Groundnut and Wild Cucumber: Two August Blooming Vines

In the last several days, I have been paying attention to two vines that are now flowering, two species that I have not been aware of in Eliza Howell Park prior to this summer.

One is Groundnut, sonetimes called Potato Bean or Hopnis (and other names). This Groundnut (not to be confused with the groundnut that we usually call peanut) is a native perennial that has been used as a source of human food for centuries.

As perhaps can be seen from the flower, Groundnut is a plant in the bean family.

Groundnut vines climb on other plants by twining, wrapping around and up branches of shrubs.

The beans, which will mature in the Fall, are edible, but it is especially the underground tubers, sometimes compared to small potatoes, that have been so long and frequently used as a food by many different native Americans, who then passed on this knowledge to European immigrants.

Now, in the middle of August, the vines look like this.

The second vine that I am watching is Wild Cucumber, an annual that is also native to this part of North America. Though the name might suggest that it is edible, the fruit is considered poisonous.

The numerous small white flowers are evident — even conspicuous — where they have climbed in a blackberry bramble.

Each of the flower stems contains clusters of many tiny male flowers.

A single female flower is found at the base of the flower stems. When fertilized, it will develop into a spiny cucumber-like pod, perhaps two inches in length. When ripe, it will “explode,” spreading seeds.

Right now, the individual female flower looks like this.

Though I have no idea how the seed that produced this vine came to Eliza Howell, I am impressed by its vigorous growth since spring. It climbs with the use of tendrils.

When I was anticipating my August observations this year, I did not expect that I would be focused on either of these two vines.

After hundreds of nature walks in the park, I continue to see something different often, even frequently. There is always more to observe and learn here!

Pollinating Beetles on Goldenrods: Locust Borer and Goldenrod Soldier Beetle

A few of the many goldenrods in Eliza Howell Park are starting to bloom and I have modified my walk to include these early blooming patches. Goldenrods attract many insects, which in turn attract me.

Pollinating insects include bees, wasps, flower flies, butterflies, and moths. In goldenrod season I am reminded that some beetles are also active pollinators.

Today I was watching two very attractive pollinating beetles in a goldenrod patch. One is known as the Locust Borer.

The Locust Borer is so named because it uses the Black Locust tree as the only plant species for the growing the next generation. It lays its eggs in a crevice in the bark of a Black Locust tree and, when hatched, the larvae burrow into the tree to spend the winter. (It does not use the Honey Locust trees also found in Eliza Howell.)

I do not know why, but it seems to favor goldenrod flowers when feeding on nectar and pollen.This preference makes for some good photo opportunities.

The other pollinating beetle I was watching today is the Goldenrod Soldier Beetle.

“Soldier beetles” are named that because the wings on their back reminded someone of the long coats worn by soldiers in the eighteenth century (“the redcoats”). This particular soldier beetle is identified with goldenrods because it forages frequently on goldenrods — where it sometimes meets the larger Locust Borer.

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle adults also eat small insects and caterpillars, though much of their time is spent nectaring.

And though they are named for their foraging on goldenrod blooms, they can be found on other flowers as well. This one was on Joe Pye flowers today when I took a closeup.

I am pleased each summer to see these two colorful beetles when they appear, almost always in August. It is not often, though, that I get to see them in such close proximity.

Note the long horns on both.

Different species of goldenrods will be blooming over the next several weeks. And I will likely have more to report follwing my walks among them!

Twelve-spotted Skimmer: A Favorite Dragonfly

If I remember correctly, in the 250 posts in this series I have not once focused on an individual dragonfly species found in Eliza Howell Park. It is time to do so.

Dragonflies are strong flyers and fierce predators — “flying dragons.” The adults eat only live prey and almost always catch it on the wing.

One of the most visible species in the park is the large Twelve-spotted Skimmer.

This is a male on a perch, ready to fly out after an insect. Its name comes from the twelve dark spots on the wings, three on each of four wings.

The female looks a little different. She also has 12 darks spots on the wings, but not the light spots.

Twelve-spotted Skimmers are about 2 inches long and found in southern Canada as well as in every one of the 48 contiguous US states.

They are only found near water, however, because they, like all other dragonflies, spend the larval stage of their lives in water. In Eliza Howell Park, I usually see the adults from June through August.

Dragonflies are characterized by 2 pairs of veined wings, transparent but often with colored markings.

When I see a flying dragonfly, especially a large one, I try to follow its flight to see if it goes to a perch. If it does, I have a chance for a better look, through binoculars if needed. The various pictures used here were taken when the perches were close enough for photos.

Recently I was watching various activities around the enlarged meadow pond. Dragonflies and birds were both hunting the insects the pond attracts.

Dragonflies are, of course, themselves insect prey for the birds that are able to catch them. As I watched, an Eastern Kingbird flew from its perch and snagged a Twelve-spotted Skimmer. The dragonflies are skilled hunters, but they are also hunted.

There are a variety of dragonflies in the park, including at least two other, less common, skimmers: Widow Skimmer…

… and Common Whitetail.

Dragonflies are fascinating and often colorful. They might be compared to birds and butterflies as fauna that are enjoyable to watch and photograph.

I have not yet been part of a “dragonfly watching” group walk at Eliza Howell Park. When that happens, I am sure I will be looking for Twelve-spotted Skimmers. I have no doubt others will be as attracted to them as I am.

Signs of Late Summer

It is still July, but I couldn’t help noticing today during my walk in Eliza Howell Park that the end of the Summer is on the horizon.

The first Wild Black Cherry tree I came to was alive with noisy Robins, enthusiastically eating the fruit that ripens in late Summer.

Shortly after, I came upon a patch of blooming Wingstem, a tall wildflower that has its turn when many of the flowers that dominate in July are going to seed.

The most prominent wildflowers of late Summer are, of course, Goldenrods. They too were announcing today that their time is arriving.

Fall Webworm (note “Fall” in the name) is a moth best known for the webbing the caterpillars make in trees to protect themselves as they feed on the leaves. These webs are now appearing at the ends of some limbs, though the caterpillars are still so tiny that they can barely be seen inside. The webs are another sign Fall is approaching.

This appears to be a good year for Shagbark Hickory nuts, at least on the tree I visit regularly. The Fall- ripening nuts are plentiful and, in a sign of the impending end of Summer, already appear to be full size.

For the last month or so, Common Milkweed has been one of the most popular flowers in the park (popular with both insects and humans). Now many of these plants are developing seed pods, getting ready for the end of the growing season.

A number of trees that disperse their seeds in the Fall are clearly getting ready to let loose, including Sugar Maple

…and American Basswood.

The wildflowers and insects (especially butterflies) have so dominated my Eliza Howell time this month that I haven’t been thinking very much about what comes next.

Today I took some time to look at the signs and to start anticipating more of the annual wonders and joys as the cycle continues.

Red-spotted Purple: Beautiful with Wings Open or Closed

July is the best butterfly month of the year in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park. This year I have been especially pleased to get many good looks at one of my favorites — the butterfly called Red-spotted Purple.

Often when I am trying to get a good picture of a nectaring butterfly, I wait for it to open its wings so I catch see it at its most colorful. With this species, I am undecided whether it is more attractive with wings open or with wings closed.

It is fairly large (the wingspan is 3 – 3 1/2 inches) and, at first sight, it might remind one of a swallowtail. But it has no “tail” and, after meeting it a couple times, most butterfly watchers quickly learn to recognize it whenever it shows.

It is far from the most common butterfly in Eliza Howell Park, but this month I have had sveral good viewing opportunities. As is true of a good number of other species, it is attracted to Purple Coneflowers (above pictures) and to Wild Bergamot (below).

The common English name seems a little misleading. To me, it appears to be a blue butterfly with orange spots. I have to admit, however, that its questionable name has never lessened my enjoyment of it.

I can usually expect to see Red-spotted Purple between June through August, but only occasionally. Their range includes most of eastern U. S. and a part of the southwest. (The range map is from Gardens With Wings).

The Red-spotted Purple uses several different host plants for caterpillar food. One of these is Wild Black Cherry tree, of which there are a number in the park. The caterpillars overwinter in a hibernaculum (rolled leaf) on the host plant.

Black Cherry is one of my favorite trees, one of my stopping spots on many walks during the year. It seems fitting that a favorite tree serves as a host plant for a favorite butterfly!

I will try to explore this connection a little more at some orher time. For now, I am enjoying whatever opportunities I have for admiring the adult Red-spotted Purple.

Bird Nests: Different Styles and Locations

Every year I make note of the active bird nests that I see in Eliza Howell Park. The dozens of nests located in 2021 were made by 20 different species.

One of the fascinating aspects of nest watching is learning more about the varying places and structures used by different species. Here are seven examples from this year.

Eastern Bluebird Nest first observed April 5.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber

Bluebirds nest in cavities, which they do not excavate themselves. Given their practice of selecting previously made cavities within several feet of the ground, they are easily attracted to human-constructed nesting boxes. This pair was using an old woodpecker or chickadee hole in a snag by the river.

Nest-making consists of placing a loose cup of grasses and small twigs in the hole, which the pair in the photo is doing.

Killdeer. Nest first observed April 6

Killdeer nest on the ground, out in the open, in short grass or in a sandy or gravely location. They do not really make a nest, just a shallow scrape, lined, if at all, by pebbles or twigs or whatever is nearby. Their protection strategy relies largely on camouflage. Even when I know that they are nesting in a certain area, I am not always able to find the nest.

Baltimore Oriole. Nest first observed May 15

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

I first spotted a Baltimore Oriole arriving in the park from its winter grounds on May 1 this year. Two weeks later they were nesting.

Baltimore Orioles build their nests in large trees, preferring those with hanging branches thick with leaves. In Eliza Howell, they use Eastern Cottonwood trees more than any species. The nest shown here, approximately 20 feet high, was in a Cottonwood that had been the site of a nest each of the last four years.

Baltimore Oriole nests are large pouches, about 6 inches long, bound to and suspended from forked twigs usually near the end of a branch. The female weaves long plant fiber and other materials into a deep cup.

The nest is entered from the top. In this photo, the female is bringing food to the nestlings.

Barn Swallow Nest first observed May 15.

Barn Swallows usually build their nests against a vertical surface, often on a upper ledge in buildings or other structures. In Eliza Howell Park, they nest under a bridge over the river and under shelters (this one was under a shelter).

The nest is a shallow and open cup, made of mud pellets mixed with some plant material. It is lined, minimally, with feathers.

The birds in this photo are young ones, about ready to leave the nest, still being fed by the adults.

Warbling Vireo Nest first observed May 19.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy

Warbling Vireos nest in large deciduous trees, often high and almost always well out on a branch. Fortunately for nest watching, this one was well under 20 feet high.

The nest is a small open hanging cup, attached to twigs at the top. Vireos are small and, as can be seen in the photo, both the head and the tail of the incubating adult extend beyond the edge of the nest. The soft nest is constructed of a variety of materials — like plant down and grasses and lichen and hair — with spider webs helping to hold it together.

Song Sparrow. Nest first observed May 21.

Song Sparrows nest on the ground (as in this case) or in low shrubs / trees. The outer layer of the nest is made of dead grasses and other plant stems and finer grasses are used for the lining.

This nest was well hidden, under plant stems.I found it when the bird flew out at my feet as I walked through a part of the wildflower field.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Nest first observed May 23.

Photo courtesy of Kevin Murphy.

Blue-gray Gnatcatchers nest in Eliza Howell Park every year and every year I try to find one of their nests that is visible enough to show to the participants of the annual Detroit Audubon nesting bird field trip here. Visiters find Gnatcatcher nests fascinating — as do I.

Some nests are built in a fork, but many saddle a branch, like this one. The nest is a compact rounded cup, deeper than it is wide. It is built of plant down, fine grasses, feathers, and other material, bound together and attached to the branch by spider webs. The outside is covered with lichen flakes, making it look like the branch on which it is placed.

The nest pictured here is leaning, but it was successful. The adult is feeding nestlings, who later fledged.

These seven nests provide a sense, I think, of the diversity found in the placement and construction of bird nests, a diversity that may account for the fact that I never tire of nest watching.


Horse Nettle: Flowers, Prickles, Fruit, Toxicity

When I walk through the open areas of Eliza Howell Park these summer days, I often focus on flowering plants. One that is currently blooming is Horse Nettle.

Horse Nettle in the park is usually only about two feet high and not very conspicuous. A closer look clearly reveals the 5 petals (white to sometimes pale purple) with yellow anthers.

Originally found in southeast North America, Horse Nettle has spread north, being in Michigan since about 1890. It is is often found in fields and pastures, and spreads by both seeds and rhizomes.

It has often gotten attention — and been considered a “weed” — because it is poisonous to grazing animals and it retains its toxicity in dried hay used as winter feed. Mammals tend to avoid eating it when other food is available, however, in part because of the prickly spines found on the stems.

It was the fruit that first led me to want to know this species better. The berries ripen from green to yellow and look somewhat like small yellow tomatoes.

This photo is from October.

The berries later lose much of their firmness but hang on the stems into the winter.

All parts of Horse Nettle are toxic. It contains solanine, which affects the digestive system. Grazing mammmals (like horses) are at risk of eating the leaves and humans are more at risk of eating the berries. The most serious consequences result from more than minimal consumption.

As is often the case with plants that have an effect on human functioning, Horse Nettle has historically sometimes been used medicinally.

Many of the wildflowers in Eliza Howell become more fascinating as I get to know them better. Horse Nettle is one.

Wild Bergamot in Bloom: Attracting Butterflies and Bumblebees

One of my favorite Eliza Howell Park wildflowers is now in bloom — Wild Bergamot. It is very easy to find patches of these three-feet tall plants sporting multitudinous lavender blossoms.

Wild Bergamot, a plant of the mint family that is sometimes called Bee Balm, is a favorite of mine in large part because it is a magnet for fascinating insects, especially pollinators. I frequently stop at one of these patches, knowing that there is an excellent chance of seeing butterflies and an assurance of seeing other insects.

Butterflies that I have been seeing the last four days, camera in hand, include:

Great Spangled Frittilary

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail

Silver-spotted Skipper

Black Swallowtail

Wild Bergamot blooms for about a month, attracting an increasing variety of insects as the month progresses. At present, the most numerous visitors are bumblebees, present in great number.

Bumblebees crawl over the flowers, gathering pollen.

There are many different kinds of bumblebees (19 have been recorded in Michigan) and I am not able to identify them by individual species.

Bumblebees are among the largest of bees and, like honeybees, live together as a social unit. But unlike honeybees, which were introduced from Europe shortly after Europeans came to North America, bumblebees are native here.They appear to be the primary pollinator of many wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park.

Though bumblebees may look scary, they are so focused on pollen that they can be approached very closely without danger as they work the flowers.

The flowering of Wild Bergamot signals that the wildflower and butterfly season is definitely underway. The next few weeks is the time to experience the wealth of wildflowers and to admire all the insects they attract.

The Detroit Audubon Wildflower and Butterfly field trip to Eliza Howell Park is scheduled for July 31 this year.

Joe Pye Weed, Purple Coneflower, Ironweed, and a variety of other flowers will be getting attention very soon, but Wild Bergamot deserves the focus these early days of July.

Red Milkweed Beetle: A Total Milkweed Life Cycle

When the Common Milkweed begins to bloom — which is usually near the end of June in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park — it is the time to start seeing Red Milkweed Beetles. Their whole life revolves around Milkweed plants.

There are many Common Milkweed plants in the park, often in patches, and it is easy to spot Red Milkweed Beetles on a walk through any of the patches this week.They feed on all parts of the plant — leaves, buds, stems.

Red Milkweed Beetles are in the longhorned beetles family, named for the length of the antennae. The antennae are right by the eyes, giving the head a very interesting appearance.

The adult beetles have recently emerged from the soil and will spend much of the summer eating. They do not congregate in large numbers on any one plant (flying from one milkweed to another) with the result that they do little damage to the plant.

In eating milkweed, they accumulate alkaloid toxins in their bodies, just as Monarch butterflies and some other milkweed insects do, making them nearly immune to predators. And, like the other insects that have this milkweed advantage, they advertise their toxicity by their red/orange color.

They don’t need to hide or use camouflage for protection.

This is the season for eating, and it is also the season for mating. Females lay their eggs on milkweed stems by the ground. When hatched, the larvae bore into the stems or dig into the ground and work their way to the roots, where they spend the winter. The adults die in the fall.

It appears this female is not interrupting her eating while mating.

Red Milkweed Beetles are completely dependent upon milkweed plants. Put differently, they specialize in milkweeds. They are common where milkweeds are common and not anywhere else.

I find it fascinating to observe and learn about the life cycles of different insects. This week Red Milkweed Beetle has been the focus of much of my attention.

Tawny Emperor and Hickory Hairstreak: A Good Butterfly Day

Now that Summer is here, butterflies are seen more frequently. Especially on sunny days, I am alert to flittering flights while walking in Eliza Howell Park, eager to see which species are active.

June 24 was sunny and a very good butterfly day.

Perhaps the best find of the day was this Tawny Emperor.

Southern Michigan is the northern edge of the Tawny Emperor’s geographical range, so they are not common here. I see one only occasionally.

Their color varies and I find this one, a little darker than many, very attractive. It was in the meadow, near the walking path.

The next unusual find was on the footbridge, resting on the metal railing. It is a Hickory Hairstreak.

Lepidopterists sometimes note that Hickory Hairstreak is “rarely seen.” This is only the second time I have found it in Eliza Howell and, since there are other Hairstreaks that are similar (especially Banded Hairstreak), I have consulted experts both times to confirm identification.

These two were the most most unusual sightings of the day, but others are also notable.

The Mourning Cloak, with its fascinating life cycle, is always good to see.

Rhe Mourning Cloak is not often photographed in this position; normally it is pictured from behind. So it might not be immediately recognizable.

Mourning Cloaks spend the Winter in hibernation as adults and emerge on the first warm days of the Spring, often being the first butterfly that I see. This year I saw the first one on March 27.

They lay eggs in the spring and this one has probably just energed from the chrysalis. It has a very long lifetime for a butterfly, 10 or 11months.

After feeding for a couple weeks in June-July, they estivate for the heart of the summer (in a state of torpor or dormancy), before being active again until winter hibernation. If it avoids predators and other threats, this same butterfly might brighten one of my Spring walks next year.

I also encountered a European Skipper feeding on Red Clover.

This is a much less dramatic find, but it is always satisfying to me when I recognize a particular Skipper among the many varieties that look so much alike. And any butterfly nectaring on Red Clover gets my attention.

This good butterfly day was also a good moth day. I saw and was able to get pictures of two colorful daytime flying moths.

One is Virginia Ctenucha.

The orange on the head is barely visible from this angle, but the metallic blue body is clear. As can be seen, this a nectaring moth. Though it is diurnal, I very rarely see it.

The other moth that presented itself was in the woodland, in a patch of nettles (the leaves stung my hands as I worked to get close enough for a picture).

It is called Leconte’s Haploa Moth.

The Leconte’s Haploa is about an inch long with a two inch wingspan. It is best known for its appearance. When the wings are held like this, it has reminded some of a crusaders shield.

There are some days when my nature walk leads to additional hours afterwards spent reviewing what I observed in the field. June 24 was one of these special days.