A Damselfly in Sunshine: Ebony Jewelwing

On some of these days in Eliza Howell Park, I can be tempted to avoid going to the river woodland because of the active mosquitoes. This is also the season of the Ebony Jewelwing, however, and the presence of this damselfly has lately been providing me with all the incentive I need to go to the near-river habitat, despite the mosquitoes.

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Damselflies are characterized by very large eyes (in proportion to the head) and a long thin abdomen. Ebony Jewelwing is a quite large damselfly, about 2 inches in length, and is the most common damselfly in EHP, based on my observations.

The size of the eyes always gets my attention.

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The adults that I watch are found fairly close to the river (though sometimes up to 100 yards away). The early stage of life is aquatic. They lay eggs on plant debris in slow-moving water and, after the eggs hatch, the young (known as naiads) spend the first part of their development in the water.

The adults often seek out leaves in one of the few sunny spots found in this habitat, and here I watch. The males and females are distinctively different. The male, pictured above, has dark wings with an iridescent green body. The most distinctive feature of the female is the white spot near the end of the each wing.

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Damselflies are carnivores, both in the larval stage in the water and in the adult flying stage. I watched this female eating another insect.

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A beginning bug watcher quickly learns the difference between damselflies and dragonflies, their near relatives. Both have 2 sets of wings and a long body. It is easiest to tell the difference when the insect is at rest. Dragonflies hold their wings out perpendicular to their bodies while damselflies hold their wings together across their backs.

Here is a resting dragonfly. They have even larger eyes.

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Dragonflies used to get more of my attention than damselflies. But that was before I came to know that Ebony Jewelwings are often resting (ready to be observed) in sunny spots close to the river near the end of June.

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Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: The Rest of the Story

On May 28 this year, I wrote about finding an easily visible Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park and concluded my comments this way:

“One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.”

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The field trip took place on June 8, which, according to my estimate based on observed behavior, was about day 10 of incubation (of a normal 11 – 15 day incubation period). When the our whole group stopped to look, the bird remained on the nest, watching us but not threatened enough by our presence to leave. Melissa Francese took this picture at that time.

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A few days later the eggs hatched. By June 18, when Kevin Murphy took the next two photos, the young were nearing the end of their in-nest development.

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It is difficult to tell because they were constantly moving, but my various efforts to count heads led me to conclude that there were probably 4 nestlings. While the female does most of the incubating, both female and male feed the young.

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They are now gone from the nest, successfully fledged as far as I can tell. While Blue-gray Gnatcatchers occasionally brood twice in a year, my nest watching of this species is likely over for the year.

They are nearly halfway through their stay of 4 + months in Detroit (arrive in late April and depart in September), spending the majority of their year far to the south. (Range map from Cornel Lab of Ornithology).

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I will continue to see them foraging in the park for a couple months (photo by Margaret Weber).

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And each time I see one, I will feel a sense of appreciation for weeks of enjoyable nest watching this year and for a highlight of the 2019 June Audubon field trip.

The Call of Coreopsis

In the middle of June I find myself drawn repeatedly to the patches of Coreopsis now scattered in the fields of Eliza Howell Park.

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Coreopsis, also known as Tickseed (a name based on the shape of the seed), is one of the flowers more often called by its Latin name than its English name.*

Coreopsis is a native American wildflower, about 2 feet tall. Each stem has just one flower at the top. The flower has 8 petals, each normally having 4 lobes at the tip.

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I am called to the concentrations of coreopsis in two ways. 

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The first is simply to admire and enjoy the flowers. The second is to check out the visiting insects. Coreopsis calls to them also.

On a recent walk, I came across a Black Swallowtail and a Painted Lady.

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The meadow flowers of the summer provide the best opportunity of the year for insect watching in Eliza Howell and the season starts with Coreopsis. Here are a few I noted in the last couple days.

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The weather has been cool for June, but the silent call of the Coreopsis is signaling the beginning of summertime nature walks, featuring blooming meadow wildflowers and a fascinating variety of insects.

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* For those interested in the meaning of the name: The Latin word “coreopsis” itself describes the shape of the seed, taken from two Greek words meaning “bug” and “appearance.” Most of us, however, don’t think of the meaning of the Greek root words when we think or say “coreopsis.”

 

 

Bird Eggs: Some Quick Looks

Even when someone is able to locate a bird nest, that nest is usually in a location that does not allow for a good look inside; it may be in a tree cavity, high in a tree, or deep in a thicket. In my walks in Eliza Howell Park, I have, however, on occasion found nests that provide an opportunity to take a quick look – and quick camera snap – when the incubating adult is off the nest.

Note: Photos of the birds were all taken by Margaret Weber.

 Barn Swallow

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Barn Swallows regularly nest on little ledges under bridges and other structures. Their nests are mostly of mud, lined with softer material, including feathers. Cream-colored eggs, with dark splotches, represent a fairly common pattern among bird eggs. Each species, though, is a little different in size and coloring, in addition to having quite different nests.

Eastern Bluebird

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Bluebirds nest in cavities in trees or in nest boxes. Their practice of using nest boxes that humans provide has helped them recover from very low numbers a few decades ago and makes it possible sometimes to get a look at the eggs.

Song Sparrow

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Song Sparrow nests are well hidden in grasses and weeds and shrubs, sometimes on the ground and sometimes up a little. They are very skilled at not going directly to their nest when someone (like me) is watching. This year is the first time I have found a Song Sparrow nest and it happened when I was walking through tall grasses and the sparrow flew out at my feet. I looked down, pulled out my phone for a quick picture, then left. The eggs are small and they do not all look exactly the same.

Gray Catbird

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Catbirds nest in thickets and the few nests that I have seen over the years in Eliza Howell Park have been about 6 – 8 feet high. In my experience, the eggs that are only one color, not speckled or splotched, usually have no variation from one to another in the same clutch.

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Often my pictures of the insides of bird nests are not great quality photos. One reason is that I take hurried pictures of bird eggs; I do not want to stress the adults. Though absent from the nest at this moment, they likely know of my presence and I want to be gone as quickly as possible. I have often returned some time later and watched from a safe distance. I have been pleased to note that, in every case, the incubating adult has been back on the nest after my one-time quick close-up.

Cottonwood Trees: The Fan Club

As I was thinking about the cottonwood trees in Eliza Howell Park recently, I recalled the old song, “Don’t Fence me In,” sung by “cowboys” like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. It includes these lyrics:

     “Let me be by myself in the evenin’ breeze; Listen to the murmur of the cottonwood trees”

I don’t know if the cottonwood leaves actually murmur, but they definitely get my attention at this time of the year.

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There are dozens of large Eastern Cottonwoods in the park, many of them quite close to the park road. One that stands alone next to the road is a favorite.

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The Baltimore Orioles that spend three months of the year in the park are also fans of the cottonwoods. Of the 44 Baltimore Oriole nests that I have found in the park in the last 8 years, 24 have been in cottonwoods. The others have been scattered among 5 other tree species, with no other species having more than 7.

In 2019 the preference for cottonwoods is even more evident: 8 nests found; 7 in cottonwoods.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

Cottonwoods are dioecious, separate female and male trees. This is the first year I have made note of the sex of the cottonwoods selected by the Baltimore Orioles for nests. 5 of the 7 are female trees. Without additional records, of course, I don’t know if this is typical.

The sex difference is easiest to notice in the spring, when the male trees have reddish flowers (catkins), which appear earlier than female catkins.

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The catkins on the female trees are green and the seed capsules are, at the beginning of June, getting ready to split open to release the seeds attached to the “cotton.” The cotton will soon be flying.

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The orioles are fans of the hanging branches in which to build and hide their hanging nests. I have become a cottonwood fan partly because of the orioles, but I also simply admire the trees:

– the shaking leaves with the sky as background

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– standing tall and leafless in January.

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I am proud to be a member of the Eliza Howell Cottonwoods fan club.

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Common but Not Common: Black Swallowtail

On May 22, I saw the first Black Swallowtail of 2019 in Eliza Howell Park. Black Swallowtails are nectaring butterflies, usually seen going from flower to flower. About the only flowers available in the field on May 22 were dandelions.

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Black Swallowtails are regulars in the park, often seen anytime from May through September. They are regulars, frequently seen, “common” in this sense. But the reason I take their pictures so often is that they are not “common” in the sense of routine or plain or unremarkable. They get my attention repeatedly.

Like many other butterflies, they are attracted to wild bergamot.

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And they like clover.

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The “swallowtail” name comes from the two tails extending in back, similar to – or reminding someone of – the tail of the Barn Swallow. The male and female are slightly different in appearance, the females having smaller yellow/white spots but larger blue patches than the males.

These common but remarkable butterflies are often in home gardens as well as in the park. In our garden, they frequent coneflowers.

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Black Swallowtails do not migrate, but overwinter as chrysalis. Females lay eggs on plants in the carrot family (parsley, carrots, Queen Anne’s lace, etc.). This caterpillar is enjoying eating its way up a parsley sprig.

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Naturalists often refer to animals and plants that are seen frequently in a particular location as “common.” Sometimes they are even named “common” – for example, “common milkweed” and “common buckeye.” A number of years ago, while on a butterfly walk in Eliza Howell, a companion said when viewing the common buckeye butterfly: “How can anything that beautiful be called “common!”

Here is a common buckeye that was close enough for me to get a picture of last year in Eliza Howell.

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His words are on my mind as I reflect on the black swallowtail. Its regular presence does not diminish its distinctiveness.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: An Annual Quest

This is the eight consecutive year that I have found at least one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park. The nests are small, not easy to find, and I am fascinated by them, thrilled when I find one.

This 2019 nest (in the center of the picture) is in a maple tree, lower than many.

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The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a very small and very active bird with a longish white-edged tail. It winters in (or near) Central America and arrives in EHP in April each year.

     Photos 2, 3, and 5 are by Margaret Weber.

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By the middle of May, pairs are making their nests, the female and male working cooperatively on a neat, 2-3 inch-wide (outside dimensions) open cup placed on a horizontal branch, often next to a vertical or side branch.

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The nest is as tall as it is wide, flexible layers of material like grasses and strips of bark all held together and attached to the tree by spider webs or caterpillar silk. The outside is almost entirely covered with lichen and bark flakes, making it look more like part of the tree than like a bird nest. The camouflage is effective; even when I know where the nest is, I often have a hard time re-locating it.

This is one of my favorites among the nests I anticipate seeing annually. I am fascinated by the way in which the outside is “decorated,” and by the webbing used to attach it (some of which is visible in this picture).

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The approximately 1.5 inch-wide inside is lined with soft plant down. It is tiny, but big enough for 3-5 eggs/nestlings. The eggs are only 1/2 inch long. Both sexes participate in incubation and in feeding the young, just as they do in nest building. They sometimes have a second brood (in a different nest) a little later and they will build a second nest if, for some reason, they abandon the first one.

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One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.

Note: This year the field trip is on Saturday, June 8, beginning at 8:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome.