nest.

Killdeer nest very early in the year, before the ground plants grow. In each of the areas shown in this picture, I was able to locate a Killdeer nest, in three different years.

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I found this nest (next picture) by using the nest-hunting method I usually employ for Killdeer:

  1. paying careful attention to the area of the field where a pair of Killdeer is “hanging out” in late March/early April;
  2. watching them, from a distance, to try to find the location where one of the pair settles down on the ground, a possible nest;
  3. trying to fix that location in my mind (this is difficult because an open field provides very few markers to go by);
  4. going to the location when the birds are absent to try to get a close-up look (even when I know there probably is a nest there, it remains difficult to actually spot it).

This strategy takes a lot of time and patience, but it often works.

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Nest-finding method # 2 is not really a method at all. I refer to it as serendipity, making the discovery more or less by accident, by being in the right place at the right time.

Two years ago I was walking across the field in April with a park visitor, heading toward an area where I had been observing Killdeer. All of a sudden, a Killdeer few out from three feet in front of us. Looking down, I saw that we had almost stepped on a nest, at least 50 yards from the area I thought might be their nesting site.

After a quick picture, we left the area so that incubation could resume.

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Killdeer nest regularly in Eliza Howell, but, as far as I can determine, only one or two pair a year. They nest early and usually in the area of the park that is mowed. In some years, I am concerned that the eggs might not hatch before mowing begins.

Killdeer probably have another brood later in the nesting season, but I have not yet located a nest after April.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The pair that arrived within the last few days has already been engaged in mating activity; they are likely to nest soon.

And I have started my watching, noting that they seem to be favoring an area that has the kind of gravelly ground that Killdeer often like for their nests. I will be back, multiple times.

And, if my patient watching doesn’t confirm a nest, maybe I will discover one by method # 2?

Common Mullein: A Favorite Biennial

On an off-path walk on a recent February day, when the fields in Eliza Howell Park were temporarily snow free, I noted a few pale green plants in the mostly brown cover. Common Mullein looks ready to get an early start on the second year of its two-year life cycle.

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Its readiness is more evident in a close-up picture.

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Most flowers are either perennials (plants that live at least three years, dying back at the end of each season and growing again each spring from the rootstock) or annuals (plants that complete the life cycle from germination to seed in one year).

Far fewer flowers are biennials (growing roots and leaves in the first year and then producing the flowers and seeds in the second year before dying).

Common Mullein is an excellent example of how a biennial develops. By July of the second year, the plants are in bloom.

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Seeing the mullein rosette (the term often used for a somewhat circular arrangement of leaves near the soil) at this time of year is a definite reminder of what is to come.

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The flower stem (usually just one per plant) bolts up from the base, often reaching a height of 5 feet or more. Mullein is found widely dispersed in the sunny areas of the park and flowers, unevenly, over many days. I tend to stop repeatedly to look and sometimes to feel. The soft velvety leaves, sometimes called “rabbit’s ears,” have interested me since I was a child.

Others are attracted too. Here a mullein bloom is visited by a pollen-seeking Flower Fly (sometimes called a Hover Fly), if I am identifying it correctly.

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While Common Mullein has historically been used for a wide variety of medicinal purposes, both in the “Old World” and in the “New World,” I find it of special interest because of it is such a clear and easily found example of the life of a flowering biennial.

The picture at the top is of the beginning of the second year. This is what it looks like at the end of year one, before enduring a long winter.

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Common Mullein reproduces by seeds, which fall late in the second year. Individual plants take two years to reach maturity, but of course there are always some plants in the first year and some in the second year.

I don’t know why biennials fascinate me, but I do know that Common Mullein is a favorite among the biennials I know.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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….”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.