Ruby-throated Hummingbird: These Legs Are Not for Walkin’

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds recently returned to Eliza Howell Park for the breeding season. They regularly arrive in the first half of May; my first sighting has been between May 4 and May 15 in each of the last 10 years. This year it was May 12.

(I again thank Margaret Weber for the photos.)

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For about next three months, I can expect to see a male perching on a tree out in the open, proclaiming and protecting its territory, seeking females for mates and looking for other males to warn away. I count on seeing a male perched on the same tree every day, just as I count on the regular May arrival.

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There are some 12 – 15 species of hummingbirds that breed in the U.S., but the Ruby-throated is the only that is  normally found east of the Great Plains. The range map (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology) shows how widespread it is in the east and shows, as well, how far these tiny birds migrate twice a year, many of them flying over the Gulf of Mexico.

20200514_174212The female is on her own after mating.  She makes the nest, incubates the eggs, and cares for the young, all by herself. And she is called “ruby-throated,”  even though her throat is not at all red.

The nest is a very small cup, less than 2 inches wide on the inside, placed on the top of a limb. A few years ago I found this hummingbird nest in Eliza Howell.

20200513_231732(1)Hummingbirds are the only birds that can hover and fly backwards. They beat their wings over 50 times a second!

We often see them sipping up nectar from flowers.

20200513_231953We can also find them perched. But what we do not see is a hummingbird walking or hopping, not even on a perching limb. Their legs are too short. The best they can do shuffle a little on a branch.

This magnified picture might give an idea of how close the feet are to the body.

20200515_204623Nancy Sinatra’s boots may have been made for walkin’, but the hummingbird’s legs were not.

Wild Ginger: An Inconspicuous Distinctive Flower

Recently, on my nature walks in Eliza Howell Park, I have been stopping to check out a wildflower that I have overlooked in the past. I am sure that I have walked past patches of 3- inch-high Wild Ginger dozens of times without noticing the small reddish flower at ground level.

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The flower is easy to miss and miss it I did until Ruth Hart, the resource I turn to when I have questions about Eliza Howell plants, pointed it out to me.

Now that I know where to see the flower, I keep going back for additional  looks. I am fascinated by a flower that grows so close to the ground, not stretching up like most other spring blooms.

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It may be inconspicuous, but it is also distinctive, worth getting down to the ground for a close look. The flower grows on a short stem at the base of the two heart-shaped leaves. Magnified, the flower looks like this.

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Wild Ginger grows like a ground cover, spread by rhizomes as well as by seed. When the flowers are hidden, as they tend to be, it is understandable that most of us walk without a second look.

Resized_20200512_202622Wild Ginger is common and widespread in Eastern North America. (This map is from the U.S  Forest Service.)

20200512_203610The tubular or cup-like shape of the flower is sometimes called a jug, and one of the names for this plant is “little brown jug.” (The petals turn more brown as they age.)

The location at ground level, the shape of the flower, and the hairy appearance all contribute to the unusual nature of the flowering Wild Gonger.

Resized_20200512_202359 i frequently learn something new about the flora or fauna of EHP. This week I am growing in knowledge – and in appreciation – of an inconspicuous fascinating flower.

Spotted Sandpiper: A Local Polyandrous Species

This week a Spotted Sandpiper (at least one) has been foraging along the Rouge River in Eliza Howell Park. Seeing it reminded me of how unusual this species is. Its mating system, polyandry, occurs in less than one percent of bird species.

(The photos are courtesy of Margaret Weber. )

20200508_144650Polyandry means the mating of one female with more than one male while a male mates with only one female. Spotted Sandpiper is the only polyandrous species I am aware of that breeds in Southeast Michigan.

There are some other members of the sandpiper family that have a similar mating system, but most sandpipers nest only in the very far north. The Spotted Sandpiper spends its summers in much of North America. (The range map is from the Cornel Lab of Ornithology. )

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In the spring, the female arrives first and establishes a breeding territory before males arrive. When they do, she selects a mate and they prepare a nest together (on the ground). After the female lays eggs (usually 4), the male incubates them while the female selects another mate and repeats the process, perhaps up to 4 times (laying as many as 16 eggs).

Sometimes the female mates with only one male. In these cases, she participates in incubation and care of the young.

Resized_spotted_sandpiper_reflection_11946309438772I see a Spotted Sandpiper most years in May, but have not yet seen evidence of them nesting in the park. The female and male look alike, so I don’t know if the Spotted I spotted is a female or male, don’t know if it is establishing its territory or just pausing on its way to a different breeding location.

20200508_144706Most of us have heard/used the “a rare bird” idiom. The Spotted Sandpiper is indeed a rare bird, being so different from most other birds in mating behavior.

It’s great to see part of the One Percent right here in Eliza Howell.

Dryad’s Saddle: How Fast Does It Grow?

Eliza Howell Park is an exciting place in early May —   booming woodland wildflowers, incoming bird migrants, and the sudden appearance of the bracket fungus known as Dryad’s Saddle (sometimes called Pheasant Back Mushroom).

I refer to it as “sudden appearance” because, it seems, I see a number these shelves on dead trees and logs when they are already several inches wide, without preparation, without having seen little ones first.

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Last year someone asked me how fast a 6-inch Dryad’s Saddle grew. I was not satisfied with my “very fast” kind of answer so I decided that this year I would try to learn a more precise response.

I found my case study on April 26, when the stem had just emerged.

20200426_134722In the time since I have been checking it regularly, carrying a tape measure. The next picture is of the same fungus, starting on the top left and going clockwise, on April 28, May 1, May 2, and May 3, growing from 1 and 1/2 inches across to 5 inches across.

20200503_145633Looking carefully, one can see a small vine on the tree behind the mushroom and observe how far the shelf has spread by reference to the vine.

This particular specimen is not fully grown yet, but my measurements have ended. Sometime between midday May 3 and the morning of May 4, something or somebody broke it.

20200504_083337Perhaps that someone/thing could not resist breaking open this attractive mushroom, investigating the nature of the flesh. That’s very understandable,  but I wished they had picked a different specimen.

I did learn quite a bit about the rate of growth in the week I had watched. The stem was about 1 inch wide and 7 days later the cap was 5 inches wide and expandong rapidly. So I now have a somewhat better answer to the question of how fast Dryad’s Saddle grows.

I have now located another new fungus, a multiple this time, in a different location.

20200504_090902Unless I get totally caught up in the arrival of the different migrating birds in the next week, I will likely continue to record my observations on the growth of one of my favorite mushrooms.

Bird Eggs in the Nest: Part 2

As noted in Part 1, I try to get a quick look into a bird nest when the incubating adult is absent. Here are a few more photos from my small bird egg collection. Each of these species  begins nesting in April.

NOTE: The bird photos were taken by Margaret Weber.

Killdeer breed in Eliza Howell Park regularly but in small numbers, probably no more than 2 pairs most years.

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Killdeer nest on the ground, in an open area. The nests are out in the open but they are incredibly difficult to find. The “hide the nest” principle here is camouflage. Even when I know the area they are using, some years I totally fail to find the nest, no matter how long I look.

Northern Cardinals are quite common in the park, often seen near the edges of wooded areas.

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Cardinals build their nests in shrubs or in vine thickets, usually only a few feet from the ground, difficult to find and difficult to get close to.

Cardinal nests are one of many nests used by the Brown-headed Cowbird,  which lays its eggs in the nests of other species.

The smaller egg in this nest is a cowbird egg.

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Eastern Bluebirds nest in natural cavities in trees, in old woodpecker holes, and in bird boxes. This picture was taken of a nest in a box in Eliza Howell last year.

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It had only been in recent yeats that I have confirmed bluebird nests in the park and their numbers are small.

American Robins are the most common nesting species in Eliza Howell, so common that I don’t attempt to keep a record of the various nests I see.

Robin eggs are probably the most recognizable bird eggs – “robin egg blue.”

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Robins are ubiquitous, nesting in forest openings, in orchards, parks, yards, and other placrs. They usually nest from 3 to 25 feet high and I try to locate one low nest each year, so I can watch from nest building to fledging.

Even though there is no marsh in Eliza Howell Park, Red-winged Blackbirds are another regular nesting species. In the absence of cattails, they make nests in shrubs, trees, or tall grass. This nest was in a shrub in a wildflower field.

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20200429_130534There is a reason for the poor quality of the nest picture. As I approached the nest, the adult male came swooping down to drive me away. I was in a hurry and it shows.

The female Red-winged Blackbird (pictured above) is not always recogized because she looks so different from the male.

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The location and nature of bird nests and the colors of bird eggs are enormously varied and fascinating to observe. I continue my search.

Bird Eggs in the Nest: Part 1

In my efforts to learn as much as I can about the nesting practices of the birds in Eliza Howell Park, I try to get close looks at the nests I find if possible. When the incubating parent is absent and if I can actually see into a nest, I take a picture.

The quality of these pictures is not always good because of limited access and because I am in a hurry to depart (so that the parent feels free to return).

NOTE: In each of the photo pairs that follow, the nest picture is mine and the bird photo is Margaret Weber’s.

For the first time, a few days ago I was able to get close enough to look into a Blue Jay nest.

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20180824_131359Blue Jays nest in trees, usually 10 – 40 feet high. This nest is unusually low, between 6 and 7 feet high, though it is in a thicket. I found it the way I find many nests, by watching where the bird goes when I see it carrying nesting material.

There are many nests (most) that I cannot look into because they are too high or are in tree cavities. I  occasionally make use of a step ladder, which I did to get this picture of a Barn Swallow nest.

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Barn Swallows often make use of human constructions for nesting locations (such as barns and bridges), building its mostly mud nest (with some plant fragments and feathers added) on a ledge next to a vertical wall and usually under a roof or overhang. The one in the photo was under the roof of a shelter in the park.

A few bird species nest on the ground. These nest are very well hidden, the primary method of protecting them from predators. These the ones that I find, when I find them at all, only as the parent flies off the nest when I unknowingly walk too close.

Mallard, one of two duck species that nest in the park, is a ground nester.

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As with most other ducks, the female does all the parental care, including all the incubating. When I startled her off the above nest, she must have knocked one of the eggs out of location.

The Gray Catbird nests in very thick vegetation, usually 4 – 10 feet high. Because of the location, it is often difficult for me to get a close look, even when I know where a nest is located.

Resized_20200413_22041820191001_131426While it is not unusual for me to find a Catbird nest, it is difficult to point them out to park visitors because of how inaccessible the locations are.

It IS unusual for me to find Song Sparrow nests; I was looking for about 10 years before I found one. Whenever I saw a Song Sparrow carrying something (nesting material or insects to feed the young), I would watch. And it would watch me back, never going to the nest as long as I was there.

I found this nest when the incubating bird flew out at my feet as I was walking through high grass and flowers near the tree line.

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20180116_085155Song Sparrows nest on the ground in thick plants or very low in shrubs or trees.

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In the last 15 years, I have observed some 40 different bird species nesting in Eliza Howell Park. I have pictures of nests with eggs of about 1/4 of these in my slowly growing collection.

I plan to post more nest photos soon, in Part 2.

 

 

SPRING BEAUTY: An Early, Small, Ephemeral Wildflower

Spring woodland wildflower season is beginning in Eliza Howell Park and the  star of the opening show is Spring Beauty.

20200422_143229Spring Beauty is a dainty plant with narrow leaves, only about 3 inches tall when it blooms. Each flower, about 1/2 of an inch wide, has 5 petals and 5 stamens.

A close-up picture shows details that are missed when a walker does not get down to its level.

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I start looking for the beauties when I cross the footbridge on the path into the deciduous woods. Much of the ground here was swept bare by winter floods this year and tiny spring flowers are widespread.

Spring Beauty flowers are mostly white with pink veins, some brighter than others. This collage shows the color variation.

Resized_20200418_164539As is the case with most early woodland flowers, they are visible for only a few weeks, dying back about the time the leaves come out on the large trees overhead.

As I was checking some Spring Beauties  on one of the few sunny days that we have had recently in Detroit, I was treated to special view: a tiny Spring Azure butterfly coming to rest on a tiny Spring Beauty, one of the earliest butterflies of the year on one of rhe earliest flowers.

20200422_143137The Azure, its blue coloring only visible when the wings are open, had just emerged fron the chrysalis stage in which it had spent the winter. Often they seek moisture from the soil at this time, so I was delighted and surprised  that it came to the flowers in front of me.

The planned Eliza Howell spring wildflower public walk has been canceled this year for public health reasons, but Spring Beauty is common in wooded areas (in the eastern United States and Canda) and can easily be found without a guide, often right by the path. It is best to look on sunny days, preferably in the afternoon. The flowers close overnight and do not open much at all on cloudy days.

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There will be a variety of small woodland wildflowers blooming in the next couple of weeks. In part because it is usually the first, Spring Beauty is one of my favorites.

Goose Nest Predation

I recently wrote about a Canada Goose nest that I was observing in Eliza Howell Park (“Canada Geese: Nesting-related Bevavior,” April 16, 2020).

I have been continuing to check on the nest almost every day, always finding the female on the nest and the male near by. Each time they were alert and quiet.

I thought something must have happened this morning (April 20) when I heard them both calling loudly long before I reached the nesting area. The nest was empty and they were both in the river

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I naturally wondered what had happened, but decided not to investigate further while they were present and clearly disturbed.

I came back about a half hour later, when the geese were quiet and sufficienly distant to be out of sight, and I managed to get to  the nest.

Resized_20200420_125910The down-filled nest was empty. I don’t know how many eggs there had been, but they were now all gone.

Looking around, I found two egg shells  on the ground about 15 feet from the nest, broken open and apparently eaten (sucked or licked out?) by some predator.

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The pattern of opening/eating the eggs might provide an important clue to the identity of the the predator. I am not very experienced in knowing how to read this clue, but my initial thought is that it is likely a mammal rather than a bird or a reptile. A coyote seems like one possibility. They are present in the park and coyotes are known to eat goose eggs.

Canada Geese pairs remain together till one of  them dies. This is probably not the only time in their life together that a nesting effort is or will be unsuccessful.

And we who observe fauna are reminded again how predation is very much a part of the natural world.

Canada Geese: Nesting-related Behavior

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a special interest in the nesting practices of the birds that breed in Eliza Howell Park. I enjoy watching and learning about the ways different species construct their nests, share (or not) incubation time, and care for the young.

This week I located a new Canada Goose nest, in a location that provides me opportunity to gain or confirm knowledge of their practices through regular observation.

20200416_125531Female and male Canada Geese look alike, so I will likely need to rely largely upon published reports in regard to which parent is doing what.

The location of this nest is typical of what I have seen in the past — on the ground near water, in a position to allow the bird to see anything that approaches from different directions.

Some birds use camouflage as the primary means of protection. Canada Geese are prepared to fight against possible predators, so they want to be able to them coming.

20200415_120551As this picture indicates, I was being informed not to approach any closer.

The nest is minimalist in design, a slight bowl with dead grasses and a few feathers added inside. The female incubates the eggs, while the male stands guard. So far, each time I have taken a look at the nest, the male had been close by, either on land or in the water.

20200415_172353Photo by Margaret Weber

One of the fascinating behaviors reported about their nesting practices is that, after the eggs (anywhere from 2 – 8) are all laid, the female never leaves the nest. She does not eat or drink or bathe — for the approximately 28 days needed for the eggs to hatch.

If this is true, this reality, along with  their readiness to attack to protect the nest, means that I do not expect to get any pictures of eggs in a temporarily vacated nest, as I sometimes do with other species.

The hatchlings are fully developed after 4 weeks of development in the eggshell, able to walk, swim, and feed a day or two after hatching.

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For those familiar with the parenting role of male in most species of ducks (the female incubates on her own and then tends the young on her own), it might come as a surprise that the male goose is constantly present throughout incubation and remains present as both parents snd the young spend the next several weeks together. The family can often be seen swimming in single file, with one adult at the front and one adult at the rear.

Canada Geese are, in urban areas, often seen as a pest because they congregate in large numbers in places like parks and golf courses. They are able to digest grass and our cultivation of lawns has changed their behavior since the days of my youth. But that is a story for another time.

For now, I am looking forward to witnessing as much as I can of their nesting behavior — from a safe distance (considerably more than 6 feet!).

20200415_172508Photo by Margaret Weber

Spring Violets: Purple, White, Yellow

In song lyrics, movie and novel titles, “violets are blue.” But the violets that will be blooming soon in Eliza Howell Park come in a variety of – and in a combination of – colors.

The plants have emerged, most easily found near the river. They are low, with heart-shaped leaves, and promise multiple blooms in 2 to 3 weeks.

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There are several different species of wild violets that grow in Michigan and they also hybridize. This means that each year brings the possibility of some new variation.

The varieties I most commonly see are the ones in the these photos.

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Resized_20190424_150808Resized_20190424_15084120200412_093739Violets bloom early. The above pictures were all taken in Eliza Howell in late April and early May.

These are the flowers I am eagerly anticipating when I look at the emerging plants!

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