Mayslake Marsh Update: Amphibian Traps

by Carl Strang

I set out some amphibian traps in Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh to assess how the marsh has recovered from the drought of 2012 and another drying out in 2013.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

 

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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.

 

Some Mayslake Birds

by Carl Strang

It seemed the ideal situation. Muskrats had built an enormous mounded den in the center of the parking lot marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and it was a sure bet that it would platform a Canada goose nest in the spring. Sure enough.

A female incubating her nest on April 15.

A female incubating her nest on April 15.

Something happened. The nest was abandoned before incubation was completed. The water is deep, and it’s hard to imagine a coyote making that swim for so small a return. The story wasn’t over, though, as a second attempt was underway by early June.

The same pair? Cannot say, but there was a new nest under incubation by June 3.

The same pair? Cannot say, but there was a new nest under incubation by June 3.

This was very late, but still there would be plenty of time to get young flying by fall. The result, however, was the same.

By June 24 the nest had been abandoned. The eggs appear to be intact.

By June 24 the nest had been abandoned. The eggs appear to be intact.

To close on a more positive note, I will share some recent portraits of Mayslake’s other birds.

Green herons have been regulars in the marshes and lakes.

Green herons have been regulars in the marshes and lakes.

A red-winged blackbird carries lunch for her nestlings.

A red-winged blackbird carries lunch for her nestlings.

A single common yellowthroat is all I’ve been hearing on the preserve.

A single common yellowthroat is all I’ve been hearing on the preserve.

This cedar waxwing thoughtfully lifted its crest as I aimed the camera.

This cedar waxwing thoughtfully lifted its crest as I aimed the camera.

More Mayslake Mammal Action

by Carl Strang

As the snow rapidly melts away, mammals have adjusted. Meadow voles used the snow to advance their tunnel network into the lawns, but these now are exposed.

The voles had to retreat to more sheltered runways.

The voles had to retreat to more sheltered runways.

The voles’ larger relatives, the muskrats, at last are getting some open water to work in.

This one was quick to take advantage of the first few square feet of open water to appear in the parking lot marsh.

This one was quick to take advantage of the first few square feet of open water to appear in the parking lot marsh.

Coyotes now find the going easier.

This one’s muddy feet left a trail easy to see on the black-sealed pavement.

This one’s muddy feet left a trail easy to see on the black-sealed pavement.

Close-up of hind and front footprints

Close-up of hind and front footprints

Rabbits are better camouflaged now, but they have lost some of their advantage as the running surface hardens.

This cottontail lost a race with a coyote.

This cottontail lost a race with a coyote.

And I am happy to add myself to the list of mammals glad to see the snow departing.

Mayslake Mammal Update

by Carl Strang

The deep snow is receding, now, but it certainly has posed challenges to some of our mammals.

Not all of them, though. The muskrat could function with underwater excursions from its secure lodge.

Not all of them, though. The muskrat could function with underwater excursions from its secure lodge.

Voles, the muskrat’s smaller terrestrial relatives, have enjoyed a winter relatively safe from predators. Other species have had to deal with it. We entered the mating season for skunks and raccoons, and they could not wait out the winter.

Skunks, with their relatively short legs, had a particularly difficult time until the snow crusted enough to support them.

Skunks, with their relatively short legs, had a particularly difficult time until the snow crusted enough to support them.

The snow forced this raccoon into a rare, diagonal walk gait.

The snow forced this raccoon into a rare, diagonal walk gait.

A few clear tracks confirmed that the above string was raccoon-created.

A few clear tracks confirmed that the above string was raccoon-created.

With the thaw on, and overnight lows crusting the snow, only deer and humans still are inconvenienced where the snow remains deep.

Mayslake Notes

by Carl Strang

Last Friday a doe and her newly spot-free fawn appeared at the edge of the prairie at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

The fawn was noticeably smaller, more skittish, and shorter of body in proportion to leg length than its mother.

The fawn was noticeably smaller, more skittish, and shorter of body in proportion to leg length than its mother.

I am guessing that this is the fawn that was so successfully hidden on the preserve through the summer, though it is possible that this pair came onto the preserve to find respite from the frantic nuttiness of the rut.

Another mammalian development was the sudden appearance of a new muskrat house in the parking lot marsh.

This den was built in less than a week.

This den was built in less than a week.

The other main marsh, in the stream corridor, had dried out earlier in the fall, but did not remain so for long.

Some heavy rains in recent weeks have built the central pool back up to nearly a third of its normal full size.

Some heavy rains in recent weeks have built the central pool back up to nearly a third of its normal full size.

For the most part otherwise, the routine shutting down into winter has characterized the state of the preserve in the past month.

First Brood

by Carl Strang

Last week the first Canada goose brood of the season appeared on Mays’ Lake.

There were 6 fresh downy goslings.

There were 6 fresh downy goslings.

Where had they come from? There was only one nest on Mayslake Forest Preserve, but they could have followed Trinity Lake (which winds for a considerable distance west and north from the preserve) and crossed to Mays’. I checked the nest in the parking lot marsh, and sure enough, it was empty.

The nest did not appear disturbed, and the membrane of an apparently hatched egg is visible on the side of the muskrat house.

The nest did not appear disturbed, and the membrane of an apparently hatched egg is visible on the side of the muskrat house.

Unfortunately the water still is too deep to reach the nest and count hatched eggs. I tried, but that marsh is in a steep-sided bowl and I was to the tops of the hip boots within a few steps from shore. I will have to wait for the water level to drop, and hope the nest is not too deteriorated for me to get some sense of how many eggs hatched.

Measuring Marsh Recovery

by Carl Strang

Now that Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh is full of water again after several months’ drying out, I am curious as to how fast its animal community will recover. Apart from simply observing what I can on the surface (waterfowl have been back, and last week there were a muskrat and a few singing western chorus frogs), my best tool is the amphibian trap.

Each end is capped by an inward-angling funnel with a 1-inch hole in the end. Animals that enter through the hole have a hard time finding their way back out. The top of the trap is out of the water so they can breathe if they need to.

Each end is capped by an inward-angling funnel with a 1-inch hole in the end. Animals that enter through the hole have a hard time finding their way back out. The top of the trap is out of the water so they can breathe if they need to.

Five traps placed around the marsh produced nothing for two days, and were absolutely clean, suggesting little or no activity around them. The third day brought the first capture.

One of the traps had a medium-sized White River crayfish.

One of the traps had a medium-sized White River crayfish.

I don’t believe this species could survive the marsh drying out, so this individual probably was a recent immigrant from the nearby stream.

Friday was the big day, however. The first three traps I checked were empty, but in the fourth I found these:

Five tiger salamanders.

Five tiger salamanders.

Prior to that moment, in two springs of trapping I had caught a grand total of one salamander. But that wasn’t all.

The final trap held two more.

The final trap held two more.

Most of these appeared to be males, but at least one appeared to be a female (proportionately shorter tail, with less tail fin, and much less swelling around the genital area). Furthermore, none of them had spot patterns matching the one I caught last year. With predatory insects diminished, this would seem to be a promising year for tadpole survival. A final observation as I released them was that they swim by folding their limbs against their bodies and propelling themselves entirely with their tails. This is interesting, given that they move about their terrestrial tunnels all the rest of the year with their legs.

Why this sudden success? Looking back, I suspect that in previous years I may have put the traps out too late, and the salamanders were done and gone. This year I got the traps out within days of the last ice melting away.

Another Sign of the Season

by Carl Strang

We have enjoyed some unseasonably warm weather in northeast Illinois this week, with daily highs reaching the 70’s F on some days. As I passed the parking lot marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve on Tuesday I saw something dark near the top of one of the muskrat houses.

I had been checking for signs of Canada goose nest building, but that wasn’t it.

It proved to be a very large common snapping turtle.

It had been out long enough that the algae on its shell had dried.

There seem to be three things that draw the big snappers out of the water. One is egg-laying, another is having their pond dry up and needing to find another, and the third is sunny warm days in early spring. I have to think it feels good, but apparently not enough to become habitual, because while painted turtles, our other abundant species, bask throughout the season, snappers only seem to do so now.

Ready and Waiting

by Carl Strang

The parking lot marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve holds many muskrat mound houses this winter.

Two large mounds are plainly visible in the north end.

In each of the past two breeding seasons the only Canada goose nest on the preserve has been on a muskrat mound in this marsh. Thanks to presence and absence of leg bands, I know that it has been a different pair each year. Both nests were successful. Three seasons ago the muskrats had only bank dens, the water was shallower, a pair of geese nested on a low, exposed island, and the preserve’s pair of coyotes waded out and killed the incubating female and got her eggs.

Here are 3 more mounds in the center of the marsh.

With so many potential platforms this year, there is the possibility that more than one pair will nest there.

Add one more in the south end.

It’s not a big marsh, though, and an aggressive pair of geese may be able to keep others out. I’ll be interested in seeing what develops.

For the moment, Canada geese still are in their winter pattern. I have not followed them as closely this winter as in past years, but clearly more roosts have stayed active and more birds have hung around in this milder season. I checked out the Blackwell roost earlier this week, and found that though the geese continue to use it, the water has been drawn down.

Most of the roost area is in mudflats.

This is not simply the result of low precipitation.

The gate has been removed from the dam. There are plans to enlarge the zone of marsh-edge vegetation.

This could be a good place to see migrant shorebirds later in the spring.

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