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.


Nashville Warbler Dossier

by Carl Strang

How do we “know” what we “know?” It occurred to me back in the 1980’s that much of what I “knew” about most species of animals and plants was information I had gained from reading or from talking with others. I made the decision to assemble a dossier for each animal species, based entirely on my own experience. This was humbling, as the resulting files were small even for common species. From then on I made a point of adding notes as I focused on accumulating more such experience. In recent years my attention has been focused more on singing insects, and so I have added fewer notes to the vertebrate dossiers, but such as I have I continue to share here from time to time in the winter. Today’s focus species, the Nashville warbler, is one we see in the Chicago area only during migration, so at least I have a ready excuse for its small dossier. The odd prefixes for each entry are my date codes.

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Observed as a migrant in Lafayette, IN, and at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, DuPage County. Song close to Tennessee warbler’s. First part of song identical, with loud “se-bit’, se-bit’, se-bit’” then instead of emphatic “tee’s” has fewer, slurred, robin-like notes (usually 3). The Willowbrook birds hung around the taller thick shrubs at the edge of the riparian strip.

1MY87. At Willowbrook, a Nashville warbler hopped along and between twigs, 8-15 feet up in riparian woodland. At times very frenetic impression, jerking head around to look in all directions and not pausing long. At other times paused for several seconds and looked all around. Caught 2 small caterpillars within 3 minutes, both by reaching into expanding leaf tufts in box elders. Killed with pecks before swallowing. Not observed to hover-glean or sally.

4MY87. Abundant. In addition to song, a “bick” call, loud and sharp. Another one observed feeding in same way as the one above: much looking between short frenetic hops, and stretching to reach prey from leaf-clusters. Feeding in box elder.

5MY87. Has a chunky body and shows fluttering-hopping advances like a kinglet.

2MY88. First of year singing. Also 7MY at Fulton County Museum property.

19MY88. Female seen at Willowbrook.

31AU88. One observed in Willowbrook riparian area, feeding among low shrubs. Acrobatic, and an aerial pursuit. Reached a lot, too.

29AP89. Heard singing at Von Oven Scout Camp, Naperville.

8MY89. Last noted of spring.

29AP99. First of season noted at Willowbrook. Last noted 14MY there that spring.

3MY99. At Willowbrook, foraging 20 feet up in a box elder. Deliberate, making 1-2-inch hops with much looking around and reaching but no acrobatics. No long jumps, except when moving from tree to tree. Sang infrequently. Slow motion not conspicuous.

2SE99. First migrant of fall noted at Willowbrook. Last seen there 17SE.

1MY00. First migrant heard at Willowbrook.

24SE00. A couple in the Sparrow Hedge, Fermilab.

13OC00. A single, clearly marked adult among Tennessee warblers feeding in tall goldenrods, etc., at McKee Marsh.

14SE02. A single individual at Elsen’s Hill (there were mixed flocks elsewhere) systematically moving from one tall goldenrod to another along a wooded trail edge, perching in or adjacent to the flower heads and searching them closely.

8MY11. Elsen’s Hill. One foraging among the twig tips of a small rosaceous tree in which leaves were expanding. It cranked and twisted its neck so as to peer into and all around the tips while remaining perched in place.

Barn Swallow Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Swallow, Barn

A barn swallow at its nest

A barn swallow at its nest

These swallows build supported mud nests in the shelter of barn structures or bridges. They catch insects during continuous, usually fairly low flight. I have seen similar nests in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. The vocalizations are chattery relative to those of tree swallows.

26MY86. I compared barn and tree swallows foraging over a meadow near McKee Marsh. Both species flew low over the grass tops. Barn swallows had a somewhat smoother, more fluid flight path.

Summer 1986. Barn swallows nested on buildings of the Basin lodge complex at Big Bend National Park. They were very tame and approachable. One started a beautiful, complex song just before 5am, 1.5 hours before sunrise, and some were out flying in the dark that early. That song seemed to develop at first slow and more measured with simpler phrases and longer intervals between them. Gradually it accelerated and increased in complexity.

Migrating barn swallows take a break

Migrating barn swallows take a break

Mid-SE86. Barn swallows migrated in small groups (1-4), sometimes in the company of other swallows or swifts. Mostly they were 100 or more feet above the ground.

20JL99. More than a dozen barn swallows have appeared over the Willowbrook Nature Trail area, flying low; cloudy with occasional showers.

24AP00. First barn swallow of the season was a single individual flying over Willowbrook.

23AU09. They seem to be migrating, but there still are nestlings at Springbrook Prairie.

Northern Shoveler Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

In honor of the shovelers we saw during our Christmas Bird Count on Saturday, here is my somewhat paltry dossier of observations on this duck, which is strictly a migrant in our area. According to researchers their main direction of travel through northern Illinois is unusual: east-west, between the Atlantic coast and prairie breeding grounds.

Shoveler, Northern

Pair of northern shovelers, western Alaska

Pair of northern shovelers, western Alaska

I have seen these ducks regularly on Lake Maxinkuckee and Hawk Lake in Indiana during migration. Usually they travel as singles, pairs or in small groups. Males have a peculiar zipping call, noted in western Alaska, where occasionally I saw widely scattered individuals and pairs. There also was a call reminiscent of a flipped strip of metal. Usually they feed by sifting the surface of the water with sideways movements of their extraordinarily large bills.

15MR87. Shovelers were in a temporary pond along Geneva Road east of West Chicago.

20MR99. First shoveler of the year, IL.

26MR00. I observed 5 males and 1 female shoveler at McKee Marsh, 20 yards offshore, sticking their beak and sometimes their heads fully in the water and swinging them back and forth, but not tipping up.

24SE00. Several shovelers in small groups feeding at McKee Marsh, skimming the surface of the water.

Shovelers on May’s Lake

Shovelers on May’s Lake

14OC00. About 20 shovelers at McKee Marsh, all feeding by tipping up in contrast to their usual feeding style. No floating algae, and the water area still is large, though the entire corridor to the outlet is dry. Mainly they are in the center of the pool, though a few near the edge also are tipping up.

15DE12. A number of late-migrant shovelers were tipping up in the large pond in Timber Ridge Forest Preserve on the north side of Geneva Road.

American Coot Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s featured species is a water bird that was an iconic migrant in my childhood, appearing in huge, raft-like flocks on Lake Maxinkuckee during the spring and fall migration seasons. Then, we often referred to them by the old hunter’s name: mudhens.

American coot

American coot

Coot, American

This rail relative is a migrant and rare summer resident on Lake Maxinkuckee at Culver, Indiana. They migrate at night, spending time on the lake in large rafts of up to hundreds of birds. Occasionally some come onto shore to graze, but usually they dive for aquatic plants in water 1-15+ feet deep, close to or far from shore. They run on the surface to take off, and their landings are not particularly graceful: they fly to within a couple feet of the surface, stop flying, and plunk into the water. Coots breed in cattail marshes with some open water, making nests in the cattails. Their vocalizations in migration consist of simple soft, high-pitched peeps or chuckling sounds. On breeding grounds they produce a louder, raucous multisyllabic call, commonly in early evening.

Rafting coots, Lake Maxinkuckee

Rafting coots, Lake Maxinkuckee

29NO86. Culver. Coots didn’t steal from canvasbacks, but they weren’t diving, either. They followed the cans around, occasionally reaching for dropped scraps of aquatic plants.

7MR87. Coots have arrived at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve.

27FE00. One seen at McKee Marsh.

Coot on Deep Quarry Lake, West Branch Forest Preserve

Coot on Deep Quarry Lake, West Branch Forest Preserve

12MR00. Several at McKee Marsh.

9NO01. A flock of perhaps 100 coots on Red Rock Lake in Iowa, just above the dam, was in an odd-looking, very tight group with none diving. They stayed that way, appearing to touch or nearly so, for the greater part of an hour. Bald eagles were in the area and may have inspired this unusual formation. It looked especially odd since the lake is very large, and they were far from shore with no other birds on the water nearby.

Coot and gadwall in a Nevada marsh

Coot and gadwall in a Nevada marsh

11NO01. Large numbers of coots were on the Mississippi River and flooded areas beside it, just north of Lock and Dam 13.

20OC02. Many coots have been on Maxinkuckee for weeks. This morning, 2 engaged in an agonistic encounter well off shore, paddling with their feet so as to lift the front parts of their bodies high out of the water, perhaps 60 degrees, facing one another, lifting heads on extended necks in an apparent effort to get beaks above the other, close together, uttering rapid high-pitched clucks.

Coots, Maxinkuckee

Coots, Maxinkuckee

27NO10. Coots had been feeding near shore all afternoon, but as dusk deepened they all moved far off shore.

Common Grackle Dossier

by Carl Strang

In anticipation of spring, this week’s choice of species dossier features a bird that winters not so far to our south, and so is one of the first to arrive in spring.

Grackle, Common

Courting group of grackles in a quiet moment.

Typically this is a colonial nester in tall trees, although I have seen low nests (e.g., at Purdue gravel pit). Birds radiate out from the colony to feed, traveling at least up to ½ mile. They feed mostly on the ground, in tall (at least 6″) grass in summer in Pennsylvania, in forests in early to mid-spring in Illinois. Latter birds feed in groups, noisily throwing leaves aside with beaks as they walked. Former ones fed more commonly as individuals.

Squeaky, rusty-hinge voice. In early May 1986, at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve, Illinois: A large male grackle, perched on a bare branch beside the river, periodically gave his squeaky “erlik-geck” call. Each call was accompanied by elevation of the feathers of the head, neck and upper back and chest. Feather elevation began slightly before vocalization. Alarm call is a series of rapid “geck” notes.

Migrates south for winter, forming large flocks mixed with other blackbirds (especially red-winged) in fall, disappearing in November from northern Illinois and Indiana, reappearing in March. The male holds his long, wedge-shaped tail vertically in long straight flight. That tail also can be held in a V-shape.

Migrant grackle flock, foraging on Mayslake mansion lawn.

Both parents participate in feeding. Nestling grackles at Willowbrook’s hospital were unusual in their lack of aggressiveness in taking food. They would not bite food off its holder (implying regurgitation by parents into the nestling’s throat?). The inside of the mouth is dark red on older youngsters.

7MR87. First arrival of year noted at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve.

7MY87. Grackle caught moth it flushed from lawn, removed wings before eating.

4JE87. Broods out of nest, not strong fliers, still begging hard.

11JE87. Mother grackle fed youngster several items, apparently brought up from her crop although some she picked up nearby on the ground. After she flew off, the fledgling pecked at the ground, picking up dropped bits, and also did some close looking of its own into the grass.

14SE87. Migrants in Willowbrook Back 40, also one on 28th.

6MR88. Numbers of grackles are back.

2AP88. Grackles flying in pairs and showing much courtship activity in past week.

8AP89. Grackles mostly in pairs.

17JE89. A broad-winged hawk calling repeatedly, in north end of Maple Grove. Jays, flickers and grackles highly agitated, flickers the most continuously vocal with “keels” every 2 seconds (2 birds). Grackles gacking frequently, too.

18JE89. Grackles foraging in forest litter, Maple Grove and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves.

Grackles perched near a nesting colony.

30JE96. As I paddled my sea kayak on Lake Michigan, just north of the IL-WI border, I saw many grackles along that 2-mile stretch foraging over the surface of the water. Both genders. The birds flew pretty much straight out from shore, 100-200 yards, and then flew back and forth until they saw something on the water to pick up. Then the bird dropped down and reached for the item with its bill. There were lots of dead and dying small fish, and on at least 2 occasions these clearly were what the grackles picked up. At other times the objects appeared to be too small or the wrong shape. Sometimes a grackle dropped down and appeared to miss, or not even quite reach the surface, but it seemed that after a single try, successful or not, the bird headed straight back to shore (sometimes dropping down to the water on the return trip, though). They flew along as high as 30 feet, usually 10-15, and when seeing objects they spun on a wing and often hovered, looking surprisingly tern-like. They minimized contact with the water, though one that dropped down close to me, where I could see clearly, plunged its head into the water, and its tail tip dipped in as well. Their fluttering flight appeared clumsy and energy-gobbling when compared to the purple martins, gulls and terns also cruising those waters.

22FE99. First of year noted at Willowbrook.

12AU99. 2 grackles hunting up in trees.

2NO99. Last of season at Willowbrook.

31OC01. Flocks of red-wings and grackles remain (Nelson Marsh, Kane Co.)

4NO01. An enormous flock of red-wings and grackles along Kirk Road in eastern Kane County. The species were staying apart, on the whole, and there were mainly grackles, but there were hundreds of each. They were landing in a harvested corn field.

18MR09. Both red-wing and grackle include tail fanning and wing spreading in their displays. In the red-wing, these movements accompany the song but are expressed in a range from not at all or nearly so, to slight fanning of tail, slight tail fanning and spreading of wings, and finally much tail fanning and wing spreading.

Grackle courtship flock, displaying

1JE09. Mayslake. First grackle fledglings.

18MR11. Mayslake. Most grackles still are males, but a female often is among them from the start (when a pair forms do they leave, so males always outnumber females?).

29MR11. Mayslake. Displaying grackle group. Often there is only one female with the several males. In the past week or two I frequently have noted trios of flying grackles, one female with 2 males.

Starling Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The European starling was one of the species that prompted me to begin my species dossiers. The first short paragraph contained everything I could say I knew about the species from personal experience when I set up the dossiers in 1985-86. It was embarrassing, and prompted me to pay more attention. Notes added later begin with date codes.


Starlings usually are associated with human structures.

A year-round resident throughout Indiana and Illinois, as well as southern Pennsylvania. Usually they are seen around human constructs, nesting in buildings, street lights, etc. They also nest in tree cavities and bird houses, even in open woods well away from people. In late winter they become vocal, mixing squeaky “querk” and “joo” notes with mimicries that are realistic but low in volume. Frequently they perch in and around tops of chimneys on cold winter days. Their plumage adds abundant white spots to feather tips in winter. Observations of a nest in a hollow catalpa on the Purdue campus, spring 1976, impressed me with the frequency of feeding trips and the domination of the diet with large caterpillars. They forage mostly on the ground in short grass. The young are very noisy, especially when a parent returns with food. Eggs are pale blue. The young are a uniform gray in color, forming into flocks of their own after leaving their parents. In fall, starlings often form large flocks, sometimes mixed with assorted blackbirds.

15JE86. A pair of starlings chased a broad-winged hawk in Maple Grove. It had paused briefly in the tree where they were, but I could not see if it carried anything. They uttered rattling calls throughout.

Starlings mobbing red-tailed hawk at Mayslake.

29MR87. Starlings on a road after rain, apparently eating worms.

6AP87. Starling at Willowbrook mimicking spotted sandpiper.

14MY87. Bird on horizontal branch of dead tree performing a display: bill pointed up, neck only stretched a little, wings lowered and fluttering more or less in coordination with a continuous calling, a mix of rattles, whistles and gurgles that continued for over a minute.

5MR88. Starlings imitating pewees, McKee Marsh.

21MR88. Starlings imitating purple martins, Willowbrook.

2MY88. Gathering nest material.

5MY88. First thin, high begging cries heard from a nest.

Older starling nestlings.

6JE88. First independent starling youngster seen, and the harsh “jeer” begging notes are not nearly as ubiquitous as during the past 10 or so days. First brood done.

4AU88. Youngster (independent) in Willowbrook Back 40 eating fruit from black cherry tree, spitting out seeds.

22MR89. Starling at Willowbrook loudly and accurately imitating the sound of a squirrel chewing on a nut.

24MR89. At Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve, starling imitations of nighthawk, meadowlark.

4JL89. Second brood of starling young chattering in nests, Myers Grove, near Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Starling pauses during a frigid mid-winter bath.

24JA90. Extended (at least 2 minutes) fight between starlings. They locked bills and beat one another with their wings, each trying to force the other onto its back. When beak grip lost, they sought it again. Finally one broke free and flew away. The other flew up to the top of an adjacent building and sang, with slight lifting of wings at 1-2-second intervals.

1NO99. Starlings mimicking killdeers at Willowbrook.

30JL00. Large flock of starlings, many or most of them immature, in trees on south side of McKee Marsh.

Starling flock on an early December morning.

9MR01. On 3 occasions this week, I have seen an interesting reaction by the flock of starlings hanging around the outdoor cages at Willowbrook to a hawk passing through. On 3 different days there were low flying hawks, an adult red-tail, a Cooper’s, and a young red-tail. Each time, the starlings all took off and flew in a tight flock. At first it reminded me of a mobbing flight, or a shielding as the red-necked phalaropes do, but soon it became clear that the flock was not pacing the hawk but adopting a course oblique to its path. The remarkable features were the flock’s tightness, which was a little greater and with no outliers in contrast to the usual, and the coincidence in their taking flight with the arrival of the hawk. They landed as soon as the hawk was gone.

1JA02. Starlings at the Morton Arboretum are feeding heavily on a bumper crop of red cedar fruit.

Seeking Singers

by Carl Strang

The middle of August through September is the peak singing insect season, and on Tuesday I took the first of a scattered series of vacation days to work on a long checklist of targets. I started with searches of the McKee Marsh edge at Blackwell Forest Preserve, and the area around the bridge over the West Branch of the DuPage River at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. My main targets were long-tailed and black-sided meadow katydids. I first found those two species in the county last year, and went to these likely locations in hope of finding more. At Blackwell I found mainly black-legged and short-winged meadow katydids, our two most common species in their respective genera. I also saw a few conehead nymphs like this.

Only about an inch long, and lacking wings, these will have to grow fast to complete their development this season. I suspect they are round-tipped coneheads.

After considerable wading through vegetation depressingly dominated by reed canary grass, I finally spotted a female long-tailed meadow katydid. She did not provide a photo op, but I did post some photos last year from another location.

The Winfield Mounds bridge was on the list thanks to my meeting a photographer who had placed a photo of a black-sided meadow katydid on his website. He said he took the picture at the bridge. Again I found a lot of reed canary grass, but dutifully waded in. Again, plenty of black-legs and short-wingeds, but there were scattered others including a female Say’s trig who hopped onto my net.

I didn’t realize how big the females can get, and how they can have long wing extensions reminiscent of a two-spotted tree cricket’s, until I met this individual. She was a good centimeter long.

Shortly after photographing the trig I spotted a black-sided meadow katydid, and so they indeed persist in that area.

American Toad Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have shared one of my dossiers. The idea, which I began in the 1980’s, is to make a written record of everything I have learned about a species from personal experience. Some dossiers have grown to be relatively large over the years. Others, like this one, have remained small.

Toad 2b

American Toad

Terrestrial most of year, in wooded areas, hunting for insects at night, catching them with long-thrown, sticky tongue. Sing in numbers in ponds in spring, song a trill. Sings later than chorus frogs, spring peepers and wood frogs. Smaller males ride on females’ backs, clasping with forearms. Eggs laid in long strings, hatch into tiny black tadpoles which develop in a few weeks into tiny toads that disperse, sometimes in great numbers, into the surrounding landscape. Common near home in Culver when I was a child. Once the dog grabbed one but spit it out and showed distress, salivating excessively afterwards.

10MY87. Singing at McKee Marsh.

30AP88. Singing at McKee Marsh.

12-13MY99. Singing at Willowbrook.

30AP00. I can hear them singing from the house on Briarwood, Warrenville.

21AP01. First of year singing, heard from the house. On 22nd, also, many singing at Pratts Wayne Woods.

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.

21MY09. Mayslake. A toad moving through the savanna, mid-day. Earlier in the season several sang in the marsh just west of the stream, but only there on the preserve.

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