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.

 

Concluding the Search

by Carl Strang

This year’s great horned owl nest search was the most intimidating I have done. There are 344 acres in the area I monitor, the portion of St. James Farm Forest Preserve that is north of Butterfield Road. A large portion of that acreage is forested, and it’s an old forest with many large trees that might harbor an owl nest. Furthermore, despite excellent restoration of the forest, a significant portion still has a difficult-to-negotiate understory dense with thorny barberries and roses mixed with way-blocking honeysuckles. Over a two-week period I went through the preserve, noting locations of candidate tree cavities and open tree tops.

One of the many possible nest cavities, large enough to hold an incubating owl that might not be visible from the ground.

One of the many possible nest cavities, large enough to hold an incubating owl that might not be visible from the ground.

Another candidate cavity. The weather often was gloomy, the limited light reducing photo quality and making it difficult to see if anything was inside.

Another candidate cavity. The weather often was gloomy, the limited light reducing photo quality and making it difficult to see if anything was inside.

There also were many old trees that had lost their tops.

There also were many old trees that had lost their tops.

Another example of a topped tree that could host a nest.

Another example of a topped tree that could host a nest.

After that initial survey, I decided to dig out my clunky old GPS unit and determine the latitude-longitude locations of all the candidate trees, while also mapping the survey routes I follow in routine monitoring work.

Here is the resulting map. I created a grid, the finest lines separated by one second of latitude or longitude. The blue dots and white lines mark my survey routes. The red dots are locations of trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest.

Here is the resulting map. I created a grid, the finest lines separated by one second of latitude or longitude. The blue dots and white lines mark my survey routes. The red dots are locations of trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest.

I was a little embarrassed by my failure to re-find 3 candidates from the descriptions in my notes. I ended up with 23 trees, and that turned out to be enough, as I saw this in one of them:

Sometimes a single feather tuft is all you get. In this case I could see part of the top of the head, too.

Sometimes a single feather tuft is all you get. In this case I could see part of the top of the head, too.

I realized that I was fortunate that this was a sunny day, and the additional ambient light made the difference. Now I look forward to following the progress of this nest. The eggs should have hatched by now.

 

SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

Beginning in the middle of the month, I went through all of St. James Farm Forest Preserve seeking the great horned owl nest. I did not find it, but did create an inventory of 25 large tree cavities where an incubating owl might not be visible from the ground. An additional possibility would be a hawk nest in the dense top of one of the spruces. Twice I saw an owl, presumably the male if they are nesting this year, in the same north central portion of the main forest. In past observations elsewhere, the male usually perched in the vicinity of the nest. I will continue to monitor the suspect cavities, but may need to see branched young later in the season to narrow down possibilities further.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

I had not seen or heard a pileated woodpecker on the preserve for more than 6 weeks (though occasionally I heard suspicious loud, spaced tapping sounds), but in the second half of February heard or saw one on three different days. The one close sighting was of a male.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

American coots and large numbers of mallards were a continuing presence on the stream. For much of the month the Canada geese roosting at Blackwell frequently passed over St. James Farm in large numbers, occasionally stopping to graze the lawns and meadow areas. Geese began to break off into pairs as ponds opened up during the last third of February. Interesting bird sightings included a bald eagle flying over, and a hermit thrush on February 16. Migrating sandhill crane flocks began to pass over beginning on the 21st. A small group of white-throated sparrows in the eastern part of the main forest were the first observed on the preserve this year. The first red-winged blackbirds arrived, and eastern bluebirds became a more consistent presence in the last part of February.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

Fox squirrels fed heavily from Norway spruce cones in the south forest, and on tree buds elsewhere. Skunk and deer activity was much as described for January. The preserve’s deer minimally are a group of 3 does, a group of 2 deer which occasionally associate with those does, and a single buck. The snow was never deep enough to discourage raccoons. A mink used a den off the south edge of the pond in the preserve’s northwest corner.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The large area of restoration brush clearing in the main forest was expanded greatly by District staff, generally following the route of the new trail mapped in the preserve’s master plan. Among the more interesting plants encountered during the owl nest search were two of the most massive black walnuts I have ever seen, and a prickly-stemmed greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides).

Goings On at SJF

by Carl Strang

Winter is relatively slow and quiet in places like St. James Farm Forest Preserve, but plenty still is happening. Today’s sharing will proceed north to south.

American coots have been a constant presence in the stream.

American coots have been a constant presence in the stream.

Entrance to a mink den just above the edge of the north pond.

Entrance to a mink den just above the edge of the north pond.

In mid-February I begin the search for the preserve’s great horned owl nest. I wait until then so that the incubation is thoroughly committed and my potential disturbance is minimized. This is the first time I have conducted such a search at St. James Farm. That relatively large, old forest provides a handicap.

So far, with less than a quarter of the preserve covered, I have found more than ten cavities where an incubating owl could not be seen from the ground.

So far, with less than a quarter of the preserve covered, I have found more than ten cavities where an incubating owl could not be seen from the ground.

The south forest also hosts wildlife activity.

Fox squirrels have been exploiting the abundant Norway spruce cones in the plantation.

Fox squirrels have been exploiting the abundant Norway spruce cones in the plantation.

The ground beneath those trees is littered with gleaned cone cores.

The ground beneath those trees is littered with gleaned cone cores.

The south forest receives its share of attention from bark-foraging birds like this hairy woodpecker.

The south forest receives its share of attention from bark-foraging birds like this hairy woodpecker.

Each visit to the preserve brings highlights like these.

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.

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