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.

 

 

 

The Female in Winter: Staghorn Sumac

There are not many seeds or fruits still hanging on in January and February on the trees and shrubs in Eliza Howell Park. They can, however, still be found on staghorn sumac in deep winter.

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When I see “her” during my winter walks in the park, I am aware that “he” does not have anything much to show at this time of the year. Staghorn sumac is one of the few plant species that develop female and male flowers on completely different plants (“dioecious”); some plants are male and some are female.

Perhaps the best known dioecious plant is cannabis, an annual. In the case of cannabis, male plants are usually discarded because pollination is unwelcome; the unpollinated flowers of the female pants are considered the best part of the plant for psychoactive effect (according to what I read).

In our Detroit neighborhood, a good example of a dioecious tree is ginkgo, which has been planted as a shade tree along certain streets. In planting ginkgos, the females are not usually as welcome as the males because the female’s abundant fruit falls on sidewalks and produces an unpleasant smell when stepped on.

About the beginning of June in Eliza Howell, the sumac flowers develop on separate shrubs, the female on the left in the photo and the male on the right.

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Though they were put together here for easier comparison, I do not usually find the female and male plants in close proximity. Staghorn sumac can grow from seed, of course, but it typically spreads by underground shoots (rhizomes). As a result, a clump of sumac is usually made up of plants all of the same sex; it is not really a clump, in fact, but parts of the same plant.

The quite large clump/plant along the nature trail that I observe most frequently is female, some meters away from the nearest male that I am aware of. Sumac depends upon insects, like bees, for pollination over such distances.

The male flowers do not last long. By late June, they are beginning to fade while the females (again on the left in the photo) are just beginning to turn the red that will persevere for many months.

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For the next 6 months, the flowers and seed clusters stand out.

This picture is from the middle of July.

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While birds eat the seeds, they seem to do so very late in the winter, after most of the other fruit in the park is gone. This picture was taken in the middle of December.

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In many bird species, though not all, males are more colorful and attention-getting than females.

In the case of staghorn sumac, however, my attention is fully on the female for most of the year and only very briefly do I follow the male. She is there, standing proud, in the coldest part of winter.

Dryad’s Saddle: Coming in May

With so much happening in the first half of May in Eliza Howell Park – early wild flowers blooming, migrating birds passing through, breeding birds arriving, toad tadpoles developing – I can forget then to mention that this is usually the best time to find dryad’s saddle. So let me give it its due attention in winter.

Dryad’s saddle is one of several kinds of bracket or shelf fungi found in the park. Bracket fungi are woody, shelf-life mushrooms that grow on the trunks of trees or on logs. This particular shelf fungus often has the shape that accounts for the “saddle” part of its name.

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A comment on mushroom identification: My identification of this fungus as “dryad’s saddle” is based on appearance, location, and time of year; it is not based on close examination by an expert or a professional. I strongly recommend that someone interested in collecting it for eating not rely upon pictures alone (mine or someone else’s) for identification, keeping in mind the strong toxicity of some bracket fungi.


Dryad’s saddle grows on dead trees, stumps, and logs and is also found in the wounds of living trees. When on tree trunks, the shelves are usually quite low.

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A “dryad” is a tree nymph or tree spirit in Greek mythology. Presumably, a dryad is of a size to fit on this mushroom.

The caps can be from about 3 inches to more than 12 inches wide. I placed a pen on a larger one to provide an indication of the size.

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They seem to appear suddenly; I am surprised by seeing them along a walking route that I took only two days before without noting anything. There may sometimes be a single saddle, but more often a small cluster.

Dryad’s saddle functions as a decomposer, an agent of wood decay in dead and injured hardwood trees.

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May is the month when many mushroom enthusiasts head to the woods in search of morels and I sometimes get asked if there are morels in Eliza Howell. I have not seen any morels (yet), but dryad’s saddle is, in my mind, a good alternative May find. (All the pictures here were taken in May.)

I will report when/if I see the tree nymphs!

Thorns, Prickles, and Spines

I usually call them all “thorns,” all those sharp, pointed, stiff parts of plants that we usually become most aware of when they scratch, prick, or snag. Winter, with the absence of leaves, is a good time to look more closely at the branches and stems of the plants in Eliza Howell Park and to note the variety of “thorns.”

True thorns, botanically speaking, are modified branches. In EHP, they can be found on such trees as hawthorn (first picture) and buckthorn (second picture).

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Thorns grow from deep in the woody structure of the plant and are not easily broken off.

Prickles are also sharp outgrowths of plant stems, but they tend to be shorter. And, because they grow from the outer layers of the plant, they are more easily broken off.

I encounter prickles in Eliza Howell most often in berry patches (and prickles account for most of my scratches). This picture is of a wild blackberry cane.

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The plant that is most commonly recognized as having “thorns,” both historically and currently, is the rose. As in the French proverb (“No rose without a thorn”), the beauty of the flower is often contrasted with the hurt or risk from the thorn.

It does not sound quite the same to say it, but if we were to be scientifically exact, we would call roses prickly, not thorny. Rose “thorns” are prickles.

This picture is of the stem of a wild rose in Eliza Howell and the following one is of a garden rose.

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Spines are not easy to find in winter because they grow from the leaves and fruiting part of plants and drop with them in the fall. They tend to very thin and, while they might bend, they are often very sharp.

Note the spines on the thistle.

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I often warn field trip participants to be very careful when grabbing hold of a chestnut; the spines on the bur (outer shell) are sharp.

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Thorns, prickles, and spines all seem to have similar function, to help protect plants from herbivores. They simply take somewhat different forms.

I do not propose that we stop using the generic name “thorn” to apply to prickles and spines as well as to true thorns. I find it of interest, however, to note their differences. It is another little insight into the fascinating variations that exist in the natural world.

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.

Inconspicuous Bark Specialist: The Brown Creeper

Occasionally between October and April I notice a small bird dropping down to the base of a large tree trunk during my walks in Eliza Howell Park. It is a Brown Creeper, a bird that can be easily missed, camouflaged as it is for its role as a bark specialist.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The Brown Creeper is the only member of the treecreeper family of birds that is found in North America. It feeds mostly on the insects (and their eggs and larvae) and on the spiders that it gleans from cracks in the bark, creeping up the trunk of trees from the bottom to near the top, probing in cracks in the bark as it goes. It then usually flies down to the bottom of a nearby tree and starts up that one.

Even the Brown Creeper’s nest is typically in/under loose tree bark. Detroit is at the southern edge of the Brown Creeper’s breeding range, but so far I have not seen any in the park during breeding season. They show up here in migration in the fall and spring and are sometimes found in the winter. Their presence is unpredictable and they are always in very small numbers; I see only one or two on the few days that I see any at all. (This range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.)

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While it usually climbs the trunks of larger trees, it can be found at times on smaller trees as well. Here, a side view shows the light-colored underside.

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Photo by Sharon Korte

This picture and the one below show how the Brown Creeper’s anatomy is suited to its creeping-up-the-tree and gleaning-insects-from-bark role. Note the long curved claws, the long stiff tail, and the decurved (downward curved) beak.

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Photo by Kevin Murphy

The Brown Creeper is a bird that is well named. Once seen and its behavior watched, it is not likely to be confused with other North American birds. Though inconspicuous, it is sometimes the highlight of a winter walk in the woods.

 

 

 

 

A Hard Nut to Crack: The Red Squirrel’s Method

The Black Walnut is common in Eliza Howell Park and is very popular with squirrels, especially the Red Squirrel. In the fall, I love to watch these little “critters” as they energetically harvest the nuts from the trees (See “The Red Squirrel: A Different Walnut Hoarder,” September 25, 2018).

In the winter, I find clear indications that the hoarded walnuts are being consumed.

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Anyone who has attempted to crack open the hard-shelled black walnut to get the nutmeat knows how difficult it is to crack these shells open at all and how difficult it is to do so without shattering sharp pieces all over. It is impressive to see how neatly these shells have been opened and emptied.

Every nut is opened in almost exactly the same way. In this close-up, the marks left by the cutting teeth are clear.

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What might not be evident from the picture is that the squirrel opens each nut twice, once on each side. The next picture of the same nut, side 1 and side 2, is more evidence of how systematically the opening method is used.

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Not all squirrels open walnuts in the same way. A few of the open shells I have found look very different, opened by a different species. 

Here is an example.

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Though I have not had the opportunity yet to watch it in the act of cutting open a walnut, I am quite sure that it is the Red Squirrel, not a Fox Squirrel or a Gray Squirrel, that uses the method of opening the nuts from both sides.

The two-sided open shells are usually found together in a cluster and Red Squirrels hoard their nuts in a larder while Gray and Fox Squirrels scatter hoard. Further, these shells are found in the very same park locations where I often see Red Squirrels; the two locations I found clusters so far this winter are the two locations I checked because of earlier sightings of the animal.

The Red Squirrel (photo by Margaret Weber):

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The Red Squirrel is the smallest and least common of the tree squirrels in Eliza Howell Park, but, to me, its behavior is the most fascinating.