Arborglyphs on Old Beech Trees

American Beech trees have thin smooth bark even as they mature and this surface has been used by many generations of humans for carving or writing. The messages can remain visible for the life of the tree, which might be as long as 300 hundred years. Words/pictures carved into tree bark are often called arborglyphs.

Beech trunk arborglyphs are found in Eliza Howell Park, just as they are found in most other places in the eastern U.S. where old beech trees are found.

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Most appear to be initials or dates or declarations of love (initials in hearts), though there may be some art or other messages there that I have not recognized or deciphered. What makes them fascinating is that they have endured for so long and that they are often located 12 or more feet above the ground.

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In some western states (e.g., Nevada and California), many arborglyphs are found on aspen trees, another smooth bark species. There is a special interest among anthropologists in the tree art of nineteenth-century immigrants from the Basque region (border area between Spain and France) who worked as shepherds in the U.S. West, often alone among the aspens for long periods of time.

Beech trees are not the most common trees in EHP and their number may be decreasing as some of the old ones fall or break off.

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While there are some young beech trees in the park woods, often growing close to mature ones, I have not yet seen any carving on them.

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Perhaps carving on smooth-barked trees is no longer the preferred method of making a statement or expressing oneself in a natural setting. There is an old vehicle body that got deposited in the flood plain of the river some time in the past and recently I noted that someone has made use of this artistically.

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Ways of expressing ourselves, of leaving our mark in a natural setting, may change over time. Beech tree carving has been a common practice for a very long time, however, and the arborglyphs of Eliza Howell Park remain visible to park visitors who would like to view or study them.

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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?

40 in 2020: A Bird Recognition Program

Eliza Howell Park is one of the locations included in a special bird learning series this year sponsored by Detroit Audubon. This program is designed to assist individuals who want to improve their ability to recognize and identify birds by sight.

The project goal is for all who participate to be able to recognize on their own 40 or more bird species by the end of the three field trips.

The field trips are designed to provide extended looks at many of the birds that breed in the Detroit area. One is the Wood Duck. Once seen, the male is usually remembered, but the female is not so distinctive.

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        I thank Margaret Weber, who provided all the photos included here.

The field trips are on Saturday mornings, from 8:30 – 11:00, at three different locations.

Saturday, April 25, Kensington Metropark

Saturday, May 30, Eliza Howell Park (in Detroit)

Saturday, June 20, Rouge Park (in Detroit)

Kensington is a good location for becoming more familiar with “sexual dimorphism” in birds (difference in appearance between females and males), such as in Wood Ducks. The Red-winged Blackbird is another species in which the female looks very different from the male.

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In many bird species, the differences in appearance between the sexes are slight or not visible.

Among the birds on the “40 in 2020” list, Barn Swallow is one example of minimal female-male difference in appearance. The field trip leaders (Grace Vatai and I) will assist individuals in recognizing how Barn Swallows differ from two other swallow species that we will likely encounter – and how to identify them in flight.

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One can, of course, enjoy birds without being able to name the species. But, at least in my experience, knowing “who is who” is an important step in learning about their behavior. In addition to bird identification, this project will include some discussion of breeding habitat and behavior.

Killdeer nest on the open ground and Belted Kingfishers nest in the ground, in a tunnel in a (river) bank.

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Participants need to register in advance and are expected to take part in all three Saturday trips. Individual field trips are not open to anyone who is not registered for all three.

The group is limited to 20 individuals. One does not need to be a member of Detroit Audubon to participate, but priority will be given to members if the group limit is reached. There is no program fee, but Kensington Metropark has an entrance fee.

Registration is managed by Detroit Audubon. The link:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/40-in-2020-beginning-birding-series-tickets-97580547043

The project is designed to focus on different birds in each of the three field trips. We are working with a list of some 60 different species selected from among those that breed in the Detroit area. Some are quite common; others less common. Some are colorful; some are not. The list will be made available to those who register.

The Green Heron is one of the “target” birds.

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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.

Red tail hawk closeup head

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.

Red tail hawk

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.

 

The River This Winter: I Miss the Ice

This has been, so far, a warmer than average winter in Detroit. Meteorologists reported that the average temperature for January 2020 was 32.4 degrees F,  which is above freezing, and 6.8 degrees above normal.

I am not surprised by these numbers. During my walks in Eliza Howell Park, I have been impressed by the fact that the Rouge River is not freezing over this winter.

The following three pictures were all taken on the same calendar date, January 26, in each of the last three years. The top is from 2020; the second from 2019; the third from 2018.

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It wasn’t just in late January that the river has been iceless this winter. This has been the typical condition. In my observations, the closest the river came to being frozen over was during the fourth week of December, when there was a very thin covering of ice. This picture is from December 23, 2019.

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One of the consequences of the mild winter is that a Belted Kingfisher has been present in the park in both January and February this year, something that had not happened before in my 16 years of bird walks. Kingfishers, true to their name, eat fish primarily. They like to perch on a branch near a river or pond and dive into the water when they spot prey. They are found in Michigan in the winter only where there is open water.

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Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

The open water may also have affected my winter photo-taking habits. As I walk in the woods along the river, especially after a snowfall, I find myself including the open and reflecting water in my pictures of winter trees.

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The winter isn’t over yet, but it is unlikely that the Rouge River in Eliza Howell will have a real ice covering any time this winter. Weather is variable and there have been other Januaries that were even warmer than January 2020 (according to the National Weather Service, 2020 was the 12th warmest on record), so I am not suggesting any long-term trends here.

I just miss the ice cover.

 

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.