Red-tailed Hawk: Soaring, Screaming, Nesting

It was a very good February sighting: I recently watched as a pair of Red-tailed Hawks soared together over Eliza Howell Park. It reminded me that nesting season is getting close.

Red-tailed Hawk pairs usually stay together for years and nest in the same territory, sometimes in the same nest. So this soaring duo is probably the same pair that has nested in the park in the last few years. I haven’t named them (as some New Yorkers have named the hawks of Central Park), but maybe that would be a good idea.

These large hawks (wingspan = about 50 inches) are year-round residents and are most commonly seen soaring.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Red-tailed Hawks nest early; March is the time to look for the nest. While the first sign of a breeding pair in the area is their soaring together, it is the bird’s cry that helps me locate the nest. Red-tails are territorial and patrol their territory looking for intruders. When they see something in their nesting territory, they give their shrill cry, appropriately described, I think, as a scream. When I get screamed at every time I walk through a particular section of the park, I know I am pretty close to the nest.

American movie makers must have decided long ago that the Red-tailed Hawk cry is just what a raptor should sound like because they have almost always used their scream whenever they show any flying eagle or hawk, of whatever species.

Red-tails build their nests in trees, using branches and twigs, usually 40 feet high or higher. This is their EHP nest a few years ago, built in the woods over a vernal pond.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

Red-tailed Hawks soar frequently, but they do most of their hunting from a perch, from which they will fly down to grab prey on the ground. They eat mostly rodents and other small mammals, though they will sometimes eat birds and insects. These are the hawks that are often seen in the winter perched on trees and poles along interstate highways, probably searching for small animals in the ditches along the road.

Red tail hawk

          Photo by Margaret Weber

When the perched Red-tail is seen from the front, the red tail is not visible. The best identifying marks are the dark splotches across the belly. When seen soaring, another characteristic feature is the dark bar on each wing near the shoulder (see first picture above). The reddish tail is often evident on the flying bird, especially when the top of the tail is visible.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

It is great to see that the/a pair of Red-tailed Hawks is again likely to nest in the park this year. In the next few weeks, I will watch for the soaring pair and will listen for the territorial screaming at me. While I will look for the nest, I will try not to get too close. I don’t want them to see me as a threatening intruder.

Birds of Eliza Howell: Monthly Variations

Over the years, I have seen 145 different species of birds in Eliza Howell Park.

In January, 2018, I saw 22 species.

Both numbers are important. The total number of birds recorded is an important indication of the diversity of birds that visit the park. The monthly number is important for human visitors interested in observing birds at a particular time of the year.

The birds of Eliza Howell can be placed in the following categories:

(1) All seasons (or year-round residents). These species can be found in the park all seasons of the year (though not usually in the same numbers at all times). They do not migrate north-south or, if they do migrate, Eliza Howell is within both their summer and their winter range.

Approximately 21% of total species are all-seasons birds.

An example of an all-seasons EH bird is the Red-tailed Hawk.

Red tail hawk

          Photo by Margaret Weber

(2) Summer only. These species can usually be found in the park in the breeding season and are typically seen between spring and fall. They are birds that migrate south for the winter, but their summer range includes Eliza Howell.

Approximately 33% of total species are summer only.

The Rose-breasted Grosbeak is one such species.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

(3) Migrants. These are the migrating species that breed further north and winter further south. They are in this area only as they pass through and can normally be found in a short timeframe – a couple weeks to a month or so. The peak spring migration through Detroit occurs in May and the peak fall migration month is in September. Some species pass through in April and October.

Approximately 41% of the total species are migrants.

The Magnolia Warbler is one of many migrating warblers that stop briefly in Eliza Howell each year.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

(4) Winter visitors. These few species spend the breeding season further north and migrate south for the winter. The “south” for these species includes the Detroit area. They arrive in fall and leave in spring.

Approximately 5% of the bird species are winter visitors.

The American Tress Sparrow is one of the 5%.

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          Photo by Margaret Weber

Group 3 is the only one referred to a “migrants” above, but species in groups 2 and 4 also migrate twice annually; however, they stay much longer. While the migrants that pass through in the spring and fall are the most numerous, they can easily be missed because they are in the area only for a short rest and refueling stop.

The most species are usually seen in September and May because all-seasons birds, most summer residents, and many migrants can be found in these months.

Average number of species seen per month over 13 years (2005 – 2017):

  • January       = 19
  • February    = 16
  • March         = 31
  • April            = 45
  • May             = 64
  • June             = 45
  • July              = 42
  • August        = 51
  • September = 69
  • October      = 55
  • November  = 32
  • December  = 24

Based on experience, I have a very good idea what birds to expect each time I visit Eliza Howell. But nature is always somewhat unpredictable, so I also expect the unexpected. Continue reading “Birds of Eliza Howell: Monthly Variations”

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.

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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.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. .

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

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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???

Marcescent Oak Leaves

During walks in the park during the very cold first week of January 2018, I found my attention drawn to trees that still retain their leaves despite the fact that we are deep into winter.

It happens every year, the realization that there are a number of trees in Eliza Howell Park that retain their leaves long after they turn brown and long after the leaves of other deciduous trees have fallen. One obviously does not need to know the scientific term for the phenomenon of withering but not falling off (marcescence) to observe the reality every winter.

Most of the trees in the park that retain their leaves are oak trees. This winter there are a few maples near the entrance to the park that have some withered leaves in early January, but it is an every year occurrence to find leaves hanging on oak trees far into winter.

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Leaf retention typically occurs in smaller younger trees. Large, mature oaks of the same species drop their leaves earlier.

As reflected in the next two pictures, January leaves can be found on trees of more than one oak species.

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A good place to find several leaf-retaining oak trees is inside the road loop, about half round from the Fenkell entrance.

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Marcescent leaves may gradually be dropped (blown off) during the winter or may hang on till spring. It might  be interesting for me to choose a tree or two this year to monitor and note when the leaves are finally down.

 

 

 

 

 

VIEW FROM THE FOOTBRIDGE: October – December, 2017

The footbridge over the Rouge River (Main branch) is part of my regular walk in the park. During 2017, I got into the habit of taking a quick picture each time of the view from the footbridge, facing upriver. The pictures, in addition to being enjoyable views, help to refresh my memory on the timing of the seasonal changes in the park.

As a result of the cold spell in late December 2017, the river surface was frozen and snow covered by the end of the year.

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December 30, 2017

The following pictures cover the last three months of the calendar year, in roughly 2-week intervals.

In Eliza Howell, most of the trees remain green in early October and slowly begin to change during the month.

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October 1, 2017

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October 16, 2017

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October 31, 2017

The autumn look fully arrives in November, the month of the big leaf drop.  

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November 14, 2017

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November 30, 2017

The first snows usually come in December, as they did in 2017.

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December 12, 2017

The freezing over of the running water in December, as happened this year, is quite unusual.

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December 28, 2017

I started taking frequent pictures from this viewpoint only in the middle of 2017. My hope is to document all 12 months this way in 2018.