Meet the Mayapple

One of the fascinating spring Eliza Howell Park wildflowers is the Mayapple. The fruit – the so-called apple – is not ripe until later in the year, but the flower blooms in May. Mayapple is, however, known at least as much for its foliage as it is for its blossoms or fruit.

According to the Prince William Wildflower Society, a Virginia native plant society, a Cherokee name for Mayapple can be translated as “it wears a hat,” and an Osage name as “it pains the bowels.”

Mayapple is a colony plant; a single root has many umbrella-like stems, connected by underground rhyzomes. Dozens of these stems make up a typical Mayapple stand. Mayapple stands or patches are largely avoided by mammal herbivores, like deer, because the foliage, the rhysomes, and the (green) fruit are all poisonous.

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The above photo is from April 26, 2017.

Mayapple grows in rich moist soil in deciduous forests and can be seen in a few locations in the wooded areas of Eliza Howell.  The stand that I regularly observe was late in developing this year, as were other wildflowers. Most of the stems did not emerge until mid-April. (the next picture is from April 25, 2018.)

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A few days later, the stand was taking shape and the plants were about ½ of their adult size (which is a foot to a foot and a half).

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Some plants have only one leaf and will not have flower/fruit, but most have two leaves. These produce a single flower at the fork of the two leaves.

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Though the single white flowers are very attractive, they can be missed when they bloom because they face downward under and are shaded by the umbrella leaves. (The next picture is from May 7, 2017.)

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The fruit is green, turning yellow when it ripens. Ripe fruit is edible (when the seeds have been removed), the only edible part of the entire plant.

The Cherokee and Osage names for what we call Mayapple are, I think, both very good. I don’t have my own descriptive name…..yet.

 

Killdeer: A Story of Nest and Eggs

Killdeer usually return to Eliza Howell Park in early March; this year I had my first sighting on March 9. Typically, there are a few in the park from March till late Summer or early Fall.

Killdeer are plovers, a type of shorebird, but they are often found in open areas some distance from water. In EHP, they are most commonly seen in the fields within the road loop

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Killdeer are early nester. In the years that I find a nest, it is in April. On April 18 this year, while walking through the field with a companion, we saw a Killdeer run slowly away from our path. Stopping to get a better look at the bird, we watched as it did its broken-wing act. This effort to try to get us to follow it rather than continue where we were headed suggested that we were close to the nest.

I looked down in the direction we had been walking and there, three feet ahead, was the nest.

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Killdeer lay their eggs (almost always 4) in a shallow depression in the ground, where they incubate unprotected from spring rains, cold, and occasional snow. There is no structure to stand out and the egg coloring makes them well camouflaged. I am sure that I have walked right past Killdeer nests quite a number of times without knowing it.

For the size of the bird (a Killdeer is very slightly larger than an American Robin), the eggs are large, about 70% larger than those of Robins. The egg size is important. The larger eggs contain more nutrition and make possible more extensive development before hatching.

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Bird hatchlings are usually described as either “altricial” or “precocial.” Most small birds that nest in Eliza Howell are quite naked and helpless when first hatched and are totally dependent on being care for in the nest (altricial). A Killdeer is precocial, has fluffy feathers when it hatches and can walk away from the nest on the first day and start eating on its own (think precocious).

Greater development in the shell takes longer, however, and the newly hatched Killdeer is about the same “age” as a robin 12 days after hatching. Killdeer eggs are incubated 24 – 26 days and Robin eggs 11- 14 days.

The young Killdeer chicks will not be out in the ground nest helpless after hatching; once hatched, their parents can lead them to other hiding places. Until then, the eggs are at some risk from predators, from being stepped on, and, perhaps, from lawn mowers. I don’t know how long this Killdeer pair has been incubating so far, but hatch date is probably be a couple weeks away yet.

 

The Snails Have Returned

On April 16, I saw the first land snails of the year in Eliza Howell Park. It was a cold, dark day, and while they usually appear about this time, I was a little surprised to see them because of how cold it has been this April and because the grasses and wildflowers do not yet show much new life. 

Land snails breathe air and do not need to be in water. They eat plant parts.

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I am definitely not a malacologist (who studies mollusks, including snails), but I have been trying to learn a little about the land snails that are common in parts of the park. Though I am not entirely sure, I think the Eliza Howell land snails are all of one kind and are Brown-lipped Snails (which are sometimes also called Banded Snails or Grove Snails).

The snails have returned, not from migration, but from hibernation. In the Fall, they find a sheltered spot, use their mucus to cover the shell mouth, and seal themselves in for the winter months.

Before this week, the most recent photos I have are from September, 2017. As can be clearly seen from these pictures, there is color variation among the snails.

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During the next few months, one place where they can be found is among the high grasses and wildflowers between the road loop and the footbridge, off the main path. In walking among the plants, it is easy to step on them (and hear a crunch sound) before seeing them.

If this year is like recent years, they will be present in large numbers.

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For some people, snails may not be as attractive or as exciting as some other fauna in the park. For nature observers who want to get as complete a picture as possible of the “critters” found in this urban park, however, they are definitely worthy of attention (and maybe a few pictures).

Earliest Spring Wildflowers: Eliza Howell Park

2018 has been cold in March and early April, but the weather will get warmer and wildflowers will soon start to bloom.

Those who have the opportunity to walk in the park looking for blooming flowers this spring may see the following in late April or the beginning of May.

This 11-flower list is not all-inclusive, but it might provide some guidance to spring flower seekers.

All photos are from Eliza Howell Park.

  1. Spring Beauty
  • Woods
  • 3 – 6 inches
  • Usually 5 petals marked with pink or purple vein

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2. Cutleaf Toothwort

  • Woods
  • 8 – 12 inches
  • 4 petals

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3. Yellow Trout Lily

  • Woods
  • 6 – 10 inches
  • 6 backward curving petals

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4. White Trout Lily (Dogtooth Violet)

  • Woods
  • 6 – 10 inches
  • 6 backward curving petals

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5. Common Blue Violet

  • Woods and meadows
  • 3 – 8 inches
  • 5 petals

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6. Canada (white) Violet

  • Woods
  • 6 -15 inches
  • 5 petals, lower 3 marked with fine brown-purple veins

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7. Garlic Mustard

  • Woods
  • 1 – 4 feet
  • 4 petals
  • Non-native plant

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8. Wild Strawberry

  • Meadows, open areas
  • 3 – 6 inches
  • 5 rounds petals, numerous yellow stamens

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9. Wild Geranium

  • Woods
  • 1 – 2 feet
  • 5 petals, usually with dark veins

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10. (Common) Trillium

  • Woods
  • 12 – 18 inches
  • 3 large petals
  • Protected Michigan wildflower

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11. Redbud

  • Edges of woods
  • Small tree, native of North America
  • Flowers are pea-shaped and appear on twigs and branches

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Farewell, Winter Companions

On my walk on April 8, I again watched Dark-eyed Juncos in Eliza Howell Park, a common occurrence over the last 6 months. This is one of the last times this season; they will soon be leaving, heading north to breed, probably in the forests of Canada.

The juncos usually arrive in Detroit in early October and return north sometime in April. Nicknamed “snowbirds,” they are the most common of the birds that spend the winter, but not the summer, with us. For the bird watcher in this geographical region, winter means juncos.

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After seeing at least a dozen juncos on April 8, I reviewed my records to see how much longer in April they might be around. During the last 10 years, the latest date I have seen juncos in the park has been April 17 (in three different years). In two other years, the latest date was April 16 and April 15.

 

Even keeping in mind that I do not visit the park every day and that I could miss them when I am there, the pattern from past records is still quite clear: I am not likely to see them after April 17.

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The juncos have been our companions through the cold and snows of winter. It is now time for them to continue their annual life cycle.

I hope to see a few juncos in the park for another week or so and to wish them a safe journey. By October, I will be eager to see them and/or their offspring here again.

Photos by Margaret Weber

Varieties of Violets

This is an unusually cold early spring, but new plant growth is slowly emerging. On a recent walk in Eliza Howell, I noticed that a few violets are now up. 

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The flowers will follow before long.

While some roses are red, violets are not truly blue. They come in a variety of other colors, reflecting the variety of violet species that exist. Probably the most common violet found in Eliza Howell Park is the color that I have always associated with this flower.

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It grows in the woods and in the open areas. In the next picture, it can be seen with wild strawberry blossoms.

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In 2017, I photographed three other colors of violets in the park. 

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Not all Spring flowers that are sometimes called “violets” are really violets. One of the flowers found in EHP in Spring is one (next picture) that is frequently called “Dog Tooth Violet.” It is not a violet (the leaves and the flower are both very different) and is, I think, better identified as White Trout Lily.

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The violets are coming and different varieties will be blooming before April is over. I wonder… perhaps I will find an additional variety this year.

 

April Visits from Two Little Kings

These tiny 4-inch birds, smaller than warblers, moving almost non-stop from branch to branch gleaning insects, will be passing through Eliza Howell this month. They are among the very earliest of the species that migrate through the park on their way to breeding grounds further north.

I am referring to the two species of kinglet, the Golden-crowned Kinglet and the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. “Kinglet” means “little king” and is a good translation of their Latin genus name, “Regulus.” The head markings (crown) of the Golden-crowned Kinglet are much more distinctive than those of the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. These are the only two species of kinglet in North America.

All photos below are by Margaret Weber.

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The Golden-crowned arrives first, often beginning in the first week of April, and they have all passed through by the end of the month. It can usually be identified as a kinglet by its size and behavior, and the head identifies it as Golden-crowned.

Golden-crowned Kinglets breed from the Upper Peninsula north, usually building their nests high in conifers. Detroit is at the northern edge of their winter range and I have once seen one in the park in January.

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The Ruby-crowned Kinglet arrives a little later each Spring, usually about the third week of April, and a few can be seen into early May. While they, too, can be recognized as kinglets by size and behavior, the head markings are often not noticeable. White wing bars are usually evident and the white eye ring helps to confirm their identity (taken together with the lack of a golden crown).

When seen from underneath, they do not look particularly like a little king.

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Ruby-crowns also nest from the UP north, typically in conifers.

The red crown of the male is rarely seen, only when the male is excited.

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In the Fall, both kinglets pass through Eliza Howell again, the Ruby-crowned normally starting in September and the Golden-crowned in October.

Those walking in Eliza Howell Park in April (and those coming on the nature walk on April 21) have a quite good chance of seeing one or both of these little kings on their annual spring visit.

Vernal Pools: Getting My Feet Wet

“Getting my feet wet,” as an idiom, means just starting something new or gaining initial experience. This is a good expression to describe me this year as I am beginning to learn about life in vernal pools in Eliza Howell Park.

In this case, “getting my feet wet” can also be taken literally – or could be if it were not for rubber boots.

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Vernal (spring) pools are shallow temporary pools that typically fill with water in early spring and dry up by summer or fall. Several species of animals rely upon vernal pools for survival, such as wood frogs, spotted salamanders, and fairy shrimp. Because vernal pools dry up, fish do not survive there and frog and salamander eggs will not be eaten by fish.

There are 3 or 4 different spring watery spots in EHP that might be considered vernal pools. For my beginning study, I am focusing my attention on one. This is the largest one, in the heart of the wooded area.

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The approximate location of the pool, with no claim to be accurate in size, is marked in red on the map here.

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The pool in late March is some 80-90 yards long and averages about 20-25 yards wide, with water several inches to a foot deep in most of it. It is deep enough to attract Wood Ducks and Mallards at this time of the year. This particular pool, if I recall correctly from other years, does not usually dry up until at least the end of August.

Here is another view, taken while standing in the pool.

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Vernal pools are important habitats for amphibians and for invertebrates and I am hoping to learn something of the life in this pool in EHP. Fortunately, I know where to look for expert tutoring and advice. Yu Man Lee is Wildlife Ecologist and Herpetologist for Michigan Natural Features Inventory (a program of MSU Extension). She, accompanied by her husband Jon, came to Eliza Howell Park earlier in March to check out the vernal pools here.

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My new venture will involve a lot of looking down in the water, looking for/at “critters” and eggs and plants. The bottom of the pool is now covered with last year’s fallen leaves, deposited after the water died up in 2017.

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It is possible that I may want to post an update on what I am finding in this vernal pool in 2018. On the other hand, since I am just getting my feet wet, I may very well have too little to report.

 

Red-tailed Hawk Nest: The Beginning of the 2018 Bird Nest Season

About the middle of February, I commented that the behavior of two Red-tailed Hawks indicated that they would likely nest in Eliza Howell Park again this year. I can now report that I have found the nest. It’s great to have this raptor nesting in the park again!

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The basic strategy for successful bird nest hunting is to let the bird lead one to the nest. Using three pieces of information:

  • where I have most frequently seen the hawks soaring during the last month;
  • the fact that they call/scream most when I walk in a particular section of the park;
  • the location of last year’s nest (they are one species that may re-use a nest from the previous year);

I knew the general area in which to look. The plan was for a one-time-only approach, simply to confirm the fact of nesting. After that I would observe only from a long distance to minimize disturbance.

Because there are no leaves on the trees yet, the nest was not hard to find.

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The nest is bulky, made of twigs with a finer lining inside, and may be over a foot deep. Hawks can be in a high nest like this without being visible from below. Right after I took this picture, a hawk flew out and scolded me. I headed away immediately, satisfied. It is likely that there are 2-3 eggs in the nest, which need to be incubated for about a month.

This begins one of my favorite annual bird-watching activities, locating active bird nests. I observe an “active” bird nest when I see it being built or see a bird on it or entering it/exiting it. I don’t consider a nest without the bird an active nest. In the winter, when leaves are down, I often see additional no-longer active nests that I have missed during the previous breeding season.

In each of the last three years, I have located the active nests of at least 16 different species in Eliza Howell Park. Over the years, I have found the nests of 37 different species here.

Most are song bird species and each year in early June, Detroit Audubon sponsors a breeding bird walk in Eliza Howell Park during which I can guide participants in their observation of nests and nesting bird behavior. Baltimore Orioles are among the EHP nesters each year.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Invitation:

The 2018 Detroit Audubon Breeding Bird field trip in Eliza Howell Park is Saturday, June 9, from 8:00 a.m. to approximately 10:30 a.m. Detroit Audubon membership is not required. Anyone interested is welcome.