Whitetail Deer Dossier

by Carl Strang

It’s time to start sharing some of my larger files of notes from personal observations of our vertebrate wildlife. This week’s feature is our local hoofed critter. The preliminary notes, written in the mid-80’s, are more extensive than usual. The dated notes that follow provide many illustrations of the value of tracking in behavior studies.

Deer, Whitetail

Buck in a bed

Buck in a bed

Deer can be seen in a variety of habitats. Their home range always includes some woodland, brush and meadow or marsh areas. They travel on well used trails, occasionally wandering off them to feed. Commonly they enter meadows to feed at dusk. In winter, they feed on browse. In northern Illinois they hit Rosaceae (blackberries, roses, etc.) early in winter, then eat a variety of woody plants, then by mid-February are eating poison ivy almost exclusively. Cottontails follow the same sequence of foods, but deer-browsed twigs usually are bitten off higher and have a torn edge from the deer’s lack of upper incisors. Through January (though mainly in October and November), bucks attack certain shrubs and saplings along trails, breaking twigs and usually also eating a couple (antler rubs). At Herrick Lake Forest Preserve I noticed that pioneer bur oaks in fields were especially exposed to this abuse.

Shrubs missing bark after being rubbed by a buck’s antlers

Shrubs missing bark after being rubbed by a buck’s antlers

Does in spring have fawns which at first remain quietly curled up on ground, freezing when approached. If they do wander, they will call for mother with a sheep-like bleating sound. As their size and strength improve they begin to travel with mother, although on occasion they will drop into a frozen curled position when a threat is detected. Spots can remain into late summer.

Deer flushed close have tail-lifting display, spreading the white hairs underneath (on small fawns the display is disproportionately large). At a distance, when at least partly in cover, they give a high-pitched, whistling snort, often accompanied by a stomping of the feet.

Bony antlers grow slowly through summer, covered with velvety skin. In late fall they dry, the skin comes off. By spring the antlers have been shed.

Tracks usually are 2-toed hoof marks. Leaping deer or those in deep soft substrates also will make 2 smaller dewclaw prints. In deep snow, the tips of the nails often make drag marks. I have seen deer leap over 6-foot fences, and tracks have shown horizontal jumps of more than 12 feet.

In May, deer on Reineman Sanctuary (PA) fed on fiddleheads of hay-scented ferns, but didn’t touch them after they unfolded. Among summer foods were leaves and twigs of greenbrier.

Deer tracks typically show two toes. Here, a deer was walking but accelerating.

Deer tracks typically show two toes. Here, a deer was walking but accelerating.

27DE86, Memorial Forest near Culver: deer recently browsed sassafras.

10JA87. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. After last night’s heavy snow, tracks (made this morning, early) only abundant at a large patch of brush in SE corner of preserve, along N edge. All made early this morning except one flushed by a person who was tracking it.

11JA87. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Deer were bedding in snow in same general area, had been there a while before my approach scared them up around 11:30 a.m. They had not cleared a place but just lay down, and the snow barely melted. Beds of the 4 deer were 5-20m apart. Other areas, similar in size and with sides pressed smooth by deer’s body (1 with hairs), had ground bare on the bottom (snow 6 inches deep). In the one with the hairs there were no clear signs of digging, but the others clearly had been dug out.

17JA87, Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. Half an inch of new snow fell the night before. I started tracking in the afternoon, but the tracks were difficult to follow as individual deer and small groups flowed together and apart, anastomosing their trails so that I couldn’t follow an individual for long.

18JA87. McKee Marsh. Better luck. 4 inches of new snow fell overnight, and I was able to follow a single deer for 2 hours, covering about a mile. I was able to stick with him (I believe it was a large buck). I began in the woods near the parking lot, where he followed a winding path, sniffing several shrubs and browsing on a Viburnum (3-lobed leaves and paired red basswood-like buds) and on buckthorn. In one spot where he urinated copiously there were symmetrical shallow hoof marks on either side of his trail, which had the effect of scooping snow into the spot where the urine fell. Then he emerged into open fields E of the woods, wound through a marshy spot, crossed Mack Road, then angled ESE. At one point he suddenly was spooked by a fresh snowmobile track, jumped to the left, then walked across the track and rejoined the trail. Occasionally I had problems when he joined another deer, but by finding every footprint I was able to stay with him until he re-entered the woods and joined 3 other deer. When they split I could not be absolutely sure which he was, but I have about 50% confidence that I followed the right one. He ate more Rhamnus, paused to browse heavily on a young bur oak, wandered up a hill, then joined another galloping deer (and 2-3 others), they all crossed Mack Road onto private property and I could not follow.

Where a buck urinated on his feet, blending tarsal gland secretions with urinary scents

Where a buck urinated on his feet, blending tarsal gland secretions with urinary scents

1FE87. Freshly browsed poison ivy, McKee Marsh. Also white ash within the past 2 weeks. Another deer browsed a woodland rosaceous small tree (probably crabapple), 2 inches dbh. Also a basswood. Twice, it defecated shortly after passing under low branches and browsing a few bites. I tracked the deer until I caught up with it in the cattail marsh north of the woods E of the marsh. It had turned to stand in a well hidden spot to watch me. When I got too close it burst from cover, bounded on through the cattails and through the field on the other side. Tracks in field took more of a bound pattern (not so spread front to back) before and after taller weeds, bounding high to clear them.

Later that same day, following another group of deer, I found where one had bedded briefly, at least, in the wet snow.

21FE87. At Greene Valley Forest Preserve. 5 bucks, still with antlers, traveling together as a group. They were moving fast when first seen, traveling through an open field between hedgerows at around noon. They stopped for a while after gaining a second hedgerow, then slowly moved in my direction (I was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt and dark brown pants, and kneeling). They always had one watching me, often all did, but didn’t run away until much later when I stood and walked. Once, a couple sparred with antlers. Mostly 4-6-pointers.

28FE87. At least 3 deer flushed from area thick with saplings and brush under scattered trees, only 150m from busy highway.

23MR87. Waterfall Glen. Deer dead beside creek near intersection of Cass Ave. and 91st Street. Lying in deer-beaver trail, hind feet in water (fracture of left hind tibia partly healed), head end up on bank. Dead at least a week, ribs largely gnawed away, head gone, muscle and internal organs mostly gone except hindquarters. Other tracks of beavers and dog or coyote (probably latter) nearby.

MY87. New Jersey Pine Barrens. Deer browsing blueberries, a little on oaks.

4AU87. Lebanon State Forest, NJ. 4-5 deer flushed from blueberry undergrowth, bounded until out of sight. Then one snorted a couple of times. I could hear them walking in even steps, without the hitching, explosive quality of a towhee. A little sharper and louder than the sound made by the gray fox seen shortly before. That night, as I walked barefoot in the dark, I came within 10 feet of a bedded deer. The deer detected me, and made a terrific racket getting to its feet. By the time it snorted so I knew what it was, I had taken 2 steps back.

Bumps on the head identify this newly spot-free fawn as a male.

Bumps on the head identify this newly spot-free fawn as a male.

3JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Following deer tracks, at least 4 days old. Browsed black maple, as well as several scotch pine branch tips (a broken-off branch, about 0.25 inches in diameter where browsed off; twisting and tearing of adjacent needles. Soon thereafter, browsed from a rose bush (prior to all this eating had followed a slightly sinuous path through maple woods, walking steadily). Tracks probably made New Year’s Eve (day before cold front). Feet compacted very wet snow, so probably late afternoon. Stopped to rub antlers on 0.75-inch dbh maple sapling, on its trunk from 1 foot to 2 feet up from ground, bark removed from one side. Soon thereafter it fell in with 2 other deer. Tracks same age, difficult to distinguish, but I believe the one I’m following has a longer stride. They paused to browse buckthorn, maple, rose (mainly the other 2?). Eventually the 3 bedded down beside a multi-stemmed, branchy silver maple in the midst of a field, about 100m from I-88 (in clear view; dark by then). 2 bedded together, third 10 feet from them. They stayed a little while, but still slushy when they left. They headed for the West Branch of the DuPage River, meandered, browsed, another antler rub. Lots of beds in that area. Tracks turn back along stream toward center of preserve. Lots of deer tracks enter and are present in that area by the stream, but none leave. The deer must cross the stream. I backtracked a bit. Buck had been with the others just before I picked up trail, probably was within sight of them throughout.

9JA88. Most of the needles on that pine branch now are browsed away. Deer commonly cross the river just opposite that grove, though routinely bedding among the yews and other ornamental shrubs between there and the stream. Once across, there is a tall fence paralleling the river and about 30 yards on average from it. The deer remain between river bank and fence. A heavily traveled corridor, a bedding area not far from that crossing site. Opposite the zone where I presume they also crossed the river last week, the fence is low enough for them to jump easily, and they either do that, or go under it at a nearby creek (more common), or continue along fence (also common). But soon comes I-88, and it appears to be a complete barrier on that side. A few cross the river there, a few go around the end of the fence. A very few go under I-88, on west side of river. None have crossed in that presumed crossing zone, but the ice probably has been thick enough to support them for only a couple days, and an open lead about 3 feet across runs along the entire east side along that stretch. That might explain why the tracks were running the opposite direction from last week on the stretches-in-common.

When you hold still and allow a deer to approach, it will stare at you and occasionally stomp a foot as though to startle you into moving and revealing yourself.

When you hold still and allow a deer to approach, it will stare at you and occasionally stomp a foot as though to startle you into moving and revealing yourself.

16JA88. McDowell deer crossed the preserve entrance road just west of the bridge, followed trail steadily between road and river (top of bank). Night before last, not last night. Lost in human and dog tracks, just before widening of area and feeding signs spread out from trail. Well below dam (at least 200m). There signs of much deer activity. Several beds in hill and old-wall area. More feeding and trails (well-used) in even wider area S of there. I flushed a large doe and 2 non-spotted fawns from beds in a pole-tree area a little farther down. They soon circled back around me (to my N). Visible parts: sharp dark horizontal line of back, horizontal white streak of belly cutting through trunks, from side; narrow white outline of tail from back, black nose and eye; brownish cast of fur against gray of trunks (not as distinct).

23JA88. McDowell. Deer recently browsed bur oak sapling. Tracked group of 4-8 deer into NW corner of preserve, brushy area seldom frequented by people, W of beaver pond (dam long, a winding 20-30 yards).

27JA88. Dan Ludwig flew over McDowell and passed on observations of deer: 8 in NW corner, 3 in NE near toll road (both groups west of river, and 6 SE, possibly off preserve.

30JA88. Hartz Lake. Deer trails through woods generally straight, and located to accommodate traveling from one goal to another (goals on either side of woods). Much interdigitation and side-paths abundant around the moist, tall meadows.

29AP88. Pratts Wayne Forest Preserve. Micro pressure releases in one or other toe show where push or pivot was greatest.

1MY88. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. Deer ate off tops of several Smilacina racemosa, plus a couple of Alliaria (and other plants, individually removed lower leaves). Not real recently, say 3-8 days ago.

7MY88. Deer tracks, Indian trails of Culver, also ate off tops of a few Smilacina stellata. At Hartz Lake, when one broke a twig loudly, jay responded with “thief” call.

15JL88. Deer heavily eating the Tradescantia at Fulton County museum property, not too long ago. Also eating Seymeria macrophylla.

Antlers nearly grown, but still covered in velvety skin as the bone matures

Antlers nearly grown, but still covered in velvety skin as the bone matures

1AP89. Patch of deer hair on ground in clearing at Hartz Lake. (I also saw some at Winfield Mounds last weekend). Shedding already.

2AP89. Hartz Lake. Deer in groups around clearing (in woods with very little understory) around 9 a.m. A deer snorted. I could just see it through the trees. The nose moved, perhaps a couple inches, but that was the largest motion I could see when it snorted.

13MY89. Hartz Lake, camping. In the dusk, 8 deer came to the prairie area (I was sitting at the opposite edge, by fire). Though basically a doe group, one yearling (small) buck was with them. He was chased a couple times, and a deer struck his back with a forefoot (not a mounting, but a blow). Smaller does still chase after mothers (presumed relationship) to be close to them, when alarmed. I kept still. They saw me, frequently moved heads side to side for parallax.

4JE89. Elsen’s Hill: deer trot pattern showing groups of two prints, 1 foot between prints in a group and 3 feet between groups. Two alternating group types, with front foot of each side ahead of hind foot of other side in that group.

21AU89. Deer tracks, Willowbrook Back 40. Emerged from run, NE corner. Walked down to pond, but stayed above edge (recently arrived, and had drunk from brook?). Nervous. Much starting and stopping, and stomping. Reached a small gulley, then broke into lope, as though the need for the longer step set off a release of nervous energy. 24-inch steps before the lope (toe-tip to toe-tip, measured diagonally). Tendency to splay left front foot and show its dew claws in the lope. While loping, set of 4 tracks 35 inches front to back, groups about 70 inches apart. The tracks were made last night (it had rained the night before last, the tracks made after the rain and after the soil surface had dried). About ten days later: In a hard lope up the hill, the deer showed dewclaws and spread toes on all but the right front. The deer stayed only a couple of weeks. We heard of someone who saw 2 bucks.

2SE89. Tracking deer across screenings trail, McKee Marsh. Stride tended to be slightly longer (23 inches toe tip to toe tip) in tall grass than on path (19-21 inches), except where adjusting stride to clear obstacles. At one point, a hind foot seemed to indicate a turn, falling and pointing to left of the front print, but in fact kept going in the same direction. Response to a disturbance as that foot came down? Implies independence of the 4 feet. Also happened the previous step with that foot.

15SE89. Hartz Lake, edge of open dune. Deer usually pause at edge of clear area before entering it. Shorter strides, and standing.

20SE89. McKee Marsh. A deer, steps 20-20.5 inches on packed screenings trail, became 25-27 inches in tall grass.

Sometimes deer tracks through tall grass are quite clear.

Sometimes deer tracks through tall grass are quite clear.

23SE89. Forest Park Nature Center, Peoria, IL. Deer have been browsing Aster shortii, a species of ridgetops, heavily in recent weeks. This has been their main food within the forest in this period, except for acorns.

24NO89. Hartz Lake. 2 deer beds, SE corner (behind cemetery) in woods. Windy day, saw 2 deer crossing road mid-afternoon, and as I studied tracks on the open dune a doe with a broken or injured right front leg limped past.

13DE89. Hartz Lake. Deer heavily using main north-south trail past couple of days (since snowfall).

16DE89. McDowell Forest Preserve. Patterns of deer activity in west part of preserve much the same as last winter. The only difference is a possible shift from the old home site to the center of the adjacent field in the north part of the preserve. If anything, there is even more concentration of activity to the north end of the preserve than before.

4FE90. Recently shed antler near mouth of Sawmill Creek, Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Late MY90. Hartz Lake. A deer appeared to stomp and snort as a gambit to make me move. Odor and sound spooked them more than small movements.

9JE90. Winfield Mounds. Heavy feeding by deer on goldenrods, past couple of weeks.

Wet forest litter from a recent rain foiled this fawn’s camouflage. Fawn spots form individualized patterns that permit recognition of individuals as long as they last.

Wet forest litter from a recent rain foiled this fawn’s camouflage. Fawn spots form individualized patterns that permit recognition of individuals as long as they last.

30JE90. West DuPage Woods. Fawn moving about and exploring on its own. Still small, but strong. I held still, it slowly moved toward me, sniffing and occasionally stamping like an adult. When mother appeared, and bolted, it ran, too. Tail flag.

13JL90. McKee Marsh. As I was running through the forest, I saw a fawn, approaching half adult size, on the trail ahead. I slowed and quieted my steps. It bolted when I was 10 yards away, and its mother and its sibling, who were close by, bolted as well. Unless the mother gave an audible signal I missed (unlikely, though I was so focused on the fawn that I didn’t see her), she was waiting for the fawn to make the move. If so, she was teaching it to run away from people and to react on its own without depending on her signal.

2JE91. First fawn tracks of the year, Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve.

Doe and fawn. By November, the fawns’ spots are gone.

Doe and fawn. By November, the fawns’ spots are gone.

21DE91. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Followed last night’s tracks of a very large deer, sex uncertain but more likely male. Traveled relatively straight lines through open field, but began highly convoluted turnings in a brushier area as it began feeding. Principal (only?) food Geum laciniatum basal leaves, nosed rather than pawed snow to reach them. Ate many. Went out of its way to examine a coyote or dog bed. Bedded, itself, several hours. Note: outward tracks from bed looked older than inward ones. Snow apparently less compactable, or more easily self-kicked back into track, with less smoothly compacted bottom of track and less crisp edges. Wandered and fed more after leaving bed. Defecated several times.

17FE92. Elsen’s Hill (W. DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.). I kept mainly to deer trails, saw 2 deer in a brushy area and, later, in a forest, saw 2 getting up from their beds. I stood still for a while, there, listening, and soon caught movement. Three deer slowly moved into view. Almost certainly the ones I had spooked, a doe and 2 fawns. I kept very still and they approached, the doe doing the foot-stomping test. Sometimes it appears to be largely a nervous expression, others it is very deliberate and calculated, the deer staring hard and keeping its head still while doing so. The fawns kept back. Several times she gradually worked to within 20 yards, then abruptly turned and ran, tail flagging, the fawns doing so as well. On one of these occasions she snorted several times. But I kept still, she didn’t go far, and repeated the process. The closest she ever came was 40 feet. I was wearing the green and black wool coat, standing clear of trees, with a medium density of 2-4-inch dbh trees and a few large ones in that area. The deer finally left for good at the sound of human voices on a trail not too far away, but the deer walked away rather than ran. During all of this there were occasional crows and squirrels seeing me and vocalizing. The deer attended the squirrels, but not the crows, starting at the squirrel’s bark and becoming more wary of me.

3OC93. Rock Island Park, Wisconsin. 2 bucks facing one another, heads lowered near to ground, maneuvering antlers. Like arm-wrestlers seeking best grip.

Early in the 90’s I had a season of deer hunting. During a several-day cold rainy period I sat for hours without seeing any deer. On drier days they were active.

Deer visited several times during the 90’s at Willowbrook. Usually they stayed 2 weeks at most, but during the summer of 1997 a couple of them stayed from May into August.

JE99, Kansas, Konza Prairie. A deer snorted and ran as I approached, holding head and nose above horizontal a bit while snorting.

15MY06. Fullersburg. A deer eating Virginia creeper leaves from a ground vine.

During the 3 years my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I mapped the winter movements of the preserve’s deer. In the winter of 2006-7 there were 4 groups which followed consistent daily routes as shown.

During the 3 years my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I mapped the winter movements of the preserve’s deer. In the winter of 2006-7 there were 4 groups which followed consistent daily routes as shown.

28AP08. New antlers beginning to grow on bucks (similar stage photographed 3 May last year).

New antlers just starting to grow

New antlers just starting to grow

15SE10. Meacham Grove. While doing herbivory data collecting I saw 3 antlerless deer. One, a fawn that had become spotless, made a persistent effort to nurse from its mother for a minute or so until she pushed it away. The third I believe was another adult doe.

Western Chorus Frog Dossier

by Carl Strang

An early sign of spring’s arrival is the sound of massed chorus frogs. Here are my limited specific observations of them.

Western chorus frog

Western chorus frog

Frog, Western Chorus Known in my experience mainly from DuPage County, IL, and the Culver, Indiana, area. In early spring they sing in large numbers, in crickety sounding calls, in temporary ponds. I saw one in the back yard of the house we rented in Glendale Heights. Small and striped, crawling in the grass. Closest pond where they sang was at least 200m away.

7MR87. Singing at West Chicago Prairie.

22MR87. Singing at Fish Hatchery, Culver, in first partial pond west of ditches.

12MR88. Brief song from one at McDowell Forest Preserve.

26MR88. Singing just west of Hartz Lake property.

27MR89. First song of year heard at McKee Marsh.

23AP89. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. I water-stalked a singing frog, close enough to see it, or at least the movement caused by its singing. It was in or just above the water, which vibrated with the song. It was in a place where broken-down cattails created a small (almost completely covering) shelter. They sing in alternation: pairs, high and low. High starts. If a few calls do not involve a nearby frog in a duet, the first stops.

10MR97. Heard one singing while I ran on Prairie Path near Rt. 59.

20MR99. First chorus frogs of spring heard in 2 places.

30OC99. 1-2 (same one found twice?) found on an extensive mudflat at Fermilab.

5MR00. A few singing at Lake Law, Fermilab, in an area of shallow water and dense dead stems of cattails and grasses.

2MY00. A couple still singing.

24SE00. A few individuals singing weakly in the tall, goldenrod-dominated upland vegetation between the large lakes at Fermilab.

14OC00. Occasional song, still, at Fermilab. Much like spring peeper’s pattern of fall singing.

21MR01. First of year, a couple only, heard near Prairie Path east of Warrenville. A cold, lingering winter.

15AP01. Quite a few singing near the McKee Marsh outlet. 12SE01. I heard single brief song beside the prairie path north of Butterfield and west of Fermilab in late afternoon.

12OC02. A few weakly singing individuals at Fermilab, in low spots.

21MR05. One singer at the Hartz Lake property.

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Chorus frogs and American toads have resumed singing after heavy recent rains have raised water levels, here and at Fermilab for chorus frogs, and here and at Fullersburg for toads.

5AP10. Mayslake. A jump in chorus frog numbers from last year. Last year they were at the stream corridor marsh only, and the maximum male count was 12. This year, up to 22. Furthermore, there were satellite groups in the parking lot marsh (3) and the reed-canary-grass pool east of the dog fence (5).

25OC10. Mayslake. Chorus frogs calling, three individuals in three places: one on top of a wooded hill; one in the middle of the meadow west of the dog area, and one a short distance south of the stream corridor marsh.

27OC10. Mayslake. A western chorus frog called from on or right beside the path N of the stream corridor marsh. No hibernaculum candidate there.

17MR11. Mayslake. First singers of the season, in stream corridor and parking lot marshes.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

29SE11. Mayslake. At least 3 chorus frogs calling in close proximity in a reed canary grass area. Another in the main meadow W of dog fence.

Spring 2013. Mayslake. Hardly any chorus frog activity this spring, in the wake of last year’s drought, despite the re-filling of the marshes.

Update

by Carl Strang

Circumstances have prevented me from gathering much new blog material for the past week and a half, but I hope to have more to share soon. The bird migration continues, but there’s only one photo in the hopper.

White-crowned sparrow, Mayslake Forest Preserve

White-crowned sparrow, Mayslake Forest Preserve

As for singing insects, the first few spring field crickets began singing in Marshall County, Indiana, last week, but I have yet to hear any farther north (DuPage County, Illinois).

The one significant new development came yesterday, as I was running the trails at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. A grasshopper flew up from the trail in the large meadow of the preserve’s southeast corner. It had hind wings that were bright yellow with broad black edges. This was the first opportunity to take advantage of my recent literature research on possible new singing grasshoppers. It turns out there is only one band-winged grasshopper with that color pattern that matures so early in the season, the sulfur-winged grasshopper (Arphia sulfurea), and so I can already shift one species from the hypothetical list to the verified list for the region.

Red-headed Woodpecker Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier features a bird which sometimes overwinters in northeast Illinois, but usually heads south. It is of special interest because it has become uncommon, mainly through loss of its savanna habitat. As always, the following account is limited to my own observations, with a starting paragraph written in the mid-1980’s followed by dated observations.

Woodpecker, Red-headed

Adult red-headed woodpecker

In my childhood I found this bird to be rare in my home town of Culver, Indiana. I saw my first one at church camp near Lafayette, Indiana, when I was nearly ten. I soon found that they were common at the woodlots near the Culver Fish Hatchery, where they nested in large, standing dead trees just beyond the forest boundary. This seemed to be a requirement for their residence: large standing, preferably barkless, dead trees in the open near woods. The Dutch elm disease appears to have been a boon for them. I found them rare in Pennsylvania a few years later, where such elms were fallen. Some red-headed woodpeckers remain in DuPage County, and they are abundant along the Tippecanoe River in Indiana. Their voice is similar to the red-bellied woodpecker’s. Usually they feed on tree trunks, occasionally on the ground. Insects are not the only summer food: I saw one eating ripe cherries in late spring at the Hort Park at Purdue. They are migratory, generally disappear November to April.

17AU86. Meacham Grove Forest Preserve, Illinois. A hoarsely squeaking youngster followed an adult and begged vigorously.

Red-headed woodpecker fledgling

18AP99. First of year observed, northern Illinois.

JE99. Horsethief Canyon, central Kansas. Red-headed woodpeckers hunted for insects from short roadside posts in a park. They flew to the ground and plants nearby like eastern bluebirds, but also did some mid-air sallying.

1MY00. A migrating red-headed woodpecker stopped by Willowbrook, in trees along the stream.

22MY00. A red-headed woodpecker observed on a dead oak in the middle of a savannah at the Morton Arboretum. Its trill call is flatter in tone, not rising or falling like the red-bellied’s.

29SE01. A young bird was in a tall tree near the Joy Path, Morton Arboretum. In the same tree were a flicker and a yellow-bellied sapsucker.

3NO01. I saw an individual (adult) in the flooded dead trees of Herrick Lake Forest Preserve’s south marsh.

25MY02. Two adults were among the dead trees at Meacham Grove east.

1FE04. I spotted an overwintering adult in the Poverty Savanna at Waterfall Glen. It was shy, stayed on the opposite side of the tree when I tried to photograph it.

15FE04. A red-headed woodpecker is established in Mom and Dad’s neighborhood in Culver. It calls throughout the day, hangs out especially on large dead top branches of some of the neighbors’ maples. Once, one took a corn kernel from Dad’s feeder. The usual call resembles a red-bellied’s, but the pitch is higher and with significantly less burr, sometimes sounding almost like a clear note.

Nest site for red-headed woodpeckers, Culver, Indiana

29DE10. Red-headed woodpeckers have been in the Culver neighborhood each summer in recent years. Today, one is in Mom’s and Dad’s yard. I also see them frequently along the rural roads, where there are wood lots, trees around farm homes, and wooden telephone poles.

3SE11. In Mom and Dad’s Culver neighborhood, a pileated woodpecker passed through. The local red-headeds clearly were disturbed, and while checking them I saw that they had at least one fledgling.

Raccoon Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I am overdue to share one of my mammal dossiers. This one is relatively large. As always, the dossier is limited to my own experience. I established it in the mid-1980’s, and since have added dated notes.

Raccoon

Raccoon, Aransas NWR picnic area, Texas

Raccoons occur in a fairly wide range of habitats, though they usually live in areas with some trees and wetlands. They can be abundant in residential areas. Raccoons are nocturnal, spending the day in a hollow tree or a woodchuck burrow (alternatively, in shed, attic, or chimney). They are active all year round, though somewhat less so in winter. They avoid activity in storms or extremely cold temperatures. Sometimes they sun themselves on a branch in summer. Centers of foraging activity are garbage cans in residential areas, and ponds, streams or marshes elsewhere. Their diet is extremely broad, but features small aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates (crayfish especially favored), also fruits and insects from terrestrial areas.

Females have 1 litter of young per year, born mostly in April or early May in northeast Illinois. Young remain in the nest several weeks, then begin following the mother (father doesn’t participate in rearing). Separation begins around September. Young often remain together in 2’s or more through their first winter. The young are especially vocal, uttering a rolling chatter when interacting with one another, giving loud cries when picked up, and occasionally giving a distinctive rising whimper which may be a call for mother. In play, young bounce around with shoulders humped above stiff front legs and hair raised. This probably leads into an aggressive display of adulthood.

21DE86. A well-established trail leads from a bur oak den tree for 20m, then splits 3 ways into fainter paths. All sets of tracks visible on that trunk led away from the den tree.

Raccoons, creatures of habit with a heavy walk on flat feet, produce clear trails in winter.

15JA87. Raccoon tracks in Willowbrook Back 40 are the first sign of that species I have seen on several preserves since heavy snow fell almost a week ago. This one seemed to be trying to minimize contact with the snow by walking on logs, walking on melted patches, and bounding in open stretches where deeper snow couldn’t be avoided.

20JA87. No raccoon signs in 3 days since new snow.

9FE87. Raccoon were active in the center of the Willowbrook Back 40 last night.

3JE87. A raccoon gnawed on a rabbit hind foot in brush near the great horned owl nest, Willowbrook Forest Preserve, at mid-day. It ran off quietly as I passed, at a fast diagonal walk or a trot.

22AU87. Photo and sketch of raccoon gallop, lope. 15 inches up to next set, 16.5 inches back to previous set, which was 14 x 5.5″ and looked a little more gallop-like. The set before that (19 inches back) was a gallop, borderline bound.

Sketch of raccoon gallop

Sketch of raccoon lope

14NO87. A raccoon was dying of distemper at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. It was on its back, eyes crusted shut.

Canine distemper is one of the most important causes of death in northeast Illinois raccoons.

10DE87. Lots of fresh raccoon tracks are all over Willowbrook Back 40 trails, compared to only 1 fresh set of opossum tracks.

23DE87. There has been some raccoon activity in recent nights, and much opossum activity.

16JA88. Considerable raccoon action last night, which was warm. No opossum tracks.

20JA88. Lots of raccoon and opossum activity last 2 warm nights, Willowbrook. The stream was high, no crossings observed.

The flat-footed, 5-fingered raccoon footprint is distinctive.

17MY88. A raccoon was resting, perhaps sleeping, on an exposed horizontal branch near the top of a big willow, at midday.

12OC88. A raccoon was out at midday, Willowbrook Back 40 (I made several daytime observations of this animal in the rest of this month).

19DE88. 2 raccoons but no opossums were active the last 2 nights around the Back 40 Nature Trail.

Raccoons normally walk in the pace gait.

9MR89. Despite increased warmth over past 2 nights, there has been no use of trails by raccoons.

2AP89. Photos of 2 raccoons asleep in the 29-inch pin oak near the NE corner of Cactus Camp, near Hartz Lake, in Indiana. I saw the one in the hole first, didn’t see the other (in the crotch of a fork just above hole) until I looked with binoculars.

The raccoons described on April 2, 1989. These probably were siblings from the previous year, not yet breeding.

13MY89. 2 raccoons in the same sleeping places as on 2AP.

10JE90. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. A raccoon was active in the woods not far from the river (though at least 30 yards from it), half an hour after sunrise, foraging among Solomon’s plume in the forest. When I, standing still 15 yards away, shifted, it jumped onto a tree trunk, but I kept still in my camo sweatshirt and the raccoon resumed its foraging. Later I looked at the area. The vegetation was stepped on and disrupted, with common 2-3-inch holes, scrapes.

26JA92. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Raccoons were active last night (fresh snow yesterday, overnight low around 20F). I found a raccoon inside a hollow oak, at ground level, sheltered by the overhang of the leaning trunk. It looked back at me, but did nothing more.

JE99. Tracks seen at Horsethief Canyon, central Kansas.

19JA99. Willowbrook. Raccoons came out for the first time since the major snowstorm of 2JA, sometime between the 15th and today.

26JA00. In spite of the very cold previous night (subzero F), raccoons were out, at least 2 individuals moving together. This winter a group of raccoons is moving back and forth between a den high up in a dead willow near the Willowbrook bridge, and a den along the nature trail in a smaller dying willow. On the coldest nights they tend not to use the bridge willow den, which is higher up and has a larger hole which goes practically down to the bottom of the den. The trail willow den has a smaller hole, is not so exposed, and at least one animal can fit below the bottom edge of the hole. On the warmer nights, though, they seem to prefer the more spacious bridge willow den.

Raccoon skeleton. Raccoon and deer bones are the ones most frequently encountered in the field.

31JA00. A raccoon was out last night in the newly added 6 inches of snow, gait in the deep snow entirely a diagonal walk for a long distance.

4MR00. Hemlock Hill, Morton Arboretum. After a night that dropped into the 20’s, a raccoon slept in the open crotch of a large red oak, 10 feet off the ground. Now sunny, 30’s.

1AP00. While running on the Prairie Path between Butterfield and Kirk Roads, I spotted a raccoon sleeping on a large, open branch of an oak in a small wooded area beside the trail. A warm, sunny day.

30AP00. Raccoon snoozing in a dead tree trunk, largely hidden in a rotted out cavity 12 feet up and only about 20 feet from the busy main trail at Waterfall Glen (section parallel to S railroad tracks).

The raccoon skull is distinctive in its size, rounded form, and mix of canine and flattened molar teeth.

9AU00. Last night at 3am, loud cries eventually got me out of a deep sleep. Going to the window I saw a raccoon below, uttering the last of the cries. They were loud, and different from other raccoon vocalizations I have heard. The sound was sniffing or snorting, even whinnying in quality but very high pitched and sounding like a conflict or fear-driven vocalization.

28DE00. At 1:30 p.m., a raccoon was eating snow from the large upper limbs of the big, largely dead tree 40‑50 yards NNE of the Willowbrook office building (visible from the north office window). It then turned around and climbed down into the large crack on the SE corner of the trunk. This marks the 4th confirmed den on the preserve, and the 3rd winter den (the hollow catalpa behind the opossum cage in the outdoor animal exhibit is known only to have been used by a female to keep her tiny cubs in spring of this year). The deep snow that fell in mid-December has kept raccoons in their dens for more than 2 weeks.

Raccoons create communal toilets, often on elevated tree branches. This one, at the base of several joined tree trunks, shows a heavy recent diet of mulberries by the local raccoons.

13JA01. At 10:30 a.m., a large raccoon was walking a deer trail near the place where the regional trail crosses the back marsh at Herrick Lake. It seemed perfectly healthy. After a short time it left the deer trail and, with some effort, forged its own path through the still-deep snow.

26AP01. Sounds of baby raccoons coming from the same catalpa as last year at Willowbrook. (Last year she moved the 2 young to another tree when they were old enough to walk; this one has a very small entrance).

Older youngsters peek out from their den.

19MY01. A large raccoon was well exposed on the open branches of a dying oak at the Arboretum, grooming itself at 9 a.m.

21MR02. A raccoon shifted into a diagonal walk on a wet-snow hillside. Better traction? No overlap-separation between the tracks of each side. Elsewhere in flat areas, it used the pace gait.

14AP02. A female raccoon carrying a baby smaller than her head, more than 250 yards along the edge of the east side of Lake Maxinkuckee (Indiana), between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m.

2012. My notes since 2002 have been logged mainly in my natural history survey records at Willowbrook, Fullersburg and Mayslake. At Willowbrook it seemed that every year a female had her litter in a smaller den (warmer? more secure from males?), and at some point shifted them to a larger more open one. At Fullersburg I was impressed by the raccoons’ willingness to go out on very cold nights that elsewhere usually would keep them in. Even on single digit (F) nights, they routinely swam across Salt Creek rather than going the long way and taking a bridge. I started this blog at the same time my office shifted to Mayslake, and any significant observations from November 2008 on could be found by searching on “raccoon.”

Great Horned Owl Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today’s species dossier is one of my largest. Great horned owls simply attract my attention and interest more than most other animals, and so I have accumulated more notes on them. Great horned owls haven’t been as easy to follow in the years since West Nile virus came into our area. Formerly the crows were reliable blabbermouths as to where the owls were. If our local crows develop resistance to the disease, those days will return.

Owl, Great Horned

Great horned owl

My earliest memory of young great horned owls was in a forest near Purdue, after they had branched one spring [branching is the term for owlets leaving the nest; it is different from fledging, because they reportedly climb down to the ground, walk to another tree, and climb up it]. I know this species primarily from observations in DuPage County, IL, where it is the common large owl, occurring in forests, even small ones. A pair nested annually in the Willowbrook riparian strip for many years, staying as year-round residents. They nested in large willows, 20-30 feet up, first in a nest on branches, then after a storm dislodged the nest, on a provided platform until that tree fell. Incubation begins January or February. The non-incubating male bird usually perches nearby in the daytime, flying away apparently to draw off people or mobbing crows. Owlets (usually 2) branch in May as trees are leafing out, can fly between trees by late May. Young have a distinctive begging call, a rising squeaky-scraping or -grating loud “scaip!” Young disperse usually by the end of October. Before then, they fly all over their parents’ territory, usually staying fairly close together. Branched young mostly sit still, observing all that goes on around them. November brings frequent late afternoon and evening territorial calls: the female’s call is a higher-pitched “WHO-whowhowho-whowhowho-who.” The male’s call has fewer syllables and a lower pitch.  Deep, booming voice. Willowbrook’s territorial birds had a running, never-ending conflict with the caged birds. I also heard calls during childhood campouts on the Tippecanoe River, Indiana, in summer, and later in the woods near the Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania, house in spring.

Pellets and food remains in late winter 1986 at Willowbrook were heavy in rabbit fur and bones in February, meadow voles in March. There were feathers of a gull in May. They covered a territory that included Willowbrook, adjacent residential neighborhoods, and much of the College of DuPage campus, for a total of perhaps 100 acres.

In the Basin of the Chisos Mountains, Big Bend National Park in Texas, they were calling around 5:30am in late July. We saw others there on the road in early evening in the upper desert. They were a bit paler than Midwestern birds.

Some contents of owl pellets at Mayslake, 2009. Prey species are meadow voles, white-footed mice, and a short-tailed shrew.

12FE87. Lots of recently molted breast feathers in Willowbrook Back 40.

8AP87. Photos of branching young owls.

Great horned owl, soon after leaving the nest.

29AP87. Crow remains found under nest area.

5MY87. The pair’s own nestlings now branching, in a willow 50m from nest tree.

6MY87. Remains of a consumed pigeon.

7MY87. The young are in another willow, closer to the nest tree, the one used most by last year’s young when branching. The third (foster, added by Willowbrook staff) youngster is on another branch of the same tree.

8MY87. Another tree change.

1JE87. The young are flying.

5OC87. Adult male beginning to hoot, in afternoon, Willowbrook Back 40.

9JA88. McDowell. Owl flushed from pine grove at south end of north field.

16JA88. McDowell. A great horned owl flew to tree on the west bank of the river, just north of where trees thin to a thread of willows, and where a housing development comes down to the river. There’s a top-blown tree nearby, also several large oaks. Then crows began raising a ruckus nearby in another direction, as though pestering a great horned owl. From that direction a red-tailed hawk soared, but they paid it no heed. It circled an adjacent riparian strip, but when the owl finally broke and flew with a flock of 10 crows in pursuit, the hawk fell in between, and also began to chase the owl. Once it got above the owl and swooped at it, brushing the owl’s back with its feet, but about then the crows caught up and chased both raptors down toward where I had seen the first owl perched, now out of my sight.

30MR88. Willowbrook. Fresh pellet with remains of 2 meadow voles.

25AP88. Both great horned owls off the nest, though in nearby trees.

17MY88. I hadn’t seen great horned owls of Willowbrook Back 40, or heard harassment by crows, in some days. Today I saw 2, upstream of their nest. Crows didn’t harass them for long or in numbers (2-3), apparently too occupied with their own nesting activity.

18JE88. Harassment of owls by crows gradually has increased this month at Willowbrook. Today I observed heavy harassment of a great horned owl by a large number of crows at McDowell Grove F.P. Owls branch at the same time crows are starting to nest, and becoming too busy to harass owls.

22FE89. Owl on a nest at Willowbrook (started incubating within the past 10 days).

26AP89. For the first day since February, there is no adult owl in the nest tree at Willowbrook (have been brooding several days, then a few days of adult perched beside nest with a youngster visible. 2 young. A fox squirrel climbed the nest tree. When it was just below the nest, the adult female flew from a nearby willow, and landed on the nest. The squirrel turned around and began to climb down as she flew in, but was not panicked.

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

30NO89. Great horned owl flying, viewed from behind. Wingbeat of remarkably little amplitude, compensated by its more rapid rate. A fluttering sort of appearance. Wings kept straight. (A behavioral quieting of flight?)

14DE89. Willowbrook nature trail. The owl caught a mouse, according to tracks. Slight blood drops in snow. Many steps trampled snow just beyond the mouse burrow. Then the owl walked, either having swallowed mouse or transferred it to bill. Tracks: landed on mouse tunnel, then walked 5m. Noticeable straddle, up to 1 inch. Track 4 inches long, 3.5 wide, right angle toe pointing to outside distinctive for species. 8 inches center to center for length of step between tracks.

Sketch of great horned owl tracks.

3JA90. The Willowbrook owl pair perching near nest platform.

29JA95. Following a tip, I found a great horned owl on a nest at Maple Grove F.P. Stick nest was built last year by Cooper’s Hawks, according to informant. Nest solidly based in a main crotch 15-20 feet up. Owl had head and ear-tufts up, very noticeable but only from the front. Nest tree right beside a regularly used trail, but not a main trail, less than 200 yards from Maple Ave. and less than 100 yd. from the private school on the east border of the preserve. The owl reportedly has been on the nest less than a week.

18FE99. At Willowbrook, I found this year’s great horned owl nest (they probably have used this site before; not easy to find) in the top of a dead tree trunk, with most of branches gone, a large hollow with little in the way of a roof. Only part of the owl’s head is visible, and only from certain angles. A single fuzzy feather tuft was the give-away. Once while I watched, the bird appeared to stand and turn or shift eggs by moving feet, stepping from one to the other. The owls had been advertising consistently in the area around this tree in the early winter. Crows mobbing nearby earlier in the day (presumably after the non-incubating bird nearby) drew my attention to this area. Only one other candidate tree is nearby.

A sketch I made after finding the nest on February 18.

11MR99. The great horned owl was standing in the Willowbrook nest in the morning.

15MR99. A young bird was seen on the afternoon of the 12th. Today at least 2 young are visible. They were being fed between 3 and 3:30pm.

18MR99. The 2 young owls frequently are standing in the sun in the nest.

12AP99. The Willowbrook great horned young have branched.

A pair of branched young.

16AP99. One of the owl young somehow crossed the rain-swollen Glen Crest Creek to perch between it and the Nature Trail. Flew?

4MY99. At mid-day, a flock of 8 crows pursuing an adult great horned owl over much of Willowbrook Preserve.

27MY99. Both Willowbrook owl young still alive.

11AU99. Only one of the Willowbrook owl young remains.

18AU99. The young owl calling at mid-morning.

8MR00. A neighbor near the north edge of the Willowbrook preserve reported that the pair of great horned owls have been calling in his yard nightly since late January. He gave us permission to look for a nest, and we found it, in the top of a large blue spruce, built on an old crow or squirrel nest. 20 minutes were required to find a small hole through which to confirm the bird’s presence. The tree, perhaps 40 feet tall, is close to a dead‑end side street, in between his house and garage (the 2 buildings less than 20 feet apart), with no other tall trees right there though several others were in the yard. The bird appeared still to be incubating, occasionally turning eggs. We did not see the non‑incubating owl, but numerous potential roosting sites are nearby.

30MR00. We checked the nest again. After a few minutes the brooding bird flew away (sunny, warm afternoon). We could see one young bird clearly; there may have been more. Development seems behind last year at this date by at least a week. Still all white down, as far as we could see.

14AP00. In central Kane County, in a bur oak woodlot of perhaps 10 acres, a great horned owl nest. The nest is an appropriated crow or hawk nest in the top of a large oak. At least one young bird still is inside. The presence of the owls was made clear when the adult male flew past us, pursued by crows. He was small, appearing no larger than the crows. Later I found the nest when walking through the woods. The female flew a short distance, and a few crows called, but she settled in against the trunk of an oak, well camouflaged, and they left her alone.

17JL00. No sounds of great horned owl adults or young at Willowbrook in the evening.

2001: No signs of nest or young around Willowbrook this year, though in the spring an adult seemed to be decoying crows.

Great horned owl tracks. Owl tracks are distinctive in having one of the toes protruding out to the side at an odd angle.

14SE01. An owl called several times in the early dusk at Herrick Lake, south of the former youth campground. I see that this is my earliest record of territorial behavior, by about 3 weeks.

3NO01. Saw an owl, probably a male, at Herrick Lake F.P. in the forest behind a house, north of the big trail loop and south of the former youth group camp. That was in the morning. In the late afternoon, heard one hooting along the Fox River somewhere around Red Oak NC.

27SE02. While walking after a run at Herrick Lake, heard both members of the pair duetting strongly for at least 5 minutes (same area as previous 2 entries).

13FE07. At mid-day in the middle of a winter storm with heavy blowing snow, a great horned owl at Fullersburg holding a recently caught gray squirrel.

3AU08. Great horneds called for a long period, early morning, in my neighborhood. This continued into the dawn hour and overlapped with a cardinal’s singing, past 5 a.m.

21JA09. Mayslake. An elm branch, apparently broken from tree by storm, with bark being consumed by cottontails. Near there, one of the rabbits caught and consumed on the spot last night by a great horned owl (impressions of wing and tail feathers in the snow). Head, feet, a couple bones, and fur all that remain.

29JA09. Mayslake. I found where a great horned owl had walked on the frozen stream surface, heading S out of the woods, taking off before reaching the bridge. The tracks led back to a feeding site, with much cottontail fur and a bone, but no rabbit tracks. Continuing downstream 20 yards I found another area against the bank with fur and blood, and a couple great horned owl footprints again from last night, but again no rabbit tracks. On downstream another 30 yards I found yet a third such site, but again no rabbit tracks. Here there was no feeding, mainly just the impression of the rabbit in the snow. As the owl had walked a few steps before that impression, it must have had the rabbit in its beak. The owl had come from the N or NW. I searched all around but did not find a clear kill site. All of this was under trees with moderately thick brush that makes it seem unlikely the owl would carry prey in there from outside. The shift of location twice would seem to reflect a sense of vulnerability. I wonder if the owl would have removed the head and feet at the actual kill site. The body impression where it first landed on the stream ice was bloody.

Here is one of the stops made by the great horned owl described in the January 29 entry. There is an oval depression where the rabbit’s body was placed.

14FE09. Fullersburg. This year the great horned owls are nesting in last year’s Coopers hawk nest, just west of the Amphitheater. That nest has been available both the past two years, but the owls have chosen to use other hawk nests close to 31st Street in all of the previous 4 years but 1. In that year there were reports of a nest well south of the preserve, but I could not find one on the preserve.

19FE09 Mayslake. I found the great horned owl nest in a hollow willow near the west boundary of the preserve close to May’s Lake. It is not high up, and exposed thanks to the brush clearing, but facing away from the lake may limit its discovery by fishermen.

Great horned owl incubating nest in tree cavity, Mayslake, February 2009.

6MR09. Mayslake. Great horned owl is standing in the nest cavity, apparently brooding.

13MR09. Mayslake. The great horned owl nest tree snapped off at the point of the nest cavity, presumably in the wind storm 3 nights ago (gusts reached 45mph). A dead owlet at the base of the tree, none others nor adult seen, no sign of hurt adult but nest apparently abandoned (cold enough today that an adult would be brooding). There has been enough time that scavengers could have removed other young.

Dead nestling beneath storm-broken nest tree.

10DE10. Neighborhood. I heard a great horned owl calling early this morning.

27JA11. Mayslake. Great horned owl incubating on last year’s red-tailed hawk nest. It was not there yesterday.

Great horned owl incubating nest, Mayslake, January 2011.

10MR11. Mayslake. The owls have abandoned the nest. No sign of disturbance or dead nestling beneath, best guess is the eggs didn’t hatch, either infertile or perhaps the female was forced to abandon during the fierce blizzard at the beginning of February.

18MR11. Mayslake. At a bright mid-day, the great horned owl pair duetted for more than 15 minutes, the male in the west end and the female in the east end of the area 9 hilltop pines.

29MR11. Mayslake. A single hoot from GHO in pines, mid-day, the first I’ve heard since the 20th.  (In September I heard the pair duetting at Mayslake, so they remain at the preserve.)

Wood Duck 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.

The male wood duck is one of our most beautiful birds.

Duck, Wood

 These are common around Culver, Indiana, in the Lafayette area, and in DuPage County. They nest in tree cavities, and commonly roost in trees. Wood ducks feed on land and in shallow water. The female has a loud squealing call that rises in pitch: “Coo-ah-lee”. The downy young are more cream colored than those of mallards, and lack the black stripe between eye and bill. They stay with their mother at rivers or wooded ponds. In flight, the wood duck appears dark, with a long tail and very narrow white rear edges of wings.

My experience with wood ducks began early. Here I’m 18 months old. We didn’t hunt wood ducks often, focusing more on other species, but a mounted one shot by my grandfather occupied a prominent place in the home.

 18AP87. A pair landed on elevated oak limbs (2 trees near one another) at the edge of woods between Mack Road and McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve. One duck immediately took off, the other disappeared. Its tree has several holes about 30 feet up which could be nest entrances, and is 100m from the edge of the marsh.

26JL87. A mother with at least 3 half-grown young swimming out on Hawk Lake near Culver.

4AP99. First of year arrived, DuPage County, IL.

22AP00. Male spotted standing on high tree branch near East Woods Trail, Morton Arboretum. The tree was near the edge of a clearing with a wet area. He was uttering a faint, rising, zipping-whistling note, and occasionally throwing his head straight back until the beak pointed straight up momentarily before the head quickly returned to the neutral position. The female, who had been several trees away, came into view after I had been watching the male a few minutes. He seemed to be watching me, too, and it is possible the display was a displacement behavior.

23AP00. Red Oak Nature Center. Here beside the Fox River, there are lots of wood ducks this morning. One pair behaved much like yesterday. The male and female were perched in adjacent trees, the male higher than female. He did the same call and display as before, both birds watching me, then they flew off (female flew first, followed by male).

26FE01. The first wood ducks of the year were a group of 4 on the West Branch of the DuPage River at McDowell Forest Preserve. At least 1 bird of each gender was in the group. They were in a smaller stream going around one of the islands, but went to the main river (which is very high) after I flushed them.

3NO01. About 10 wood ducks were in a woodland pond at Herrick Lake, north of the big trail loop and south of the former youth group camp. Many mallards also were there.

20JL02. A mother wood duck with around 8 newly hatched ducklings were swimming off the west end of Culver’s Town Park in the early afternoon in the midst of Lakefest, with speedboats all around and one nearly running them over. Brice [my youngest nephew, now a student at Virginia Tech] and I were in kayaks going past. He was fine with going out to rescue them. We tried to stay far enough off to avoid alarming the mother too much, but it was necessary to stay closer than I would have liked, to keep the speedboats off them. Gradually we herded them in closer to shore and eastward, until finally she was 50 yards or so off a stretch of shore free of humans. She led her ducklings in, and they climbed up on shore. She had been trying to go west, toward town, and out farther from shore, but with the crowds and boats, I don’t see how the ducklings would have survived.

6MR09. Mayslake. First wood ducks of the year (2 pairs).

17MR10. Mayslake. First wood duck of the year (single female).

Last fall, Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh hosted large numbers of wood ducks, often 30-40 at a time.

15MR11. Mayslake. First wood duck of the year (single male).

Song Sparrow 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. The song sparrow’s song is one of my favorites, evocative of my childhood in a small rural town. Hm…as I read this it is clear that I still can’t say I know all that much about this shy species.

The song sparrow is one of our common birds. The dark streaks and long rounded tail are among its physical features.

Sparrow, Song

Common in weedy to brushy old fields, railroad rights-of-way, etc., around Culver, Indiana, in south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. Sings from a high perch in a bush, on a weed, or in the low branches of tree. Song consists of many short, musical chirping notes, accelerating somewhat toward the end. First song in 1980 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, was on 19FE. A year-round resident at Culver, visiting feeders. Also in Pennsylvania. Song sparrows at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve (and one I heard at Waterfall Glen) have a “chew-beecha” phrase which they include in their song (note: this seems less true in recent years). That phrase has a squeaky, raspy quality, loud and interjected clashingly.

6FE87. Heard first song of year, Warrenville back yard.

22MR87. Fish hatchery, Culver. Fights frequent between song sparrows. Tumble together on the ground between short chasing flights. Vocalizations during fight a rapid-fire mix of toops, cheeps and bits of song.

11OC87. One still singing at Pratts Wayne Woods.

Song sparrow singing posture.

23MR88. A song sparrow sang from the end of an oak branch, halfway up a large tree, 15 feet off the ground, at edge of woods. Song: “chick turr, turr, turr-turr-turr, chick-tee-tiddle-tump” (last part variable). Switched to another song after a while: “cheedle, cheedle” was its beginning, but it stopped after a few of those. Throughout, alternated with a nearby male.

30JE90. Willowbrook. Some song sparrow calls have close similarity, even in tonal qualities, to some of chickadees’.

30SE99. Song sparrow at Willowbrook. Also seen 11&12OC.

27FE00. First song sparrow songs of the year heard near west branch of DuPage River at North Blackwell Forest Preserve.

4MR00. Morton Arboretum. A song sparrow displaced another and then sang, in brush beside a pond.

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. A song sparrow singing in tops of isolated 8′ shrubs beside railroad. Did not lift head to sing, but held head normally at 10-20 degrees above horizontal and maintained that angle while singing.

29AP00. Morton Arboretum. The call note is sharply bounded on each end, doesn’t trail off, is very high pitched.

Song sparrow nest on the ground in meadow area, Mayslake.

18JE00. Herrick Lake. A pair was very nervous about my presence, and though one had an insect in its beak they would not go to the nest though I was 20 yards away. A pair at Willowbrook earlier in the month behaved the same way.

22OC00. Song sparrows singing at Blackwell Heron Trail area. Some also were singing in Culver yesterday and the day before.

11MR01. Song sparrow singing at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve.

13OC01. Several at McKee Marsh.

22OC01. Several song sparrows singing, sometimes seeming to answer one another. Heron Trail, South Blackwell Forest Preserve.

3NO01. A single song sparrow song at Herrick Lake F.P., near big south marsh.

12OC02. At Fermilab, 2 kinds of calls from different individuals in different places. One had calls indistinguishable from the high one of white-throated sparrow. Bits of song, too. Another individual, perched in the open on top of a bush, exposed, had a call much like house sparrow’s.

Summer 2008. Song sparrows were among the species at Fullersburg raising cowbird young.

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

Cedar Waxwing Dossier

by Carl Strang

One delightful bird which can be seen in northeast Illinois throughout the year is the cedar waxwing. Today I share my dossier for the species, consisting entirely of my own observations. Though references are valuable it also is important, I think, to keep track of one’s own experiences with a species.

Cedar waxwings are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows, crested, soft brown and yellow in color with bright yellow follow-me bands on the tail tips.

Waxwing, Cedar

My principal childhood memory is of waxwings that nested around brushy thickets and willow clumps along the Tippecanoe River near Monterey, IN. Adults hunted insects in flycatcher fashion from bare twigs over the river. In DuPage County they are evident in wandering flocks through all parts of the year except the breeding season. They travel in flocks, staying one to many days in an area and feeding on berries in fall and winter. This also occurred in Cumberland County, PA. Mountain-ash berries were a favorite food in both places. Also consumed are dogwood, and buckthorn berries. Flock cohesion is aided by the bright-yellow tips of the tail feathers, and by the unique high-pitched thin contact call. First winter birds have breasts striped longitudinally with cream and the soft brown adults’ breast color. At the Willowbrook Wildlife Center clinic, waxwings frequently came in with broken wings and other injuries suffered in collisions with windows. In the cages they showed an open-mouthed threat display, possibly made more effective by the black facial markings. In mid-September at Herrick Lake, a single waxwing perched in an old-field treetop gave a single loud note and flew away into thicker trees. Several seconds later a sharp-shinned hawk flew by the waxwing’s original perch, heading in the same direction. (This first paragraph, written from memory, established the dossier in the early 1980’s. Subsequent additions begin with date codes.)

When not feeding, cedar waxwings typically perch high in trees.

30OC86. Willowbrook Back 40. Waxwings feeding heavily from honeysuckle (berries and leaves still on bushes).

16OC87. First autumn appearance of a flock at Willowbrook Back 40.

13JA88. Lots of waxwings in Back 40.

27OC88. Feeding on honeysuckle berries, Willowbrook Back 40.

13DE88. Waxwings abundant in Back 40, stuffing down rose hips.

3SE89. Mixed young and old waxwings eating honeysuckle berries, Island Park, Geneva.

JA99. Waxwing flocks frequently at Willowbrook. Eating, among other things, Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus) berries.

11MR99. Last of winter waxwings noted. Not seen again at Willowbrook until 25MY. Then after 1JE another gap until 12&20JL. Became a frequent visitor again in early August.

These waxwings are drinking meltwater where snow is being warmed on a roof at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Much energy is saved by drinking, even if the water is cold, instead of eating snow.

7JA00. Waxwing eating buckthorn berries.

31JA00. Waxwing, again at Willowbrook, again eating buckthorn berries.

8FE00. Waxwings eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook.

17FE00. Several waxwings on the ground eating snow (buckthorn berries available on bushes nearby).

19MY01. Many flocking waxwings spread out over a large area at the Arboretum, mainly in treetops in forest as well as more open areas.

12MR06. Cedar waxwings delicately picking anthers from silver maple flowers in the yard. [Note: studies have shown that waxwings use protein from pollen to render certain berries more digestible]

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Cedar waxwing working on a nest in the topmost leaf cluster in a 25-30-foot box elder within 30 yards of Brewster Creek. Weaving, using long slender strands, at least some of which are stripped from grape vines. Spending considerable time with each strand. Mate perched in same cluster of trees. Bird completely concealed when weaving.

This is the tree where waxwings built a nest at (then) Tri-County State Park in 2006.

16JE06. The nest looks complete, a significant lump in the first branching of twigs about a foot from the tip.

22MY08. Fullersburg. An interesting display between 2 cedar waxwings, appears highly stereotyped. They were perched side by side well up in a tree in SW Butler Woods. They took turns quickly hopping away from the other bird a few inches, and returning, at which point the two birds touched or nearly touched beaks, which were angled up. Each of these cycles (or half-cycles, for each bird) took 1-2 seconds, and there were perhaps 20 reps that I observed (i.e. at least 10 per bird). At first they faced the same way, at some point one turned to face the other way and they continued. Eventually one moved to a different twig, but still was close. [Note: this is called the Side-hop display in the Stokes bird behavior guide, and is part of courtship].

6JL09 Mayslake. 14 cedar waxwings foraging like swallows out over May’s Lake. (This was repeated over several days.)

1JA10. Hidden Lake. Waxwings and robins feeding on buckthorn berries.

Mayslake Plant Notes

by Carl Strang

This is the time of year when the prairies and meadows at Mayslake Forest Preserve are spectacular with masses of asters, goldenrods and other prairie plants.

Many plants also are fruiting now. I took a moment to study some fallen ginkgo fruits.

They are about an inch in diameter, and each contains a single seed that fills much of its volume.

I have heard they have an awful smell, so this was one of those rare occasions when I was glad for my nose-plugging allergies. I was reminded of the ginkgo seedling I spotted last year below the friary, half a mile distant on the far side of May’s Lake.

Now that I’ve seen the size of that seed, I am less inclined to think that a bird transported it. Now coyote seems the likely disperser, unless there is a female ginkgo off the preserve that is closer.

The red oaks are producing a lot of acorns this fall.

Mayslake doesn’t have many red oaks, but the large ones all seem to have plenty of acorns beneath them.

This may be a regional mast year for them, as I have noticed the same production across the county at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve.

Needless to say, squirrels like mast years.

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