Common Mullein: A Favorite Biennial

On an off-path walk on a recent February day, when the fields in Eliza Howell Park were temporarily snow free, I noted a few pale green plants in the mostly brown cover. Common Mullein looks ready to get an early start on the second year of its two-year life cycle.

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Its readiness is more evident in a close-up picture.

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Most flowers are either perennials (plants that live at least three years, dying back at the end of each season and growing again each spring from the rootstock) or annuals (plants that complete the life cycle from germination to seed in one year).

Far fewer flowers are biennials (growing roots and leaves in the first year and then producing the flowers and seeds in the second year before dying).

Common Mullein is an excellent example of how a biennial develops. By July of the second year, the plants are in bloom.

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Seeing the mullein rosette (the term often used for a somewhat circular arrangement of leaves near the soil) at this time of year is a definite reminder of what is to come.

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The flower stem (usually just one per plant) bolts up from the base, often reaching a height of 5 feet or more. Mullein is found widely dispersed in the sunny areas of the park and flowers, unevenly, over many days. I tend to stop repeatedly to look and sometimes to feel. The soft velvety leaves, sometimes called “rabbit’s ears,” have interested me since I was a child.

Others are attracted too. Here a mullein bloom is visited by a pollen-seeking Flower Fly (sometimes called a Hover Fly), if I am identifying it correctly.

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While Common Mullein has historically been used for a wide variety of medicinal purposes, both in the “Old World” and in the “New World,” I find it of special interest because of it is such a clear and easily found example of the life of a flowering biennial.

The picture at the top is of the beginning of the second year. This is what it looks like at the end of year one, before enduring a long winter.

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Common Mullein reproduces by seeds, which fall late in the second year. Individual plants take two years to reach maturity, but of course there are always some plants in the first year and some in the second year.

I don’t know why biennials fascinate me, but I do know that Common Mullein is a favorite among the biennials I know.

 

Merlin: An Uncommon Falcon Winters Here

In January 2019 I again spotted a Merlin in Eliza Howell Park, the fourth straight winter that I have seen at least one in this Detroit location. A Merlin is a small falcon, about the size of a Blue Jay, that feeds primarily on small birds (estimated to be 80% of its diet).

(This picture was taken recently at Belle Isle in Detroit.)

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Merlins breed in the North (mostly in Canada) and winter in the West and deep South/Central America, uncommon throughout their range. According to most range maps, like the one below from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, they are in southern Michigan only as migrants passing through.

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But some do winter here, probably more commonly now than in the past. As noted, I have seen them in Eliza Howell in each of the last four winters. But before that, I saw one in only two of the previous 10 years.

In reviewing other range maps, I did find one that recorded the Merlin’s Winter presence near Lake Erie, the map published by Audubon. Note the small blue area.

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Regardless of what range maps show, the Merlin is definitely (now) a Winter bird in Southeast Michigan. One should not expect to see one very often, however, given its overall low numbers. During the 2019 annual three-month-long count of migrating raptors at the Detroit River Hawk Watch, there were only 34 Merlins counted. Compare this number with 64,336 Broad-winged Hawks (the most common) and with 62 Golden Eagles, another uncommon bird in this part of the country.

A Merlin often perches in a tree near an open or brushy area, looking for small birds on or near the ground. I tend to check the scattered leafless trees during every Winter visit, looking for the silhouette. When I spot one, I try to walk close enough to identify and to watch. They are not spooked as easily as many other raptors, so one can sometimes get quite close before they fly away.

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Falcons are very fast flyers and a Merlin uses its speed to catch small birds in flight. On one of my first experiences of a Merlin in Eliza Howell, I watched as one flew into the woods with a bird in its talons, perched in a tree by the river, and spent the next half hour removing the feathers (which floated down to the river) and consuming its catch.

They are usually solitary, but on the recent Belle Isle occasion, we came upon a pair.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

Merlin the bird is perhaps not as well-known as Merlin the wizard (in Arthurian legend). This is understandable, as it is not numerous anywhere and not typically a resident of the eastern half of the United States. But it is out hunting from a perch on Winter days in Southeast Michigan and it is great to occasionally have the opportunity to observe.

The Foraging Four: A Mixed Flock in Winter

According to the old saying, “birds of a feather flock together.” Sometimes. Sometimes flocks of birds are made up of different species, like the flocks of small birds that I look for – and frequently find – when I walk in the woods of Eliza Howell Park in winter.

The mixed flocks vary a little from one to another, but usually include the four species that I have come to think of as the winter woodland foursome. Clockwise from top left: Black-capped Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, White-breasted Nuthatch.

         Thank you to Margaret Weber for the use of her photos in this posting.

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The Eliza Howell flocks are typically small, usually just 6 – 8, made up of 2-3 chickadees and 1-2 of each of the others. They tend to somewhat scattered, a loose flock rather than a tight one. Since the first bird I see is often a chickadee, I tend to think of the Black-capped Chickadee as the flock leader.

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I always stop walking when I see a chickadee to watch it and to check for companions. It flits from small branch to branch to log, checking openings in the bark or wood, foraging for insect eggs and whatever else is available to eat. Sometimes it drops to the ground looking for seeds.

Downy Woodpeckers are the smallest of the woodpeckers that live year-round in Southeast Michigan. They sometimes search for food higher in trees, but when moving with the mixed flock, they tend to forage quite low. Only the male has the red on the back of the head.

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The Tufted Titmouse is perhaps the most striking in appearance of this foursome. It also has a name that might seem somewhat peculiar. The “tufted” part is not surprising; it refers to the crest. “Tit” is an old Anglo-Saxon wood meaning something small. “Mouse” apparently comes from a word referring to any bird.

Of the four, Tufted Titmouse is least common in Eliza Howell. If one of the foursome is missing, it is usually the titmouse.

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White-breasted Nuthatches are sometimes referred to as the upside-down birds. They forage mostly on tree trunks and large branches, often heading down the tree.

The nuthatch is the one of the four that is most commonly heard, repeating a loud “yank.”

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The small woodland mixed flocks sometimes include another species or two (Dark-eyed Junco or Brown Creeper, perhaps), but these four are the regulars. As I stand and watch, they move through quickly, often gone minutes after I saw the first one. But I always look for them and the ‘foraging four” brighten many a gray day in winter.

Mulberries: Winter Observation, Summer Picking

During a recent winter walk in Eliza Howell Park, I stopped by some of the clusters of Mulberry trees that I visit in late June and early July, picking container in hand. Winter provides a good opportunity to note where and how they grow.

In Eliza Howell, almost all the Mulberry trees are found at the base of large trees that grow within the road loop. How close these trees grow to one another and to the larger tree is most evident in the winter when the leaves are off the branches.

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I thought of the nursery rhyme (“All around the mulberry bush the monkey chased the weasel”) when I noted how completely mulberry trees surround the trunk of one cottonwood tree. If I were more clever or creative, I might try to complete a line that begins with “all around the cottonwood tree….”

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Many mulberries are about 20 feet tall and, in their position under the taller trees, their branches spread and hang quite low. A lot of berries can be reached while standing on the ground. They progress from white to red to black, at which point they are ripe and ready.

Birds like mulberries, as do bird watchers.

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A comment I have heard from individuals who have come upon mulberries for the first time is “they look like blackberries.” They do have a similar shape, but they grow on trees (blackberries grow on vines), and the fruit stems are very different. The taste is also different, of course, but that is best experienced by eating newly picked berries.

There are three different black-colored edible summer berries in Eliza Howell Park: Mulberry, Black Raspberry, Blackberry (in the order in which they ripen). Black raspberry also grows on vines.

In this collage, Mulberry is on the left, Blackberry is top right, and Black Raspberry is bottom right.

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In my opinion, these three berries are the best foods to be harvested in Eliza Howell Park.

The first mulberry picking is at least 5 months away, but it is not too early to review the number and location of the trees. They may look to some like unwanted shrubs growing under larger trees, but they are worth getting to know.

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Winter is also a good time to enjoy one of the results of summer picking. 

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Jam made by Margaret Weber

Another Flood – and Historic Crests

About 2 inches of rain fell in the Detroit area on Saturday, January 11, 2020, and the Rouge River again flooded in Eliza Howell Park. On 9:45 on the morning of January 12, when I walked toward the footbridge, I saw acres and acres of flooded woodland. This was the only the third time, in my many visits, that I saw water flowing over the bridge.

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As those familiar with the park know, the water level varies a lot, but the footbridge is usually many feet above the water level. Here is a picture from November of 2019.

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Unable to cross the footbridge, I left and re-entered the park from the end of Lyndon Street on the east side of the park. Before long, as soon as I left the higher ground, I again came to water as far as I could see.

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The flood stage for the Rouge River in Detroit is 15 feet. I have not yet seen an official report on the height of the crest on this flood, but it was probably over 17 feet. That would mean that it is among the top 12 highest in the many years that the National Weather Service has been keeping records. Below is a list of the highest historical crests (those over 17 feet, according to NWS. It is noteworthy that, including this one, three of the 12 are in the last 2 years.

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Floods have consequences and it will be interesting to see any significant impact on the habitat and on the plants and animals that live near the river. As soon as the water receded sufficiently, I took a walk in the woods. The leaves, branches, and other material on the forest floor had been swept along until they were caught by logs, tree trunks/limbs, and shrubs.

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Beaver have recently arrived in Eliza Howell and their residence is, in all probability, in a burrow dug into the bank of the river. Such burrows start under water and angle up to a dry “nest” where the beaver rest during the day and where they have their kits. What impact is there when the water is feet over the bank, and over the resting area, for a day or two? I will be looking for indications of their continuing presence.

Nature is quite adaptable and, in my post-flood walk, I was noting how birds, including Black-capped Chickadees, were attracted to the new concentrations of potential food brought together by the water. Chickadees were finding many smaller seeds among the nuts in piles like this.

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There are new “mudflats” where the water moved the leaves and, in the mud, track evidence that mammals are active. These tracks look like the prints of Coyote (left), Raccoon, and Deer.

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Nature is adaptable, but having three floods cresting at over 17 feet in 2 years is not normal. I hope I don’t witness another one anytime soon.

 

Golden-crowned Kinglet and Eastern Bluebird: Two Occasional Early December Birds

The completion this month of 15 years of bird watching in Eliza Howell Park (180 consecutive months and over 1370 different records) Park makes this a good time to review the seasonal presence of different bird species. Based on experience, I know fairly well which species I can expect to see in the park at any given time of the year, in any particular 2-week period. These can be considered Common for that particular “season.”

And I know the species that I do not usually see on my outings at a particular time of the year, but am not surprised when I do see them. These are Occasional birds, birds that I can expect to observe some years during this season, but not most years.

The current “season” is the first two weeks of December, a period of time characterized by cloudy days, with leaves on the ground but very few remaining on trees.

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At this time of the year there are no flowers blooming, no developing seeds or fruit, little evident insect activity; I tend to concentrate my observations on mammals and, especially, on birds.

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Recent sightings of two occasional bird species led me back to my records. The first is a Golden-crowned Kinglet, only the fourth time in the last 15 years that I have seen this bird in the park in December.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

In my listing of Eliza Howell birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet is identified as a Migrant, a bird that passes through the park in the spring and fall each year, but is not present in either the summer or the winter. It is a late fall migrant, usually seen well into November.

As can be seen from the range map below (from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), the southern part of Michigan is within its winter (nonbreeding) range. Some Golden-crowned Kinglets can be seen in southern Michigan in winter every year, but my interest here is specific to Eliza Howell, the habitats in this particular location at this specific time of the year. Here it is occasional.

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The second occasional December bird recently seen is Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds are Summer Residents, breeding in the park. They have become more common in recent years.

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Photo by Margaret Weber

This is only the third December I have seen a Bluebird in Eliza Howell. However, two of these three years are 2018 and 2019. As the species becomes more common during the breeding season, it may also show up on more occasions during the winter.
Similar to Golden-crowned Kinglet, the winter range of Eastern Bluebird includes southern Michigan, though most individuals migrate further south. (This map is also from Cornell.)

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I typically see about 24-25 different species in the park in December, most of which are the usual Eliza Howell birds of winter: Northern Cardinal, Red-tailed Hawk, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Dark-eyed Junco, Black-capped Chickadee, Mourning Dove, etc. They brighten the gray days.

The occasional appearance of a different species adds to the brightness and adds to my knowledge about what to expect when.

Kentucky Coffeetree: Watching Seed Pods

Since August, I have been checking regularly two Kentucky Coffeetrees that grow in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, paying them much more attention than I have in other years. My main interest has been the developing seed pods.

These pictures were taken in August.

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Kentucky Coffeetree is a tree native to, though not very common in, parts of the mid-west. Southern Michigan is at the northern end of its original range. It is now sold by nurseries and used as a landscaping tree. The size and location of the Eliza Howell trees suggest that they were planted here long after the park was established. They are both female trees, producing seeds.

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The seeds (beans) of the tree have been used – roasted – as a food in some Native American cultures and the Meskwaki (Fox) are said to have ground them for use in a hot beverage. Early European colonists also tried it as a “coffee” as well. (Unroasted pods and seeds are reportedly toxic.)

The seeds mature slowly. When the leaves began to turn in October, the pods were darker in color, but remained firmly attached.

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The pods vary in length, most about 4 or 5 inches long, much shorter but thicker than the pods of the Honey Locus tree, often seen on the ground at this time of the year. I placed the two together for comparison.

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Now, in early November, the Coffeetree leaves are down. But the seeds remain firmly on the tree; I have not yet found a single one that has fallen on its own. (I picked those that I have examined.)

This picture was taken this week.

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The pods are not yet as tough as they will get and the seeds, though considerably changed since August, are not yet fully mature.

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I sometimes refer to my visits to Eliza Howell as “doing research.” It sounds more serious than “going for a walk.” One of my current research questions is: “When will the Kentucky Coffeetree seed pods fall?” My hypothesis is that it will not be for at least another month.

It’s an exciting life I lead – watching seeds mature!

 

 

Late Winter Color: Red Osier Dogwood

While walking in Eliza Howell Park during the many gray days and the occasional sunny days of February and early March, I like to stop by a Red Osier Dogwood. This red-stemmed shrub provides brighter color when almost all other park plants are gray or brown.

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Red osier is a native flowering deciduous shrub that grows to about 6 – 10 feet in height. The young branches and twigs are reddish during the dormant season, getting brighter as the winter progresses. Older branches do not show the same red.

It is sometimes grown in gardens as an ornamental and gardeners who want only red winter branches prune it down close to the ground about every three years.

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There are only a few red osier dogwoods in Eliza Howell. The one pictured immediately above is found on the little island with birch and spruce trees where the road entering from Fenkell starts the loop.

Though it is best known for its wintertime branches and twigs, it is an attractive shrub at all times of the year. The fruit is white, as can be seen in this picture from late June (the same plant as above).

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Blackberry stems (canes) are also reddish at this time of the year, but, with their evident prickles (thorns), they are not easily confused with red osier dogwood.

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Blackberry thorns snag and hold on. The red osier draws me close by its simple attractiveness…

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…and is a March highlight every year.

 

A Celebrated Hermit: An Unexpected Winter Presence

In the previous 14 years, I saw not a single Hermit Thrush in Eliza Howell Park in January or in March and only once, about a decade ago, in February. This year there has been one, probably the same one, present each of these three months.

True to the name “hermit,” it has been solitary, quiet, and unobtrusive, but its very presence in winter is noteworthy.

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       Photo by Margaret Weber

The Hermit Thrush, though considered quiet and withdrawn, has been recognized and celebrated, especially for its song. It is the state bird of Vermont. And it is the thrush in Walt Whitman’s elegy for Abraham Lincoln in 1865,  “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” An excerpt:

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It is not easy to become familiar with the Hermit Thrush’s song here in Detroit as it is not present in the breeding season. It can usually be seen only a few times as it passes through twice a year, in April/May and again in October.

We are situated about halfway between the southern end of its summer range and the northern end of its winter range, neither of which is more than a couple hundred miles away. It is not extremely rare that one shows up in southeast Michigan in winter, but it is unexpected. (The range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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The Hermit Thrush is a forest bird that spends most of its time on the ground or among the lower branches of trees, foraging for insects. In the winter, when insects are less plentiful, it often eats berries. In Eliza Howell this winter, I have seen it both on the ground, scratching among the fallen leaves, and in branches of shrubs and vines, seeking whatever fruit remains, such as the last of the bittersweet.

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There is no need to hear its song at this time of the year; I celebrate the Hermit Thrush simply for being present this winter.

The Littlest Spruce: A Volunteer

One of my favorite trees in Eliza Howell Park is about 22 inches tall, considerably taller than when I first almost stepped on it three years ago. It is in a small clearing inside a wooded area of the park.

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Along the park road on the west side, there are over a dozen quite large spruce trees. The location, the spacing, and the size all suggest that they were planted when the park was being developed in the first half of the 20th century.

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The name “spruce” reportedly comes from the French “Pruce,” meaning Prussia, where such trees were believed to have originated. There are some 35 species of spruce in the world, with several native to North America.

Spruce trees are symmetrical, having the cone shape that many of us tend to associate with Christmas trees.

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One of the best ways to identify a spruce is by feeling its needles. Spruce needles are more or less quadrangled (4-sided), which makes them different from the other conifers that we typically find. The needles are attached to the stem singly.

A spruce has both female and male cones. In the spring, wind carries the pollen from the smaller male cones to female cones. The large mature cones hang down and many hang on through the winter.

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The little 22-inch spruce is several hundred yards from the others in Eliza Howell and it stands alone. It has no doubt grown from a seed that got carried there, more likely by a mammal than by a bird, I think.

Gardeners call them “volunteers,” the plants that come up from seed not planted by humans. That is, they call desirable plants “volunteers;” undesirable plants are, of course, called “weeds.”

The little spruce is a volunteer, one of the few volunteer spruces in the park, if not the only one. This is one reason it is a favorite tree.

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At this point I look down at the littlest spruce. If the tree thrives, in several decades someone will look up and see something like this.

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Meanwhile, I will watch as, if all goes well, it adds possibly as much as a foot to its size this year.