Opening the Forest

by Carl Strang

As I mentioned in the January summary, a team is performing some restoration clearing in the northwest portion of the main forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. They are removing invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle shrubs, and taking down some dead trees.

The cleared area extends north to the open zone along the stream.

The cleared area extends north to the open zone along the stream.

Flagging tape in the photo’s upper right was there before this project began (an enlarged version of each photo appears if you click on it). A string of such markers follows the route of a proposed new trail in the preserve master plan. I imagine this clearing in part is setting the stage for that trail’s creation. If so, the removal of dead trees along that route is a safety measure.

Here you can see that beyond the clearing, the forest is choked with invasives. That is what much of the area looked like before the project began.

Here you can see that beyond the clearing, the forest is choked with invasives. That is what much of the area looked like before the project began.

Continuing a counterclockwise turn, this view shows the extent of the clearing. The pale area is an ash pile where cut brush was burned.

Continuing a counterclockwise turn, this view shows the extent of the clearing. The pale area is an ash pile where cut brush was burned.

A final view shows some of the large oaks that dominate this forest.

A final view shows some of the large oaks that dominate this forest.

I am very much looking forward to seeing what native plants will be released by this clearing. There is practically no garlic mustard evident here, so recovery could be swift.

St. James Farm January Summary

by Carl Strang

Part of my preserve monitoring practice is to write a monthly summary of observations. Today I am sharing the one from January just past:

Most of January was seasonably cold, with significant warming the last few days of the month. Little snow fell, on two occasions about an inch at a time.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fresh snow at the beginning of the year permitted a general assessment of mammal activity in the preserve. Raccoons appear to be more abundant here than at other preserves I have monitored, with the greatest concentration of activity in the northern portion of the main forest. Skunks were surprisingly active through January, coming out even on nights when the temperature dropped into the teens. This is in contrast to other preserves, where overnight temperatures in the 30’s, at least, were required until the start of the mating season in February. A couple chipmunks also emerged from their holes, likewise unusual in mid-winter. At least one mink includes the stream and the northern portion of the main forest in its territory. Cottontails were scattered throughout, though their activity was mainly around the forest edges. A very few opossums, perhaps no more than 4-5, were active on the preserve. Meadow voles, short-tailed shrews and white-footed mice are common, and occasionally I encountered tracks of masked shrews (vole, mouse, and small shrew identifications based on habitat and regional abundance as opposed to prairie vole, deer mouse and least shrew alternative possibilities). Two domestic cats occasionally moved through the northern edge of the forest, possibly connected to the houses off the preserve’s NE corner.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

Coyotes covered the entire preserve. Early in January I watched a slightly scruffy looking individual with much red and black in its fur catch and consume a vole in the meadow alongside the entrance drive. At the end of January, a coyote with much more of a white color dominance, very alert and fat looking, passed through the western part of the forest. Tracks revealed that two coyotes occasionally hunt together. I did not detect a consistent activity pattern in the deer. At times 4-5 moved together, that group size suggesting does. Elsewhere, single sets with the foot placement of bucks indicated at least one individual of that gender remains on the preserve.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Geese maintained a roost at south Blackwell through the month. Most mornings they flew over St. James Farm heading east, but occasionally a few dozens to a few hundred stopped and grazed the preserve’s lawns and meadows.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Over a hundred mallards utilized the newly reconfigured stream bed in the last half of January. One of them attempted to choke down a leopard frog that apparently had been unable to tunnel deep enough into the rocky stream edge when the weather turned cold in December. On another day a coot joined the ducks in the stream. The only pileated woodpecker observation during the month was one calling in the western forest on January 4.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

Cardinals and chickadees began to sing, and downy woodpeckers to drum, in the last half of the month. There are at least 7 chickadee groups of various sizes scattered over the preserve. 1-2 adult red-tailed hawks frequently hunted the preserve’s meadows.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

St. James Farm received a gratifying amount of restoration attention in January, with seeds scattered over the meadow or prairie area north of the stream, and the clearing of buckthorn and other undesirable woody plants from an extensive portion of the western forest.

 

Updated Singing Insects Guide

by Carl Strang

In 2015 I completed my 10th year of studying the singing insects of the Chicago region, and have begun to distribute the species guide that is the project’s main product. The Chicago region for this project includes 22 counties from southeastern Wisconsin around to Berrien County, Michigan. Singing insects are defined here as the cicadas, crickets, katydids, and members of two grasshopper subfamilies with sound displays that people can hear (though the songs of some are so high pitched that only young people can hear them unaided). There are around 100 species, though some I haven’t found outside historical records. I update the guide each year, and this year’s version just reached 100 pages.

Title page 2016

The guide is available for free as a highly compressed PDF document that nevertheless occupies over 5MB, thanks to the many photos. There are maps showing current and historical county records, graphical devices indicating seasonal and time-of-day information, and descriptions of the insects and their songs. Information is presented as well on conservation concerns and ongoing range expansions. To receive the current version of the guide and get on the mailing list for future updates, send your request to me at wildlifer@aol.com.

Skunk Surprise

by Carl Strang

Snow that fell around the turn of the year has provided good tracking opportunities at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. As I walk the new survey routes I established in December, I am beginning to assemble a sense of the general mammal presence and activities on the preserve. For instance, I found that cottontail rabbits are much more abundant and widely distributed than my earlier first impression indicated. The species list also is growing. For example, I ran across some mink tracks on New Year’s Day.

At first I was excited, because they seemed smaller and less round than mink tracks usually are, but they proved to be those of a mink rather than the locally rarer long-tailed weasel.

At first I was excited, because they seemed smaller and less round than mink tracks usually are, but they proved to be those of a mink rather than the locally rarer long-tailed weasel.

With minimal wandering the mink, possibly a female by the small size, came straight out of the forest and into the newly reconfigured stream.

With minimal wandering the mink, possibly a female by the small size, came straight out of the forest and into the newly reconfigured stream.

A new species record is welcome, but even more welcome was a bit of a mystery that came the next day.

Skunk tracks in the snow!

Skunk tracks in the snow!

This was surprising because, in my previous experience, skunks didn’t emerge from their dens in early January unless the temperature overnight was at least 30-40F. It had been in the mid-teens. As I followed my route I was able to trace the skunk’s course, roughly a straight line to the preserve’s boundary against a residential neighborhood. Later I backtracked this individual to a contorted tangle of footprints in a difficult to negotiate (for me) spot in the woods just north of Butterfield Road. I wasn’t able to cut this skunk’s entry into that area, so perhaps its den is there.

That wasn’t the end of it, though, as I soon crossed a second skunk’s trail. This was a different individual, larger and with a significantly wider straddle. Its feet were dragging significantly. Sorry, it didn’t occur to me at the time to photograph those tracks. I encountered them near where skunk #2 was exiting the preserve, again into the neighborhood to the east. As I continued my walk I was able to backtrack this second animal, occasionally cutting his trail and occasionally following it.

Here is the habitat map of northern St. James Farm. M shows where the mink was, S1 is the narrow-straddle skunk, and S2 is the wider-straddle individual. Solid lines show where I followed the tracks, dashed lines indicate areas between places where I cut the animals’ trails.

Here is the habitat map of northern St. James Farm. M shows where the mink was, S1 is the narrow-straddle skunk, and S2 is the wider-straddle individual. Solid lines show where I followed the tracks, dashed lines indicate areas between places where I cut the animals’ trails.

Ultimately I traced a good mile that skunk #2 had hiked. No wonder its feet were dragging at the end, and the foot drag gradually vanished as I backtracked it. It had crossed the parking lot after visits to the ranger residence and the round office building. Before that it had crossed the trail of skunk #1 (close enough in time that my skills are inadequate to say which individual passed that way first) after taking the Prairie Path tunnel under Butterfield Road. It had emerged from the woods south of Butterfield, still on the preserve, but a locked gate blocked my further progress.

This is the kind of traveling I expect in February, when the striped skunk mating season arrives. Then, they are much more likely to come out on the colder nights. As this winter progresses I look forward to learning whether St. James Farm’s skunks in the winter of 2015-16 habitually emerge to wander more often and in colder weather than skunks in other years in other places.

 

Christmas, North Carolina

by Carl Strang

My brother Gary and his wife Lisa have moved from the Eastern Shore of Maryland down to coastal North Carolina, and I joined them there for the week around Christmas. Most of our time went into unpacking and some yard work, but there were plenty of moments to explore the surroundings.

One corner of their property extends into a swamp complete with bald cypress “knees.”

One corner of their property extends into a swamp complete with bald cypress “knees.”

Some of the trees also have the iconic southern epiphyte, Spanish moss.

The most charming critter award went to the anoles that climbed the walls, shrubs and yard furniture.

It’s easy to project lots of personality into these little lizards.

It’s easy to project lots of personality into these little lizards.

Most were wearing their basic brown.

Most were wearing their basic brown.

A few switched to green, demonstrating why some call them “chameleons.”

A few switched to green, demonstrating why some call them “chameleons.”

There still were several species of singing insects performing in the unseasonably warm temperatures of those days. I recognized Carolina ground crickets, southern ground crickets (song identical to that of the striped ground cricket of the North), pine tree crickets, and abundant jumping bush crickets. I was left with a mystery, two individuals of a fifth species that sang from lawns after dark. Here is a recording:

Most of the time the spacing between trills was more evenly rhythmic than in this recording.

The recording was made well out in the lawn in front of Gary’s house.

The recording was made well out in the lawn in front of Gary’s house.

I was able to locate the presumed cricket’s position within a few square inches, but unsuccessful in seeing him. He must have been well concealed in a soil crack or tunnel. At first I thought, from the sound and the habitat, that he must be a ground cricket, but his song was louder than most ground crickets and I have never encountered a ground cricket that sings only after dark. A quick review of ground cricket recordings, and those of other likely cricket groups, in the Singing Insects of North America website, failed to turn up a match. If anyone recognizes this, I would appreciate the tip, but it was great to leave North Carolina with a mystery in hand.

 

Photo Bag

by Carl Strang

Time to shake out some miscellaneous photos from 2015 that didn’t make other posts.

I liked this October scene of sumacs contrasting with pines.

I liked this October scene of sumacs contrasting with pines.

This buck checked me out as I explored a remote area of Hidden Lake Forest Preserve at the end of October.

This buck checked me out as I explored a remote area of Hidden Lake Forest Preserve at the end of October.

The classic pose of a gray squirrel gnawing into a walnut at Fullersburg Woods in November.

The classic pose of a gray squirrel gnawing into a walnut at Fullersburg Woods in November.

The highlight of my group’s Christmas Bird Count was a merlin at West Branch Forest Preserve.

The highlight of my group’s Christmas Bird Count was a merlin at West Branch Forest Preserve.

I hope your 2015 was a great one, and that 2016 will be as well.

Exploring the Interior

by Carl Strang

Now that the leaves are down from the trees and shrubs, I have been exploring the areas between the forest trails at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Those areas are large enough that I cannot cover the forest adequately from the trails. I have found deer runs and old equestrian paths that will provide sufficient access for routine monitoring. Along the way I have found some interesting places. One foggy day I zig-zagged my way through part of the western forest.

This area has been cleared of invasive honeysuckles and other shrubs. Part of it is young second growth with a few clearings where perennial herbaceous plants are growing.

This area has been cleared of invasive honeysuckles and other shrubs. Part of it is young second growth with a few clearings where perennial herbaceous plants are growing.

Elsewhere there are old trees, many of them red oaks.

Elsewhere there are old trees, many of them red oaks.

Among the occasional boulders was this outwash-rounded fossiliferous one.

Among the occasional boulders was this outwash-rounded fossiliferous one.

The chunk of local Silurian dolomite appears to have been a spot on the ocean floor, adjacent to a reef, where there was a crinoid colony.

The chunk of local Silurian dolomite appears to have been a spot on the ocean floor, adjacent to a reef, where there was a crinoid colony.

A morainal depression held a huge fallen red oak.

A morainal depression held a huge fallen red oak.

The tree had lost the grip of most of its roots in the soil.

The last roots that were holding the tree up still show the relatively fresh color where they fractured.

The last roots that were holding the tree up still show the relatively fresh color where they fractured.

The orientation of the trunk relative to those broken roots suggests that a very strong wind from the west was the culprit.

 The oak didn’t go down alone. Broken stems reveal the trees it took out on either side. The force of the fall split the oak’s stem lengthwise.

The oak didn’t go down alone. Broken stems reveal the trees it took out on either side. The force of the fall split the oak’s stem lengthwise.

Each day in this exploration has brought its own delights.

Here, a beautiful moss colony became established on an old burn scar.

Here, a beautiful moss colony became established on an old burn scar.

One day when I was the preserve’s only human visitor, I saw one of St. James Farm’s coyotes. The fat belly and good coat indicate that this animal is a successful hunter.

One day when I was the preserve’s only human visitor, I saw one of St. James Farm’s coyotes. The fat belly and good coat indicate that this animal is a successful hunter.

So now the stage is set for routine coverage of St. James Farm’s ongoing natural history story.

 

SJFNHS: Slipping into December

by Carl Strang

St. James Farm Forest Preserve has become quieter in recent weeks.

Most migrants, including this swamp sparrow, have moved on south.

Most migrants, including this swamp sparrow, have moved on south.

The frantic rutting season is winding down as does begin to gestate their new embryo fawns.

This young buck has lost any neck swelling he may have had when pumped up by hormones.

This young buck has lost any neck swelling he may have had when pumped up by hormones.

Grazing has his full attention now, though I see that he is about to bite off something with a broader leaf, so “forbsing” would be a more correct term here.

Grazing has his full attention now, though I see that he is about to bite off something with a broader leaf, so “forbsing” would be a more correct term here.

Visibility has increased greatly in the forest after a four-day period in which the honeysuckles and buckthorns dropped nearly all their leaves at the end of November. I have begun to take advantage of this and explore the areas between the trails.

One discovery was this old concrete foundation of a small building close to the preserve’s Winfield Road boundary.

One discovery was this old concrete foundation of a small building close to the preserve’s Winfield Road boundary.

Adjacent to that foundation is an unnaturally steep, eroding slope. It probably was created during the construction or widening of Winfield Road, cutting into the morainal hill.

Adjacent to that foundation is an unnaturally steep, eroding slope. It probably was created during the construction or widening of Winfield Road, cutting into the morainal hill.

As is the case around most former building sites on the preserve, this one is surrounded by a patch of goutweed, an undesirable invasive plant.

As is the case around most former building sites on the preserve, this one is surrounded by a patch of goutweed, an undesirable invasive plant.

I am looking forward to further off-trail exploration as my natural history survey of this preserve continues.

Experiment on Self: Update

by Carl Strang

A few years have passed since I last reported on my experimental return to running as my primary exercise. Increasing stiffness and pain in my early 50’s had forced me to switch from running to bicycling for a few years. Running had been a part of my identity, however, and I missed it badly. Then I read about barefoot running. What appealed was not the barefoot part, but the reduced-impact running style: shorter strides, quicker cadence, and a forefoot to midfoot plant rather than the jarring heel plant with every step that I had been taught in my youth was the proper way to run. At age 59 I gave it a try. I have been running ever since, except for a few episodes of frustrating injuries, none of them caused by running, which nevertheless forced me to take time off and start over again after healing was complete. Those incidents helped, in that they sent me to physical therapists whose core exercises and stretches have made me stronger and helped me avoid running injuries.

So, now at age 64, I continue to enjoy running. Yes, joy is a part of it. In my ideal world everyone is an athlete, finding a form of exercise that is enjoyable to them (that would be running only for some). Running feels the same as it did in my early 20’s, thanks to the injury-avoiding measures outlined above. I’m slower, in part because I respect the limitations of an aging skeletal-muscular system and train at half the weekly mileage I put in when marathoning in my 20’s, and in part because the body’s ability to absorb, transport and process oxygen diminishes significantly with age.

Up to half a dozen times a year I enter races in the 5k to half-marathon range. Races are exciting, provide goals that focus training, immerse participants among other runners, feed the undying desire to compete, and provide standard measures of progress (or, in an older runner, gauge the inevitable slow decline in speed). Thankfully, most races acknowledge that decline with age-class categories that allow one to compare results with peers of age and gender. Also, there are on-line calculators that compute one’s young-age equivalent time when age and gender are entered. Perhaps it seems strange that someone my age would think of himself as an athlete, but I am grateful for all of this support, and happy to contribute to the worthy causes of race sponsors with my entry fees. I am a happy runner again.

Me at some mid-race point during the recent half-marathon at Moraine Hills State Park.

Me at some mid-race point during the recent half-marathon at Moraine Hills State Park.

 

First Snow

by Carl Strang

Our first winter storm of the season was worthy of the name, with 24 hours of occasionally heavy snowfall and strong winds. Even after some of the first snow melted in contact with the ground, St. James Farm Forest Preserve ended up with 3-6 inches on the ground. On Sunday I took an extended walk through the northern, forested portion of the preserve.

I wasn’t alone. Many hikers, skiers and snowshoers took advantage of the fresh snow.

I wasn’t alone. Many hikers, skiers and snowshoers took advantage of the fresh snow.

The wet snow stuck to the vegetation.

The wet snow stuck to the vegetation.

Herbaceous plants bowed under the weight.

Herbaceous plants bowed under the weight.

The smaller birds were challenged to find food through this obstruction. The temperature was cold enough to freeze shallow ponds.

This pond is hidden in the northwest corner of the woods.

This pond is hidden in the northwest corner of the woods.

This was my first opportunity to get an overview of mammal activity across the preserve. The absence of cottontail tracks perhaps was the biggest surprise. The more open southern part of the preserve, which I did not check, is more suited to them.

I saw only one set of opossum tracks, but would not expect much activity from them under the conditions.

I saw only one set of opossum tracks, but would not expect much activity from them under the conditions.

White-footed mice are abundant in the forest.

White-footed mice are abundant in the forest.

Coyote tracks showed a thorough coverage of the area overnight.

This footprint was made soon after the main snowfall ended. Ice crystals formed within it afterward.

This footprint was made soon after the main snowfall ended. Ice crystals formed within it afterward.

A pair of coyotes hunted together for a time.

A pair of coyotes hunted together for a time.

Though the disruption of the rut makes any pattern temporary, I was interested in assessing deer activity as well.

A few individuals crossed Winfield Road between St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves.

A few individuals crossed Winfield Road between St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves.

Half a dozen deer moved together at one point. The main activity was in the western portion of the woods, with almost all movement trending east-west. Only a couple deer, moving north-south, left tracks in the eastern portion. All of this is subject to change when things settle into the winter pattern over the next month.

 

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