Some Mayslake Birds

by Carl Strang

It seemed the ideal situation. Muskrats had built an enormous mounded den in the center of the parking lot marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and it was a sure bet that it would platform a Canada goose nest in the spring. Sure enough.

A female incubating her nest on April 15.

A female incubating her nest on April 15.

Something happened. The nest was abandoned before incubation was completed. The water is deep, and it’s hard to imagine a coyote making that swim for so small a return. The story wasn’t over, though, as a second attempt was underway by early June.

The same pair? Cannot say, but there was a new nest under incubation by June 3.

The same pair? Cannot say, but there was a new nest under incubation by June 3.

This was very late, but still there would be plenty of time to get young flying by fall. The result, however, was the same.

By June 24 the nest had been abandoned. The eggs appear to be intact.

By June 24 the nest had been abandoned. The eggs appear to be intact.

To close on a more positive note, I will share some recent portraits of Mayslake’s other birds.

Green herons have been regulars in the marshes and lakes.

Green herons have been regulars in the marshes and lakes.

A red-winged blackbird carries lunch for her nestlings.

A red-winged blackbird carries lunch for her nestlings.

A single common yellowthroat is all I’ve been hearing on the preserve.

A single common yellowthroat is all I’ve been hearing on the preserve.

This cedar waxwing thoughtfully lifted its crest as I aimed the camera.

This cedar waxwing thoughtfully lifted its crest as I aimed the camera.


Cedar Waxwing Dossier

by Carl Strang

One delightful bird which can be seen in northeast Illinois throughout the year is the cedar waxwing. Today I share my dossier for the species, consisting entirely of my own observations. Though references are valuable it also is important, I think, to keep track of one’s own experiences with a species.

Cedar waxwings are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows, crested, soft brown and yellow in color with bright yellow follow-me bands on the tail tips.

Waxwing, Cedar

My principal childhood memory is of waxwings that nested around brushy thickets and willow clumps along the Tippecanoe River near Monterey, IN. Adults hunted insects in flycatcher fashion from bare twigs over the river. In DuPage County they are evident in wandering flocks through all parts of the year except the breeding season. They travel in flocks, staying one to many days in an area and feeding on berries in fall and winter. This also occurred in Cumberland County, PA. Mountain-ash berries were a favorite food in both places. Also consumed are dogwood, and buckthorn berries. Flock cohesion is aided by the bright-yellow tips of the tail feathers, and by the unique high-pitched thin contact call. First winter birds have breasts striped longitudinally with cream and the soft brown adults’ breast color. At the Willowbrook Wildlife Center clinic, waxwings frequently came in with broken wings and other injuries suffered in collisions with windows. In the cages they showed an open-mouthed threat display, possibly made more effective by the black facial markings. In mid-September at Herrick Lake, a single waxwing perched in an old-field treetop gave a single loud note and flew away into thicker trees. Several seconds later a sharp-shinned hawk flew by the waxwing’s original perch, heading in the same direction. (This first paragraph, written from memory, established the dossier in the early 1980’s. Subsequent additions begin with date codes.)

When not feeding, cedar waxwings typically perch high in trees.

30OC86. Willowbrook Back 40. Waxwings feeding heavily from honeysuckle (berries and leaves still on bushes).

16OC87. First autumn appearance of a flock at Willowbrook Back 40.

13JA88. Lots of waxwings in Back 40.

27OC88. Feeding on honeysuckle berries, Willowbrook Back 40.

13DE88. Waxwings abundant in Back 40, stuffing down rose hips.

3SE89. Mixed young and old waxwings eating honeysuckle berries, Island Park, Geneva.

JA99. Waxwing flocks frequently at Willowbrook. Eating, among other things, Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus) berries.

11MR99. Last of winter waxwings noted. Not seen again at Willowbrook until 25MY. Then after 1JE another gap until 12&20JL. Became a frequent visitor again in early August.

These waxwings are drinking meltwater where snow is being warmed on a roof at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Much energy is saved by drinking, even if the water is cold, instead of eating snow.

7JA00. Waxwing eating buckthorn berries.

31JA00. Waxwing, again at Willowbrook, again eating buckthorn berries.

8FE00. Waxwings eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook.

17FE00. Several waxwings on the ground eating snow (buckthorn berries available on bushes nearby).

19MY01. Many flocking waxwings spread out over a large area at the Arboretum, mainly in treetops in forest as well as more open areas.

12MR06. Cedar waxwings delicately picking anthers from silver maple flowers in the yard. [Note: studies have shown that waxwings use protein from pollen to render certain berries more digestible]

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Cedar waxwing working on a nest in the topmost leaf cluster in a 25-30-foot box elder within 30 yards of Brewster Creek. Weaving, using long slender strands, at least some of which are stripped from grape vines. Spending considerable time with each strand. Mate perched in same cluster of trees. Bird completely concealed when weaving.

This is the tree where waxwings built a nest at (then) Tri-County State Park in 2006.

16JE06. The nest looks complete, a significant lump in the first branching of twigs about a foot from the tip.

22MY08. Fullersburg. An interesting display between 2 cedar waxwings, appears highly stereotyped. They were perched side by side well up in a tree in SW Butler Woods. They took turns quickly hopping away from the other bird a few inches, and returning, at which point the two birds touched or nearly touched beaks, which were angled up. Each of these cycles (or half-cycles, for each bird) took 1-2 seconds, and there were perhaps 20 reps that I observed (i.e. at least 10 per bird). At first they faced the same way, at some point one turned to face the other way and they continued. Eventually one moved to a different twig, but still was close. [Note: this is called the Side-hop display in the Stokes bird behavior guide, and is part of courtship].

6JL09 Mayslake. 14 cedar waxwings foraging like swallows out over May’s Lake. (This was repeated over several days.)

1JA10. Hidden Lake. Waxwings and robins feeding on buckthorn berries.

Golden-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here is my dossier for another northern species which often winters in northeastern Illinois in small numbers.

Kinglet, Golden-crowned

Migrant in northern Illinois, northern Indiana. Flight has the quality of falling snowflakes. Two foraging together at Willowbrook in early 1986 gave a contact call whenever flying between trees in which they were foraging. Song jumbling, chattering in high-pitched, thin tinkling voice.

1AP87. First of year seen.

3AP87. Willowbrook. The kinglets are as acrobatic as chickadees, but less assertive and so less noticed. A male fed at edge of the stream, hopping on mud, rocks, sticks, picking at ground, snapping at air, picking tiny things from water. Crest center yellow, but parts or all became red for split-second periods, either from change in bird’s orientation to light, or from minute elevations and depressions of feathers.

10AP87. A kinglet approached within 3 feet of me, hopping on sticks low to the ground.

11AP87. Maple Grove Forest Preserve, IL: Kinglets in trees, 10-40 feet up.

15AP87. Golden-crowneds done passing through.

4NO87. A Missouri state park south of St. Louis. Golden-crowned kinglets behaving much as I have seen them in spring migrations.

16AP88. Morton Arboretum. Flock feeding in forest treetops.

29AP88. Golden-crowned kinglets still present.

15OC88. First fall migrants, Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve.

18OC88. Foraging with yellow-rumped warblers.

31MR89. First of year seen, Willowbrook Back 40.

22AP89. Both kinglet species at Willowbrook. Both using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit.

24AP89. Still there. May only use movement-contact call when scattered out. Those on 22nd, foraging in easy view of one another, weren’t using it while today they are.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

31MR99. Many kinglets foraging along stream, Willowbrook.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived. Last G-crowned in spring seen on 14AP.

5OC99. First migrant of fall noted at Willowbrook. Last seen 21OC.

11MR00. First kinglet of year at Willowbrook, only 1 seen. 3-syllable high-pitched contact call distinctive [for some reason it took me this long to learn to recognize this common call].

One reason I mentioned foraging technique so often is that, according to the literature, golden-crowned kinglets reach for food from perches more, while ruby-crowneds hover-glean and use flush-and-pursuit more. These behavioral differences are consistent with slight proportional differences in wing and foot length.

26MR00. West DuPage Woods. Today they are foraging high (20+ feet up), in canopies of white oak and other forest trees. One moving steadily, with hops of 1-3 inches mainly, occasionally larger jumps between major branches and trees, both reaching and hover gleaning. Hover-gleaning pursuits of 1-2 feet. In mixed flock with creepers and 2 white-breasted nuthatches. Another kinglet moved 6″-2′ between perches, remaining 2-3 seconds per perch with head constantly turning.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen, beside Sawmill Creek, several golden-crowned kinglets in apparent mixed flock with brown creepers and a couple white-breasted nuthatches. One moving 4″-2′ between perches, most often around 1 foot, with occasional flycatching move but most often flying to a perch and immediately reaching for something. The reach was done with no searching after landing, and so the bird had spotted the prey and flown to it. Later, I encountered another group of kinglets with chickadees nearby. One made shorter, 1-2″ hops with much looking around, 8-10 feet up in tree. I saw no foraging moves.

1AP00. Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum. Several in mixed flock with chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch. High, 40-50 feet in crowns of white oaks. Kinglets moving more constantly than chickadees, with smaller hops, doing a lot of reaching for prey.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets and ruby-crowneds both have been at Willowbrook all week.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

2AP01. First golden-crown of the year at Willowbrook.

29-31AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario. Small groups of golden-crowned kinglets frequently encountered, one of the more commonly observed birds, easily located by their contact calls. Almost always in association with black-capped chickadees. Once or twice, perhaps, not with other birds I could see. Usually seemed to be 3-5 individuals in a group, and almost always if not always in conifers. Note: the branches are fairly dense in these forests, promoting a reaching foraging style. Are forests more open farther north, where ruby-crowneds live, so that a hover-gleaning style is favored?

1FE02. One or two feeding with chickadees at Waterfall Glen, just east of Poverty Savanna area.

18AU04. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario. A golden-crowned kinglet showed very unusual behavior as it foraged among balsam fir branches hanging out on the trail. It did a lot of hovering just beyond the branch tips, visually scanning as it did so. Perhaps it’s a young bird that will learn to abandon this energy-wasting behavior.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of ground in herbs and shrubs beneath, only occasionally and briefly venturing into the lower canopies. Ruby-crowneds have a quick, chattering-quality “checkit” call. Hover-gleaning their most common foraging method today.

5-11NO05. During my southern vacation, I found golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

16AP09. Golden-crowned kinglet, late in migration and apparently alone, uttering a different call. Same pitch as usual, but a longer burred call much like the rougher waxwing call.

Brown Creeper Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week I am sharing my species dossier for the brown creeper, a species which seems increasingly to be present in DuPage County through the winters in recent years. I wrote the initial paragraph in 1986 as I established the dossier, then added observations with their date codes.

Brown Creeper

Observed during migration in DuPage Co., sometimes all winter there and in Culver. Latest spring observation 13AP86 [April 13, 1986]. When foraging they commonly fly to the base of a tree and work their way up, climbing on and searching the bark. Often when changing trees they produce a high-pitched cheeping contact call as they fly.

1AP87. First of year seen at Pratts Wayne F.P.

12MR88. First of year at McDowell.

28AP88. Migrants still present.

14AP89. Creepers at Hartz Lake.

18AP90. Creeper on 6-inch box elder at Willowbrook.

31JA99. First of year at McDowell.

1AP99. Willowbrook’s first of year. Also seen there on 5AP.

1OC99. First fall migrant at Willowbrook.

26MR00. Several observed at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. All but 1 foraging selectively on white oaks, flying to within 3 feet of the ground on the main trunk and working up it, staying on the shaded side (sunny afternoon) and within an 8-inch width, mainly going straight up even over bumps. When up in crown, fly down to base of next tree. High-pitched contact calls similar in pitch and tonal quality to those of golden-crowned kinglets. One paused to preen body feathers on anterior part of body, remaining perched on vertical bark while doing so. The only one on another species of tree was on a black cherry. During the brief time I watched, it both came into the sun briefly and exceeded the 8-inch path width.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. Brown creepers feeding along Sawmill Creek, with golden-crowned kinglets and a couple white-breasted nuthatches nearby (essentially a bird desert for more than half a mile until I reached this point). One feeding on a 6″dbh hackberry, going straight up the shaded side (sunny afternoon). Either the same bird on several similar sized hackberries, or several birds on same, always staying shaded side except for brief moments in the sun. When that happened, though, the creeper quickly returned to the shaded side of the stem. Once a creeper paused briefly, made a flycatcher-like sally from the bark into the air, reached with its head and beak at the turn-around point, then returned to the same point on the stem it had left. Flew out 3 feet or so. Another creeper was moving up the shaded side of an 18″ white oak, every few seconds reaching its bill to the bark and then making eating motions. Another creeper on a 12″ forked tree spent some time on the sun side (= side toward creek) of one fork, but the other larger fork was shading it.

1AP00. Morton Arboretum, Heritage Trail. A mixed flock with at least 1 brown creeper and 2-3 chickadees; juncos and robin nearby. Overcast day, no shaded side, but creeper still mainly going straight up the trunk. When defecating, lifts tail high, bending it well over back. When searching, doesn’t probe but rather peers, looking into crevices and going to different angles to do so as needed. Song “tsee-er-tser-tseree,” quick, high pitched like call but not as thin, sweet and musical tone. On a white oak, spiraled up a high 8″ branch.

13AP00. Willowbrook. 1 brown creeper observed.

13AP07. Brown creeper vocalizations include a rough call similar to that of cedar waxwing, faint thin high pitched notes given singly, and several such notes given in quick succession and similar to those of golden-crowned kinglet but a little fainter and more irregularly spaced.

2JA08. First creeper of the year, at Fullersburg (two stuck around for weeks afterward).

29AP08. Last creeper of the spring, at Fullersburg.

21OC08. Fullersburg. First creeper, fall migration.

29JA09. Mayslake. First creeper of the year.

25FE09. Mayslake. Another creeper, after a space of nearly a month, suggesting midwinter wandering.

25MR09. Mayslake. Another month between sightings.

21AP09. Mayslake. Final creeper of the spring at Mayslake (often present in past month)

29OC09. Mayslake. First creeper of the fall migration.

8JA10. Mayslake. Creepers seen in two locations.

1FE10. Mayslake. Another creeper, after a space of nearly a month.

19MR10. Mayslake. First spring migrant creeper.

13AP10. Mayslake. Last spring migrant creeper.

13OC10. Mayslake. First fall migrant creeper.

Sparrow Phase Already!

by Carl Strang

The last of the warblers still are shaking themselves out of the North, but there is no question that the migration season is shifting into its later stages. This week, sparrows appeared at Mayslake Forest Preserve in an unambiguous signal of the season. The prairie garden north of the chapel attracted a mix dominated by white-crowneds.

There also were some Lincoln’s sparrows, the first I’ve seen at Mayslake.

Unphotographed but also present were a swamp sparrow, a number of white-throateds, and (death knell for the warm season) the first juncos. Also unphotographed were my first Mayslake rusty blackbirds, still half in black feathers, half in their new winter browns as they foraged in the stream corridor marsh. Other migrants have been a presence for some days, now.

Yellow-rumped warblers have been abundant, showing their wide ecological range as they forage for insects on the ground, in the trees, in mid-air sallying flights, and also gulp down cedar berries.

Cedar waxwings likewise have been feeding on both insects and fruits. Here a few engage in plumage maintenance.

Enjoy this diversity while you can. Winter is coming!

More Mayslake Fruits

by Carl Strang

Earlier I featured several plants at Mayslake Forest Preserve that produce fruits timed to coincide with the fall migration of berry-eating birds. This mutualistic interaction for the most part benefits the birds, through nutritional provisioning, while the plants get their seeds dispersed. Today I want to feature some outliers to this pattern. Let’s start with Solomon’s plume, also known as false Solomon’s seal.

Solomon's plume fruit b

Like many fall fruits, these advertise themselves to birds with a bright red color. When analyzed, however, the berries proved to be junk food, or perhaps are more accurately described as food mimics (White and Stiles 1985, Ecology 66:303-307). The plants save their energy, investing no nutritional value in these fruits. The ruse works, apparently, by exploiting the naïve instinctive response of first-time autumn migrants, the young of the year. A little different from this is the offering of the European highbush cranberry.

European highbush cranberry fruit b

Another study (Witmer 2001, Ecology 82:3120-3130) showed that the nutritional value of these berries becomes available only when they are consumed along with a significant protein source. I was impressed to learn that, like the waxwings native to the shrub’s European home, our North American cedar waxwings ignore these tempting berries until spring, when cottonwoods or other poplars are flowering. Then the birds consume the berries along with cottonwood catkins, protein in the pollen providing access to the berries’ nutritional value.

Common buckthorn fruit b

These black berries are common buckthorn fruits. They generally are ignored by birds until late winter when, apparently, the better quality foods have been depleted. Then, robins and waxwings consume them, unfortunately dispersing the seeds throughout our woodlands. Buckthorns leaf out early and lose their leaves late, casting a shade so dense that no other plants can grow beneath them. This is why these Eurasian shrubs must be removed at the beginning of woodland restoration projects. A final fruit is of no interest to birds.

Buckeye fruit 2b

Ohio buckeyes in fact are largely ignored by animals generally. This opens the possibility that, like other trees I discussed earlier, buckeyes may have been dispersed by now-extinct mastodons and other large herbivores.

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