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).


White-throated Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

The white-throated sparrow is a common migrant and uncommon wintering bird in DuPage County, but it nests well north of here, so my observations are limited accordingly. Most of these notes were made before I knew there are dusky-colored adults, so some of the observations of “immature” birds no doubt were adults.

Sparrow, White-throated

White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow

This is a common migrant, observed around Culver, Lafayette, south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. They occur in flocks, and forage on the ground in woods or old fields with at least some low brush. Often they scratch through litter. Their whistled song has been rendered “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” The first two syllables are on the same higher pitch, the remaining ones on the same lower pitch.

6NO86. On dry leaf litter in dense brush in Willowbrook’s Back 40, one hopped along a straight course nearly upright, scanning the ground beneath and just ahead of it.

22AP87. First singing I have heard from this sparrow this spring.

27AP87. White-throated sparrows were foraging in the wooded riparian area at Willowbrook by kicking litter backwards with both feet while staying in place and looking down.

29AP87. Young sparrows were foraging up in shrubs and the lower branches of trees, making occasional “tseed” notes (high, thin, but fairly level in pitch). They used a probing-reaching-hopping foraging style.

1MY87. White-throateds are still abundant, adults using the in-place kicking technique on the ground. They also were hopping and looking (10-inch hops, pausing for 1-2 seconds). Two other adults on the ground and a youngster in the trees were probing, looking, hopping and walking among branches.

5MY87. Young birds were eating elm seeds (4 individuals doing so in the same treetop). They pulled seeds off with a sideways twist of the neck.

11MY87. There are still some white-throats around.

23SE87. First fall migrants in Willowbrook’s Back 40 riparian strip. Also observed SE25, 28, 30, and OC9, 11 (Pratts Wayne Woods), 13, 16.

4AP88. A number of white-throated sparrows have arrived in Willowbrook’s Back 40, but are only uttering high-pitched contact calls. A few were singing by 18AP.

13SE88. First fall appearance, Willowbrook Back 40.

21AP89. In the small park across from Newberry Library in Chicago, towhees, hermit thrushes and white-throated sparrows all were feeding out on the mowed lawn at noon like robins, the thrushes even with the run-and-pause.

2NO89. A few still at Willowbrook.

28AP99.  First white-throated sparrows of the season noted at Willowbrook. Also seen 5MY99 at McDowell Forest Preserve. Last seen this spring at Willowbrook 12MY, but only a few observed there this year.

13OC99. White-throated sparrows are much more abundant in fall than in spring at Willowbrook this year. One heard singing occasionally today.

26OC99. Willowbrook. White-throated sparrows are in the old field, brushy prairie area today (yesterday they were in the woods; today it is overcast, cold, calm; yesterday was clear, cool, breezy).

1NO99. At Willowbrook, sparrow eating dried gray dogwood berries.

18NO99. A sparrow eating Amur honeysuckle berries.

19JA00. Two white-throated sparrows at Willowbrook, on ground under dense brush, using the in-place kicking technique.

29-31AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario. White-throated sparrows are in small groups, feeding on the ground and calling, once singing. Their behavior is the same as in migrants at Willowbrook, except that they are in smaller and very widely spread groups.

2FE04. Two at Waterfall Glen near Poverty Savanna, adult plumage.

24OC07. Fullersburg. I spshed out a sparrow that was giving the thin-ending call. It was a young white-throated sparrow, which immediately began emitting the “bink” call while turning in a rapid, jerking manner and turning its head quickly to look around. No other sparrows were calling in that area. (I have come to associate this “bink” contact call with young birds; certainly it is used much more often in the fall migration, seldom in the spring, when the thin whistled contact note predominates).

Miscellaneous Mayslake Events

by Carl Strang

November is moving along, and I have some observations to report from Mayslake Forest Preserve that characterize the season. First is a casualty of the migration.

Hermit thrush dead b

I found this hermit thrush on the paved path that runs along 31st Street at Mayslake’s north boundary. Probably hit by a car, the bird looks peaceful but sadly still.

Though I haven’t seen the animals themselves, deer have been active on the preserve lately. Here a buck prepared for the rut by attacking some defenseless sumacs in the north savanna.

Buck rub Mayslake 1b

Deer also have been frequenting the orchard on the mansion grounds, snacking on fallen apples.

Deer tracks & apple b

Finally, with the water table dropping during the recent dry spell, crayfish have had to tunnel down to keep pace with it, hence the new chimneys on their holes.

Crayfish chimneys b

These notes begin my second year at Mayslake.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have reported bird observations from Mayslake Forest Preserve. The neotropical migrants, including the eastern wood-pewee, have departed for their winter homes.

Pewee 2b

Wandering youngsters like this great blue heron have turned up from time to time.

GBH youngster Mayslake

Some members of this species will stick around through the winter, and some will make the attempt and fail to survive. One of the more unusual sightings at Mayslake this fall was a heron relative, an American bittern, which flushed from an unusual location in the middle of an upland meadow.

Mixed flocks of warblers and other songbirds stopped by the preserve for fuel in September, and gave way in October to birds that winter in the U.S. These included blackbirds, with large grackle flocks foraging on the mansion lawns on some days.

Grackle flock 2b

Sparrows frequented the habitats suitable for their various species. Meadows and prairies attracted song sparrows, some of which had nested there in the summer.

Song Sparrow 3b

One of the more unusual looking sparrows was this one.

Savannah Sparrow 4b

It proves to be a savanna sparrow, but with very white and high-contrasting plumage compared to most members of its species. Many white-throated and white-crowned sparrows have been refueling at the preserve as well.

The most exciting “maybe” was reported by an experienced birder who got a glimpse of a tiny black bird flying near the stream. He was not willing to commit to it, because his sighting was so brief, but Mayslake may have hosted a black rail this fall.

In the past week the latest of songbirds have been appearing, including a brown creeper, hermit thrushes, fox sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Some of these may stay for the winter.

Three Winter Birds

by Carl Strang


On a recent day at Mayslake I took some photos to document the presence of three unusual bird species on the preserve. These are not great photos, but they do serve as records that those species were there this winter.


The first is a hermit thrush, which I have seen a few times where the stream exits Mays Lake.




It is not too unusual for a representative of this species to winter this far north, but if medals were given for hardiness this individual would deserve one this extreme season. The next bird was a brown creeper.




These are more common winter residents of DuPage County. Usually they find a place and stay there, but occasionally they wander, and this late January individual is the first I have seen at Mayslake this winter. The most unusual species at the preserve so far this year has been the white-winged crossbill. So far I have seen them on only two occasions, and they did not stay long enough for me to get a good photo.




These are northern birds that usually come down only in small numbers if at all, but large flocks of them have been seen in northern Illinois and Indiana this year. They feed on conifer seeds they pry from the cones with their modified bills. Their specialized diet makes these southern excursions necessary when the cone crop is poor up north.

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