Blue Jay Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier contains my observations of the blue jay, a bird I regard as the Forest Crier, who lets everybody know what is going on.

Blue jay

Blue jay

Jay, Blue

Lives in forests and old, tree-filled residential areas. Nested in the yard at Culver (15′ up in silver maple), riparian strip at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, IL (8′ up in small tree) and Maple Grove F.P. (10′ up in hawthorn at forest edge, incubating 31MY86). Bird reluctant to move when on nest. Eats mainly insects in summer, a lot of nuts and seeds in fall and winter. Forages from ground to top of canopy. Very vocal. “Eeth! Eeth!” sharp alarm call; rising, accelerating “a-a-a-ee-ee-ee-ee” (long a’s and ee’s) begging/feeding call of young (much like crows’); “ool-ool” and “teekle-teekle” calls accompanied by peculiar bobbing of body. Captive reared birds at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center often used this latter movement in concert with vocal mimicries (whistles, telephone ringing). Low, highly musical, conversation-like vocalizations among Willowbrook’s caged birds. Wild birds mimic calls of various hawks. They travel in loosely organized flocks much of the year. Mob crows in spring. Courtship feeding observed in a treetop at Maple Grove F.P. on 10MY86. Tend to take over feeders, other birds stay away until they leave.

15JE86. As a broad-winged hawk flew past, pursued by a couple of starlings at Maple Grove, a blue jay uttered a single “eeth!” call.

Late summer 86. As a flock of ground-feeding grackles flushed at the approach of people, jays and downy woodpeckers at Meacham Grove emitted contact calls, apparently as a final check of location and status before possible flight.

11MY88. Responded to deer breaking twig loudly with “thief” call, Hartz Lake.

12MY88. Jay on nest in 20′ box elder, nest 15′ up, riparian strip of Willowbrook Back 40.

5JE88. In the middle of Geneva I stood under a tree in which a pair of cardinals suddenly began to alarm-call rapidly. They were close to me, but not paying attention to me. The calls were directed at a blue jay which the cardinals chased from the isolated street-side tree to a clump of trees and brush, and continued the alarm calling and chasing until the jay left. The jay resisted some, was not driven off easily.

29MY88. Hartz Lake, in woods. A chipmunk saw me move my arm laterally, gave 3 chips increasing in speed, and ran. Immediately 2 jays feeding on the ground flew up. They were 40-50 feet away.

13JL88. Blue jay young still following, begging from parent, though they look full grown.

18OC88. Cactus Camp, IN. A blue jay yelling at me with repeated, energetic “jay jay” (“thief thief,” “eeth eeth”) calls.

24DE88. Cactus Camp. Jays doing a lot of “jay” mobbing; information about animals moving away from me?

4JE89. Elsen’s Hill Forest Preserve, IL. Teekettle call used as a warning to an intruding jay, given as the intruder landed. After several repetitions the intruder hadn’t left, and so the calling bird flew into the same oak and began to displace it (flights of 10-20 feet). It “jay”ed once, then resumed “teakettles,” continuing displacements and increasing their frequency, until the intruder left.

11JE89. Cactus Camp. Pair of jays mobbed me with loud “jay” calls.

17JE89. A broad-wing called repeatedly, in north end of Maple Grove. Jays, flickers and grackles highly agitated, flickers the most continuously vocal with “keels” every 2 seconds (2 birds). Grackles gacking frequently, too. A great crested flycatcher near, also vocal, but not clearly in response to the hawk; same with chickadees. Robins definitely disturbed, with nervous dee-dee-dee’s every 20 seconds or so. Jays in bursts, with several birds mobbing.

18AU89. Willowbrook marsh. Kestrel and jays. Latter making a strange, harsh, parrot-like call. Chasing, mobbing. Kestrel seemed to stoop at the jays a couple times, but the jays kept mobbing until the kestrel left.

31AU89. Jays vigorously “jay”-ing at a great horned owl well hidden among leaves in a willow top. Chipmunks chucking nearby, below.

3SE89. Jays maintain contacts with a-a calls (long a’s) and a variety of squeaky notes.

14OC89. Cactus Camp. Jays “jay”ing at a hawk, landing on branches nearby. Hawk appeared to be a red-tail, but was down inside forest. Jays stayed with it as it flew.

Late MY90. Cactus Camp. Jays foraged in accumulated oak leaves in the open among short brush by perching on tree or sapling branches, searching the ground, and making short flights out.

 

Eastern Wood-Pewee Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier consists of my observations of a neotropical migrant flycatcher, the eastern wood-pewee. This bird is our common small woodland nesting flycatcher, working mainly in the lower canopy and shrub layer, leaving the upper canopy to its larger relative, the great crested flycatcher.

Wood-Pewee, Eastern

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Eastern Wood-Pewee

Forages typical flycatcher fashion from all levels, but mainly mid-canopy. Calls “peewee,” slurring the second syllable downward in pitch, then up. Also “peeurr,” slurring all smoothly down.

18JE80. A nest found in Pennsylvania was a neatly woven cup, very similar to the red-eyed vireo’s, in a low understory plant.

1JL90. West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Pair of pewees mobbing a blue jay. Swooped at it as it foraged in low to mid canopy of high trees on hilltop above river. Another jay flew in, both jays gave “kee-tuck-tuck” (ool-ool) call and bowed (a greeting? Seemed that way). One of the jays moved on, both pewees stayed with the other as long as it was on the hilltop, then they stayed behind. Almost every time the jay changed perches, the pewees flew to stay with it (perching nearby, usually behind it), often swooping past just as the jay landed, coming within 2 inches of it and snapping their bills at the closest point of the swoop. Sometimes the jay responded by opening beak and snapping back at them.

28AP99. First of season noted at Willowbrook. Last of spring migration 28MY.

3SE99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last of year there on 22SE.

18JE00. Arboretum near Joy Path. A pewee foraged for a time within the canopies of trees not far from the leafy twig-ends, frequently moving from perch to perch and from tree to tree. Then for a span of at least 10 minutes it stayed on one perch, a dead oak branch that extended into a fairly large subcanopy space. It continued calling frequently throughout, with occasional sallies. I did not observe prey handling, but on one sally I could see the small, slow-flying insect it caught, and it had swallowed the prey before returning to the perch. The calls were nearly all “peewee’s,” but an occasional “peeurr” was thrown into the mix (less than 5%). No move to go to a nest in 20 minutes of foraging between 8 and 9a.m. A pewee was foraging in the same spot 16 days ago.

28JL01. Pewees at White Pines State Park have switched to the “peeurr” call.

23MY02. Suddenly, many pewees have appeared, at Willowbrook and elsewhere. First of year.

Northern Flicker Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The flicker was a favorite bird of my childhood; it is so unlike other woodpeckers. That’s not to say that I can offer a lengthy dissertation about them from my own experience, hence the moderate length of my dossier on them.

Flicker, Northern

Male northern flicker

Male northern flicker

This is a woodpecker of savanna and open forest. Most migrate south in winter, passing through DuPage County in large waves. They nest in tree cavities (I have seen them excavating near Lafayette, Indiana, and at Willowbrook and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves in Illinois). Nests may be near the ground or higher in trees (6 feet up at Meacham, in a 7-foot-tall stump in a clearing; 20 feet up in a large black willow at Willowbrook). Flickers frequently forage on the ground, sometimes around ant nests. They also may feed on tree trunks in usual woodpecker fashion. Their flight is strong and direct; the white rump patch is distinctive. Vocalizations are diverse: “Flicka-flicka-flicka;” “E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e,” rising in volume and perhaps a little in pitch, gradually, then dropping again the last couple of notes (staccato short e’s). A “whoop-whoop-whoop” display flight sound, made by wings or voice. Alarm: flew up from ground with whooping wingbeats, and emitted a couple of loud “kleel” sounds.

27MY86. One flicker chased another quietly from perch to perch in part of a willow canopy at Willowbrook. Chasing not too vigorous, and without vocalizations. Part of courtship?

The stiff tail feathers demonstrate this is a woodpecker. It is a little too intuitive to us that females like this one lack the male’s “mustache” marks.

The stiff tail feathers demonstrate this is a woodpecker. It is a little too intuitive to us that females like this one lack the male’s “mustache” marks.

30MR87. First of year observed.

15SE87. Several in Willowbrook Back 40. Also, 2 on 25SE, 1 on 30SE, and on 19OC.

13FE88. First flicker of the year near Culver, along S.R. 110.

17MR88. First arrival at Willowbrook.

16AP88. A flicker at the Morton Arboretum displaced a red-bellied woodpecker which landed on a major branch of the same tree the larger flicker was in. It chased and displaced the red-bellied twice, and uttered a faint “flicka-flicka-flicka” series, then the red-bellied flew off.

27SE88. Still present at Willowbrook. Also seen 3OC, 6OC, and one on 11OC.

17AP89. Lots of flickers in Willowbrook’s Back 40.

17JE89. A broad-winged hawk called repeatedly, in the north end of Maple Grove. Jays, flickers and grackles were highly agitated, flickers the most continuously vocal with “keels” every 2 seconds (2 birds).

11FE90. Flicker near Hartz Lake, IN.

7OC99. Last flicker of season at Willowbrook.

21NO99. Flicker perched at edge of Fermilab along Kirk Road.

18DE99. Very late flicker at Fermilab.

17JA00. Even later flicker at Greene Valley Forest Preserve. This individual looked very dark.

29-31AU01. Flickers fairly common at Algonquin Park, Ontario. Feeding on ground, usually in groups of 2-3.

Flickers consume many ants, like other woodpeckers, but unlike them often feed on the ground.

Flickers consume many ants, like other woodpeckers, but unlike them often feed on the ground.

2005-7, Greene Valley and Tri-County. Flickers overwintering in open areas.

20AP09. Flicker drumming in W part of Mayslake savanna. Drumming relatively light but very fast.

As the dossier reveals, it took me a while to figure out that flickers winter here more regularly than I had thought. They especially like prairies and other really open areas in that season.

Common Grackle Dossier

by Carl Strang

In anticipation of spring, this week’s choice of species dossier features a bird that winters not so far to our south, and so is one of the first to arrive in spring.

Grackle, Common

Courting group of grackles in a quiet moment.

Typically this is a colonial nester in tall trees, although I have seen low nests (e.g., at Purdue gravel pit). Birds radiate out from the colony to feed, traveling at least up to ½ mile. They feed mostly on the ground, in tall (at least 6″) grass in summer in Pennsylvania, in forests in early to mid-spring in Illinois. Latter birds feed in groups, noisily throwing leaves aside with beaks as they walked. Former ones fed more commonly as individuals.

Squeaky, rusty-hinge voice. In early May 1986, at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve, Illinois: A large male grackle, perched on a bare branch beside the river, periodically gave his squeaky “erlik-geck” call. Each call was accompanied by elevation of the feathers of the head, neck and upper back and chest. Feather elevation began slightly before vocalization. Alarm call is a series of rapid “geck” notes.

Migrates south for winter, forming large flocks mixed with other blackbirds (especially red-winged) in fall, disappearing in November from northern Illinois and Indiana, reappearing in March. The male holds his long, wedge-shaped tail vertically in long straight flight. That tail also can be held in a V-shape.

Migrant grackle flock, foraging on Mayslake mansion lawn.

Both parents participate in feeding. Nestling grackles at Willowbrook’s hospital were unusual in their lack of aggressiveness in taking food. They would not bite food off its holder (implying regurgitation by parents into the nestling’s throat?). The inside of the mouth is dark red on older youngsters.

7MR87. First arrival of year noted at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve.

7MY87. Grackle caught moth it flushed from lawn, removed wings before eating.

4JE87. Broods out of nest, not strong fliers, still begging hard.

11JE87. Mother grackle fed youngster several items, apparently brought up from her crop although some she picked up nearby on the ground. After she flew off, the fledgling pecked at the ground, picking up dropped bits, and also did some close looking of its own into the grass.

14SE87. Migrants in Willowbrook Back 40, also one on 28th.

6MR88. Numbers of grackles are back.

2AP88. Grackles flying in pairs and showing much courtship activity in past week.

8AP89. Grackles mostly in pairs.

17JE89. A broad-winged hawk calling repeatedly, in north end of Maple Grove. Jays, flickers and grackles highly agitated, flickers the most continuously vocal with “keels” every 2 seconds (2 birds). Grackles gacking frequently, too.

18JE89. Grackles foraging in forest litter, Maple Grove and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves.

Grackles perched near a nesting colony.

30JE96. As I paddled my sea kayak on Lake Michigan, just north of the IL-WI border, I saw many grackles along that 2-mile stretch foraging over the surface of the water. Both genders. The birds flew pretty much straight out from shore, 100-200 yards, and then flew back and forth until they saw something on the water to pick up. Then the bird dropped down and reached for the item with its bill. There were lots of dead and dying small fish, and on at least 2 occasions these clearly were what the grackles picked up. At other times the objects appeared to be too small or the wrong shape. Sometimes a grackle dropped down and appeared to miss, or not even quite reach the surface, but it seemed that after a single try, successful or not, the bird headed straight back to shore (sometimes dropping down to the water on the return trip, though). They flew along as high as 30 feet, usually 10-15, and when seeing objects they spun on a wing and often hovered, looking surprisingly tern-like. They minimized contact with the water, though one that dropped down close to me, where I could see clearly, plunged its head into the water, and its tail tip dipped in as well. Their fluttering flight appeared clumsy and energy-gobbling when compared to the purple martins, gulls and terns also cruising those waters.

22FE99. First of year noted at Willowbrook.

12AU99. 2 grackles hunting up in trees.

2NO99. Last of season at Willowbrook.

31OC01. Flocks of red-wings and grackles remain (Nelson Marsh, Kane Co.)

4NO01. An enormous flock of red-wings and grackles along Kirk Road in eastern Kane County. The species were staying apart, on the whole, and there were mainly grackles, but there were hundreds of each. They were landing in a harvested corn field.

18MR09. Both red-wing and grackle include tail fanning and wing spreading in their displays. In the red-wing, these movements accompany the song but are expressed in a range from not at all or nearly so, to slight fanning of tail, slight tail fanning and spreading of wings, and finally much tail fanning and wing spreading.

Grackle courtship flock, displaying

1JE09. Mayslake. First grackle fledglings.

18MR11. Mayslake. Most grackles still are males, but a female often is among them from the start (when a pair forms do they leave, so males always outnumber females?).

29MR11. Mayslake. Displaying grackle group. Often there is only one female with the several males. In the past week or two I frequently have noted trios of flying grackles, one female with 2 males.

Great Horned Owl Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today’s species dossier is one of my largest. Great horned owls simply attract my attention and interest more than most other animals, and so I have accumulated more notes on them. Great horned owls haven’t been as easy to follow in the years since West Nile virus came into our area. Formerly the crows were reliable blabbermouths as to where the owls were. If our local crows develop resistance to the disease, those days will return.

Owl, Great Horned

Great horned owl

My earliest memory of young great horned owls was in a forest near Purdue, after they had branched one spring [branching is the term for owlets leaving the nest; it is different from fledging, because they reportedly climb down to the ground, walk to another tree, and climb up it]. I know this species primarily from observations in DuPage County, IL, where it is the common large owl, occurring in forests, even small ones. A pair nested annually in the Willowbrook riparian strip for many years, staying as year-round residents. They nested in large willows, 20-30 feet up, first in a nest on branches, then after a storm dislodged the nest, on a provided platform until that tree fell. Incubation begins January or February. The non-incubating male bird usually perches nearby in the daytime, flying away apparently to draw off people or mobbing crows. Owlets (usually 2) branch in May as trees are leafing out, can fly between trees by late May. Young have a distinctive begging call, a rising squeaky-scraping or -grating loud “scaip!” Young disperse usually by the end of October. Before then, they fly all over their parents’ territory, usually staying fairly close together. Branched young mostly sit still, observing all that goes on around them. November brings frequent late afternoon and evening territorial calls: the female’s call is a higher-pitched “WHO-whowhowho-whowhowho-who.” The male’s call has fewer syllables and a lower pitch.  Deep, booming voice. Willowbrook’s territorial birds had a running, never-ending conflict with the caged birds. I also heard calls during childhood campouts on the Tippecanoe River, Indiana, in summer, and later in the woods near the Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, house in spring.

Pellets and food remains in late winter 1986 at Willowbrook were heavy in rabbit fur and bones in February, meadow voles in March. There were feathers of a gull in May. They covered a territory that included Willowbrook, adjacent residential neighborhoods, and much of the College of DuPage campus, for a total of perhaps 100 acres.

In the Basin of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park in Texas, they were calling around 5:30am in late July. We saw others there on the road in early evening in the upper desert. They were a bit paler than Midwestern birds.

Some contents of owl pellets at Mayslake, 2009. Prey species are meadow voles, white-footed mice, and a short-tailed shrew.

12FE87. Lots of recently molted breast feathers in Willowbrook Back 40.

8AP87. Photos of branching young owls.

Great horned owl, soon after leaving the nest.

29AP87. Crow remains found under nest area.

5MY87. The pair’s own nestlings now branching, in a willow 50m from nest tree.

6MY87. Remains of a consumed pigeon.

7MY87. The young are in another willow, closer to the nest tree, the one used most by last year’s young when branching. The third (foster, added by Willowbrook staff) youngster is on another branch of the same tree.

8MY87. Another tree change.

1JE87. The young are flying.

5OC87. Adult male beginning to hoot, in afternoon, Willowbrook Back 40.

9JA88. McDowell. Owl flushed from pine grove at south end of north field.

16JA88. McDowell. A great horned owl flew to tree on the west bank of the river, just north of where trees thin to a thread of willows, and where a housing development comes down to the river. There’s a top-blown tree nearby, also several large oaks. Then crows began raising a ruckus nearby in another direction, as though pestering a great horned owl. From that direction a red-tailed hawk soared, but they paid it no heed. It circled an adjacent riparian strip, but when the owl finally broke and flew with a flock of 10 crows in pursuit, the hawk fell in between, and also began to chase the owl. Once it got above the owl and swooped at it, brushing the owl’s back with its feet, but about then the crows caught up and chased both raptors down toward where I had seen the first owl perched, now out of my sight.

30MR88. Willowbrook. Fresh pellet with remains of 2 meadow voles.

25AP88. Both great horned owls off the nest, though in nearby trees.

17MY88. I hadn’t seen great horned owls of Willowbrook Back 40, or heard harassment by crows, in some days. Today I saw 2, upstream of their nest. Crows didn’t harass them for long or in numbers (2-3), apparently too occupied with their own nesting activity.

18JE88. Harassment of owls by crows gradually has increased this month at Willowbrook. Today I observed heavy harassment of a great horned owl by a large number of crows at McDowell Grove F.P. Owls branch at the same time crows are starting to nest, and becoming too busy to harass owls.

22FE89. Owl on a nest at Willowbrook (started incubating within the past 10 days).

26AP89. For the first day since February, there is no adult owl in the nest tree at Willowbrook (have been brooding several days, then a few days of adult perched beside nest with a youngster visible. 2 young. A fox squirrel climbed the nest tree. When it was just below the nest, the adult female flew from a nearby willow, and landed on the nest. The squirrel turned around and began to climb down as she flew in, but was not panicked.

31AU89. Jays vigorously “jay”-ing at an owl well hidden among leaves in a willow top. Chipmunks chucking nearby, below.

30NO89. Great horned owl flying, viewed from behind. Wingbeat of remarkably little amplitude, compensated by its more rapid rate. A fluttering sort of appearance. Wings kept straight. (A behavioral quieting of flight?)

14DE89. Willowbrook nature trail. The owl caught a mouse, according to tracks. Slight blood drops in snow. Many steps trampled snow just beyond the mouse burrow. Then the owl walked, either having swallowed mouse or transferred it to bill. Tracks: landed on mouse tunnel, then walked 5m. Noticeable straddle, up to 1 inch. Track 4 inches long, 3.5 wide, right angle toe pointing to outside distinctive for species. 8 inches center to center for length of step between tracks.

Sketch of great horned owl tracks.

3JA90. The Willowbrook owl pair perching near nest platform.

29JA95. Following a tip, I found a great horned owl on a nest at Maple Grove F.P. Stick nest was built last year by Cooper’s Hawks, according to informant. Nest solidly based in a main crotch 15-20 feet up. Owl had head and ear-tufts up, very noticeable but only from the front. Nest tree right beside a regularly used trail, but not a main trail, less than 200 yards from Maple Ave. and less than 100 yd. from the private school on the east border of the preserve. The owl reportedly has been on the nest less than a week.

18FE99. At Willowbrook, I found this year’s great horned owl nest (they probably have used this site before; not easy to find) in the top of a dead tree trunk, with most of branches gone, a large hollow with little in the way of a roof. Only part of the owl’s head is visible, and only from certain angles. A single fuzzy feather tuft was the give-away. Once while I watched, the bird appeared to stand and turn or shift eggs by moving feet, stepping from one to the other. The owls had been advertising consistently in the area around this tree in the early winter. Crows mobbing nearby earlier in the day (presumably after the non-incubating bird nearby) drew my attention to this area. Only one other candidate tree is nearby.

A sketch I made after finding the nest on February 18.

11MR99. The great horned owl was standing in the Willowbrook nest in the morning.

15MR99. A young bird was seen on the afternoon of the 12th. Today at least 2 young are visible. They were being fed between 3 and 3:30pm.

18MR99. The 2 young owls frequently are standing in the sun in the nest.

12AP99. The Willowbrook great horned young have branched.

A pair of branched young.

16AP99. One of the owl young somehow crossed the rain-swollen Glen Crest Creek to perch between it and the Nature Trail. Flew?

4MY99. At mid-day, a flock of 8 crows pursuing an adult great horned owl over much of Willowbrook Preserve.

27MY99. Both Willowbrook owl young still alive.

11AU99. Only one of the Willowbrook owl young remains.

18AU99. The young owl calling at mid-morning.

8MR00. A neighbor near the north edge of the Willowbrook preserve reported that the pair of great horned owls have been calling in his yard nightly since late January. He gave us permission to look for a nest, and we found it, in the top of a large blue spruce, built on an old crow or squirrel nest. 20 minutes were required to find a small hole through which to confirm the bird’s presence. The tree, perhaps 40 feet tall, is close to a dead‑end side street, in between his house and garage (the 2 buildings less than 20 feet apart), with no other tall trees right there though several others were in the yard. The bird appeared still to be incubating, occasionally turning eggs. We did not see the non‑incubating owl, but numerous potential roosting sites are nearby.

30MR00. We checked the nest again. After a few minutes the brooding bird flew away (sunny, warm afternoon). We could see one young bird clearly; there may have been more. Development seems behind last year at this date by at least a week. Still all white down, as far as we could see.

14AP00. In central Kane County, in a bur oak woodlot of perhaps 10 acres, a great horned owl nest. The nest is an appropriated crow or hawk nest in the top of a large oak. At least one young bird still is inside. The presence of the owls was made clear when the adult male flew past us, pursued by crows. He was small, appearing no larger than the crows. Later I found the nest when walking through the woods. The female flew a short distance, and a few crows called, but she settled in against the trunk of an oak, well camouflaged, and they left her alone.

17JL00. No sounds of great horned owl adults or young at Willowbrook in the evening.

2001: No signs of nest or young around Willowbrook this year, though in the spring an adult seemed to be decoying crows.

Great horned owl tracks. Owl tracks are distinctive in having one of the toes protruding out to the side at an odd angle.

14SE01. An owl called several times in the early dusk at Herrick Lake, south of the former youth campground. I see that this is my earliest record of territorial behavior, by about 3 weeks.

3NO01. Saw an owl, probably a male, at Herrick Lake F.P. in the forest behind a house, north of the big trail loop and south of the former youth group camp. That was in the morning. In the late afternoon, heard one hooting along the Fox River somewhere around Red Oak NC.

27SE02. While walking after a run at Herrick Lake, heard both members of the pair duetting strongly for at least 5 minutes (same area as previous 2 entries).

13FE07. At mid-day in the middle of a winter storm with heavy blowing snow, a great horned owl at Fullersburg holding a recently caught gray squirrel.

3AU08. Great horneds called for a long period, early morning, in my neighborhood. This continued into the dawn hour and overlapped with a cardinal’s singing, past 5 a.m.

21JA09. Mayslake. An elm branch, apparently broken from tree by storm, with bark being consumed by cottontails. Near there, one of the rabbits caught and consumed on the spot last night by a great horned owl (impressions of wing and tail feathers in the snow). Head, feet, a couple bones, and fur all that remain.

29JA09. Mayslake. I found where a great horned owl had walked on the frozen stream surface, heading S out of the woods, taking off before reaching the bridge. The tracks led back to a feeding site, with much cottontail fur and a bone, but no rabbit tracks. Continuing downstream 20 yards I found another area against the bank with fur and blood, and a couple great horned owl footprints again from last night, but again no rabbit tracks. On downstream another 30 yards I found yet a third such site, but again no rabbit tracks. Here there was no feeding, mainly just the impression of the rabbit in the snow. As the owl had walked a few steps before that impression, it must have had the rabbit in its beak. The owl had come from the N or NW. I searched all around but did not find a clear kill site. All of this was under trees with moderately thick brush that makes it seem unlikely the owl would carry prey in there from outside. The shift of location twice would seem to reflect a sense of vulnerability. I wonder if the owl would have removed the head and feet at the actual kill site. The body impression where it first landed on the stream ice was bloody.

Here is one of the stops made by the great horned owl described in the January 29 entry. There is an oval depression where the rabbit’s body was placed.

14FE09. Fullersburg. This year the great horned owls are nesting in last year’s Coopers hawk nest, just west of the Amphitheater. That nest has been available both the past two years, but the owls have chosen to use other hawk nests close to 31st Street in all of the previous 4 years but 1. In that year there were reports of a nest well south of the preserve, but I could not find one on the preserve.

19FE09 Mayslake. I found the great horned owl nest in a hollow willow near the west boundary of the preserve close to May’s Lake. It is not high up, and exposed thanks to the brush clearing, but facing away from the lake may limit its discovery by fishermen.

Great horned owl incubating nest in tree cavity, Mayslake, February 2009.

6MR09. Mayslake. Great horned owl is standing in the nest cavity, apparently brooding.

13MR09. Mayslake. The great horned owl nest tree snapped off at the point of the nest cavity, presumably in the wind storm 3 nights ago (gusts reached 45mph). A dead owlet at the base of the tree, none others nor adult seen, no sign of hurt adult but nest apparently abandoned (cold enough today that an adult would be brooding). There has been enough time that scavengers could have removed other young.

Dead nestling beneath storm-broken nest tree.

10DE10. Neighborhood. I heard a great horned owl calling early this morning.

27JA11. Mayslake. Great horned owl incubating on last year’s red-tailed hawk nest. It was not there yesterday.

Great horned owl incubating nest, Mayslake, January 2011.

10MR11. Mayslake. The owls have abandoned the nest. No sign of disturbance or dead nestling beneath, best guess is the eggs didn’t hatch, either infertile or perhaps the female was forced to abandon during the fierce blizzard at the beginning of February.

18MR11. Mayslake. At a bright mid-day, the great horned owl pair duetted for more than 15 minutes, the male in the west end and the female in the east end of the area 9 hilltop pines.

29MR11. Mayslake. A single hoot from GHO in pines, mid-day, the first I’ve heard since the 20th.  (In September I heard the pair duetting at Mayslake, so they remain at the preserve.)

Mayslake Update

by Carl Strang

With the onset of winter, things have slowed at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Bird activity has diminished as the migration season winds down.

This sharp-shinned hawk was one of the later migrants to stop by the preserve.

Winter bird activity hasn’t quite settled into a consistent pattern.

A few blue jays continue to hang around, but they may yet move on if the winter turns frigid.

The weather itself has seemed indecisive. The lakes froze over about a week later than they did last year.

May’s Lake had an inch of ice on December 12.

Then we had renewed warmth, and heavy rains that opened the lakes again.

May’s Lake on December 15.

I look forward to expanding my collection of winter botany photos.

Recently I took some pictures of swamp milkweed.

The big push there will need to wait until there is snow on the ground to provide a contrasting backdrop.

Swamp milkweed in winter resembles some of the other milkweeds, but the pods are narrower and more delicate than common milkweed, but wider than those of butterfly weed. There’s also the habitat association.

Snow also will provide for easier tracking, and I’ll renew my acquaintance with the preserve’s mammal activities.

Northern Cardinal Dossier

by Carl Strang

This time I share my dossier for a common and beloved species. As usual, it begins with the general account I wrote when I established the file in the 1980’s, then additional entries begin with my date codes.

Cardinal, Northern

The cardinal is the first bird I studied with any intensity, as a child mapping song perches of males in my neighborhood and connecting them into “territories.” Generally they selected highly exposed perches in treetops and on television antennas. The song is highly variable, but tonal qualities of voice and type of song pattern are distinctive. The alarm note is a sharp “teek,” again of a distinctive tonal quality and pitch. The female also sings, the songs following the same pattern as the male’s but sometimes lower in volume.

They nest usually in thick bushes within 10 feet of the ground. A nest at Boiling Springs, PA, was in a rain gutter closely overarched by spruce branches. Young birds in a brood observed in Lombard, IL, were kept together and off the ground by the parents.

Both sexes have bright red beaks surrounded by black feathers. When viewed head-on this has an imposing effect, the bird’s weapon thus being highlighted. No doubt this is of significance in agonistic display. Field guides, with their emphasis on lateral views, lead us away from this kind of discovery.

Cardinals feed in bushes, in trees, and on the ground. They are not acrobatic foragers. They consume large seeds at feeders in winter. Cardinals appear to show some territoriality through winter.

Songs vary among locations, individuals, and times. Each male has more than one song. Some rendered songs are: “chibone, chibone, chibone, chibone;” “What-cheer, wheet wheet wheet wheet;” they beging singing in late January (as early as 23JA83 in DuPage); “pul’see pul’see …” (~7 reps).

17JL84. Male foraging in black cherry tree spent 5-8 sec. on a perch, moving head to look at nearby leaves and twigs in small turning movements, moving 0.5-1m between perches (Willowbrook Back 40).

NO84 they were often feeding on ground, scratching in leaves.

12FE87. Heard first song of year.

5MY87. Nest with 3 eggs, of twigs (slightly loose structure) beside trail in riparian strip at Willowbrook. In honeysuckle, 5 feet up, in fork of branches. Deep cup. Eggs bluish with brown mottling. By a few days later only one egg left, nest apparently abandoned (too close to trail?).

5JE88. In the middle of Geneva I stood under a tree in which a pair of Cardinals suddenly began to alarm-call rapidly. They were close to me, but not paying attention to me. The calls were directed at a blue jay which the cardinals chased from the isolated streetside tree to a clump of trees and brush, and continued the alarm calling and chasing until the jay left. The jay resisted some, was not driven off easily.

19JA89. First Cardinal song, on Willowbrook early morn. In an unusually warm January.

9MR89. Cardinals all singing today through midday (first warm day, 40 degrees F, after a long cold spell). There seem to be too many Cardinals singing, and I see 3 males chasing each other. In this year with such a mild January and no super-severe weather, unusually high survival?

17AP89. A cool, cloudy day. Cardinals all over the Back 40 are giving constant series of “alarm” (?) notes.

29JA90. First cardinal song of year, Willowbrook.

1990. The year of the 17-year cicadas, I caught some at Fullersburg and released them at Willowbrook. One of these flew across a small forest clearing, and a cardinal flew out and caught it with its beak, in mid-air.

26JA99. First cardinal song of year, Willowbrook.

4MR99. Many cardinals singing at Willowbrook, including a female near the Nature Trail head.

3MY99. Cardinals fighting in area of white cedars at Willowbrook.

13MY99. Cardinal nest at Willowbrook in honeysuckle shrub overhanging creek. May still be under construction, though birds agitated when someone is nearby. Female incubating 17MY, 27MY.

10AU99. Cardinal songs distinctly reduced in number, length. Only a few weak, partial songs this morning.

25AU99. Last cardinal song of year noted at Willowbrook.

26AU99. Cardinal fledgling, with rapid notes, similar in pitch to adult’s note but not as sharp, and rapidly repeated rather than separate.

1NO99. Cardinal eating buckthorn berries. 

14JA00. Cardinal sang a half song in afternoon, Willowbrook.

2FE00. First full cardinal song of year, Willowbrook.

21FE00. McKee Marsh, north Blackwell Forest Preserve. A male cardinal singing from a very exposed perch at the top of a 25-foot-tall cottonwood. Doesn’t change posture much when singing. Thrusts face forward a little, but keeps bill level. Sang back and forth with other audible cardinals, answering with full songs, “What-cheer, wheet wheet wheet wheet.” The others stopped singing, it paused for some seconds, then gave a “what-cheer,” paused, did so again, and gradually added “wheet” syllables until it was singing full songs again, even in the others’ absence. When not singing, turned head to look all around.

25FE00. Willowbrook. Several juncos and cardinals singing this morning. A display by a male cardinal that was singing at the service road junction with the Nature Trail. A female was in the same tree, and for a minute or two the male faced her, occasionally adopted an extended, stretched out body posture unlike the normal singing pose, moved with body held rigidly, and emitted a chattering dry trill between some of the songs, all the while facing the female. She stayed in place, he never approached within less than 5 feet, and he then turned away from her and resumed singing normally.

1JL00. A female yellow warbler feeding a cowbird fledgling near the south end of Silver Lake, Blackwell. Earlier this week a pair of scarlet tanagers were feeding a cowbird at Willowbrook, and half a dozen times this spring I have seen male cardinals feeding them (some were the same pair, but at least 3 different broods involved) also at Willowbrook.

2SE05. Had to re-learn fledgling call of rapid high notes lacking sharpness of adult alarm. May have been contact call rather than alarm, though adult nearby gave very occasional alarm, too.

7JA08. Fullersburg. A cardinal sang, briefly and uncertainly, but definitely. My earliest noted song (previous earliest 14JA00). Temperatures in the 50’sF past couple days.

15JA10. Culver. First cardinal song of the year.

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

7DE10. Mayslake. A cardinal singing, full strong song repeated a couple times. Sunny day but cold, teens F. (I have heard cardinals singing on occasion all through the middle of this winter, the first time I have observed such an extended singing period).

Another observation in recent years is that cardinals in our area seem to raise mainly cowbirds early in the season, but a final August nest nearly always produces only cardinals. If this is correct, it implies a strong selective pressure, at least locally, for shifting the nesting season later.

Mayslake’s Winter Birds

by Carl Strang

An interesting mix of bird species wintered on Mayslake Forest Preserve this season, through the storms and the cold. Among them was a yellow-rumped warbler that mainly was active around the south and east shores of May’s Lake.

This warbler often chowed down on the berrylike cones of red cedars.

There always seemed to be jays around, and sometimes when a few became agitated their calls drew in as many as 10 of their kind.

I didn’t see the jays feeding, but there was a good acorn crop last fall and my guess is that the jays stored a sufficient supply.

Some winter residents were steady, and expected. These included cardinals

Cardinals sang for an unusually extended period this winter.

and juncos.

Mayslake’s juncos wandered widely, and I never got a sense of how many groups there were or how their home ranges were distributed.

American tree sparrow numbers fluctuated greatly, but there always were at least a few around. A common redpoll showed up one day and was gone the next. There also were rare appearances by white-throated sparrows.

I saw white-throated sparrows so seldom that I think they were wanderers rather than residents.

Though no red-winged blackbirds have shown up at Mayslake yet, I have seen them elsewhere in DuPage County and expect some at Mayslake any day. An equally sure sign of the transitional season was the arrival of this Canada goose pair at the stream corridor marsh yesterday.

Sure enough, the male had a band on his left leg. I take it that this is the same pair that nested successfully on the preserve last year. I saw no sign of the two surviving young that were with this pair the last time I saw them in the fall.

I am so ready for spring and the progression of migrants. Bring it on!

Goldfinch Song Mimicry?

by Carl Strang

In past posts on starlings and catbirds I have described well known song mimics. These are birds that include imitations of other birds’ songs in their own vocalizations. Blue jays and mockingbirds also are well known for mimicry. Sometimes, though, I think I hear mimicry in other birds. One of these is the American goldfinch.

Male goldfinches have two singing periods. Now, early in the season, they are advertising for mates. There will be a quiet time through June, then in July they will start up again to establish their nesting territories. Their songs often are distinctive, chattering jumbles with rising “zips” and “potato-chip” phrases that are unlike those of other birds. Many is the time, however, when I have heard what at first sounded like another species but proved to be a goldfinch. I don’t know if this is mimicry, or just a coincidence in phrasing and timing that momentarily sidetracks me into an erroneous identification. I think, though, that I may start a list of other birds whose songs can seem to appear in the goldfinch’s repertoire. Recently I started the list with Tennessee and Nashville warblers. Such a project can focus attention on a problem and lead to new insights.

Species Dossier: American Kestrel

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier focuses on a species which seems to have become less common locally than it once was. Certainly I don’t see them as often as I did along the same roads in years past.

American Kestrel

Typically I have seen this small falcon along the road or at a field with few or no shrubs. They catch voles by diving from the air and pinning with their feet. They sometimes hunt from a perch, sometimes from the air, and often can be seen hovering over an open field before diving to the ground. They can be seen year round in DuPage County IL, Marshall County IN or Cumberland County PA, though they leave if the weather becomes severe in winter. The male’s courtship display consists of high altitude flight and steep dives accompanied by a “killee killee killee killee” call slightly reminiscent of a killdeer’s. Male has red tail, black round spots on breast, bright-colored head. Larger female has brown and black barred tail, no breast spots, duller head colors.

10JA80. Boiling Springs, PA.In the afternoon I watched a crow chasing a kestrel. The birds flew high, and the crow stayed right with the little falcon’s twists, turns and dives. Finally, the crow broke off after the chase had carried the two a couple of hundred meters from the starting point. The crow flew back there, and the kestrel flew a parallel course 50m away, but continued out of my field of view.

16NO86. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve, IL. Late afternoon. Female kestrel carrying small brown mammal in talons (prey looked all brown, but maybe had long tail). In sparse fencerow beside tall grass field.

(Date not recorded). DuPage County, IL. At the edge of a construction site a kestrel perched, its attention focused on a small isolated patch of tall grass.

18AU89. Willowbrook Forest Preserve marsh. Blue jays were mobbing a kestrel, making strange, harsh, parrot-like calls and sometimes chasing the falcon. The kestrel stooped at the jays a couple times, but the jays kept mobbing until the kestrel left.

17OC92. Vicinity of Cantigny (Winfield, IL). While driving I saw a kestrel carrying a house sparrow low across the road. It was a heavy load for the kestrel, which lost its grip, perhaps distracted by my car’s close proximity. The sparrow flew away. Many times I’ve seen kestrels searching vole habitat, carrying or eating mice. This, I believe, is the first bird capture I’ve witnessed.

8MR00. Willowbrook. In the afternoon, a kestrel calling above the Wildlife Center buildings and outdoor exhibits, perched briefly.

22AU04. Canadian side of Lake Superior. I passed through an area where there had been a big fire, and saw there both the first kestrel and the first red-tail of the trip, showing them to be associated with relatively early successional, extensive areas in this part of the northern forest.

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