Residents Move In

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I shared some of the migrant birds that have been stopping by Mayslake Forest Preserve. Others have been establishing their presence as they prepare to nest there.

Two pairs of eastern kingbirds have been active in different parts of the preserve.

Two pairs of eastern kingbirds have been active in different parts of the preserve.

Kingbirds like open areas including Mayslake’s prairies, with trees at the edge. Other species prefer the woodlands.

Great crested flycatchers have been noisy and conspicuous, but they will become less so as nesting progresses.

Great crested flycatchers have been noisy and conspicuous, but they will become less so as nesting progresses.

Finally, the airways above the mansion have been filled with the chittering calls of zooming chimney swifts.

There appear to be 3 pairs hanging around the Mayslake buildings.

There appear to be 3 pairs hanging around the Mayslake buildings.

All these birds have been a welcome antidote to the winter just past.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

We have entered the time when most birds are focused on raising young. It is much quieter at Mayslake Forest Preserve now that territories are established and the effort of feeding nestlings occupies the parents’ time and energy.

This Baltimore oriole’s nest hangs above the trail near the northeast corner of Mays’ Lake.

This Baltimore oriole’s nest hangs above the trail near the northeast corner of Mays’ Lake.

The nest is sufficiently concealed by black cherry leaves that its composition is difficult to read, but I would be surprised if it is not constructed largely of fishing line, as has been the case for all recent oriole nests there.

Red-winged blackbirds are ever-ready to cuss out any person who comes anywhere near their nests.

Red-winged blackbirds are ever-ready to cuss out any person who comes anywhere near their nests.

The preserve’s pair of eastern kingbirds is much quieter than they were before nesting.

The preserve’s pair of eastern kingbirds is much quieter than they were before nesting.

Some broods already have fledged.

Yesterday this tree swallow brood occupied a dead tree at the stream corridor marsh.

Yesterday this tree swallow brood occupied a dead tree at the stream corridor marsh.

A final, sad note was the find of a dead chimney swift in Mayslake Hall.

It’s not clear how the swift got inside, or how a bird that nests in dark chimneys could have met its end in a room as spacious as the Event Hall.

It’s not clear how the swift got inside, or how a bird that nests in dark chimneys could have met its end in a room as spacious as the Event Hall.

Swifts have stiff tail feathers, which they use to prop themselves against interior chimney walls.

Swifts have stiff tail feathers, which they use to prop themselves against interior chimney walls.

I took the swift to Willowbrook, which periodically delivers specimens to the bird department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

Migrant Bird April Arrivals

by Carl Strang

In contrast to the much earlier flowering dates and insect appearances that I recounted in the previous two posts, April’s birds arrived on dates much closer to those of earlier years. Median dates were 4 days earlier in 2012 than in 2009, 0.5 day earlier than in 2010, and 2 days earlier than in 2011.

One of the April birds that had traveled the farthest was the chimney swift. Following their instinctive schedule, the first of these appeared at Mayslake Forest Preserve on April 19, not much different from 2009’s date of April 24, April 21 in 2010 and April 25 last year.

The medians represent samples of 13, 14 and 13 species in the three comparisons, respectively. The largest range was the comparison to 2009, at 21 days earlier to 26 days later.

Lesser scaup first stopped by May’s Lake on April 5, distinctly later than the dates of 10 March, 16 March and 31 March in 2009-2011, respectively.

The contrast with flower and insect phenology is stark, and indicates how responsive those two groups are to local conditions. These birds wintered well to the south, have no idea of local conditions, and simply follow the dictates of their biological clocks and instincts. I expect to see little difference in May as well.

Friary Demolition Begins

by Carl Strang

One day last week I drove into Mayslake Forest Preserve and saw something new sticking out above the trees.

The time had come for the friary to be demolished. The building was constructed during the property’s time as a Franciscan center. On the outside it is interesting looking.

Inside, by all accounts, the friary has become rotten, deteriorated past recovery, and could be regarded as an attractive nuisance. Demolition is beginning with the outbuildings.

I have not heard how the land is to be restored once the building is gone. Naturally I will follow that with interest. The friary was housing a raccoon, and during the breeding season its walls supported nests for a pair of eastern phoebes and a few chimney swifts. Whatever habitat replaces the friary will be home to a greater diversity of life.

There has been some confusion. The friary is not the Peabody mansion or the retreat wing which the Franciscans appended to the mansion. It is not the chapel. Those buildings all are safe, and much in demand for Forest Preserve District programs as well as rentals.

Mayslake Species Counts

by Carl Strang

Earlier this week I completed my first year of observations at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Many of the posts in this blog, which also is approaching its first birthday, have shared pieces of Mayslake’s ongoing natural history. It’s appropriate to look back at what I have learned there so far. Today I’ll simply share some numbers, the counts of species I have observed on the preserve to date.

Barn Swallows b

Resident vertebrates include 14 species of mammals, 4 reptiles and 3 amphibians (though additional frogs have been observed at Mayslake by others in recent years). The bird species count is 130, many of which were migrants passing through. I saw evidence for successful nests, fledging at least 1 young, in the following 21 species: eastern bluebird, chimney swift, song sparrow, house wren, eastern kingbird, robin, northern flicker, blue jay, eastern phoebe (cowbird produced), chipping sparrow (cowbird produced), downy woodpecker, red-winged blackbird, red-bellied woodpecker, common grackle, black-capped chickadee, tree swallow, European starling, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Baltimore oriole, white-breasted nuthatch, mallard.

Banded hairstreak b

The insect species count is only 97 so far, but most of these belong to 4 groups to which I have directed most of my attention: 26 species of singing insects, 29 dragonflies and damselflies, 24 butterflies and moths, and 6 bumblebees.

Blazing star b

Likewise my attention to Mayslake’s vegetation has been limited to certain groups of vascular plants. These include 49 trees (including those planted by landowners prior to forest preserve acquisition), 23 vines and shrubs, and 184 forbs. I’ll elaborate the last a little by mentioning genera represented by 4 or more species: so far I know of 4 Asclepias (milkweeds), 6 Aster, 4 Erigeron (fleabanes), 5 Eupatorium (a diverse genus including Joe Pye weeds, bonesets, and white snakeroot), 4 Polygonum (knotweeds), 5 Ranunculus (buttercups), and 7 Solidago (goldenrods).

Mayslake Bird News

by Carl Strang

Birds are quieting as summer passes. Nesting for most species is winding down. Eastern kingbirds continue to be vocal, with a pair active between 31st Street Woods and the mansion.

Eastern kingbird 15JLb

Summer is a time when nonbreeders, post-breeders, and products-of-breeders wander. One day a juvenile spotted sandpiper stopped by May’s Lake, and provided this pose.

Spotted sandpiper b

Earlier  I mentioned my interest in Mayslake’s chimney swifts. They have continued to fly above the mansion, but as I have come and gone I have not noticed birds entering the chimneys. Then, last week, I went to First Folio Theater’s  summer production of Macbeth. Having seen their magnificent stage setting, I was looking forward to it.

Macbeth stage 1b

In the early evening before the play began, I was passing the east end of the mansion and heard a loud chittering noise coming from this chimney.

Chimney 16JLb

It was the sound of nestling chimney swifts being fed. I watched the chimney for a time and found that, as in other birds, feedings become much more frequent early and late in the day. Parental visits were at 5-minute intervals at dusk, but at noon the spacing was more like 15 minutes, and half an hour in the middle of the afternoon. I saw no action around the artificial chimneys, but nesting swifts in those structures may have fledged their young earlier. I was amazed by how rapidly the parents entered the chimney. The bird arrived from the side rather than dropping down from above and, still at speed, flicked a wing and suddenly vanished into the chimney. The exit flight was only slightly slower.

Chimney swift exiting b

I had the camera focused on the chimney, and hit the shutter the instant I saw the bird coming out. As you can see, the bird got some distance between itself and the chimney in the time it took my finger and the camera to react. Here is the swift cropped and expanded from that photo.

Chimney swift exiting cropped

Over the weekend the nestlings fledged. Though I don’t have answers to my earlier questions, I am better informed for another attempt next year.

Mayslake Bird Notes

by Carl Strang

We are well into the nesting season for nearly all species of birds in northeastern Illinois. The white-breasted nuthatches in the savanna have fledged their young.

Nuthatch fledge 1b

There were four fledglings. They moved about 50 yards from the nest and stayed in a small area for a few days, then drifted west out of the savanna. Nearby, blue-gray gnatcatchers scrambled to keep up with the demands of their more scattered youngsters.

Gnatcatcher b

The red-bellied woodpeckers (one pair on the preserve) have their young near to fledging. Here an older nestling peers out,

Rb woodpecker nestling 1b

and soon is gratified by Mom’s arrival.

RB woodpecker mom at nest b

Meanwhile, a male bluebird has been favoring a song perch atop the chapel.

Bluebird cross b

(That’s the tip of a lightning rod behind his head). Several bluebird houses are near, but some are occupied by tree swallows. I have seen fledgling swallows recently, which means there are vacancies. A final bird topic pertains to chimney swifts.

Chimney swift 1b

A review of the literature on the species indicated that a given chimney will have only one nest in it. The Mayslake mansion provides for a possible inquiry on this subject. Some active chimneys have been capped, and so are unavailable.

Chimney 2b

Other chimneys are not capped. I once saw a swift drop into one of the chimneys in this pair.

Chimney 3b

Here is yet another tall chimney.

Chimney 4b

Especially intriguing are the fake chimneys.

Chimney 1b

This set of 8 stacks is entirely decorative, but I have twice seen swifts drop into one of the holes in the southwest quarter. This is where the potential for inquiry comes in. Given that a single hole will have only one swift nest, do the extra holes in clustered chimneys, fake or real, provide additional nesting habitat or will one pair claim the entire cluster? I have not seen swifts entering chimneys often at Mayslake, but I will continue to collect observations in hopes of addressing this question.

Mayslake Migrants Late April

by Carl Strang

The migrant songbirds, and other birds that wintered in the tropics, really begin to flow into northeastern Illinois in the last week of April, and will peak in May. April 24 brought Mayslake’s first chimney swifts, brown thrasher, yellow warblers, and pine warblers including this one.

pine-warbler-b

By the 27th the preserve was hosting newly arrived solitary and spotted sandpipers, green herons, northern waterthrushes, a black-throated green warbler, a blue-winged warbler, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and this Baltimore oriole,

baltimore-oriole-b

as well as a northern parula.

parula-1b

The parula was singing its alternate song, for the most part, the rhythm of which reminds me of the William Tell overture and therefore, inevitably for a member of my generation, the Lone Ranger.

New arrivals on April 28 were warbling vireo, white-crowned and vesper sparrows. The 29th brought house wren, ovenbird, catbird, Tennessee warbler, common yellowthroat, and this red-headed woodpecker.

red-headed-2b

I am hoping that Mayslake’s savanna will be of interest to this relatively rare woodpecker as a nesting area. The last day of April brought a single new species but a good one, a golden-winged warbler.

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