Marvelous Monarch Morning

Monarch butterflies were active early on a recent late July warm and humid morning in Eliza Howell Park. I began to see them before 8 a.m.

Black-eyed Susan is now in bloom in the park. Based on past observations, it is not a flower I think of when I see Monarchs, so when a Monarch stopped on one to nectar, I approached for a picture.

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Given the numbers of Monarchs flying in the peak of the summer flower season, I decided to record in pictures some of the different flowers Monarchs came to rest on this morning. The second flower was definitely no surprise; I have often seen Monarchs on Red Clover.

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Monarchs are perhaps the best known North American butterfly – large, colorful, easy to spot, often discussed in terms of their migration practice and in terms of their declining numbers. One additional point is that Monarchs will often allow someone to get close while they are feeding on nectar, as long as the approach is slow and without any quick movements. These pictures were all taken with a phone camera.

Eliza Howell Park has several new benches. I was tempted to sit in the shade and watch the Monarchs, but I needed to be on my feet to get close.

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Butterfly Weed is a Monarch favorite, a flower in the milkweed family that serves both a feeding plant for adults and a host plant for caterpillars.

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Another flower that I have previously noted as a Monarch favorite is Purple Coneflower. One of the several Monarchs flying around in the “prairie wildflower field” stopped just long enough for a quick picture.

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I cannot be sure, of course, because there were several butterflies in their irregular flight patterns, but I think that each of these pictures is of a different Monarch.

The last picture I took this morning is of the butterfly on Boneset. Boneset is not one of the more common flowers in Eliza Howell and not one that I have ever associated with Monarchs in the past.

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Five pictures of Monarchs on five different flowers in about 2 hours = a Marvelous Monarch Morning.

I came away with a better knowledge of the flowers in the park that Monarchs select as food sources. After some 1300 Eliza Howell nature walks, I continue to learn something new almost every time.

 

Raccoons in Winter

Though Raccoons are nocturnal mammals, I see them quite often during my daytime walks in Eliza Howell Park, especially in late Fall and in Winter. They are usually sleeping and, from all appearances, sleeping very soundly. I realized how just how soundly when I came across one that had selected an open space on the ground for its daytime resting site.

I walked right up to the sleeping animal. It didn’t raise its tucked-in head or move any other part of the body; it seemed totally unaware of me. The only way I was sure it was alive was by the slight rise and fall of its body as it breathed.

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Raccoons do not typically take their daytime rest out in the open like this; I usually see them sleeping in large cavities of trees. Often they select a tree in the bottomland, along the Upper Rouge branch shortly before it reaches the Main branch, where the old willow trees provide many places to crawl into. Their sleeping pattern allows us to see them only from the rear, head hidden, just like the one on the ground.

This tree is used frequently, though not every day.

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Raccoons do not hibernate, but they may sleep away much of the coldest weather, day and night. They add a lot of body weight in the fall and do not really need to eat much in the winter. In milder winter weather, however, they are more active at night, evidenced by their changing day-to-day sleep locations and by their tracks in the mud and snow.

A good place to look for tracks is along the edge of the river, where this picture was taken.

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Raccoon tracks are among the easiest mammal tracks to identify. Both the fore print and the hind print show five toes and might be compared to human prints. The fore print resembles a small human hand and the hind print looks somewhat like a small human foot with very long toes.

The daytime sleeping spots are more like roosts than dens, just some place to curl up for a long winter nap.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

It is in the winter, however, that Raccoons also select real dens for nesting, deeper cavities in trees or perhaps in a log or a burrow in the ground. They mate in late winter and females give birth to (usually) 2 – 5 kits in the spring.

Occasionally, a Raccoon is seen with its eyes open in daytime in the winter, as in this picture. This location may possibly be a nesting den.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

There is much that happens in Eliza Howell Park that those of us who visit only in daytime miss. I sometimes follow mammal trails like this one and wonder how many different species and individuals are foraging along the river at night.

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Thanks to the Raccoon practice of daytime resting that allows it to be visible, I know that it is definitely one common Eliza Howell nocturnal species.

The Calendar Says Spring

March 21, 2018 (Walk # 1061)

This was my first walk after the vernal equinox and I was looking for signs of spring. I found a few, but winter is not over. A few observations from today:

The river water level is quite low for March. I use the extent of visible sycamore tree roots on the right for comparison purposes.

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One advantage to the nature walker of the lower water level is that there is more mud along the river edge, the area between the sides of the bank and the water. More mud means more mammal tracks and, at least for me, tracks in mud are usually easier to read than tracks in snow.

Here is an example.

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I circled two obviously different tracks here. The one in purple is typical of a raccoon and the one in red was made by a canine, probably a coyote.

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Robins are abundant in the park now and, in this time between winter and spring, are exhibiting both winter and spring behaviors. Many are feeding on the ground, but others are still foraging for fruit and seeds, as they do in winter.

I posted about sumac seed clusters last December, about how long they persist. Some of last year’s seeds are still present now and today both chickadees and robins were feeding on them.

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The number of bird species seen today – 18 – is the highest so far in 2018. A couple of these are winter visitors that have not yet returned north: Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrow.

There are a few signs of spring. Some birds are pairing off, preparatory to breeding season. One Downy Woodpecker now usually means another is very close nearby. Canada Goose is one of the earliest birds to nest along the Rouge River and this pair appears to be getting in the mood.

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While the park still has the brown winter look, it is possible to find a little bit of new green. As in home gardens, the first plants to emerge from the ground are those that grow from bulbs or rhizomes. I was pleased to see that a native species of marsh iris is back again this year.

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Today’s observations indicate that this March is both colder and drier than normal. I anticipate rapid changes in the park as the weather warms.

Where the Waters Meet

A number of years ago I drove through a small community in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan that is called Watersmeet. It is at the confluence of Duck Creek and the Middle Branch of the Ontonagon River. It is a lovely part of the state and Watersmeet seems to me to be a wonderful name for the community.

I have come to think of the convergence of the two branches of the Rouge River (the Main and the Upper branches) in Eliza Howell Park as “watersmeet.” Though it is off the path, I frequently go there to see what is happening; it is a spot that attracts wildlife.

This photo was taken recently looking downstream from the point at which the two branches meet.

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The map may help to pinpoint the location of “watersmeet” in the park.

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Over the years, this section of the river has been the most reliable place in Eliza Howell Park for spotting Wood Ducks. Wood Ducks nest in tree cavities and the young jump to the ground and head for the river with their mother only a day or so after hatching. The young ducks, usually 6 – 8 in number when I see them, spend the next couple of months in and along the edges of the river, cared for by the female parent, pictured here.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

As is true of most ducks, the male Wood Duck does not participate actively in parenting. it remains in the area, however, and is a “wow!” bird when seen in its full splendor.

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  Photo by Margaret Weber

In 2017, I saw a mink crossing the river here, a mammal I have seen in the park only a very few times. Also in 2017, in the fall, I observed a Green Heron here several different times. Green Herons have been only occasional visitors to the park in my experience, but I am hoping that this bird will return as part of a pair that makes EHP its summer home. A Great Blue Heron can frequently be found here from spring till fall.

Raccoons are active in the bottomland near where the waters meet and often use, for daytime resting dens, one of several cavities in the large black willows that grow in this area.

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I came upon one raccoon here last fall that had apparently decided it didn’t need to climb a tree for its daytime rest and went to sleep right on the ground.

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In an effort to increase my familiarity with mammal tracks, I often head to the “watersmeet” neighborhood in the morning after a new snowfall. And I always find evidence that a lot of activity has taken place while I slept. When the river is frozen, the Rouge itself is a bridge and/or a pathway.

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The path I take on my nature walk often varies from one season to another, depending upon what I am expecting or hoping to find. One location that is good every season of the year is “where the waters meet.”