Blackberry Knot Gall

November is a good time to take careful looks at trees and other plants for signs of bird or insect activity that were earlier hidden by leaves.

Recently I noticed an insect gall in a patch of thorny vines growing near a fallen tree. I had been in this area a number of times this Fall, but had not been aware of this gall before.

While recognizing this as an insect gall, I did not know anything more about it and do not remember seeing it previously. I took a couple pictures, confirmed that the brambles were blackberry (insects often select specific plant species for their eggs), and estimated the size of the gall (about 2 inches long). I could research it at home.

This is a photo from the underside.

The information I had was sufficient to identify this as a Blackberry Knot Gall. A small wasp deposits eggs into a blackberry stem in spring or summer and this stimulates the plant tissue to grow in this manner, making a case for multiple eggs. The gall is apparently better known than the wasp responsible for it because the wasp is named for the gall – the Blackberry Knot Gall Wasp.

That the gall is enlarged stem growth is evident from the fact that the gall has the same small thorns found on the rest of the stem.

On subsequent visits to Eliza Howell Park, I found two other galls on nearby blackbery plants. The shapes are a little varied, but here is little doubt that all three are the same species.

i am not familiar with this wasp and have no photos of it. While i usually use only my own photos or those of a photographer I know personally, I am not able to follow this practice here. This photo is from BugGuide.Net.

The eggs hatch and remain in the gall through the winter as larvae, emerging in the Spring.

Also on the now leafless blackberry canes are several Chinese Praying Mantis egg cases. These serve the same purpose — a sheltered environment for the eggs and larvae to develop before energing in the spring — but praying mantis egg cases are attached to the stems, not inside them.

Eliza Howell Park is about 250 acres in size. It is not surprising that I continue to discover flora and fauna that I have not seen (or paid attention to) here before. It’s a good reason to keep returning!

Lichen: Camouflage for Bird Nests

Now that, in mid-November,…

the flowers are finished blooming…

very few insects remain active..

the leaves have mostly fallen…

the Fall bird migration is nearly over…

I am giving increased attention to observing tree trunks, as well as fallen branches, to become more familiar with the fungi, the mosses, and the lichen that can be found here.

Part of my interest in lichen comes from the fact that two of the smallest birds that breed in Eliza Howell Park use lichen to “decorate” the outside of their nests.

Several pairs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers nest in the park every year and it is an annual pleasure to watch them build.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Gnatcatchers attach lichen flakes to the outside surface of their cuplike structure, apparently secured by spider webs that they also collect. The lichen serves as camouflage, giving the nest an appearance similar to the limb on which it is built.

Tbis picture is of a low nest that I was able to approach last year when the birds were absent. Note the lichen on the nest and on the tree.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds nest in smaller numbers in the park and I am seldom able to locate their nests. The nests are tiny and made even more difficult to find by the lichen camouflage.

This nest is the only EHP one that has been photographed, to the best of my knowledge.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Other bird species also use lichen in nest construction, but these two are the only ones of the Eliza Howell nesters that use it so extensely on the nest exterior.


Lichen is, of course, so much more than nesting material for birds, but this is part of the story and is one of the first things I think of whenever I see lichen

A Month in Autumn: Watching Three Trees

One method of observing closely the ways leaves change in the Fall is to take pictures of the same tree on many different days. Early in October I selected three trees in Eliza Howell Park to track this year, taking a picture of each from the same location on nearly every visit to the park.

Here a collage of four pictures of each tree, with the dates of each picture, a sufficient sample, I think, to show the way the changes progressed.

Sugar Maple

Starting from top left, clockwise: Oct. 9, Oct. 20, Oct. 28, Nov. 6.

Sugar Maples start turning from the top, gradually moving down. And the top leaves start falling before those at the bottom have completely turned.

Sugar Maple leaves turn red and/or gold. Often, as in this tree this year, part of the tree is one color and part another.

The fallen leaves lie heavy on the ground, right under the tree.

Pin Oak

Starting from top left, clockwise: Oct. 13, Oct. 20, Oct. 28, Nov. 4.

All of the leaves on the Pin Oak tree changed color basically at the same time, different from the Sugar Maple. And they hang on the tree for a while after they have reached peak color, changing further to brown before they fall.

Eatern Cottonwood

The third tree, an Eastern Cottonwood, does not have low branches and leaves, as the previous two. The pictures, in showing the whole tree, also show backgound trees.

Starting at top left, clockwise: Oct. 5, Oct. 13, Oct. 23, Nov. 2.

The Cottonwood turned more quickly and the leaves were gone shortly after the color reached its peak.

As they fell, the leaves scattered more widely than those of the Sugar Maple and the Pin Oak, perhaps because they fell from a greater height.

I am finding it very helpful to have a series of photos of the same tree over a month or so in order get a fuller understanding of end-of-season transition.

As I think about next year, I am undecided about whether to use the same trees, to be able to compare different years, or to select different trees, to get a better sense of how other species progress.

Perhaps i will try to do both

Yellowjackets: The Colony Is Dying

Another frequent visitor to Eliza Howell Park pointed out a Yellowjacket nesting location several weeks ago. Since then, I have been visiting the spot regularly, observing the comings and goings from a safe distance. The nest was built underground, in a previously existing hole.

My intent has been to wait till the Yellowjackets become less active as the colony nears its end and then try to get closer looks.

That time is now, as October turns to November. The workers have recently been emerging from the hole much more slowly.

Though they look a lot like bees, Yellowjackets are wasps, social wasps similar to Bald-faced Hornets (which I also watch in the park and have written about), living in colonies with a queen and usually hundreds of workers.

The only members of the colony to survive the winter are (some of) the new fertilized queens, who seek sheltered places, away from the old nest, to hibernate. The nest will deteriorate in the winter and not be used again.

The rest of the colony dies when the frosts come in the Fall. I recently found two individuals resting on different leaves of a tulip tree.

They weren’t moving, clearly at the end of their lives. When I touched the leaves, each fell to the ground.

As I was watching at the entrance to the nest, one incoming wasp stopped a few feet short, grasped onto a horizontal stem, and turned upside down. Not usual behavior.

Some of the Yellowjackets that now remain crawl out of the nest and but don’t go anywhere. I am watching the end of the colony.

Yellowjackets are often disliked because of the way they aggressively protect their nests, but there is something amazing and impressive about their colonies. And it can be touching to watch the workers die at the end of their task.

But… A queen that survives the winter will start a new nest in the spring and the workers that she produces will enlarge the nest and care for other young. The Yellowjackets will be back.

Vernal Pool in Autumn: Moss-covered Logs

There is one major woodland vernal pool in Eliza Howell Park, located in the middle of the forested area in the southeast section of the park.

In spring the pool is about 100 yards long and has several inches to a foot of water. It gradually dries up by late summer, to begin filling again with the melting snow and rain of late winter.

These two pictures are from late March and early April, from different positions in diferent years.

Vernal pools are best known for their role in providing breeding opportunities for amphibians and a variety of invertebrates in spring. And I have often observed Wood Ducks and Mallards in this pool in early summer, sometimes with ducklings.

I recently stopped by for an autumnal walk through the vernal pool.

The water marks on the tree trunks are a reminder that they spend a good part of the year in standing water.

The ground, after months under water, is almost entirely free of plants and has the appearance of rich garden soil. I am tempted to dig to see what organisms I might uncover at this time of the year.

The pool bottom has many decomposing logs, now green with moss.

Regardless of a log’s size, it is partly or mostly covered. These two logs are quite large and might be hosting different varities of mosses.

Mosses are non-vascular plants that are usually found in damp and shaded areas. This location is definitely the best spot for them in the park and provides an opportunity to get to know them better. Close-up looks reveal details not noticed from a distance.

I have traditionally visited this Eliza Howell vernal pool mostly from March through June/July. This is the first year that I am spending more time here in the Fall. It is now on the route for my October – November nature walks.

Mushrooms on Logs: Finding Fascinating Fall Fungi

Annually, in the Fall, I visit some of the fallen trees in the woods of Eliza Howell Park, looking for mushrooms. I usually find some; sometimes I find many – and varied – ones. This is a many-and-varied year.

The most common are fan-shaped, usually just anout two inches wide, commonly found in groupings.

— NOTE: My practice is not to name mushrooms in print, except in cases where the identity is unmistable. I am not an expert and do not want someone to use my potentially mistaken identification when foragong for mushrooms to eat. —

I enjoy finding these fan-shaped mushrooms, coming as they do in a variety of colors.

This year I am also finding a variety of other log-growing mushrooms, some of which are much less familiar.

These chocolate-colored (ear-shaped?) fungi are ones that I finding for the first time in the park this year, though they are obviously well established on this log.t

A mushroom is the fruiting part of a fungus, the part that appears above the surface of ground or wood and contains the spores.

They come in many sizes and shapes. These are some spotted on logs this week:

In the midst of these unusual mushrooms (unusual in my Eliza Howell experience), there is something satisfying to come across a more familiar and solid shelf fungus on the side of a large log.

Fall is the best time to go fingus finding among the logs in Eliza Howell Park — and this is a great year to do it.

Ironweed: Fall and Summer

I spend much of July and August — and half of September — walking in the Eliza Howell Park prairie wildflower field, admiring the flowers and watching the insects.

Now, in mid-October, the flowers are in seed and the field is a feeding site for several species of migrating sparrows. Recently I stopped by to take a look at a favorite Ironweed, a flower on the regular route in the summer. I was seeking a close look at the seeds.

This particular plant is over 8 feet tall, the tallest flower in the field. Though the seeds are attractive, they don’t command the kind of attention the intensely colored flowers do during their month-long blooming time. This picture was taken in August.

In the summer I regularly check the scattered Ironweeds for butterflies and frequently find them. The flowers are grouped near the top of the tall plants so the nectaring butterflies are easy to spot from some distance away. And the size makes it possible to get pictures of butterflies with the sky as background

This picture of a Monarch was taken in August. The next one, of a somewhat beat-up Tiger Swallowtail, was taken in July.

Ironweed is a native perennial wildflower that is sometimes grown in gardens, where tall upright plants are wanted. It spreads by seeds, dispersed by wind.

The name “itonwood” comes from the tough stem. Praying Mantis eggs remain in the egg case over winter, hatching in the spring, and the females often select a sturdy plant for laying their eggs. In September I found that one had, understandably, selected an Ironwood plant. This case seems to be doing well so far.

I might not notice the new growth that will emerge next spring until it gets to be several feet tall in June. But I will definitely follow it through the Summer and into the Fall

Fall Foliage: October Is the Month

Over the years I have often heard individuals in this part of the country say that Fall is their favorite season. It is a totally understandable preference. For nature walkers and nature admirers, the weather and the foliage alone are enough to lift the spirits many a day.

To observe fall foliage in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, October is definitely the month. Early on dewy and sunny mornings, the view from my birding path can even take my attention away from migrating birds.

As a way of focusing closely on the color changes, I have been taking pictures of the same trees regularly as October progresses. The first picture of this Sugar Maple was taken on October 5; the second on October 11.

I am in the practice of taking a picture several times every month looking upstream from the footbridge over the Rouge River. The view changes every day in October, even if only a little.

These are from October 1 and October 11.

Not all tree species are on the same schedule. Yellow-bud Hickory (AKA Bitternut Hickory) is among the earlier ones. It was nearing its golden peak on October 10 when this picture was taken.

The Pin Oak, on the other hand, has only only recently begun the annual transformation (this picture is from October 14). I will be following it carefully in the next two weeks.

The Sugar Maple above is fully red. Here is another tree of the same species that still has a long way to go. I have already been following this one for two weeks as it very slowly turns red, starting at the top,

It has been difficult selecting the photos for this report because I have been watching – and documenting – a variety of different deciduous trees, too many to include here.

In addition, the leaves of some other plants are also striking this month. This grass is one example.

Michigan is a great state for fall foliage and, especially in Detroit / Southeastern Michigan, October is the month to enjoy it.

Milkweed Seeds: Ready to Blow in the Wind

The seed pods of the Common Milkweed, developing over many weeks, are now starting to open in Eliza Howell Park.

Each seed is attached to a silky coma, a “parachute,” which facilitates dispersal by the wind.

The pods split open and the seeds separate, starting at the end of the pod. The brown color indicates that the seeds are mature or ripe, useful information for anyone wanting to collect milkweed seeds for a butterfly garden.

They don’t all ripen at the same time, but these are ready to fly.

The parachute look is evident in a close up view.

Milkweed spreads by rhizomes (roots or underground runners) as well as by seeds. The rhizomes account for the fact that milkweed is often found in colonies, the milkweed patches that I regularly visit in the park. Seeds are designed to start plants in new locations at a distance removed and wind dispersal is perfect for that.

The about-to-be-dispersed seeds are asking to be photographed on a dewy morning.

Milkweed, once best known as an aggressive weed that is difficulte to eradicate from crops, is now widely known as the plant that the marvelous Monarch butterfly depends on.

Common Milkweed attracts many other insects in addition to butterfies. When it is blooming, the milkweed patch is a great place to watch various pollinators. And now that the seeds are ripening, I am watching Large Milkweed Bugs.

The milkweed bugs are, like Monarch butterflies, dependent upon milkweeds. Monarch caterpillars eat leaves; milkweed bugs eat seeds. They are most visible now, as they congregate in large numbers on selected seed pods.

When we want a plant species to flourish, it can be tempting to resent the eating of seeds by wildlife. But, just as the practicec of Blue Jays consuming acorns does not prevent oaks from flourishing, so the loss of some milkweed seeds to insects does not constitute a threat to milkweeds or to Monarch butterflies.

Common Milkweed has long since finished flowering for this year and is now dropping its leaves. The seed pods remian.

This is a great time to stop by and take another look — before the seeds have all been blown away.

The Chestnuts Are Falling — and Disappearing

NOTE: This is the 200th post since I began this blog 34 months ago. I continue my nature walks in the park as there is much more to find, to observe, to experience, to research, to photograph, to wonder about, and to admire.


The chestnut trees in Eliza Howell Park are quite fruitful again this year and the fruit is now ripening.

The nuts are inside burs covered with very sharp spines that quite effectively keep the fruit from being taken prematurely. While the ripe burs sometimes open while still on the tree, most seem to fall first, opening on the ground to reveal 2 or 3 nuts.

It is rare to find the nuts on the ground, however, since they quickly disappear, grabbed up almost immediately, with only empty burs left behind.

I suspect that squirrels take most of this desired food, either consuming the nuts on the spot or carrying them off for later. There are a variety of other animals that also find chestnuts both edible and desirable, including deer (according to reports) and humans.

The Eliza Howell chestnuts (I am not entirely sure of the exact species, perhaps Chinese Chestnut, perhaps a hybrid), are about an inch in diameter.

I have seen humans harvesting chestnuts in the park more often than I have seen them collecting hickory nuts or walnuts. Since humans are rarely able to beat other critters to the fallen nuts, they tend to harvest by picking the low-hanging fruit from the tree, dealing with the prickly spines as well as they can.

There is an unrelated tree/nut that might be confused with chestnut — the Buckeye or Horse Chestnut. Buckeye nuts, which are NOT edible, are considerabky larger and do not have the pointy end. The differences are evident in this picture (chestnut on the left; buckeye on the right).

My harvesting is limited so far this year to collecting a few for “study purposes.” I have found that the bur can be opened without pain to me or damage to the nuts by fairly gently rolling a bur under one’s boot.

Visitors to Eliza Howell often ask whether something is edible. The evidence is clear that chestnuts are prized as food by both wildlife and humans.

I am hoping that, one of these days, I will be able to confirm that the park deer are getting their fair share, as they get ready for rutting season