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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The River, the Season, the Weather: Tracking Fall 2019

I often stop on the footbridge during my walks in Eliza Howell Park, stop and take a picture, looking upstream the Main branch of the Rouge River. These pictures help me track seasonal changes and fluctuations in water level.

Below are 8 photos taken on different days during the four weeks from October 16 to November 13, 2019. Some from sunny days and some from cloudy days, these pictures presdent the progress of Fall this year.

October 16, 2019  (9:47 a.m.   Approximately 50 degrees F)20191114_172805

October 20, 2019 (3:04 p.m.   Approximately 60 degrees F)20191020_150414

October 24, 2019  (11:23 a.m.  Approximately 50 degrees F)20191024_112318

October 27, 2019   (11:57 a.m.  Approximately 45 degrees F)20191027_115727

November 1, 2019   (9:31 a.m.   Approximately 35 degrees F)20191114_173423

November 4, 2019   (10:22 a.m.   Approximately 45 degrees F)20191104_102257

November 8, 2019   (10:07 a.m.   Approximately 25 degrees F) 20191114_173718

November 13, 2019   (10:52 a.m.   Approximately 15 degrees)20191113_124144

The changes from the middle of October to the middle of November, always dramatic along the river in Eliza Howell Park, were even more dramatic this year because of the unusually heavy snow of November 11.

 

Pokeweed: Another Fall Berry

Pokeweed is a large perennial wildflower that emerges in the spring, but for most of the season is not among my regular stopping places during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. In the Fall, however, it definitely gets my attention.

It is the combination of the red stalks/stems and the bright fruit clusters that calls it to my attention.

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Pokeweed can grow quite tall (the one below is at least 8 feet high) and looks like a bush. The color in the branches and in the flower/seed clusters becomes more bright as the season progresses.

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The flowers are small and, while attractive, do not seem to appear very often among wildflower photos.

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The fruit is the biggest attraction for berry watchers like me. The flower cluster becomes a cluster of berries – green to red-ish to dark purple.

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Pokeweed is a native plant of North America, often found at the edges of tree lines and in disturbed ground. It is spread by seeds. (Range map is from USDA.)

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All parts of the plans (roots, shoots, leaves, fruit) are poisonous, although it has historically been used as a food at times (after very careful preparation) and as a medicine. Many birds and some mammals eat the berries and do not suffer the same ill effects as humans do from eating the raw berries. (Pokeweed often grows in yards and there have been cases of children getting ill after sampling the berries.)

Each berry has about 10 seeds.

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By the end of October, the seed clusters are largely devoid of berries.

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There are many Fall berries in Eliza Howell Park, mostly growing on vines or on shrubs. Pokeweed is not nearly so common here as Bittersweet or Honeysuckle, but it is definitely one worth noting.

 

 

A Sunny Morning in Late October

The early morning sun was shining and there was a combination of dew and frost on the ground when I arrived at Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park on October 28, 2019. Here are a few images from the next three hours.

Bittersweet on Oak Tree

Bittersweet vines grow high on some trees in the park, most noticeable when the leaves of the vine turn yellow.

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Dew Drop on Sumac

In the blow up, one can clearly see the reflections.

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Three Hundred Year Old Bur Oak Tree

I stopped by a massive Bur Oak that has been estimated to be over 300 years old.

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Rouge River from Footbridge

I often take a picture from this spot, looking upstream. The look of the river changes with the season, the sunlight/clouds, and the water level.

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A Walk in the Woods

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Sugar Maple

Several Sugar Maple trees, seen from the park road, have inspired park visitors to pull out their cameras.

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A Favorite Cottonwood

There are some trees, friends, that I stop by to visit to see how they are doing. This Cottonwood tree is one.

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In my records, this is Walk # 1351. Another good one.

 

Bitternut Hickory: Searching for a Better Name

I was standing under a Bitternut Hickory tree the other day in Eliza Howell Park when a falling nut hit me on the head. It wasn’t quite an “aha moment” – as in the story of Newton, the falling apple, and gravity – but it somehow reinforced my intent to find a better name for this tree.

In October, Carya cordiformis, the tree usually known as “Bitternut Hickory,” gets my attention for a stately golden beauty.

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It is not unusual for the common name of a tree species to be based on the appearance or characteristic or use of the tree or its fruit – for example, Shagbark Hickory, Black Cherry, Kentucky Coffee Tree. That seems different, though, from a name that is based on a judgment of the tastiness of the fruit.

Tastes vary, but the name suggest that no one will like the fruit, with the possible result that people will not even pick up a few for their own taste test.

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Deciding that I preferred a name that is more descriptive of the plant and less a commentary on the quality of the nut as food, I began to look for possibilities. The “cordiformis” in the scientific name means “heart shaped.” This refers, I would think, to the shape of the nut. I don’t know if that would be a good common name, but I have not  seen that name used in English.

As a tree and as a fruit, “Bitternut Hickory” is often compared with Shagbark Hickory. The common name Shagbark is, of course, based on the bark. The bark of “Bitternut” is smoother than that Shagbark, but there is little about the bark that suggests a name – and I have not seen any attempts at such naming. In the picture, Shagbark is on the left, “Bitternut” on the right.

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Based on what I have been seeing this month, my personal preference for the name would be something like “Golden Hickory.”

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Unfortunately, this name does not appear in any of the articles or reports on the species.

Another characteristic of the species – and one I often use for identification – is that the husk of the nut has four narrow ridges that extend down from the outer tip.

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“Ridged Hickory” might be acceptable name, but I have not been able to find anyone calling it that.

There are two English names besides “Bitternut” that are sometimes used in the published accounts: “Yellow Bud Hickory” and “Swamp Hickory.” “Swamp” seems to me to more misleading than helpful; the tree is found in many locations that are not swamp.

“Yellow Bud” is based on the fact that the winter bud is yellowish, a distinguishing characteristic. I confess that I have not paid particular attention to this fact and do not have a single picture of the bud. However, the name is based on an identifying characteristic of the species and has been used enough that searching under this name will bring up the right information.

A picture of a Yellow Bud Hickory in Eliza Howell in October:

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I think my search for an alternative name to “Bitternut” may be over. I plan to use “Yellow Bud” from now on. And this winter I will pay attention to the buds.

Poison Ivy on Cottonwood: Taking A Good Look

In early to mid-October in Eliza Howell Park, before most other plants had reached their Fall color peak, Poison Ivy gets my attention. It adds color to the trunks of trees and the fruit attracts birds.

The vine climbs many of the Cottonwood trees inside the road loop, where it is easy to get a good look.

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Poison Ivy is a native species that usually gets talked about for only one reason: stem, leaves, and roots all contain urushiol, which causes a rash reaction in most people who come into contact with it. So the message is to avoid it. But it is safe to look and I have enjoyed getting to know some of its characteristics. I have recently been observing how it grows on Cottonwood trees and each picture here is of Poison ivy on a Cottonwood.

Poison Ivy often grows 20 feet or more up the trunk of a large tree.

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The leaves in fall are red or yellow or orange.

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The fruit is abundant this year. Humans (and other primates, I think) are the only animals that have the rash reaction to the urushiol in Poison Ivy. Birds eat the fruit and deer and insects eat the leaves.

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The craggy bark of Cottonwood trees provides a good surface for the Poison Ivy vines to climb. The vines tend to be hairy, a fact that helps to identify the species during the months of the year when there are no leaves.

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Poison Ivy is not the only colorful vine that climbs trees (the leaves of Virginia Creeper, for example, also turn reddish), but most of the red vines on large trees that a visitor is likely to see within the road loop in the park at this time of the year are Poison Ivy.

This is an ideal time to take a good look and to get a better understanding of its role among the flora and fauna of North America.

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The classic advice of “Look, but Don’t Touch” applies here. Maybe take several good looks.

 

Gray Catbird: Predictable Departure Time

My October bird watching in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit is largely focused on birds Coming, birds Going, and birds Passing Through. “Coming” are those species that breed in the far North and spend their winters here; “Going” birds breed here and head south for the winter; “Passing Through” birds breed north of southern Michigan and winter to the south of us.

Very early October is the time to expect my last sighting of the year of one of my favorite park summer residents: the Gray Catbird.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

According to my records, the Catbird is typically here at the end of September but gone by the end of the first week of October. At this time of the year, I often walk through the wildflower field along the edge of the woods checking to see what birds have shown up overnight. The view is slowly transitioning to a Fall look.

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Birds like this area because it is a good place to forage for food, whether that food be insects or seeds (most of the wild flowers are now in seed) or berries from the many vines and shrubs at the edge. For most of the summer Catbirds eat insects, but when fruit is available as it is now, they eat a variety of berries.

catbird wt berry

Photo by Margaret Weber

They are called “catbirds” because their wailing reminds people of a cat meowing. They are mimics, however, and especially when singing earlier in the season, can produce a great variety of sounds.

They spend the winter near the cost in the southeast U.S. or Mexico or in the Caribbean or Central America. (The Range Map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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Their spring arrival date is also predictable. I usually first spot one in the park between April 30 and May 4. Shortly thereafter they begin to seek out a nesting location; they place their nests in thickets, several feet off the ground. It often takes careful thicket searching, but I have had some success in finding their nests. Their eggs are a striking color (turquoise green?).

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Several pairs spend the summer in Eliza Howell Park. At least one Catbird was still present yesterday, October 1. It might have been the last day I see one in 2019, 5 full months after the first appearance in the spring.

Thank you for spending the time with us.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

One of the joys of nature watching for me is the predictability of the annual sequence of events. And very few events are more predicable than the time of  the annual departure from Eliza Howell of the Gray Catbird.