Tantalizing Glimpses

by Carl Strang

Last week, for only the second time in my life, I saw a long-tailed weasel. I was on a morning bike ride, touring rural roads around Culver, Indiana, when a small mammal crossed the road in front of me, disappearing into dense herbaceous vegetation at the edge. There was no mistaking that long slender form for anything other than a weasel, and it was too lightly built to be a mink. Its length appeared close to that of a female mink, however, which rules out the least weasel.

My only other long-tailed weasel sighting was a glimpse of one climbing a wooded mountainside in New York State’s Adirondacks. Otherwise, I have found their tracks on only three occasions.

This sketch I make near Hartz Lake in Starke County, Indiana, in 1989. I also have seen tracks twice in DuPage County, Illinois. And that’s it. Such limited experience suggests these animals are relatively few, at least compared to mink, which I expect to see a few times each year.

For an inquiry-minded naturalist, an animal like this will be a frustrating subject. Mammalogists resort to trapping and radio-tagging to learn about such creatures. Fortunately there are plenty of more accessible subjects to study, as I hope this blog has illustrated, and it’s good that there are some animals to liven one’s experience with such rare sightings as the one I had last week.

Sandhill Crane Dossier

by Carl Strang

We have been seeing sandhill crane flocks passing over northeast Illinois, their calls announcing the new season and making them a good choice for this week’s species dossier.

Crane, Sandhill

DuPage County, IL, is under a major flyway in both spring and fall migrations (Jasper-Pulaski wildlife area in IN and Horicon Marsh in WI their equidistant destinations, so they usually pass over at midday in both spring and fall). Altitude usually fairly high; use thermals over Glen Ellyn, for example, to make large spiralling climbs. Ratchety calls generally made in flight. Occasionally a very few stop overnight at McKee Marsh. They take advantage of weather systems to get wind pushes to north or south while migrating.

I know them best from western Alaska, breeding grounds. Arrived very early in spring. Nest generally 2 eggs. Territory marked with duet call, one bird bugling, the other with rattling call in time. When I approached nest or hidden young, parents would sneak away with body and head held low. Flocks organized by August 1.

A distraction display?: bird walked slowly with back arched, wings hooded and held out to sides.

Arrived on the breeding grounds in flocks. Fed on old berries, and probably voles and cocoons.

Nest: “2 eggs in a dry area with scattered standing Elymus stems but no real cover. Nest a bunch of flattened Elymus stems.” Another on a pingo top.

21MY74. Kashunuk study area. “Territorial encounter between 2 crane pairs. The defending pair walked toward the intruders and when they came within 20 feet the latter showed a posture like gulls’ Anxiety Upright and took off. As they ran into take-off, one defender followed them for several steps, body bent forward and neck arched down, then up.” Defending pair duetted after intruders left.

1JL74. I watched an arctic fox testing an adult crane. Made short dashes in, then leaped back. Crane charged back at fox with neck low, bill forward, head about 1 foot above ground, wings part open, when fox came closest. No chick or eggs observed nearby.

In fall 1986 first migrants heard 13SE. Large flight 2NO.

22SE87. Migrant flock passed over Willowbrook, midday.

10MR88. Large flock passed over Willowbrook at noon.

22MR88. Cranes over Willowbrook at noon. Wind from south, warm.

1MY88. A pair flew up from West Chicago Prairie F.P., gone the following morning.

10MR89. Cranes passing by Hartz Lake property (Starke County, IN), mainly to south.

21MR89. Cranes over Willowbrook, noon. Several high V’s.

2AP89. Pairs and singles going by Hartz Lake, morning.

22SE89. 3 cranes passing over Willowbrook, late morning.

3NO89. A couple large flocks over Willowbrook. High, in V’s. Wind mainly west to east with slight north to south component.

13NO89. Crane flock over Winfield Mounds F.P., 11 a.m. Later, another, rising on thermals of Winfield town.

16NO89. Large crane flock over Willowbrook, high and fast-moving on a cold north wind.

Crane flight in 3 parts: slow for most of downbeat, quick end of downbeat, snapping into quick upbeat.

20MR93. Lots of cranes passing over, today and for past week.

24MR97. Cranes getting anxious? Flock passed over Willowbrook 9 am. Two days ago another flock passed over at 4 p.m., into north wind.

In spring of 97 I saw migrant cranes in the Platte River area of Nebraska.

4MR99. First cranes of spring passing over Willowbrook, several flocks at mid-day. Also noted there 18MR, 19MR.

29SE99. First cranes of fall passing over Willowbrook.

3MR00. 3 flocks of cranes went over Willowbrook around 2-3 pm, the first of the year for me.

24SE00. The first crane flocks of the fall passing over West Chicago Prairie and Fermilab. Flocks of 21, 23, 20 and 48 counted.

23FE02. A flock of 14 flew over Willowbrook around 1p.m., flying high, heading north. This is the earliest record for me; the winter has been mild.

23FE05. A flock of at least 30 passed over Mayslake Forest Preserve around 1:15 p.m.

Red-winged Blackbird Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here’s another example of a species dossier. The idea is to separate what I have learned through my own observations from what I have learned through the literature or others’ observations. It is a tool that has enriched my understanding and improved my focus in the field. The initial summary, written when I established the dossier in the mid-1980’s, is followed by entries marked by my date code. Each month is represented by the first two letters of its name, except when two months begin with the same letter. Then, the second letter is unique to that month (JA, JE, and JL for January, June and July, respectively).

Blackbird, Red-winged

Nests seen in cattail marshes, attached to cattails, although birds also defend territories in dry, tall grass meadows. Out of breeding season may show up anywhere, though usually in open areas. Male advertizes with song (kong-la-ree’-er), either while perched or descending to perch on, say, tall cattail head. Capable of hiding or elevating and exposing red shoulder patches. When people approach nest, male especially but also female get highly excited, hovering overhead with sharp dry “keck” notes. Some individuals swoop down at intruders. Also chase crows, hawks. Hunt insects in breeding season, visit cornfields in flocks in fall. Gone from the north in winter.

5MR87. In morning, first of year on perches beside Butterfield Rd.

6MR88. Numbers of them at Winfield Mounds.

12MR89. First of year seen on way to Hartz Lake.

15AP89. Males often seen swiftly and closely chasing females, this time of year. Is she testing him, listening for wheezing, etc.?

1NO99. Last of the season seen at Willowbrook.

21FE00. Among several Brewer’s blackbirds at Fermilab’s buffalo feeders, a single male red-winged blackbird which called, once.

18JE00. A female flushed from a nest when I was about 10 feet away. Nest with 3 eggs, a woven grass cup ~3″ deep by 4″ across, attached to a dead woody stem in its fork, in a canary reed grass area and within the level of the grass, ~3 feet off the ground. Near edge of Herrick marsh.

22OC01. Some red-wings singing in the morning at south Blackwell.

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

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

16MY06. Tri-County S.P. A male red-winged blackbird took flight and went straight for a pair of cowbirds foraging on the ground, more than 50 feet away. It chased them away, turning back as they kept going.

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

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.

Black-capped Chickadee Dossier

by Carl Strang

I have mentioned black-capped chickadees from time to time in this blog, most notably when introducing the topic of mixed flocks. Today I want to share my dossier on this species. In my dossiers I try to summarize what I know of a species from my own observations, as opposed to information from the literature or other outside sources. I began writing the dossier in the mid-1980’s. Observations begin with my date codes.

Chickadee, Black-capped

Ca. 1979. I remember sitting on the hawk watch at Reineman Sanctuary in PA in fall and watching as a sharp-shinned hawk zipping along the ridge suddenly turned its course so as to enter the tree canopy and caught a chickadee.

Boiling Springs, PA, 1980. A pair nested in hollow Ailanthus branch. One bird was electrocuted by a nearby electric fence. The other completed incubation and at least began to rear the brood alone. “Cheeseburger” call (more formally known as the fee-bee call) used early as apparent territorial signal.

Lombard, IL, 1981. A pair nested in a wren house, raised a brood, then returned and raised a second brood in the same house. In both cases, the pair traveled the neighborhood with their groups of fledglings.

Maple Grove Forest Preserve (F.P.), 1986. A pair was cleaning out an old cavity in a 10 foot snag in the maple forest. The excavating bird periodically removed beaks full of sawdust. Other bird remained nearby, giving occasional “chickadee” contact call.

Meacham Grove F.P., 24MY86. For the first time, I saw a chickadee taking advantage of tortricids hidden in folded leaves. One individual moved from one folded leaf to the next, vigorously tearing them open. I expected to see it more frequently than I have, given the lack of other birds with the appropriate foraging behavior in their repertoire, and the abundance of this food resource.

Willowbrook F.P., 1984-86. Chickadees have broods in the wooded riparian strip each spring. One pair appears to control the entire 1/4 mi. X 100-foot strip. Groups of more than 2 chickadees stay together through the winter. “Chickittaperk” vocalization appears to be an interspecific agonistic (dispute) display.

Chickadees weren’t common in Culver, Indiana when I was growing up. I remember being pleasantly surprised that a pair was present, nesting, at Miracles’ house in summer. This implies they were more easily seen in winter, at the feeder. Old trees and branches were scarce in our neighborhood.

Alarm call: one used a sharp “chiburr,” another answered with the same call.

11FE87. Willowbrook. Widely scattered chickadees in the Back 40 old field are maintaining contact mainly via the feebee call.

28FE87. A group of a half-dozen chickadees in trees: much sneeze-calling and chick-chick-chick-chick, but few chickadee calls, with much chasing and displacement. Later, many individuals made chickadee calls from widely separated perches. Then a period of silence followed.

14MR87. Maple Grove F.P. Seven chickadees moved together with a mix of chickadee and sneeze calls, occasionally briefly chasing one another. The group spread out widely, then used very high-pitched brief “cheeks” for contact.

29AP87. Chickadee caught adult noctuid moth, pecked body (scales puffed into the air), removed wings one at a time and they drifted to the ground, landing at least 3 feet apart.

1JL87. Willowbrook F.P. Chickadee pecking at mulberries.

10SE87. 0.5-3 seconds per perch in foraging, flying or hopping a few inches to 6 feet or occasionally 10 feet between perches, acrobatic hanging or hover-gleaning, pecking at dried leaves, turning and lowering body almost to upside down position to peer different ways.

13SE87. At West DuPage Woods F.P., several chickadees in a mixed flock with a redstart and a bay-breasted warbler.

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

10JE90. Warrenville Grove. Chickadee saw me at sit near edge of woods. Alarm call “chicka-chicka-…(rapid)-dee-dee-dee”

3JL90. Chickadee plucked 2 unripe (white) mulberries from the branches. Dropped the first, then went for the second. Worked on it several seconds, holding it against a twig with its toes. I couldn’t tell if it ate the whole berry or just extracted seeds. Suspect latter.

7SE90. 2 chickadees eating dried crabapples, eating, pulling out and eating little bites.

30SE90. Chickadee and downy woodpecker eating poison ivy berries at Ann’s business property near Lafayette.

8FE00. Chickadees heard singing for the first time of the year at Willowbrook, and continuing in the following days. Also vigorously chasing each other this day, with agonistic vocalizations.

10FE00. Chickadees singing (feebee song) at Willowbrook.

1AP00. Morton Arboretum, Heritage Trail. A mixed flock with at least 1 brown creeper, 2-3 chickadees; juncos and robin in area. Chickadees longer on each perch than golden-crowned kinglets observed yesterday. A lot of looking around, not so constantly moving between perches, and making larger jumps between perches, 3′ common. Later, another association of chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets and a white-breasted nuthatch. These mixed flocks stand out because after going through a long segment of forest path where there are essentially no birds, suddenly there are many at once of several species. Again, chickadees sitting longer in one place and moving farther between perches. All moving together in same direction through forest, and moved away from me as I observed them. Later still, a couple of chickadees without associates. Perhaps this is the kind of observation that led to the local core species idea.

25JE00. This spring I have observed 3 chickadee groups with parents and fledglings, one at the Arboretum on 1JE, one yesterday at Willowbrook, and a third in another part of the Arboretum today. Instead of being spread out, in each case the groups were clustered in a small area no more than 20 feet in diameter, and they moved only very slowly. Feedings were frequent, so apparently the parents directed or led their young to food-rich locations.

11MR01. A chickadee at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve with a variation on the fee-bee song: the “bee” syllable is repeated, and each syllable has the usual hinged quality, i.e., “fee-bee-ee-bee-ee.”

More recent observations have focused on the role of black-capped chickadees in mixed flocks.

29AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario, Mizzy Lake Trail. Flock 1: Golden-crowned kinglets, a young-of-the-year black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler, black-capped chickadees. Flock 2: At an edge between mixed forest and a lake. Black-capped chickadees, several black-throated green warblers (appear to be sticking together to form their own group within the flock), at least 1 blue-headed vireo, 1 female or young blackburnian warbler, 1 chestnut-sided warbler, and 1 Tennessee warbler. The black-capped chickadees are very abundant here, the most apparently numerous birds in the forest (because of their frequent calling and frequent presence). It is easy to see how migrant birds accustomed to forming mixed flocks with them here in the north could attach to resident birds they encounter on the trip south. Flock 3: Black-capped chickadees, Swainson’s thrush.

30AU01. Algonquin Park, Bat Lake Trail. Flock 1: Black-capped chickadees, a black-and-white warbler, the latter singing. Flock 2: Black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, 1 or 2 black-throated blue warblers, at least 1 Tennessee warbler, yellow-rumped warbler. The first three species are the vocal ones. These flocks are distinctive: you go for hundreds of yards seeing or hearing no small birds, then suddenly there is one of these diverse groups in a small area.

31AU01. Algonquin Park, Spruce Bog Trail. Flock 1: Yellow-rumped warblers, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets. Do more northern birds, living in more open forests, either not have chickadees to associate with, or perhaps the scattered trees (if they are) remove the advantages of mixed flocks? See if it’s true that the non-mixed-flock species tend to be more northern.

12SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1 around west end of cross trail. 2 chickadees and 1@ of black-throated green, magnolia, Tennessee (sang a couple times), and 1 unidentified species. Flock 2 near the NW corner of nature trail, a magnolia warbler apparently alone.

13SE01. Willowbrook. A large but difficult to view mixed flock near office building: 3 chickadees, 2 redstarts, a blackpoll warbler, a red-breasted nuthatch, and many others.

14SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1 around NW corner of nature trail: redstart, chickadee, downy woodpecker, Tennessee warbler, black-throated green warbler, magnolia warbler, red-eyed vireo. Flock 2 between eastern part of animal exhibit and bridge. Chickadee, 3 redstarts, downy woodpecker, blackpoll warbler (it is possible that the one seen earlier joined this flock; it was near this location).

17SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1: 3 chickadees, 1 redstart, others perhaps; near west end cross trail. Flock 2, base of savanna, 2 palm warblers only. Flock 3, brush area east of Nature Trail, 2 chickadees only. Flock 4, another part of same brush area, 2 chickadees, a magnolia warbler, 1 other unidentified.

19SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1, east exhibit area to bridge: 2 chickadees, 1 black-throated blue warbler, 1 redstart, possibly others. Flock 2, west end cross trail: staying around berry-feeding robins, waxwings and catbird, with no chickadees around: a black-and-white warbler, 2 downy woodpeckers, a redstart, a blackpoll warbler, possibly others.

25SE01. Elsen’s Hill, plateau above river. Flock 1: at least 8 vocal, active yellow-rumped warblers, and a ruby-crowned kinglet. Flock 2, very large and diverse, only some individuals identified: 2 chickadees, black-throated green warbler, blackpoll warbler, 2 Nashville warblers (1 low in an aster thicket another in low tree branches), downy woodpeckers, a parula behaving like the Nashville, 2 redstarts, a chestnut-sided warbler.

26SE01. Willowbrook, between bridge and animal exhibit. 2 chickadees, and at least one @ of vireos (Philadelphia, red-eyed, yellow-throated), warblers (Tennessee, magnolia, parula, black-throated green), scarlet tanager, red-breasted nuthatch.

27SE01. Willowbrook. Flock between bridge and exhibit fence. 2 chickadees, 1 Tennessee and 1 magnolia warbler.

30SE01. Fox River and Island Park, Batavia. Many yellow-rumped warblers spread out all over, some hover-gleaning, some flycatching, others reaching for poison ivy berries. With them, a chickadee, a male Cape May warbler in the top of a silver maple, very active in the short time I saw it.

14SE02. Elsen’s Hill. I walked for several minutes, seeing apparently independent Tennessee warblers (2 together) and a Nashville warbler before encountering a large flock. This flock seemed to be changing composition over time, i.e., after my initial observations I walked a short distance away, then returned, and when I came back, some birds were the same but there were several new ones, as well. Later, after following the flock for 50 minutes or so and losing them in a direction I did not want to pursue in the brush, I returned to the starting point and a small mixed flock was there, with some of the birds I saw initially (apparently, none were marked of course) and a couple added ones. Initial group: a blackpoll warbler, 2 red-eyed vireos, 2 redstarts, an essentially silent chickadee, a black and white warbler, a Tennessee warbler, a Swainson’s thrush, a female or young black-throated blue warbler that was the only flock member calling consistently, all foraging in brush understory within 15 feet of the ground (the redstarts were the only ones consistently going above 10 feet; this was after 9 a.m.). Flock after my return: golden-winged warbler (like the redstarts, up higher, and very active, including flush and pursuit), a male and 2 female or young black-throated blue warblers, 2 Tennessee warblers, a black-throated green warbler, 3 redstarts, 2 blackpoll warblers, a black and white warbler, a blackburnian warbler. After it had warmed up some, later, a magnolia warbler foraging 20-25 feet up and the other birds also have gone higher. Doing a lot of reaching, and spending much time looking from each perch. At 10:45 I returned to the starting point: 4 noisier chickadees, 2 red-eyed vireos, a blackpoll warbler, a male redstart, a magnolia warbler, all except the chickadees foraging higher, throughout the tree canopies. Also a downy woodpecker, black-throated green warbler, Swainson’s thrush.

25AU08. Fullersburg Woods. First mixed flock of the fall migration has 2 chickadees, a downy woodpecker, a Tennessee warbler and a Canada warbler.

28AU08. Fullersburg Woods. Mixed flock just S of Willow Island bridge: 2 chickadees, 2 Tennessee warblers, 2 magnolia warblers, a gnatcatcher.

29AU08. Fullersburg Woods. Mixed flocks: One with four chickadees, two Tennessee warblers, a magnolia warbler and a black-and-white warbler. Also, 2 Tennessee warblers together apart from mixed flock. At mid-day a mixed flock near the junction of trails with 3 chickadees, 3 Tennessee warblers, a white-breasted nuthatch, a magnolia warbler, a parula. Chickadees were doing a lot of hanging upside down, Tennessees less acrobatic running along tops of branches and reaching, magnolia and parula more rapid movements, hopping between branches, nuthatch on bark, all in top half of canopy.

13SE08. Kettle Lakes Provincial Park, Ontario. Large, mixed flock in an area around 75 yards in diameter: at least 2 black-capped chickadees, 5 golden-crowned and 4 ruby-crowned kinglets, 4 yellow-rumped warblers, 2 red-eyed vireos, downy woodpecker, black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, redstart, red-breasted nuthatch. I’m hearing white-throated sparrows, but they seem all near the ground rather than up in the trees with the others. Weak songs from ruby-crowneds, the black-throated green and the black-and-white. This is mainly an area of aspens with some jack pines. Mixed flock: at least 2 chickadees, at least 2 golden-crowned kinglets, 2 ruby-crowned, and a yellow-rump. Aspen grove again with some jack pines and a couple white pines.

15SE08. Nagagamisis Provincial Park. On trails, encountered a little flock of at least 7 ruby-crowned kinglets. Nothing up with them first time through, but white-throated sparrows lower down in that area (on the way back a chickadee, a brown creeper, 3 golden-crowned kinglets and a Swainson’s thrush added). Birds have been few, and I cannot discount the possibility of an association of the white-throated sparrows with this group. On the Time Trail, balsam fir the dominant tree with plenty of white spruces, some black spruces, white cedars, paper birches. Another mixed flock with at least one chickadee, 2 ruby-crowns, 3 golden-crowns.

21SE. Mayslake. A mixed flock at edge of Area 9 and grounds containing a black-throated blue warbler (new preserve species), black-throated green, 2 redstarts, 2 blackpolls, chestnut-sided, Nashville, black-and-white, magnolia, and a chickadee.

Downy Woodpecker Dossier

by Carl Strang

This is another of my dossiers, a collection of observations that represents what I know about a particular species from my own experience. Following an initial description that summarizes what I remembered when I set up the dossier in the mid-1980’s, each individual entry begins with my date code.

Downy Woodpecker

This is an abundant, year-round resident of forested areas and savannas. They nest in small tree cavities. Feed by searching on small twigs up to the size of tree trunks, on shrubs, sturdier weed stems, occasionally on the ground. They crawl rather than hitch along. Voice a rapid whinny, individual tones mores musical than hairy woodpecker’s and lower in pitch; reminds me of a movie witch’s cackle. When feeding, they pick at twigs or flake bark. They do much pecking under bark edges, when foraging on a tree trunk. Nest in hollow branches or main tree stems.

30MR86. 2 male downy woodpeckers in an aggressive encounter. Frequent flicking of wings and spreading of tail. Assumption of posture in which body is upright and neck arched back so bill points straight up. Appeared to be trying to get above one another. Generally faced one another when in bill-up posture, and both did it at once. Red feathers conspicuous.

Late summer 1986. As a flock of ground-feeding grackles flushed at the approach of people, downies and jays at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve emitted contact calls, apparently as a final check of location and status before possible flight.

8MR87. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Male appears to be exploring the acoustic properties of a white oak limb. Spiralling up it, drumming frequently. Full drum about 1 second, poor spots drummed 0.5-0.75 seconds. Repeatedly drummed fully the spots that gave the greatest volume and lowest pitch. As I wrote the above, I heard vocalizations. Three downies now in that tree. The drummer and a second, presumably its mate, chased a third which gave fragments of the whinny call. They held themselves flat against branches, tails fanned, and gave whinny fragments and a more chattering, flatter sort of vocalization. The third bird left, but a few seconds later I heard a brief drumming about 50m in the direction it had gone. The other two immediately flew in pursuit, and after a few brief whinnies all was quiet.

7MY88. Indian Trails area, Culver. One systematically probing and pecking bases of hickory buds, open with leaves about 1/4 expanded.

18OC88. Hartz Lake area, Indiana. A vigorous, repeated displacement of one individual by another, though they stick together.

7MR89. Extended confrontation between 2 male downies. Mostly jerkily hopped up small tree stems within 3 feet of one another, flicking wings almost constantly, approaching, withdrawing, occasionally expanding and flashing the red patches, changing trees together, occasionally getting out of sight of one another momentarily, overall appearance of jerky movement. After more than 5 minutes of this, one displaced the other several times in rapid succession, but then they returned to the jerky maneuvering, with occasional rests on opposite sides of the trunk, out of sight of one another. Before all this, one of them called repeatedly, loud single-note reps. Another bird (female? Not seen) called or drummed a couple times during this from at least 50 feet away.

26-31MY90. Hartz Lake area. A nest in a river birch, entrance 12 feet up. Both parents fed, about 10 minutes between arrivals for each parent. Young still small, faint cheeping voices. When screech owl family passed by early one morning, one adult mobbed at a distance with alarm notes.

30SE90. Downy woodpecker eating poison ivy berries near Lafayette, IN.

10FE99. Two pairs of downy woodpeckers are actively engaged in drumming, calling, displaying and chasing in an area that centers on the Willowbrook bridge but extends most of the way to the marsh in one direction, and up to the big willow near the marsh’s water intake pipe in the other.

23MR99. The situation has become very complex at Willowbrook and difficult to follow, with displaying and chases, drumming and calls going on all day. It appears that at least 3 pairs are involved, with the center of the activity between the creek and the center of the outdoor animal exhibit. A downy woodpecker also was drumming in the big cottonwoods in the center of the Nature Trail circle, the first I’ve noticed there this year.

29MY99. Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Young audible in nest.

5OC99. Willowbrook. Downy eating poison ivy berries.

23FE00. Willowbrook. Male downy woodpecker displaying toward female, body in a stiff posture, tail fanned, unusual chattering vocalization, following or chasing her, matches Stokes’ description of Bill Waving.

1-2JL00. Juvenile downies have large red patches on top of head.

27MR06. Downy woodpecker drumming is so rapid that individual strikes cannot be followed. Hairy woodpecker drumming very rapid, individual strikes can be distinguished. Red-bellied rapid but slightly less so.

2009. Mayslake. One successful nest was in a large weeping willow branch in the SE corner of the mansion grounds. Young were vocal for several days before fledging. There was at least one other successful nest on the preserve.

Woodcock Dossier

by Carl Strang


After yesterday’s account of woodcocks at Mayslake, I thought I’d share my dossier  on that species. As always, I began with my observations of the species prior to setting up the dossier in 1987, then added observations coded by date:


Once I got a close look at one beside the Tippecanoe River. It walked slowly, with a peculiar bobbling gait, teetering on its short legs. Courtship display observed near Purdue in IN, in PA, and in DuPage County, IL. Male usually flies to his dancing ground in mid-late dusk, with distinctive mothlike flight (continuous flapping of round wings, with some curves and turns in course). Display begins with male on ground, emitting a flat, buzzing call, “beezt,” at 2-8-second intervals. A close observer hears a faint hiccup preceding (coupled to) this “peent” call. The bird turns occasionally to face in different directions. After several minutes of peenting the woodcock takes off, flying low with a whistling titter sound, then turning and flying upward in a spiraling or zigzagging climb. When the bird is near the apex of his flight he still is roughly over his ground site, and the whistling becomes more frantic and labored, in bursts rather than continuous. Finally he hovers or zigzags at an altitude of at least 300 feet, singing a beautiful plaintive whistling song with repeated phrases of separate notes going up in pitch, then down (usually 3 notes, with increasing emphasis, then 3 notes down with lower emphasis). Finally the bird becomes silent and zigzags steeply back to Earth, usually landing where he started, in a little arena of short grass within an early-shrub-stage old field near heavier brush. Often a bird will have 2-3 alternate ground sites. Began late March, ended by 1MY in northern IL, often extending later (even into June) in Indiana, e.g. at Hartz Lake. One bird was observed dealing with an intruder on 2 different nights at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve, in 1986. Intruder peented a couple times, resident made a loud long buzzing call, then flew toward the intruder, who took off. The pursuing bird escorted the intruder away the first time, but chased it closely for a long time the second night, eventually returning to his initial site. In NE IL the birds danced for around 45 minutes, going up 3-12 times during that period. As the season grew late, they went up fewer times.

12JL87. Flushed 2 in nearly dry artesian-well pond at Culver Fish Hatchery. Looked a little unsteady in flight: youngsters?

8AP89. No woodcocks flew at Pratts Wayne Woods (I heard 7-9 the previous week, and they flew for a program 4 days before that). Weather cold after a cold front, with snow. Also failed to fly 4 days later. Weather cold through that period. A couple peents each night, no more.

15AP89. Hartz Lake, IN. I approached 2 displaying woodcocks. One walked around a lot, over a 10-15 foot area, stretching up and walking slow or fast, between flights. Other walked only a little. First’s peenting frequency became very rapid once, when another woodcock flew over.

13MY89. Still going strong at Hartz Lake. After quitting in dark, one began peenting intermittently later (I was camping), well after dark, and even flew once, at ~11pm. No moon, dark with intermittent showers.

26-29MY90. Hartz Lake. Display still strong on 26th, with about 5 flights in evening. But number of flights tailed off daily. Both morning and evening displays. Morning pattern the reverse of evening’s. Only peented morning of 30th.

2JE90. Woodcock tracks in muddy rut of path at Pratts Wayne Woods. Interspersed with many beak-probe holes. Holes 1/8″ in diameter, sometimes soft mud produces a little larger hole. Middle toe 1.25-1.5″ long, side toes around 1-1.25″.




28FE00. 3 woodcocks peenting in north part of Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. At least one did complete display at least once.

27MR00. As I ran the prairie path near the Northwoods subdivision at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve, I heard 2 peents from a marshy area at around 6:15pm, well before the light was dim enough for the usual beginning of the courtship display.

27AP06. Fullersburg. Woodcock probed in wet soil near edge of Salt Creek on Willow Island. Caught a large worm, pulled it out, cheeks bulged as it swallowed. Resumed probing after rocking from foot to foot several times. Later, when approached by a red-winged blackbird, it severely cocked its tail up beyond vertical. When the blackbird moved on the woodcock flew across the creek to a brushy area to the south.

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