St. James Farm Autumn Update

by Carl Strang

This blog has been on hiatus while I work on my annual research summary documents, but I have been paying regular visits to St. James Farm Forest Preserve, the site I monitor and where I soon will begin as volunteer steward. Today’s entry shares some photos from recent weeks.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

 

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SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

Beginning in the middle of the month, I went through all of St. James Farm Forest Preserve seeking the great horned owl nest. I did not find it, but did create an inventory of 25 large tree cavities where an incubating owl might not be visible from the ground. An additional possibility would be a hawk nest in the dense top of one of the spruces. Twice I saw an owl, presumably the male if they are nesting this year, in the same north central portion of the main forest. In past observations elsewhere, the male usually perched in the vicinity of the nest. I will continue to monitor the suspect cavities, but may need to see branched young later in the season to narrow down possibilities further.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

I had not seen or heard a pileated woodpecker on the preserve for more than 6 weeks (though occasionally I heard suspicious loud, spaced tapping sounds), but in the second half of February heard or saw one on three different days. The one close sighting was of a male.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

American coots and large numbers of mallards were a continuing presence on the stream. For much of the month the Canada geese roosting at Blackwell frequently passed over St. James Farm in large numbers, occasionally stopping to graze the lawns and meadow areas. Geese began to break off into pairs as ponds opened up during the last third of February. Interesting bird sightings included a bald eagle flying over, and a hermit thrush on February 16. Migrating sandhill crane flocks began to pass over beginning on the 21st. A small group of white-throated sparrows in the eastern part of the main forest were the first observed on the preserve this year. The first red-winged blackbirds arrived, and eastern bluebirds became a more consistent presence in the last part of February.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

Fox squirrels fed heavily from Norway spruce cones in the south forest, and on tree buds elsewhere. Skunk and deer activity was much as described for January. The preserve’s deer minimally are a group of 3 does, a group of 2 deer which occasionally associate with those does, and a single buck. The snow was never deep enough to discourage raccoons. A mink used a den off the south edge of the pond in the preserve’s northwest corner.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The large area of restoration brush clearing in the main forest was expanded greatly by District staff, generally following the route of the new trail mapped in the preserve’s master plan. Among the more interesting plants encountered during the owl nest search were two of the most massive black walnuts I have ever seen, and a prickly-stemmed greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides).

St. James Farm January Summary

by Carl Strang

Part of my preserve monitoring practice is to write a monthly summary of observations. Today I am sharing the one from January just past:

Most of January was seasonably cold, with significant warming the last few days of the month. Little snow fell, on two occasions about an inch at a time.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fresh snow at the beginning of the year permitted a general assessment of mammal activity in the preserve. Raccoons appear to be more abundant here than at other preserves I have monitored, with the greatest concentration of activity in the northern portion of the main forest. Skunks were surprisingly active through January, coming out even on nights when the temperature dropped into the teens. This is in contrast to other preserves, where overnight temperatures in the 30’s, at least, were required until the start of the mating season in February. A couple chipmunks also emerged from their holes, likewise unusual in mid-winter. At least one mink includes the stream and the northern portion of the main forest in its territory. Cottontails were scattered throughout, though their activity was mainly around the forest edges. A very few opossums, perhaps no more than 4-5, were active on the preserve. Meadow voles, short-tailed shrews and white-footed mice are common, and occasionally I encountered tracks of masked shrews (vole, mouse, and small shrew identifications based on habitat and regional abundance as opposed to prairie vole, deer mouse and least shrew alternative possibilities). Two domestic cats occasionally moved through the northern edge of the forest, possibly connected to the houses off the preserve’s NE corner.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

Coyotes covered the entire preserve. Early in January I watched a slightly scruffy looking individual with much red and black in its fur catch and consume a vole in the meadow alongside the entrance drive. At the end of January, a coyote with much more of a white color dominance, very alert and fat looking, passed through the western part of the forest. Tracks revealed that two coyotes occasionally hunt together. I did not detect a consistent activity pattern in the deer. At times 4-5 moved together, that group size suggesting does. Elsewhere, single sets with the foot placement of bucks indicated at least one individual of that gender remains on the preserve.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Geese maintained a roost at south Blackwell through the month. Most mornings they flew over St. James Farm heading east, but occasionally a few dozens to a few hundred stopped and grazed the preserve’s lawns and meadows.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Over a hundred mallards utilized the newly reconfigured stream bed in the last half of January. One of them attempted to choke down a leopard frog that apparently had been unable to tunnel deep enough into the rocky stream edge when the weather turned cold in December. On another day a coot joined the ducks in the stream. The only pileated woodpecker observation during the month was one calling in the western forest on January 4.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

Cardinals and chickadees began to sing, and downy woodpeckers to drum, in the last half of the month. There are at least 7 chickadee groups of various sizes scattered over the preserve. 1-2 adult red-tailed hawks frequently hunted the preserve’s meadows.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

St. James Farm received a gratifying amount of restoration attention in January, with seeds scattered over the meadow or prairie area north of the stream, and the clearing of buckthorn and other undesirable woody plants from an extensive portion of the western forest.

 

Mayslake Marsh Update: Birds

by Carl Strang

Mayslake Forest Preserve’s marshes have awakened as the thaw has come and the water slowly warms.

This mallard pair was more than ready, resting on a muskrat house in March with the ice still around them.

This mallard pair was more than ready, resting on a muskrat house in March with the ice still around them.

We are seeing two Canada goose nests on the preserve this year, as females are incubating atop muskrat houses.

One in the stream corridor marsh

One in the stream corridor marsh

Another in the parking lot marsh

Another in the parking lot marsh

Meanwhile, the migration season continues.

A few blue-winged teal have been stopping by the marsh. This duck has not yet nested at Mayslake.

A few blue-winged teal have been stopping by the marsh. This duck has not yet nested at Mayslake.

Yet another case of a face-on bird’s markings accentuating the bill, possibly making it more intimidating in an agonistic face-off.

Yet another case of a face-on bird’s markings accentuating the bill, possibly making it more intimidating in an agonistic face-off.

This coot spent a day in the parking lot marsh.

This coot spent a day in the parking lot marsh.

Soon the migration focus will shift to the woodlands, as the neotropical migrants are on their way.

 

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.

 

Mayslake November Highlights

by Carl Strang

The first half of November brought reminders that life continues through autumn at Mayslake Forest Preserve. The preserve’s prairies draw flocks of goldfinches.

This messy eater enjoys some stiff goldenrod seeds.

This messy eater enjoys some stiff goldenrod seeds.

Though most plants were shutting down in keeping with the season, there were some anomalous exceptions.

This Amur honeysuckle opened a few flowers on November 4. May and June are the usual blooming months for that species.

This Amur honeysuckle opened a few flowers on November 4. May and June are the usual blooming months for that species.

Late-season insects were holding on.

The autumn meadowhawk is well named, but few are able to remain active into November.

The autumn meadowhawk is well named, but few are able to remain active into November.

At the same time, some species already are preparing for next year.

Mallard courtship is well under way, and tentative pair bonds already have formed.

Mallard courtship is well under way, and tentative pair bonds already have formed.

 

Mallard Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today I share my dossier on one of our most familiar birds, the mallard duck. This is one case in which my initial entry in the 1980’s was large enough that it remains the bulk of the file.

Mallard

Adult male mallard

Widespread, common marsh bird, also frequenting suburban ponds, lakes and streams. Singles and pairs occasionally appeared in western Alaska, but the mallard was not a common species there.

Adult female mallard and ducklings

Courtship begins in September in Illinois and Pennsylvania, as drakes come out of eclipse, but (at least in northeast Illinois) may not peak until January. The male has a large variety of courtship displays, generally preceded by preliminary shakings of the head from side to side, tail shaking, and lifting and shaking the entire front half of the body (the last seems to represent a higher intensity). The most common of the male’s displays is the Grunt Whistle, beginning with lifting the front half of the body (note similarity to the most intense form of the Preliminary Shake). While the body is lifted the neck is arched forward and down, and the tip of the bill is used to flick out an arch of water drops. As this happens the bird emits a high-pitched peeping sound. Frequently several males Grunt Whistle together, and in fact courtship displays generally occur when several males plus at least one female are close together on the water.

Mallard Preliminary Shake

Down-Up is another display, in which the male lowers the front of his body into the water while lifting the tail end. The bill points down as the bird dips, then it is pointed upward. This is an especially beautiful display when several males, facing one another, bow simultaneously.

In Head-Up-Tail-Up, the body is contracted while the neck stretches upward (bill kept level). This always ends with a bout of Nod-Swimming, with the bird swimming rapidly low in the water, neck stretched low and forward, pumping slightly as the bird swims.

Sometimes several courtship displays may be performed simultaneously. Here, the two males on the left are performing the Down-Up display, the one on the far right is performing a Grunt-Whistle, and the one just left of him appears to be in a Head-Up-Tail-Up.

Males and females can be seen together more and more in pairs as winter and spring pass. The female continues to test the drake with Inciting, a display in which she mechanically waves her bill back and forth to point toward another nearby mallard. The male commonly responds by chasing that bird away. Rarely and inexplicably, drakes perform the Inciting motion.

Female mallard performing the Inciting display.

Copulation begins usually with the male performing an exaggerated vertical pumping of his neck with the bill held parallel to the water surface. If the female is receptive, she identically pumps her head. After the two have done this together a few seconds, the male swims behind her, then climbs onto her back. Head pumpings cease as the male achieves a grip on the back of the hen’s upper neck with his bill. She sinks low in the water, he swings his tail around to the side of hers as she pulls hers out of the way, and genital contact is made. Post-copulatory displays are bathing motions by the female and Nod-Swimming by the drake.

The presence of a male with the brood may be a sign that these birds have some domestic mallard in their ancestry.

Pairs appear on land in mid-spring, usually with the female leading the search for a nest site. The nest is built of grasses mixed with down. Generally one pale blue-green egg is laid per day until the 8-13 egg clutch is complete, then the female incubates the eggs and usually raises the young alone. After the ducklings hatch and dry, they follow the hen on an early-morning trek to water, sometimes a mile or more distant. On 8JE86 I saw a drake with a female and large downy ducklings on land, an exception to the rule that males stay away from broods which females raise alone. This was in DuPage County, where ducks are unusually dense because of artificial feeding, and there is considerable domestic mallard in the gene pool. Single failed-nest females sometimes become injured from rape attacks by multiple males. Possibly this male was insuring against the loss of the brood. Young ducklings are distinguished from those of wood ducks by a dark line between the eye and bill, and a darker yellow base color.

Female incubating a nest

General vocalizations include peeps of ducklings, loud call of adult females (series of quacks, first one long and successive ones shorter), and a chuckling continuous call occasionally performed by flocked birds on the water. Mallards winter in DuPage County. Occasional large flocks spent the early winter in the center of Lake Maxinkuckee in Indiana, flying out to harvested corn fields to feed. Mallards feed on the surface of water or tip up to take food from the bottom.

Occasionally an incubating duck leaves the nest for a time. When she does so, she covers it with the mixture of down and grass for camouflage.

Once a hen had a nest in my fenced-in yard in Warrenville, but abandoned before incubation was complete.

Mallard eggs are a pale green in color.

19AP99. Mallard nest at Willowbrook under a columbine, against east wall of garage/bird nursery building (was gone, abandoned or destroyed, by 30AP).

14MY99. Mallard female with 7 young ducklings in stream at Willowbrook.

17SE99. Some mallards at Willowbrook appear to be in eclipse plumage, or perhaps young are molting into their first adult plumage.

29OC00. McKee Marsh. A green-headed male with a group of black ducks has a very dark gray body, no curly tail feathers, and no white neck band, apparently a hybrid.

4MY09. Mallard male with female and duckling chased away another male that showed interest in the female.

Mallard ducklings approaching maturity

23NO09. Mayslake. A dozen mallards were diving for food in May’s Lake, coming up with aquatic vegetation after being completely under water 3-5 seconds. A pied-billed grebe was with them, also diving.

Ducks at Mayslake

by Carl Strang

This has been a good spring for migrant ducks at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Two new species have added themselves to the preserve’s bird list, a female goldeneye on May’s Lake a couple weeks ago, and a pair of gadwalls last week.

The male gadwall’s black hind end is unmistakable.

Note how the female gadwall’s head and bill shape match those of the male gadwall and contrast with the female mallard in the foreground.

More expected but no less enjoyable have been a few wood ducks on May’s Lake.

As in other ducks, the female wood duck’s plumage provides much better camouflage than does the male’s.

As of yesterday, the bufflehead pair I reported last week still was hanging out in the stream corridor marsh after 6 days.  I have tried to catch a glimpse of what they are eating, but no luck so far. Do they swallow while submerged?

Just Ducky

by Carl Strang

In August and September, the stream corridor marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve hosted large numbers of mallards and wood ducks.

The wood ducks in particular maintained consistent numbers that were very high for the species, at least in my experience. Last week they reached the high count of 44 individuals.

It has been interesting to watch the males slowly molting from drab to their spectacular winter plumage. On the last day of September the wood ducks were absent, but there were new arrivals on May’s Lake.

This trio of shovelers accompanied an American wigeon and some mallards.

Songbird migration is shifting into its later stages, but the waterfowl migration is just beginning.

Poor Choice?

by Carl Strang

Ground-nesting birds are exposed to a longer list of potential nest predators than birds that nest in trees. Often they are very good at concealing their nests, and the incubating birds themselves must be very well camouflaged. That is the background behind my doubting one mallard’s recent choice of nest site at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

She chose a corner of the mansion walls, with no concealing vegetation whatsoever.

For a while it seemed to be working. The duck was on the nest for more than a week. But then, on Friday morning, she was not there. This in itself was not a matter for concern, because they sometimes will cover the nest and take breaks. In fact the nest looked properly covered.

But when I looked inside I found only two eggs, over at one edge of the nest.

Someone had checked the nest earlier, and saw 5 or 6 eggs. It seems likely that a larger mammalian predator removed the other eggs. There was no sign that the female was harmed, and no indication that any eggs were eaten at the nest. Usually nest predation leaves behind a torn up nest and scattered shell fragments. Why this one was covered and intact otherwise remains a mystery. All that is clear is that the female abandoned the nest. It’s not too late for her to try again. Maybe this experience will lead her to a better choice of nest site.

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