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.

 

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.