Pilot Mountain

by Carl Strang

On the way to visit my brother and his family in eastern North Carolina for Christmas, I made a stop at Pilot Mountain State Park in the western part of that state. Pilot Mountain is an isolated peak that rises 1500 feet above the surrounding terrain (against only 2 miles’ diameter at the base), and its striking profile is visible from miles away in all directions. My route takes me right past it, and a quick entry is available from that interstate highway.

There are two high points, and you can drive to the top of the lower of those.

This view from the top gives a sense of Pilot Mountain’s dramatic rise.

The sides of this quartzite-cored peak are forested. White, red and chestnut oaks were the dominant trees in the part of the forest I explored.

A nice network of trails wraps around the park.

As a biologist, I was especially interested in the wildlife.

The deer and the gray squirrels looked small as compared to those in northern Illinois. This probably is a latitude effect rather than a peculiarity of the park.

My eyes scanned the trail from time to time, and I was pleased to see some bobcat tracks, but those were dwarfed by a few footprints that had been made by something much larger.

This was the clearest example. At 3-4 inches in diameter, with a circular overall outline and lacking toenail marks, it was close to mountain lion tracks I have seen out West.

Here is an example from Big Bend National Park, Texas.

I passed on my observation to the park staff. A little internet searching revealed that the presence of mountain lions in western North Carolina is debated. I believe my identification is correct, but this does not mean that there is a resident population with Pilot Mountain in a lion’s home range. Our experience in the Midwest is that mountain lions have been wandering outward from the Black Hills, several states away. One was killed in Chicago a few years ago. These cats, though big, are wary and capable of staying out of sight. I would not be surprised at all if eventually it is established that the mountainous region of western North Carolina and surrounding states harbors a resident population of this large predator.

 

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St. James Farm in April

by Carl Strang

April is a month of accelerating change, and this was evident on several levels at St. James Farm this year. Nevertheless, some observations were continuations of patterns established over the winter.

This coyote frequented the meadows along the entrance drive, and one day was joined by another, presumably its mate, distinguished by a significantly redder coat.

A second check of the great horned owl nest, in mid-April, found the adult still present. At this point it would be brooding young, which I have not yet seen.

Many plants begin to bloom in April.

Draba verna, the vernal whitlow grass, was a species I had not noticed last year.

Now that I am in my second year of observations, I can make comparisons. The median first flower date for 33 species was 3 days earlier than last year, not much different.

Spring azures were the first butterflies to appear, on April 2.

A new extension of the regional trail is being constructed through the forest this year.

The route was staked, and later cleared of trees.

I think it is important for the trail system to show off our better ecosystems. This route could have been much more damaging to the vegetation, but I would prefer that it not be so wide. I am hopeful that the new trail’s positives will outweigh its detrimental side.

 

St. James Farm, Lately

by Carl Strang

This has been a relatively slow winter at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. There has been little snow, so my tracking has been limited. Coyotes have been covering the preserve, and the relatively few deer tracks have not revealed a consistent pattern. That in itself suggests buck group, and eventually in January I saw them: a huge buck, a good-sized but clearly subordinate forkhorn, and a newly minted buck fawn. Since that first sighting, I have spotted them twice more in widely separated parts of the preserve.

The boss buck

The boss buck

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the great horned owls’ nest tree of last winter was a casualty of the autumn’s controlled burn. My practice is to wait until mid-February to do the annual nest search. I had my inventory of candidate cavities, made last winter, but it didn’t take long to find the incubating female on last year’s red-tailed hawk nest. In a related note, I spotted a newly available candidate cavity along one of my monitoring routes. The top of an old oak recently broke off, leaving an open top of sufficient diameter that great horneds might consider it. A forest this old probably has some equilibrium of candidate cavities as old ones are lost and new ones form.

The new candidate nesting cavity

The new candidate nesting cavity

With that task out of the way, I decided to see if I could find a little nest in the area where the hooded warbler had his territory last summer. He has been a regular there in recent years, but as far as I know, no one has seen a female or young. I found that his territory has scattered bush honeysuckles and lots of Japanese barberries, bad for forest quality but probably good from the warbler’s viewpoint. Descriptions of hooded warbler nesting suggest that barberry would be an ideal platform. I didn’t find a nest, and ended the search when I found a dense thicket of barberries, with a few multiflora roses mixed in, at least 100 feet in diameter, worthy of Brer Rabbit.

 Part of the thorny tangle

Part of the thorny tangle

As I circumnavigated this patch, which is in a part of the forest with relatively dramatic surface relief, I noticed a few tipped trees whose fall had turned up rounded stones in the soil.

Rounded stones exposed by a tipped tree’s root tangle

Rounded stones exposed by a tipped tree’s root tangle

This suggests that the preserve’s forested hills may in fact be kames, places within the melting continental glacier where the meltwater piled its flow-rounded stones into mounds. St. James Farm is very close to the western edge of the Valparaiso Moraine.

 

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.

 

Memorial Weekend Miscellany

by Carl Strang

As Gary and I toured wild places around Culver over the weekend, we found more of interest than sulfur-winged grasshoppers.

Many wildflowers were blooming, including lance-leaved violets at the Winamac State Fish and Wildlife Area.

Many wildflowers were blooming, including lance-leaved violets at the Winamac State Fish and Wildlife Area.

A number of rapids clubtails worked the sandy power line corridor at Memorial Forest.

A number of rapids clubtails worked the sandy power line corridor at Memorial Forest.

One sad note was a road-killed otter.

I had heard that otters have returned to the Tippecanoe River. This one climbed a tributary to reach the Maxinkuckee Wetlands, and became a casualty.

I had heard that otters have returned to the Tippecanoe River. This one climbed a tributary to reach the Maxinkuckee Wetlands, and became a casualty.

No photo to show for it, but we were impressed by astronomical observations as well. While sampling the variety of Hoosier beers Gary had brought up from Indianapolis, we checked out Mars and Saturn through the spotting scope. Mars, as close as it ever gets to Earth, was a reddish disk. Much farther away, Saturn appeared as a cute little image with the rings nicely visible and separate from the planet’s main mass.

We closed the weekend by attending the local VFW Memorial Day ceremony, and visited the graves of our parents, who passed away two years ago. Then we went our separate ways home.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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