• Redbud in March, Redbud in April

    Three weeks into March, the Eastern Redbuds in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit still look like they did when the leaves fell last Fall.

    But three weeks into April, the Redbuds will represent the brightness and beauty of Spring. What a difference one month makes! (The April photos are from April 20, 2021.)

    The flowers usually appear in April before there are any leaves on these small trees and the seeds hang on into Winter (sometimes through the entire Winter), long after the leaves have fallen.

    As might be guessed from the shape and look of the seeds, Redbud is part of the legume family of plants (which include beans and peas). Contrary to other legumes, however, Redbud cannot fix nitrogen from the atmosphere (the legume trait that is perhaps best known to organic gardeners).

    In Eliza Howell Park, the Redbud is quite common along the edge where the trees and the fields meet. It is is not noticed much until the flowers appear in April, calling attention to itself for two or more weeks.

    Southern Michigan is at the northern end of the native range of Eastern Redbud.

    My experience has been that, while Redbud in bloom is quite well known to individuals who come on nature walks, Redbud in seed is not. This is not surprising, of course; there is no comparison in terms of visibility and attractiveness.

    The Redbud in April is only a few short weeks away .

  • Praying Mantis Egg Cases: How Many Species?

    Watching Praying Mantises is an annual nature walk activity in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park in late Summer and very early Fall. When Winter comes, long after the Mantis adults have died and the leaves have fallen, the egg cases (“oothecae”) are much easier to spot. Based on the many oothecae visible this year, the Praying Mantis population in the park will be substantial in 2022.

    Most of the egg cases were clearly made by Chinese Praying Mantises, the most common Mantis here. Their egg cases are usually of a similar size and shape and location.

    Recently, I found an egg case that was significantly different, different enough to indicate that it has been made by a different Praying Mantis species.

    The case is smaller, more flat, placed on the nearly horizontal underside of — and flush with — a small fallen branch.

    All the published information that I have seen indicates that there are only two Praying Mantises in Michigan: Chinese and  European. As the names indicate, both are introduced species. They were brought to North America and released for pest control purposes over a century ago. They can perhaps be considered naturalized at this point.

    The most common native Praying Mantis in the eastern part of the country is called “Carolina Mantis,” It is particularly common in southeastern U.S., the range reaching not quite as far north as Michigan.

    Or maybe it is in Michigan.

    In each of the last two years, a local observer has found a Mantis in the same location in Dearborn, Michigan, that definitely appears to be a Carolina Mantis. (The location is near the Rouge River, less than 10 miles downstream from Eliza Howell Park.)

    Photo by Melissa McLeod

    It is much smaller than the Chinese and European Mantises, is mottled, and the wings do not extend as far as the abdomen does.

    Photo by Melissa McLeod

    Compared with the typical Mantis seen in Eliza Howell, the differences are clear.

    So the question that I am seeking an answer to is whether the ootheca I recently found on the underside of a branch in a brush pile is an indication that the Carolina Praying Mantis is present here in the park. That would be a great find, but,…

    While I am convinced that this egg case is not Chinese Mantis, I do not know European Mantis as well. The published descriptions / photos of the European egg cases do not provide a definitive match to the recent find, but also not a definitive mismatch.

    This collage (below) gives an indication of the variety of Mantis oothecae currently present in the park. At this point, I am able to identify positively only the one on the bottom right (Chinese). I am hoping/attempting to get opinions from professional entomologists on the others.

    There is very little more exciting than learning something new. This latest egg case find has provided me with more information as I seek an answer to the question of the number of species of Praying Mantises present in Eliza Howell Park.

  • Mourning Doves Are Cooing Again: Paying Attention to a Common Bird

    Now that March is here, there are new signs of emerging Spring almost daily in Eliza Howell Park. One is the cooing sound of the Mourning Dove, a sound not heard for several months.

    The small-headed, long-tailed Mourning Dove is one of the most common birds in the United States.

    Mourning Doves have been present all Winter, but things have changed. Usually when I see them in Winer, they are in small flocks. Not now. Now they are in pairs.

    In the northern part of their breeding territory, Mourning Doves migrate south for the Winter. It is very likely that those that we see in Detroit in the Winter breed further north (and winter here) while those that breed here winter further south.

    If that is the case, the doves now cooing probably returned recently.

    Range map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

    “Mourning” Doves are named that because their cooing sound was considered sad. Cooing can, however, also be considered warm and soothing and contented (think of a baby cooing).

    Since it seems to be a form of communication from one dove to its mate, “cooing” might be thought of more like “wooing” rather than to mourning.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Whether considered mourful or amorous or something else, the cooing is not singing; doves do not open their beaks when they coo. Rather, they puff up their breast and the sound is caused by the air vibrating their muscles/skin.

    Cooing is just one of several fascinating aspects of Mourning Dove behavior.

    They start nesting very early in the spring. I saw a pair making a nest on March 12 one year. The early nests are in sheltered locations. In this one (next photo) in a spruce tree, the bird on the nest can hardly be seen.

    Later in the season, they often nest on a horizontal branch of a medium to large deciduous tree in the park. Whenever I come across a pair making a nest, I spend time watching, fascinated by their method.

    They put together a nest very quickly, a nest made of material such as twigs and grasses and evergreen needles that are placed on the tree limb, with, it seems, nothing but gravity and a somewhat flat surface holding them in place. The male brings this material, piece by piece in rapid order, while the female stays at the chosen spot. He steps on her back and she turns her head to him. He hands off (“beaks off”) the piece he has brought and she takes it and places it around herself while he flies off to get another, often returning within less than a minute with the next piece. They take breaks away from nest making, but still often complete the nest within 2 days (compared with the several days to two weeks of many other species). The finished nest looks fragile and barely able to keep the eggs from rolling off.

    Both female and male doves incubate the (almost always) 2 eggs and both feed the young after hatching.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Two eggs are apparently all that their eating and feeding practices permit. Mourning Doves eat seeds and grains almost exclusively. They store these in their crop before they are digested.

    Most birds, including many seed eaters, feed insects to their young. Mourning Doves do not. They are able to make a limited amount of a milk-like food from the glands of their crop, which they regurgitate and feed to the young. This is called “crop milk” or “pigeon milk. ” Later, they feed seeds to the young.

    Mourning Dove pairs share responsibility for nest building, for incubation, and for feeding young. Somehow, referring to their cooing communication as “mourning” doesn’t seem to fit.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    I have recognized Mourning Doves all my remembered life, but, until I began paying careful attention to this common bird, I did not realize how unusual it is.

  • American Sycamore: A Distinctive Tree

    In Winter, when almost all the trees in Eliza Howell Park are leafless, American Sycamore trees stand out, with their attractive multi-colored bark.

    While some of the Sycamores appear to have been planted for parkland purposes,  more have grown naturally, especially along the river. American Sycamore is native to eastern North America and is often found in bottomland near rivers.

    When I stop on the footbridge over the Rouge River during my walks, I always check on the one on the right as I face upstream.

    This range map is from the USDA. Other species of sycamores can be found in the west.

    American Sycamore seeds are also distinctive. The seedhead is a roundish ball, about 1 inch in diameter, hanging from a peduncle (stem) that can be 6 inches long. They mature in the Fall, hang on the tree through the Winter, fall to the ground in Spring and open to disperse seeds.

    A seedhead contains perhaps 100 seeds.

    Older trees often have cavities that are used by both birds and mammals. The trunks are sometimes hollow and were used as nesting and roosting sites by  Chimney Swaifts before structures with chimneys provided plenty of other hollow vertical locations.

    Sycamores are a little less noticeable during other seasons when the trees are leafed out, but I have found it important to check them carefully in May and June,  when birds are nesting.

    I occasionally find Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Mourning Doves and Orchard Orioles nesting there. But it is Eastern Kingbird that particularly favors American Sycamore for its nesting tree. I typically find 3 or 4 Kingbird nests in the park each year, and the big majority of them over the years have been in Sycamore trees.

    Photo by Kevin Murphy

    When Sycamore is planted along streets or in yards, it is sometimes considered a “dirty tree” that clutters lawns with pieces of shed bark. In a natural setting, however, it is a fascinating tree — in looks and in the fauna it attracts.

    Sycamore bud at end of February

    American Sycamore is very high on my list of trees for nature walkers to know.

  • BIRDS NESTING: A Field Course

    One of the annual highlights of Eliza Howell Park nature walking is spring nesting season. From April through June, I typically see some 20 differemt species building nests, incubating eggs, and/or feeding young.

    Baltimore Oriole is one species that nest here regularly, carefully weaving hanging nests.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Eastern Bluebirds nest in cavities.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    I am able to provide a taste of this nest-watching experience on an annual field trip in early June, sponsored by Detroit Audubon, where participants see some of the nests present, like those of Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and Red-bellied Woodpecker.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    This year, in addition to the annual June field trip, Detroit Audubon is sponsoring a more extensive educational program on nesting birds, a series of 6 guided field experiences in the park for a smaller number of bird watchers.

    (In order to focus attention on the bird behavior, those who register are expected to have basic bird identification skills, able to recognize most of the common breeding songbird species in SE Michigan.)

    This program is designed so that course participants learn more about the nesting-related practices of many of the more than two dozen species that breed in the park, to gain experience in recognizing the nesting times, habitat, locations, and structures of different species.

    Black-capped Chickadees frequently excavate for nests in rotting trees, carrying the chips away so that the location is not as evident to predators.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Canada Geese often nest on the ground near water.

    Orchard Oriole young are cared for by both female and male parents.

    Photo by Kevin Murphy

    Barn Swallows construct their nests of mud and usually add feathers on the inside

    Killdeer lay their eggs on the geound, out in the open,”hidden” by camouflage.

    Much of what I know about the practices of nesting birds I have learned in Eliza Howell Park. I look forward to assisting others in increasing their knowledge and understanding here.


    The course begins on April 30 and ends on June 11. Anyone interested in learning more or in registering can email programs@detroitaudubon.org

  • Tree Watching in February

    When February is cold and snowy, as it had been so far this year in Detroit, it can seem to be a very long month. Even winter lovers might start to look forward to nature’s new year, which begins here in March.

    February 6, 2022

    As I crunch my way over the frozen snow in Eliza Howell Park these days, my attention is often focused on trees. The trees remain dormant, waiting for the coming thaw to get the sap flowing, but they still capture my attention.

    As in other winters, I enjoy looking at the upper branches of large Sycamore trees, especially when there is some blue sky in the background.

    Even more striking is the winter bark on the branches and twigs of the Red Osier Dogwood (more accurately described as a shrub than a tree). It is red-barked only in the winter.

    The snow under Birch trees is almost covered with fallen seeds, with many more seeds still remaining on the tree. Birch is one of the few trees to drop seeds in the winter.

    The seed pods of the Tulip Tree remain strong and upright, though the seeds are long fallen.

    The buds on trees, formed before winter began, remain in a pause mode, to reawaken when the weather begins to warm. The buds of some species are much more noticeable and attractive than others. One that I always check in February is Red Maple, anticipating its lovely red blossoms. 

    Chimney Swifts are so closely identified with the fact that they use chimneys for roostibg and nesting that it raises a question. How did they live before European culture, including structures with chimneys, transformed the American landscape? The answer, based on reports from earlier times, is that they used hollow standing trees. Sycamore trees frequently served that purpose.

    Since learning this, I keep an eye open for hollowed-out Sycamire trees. There is only one that I am aware of in Eliza Howell and I stop by periodically. And, while I don’t expect to see Chimney Swifts using it in season, it does somehow connect me a little with earlier centuries.

    Sometimes I stop by a tree just to be reminded of the look and character of its bark. One such is Shagbark Hickory .

    Woodpeckers and other birds continue to search trees for food (especially insects and spiders) all winter long. Lately I have been watching Downy Woodpeckers dig holes in small tree beanches. I do not know exactly what they are searching for (perhaps the larvae of wood-boring insects), but they are so focused on the effort that I have been able to get close looks.

    Within three or four weeks, the sap will start flowing in Sugar Maples, Killdeer and Red-winged Blackbirds will return from their wintering grounds, and other changes will follow quickly.

    Meanwhile, I continue to make note of what February is like in Eliza Howell Park.

  • The Coyotes of Eliza Howell Park: There Is More to Learn

    While I have not previously posted a report on the Coyotes present in Detroit’s Eliza Howell Park, I have long been aware of that presence.

    Because they are largely (though not exclusively) nocturnal in urban areas and because they are wary of humans, my direct visual observations have been relatively infrequent. And I have been hesitant to write about them without accompanying photos.

    Thanks to the generosity of Kevin Murphy, a wildlife photographer with an interest in Coyotes and a frequent visitor to Eliza Howell Park, I now have access to some Coyote photos from the park.

    Photo by Kevin Murphy

    Since 1900, Coyotes have expanded their range in all directions and are now found in all parts of the U.S. In addition, they are now becoming increasingly common in urban and suburban areas, often in parks. They are in every county of Michigan.

    (This map, showing their expanding range, is taken from “Mapping the Expansion of Coyotes,” by Hody and Kays, in ZooKeys, in 2018.)

    Coyotes are usually thought of as carnivores, and they are. Small mammals typically make up a significant part of their diet. But they also eat carrion (dead animals), some insects (such as grasshoppers), as well as fruits and berries. Perhaps they should be thought of as omnivores.

    It is difficult to know how many reside in or visit Eliza Howell Park. While Coyotes are social (connected loosely in small packs), they usually hunt individually. When spotting one, it is difficult to know whether I am seeing the same one or a different one compared to a previous sighting.

    Sometimes two are seen together.

    Photo by Kevin Murphy

    And sometimes the difference in coloring is obvious.

    Photo by Kevin Murphy
    Photo by Kevin Murphy

    It seems probable that several different adults live in the park (or visit the park.)

    Following every snowfall, their fresh tracks are obvious. They seem to have regular routes that they travel at night, but their tracks can be seen in many other places as well.

    Most of the knowledge of Coyote behavior that has been published over the decades has come from studies done in more rural environments. Their spread through the country and their increasing presence in urban areas suggests great adaptability. It is reasonable to wonder whether their behavior and their diet may be a little different for urban members of the species.

    Eliza Howell Park is one of the Detroit parks included in a project designed to provide a better understanding of urban wildlife. Using motion-activated cameras with “night vision,” this study is providing additional information on the presence of Coyotes and other wildlife. Below is the “posted” sign that has been placed in Eliza Howell Park to alert people to the use of hidden cameras.

    The Applied Wildlife Ecology Lab is headed by Dr. Nyeema Harris of Yale University.

    A future phase of the project, as I understand it, involves tracking individual Coyotes in order to obtain better information on where they travel in their hunting and other activities.

    Coyotes have clearly established themselves in Eliza Howell Park. Spotting these attractive canines is a great experience…

    Photo by Kevin Murphy

    … an experience that leaves me wanting to learn more about their place in the totality of the fauna and flora of Eliza Howell Park.

  • When Cardinals Start to Sing: An Early Announcement of Spring

    With the arrival of February, many of us are looking forward to Spring. While Groundhog Day exemplifies an eagerness for winter to wane, it is not itself one of nature’s signs of the change coming.

    One sign that does announce that Spring is definitely on its way here in Michigan is provided by a common year-round bird — the Northern Cardinal.

    Photo by Margaret Weber
    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Cardinals are common, easily recognized, and well-liked — the state bird of 7 different states, the most of any species. Their familiarity might lead us not to appreciate how special they are. I remember being impressed a few years ago by the envy evident when a bird watcher in Washington state asked me: “Do you have Cardinals where you are?”

    Northern Cardinal is originally a more southern species (the “Northern” in the name is in comparison to South American species of cardinals) that began to populate lower Michigan the 1800s. Deforestation provided additional suitable habitat for them.

    The range map is from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

    They do not migrate, but their winter behavior is differen. They often forage in small flocks now. In Eliza Howell, I have been seeing a group of 6-8 fairly frequently.

    Cardinals are named after cardinals in the Catholic hierarchy, who wear red robes. And in keeping with that connection, some people refer to a flock of Cardinals as “a college of Cardinals.” But the Vatican college of cardinals is all male while a flock of Northern Cardinals includes both sexes. So I prefer another term sometimes used for a flock of Northern Cardinals — “a radiance.” “Radiance” seems to fit well — warm, bright, cheerful,

    Photo by Margaret Weber
    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Cardinals do call in winter, a call that is often described as a “metallic chip,” but, at least in this area, they do not sing their loud clear songs these winter months.

    I expect to hear their “cheer, cheer, cheer” syllables again in the park starting about the middle of February. Last year I first heard it on February 17, the previous year on February 12. The singing signals a transition from winter groups to breeding pairs, an announcement that Spring cometh.

    Winter is definitely still here; the park is as cold and snowy as it gets.

    Winter is here, but, beginning about the 10th of February, I will adjust my route to make sure I include the areas breeding pairs of Cardinals usually select.

    And I will listen for them to start singing. When I first here it, I know I can honestly say Spring will be here soon.

  • Golden-crowned Kinglet: Insectivore in January

    It is not easy being an insectivore in winter in Michigan.

    This month I have four different times seen a Golden-crowned Kinglet in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit — perhaps the same one each time, perhaps not. It is always exciting to see one of these fascinating “little kings,” but I am conscious of the fact that surviving the winter here is a major challenge for them.

    This photo and the next one (taken during last fall’s migration at a different location in Michigan) provide a sense of both the beauty and the tiny size of species.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    Golden-crowned Kinglets breed in conifers further north and can often be seen foraging in conifers during migration.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    They eat insects and spiders almost exclusively — the adults, larvae, pupae, eggs. Most insectivores (many warblers, for example) travel to much warmer climates for the winter. But Golden-crowned Kinglets are short-distance migrants, with a few staying in Michigan. This is the third year in the last 18 that I have seen them in the park in January.

    This range map is from the Audubon Field Guide. We are in the “uncommon” wintering area.

    Other species that eat insects in the summer and are in this area in the winter consume other foods at this time. Kinglets do not come to seed/suet -filled feeders, as do chickadees, woodpeckers, and nuthatches. Kinglets do not eat fruit as bluebirds do.

    Where there are no or very few conifers, Golden-crowned Kinglets forage for insects in the understory of deciduous forests, energetically moving from branch to branch, stem to stem, of small trees and shrubs. They never seem to stop moving, taking up all of the winter daylight hours trying to get enough food to make it through the night. (Some have reported that they may occasionally eat seeds, but I have not seen any indication of that here.)

    This is the kind of habitat where I find them in winter.

    Insects, of course, have their own strategies for surviving winter, often in egg or larva stage that is well hidden or camouflaged. I am always impressed that birds that move as quickly as kinglets manage to find them as often as they do.

    Naturalists who have studied Golden-crowned Kinglets report that they do, in fact, have a very high mortality rate. In their northernmost wintering grounds, many do not survive.

    They have, however, developed their own survival strategy as a species. Golden-crowned Kinglets have a very high reproduction rate. Their nests, in the spruce-fir northern forests, usually have 8-9 eggs each, more than most species. And immediately after the first brood fledges, the female is incubating 8-9 more eggs while her mate feeds the first brood.

    This strategy is successful enough that the species is holding its own. It is not one whose overall numbers are declining significantly, despite the high mortality rate.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    I do not know what will happen to the bird (or birds) I have been seeing this month, but I can expect that, come early April, I will again see other Golden-crowned Kinglets as they move through here on their way north for breeding. And I can be confident that they will still be on their insect diet.

  • Red Squirrel in January: A Black Walnut Diet

    This winter is far from being the coldest in memory in Southern Michigan, but it is cold enough that I encounter very few other humans during my two to three hour walks in Eliza Howell Park.

    The Rouge River is always flowing, but even moving water gradually  freezes over at temperatures under 20 degrees F.

    On recent walks, I have been looking for signs of how various other  animals are managing in the winter. I check on raccoons (curled up in open tree cavities, their backs to the open air) and watch a variety of small birds foraging for food in shrubs, in flower/grass seeds, and on the ground.

    Much of my attention, however, has recently been focused on squirrels. Tree squirrels don’t hibernate in winter; rather they rely upon the food that they stored (“squirreled away”) in the fall.

    I have been most intently watching Red Squirrels, the smallest of the squirrels in the park.

    Photo by Margaret Weber

    The American Red Squirrel is a northern species, rarely found south of Pennsylvania and Ohio in the eastern half of the U.S. It frequently inhabits coniferous forests and is well known for hoarding and eating conifer seeds. It is sometimes known as “Pine Squirrel.”

    Eliza Howell Park woodland is deciduous, however, and the Red Squirrel’s primary winter food here is Black Walnut. Black Walnut trees are quite common and 2021 was a very productive year. The green-hulled walnuts in trees in summer…

    have become the black-hulled walnuts on the ground in the winter.

    Red Squirrels store large numbers of nuts for the winter, but this year that does not yet seem to have been needed. There are still many unclaimed nuts on the ground.

    Red Squirrels live solitary lives (except for females with young). This winter I have located the tree where one is sheltering. Here it is taking a look out, perhaps watching me, perhaps just keeping an eye on its territory .

    This small squirrel, which always seems to be in a hurry, carries a large walnut in its teeth up to a perch to start the process of opening the hard nut.

    It quickly shreds the hull, turning the nut constantly with its feet as it removes this layer, letting the small pieces fall.

    The hard task of opening the shell takes much longer. This requires cutting with its sharp teeth. Other squirrel species (in EHP, Fox Squirrels and Gray Squirrels) also eat Black Walnuts, but they open them differently. They keep cutting from one side, removing the entire side, until they are able to eat all the nutmeat inside.

    The Red Squirrel, on the other hand, opens the nut by making a hole in one side at a time, leaving the dividing rib in place.

    I frequently spot the squirrel when I visit the area where it is wintering. And it is often in the process of carrying or eating a walnut. I wonder how many nuts are eaten in a day or a week or a winter. This picture, from a different January, suggests that a squirrel does not move on from a walnut diet quickly.