Thinking April during Winter Walks

I enjoy nature walks in the winter in Eliza Howell Park, especially when there is snow on the ground, but for 2-3 months the seasonal changes are minimal. Plants and many animals are dormant and the number of birds present is the lowest of any time during the year. Nature’s year begins later in the calendar year in Detroit, in March rather than in January.

So, during my quiet winter walks, I sometimes find myself thinking ahead and anticipating some of the special times that will be coming later this year, some of the best times to visit the park to observe, and perhaps to photograph, annual natural phenomena.

The first “don’t miss” days marked on my calendar are late April. (There will be a public nature walk on Saturday, April 27, at 10 a.m.)

In late April, the earliest of the summer breeding birds will have returned from their winter grounds and, like this male Red-winged Blackbird, will be claiming their territories and proclaiming their interest in a mate.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

Sometime in the second half of April (the exact time is temperature dependent), American Toads will return to their breeding pond in EHP and spend a couple of days and nights in loud calling and in mating / egg-laying. In 2018, the weather was too warm in May and the pond dried up before the tadpoles were fully developed, so it will be especially interesting to see what happens this year.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

Late April is also the beginning of the blooming wildflower season in the park, with a variety of small species found along the paths in the woods. The timing of this is also weather dependent, but on the basis of my experience over the last decade, the last week in April is usually a good time to see them. This collage of Violets is made up of pictures taken in 2018.

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The Mayapple does not usually bloom as early as April in Eliza Howell, but it is fascinating to observe how it emerges. There are several patches where its progress can be observed in the late days of April.

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Of the approximately 30 butterfly species that can be seen annually in Eliza Howell, the first ones usually show up in late April. The tiny Spring Azure, pictured with the wings up here, is a lovely blue when the wings are open.

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April is also the month when the earliest bird nests can be found (the Red-tailed Hawk nest earlier). Most song birds build their nests later (the annual Detroit Audubon field trip to Eliza Howell to observe nesting bids is in early June), but I often find a couple by late April.

These pictures were taken in April, 2018. The one on the left, a nest on the ground, is Killdeer. The one on the right, in a shrub, is Northern Cardinal.

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My walks continue all winter and I usually find something noteworthy each time, but the changes from one week to the next are nothing now like they are when spring has fully arrived. To avoid missing special developments – such as first butterflies, first wildflowers, first bird nests – it’s time to mark the calendar.

Woodland Spring Wildflowers: An Update

In late April and early May, most of the wildflowers blooming in the park are found in the woods. This is changing; from now on, most blooms will be in the more sunny areas.

On my walk on May 21, I took a look at what remained of the spring woodland flowers.

Trillium is still blooming, but fading.

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Wild Geranium is at its peak, now the most prominent flower along the path through the woods.

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While earlier the Mayapple was recognized by its foliage, the single flower per plant is now open (though one needs to get down close to the ground to get a good look.

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Violets were plentiful in Eliza Howell this year, both in and outside the woods, and they came in a variety of species/colors.

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Now the few remaining blooming violets in the woods are the white ones. It is noteworthy that the plants are now much taller and the leaves larger than when blooming began.

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This may be my last walk of the year focused on woodland wildflowers. Overall, 2018 was not a great early wildflower year, the probable result of the weather – a cold April and a wet May. But the flowers will come again next year and I hope to be ready to greet and welcome them.

 

Meet the Mayapple

One of the fascinating spring Eliza Howell Park wildflowers is the Mayapple. The fruit – the so-called apple – is not ripe until later in the year, but the flower blooms in May. Mayapple is, however, known at least as much for its foliage as it is for its blossoms or fruit.

According to the Prince William Wildflower Society, a Virginia native plant society, a Cherokee name for Mayapple can be translated as “it wears a hat,” and an Osage name as “it pains the bowels.”

Mayapple is a colony plant; a single root has many umbrella-like stems, connected by underground rhyzomes. Dozens of these stems make up a typical Mayapple stand. Mayapple stands or patches are largely avoided by mammal herbivores, like deer, because the foliage, the rhysomes, and the (green) fruit are all poisonous.

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The above photo is from April 26, 2017.

Mayapple grows in rich moist soil in deciduous forests and can be seen in a few locations in the wooded areas of Eliza Howell.  The stand that I regularly observe was late in developing this year, as were other wildflowers. Most of the stems did not emerge until mid-April. (the next picture is from April 25, 2018.)

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A few days later, the stand was taking shape and the plants were about ½ of their adult size (which is a foot to a foot and a half).

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Some plants have only one leaf and will not have flower/fruit, but most have two leaves. These produce a single flower at the fork of the two leaves.

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Though the single white flowers are very attractive, they can be missed when they bloom because they face downward under and are shaded by the umbrella leaves. (The next picture is from May 7, 2017.)

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The fruit is green, turning yellow when it ripens. Ripe fruit is edible (when the seeds have been removed), the only edible part of the entire plant.

The Cherokee and Osage names for what we call Mayapple are, I think, both very good. I don’t have my own descriptive name…..yet.