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.

20200126_103106

20200207_173727

20180126_145825

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.

20200207_173045

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.

20200209_172637

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.

20200206_143715

20200208_102207

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.

 

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.

20200112_094708

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.

20191107_151122

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.

20200114_110845

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.

20200114_110159

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.

20200114_122524

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.

20200114_165612

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.

20200114_165504

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.

20191125_121352

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.

20191122_104521

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.

20191125_091507

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.

20191126_095911

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.

20191125_145543

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.

20191125_150652

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.

20191028_142441

Dew Drop on Sumac

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

20191028_083716

20191028_141258

Three Hundred Year Old Bur Oak Tree

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

20191028_143009

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.

20191028_144245

A Walk in the Woods

20191028_102021

20191028_104348

Sugar Maple

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

20191029_092717

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.

20191028_122116

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

20180105_124815

February 5, 2018

20180205_132030

March 9, 2018

20190123_111613

April 4, 2018

20190123_113524

May 5, 2018

20180505_080357

June 5, 2018

20190123_113317

July 4, 2018

20190123_112001

August 4, 2018

20190123_112120

September 4, 2018

20180904_095020

October 3, 2018

20181003_100022

November 3, 23018

20181103_084723

December 4, 2018

20181204_100603

 

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.

20180321_200803

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.

20180321_170446

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.

20180321_205602

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.

20180321_165247

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.

20180321_201202

 

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.

20180321_165703

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.