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.

Surviving the Winter? The Praying Mantis

This is a follow-up to the posting on September 13 this year – “Praying Mantis Egg Laying.”

Adult Praying Mantises do not live beyond the fall; the next generation is in the egg cases and will emerge in the spring. They will emerge if all goes well. Since September, I have been checking on egg cases in Eliza Howell Park.

My observations began on September 5, when I watched two different females lay their eggs. This is what the fresh new egg cases looked like then.

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That same day, I noticed a pair mating so was confident that those two egg cases would not be the only ones this year.

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In the weeks that followed, I many times walked the narrow path through the field of wild flowers and small shrubs/trees. I gradually saw more and more egg cases, especially when they became easier to see after the leaves dropped. These five were found in early November.

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As of now, I have located 11 different egg cases visible from that path. Almost all of them are on the small trees (buckthorn, for the most part) growing in the field. Since each egg case probably has dozens and dozens of eggs, 11 cases would suggest a large number of little mantises emerging in the spring. If all goes well.

Some of the birds that spend the winter in the park are insect eaters, birds that often seek insect eggs and larvae. Praying Mantis eggs, though protected in the oothecal, are vulnerable to birds with beaks that probe.

Recently, I have been seeing evidence of predation.

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Of the 11 egg cases I am aware of, 6 have been opened like this. And it is only November. The number of Praying Mantises estimated to emerge in the spring in Eliza Howell is decreasing rapidly.

While I have not directly observed this, I suspect that Downy Woodpeckers are responsible for invading these egg cases. Insect eggs are a part of their diet and they frequently forage on small trees and on plant stalks.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Another threat to the survival through the winter is the weather. One of the eggs cases is on a goldenrod, a large perennial that typically does not stay standing all winter. Last week, during the first snowfall of the year, it was bent low by the heavy snow, but it came right back up when the snow melted. The first picture below is from November 9; the second from November 10.

The stem will get weaker as the season – and the snow — continues. I do not know how well developing Praying Mantises are likely to do when an egg case ends up on the ground, but there is a reason why they are placed off the ground when the eggs are laid.

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We know that only a very tiny percentage of acorns sprout. In July, I reported that very few, if any, of the toad eggs laid in the breeding pond left the pond as toadlets this year. It should not be a surprise if only a small percentage of Praying Mantis eggs laid this fall will result in live mantises in the spring of 2019.