Black Cherry Trees: May to August

There are about two dozen large wild Black Cherry trees scattered over several grassy acres in Eliza Howell Park. They are mature trees, many of them more than 50 feet tall and 30 feet wide.


While I pay some attention to these trees in my walks throughout the year, I devote considerably more time from May to August.

May is blossom time. These cherry trees have more fruit in some years than in others; the plentiful blossoms in 2018 indicate a very productive fruit crop this year.


Even if they were not an indication of the fruit to come, the lovely blossoms would definitely engage my interest and attention.


May and June are the main bird-nest watching months and the cherry trees are popular nesting sites. Even before the blossoms appear, Baltimore Orioles build their nests; I found 2 in cherry trees in 2018. Also in 2018, a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher has a cherry-tree nest and a bird box attached to a cherry tree this spring is being used by a pair of Eastern Bluebirds. There are no doubt other nests I have not seen.

This oriole below is feeding young in June in a cherry tree.


Photo by Margaret Weber

As soon as the blooms fall, the green cherries are evident.


Many birds cannot wait till the cherries are ripe (black), but begin eating them when they are red. By August, the trees are attracting numerous fruit-eating birds. American Robins and Cedar Waxwings are the most common and most dedicated cherry eaters.

Typically, about half of the robins appear to be juveniles with their heavily spotted breasts. And a number of the waxwings have blurry streaks and lack crests, indicating that they are youngsters as well.


Black cherries are edible for humans as well, though they are quite bitter, at least until fully ripe (if the birds let them hang on that long). The reddish brown wood of the black cherry tree is often used in furniture and cabinet making.

By September other annual natural happenings in the park take up more of my attention and my walk route changes. But until then, the cherries are definitely part of my nature walks.


Mourning Dove: Serious Breeder, Slapdash Nest Builder

Two days after the June 9 Detroit Audubon bird walk in Eliza Howell Park, a field trip that was focused on about a dozen different nesting song birds, I came upon another new nest being constructed. A pair of Mourning Doves was energetically putting their nest together.

The Mourning Dove is one of the most common birds in the country. They are not usually described as “beautiful;” perhaps their abundance diminishes our appreciation for their lovely appearance. When I watch them carefully, I am often struck by details, like their pink legs and feet.


Photo by Margaret Weber

Mourning doves have a prolonged breeding season, nesting early and often. In the south, they can have up to 6 broods a year. Here, it more likely three. The nest building I watched was, I have no doubt, at least the second of the season for this pair.

They sometimes place their nests on human-made structures or on top of old nests of other birds, but most frequently – and in each case that I have seen in the park – they are on (nearly) horizontal tree limbs, 8 – 20 feet high. This one is being built in a Locust tree. I would not have seen it if the bird building activity had not led me to it.


The nest building was fascinating to watch and I observed for about 10 minutes. Mourning Doves are not bothered by human observers, as long as we are more than a few feet away. Their nests are made up of twigs and grass stems without an inner cup. The male brings the material to the female on the limb, and she puts the pieces together. While I was watching, the male was bringing grass stems. Some tall grass had been mowed several days before and long dry stems were easily available.

My observations included these:

  • The male made many quick trips. I timed them by counting seconds and his return trips with nesting material were, on the average, less than 20 seconds apart. A couple times he was back within 5 seconds.
  • He brought one stem at a time and each time stepped on the back of the sitting female to offer the construction piece.
  • I don’t know whether it was because she wasn’t ready or because the offering wasn’t what she wanted at that time or whether it was an accidental drop, but a number of the grass stems were dropped and floated to the ground.

Mourning Doves do not spend a long time making their nests, completing them in just a couple days. They are flimsy and not lined or insulated, but they have been successful for the doves for a very long time. They lay just two eggs, which are all white, and both the parents share incubation duties.


Drawing taken from Baicich and Harrison, Nest, Eggs, and Nestlings of North American Birds, second edition.

In 10 minutes, the male made about 30 trips to the ground and back. It then paused its frantic pace (at least it appeared frantic to me), and both male and female flew off together for break.


When I walked by the Locust tree again an hour later, they were back at work.


Some June Meadow Flowers

The summer means a magnitude of wildflowers in the fields of Eliza Howell Park, especially those areas  that are not mowed. In the first part of June, the earliest of the summer flowers are beginning to bloom.

As I walk through the “weeds,” I cannot resist pulling out my phone camera. Here are a few pictures of flowers that have caught my eye in the last week.


Foxglove Beardtongue









Red Clover



Hairy Beardtongue



Ox-eye Daisy



Crown Vetch

These flowers are all over a foot high (except for the clover) and easy to find by those willing to get off the path. Other flowers will follow soon and the Eliza Howell fields will be abloom until the Fall frost.



Nesting Birds: Female and Male Roles

Most of the songbirds that breed in Eliza Howell Park are nesting now and providing great opportunities to learn about bird behavior. Part of my observation is focused on the different role that female and male parents play in nest building, incubation of eggs, and feeding the young. It varies somewhat from species to species.

After returning from time in the park, I often check the published research to expand my knowledge and/or confirm my observations.

Note: All photos were taken by Margaret Weber. Thank you.

barn swallow love

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallows nest every year under the Fenkell bridge over the Rouge River and sometimes under park shelters in nests that are made of mud and lined with plant material. Female and male Barn Swallows not only look alike, they also share many aspects of breeding.

They both build the nest.

They both incubate the eggs.

They both tend the nestlings.

hummingbird in nest

male ruby throated protrait

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

The first picture is of a female on the nest; the second of the male in a perching position that is often taken during nesting season. The two sexes do not have similar roles.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

The female alone tends the nestlings.

The male is around, often perching (on guard?) on different trees in nesting territory, but does not assist the female.


Baltimore Oriole

Several Baltimore Oriole hanging nests are made every year in large trees  in Eliza Howell. Based on the time this year’s nests were built, I expect that eggs will hatch very soon and the feeding nestlings phase will begin. The picture is of a female feeding the young.

The female does most of the nest building. I have seen males occasionally bring material for the female to weave.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.


Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied woodpeckers are the most common (at least the most noticeable) woodpeckers in the park, boring new nesting holes in dead trees each year. The picture is of a male during the excavation process, which takes several days.

Both female and male bore the hole, but most of it is done by the male.

Both incubate the eggs.

Both tend the nestlings.

coming at you

Red-winged Blackbird

The male Red-winged Blackbird (pictured) is sometimes polygamous and watches over more than one nest in his territory. Many of us have had the experience of the male “yelling” at us and flying in low, often right above/at the head, to chase us away when we get close to a nest or to fledglings.

The female alone builds the nest.

The female alone incubates the eggs.

Both female and male tend the nestlings.


By contrast to migration time, when the focus is on identifying the different species as they appear, in nesting time my attention is much more on bird behavior. I find this even more interesting.





Getting to Know the Tulip Tree

Among the many flowers found in Eliza Howell is a striking one that, I am quite sure, very few visitors see: the flower of the Tulip Tree, which blooms in late May and early June.


Different from many other flowering trees, the leaves are fully developed before the flowers appear, making the flowers less visible. In addition, the tree is rare in Eliza Howell; I am aware of exactly one. But it is definitely worth it to find the singular tree and get an up-close look.


These pictures were taken May 29. So was the next one, of a flower getting ready to burst from the bud.


The northern end of the natural range of the tulip tree, a type of magnolia, is southern Michigan, so we do not encounter many around here. By contrast, it is the state tree of Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana. It can grow to well over 100 feet (in which case, the flowers tend to be mostly out of range for close-up looks), but the EHP one I know is much smaller.

This picture was taken in the middle of May this year.


The tree is found within the road loop, toward the Fenkell end of the loop. It is right next to a spruce tree, which is behind it in the picture.

The Tulip Tree gets its name, I strongly suspect, from the flower. But the leaf looks something like a tulip and doesn’t the empty seed shell that hangs on all winter also suggest a tulip?


In the Fall, the leaves turn yellow.


For most of my life, I had no real knowledge of tulip trees. I thank this particular tree for providing me the opportunity to get to know a fascinating species. I invite others to pay it a visit.

Monarchs and the Milkweed Advantage

Monarch butterflies are again active in Eliza Howell Park. Monarchs are among the most visible and common of the roughly two dozen butterfly species found in the park and one of the few butterfly species that migrate (they head to Mexico each Fall). They have returned. To be exact, it is not the same individuals that have returned (their lifespan is not that long). But Monarchs are back.


Photo by Margaret Weber

At the same time that I started seeing the first Monarchs of the year I began to notice that Common Milkweed, the wildflower that their life history is intimately connected with, have emerged and are growing rapidly.


Monarchs use milkweeds (mostly the Common Milkweed) as the exclusive host plant for their eggs and larvae. They will soon be beginning the process. Nature walkers will be checking the underside of milkweed leaves for the Monarch caterpillar, almost as easily identified as the adult butterfly.


Photo by Margaret Weber

Monarchs nectar on many different flowers (in the first picture above, it is on a butterfly bush), but its special relationship with milkweed in reproduction gives it what I think of as the “milkweed advantage.” There is a toxicity in all parts of the milkweed plant (ranchers/farmers are warned again letting their livestock graze it) and the Monarch acquires this toxicity from ingesting the leaves as caterpillars. The result is that adult Monarchs are not preyed upon by birds, who have come to know that Monarchs are not healthy food.

It is not a surprise that Monarchs like milkweed.


Photo by Margaret Weber

The Monarch is one of the best known and best liked butterflies in this part of the country and there has been a growing concern in recent years about the decline in their numbers. They continue in good numbers in Eliza Howell Park, perhaps in part due to the limited mowing that allows milkweeds to thrive. 

The milkweed flower is followed by the seed pods, which will ripen and open to silky seeds that are dispersed by wind. 


When I saw the first Monarchs last week, I immediately looked for milkweed. The two go together that closely. 


Postscript: There is another insect that benefits from the toxic “milkweed advantage.” It is the brightly colored Milkweed Bug, found on the plants later in the year. That may be a story for another time. 


Woodland Spring Wildflowers: An Update

In late April and early May, most of the wildflowers blooming in the park are found in the woods. This is changing; from now on, most blooms will be in the more sunny areas.

On my walk on May 21, I took a look at what remained of the spring woodland flowers.

Trillium is still blooming, but fading.


Wild Geranium is at its peak, now the most prominent flower along the path through the woods.


While earlier the Mayapple was recognized by its foliage, the single flower per plant is now open (though one needs to get down close to the ground to get a good look.



Violets were plentiful in Eliza Howell this year, both in and outside the woods, and they came in a variety of species/colors.

20180504_130142 (1)

Now the few remaining blooming violets in the woods are the white ones. It is noteworthy that the plants are now much taller and the leaves larger than when blooming began.


This may be my last walk of the year focused on woodland wildflowers. Overall, 2018 was not a great early wildflower year, the probable result of the weather – a cold April and a wet May. But the flowers will come again next year and I hope to be ready to greet and welcome them.


Bright Beautiful Breeding Baltimore Orioles

(Note: See below for information on the upcoming Eliza Howell nesting birds field trip — June 9, 2018)

Each year in May and June, visitors to Eliza Howell Park are treated to the sight and sound of Baltimore Orioles. The orioles spend the winters in Central America and arrive back in Detroit, with great regularity, during the first week of May. For those who are looking, their colors make them hard to miss.


Photo by Margaret Weber

They begin to construct their intricately woven nests two to three weeks after the first arrivals. I noted the first Eliza Howell Baltimore Oriole this year on May 4 and saw a pair engaged in nest construction on May 18.

In a typical year, several different pairs nest in the park. From May 18 to May 21 this year, I have already seen 5 different nests under construction.

Most of the work of nest construction is done by the female over a period of 4 – 8 days. The nest is suspended from a twig, usually near the end of a branch. It is a pouch that looks something like a hanging sock. It is about 6 inches long, with a small opening at the top, and a bulging bottom (where the eggs are incubated). It is made of grasses, other plant fibers, and sometimes artificial material like yarn.


The nest pictured above was made in the park last year, less than 10 feet from the ground. Usually they are much higher, in large leafy, deciduous trees, but not in a forest. Parks like Eliza Howell, with big scattered trees, are ideal spots. Over the years, I have come to know their tree preferences; this cottonwood by the road is definitely one. 


The nests are easiest to find at this time of the year, during construction, when the bird is making frequent trips with nesting material. Without the bird leading the observer’s eye to the nest, it is very difficult to locate.

The following picture shows an incomplete nest in a typical location, hanging near the end of a branch. When the leaves are fully developed, it will be almost impossible to see from the ground. (This is also in a cottonwood tree.)


Another good time to find a nest is during feeding time, when the adults (both male and female) make frequent visits to the nest to feed the young.


Photo by Margaret Weber

Detroit Audubon schedules an annual field trip to Eliza Howell for a guided look at nesting orioles and a number of other nesting species. It is timed for feeding hatchlings time. After the orioles complete the nests and lay the eggs, incubation (by female alone) takes about 12 – 14 days. 

     Detroit Audubon Nesting Songbirds Field Trip

     Saturday, June 9, 8:00 a.m. – approximately 10:00 a.m.

     Everyone is welcome, no cost. Audubon membership not required.

     Meeting location: about halfway around the road loop from the Fenkell entrance


Photo by Margaret Weber

The orioles are called “Baltimore” because someone was reminded of Lord Baltimore’s yellow and black coat of arms. To me, they look much more orange than yellow. Regardless, they and I will be in the park to welcome everyone on June 9. 

The Eastern Redbud: A Close Look

The flowers that bloom in Eliza Howell Park in May include the Eastern Redbud, a small tree that is scattered at or near the edge of the wooded areas outside the road loop.



The Redbud is only 20 – 30 feet tall at maturity, a size that makes it easy to get close-up looks. The flowers appear before the leaves and line the stems, and sometimes the trunk, in clusters. 


The flower is not really red, more like a dark pink or perhaps magenta (I am not good at identifying colors beyond the original 8 that were in my crayon box when I was a child).

The flowers are pea-shaped, a shape that means, according to studies, Redbuds cannot be pollinated by most bees; only those with longer tongues can reach the nectar.


Less attention is usually paid to Redbuds in the fall, when 2 – 4 inch seedpods appear. One seedpod from last fall is still present and visible in this picture.


Redbuds, often planted as ornamentals, are native to eastern North America. Their natural range extends only as far north as Detroit.


         Map copied from Wikipedia article

Other flowering shrubs and small trees (such as crabapple and honeysuckle) will soon be blooming in the park. This week the Redbud gets my attention.


Chickadee Nesting Discernment

As someone who has a great interest in observing bird nest sites and nest construction, I sometimes wish I could communicate directly with the birds. I would especially like more information on the discernment process, the determination that a particular site is or is not suitable as a nesting spot this year.

It is not rare to see a pair of birds begin what appears to me be nest construction, only to find out in later visits that the birds have abandoned this effort.

The most recent example is Black-capped Chickadees. On April 18, 2018, I was walking near the edge of the woods in Eliza Howell Park and focused my binoculars on a dead stump.


Chickadees are cavity nesters and they sometimes nest in an old woodpecker holes and sometimes dig out their own. When they dig their own, they usually do so in a rotten stump. So, when I saw a pair of blackcaps pecking away at the stump in April, I was excited, thinking that I might have found a chickadee nest for the first time in 5 years or so.

The next day, they were there again, so I asked Margaret Weber to see if she could get some pictures of the chickadees excavating a nesting hole. This is what she found.

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untitled (2 of 2)

Two things are noteworthy here: the two pictures are of different beginning openings and in neither is the bird chipping away. I began to think that maybe they had been doing some exploratory drilling and were, at the time of these photos, examining what they had found.

On subsequent visits, I did not see them at the stump again and the holes were not enlarged. They have remained the same for more than a week.



The question that I would ask if I spoke Black-capped Chickadee is this: What was unsatisfactory about this site?

While there were environmental factors (a couple Blue Jays active at the edge of the woods and a couple of humans watching), I suspect that, given the two starter holes, the reason has to do with the nature of stump wood. Perhaps it was not rotten and soft enough. After all, chickadees do not have woodpecker beaks. This is my current hypothesis.

When I next find an active self-made chickadee nest, I can compare how soft and yielding the wood is. I don’t know how long that will be, but probably before I am able to communicate directly with the birds.