Tiny Praying Mantises Emerge – after 8 Months

Last September, my colleague Kevin Murphy and I spent hours finding and watching dozens of Chinese Praying Mantises in the fields of Eliza Howell Park. They were nearing the end of their season — and their lives — and their last couple of weeks include mating and egg laying. The only survivors for the following year are the eggs encased and attached to plants judged sturdy enough to remain standing through the winter.

Since September, we have checked occasionally on a number of these egg cases (oothecae) and were pleased to see that they appeared to remain intact.

During the Fall and Winter and early Spring, the eggs hatch and the young grow inside the egg cases into very small versions of the adult, but without wings. We have been waiting to see them emerge, not knowing exactly when this would happen or whether we would actually be able to observe it, since they disperse quickly.

On May 17, Kevin spotted one hanging from an egg case.

We expected to see them energe in large numbers, not one at a time. Was this one the first to emerge from the case or the one remaining after all the others had hurried away to get started on their unencased lives?

On May 21, I came by at the right time and found an egg case open with many departing mantises. As I watched, they quickly climbed to a branch to get away. (Emerging mantises are hungry and have been known to eat other egg case graduates.)

Eight months is a long time inside, when the total time from egg being laid to death is only 12 months.

Over the summer, the mantises will slowly grow until they reach full adult size. Then, in September, they will seek others out to prepare for another year, another generation.

We will be there, to observe the cycle continue and to try to gain additional knowledge and understanding of these fascinating insects.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird: Male Territoriality

I saw the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the spring in Eliza Howell Park on May 4 this year.

As usual, the first one seen was a male; males return to their breeding ground earlier than females.

And as usual, I saw it perched on a bare branch of a fairly small dead tree. Males quickly claim a territory and watch over it carefully.

Photo by Margaret Weber

Over the last 10 years or so, I have come to expect to see a male Ruby-throated Hummingbird perched in the same tree on a daily basis. He is not there every time I walk past, but more often than not.

(Individual hummingbirds do not normally live 10 years, so I think this is at least the second generation claiming this spot.)

When the hummingbird in the tree is pointed out on nature walks, visitors often express surprise at seeing one perched. They are used to seeing a hovering bird, at flowers or at a feeder, not one watching zealously over its territory from a favorite perch.

Photo by Margaret Weber

The male’s role is pretty much defined by its territoriality. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds do not form breeding pairs. When a female enters the territory, the male performs a courtship display. If the female is interested, they mate.

And that is the end of the male’s role in parenting. The female makes the nest on her own, does all the incubating, feeds the young by herself.

The male watches over his territory.

Photo by Margaret Weber

While there is one tree that seems to be used most frequently, the male also perches on other open branches as it performs its sentry duty. It quickly darts from one to another.

Photo by Margaret Weber

The number of perching sites that I have been seeing during the past week and the distance between one end of the route and the other suggest that there are now likely two adjacent territories patrolled by two different males. I’m not yet sure.

Occasionally stopping to nectar at a flowering tree, the male quickly returns to sentry duty.

Photo by Margaret Weber

Female hummingbirds have just returned. Soon they will begin nesting. Females defend their own nesting territory, if needed, but for the most part they prefer not to be seen.The males, on the other hand, will continue to perch out in the open for about the next 4 months.

Many bird species are territorial. The male Ruby-throated Hummingbird seems to specialize in it.

Matching Tree Flowers to Fruit / Seeds

As I walk by various deciduous trees in Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year, I often look for flowers. This spring, as in previous years, I am reminded how different the flowers are among the different species.

Sometimes the flowers or the pattern of flowering provides an indication of what the fruiting bodies will look like, but definitely not always. I recently reviewed some of my photos of the flowers and fruit / seeds of trees and matched them in six species.

Eastern Cottonwood

Cottonwood trees are either male or female, with different types of flowers. Only the females produce the cottony seeds seen here.

Amur Honeysuckle

This shrub or small tree is common in parts of Eliza Howell and is attention-getting in both flowering and fruiting seasons.

Bladdernut

Bladdernut is another small tree, found in a cluster along only one part of the river in the park (as far as I know). It is easily overlooked and neither the flower nor the fruit stands out.

Black Cherry

Black Cherry is a large tree that is easily recognized both by its flowers and by its fruit. It is a magnet for birds during fruiting season.

Chestnut

I am not certain of the precise species of this chestnut, but it is not the historical American Chestnut. I have often thought that, if one didn’t know this is a chestnut tree, the flowers would not lead one to make the connection.

American Beech

The seeds, beechnuts, are small and, though numerous, can easily be missed unless one is close to the fruiting branches. I am aware of only one mature beech tree in Eliza Howell that has branches low enough for this kind of look.

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There is an old saying that “a tree is known by its fruit,” suggesting that one should not go by appearances but by results. From my perspective (wanting to recognize and appreciate the trees in all seasons), I hope to know trees by their flowers as well as by their fruit, just two different seasons in their annual cycle.


Two Spring Blue Butterflies

On sunny days at this time of the year a few early butterflies are flying in Eliza Howell Park. Among them are two tiny blue ones that challenge one’s butterfly-watching skills.

They usually fly rapidly and close to the ground, in the typically erratic butterfly pattern, and then alight. And seem to disappear.

When perched, their wings are closed and the distinctive blue shade that had caught my attention is hidden.

Recently, I was able to locate two different ones for a closer look.

There is just a hint here, in the slightly open wings, of the blue that gives this species its nane: Spring Azure.This picture was taken in late April, when they first begin to appear, having spent the winter in chrysalis form.

Spring Azure has a wingspan of an inch to a little more. Even at this small size it is probably slightly larger than the species in the next photo, taken at the beginning of May.

This is an Eastern Tailed-Blue, probably newly emerged. They also tend to close their wings when not flying, but sometimes show (some) blue

E. Tailed-Blues have 2 orange spots together on the undersides of their hind wings, by the little “tails.” A picture taken last year shows this quite clearly.

Spring Azure has neither the orange nor the tail.

Spring Azure is usually around only from late April until June, but there is a Summer variation (referred to as Summer Azure) that can be seen later. It is very similar and in the butterfly literature is sometimes referred to as a subspecies and sometimes as a separate species.

E. Tailed-Blue has a longer seasonal presence, which provides more opportunity to get a picture of it showing its blue while perched.

Among the more than 30 butterfly species that visit Eliza Howell each year there are very few blue ones.These two are the most common and it is exciting to see them both early in the season — despite the fact that we usually only get a glimpse of the blue when they fly by.

…..

Looking ahead:

It will be weeks before I am likely to see my favorite larger blue butterfly, a Red-spotted Purple.


The First Week in May: Expected Return of Six Nesting Species

Nature is cyclic, with many events occurring at approximately the same time each year. This is especially true in bird migration.

One of the advantages of taking repeated nature walks in the same park year after year is the recognition of local migration patterns. Based on what I have been able to observe and record in the past, I know that there is a strong likelihood that the following six species will return to Eliza Howell Park the first week in May and will be here for the breeding season.

Baltimore Oriole. In the last 5 years (2016 – 2020), the first-of-the-season appearance has been on these dates: May 5, May 1, May 4, May 1, May 4.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Several pairs of Baltimore Orioles build their fascinating hanging nests in mature trees in the park each year, beginning before the end of May. These nests are one of the highlights of the annual Detroit Audubon “nesting birds field trip” to Eliza Howell.

Eastern Kingbird. In the last five years, my first-of-the-year sightings have been on May 5, May 2, May 7, May 1, May 15.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Eastern Kingbirds also nest in mature trees in Eliza Howell, frequently selecting American Sycamore trees. Their nests are usually constructed on horizontal branches.

Great Crested Flycatcher. In the last five years, my first-of-the-year sightings have been on May 7, April 29, May 1, May 7, May 4.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

A small number of Great Crested Flycatchers spend the breeding season in the park and, while their behavior clearly indicates that they reproduce here, I have not actually located a nest.They nest in cavities in trees — such as old woodpecker holes — and seem to disappear into the woods while I am distracted by other nesting species in the more open areas of the park.

Gray Catbird. In the last five years, the first-of-the-year sightings have been on May 7, May 3, May 4, April 30, April 30.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Catbirds are regular nesters in Eliza Howell, placing their nests in thickets, usually near more open areas. The nests are normally under 10 feet high, which means that I have several times had the opportunity to look into a nest and see the very attractive blue eggs.

Rose-breasted Grosbeak. In the last five years, I first spotted one on May 5. May 1, May 4, May 1, May 4.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Rose-breasted Grosbeaks nest at a higher level than Catbirds, but lower than Baltimore Orioles and Kingbirds. They prefer small trees with many branches. Their nests are not as sturdily constructed as many other species; I have on occasion been able to see right through one. But they breed successfully.

Warbling Vireo. In the last five years, I have seen a Warbling Vireo in EHP first on May 5, April 26, May 7, May 5, May 7.

Photo courtesy of Margaret Weber.

Pairs of Warbling Vireos nest in Eliza Howell each year, attaching their small hanging cup-like little nests to forks of small branches, often on the outer edges of large trees. It is always exciting to find one of these nests when it is low enough to see the bird on it.

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There are other species that come just for the breeding season, some earlier than the first week of May and some a little later. But right now, with May Day only a few days away, I am looking forward to welcoming these six. They will provide a great deal of bird-watching enjoyment in next couple months.

Pussytoes, Dutchman’s Breeches, Dryad’s Saddle: Memorable Names

Perhaps because I am an ameuteur naturalist writing primarily for other scientific laypersons, I use the common American names in my observations, not the more precise Latin names..

Many of the common names are based on appearance, what someone was reminded of when encountering this part of American nature at some point in the past. Recently I spent some time enjoying the spring appearance of two flowers and a mushroom that have interesting common names.

One is Pussytoes, a small flower that blooms at this time of the year in the open areas of Eliza Howell.

The flower is named “Pussytoes” because the flower looks like the foot of a kitten or a cat. (However, when the stamens are evident – next picture – the flower looks more like a pin cushion. But there is a different flower that is named Pincushion.)

I am always excited to find Dutchman’s Breeches, in part because it is an uncommon flower In Eliza Howell. This picture is of the only one that I have located so far this spring.

The name comes from the fact that the flower shape reminded someone of the breeches (pants ending just below the knees) worn in the 18 century, by men in Holland

I have written about Dryad’s Saddle previously, a favorite mushroom (or shelf fungus) that appears on dead trees, stumps, and logs every spring. They have just this week begun to appear.

The “saddle” part of the name comes from the shape of the mushroom. And presumably the Dryads of Greek mythology were small enough to be able ride on this size saddle.

The mushroom has another common name — “Pheasant Back” — based on the resemblance of the mushroom’s markings to pheasant feathers.

Another example of a flower named by its look is Trout Lily, also blooming at this time in the park. In this case, it is the leaves rather than the bloom, that led to the name. The leaf markings suggested the blotches on a Brook Trout (Brown Trout).

Despite the lack of precisen and despite the questionable comparisons, I expect I will continue to use the recognized common names in these postings. They are more interesting, they sometimes have historical interest, and they are easier to remember than the scientific names.

“Dicentra cucullaria” doesn’t seem to communicate in the same way that “Dutchman’s Breeches” does.

Black Cherry: Celebrating an Aging Park Species

Each spring, when the Cherry Blossom Festival takes place in Washington, D.C., I think of other cherry trees, the Wild Black Cherry trees in Eliza Howell Park.

Black Cherries are quite different from the smaller ornamental trees, mostly of Japanese origin, now blooming in Washington. They are the largest of native Cherry species and many of the ones in the park have grown both up and out.

There are approximately 20 of these cherries found within the road loop in the park and they are now beginning to leaf out. When they blossom in May, I often seek out low-hanging branches to get a good look at the flowers.

The fruit is edible (when the seeds have been removed), though not everyone finds them tasty. The birds, though, are big fans of these berries! In fact, I first started paying careful attention to these trees when I saw all the different species (including many Cedar Waxwings) foraging in them one August years ago.

The fruit ripens from red to black — if the birds don’t eat them all before they turn.

The few Black Cherries that I have seen in the wooded areas of the park tend to have a single main trunk and straight vertical growth. In the open areas where most are found, they often have multiple trunks, spreading to take advantage of the available space.

While Black Cherry wood has long been used in making furniture and cabinets, their greatest value, in my mind, is how they support a large number of animal species. Examples include Baltimore Orioles nesting among the hanging leaves and the larvae of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail, a common butterfly of Eliza Howell, feeding on these leaves.

In the last couple years, it has become evident that these trees are getting old. Most are still quite healthy, but some are not. Only a small part of the tree in this photo is leafing out this spring.

There is so much to celebrate about the Black Cherry trees of Eliza Howell Park. And, in midst of celebration, it is time to think about and plan for the next generation.

Bluebirds Nesting: April Delight

Eastern Bluebirds nest in Eliza Howell Park regularly, but in quite small numbers. They usually arrive for the beeeding season in March and begin nesting in early April. While a pair might use one of the bird nesting boxes that have been placed in the park, most seem to prefer finding a tree cavity in a wooded area, away from viewers like me.

This week I found a pair making a nest in a cavity in a small dead tree near the river. Since it is a very uncommon experience for me to find Bluebirds nesting in tree cavities, I asked Margaret for a photograpic record.

All the photos below were taken by Margaret Weber. Thank you.

The Bluebird is a popular bird in American culture, often featured in songs, poetry, and greeting cards. It is associated with happiness, with love, with beauty, and with sprng. The blue of the male (above) is striking, especially in sunshine in the breeding season. The less bright female is also lovely.

Almost exactly one year ago I watched as a pair of Black-capped Chickadees were working at this location, enlarging this hole for a possible nesting site. They might have started the excavation themselves but it looked to me at the time that the surface opening was not new, that it might have been started another year by Downy Woodpeckers. So the Bluebirds are the second or the third bird species to claim this cavity.

The nest, mostly of dried grass, is constructed inside the cavity primarily by the female, though the male brings some of the material to her.

Soon the female will begin laying eggs, perhaps a total of four. She does most, but not all, of the incubation, which lasts up to 19 days. Both parents tend the young in the nest, for up to three weeks. The male sometimes feeds the fledglings while the female starts incubating a second brood. (Bluebirds usually have 2 broods a year, which is perhaps a reason for starting this early in the spring.)

But today they are still nest building.

They are a delight to watch. And given the association with happiness and love, it seems especially fitting that the stem in the beak of the male (second last picture) is looped in the shape of a heart.

Honoring the Yellow Violet

Whenever I see the first blooming violet of the year in Eliza Howell Park, as I did this week, I think of the lines from Bobby Vinton’s song from about 60 years ago:

“Roses are red, my love / Violets are blue….”

Probably the primary reason for thinking of these lyrics is that the first violet in the park each year is not blue. It is yellow.

The Yellow Violet is the second woodland wildflower to bloom this year in the park, following Spring Beauty, which I wrote about last time.

Blue Violets are more common, but they come a little later. There are often found in the fields and in yards and are not restricted to woodlands. To me they look more purple than blue; the color violet was named for the flower, I understand.

There are other varieties and colors of violets, as well. This collage is of 4 I found on an April day last year.

Today I am honoring the Yellow Violet, a species that I was not aware of for a good part of my life. It thrives in the same rich organic Eliza Howell locations that are home to Spring Beauty and other early spring flowers, ike Cut-leaved Toothwort and Trout Lily.

Yellow Violet plants grow in clusters and often there is only one flower to a plant. The flowers are very small, maybe 1/2 inch across, on plants that early on the season are very close to the ground.

In this close-up look, it is easy to note the purple or brownish lines that are found most abundantly on the lowest of the 5 petals. Not quite so easy to see is the fact that the side petals are a little “bearded” or hairy.

The Yellow Violet (sometimes called Downy Yellow Violet) is native to almost all of eastern and central North America, though found only in some areas of each of these states and provinces. (The range map is from the USDA.)

The best time to view any of the early spring woodland wildflowers is on a sunny day, after the blooms have opened up after closing up overnight. On a cloudy day, they usually open only partially, as shown here, making the tiny flowers even more difficult to find.

Most people know that not all roses are red. Probably fewer know that not all violets are blue.

The poet William Cullen Bryant knew the Yellow Violet well and placed it very precisely in this part of spring.

“When beechen buds begin to swell / And woods the blue-bird’s warble know / The Yellow Violet’s modest bell / Peeps from last year’s leaves below.”

(Opening lines of “The Yellow Violet,” 1821)

Spring Beauty Is Rightly Named

I don’t usually see the first woodland wildflower blooms in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park until a week or more into April, but the emergence of these perennials is weather-dependant. The recent warm sunny days have resulted in the first blooms along the forest path — the tiny Spring Beauty.

They are easy to miss, starting to bloom when the plant is only 2 – 3 inches tall; the small flowers are less than a half inch across. They are, however, definitely worth a close-up look, even if it means getting down on one’s knees.

The flowers vary in color from white to pink, with darker pink veins. They have 5 petals and 5 stamens ending in pink anthers.

The Spring Beauty grows among fallen leaves and twigs/limbs, in organically rich soil. Almost always they grow in the company of other spring wildflowers, but they are the first to bloom. This is the forest floor where the ones photographed today are growing, as seen from a standing position. One does need to stop and look in oder to see them.

Spring Beauty is a native wildflower of Eastern North America, blooming mostly under deciduous trees before they leaf out. (This range map is from the USDA.)

Depending on the weather, Spring Beauty may be blooming here for about a month. One can see the clusters of flower buds not open.

Many of the summer prairie wildflowers are big and bold beauties. Most of the earliest woodland flowers are delicate beauties. Spring Beauty introduces the season of the delicate beauties.