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.

Canada Goose Dossier

by Carl Strang

Over the weekend I realized that I forgot to resume my winter practice of sharing my species dossiers. Better late than never, I guess. The idea here is to keep a record of everything one knows of a species from personal experience, apart from the literature or other second-hand reports. It is a discipline that supports a practice of observation, and when I first set these up in the 1980’s I was embarrassed to find how little I could write for many common species. The dossier begins with that introductory paragraph, followed by dated notes from subsequent years. Date codes take this form: 6MR14, where the first number is the date, followed by a two-letter unique month code and the year. Though the cackling goose more recently has been recognized as a separate species, such was not the case when I was in Alaska, so I combine them with Canada geese here.

Goose, Canada

A pair of Canada geese

A pair of Canada geese

I know Canada geese principally from observations in western Alaska (cackling Canada goose) and DuPage County, IL (giant Canada goose). They migrate in large flocks through Culver, IN, occasionally using the center of Lake Maxinkuckee as a nighttime roost, and staying several days. Pairs stay together year round, and their brood of young remain with them through its first winter. Several thousands overwinter in DuPage County, roosting at Amoco Research Center and Fermilab. In spring, McKee Marsh is a major site. They nest on small islands whenever possible. The nest is built on the ground, of grass lined with a down and grass mixture. The male stands guard while female incubates. The young leave the nest when fully dry, the day after they hatch. Goslings eat small insects, sedge and grass seeds when very young, graze when older. The peeping cry of young can remain well into fall, when their plumage is similar to adults.’ Corn and other grains, as well as grass stems, are popular adult foods. They have a loud honking flight, or “nervous” call, higher pitched in the smaller cackler and other tundra subspecies. The pair’s duet “song” of similar notes is performed on territory. Stranger adult and older young are kept away by the adults. Cackler broods wander after the hatch, but usually remain in the general vicinity of the nest. The eggs are white, becoming yellowish stained over time. V formations and higher altitudes are used in longer flights. Cacklers covered nests and snuck off sometimes. At Kokechik Bay, their nests were concentrated in a zone 0.75-1.25 mile from the edge of bay, in taller lowland tundra vegetation than brant.

Data on cackling Canada goose nests, 1971. All but 2 females flushed from a distance of more than 20 meters. The nearest water to the nest ranged 2-80 feet, all but 3 within 5 feet. Vegetation height around the nest ranged 3-10 inches, all but 4 less than 6 inches. The nest interior diameter ranged 4-6.25 inches, median 5 inches. The outer diameter ranged 5×16 to 9.5×19 inches. Nest depth ranged 2-4 inches. Clutch sizes were 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 4, 5, 5, 5, 6 and 7. Egg widths ranged 43.4-52.3 mm, and egg length ranged 63.0-79.8 mm.

Nests often are constructed on old nests from earlier years. Cackling geese usually saw me approaching from a very great distance, at least partly covering nest and departing before I discovered it.

Here are migrant cackling and Canada geese, side by side for size comparison.

Here are migrant cackling and Canada geese, side by side for size comparison.

19AP87. McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve. Territorial encounter with males curving necks and bringing chins in contact with surface of water. Roaring, hoarse calls of males backed by higher-pitched hoots of females. Larger pair pushed back smaller. Sometimes larger male turned toward his female, then back toward other pair. Both pairs rested within 8 feet of one another for a while, preening immediately after the encounter. When retreating, smaller pair kept themselves low in the water, seemed to ignore larger pair and did not call or display, simply swam away from them.

Canada goose incubating a nest on a muskrat house

Canada goose incubating a nest on a muskrat house

18MR99. A pair of Canada geese stayed around the island in the Willowbrook marsh all week (eventually nested).

12AP99. The Willowbrook geese are on the nest.

14AP99. The goose nest has been destroyed, the eggs preyed upon, at Willowbrook. Tracks in mud show at least 2 coyote round trips wading out. No other predator tracks.

16AP99. The goose pair continues to stay close to their nest site (also there as late as 3MY; never did renest).

Canada goose pair with goslings

Canada goose pair with goslings

29AP11. Mayslake. A pair of Canada geese with 2 goslings crossed the isthmus from Trinity to May’s Lake, settled onto one of the south side lawns. This was not the pair nesting on a muskrat house in the parking lot marsh; that nest still is under incubation. That pair is different from the pair that successfully brought 4 goslings to the lake last year and got 2 to fledging; the male in last year’s pair was banded. They showed up, without their goslings, in February but later were absent.

Winter roost, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve

Winter roost, Hidden Lake Forest Preserve

(Additional observations have been the subject of blog posts, and can be accessed by using the blog’s search feature with the species’ name).

Lessons from Travels: Upland vs. Lowland Tundra

by Carl Strang

Kokechik Bay, at the tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, provided a good opportunity to compare upland and lowland tundra communities.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

In western Alaska, the distinction is clear. The more elevated areas, relatively dry and seldom if ever inundated by tides or floods, develop an upland tundra vegetation mix.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Some animals are connected with the upland tundra.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Lowland tundra was where we spent most of our time, in waterfowl related studies.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

In coastal western Alaska, the lowlands are subject to at least occasional storm tide flooding. Many more species of birds nest in the lowlands.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

As the continental glacier advanced and retreated across northeastern Illinois, the vegetation close to it no doubt had some tundra character. Little evidence remains, however, to give us a clear picture of this. Pollen records are more informative about the vegetation communities that followed as the climate warmed.

Lessons from Travels: Glaucous Gull Diet

by Carl Strang

This is a lesson in the biases we unconsciously insert in our observations. My Ph.D. thesis work in the 1970’s centered on the diet of glaucous gulls in western Alaska.

The glaucous gull is one of the largest gulls in the world, and it lacks the black or dark gray wingtips shown by many of its relatives.

I was hosted by the Fish and Wildlife Service, which was responsible for coastal refuges where abundant water birds breed. Their emphasis was on the reproduction of geese: emperor geese, white-fronted geese, cackling geese, and brant.

Emperor goose on the nest.

The waterfowl biologists who managed the refuges were aware of the whole range of species on those lands, but their interest and bias was so focused that they thought of other species mainly in their relationship to the geese. They noticed glaucous gulls mainly when they preyed on eggs or goslings, and so had developed the biased assumption that the gulls mainly ate geese.

Remains of a goose egg consumed by a predator.

The gulls are big enough to swallow goslings whole. Thus I was supported in my study of gulls. I started out on the Bering Sea coast, where there were several nesting colonies of glaucous gulls. My study area was at Kokechik Bay, at the very tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. The Bering Sea is shallow, and when the tide went out, the bay became several square miles of mud flats with shallow pools. Only the central river channel remained.

Kokechik Bay, low tide, typical Bering Sea weather. The river channel is too far out to see from this low angle.

I found that when the tide went out, so did the glaucous gulls. The bay’s fish became concentrated in the river, and the gulls could be seen diving for them in the distance. As the tide rose, they walked ahead of the water, snacking on marine invertebrates stranded in the mudflat pools. On the coast, despite the large number of gulls, their impact on geese was limited to occasional, opportunistic predation of nests and unprotected young.

I went inland for my final field season, and found the story was different there. Instead of broad intertidal zones, relatively small areas were exposed as the tide rose and fell in the rivers and sloughs.

Inland study area, with a slough empty at low tide. I was able to make use of driftwood observation towers ingeniously constructed by Pete Mickelson, my predecessor on that site, who studied cackling geese.

Glaucous gulls were present only as widely scattered nesting pairs. Their diet had a significantly greater emphasis on eggs and young birds, but the impact was small because there were so few gulls.

This subject has been of sufficient interest that my study has been repeated a couple of times by others in the decades since, but expanded in terms of methods used and geographical area covered. They have confirmed my results, but there has been one new development. Glaucous gull numbers in western Alaska increased greatly after 1980, apparently because of improved winter survival thanks to scavenging from the growing human communities and an expanded commercial fishery. More gulls have meant more predation on waterfowl, to the point where population control measures have been considered. Now, though, instead of simply reflecting the biases of casual observation, the impact on waterfowl is assessed quantitatively, and takes into account the difference between coastal and inland diets. It is mainly the inland glaucous gulls that may be controlled.

Lessons from Travels: Migrants Elsewhere

by Carl Strang

When we are at home in Illinois, we categorize our birds with respect to their status when we see them here. They may be year-round residents, breeders that migrate south for the winter, winter residents, or migrants that breed north of us and pass through in the spring and fall. Those categories do not define the birds from their own perspective, however, and we can get some sense of this when we see them perfectly at home in other places. When we think of yellow-throated warblers, for instance, we typically associate them with sycamores, not with palm trees.

Yellow-throated warbler in Belize.

Still, there is a consistency in the open canopies of sycamores and palms that makes sense from the bird’s perspective. Though we commonly think of our breeding birds as being northern animals that head south to escape the winter, it might be better to regard them instead as tropical birds that travel north to take advantage of high summer productivity and fewer predators.

Travel also allows us to broaden our perspective on migrants, when we see them on their breeding grounds. This was one of the side benefits of the summers I spent in western Alaska. On the rare occasions when we see long-tailed ducks in northeast Illinois they are quiet, placid, unobtrusive. They are quite the opposite on their breeding grounds.

Male long-tailed duck, Kokechik Bay study area.

When courtship commences they become very noisy with un-duck-like tenor voices, chasing each other at rocket speeds and coming very close, apparently using people as picks. The females incubate large clutches of eggs, producing tiny dark ducklings.

In those days we called them oldsquaws. Here a mother and ducklings share a pond with red-necked phalaropes, which then were known as northern phalaropes.

Tundra swans have extraordinary courtship and territorial displays, and make huge nest mounds. Biologists can count eggs from the air. The young are placid.

Nonbreeders gather into flocks of 30 or more.

In the treeless tundra, dunlins advertise by hovering 10 feet above the ground, trilling a song that is almost identical to that of American toads. They have well camouflaged ground nests with 4 eggs.

When we see them as migrants in Illinois, dunlins are traveling in small flocks and behaving as shorebirds.

Jaegers are rarely encountered seabirds in Illinois, sought along the edge of Lake Michigan especially during the fall migration. On the breeding grounds they are predators.

Long-tailed jaegers are beautiful and graceful, hovering like kestrels in their hunt for tundra voles and bird eggs.

Two species nested there, the other being the parasitic jaeger.

Parasitic jaegers are larger than long-taileds. Once I saw one chase down and swallow whole an adult red-necked phalarope.

Such experiences sit in my mind, reminding me to think of these animals in terms of their entire lives rather than the more limited glimpses we see in Illinois.

Lessons from Travels: Trees vs. Permafrost

by Carl Strang

Last week I contrasted our local trees with those of Australia. This week I want to go in the opposite direction, contrasting our forests with the lack of them in the far North. I did my graduate research in western Alaska, on study areas close to the Bering Sea. That area is a patchwork of habitats, but today the focus is on the upland tundra.

Upland tundra from the air. There were no roads where we were, and the only ways in are by plane or a very long boat ride.

On the ground, an upland tundra landscape looks like this:

The area behind the bluffs at Kokechik Bay.

Note the fine-grained pattern of colors. The ground is covered by a diverse mix of mosses, lichens, and dwarfed shrubs and herbaceous plants.

In this frame are cloudberry plants, mosses, at least four kinds of lichens, and at least two kinds of dwarfed shrubs. By the way, mature cloudberries are among the most delicious I have ever tasted.

The plants are kept small in part by the brevity of the growing season, combined with the severity of winter. That last factor is made clear by occasional patches of shrubs reaching two to three feet in height, where breaks in the topography accumulate snow which shelters the plants from the cutting winds (you can see an example in the top photo, the dark patch at the edge of the lower, grassy area which is an intermittent lake bed).

Another limiting factor is permafrost. Even at the height of summer, if you dig down you will reach permanently frozen ground less than two feet below the surface. Tree roots could never penetrate it. The soil also churns slowly but with great force in winter.

Cemetery at the abandoned village of Old Chevak. The dead cannot be buried. Their coffins would be crushed, and the bones and wood fragments brought to the surface, by the churning compaction of the seasonally freezing ground.

Tree roots similarly would be destroyed by this process. If you go inland you eventually begin to find trees. This makes for a common joke when towns are at the edge of the tree line. The following sequence of photos provides the example at Bethel, the dominant city of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

Bethel National Forest, entry sign.

"Bethel National Forest"

And the joke is complete.

There will be many future chapters from western Alaska in this series.

Red Fox Dossier

by Carl Strang

This is another of my species dossiers, consisting of what I know about a given species from my own experience. I started the dossiers in the mid-1980’s.

Fox, Red

Initial summary: Common resident of mixed fields, brush and woods edges in northern IN, northern IL, south central PA. Also seen on tundra in western Alaska. Near Culver, IN, seen most commonly in winter, when they are frequently active and visible at a distance during the day. In summer, occasionally flushed from resting spot beneath a bush in an old field.

In Alaska they foraged for mice, birds, eggs and young waterfowl in summer. In tall sedges they attempted to pin birds and mice by listening for them, then leaping high and coming down with front legs together and extended straight down. Cached eggs singly, burying them near where found.

Den found on 2AU71 in high bank of tundra lake in bluffs area near Kokechik Bay, western Alaska. Entrance faced south. Well worn paths leading to water 15 feet below and to top of bluff 7 feet above. Entrance about 1 foot in diameter. A second entrance on top of hill. Fish remains.

At Blackwell Forest Preserve, in June, their contact calls heard at night: a high-pitched whining scream or “yipe,” beginning and/or ending with a harsher, rougher, strangled sound. In May 1986, on a walk through the forest at the Morton Arboretum, DuPage County, IL, I felt the need to freeze. Soon a yellowish-colored apparition came toward me, following a dry streambed that passed 30 feet to my left. Soon the red fox came into clear view, a chipmunk dangling from its jaws. It was walking fairly quickly and directly, not looking from side to side. Chipmunks gave single “chip” calls and were silent as it passed. It went by me, then after another 20-30 yards came to a sudden halt, spun around, and at a faster speed came back past me. I suppose it had caught my scent where I crossed the stream.

Trot on thin layer of snow over ice. Width of entire path 5 inches. Travel left to right.

           RF                               LF

RH       o                    LH      o

 o                               o         

     3.5″        10″              3.5″

13JA87. Red fox bed in Willowbrook Back 40. Snow 6″ deep, was compressed in a 15″ diameter area. May have been flattened with feet first. No hair, but claw marks in bottom of bed probably from stretch as the animal prepared to leave. Bed in area where brush slightly denser than average, and concealed well by grasses on one side. Photos next day after some melting (bottom of one part melted out). Odor of fox evident on day it was made, not detected following day.

17JA87. Red fox lope. Front feet bigger, back feet have rounder heels. Body held at an angle to direction of travel.

LF       RF                              

 o         o                     RH       LH

                                      o         o

4FE87. Fox at Willowbrook cached a short-tailed shrew, and apparently stopped by later to check on it.

6AP87. Willowbrook fox still present.

17AP87. I saw the fox.

27JE87. McKee Marsh area. A red fox passed just north of sawdust storage pile. In thin summer fur. Saw me as it came even with me, 50m away (I was standing, but still), and it ran into tall vegetation.

23DE87. Fox swam across Glen Crest Creek at Willowbrook several times in recent days.

3JA88. McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. Several pictures of newly excavated fox den, with rabbit remains at entrance. In gravel bank above floodplain of stream.

9JA88. The McDowell fox has used the river ice intensively as a corridor and for crossing (tracks especially heavy opposite den).

15JA88. Followed Willowbrook Back 40 fox’s wanderings through last night’s inch of new snow, Back 40. Nearly all the time in steady diagonal walk or trot. Relying on nose for clues? Occasionally deviated to investigate rose bush or brush tangle.

17JA88. Blackwell. Rain melting snow reveals a superabundance of meadow voles (also found 2 dead voles), near where kestrel had picked the one found on the 14th. Predators taking heavy advantage. Fox tracks all over.

23JA88. Alternative trot pattern, body straight with path of travel? McDowell. Even spacing throughout (within and between sets), 12 inches separating (slow lope? But so close together?). Travel left to right.

 LF       LH                   LF       LH

  o        o                         o         o

            o        o                          o        o

           RF       RH                     RF       RH

Foxes highly active last night (rabbits, too). 1″ snow fell just after sunset.

28JA88. Fox tracks in normal walk separated by 14-18″. After 2 full days of no fox tracks, suddenly after last night the Back 40 is filled with them.

29AP88. Fox seen at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve. Stopped many times to look back at me as it ran away.

10SE88. One seen Herrick Lake F.P. Seemed weak, or perhaps simply expected me not to notice it there.

2NO88. Willowbrook. Tracks have returned to Back 40, after disappearing during summer of marsh excavation and nature trail construction.

15JA89. Red fox tracks at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve: one fox’s set had a pattern for a long distance, on cleared path with ice and a thin snow cover that had partly fused to it, of a mix of walk and trot, i.e., two walking steps and a trot step.

24MR89. Winfield Mounds, tracks. Red fox moved from walk to trot (body angle version). Step increased from 16″ to 18-19″, and more on toes.

22JE89. Scats in Willowbrook Back 40 packed with mulberry seeds. The berries first ripened within the past week.

7SE89. Red fox tracks near marsh. Fox also crossed Park Boulevard last night.

8SE89. Back 40, fox walking stride average about 16 inches, heel to heel.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in half inch of snow that fell last night on McKee Marsh area. Ponds frozen. Coyotes’ activity heavily on and around them. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks absent from wide area I walked in N. Blackwell. Were common before; have coyotes driven them off? (In late 90’s, foxes resurging; researchers say mange took them out).

20NO89. Red fox tracks, Willowbrook, soft soil (but true track size) 1 5/8L x 1 3/8 W.

14DE89. Willowbrook. Fox direction of travel when track partly filled with snow: slides foot in at an angle, lifts it straight out. Covered a lot of ground last night. Played a while with the caged fox. Below 0°F last night. Rabbits, mice and a muskrat active.

16DE89. McDowell. Foxes and coyotes present. Foxes about 12-16″ between steps in walk, coyotes 15-20.”

19DE89. Willowbrook. Fox carried stiff dry weed stem 1.5 feet long for some distance, dragging end in snow. Play? Were mink doing same at Herrick and McDowell last winter?

21JA90. West Chicago Prairie, on Prairie Path. Fox slow lope, maintained considerable distance. 9-14″ (variable) between footprints, tend to be greatest from the Left front to the pair of tracks. Gait developed out of a trot, body-angle version, with 11-12″ between pairs of tracks and 2″ (along axis of travel) between the members of a pair. The slow lope appears to be a common gait along here today, either an individual preference or controlled by the quarter inch of snow that had fallen earlier.

          LF       LH                  

            0         0                      0        0

 0                     0          0                    0

RH                   RF                              

26JA90. Willowbrook. 4 inches of snow dumped in heavy wind yesterday. Last night wind calmed. Sticky snow on all plants. Mice and foxes, some rabbit activity. Fox taking longer (16-24″) walking steps. Lifted leg to mark (male?). A common slow lope pattern, so similar to the diagonal walk as to be almost indistinguishable in this snow depth. Appear to be LF, RF+RH, LH. Space between sets of 4 tracks slightly greater than spaces between. Travel left to right:

 o                    o                    o                    o

          o  o                                      o  o

(actually, slightly longer hole in snow where right feet are close together)

22AP90. Winfield Mounds. Tracks near SE corner of preserve, near houses.

26JA92. Hidden Lake. A red fox in forest bedded for a time atop a fallen log, bed 8″ diameter at bottom, 12″ diameter overall. Fox removed a bit of a burdock bur with some hairs. Bed 2.5 feet above ground, on a hillside. Fox had walked along top of log to reach the spot.

From 1993 to 1997, red foxes were scarce in DuPage County. I don’t remember seeing any on the preserves during that period, and essentially no signs. Coyotes, meanwhile, became abundant. Beginning in 1998, I began seeing red foxes again. Coyotes remained abundant.

1AP00. Red fox scats on Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum, near its southern boundary with Hidden Lake Forest Preserve.

In the 2000’s I seldom have encountered red foxes or their signs. Based on reports from phone calls to the forest preserve district, and occasional sightings of my own, I have the sense that red foxes now are mainly animals of residential neighborhoods, and are much less common than they once were in the county. Their place on the preserves has been taken by coyotes.

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