The Woodpeckers of Eliza Howell Park

In January 2018, I am starting my 14th year of recorded bird walks in Eliza Howell Park, but it doesn’t take all these records to know that, with so many birds migrating to warmer climates for the winter, January and February are the months with the fewest number of species. Even in the heart of winter, however, and far from any bird feeders, there are some species that I regularly see.

Two of the small number of species that I see every January are woodpeckers – the Red-bellied Woodpecker and the Downy Woodpecker. When first seen, the Red-bellied Woodpecker looks like it should be called “red-headed” (more about this below), but sometimes, as in this picture, the so-called red belly is noticeable.

red-bellied woodpkr on branch

Photo by Margaret Weber

The red-bellied is bright, loud, and large enough to be noticed easily, especially when there are no leaves on the trees. The smaller, quieter, less bright Downy Woodpecker is more likely to be lower and closer to the observer.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

There are, in total, 6 different kinds of woodpeckers that occur in the park almost every year. Three are found year-round: Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy Woodpecker. The Hairy Woodpecker (not pictured) is slightly larger than the Downy but otherwise looks almost exactly like it. It is less common at Eliza Howell, though it does breed here.

In the spring and again in the fall, the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker migrates through the area, seen for a few days only. It too has a questionable name – the “yellow bellied” part, not the “sapsucker” part. The yellow is somewhat visible in adults, but is not the most obvious characteristic. This picture is of an immature, without the red on the head or throat and without noticeable yellow, but it shows clearly the line of holes that the sapsucker makes to collect sap. It revisits the holes to lap up the sap and to eat any insects that may get caught there.

immature yellow bellied

Photo by Margaret Weber

The most striking species of woodpecker to be seen in the park is also the most rare and the least predictable. The Red-headed Woodpecker is not very common in the Detroit area generally and shows up in Eliza Howell only about once a year, for a few days. In 2017, one was present in May (when this picture was taken) and one was also seen for several days in the summer.

(When someone asks why the “red-bellied” is not called the “red-headed,” I suggest that probably this bird has a priority claim to the name.)

redheaded woodpecker EH 0517

Photo by Margaret Weber

The 6th woodpecker species in the park is the Northern Flicker. The flicker is a summer resident, arriving in the spring and leaving in the fall and is the fourth woodpecker that nests here. It is different from most other woodpeckers in that it often feeds on the ground, consuming large numbers of ants.

flicker colors

Photo by Margaret Weber

Woodpeckers typically drill holes in dead trees for nesting. These holes have quite small openings, but are deep. In 2017, I watched, over a period of days, as Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Northern Flickers drilled holes in trees about 100 yards apart. I watched as a red-bellied tried to drive a flicker away from the tree where the flicker was drilling its hole. I later watched as, in an different part of the park, red-bellieds and flickers were both carrying feed to their young in nests about 15-20 feet apart in the same dead tree. Interesting interactions between the two species.

In this picture, a Red-bellied Woodpecker is “spitting” out chips from the nesting hole it is making.

red bellied yuck

Photo by Margaret Weber

I started these thoughts by looking forward to seeing woodpeckers in winter. I end by looking backward to 2017. It is common, I suppose, for a nature student to think in terms of annual cycles.

Bald-Faced Hornet Nests

Bald-Faced Hornet Nests

Most visitors to Eliza Howell Park never see them, but there are many hundreds of Bald-faced Hornets here every summer. They are a native North American social wasp, not a true hornet, and build new nests each year. They are insect eaters much more than nectar collectors, so are not found on flowers as much as bees.

They do visit flowers more late in the season, however, and that provides the best opportunity to see what they really look like. The white on the face accounts for the “bald-faced” name (they are also sometimes called “White-faced Hornets”).

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Bald-faced Hornets are best known by the nests they make, usually placed in tree branches and hidden in the leaves. In the last couple of years, I have kept a record of each nest that I have observed in the park. I don’t finish my count until sometime in December, when they are more visible with the leaves gone. Since paying closer attention, I have seen at least 10 nests annually – and have no doubt missed a number.

The nests are gray and sort of football-shaped, though more the size of a basketball, typically located high in a deciduous tree.

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Fortunately, most years I find at least one that is low enough to be observed more carefully.

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When these low nests are pointed out during nature walks before frost brings an end to hornet season, participants are often reluctant to approach too closely. It is a reasonable reluctance, since the greatest risk of being stung is from hornets protecting their colony. But it is not a big risk if one remains a few feet away.

The nests are made of paper-like material, wood fibers that have been mixed with saliva. The opening for going and coming is at/near the bottom of the nest.

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Each colony is reported to have, at maturity, 100-400 individuals, made up of infertile female workers, reproductive females, and male drones. And, of course, a queen. Queens are the only Bald-faced Hornets that survive the winter, wintering in a sheltered place in trees or the ground. In the spring each queen that has survived begins to build a nest. She makes a few brood cells, deposits eggs in them, and feeds the larvae. The first brood then takes over nest building, food collection, and feeding.

When the nests are broken open after the hornets are gone, one can see the layers of cells that look like honeybee combs. There are tiers of combs within the thicker outer shell.

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It is likely that more queens survive the winter in mild-weather years. This might account for the large number of nests I noted these last two years, following two mild winters. Or I may just be getting a little better about spotting the nests. It will be interesting to see what the findings are next year if this winter is a hard one.