Goings On at SJF

by Carl Strang

Winter is relatively slow and quiet in places like St. James Farm Forest Preserve, but plenty still is happening. Today’s sharing will proceed north to south.

American coots have been a constant presence in the stream.

American coots have been a constant presence in the stream.

Entrance to a mink den just above the edge of the north pond.

Entrance to a mink den just above the edge of the north pond.

In mid-February I begin the search for the preserve’s great horned owl nest. I wait until then so that the incubation is thoroughly committed and my potential disturbance is minimized. This is the first time I have conducted such a search at St. James Farm. That relatively large, old forest provides a handicap.

So far, with less than a quarter of the preserve covered, I have found more than ten cavities where an incubating owl could not be seen from the ground.

So far, with less than a quarter of the preserve covered, I have found more than ten cavities where an incubating owl could not be seen from the ground.

The south forest also hosts wildlife activity.

Fox squirrels have been exploiting the abundant Norway spruce cones in the plantation.

Fox squirrels have been exploiting the abundant Norway spruce cones in the plantation.

The ground beneath those trees is littered with gleaned cone cores.

The ground beneath those trees is littered with gleaned cone cores.

The south forest receives its share of attention from bark-foraging birds like this hairy woodpecker.

The south forest receives its share of attention from bark-foraging birds like this hairy woodpecker.

Each visit to the preserve brings highlights like these.

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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.

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.

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.

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