Poison Ivy on Cottonwood: Taking A Good Look

In early to mid-October in Eliza Howell Park, before most other plants had reached their Fall color peak, Poison Ivy gets my attention. It adds color to the trunks of trees and the fruit attracts birds.

The vine climbs many of the Cottonwood trees inside the road loop, where it is easy to get a good look.

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Poison Ivy is a native species that usually gets talked about for only one reason: stem, leaves, and roots all contain urushiol, which causes a rash reaction in most people who come into contact with it. So the message is to avoid it. But it is safe to look and I have enjoyed getting to know some of its characteristics. I have recently been observing how it grows on Cottonwood trees and each picture here is of Poison ivy on a Cottonwood.

Poison Ivy often grows 20 feet or more up the trunk of a large tree.

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The leaves in fall are red or yellow or orange.

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The fruit is abundant this year. Humans (and other primates, I think) are the only animals that have the rash reaction to the urushiol in Poison Ivy. Birds eat the fruit and deer and insects eat the leaves.

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The craggy bark of Cottonwood trees provides a good surface for the Poison Ivy vines to climb. The vines tend to be hairy, a fact that helps to identify the species during the months of the year when there are no leaves.

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Poison Ivy is not the only colorful vine that climbs trees (the leaves of Virginia Creeper, for example, also turn reddish), but most of the red vines on large trees that a visitor is likely to see within the road loop in the park at this time of the year are Poison Ivy.

This is an ideal time to take a good look and to get a better understanding of its role among the flora and fauna of North America.

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The classic advice of “Look, but Don’t Touch” applies here. Maybe take several good looks.

 

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Gray Catbird: Predictable Departure Time

My October bird watching in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit is largely focused on birds Coming, birds Going, and birds Passing Through. “Coming” are those species that breed in the far North and spend their winters here; “Going” birds breed here and head south for the winter; “Passing Through” birds breed north of southern Michigan and winter to the south of us.

Very early October is the time to expect my last sighting of the year of one of my favorite park summer residents: the Gray Catbird.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

According to my records, the Catbird is typically here at the end of September but gone by the end of the first week of October. At this time of the year, I often walk through the wildflower field along the edge of the woods checking to see what birds have shown up overnight. The view is slowly transitioning to a Fall look.

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Birds like this area because it is a good place to forage for food, whether that food be insects or seeds (most of the wild flowers are now in seed) or berries from the many vines and shrubs at the edge. For most of the summer Catbirds eat insects, but when fruit is available as it is now, they eat a variety of berries.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

They are called “catbirds” because their wailing reminds people of a cat meowing. They are mimics, however, and especially when singing earlier in the season, can produce a great variety of sounds.

They spend the winter near the cost in the southeast U.S. or Mexico or in the Caribbean or Central America. (The Range Map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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Their spring arrival date is also predictable. I usually first spot one in the park between April 30 and May 4. Shortly thereafter they begin to seek out a nesting location; they place their nests in thickets, several feet off the ground. It often takes careful thicket searching, but I have had some success in finding their nests. Their eggs are a striking color (turquoise green?).

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Several pairs spend the summer in Eliza Howell Park. At least one Catbird was still present yesterday, October 1. It might have been the last day I see one in 2019, 5 full months after the first appearance in the spring.

Thank you for spending the time with us.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

One of the joys of nature watching for me is the predictability of the annual sequence of events. And very few events are more predicable than the time of  the annual departure from Eliza Howell of the Gray Catbird.

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.

 

Bright Berries, Bright Birds on Gray Days

This time of the year (the very end of October and early November) is the best time to see House Finches in Eliza Howell Park. It is one of two good times to see Cedar Waxwings. And it is the only time to see Purple Finches here. These are fruit-eating birds in this season and Eliza Howell Park has berries that they enjoy.

As I walked the path from the road toward the river recently, I began to hear American Robins. Robins, too, are primarily fruit eaters in this season, so I knew to look in the patches of honeysuckle in this area, shrubs now loaded with red berries.

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This is Asian bush honeysuckle (Amur honeysuckle), with lovely white flowers in the spring and red berries in the fall. It keeps its leaves longer than most deciduous plants, and is right now, in early November, mostly green with abundant berries. Robins, in the dozens, are one of several bird species feeding here.

Cedar Waxwings are a little less predictable than robins, but also present in good numbers most days. This is an adult.
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      Photo by Margaret Weber

Cedar Waxwings are always a joy to see. Some Waxwings still have immature features in the fall, but they also sport the very adult-looking yellow at the tip of the tail. The other time waxwings are common in the park is in August, when the fruit of the wild black cherry trees is the attraction that brings them.

One bird that can take my attention away from waxwings is the Purple Finch, for two reasons. 1) It is only present in the park, in my experience, in small numbers during a couple weeks beginning at the end of October. It breeds to the north and migrates through; for some reason, I do not see them in spring migration. I always try to get good looks while I can.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

2) The second reason for focusing attention on (what appear to be) Purple Finches is that it is often necessary to look twice to see if the bird really is a Purple Finch. House Finches are also present and it is often difficult to tell the two apart when they are not posing out in the open.

The males within each species (these pictures are of males) vary from one to another in color, in how much red they have. Females are very different from males (no red at all) and there is also a definite resemblance in the females of the two species.

House Finches are in this region throughout the year, but this time of the year is by far the best time to see them in Eliza Howell.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

There are also other birds attracted to the berries – and there are other berries attracting the birds. One of the most common vines growing in the park is Oriental Bittersweet. Bittersweet can often be found along the edges of wooded areas, where it is can cover small trees and shrubs.

Bittersweet fruit is yellow looking until it opens in the fall to reveal the red berry inside. Then more birds come.

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There are many dark cloudy gray days in early November in Detroit, but the berries and the birds they attract make the days brighter.

Sugar Maple: A “Leaf Peeping” Walk

When asked recently what my favorite kind of tree is, I said that it depends on the season. Different trees attract me at different times of the year. Twice a year – in March and in late October – the Sugar Maple is at or near the top of my list of favorites in Eliza Howell Park.

In March, it is “sugaring” time (see “Maple Sap Rising,” March 13, 2018); now the leaves demand attention.

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A number of Sugar Maples are found near the park road. The leaves are thick and the branches hang low. (It is a good tree to duck under to wait out a brief rain.) When the leaves turn in the fall, they can be yellow or pink or red, often on the same tree.

Note the variety of colors of the leaves on the ground here, all from the same tree.

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Each fall I check the next two Sugar Maples, growing side by side, to see how both the colors and the time of leaf drop differ.

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These close-up pictures of Sugar Maple leaves, still on the trees, are put together for easy comparison.

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Sugar Maples, native to Northeast North America, are one of the featured trees on many fall foliage viewing (“leaf peeping”) tours in New England and the upper Midwest.

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Healthy Sugar Maples can grow to over 100 feet tall and live up to 300 – 400 years.

Using a method of estimating the age of a tree based on its circumference (a method to be described more fully in the next post), I estimated that the Sugar Maple pictured below is about 180 years old. This means that it began to grow here about the time Michigan became a state.

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The Eliza Howell Sugar Maples mean tasty maple syrup to a number of park neighbors, but that is only one way in which they contribute to the natural beauty and fascinating features of the park.

An October Morning Walk: Today’s News

I arrived in Eliza Howell Park on October 9, 2018, at about 8:20 a.m. It was already warm, very warm for this time of the year, after a heavy dew. For the next three hours I walked about with my binoculars and phone camera, with frequent stops.

These are some of my observations on what is happening in the park today.

1.Sun and Dew

When the morning sun shines, it highlights the wet twigs and leaves, and the moisture rises in the air like fog. The temperature was unusual for October, but the picture is not.

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2.Honeysuckle berries getting ripe.

There are many honeysuckle shrubs (Amur honeysuckle) in the park. They have lovely white flowers in the spring, but are perhaps even more attention-getting in the Fall. They keep their leaves longer than most deciduous plants and will be mostly green with abundant red berries into November. They have been ripening slowly and more are red every day.

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3.Mushrooms continue in season.

I recently posted a report on some of the mushrooms in the park (October 4, 2018). Mushroom season continues and, in the last few days, there are even more to be found, in many shapes and sizes. This is just one of many I thought photo-worthy today.

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4.Migrating sparrows arriving.

As I noted in another post (September 28, 2018), part of my October focus is on the variety of sparrows that pass through the park. This morning I saw six different sparrow species, including a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos and my first-of-the-season Field Sparrow (pictured here in a photo from another time).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

5.Monarch butterflies are still present.

Monarchs have been in migration to Mexico for about a month now and I have been checking for them during each visit to the park to see whether there are any still present. Today I saw 4. So they have not yet all passed through, though that will happen soon.

I thought today of the Monarch caterpillar that I saw on September 12 (picture) and wondered then whether it would have time to make it to butterfly in time to head to Mexico with the others. Perhaps it is now on its way.

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6.Chestnuts are falling.

Many, maybe most, of the nuts and acorns in Eliza Howell have already fallen. When mature chestnuts fall, the outside shell (the burr) opens on its own – to the benefit of squirrels and others. Many empty burrs are now on the ground under the trees. Sometimes the burrs open before they fall; this one is still on the tree, with two of the three nuts having dropped. (For more about EHP chestnuts, see post of July 31, 2018.)

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7.Tree leaves are starting to turn.

Except for the species whose leaves turn red early (such as staghorn sumac and Virginia creeper), most of the leaves in the park are still green in early October. Today, however, there are definite signs that the change has begun on some of the large deciduous trees.

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8.Second hornet nest found.

Bald-faced hornets often build nests in a number of trees scattered around the park. I typically see 10 or more each year, starting to spot them in late summer but finding most in the fall when they become more visible with the leaves thinning or gone. This year I had only seen one so far, a small one, found on August 17 and pictured here, and have begun to wonder whether this year might be atypical. Today I (finally) found a second one.

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9.Purple love grass starting to tumble.

Anyone visiting the park in late summer or early fall is likely to notice the hue of the foot-high plants called purple love grass. When the grasses dry up, they (now brown) detach and blow across the ground like tumbleweed. Tumbling is now starting to happen. (The picture is from mid-September.)

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10.Snails feeding on stems.

The terrestrial snails common in Eliza Howell (perhaps a type of banded snail) have been active since April, when they emerged from hibernation. They seem to be especially abundant right now, climbing up several feet on plant stems (they feed on both live and dead plants). Here is a collage of four I saw today.

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These are some of my notes from a morning walk in the park.

 

The Red Squirrel: A Different Walnut Hoarder

On my late September wanderings in Eliza Howell Park, I often check the walnut trees hoping to catch sight of a Red Squirrel harvesting walnuts. Sometimes the sound of falling walnuts tells me where to look.

Of the three species of tree squirrel in EHP (Fox Squirrel and Gray Squirrel, which is present in both gray and black variations, are the other two), the Red Squirrel is the smallest, the least common, and the most energetic walnut hoarder.

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The Red Squirrel, sometimes known as “pine squirrel” because it is so often found in conifer forests, also lives in hardwood forests. They are not as comfortable in cities as Fox Squirrels and Gray Squirrels and I do not see them in the yards of our Detroit neighborhood, despite the large trees. Eliza Howell Park is a natural enough setting for a few of them to make a home.

Those not familiar with the Red Squirrel may find it helpful to note the differences from the Fox Squirrel, which is also reddish.

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All three species of EHP tree squirrels store and eat walnuts, but the Red Squirrel takes a different approach. “Hoarding,” in animal behavior, simply means storing for later use. There are two general types of hoarding by animals that collect nuts – scatter-hoarding and larder-hoarding.

Gray and Fox Squirrels are scatter-hoarders, hiding the nuts separately in different locations. (Blue Jays are also scatter-hoarders of acorns; see my “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018.) Larder-hoarders cache their food together in a central hidden location. Red Squirrels are larder-hoarders.

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There are a large number of Black Walnut trees, of all sizes, in Eliza Howell. By late September the leaves are starting to turn yellow. The large nuts, which have been noticeable for a couple months already, are also now changing from green toward yellow.

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If I am in the right place at the right time, I watch the Red Squirrel in its walnut harvesting. It runs from one nut to another very quickly, pauses a second to decide whether the nut meets its quality standards, then (if it does) clips it off and lets it fall while it rushes off to another. I have watched as one squirrel dropped about 10 nuts from a large tree in less than a minute, then descended the trunk with another in its teeth.

As I watched, I wondered how many it would be able to find in the thick shrubs and brambles all around the tree. And I wondered where its larder was.

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I have not yet found a Red Squirrel walnut larder. I have several times found concentrations of walnut shells on the ground in the winter, suggesting a squirrel’s favorite eating spot, but it is something else to find the larder. Maybe this winter?