Common Goldeneye Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s feature species is chosen in celebration of my seeing its close cousin, the Barrow’s goldeneye, as accounted recently.

Goldeneye, Common

Common goldeneyes, black and white males with brown headed females

Common goldeneyes, black and white males with brown headed females

Fairly common migrant and winter resident at Lake Maxinkuckee in northern Indiana, staying as long as open water remained, and appearing as open water appeared in spring. Although they fed in the lake (these ducks dive for food), they also flew to the Tippecanoe River to forage. When only holes remained in the center of the lake ice, the river was their sole food source. Crayfish the principal food taken from the river (gut contents of hunted birds). Usually seen in small groups of 2-7, although larger flocks of >20 occasionally were spotted. Called “whistlers” by hunters because of the distinctive whistling of their wings in flight. Occasional small flock seen at Kokechik Bay, western Alaska, in spring. Courtship display of males includes extreme head throwback, so that bill points up and the back of the extended neck is against the duck’s back.

Observed on the Rock River in early spring 1986.

23JA88. Pair in west branch of the DuPage River at McDowell Forest Preserve.

21FE99. 14, mostly females, and one incompletely molted-in male, actively diving in the Fox River just south of downtown St. Charles, IL.

21MR05. On Lake Maxinkuckee, two male hooded mergansers in separate small flocks of goldeneyes. In one of the flocks, courtship displays began, and the merganser displayed as well, fanning his crest open to the fullest extent. No female mergansers in those groups.

22FE09. A number of goldeneyes of both genders on the Fox River at the park downstream from Batavia’s Island Park. The current is very swift, and carrying a lot of small ice pieces. The ducks are diving repeatedly, and at some point when the current has carried them downstream a distance they fly back up and begin again. Their diving within the fairly dense ice pieces is an impressive sight.

12FE13. A number of goldeneyes at Widewaters on the Des Plaines River at Channahon, and at the rookery at Channahon and at Lake Renwick, evidently wintering there.

Seeking the Lyric Cicada

by Carl Strang

Last Thursday I searched for the northernmost lyric cicadas, having found them superabundant in Kendall County and absent in the portions of McHenry County I surveyed. This is a woodland species that seems especially common in bottomland forests, so I took advantage of our glacial legacy and followed rivers north and south (rivers developed in low zones between the concentric end moraines), but also stopped at other woodlands along the way.

Lyric cicada, Tibicen lyricen

Lyric cicada, Tibicen lyricen

There clearly is a gradient in density from south to north. In Kendall County, and along the Des Plaines River at the south edge of DuPage County, large numbers of lyric cicadas form loud choruses. In central DuPage County, at locations such as Fullersburg Woods and Mayslake, this is a regular part of the insect fauna, but they are down to countable numbers of individuals.

The clearest indication came as I followed the West Branch of the DuPage River, and continued north beyond it.  At Blackwell Forest Preserve, in west central DuPage County, there was a ratio of 11 lyric cicadas to 18 or so Linne’s cicadas (= 0.61; Linne’s has a fairly uniform density through the area). At Elsen’s Hill, a few miles farther north, the ratio was 4:7 (0.57).  Several miles farther north, at West Branch Forest Preserve, the ratio was 3:7 (0.43). The farthest north I found this species was at Shoe Factory Woods, in north Cook County, where the ratio was 2:12 (0.17).

Shoe Factory Woods has some good prairie and savanna restorations going.

Shoe Factory Woods has some good prairie and savanna restorations going.

By that point, though, cicadas had entered their afternoon lull, and I wasn’t hearing many of any species. Shifting west and driving south along the Fox River, I heard the next lyric cicada at the north edge of St. Charles, a point close in latitude to West Branch Forest Preserve. For now I have a sense of what is happening in the northern edge of this species’ range, but I will continue to monitor them for changes, and to continue seeking that northernmost population in the region.

Ducks on the Fox

by Carl Strang

A couple weeks ago I visited the Fox River to see what the waterfowl were up to. I expect to find goldeneyes there in winter as long as there is open water, and I was not disappointed.

I was pleased by the large number of common goldeneyes I saw on the Fox River.

They were very shy, and I was chagrined that my careful approach flushed them.

When I backed off, the flying goldeneye ducks quickly settled back down onto the river.

Goldeneyes are mollusk specialists, and can get food readily as long as there is open water. I was pleasantly surprised to find a few hooded mergansers sharing the river with them.

Two male hooded mergansers, starting to show some nervousness despite my distance from them.

They, too, were quick to take flight.

A female leads two males into the air.

Like the goldeneyes they didn’t stay in the air for long.

On the water or in the air, these are among our most beautiful waterfowl.

Of the three merganser duck species we typically see in our area, the hooded is the one that sometimes nests in northeast Illinois. They seem to have the broadest diet, being less focused on fish than are the red-breasted and common mergansers. They will chow down on tadpoles and aquatic insects, as well.

Fox River Goose Check

by Carl Strang

I have not had much time to check Canada goose roosts in DuPage County this winter. On the surface, at least, it appears that the pattern of recent years has been repeated, with severe cold freezing up most of the roosts in December (Hidden Lake exceptional) and pushing most geese out of the county. On New Year’s Day I found the Blackwell and McDowell roosts still empty despite being newly re-opened by a thaw. Remembering my observations at the Fox River last year, I drove out there on the morning of the 2nd. I found no large roosts, but there were numbers of geese in smaller groups along the river’s edge. At Red Oak Nature Center, a couple hundred birds could be seen.

Canada geese rest on ice at the edge of the Fox River while floes pass on a cold morning.

I was impressed by common mergansers as they dodged the newly formed ice floes and dove after fish in the frigid river.

Common mergansers stay close to the edge of open water in winter.

Another place I found geese both last year and this was at Glenwood Park Forest Preserve just south of Batavia.

Several hundred geese lined the shore across from Glenwood Park Forest Preserve.

People have been reporting bald eagles along the Fox River all winter, so it was invigorating, if not surprising, to have one perch nearby as I surveyed the geese.

One of the more positive developments of recent decades has been the increase in bald eagle numbers.

As far as I can tell, these geese are feeding mainly in Kane County, and so I am limited in what I can learn in DuPage for now.

Great Blue Heron Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I posted one of my species dossiers. The idea is to make a record of what I know of a species from my own experience rather than what I have learned from others. This is a valuable exercise. When I got the idea and started it, I was embarrassed by how little I could write even for common species. It has forced me to pay more attention, to observe more, to be more discriminating in what I can claim to know about natural history. Even books and, yes, Internet sources like this blog need to be read skeptically. Today I choose the great blue heron, a species that played an important role in inspiring my interest in natural history studies. Records are dated with my code that begins with the day of the month, followed by a two-letter month code (usually the first two letters of the month’s name) and a two-numeral year. The code 16JE99 would indicate June 16, 1999.

Great Blue Heron

First observed at Hawk Lake, where several fished along the east side each evening in summer during my childhood. These were an early inspiration for my bird watching interest. Also observed in PA, along the Tippecanoe River in IN, in DuPage County, in Florida. Seek food usually in relatively deep water, sit-and-wait foraging. They quickly extend the neck to seize or spear fish or other prey. On rare occasions I have seen them briefly swimming on the surface of water too deep to wade. One in FL waited for fishermen to catch fish, then ran up in hope of getting the catch.

They have loud raucous squawking calls, a brief one in flight (often when disturbed) and a longer more rattling one when handled (i.e. at Willowbrook’s wildlife hospital).

Rookery established around 1967 south of Culver, Indiana, near the Tippecanoe River, in several large sycamores at the edge of a small woodlot near S.R. 17. That site still was used through 1986. Birds appear standing in nests in mid-March, radiate out in many directions to feed. Great blue herons then also reached all parts of DuPage County, IL, despite no rookeries there (a large rookery south of the county at Plainfield).

24JA89. A great blue heron flying east of Lake Maxinkuckee, IN.

10MR00. Several herons have returned to the new, small (10-nest) colony at Danada Forest Preserve.

7MY00. Great blue herons croaking in flight, traveling above West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. An extended string of them, so the calls may be communication between flying birds.

13NO01. I count 25 nests, now, in the Danada rookery. The trees are at the edge of a pond. They are not sycamores, but I didn’t get close enough to ID. Elm shape.

21FE02. A single heron was standing on a nest in the Danada rookery at 4p.m. The winter has been mild, and it’s not inconceivable that a GBH could have survived the winter locally.

1SE02. At 10:30 p.m., a great blue heron in Geneva, standing in shallow water in the Fox River, apparently fishing in the street lights.

16JE03. This year I know of 2 large nesting colonies in DuPage County, both established in recent years. One is at Danada Forest Preserve, the other at Pratts Wayne Woods, near the intersection of Rt. 59 and Stearns Road and visible from both.

8AU03. I kayaked between Willow Springs Road in Cook County and Route 83 in DuPage on the Des Plaines River. There is a strung-out colony of great blue herons nesting over a 2-mile stretch of river that spans the county line. The nests are in scattered dead trees close to the riverbank, taller than the surrounding trees, 2-5 nests in half a dozen trees total. Though separated sometimes by more than a hundred yards, the trees each seem to have one of the others in view.

28MR06. At Tri-County State Park, the 2 nests from last year (a new satellite of the Pratts Wayne colony) gradually had lost most of their sticks. On the 23rd, herons returned (later than in the larger colonies), and now are building the nests back up. One seen carrying a long thin stick in its beak, flying up to a perch beside the nest and giving it to its mate standing in the nest, who then added it. Two additional pairs perching in those trees, but no new nest starts yet.

18JA09. Danada. Checked great blue heron rookery. Most of the 15-20 nest trees were living cottonwoods, and 90% of the nests were in these. Two were dead trees, and three were willows. One cottonwood had 16 nests, a couple had 13, one had 11. Total nests counted 142. The rookery is in a swampy area around a large pond. Last summer I also learned of a rookery at Churchill Forest Preserve, on the islands in the East Branch of the DuPage River.

11OC10. During a dragonfly monitoring run on the Des Plaines River I noticed that, in addition to the scattered great blue heron nests in tree tops along the shore, there is at least one group of trees with a number of nests in a more concentrated colony. There are more than a dozen nests in at least 3 adjacent trees. This cluster is on the river’s south bank, east of Route 83.

Odd Geese

by Carl Strang

Recently I was walking near Batavia’s island park on the Fox River when I saw this goose family.

As you can see, one is banded. What drew my attention, however, was one particularly odd looking individual among them.

As you can see, the bird on the right has a lot of white on it. Is it simply a leucistic Canada goose? I don’t think so. For one thing, the legs are orange. It also has a dumpier body configuration. This bird appears to be a hybrid between a domestic greylag goose (Anser anser) and a Canada goose (Branta canadensis). Intergeneric hybrids are relatively frequent among waterfowl, but don’t ever go anywhere. For more photos and discussion on Canada-greylag goose hybrids, go to this page connected to the Cornell bird lab.

Now take a look at the goose on the left in that last picture. There is an abnormal wing tip protrusion that may be a case of “angel wing,” a condition that develops in very young geese and results in a permanently flightless adult. This is thought to result from malnutrition, and is associated with people feeding inappropriate foods to the mothers or the goslings. Don’t feed free-living ducks and geese; you can only cause harm.

So here are three distinctive birds in the same small group. It’s tempting to think up a narrative that ties these observations together, but unless there is someone who has a longer-term familiarity with these geese, such a connection will have to remain speculative.

Fox River Geese

by Carl Strang

As I have monitored the comings and goings of Canada geese in DuPage County over the past two winters, I have assumed that when deep snow and frozen roosting areas force birds out of the county they have been heading south to warmer locations in downstate Illinois. This assumption has been supported at times by observations I have made and reports on IBET (the Illinois birding e-mail list) of high-flying flocks of southbound geese. In the back of my mind, however, has been the possibility that some of the departing birds may not be going all that far, perhaps taking temporary roosting spots along the Des Plaines River or the Fox. Last Sunday morning I decided to check out reports of large numbers of geese roosting on the Fox River west of DuPage County. I made stops along the stretch of river closest to the Blackwell roost, because of the possibility I might spot either the leucistic bird or a numbered orange neck collar belonging to a recognizable individual.

I found thousands of geese roosting along the Fox between Fabyan Park (south Geneva) and the north part of the city of Aurora. There were scattered small groups like the one shown above, but also some enormous ones. Here is a fairly large group opposite the Red Oak Nature Center.

Just downstream from that group was a larger one.

Largest of all was a roosting group on an ice shelf just above the North Aurora dam.

Though I didn’t spot any recognizable individuals, I plan to return from time to time in the future. I couldn’t see every part of that stretch of river, and I also want to gain some sense of how the number dynamics along the river correspond (or not) to those in DuPage roosts I have been following.

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