Gray Squirrel Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

For several winters, now, I have been sharing my notes on various species of our vertebrate wildlife. The main idea is to step away from the literature and other second-hand sources, and document what I know about each species from my own observations. At last I have reached the end of the list of dossiers which contain enough information to post here. There may be more in the future, as I add to the limited notes presently in unshared dossiers, but this will be the last for a while. I hope the main point has been clear: to remind you, as well as myself, to pay attention and learn from experience rather than rely on the sometimes limited or misleading second-hand reports (I shouldn’t need to point out that from your perspective, this dossier is itself a second-hand report!)

Squirrel, Gray

Gray squirrel

Gray squirrel

This species is more typical of larger forests and cities. Its relative the fox squirrel is the savanna and small woodlot species, though both can occur together (this one is not found around Culver, Indiana, however). Many notes from the fox squirrel dossier also apply to this one.

27JL77. Gray squirrels fed on unripe red oak acorns at Reineman Sanctuary, Perry County, Pennsylvania. The next day, one was eating Nyssa (black gum) seeds (discarding the fruit).

29JE86. One gray squirrel foraging on the ground in an old pine plantation at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage County, IL. It moved slowly (diagonal walk), nose to the ground, sometimes pushing the nose beneath the litter and walking several inches with the face thus submerged. Stopped and ate 3 small objects. Later investigation of the site revealed small oval shells with tough skins, possibly coccoons, flattened ovals viewed from side with a circular cross section, with one end neatly removed and empty inside.

20OC86. Squirrels in dense brushy old field of Willowbrook Back 40. Sounds, when alarmed, like 2-3 steps or jumps, the last louder, then quiet. Is squirrel getting to bigger shrub or a tree, jumping onto trunk then freezing and watching?

23FE87. Much renewal of nut-digging (removal) past few days (and continued next 10 days or so).

28FE87. Wayne Grove Forest Preserve. Gray squirrel stuffing itself with American elm buds in top of 8″dbh tree. Later another, also in a 5″dbh American elm. Much recent excavation of buried nuts. A third individual ate a few black cherry buds.

6MR87. Squirrel high in a black willow, cutting twigs 4-12 inches long and carrying them one at a time to the top of a major 3-branch crotch high in the tree, where it was stuffing or sewing them into a mass of them.

7AP87. A gray squirrel on the ground responded to chipmunk’s chip-trill at my approach, jumping onto low branch and looking alert.

28SE87. Lots of them on the ground in Willowbrook old field. Old and young of year, both.

23JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Gray squirrel dug up shallowly buried hickory nut, cutting a 1.5′-tall elm to get face in close for leverage in digging. Carried nut into tree, spent about 4-5 minutes consuming it, then ate snow off top of branch it was sitting on (about 1′ worth, a powdery, thin 0.5″ wide), went down tree and continued. Paused and looked back at me.

20MR88. A gray squirrel at Meacham Grove gathering dry leaves from ground, stuffing them into its mouth with its paws then taking them into cavity nest up in old white oak. Also gathering from among the few leaves still attached to the tree itself.

10AP88. Touched a squirrel at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve (tips of his tail hairs as he “hid” on the other side of a tree trunk barely too big for him to look around).

17AU88. A chase between squirrels, apparently not play. Gray squirrel pursuing a larger fox squirrel, which jumped out of trees twice from 15-20 feet up, landing hard, to escape (in the second jump it leaped out, seemed to sail a bit, and its fall was partly broken by a small shrub). The fox squirrel uttered a harsh call, short and sharp, like part of a mobbing call, on 2 occasions. There was an un-play-like seriousness about the pursuer.

27MY89. Young gray squirrels very curious, approach when you hold still (yesterday in the park at the Newberry Library in Chicago, today in Maple Grove Forest Preserve). They have a buzzing call, precursor of the adult’s bark.

22JE89. 2 gray squirrels eating red (not quite ripe) mulberries at Willowbrook. The berries began to ripen the previous weeks, so many other ripe ones were available.

29AU89. Many twig ends, some more than 1 foot long, cut from a sugar maple in Back Yards exhibit by Sciurus sp. The twigs were laden with developing new seeds, but only a few of these were eaten. Happened in last 24 hours (lawn mowed yesterday). No nest visible in nearby trees, and this tree 25 feet from edge of lawn, similar distance from nearest other tree.

3SE89. Gray squirrel youngster (from spring litter) passing through yard, east to west (not a neighborhood where squirrels lived).

20MR90. Gray squirrel chased fox squirrel away from Willowbrook crow cage area, then came back (note: squirrels often enter Willowbrook cages to take food from dishes. A squirrel nest has been found in the bullwinkle in that cage).

22AP90. Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. 2 gray squirrels eating enlarged cottonwood buds high in the tree. They ascended together, the larger almost seeming to pursue, certainly to follow, the smaller. The smaller climbed in 2-foot spurts, the larger following, beginning its move as soon as the smaller’s ended. Larger flicked tail in rippling pattern reminiscent of fish or salamander courtship. The smaller may have done so once or twice, but less forcefully. Slow and deliberate, not a rapid play chase. When they were high up, it appeared the smaller would leap to another branch to escape. Larger broke off chase, and they fed. Didn’t take every bud, examined many without taking. Later, larger followed smaller to ground, then up another tree, same way. Larger sometimes sniffed where smaller had been. Larger got ahead of smaller and turned to face it, flicking tail. Smaller turned away. Etc.

1JL90. Gray squirrel in mulberry tree, feeding on ripe berries, West DuPage Woods.

26JA92. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Lots of nut digging by squirrels, last 24 hours. Fresh snow, overnight low 20F.

21SE97. Gray squirrel eating gilled mushroom cap, Petoskey State Park, MI. Both gray and black individuals common. One chased by red squirrel briefly.

4MR99. At mid-day a gray squirrel emerged from a hole in a large, dead willow across from the Safari Trail/Glen Crest Creek junction at Willowbrook to drive away an approaching fox squirrel. The gray immediately returned to the hole.

27OC99. Fox and gray squirrels active. Former have been eating nuts in recent days, one this morning in a box elder eating seeds, another appearing to work on a broken down old nest. Gray squirrels on ground this morning, some in woods, at least one in base of savanna finger at Willowbrook.

28OC99. Gray squirrel with nut, fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

17NO99. A gray squirrel (young) and a fox squirrel both eating box elder seeds at Willowbrook.

2DE99. Several gray squirrels and 1 fox squirrel foraging on ground.

9FE00. Gray squirrel using an exposed (though low) leaf nest at Willowbrook.

14FE00. Many gray and fox squirrels this winter in nests only 12‑14 inches outer diameter at Willowbrook.

4MR00. A gray and 2 fox squirrels feeding on the expanding buds of an American elm near the Joy Path of Morton Arboretum. As I left the path to approach the tree to ID it, the gray squirrel immediately left and ran to other trees. As I walked up to the trunk, the lower of the fox squirrels finally left, but the higher one remained.

15MR00. Willowbrook. A gray squirrel carrying a walnut, in vicinity of trail willow den (have seen a squirrel eating a walnut near there recently).

11JE00. In a morning’s hiking south of Langlade, WI, 1 gray squirrel seen.

21OC05. Willowbrook. Gray squirrel, tail curled over its head, giving its growling-snarling-whining call with an education raptor volunteer holding a red-tailed hawk on a glove nearby. Squirrel holding still, oriented so that its right side is toward the hawk.

25JA06. Fullersburg. 2 pairs gray squirrels chasing one another, probably courtship.

10JL06. Gray squirrel eating ripening hackberries, Fullersburg’s Willow Island.

5OC10. Mayslake. A fox squirrel chased a gray squirrel on the ground in the south savanna.

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Blue Jay Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier contains my observations of the blue jay, a bird I regard as the Forest Crier, who lets everybody know what is going on.

Blue jay

Blue jay

Jay, Blue

Lives in forests and old, tree-filled residential areas. Nested in the yard at Culver (15′ up in silver maple), riparian strip at Willowbrook Forest Preserve, IL (8′ up in small tree) and Maple Grove F.P. (10′ up in hawthorn at forest edge, incubating 31MY86). Bird reluctant to move when on nest. Eats mainly insects in summer, a lot of nuts and seeds in fall and winter. Forages from ground to top of canopy. Very vocal. “Eeth! Eeth!” sharp alarm call; rising, accelerating “a-a-a-ee-ee-ee-ee” (long a’s and ee’s) begging/feeding call of young (much like crows’); “ool-ool” and “teekle-teekle” calls accompanied by peculiar bobbing of body. Captive reared birds at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center often used this latter movement in concert with vocal mimicries (whistles, telephone ringing). Low, highly musical, conversation-like vocalizations among Willowbrook’s caged birds. Wild birds mimic calls of various hawks. They travel in loosely organized flocks much of the year. Mob crows in spring. Courtship feeding observed in a treetop at Maple Grove F.P. on 10MY86. Tend to take over feeders, other birds stay away until they leave.

15JE86. As a broad-winged hawk flew past, pursued by a couple of starlings at Maple Grove, a blue jay uttered a single “eeth!” call.

Late summer 86. As a flock of ground-feeding grackles flushed at the approach of people, jays and downy woodpeckers at Meacham Grove emitted contact calls, apparently as a final check of location and status before possible flight.

11MY88. Responded to deer breaking twig loudly with “thief” call, Hartz Lake.

12MY88. Jay on nest in 20′ box elder, nest 15′ up, riparian strip of Willowbrook Back 40.

5JE88. In the middle of Geneva I stood under a tree in which a pair of cardinals suddenly began to alarm-call rapidly. They were close to me, but not paying attention to me. The calls were directed at a blue jay which the cardinals chased from the isolated street-side tree to a clump of trees and brush, and continued the alarm calling and chasing until the jay left. The jay resisted some, was not driven off easily.

29MY88. Hartz Lake, in woods. A chipmunk saw me move my arm laterally, gave 3 chips increasing in speed, and ran. Immediately 2 jays feeding on the ground flew up. They were 40-50 feet away.

13JL88. Blue jay young still following, begging from parent, though they look full grown.

18OC88. Cactus Camp, IN. A blue jay yelling at me with repeated, energetic “jay jay” (“thief thief,” “eeth eeth”) calls.

24DE88. Cactus Camp. Jays doing a lot of “jay” mobbing; information about animals moving away from me?

4JE89. Elsen’s Hill Forest Preserve, IL. Teekettle call used as a warning to an intruding jay, given as the intruder landed. After several repetitions the intruder hadn’t left, and so the calling bird flew into the same oak and began to displace it (flights of 10-20 feet). It “jay”ed once, then resumed “teakettles,” continuing displacements and increasing their frequency, until the intruder left.

11JE89. Cactus Camp. Pair of jays mobbed me with loud “jay” calls.

17JE89. A broad-wing called 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. A great crested flycatcher near, also vocal, but not clearly in response to the hawk; same with chickadees. Robins definitely disturbed, with nervous dee-dee-dee’s every 20 seconds or so. Jays in bursts, with several birds mobbing.

18AU89. Willowbrook marsh. Kestrel and jays. Latter making a strange, harsh, parrot-like call. Chasing, mobbing. Kestrel seemed to stoop at the jays a couple times, but the jays kept mobbing until the kestrel left.

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

3SE89. Jays maintain contacts with a-a calls (long a’s) and a variety of squeaky notes.

14OC89. Cactus Camp. Jays “jay”ing at a hawk, landing on branches nearby. Hawk appeared to be a red-tail, but was down inside forest. Jays stayed with it as it flew.

Late MY90. Cactus Camp. Jays foraged in accumulated oak leaves in the open among short brush by perching on tree or sapling branches, searching the ground, and making short flights out.

 

Dark-eyed Junco Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

We’ll soon say goodbye, for the summer, to our most familiar snowbirds, the dark-eyed juncos. Here are my notes on the species. This probably will also be the last dossier until next winter.

Junco, Dark-eyed

Dark-eyed junco

Dark-eyed junco

1986 initial summary: Juncos are common late fall, winter and early spring residents around Culver and West Lafayette, Indiana, south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. They usually travel in flocks, and can be seen in any habitat. They have a follow-me signal in the form of white outer tail feathers that contrast with the dark central ones. They eat seeds, and feed almost exclusively on the ground or on elevated flat platforms in winter. The call note is 1 to 3 syllables (often 3): chi’-bi-dit’ (short I’s), very quick and chittering.

4OC86. First lone individual of fall, stayed around the Warrenville, Illinois, back yard for much of the day.

1987. Juncos still were present at Willowbrook on 6AP, and were singing by 16MR (trilling song), gone by 27AP.

24SE87. First juncos of fall have arrived, Morton Arboretum.

14MR88. Juncos maintain a constant chatter, foraging on and near ground, of minute twitters, trills, and complex combinations of soft notes, occasionally interacting more directly with little scuffles when one encroaches on another’s bit of feeding ground.

17MR88. Juncos singing a lot, Willowbrook Back 40.

20MR88. In east Meacham Grove, a large junco flock, as at Willowbrook very noisy with assorted twitterings, chasing, some singing. Birds were on the ground, in bushes and in trees.

21MR88. Willowbrook Back 40. Some juncos kick like fox sparrows, but not so loudly.

Spring 88. Flocks still present 30MR, gone by 5AP, a few individuals still present 8AP.

15OC88. First juncos of fall, at Red Oak Nature Center (near Batavia, IL).

Juncos most commonly are seen on the ground.

Juncos most commonly are seen on the ground.

18NO88. Willowbrook Back 40. I was watching a flock of juncos and listening to birdlife in general when a sharp-shin flew over, north to south. There was silence from the time it came into view to the time it passed from view. The juncos remained absolutely still, their twitterings and flutterings resuming after the hawk was gone. That hawk must have a quiet view of the world, just as police see orderly traffic when in their patrol cars.

9MR89. Juncos starting to sing, Willowbrook.

21MR89. Willowbrook Back 40. Considerable social activity on this clear but very cool day, among juncos. Some vigorous chasing, and in one case two birds feeding on ground close together, in what seemed to be a synchronized way. They appeared to be male and female. Warming up for start of breeding season? (Have been singing off and on for weeks, now).

21OC89. First junco of fall seen at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

24SE91. First junco of fall seen at Willowbrook.

19FE99. Juncos starting to insert bits of song into their calls.

11MR99. Junco song a trill, sometimes varying in speed and with small chirps sometimes added before or after. Trill a bit more musical than the call. This morning at Willowbrook there are many juncos on the preserve, especially along the creek north of the bridge. They are foraging mainly up in the trees, also singing and chasing one another.

17MR99. Today another wave of juncos at Willowbrook. Some are appearing in places where I haven’t seen them all winter, so I’m inclined to regard them as new birds, migrants drifting north. Very active, like those on the 11th.

11OC99. First junco arrived at Willowbrook.

29JA00. Juncos along with Brewer’s blackbirds and others are at Fermilab buffalo feeders picking up spillage.

5FE00. Juncos common along roadsides near Culver.

22FE00. Willowbrook. First junco songs of the year (2 individuals).

10MR00. Willowbrook. Juncos singing regularly now. Today one fed from an open silver maple flower cluster.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Several juncos still present, have been there daily.

9MR01. This is the first day I’ve observed both singing and much chasing and other play-territorial behavior by juncos this year. A couple singers earlier in the season. It’s a much colder spring than last year, and there have been fewer juncos on the Willowbrook preserve.

30AU01. Juncos are in small groups at Algonquin Park, Ontario, usually associated with hemlock groves.

5OC10. Mayslake. Heard the first juncos of the season.

Northern Flicker Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The flicker was a favorite bird of my childhood; it is so unlike other woodpeckers. That’s not to say that I can offer a lengthy dissertation about them from my own experience, hence the moderate length of my dossier on them.

Flicker, Northern

Male northern flicker

Male northern flicker

This is a woodpecker of savanna and open forest. Most migrate south in winter, passing through DuPage County in large waves. They nest in tree cavities (I have seen them excavating near Lafayette, Indiana, and at Willowbrook and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves in Illinois). Nests may be near the ground or higher in trees (6 feet up at Meacham, in a 7-foot-tall stump in a clearing; 20 feet up in a large black willow at Willowbrook). Flickers frequently forage on the ground, sometimes around ant nests. They also may feed on tree trunks in usual woodpecker fashion. Their flight is strong and direct; the white rump patch is distinctive. Vocalizations are diverse: “Flicka-flicka-flicka;” “E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e,” rising in volume and perhaps a little in pitch, gradually, then dropping again the last couple of notes (staccato short e’s). A “whoop-whoop-whoop” display flight sound, made by wings or voice. Alarm: flew up from ground with whooping wingbeats, and emitted a couple of loud “kleel” sounds.

27MY86. One flicker chased another quietly from perch to perch in part of a willow canopy at Willowbrook. Chasing not too vigorous, and without vocalizations. Part of courtship?

The stiff tail feathers demonstrate this is a woodpecker. It is a little too intuitive to us that females like this one lack the male’s “mustache” marks.

The stiff tail feathers demonstrate this is a woodpecker. It is a little too intuitive to us that females like this one lack the male’s “mustache” marks.

30MR87. First of year observed.

15SE87. Several in Willowbrook Back 40. Also, 2 on 25SE, 1 on 30SE, and on 19OC.

13FE88. First flicker of the year near Culver, along S.R. 110.

17MR88. First arrival at Willowbrook.

16AP88. A flicker at the Morton Arboretum displaced a red-bellied woodpecker which landed on a major branch of the same tree the larger flicker was in. It chased and displaced the red-bellied twice, and uttered a faint “flicka-flicka-flicka” series, then the red-bellied flew off.

27SE88. Still present at Willowbrook. Also seen 3OC, 6OC, and one on 11OC.

17AP89. Lots of flickers in Willowbrook’s Back 40.

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

11FE90. Flicker near Hartz Lake, IN.

7OC99. Last flicker of season at Willowbrook.

21NO99. Flicker perched at edge of Fermilab along Kirk Road.

18DE99. Very late flicker at Fermilab.

17JA00. Even later flicker at Greene Valley Forest Preserve. This individual looked very dark.

29-31AU01. Flickers fairly common at Algonquin Park, Ontario. Feeding on ground, usually in groups of 2-3.

Flickers consume many ants, like other woodpeckers, but unlike them often feed on the ground.

Flickers consume many ants, like other woodpeckers, but unlike them often feed on the ground.

2005-7, Greene Valley and Tri-County. Flickers overwintering in open areas.

20AP09. Flicker drumming in W part of Mayslake savanna. Drumming relatively light but very fast.

As the dossier reveals, it took me a while to figure out that flickers winter here more regularly than I had thought. They especially like prairies and other really open areas in that season.

Flame-shouldered Dart

by Carl Strang

Old notes, photos and memories are worth recording and keeping, as they can produce results as new information becomes available to illuminate them. Back in the 1980’s as I surveyed plant-eating insects in Maple Grove and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves, I was able to identify most of the species I encountered, but I tried to get photos of all, and kept notes and records. That research introduced me to the important component community concept. This is the idea that each kind of plant (or each group of plants that use similar chemical defenses) is consumed by a particular suite of insects and other herbivores adapted to defeating those defenses, and this is a helpful way to organize many of the species in a forest or other community. One of the component communities in the study forests was based on Smilacina racemosa, the feathery Solomon’s plume or false Solomon’s seal.

Feathery Solomon’s plume

Feathery Solomon’s plume

In one of the first posts in this blog I described that component community, and mentioned that I was unable to identify two of its members. Later I found a resource that allowed me to narrow down one of the mystery insects, a sawfly, to genus Phymatocera, either P. offensa or P. similata.

One of the Phymatocera sawflies consuming Smilacina flowers

One of the Phymatocera sawflies consuming Smilacina flowers

Recently I ran across a photo in the excellent Wagner guide to caterpillars that allowed me to identify the other unknown. It proves to be the flame-shouldered dart (Ochropleura implecta), a moth in the owlet moth family Noctuidae.

Flame-shouldered dart caterpillar on Smilacina

Flame-shouldered dart caterpillar on Smilacina

As is the case with many noctuids, however, this one has a fairly broad diet across its range, so its presence on this particular plant provides only a little information. Nevertheless, it’s always nice to solve an old mystery.

Red-headed Woodpecker Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

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

Woodpecker, Red-headed

Adult red-headed woodpecker

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

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

Red-headed woodpecker fledgling

18AP99. First of year observed, northern Illinois.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nest site for red-headed woodpeckers, Culver, Indiana

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

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

Killdeer Dossier

by Carl Strang

As in past winters I have been sharing my collected observations on various vertebrate species over the years. While this may have some value in providing information, and revealing how there can be a difference between one person’s experienced knowledge and the collective accumulation of information available through references, the main point is to encourage you to pay more attention to the familiar and to build your own knowledge base of personally gained information.

Killdeer

Killdeer

This plover generally occurs in large, short grass fields and pastures. It produces a loud “killdee” call, often repeated in clusters. Small downy young can produce this call at surprisingly loud volume. The parent has broken-wing distraction display. Practically all of them depart from northern Illinois and northern Indiana for the winter, but a few remained through the winter near open streams in pastures in south central Pennsylvania. Mudflats also are frequented for feeding purposes and in migration. Killdeers have a very smooth, rapid run over the ground.

Killdeer nests are simple scrapes in the ground, containing 4 mottled eggs. The nest site generally is chosen such that the eggs are well camouflaged.

4JL86. Jeffersonville, Indiana. A pair on a golf course ran ahead of me. They stopped about 20m away from me, and settled into small depressions in the lawn (small bare soil patches) exactly as though settling onto eggs. If I approached, they quickly got up and ran ahead of me; no eggs or young were there. If I approached very slowly, the bird slightly spread its wings and tail, and went into the broken-wing display.

15MR87. 3 calling killdeers flew high over Meacham Grove, west to east, the first of the year.

4AP99. First killdeer of the year I’ve seen in DuPage County.

1AU99. Swenson’s Road pond, Fermilab. A couple killdeers walked at the water’s edge in an upright posture, only occasionally reaching down to the surface.

Killdeers seldom enter the water.

30OC99. Several killdeers still are at Fermilab.

26DE99. A killdeer was on the shore at Lake Maxinkuckee, Culver, Indiana. Broken ice sheet pieces were floating along the shore, and there was some snow on the ground.

20OC00. Killdeers flew over the Maxinkuckee Wetlands, calling loudly as they flew over the area for an extended period of time. The flight seemed to be a display.

22OC00. Many killdeers were at the marsh in south Blackwell Forest Preserve (and only 1 at McKee Marsh in north Blackwell). Two appeared to be involved in an agonistic display, standing a few inches apart and bowing forward until their breasts nearly touched the ground, calling, holding their tails straight and sometimes fanning them, sometimes pacing around. Once one appeared to bite or peck toward the other.

The killdeer’s long tail, folded here, is largely a bright reddish color.

21JL01. Fermilab. Half a dozen killdeers at the Swenson Road pond are mainly staying well back on the drier mud.

13NO01. A couple killdeers still are at Rice Lake, Danada Forest Preserve.

1AU04. Greene Valley. A shallow large pond at 83rd Street and Rt. 53 has attracted many shorebirds. Pectoral sandpipers nearly all are feeding in the shallowest water with the vertical sewing-machine bill motions. A number of lesser yellowlegs are in slightly deeper water. On the mudflats are many killdeers, a couple spotted sandpipers and a solitary sandpiper. Between mudflats and the very shallowest water, several peeps (appear to be mainly least sandpipers).

The killdeer nest mentioned on April 18, 2009.

18AP09. Killdeer incubating a nest in mulch around a tree in the picnic area, Tri-County State Park.

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.

Scarlet Tanager Dossier

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have posted one of my species dossiers. This is an awareness support method I developed in the 1980’s, when I realized that for most animal species, including the common ones, there was little that I could say I knew about them from direct experience. I wrote starting paragraphs based entirely on memories of my own observations, then added notes as I noticed new things over time. This helped me to focus, to pay more attention when out in the field. As time went on there was less to add from casual observation, but I continue to expand the dossiers as I continue to learn. Today’s example is a species that is good at staying out of sight in the upper canopy during the breeding season, and heads to the tropics for the winter, so my dossier on it remains relatively brief. (Date codes begin with a number representing the day of the month, followed by a unique 2-letter code for the month, ending with the year.)

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet tanagers often forage closer to the ground in the spring migration, and are easiest to see then. There also is less obstruction as leaves still are expanding.

This bird lives in larger forest areas in summer, though sometimes they can be seen in smaller woodlands during migration. They mainly stay in the upper canopy in the breeding season, though often they are lower when migrating. Sometimes migrants occur in fairly large numbers for a week or so in mid-May in DuPage County. This was a fairly common breeder in the larger forests of south central Pennsylvania. They are more thinly scattered in DuPage County’s smaller forest islands. They are occasional in riparian strips in northern Indiana. This is a fairly deliberate, leaf-searching forager. The song is similar to the robin’s in its phrasing, speed and rhythm, but with occasional distinctive fuzzy or burry notes.

This male was rolled by the wake of a car as he flew over a road in Pennsylvania. He quickly recovered and went on his way.

10MY87. First tanager of the year heard singing at north Blackwell Forest Preserve.

13MY87. Willowbrook. A tanager in a willow top foraged by sitting for several seconds at a time, and hopping or flying 5 inches to 2 feet between perches. When it sighted prey, it hopped to a perch nearby, then reached for it.

Though she lacks the male’s brilliant breeding plumage, the female’s olive-yellow feathers, as well as the balanced symmetry of her shape, lend beauty to her appearance.

7MY88. First tanager of the year singing, Culver Indian Trails.

12MY99. First migrant noted at Willowbrook. Last spring migrant noted there 18MY.

13MY99. Tanagers were common today, low in the canopy, at Willowbrook.

5OC99. A late migrant at Willowbrook.

28JE00. A pair of tanagers fed a cowbird fledgling at Willowbrook, in the riparian zone midway along the Nature Trail’s west leg. A tanager could be heard singing east of the Nature Trail late into the spring, as recently as a couple weeks ago.

2JL00. A male tanager was singing in southern Waterfall Glen, in the topmost branch of a large dead tree, 10 feet from the nearest foliage, just perched and singing.

I don’t recall whether this bird was singing, or just stretching his mouth.

22JL00. Tanagers still are singing at Waterfall Glen. The one at Willowbrook has not been singing since the first week of July.

16JE01. A male scarlet tanager fed a cowbird fledgling in the savanna area of the Morton Arboretum’s Heritage Trail.

Tanager at Fullersburg Woods.

25MY02. Groups of scarlet tanagers moved together low in the forest today at Meacham Grove, and yesterday at Willowbrook. They all seemed to be males yesterday, but there were both genders today.

Maple Leaf Miners: Canopy Data

by Carl Strang

Last week I returned to Maple Grove and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves to collect leaf miner data from fallen sugar maple/black maple leaves. Fallen leaves mainly represent what happened in the canopy, and data from them allow me to make comparisons between preserves, between years, and between the understory and the canopy (I had collected understory data earlier in the season).

This year all the leaves had fallen by the time I did the survey.

It was a pleasant day, and I dressed warmly enough that the November weather was no distraction.

In fact, a number of male linden looper moths were flying at Maple Grove. Also known as winter moths, they wait until November to seek mates.

Though the main purpose of the venture was to count leaf mines, I also kept my eyes and ears open for anything else of interest.

I don’t remember noticing this small concrete foundation at Maple Grove before now. It appears to be an old latrine site.

With the leaves largely changed from yellow to brown, leaf mines were easy to see.

Typical leaf litter scene.

I counted 30 leaves at each of 10 randomly selected points on each preserve. Comparisons between canopy and understory counts this year revealed no statistically significant differences at either preserve, except that there were more Phyllonorycter clemensella tent mines in the Maple Grove understory than in the canopy. This species seems more tied to the understory, and seems to be more affected by controlled fall burns of leaf litter. There were no successful burns at either preserve last year, and I suspect that accounts for the statistically significant increase in this species in the understory at Meacham Grove this year. There were no differences between 2010 and 2011 in the canopy for any of the four mine types at either preserve, and there were no differences between the preserves in canopy counts.

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