Where There’s Smoke

by Carl Strang

Mid-November brought forest preserve district crews to St. James Farm to conduct controlled burns in the forest. These burns are a normal part of oak woodland ecology in northeastern Illinois, and they help control invasive plants. Occasionally the consequences of the burn extend beyond the brief time when the flames consume the dry leaf litter on the ground, and I noted two such incidents this time around.

Carpenter ants commonly hollow out the base of a tree as they tunnel through the dead wood at the core. If the accumulated sawdust catches a spark from the controlled burn, a slow growing smoldering coal can expand to the point where it consumes a significant amount of the remaining wood.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

A victim of that phenomenon was the large white oak that harbored the great horned owl nest last winter.

There had been a larger live stem, and a smaller dead stem (the fractured one in the photo) where the nest had been. The live stem’s base was thinned by the growing coal to the point where it went down, taking the nest stem with it.

The same burn had the remarkable effect of catching in another tree, already knocked down by a storm, which then smoldered for weeks.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Here is the tree 2.5 weeks after the burn, on December 5. The underside of the fallen stem was burning slowly from west to east, and the top of the stem protected the coal from the snowfall.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

Another heavier snowfall still did not stop the burn, here on December 12. This was a cold day, but a moderate west wind kept the coal alive.

At that point, however, the coal was no longer sheltered. When I returned on the 16th, I found the fire had gone out. It had lasted nearly a month.

 

St. James Farm Autumn Update

by Carl Strang

This blog has been on hiatus while I work on my annual research summary documents, but I have been paying regular visits to St. James Farm Forest Preserve, the site I monitor and where I soon will begin as volunteer steward. Today’s entry shares some photos from recent weeks.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

 

Photos May-July

by Carl Strang

It’s been a busy field season, and I have fallen way behind in blog posts. I’ll catch up eventually, but today will share a smorgasbord of photos from May through July.

This barred owl appeared during a walk through St. James Farm Forest Preserve. I believe I had come close to its nest tree.

This barred owl appeared during a walk through St. James Farm Forest Preserve. I believe I had come close to its nest tree.

Here is the first slender spreadwing I have found at St. James Farm.

Here is the first slender spreadwing I have found at St. James Farm.

Wild yam graces the understory of the St. James Farm forest.

Wild yam graces the understory of the St. James Farm forest.

Sporangia on the underside of a lady fern leaf at St. James Farm.

Sporangia on the underside of a lady fern leaf at St. James Farm.

The Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in Walworth County, Wisconsin, has become a favorite site. Here a woodland graces a kame.

The Lulu Lake Nature Preserve in Walworth County, Wisconsin, has become a favorite site. Here a woodland graces a kame.

An eight-spotted forester provided a photo op in the nature preserve portion of the Round Lake state property in Starke County, Indiana.

An eight-spotted forester provided a photo op in the nature preserve portion of the Round Lake state property in Starke County, Indiana.

This dragonfly I encountered at Houghton Lake in Marshall County, Indiana, was a bit of a puzzler. I eventually concluded it was a somewhat odd widow skimmer.

This dragonfly I encountered at Houghton Lake in Marshall County, Indiana, was a bit of a puzzler. I eventually concluded it was a somewhat odd widow skimmer, but later changed the ID to slaty skimmer (see comments).

 

SJF Gallery

by Carl Strang

As recent posts have shown, I am transitioning into the singing insects field season. I will be spending less time at St. James Farm over the next four months, though I won’t be ignoring that preserve completely. So here is a collection of recent photos from St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

I was pleased to find that green dragons are scattered throughout the forest.

I was pleased to find that green dragons are scattered throughout the forest.

Both the smooth sweet cicely, shown here, and the hairy sweet cicely are among the late spring forest wildflowers at SJF.

Both the smooth sweet cicely, shown here, and the hairy sweet cicely are among the late spring forest wildflowers at SJF.

Wild hyacinths are savanna or woods border plants with only a brief blooming period.

Wild hyacinths are savanna or woods border plants with only a brief blooming period.

The somewhat weedy, open-growing common goat’s beard is a personal favorite.

The somewhat weedy, open-growing common goat’s beard is a personal favorite.

Earlier in the season I saw a female dot-tailed whiteface in one of the prairie plots. Here is a male on station at the catch-and-release fishing pond.

Earlier in the season I saw a female dot-tailed whiteface in one of the prairie plots. Here is a male on station at the catch-and-release fishing pond.

The grayish fan-foot, aka grayish Zanclognatha, has been abundant in the forest in recent days. The caterpillars live on fallen dead leaves.

The grayish fan-foot, aka grayish Zanclognatha, has been abundant in the forest in recent days. The caterpillars live on fallen dead leaves.

This eastern bluebird nestling looks ready to get out into the world.

This eastern bluebird nestling looks ready to get out into the world.

 

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

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).

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