Wood Duck Nest Quest

This year I saw the first Wood Ducks of the year in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit on March 7. A few Wood Ducks always arrive in March and spend the breeding season in the park. But in all these years I have not yet found one of their nests.

Maybe this year!

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     Note: All the bird photos here are from Margaret Weber.

In the last ten years I have kept a record of the active bird nests that I find in EHP. I have located the nests of 38 different species, several nests of many of them. But no Wood Duck nests, even though I annually see at least one female with young in the summer, evidence that they are breeding here.

Wood Ducks get their name from the fact that they nest in trees, in cavities. Their nests  are usually in woodlands near ponds and rivers. Eliza Howell is a good location for them, with the river running through a woodland that has many old trees with natural cavities.

The male is striking.

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And the female, more subtle, is likewise very attractive.

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I usually find bird nests by watching birds (1) building nests, (2) on or entering nests, or (3) taking food to young in nests.

Wood Ducks (1) do not build a nest; they find a hole in a tree that is suitable and line it with nothing but some the female’s own down. They (2) enter the nest very seldom. The female lays one egg a day until the large clutch (perhaps 8 – 10 eggs) is complete and then begins to incubate them, leaving the nest very little. They (3) do not feed the young in the nest. All the eggs hatch at about the same time and, when the ducklings are one day old, their mothers calls them and they climb out of the cavity and drop to the ground (sometime dozens of feet) and follow the mother to water.

So it is understandable that their nest is difficult to locate. I think my best chance may be when they are selecting the nest site, when the male accompanies the female as they check out possibilities. Two are easier to see than one.

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While Wood Ducks are regulars in the breeding season, they are not present in great numbers. My best estimate is that, in any given year, there are only 2 – 3 breeding pairs in the park. After eggs are laid, the male is not actively involved in caring for the young, as is typical of duck species. The female does not feed the young; she watches over them as they eat on their own.

The male spends the summer on his own or with other males.

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Because they are cavity-nesting birds, Wood Ducks will sometimes use bird boxes. In late 2018, thanks to the efforts of several friends of Eliza Howell, three Wood Duck boxes were installed in the park. Ducks did not use any of them in the first year, 2019, but they are now providing additional cavities near the river. 

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The Wood Ducks have returned and I renew my quest to locate a nest.

Maybe this will be the year.

I say this every year, but 2020 just might really be the year!

 

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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Vernal Pools: Getting My Feet Wet

“Getting my feet wet,” as an idiom, means just starting something new or gaining initial experience. This is a good expression to describe me this year as I am beginning to learn about life in vernal pools in Eliza Howell Park.

In this case, “getting my feet wet” can also be taken literally – or could be if it were not for rubber boots.

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Vernal (spring) pools are shallow temporary pools that typically fill with water in early spring and dry up by summer or fall. Several species of animals rely upon vernal pools for survival, such as wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and fairy shrimp. Because vernal pools dry up, fish do not survive there and frog and salamander eggs will not be eaten by fish.

There are 3 or 4 different spring watery spots in EHP that might be considered vernal pools. For my beginning study, I am focusing my attention on one. This is the largest one, in the heart of the wooded area.

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The approximate location of the pool, with no claim to be accurate in size, is marked in red on the map here.

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The pool in late March is some 80-90 yards long and averages about 20-25 yards wide, with water several inches to a foot deep in most of it. It is deep enough to attract Wood Ducks and Mallards at this time of the year. This particular pool, if I recall correctly from other years, does not usually dry up until at least the end of August.

Here is another view, taken while standing in the pool.

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Vernal pools are important habitats for amphibians and for invertebrates and I am hoping to learn something of the life in this pool in EHP. Fortunately, I know where to look for expert tutoring and advice. Yu Man Lee is Wildlife Ecologist and Herpetologist for Michigan Natural Features Inventory (a program of MSU Extension). She, accompanied by her husband Jon, came to Eliza Howell Park earlier in March to check out the vernal pools here.

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My new venture will involve a lot of looking down in the water, looking for/at “critters” and eggs and plants. The bottom of the pool is now covered with last year’s fallen leaves, deposited after the water died up in 2017.

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It is possible that I may want to post an update on what I am finding in this vernal pool in 2018. On the other hand, since I am just getting my feet wet, I may very well have too little to report.

 

Grassland Spring Pond: The Annual Cycle Begins

The recent late February thaw and rains re-filled the shallow pond that I have come to know as “The American Toad Breeding Pond.” This temporary pond exists each year from late Winter or early Spring until the summer. It is a pond for only about 4 – 5 months, but a lot happens in the months that are beginning now.

The pond is found in the grassy area within the road loop and borders (sometimes overflows) the walking path. This picture is from this week.

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When pond appears each year about this time, I modify my wanderings to make sure that I take a careful look at it each time I am in the park. I don’t want to miss the life it attracts.

For most of the year, adult American Toads are solitary, mostly nocturnal, and rarely seen. When they are found, they are typically on land, not in water.

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Sometime in April, the exact time probably determined by temperature and rain, breeding adults head to the pond. Then, throughout the day, the males sound forth with their loud trilling mating calls, announcing themselves to the females.

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Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of males and females converge on the pond and engage in what appears to me to be a mating frenzy. The phenomenon is short-lived; in a couple of days, the adults depart and the pond is quiet again. A few days later the eggs begin to hatch and the tadpoles quietly develop over the next several weeks.

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Killdeer and a few other “shorebirds,” like Solitary Sandpiper, can occasionally be found at the edges of the pond and dabbling ducks, especially Mallards, frequently forage in the water.

A couple years ago this pond was, over a period of days, the hangout of an odd couple – a male Wood Duck and a female Mallard. They were constantly together and may very well have produced hybrid ducklings after they moved on.

20180224_163727      Photo by Margaret Weber

These are some of my memories when the pond fills again. And I look forward to what I might witness at the grassland pond in 2018.

THE MARCH 10 (or 11)

No matter how satisfying winter birding has been, I am always excited as March approaches, ready to welcome back the species that I have not seen since the fall. Many other migrants will be putting in their appearance later, but there is something special about the first spring arrivals each year.

Over the years, I have come to anticipate the arrival in Eliza Howell Park of the same ten species each year in March. One or two of these ten might not show till the beginning April on a rare occasion, but the chances are excellent that I will see these ten in the park in March. It is easier to predict their migration patterns than to predict March weather!

These species have two characteristics in common.

  1. They spend the winters within the United States, only a relatively short distance south; they are not among the neotropical migrants that winter in Central or South America.
  2. Southeastern Michigan is part of their breeding territory; they are returning here for the summer, not just migrating through to destinations further north, as do many of the later spring migrants.
  • Note: All the photos included here were taken by Margaret Weber.

The Red-winged Blackbird is often the first to arrive. The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till April. When the first males arrive, their red shoulder patches may still be somewhat winter dull. As the month advances, this changes noticeably and, by the end of March, they are ready to welcome the females with bright patches. Red-winged Blackbirds nest in Eliza Howell Park every year.

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The Common Grackle and the Brown-headed Cowbird (neither is pictured here) also arrive in March unfailingly. Grackles nest in the park. Brown-headed Cowbirds, as brood parasites, do not build their own nests at all. They are, however, very successful in reproducing in Eliza Howell, being specialists in adding an egg to nests of other species.

The Killdeer is also a reliable March arrival, but never in great numbers. I count finding its nest, “hidden out in the open” on the ground, as one of my most exciting nest-searching experiences.

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The Rouge River flows south through Eliza Howell and two miles or so downriver from Eliza Howell, in Rouge Park, there is a Great Blue Heron rookery. This might be where the herons that forage in EH nest, though I do not know that for sure. I do know that I can expect their arrival along the river or in the spring-flooded bottomland in March.

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Hinckley, Ohio, celebrates the annual arrival of the Turkey Vulture (not pictured) every year in the middle of March. It is usually about then that I see the first vultures of the year in EH. They soar overhead, surveying the terrain singly or in small numbers. They will appear repeatedly over the next few months, but I know not where they nest.

Ten years ago the Eastern Bluebird would not have been on this list. They are slowly becoming more regular summer residents of Eliza Howell Park. While Eastern Bluebirds are sometimes seen at other locations in southern Michigan in the winter, I usually do not see them here until March.

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Of the birds on this list, the Wood Duck may be the most thrilling. It arrives regularly on the river in March, the only duck besides the Mallard that is common here. The male in the spring is so striking, especially in the sunlight, that it always produces a “wow” response. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities and definitely breed in the park, evidenced by the presence every year of young ducklings on the river.

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I do not expect to see the Eastern Phoebe until the very last week of the March – and then I can pretty much count on seeing it, often by the river near the footbridge. It has nested under the footbridge more than once. The phoebe is the earliest species in the flycatcher family to arrive and is a definite sign of spring.

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While many woodpeckers remain through the winter (in Eliza Howell, the Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy), the Northern Flicker is a woodpecker that heads south for the winter. Its foraging behavior is a little different from many woodpeckers, spending much of time on the ground searching for insects. It usually returns to Eliza Howell near the end of March and will be drilling a nesting cavity in less than a month, usually in a dead tree.

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I sometimes think that I should include Song Sparrow (not pictured) among the March arrivals (# 11). Every other year or so, a Song Sparrow or two spend part of the winter in Eliza Howell. When they don’t, I can count on seeing them in March.  In breeding season, I often see these sparrows carrying food for their young into thickets, but their well-hidden nests are extremely hard to find.

Some readers may be surprised that the American Robin, perhaps the most recognized of the early birds of spring, is not on this list. Robins are certainly found in much greater numbers starting in March in the park, but every year I see a few throughout the winter.

The appearance of these March species may not result in the frenzied excitement sometimes encountered in popular hotspots during the peak of warbler migration in May. For those of us ready for the first arrivals of spring, however, these early birds provide an occasion for celebration: the first migrants are returning!

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An earlier version of this essay was published in The Flyway, the newsletter of Detroit Audubon, in 2012.

Where the Waters Meet

A number of years ago I drove through a small community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that is called Watersmeet. It is at the confluence of Duck Creek and the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River. It is a lovely part of the state and Watersmeet seems to me to be a wonderful name for the community.

I have come to think of the convergence of the two branches of the Rouge River (the Main and the Upper branches) in Eliza Howell Park as “watersmeet.” Though it is off the path, I frequently go there to see what is happening; it is a spot that attracts wildlife.

This photo was taken recently looking downstream from the point at which the two branches meet.

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The map may help to pinpoint the location of “watersmeet” in the park.

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Over the years, this section of the river has been the most reliable place in Eliza Howell Park for spotting Wood Ducks. Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities and the young jump to the ground and head for the river with their mother only a day or so after hatching. The young ducks, usually 6 – 8 in number when I see them, spend the next couple of months in and along the edges of the river, cared for by the female parent, pictured here.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

As is true of most ducks, the male Wood Duck does not participate actively in parenting. it remains in the area, however, and is a “wow!” bird when seen in its full splendor.

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  Photo by Margaret Weber

In 2017, I saw a mink crossing the river here, a mammal I have seen in the park only a very few times. Also in 2017, in the fall, I observed a Green Heron here several different times. Green Herons have been only occasional visitors to the park in my experience, but I am hoping that this bird will return as part of a pair that makes EHP its summer home. A Great Blue Heron can frequently be found here from spring till fall.

Raccoons are active in the bottomland near where the waters meet and often use, for daytime resting dens, one of several cavities in the large black willows that grow in this area.

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I came upon one raccoon here last fall that had apparently decided it didn’t need to climb a tree for its daytime rest and went to sleep right on the ground.

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In an effort to increase my familiarity with mammal tracks, I often head to the “watersmeet” neighborhood in the morning after a new snowfall. And I always find evidence that a lot of activity has taken place while I slept. When the river is frozen, the Rouge itself is a bridge and/or a pathway.

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The path I take on my nature walk often varies from one season to another, depending upon what I am expecting or hoping to find. One location that is good every season of the year is “where the waters meet.”