Seasonal Changes: The Same View over 12 Months

One way of noting the seasonal changes in Eliza Howell Park is to compare pictures of the same landscape taken at different times of the year. The 12 photos here, one from early in each month in 2018, were all taken from the footbridge over the Main branch of the Rouge River, facing upstream (north).

I think they speak for themselves, no commentary needed.

January 5, 2018

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February 5, 2018

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March 9, 2018

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April 4, 2018

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May 5, 2018

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June 5, 2018

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July 4, 2018

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August 4, 2018

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September 4, 2018

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October 3, 2018

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November 3, 23018

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December 4, 2018

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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.”

 

THE OLD ELM TREE: A Nesting Tree

For many years, the American elm tree along the road loop in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit was my usual starting point for bird-watching walks. It is located near the beginning of the nature trail that leads to and over the Rouge River and so is a convenient place to park and to meet others. I no longer park under the tree, however. It dropped its last leaves in 2014 and is now beginning to drop a few of its branches.

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The elm tree was both a convenient place to park and the first place I would check for birds. In this location, it has been a stopping point as birds as they move back and forth from the wooded area by the river to the more open area inside the road loop. It has also been a destination, an attractive foraging and nesting spot.

Over of the years, Baltimore Orioles regularly nested in the elm. This made for a great beginning of the Detroit Audubon field trip at Eliza Howell in June. I would simply ask the participants to look up as they got out of their cars to find and watch the orioles – and the field trip was off to a good start.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

My favorite memory of nesting birds in the old elm tree is from June 9, 2013. As usual, Baltimore Orioles had built a nest there. And, in an exciting development that year, a pair of Orchard Orioles was also nesting in the same tree, as were robins. Three species nesting in one tree at the same time is very unusual, but on that day I noted a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher high in the tree, moving out on a horizontal branch. It led my eyes to its tiny nest. The old elm tree was host to four nesting species at the same time!

The elm tree had survived decades after Dutch elm disease killed most of the American elms in Detroit, but in 2014 the tree was clearly dying. It leafed out, but the leaves began to fall shortly thereafter. Baltimore Orioles were again nesting there and the young had just fledged when the leaves were no longer present to shelter the hanging nest.

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Though the orioles no longer nest there, the old elm tree continues to support life, from the perching birds to the shelf fungus that grew at its base in Fall, 2017.

As a large snag, still retaining most of its branches in 2107, the elm is now a popular perching tree, as well as a foraging spot for those birds that seek insects in crevices. During visits to the park in 2017, I observed 23 bird species in the tree, without any concerted effort to count them all. They included two hawks (Red-tailed and Cooper’s) and four woodpeckers (Red-bellied, Downy, Red-headed, and Norther Flicker). Male Red-winged Blackbirds watch over their territory from its branches during the breeding season. Whenever I am out with my binoculars, I check the tree from time to time, even from a distance, just to see what might have stopped by.

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This year or next, assuming it continues to stand, woodpeckers will likely be drilling holes and the old elm tree will again be a nesting tree. I will be checking regularly.

 

Another Visit to the Footbridge: The Familiar and the Unexpected

It was 17 degrees F with a light snow falling in the morning of the Martin Luther King holiday when I arrived in the park.

As is my typical practice in winter, I headed to the footbridge; it is always an interesting view and often a key location of avian activity. A few years ago, a group of neighborhood kids painted the metal railings of the bridge, making it stand out as one of the brightest spots in the park on a gray day like this.

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As I walked onto the bridge, I looked upriver and saw a coyote trotting away along the left bank. Though it is not unusual for me to see signs that coyotes are in the park (see my December 2017 post, “After the Deer Died”), I rarely actually see them. This glimpse is the first in months.

Attending to movement at the edge of the river close to the bridge, I see that the birds that I have come to expect in this locale are here – Dark-eyed Juncos, Black-capped Chickadees, and Northern Cardinals. At this time of the year, female and male Cardinals are often together, as they are today.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Changing weather can change the appearance of the Rouge River drastically. Following the cold spell in late December and early January, the river was completely frozen over. Then came warmer weather with rain. The water level rose rapidly, with water flowing both under and over the ice. When the weather turned cold recently, the river began to freeze again, before the water had fully receded. The result is uneven freezing and broken ice.

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This stop on the bridge has included both the familiar/expected and the unexpected. These bird species are expected; the coyote is not; the appearance of the river surface is not typical, but it changes frequently with the winter weather, so it is difficult to know exactly what to expect.

The walk beyond the bridge included more of the familiar, including a visit to an old “friend,” a dead beech tree along the path, one of the landmarks I use in my notes for remembering the location of something observed (“near the old beech tree”). The top portion of the tree fell last summer.

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The small bird that flitted up as I returned to the footbridge was no junco or chickadee. It was a Song Sparrow. Song Sparrows are summer residents in Eliza Howell and migrate south for the winter. Since the northern end of their winter range is not too far south of Detroit, they sometimes do show up in the park in the winter, though not often. This is the first one I have seen this winter is definitely unexpected.

Song Sparrows are well named; they do sing frequently from a branch perch. But they are not likely to sing before March here. Nevertheless, seeing one in winter can remind us that the singing Song Sparrow, as in this picture, will be the expected in a couple months.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

This was my 1043rd documented nature walk in Eliza Howell Park and, as on so many of the others, I saw some things that I expected to see and I saw some things that I did not expect to see. I am eager to take the same walk again.

 

A Winter Walk on the South River Path

Part of my regular winter walk in Eliza Howell Park is the path along the river, going to the right after crossing the footbridge (coming from the road loop side). This area of the park is wooded and a winter walk in a deciduous woods is hard to beat, especially when there is snow on the ground.

I think of this as the “south river path,” marked in the dotted red line on the map.

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There is a Pignut Hickory tree near the path, a tree which was very productive in 2017. Before the snows came, I couldn’t avoid stepping on the nuts on the path and I was a little surprised that squirrels had not carried them off to store for winter eating.

Now I think I know the reason they didn’t. The leaves fell to cover the leaves and they were effectively stored right there. The squirrels are now digging them out, leaving the pieces of the outer shell behind as they carry off the nut. 

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When the leaves are off the trees, one of the more intriguing and noticeable plants near the path is wild grape vine. These vines are long, often large in diameter, and appear to dangle from the high branches. They do not adhere to the trunk as many other vines do. There are many grape vines along the path and they suggest a number of questions: how big do they get, how old, how do they get so high in the tree without adhering to trunks? I plan to comment on them further at another time.

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I always make sure I follow the path at least until I come to a patch of euonymus, a vine that adheres to the trunks of trees. Euonymus is an evergreen, providing the only green in this area of the park at this time of the year. A major part of their attraction is that they retain their attractive fruit in the heart of winter.

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I always walk very slowly near the euonymus vines because this is an excellent place to look for birds. Even on cold winter days when many birds are sheltered and hard to spot, I usually can find a few here. This year, Northern Cardinals are the most common, but I also frequently see Dark-eyed Juncos Red-bellied Woodpeckers.

One of the winter birding surprises this year is a small flock of Mourning Doves often along the edge of the river here. They feed mainly on the ground and the side of the river bank is one of the few areas of uncovered ground available. Sometimes, an icy spot on the river serves as their foraging “ground.

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The day or two following a snowfall is a good time to pay attention to animal tracks, which can always be found. On this most recent walk on the south river path, I saw many tracks, including those of deer.

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The south river path does not reach a park entrance/exit. It simply ends a short distance past the euonymus. So I return the way I came, usually seeing something that I missed a little while ago. That is the nature of a nature walk — observational, not destinational.

VIEW FROM THE FOOTBRIDGE: October – December, 2017

The footbridge over the Rouge River (Main branch) is part of my regular walk in the park. During 2017, I got into the habit of taking a quick picture each time of the view from the footbridge, facing upriver. The pictures, in addition to being enjoyable views, help to refresh my memory on the timing of the seasonal changes in the park.

As a result of the cold spell in late December 2017, the river surface was frozen and snow covered by the end of the year.

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December 30, 2017

The following pictures cover the last three months of the calendar year, in roughly 2-week intervals.

In Eliza Howell, most of the trees remain green in early October and slowly begin to change during the month.

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October 1, 2017

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October 16, 2017

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October 31, 2017

The autumn look fully arrives in November, the month of the big leaf drop.  

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November 14, 2017

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November 30, 2017

The first snows usually come in December, as they did in 2017.

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December 12, 2017

The freezing over of the running water in December, as happened this year, is quite unusual.

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December 28, 2017

I started taking frequent pictures from this viewpoint only in the middle of 2017. My hope is to document all 12 months this way in 2018.