Seasonal Transition

by Carl Strang

We have long been waiting for spring, and the seasonal transition at last is under way. Soon the snow birds will be heading back north.

Dark-eyed juncos have begun to sing and to chase each other.

Dark-eyed juncos have begun to sing and to chase each other.

The earliest migrants have begun to come through, or to pass over.

A flock of sandhill cranes flies over Mayslake Forest Preserve.

A flock of sandhill cranes flies over Mayslake Forest Preserve.

They hit a thermal, break formation and use its rising air to gain altitude.

They hit a thermal, break formation and use its rising air to gain altitude.

Breeders have begun to arrive and set up shop.

Great blue herons at the Danada colony

Great blue herons at the Danada colony

A recent arrival at Mayslake Forest Preserve has the smaller birds nervous.

The Cooper’s hawk pauses in its patrol…

The Cooper’s hawk pauses in its patrol…

…then resumes.

…then resumes.

The next mini-stage of migrant birds has begun.

Ruby-crowned kinglet at Fermilab, Sunday

Ruby-crowned kinglet at Fermilab, Sunday

Soon I expect to reach my personal criterion for the arrival of spring and the end of winter.


House Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

What could be more common than a house sparrow? That question seems less appropriate now than it might have a couple decades ago, given the decline in the species’ numbers in recent years in many parts of its range. Nevertheless, if the length of a species dossier was in proportion to the species’ abundance, this should be one of the longer ones. That it is not is a clue that perhaps I have been neglecting to give this bird the attention it deserves. Even the introductory paragraph that I wrote to kick off the dossier in the 1980’s is perfunctory.

Sparrow, House

Male house sparrow, profile view

Male house sparrow, profile view

Never far from buildings, these birds usually nest in cavities of buildings, light posts, or birdhouses, though sometimes they build large ball-shaped nests in tree or shrub branches. They use much grass and assorted debris and litter in nest construction. The song is an uncomplicated, cheerful chirping sound. Loud “cheep” calls used in agonistic and warning situations. The male has a stiff bowing hopping behavior, with tail and wings elevated, in courtship. They eat seeds and insects. They engaged in vigorous pursuit of emerging termite alates at the East Street house in Carlisle, PA.

Early AU86. Corpus Christi, TX. Young begging by fluttering wings and stretching head toward adult male. He flew to another bush and searched for food grosbeak fashion, little change in perch with much peering at nearby branches in all directions.

The face reveals how the black chin accentuates the bill, possibly a useful feature when facing off with antagonists.

The face reveals how the black chin accentuates the bill, possibly a useful feature when facing off with antagonists.

13MY87. Bird foraging in willow tops at Willowbrook. Sits on perch 1-3 seconds, searching nearby vegetation, occasionally reach-probing, changing perches about 8″-2′ apart.

8AP90. Female house sparrow systematically biting off bits of dandelion (leaves) to eat, masticating and swallowing.

17OC92. Vicinity of Cantigny (Winfield, IL) while driving. Kestrel carrying house sparrow low across road. Heavy load for the kestrel. Lost grip, perhaps because of the distraction of my car’s close proximity. Sparrow flew away. Many times I’ve seen kestrels searching vole habitat, carrying or eating mice. This, I believe, is the first bird capture I’ve witnessed.

1JE99. House sparrow picking up insect remains from old coyote feces on trail.

25AU99. House sparrow with several white feathers on tail and wings observed at Willowbrook.

29JA00. House sparrows along with Brewer’s blackbirds, horned larks and juncos feeding on spillage from buffalo feeders at Fermilab.


American Tree Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today’s feature is my dossier of the American tree sparrow, a wintering bird that still is with us but soon will head back to the northern nesting grounds. The following notes reveal my interest in the complex range of this species’ vocalizations.

American tree sparrow. The black spot in the clear chest is a helpful identification feature.

American tree sparrow. The black spot in the clear chest is a helpful identification feature.

Sparrow, American Tree

This songbird is a common winter resident in old fields and residential areas with some bushes, in Culver, around Lafayette, in south central Pennsylvania and in DuPage County, IL. Usually they occur in loose flocks, often mixed with juncos. They feed on the ground, especially, taking seeds. Note: “tsew,” “tsoo” or “tsee” in a slightly melancholy minor key, hint of downward slurring. Has a 3-syllable call, a hair slower and more flowing than junco’s, very musical and pleasant in contrast. Single-note call has a descending tail, is much like white-throated sparrow’s.

26FE87. Song heard in Willowbrook Back 40: “Tsoo-too-doo-doo-dee-chew-chew-chew-chew.” Song loud and clear, of water thrush quality.

7MR87. Another song: “tsee-tsoo-bye-tsee-tsoo-tsoo.” First note held longer than others. Tsee syllables highest pitched, tsoo’s lowest. Sang from perch in top of willow clump, 6 feet up, at West Chicago Prairie.

13MR87. Still hearing them singing.

22MR87. Still present and singing at Culver Fish Hatchery.

15OC99. First tree sparrow of the season at Willowbrook.

20DE99. Tree sparrows eating Indian grass seeds at Fermilab. Sometimes their call notes are simple and flat, but sometimes they add a trailer that so far I cannot tell from white-throated sparrow’s. In conflicts they have beautiful, musical clusters of notes.

29JA00. A flock of 30 tree sparrows and 2 juncos feeding on the gravel berm edge of Swenson Road, Fermilab.

5MR00. A single still at Fermilab, in thick grass area with a few shrubs, beside trail.

The red on the top of the head, the white wing features and yellow lower bill mandible are additional distinctions.

The red on the top of the head, the white wing features and yellow lower bill mandible are additional distinctions.

23NO04. Willowbrook. A flock of tree sparrows in tall prairie vegetation using a call I don’t remember hearing before, a pardalote-like “wee’dah.”

16NO10. Mayslake. Many tree sparrows are in the west stream corridor along the southern edge of the mansion grounds. Giving an unusual call, less than a second long, beginning at a high pitch, slurring to a lower one, and quickly back up to the starting pitch.

6JA11. The more complex tree sparrow call can be difficult to pick out when many birds are producing it at once. When a single bird is isolated, the call has the rhythm of a quick, “tit willow,” i.e., three dominant syllables with the last two close together and a little more separated from the first.

2FE12. American tree sparrow call: dedjidu, quickly pronounced.

15NO12. Mayslake. Tree sparrows eating seeds of Canada goldenrod and annuals.

25JA13. Mayslake. On the ground in the off-leash dog area, an enormous flock of at least 100 tree sparrows, 30 juncos with at least one white-throated sparrow mixed in, doing the double-foot scratching to get through the snow and then reach, presumably for seeds.

Dark-eyed Junco Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

We’ll soon say goodbye, for the summer, to our most familiar snowbirds, the dark-eyed juncos. Here are my notes on the species. This probably will also be the last dossier until next winter.

Junco, Dark-eyed

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

1986 initial summary: Juncos are common late fall, winter and early spring residents around Culver and West Lafayette, Indiana, south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. They usually travel in flocks, and can be seen in any habitat. They have a follow-me signal in the form of white outer tail feathers that contrast with the dark central ones. They eat seeds, and feed almost exclusively on the ground or on elevated flat platforms in winter. The call note is 1 to 3 syllables (often 3): chi’-bi-dit’ (short I’s), very quick and chittering.

4OC86. First lone individual of fall, stayed around the Warrenville, Illinois, back yard for much of the day.

1987. Juncos still were present at Willowbrook on 6AP, and were singing by 16MR (trilling song), gone by 27AP.

24SE87. First juncos of fall have arrived, Morton Arboretum.

14MR88. Juncos maintain a constant chatter, foraging on and near ground, of minute twitters, trills, and complex combinations of soft notes, occasionally interacting more directly with little scuffles when one encroaches on another’s bit of feeding ground.

17MR88. Juncos singing a lot, Willowbrook Back 40.

20MR88. In east Meacham Grove, a large junco flock, as at Willowbrook very noisy with assorted twitterings, chasing, some singing. Birds were on the ground, in bushes and in trees.

21MR88. Willowbrook Back 40. Some juncos kick like fox sparrows, but not so loudly.

Spring 88. Flocks still present 30MR, gone by 5AP, a few individuals still present 8AP.

15OC88. First juncos of fall, at Red Oak Nature Center (near Batavia, IL).

Juncos most commonly are seen on the ground.

Juncos most commonly are seen on the ground.

18NO88. Willowbrook Back 40. I was watching a flock of juncos and listening to birdlife in general when a sharp-shin flew over, north to south. There was silence from the time it came into view to the time it passed from view. The juncos remained absolutely still, their twitterings and flutterings resuming after the hawk was gone. That hawk must have a quiet view of the world, just as police see orderly traffic when in their patrol cars.

9MR89. Juncos starting to sing, Willowbrook.

21MR89. Willowbrook Back 40. Considerable social activity on this clear but very cool day, among juncos. Some vigorous chasing, and in one case two birds feeding on ground close together, in what seemed to be a synchronized way. They appeared to be male and female. Warming up for start of breeding season? (Have been singing off and on for weeks, now).

21OC89. First junco of fall seen at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

24SE91. First junco of fall seen at Willowbrook.

19FE99. Juncos starting to insert bits of song into their calls.

11MR99. Junco song a trill, sometimes varying in speed and with small chirps sometimes added before or after. Trill a bit more musical than the call. This morning at Willowbrook there are many juncos on the preserve, especially along the creek north of the bridge. They are foraging mainly up in the trees, also singing and chasing one another.

17MR99. Today another wave of juncos at Willowbrook. Some are appearing in places where I haven’t seen them all winter, so I’m inclined to regard them as new birds, migrants drifting north. Very active, like those on the 11th.

11OC99. First junco arrived at Willowbrook.

29JA00. Juncos along with Brewer’s blackbirds and others are at Fermilab buffalo feeders picking up spillage.

5FE00. Juncos common along roadsides near Culver.

22FE00. Willowbrook. First junco songs of the year (2 individuals).

10MR00. Willowbrook. Juncos singing regularly now. Today one fed from an open silver maple flower cluster.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Several juncos still present, have been there daily.

9MR01. This is the first day I’ve observed both singing and much chasing and other play-territorial behavior by juncos this year. A couple singers earlier in the season. It’s a much colder spring than last year, and there have been fewer juncos on the Willowbrook preserve.

30AU01. Juncos are in small groups at Algonquin Park, Ontario, usually associated with hemlock groves.

5OC10. Mayslake. Heard the first juncos of the season.

Mayslake Update

by Carl Strang

Mayslake Forest Preserve has been quiet, and for the most part remains in winter mode. Large numbers of American tree sparrows still are present, though they are wandering into an expanded portion of the preserve. For instance, one day in late January they shifted to the off leash dog area and, joined by some juncos, a couple song sparrows and a white-throated sparrow, fed on weed seeds.

Here is one tiny portion of the flock that contained more than 100 tree sparrows. One of the song sparrows is in the center.

Here is one tiny portion of the flock that contained more than 100 tree sparrows. One of the song sparrows is in the center.

In another part of the flock the tree sparrows are joined by a few juncos.

In another part of the flock the tree sparrows are joined by a few juncos.

At long last the stream corridor marsh has begun to refill.

A tiny, shallow pool had gathered by January 29.

A tiny, shallow pool had gathered by January 29.

That initial pool was perhaps 30 feet across.

That initial pool was perhaps 30 feet across.

A front brought heavy rain, then cold that froze the collected waters.

Here is the marsh two days later.

Here is the marsh two days later.

We continue to get periods of rain, and the river bulrushes have begun to collapse.

By the end of last week, perhaps 80% of the marsh had water in it again.

By the end of last week, perhaps 80% of the marsh had water in it again.

With the ground frozen, much of the rain is running off, but some is collecting in depressions like the marsh. We can hope for the rain to continue and perhaps avoid a repeat of last year’s drought.

In the meantime, skunk tracks have begun to appear, one of the early signs that spring is coming.

On the Move

by Carl Strang

Yesterday morning as I parked my car at the Forest Preserve District’s Danada headquarters, a strikingly marked bird flew to the top of a shrub in front of me.

A northern shrike!

This always is an exciting bird to see, not only because they are uncommon winter visitors from the far North, but because of their dramatic behavior. When a shrike leaves its perch, it does not simply fly away, but rather drops and Accelerates! Going from a state of watchful rest to full speed in two wingbeats, the bird scribes a graceful line through the air as it rises to its next perch and instantly again is alert stillness.

Birds are on the move again, showing signs of shifting out of their winter patterns. This shrike probably had a winter territory somewhere else, or I would expect to have seen it sooner. The first red-winged blackbirds appeared a couple weeks ago. Dark-eyed juncos have moved out of their winter home ranges. Robins are showing up in small groups in places from which they were absent in recent months, and have begun to forage on the ground. The numbers remain small, but all these cases collectively signal the start of a season of change. Canada geese increasingly are in pairs rather than flocks. Great horned owls are well into incubation. Spring is coming.

The Friary Juncos

by Carl Strang

This has been a very slow winter for birds at Mayslake Forest Preserve. The main exception has been a flock of dark-eyed juncos that has taken residence at the former friary site. The area grew a lot of annuals in the late summer and fall, including a number of weedy species, as well as oats.

The juncos most often are to be found around the edge of the site, especially here where the garden used to be.

The seeds from those annuals are keeping these gray sparrows going through the winter. There are enough of them that I doubt that my counts have ever been complete. The high count, in December, was 19. That is many more juncos than I have found on this preserve in previous years.

This week, when I took this photo, I counted 17.

Juncos tend to establish winter home ranges and stick with them, so I expect to see this flock for several weeks, yet.

Bird Habitat Preferences: Winter Residents

by Carl Strang

The dark-eyed junco may be our most familiar winter visitor among the birds. They nest in Canada and the northern states, so we see them here only from September to April. 

Juncos are gray and white sparrows, close enough relatives of white-throated sparrows that the two occasionally hybridize.

Their nesting habitat is forests, especially forest edges. What do they prefer in winter? Yesterday I showed how two local breeding birds prefer woodlands, to the near total avoidance of open areas. Such is not the case for juncos. At Mayslake Forest Preserve over two years I have a total of 36 observations in open habitats, 307 in savanna, and 61 in forest. Expectations based on the proportional acreage in those habitats are 125, 174 and 105, respectively. Though they spend some time in the open, and some time in forest, like Goldilocks they find the intermediate mix just right. Given that their winter diet is mainly seeds they pick up off the ground, this is not surprising as savannas provide both seeds and shelter, forests provide shelter but fewer seeds, and open areas have abundant seeds but limited shelter of the kind juncos like.

The other winter species for which I had enough data to look at habitat preference is the American tree sparrow.

The black spot on the chest, red cap, and 2-toned bill distinguish the American tree sparrow.

Here the observations number 62 in the open, 55 in savanna, and 37 in forest. Corresponding expectations based on habitat areas are 48, 66, and 40. It will come as no surprise to readers familiar with this species that the open appears to be preferred, but these observations are not far from the expectations and in fact the difference is not statistically significant. It appears that the tree sparrows are taking full advantage of the seed stocks available in the open as well as the shelter provided by wooded habitats. They nest north of where juncos spend the summer, in open tundra areas and zones of mixed tundra and scattered trees, so the differences between the two species on their wintering grounds are consistent.

Mayslake’s Winter Birds

by Carl Strang

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

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

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

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

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

Cardinals sang for an unusually extended period this winter.

and juncos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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