September 7 Nature Walk

The second of the annual Detroit Audubon field trips to Eliza Howell Park takes place on Saturday, September 7, 2019, starting at 8:00 a.m. The public is invited; there is no cost.

Timed to coincide with the early days of the Fall bird migration, this walk give special attention to birds, especially warblers headed from the North Woods to Central and South America. Depending upon the weather conditions, we are likely to see several warbler species, perhaps including these three. (Thank you to Margaret Weber for these three photos.)

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Black and White Warbler

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Nashville Warbler

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American Redstart

The fall warbler migration begins at the end of August and continues into October, with individuals of some 20 different species making short stops at Eliza Howell. The find from one day to the next is almost always different.

If September 7 is a good day, the birds will keep us quite busy, but we will also stop for non-bird observations. This is about the best time of the year to note the variety and nature of spider webs among the wildflowers and the shrubs. They vary in sizes and shape; this is a small one on a thistle.

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September is also the month when I most frequently see a Praying Mantis (or 2 or 3). They have reached maturity and may be seeking mates and/or laying eggs. (I wrote about “Praying Mantis Egg Laying” on September 13, 2018.)

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Butterflies continue to be present. One of my favorite late-season butterflies is the Common Buckeye, which makes it appearance in Eliza Howell after the July butterfly peak.

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I usually find several Bald-faced Hornet nests in the park each year, beginning about this time. We may want to stop for a look (through lenses) to watch the hornets enter and exit the hole near the bottom of these amazing constructions. (For more, see “Bald-faced Hornet Nests,” December 12, 2017.)

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Blue Jays migrate in September and many spend days at Eliza Howell harvesting acorns, from the middle of September into October. (For more information, see “Blue Jays Harvesting Acorns,” August 27, 2018).

September 7 might be a little early to see them at work, but we will check (this photo also courtesy of Margaret Weber).

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The seasons repeat themselves, so it is possible to predict what might be seen at any given time of the year. But it is also true that every day is different and almost every walk includes an element of the unexpected. Such is the nature of nature walks. September 7 should be fun.

Less Frequently Photographed

The appearance of colorful butterflies, birds, and flowers often brings out the camera, but many less visible or less colorful living park features do not get similar attention. During my walks in Eliza Howell Park in the second week of August this year, I have been making an effort to get pictures of some less frequently photographed insects and spiders.

A large number of dragonflies are now flying in the park. It is difficult to get a good image of one since they seem always to be on the move, rarely resting long enough for me to get a picture, but I am beginning to get a few.

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There are, I think, over 300 different species of dragonflies in the United States and Canada and I am not (yet) prepared to attempt species identification of most of those I am seeing. For now, it is enough to see some of the variety and to have a few pictures with enough clarity that some body features can be noted and appreciated. Dragonflies are predators, eating other insects.

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Every year in late summer, I see webs that cover the tips of some tree branches. These “tents” are the home of the larvae (caterpillars) of a moth called Fall Webworm. I hardly ever see the white adult moth, but the tents where the larvae feed on leaves are easy to find. Though the trees lose some leaves, the webworms do not appear to do any long-term damage to the trees.

Since the larvae can usually only be seen within the webs, it is difficult to get a good picture of them. I have not yet done so.

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Grasshoppers are also in abundance in EHP now, especially easy to find along the walking path within the road loop. They are usually seen “hopping” away from where one is walking, not waiting to have their picture taken. I have a little more success finding them at rest in foliage. Grasshoppers are herbivores, feeding mainly on leaves.

The over 600 species are often in shades of brown and/or green. I am just beginning to get a sense of the variety within the park.

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Similar to the case of dragonflies, pictures can help me gain appreciation for some grasshopper features by allowing for close-up looks without catching them.

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August is the beginning of spider web season. Last year — September 20, 2018 — I wrote about the Banded Garden Spider (Banded Argiope) and its orb web. I have now found another orbweaver, the closely related Black and Yellow Garden Spider. It has been present in the same location for days, waiting for insects to get caught in its intricate web largely hidden in the wildflowers.

Large and colorful spiders like this are photogenic, but they are not frequently photographed simply because they are not frequently found.

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I confess that I have also been taking many pictures recently of butterflies and flowers, both of which have been plentiful and brilliant this month so far. But I do not want to neglect those “critters” that I know less well and photograph less frequently. There is so much to observe, to learn, and to admire.

Nature Discovery Day Is July 13

On Saturday, July 13,  there is a great opportunity for visitors to the park to become more familiar with the wildflowers, butterflies, birds, mammals, trees — and more – of Eliza Howell Park: 9:00 – noon. Free and open to everyone.

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There will be exhibits, activities, and options of guided walks designed to point out some of the natural wealth of this Detroit park. The park entrance is on Fenkell east of Telegraph. The event also includes an opportunity to learn more about the U-M wildlife motion-activated camera project (which includes Eliza Howell Park).

Among the highlights of mid-July are the meadow/prairie wildflowers. Among those catching my attention recently are these.

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Clockwise from top left: Foxglove Beardtongue, Black-eyed Susan, Butterfly Weed, Common Milkweed

The event is organized by Eliza Howell Park Partnership (EHPP), a coalition of persons with different organizational affiliations and a common interest in highlighting Eliza Howell as a place for observing and enjoying nature in an urban environment.

Guides will be present to assist in identifying the varieties of flowers, as well as the specific species of butterflies they attract. These are among the common butterflies at this time of the year.

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Clockwise from top left: Monarch, Common Ringlet, Red Admiral, Pearl Crescent.

While I am often unable to get a picture of a butterfly I see, it is never difficult to find flowers waiting to be photographed.

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Clockwise from top left: Staghorn Sumac, Chicory, Wild Bergamot, St John’s Wort.

Eliza Howell is the kind of nature park it is, in significant part, because the Rouge River runs through it. For those who wish to take it on Saturday, a short walk to the footbridge provides a good view of the shaded river.

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Back in the field, one flower not to be missed is Wild Bergamot, a mint family flower, sometimes called beebalm, that has only recently begun its summer blooming season. It is a magnet for a variety of insects. In this picture, the visitor is a Hummingbird Moth.

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Many mammals are more active at night than during the day. The cameras used in the UM wildlife camera project have located and identified some of the mammals of the night, as will be reported on July 13.

Two that I have recently seen during the day are White-tailed Deer and Groundhog.

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I thank EHPP for providing this opportunity to witness and enjoy the natural wealth of the park.

 

A Damselfly in Sunshine: Ebony Jewelwing

On some of these days in Eliza Howell Park, I can be tempted to avoid going to the river woodland because of the active mosquitoes. This is also the season of the Ebony Jewelwing, however, and the presence of this damselfly has lately been providing me with all the incentive I need to go to the near-river habitat, despite the mosquitoes.

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Damselflies are characterized by very large eyes (in proportion to the head) and a long thin abdomen. Ebony Jewelwing is a quite large damselfly, about 2 inches in length, and is the most common damselfly in EHP, based on my observations.

The size of the eyes always gets my attention.

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The adults that I watch are found fairly close to the river (though sometimes up to 100 yards away). The early stage of life is aquatic. They lay eggs on plant debris in slow-moving water and, after the eggs hatch, the young (known as naiads) spend the first part of their development in the water.

The adults often seek out leaves in one of the few sunny spots found in this habitat, and here I watch. The males and females are distinctively different. The male, pictured above, has dark wings with an iridescent green body. The most distinctive feature of the female is the white spot near the end of the each wing.

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Damselflies are carnivores, both in the larval stage in the water and in the adult flying stage. I watched this female eating another insect.

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A beginning bug watcher quickly learns the difference between damselflies and dragonflies, their near relatives. Both have 2 sets of wings and a long body. It is easiest to tell the difference when the insect is at rest. Dragonflies hold their wings out perpendicular to their bodies while damselflies hold their wings together across their backs.

Here is a resting dragonfly. They have even larger eyes.

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Dragonflies used to get more of my attention than damselflies. But that was before I came to know that Ebony Jewelwings are often resting (ready to be observed) in sunny spots close to the river near the end of June.

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Common but Not Common: Black Swallowtail

On May 22, I saw the first Black Swallowtail of 2019 in Eliza Howell Park. Black Swallowtails are nectaring butterflies, usually seen going from flower to flower. About the only flowers available in the field on May 22 were dandelions.

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Black Swallowtails are regulars in the park, often seen anytime from May through September. They are regulars, frequently seen, “common” in this sense. But the reason I take their pictures so often is that they are not “common” in the sense of routine or plain or unremarkable. They get my attention repeatedly.

Like many other butterflies, they are attracted to wild bergamot.

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And they like clover.

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The “swallowtail” name comes from the two tails extending in back, similar to – or reminding someone of – the tail of the Barn Swallow. The male and female are slightly different in appearance, the females having smaller yellow/white spots but larger blue patches than the males.

These common but remarkable butterflies are often in home gardens as well as in the park. In our garden, they frequent coneflowers.

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Black Swallowtails do not migrate, but overwinter as chrysalis. Females lay eggs on plants in the carrot family (parsley, carrots, Queen Anne’s lace, etc.). This caterpillar is enjoying eating its way up a parsley sprig.

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Naturalists often refer to animals and plants that are seen frequently in a particular location as “common.” Sometimes they are even named “common” – for example, “common milkweed” and “common buckeye.” A number of years ago, while on a butterfly walk in Eliza Howell, a companion said when viewing the common buckeye butterfly: “How can anything that beautiful be called “common!”

Here is a common buckeye that was close enough for me to get a picture of last year in Eliza Howell.

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His words are on my mind as I reflect on the black swallowtail. Its regular presence does not diminish its distinctiveness.

Cardinal Nest Watch: Part 2

This is a continuation of the story of a Northern Cardinal nest in Eliza Howell Park and of my observations of it. For the first part, see “Cardinal Nest Watch,” May 7.

As reported then, my last look in the nest had been on May 2, when I took a photo of 3 eggs.

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The brooding female was on the nest every time I checked through my binoculars during the next several days, so I did not get a close look.

On May 9, she was absent when I looked, so I approached for a brief look at what was happening. There were now 5 eggs.

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While all the eggs are similar in color and markings, I think that only the larger one is a cardinal egg. The smaller four appear to be Brown-headed Cowbird eggs. Cowbirds often remove one of the eggs of the “host” species when they lay one of their own.

I was not at all surprised by the presence of a cowbird egg, but I was surprised by the presence of four. As is typical of birds generally, a cowbird lays one egg a day; it usually places them in different nests. It must have returned to this nest more than once and/or there was more than one female cowbird imposing upon this particular host.

The cardinal returned a little later (after I took the picture) and continued brooding on what is now more of a cowbird nest than a cardinal nest.

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The next development was on May 11.

The nest is located is the wildflower field that is, by design, kept unmowed. Over the last several years, saplings and vines have emerged and have begun to threaten the future of the open flower field. Earlier this spring, I had asked the supervisor of mowing for Detroit west side parks for a one-time mowing in the spring, before the perennials were growing. He said they could do that.

I didn’t know the timing in advance, but the mowing was done on May 11, when a powerful tractor-pulled mower knocked down everything growing taller than a few inches. I happened to be there and informed the tractor driver of the location of the nest. He said he would leave that shrub standing. And he did.

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The mowing naturally drove the cardinal from the nest and I again took a quick picture.

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I was unable to visit the park May 12, 13, and 14. Sometimes a major disturbance, like the mowing of the surrounding habitat, might lead a bird to abandon the nest; I do not know whether cardinal returned to the nest after the tractor left.

When I headed to Eliza Howell on the morning of May 15, I was aware that, if all had gone well, this might be the hatching date. But all had not gone well. I found the nest empty – no birds, no eggs.

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The nest was empty and I don’t know what happened. Something removed the eggs (or hatchlings) and left no clear evidence of what that something was. In my search around the nest, I found only one very small piece of egg shell.

It is tempting to think that it might have been an animal predator, of which there are several possibilities in the park – including crows, blue jays, raccoons, coyotes, cats, and squirrels. But from no information it is hard to draw conclusions.

When I first started my walk on the morning of the May 15, I heard cardinals singing. This nest was not successful, but the pair will nest again this year, probably very soon, and definitely in a different location.

 

Cardinal Nest Watch

The watch started on April 26, when I noticed a female Northern Cardinal carrying a twig into a small bush in Eliza Howell Park. Cardinals usually have two broods a year and April is the normal time for the first in southeast Michigan.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

The closer look I took when she flew away showed a partially constructed nest. By April 28, the next looked finished or very nearly finished.

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Cardinals usually hide their nests in dense plant growth and in locations where they cannot be seen or watched from any distance. This one is quite well camouflaged, but it is low and visible (especially when using binoculars) on one side from about 30 feet. I immediately thought that this is a nest that I might be able to watch without disturbing the birds.

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The female Cardinal lays one a day until there are 3 – 5 eggs. And, like many birds, it doesn’t start incubating them until the clutch is (nearly) complete. This results in the eggs all hatching at nearly the same time.

On April 30, there was no bird present, so I approached the nest: 1 egg. On May 1: 2 eggs. On May 2: 3 eggs.

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Starting on May 3, the female has been on the nest every time I looked, so I have kept some distance and have not been able to discover the full clutch size.

Among cardinals, the female does all the brooding, while the male is nearby and feeds her from time to time (I have not yet seen him feeding her at this location).

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Cardinal eggs hatch after 11 – 13 days incubation, so I expect the next big development to be about May 14 – 16, if all goes well. Then both parents feed the young for about 10 days.

One of the questions I have is whether a Brown-headed Cowbird has laid an egg in the cardinal nest (and possibly displaced one of the cardinal eggs). Cowbirds are brood parasites, laying eggs in the nests of other birds for incubation and feeding. Another cardinal nest I checked this year contained three cardinal eggs and one cowbird egg.

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Not all nests lead to the successful fledging of young. There are a variety of reasons for nests to fail, so I will be watching to see whether the nest is destroyed or abandoned, how many eggs hatch, how many nestlings fledge, and whatever else I might observe.

The location is one that makes it easier for me to watch this nest than others that I have found, but it seems a risky location, more vulnerable to predators. But it was selected by the pair together, without requesting my opinion, so I will  simply continue to enjoy my opportunity to nest watch!

 

Mallard: First among Dabblers

The many duck species found in North America are sometimes described as either “diving ducks” or “dabbling ducks.” During recent March walks along the river in Eliza Howell Park, I have been watching the best known of all dabbling ducks, the Mallard.

At this time of the year, Mallards are usually seen as a female-male pair.

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         Note: All bird photos included here are courtesy of Margaret Weber.

“Divers” forage for food by diving and swimming under water, while “dabblers” are surface feeders; they sometimes put their heads under water but do not submerge to seek food. Dabblers like shallow water and are also referred to as “puddle ducks.” They also feed on land at times.

In Eliza Howell, they are most commonly found on the river but are sometimes seen in the toad breeding pond in the spring (before the pond goes dry). And they are sometimes found even in a flooded roadway. In this picture, a female is surface feeding.

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Mallards are present all year, whenever there is ice-free water (I have seen them in 11 of the last 15 Januaries). Outside of the breeding season, they often congregate in small flocks.

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It seems fitting to refer to Mallards as first among dabblers for a number of reasons. They are the most common and most familiar duck, found throughout North America and Eurasia. They are the biological ancestor of almost all domesticated ducks. The Mallard is both widely hunted as a wild duck and at home in many parks.

The “quack” that most of us tend to associate with ducks in general is the sound of the female Mallard (the male vocalizes differently) and the Mallard is the first duck that many of us encounter in our lives. The picture that often comes to mind when we think of a native wild “duck” is that of the green-headed male Mallard.

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As is common among ducks, the female incubates the eggs and cares for the young entirely on her own. Her colors make it very difficult for a predator to spot her when she is on the nest half covered by the dead grasses and leaves that remain from the previous year.

Mallards nest in Eliza Howell and I occasionally find a nest – always by surprise when I happen to get so close to a hidden nest that the bird flies out. The females lay about 12 eggs (usually one a day) and incubate for about 28 days after all the eggs are laid. The young are ready to leave the nest about a day after hatching and follow the mother to water, where one of the annual joys of bird watchers is observing several young swimming behind a Mallard mother.

When I came across this nest as the hen flew out, it looked like egg-laying was still in process and she had just added an egg to an incomplete clutch.

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Mallards have lived in proximity with humans for centuries and in some parks, especially where they are fed by park visitors, they are quite “tame.” Those in Eliza Howell are in a more natural setting. They are almost always present, however, and provide an opportunity for visitors to observe their behavior.

The Red Wings Are Coming

It was on “the eighteenth of April, in seventy five” (in Longfellow’s poem) that “the midnight ride of Paul Revere” occurred, when he spread the alarm that the Redcoats are coming.

As the first of March approaches every year, it is time to announce, with eager anticipation instead of alarm, that the Red Wings are coming to Eliza Howell Park (the Red-winged Blackbirds, that is, not the Detroit professional hockey team).

Usually the first of the summer residents to return for the breeding season, Red-winged Blackbirds often arrive when winter is still very much present. Twice in the last 10 years I have seen the first of them on February 27.

The males seem to be in a particular hurry to claim a breeding territory.

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       Note: The bird photos here are all by Margaret Weber.

As I enumerated in a posting last year (“The March 10 (or 11),” February 22, 2018), the bird population in the park begins to grow rapidly in March. Among these early arrivals, the Red-winged Blackbird is usually the first and often the most easily visible.

The males arrive before the females, who might not make it till late March. These females will find the males, with their bright red patches and singing loudly, ready to welcome them to the territories they have claimed.

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Females look very different. In fact, it can take some experience to identify them as the same species; they resemble sparrows in some ways.

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As can be seen from the range map, most RWBs winter in the states and some do not have far to travel to reach Detroit before spring does. (The map is taken from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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In Eliza Howell Park, there are several nesting “pairs” each year. I put “pairs” in quotation marks because this is a species that does not breed as a simple one-male one-female pair. The male often mates with and protects several females in his territory and genetic studies have shown that quite frequently the nestlings are not all sired by the territorial male.

In marshes, Red-winged Blackbirds often nest in cattails. Outside of the marshes, and in Eliza Howell Park, they nest in tall grasses or in shrubs and small trees. The nests are open on top and often have 4 eggs. I found this nest in May a couple years ago.

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The picture is not very clear because I didn’t linger long enough to get a good shot. Red-winged blackbirds are very aggressive in protecting their territory and their nests. They chase much larger birds and animals of all sizes, including humans. It is advisable to have head protection of some sort when walking near nesting Red-winged Blackbirds. It is common to experience “dive bombing” that seems to be aimed directly at the head.

They come flying, not just to impress females, but also to protect against intruders.

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The Red Wings are coming. The spring birding season is beginning.

 

 

 

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.