Tulip Tree: The Bud Opens

One tree I visit regularly in Eliza Howell Park is a tulip tree. Perhaps I should say the tulip tree, since I am aware of only one in the park. I described the tree in my post on June 2, 2018 (“Getting to Know the Tulip Tree”).

During the last month, the tulip tree has been a primary focus of my observations on opening tree buds.

On March 26, 2019, the tulip buds still appeared dormant, with the same look that they had had all winter.

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In early April, the changes began. Note the progression in the next pictures.

20190419_135724April 7

20190428_165732 April 17

20190428_165602 April 19

20190422_171422 April 22

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The “tulip” shape of the new leaves is now apparent.

In about a month, the flowers will be open. (This picture was taken May 29, 2018.)

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I expect to be there, watching and enjoying.

 

American Toads: A Few Wild Days, Then Solitary Again

My walks in Eliza Howell Park in the second half of April always include stops at the “Toad Breeding Pond.”

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When the weather gets to be just warm enough, male American Toads, having recently emerged from hibernation, head to the pond to call in females. I expect to hear/see them within a few days of April 20 (either before or after), usually beginning the day following a “warm” night rain.

On April 17 this year, there was a light rain at about 9 p.m. when the temperature was about 51 degrees, which counts as “warm,” and some toads were, in fact, present on April 18. The active breeding did not really begin until April 21, however, because the weather turned colder. The temperature did not get above 44 degrees on April 19 and April 20, too low for these cold-blooded animals to think about breeding.

The next three days (April 21, 22, 23) were warmer and filled with the loud calling of many voices and lots of activity, even in daytime.

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      Note: This toad photo and the next 3 below are courtesy of Margaret Weber

For 51 weeks in the year, toads are solitary and nocturnal (and they hibernate in burrows individually from November to April). During the brief breeding season, however, the sexually mature (2 or more years old) return to their natal pond, where the males compete in attempting to attract females by their calls.

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Some time is spent, of course, in considering the options or the competition.

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In mating, the male attaches himself to the back of the female and, while she lays eggs in the water (in strings), he releases sperm. Fertilization takes place outside the body.

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In 3 – 12 days (depending upon the temperature), the eggs hatch and the resulting tadpoles will spend up to 2 months in the pond before they complete metamorphosis and are able to leave the pond. Only a very small percentage survives the first year.

Last year egg-laying was later, followed by cold weather which delayed hatching. Then there was a May hot spell, leading to the drying up of the pond before the tadpoles were able to survive on land. (See “American Toad Breeding Pond: the 2018 Story,” July 23, 2018.)

So I was pleased to hear from another member of the Eliza Howell frog/toad survey team on April 21 this year that toads were calling in a different location in the park, an annually flooded area by the edge of the road, a spot that I am creatively identifying as “Toad Breeding Pond 2.” I don’t know how many years toads have been using this location, but they were present in large numbers this year and will probably continue to do so in the future.

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Typically, toads are loud and active in the breeding pond for 3-4 days. On April 24, all was quiet in both ponds. The adults have now gone their separate ways – till next April – catching insects mostly at night (the estimates are that one toad eats about 10,000 insects in the summer season), and hiding under leaves or logs in the daytime.

And I, instead of watching breeding adults, I hope to be watching tadpoles soon.

Cutleaf Toothwort: A Spring Flower with an Unusual Name

Cutleaf Toothwort is one of my favorites among the early wildflowers in Eliza Howell Park, a delicate woodland flower with a not-so-delicate name. It is beginning to bloom this week and will be finished blooming already in a couple weeks.

Note: The first public Eliza Howell nature walk of 2019 will include a look at this and some other spring wildflowers: Saturday, April 27, at 10:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome. We will meet near the nature trail, about ½ of the way around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance.  

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Cutleaf Toothwort (or Cut-leaved Toothwort) is a perennial that grows in moist soil that is undisturbed and rich with organic matter, typically found in areas that have dappled sunlight before they become shaded when the trees overhead have leafed out.

It often grows in patches and is quite common in Eliza Howell along the path in the woods.

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It gets to be several inches tall, with anywhere from 3 to 15 flowers bunched at the top of the stem. Each ½ inch flower has 4 white petals, sometimes tinged with pink. The flowers often hang down and may be only partially open on cloudy days.

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The “cutleaf” part of the name is clearly understandable when one looks at the leaves. “Toothwort” is less evident. “Wort” is a word used for a number of plants, especially those considered to have some medicinal value; an example is “St. John’s Wort.” There are a couple possible explanations for the “tooth” part of the name. One is that it is based on the reported use of the roots by some Native Americans to treat toothache. The most widespread explanation for “tooth” in the name, and the explanation that I usually give, is that the underground tuber resembles a tooth.

I try not to disturb native wildflowers growing in the park, but we have a little patch of Cutleaf Toothwort in our yard and I dug up a plant there.

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Cutleaf Toothwort is a true ephemeral perennial (short above-ground life cycle); about two months after the first growth appears, it has produced its seed, dies back, and does not show itself again until the next spring. It’s a plant to enjoy while I can.

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Other early woodland wildflowers that appear in Eliza Howell near the end of April include Spring Beauty, Trout Lily (2 types), Violet (a variety), and Wild Geranium. After a long winter, they are all most welcome. Cutleaf Toothwort is just one, but somehow it gets my special attention.

Spring Butterflies: Five of the Earliest

Butterfly season peaks in the summer, but a few begin to fly on warmer sunny days in the spring. Of the approximately 30 different species that I see each year in Eliza Howell Park, there are five that are always among the earliest to appear.

1.Mourning Cloak

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Butterflies have different ways of surviving the winter. Some few migrate; some overwinter as chrysalis and complete development in the spring; some hibernate as adults. Mourning Cloak is one that hibernates, under bark or a log, and emerges, as soon as the weather is warm enough, to feed on sap and rotten fruit and to get minerals and moisture from the soil. It looks much less colorful when the wings are folded.

2.Eastern Comma

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The butterflies that overwinter as adults locally are the earliest to take flight in the spring. Eastern Comma also hibernates and it, or Mourning Cloak, is usually the very first I see. Early in the spring, it feeds on sap and decaying organic material. Even later in the year, it is rarely seen on flowers.

The underwings are brown with a white mark in the general shape of a comma.

3.Spring Azure

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The Spring Azure is a blue butterfly that overwinters as chrysalis. It is very small and, when seen flying or with the wings open, the blue is striking. Whenever it allows me to take its picture, however, it has its wings closed and shows no blue at all. Early in the spring, the azure does not visit flowers, but later in the season it (or the subspecies Summer Azure) does. This picture was taken later in the year and is likely a Summer Azure.

4.Cabbage White

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One of only two non-native butterfly species that have become widespread in North America, Cabbage White also spends the winter as chrysalis. When the wings are open, the dark spots on the wings are evident as is the black on the tip. The name comes from the fact that Cabbage White caterpillars often feed on plants in the cabbage family.

5.Red Admiral

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The Red Admiral is one of the butterflies that migrate south for the winter. When the wings are folded, the insect is drab-looking, with only a small bit of orange showing. It too will take sap and decaying organic material until flowers bloom and then it is usually seen nectaring. The picture was taken in the summer.

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In July, when thousands of wildflowers are blooming in the fields of Eliza Howell, butterflies are numerous. During April, before the flowers bloom, there are only a few on some of the warmer sunny days. But for those of us eager to see butterflies again and to delight in the very fact that they are appearing again, the season begins.

Thinking April during Winter Walks

I enjoy nature walks in the winter in Eliza Howell Park, especially when there is snow on the ground, but for 2-3 months the seasonal changes are minimal. Plants and many animals are dormant and the number of birds present is the lowest of any time during the year. Nature’s year begins later in the calendar year in Detroit, in March rather than in January.

So, during my quiet winter walks, I sometimes find myself thinking ahead and anticipating some of the special times that will be coming later this year, some of the best times to visit the park to observe, and perhaps to photograph, annual natural phenomena.

The first “don’t miss” days marked on my calendar are late April. (There will be a public nature walk on Saturday, April 27, at 10 a.m.)

In late April, the earliest of the summer breeding birds will have returned from their winter grounds and, like this male Red-winged Blackbird, will be claiming their territories and proclaiming their interest in a mate.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

Sometime in the second half of April (the exact time is temperature dependent), American Toads will return to their breeding pond in EHP and spend a couple of days and nights in loud calling and in mating / egg-laying. In 2018, the weather was too warm in May and the pond dried up before the tadpoles were fully developed, so it will be especially interesting to see what happens this year.

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     Photo by Margaret Weber

Late April is also the beginning of the blooming wildflower season in the park, with a variety of small species found along the paths in the woods. The timing of this is also weather dependent, but on the basis of my experience over the last decade, the last week in April is usually a good time to see them. This collage of Violets is made up of pictures taken in 2018.

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The Mayapple does not usually bloom as early as April in Eliza Howell, but it is fascinating to observe how it emerges. There are several patches where its progress can be observed in the late days of April.

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Of the approximately 30 butterfly species that can be seen annually in Eliza Howell, the first ones usually show up in late April. The tiny Spring Azure, pictured with the wings up here, is a lovely blue when the wings are open.

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April is also the month when the earliest bird nests can be found (the Red-tailed Hawk nest earlier). Most song birds build their nests later (the annual Detroit Audubon field trip to Eliza Howell to observe nesting bids is in early June), but I often find a couple by late April.

These pictures were taken in April, 2018. The one on the left, a nest on the ground, is Killdeer. The one on the right, in a shrub, is Northern Cardinal.

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My walks continue all winter and I usually find something noteworthy each time, but the changes from one week to the next are nothing now like they are when spring has fully arrived. To avoid missing special developments – such as first butterflies, first wildflowers, first bird nests – it’s time to mark the calendar.

American Toad Breeding Pond: The 2018 Story

It was on February 28, I think, that I posted comments on the “Grassland Spring Pond,” where American Toads breed in Eliza Howell Park, and about my looking forward to what I might observe this year. The 2018 story is not what I had hoped for, but it is a story to be told.

Toads come to the breeding pond to mate and lay eggs for only about three days each April. I usually expect them slightly later than the middle of the month, but the timing is dependent upon the weather. April was colder than normal this spring, but in order to make sure I did not miss anything, I started checking the pond on April 12.

It wasn’t until late in the month that the weather conditions were right for the males to head to the pond. I first heard their loud trilling mating calls on April 25, loud enough to be heard by the females.

The field was starting to turn green by then.

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During these mating days, male toads call both during the day and at night, but toads travel to and from the pond only nocturnally. My frog-and-toad-survey colleagues and I visited the pond after dark on April 26 and listened to their very loud chorus for several minutes.

In the beam of the flashlight, I saw this toad, probably a female just arriving.

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April 27 was the last date we heard toads in the pond. American Toads, when they are ready to breed, normally return to the same pond where they were tadpoles. While I don’t know how the numbers compared with previous years, it was great to see – and hear – them in the same location again this year.

How quickly toad eggs hatch is also temperature dependent. The weather remained cool and it was a longer time than usual before the tadpoles emerged. It was not till May 21 that I found them in good numbers, three and a half weeks after the adults left the pond. (By comparison, I first saw many tadpoles on May 6 in 2017.)

This picture was taken on May 24.

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Following the long cool spring, the weather became quite warm. Actually, it was hot. The high was in the 80s the whole last week of May, reaching 90 degrees on May 28.

The pond plants grew rapidly and on May 29, the pond looked like this.

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The weather was all wrong for American toad breeding in the pond this year. The cold spring delayed mating; further cold weather delayed hatching; hot weather dried up the pond before the tadpoles could develop.

On May 29, the water was gone and I saw dozens of dead tadpoles in the mud. They were still weeks away, it appeared, from metamorphosis, weeks away from being able to leave the water as toadlets.

The Eliza Howell toad population will be smaller for at least a year.

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The 2018 toad pond story leaves me with a question about the future of the pond. While I think one can rightfully point to the long cool spring followed by a very hot late May this year as the basic reason for breeding failure, I also wonder whether the pond is becoming more shallow over the years, whether it will be able in other years to maintain sufficient water into June to serve as a viable toad breeding pond.

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While the grassland pond has been an American Toad breeding hotspot, it is not the only location in or near the park where they breed. Recently, I saw clear evidence of this, two small toads, not much more than an inch in length, in the bottomland by the river. This is one.

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Somehow, seeing these new toads made me finally ready to tell the story of the grassland pond 2018 breeding failure.

It will be interesting to see what happens next year.

 

Earliest Spring Wildflowers: Eliza Howell Park

2018 has been cold in March and early April, but the weather will get warmer and wildflowers will soon start to bloom.

Those who have the opportunity to walk in the park looking for blooming flowers this spring may see the following in late April or the beginning of May.

This 11-flower list is not all-inclusive, but it might provide some guidance to spring flower seekers.

All photos are from Eliza Howell Park.

  1. Spring Beauty
  • Woods
  • 3 – 6 inches
  • Usually 5 petals marked with pink or purple vein

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2. Cutleaf Toothwort

  • Woods
  • 8 – 12 inches
  • 4 petals

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3. Yellow Trout Lily

  • Woods
  • 6 – 10 inches
  • 6 backward curving petals

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4. White Trout Lily (Dogtooth Violet)

  • Woods
  • 6 – 10 inches
  • 6 backward curving petals

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5. Common Blue Violet

  • Woods and meadows
  • 3 – 8 inches
  • 5 petals

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6. Canada (white) Violet

  • Woods
  • 6 -15 inches
  • 5 petals, lower 3 marked with fine brown-purple veins

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7. Garlic Mustard

  • Woods
  • 1 – 4 feet
  • 4 petals
  • Non-native plant

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8. Wild Strawberry

  • Meadows, open areas
  • 3 – 6 inches
  • 5 rounds petals, numerous yellow stamens

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9. Wild Geranium

  • Woods
  • 1 – 2 feet
  • 5 petals, usually with dark veins

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10. (Common) Trillium

  • Woods
  • 12 – 18 inches
  • 3 large petals
  • Protected Michigan wildflower

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11. Redbud

  • Edges of woods
  • Small tree, native of North America
  • Flowers are pea-shaped and appear on twigs and branches

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Farewell, Winter Companions

On my walk on April 8, I again watched Dark-eyed Juncos in Eliza Howell Park, a common occurrence over the last 6 months. This is one of the last times this season; they will soon be leaving, heading north to breed, probably in the forests of Canada.

The juncos usually arrive in Detroit in early October and return north sometime in April. Nicknamed “snowbirds,” they are the most common of the birds that spend the winter, but not the summer, with us. For the bird watcher in this geographical region, winter means juncos.

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After seeing at least a dozen juncos on April 8, I reviewed my records to see how much longer in April they might be around. During the last 10 years, the latest date I have seen juncos in the park has been April 17 (in three different years). In two other years, the latest date was April 16 and April 15.

 

Even keeping in mind that I do not visit the park every day and that I could miss them when I am there, the pattern from past records is still quite clear: I am not likely to see them after April 17.

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The juncos have been our companions through the cold and snows of winter. It is now time for them to continue their annual life cycle.

I hope to see a few juncos in the park for another week or so and to wish them a safe journey. By October, I will be eager to see them and/or their offspring here again.

Photos by Margaret Weber

April Visits from Two Little Kings

These tiny 4-inch birds, smaller than warblers, moving almost non-stop from branch to branch gleaning insects, will be passing through Eliza Howell this month. They are among the very earliest of the species that migrate through the park on their way to breeding grounds further north.

I am referring to the two species of kinglet, the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. “Kinglet” means “little king” and is a good translation of their Latin genus name, “Regulus.” The head markings (crown) of the Golden-crowned Kinglet are much more distinctive than those of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. These are the only two species of kinglet in North America.

All photos below are by Margaret Weber.

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The Golden-crowned arrives first, often beginning in the first week of April, and they have all passed through by the end of the month. It can usually be identified as a kinglet by its size and behavior, and the head identifies it as Golden-crowned.

Golden-crowned Kinglets breed from the Upper Peninsula north, usually building their nests high in conifers. Detroit is at the northern edge of their winter range and I have once seen one in the park in January.

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The Ruby-crowned Kinglet arrives a little later each Spring, usually about the third week of April, and a few can be seen into early May. While they, too, can be recognized as kinglets by size and behavior, the head markings are often not noticeable. White wing bars are usually evident and the white eye ring helps to confirm their identity (taken together with the lack of a golden crown).

When seen from underneath, they do not look particularly like a little king.

ruby crowned kinglet branch

Ruby-crowns also nest from the UP north, typically in conifers.

The red crown of the male is rarely seen, only when the male is excited.

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In the Fall, both kinglets pass through Eliza Howell again, the Ruby-crowned normally starting in September and the Golden-crowned in October.

Those walking in Eliza Howell Park in April (and those coming on the nature walk on April 21) have a quite good chance of seeing one or both of these little kings on their annual spring visit.