Common Redpoll: Bird Species #152

After walking a little closer today to get a better look at the small birds in the birch trees, a “Wow” escaped my lips. I was watching a flock of Common Redpolls, a species that I had not previously obseved in Eliza Howell Park in my 16 years of watching birds here.

I immediately called bird photographer Margaret. I know of her interest in photographing Redpolls and I was hoping she could provide a photo record of this special Eliza Howell occasion. Fortunately, she was able to come quickly.

Photo by Margaret Weber.

The Redpolls were energetically feeding on the copious birch seed — and in no hurry to leave.

Photo by Margaret Weber.

With their small bills, Redpolls are specialists at harvestong seeds from trees, flowers, and grasses. Birch tree seeds are a favorite winter food. I am always impressed by the ability of birds to locate scattered patches of desired plants after flying hundreds of miles in migration.

The Common Redpoll is a bird that breeds in the far North. While range maps indicate that this is part of their wintering grounds, they are not at all common here, usually rarely seen in southern Michigan. This is shaping up as an exceptional year, when they are much more common. Since “irruption” years, when more of the northern birds than normal head south, are thought to be caused by a diminished food crop back home, it is good to see these Redpolls finding an abundance of food here in Detroit.

(The map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

Redpolls, both females and males, have black chins and red foreheads. (“Poll” is an old English word for head.) Males have a pinkish wash on the breast.

Photo by Margaret Weber.

Redpolls are almost always found in flocks, at least in winter. Today’s flock was made up of about 20 individuals, interacting with one another whenever they took a break from eating.

Photo by Margaret Weber.

It is always exciting to find a different bird species in Eliza Howell Park and doubly exciting when the new species is not common in southeast Michigan.

I lnow this flock will move on soon, but, since many seeds remain on the birches, perhaps they will be around for a few days.

How Vines Climb: Four Methods

There are a variety of tree-climbing vines in Eliza Howell Park and lately I have been examining the ways in which different species climb trees and shrubs. I am aware of four climbing methods used by different vines in the park.

  1. Tendrils.

Some vines have tendrils, thin leafless growths, often in spiral form, that stretch out and wind around a support. Greenbrier, the green stem in this picture, is one example.

Wild Grape, one of the most common vines in the park, also climbs by tendrils. Grape tendrils tend to be forked. Here, it looks llike two different Grape stems are reaching out to each other for support.

Thick Grape vines can often be seen hanging from large trees, unattached to the tree trunks (different from Poison Ivy, which also grows high but adheres to the trunk — see below). The large and heavy Grape vines are attched high in the tree. In this picture, the Grape vine is on the right.

2. Twining.

A second method used by vines is twining, winding around a stem or limb or trunk like a rope. In Eliza Howell a good example of twining is Oriental Bittersweet.

Often several shoots of Oriental Bittersweet wind around the same tree or stem – and/or around one another.

3. Aerial roots.

Aerial roots are roots that grow from the plant above the earth surface. They are able to attach the vine to the surface of the tree trunk (or whatever surface it it climbing). In Poison Ivy, which clinbs with aerial roots, the effect is a hairy look.

Sometimes different vines grow on the same tree, providing a good opportunity to compare different climbing mechanisms. Here a Wild Grape is stretching its tendrils toward two large Poison Ivy vines. Note the hairy look of the Poison Ivy.

4. Adhesive disks.

Some vines climb trees by adhering to the trunks by using small adhesive disks. An example in the park is Virginia Creeper. Virginia Creeper grows right up the side of a tree, tight against it, as does Poison Ivy. but there are no “hairs,” no roots, visible. At first look, the vine’s support mechanism is not obvious.

Upon closer inspection, one can see the small tendrils that end in grasping disks. I have circled one side growth with adhesive disks that helps provide the support for this vine.

I usually identify the vines of Eliza Howell by their leaves and by their fruit (and sometimes by their bark). It is very helpful to have another method of identification in the leafless season, a season that is a great time to learn more about how the vines grow among the trees.

Frost on Flowers Gone to Seed

It was frosty when I started my walk today in Eliza Howell Park. Many of the wildflowers I have been observing during the summer and fall are still standing strong, topped with seeds rather than blooms, and today touched with frost.

Here are five pictures from this morning, each matched with a picture of the species in bloom earlier in the year.

Stagehorn Sumac: November 24 and July 19.

Ironweed: November 24 and July 18.

Queen Anne’s Lace: November 24 and August 19.

Rose: November 24 and July 7.

Culver’s Root: November 24 and July 22.

One cannot expect wildflowers to be as attractive in late fall as they are in their summer bloom but, with the frost visit today, these flowers-in-seed certainly have a beauty worth noting.

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