Nature Discovery Day Is July 13

On Saturday, July 13,  there is a great opportunity for visitors to the park to become more familiar with the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, mammals, trees — and more – of Eliza Howell Park: 9:00 – noon. Free and open to everyone.

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There will be exhibits, activities, and options of guided walks designed to point out some of the natural wealth of this Detroit park. The park entrance is on Fenkell east of Telegraph. The event also includes an opportunity to learn more about the U-M wildlife motion-activated camera project (which includes Eliza Howell Park).

Among the highlights of mid-July are the meadow/prairie wildflowers. Among those catching my attention recently are these.

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Clockwise from top left: Foxglove Beardtongue, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed

The event is organized by Eliza Howell Park Partnership (EHPP), a coalition of persons with different organizational affiliations and a common interest in highlighting Eliza Howell as a place for observing and enjoying nature in an urban environment.

Guides will be present to assist in identifying the varieties of flowers, as well as the specific species of butterflies they attract. These are among the common butterflies at this time of the year.

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Clockwise from top left: Monarch, Common Ringlet, Red Admiral, Pearl Crescent.

While I am often unable to get a picture of a butterfly I see, it is never difficult to find flowers waiting to be photographed.

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Clockwise from top left: Staghorn Sumac, Chicory, Wild Bergamot, St John’s Wort.

Eliza Howell is the kind of nature park it is, in significant part, because the Rouge River runs through it. For those who wish to take it on Saturday, a short walk to the footbridge provides a good view of the shaded river.

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Back in the field, one flower not to be missed is Wild Bergamot, a mint family flower, sometimes called beebalm, that has only recently begun its summer blooming season. It is a magnet for a variety of insects. In this picture, the visitor is a Hummingbird Moth.

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Many mammals are more active at night than during the day. The cameras used in the UM wildlife camera project have located and identified some of the mammals of the night, as will be reported on July 13.

Two that I have recently seen during the day are White-tailed Deer and Groundhog.

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I thank EHPP for providing this opportunity to witness and enjoy the natural wealth of the park.

 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: The Rest of the Story

On May 28 this year, I wrote about finding an easily visible Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park and concluded my comments this way:

“One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.”

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The field trip took place on June 8, which, according to my estimate based on observed behavior, was about day 10 of incubation (of a normal 11 – 15 day incubation period). When the our whole group stopped to look, the bird remained on the nest, watching us but not threatened enough by our presence to leave. Melissa Francese took this picture at that time.

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A few days later the eggs hatched. By June 18, when Kevin Murphy took the next two photos, the young were nearing the end of their in-nest development.

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It is difficult to tell because they were constantly moving, but my various efforts to count heads led me to conclude that there were probably 4 nestlings. While the female does most of the incubating, both female and male feed the young.

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They are now gone from the nest, successfully fledged as far as I can tell. While Blue-gray Gnatcatchers occasionally brood twice in a year, my nest watching of this species is likely over for the year.

They are nearly halfway through their stay of 4 + months in Detroit (arrive in late April and depart in September), spending the majority of their year far to the south. (Range map from Cornel Lab of Ornithology).

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I will continue to see them foraging in the park for a couple months (photo by Margaret Weber).

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And each time I see one, I will feel a sense of appreciation for weeks of enjoyable nest watching this year and for a highlight of the 2019 June Audubon field trip.

Bird Eggs: Some Quick Looks

Even when someone is able to locate a bird nest, that nest is usually in a location that does not allow for a good look inside; it may be in a tree cavity, high in a tree, or deep in a thicket. In my walks in Eliza Howell Park, I have, however, on occasion found nests that provide an opportunity to take a quick look – and quick camera snap – when the incubating adult is off the nest.

Note: Photos of the birds were all taken by Margaret Weber.

 Barn Swallow

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Barn Swallows regularly nest on little ledges under bridges and other structures. Their nests are mostly of mud, lined with softer material, including feathers. Cream-colored eggs, with dark splotches, represent a fairly common pattern among bird eggs. Each species, though, is a little different in size and coloring, in addition to having quite different nests.

Eastern Bluebird

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Bluebirds nest in cavities in trees or in nest boxes. Their practice of using nest boxes that humans provide has helped them recover from very low numbers a few decades ago and makes it possible sometimes to get a look at the eggs.

Song Sparrow

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Song Sparrow nests are well hidden in grasses and weeds and shrubs, sometimes on the ground and sometimes up a little. They are very skilled at not going directly to their nest when someone (like me) is watching. This year is the first time I have found a Song Sparrow nest and it happened when I was walking through tall grasses and the sparrow flew out at my feet. I looked down, pulled out my phone for a quick picture, then left. The eggs are small and they do not all look exactly the same.

Gray Catbird

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Catbirds nest in thickets and the few nests that I have seen over the years in Eliza Howell Park have been about 6 – 8 feet high. In my experience, the eggs that are only one color, not speckled or splotched, usually have no variation from one to another in the same clutch.

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Often my pictures of the insides of bird nests are not great quality photos. One reason is that I take hurried pictures of bird eggs; I do not want to stress the adults. Though absent from the nest at this moment, they likely know of my presence and I want to be gone as quickly as possible. I have often returned some time later and watched from a safe distance. I have been pleased to note that, in every case, the incubating adult has been back on the nest after my one-time quick close-up.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher Nest: An Annual Quest

This is the eight consecutive year that I have found at least one Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest in Eliza Howell Park. The nests are small, not easy to find, and I am fascinated by them, thrilled when I find one.

This 2019 nest (in the center of the picture) is in a maple tree, lower than many.

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The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher is a very small and very active bird with a longish white-edged tail. It winters in (or near) Central America and arrives in EHP in April each year.

     Photos 2, 3, and 5 are by Margaret Weber.

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By the middle of May, pairs are making their nests, the female and male working cooperatively on a neat, 2-3 inch-wide (outside dimensions) open cup placed on a horizontal branch, often next to a vertical or side branch.

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The nest is as tall as it is wide, flexible layers of material like grasses and strips of bark all held together and attached to the tree by spider webs or caterpillar silk. The outside is almost entirely covered with lichen and bark flakes, making it look more like part of the tree than like a bird nest. The camouflage is effective; even when I know where the nest is, I often have a hard time re-locating it.

This is one of my favorites among the nests I anticipate seeing annually. I am fascinated by the way in which the outside is “decorated,” and by the webbing used to attach it (some of which is visible in this picture).

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The approximately 1.5 inch-wide inside is lined with soft plant down. It is tiny, but big enough for 3-5 eggs/nestlings. The eggs are only 1/2 inch long. Both sexes participate in incubation and in feeding the young, just as they do in nest building. They sometimes have a second brood (in a different nest) a little later and they will build a second nest if, for some reason, they abandon the first one.

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One of my goals each year for the June Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell Park is to be able to point out an active Blue-gray Gnatcatcher nest, even if I cannot expect others to be quite as enthusiastic as I am about this tiny bird and its fascinating nest.

Note: This year the field trip is on Saturday, June 8, beginning at 8:00 a.m. Everyone is welcome.

 

Some Recent FOYs

“FOY,” meaning first-of-the-year observation, appears frequently in my notes about my visits to Eliza Howell Park at this time of the year. There is something new to be seen every day.

Here are a few selected FOYs from recent walks, each of which seems noteworthy in its own way.

1.FOY Wild Lupine.

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Lupine tends to be the first to bloom each year among the flowers in native wildflower field at Eliza Howell. It is starting to bloom now and I always note it both because of its attractiveness and as a herald of all that is to come.

2.FOY Baltimore Oriole Nest

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The nesting Baltimore Orioles are one of the highlights of the Detroit Audubon-sponsored field trip to Eliza Howell each June. (This year it is Saturday, June 8, at 8:00 a.m. – free and open to all.)

These orioles typically arrive in the first week of May and begin building nests in the third week of the month. The picture here was taken on May 18; the female was weaving.

3.FOY Burrowing Crayfish Hole

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Crayfish (also called crawfish and sometimes crawdads) are gilled and clawed crustaceans, related to lobsters. Some are terrestrial, spending most of their lives away from bodies of water. They burrow down to groundwater and come up at night to eat on land. They are nocturnal and I have no pictures from Eliza Howell, but this hole is evidence that they remain present in the park. This one will probably continue to remove mud as it digs deeper, piling it up near the entrance in the shape of a chimney (or volcano).

4.FOY Common Milkweed

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The common milkweed is a wildflower made famous as a host plant for Monarch butterfly eggs and larvae. Right after I saw the FOY Monarch on May 15, I checked a spot where I have found early milkweeds in other years. They are up and growing and will be ready any time the Monarchs are ready to lay eggs.

5.FOY Fledgling Robins

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The day after I took this picture of 4 young robins filling the nest, they left it. While I have been observing a number of different bird nests this spring, this is the first that I have watched successful fledging.

6.FOY Opossum Encounter

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On a recent walk in the EHP woods, I met this opossum along the path. “Possums” are nocturnal mammals and this daytime encounter reminds me that they are sometimes visible during the day. Maybe someday I see a mother opossum with several young on her back. That would be a great lifetime first (designated in my notes by “L” for “lifer.”)

7.FOY Honeysuckle Blossoms

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The redbuds and the crabapples have already been blooming for some time, but one of my favorite blossoms, honeysuckle, is just beginning. Most of the honeysuckle in the park have white blossoms, but a few, like this one, tend toward pink. The picture was taken on May 21.

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This list of recent FOYs could be considerably longer, but it is time to get away from the desk and back to the park to see what is new today!

Cardinal Nest Watch: Part 2

This is a continuation of the story of a Northern Cardinal nest in Eliza Howell Park and of my observations of it. For the first part, see “Cardinal Nest Watch,” May 7.

As reported then, my last look in the nest had been on May 2, when I took a photo of 3 eggs.

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The brooding female was on the nest every time I checked through my binoculars during the next several days, so I did not get a close look.

On May 9, she was absent when I looked, so I approached for a brief look at what was happening. There were now 5 eggs.

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While all the eggs are similar in color and markings, I think that only the larger one is a cardinal egg. The smaller four appear to be Brown-headed Cowbird eggs. Cowbirds often remove one of the eggs of the “host” species when they lay one of their own.

I was not at all surprised by the presence of a cowbird egg, but I was surprised by the presence of four. As is typical of birds generally, a cowbird lays one egg a day; it usually places them in different nests. It must have returned to this nest more than once and/or there was more than one female cowbird imposing upon this particular host.

The cardinal returned a little later (after I took the picture) and continued brooding on what is now more of a cowbird nest than a cardinal nest.

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The next development was on May 11.

The nest is located is the wildflower field that is, by design, kept unmowed. Over the last several years, saplings and vines have emerged and have begun to threaten the future of the open flower field. Earlier this spring, I had asked the supervisor of mowing for Detroit west side parks for a one-time mowing in the spring, before the perennials were growing. He said they could do that.

I didn’t know the timing in advance, but the mowing was done on May 11, when a powerful tractor-pulled mower knocked down everything growing taller than a few inches. I happened to be there and informed the tractor driver of the location of the nest. He said he would leave that shrub standing. And he did.

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The mowing naturally drove the cardinal from the nest and I again took a quick picture.

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I was unable to visit the park May 12, 13, and 14. Sometimes a major disturbance, like the mowing of the surrounding habitat, might lead a bird to abandon the nest; I do not know whether cardinal returned to the nest after the tractor left.

When I headed to Eliza Howell on the morning of May 15, I was aware that, if all had gone well, this might be the hatching date. But all had not gone well. I found the nest empty – no birds, no eggs.

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The nest was empty and I don’t know what happened. Something removed the eggs (or hatchlings) and left no clear evidence of what that something was. In my search around the nest, I found only one very small piece of egg shell.

It is tempting to think that it might have been an animal predator, of which there are several possibilities in the park – including crows, blue jays, raccoons, coyotes, cats, and squirrels. But from no information it is hard to draw conclusions.

When I first started my walk on the morning of the May 15, I heard cardinals singing. This nest was not successful, but the pair will nest again this year, probably very soon, and definitely in a different location.

 

Cardinal Nest Watch

The watch started on April 26, when I noticed a female Northern Cardinal carrying a twig into a small bush in Eliza Howell Park. Cardinals usually have two broods a year and April is the normal time for the first in southeast Michigan.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The closer look I took when she flew away showed a partially constructed nest. By April 28, the next looked finished or very nearly finished.

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Cardinals usually hide their nests in dense plant growth and in locations where they cannot be seen or watched from any distance. This one is quite well camouflaged, but it is low and visible (especially when using binoculars) on one side from about 30 feet. I immediately thought that this is a nest that I might be able to watch without disturbing the birds.

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The female Cardinal lays one a day until there are 3 – 5 eggs. And, like many birds, it doesn’t start incubating them until the clutch is (nearly) complete. This results in the eggs all hatching at nearly the same time.

On April 30, there was no bird present, so I approached the nest: 1 egg. On May 1: 2 eggs. On May 2: 3 eggs.

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Starting on May 3, the female has been on the nest every time I looked, so I have kept some distance and have not been able to discover the full clutch size.

Among cardinals, the female does all the brooding, while the male is nearby and feeds her from time to time (I have not yet seen him feeding her at this location).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinal eggs hatch after 11 – 13 days incubation, so I expect the next big development to be about May 14 – 16, if all goes well. Then both parents feed the young for about 10 days.

One of the questions I have is whether a Brown-headed Cowbird has laid an egg in the cardinal nest (and possibly displaced one of the cardinal eggs). Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other birds for incubation and feeding. Another cardinal nest I checked this year contained three cardinal eggs and one cowbird egg.

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Not all nests lead to the successful fledging of young. There are a variety of reasons for nests to fail, so I will be watching to see whether the nest is destroyed or abandoned, how many eggs hatch, how many nestlings fledge, and whatever else I might observe.

The location is one that makes it easier for me to watch this nest than others that I have found, but it seems a risky location, more vulnerable to predators. But it was selected by the pair together, without requesting my opinion, so I will  simply continue to enjoy my opportunity to nest watch!