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.

 

Field Crickets 2015

by Carl Strang

The spring field cricket and the fall field cricket are our most common members of their genus, both found in all the counties of the Chicago region. They are sibling species, identical in appearance and in song, differing only by season.

Fall field cricket

Fall field cricket

The only way to be sure that spring field crickets are done for the year, or that fall field crickets have begun, is to check the rare locations where only one of the two occurs. I have adopted the practice of counting them on my weekly bicycle rides through nearby Fermilab, where both species live in good numbers. Last year’s pattern was clear.

Two clear peaks in numbers with a well-defined valley between: spring field crickets peaked in mid-June 2014, fall field crickets in mid-September, with a separation in late July.

Two clear peaks in numbers with a well-defined valley between: spring field crickets peaked in mid-June 2014, fall field crickets in mid-September, with a separation in late July.

This year things were different in some ways, but the general pattern held.

The fall field cricket pattern in 2015 again was well defined, with an earlier peak at the beginning of September. The dividing point again was in the second half of July.

The fall field cricket pattern in 2015 again was well defined, with an earlier peak at the beginning of September. The dividing point again was in the second half of July.

The spring field cricket counts were more chaotic, and lower than those for 2014. Weather was a factor here, often rainy, often windy. This affected my ability to count them, but I think there were indeed fewer than in 2014, and also more fall field crickets than last year.

SJF Miscellany

by Carl Strang

There has been a gradual buildup of photos from my monitoring excursions at St. James Farm, and it’s time to empty the bin. Some are pictures of birds.

Ruby-crowned kinglets have been common migrants around the forest edges.

Ruby-crowned kinglets have been common migrants around the forest edges.

A pair of adult red-tailed hawks frequently patrols the sky overhead.

A pair of adult red-tailed hawks frequently patrols the sky.

This juvenile red-tail was tolerated or unnoticed by the residents as it perched near the preserve’s boundary on Sunday.

This juvenile red-tail was tolerated or unnoticed by the residents as it perched near the preserve’s boundary on Sunday.

These young red-tails often are naïve and approachable. This was one of the first photos I took, from just a few yards away. I had to back off to get the entire bird in the frame for the previous photo.

These young red-tails often are naïve and approachable. This was one of the first photos I took, from just a few yards away. I had to back off to get the entire bird in the frame for the previous photo.

Proper awareness in monitoring includes looking in all directions and all size scales.

A small mushroom and moss growing on a fallen log.

A small mushroom and moss growing on a fallen log.

Elsewhere on the same log, a raccoon left a record of its passing. Its five toenails left characteristically spaced scratches when it leaped up to the log. It did not gain purchase here, so either fell back to the ground or otherwise had enough momentum and grip to gain the log.

Elsewhere on the same log, a raccoon left a record of its passing. Its five toenails left characteristically spaced scratches when it leaped up to the log. It did not gain purchase here, so either fell back to the ground or otherwise had enough momentum and grip to gain the log.

Building the story of a preserve also means looking for clues to the landscape’s human history.

These corroding pieces of metal slowly are being engulfed by the continued growth of this tree. They are 30 feet above the ground. At some point I hope to learn the story here.

These corroding pieces of metal slowly are being engulfed by the continued growth of this tree. They are 30 feet above the ground. At some point I hope to learn the story here.

Accumulating experiences of an area’s beauty and blemishes leads to an internal transformation: falling in love with a place.

 

Bark Birds Big and Small

by Carl Strang

As the season progresses, numbers of passing migrant birds at St. James Farm Forest Preserve have diminished. Residents, augmented by winter additions from the North, increasingly dominate the avian communities. Prominent among these hangers-on are the birds that forage on tree bark. Downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers are year-round residents covering three body sizes and the particular foraging advantages of each. Nuthatches are still smaller, songbirds that have the ability to crawl sideways or upside down on the tree bark, finding hiding insects the woodpeckers might miss. Red-breasted nuthatches have become common in the coniferous forest this fall, while resident white-breasted nuthatches are scattered through the deciduous woodlands.

On Saturday this white-breasted nuthatch caught a harvestman that did not find a sufficiently secure bark crevice.

On Saturday this white-breasted nuthatch caught a harvestman that did not find a sufficiently secure bark crevice.

While photographing the nuthatch I heard in the distance a loud call which was entirely unexpected. Eventually my monitoring route took me into that part of the forest, and the calling resumed close by.

A pileated woodpecker!

A pileated woodpecker!

This huge bird is not one we encounter very often in DuPage County. I know of two resident pairs in the eastern half of the county. Others occasionally wander through, and this male at St. James Farm qualifies as one such traveler.

Continuing to call frequently, he actually flew closer to me. Here he cries from just above.

Continuing to call frequently, he actually flew closer to me. Here he cries from just above.

On Sunday I was in a different part of the same forest, but it was calm. I did not hear a pileated calling in the distance. I hope he moved on, rather than becoming dinner that night for the great horned owl I saw being harassed by crows not far from the woodpecker’s attention-drawing display. On the other hand, it would be nice if the pileated decided to hang around for the winter. As the largest block of old trees in the western half of DuPage County, the forest at St. James Farm is the place most likely to host our largest woodpecker species. Pileateds need lots of big old trees harboring carpenter ant colonies. In any case this was exciting, the highlight to date of my young monitoring program at St. James Farm.

Who Let the Frog Out?

by Carl Strang

Native wetlands are represented in my little yard by a container water garden.

The container holds water lilies and a few emergents.

The container holds water lilies and a few emergent.

Early this summer I began to notice little sounds and movements when I passed the container. My suspicions were raised, and eventually I was able to spot the little green frog peeking out of the water from time to time. Green frogs are notorious wanderers, and this little guy not only had traveled more than 100 yards from the nearest wetland, he had detected the water in my container, its surface at least a foot above the ground, and had managed to climb up into it. I hadn’t seen the frog in a while, but I decided I had better empty the water garden for winter earlier than I usually do, in case the frog had not wandered on. The first days of the month were relatively warm, so a safe release was possible.

I set the emergent pots in the emptied vegetable garden. Feeling with my fingers, I detected no frog. Same for the cavities in the supporting bricks, same for the water lily pots.

I set the emergent pots in the emptied vegetable garden. Feeling with my fingers, I detected no frog. Same for the cavities in the supporting bricks, same for the water lily pots.

Next came the careful bailing. The frog peeked out when I reached this level.

Next came the careful bailing. The frog peeked out when I reached this level.

I scooped him into the bucket.

I scooped him into the bucket.

A mud-bottomed stream flows past the subdivision. This is where the frog probably came from, and I carried him down there.

A mud-bottomed stream flows past the subdivision. This is where the frog probably came from, and I carried him down there.

I emptied him onto the leaves at the edge of the stream.

I emptied him onto the leaves at the edge of the stream.

A touch to his back end was enough to stimulate a leap into the water. The frog swam vigorously to the center of the stream and burrowed into the soft mud. He should survive OK, but I don’t expect a return to my garden next year.

Entering the Rut

by Carl Strang

November brings the mating season for whitetail deer, also known as the rut. Hormones peak out and focus narrows down to the point of obliviousness to everything else. Drive carefully. Sunday was November 1, and I saw a sign that the rut already was under way. I was walking through the forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, and motion brought my attention to a doe. Her mouth was open, her ears down. I’ve seen those signs of harassment before.

The photo shows that the ears were directed behind her.

The photo shows that the ears were directed behind her.

Sure enough, a buck appeared in her wake soon after.

His antlers were freshly cleaned of velvet, his neck swelling.

His antlers were freshly cleaned of velvet, his neck swelling.

The doe stopped to feed and he did, too. When she moved on he did as well, maintaining a separation of around 50 yards. Neither deer showed any sign that they noticed me or heard the shutter clicks.

I am hopeful for good photo opportunities this month, especially of aggressive interactions among bucks.

A Big Winter for Finches?

by Carl Strang

Last week at St. James Farm Forest Preserve I saw a huge flock of pine siskins, quick eyeball estimate count 130.

They were drawn to the preserve’s heavy production of conifer seeds.

They were drawn to the preserve’s heavy production of conifer seeds.

Here one processes a seed it drew from a cone scale.

Here one processes a seed it drew from a cone scale.

A flashing wing reveals some yellow, a reminder that these are close relatives of our resident American goldfinches.

A flashing wing reveals some yellow, a reminder that these are close relatives of our resident American goldfinches.

In some winters, siskins are few to none. Is this early abundance a sign that other northern finches might visit us in good numbers? Though not finches, red-breasted nuthatches are another northern forest bird that populated St. James Farm’s conifer plantings in October.

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