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

Another Flood – and Historic Crests

About 2 inches of rain fell in the Detroit area on Saturday, January 11, 2020, and the Rouge River again flooded in Eliza Howell Park. On 9:45 on the morning of January 12, when I walked toward the footbridge, I saw acres and acres of flooded woodland. This was the only the third time, in my many visits, that I saw water flowing over the bridge.

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As those familiar with the park know, the water level varies a lot, but the footbridge is usually many feet above the water level. Here is a picture from November of 2019.

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Unable to cross the footbridge, I left and re-entered the park from the end of Lyndon Street on the east side of the park. Before long, as soon as I left the higher ground, I again came to water as far as I could see.

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The flood stage for the Rouge River in Detroit is 15 feet. I have not yet seen an official report on the height of the crest on this flood, but it was probably over 17 feet. That would mean that it is among the top 12 highest in the many years that the National Weather Service has been keeping records. Below is a list of the highest historical crests (those over 17 feet, according to NWS. It is noteworthy that, including this one, three of the 12 are in the last 2 years.

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Floods have consequences and it will be interesting to see any significant impact on the habitat and on the plants and animals that live near the river. As soon as the water receded sufficiently, I took a walk in the woods. The leaves, branches, and other material on the forest floor had been swept along until they were caught by logs, tree trunks/limbs, and shrubs.

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Beaver have recently arrived in Eliza Howell and their residence is, in all probability, in a burrow dug into the bank of the river. Such burrows start under water and angle up to a dry “nest” where the beaver rest during the day and where they have their kits. What impact is there when the water is feet over the bank, and over the resting area, for a day or two? I will be looking for indications of their continuing presence.

Nature is quite adaptable and, in my post-flood walk, I was noting how birds, including Black-capped Chickadees, were attracted to the new concentrations of potential food brought together by the water. Chickadees were finding many smaller seeds among the nuts in piles like this.

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There are new “mudflats” where the water moved the leaves and, in the mud, track evidence that mammals are active. These tracks look like the prints of Coyote (left), Raccoon, and Deer.

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Nature is adaptable, but having three floods cresting at over 17 feet in 2 years is not normal. I hope I don’t witness another one anytime soon.

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird: Two Occasional Early December Birds

The completion this month of 15 years of bird watching in Eliza Howell Park (180 consecutive months and over 1370 different records) Park makes this a good time to review the seasonal presence of different bird species. Based on experience, I know fairly well which species I can expect to see in the park at any given time of the year, in any particular 2-week period. These can be considered Common for that particular “season.”

And I know the species that I do not usually see on my outings at a particular time of the year, but am not surprised when I do see them. These are Occasional birds, birds that I can expect to observe some years during this season, but not most years.

The current “season” is the first two weeks of December, a period of time characterized by cloudy days, with leaves on the ground but very few remaining on trees.

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At this time of the year there are no flowers blooming, no developing seeds or fruit, little evident insect activity; I tend to concentrate my observations on mammals and, especially, on birds.

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Recent sightings of two occasional bird species led me back to my records. The first is a Golden-crowned Kinglet, only the fourth time in the last 15 years that I have seen this bird in the park in December.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

In my listing of Eliza Howell birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet is identified as a Migrant, a bird that passes through the park in the spring and fall each year, but is not present in either the summer or the winter. It is a late fall migrant, usually seen well into November.

As can be seen from the range map below (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), the southern part of Michigan is within its winter (nonbreeding) range. Some Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen in southern Michigan in winter every year, but my interest here is specific to Eliza Howell, the habitats in this particular location at this specific time of the year. Here it is occasional.

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The second occasional December bird recently seen is Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are Summer Residents, breeding in the park. They have become more common in recent years.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

This is only the third December I have seen a Bluebird in Eliza Howell. However, two of these three years are 2018 and 2019. As the species becomes more common during the breeding season, it may also show up on more occasions during the winter.
Similar to Golden-crowned Kinglet, the winter range of Eastern Bluebird includes southern Michigan, though most individuals migrate further south. (This map is also from Cornell.)

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I typically see about 24-25 different species in the park in December, most of which are the usual Eliza Howell birds of winter: Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, etc. They brighten the gray days.

The occasional appearance of a different species adds to the brightness and adds to my knowledge about what to expect when.