SJF Gallery

by Carl Strang

As recent posts have shown, I am transitioning into the singing insects field season. I will be spending less time at St. James Farm over the next four months, though I won’t be ignoring that preserve completely. So here is a collection of recent photos from St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

I was pleased to find that green dragons are scattered throughout the forest.

I was pleased to find that green dragons are scattered throughout the forest.

Both the smooth sweet cicely, shown here, and the hairy sweet cicely are among the late spring forest wildflowers at SJF.

Both the smooth sweet cicely, shown here, and the hairy sweet cicely are among the late spring forest wildflowers at SJF.

Wild hyacinths are savanna or woods border plants with only a brief blooming period.

Wild hyacinths are savanna or woods border plants with only a brief blooming period.

The somewhat weedy, open-growing common goat’s beard is a personal favorite.

The somewhat weedy, open-growing common goat’s beard is a personal favorite.

Earlier in the season I saw a female dot-tailed whiteface in one of the prairie plots. Here is a male on station at the catch-and-release fishing pond.

Earlier in the season I saw a female dot-tailed whiteface in one of the prairie plots. Here is a male on station at the catch-and-release fishing pond.

The grayish fan-foot, aka grayish Zanclognatha, has been abundant in the forest in recent days. The caterpillars live on fallen dead leaves.

The grayish fan-foot, aka grayish Zanclognatha, has been abundant in the forest in recent days. The caterpillars live on fallen dead leaves.

This eastern bluebird nestling looks ready to get out into the world.

This eastern bluebird nestling looks ready to get out into the world.

 

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St. James Farm is Singing

by Carl Strang

Birds poured into St. James Farm Forest Preserve in mid-May as the wave crest of neotropical migrants pushed through northern Illinois. On some days, sorting through the many songs to note visiting species was a challenge.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I took that photo from a distance on a foggy day, not wanting to get too close and create a disturbance.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

At one point, heavy rains flooded the stream well beyond its banks.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

For other birds, the breeding season is well under way.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

Among my happiest observations in the second half of May has been the discovery of two eastern bluebird nests in natural cavities.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

The same story was repeated in a dead tree near the stream. I am relieved that not all bluebirds are dependent upon human-provided nest boxes.

A little earlier in their own cycle, a pair of red-headed woodpeckers has been setting up shop in another dead tree.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird. (Clicking on any photo will blow it up for better viewing).

This pair energetically repelled another pair which expressed interest in their tree. I hope the other pair also will nest at St. James Farm.

Birds in Transition

by Carl Strang

Soon the first wave of birds that overwintered in the tropics will reach northern Illinois. April has brought a transition from wintry weather to the warmth, plant growth and insects that make the trip worthwhile for the many species whose ancestors were content with tropical conditions.

For most of the month we see birds that are year-round residents or are newly arrived from their wintering grounds in the southern states. They have to deal with the season’s variability, though. Early in April a cold spell brought a thin snowfall. There still were insects to be found, but they were on or close to the ground. A selection of species foraged on the banks of the stream at St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

On other days, getting set for the nesting season was a priority.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are wood duck boxes.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are nest boxes.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one baby.

And now, with the warm days forecast ahead, the big push of migrants soon will diversify the preserve’s avian picture.

 

SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

Beginning in the middle of the month, I went through all of St. James Farm Forest Preserve seeking the great horned owl nest. I did not find it, but did create an inventory of 25 large tree cavities where an incubating owl might not be visible from the ground. An additional possibility would be a hawk nest in the dense top of one of the spruces. Twice I saw an owl, presumably the male if they are nesting this year, in the same north central portion of the main forest. In past observations elsewhere, the male usually perched in the vicinity of the nest. I will continue to monitor the suspect cavities, but may need to see branched young later in the season to narrow down possibilities further.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

I had not seen or heard a pileated woodpecker on the preserve for more than 6 weeks (though occasionally I heard suspicious loud, spaced tapping sounds), but in the second half of February heard or saw one on three different days. The one close sighting was of a male.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

American coots and large numbers of mallards were a continuing presence on the stream. For much of the month the Canada geese roosting at Blackwell frequently passed over St. James Farm in large numbers, occasionally stopping to graze the lawns and meadow areas. Geese began to break off into pairs as ponds opened up during the last third of February. Interesting bird sightings included a bald eagle flying over, and a hermit thrush on February 16. Migrating sandhill crane flocks began to pass over beginning on the 21st. A small group of white-throated sparrows in the eastern part of the main forest were the first observed on the preserve this year. The first red-winged blackbirds arrived, and eastern bluebirds became a more consistent presence in the last part of February.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

Fox squirrels fed heavily from Norway spruce cones in the south forest, and on tree buds elsewhere. Skunk and deer activity was much as described for January. The preserve’s deer minimally are a group of 3 does, a group of 2 deer which occasionally associate with those does, and a single buck. The snow was never deep enough to discourage raccoons. A mink used a den off the south edge of the pond in the preserve’s northwest corner.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The large area of restoration brush clearing in the main forest was expanded greatly by District staff, generally following the route of the new trail mapped in the preserve’s master plan. Among the more interesting plants encountered during the owl nest search were two of the most massive black walnuts I have ever seen, and a prickly-stemmed greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides).

Bluebird Hope

by Carl Strang

I was taking a walk at the Morton Arboretum a couple days ago when a male bluebird landed in a small tree nearby.

He allowed a close approach.

Soon his mate appeared.

Females look similar, but their colors are not as bright.

They were going in and out of a natural tree cavity.

The cavity was big enough that the bird completely disappeared when entering.

This was exciting, for me. I have been concerned that bluebirds may be going the way of purple martins, recognizing only bird houses provided by people as suitable nest sites. This pair may or may not use that cavity in the end, but the fact that they are considering it is a positive sign. They, at least, have not irreversibly imprinted on nest boxes as candidate nest sites.

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.

Eastern Bluebird Dossier

by Carl Strang

A couple weeks ago I shared my dossier on the great blue heron. Today’s choice is an example of a species for which I have not made a lot of observations, and so my personal knowledge is more limited.

Eastern Bluebird

As a child, occasionally I saw these at the horse-jumping practice ground in the Culver Military Academy’s Bird Sanctuary near Culver.

They nested in birdhouses mounted on posts in a tall-grass meadow with widely scattered trees at the Tyler Arboretum near Philadelphia in 1980.

I saw them in a similar area in spring 1986 at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage Co. I also saw them in southern Illinois at Giant City State Park. [Bluebirds once were so uncommon that simply listing the places where I had seen them was most of what I could write when I first created this dossier].

23MR88. A bluebird singing from the top of a nest box, one of those posted out from a fencerow. [Location not indicated; Blackwell?]

29AP90. Indian Knoll Schoolyard, near Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. Bluebird foraging on mowed lawn by perching 8-15 feet up and sallying out 20-40 feet from perch to land on ground and take food, then returning to same perch or moving to another. [I since have concluded that this version of sit-and-wait foraging is their primary hunting method. Other birds I have seen hunting in this way are Australia’s kookaburras. Of course, the latter are after larger insects, small lizards, etc.]

20FE93. Bluebirds at the boundary between Hidden Lake F.P. and Morton Arboretum.

6FE99. Bluebirds wintering in a savannah area in the Morton Arboretum.

29AP00. Apparent territorial boundary dispute between two male bluebirds near prairie at Morton Arboretum. Song “peer, peer, poowee,” wings flutter when singing. Flying bird has an appearance like horned lark or swallow.

8OC00. Flock at West Chicago Prairie.

26MY01. A protracted dispute between a pair of bluebirds and a pair of tree swallows at a nest box in the prairie area at the Morton Arboretum’s Heritage Trail. The male bluebird was at the entrance on the outside of the box, with the female on the ground nearby, when the swallows arrived. At first it appeared that the swallows were attempting to chase the bluebirds away, but then the male bluebird became vigorous in chasing after the swallows. After 5 minutes of this, the bluebirds backed off and a swallow took the perch on top of the house. Soon, though, the bluebirds returned and the male resumed his attack. I never saw any of the birds enter the house.

5JA06. Fullersburg. A small flock of bluebirds feeding on honeysuckle berries near the Visitor Center bridge. (These stayed around for another week or so).

4AU09. Mayslake. Bluebirds nesting near the chapel have fledged at least one youngster.

(Dates are coded with the day, two-letter month code, and two-digit year).

Mayslake Species Counts

by Carl Strang

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

Barn Swallows b

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

Banded hairstreak b

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

Blazing star b

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

Nesting Season Ending

by Carl Strang

The end of the nesting season for birds has arrived. The cowbirds at Mayslake Forest Preserve have shaken out the last of their eggs, and the fledglings have matured.

Cowbird older fledgling b

Song sparrows, chipping sparrows, and phoebes were among the last foster parents. The phoebes, as far as I can tell, raised only cowbirds in their two nestings at Mayslake this year. Better news was a brood of bluebirds, produced in one of the bird houses adjacent to the mansion grounds.

Bluebird fledge 1b

Indigo buntings continued to sing and nest well into the season.

Indigo bunting 2b

But the latest nester of all, for which I have no photo at this time, is the goldfinch. Goldfinches have a diet entirely of seeds, and take advantage of the abundant seed production at the end of the season to raise their young in late July and August.

Mayslake Bird Notes

by Carl Strang

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

Nuthatch fledge 1b

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

Gnatcatcher b

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

Rb woodpecker nestling 1b

and soon is gratified by Mom’s arrival.

RB woodpecker mom at nest b

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

Bluebird cross b

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

Chimney swift 1b

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

Chimney 2b

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

Chimney 3b

Here is yet another tall chimney.

Chimney 4b

Especially intriguing are the fake chimneys.

Chimney 1b

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

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