The Seasons: Quarterly Images

I walk more miles in my visits to Eliza Howell Park in the coldest days of winter than I usually do in other seasons. There are fewer day-to-day changes to catch my attention and stop me for closer looks; some of the life here is dormant now.

Recently, after I took a picture of the river from the footbridge, I reviewed seasonal images of the past year from that spot.

February 7, 2021

November 9, 2020

August 10, 2020

May 3, 2020

These times — early in February, May, August, and November– are good times to experience the heart of each season. The following pictures are examples of other photos taken in the park at approximately the same times of the river pictures above.

Staghorn Sumac seed cluster, February 7, 2021

Mushrooms/fungi on tree, November 10, 2020

Clouded Sulphur butterfly on coneflower, August 9, 2020

Gray Catbird nest, May 8, 2020

One of the great things about living in this geograpical region is that there are four distinct seasons to observe and enjoy. Whatever time of the year that I walk in Eliza Howell Park, I am well aware that seasonal change is coming soon.

Tree Burls: Prized Abnormalities

Near the path along the river in Eliza Howell Park is a tree with a large, rounded, bark-covered growth (about 2 feet across) near the ground. A growth like this on a tree, called a burl, might be compared to a benign tumor, an abnormal mass that is not likely to do harm to the organism as a whole.

Most burls in the park are not this large and it is easy to walk by a tree burl without really noticing it. One day earlier this winter I took a “burl walk,” searching both for quantity and variety. Though I found several that I was not aware of previously, I realized that they are not all that common and I confirmed that they are not restricted to a few tree species and that they take a variety of shapes.

I noted above that it is easy to walk by without noticing burls. But that doesn’t happen when walking with a woodworker, someone who knows that the grain patterns in burl wood are very different from normal wood and can result in fascinating art. A woodworker is quick to spot and point out a burl.

Readers interested in seeing why burls are prized by woodworkers might google “burl bowls” or something similar.

Since the day of my burl walk, I have gone bsck to take another look at a couple trees I found. One is a young tree, with a burl larger than the trunk.

Another tree that I have returned to is a larger one with many different burls covering much of the trunk.

Burls are thought to be the result of abnormal bud growth, but apparently no one has been able to stimulate such growth delibetately. This prized wood needs to be found in natural settings.

i am not a woodworker, but I have come to prize burls also. They are another of the many natural wonders in this local park.

Ice Watch: Will the River Freeze Over This Winter?

It has been a mild winter so far in Detroit, with the temperature not yet falling below 15 degrees F in January, even at night. The daytime high has often been in the 30s. Not surprisingly, the Rouge River, being moving water, has not frozen over.

The last few days have been more typical late January weather, mostly in the 20s, with no afternoon thaws. So I have been watching for ice, conscious of the fact that the river never did freeze over last year. (On February 10, 2020, I posted “The River This Winter: I Miss the Ice.”)

On January 24 this year, I saw the first indications of ice on the river.

Ice typically forms along the banks first, where the water is flowing more slowly.

These next 3 photos were taken from the same location on the following three days, January 25. January 26, and January 27.

The ice covering appears to be increasing, but very, very slowly. Since the open water is constantly flowing, it appears doubtful that there will be a full covering if the temperature does not drop further.

Since different locations on the river freeze at different rates, I made a record of another spot during the same days (starting upper left, clockwise: January 24, 25, 26, 27).

It is quite unusual, in my 17 years of visiting Eliza Howell Park regularly, for the river not to freeze over at least once during the winter. Two consecutive years is definitely noteworthy.

My most recent photo of the river covered with ice and snow is from February 1, 2019.

Winter is not over. The ice watch continues.

Log Pathway of Nocturnal Mammals

I don’t walk through the woods of Eliza Howell Park at night (and wouldn’t see much if I did) and I have not placed trail cameras there to try to record some of what happens nocturally. So my only information comes from evidence or signs that I might find in the daylight.

On a morning walk earlier this week, following a dusting of snow the evening before, I noted — and began to follow — a mammal pathway from the river into the heart of the woodland.

Mammals often follow the same route repeatedly and different species sometimes use the same path, so I was interested both in where the pathway led and in finding clear tracks that would help me identify what had passed this way since the snow fell.

The snow was so minimal that no tracks were discernible on the leaves, but the path led to and then on a log. As I looked ahead, it became evident that much of the parhway was on logs.

While the tracks were clearly visible on the logs, more than one mammal had recently walked here and the individual tracks were not distinct. Nocturally active mammals in the park include, at least, raccoon, oppossum, mink, skunk, mice. Squirrels are diurnal, but could have been present in the early morning before I arrived.

Coyotes are present in the park but their pathways are different enough that I was quite sure that this was not a path they traveled.

The tracks on the logs were multiple, making identification more difficult, but they definitely suggested raccoon in shape and size.

I was now following the path to see how far I could follow it and to see how extensively logs were used. They were clearly favored, with the animals descending to the forest floor only to reach the next log.

Several of the logs were traveled for 30 feet or more. The abundance of fallen trees in the heart of the woodland meant very little need to walk on the ground.

It is a well-traveled pathway, which one would not know when there is no snow. I only occasionally got a look at distinct tracks, but it was enough to confirm that one or more raccoons had recently been walking the logs.

I followed the path for a couple hundred yards. Along the way, there were indications of side paths, also mostly on logs. There was no single destination.

What became abundantly clear, however — and this was the most important observation of the day — is that raccoons, and possibly other nocturnal mammals as well, prefer to walk on logs rather than on the ground. Sitting at home at night, I can envision a raccoon, maybe several, walking the logs in Eliza Howell.

Logs without a coverong of snow show nothing about who has passed over. But when it snows again, I will take another look.

Carolina Wren: Loud, Often Hidden, No Longer Rare in Michigan

Bird watchers sometimes refer to a time and location with few noticeable birds as “quiet.” In Eliza Howell Park, January and February are the quiet times of the year. Many species have migrated south and the food supply is limited (and no one has placed bird feeders here). In the first two weeks of January, I have seen only 15 species.

Few species does not mean, however, that they are of little interest. One that I am encountering quite often this month is the Carolina Wren.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy.

Carolina Wren is more easily heard than seen. Its loud song can be heard throughout the year, even in January. I see it most often in the forest understory or at forest edges, as it forages among logs and in brushy thickets. Usually it does not come out in the open even to sing.

It does not “pose” for photos very often. I am not aware of any photos of it taken in the park; the two in this report were taken elsewhere.

I caught a glimpse of one in this thicket today, saw just enough to identify it:

This is the only wren found in Michigan that does not migrate. It has historically been a bird of the southeast and has been gradually expanding north in the last century. (This current range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Carolina Wrens eat insects and spiders primarily. Their spread north has been related to more mild winters, as well, perhaps, to more backyard feeders. They seem attracted to residential neighborhoods where there are trees and brushy shrubs.

They are now a fairly common breeding bird of southeast Michigan, something that was not the reality a few decades ago.

The Michigan Breeding Bird Atlas I was completed in the 1980s and MBBA II was completed two decades later. A comparison demonstrates a significant change. (Yellow means possibly breeding in the specified location; orange means probably breeding there; red means definitely breeding there.)

Those of is who have not grown up aware of this bird are finding that it is definitely worth getting to know. It is richly colored, with a bold white stripe. Females and males look very much alike and they are normally found in pairs all year round, long-time mates. They nest near the ground, usually in some sort of cavity. The common form of their loud song is distinctive and memorable.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy.

It will be weeks yet before the first migratong birds return in March. Meanwhile, the birds of winter include some fascinating species that invite return visits.

Bladdernut Seeds: Ready to Float Downstream

Not often, but sonetimes, winter is the best time of the year to find a particular tree species. This week I found a clump of Bladdernut trees (or shrubs) in Eliza Howell Park. The seed capsules still clinging to the stems, noticeable now that the leaves have fallen, were what caught my attention from a distance — and drew me close for a better look.

This clump, made up of trees about 12 to 15 feet tall, is very close to the Rouge River. The trees can easily be passed by without being noticed (I have done it many tines) as they are similar to other small trees that make up the understory of the forest.

The seed capsules are distinctive, one to two inches long, lightweight, and feeling like dried paper. They have been described as “bladder shaped,” the source of the name given to the tree. Each segment of the capsules contains one or more small seeds that, at this time of the year, are dried and loose. The capsule is a rattle when shaken. The seeds are almost the same color as the capsule that holds them.

Bladdernut is native to eastern North America, often found along rivers and streams. (The range map is from the USDA.)

As I examined the seed capsules on the trees, pulling the branches down for a better look, a few capsules fell. On the ground, unopened and lightweight, they are ready to be carried into the river the next time the water rises after a heavy rain (or after melting snow). At least some of these seeds will likely end up a long way from the parent teee.

One capsule fell into the river and immediately began to float downstream.

Plant seed dispersal occurs in a variety of ways in addition to simply falling (dispersal by gravity). Wind dispersal is common; cottonwood and milkweed are two examples. Dispersal by animals is probably even more common; nuts are carried away and buried and the seeds of fruit that is eaten by birds often pass through their intestines and dropped quite far from the fruit source.

Bladdernut is a good example of seed dispersal by water. It would be fascinating to know how far the bladdernut seeds I was observing this week will travel before spring.

Birds of Eliza Howell 2020: The Special Month of May

Having just completed my records of 2020 bird observations in Eliza Howell Park, this might be a good time to outline a report.

May is typically the month with the greatest number of species. And it was again in 2020. In fact, I recorded more species in May, 2020, than in any other month in the 16 years I have been keeping records — 96 species.

So, it is appropriate, I think, for this year’s report to feature May birds.

Among the many birds present on May was the Cape May Warbler.

Photo by Margaret Weber.

Note: All the bird pictures in this essay were taken by Margaret Weber — and all were taken in Eliza Howell Park in May, 2020.

Almost all of the warblers that are seen in Eliza Howell are migrants that pass through southeast Michigan quickly in the spring and again in the fall. This year I noted 21 different warbler species in the spring, many quite striking in their breeding pluumage.

Two more examples are Bay-breasted Warbler and

Nashville Warbler.

The total number of bird species observed in EHP last year was 118. The numbers varied a lot over the months, as they do every year, reflecting the migratory behavior of so many species: January – 24 species; February – 24; March – 39; April – 57; May – 96; June – 44; July – 42; August – 50; September – 68; October – 62; November – 34; December – 29.

While the Scarlet Tanager nests in some lacations in southern Michigan, so far my observations of it in the park have been mostly in May, when it arrives back north.

Some of the birds that spend the summer and do nest in Eliza Howell are best seen in May, when the trees are not yet covered with leaves and the males are displaying in an effort to attract females.

Baltimore Orioles are common.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks also nest here.

Another species that breeds in the park and is easier to see in May is the Great Crested Flycatcher.

In 2020 I was able to locate over 40 active bird nests, representing 22 different species.

Only a few have nests accessible enough for me to sneak a quick look at the eggs – and a quick picture – when the adult is off the nest.

Starting from top left and going clockwise: Gray Catbird, Blue Jay, American Robin, Northern Cardinal.

As I write this, I realize how difficult it is to reflect in a short posting the excitement and the learning of 12 months of bird watching and bird study. This may be one of the situations in which pictures convey so much more than words. Thanks to Margaret’s photos, some of the reality and beauty of Eliza Howell birds 2020 may show through.

Some 2020 Discoveries

As the calendar year nears the end, I am remembering some new discoveries made during over 230 nature walks in Eliza Howell Park this year.

A “discovery” is something that I have just become aware of, regardless of how long it has been here or how common it is. Among the countless natural phenamena present, there are some every year that I notice and/or focus on for the first time.

Hickory Hairstreak is included in my annual butterfly list for the first time in 2020. It is very small and I was excited to get this picture on July 3.

Some of the 2020 discoveries have already been featured in this blog: for example, Wild Ginger on May 13…

… and Partridge Pea on August 8.

One of this year’s discoveries, the mushroom Wood Ear, was pictured without special attention in an October 22 report on mushrooms on logs. Perhaps It does resemble an ear?

I have often observed Fall Webworm caterpillars in the park and have sometimes seen Tent Caterpillars, but 2020 was the first time I became aware of another caterpillar that lives in silken webs on trees: Euonymus Caterpillar.

I have often watched the large Milkweed Bugs, which sometimes congregate in large numbers on Common Milkweed plants, especially when they are going to seed. This year I became aware that the Small Milkweed Bug, which also feeds on milkweed seeds, is found here as well.

The two milkweed bugs are distinct species, though they look similar. Large is on the left, Small on the right.

Among other 2020 discoveries is one that I have noted in the park before, but only in isolated plants that have been hard to relocate. This is Scouring Rush (Horsetail). The new find this year is a patch of Scouring Rush, in a location that can easily be included in walks, providing me with the opportunity for more detailed study.

During this pandemic year I have been very fortunate to be able to continue my Eliza Howell Park walks uninterrupted. In fact, I visited the park more frequently than in other years. These are only some of many discoveries this year

In January 2021 begin my 17th year of nature study in Eliza Howell Park.

Grape Vines in the Treetops: Impressive and Baffling

A favorite walking route in late Fall and in the Winter is in the woods, heading southeast from the footbridge along the river. (The path is roughly indicated by the orange dots on this map.)

From a number of the trees along the path, especially beyond the convergence of the two branches of the Rouge River, hang long woody vines. The vines are unattached to tree trunks, hanging from branches in the canopies. Here are two examples, one photographed on a sunny day and one on a cloudy one.

The vines are often rooted several feet from the trunks of the trees whose canopies they now occupy, 30, 40, or 50 feet from the ground. The long vines are bare of leaves and fruit and have few side branches. To find the leaves and fruit (in season), one would need to go to the canopies. The woody vines that carry nutrients up are often 2 – 3 inches in diameter, with shedding bark.

There are different wild grape species native to Michigan. I think that these might be Riverbank Grapes, though I am not able to make a definite identification.

This picture of fruit was taken in another location in the park earlier this year. I do not see grapes in this section of the park, though the vines tell me that there are probably grapes in the treetops.

I am fascinated by the size and the age of these splendid vines. I wonder how many decades they have been growing here before I started walking in these woods.

I am also intrigued by the question of how they got to the canopies. Vines do not have trunks that support themselves upright. They are more like ropes than trees; they need to be attached to something in order to climb.

As I have noted in other postings, different vines hsve different methods of climbing. Poison Ivy, for example, attaches itself to tree trunks by hairy rootlets. So its ability to climb tall trees is understandable.

Grape vines climb by using tendrils, small leafless stems that can grab and hang onto limbs or other stems for support, as can be seen in this picture.

I haven’t been there to check, of course, but I have no doubt that these vines are attached by many tendrils in the tree canopies and that the entangled smaller vines up there keep the heavy main vine from falling.

The baffling question is how did the vine get to the tree top, what supported it as it grew. Most of these trees have no lower branches for the grape vines to climb.

I don’t have a clear snswer. Is it possible that these trees were much, much smaller, with low branches or thin trunks, when tbe vines first reached out their tendrils? Is it possible that these vines are roughly in the same age category as the trees they now dangle from?

There are many days when I learn something new about the flora and the fauna in Eliza Howell Park. There are many other days when I recognize that there is so much more yet to learn.

Starting Year 4: Endlessly Fascinating

I began this blog three years ago, in mid-December, 2017, and have now posted over 210 times. One of my reasons for starting this was to provide others with some information and observations on the natural wealth and beauty of Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park.

(This map of the Rouge River watershed, provided by Friends of the Rouge and found on a sign in Eliza Howell, shows the different branches of the Rouge River and the relationship of the Rouge to the Detroit River.)

Another reason for this project is that the blog’ provides incentive for me to learn more about what I am observing. Preparing to tell others about sonething is a great way to deepen my own understanding.

As I begin Year 4, the number of “research” questions is growing. Among others, I would like to get a I better understanding of the following.

Walking Sticks in Eliza Howell

I rarely see this insect, which is not surprising, since it is a highly camouflaged and a noctural feeder. This picture, taken this fall, is of one on the forest floor.

It will be very challenging to find out more about how common Walking Sticks are in the park and where I am most likely to find them.

The Life Cycle of Several Plants

It should be less difficult to get more detailed infornation on several plants that I have not previously focused on (when they bloom, when they drop their seeds, how common they are, etc.).

One is Teasel, which I think is only in small numbers here.

A more common wildflower that I want to pay more attention to is Horse Nettle, which usually catches my attention in the fall. I want to study it throughout the growing year.

A tree to know better as it grows in this particular locale — its numbers, the time of its flowering and seed dropping — is Northern Catalpa, known for its large heart-shaped leaves and long bean-like seed pods.

Use of Woodpecker Cavities by Other Birds

I recently watched a Hairy Woodpecker drilling a hole in a tree (in December). At this time of the year, the hole is likely to be used as a winter roosting location. a shelter from the cold. It reminded me that woodpeckers excavate, each year, more than the one or two cavities used for their own nests.

There are 4 species of woodpeckers that breed — and drill holes large enough for nests– in Eliza Howell. And there are at least 9 other bird species that nest in cavities in the park, in cavities that they do not make on their own. They use either natural cavities or ones that were made by woodpeckers.

I am hoping to locate several woodpecker-made cavities, at different heights and in different sizes, this winter, when they are easier to find, and then visit them regularly in the spring breeding season, to begin to learn more about which old woodpecker holes are likely to be used by which different species.

While I have a growing agenda for Year 4, I am aware that many blog topics are presented to me by something that I come across unexpectedly, not something that I was planning. This is one of the ways in which Eliza Howell nature walking is endlessly fascinating.