Another Visit to the Footbridge: The Familiar and the Unexpected

It was 17 degrees F with a light snow falling in the morning of the Martin Luther King holiday when I arrived in the park.

As is my typical practice in winter, I headed to the footbridge; it is always an interesting view and often a key location of avian activity. A few years ago, a group of neighborhood kids painted the metal railings of the bridge, making it stand out as one of the brightest spots in the park on a gray day like this.


As I walked onto the bridge, I looked upriver and saw a coyote trotting away along the left bank. Though it is not unusual for me to see signs that coyotes are in the park (see my December 2017 post, “After the Deer Died”), I rarely actually see them. This glimpse is the first in months.

Attending to movement at the edge of the river close to the bridge, I see that the birds that I have come to expect in this locale are here – Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals. At this time of the year, female and male Cardinals are often together, as they are today.


Photo by Margaret Weber


Photo by Margaret Weber

Changing weather can change the appearance of the Rouge River drastically. Following the cold spell in late December and early January, the river was completely frozen over. Then came warmer weather with rain. The water level rose rapidly, with water flowing both under and over the ice. When the weather turned cold recently, the river began to freeze again, before the water had fully receded. The result is uneven freezing and broken ice.


This stop on the bridge has included both the familiar/expected and the unexpected. These bird species are expected; the coyote is not; the appearance of the river surface is not typical, but it changes frequently with the winter weather, so it is difficult to know exactly what to expect.

The walk beyond the bridge included more of the familiar, including a visit to an old “friend,” a dead beech tree along the path, one of the landmarks I use in my notes for remembering the location of something observed (“near the old beech tree”). The top portion of the tree fell last summer.


The small bird that flitted up as I returned to the footbridge was no junco or chickadee. It was a Song Sparrow. Song Sparrows are summer residents in Eliza Howell and migrate south for the winter. Since the northern end of their winter range is not too far south of Detroit, they sometimes do show up in the park in the winter, though not often. This is the first one I have seen this winter is definitely unexpected.

Song Sparrows are well named; they do sing frequently from a branch perch. But they are not likely to sing before March here. Nevertheless, seeing one in winter can remind us that the singing Song Sparrow, as in this picture, will be the expected in a couple months.


Photo by Margaret Weber

This was my 1043rd documented nature walk in Eliza Howell Park and, as on so many of the others, I saw some things that I expected to see and I saw some things that I did not expect to see. I am eager to take the same walk again.


Eliza Howell Black Raspberries: Winter and Summer

Wild black raspberries grow well in Eliza Howell Park, but I confess that I am a little reluctant to broadcast the best locations for finding these plants. There is self-interest at work, of course; I am hoping to have continued access to the berries myself.

Black raspberries are sometimes called black caps and are very different in taste from blackberries, which also grow in Eliza Howell (and ripen a little later in the summer).

In the winter, the Eliza Howell raspberries that I pick look like this.


Each year I pick quarts of these luscious berries for eating fresh and, thanks to Margaret, for having jam for the entire year. Every time I eat a peanut butter and jam lunch, I am experiencing another reward of getting to know Eliza Howell Park well.


Raspberries are found in different locations in the park and getting a handful while on a walk near the beginning of July is not difficult for those who keep their eyes open and are willing to depart a little from the beaten path.

Getting lots of handfuls takes knowledge of where the berries are concentrated and takes, as well, a willingness to accept the reality that wholesale picking usually involves getting personal with thorns and mosquitoes. (While it is true that I am protecting my self-interest, the mosquitoes and thorns are very real, especially the mosquitoes.)

There have been 5 or 6 major concentrations of raspberry canes (bushes) that I have harvested over the years, but old hotspots die back and I have been able to find new spots from time to time. In June I start checking the most productive sites from the previous year, but almost always find that the berries are no longer common in the some of these locations. And then I might stumble on new finds.

The berries grow in clusters on arching thorny canes and, after white blossoms in the spring, the green berries become noticeable in early June.


Normally the berries in the clusters do not ripen all at once but one or two at a time, starting from the center. This means that picking is frequently one or two at a time, at which rate it takes a long time to pick a quart. The rate of ripening means that the same patch can be picked every 2 – 3 days. .


Sometimes, but not frequently, it happens that large cluster of berries is ripe to pick at one time. That means fun!


The raspberries grow in different environments, both in edges near open areas and deeper in some wooded locations. The berries in sunnier spots usually ripen earlier than those in the shade, which extends the total picking time to about three weeks, beginning in very late June (depending upon the weather up to that point in time, of course).

Now, I need to wrestle with the question of what to do if/when asked what the best locations are to pick these berries in Eliza Howell Park. Maybe I can describe how I cover myself in the heat of summer to protect from the mosquitoes and thorns. Or maybe I can explain how long it takes to pick enough for pie or jam. Or maybe I can point out exactly where to find the best berries???


Since January 1, 2005, I have taken over 1000 nature walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit.


In getting started on this project, I was influenced by the advice of different naturalists over the years: if you really want to get to know nature well, take the same walk repeatedly. Good advice. I am finding that repeated visits to the same area — and good record keeping — do lead to a much better knowledge of the flora and fauna and to a much clearer recognition of the ways nature changes with the seasons.

Shortly before she died in 1964, Rachel Carson wrote an essay entitled “The Sense of Wonder,” reflecting upon a child’s sense of wonder and the risk that, without nourishment, it will not last until adulthood.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full or wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later year, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”

My childhood was many years ago, but my feeling of wonder and awe, my love and enjoyment of nature, grows the more I observe, learn, and understand. This leads naturally to a desire to share these experiences with others.

Eliza Howell Park is a Detroit city park, large (about 250 acres) and includes a diversity of habitats. The Upper and Main branches of the Rouge River meet in the park, with bottomland that is flooded on many occasions. A significant portion of the park is wooded and there is a large open area spotted with mature trees.


The park is close to home and provides an excellent opportunity for me to experience the natural world in its wonder and excitement and beauty, right in the heart of a major urban area. I continue to be excited by what nature presents in season after season.