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.

 

Beaver!

For the first time in the years that I have been engaged in nature study in Eliza Howell Park, I am now seeing signs of beaver activity. There are some 20 small trees near the river (the largest are about 4 inches in diameter) that have recently been cut down and removed.

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Beaver were an important part of Michigan’s history; the pursuit of their pelts was a major factor in the movement of Europeans into this part of the country. Unlimited trapping resulted in their being extirpated from this area some 150 years ago.

Some are now returning. In the last decade, they have been found along the Detroit River (including on Belle Isle) and a few have appeared in the Rouge River system. Until now, to my knowledge, none has been reported this far upstream on the Main branch of the Rouge.

I have not yet actually seen a beaver in the park (they are largely nocturnal), but I know of nothing else that cuts down trees and leaves these teeth marks.

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Young beaver stay with their parents until 2 years old or so, when they leave to find a mate and establish their own lodge and colony. Perhaps the signs of beaver activity in Eliza Howell mean that a new pair is taking up residence here, for the first time since long before this area was established as a park.

There is a lot I do not know about beaver from personal observation. They were not in the various areas I have walked regularly during my life and my observations of them when visiting other locations were limited. There is much for me to learn.

While most descriptions of beaver lodges are of conical lodges in a pond formed by a dam, they also make lodges in banks, with under water entrances, especially along rivers where the water is deep enough for them to swim under water/ice. The water level in the Rouge in the park varies throughout the year and I do not know whether it sufficiently deep to meet beaver needs. This is what it looked like on my last visit in the area where the beaver had cut trees.

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If they stay here, my guess is that they will be “bank beaver,” but one of the things I will be watching to see is whether they act to raise the water level, perhaps by using a current logjam as the start of a dam.

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Beaver are able to change the environment in which they live and this has sometimes led to them being considered by some as a nuisance or a pest (for example, when their dams lead to flooded roads). Their overall impact on ecosystems and on sustainability has, however, been viewed by most researchers as very positive, as evidenced in a widely-endorsed, and very readable, book published last year.

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I will also be looking for additional signs of their presence and of their behavior. So far I have not seen clear tracks in the mud, perhaps because most of the mud along the river is currently covered with leaves. The hind track (webbed) is reported to be about 6 inches long and the front about 3 inches. These drawings are from The Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks.

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I cannot say definitely that beaver have taken up residence in Eliza Howell Park, but I will now have a different answer when asked whether any beaver live here.

I have been saying “not yet,” hoping that they would show up one of these years. Now I can say “there are definite signs; let me show you.” Perhaps soon I will be able to give an unqualified “yes.”

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.

 

A Sunny Morning in Late October

The early morning sun was shining and there was a combination of dew and frost on the ground when I arrived at Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park on October 28, 2019. Here are a few images from the next three hours.

Bittersweet on Oak Tree

Bittersweet vines grow high on some trees in the park, most noticeable when the leaves of the vine turn yellow.

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Dew Drop on Sumac

In the blow up, one can clearly see the reflections.

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Three Hundred Year Old Bur Oak Tree

I stopped by a massive Bur Oak that has been estimated to be over 300 years old.

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Rouge River from Footbridge

I often take a picture from this spot, looking upstream. The look of the river changes with the season, the sunlight/clouds, and the water level.

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A Walk in the Woods

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Sugar Maple

Several Sugar Maple trees, seen from the park road, have inspired park visitors to pull out their cameras.

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A Favorite Cottonwood

There are some trees, friends, that I stop by to visit to see how they are doing. This Cottonwood tree is one.

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In my records, this is Walk # 1351. Another good one.

 

Seasonal Changes: The Same View over 12 Months

One way of noting the seasonal changes in Eliza Howell Park is to compare pictures of the same landscape taken at different times of the year. The 12 photos here, one from early in each month in 2018, were all taken from the footbridge over the Main branch of the Rouge River, facing upstream (north).

I think they speak for themselves, no commentary needed.

January 5, 2018

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February 5, 2018

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March 9, 2018

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April 4, 2018

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May 5, 2018

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June 5, 2018

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July 4, 2018

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August 4, 2018

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September 4, 2018

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October 3, 2018

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November 3, 23018

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December 4, 2018

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The Calendar Says Spring

March 21, 2018 (Walk # 1061)

This was my first walk after the vernal equinox and I was looking for signs of spring. I found a few, but winter is not over. A few observations from today:

The river water level is quite low for March. I use the extent of visible sycamore tree roots on the right for comparison purposes.

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One advantage to the nature walker of the lower water level is that there is more mud along the river edge, the area between the sides of the bank and the water. More mud means more mammal tracks and, at least for me, tracks in mud are usually easier to read than tracks in snow.

Here is an example.

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I circled two obviously different tracks here. The one in purple is typical of a raccoon and the one in red was made by a canine, probably a coyote.

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Robins are abundant in the park now and, in this time between winter and spring, are exhibiting both winter and spring behaviors. Many are feeding on the ground, but others are still foraging for fruit and seeds, as they do in winter.

I posted about sumac seed clusters last December, about how long they persist. Some of last year’s seeds are still present now and today both chickadees and robins were feeding on them.

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The number of bird species seen today – 18 – is the highest so far in 2018. A couple of these are winter visitors that have not yet returned north: Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrow.

There are a few signs of spring. Some birds are pairing off, preparatory to breeding season. One Downy Woodpecker now usually means another is very close nearby. Canada Goose is one of the earliest birds to nest along the Rouge River and this pair appears to be getting in the mood.

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While the park still has the brown winter look, it is possible to find a little bit of new green. As in home gardens, the first plants to emerge from the ground are those that grow from bulbs or rhizomes. I was pleased to see that a native species of marsh iris is back again this year.

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Today’s observations indicate that this March is both colder and drier than normal. I anticipate rapid changes in the park as the weather warms.

The Flood of 2018

On February 18, 2018, Eliza Howell Park still had the snow-and-ice look that has been typical this winter. This is the view upstream from the footbridge on that day.

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Then the heavy rains came and the snow melted. When I returned to the park on February 21, the Rouge River was at the highest flood level that I have ever seen. This is the very first time, in my thousand visits to the footbridge, that the water was actually over the bridge.

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Normally the bridge is perhaps 8 – 10 feet above water level, as can perhaps be seen in the next picture (taken December 1, 2017).

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It was not at all surprising that the river this week flooded the bottomland that gets covered whenever the river overflows the banks. What was unusual was the depth of the water there, greater than the typical depth of the river within the banks.

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In addition, most of the large wooded area from the footbridge to the southern end of the park at Schoolcraft was under water (the next picture). The entire area of the park flooded was the most extensive that I have witnessed.

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After a heavy rain, the Rouge River rises quickly in the park and reaches its peak within a day or less. It recedes quickly as well. The next day, February 22, it was much lower, though still over the river bank. This picture was taken about 23 hours after the one above showing the water flowing over the footbridge.

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It will be interesting to see how the Flood of 2018 has affected the park – the flow of the river (and the downed trees in it), the vernal pools, the spring woodland flowers that bloom in April, and the walking paths through the woods. We will see.