Birds in Transition

by Carl Strang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Advertisements

SJF March Summary

by Carl Strang

Weather in March at St. James Farm Forest Preserve was variable, but on the whole was relatively warm with frequent rainy periods. At the beginning of the month there was a little lingering snow on the ground, and ponds were frozen, but all of this quickly was gone.

I used my old GPS unit to map my survey routes and to locate positions of previously discovered cavity trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest. One of these indeed proved to hold the nest, and the female still was present on March 25, late enough to indicate that hatched young were being brooded. Two attempts to find displaying woodcocks were unsuccessful, but during the first evening visit on March 17 I heard what I thought was a short call by a barred owl in the eastern portion of the preserve. Scott Meister reported hearing the species in the forest one evening the following week. No pileated woodpecker observations in March, but recent observations in preserves to the north along the West Branch suggest that the bird or birds seen here earlier may be wandering widely. Canada geese were down to small groups and pairs early in the month. By March 31 a nest was under incubation on the small island in the pond below the former house site.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Many killdeers were displaying in the restoration project area around the stream early in the month, but these were down to just a few individuals by month’s end. Bird activity generally increased as the season progressed, with the first cowbirds arriving March 8, a pair of hooded mergansers and 2 pairs of wood ducks present in the pond in the NW corner of the preserve for much of the month, sandhill crane flocks frequently passing overhead, a northern flicker and the first golden-crowned kinglets appearing on March 14, tree swallows on March 25, and two pairs of green-winged teals in the restored stream on March 26.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

A shed antler found on March 17 in the forest near Winfield Road matched the buck photographed in the same area on November 1.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

The first snake observed on the preserve was a midland brown snake on March 29. That same day several painted turtles were sunning in the eastern pond.

Western chorus frogs began singing on March 11, and ultimately displayed in three locations. The largest number were in the fringes of the eastern pond, and many also were in two temporary ponds in the meadow north of the entrance drive. Numbers of bullfrogs, large and small, had emerged by March 21.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

The first butterfly of the year was a mourning cloak observed on March 21. A cabbage white appeared on March 29. The former overwinters in the adult form, the latter as a pupa. Several small brown moths were active on the forest floor on March 31. One was photographed and appears to be a tortricid, close to several similar species of Pelochrista or perhaps Eucosma.

A possible Pelochrista

A possible Pelochrista

Silver maples were blooming by March 11, and spring beauties by March 31.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Restoration clearing of the forest was completed by mid-March, and a new set of stakes presumably marking the new trail route was placed in the final week.

Common Goldeneye Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

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

Goldeneye, Common

Common goldeneyes, black and white males with brown headed females

Common goldeneyes, black and white males with brown headed females

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

Observed on the Rock River in early spring 1986.

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

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

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

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

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

Species Dossier: Pied-billed Grebe

by Carl Strang

Grebes are cool. I love the way pied-billed grebes can sink without diving, and come to the surface with just the top of their head showing as they check out whether the coast is clear. They also have proven to have odd and unexpected evolutionary relationships. A recent study confirmed that the grebes are closest to the flamingos. Once you get your head around that one, add this result: among our local birds, the next closest relatives to the grebe-flamingos are the doves. Here are my observations on this species:

Grebe, Pied-billed

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Common migrant on Maxinkuckee and ponds around Culver, generally appearing as individuals either isolated or on the fringes of duck or coot rafts. Breeder at McKee Marsh in DuPage County, IL. By mid-July the young were foraging with the parents, catching newly metamorphosed bullfrogs. Sings from water, a strange pumping song. “Ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah’dool-ah’dool-ah’dool…” The “ah” syllable increases in pitch untill it is very high when compared with the lower-pitched “dool” syllable.

4AP99. First of year seen, Culver.

10SE99. A single youngster spent a day on the Willowbrook marsh. This is the first one to stop at Willowbrook, perhaps because this was the first year with significant emergent vegetation along the edge. Still had some pied markings on the face.

30OC99. 3 on a lake at Fermilab.

8NO99. Lots of pied-billed grebes scattered among coot and duck rafts at Lake Maxinkuckee. Horned grebes outside, separate, and a few of the pied-billeds as well.

2AP00. One individual at Lincoln Marsh, Wheaton.

1JL00. An adult with at least 2 swimming small young, Brewster Creek marsh at Pratts Wayne F.P.

24SE00. Several migrants at McKee Marsh.

28OC09. Mayslake. A pied-billed grebe on May’s Lake swallowed a small fish.

23NO09. Mayslake. A dozen mallards diving for food in May’s Lake, coming up with aquatic vegetation after being completely under water 3-5 seconds. The grebe that has been staying close to them for a week still is present, and also diving.

5AP10. Mayslake. In the stream corridor marsh, 6 hooded mergansers and a pied-billed grebe diving for tiny prey, insect larvae and/or chorus frog tadpoles. Two of the mergansers were first-year males, with nearly white, indistinctly defined boundaries, in crests.

15OC. Mayslake. Two pied-billed grebes in the NW corner of May’s Lake. One flew when I came up on them, the other dove.

7SE12. Maylake. In the SE corner of May’s Lake, 25 mallards accompanied by a single immature pied-billed grebe that at times appeared to be dabbling.

 

Ducks on the Fox

by Carl Strang

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

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

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

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

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

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

They, too, were quick to take flight.

A female leads two males into the air.

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

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

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

Chorus Frog Population Jump

by Carl Strang

Our most abundant frog, locally, is the western chorus frog. They are small, and well camouflaged, so we know them mainly from their loud singing in the early spring. Their song is reminiscent of the sound of a thumbnail run slowly over a comb’s teeth, and often they gather in numbers so large that counting them is tricky. Even when concentrated in the small ponds they prefer for breeding, they are difficult to see.

Chorus frogs are sensitive to motion and vibration, and quick to shut up. Holding still, with only the head protruding from the water and often sheltered by overhanging vegetation, they are a challenge to spot.

Last year, my first at Mayslake Forest Preserve, chorus frogs gathered in only one location, the stream corridor marsh. My highest count of singing males was 12. This year I was pleasantly surprised to find many more. Conservative counting has given me a minimum of 22 male frogs at the stream corridor marsh. Furthermore, 3-5 have been singing in each of two other locations. The closest of these is at least 1000 chorus-frog-hops in a straight line from the stream corridor marsh, the other at least twice that far.

A little digging produced the fact that chorus frogs can reach sexual maturity within one year. This allows them to make a rapid response to favorable environmental conditions. While it is true that last spring was relatively wet, keeping the stream corridor marsh well filled for the entire season, some of the credit for this goes to Mayslake’s volunteer restoration stewards, Conrad Fialkowski and Jacqui Gleason. They have been clearing brush and girdling trees around the marsh for several years.

This removal of woody plants eliminates most of the water-sucking transpiration that otherwise would dry out the marsh. The result has been improved conditions for marsh and wet-prairie plants in that part of the preserve and, I believe, a jump in the western chorus frog population.

On Monday there were further ecological ramifications. A group of 6 hooded mergansers and a pied-billed grebe spent much of the day on the stream corridor marsh. They were actively diving for food, and coming up with tiny items too small for me to identify. These could have been insect larvae, as there have been diverse and abundant dragonflies at that marsh in summer. The birds’ food also may have included some recently hatched chorus frog tadpoles.

Incidently, the stream corridor marsh attracted the attention of nature enthusiast Ed Teune, who posted a nice video of the marsh and a singing chorus frog (close up, with audio) on U-Tube.

CBC 2009

by Carl Strang

One annual highlight as the end of the year approaches is the Christmas Bird Count. Last year I introduced the group to which I belong. Here our party proceeds along the Prairie Path in the 4-mile hike that filled Saturday morning.

Urs Geiser, our leader, is on the left. Behind him, Frank Padera converses with Marcia Nye (who walks behind a smiling Linda Padera). Lee Nye’s clipboard reveals that as recorder he had the challenge of keeping the data sheet dry. A very light snowfall was a constant through the day. Judy Morgan was with us, too, but doesn’t show in this photo. Chuck Drake couldn’t make it this year.

As you can see, the accumulated snow made the landscape beautiful.

The beauty had to compensate for a relative absence of birds. Nearly every species was down in numbers compared to last year, and to the area’s average. One species that was present in typical numbers was the American tree sparrow.

Among the 29 species we found were a few robins.

On the other hand, there were a few highlights. We saw our area’s first tufted titmouse in years (but no photo). Also, the area’s first-ever hooded merganser and coot (the latter shown below) cheered us in the afternoon.

I should clarify that when I refer to “area” I mean the bit of geography assigned to our little group. Our area was part of a much larger circle centering on Fermilab and covering significant parts of DuPage and Kane Counties. Ours was one of eight groups collectively covering that circle. Circles like this are one part of the continent-wide standard that allows CBC data to have some merit in long-term monitoring of birds across North America.

The Ducks Stop Here

by Carl Strang

 

This spring I have been impressed by the variety of migrant ducks stopping at Mayslake Forest Preserve. They haven’t come in large numbers, and haven’t stayed long, but the diversity has been interesting. So far I have seen (in addition to local mallards) shovelers, wood ducks, pintails, lesser scaup, hooded mergansers, and this bufflehead pair.

 

buffleheads-b

 

In addition, last fall a ring-necked duck spent a day. The brief stays and low numbers suggest that the habitat quality may be limited in some way. On the other hand, two pied-billed grebes have stayed on one of the lakes for several days, now, so there is food at least for carnivorous divers. The migration has just begun, and I look forward to discovering which species give Mayslake a try as their daytime stopover site.

%d bloggers like this: