St. James Farm is Singing

by Carl Strang

Birds poured into St. James Farm Forest Preserve in mid-May as the wave crest of neotropical migrants pushed through northern Illinois. On some days, sorting through the many songs to note visiting species was a challenge.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I took that photo from a distance on a foggy day, not wanting to get too close and create a disturbance.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

At one point, heavy rains flooded the stream well beyond its banks.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

For other birds, the breeding season is well under way.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

Among my happiest observations in the second half of May has been the discovery of two eastern bluebird nests in natural cavities.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

The same story was repeated in a dead tree near the stream. I am relieved that not all bluebirds are dependent upon human-provided nest boxes.

A little earlier in their own cycle, a pair of red-headed woodpeckers has been setting up shop in another dead tree.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird. (Clicking on any photo will blow it up for better viewing).

This pair energetically repelled another pair which expressed interest in their tree. I hope the other pair also will nest at St. James Farm.

St. James Farm is Blooming

by Carl Strang

Spring flowers continue to open at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Today’s post is a gallery of highlights. On the large scale, I have been delighted to find that black haw is a dominant understory shrub in the central forest.

Black haw is a native Viburnum.

Black haw is a native Viburnum.

Blooming black haws are prominent in the forest area cleared of invasive shrubs this past winter.

Blooming black haws are prominent in the forest area cleared of invasive shrubs this past winter.

Diverse herbaceous plants are blooming at the ground level.

Jacob’s ladders are common in parts of the forest.

Jacob’s ladders are common in parts of the forest.

A few declined trilliums also have appeared. The white trilliums have become rarer in DuPage County thanks to people picking them, which kills them. All plants are legally protected on the preserves.

A few declined trilliums also have appeared. The white trilliums have become rarer in DuPage County thanks to people picking them, which kills them. All plants are legally protected on the preserves.

Butterweed is an uncommon and short-lived member of the ragwort group.

Butterweed is an uncommon and short-lived member of the ragwort group.

This bulbous cress plant is benefitting from last year’s restoration of the stream and its corridor area.

This bulbous cress plant is benefitting from last year’s restoration of the stream and its corridor area.

I look forward to many more botanical discoveries as the season progresses.

Some April Insects

by Carl Strang

Insects began to appear during April’s warm spells. Inevitably I have been comparing my finds at St. James Farm Forest Preserve to my experience at Mayslake Forest Preserve, the site of my previous preserve monitoring. Some of the early insects at St. James Farm are shared with Mayslake.

The red admiral overwinters in the pupal stage.

The red admiral overwinters in the pupal stage.

Another early season butterfly is the spring azure.

Another early season butterfly is the spring azure.

Other species I never found at Mayslake.

The six-spotted tiger beetle prowls the trails at St. James Farm, as it does on many forest preserves. I was perennially surprised that I never found them at Mayslake.

The six-spotted tiger beetle prowls the trails at St. James Farm, as it does on many forest preserves. I was perennially surprised that I never found them at Mayslake.

One impressive insect I encountered at St. James Farm was entirely new to my experience. I first saw it flying, and I thought I was seeing a large bee fly or a fat bee. Then it landed.

It proved to be a beetle. The bumble bee flower beetle’s name reflects its impressive mimicry.

It proved to be a beetle. The bumble bee flower beetle’s name reflects its impressive mimicry.

This is a member of the scarab family, and it feeds from flowers, ripe fruits, and sap-exuding tree wounds.

Branched!

by Carl Strang

I wanted to minimize my disturbance of the St. James Farm great horned owls by checking their nest every other week until the young no longer needed to be brooded, then making weekly checks until branching seemed imminent. That plan quickly has become moot. As reported earlier, I first saw the young in the nest on April 21. A week later, the mother was standing watch. It was a cool day, but apparently the young were judged warm enough to be on their own.

Nothing is quite like the glare of a great horned owl who doesn’t want you around.

Nothing is quite like the glare of a great horned owl who doesn’t want you around.

Monday was the first warm sunny day in over a week, and I decided to check the nest. It was empty, and the young were high up in a nearby white oak stem.

There were two, and this was the smaller one. Its sibling was nestled in a dark shaded spot, not easily photographed.

There were two, and this was the smaller one. Its sibling was nestled in a dark shaded spot, not easily photographed.

Young great horneds leave the nest before they can fly, walking and climbing with their strong feet, often into a tree other than the nest tree. That is why their departure is called “branching” rather than “fledging.” In this case their climb was impressive, as the bark of the tree they chose appeared relatively smooth. They are growing rapidly, and it is possible this is the last week I will see them for a while. It will be easy enough to monitor them as I wish through the summer, though, as their distinctive loud screeching-whining calls will give them away in the evenings.

SJF in Bloom

by Carl Strang

Spring is advancing in fits and starts, with alternating warm and cool periods, but through it all the plants of St. James Farm Forest Preserve are growing, and many have been blooming. Some of them are familiar, some new to me, but together they are demonstrating an impressive botanical diversity, especially in the forest.

White trout lilies are abundant, but they began to bloom later at SJF than in other area forests.

White trout lilies are abundant, but they began to bloom later at SJF than in other area forests.

Swamp buttercups are common throughout.

Swamp buttercups are common throughout.

Virginia bluebells always are a welcome sight this time of year. The ones at St. James Farm probably originated in the estate’s gardens, but have made themselves at home in scattered places well away from there.

Virginia bluebells always are a welcome sight this time of year. The ones at St. James Farm probably originated in the estate’s gardens, but have made themselves at home in scattered places well away from there.

Yellow violets, as well as the common blue ones, brighten the forest floor.

Yellow violets, as well as the common blue ones, brighten the forest floor.

Patches of wood anemones are frequent in shady spots.

Patches of wood anemones are frequent in shady spots.

The botanical connoisseur will want to know about the sedges. Four early ones are blooming now, the common wood sedge, Wood’s stiff sedge, and two more:

There are large patches of common oak sedge in many places.

There are large patches of common oak sedge in many places.

Long-beaked sedge was a new one for me, as was Wood’s stiff sedge.

Long-beaked sedge was a new one for me, as was Wood’s stiff sedge.

More mundane, but adding to the preserve’s diversity, are others worthy of mention.

Common chickweed is an introduced species, at home in the lawns.

Common chickweed is an introduced species, at home in the lawns.

Not flowers, or even plants, bracket fungi visually enhance the forest as they grow to produce their spores.

Not flowers, or even plants, bracket fungi visually enhance the forest as they grow to produce their spores.

 

Be Kind to Rocks Week

by Carl Strang

St. James Farm Forest Preserve has a scattering of stones, large and small, in its forests and open areas. Some of these are chunks of local Silurian dolomite bedrock that were gouged out by the most recent continental glacier. Others are glacial erratics, stones likewise left by the glacier but picked up by it where the bedrock was different. These generally source back to Canada. Though much of the glacier’s Lake Michigan Lobe route followed that lake bed, the bedrock there is a soft shale that the ice ground to clay, with occasional surviving pieces up to a couple inches across, but nothing that could be called a boulder.

Recently my eye was caught by a trailside erratic split by the temperature changes that the seasons bring.

This appears to be a rock type known as gneiss, which started out as granite but was subjected to stresses that altered its structure into a banded pattern. Such bedrock is common around the east end of Lake Superior, where our glacial lobe exited Canada.

This appears to be a rock type known as gneiss, which started out as granite but was subjected to stresses that altered its structure into a banded pattern. Such bedrock is common around the east end of Lake Superior, where our glacial lobe exited Canada.

There was no indication that the rock had been struck by anything to create the break. Freezing and thawing were sufficient. I photographed the rock and left it as is. A week later, passing that way again, I saw that someone had replaced the fragment.

Gravity works, and the pieces were fitted precisely, so a human agent is indicated.

Gravity works, and the pieces were fitted precisely, so a human agent is indicated.

So, what motivation are we tracking here? Was it simply a matter of orderliness? Or, did someone want to make sure that the fragment did not become someone’s souvenir? Or, was this putting-back-together an act of kindness to the rock? I am reminded of one of the most widespread traditional stories west of the Mississippi River, with every Native American tribe having at least one version, in which an animated rock teaches Coyote (or his trickster equivalent, depending on the version) a lesson of respect.

 

Birds in Transition

by Carl Strang

Soon the first wave of birds that overwintered in the tropics will reach northern Illinois. April has brought a transition from wintry weather to the warmth, plant growth and insects that make the trip worthwhile for the many species whose ancestors were content with tropical conditions.

For most of the month we see birds that are year-round residents or are newly arrived from their wintering grounds in the southern states. They have to deal with the season’s variability, though. Early in April a cold spell brought a thin snowfall. There still were insects to be found, but they were on or close to the ground. A selection of species foraged on the banks of the stream at St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

On other days, getting set for the nesting season was a priority.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are wood duck boxes.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are nest boxes.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one baby.

And now, with the warm days forecast ahead, the big push of migrants soon will diversify the preserve’s avian picture.

 

Singing Insect Season Opens

by Carl Strang

There have been several early season warm periods this year, allowing the greening of food plants and the higher temperatures that support invertebrate growth. I have anticipated that this might be a relatively early year for the first sound displays by green-striped grasshoppers, and that expectation was realized on Monday when I heard the fluttering buzz of a flying male, and got a glimpse of him as he landed.

Male green-striped grasshopper photographed in an earlier year.

Male green-striped grasshopper photographed in an earlier year.

This was the second-earliest date in 11 years of observations, and was 15 days ahead of the median first display date. As you walk though areas with unmowed grassy growth, listen for a soft buzzing sound. This is the controlled rattling of wings by a grasshopper at the end of a display flight. With some luck you may catch the insect’s motion and get a look at one.

SJF March Summary

by Carl Strang

Weather in March at St. James Farm Forest Preserve was variable, but on the whole was relatively warm with frequent rainy periods. At the beginning of the month there was a little lingering snow on the ground, and ponds were frozen, but all of this quickly was gone.

I used my old GPS unit to map my survey routes and to locate positions of previously discovered cavity trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest. One of these indeed proved to hold the nest, and the female still was present on March 25, late enough to indicate that hatched young were being brooded. Two attempts to find displaying woodcocks were unsuccessful, but during the first evening visit on March 17 I heard what I thought was a short call by a barred owl in the eastern portion of the preserve. Scott Meister reported hearing the species in the forest one evening the following week. No pileated woodpecker observations in March, but recent observations in preserves to the north along the West Branch suggest that the bird or birds seen here earlier may be wandering widely. Canada geese were down to small groups and pairs early in the month. By March 31 a nest was under incubation on the small island in the pond below the former house site.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Many killdeers were displaying in the restoration project area around the stream early in the month, but these were down to just a few individuals by month’s end. Bird activity generally increased as the season progressed, with the first cowbirds arriving March 8, a pair of hooded mergansers and 2 pairs of wood ducks present in the pond in the NW corner of the preserve for much of the month, sandhill crane flocks frequently passing overhead, a northern flicker and the first golden-crowned kinglets appearing on March 14, tree swallows on March 25, and two pairs of green-winged teals in the restored stream on March 26.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

A shed antler found on March 17 in the forest near Winfield Road matched the buck photographed in the same area on November 1.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

The first snake observed on the preserve was a midland brown snake on March 29. That same day several painted turtles were sunning in the eastern pond.

Western chorus frogs began singing on March 11, and ultimately displayed in three locations. The largest number were in the fringes of the eastern pond, and many also were in two temporary ponds in the meadow north of the entrance drive. Numbers of bullfrogs, large and small, had emerged by March 21.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

The first butterfly of the year was a mourning cloak observed on March 21. A cabbage white appeared on March 29. The former overwinters in the adult form, the latter as a pupa. Several small brown moths were active on the forest floor on March 31. One was photographed and appears to be a tortricid, close to several similar species of Pelochrista or perhaps Eucosma.

A possible Pelochrista

A possible Pelochrista

Silver maples were blooming by March 11, and spring beauties by March 31.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Restoration clearing of the forest was completed by mid-March, and a new set of stakes presumably marking the new trail route was placed in the final week.

Matching a Shed

by Carl Strang

On Thursday, as I was walking through the western edge of the forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, I looked down and saw this:

A recently shed left antler from a whitetail deer.

A recently shed left antler from a whitetail deer.

I had seen and photographed two different bucks over the course of the winter, and took the above photo in hope of finding a match. I had seen both individuals at different times near where I found the shed. The two bucks were quite different, one smaller and younger than the other.

The smaller buck clearly did not match. His left antler was smaller than the one I found, and had only two major tines in addition to the brow tine.

The smaller buck clearly did not match. His left antler was smaller than the one I found, and had only two major tines in addition to the brow tine.

The left antler of the larger buck had the same number of tines, and their proportions appeared to be the same as those of the shed one.

The left antler of the larger buck had the same number of tines, and their proportions appeared to be the same as those of the shed one.

The different angles provided by these views allow a comparison of the various tines’ contours.

The different angles provided by these views allow a comparison of the various tines’ contours.

I conclude that the larger buck, which I saw only on November 1, still is around and is the one who dropped the antler I found.

 

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