Mulberries: Winter Observation, Summer Picking

During a recent winter walk in Eliza Howell Park, I stopped by some of the clusters of Mulberry trees that I visit in late June and early July, picking container in hand. Winter provides a good opportunity to note where and how they grow.

In Eliza Howell, almost all the Mulberry trees are found at the base of large trees that grow within the road loop. How close these trees grow to one another and to the larger tree is most evident in the winter when the leaves are off the branches.

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I thought of the nursery rhyme (“All around the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel”) when I noted how completely mulberry trees surround the trunk of one cottonwood tree. If I were more clever or creative, I might try to complete a line that begins with “all around the cottonwood tree….”

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Many mulberries are about 20 feet tall and, in their position under the taller trees, their branches spread and hang quite low. A lot of berries can be reached while standing on the ground. They progress from white to red to black, at which point they are ripe and ready.

Birds like mulberries, as do bird watchers.

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A comment I have heard from individuals who have come upon mulberries for the first time is “they look like blackberries.” They do have a similar shape, but they grow on trees (blackberries grow on vines), and the fruit stems are very different. The taste is also different, of course, but that is best experienced by eating newly picked berries.

There are three different black-colored edible summer berries in Eliza Howell Park: Mulberry, Black Raspberry, Blackberry (in the order in which they ripen). Black raspberry also grows on vines.

In this collage, Mulberry is on the left, Blackberry is top right, and Black Raspberry is bottom right.

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In my opinion, these three berries are the best foods to be harvested in Eliza Howell Park.

The first mulberry picking is at least 5 months away, but it is not too early to review the number and location of the trees. They may look to some like unwanted shrubs growing under larger trees, but they are worth getting to know.

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Winter is also a good time to enjoy one of the results of summer picking. 

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Jam made by Margaret Weber

Mammals in an Urban Park: Herbivores, Omnivores, and Carnivores

During my many walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit in recent years, I have confirmed the presence of 15 different mammals (not including smaller mammals like voles, deer mice, and bats).

When animals are classified by what they eat, they are usually identified as herbivores, omnivores, or carnivores. Among the Eliza Howell herbivores is the Groundhog. In this picture, an adult is on the left, an immature on the right.

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Herbivores eat plants and only plants, many having digestive systems that are able to digest many different kinds of plants, including grasses.

Of the 5 herbivores that I am aware of in the park, the White-tailed Deer is the most common. In the winter, when they are sometimes in herds, I have seen as many as 10 together. Here is a stag, watching me as I watched him.

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I do not (yet) have any pictures of the two aquatic herbivores found in EHP: Muskrat and American Beaver. Beaver is the mammal most recently added to the list of those found in Eliza Howell and their practice of eating the stems, bark, and twigs of trees is evidenced by the many small trees they cut down and remove along the river.

The Eastern Cottontail is a fairly common herbivore in the park.

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Omnivores are animals that eat both other animals and (parts of) plants. They may be primarily animal eaters or primarily plant eaters and omnivores make up the largest number of Eliza Howell mammal species.

The Virginia Opossum is largely nocturnal, but I do encounter one during the day from time to time. It is often slow moving and may allow one to get quite close.

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Many omnivores are opportunistic feeders, eating whatever food is convenient. These include the various squirrels found in Eliza Howell. Tree squirrels are Fox Squirrel, Gray Squirrel (black variation in the picture below), and Red Squirrel. The ground squirrel is the Eastern Chipmunk.  Squirrels eat seeds and nuts and fruit, but they may also eat eggs, insects, baby birds.

(Clockwise from top left: Fox Squirrel, Red Squirrel, black Gray Squirrel, and Eastern Chipmunk)

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Raccoons will eat almost anything, but they especially like small animals found in water, such as clams, crayfish, and frogs. I have seen them – and their tracks – most frequently by the river. They are also primarily nocturnal, sometimes seen resting in trees during the day. They also den in trees.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

Striped Skunk, another omnivore found in Eliza Howell, is mostly active at night and rarely seen.

Red Fox and Coyote are two mammals that are often considered carnivores, but perhaps should more accurately be considered omnivores. They eat mostly animals and carrion, but also eat fruit and berries.

In the last few years, I have seen Coyote more frequently than Red Fox in Eliza Howell. This picture of a Coyote was taken in nearby Rouge Park in Detroit.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

Carnivores are animals whose diet consists of other animals. The one mammal that I have seen in EHP that is strictly carnivore is Mink. It is semiaquatic (I have seen them only by the river) and eats fish, crayfish, mice, muskrats, birds, etc. I see it only occasionally.

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As noted above, these 15 species are not the only mammals in the park. There are some smaller species that I am aware of and, without a doubt, other species that I have not yet found. One example: I think the habitat is perfect for flying squirrels, but I have not yet seen any evidence of these nocturnal mammals.

There is much more to learn about my favorite urban park.

A Favorite Pin Oak Tree: 19th Century Origins

The Pin Oak tree at the edge of the road in Eliza Howell Park is one of my favorite trees. It stands alone, with enough room for its branches to spread. 

At this time of the year, the leaves are fallen and the branches are bare.

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I first started paying close attention to this oak because the birds are attracted to it. Warbling Vireos have nested here twice in recent springs and both Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Blue Jays are all over it in late September and early October, collecting acorns.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

This is a quite large – and old – Pin Oak, a species that does not live as long as some other oaks. After having been asked several times how old it is, I decided to try to find the answer. There is no exact method of knowing the age of a living tree, but there is a widely used method of estimating the age.

The steps in estimating tree age are these:

  1. Measure the circumference of the tree at 4 ½ feet from the ground.
  2. Divide the circumference by pi (3.14) to get the diameter.
  3. Multiply the diameter (in inches) by the “growth factor” that has been identified for the specific species, based on how fast growing it is. (Different organizations have published the growth factors for different species.)
  4. The resulting number is the approximate age of the tree, in years.

Pin Oaks are moderately fast growing and have been given a growth factor of 3.0.

It is difficult to measure the circumference of a large tree by oneself so recently, when accompanied by Charon, another Eliza Howell enthusiast, we undertook the measurement.

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At 4 ½ feet high, the tree measured exactly 12 feet in diameter (144 inches).

144 divided by 3.14 = 45.86.

45.86 times 3.0 = 137.58

Using this method to estimate age, the tree is about 137 or 138 years old.

137 years ago was 1883. This is just an estimate, but it is probably safe to say that this tree began to grow before the twentieth century, long before this property was donated to Detroit for parkland.

It was already over 100 years old when I started enjoying it, appreciating it in all seasons. On hot summer days, when someone else has not claimed the spot, I park the car in its welcome shade as I take my walk.

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Across the road is the prairie flower field and the Pin Oak sometimes makes a lovely background for a flower picture — Joe Pye Weed in this case.

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Pin Oak leaves turn late in the Fall, in November in Eliza Howell. The bronze (?) shade is not as striking as the leaves on some other trees, but there is something very attractive about it.

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As oak trees go, Pin Oak trees do not have a long lifespan. This one is perhaps older than average. I hope it continues to provide beauty, food, shade, and nesting habitat long after my nature walk days are over.

Praying Mantises in Goldenrods: A 2019 Highlight

As the year ends, I am reviewing some of the highlights of 2019 nature walks in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit. Observing Praying Mantises in patches of Goldenrods for three whole weeks in September is definitely one.

Looking ahead to 2020: The plan is to get the word out as soon as the 2020 “Praying Mantis in Eliza Howell Goldenrods” season begins, inviting anyone interested to come to observe at one of several different identified times.

I spent many hours in 2019 observing the fascinating behavior of Praying Mantises.

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I see Praying Mantises in Eliza Howell when the adults begin their end-of-the-year behavior – seeking mates and laying eggs – in September. This year I noted the first one on September 11, seen here in an upside-down position that they sometimes take as they wait for insects.

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The Praying Mantises seemed more common this year, though perhaps the timing of my visits and/or my observation skills improved; I saw several on almost every visit until the end of the month.

On September 16, I saw the first of the many mating pairs. Though the color of the male and female are different here, that is not always the case. The male is smaller and has longer antennae. They mate in upside-down positions or in upright positions or in horizontal positions.

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The female often multitasks while mating. Looking carefully at the above photo, one can see that she has caught and is eating an insect.

It is easy to get pictures of mating pairs because mating is not finished quickly. I have sometimes returned and found a pair still in the process 2 hours after I first noticed them.

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Praying Mantises are attracted to goldenrods no doubt because so many insects are attracted to the blooms. A Mantis will wait patiently until an insect gets close and then strike with one or both of the powerful front feet. The next picture shows one starting to eat, head first, what might be a bald-faced hornet.

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Last year I wrote more extensively about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” (September 13, 2018) than I am here. While they sometimes attach their egg cases to goldenrod stems, they will often select a sturdier plant near the goldenrods. Here is a female making the egg case into which she then deposited eggs. The whole process took about 3 ½ hours. The position for egg laying is head down in every one that I have seen.

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It has only been in 2018 and 2019 that I have focused my attention on the close relationship between Praying Mantises and blooming goldenrods. In 2018 the mantises were present a little earlier in the season than they were in 2019, and for a shorter period of time. So I hesitate to predict when they will show up on 2020, but, as noted above,

the plan is to get the word out as soon as the 2020 “Praying Mantis in Eliza Howell Goldenrods” season begins, inviting anyone interested to come to observe at one of several different identified times.

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Golden-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird: Two Occasional Early December Birds

The completion this month of 15 years of bird watching in Eliza Howell Park (180 consecutive months and over 1370 different records) Park makes this a good time to review the seasonal presence of different bird species. Based on experience, I know fairly well which species I can expect to see in the park at any given time of the year, in any particular 2-week period. These can be considered Common for that particular “season.”

And I know the species that I do not usually see on my outings at a particular time of the year, but am not surprised when I do see them. These are Occasional birds, birds that I can expect to observe some years during this season, but not most years.

The current “season” is the first two weeks of December, a period of time characterized by cloudy days, with leaves on the ground but very few remaining on trees.

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At this time of the year there are no flowers blooming, no developing seeds or fruit, little evident insect activity; I tend to concentrate my observations on mammals and, especially, on birds.

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Recent sightings of two occasional bird species led me back to my records. The first is a Golden-crowned Kinglet, only the fourth time in the last 15 years that I have seen this bird in the park in December.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

In my listing of Eliza Howell birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet is identified as a Migrant, a bird that passes through the park in the spring and fall each year, but is not present in either the summer or the winter. It is a late fall migrant, usually seen well into November.

As can be seen from the range map below (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), the southern part of Michigan is within its winter (nonbreeding) range. Some Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen in southern Michigan in winter every year, but my interest here is specific to Eliza Howell, the habitats in this particular location at this specific time of the year. Here it is occasional.

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The second occasional December bird recently seen is Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are Summer Residents, breeding in the park. They have become more common in recent years.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

This is only the third December I have seen a Bluebird in Eliza Howell. However, two of these three years are 2018 and 2019. As the species becomes more common during the breeding season, it may also show up on more occasions during the winter.
Similar to Golden-crowned Kinglet, the winter range of Eastern Bluebird includes southern Michigan, though most individuals migrate further south. (This map is also from Cornell.)

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I typically see about 24-25 different species in the park in December, most of which are the usual Eliza Howell birds of winter: Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, etc. They brighten the gray days.

The occasional appearance of a different species adds to the brightness and adds to my knowledge about what to expect when.

The Oil Beetles of Eliza Howell Park

I see Oil Beetles — large, dark, metallic-looking beetles – in Eliza Howell Park only in October and November. They are not particularly photogenic or otherwise likely to catch someone’s attention, but their story is part of the fascinating natural world that exists right here in the neighborhood.

I last saw one in 2019 on November 25, as it and I were walking on the park road.

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Oil Beetles, a type of Blister Beetle, are nearly an inch long and, when I see them, are walking slowly on the ground in or near the fields in the park. My earliest 2019 observation was on October 17 (next picture). They are not numerous; even in their “season” I do not see them on every visit.

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Oil Beetles are flightless. The adults emerge in the Fall and proceed in their slow and somewhat cumbersome walk toward a good place to winter in the soil. Based on the published research I have consulted, I think the female lays eggs in the spring, but I have seen them mating in the Fall. This pair was photographed in early November.

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They are called “Oil” Beetles because, like other Blister Beetles, they can secrete oily droplets from their leg joints when threatened. This “oil” contains a toxic chemical (cantharidin) that can cause painful blisters on human skin.

They have no hind wings and the short front wings cover only a small part of the large abdomen.

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Some Oil Beetles spend the immature phases of life in parasitic fashion in the nests of ground-nesting bees, eating the food that is brought in for bee larvae. 

There is much I don’t know about these beetles, but they now have my attention. I am sure that I will think of Oil Beetles when I next see ground-nesting bees.

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Beaver!

For the first time in the years that I have been engaged in nature study in Eliza Howell Park, I am now seeing signs of beaver activity. There are some 20 small trees near the river (the largest are about 4 inches in diameter) that have recently been cut down and removed.

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Beaver were an important part of Michigan’s history; the pursuit of their pelts was a major factor in the movement of Europeans into this part of the country. Unlimited trapping resulted in their being extirpated from this area some 150 years ago.

Some are now returning. In the last decade, they have been found along the Detroit River (including on Belle Isle) and a few have appeared in the Rouge River system. Until now, to my knowledge, none has been reported this far upstream on the Main branch of the Rouge.

I have not yet actually seen a beaver in the park (they are largely nocturnal), but I know of nothing else that cuts down trees and leaves these teeth marks.

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Young beaver stay with their parents until 2 years old or so, when they leave to find a mate and establish their own lodge and colony. Perhaps the signs of beaver activity in Eliza Howell mean that a new pair is taking up residence here, for the first time since long before this area was established as a park.

There is a lot I do not know about beaver from personal observation. They were not in the various areas I have walked regularly during my life and my observations of them when visiting other locations were limited. There is much for me to learn.

While most descriptions of beaver lodges are of conical lodges in a pond formed by a dam, they also make lodges in banks, with under water entrances, especially along rivers where the water is deep enough for them to swim under water/ice. The water level in the Rouge in the park varies throughout the year and I do not know whether it sufficiently deep to meet beaver needs. This is what it looked like on my last visit in the area where the beaver had cut trees.

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If they stay here, my guess is that they will be “bank beaver,” but one of the things I will be watching to see is whether they act to raise the water level, perhaps by using a current logjam as the start of a dam.

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Beaver are able to change the environment in which they live and this has sometimes led to them being considered by some as a nuisance or a pest (for example, when their dams lead to flooded roads). Their overall impact on ecosystems and on sustainability has, however, been viewed by most researchers as very positive, as evidenced in a widely-endorsed, and very readable, book published last year.

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I will also be looking for additional signs of their presence and of their behavior. So far I have not seen clear tracks in the mud, perhaps because most of the mud along the river is currently covered with leaves. The hind track (webbed) is reported to be about 6 inches long and the front about 3 inches. These drawings are from The Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks.

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I cannot say definitely that beaver have taken up residence in Eliza Howell Park, but I will now have a different answer when asked whether any beaver live here.

I have been saying “not yet,” hoping that they would show up one of these years. Now I can say “there are definite signs; let me show you.” Perhaps soon I will be able to give an unqualified “yes.”