Bark Birds Big and Small

by Carl Strang

As the season progresses, numbers of passing migrant birds at St. James Farm Forest Preserve have diminished. Residents, augmented by winter additions from the North, increasingly dominate the avian communities. Prominent among these hangers-on are the birds that forage on tree bark. Downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers are year-round residents covering three body sizes and the particular foraging advantages of each. Nuthatches are still smaller, songbirds that have the ability to crawl sideways or upside down on the tree bark, finding hiding insects the woodpeckers might miss. Red-breasted nuthatches have become common in the coniferous forest this fall, while resident white-breasted nuthatches are scattered through the deciduous woodlands.

On Saturday this white-breasted nuthatch caught a harvestman that did not find a sufficiently secure bark crevice.

On Saturday this white-breasted nuthatch caught a harvestman that did not find a sufficiently secure bark crevice.

While photographing the nuthatch I heard in the distance a loud call which was entirely unexpected. Eventually my monitoring route took me into that part of the forest, and the calling resumed close by.

A pileated woodpecker!

A pileated woodpecker!

This huge bird is not one we encounter very often in DuPage County. I know of two resident pairs in the eastern half of the county. Others occasionally wander through, and this male at St. James Farm qualifies as one such traveler.

Continuing to call frequently, he actually flew closer to me. Here he cries from just above.

Continuing to call frequently, he actually flew closer to me. Here he cries from just above.

On Sunday I was in a different part of the same forest, but it was calm. I did not hear a pileated calling in the distance. I hope he moved on, rather than becoming dinner that night for the great horned owl I saw being harassed by crows not far from the woodpecker’s attention-drawing display. On the other hand, it would be nice if the pileated decided to hang around for the winter. As the largest block of old trees in the western half of DuPage County, the forest at St. James Farm is the place most likely to host our largest woodpecker species. Pileateds need lots of big old trees harboring carpenter ant colonies. In any case this was exciting, the highlight to date of my young monitoring program at St. James Farm.

Blue Jay Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier contains my observations of the blue jay, a bird I regard as the Forest Crier, who lets everybody know what is going on.

Blue jay

Blue jay

Jay, Blue

Lives in forests and old, tree-filled residential areas. Nested in the yard at Culver (15′ up in silver maple), riparian strip at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, IL (8′ up in small tree) and Maple Grove F.P. (10′ up in hawthorn at forest edge, incubating 31MY86). Bird reluctant to move when on nest. Eats mainly insects in summer, a lot of nuts and seeds in fall and winter. Forages from ground to top of canopy. Very vocal. “Eeth! Eeth!” sharp alarm call; rising, accelerating “a-a-a-ee-ee-ee-ee” (long a’s and ee’s) begging/feeding call of young (much like crows’); “ool-ool” and “teekle-teekle” calls accompanied by peculiar bobbing of body. Captive reared birds at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center often used this latter movement in concert with vocal mimicries (whistles, telephone ringing). Low, highly musical, conversation-like vocalizations among Willowbrook’s caged birds. Wild birds mimic calls of various hawks. They travel in loosely organized flocks much of the year. Mob crows in spring. Courtship feeding observed in a treetop at Maple Grove F.P. on 10MY86. Tend to take over feeders, other birds stay away until they leave.

15JE86. As a broad-winged hawk flew past, pursued by a couple of starlings at Maple Grove, a blue jay uttered a single “eeth!” call.

Late summer 86. As a flock of ground-feeding grackles flushed at the approach of people, jays and downy woodpeckers at Meacham Grove emitted contact calls, apparently as a final check of location and status before possible flight.

11MY88. Responded to deer breaking twig loudly with “thief” call, Hartz Lake.

12MY88. Jay on nest in 20′ box elder, nest 15′ up, riparian strip of Willowbrook Back 40.

5JE88. In the middle of Geneva I stood under a tree in which a pair of cardinals suddenly began to alarm-call rapidly. They were close to me, but not paying attention to me. The calls were directed at a blue jay which the cardinals chased from the isolated street-side tree to a clump of trees and brush, and continued the alarm calling and chasing until the jay left. The jay resisted some, was not driven off easily.

29MY88. Hartz Lake, in woods. A chipmunk saw me move my arm laterally, gave 3 chips increasing in speed, and ran. Immediately 2 jays feeding on the ground flew up. They were 40-50 feet away.

13JL88. Blue jay young still following, begging from parent, though they look full grown.

18OC88. Cactus Camp, IN. A blue jay yelling at me with repeated, energetic “jay jay” (“thief thief,” “eeth eeth”) calls.

24DE88. Cactus Camp. Jays doing a lot of “jay” mobbing; information about animals moving away from me?

4JE89. Elsen’s Hill Forest Preserve, IL. Teekettle call used as a warning to an intruding jay, given as the intruder landed. After several repetitions the intruder hadn’t left, and so the calling bird flew into the same oak and began to displace it (flights of 10-20 feet). It “jay”ed once, then resumed “teakettles,” continuing displacements and increasing their frequency, until the intruder left.

11JE89. Cactus Camp. Pair of jays mobbed me with loud “jay” calls.

17JE89. A broad-wing called repeatedly, in north end of Maple Grove. Jays, flickers and grackles 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.

18AU89. Willowbrook marsh. Kestrel and jays. Latter making a strange, harsh, parrot-like call. Chasing, mobbing. Kestrel seemed to stoop at the jays a couple times, but the jays kept mobbing until the kestrel left.

31AU89. Jays vigorously “jay”-ing at a great horned owl well hidden among leaves in a willow top. Chipmunks chucking nearby, below.

3SE89. Jays maintain contacts with a-a calls (long a’s) and a variety of squeaky notes.

14OC89. Cactus Camp. Jays “jay”ing at a hawk, landing on branches nearby. Hawk appeared to be a red-tail, but was down inside forest. Jays stayed with it as it flew.

Late MY90. Cactus Camp. Jays foraged in accumulated oak leaves in the open among short brush by perching on tree or sapling branches, searching the ground, and making short flights out.


Mayslake Bird Action

by Carl Strang

Bird news, like the spring, has been slow in coming to Mayslake Forest Preserve this year. One of our earliest migrants to appear is the red-winged blackbird.

The males usually show up in February, but they did not arrive at Mayslake until well into March this year.

The males usually show up in February, but they did not arrive at Mayslake until well into March this year.

A safe bet was that the large muskrat lodge that sheltered a couple of the rodents through the winter in the center of the parking lot marsh would have a goose nest on it this spring.

This location should be secure from coyotes.

This location should be secure from coyotes.

A week later it was empty, a basking spot for a large snapping turtle. I do not know when incubation began, and so cannot give a likelihood that the nest was successful.

A week later it was empty, a basking spot for a large snapping turtle. I do not know when incubation began, and so cannot give a likelihood that the nest was successful.

A single red-tailed hawk has been hunting the preserve. Its mate no doubt is on a nest somewhere, but if it’s at Mayslake I haven’t found it, yet.

Keeping an eye on things

Keeping an eye on things

Residents, like the downy woodpecker, no longer are keeping the quiet low profile they maintained through the winter.

This one checks out a staghorn sumac stem in the north savanna.

This one checks out a staghorn sumac stem in the north savanna.

Another resident, a white-breasted nuthatch, pauses between bouts of courtship.

Another resident, a white-breasted nuthatch, pauses between bouts of courtship.

The later early-season migrants were abundant last week.

Yellow-rumped warblers actively foraged in Mayslake’s woodlands.

Yellow-rumped warblers actively foraged in Mayslake’s woodlands.

Soon we can expect the floodgates to open and the air will be filled with diverse migrants’ songs.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

The birds have completed their nesting for the year, and some already have departed for the South.

It has been a while since Mayslake Forest Preserve’s eastern kingbirds have filled the air with their distinctive chattering.

Mayslake is not a migrant mecca, but we get a few. The mixed flocks usually build themselves around the local black-capped chickadees, whose frequent calling and local knowledge make flock cohesion possible and worth maintaining. One recent flock contained 2 chickadees, a redstart, 2 magnolia warblers, a black-and-white warbler, a black-throated green warbler, and a chestnut-sided warbler.

The black-and-white warbler crawled the tree bark, while the other species hunted insect prey in their various other specialized ways.

Another flock on the same day included a chickadee, a redstart, a house finch, a downy woodpecker, a white-breasted nuthatch, and a house wren. Resident birds like the woodpecker and nuthatch often join these flocks. A final grouping that day included 3 chickadees, a Nashville warbler, and a warbling vireo.

The Nashville warbler

September birders know to key on the chickadee calls. The migrants certainly do.

P.S., this is the 900th post of this blog.

Spring Time

by Carl Strang

It’s spring, and it’s time, time to shift into the new season. There are signs in abundance.

Downy woodpeckers have been getting feisty.

On Tuesday I saw Mayslake Forest Preserve’s first butterfly of the season.

An eastern comma, one of the butterflies that hibernate in the adult form.

Yesterday I set out the amphibian traps in the stream corridor marsh. It seems doubtful there are any salamanders to catch, but other interesting things turned up last season, and I’m willing to try again.

It’s important to make sure part of the trap is out of the water, for the benefit of air breathers that may get caught.

I also have begun to break out of my routine preserve monitoring routes. I am sure that after 3 years I am getting diminishing returns from them. Yesterday provided a case in point.

I have walked the trail past this big cottonwood (40 inches in diameter) many times, but yesterday I made my way through the brush on its backside, and saw this scar.

A close look revealed an interesting story.

Years ago, beavers had the ambition of chewing down the big tree. Their gnawing girdled it half way around before they gave up, or left.

In the first of the two photos you can see how large the area is where the tree has grown back over the scar. This is the largest such overgrowth I have seen, apart from lightning scars. Those are not as deep as this, however. This is a good example of how much of this preserve’s story I still have to learn.

Birds Around the Marsh

by Carl Strang

The area with the greatest diversity of birds at Mayslake Forest Preserve, now that the breeding season is well underway, has been the stream corridor with its adjacent marsh. The corridor itself is wooded, attracting Baltimore orioles, warbling vireos, yellow warblers, common yellowthroats, indigo buntings and downy woodpeckers.

This male downy worked on a nest cavity earlier in the season.

The marsh itself has been a place of interest. During the earlier part of the migration it held a pair of buffleheads for two weeks. More recently I saw one of the most unusual birds of the year there, the preserve’s first least bittern (gone before I could get the camera up; I wasn’t going to pursue and harass it just for a photo).

On Friday the marsh had a trio of herons. I didn’t get a photo of the great blue heron, which nervously departed as soon as I came into view. I had better luck with the green heron.

He landed on this stub after being chased from a preferred corner of the marsh by the bird in the following picture.

The third heron visits Mayslake less often than the others.

Great egrets always are a welcome sight, perhaps to be seen more often in summer now that they are nesting in DuPage County.

I have been most fond of another little group of birds, a momma wood duck and her young.

She started out with 9 ducklings. Only 4 remained when I took this photo.

With the diversity of birds, plants and insects around that marsh, it has been my favorite part of the Mayslake preserve this year.

Bird Habitat Preferences: Nesting Species

by Carl Strang

It’s axiomatic that you can’t understand wildlife without understanding habitat: the kinds of places animals need for food, shelter, all the requirements for survival. Last week I presented summaries of habitat data for fox and gray squirrels at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Today I want to share results for two species of birds that nest at Mayslake, one a year-round resident, the other a neotropical migrant.

Downy woodpeckers are year-round residents in our area.

An association between downy woodpeckers and wooded habitats is to be expected. On the other hand, they also go out into open areas to forage, as I have noted in their attention to goldenrod gall flies. Do the birds show a particular pattern of preference? I have two full years of data, and have divided them by season: December to February, March to May, June to August and September to November. The downies proved to be pretty consistent among seasons. I had few observations in open habitats. The birds’ presence in savannas was roughly in proportion to their area in most seasons. Though the forests are poor, as I mentioned in the context of the squirrels, they are the preferred hangout for Mayslake’s downy woodpeckers.

If all the data are combined, I observed downy woodpeckers in open areas 4 times, in savannas 213 times, and in forests 197 times. These counts have to be compared to the expected observations based on the acreage of each habitat type. If the woodpeckers divided themselves in proportion to habitat areas the counts would have been 128 in the open, 178 in savannas, and 108 in forest.

The migrant species I considered was the Baltimore oriole.

The Baltimore oriole winters in the tropics. They are on their way back to us now, but won’t arrive for another month or so.

Here the total counts of orioles were 2 in open habitats, 57 in savanna, and 43 in forest. Expectations if the birds weren’t picky are 32, 44 and 26. Wooded habitats interest the birds but open areas are avoided. There may be a slight preference for savanna over forest in these data; certainly nearly all the nests I have found have been in savanna areas.

I looked at two other bird species, both winter residents that nest north of here, and I will share those results tomorrow.

Spring Ooching In, Part 2

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I marked the physical advance of the spring season. There also have been plenty of biological signs. Sandhill cranes have been coming over on days with south winds.

Sandhill cranes are a favorite of all the Mayslake staff.

Silver maples have been flowering for more than a week.

This photo is from an earlier year.

The woodpeckers have been drumming like crazy.

This downy woodpecker found a particularly resonant sounding board.

Two days ago I saw Mayslake’s first bluebird of the year.

The bluebird appropriately was foraging in the middle of the north savanna.

Finally, yesterday the first chorus frogs started singing.

The years should have taught me patience by now. But spring ooches its way in, slowly warming, then backing off in another cold spell. I need to come up with an inquiry to keep me focused in this season, but the dreary month of March stifles my creativity. For someone who doesn’t believe in the reality of time, I certainly remain aware of its slow passage. But warm days like we’ve had this week are a soothing reminder of the season to come.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Dossier

by Carl Strang

I established my vertebrate species dossiers in the 1980’s as an antidote to relying too heavily on the scientific literature and the stories of others for my natural history knowledge. I wrote everything I could remember about each species from personal experience, which generally was embarrassingly little. Then I began to add notes as I made new observations to beef out the files. Each subsequent entry begins with my date code: the day of the month, two-letter month code, and year. Today’s example still is nothing to brag about, but on the other hand woodpeckers can be shy and resistant to casual observation.

The lack of red on the front of the head indicates that this bird is a female.

Woodpecker, Red-bellied

Frequently seen in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Stays in forested areas most of the year. Frequently goes into towns to visit feeders in winter. I found a nest at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve in the large hollow branch of a live tree. They search for food on tree trunks and large branches. Their voice is similar to that of the red-headed woodpecker. Harsh vocal quality, difficult to render, “yooch yerch,” (short oo’s), sometimes the latter syllable repeated several more times. Very quick to call when a person comes into its vicinity in winter, more so even than the blue jay.

2AP88. Near Hartz Lake, Indiana. Call between chasing intervals, apparently expelling a rival: “rook-tik.” Haven’t noted that vocalization before.

31MR99. An excavation started by one of the red-bellied woodpeckers at Willowbrook on the 29th now is a full-sized hole and goes into the tree an undetermined amount. Near the creek.

14JA00. Red-bellied woodpecker drumming repeatedly.

22MY00. Red-headed woodpecker’s trill call is flatter in tone, not rising or falling like red-bellied’s.

A nestling, close to fledgling, is anticipating its next meal.

5JL00. Willowbrook. Many robins, adult and first‑year, on the preserve today. A young one, and also a red‑bellied woodpecker, sally‑foraging for insects, possibly flying ants, from the top of a tall dead tree near the stream. (One passing insect was observed for a few seconds before the robin flew out and caught it).

26FE01. McDowell Grove. A male red-bellied woodpecker spent over half an hour excavating a cavity previously begun (it could stick its entire head in the hole). The tree was a dead stem, 20 feet tall, at the edge of the creek, the hole was facing south, away from the creek, and was surrounded by other trees. The hole was 6-8 inches from the squared, broken-off top of the stem, and the stem there was 6-8 inches in diameter. The bird paused to call frequently.

16-17MR06. On the 16th, a red-bellied woodpecker was drumming at Fullersburg. Drumming very rapid. The next day, a hairy woodpecker drumming at Tri-County State Park was drumming, similar in length but even more rapid.

Red-bellied woodpecker nest at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

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.

9NO09. Female red-bellied eating an apple in the Mayslake mansion orchard.

The Downy Woodpecker-Gall Fly-Goldenrod System

by Carl Strang

Last fall I posted an observation of a downy woodpecker opening goldenrod ball galls to get the larvae of gall flies. I did not stop with that observation, but began looking at galls to see how many had been opened. I found that the galls are not uniformly distributed, but occur in clusters scattered among Mayslake Forest Preserve’s meadows and prairies.

Here’s an example of a cluster of ball galls in tall goldenrod stems.

I counted some proportions of opened galls in these clusters in November, and again in the past week, but very informally. I have come out with some general impressions, and want to make more systematic observations in a future season. It appears that most of the foraging on these galls was done in the autumn, as ratios don’t seem much changed since November.

The most striking apparent pattern relates to the distance of gall clusters from woodlands. For instance, yesterday I looked at the galls in the area where I made that first downy woodpecker observation. That patch of galls is practically surrounded by the savanna, and 40 of 47 galls were opened. Earlier in the week I looked at a gall cluster 200-300m from any woodland, and the ratio was much different: downy woodpeckers had opened only 9 of 50 galls. This is generally consistent with the November counts.

When I look at this system again I want to track galls by marking their lower stems with paint dots, checking periodically and determining when they are opened. It makes sense that these woodpeckers, birds of the woodlands, would venture less often to the galls most remote from the trees, but I need to confirm it and see if there is a pattern. For instance, does the proportion of opened galls decrease gradually, or is there some threshold distance where the proportion of opened galls suddenly drops? Also, when exactly are the woodpeckers exploiting this food source? Of course, while making these counts I will be looking for clues that suggest why the pattern (if any) is what it is. Also, this is a three-species system, and what if anything is the response of each (plant, insect and bird) to the others?

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