Skunk Surprise

by Carl Strang

Snow that fell around the turn of the year has provided good tracking opportunities at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. As I walk the new survey routes I established in December, I am beginning to assemble a sense of the general mammal presence and activities on the preserve. For instance, I found that cottontail rabbits are much more abundant and widely distributed than my earlier first impression indicated. The species list also is growing. For example, I ran across some mink tracks on New Year’s Day.

At first I was excited, because they seemed smaller and less round than mink tracks usually are, but they proved to be those of a mink rather than the locally rarer long-tailed weasel.

At first I was excited, because they seemed smaller and less round than mink tracks usually are, but they proved to be those of a mink rather than the locally rarer long-tailed weasel.

With minimal wandering the mink, possibly a female by the small size, came straight out of the forest and into the newly reconfigured stream.

With minimal wandering the mink, possibly a female by the small size, came straight out of the forest and into the newly reconfigured stream.

A new species record is welcome, but even more welcome was a bit of a mystery that came the next day.

Skunk tracks in the snow!

Skunk tracks in the snow!

This was surprising because, in my previous experience, skunks didn’t emerge from their dens in early January unless the temperature overnight was at least 30-40F. It had been in the mid-teens. As I followed my route I was able to trace the skunk’s course, roughly a straight line to the preserve’s boundary against a residential neighborhood. Later I backtracked this individual to a contorted tangle of footprints in a difficult to negotiate (for me) spot in the woods just north of Butterfield Road. I wasn’t able to cut this skunk’s entry into that area, so perhaps its den is there.

That wasn’t the end of it, though, as I soon crossed a second skunk’s trail. This was a different individual, larger and with a significantly wider straddle. Its feet were dragging significantly. Sorry, it didn’t occur to me at the time to photograph those tracks. I encountered them near where skunk #2 was exiting the preserve, again into the neighborhood to the east. As I continued my walk I was able to backtrack this second animal, occasionally cutting his trail and occasionally following it.

Here is the habitat map of northern St. James Farm. M shows where the mink was, S1 is the narrow-straddle skunk, and S2 is the wider-straddle individual. Solid lines show where I followed the tracks, dashed lines indicate areas between places where I cut the animals’ trails.

Here is the habitat map of northern St. James Farm. M shows where the mink was, S1 is the narrow-straddle skunk, and S2 is the wider-straddle individual. Solid lines show where I followed the tracks, dashed lines indicate areas between places where I cut the animals’ trails.

Ultimately I traced a good mile that skunk #2 had hiked. No wonder its feet were dragging at the end, and the foot drag gradually vanished as I backtracked it. It had crossed the parking lot after visits to the ranger residence and the round office building. Before that it had crossed the trail of skunk #1 (close enough in time that my skills are inadequate to say which individual passed that way first) after taking the Prairie Path tunnel under Butterfield Road. It had emerged from the woods south of Butterfield, still on the preserve, but a locked gate blocked my further progress.

This is the kind of traveling I expect in February, when the striped skunk mating season arrives. Then, they are much more likely to come out on the colder nights. As this winter progresses I look forward to learning whether St. James Farm’s skunks in the winter of 2015-16 habitually emerge to wander more often and in colder weather than skunks in other years in other places.

 

Striped Skunk Dossier

by Carl Strang

As striped skunks complete their mating season, this seems an appropriate time to share my dossier of observations on the species.

Skunk, Striped

Striped skunk

Striped skunk

I rarely saw skunks around Culver as a child, perhaps because of their nocturnal activity pattern. Saw one on a road south of town near S.R. 110 while on a run, at dusk, as a teenager. I took plaster castings of tracks at the Bird Sanctuary, Culver Military Academy. Later I saw some in the early evening, visiting picnic grounds at the state park on South Mountain in Pennsylvania. They moved with a somewhat rolling, unhurried walk. Individuals brought to Willowbrook in live traps almost invariably spray as soon as the trap is opened. The spray has a very sticky, lasting quality, and causes a sickening sensation when fresh and concentrated. Youngsters discover their spray ability when 6-9 weeks old. The distinctive black and white color pattern almost certainly is aposematic. That pattern is highly variable in detail, i.e., width and length of stripe, amount of white on head, and number and position of scattered small white spots. The skin beneath is white or black, corresponding to the fur color. Stomping, used as a threat, essentially is an emphatic dancing from one front foot to the other. It is employed against both conspecifics (littermates) and potential predators. The tracks have 5 toes showing, both front and back feet. In suitable substrates, the toenails of the front feet register distinctively distant from the ends of the toes. When toenail marks are missing, the track gives the impression of a miniature cat track (though with the extra toe). Generally, the entire footprint appears as a solid, unlobed block; creases across the soles of the feet are evident in medium-consistency substrates. Tracks rarely are encountered, however. Apparently there is very little activity in winter.

Skunk tracks, hind on left, fore (showing long toenail marks) on right

Skunk tracks, hind on left, fore (showing long toenail marks) on right

17/18FE86. I followed a fresh skunk trail. Gaits in deep snow (4-8″) were diagonal walk and lope, primarily, on an early spring ramble. This skunk ate some mushy crabapples from the previous fall. It went about half a mile on Willowbrook preserve plus an unknown distance on adjacent properties. The den (near Willowbrook picnic grounds) was a tunnel dug in a well-drained location, on an east-facing slope, sheltered by a crabapple. Tracks suggest it was shared with 1-2 cottontails.

4NO86. Diagonal walk in mud, probably the same skunk described in the previous account, at rehab area west gate.

28NO86. Sand seems to stick unusually well to the flat soles of a skunk’s feet, deposited on sticky mud to form roundish or oval spots of sand grains (Culver Fish Hatchery).

29NO86. Memorial Forest near Culver. Lope (bound?) In sand, 6″ between sets of tracks, each set 12″ long.

Sketch of track patterns in the string observed on November 29, 1986

Sketch of track patterns in the string observed on November 29, 1986

28JA87. One or perhaps more than one skunk on walkabout last night in Willowbrook Back 40. Paths extremely convoluted and interweaving, not enough time to sort them out. No skunk came out of the picnic grounds burrow.

3FE87. Skunk on walkabout again, same area. Suddenly it seemed to be taking great leaps. The snow crust froze in open spots at night, so the skunk did not break through in those places.

5FE87. Skunk pulled dead shrew (previously cached by fox) to center of trail but left it.

27OC87. A skunk ran across the road in our Warrenville neighborhood (Summerlakes subdivision) in early evening (around 6pm). It elevated the middle of its tail, giving it a strange, double-humped appearance.

18OC88. In Cactus Camp prairie, tracks show where a skunk dug out a yellow jacket nest recently. A few wasps still were flying in and out.

12JA89. A dead skunk on Park Boulevard at Willowbrook, came out mid-winter.

8SE89. Skunk diagonal walk, flat soft topsoil. Hind foot landing in front of and slightly overlapping front foot. HF 1-5/16″ wide x 1.25″ long.

8JA90. Willowbrook. On the night of the 5th or 6th, a skunk was out. Those were warm nights.

7MR90. Willowbrook. Skunks have been very active the past couple of nights. One has a burrow at the south edge of Willowbrook preserve, south of the stream. They made a couple stream crossings (water, not ice). One of these continued straight north all the way across the preserve.

Typical bounding gait pattern

Typical bounding gait pattern

1SE90. As I ran on the Prairie Path in Warrenville near the library in early evening, what appeared to be a large cat emerged from the vegetation at the side and then stopped in the middle of the path as I approached. Thinking to frighten it out of the way, I began to snap my fingers and accelerated. The cat was strange…it seemed to change shape. Then I saw the stripes and quickly backpedaled. It was a family of skunks, so tight together they seemed one animal in the distance in the dim light. There were at least 3 young with the mother. They had stopped and faced me, partly lifting their tails, all of which made the stripes easy to see even in the darkness. After I backed off they continued on their way.

25FE99. I found a skunk den in the far NE corner of the new Willowbrook preserve addition, under a pile of stacked old telephone pole segments. As many as 4 skunks were active on the preserve the previous night.

16FE00. A skunk on walkabout at Willowbrook last night, the first sign of skunk activity this winter there.

12SE05. Caesar Creek campground, southeastern Ohio. There is much evidence of skunks in the area. In the dusk, a large beautiful individual whose broad back stripes had joined, giving it a white back with just a little black between on the lower back, passed my campsite. Later in the dark, a smaller individual was digging grubs in the lawn of the adjacent campsite. This one was all black with a tuft of white on the head and another at the tip of the tail. It turned away when I shined a light in its eyes, coming as close as 15 feet. It moved slowly, its head sweeping back and forth sniffing, but when finding something to dig it moved quickly, excavating and moving on within about 3 seconds. The next morning I took photos of some of the holes, and of a pile of scats. The holes were mostly neat, ½” diameter, dug out on one side with toenail marks clear, occasional larger ones up to 2” diameter. The scats were stacked weasel fashion, each ½” diameter X 2” long, 3 pieces, one broken with a tiny root sticking out.

One of the holes described on September 12, 2005

One of the holes described on September 12, 2005

The scats described on September 12, 2005

The scats described on September 12, 2005

19JA11. Mayslake. From the night before last, which was the warmest this month (only dropping into the 20’sF), tracks of a skunk. It may have originated from the known den in the north stream corridor. Its winding trail covered much of the north stream corridor prairie, parts of the main prairie, cut from the small savanna at the north end of the prairie across the driveway’s turning circle into the strip of vegetation along the west edge of the preserve, wound through that as it worked its way north, eventually crossed the driveway again at the 31st Street Woods, and continued heading east along the north end of the parking lot marsh.

21JA11. Mayslake. I went to the known skunk den hole in the north stream corridor to see if it was the home of the skunk I tracked 2 days ago. It had not been entered or exited. I picked up the skunk’s trail where it had gone around the N end of the parking lot marsh, and followed it to a hole in the top of the ridge between that marsh and the stream (created when the marsh was excavated), and even with the marsh’s center. It appeared that the skunk had emerged and entered the hole, but the tracks were obscured by large ice crystals developing around the hole’s edge.  Later it occurred to me how unusual those crystals were. Are they growing on moisture from the skunk’s breath?

Skunk den entrances usually are around 6 inches in diameter.

Skunk den entrances usually are around 6 inches in diameter.

23FE11. Mayslake. For a time I mistook a skunk’s trail for that of a mink. What threw me off was the first impression, where the toes spread an unusual amount in thin snow over slick ice. I failed to attend the other tracks carefully enough for a long time, though I was somewhat bothered by the long toenails and the animal following the trail rather than the lake edge. As I approached the den near the friary site I saw similar tracks, confirmed much coming and going and digging at that den, then went back and found that if I had paid closer attention to all the footprints I had been following, I would have realized sooner that they were skunk tracks. The main underlying condition was the thin layer of snow over ice, with enough of a percentage of round-looking tracks resulting to sustain my error.

Coyote Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I’ve been sharing smaller dossiers in recent weeks. Here is a somewhat longer one. This is a rare instance in which nearly all of my experience with a species came as an adult, in DuPage County.

Coyote

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

When I came to DuPage County in the early 1980’s, coyotes were known to live at Waterfall Glen and the West Chicago Prairie area. My first experiences were footprints at the Tracker Farm in New Jersey, and then a bed at the far end of a private (now destroyed) marsh in Glendale Heights, Illinois. I saw one briefly in the desert at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

30JA88. Hartz Lake area, near Monterey, Indiana. A coyote slow-loped across a dune. Front foot 2×2 inches, hind foot 2 long by 1.5 wide. The coyote loped with its body held at an angle so the front feet were on one side, hind feet on the other.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

29JE89. Coyote at McKee Marsh. It stopped briefly as it came around a bend in the mowed trail and saw me coming toward it. Big ears, light build and size gave it away immediately. It held still only a couple seconds, then turned and ran. After I got around the bend I got a glimpse of movement to the right as it leaped through a tall grass meadow and ran into the forest.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in the half inch of snow that fell last night on the McKee Marsh area. The coyotes’ activity was mainly on and around the frozen ponds. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks were absent from the wide area I walked in north Blackwell. Foxes were common there before; have coyotes driven them off? Trot the most common gait, in the diagonal position. Diagonal walk frequent, lope occasional. Prints’ actual size 2.25 long x 2 wide, 22-24 inches between corresponding track in each pair. A coyote picked up an old, small dead snake and played with it. Rolled in small amount of its urine on ice of marsh. Stopped and removed 2 burdock burs (some hairs still were attached). Coyote diagonal walk on ice 19-21.5 inches between steps. Lots of activity possibly by one individual, with lots of coming and going (small loops out and back), centering on a rotten goose egg, frozen in ice and apparently opened last night.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

13DE89. Probable coyote scat, 3/4 x 3.5 inches, Hartz Lake.

16DE89. Both red foxes and coyotes present, yet, at McDowell Forest Preserve. Former about 12-16 inches between steps in walk, latter 15-20 inches.

20JA91. I saw two coyotes working together at McDowell. When first spotted they were about 20 yards apart, walking single file. I was able to approach within 60 yards on the path, then they detected me and bolted. They had been investigating a brushy area near a bridge over a small stream, they ran back north and east when escaping.

26JA92. Tracks of a coyote in woods at Hidden Lake, in an area also visited some nights by red fox. Strides were 20-inch steps compared to the fox’s 16 inches. Coyote followed deer trails sometimes.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

28JA99. Cottontails this winter are not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out, or perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10FE99. A fresh coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail near the marsh contained both hairs and feathers, the latter from a bird in the cardinal to mourning dove size range.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

25FE99. Willowbrook. Fresh snow fell yesterday evening, and reveals that 2 coyotes covered the entire preserve thoroughly last night, and more, going out into surrounding residential areas. Sometimes the coyotes were on the same route, sometimes they separated. Once they bedded down within 2 feet of one another in a dense brushy area roughly equidistant from the nature trail and residences, impossible to see by anyone more than 50 feet away.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

26FE99. A coyote made a remarkable vertical 4-foot jump out of the creek at Willowbrook, having crossed to the point where the Safari Trail meets the stream at the high bank.

MR99. During the 90’s, coyotes have become much more abundant in the western suburbs. Tracks frequently encountered on the preserves, and in absence usually of fox sign until the past couple of years. One appeared at Willowbrook frequently around 1994-96, after the fox there was gone. Then the coyote vanished, after it was seen several times apparently weakened by mange. A red fox came in that winter, lasted a year, then it left. At that time coyote sign returned and have been frequent for more than two years, now. The common pattern has been for signs to be abundant for several weeks, then absent for several weeks, in alternation through the warm months, with 2 coyotes taking up steady residence on the preserve through the winter. I saw two different individuals one morning in winter of 1997-98, one missing all but a stub of its tail and so easy to recognize. They often deposit feces in the center of the nature trail, occasionally in other clear areas or smaller trails. Hair the most common dominant food remains in the scats, occasionally feathers or skins of fruits dominate. I saw a coyote crossing Kirk Road in Kane County at dusk one summer evening. Their howling, which I have heard at Pratts Wayne Woods, Hidden Lake, Lincoln Marsh and Fermilab, is extremely high-pitched and wailing in quality, and I have heard several animals howling together or howling back and forth in contact call style but not a single individual howling alone. During a night hike in September 1996 at Hidden Lake, a siren set off a probable family group of 4 individuals, and for the rest of the evening the scattered coyotes howled at regular intervals, producing the contact call effect.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

14AP99. The goose nest has been destroyed, the eggs preyed upon, at Willowbrook. Tracks in mud show at least 2 coyote round trips wading out to the nest island. No other predator tracks.

25JE99. I heard a coyote barking at a neighbor walking dogs at Willowbrook.

30AU99. Coyote scats at Willowbrook have been rich in fruit. This remained the case for weeks, with fruit appearing to be the dominant food.

5OC99. A heavy red fabric strip, 10 inches long, possibly a collar, in a coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail. Fruit remains dominant food in scats.

1NO99. Hair becoming more common, fruit less, in scats at Willowbrook.

2NO99. A coyote scat at Willowbrook had a bit of candy wrapper in it (shortly after Halloween).

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

1999-2013. It has become clear that coyotes are everywhere in the Chicago area, with even centers of towns being parts of territories. The coyotes, unless someone feeds them, are very good at staying out of sight. Reports from neighbors suggest that the pair at Willowbrook had a home range that extended from the East Branch of the DuPage River to the Village Links Golf Course, and so they were absent from the preserve for weeks at a time, but in some seasons centered their activity on the preserve (they never denned there, however).

At Fullersburg Woods, the pair was active year-round in the more open northern part of the preserve and presumably extended into adjacent areas off the preserve. In winter, the pair regularly wandered into the forested southern part of the preserve, usually hunting apart but joining up as they returned to their northern center of activity. I never found a den on that preserve.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

At Mayslake the pair had a den in the former friary garden area, but the den was destroyed as an incidental consequence of the friary demolition. Until then the coyotes were a constant presence on the preserve, but now they are there regularly but somewhat intermittently. They have been healthy and strong when I have seen them, and had pups most years. One odd observation was that one chewed up and swallowed a tennis ball discarded near the off-leash dog area. The fragmented ball passed completely through the coyote. Rabbits and voles are the more typical contents of scats.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Fox Squirrel Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier is one of my larger ones.

Fox Squirrel

Fox squirrels are distinguished from our other common tree squirrel, the gray squirrel, by the reddish tones in the tail and belly.

This is a squirrel of woodlands and residential areas with trees. The fox squirrel is the only large tree squirrel of the Culver, Indiana, area. They nest in tree cavities or in leaf nests; some used leaf nests all winter at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, Illinois. Nest building involves cutting of leafy branch-ends. A leaf nest in cross section is made of those leafy twigs, woven into a framework of thicker sticks, with a fresh leafy lining. Overall it has a very thick wall with small insulated cavity within.

Squirrel nests are approximately the diameter of a basketball.

Fox squirrels feed on the ground and in trees. They begin to eat acorns and hickory nuts in August when those still are green. Hickory nuts and acorns are consumed in treetops, especially early in morning and late in afternoon, resulting in a distinctive rain of fragments as hulls are gnawed away. Squirrels (gray squirrels?) also ate black gum fruits in Pennsylvania on Reineman Sanctuary in late fall. Generally they open large nuts (hickory, walnuts) neatly, prying them open on the seams.

Fox squirrel with a pair of shagbark hickory nuts.

They also bury individual acorns, nuts, black cherry pits, etc., in the fall. Distinctive burying site goes into earth at a 45 degree angle or a little shallower, producing an oval shaped bare soil excavation site about 1×2 inches (wider than tall) in soft soil, smaller in hard soil. Mushrooms also are on the fall food list near Culver. Diet in early winter emphasizes excavated nuts buried earlier.

Squirrel tracks, right, follow a winding course as the animal sniffed for a buried nut. On the left is the hole where it excavated one.

Twigs and bark, e.g. of elm, eaten occasionally in mid- and late winter. Buds, e.g. of maple, are added as those expand in spring. Developing elm seeds are heavily consumed in May in DuPage County, generally twigs are cut and seeds eaten from them. Occasionally they gnaw bones.

Fox squirrel eating buds in spring.

Fox squirrels have two breeding seasons, typically, in spring and fall, with 2-5 young per litter. Young began to appear at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center hospital in mid-March (born mid-late February) and mid-August (born late July or early August). Young normally begin to emerge from the nest in May or late September. Young play in vigorous chasing and hiding games on tree trunks and in branches, occasionally extended onto the ground. Adults sometimes play as well, also tease dogs. Leap between trees. They use suspended wires as tightropes between trees and over roads.

These could be fox or gray squirrel footprints.

Tree squirrel tracks are distinctive, the 5-toed hind footprints about 1.25 inches long, with 3 parallel middle toes close together, pointing forward, and outer toes pointing out at angles. The 4-toed front footprints show more spread and independence of toes. The traveling gait typically is a gallop, with front feet leaving ground before back feet land. The back feet are side by side, as are the front feet. Slowing down causes front feet to get closer and closer to back footprints, until one or both front footprints are in front of the back feet. Acceleration also begins with a set of footprints showing the bound gait. Squirrels sniffing slowly over the ground sometimes use the diagonal walk. Fox squirrels show considerable ingenuity and acrobatic ability in overcoming bird feeder protections.

Early spring 1986, Taft Campus of Northern Illinois University, north central IL, with snow still on ground. A fox squirrel, opportunistically foraging in a temporary meltwater stream, looked much healthier than the many gray squirrels fastidiously foraging on the wet-snow-covered hillside nearby.

24NO86. Squirrel began to go onto a branch with 2 great horned owls. The squirrel stopped, tail twitching, sat still for a while, then backed and started to go on a branch over the owls’ heads. They were watching it. Finally it turned around and ran down the tree.

12DE86. Puffer Lake, Morton Arboretum, IL. Fox or gray squirrel tracks in snow that fell yesterday afternoon, on ice among cattails at edge of lake. The tracks were made early this morning. Diagonal walk first 7 feet onto ice, then slow gallop gait.

Fox squirrel, winter.

14MR87. Fox squirrel eating cherry and elm buds at Maple Grove Forest Preserve.

30AP87. Fox squirrel feeding heavily, frenetically, on large green silver maple fruits (seeds only; dropping wings). Also on 1MY, 8:30 a.m. both days.

4MY87. Squirrel-cut elm twigs with fragments of seeds on ground.

6MY87. Early evening, a fox squirrel feeding in an elm top at Willowbrook. Mostly clipped twigs first, then stripped them of seeds, and finally dropped them. The squirrel removed more foliage in 3 minutes than a noctuid caterpillar would in its entire life.

18DE87. 4 days after an abrupt 1-foot snowfall, little but rabbit and squirrel tracks can be seen in the Willowbrook Back 40. The latter are relatively few, restricted to woods.

25MY88. A squirrel when being stealthy carries his tail behind him like the cloak on a figure in an old novel.

This one looks pregnant.

29MY88. Fox squirrel numbers at Hartz Lake (in Indiana) appear limited by hickories. The few squirrels I’ve seen to date have been in parts of woods where hickories are (may simply be a preference, if hunters are keeping numbers low).

20SE88. A fox squirrel nest came into Willowbrook from Lombard with 3 young. The nest was made of leafy elm twigs, with grasses and a work glove toward the center. Overall shape was like an urn, with branches interwoven to nearly cover the entrance. Couldn’t tell for sure whether the entrance was on top or side. Nest blown out of tree by storm.

27JL89. Fox squirrel still feeding heavily on red half-ripe mulberries at Willowbrook after purple ripe ones have been available more than 1 month.

10MR90. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. Fox squirrel lunges up tree when climbing, pushing with all four feet at once. Toes catch in cracks, don’t appear to slip although a slight adjustment with a foot may be made now and then before the next lunge.

24JL90. Fox squirrel still eating mulberries.

15NO90. Willowbrook. A fox squirrel eating catalpa seeds right out of the pod, and letting the wings fall.

13JA92. Fox squirrel eating box elder buds, Willowbrook.

22AP95. Midafternoon, Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. 2 fox squirrels feeding heavily on American elm buds in a 6″dbh tree.

13OC96. 3 fox squirrels in full bark, simultaneously, in Mom and Dad’s Culver front yard. A large cat was their target. They were turned so their bodies pointed in its direction and they were focused, looking straight at the cat.

Not a hibernator, the fox squirrel remains active all winter.

19FE99. Fox squirrel eating expanding silver maple buds, Willowbrook.

4MR99. At mid-day a gray squirrel emerged from a hole in a large, dead willow at Willowbrook to drive away an approaching fox squirrel. The gray immediately returned to the hole.

20AP99. Fox squirrel feeding on buds or expanding leaves of a black cherry tree with leaves much more expanded than those of other cherries at Willowbrook.

28AP99. Willowbrook. Fox squirrel eating silver maple seeds.

13OC99. Willowbrook. Young fox squirrel out of nest. Another fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

21OC99. Willowbrook. Several fox squirrels gathering walnuts.

Synchronized acorn-eating team, Mayslake savanna.

27OC99. Fox and gray squirrels both are active. The former have been eating nuts in recent days, one this morning in a box elder eating seeds, another appearing to work on a broken down old nest.

28OC99. Gray squirrel with nut, fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

1NO99. Willowbrook again. Fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

17NO99. A gray squirrel (young) and a fox squirrel both eating box elder seeds at Willowbrook.

2DE99. Several gray squirrels and 1 fox squirrel foraging on the ground.

30DE99. Fox squirrel at Willowbrook building leaf nest 15 feet up in a buckthorn in a tall-brush area. Taking leaves from nearby small oak that had not dropped many of them.

2FE00. A fox squirrel carried a ball of snow up onto a branch and ate from it.

14FE00. Many gray and fox squirrels this winter in nests only 12‑14 inches outer diameter at Willowbrook.

25FE00. Willowbrook, afternoon. 2 fox squirrels eating buds from a mulberry tree rich in witches’ brooms. Temperature 70F.

2MR00. Willowbrook. 2 fox squirrels sharing a hole in the trunk of a large willow, 1 of them adding leaves picked up from the ground.

Grooming the fur.

4MR00. A gray and 2 fox squirrels feeding on the expanding buds of an American elm near the Joy Path of Morton Arboretum. As I left the path to approach the tree to identify it, the gray squirrel immediately left and ran to other trees. As I walked up to the trunk, the lower of the fox squirrels finally left, but the higher one remained.

15MR00. Willowbrook. Fox squirrel nest high in the very top of a red oak across the exhibit trail from the eagle cage (occupant barked at another fox squirrel lower in tree). A fox squirrel eating expanding sugar maple buds.

13AP00. A fox squirrel feeding on expanding sugar maple buds, Willowbrook.

19AP00. Willowbrook. 2 fox squirrels eating expanding sugar maple buds.

7MY00. West DuPage Woods F.P. 2 fox squirrels clipping American elm twig ends and eating the nearly ripened seeds, then dropping the twigs with leaves.

1JA02. A fox squirrel at the Arboretum eating honey locust seeds from a thornless tree on a very cold day. Sometimes it ate individual seeds from the pod attached to the tree, sometimes removed entire pods and took the seeds from them.

This fox squirrel was mobbed by a pair of Baltimore Orioles in June of 2009 until it left their nest tree.

5OC10. Mayslake. A fox squirrel chased a gray squirrel on the ground in the south savanna.

27JA11. Mayslake. Fox squirrels feeding in thornless honey locust in south (former) friary grounds, presumably getting seeds from pods.

1DE11. Fox squirrel eating honey locust seeds from pod on ground.

Eastern Cottontail Dossier

by Carl Strang

My species dossiers focus on vertebrate animals, and as there are many more birds than other terrestrial vertebrates, most of the dossiers I have shared had avian subjects. Today’s focus is a mammal.

Cottontail, Eastern

These live in weedy and brushy habitat. Occasionally enter forests, especially in fall and winter. Maintain a network of trails and runs. Have aboveground forms or beds used for much of the year, but take cover in sheltered spots (in firewood pile at Warrenville, IL, for instance, during daytime in a neighborhood with little cover) and in burrows (woodchuck burrows at Culver’s fish ponds, skunk burrow at Willowbrook), and culverts. Predators may influence this: in winter of 1998-99, cottontails seldom appeared in the open, but coyotes were omnipresent and often dug at ends of drainage culverts under the nature trail, where rabbit tracks led.

Cottontail nest, opened slightly to show hairless infant.

Young born blind and hairless. Nest in short grass areas (e.g., lawns, examples seen at Boiling Springs, PA, and in IL), in shallow depression lined and covered with a mix of fur and grass. Nest well hidden. Young become independent when about 4 inches long, when ears stand up and fur becomes shaggy. Mother simply abandons nest (normally she visits it only at night), young find their way out. Observed a youngster at Lombard, IL, learning to recognize food. Sniffed every plant, occasionally nibbling one, occasionally chewing one down to ground. Can be tame and easily caught first day or two out of nest.

Summer food green plants, for instance dandelions (watched one at Boiling Springs, PA, as it ate fruiting stalks, biting them off near ground then nibbling them into mouth endwise, seed poofing out as it reached the end). Browses in winter. In DuPage County, rose family preferred (or at least eaten first, then when other foods depleted, larger rose and Rubus stems cut to bring twig ends within reach), others eaten include twigs of maple, elm, bittersweet Solanum dulcamara, poison ivy (the last toward winter’s end). Patches of red to orange urine at this time. Bark of cherry, elm, sumac, taken in leaner winters.

Often the toenail marks are the only clear indicators of a cottontail track. The furry feet do not make a clear impression in hard soil.

Droppings distinctive, round. Tracks occasionally show the 4 nailed toes in good conditions. Hard substrates sometimes reveal 4 toenail marks in wedge shaped pattern. In snow, typically nothing more than round depressions for front feet, elongate ones for hind feet. Rarely anything but a gallop gait with one front foot in front of the other.

16AP86. Rabbits eating gray dogwood bark in Willowbrook Back 40, both of standing shrubs and of stems I cut earlier this week.

9JL86. Watched a half-grown cottontail through the window at Willowbrook as it grazed. Seemed to select younger grass blades (pointed rather than mower-cut; lighter in color).

9FE87. Inside Willowbrook main building, cottontail escaped from intensive care room during night. Droppings and smears of dust suggest that it got into the clinic, somehow got up onto 3 foot high counter top, then another 4 feet up to cabinet top. [I asked Tom Brown about this; he has seen even higher vertical leaps onto ledges by cottontails].

This is the cottontail that escaped in the Willowbrook Wildlife Center hospital and hid by jumping from the floor to the countertop, then from the countertop to the top of the wall cabinet.

12FE87. Cottontail recently gnawed on crabapple beside trail.

15MR87. Meacham Grove. Rabbit moving fast, but turning: the space between the front feet and hind feet decreased as it approached the turning point, revealing a slight deceleration; the front feet pointed in the direction it had been going, then the hind feet pointed in the new direction. This rabbit placed its front feet side by side. The distance between the front and hind tracks was not related to the distance of the leap: large and small for long and short hops. I tracked this rabbit to its hiding place, partly under a log in open woods. I had passed within 8 feet of him twice, then stood 3 feet away for at least 2 minutes puzzling over tracks that seemed to go into there but not out, when he burst from hiding and ran away. The rabbit had climbed up on sticks and logs a few times (crossways to his route).

A typical cottontail footprint pattern with the more elongate hind footprints side by side, rounder front footprints one before the other. In each step the hind feet carry past the front feet.

MY87, NJ Pine Barrens. Cottontail browsing blueberries, oaks.

AU87, NJ Pine Barrens. Cottontails smaller here than elsewhere.

12AU87. Assateague Island, morning. Young cottontail eating clovers (several patches well nibbled, English plantain flower stalks, a wiry upright narrow-leafed composite, and another plant that resembled common ragweed. Avoided the abundant Senecio. Had several ticks in its ears, and appeared to have a partial cataract in the right eye.

18DE87. 4 days after an abrupt 1-foot snowfall, little but rabbit and squirrel tracks in Willowbrook Back 40. Former’s mainly at edge of field and woods.

23JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Rabbits and foxes highly active last night (an inch of snow fell just after sunset). One rabbit, at least, was in underground burrow during snow. Unusual amount of side-by-side front foot placement by rabbits: slippery or uncertain new surface? One rabbit fed on grasses, edge of a tall grass field.

On slippery or unfamiliar surfaces (e.g., the first snow of the season), cottontails often lock their front feet together side by side. I assume this gives them more stability. You can see in the dossier text when I discovered this.

27JA88. Willowbrook. A rabbit had moved along left edge of path, paused and looked back down path over right shoulder. Both front feet to right of their usual position and pivoted, right foot 45 degrees. This is enough to allow the rabbit to look behind it (eyes on sides of head).

28JA88. Willowbrook. A rabbit did heavy browsing on a rose bush last night.

3FE88. Willowbrook. In the 2 nights since the last snow, not real cold, lots of activity. Rabbits, squirrels, mice, fox, raccoons, cats. Icy beneath. Again, lots of rabbit track sets with side by side front footprints.

LateFE88. Tracker Farm, NJ. Rabbit browsed rose since 1 JA.

6JE88. Baby rabbit tasting rocks, licking them, in Willowbrook streambed. Ate silver maple seed, elm seedling.

13DE88. Rabbits commonly placing front feet side by side on longer steps after about an inch of snow fell early last night atop the half inch that was there from 3 days previous.

1MR89. Rabbit’s front feet indicate the direction from which it came more reliably than the hind feet point to where it’s going, at least when it is traveling slowly. Look to pressure releases as well. In today’s crusty snow, the rabbit leans in the direction it’s going, so that in forward hops the toes are deepest. In an abrupt left turn the left edges of both hind prints were deepest.

12MR89. Hartz Lake. Dense poison ivy area between cemetery and prairie heavily browsed recently, mainly by rabbits.

25AP89. A rabbit nest, now empty with lining scattered. In the low, flattened blackberry tangle beside the nature trail at Willowbrook. Scattered taller brush on all sides.

These baby cottontails are weaned or nearly so. The mother simply stops coming to the nest and the young, driven by instinct and hunger, leave the nest and start learning which plants are good to eat.

3MY89. Willowbrook. Another rabbit nest yesterday on the side of the hill constructed of fill from marsh excavation. Like the nest last summer on the steep hillside at Clarks’, this hole was deep.

4MY89. Willowbrook. Yet another rabbit nest, this one in fairly thick brush 5 feet beyond the cleared edge of the main trail.

9MY89. I mistook moss for a cottontail. Sometimes the agouti pattern resembles mossy mottling.

22JE89. Rabbits eating common ragweed at Willowbrook.

31JL89. Willowbrook. Rabbits bending down Queen Anne’s lace and common ragweed and eating tops, along Nature Trail.

18AU89. Cottontails reaching common ragweed tips 4 feet off ground. Apparently, from bruise patterns and broken stems, they are pulling the plants down.

24NO89. Hartz Lake. Rabbit stopped, sat, turned. Entire left edges of both hind feet show pressure releases.

13DE89. Hartz Lake. No consistent ratio of track-set length to space between sets. A ratio of 3-4 common in shallow snow (front feet side by side, mostly). Degree of forward lean or toe-dig of back feet a better indicator of step length.

16FE90. Rabbit sitting on top of snow in Warrenville, IL, back yard, out of reach of anything edible, chewing cud. Bent down a couple of times to get feces for re-ingesting, taking them from anus with mouth.

16MY90. Rabbits have been eating fleabane tops.

12SE90. Watched young (nearly full grown) cottontail feeding, at close range. Eyes cranked forward, showing the tiniest bit of white at the back, as the rabbit examined and ate plants. Ate fruits and leaf blades of roadside rush and crabgrass. Seemed, however, to be using smell more than vision in checking out potential foods. I could get away with some movement when the eyes moved forward.

5JL96. Cottontails chasing each other 11a.m., picnic shelter area at Willowbrook. The chases were brief, sometimes extending into brush, but generally about 20 yards at most and often half that. They then would stop as the pursuer peeled off, but then often the chased animal approached, clearly soliciting another chase. Sometimes the chases were moderate in speed only, sometimes there were brief very fast spurts in the middle.

16MY98. Cottontail at Willowbrook eating blue violet leaves (nearby: flowering motherwort mint, garlic mustard).

28JA99. Cottontails this winter not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out or, perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10MY99. Cedar Springs, Michigan. Cottontails mating. Smaller adult chased larger, caught up, mounted and very quick small thrusts for a couple of seconds, then larger ran away and pursuit resumed. In woods clearing.

Here a mother rabbit at Mayslake covers her nest shortly after giving birth.

29AP09. Mayslake. As I drove in, I saw a rabbit digging in the lawn of the long parking lot island beside the drive. Three other rabbits were nearby, and one eventually chased her away from where she was digging and I saw him mate with her once. I thought she was still digging soil, but perhaps she was digging out grasses to cover the nest with (supported by her relative skinniness in photos). I returned at mid-day, found 5-6 babies in the nest there. Soil still beside the nest, but flattened. Babies born last night or this morning, it appears. (These rabbits eventually weaned and left the successful nest).

Recent Animal Activity

by Carl Strang

Autumn has transitioned to winter at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Sandhill cranes still were migrating in late November, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more before the end of the year.

But most migration seems to have passed to our south. Sparrow flocks have been stabilizing.

Last week the first bit of sticking snow drew my eyes to the ground. The season’s first snow tracks were a cottontail’s.

Then, over the weekend we got our first covering snow, 3 inches worth.

But even in winter there can be surprises. On December 7 I heard a cardinal singing.

This is one reason to build species dossiers. Consulting mine, I could find no record of a singing cardinal between October 15 and January 7 in past years. Usually they are done in August and don’t start up again until the second half of January. This is a true oddity. Cardinals are relatively sensitive to changes in daylight hours, and usually can be counted on to start singing before the end of January, but in early December the days still are shortening.

American Crow Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here is another, relatively long, entry in my series of species dossiers, accounts of what I have learned of various species from my own experience. In sharing these I am less interested in transmitting information than in encouraging you to think about what you know about these animals from what you have observed. When I started these records in the 1980’s I was embarrassed by how little I could say, and developing them was a good exercise in paying better attention when in the field.

Crow, American

Abundant around Culver, Indiana, in Cumberland County, PA, and [formerly] in DuPage County, IL. Strictly rural in the Culver area when I was a child, staying out of town [though this no longer is the case]. In PA, occurred in and out of town, but more typical of drier uplands and agricultural areas (the fish crow was more common in town and around rivers). In DuPage County, IL, American crows were abundant in both town and rural areas. They spend times in all habitats, though they stay up in trees when in the forest, usually. They spend more time in open, drier habitats than in others.

Their diet is equally diverse. I’ve seen them take corn sprouts, insects, young birds and rabbits, and carrion. In DuPage County they were the principal avian scavengers; vultures are practically nonexistent except during migration. Road kills are the most commonly observed food there. In late winter 1986 I saw a group of crows feeding on smooth sumac fruits, along the road at Warrenville, IL.

Crows nest solitarily, in the highest levels of forest trees. Vocalizations include a feeding call of young, a whining sound with somewhat the quality of a played sawblade: ree ree ree reereereereeree. This call accelerates and becomes slightly higher pitched and squeakier toward the end. Adults’ single “caws” appear to be contact calls. Harsher, sharper rapid clusters of caws are signals that rally crows to mob hawks or owls. This is a social, flocking species for most of the year, though spreading out when foraging for widely scattered foods like insects in short grass.

In DuPage County, crows mob great horned owls most frequently. Usually a mobbing begins with a single crow spotting the perched owl, and giving the rallying call. As more crows gather and add their voices, they perch all around the owl and the noise gets very loud. Usually the owl just sits stoically, but if it flies the crows give chase, sometimes one or two so bold as to peck the owl on the back. Eventually they lose interest, and silently fly off in one’s and two’s. Crows themselves are the objects of aerial harassment attacks by red-winged blackbirds.

Tall dead treetops with many branches in woods often are congregation sites.

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.

22FE87. Flock of 15 crows, flying. Cawing a lot, caws a little short though they aren’t chasing anything. Occasionally one utters a low, dry rattle. Later a loose group of four flew, taking turns making sets of 3-4 connected sharp caws. When calling, an individual folded his wings slightly and glided at a slight angle downwards.

14MR87. Signs of breeding. One, after cawing as though after an owl (none right there) broke off a twig from a treetop and flew away with it. Later a crow closely chased another out of that part of the woods. The chase went for at least 100m.

15MR87. Crow flying with beakful of soft material.

29AP87. Remains of a crow beneath great horned owl nest area.

16JA88. (McDowell?) Great horned owl flew to tree on west bank, just north of where trees thin to a thread of willows, where a housing development comes down. There’s a top-blown tree nearby, also several large oaks. Crows raising a ruckus, as though pestering a g.h. 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 began to chase the owl, itself. 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 another owl perched, now out of my sight.

21MR88. Crows have been molting wing and tail feathers. Still chasing each other.

10AP88. 3-5 harsh, medium-fast caws apparently means “human here.” Several circled me at Hidden Lake F.P. woods, some perched in treetops above me and peered down, making that signal.

14AP88. Spotted 2 crow nests along Butterfield Rd., one beside construction site in a small grove of 30-40-foot-tall trees, the other well up in one of a grove of large oaks.

7MY88. Culver, IN. 2 nests high in oaks of “Indian Trails” area between town and Culver Military Academy. Adults flew off silently.

17MY88. I hadn’t seen the great horned owls of Willowbrook’s Back 40, or heard harassment by crows, since the restorational clearing of the marsh and fill area. Finally I saw 2, upstream of nest. Crows didn’t harass them for long or in numbers (2-3), apparently too occupied with their own nesting activity.

Harassment picked up, gradually, in June. On 18JE88 I observed heavy harassment of a great horned owl by a large number of crows at McDowell Grove F.P. Owl’s branching comes at the same time crows are starting to nest, and becoming too busy to harass owls.

18AP(MY?)88. The notes of a crow’s “human” call may be uttered rapidly when given as a warning. I walked into a riparian strip, one crow gave that fast version as I approached, and another immediately flew up from the streambed where it could not have seen me.

23MY88. Crow carrying medium-sized ear of dried corn, with about half of corn still attached, in beak.

29JA89. The crow mobbing call is a drawn out, often slurred, slightly burred caw, but retaining the abrupt start. (Another crow flying in, when still at a distance, gave a single note of this type but lazier, more drawled sounding, because it lacked the abrupt start and because it was more drawn out.)

7FE89. Permanently disabled crows in the exhibit cage at Willowbrook Wildlife Center responded to a “visiting” red-tail with short, uninflected (flat) caws with somewhat sharp beginnings but open ends. Fairly rapid, but not chattering-like, not clearly strung together. Many notes, long-continuing.

12MR89. A crow near Hartz Lake (Indiana) carrying a twig.

13MR89. DuPage County. Crow nest, same cluster of trees but farther back from busy Butterfield Road, as last year.

21AP89. A crow nest in downtown Chicago, in the little park across from the Newberry Library. I seldom have seen crows in the city. One bird visited the nest while I watched, but did not switch with the incubating crow.

25AP89. At end of a brief chase between 2 crows, one (I believe the pursued) gave a rattle-call. But I’ve recently heard the call from a bird perched for a long time.

10MR90. Crow with twig in beak, flying straight and parallel to road at 25mph.

30AP90. Crow chasing crow: a rattle call by the pursuing bird, with an emphatic inflection within.

12MR92, McDowell Forest Preserve. A Cooper’s hawk flew, northerly, high above woods. Pursued by a crow that occasionally swooped at it, but the hawk itself was nearly crow-sized, and it often turned and flew at the crow. Flight faster and more twisty then, but the crow turned to pursue the hawk when the latter resumed its path. Three such cycles observed.

20AU92. Cooper’s chased a couple crows at Herrick Lake F.P., not seriously. They rattle-called afterwards.

24JA93. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve, IL. In late morning on a cold, sunny day, a goshawk flew past as I crossed a brushy opening in the forest. The bird was low, perhaps 10 feet up, and abruptly dipped, then flew up to a 15-20-foot-high perch on a large branch of a tree at the edge of the clearing. I came within 40 yards or so; the bird watched me but did not fly as I turned and skirted its position. Crows passing over gave several sets of quick, paired caws: “caw-caw, caw-caw, caw-caw,” merging in some cases into a fairly rapid series of cawing notes. This was not a response to me. Long after I left the site, I heard the same paired caws and looked back to see that the crows emitting them were circling above the goshawk’s position. The crows stayed at an altitude of ~1.5 tree-heights; the hawk was perched between 1/3 and ½ the trees’ height.

27JA97. Morning. Snow fairly deep. A red-tailed hawk flew over the College of DuPage parking lot with something in its talons, pursued by half a dozen crows. The hawk perched on a flat-topped, wooden light pole, began plucking prey while crows sporadically left nearby perches and swooped at it. After 10-15 minutes it flew away, and I checked the feathers, which were scattered in singles and small clumps over a 20×30 foot area: mourning dove. Crow calls resembled owl mobbing, but smaller number of birds and less sustained.

1997-98. I occasionally see a white crow as I drive to work at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, the bird on either side of Park Boulevard a short distance north of Butterfield Road.

15MR99. Crow flew across Butterfield Road near Naperville Road crossing, north to south, with sticks.

14AP99. Willowbrook. Crows seen chasing one another several times.

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

25MY99. Blue jay mobbing a perched crow in top of dead willow, Willowbrook.

9DE99. Crows pursuing a red-tailed hawk in NE part of Willowbrook preserve.

2010. In recent years, crows have become scarce in DuPage County, apparently because of a lack of immunological resistance to West Nile Virus. The pattern seems to be that new birds disperse into the area in winter, and may attempt to nest (but this isn’t common as far as I can tell, supporting the idea that these are young, dispersing individuals). When conditions support the emergence of West-Nile-carrying mosquitoes in late summer, the crows vanish, apparently victims of the disease. Supporting this notion is the observation that in the cooler wetter summer of 2009, more crows persisted into the fall.

Red Fox Dossier

by Carl Strang

This is another of my species dossiers, consisting of what I know about a given species from my own experience. I started the dossiers in the mid-1980’s.

Fox, Red

Initial summary: Common resident of mixed fields, brush and woods edges in northern IN, northern IL, south central PA. Also seen on tundra in western Alaska. Near Culver, IN, seen most commonly in winter, when they are frequently active and visible at a distance during the day. In summer, occasionally flushed from resting spot beneath a bush in an old field.

In Alaska they foraged for mice, birds, eggs and young waterfowl in summer. In tall sedges they attempted to pin birds and mice by listening for them, then leaping high and coming down with front legs together and extended straight down. Cached eggs singly, burying them near where found.

Den found on 2AU71 in high bank of tundra lake in bluffs area near Kokechik Bay, western Alaska. Entrance faced south. Well worn paths leading to water 15 feet below and to top of bluff 7 feet above. Entrance about 1 foot in diameter. A second entrance on top of hill. Fish remains.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, in June, their contact calls heard at night: a high-pitched whining scream or “yipe,” beginning and/or ending with a harsher, rougher, strangled sound. In May 1986, on a walk through the forest at the Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, IL, I felt the need to freeze. Soon a yellowish-colored apparition came toward me, following a dry streambed that passed 30 feet to my left. Soon the red fox came into clear view, a chipmunk dangling from its jaws. It was walking fairly quickly and directly, not looking from side to side. Chipmunks gave single “chip” calls and were silent as it passed. It went by me, then after another 20-30 yards came to a sudden halt, spun around, and at a faster speed came back past me. I suppose it had caught my scent where I crossed the stream.

Trot on thin layer of snow over ice. Width of entire path 5 inches. Travel left to right.

           RF                               LF

RH       o                    LH      o

 o                               o         

     3.5″        10″              3.5″

13JA87. Red fox bed in Willowbrook Back 40. Snow 6″ deep, was compressed in a 15″ diameter area. May have been flattened with feet first. No hair, but claw marks in bottom of bed probably from stretch as the animal prepared to leave. Bed in area where brush slightly denser than average, and concealed well by grasses on one side. Photos next day after some melting (bottom of one part melted out). Odor of fox evident on day it was made, not detected following day.

17JA87. Red fox lope. Front feet bigger, back feet have rounder heels. Body held at an angle to direction of travel.

LF       RF                              

 o         o                     RH       LH

                                      o         o

4FE87. Fox at Willowbrook cached a short-tailed shrew, and apparently stopped by later to check on it.

6AP87. Willowbrook fox still present.

17AP87. I saw the fox.

27JE87. McKee Marsh area. A red fox passed just north of sawdust storage pile. In thin summer fur. Saw me as it came even with me, 50m away (I was standing, but still), and it ran into tall vegetation.

23DE87. Fox swam across Glen Crest Creek at Willowbrook several times in recent days.

3JA88. McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. Several pictures of newly excavated fox den, with rabbit remains at entrance. In gravel bank above floodplain of stream.

9JA88. The McDowell fox has used the river ice intensively as a corridor and for crossing (tracks especially heavy opposite den).

15JA88. Followed Willowbrook Back 40 fox’s wanderings through last night’s inch of new snow, Back 40. Nearly all the time in steady diagonal walk or trot. Relying on nose for clues? Occasionally deviated to investigate rose bush or brush tangle.

17JA88. Blackwell. Rain melting snow reveals a superabundance of meadow voles (also found 2 dead voles), near where kestrel had picked the one found on the 14th. Predators taking heavy advantage. Fox tracks all over.

23JA88. Alternative trot pattern, body straight with path of travel? McDowell. Even spacing throughout (within and between sets), 12 inches separating (slow lope? But so close together?). Travel left to right.

 LF       LH                   LF       LH

  o        o                         o         o

            o        o                          o        o

           RF       RH                     RF       RH

Foxes highly active last night (rabbits, too). 1″ snow fell just after sunset.

28JA88. Fox tracks in normal walk separated by 14-18″. After 2 full days of no fox tracks, suddenly after last night the Back 40 is filled with them.

29AP88. Fox seen at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve. Stopped many times to look back at me as it ran away.

10SE88. One seen Herrick Lake F.P. Seemed weak, or perhaps simply expected me not to notice it there.

2NO88. Willowbrook. Tracks have returned to Back 40, after disappearing during summer of marsh excavation and nature trail construction.

15JA89. Red fox tracks at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve: one fox’s set had a pattern for a long distance, on cleared path with ice and a thin snow cover that had partly fused to it, of a mix of walk and trot, i.e., two walking steps and a trot step.

24MR89. Winfield Mounds, tracks. Red fox moved from walk to trot (body angle version). Step increased from 16″ to 18-19″, and more on toes.

22JE89. Scats in Willowbrook Back 40 packed with mulberry seeds. The berries first ripened within the past week.

7SE89. Red fox tracks near marsh. Fox also crossed Park Boulevard last night.

8SE89. Back 40, fox walking stride average about 16 inches, heel to heel.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in half inch of snow that fell last night on McKee Marsh area. Ponds frozen. Coyotes’ activity heavily on and around them. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks absent from wide area I walked in N. Blackwell. Were common before; have coyotes driven them off? (In late 90’s, foxes resurging; researchers say mange took them out).

20NO89. Red fox tracks, Willowbrook, soft soil (but true track size) 1 5/8L x 1 3/8 W.

14DE89. Willowbrook. Fox direction of travel when track partly filled with snow: slides foot in at an angle, lifts it straight out. Covered a lot of ground last night. Played a while with the caged fox. Below 0°F last night. Rabbits, mice and a muskrat active.

16DE89. McDowell. Foxes and coyotes present. Foxes about 12-16″ between steps in walk, coyotes 15-20.”

19DE89. Willowbrook. Fox carried stiff dry weed stem 1.5 feet long for some distance, dragging end in snow. Play? Were mink doing same at Herrick and McDowell last winter?

21JA90. West Chicago Prairie, on Prairie Path. Fox slow lope, maintained considerable distance. 9-14″ (variable) between footprints, tend to be greatest from the Left front to the pair of tracks. Gait developed out of a trot, body-angle version, with 11-12″ between pairs of tracks and 2″ (along axis of travel) between the members of a pair. The slow lope appears to be a common gait along here today, either an individual preference or controlled by the quarter inch of snow that had fallen earlier.

          LF       LH                  

            0         0                      0        0

 0                     0          0                    0

RH                   RF                              

26JA90. Willowbrook. 4 inches of snow dumped in heavy wind yesterday. Last night wind calmed. Sticky snow on all plants. Mice and foxes, some rabbit activity. Fox taking longer (16-24″) walking steps. Lifted leg to mark (male?). A common slow lope pattern, so similar to the diagonal walk as to be almost indistinguishable in this snow depth. Appear to be LF, RF+RH, LH. Space between sets of 4 tracks slightly greater than spaces between. Travel left to right:

 o                    o                    o                    o

          o  o                                      o  o

(actually, slightly longer hole in snow where right feet are close together)

22AP90. Winfield Mounds. Tracks near SE corner of preserve, near houses.

26JA92. Hidden Lake. A red fox in forest bedded for a time atop a fallen log, bed 8″ diameter at bottom, 12″ diameter overall. Fox removed a bit of a burdock bur with some hairs. Bed 2.5 feet above ground, on a hillside. Fox had walked along top of log to reach the spot.

From 1993 to 1997, red foxes were scarce in DuPage County. I don’t remember seeing any on the preserves during that period, and essentially no signs. Coyotes, meanwhile, became abundant. Beginning in 1998, I began seeing red foxes again. Coyotes remained abundant.

1AP00. Red fox scats on Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum, near its southern boundary with Hidden Lake Forest Preserve.

In the 2000’s I seldom have encountered red foxes or their signs. Based on reports from phone calls to the forest preserve district, and occasional sightings of my own, I have the sense that red foxes now are mainly animals of residential neighborhoods, and are much less common than they once were in the county. Their place on the preserves has been taken by coyotes.

Summer Prairie Wildflowers

by Carl Strang

My groundwork for future phenology studies continues at Mayslake Forest Preserve as I record first flowering dates for summer blooming plants, with the greatest number now occurring in prairies and meadows. The first, wild bergamot, has a broad enough ecological range sometimes to grow in open woodlands, too.

Bergamot b

More confined to proper prairies is the yellow (also known as gray) coneflower.

Yellow coneflower b

One of my favorites is the plant from Mars, or so I think of its odd appearance, more commonly known as rattlesnake master.

Rattlesnake master 2b

Butterflies like it, too. Drier prairies are good places to find hoary vervain,

Hoary vervain b

while wetter prairies are home to its congener, blue vervain.

Blue vervain b

Those plants will be much more spectacular looking when they hit their flowering peak, but here I am focused on first blooms of the season. Whorled milkweed, with its linear leaves, has an unconventional look for a milkweed.

Whorled milkweed 1b

Butterfly weed, a milkweed lacking the milky looking sap, arrests the eye.

Butterfly weed 1b

It is protected by internal poisons. Another eye-catcher, the purple prairie clover, is less fortunate. Rabbits love it.

Purple prairie clover b

Towering above nearly all the other prairie species is the compass plant.

Compass plant 2b

Now for some more mints (bergamot was one): the slender mountain mint,

NL mountain mint 2b

the common mountain mint,

Virginia mountain mint b

and germander.

Germander b

The earliest sawtooth sunflower heads always seem to have these odd bits of green popping out of them.

Sawtooth sunflower b

We are late enough in the season that the blazing stars are beginning to bloom. First of these at Mayslake is the marsh blazing star.

Blazing star b

The season’s but half done. There’s much more to come.

Mammal Action

by Carl Strang

In summer there is less to report about mammal activities at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Mammals are better able to hide in the dense green growth, most avoid coming out in the heat of the day, and the hard soil registers footprints less clearly. There are exceptions to this rule, though. Cottontails have been visible in numbers that have increased substantially since nesting began.

Cottontail 15JLb

It is well that they are so prolific, given the heavy predation pressure they face through the entire year (I shared several examples last winter, for instance here ).

Squirrels are diurnal, so they remain visible on summer days though mainly early and late. Mulberries have ripened, and become a major food for the squirrels at this point in the season.

Squirrel mulberry b

Scats indicate that coyotes and raccoons also are heavy mulberry feeders, the former taking advantage of the large numbers of the berries that fall to the ground.

Mulberry b

Speaking of raccoons, here is one that stayed out a little late in the savanna one morning.

Raccoon 1b

Probably this small adult was a mother, prolonging her hunt for food with a growing set of cubs to nurse.

Footprints attest that deer are on the preserve, but they have been able to stay out of my sight. Here, hoofprints show clearly in an area of mowed tall grass.

Deer tracks grass b

Mammals again will play a bigger role in this blog as summer transitions to fall and winter.

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