The River, the Season, the Weather: Tracking Fall 2019

I often stop on the footbridge during my walks in Eliza Howell Park, stop and take a picture, looking upstream the Main branch of the Rouge River. These pictures help me track seasonal changes and fluctuations in water level.

Below are 8 photos taken on different days during the four weeks from October 16 to November 13, 2019. Some from sunny days and some from cloudy days, these pictures presdent the progress of Fall this year.

October 16, 2019  (9:47 a.m.   Approximately 50 degrees F)20191114_172805

October 20, 2019 (3:04 p.m.   Approximately 60 degrees F)20191020_150414

October 24, 2019  (11:23 a.m.  Approximately 50 degrees F)20191024_112318

October 27, 2019   (11:57 a.m.  Approximately 45 degrees F)20191027_115727

November 1, 2019   (9:31 a.m.   Approximately 35 degrees F)20191114_173423

November 4, 2019   (10:22 a.m.   Approximately 45 degrees F)20191104_102257

November 8, 2019   (10:07 a.m.   Approximately 25 degrees F) 20191114_173718

November 13, 2019   (10:52 a.m.   Approximately 15 degrees)20191113_124144

The changes from the middle of October to the middle of November, always dramatic along the river in Eliza Howell Park, were even more dramatic this year because of the unusually heavy snow of November 11.

 

Eastern Bluebird: Becoming a Regular Nesting Species

Earlier this November, I watched several Eastern Bluebirds feeding in Eliza Howell Park, birds that were probably on a brief stopover during their southward migration. This observation started me thinking about my other observations of this species over the last 15 years.

The difference between the female and male Eastern Bluebird can be seen clearly in these two photos by Margaret Weber. The female is shown first here.

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Eastern Bluebirds were in serious decline throughout their range last century (especially from about 1920 till about 1970). They are insect eaters and a secondary cavity nesting species. Unable to make their own nesting holes as woodpeckers do, they need to find existing cavities. There were many reasons for the decline, including pesticide use, removal of dead trees, habitat change, etc. In addition, European Starlings, an introduced species that is also a secondary cavity nester, was much more aggressive about claiming tree cavities.

In the last 50 years, however, Bluebirds have gone from being endangered to being a conservation success story. One part of the turnaround has been the widespread use of Bluebird nesting boxes, made with an opening that is large enough for bluebirds but too small for the larger Starlings. Thanks to a birdbox making project of Sidewalk Detroit, there are now a couple such boxes in Eliza Howell Park.

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Fifteen years ago, I did not usually see Bluebirds in the park during the breeding season. Now I have seen them in most of the last 10 breeding seasons and they have probably been nesting here for several years (though I have not been able to make positive confirmation until recently).

The nesting box shown above was placed in the Spring of 2018 and has been used by Bluebirds both last year and this year. They usually have 2 broods per year, typically in the same nest. Note the evidence of the frequent use of the entrance hole.

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In late April this year, while the female was away from the nest, I put my camera in the box and took a quick picture.

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Recently, after nesting was finished for the year, I opened the box to clean it out for them to use again next year. My guess is that they added more nesting material after the first brood.

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The feather confirms the species that used the nest, if there were any doubt.

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Eastern Bluebirds migrate each spring and fall, but do not go very far south. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of the winter/year-round range. I occasionally see one or two in the winter in Eliza Howell, but I don’t really expect to see them again until March. (The range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In addition to helping bluebirds find “housing,” nest boxes provide a good opportunity for bird watchers to see these lovely birds. Bluebirds need some open area (ideally something like a field with scattered trees) for their insect hunting. They are not likely to nest in small urban backyards, but Eliza Howell is now one urban location where there is a good chance to watch them in the spring and summer.

The next photo, also by Margaret Weber, taken at a different location, suggests some of the pleasure in Bluebird watching in nesting season.

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Kentucky Coffeetree: Watching Seed Pods

Since August, I have been checking regularly two Kentucky Coffeetrees that grow in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, paying them much more attention than I have in other years. My main interest has been the developing seed pods.

These pictures were taken in August.

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Kentucky Coffeetree is a tree native to, though not very common in, parts of the mid-west. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of its original range. It is now sold by nurseries and used as a landscaping tree. The size and location of the Eliza Howell trees suggest that they were planted here long after the park was established. They are both female trees, producing seeds.

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The seeds (beans) of the tree have been used – roasted – as a food in some Native American cultures and the Meskwaki (Fox) are said to have ground them for use in a hot beverage. Early European colonists also tried it as a “coffee” as well. (Unroasted pods and seeds are reportedly toxic.)

The seeds mature slowly. When the leaves began to turn in October, the pods were darker in color, but remained firmly attached.

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The pods vary in length, most about 4 or 5 inches long, much shorter but thicker than the pods of the Honey Locus tree, often seen on the ground at this time of the year. I placed the two together for comparison.

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Now, in early November, the Coffeetree leaves are down. But the seeds remain firmly on the tree; I have not yet found a single one that has fallen on its own. (I picked those that I have examined.)

This picture was taken this week.

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The pods are not yet as tough as they will get and the seeds, though considerably changed since August, are not yet fully mature.

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I sometimes refer to my visits to Eliza Howell as “doing research.” It sounds more serious than “going for a walk.” One of my current research questions is: “When will the Kentucky Coffeetree seed pods fall?” My hypothesis is that it will not be for at least another month.

It’s an exciting life I lead – watching seeds mature!

 

 

Bitternut Hickory: Searching for a Better Name

I was standing under a Bitternut Hickory tree the other day in Eliza Howell Park when a falling nut hit me on the head. It wasn’t quite an “aha moment” – as in the story of Newton, the falling apple, and gravity – but it somehow reinforced my intent to find a better name for this tree.

In October, Carya cordiformis, the tree usually known as “Bitternut Hickory,” gets my attention for a stately golden beauty.

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It is not unusual for the common name of a tree species to be based on the appearance or characteristic or use of the tree or its fruit – for example, Shagbark Hickory, Black Cherry, Kentucky Coffee Tree. That seems different, though, from a name that is based on a judgment of the tastiness of the fruit.

Tastes vary, but the name suggest that no one will like the fruit, with the possible result that people will not even pick up a few for their own taste test.

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Deciding that I preferred a name that is more descriptive of the plant and less a commentary on the quality of the nut as food, I began to look for possibilities. The “cordiformis” in the scientific name means “heart shaped.” This refers, I would think, to the shape of the nut. I don’t know if that would be a good common name, but I have not  seen that name used in English.

As a tree and as a fruit, “Bitternut Hickory” is often compared with Shagbark Hickory. The common name Shagbark is, of course, based on the bark. The bark of “Bitternut” is smoother than that Shagbark, but there is little about the bark that suggests a name – and I have not seen any attempts at such naming. In the picture, Shagbark is on the left, “Bitternut” on the right.

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Based on what I have been seeing this month, my personal preference for the name would be something like “Golden Hickory.”

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Unfortunately, this name does not appear in any of the articles or reports on the species.

Another characteristic of the species – and one I often use for identification – is that the husk of the nut has four narrow ridges that extend down from the outer tip.

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“Ridged Hickory” might be acceptable name, but I have not been able to find anyone calling it that.

There are two English names besides “Bitternut” that are sometimes used in the published accounts: “Yellow Bud Hickory” and “Swamp Hickory.” “Swamp” seems to me to more misleading than helpful; the tree is found in many locations that are not swamp.

“Yellow Bud” is based on the fact that the winter bud is yellowish, a distinguishing characteristic. I confess that I have not paid particular attention to this fact and do not have a single picture of the bud. However, the name is based on an identifying characteristic of the species and has been used enough that searching under this name will bring up the right information.

A picture of a Yellow Bud Hickory in Eliza Howell in October:

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I think my search for an alternative name to “Bitternut” may be over. I plan to use “Yellow Bud” from now on. And this winter I will pay attention to the buds.

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.

 

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.

catbird rufus showing

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.

catbird wt berry

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.

The Famous Woolly Bear – and Other Seasonal Caterpillars

On almost any extended walk in Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year, I come across caterpillars.

The best known moth caterpillar is also probably the most common in September: the Banded Woolly Bear (Isabella Tiger Moth caterpillar).

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Woolly Bears are famous because their appearance in the Fall has long been used to try to predict the severity of the coming winter: the wider the middle rust-color band, the milder the winter, according to folklore.

They are now leaving the plants where they have been feeding and are on the move to find the right location to spend the winter. They remain in caterpillar form all winter long (surviving actual freezing) and go through the pulpa stage in the spring before emerging as adult moths. Isabella Tiger Moths are tan-colored and active at night; the caterpillar is much better known than the adult.

Here are a few seen recently.

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There are other fuzzy moth caterpillars in EHP these days. In the collage below, the two on the left are, if I have correctly identified them, two differently colored Virginian Tiger Moth caterpillars. On the right is a Hickory Tussock Moth caterpillar

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I am including no photos of the adult moths here, but I do have some photos of adult butterflies that can be paired with pictures of their caterpillars.

Most Monarchs had already migrated when this caterpillar (below) was still feeding on milkweed leaves recently. I do not know if it will be able to complete metamorphosis in time to fly south. The picture of the adult was taken earlier in the year.

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Black Swallowtails are also common in Eliza Howell, though they are not as well-known as Monarchs. They lay their eggs on plants of the carrot family and I found this one in August on Queen Anne’s Lace (“wild carrot”).

Black Swallowtails are sexually dimorphic (differences in appearance between the sexes). The female is on the upper right; the male on the lower right.

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I don’t know how many people would show up for an advertised “Caterpillar Walk,” but if someone wanted to offer one, September would be a good time. There are more varieties present than are included here.

Caterpillars can be viewed and admired even when it is not always easy to connect them with the adult moths or butterflies they will become.