Birds in Transition

by Carl Strang

Soon the first wave of birds that overwintered in the tropics will reach northern Illinois. April has brought a transition from wintry weather to the warmth, plant growth and insects that make the trip worthwhile for the many species whose ancestors were content with tropical conditions.

For most of the month we see birds that are year-round residents or are newly arrived from their wintering grounds in the southern states. They have to deal with the season’s variability, though. Early in April a cold spell brought a thin snowfall. There still were insects to be found, but they were on or close to the ground. A selection of species foraged on the banks of the stream at St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

On other days, getting set for the nesting season was a priority.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are wood duck boxes.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are nest boxes.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one baby.

And now, with the warm days forecast ahead, the big push of migrants soon will diversify the preserve’s avian picture.

 

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Burn Season

by Carl Strang

The end of winter brings with it the prairie and savanna controlled burn season. Mayslake Forest Preserve got some of that attention, but it was more limited than the almost complete coverage of two years ago.

Only half of the north stream corridor prairie was burned, for instance.

Only half of the north stream corridor prairie was burned, for instance.

A thread of fire reached into the edge of the stream corridor woodland and ignited the tall stump which I regarded as the most likely nest site for the great horned owls last year. It continued to smolder for days.

Several feet of one side burned away, showing that the cavity had been wide open and quite deep.

Several feet of one side burned away, showing that the cavity had been wide open and quite deep.

I don’t know if any owl eggshell fragments could be found in the former base of the cavity, but it’s a moot point now as they won’t be able to use this platform again.

I don’t know if any owl eggshell fragments could be found in the former base of the cavity, but it’s a moot point now as they won’t be able to use this platform again.

It’s a moot point personally, too, as I will be retired next year and plan to shift my preserve monitoring to St. James Farm, a preserve closer to home.

Return to the Platform

by Carl Strang

One of my annual rituals is to go out in mid-February and seek the nest of the great horned owl on the preserve that I am monitoring (Mayslake for the past several years). This year that task proved to be much too easy, as the birds returned to the location of their nest in 2012. That was when they made the arguably poor choice of laying their eggs on top of a squirrel nest. It worked as long as the female was incubating quietly, but after the eggs hatched the nest began to fall apart from all the comings and goings. One of the babies fell to the ground and we rescued it. After it was checked out and cleaned up at the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, it was returned and its dubious home was placed on a more solid platform.

Mike Wiseman did the honors.

Mike Wiseman did the honors.

Ultimately one youngster branched.

Ultimately one youngster branched.

The platform remained, and we hoped the owls would use it, but they apparently did not nest in 2013, and last year they nested in an unknown location not far from the stream corridor marsh. Maybe a couple years’ accumulation of fallen leaves was needed to make a suitable foundation. Hard to say. In any case, on January 28 I found this:

Just enough of her peeks out to reveal that glare so typical of an incubating owl.

Just enough of her peeks out to reveal that glare so typical of an incubating owl.

That was as much as she showed. Sometimes it was less.

Those feather tufts are a good image to plant in your mind if you are going hunting for a great horned owl nest. Sometimes they are all you will see.

Those feather tufts are a good image to plant in your mind if you are going hunting for a great horned owl nest. Sometimes they are all you will see.

We had a blizzard a few days after I found the nest. She seemed well protected in that platform, so I hoped the storm didn’t drive her off the nest. That was what I believed happened in 2011 when the Groundhog Day Stormageddon blizzard brought in a couple feet of snow in short order. After around 40 days the owls abandoned the nest that year. This year I was counting the days. Last Friday she was on the nest. On Monday she was gone. I checked a couple times through this week, but sadly we appear to have a repeat of the 2011 failure. This is why great horned owls live so long, so as to have multiple opportunities to produce the young that will replace them in the population.

 

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.

The Flood and Animals

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I shared some images of last week’s flood at Mayslake Forest Preserve. When I saw how high the water had risen, I expected to find the Canada goose nest washed out. She was in the bowl-like parking lot marsh, on top of a muskrat house. When I got there I found that the water was high, but it had found a new outlet that limited its rise.

The water came within a few inches of the nest, but did not flood it.

The water came within a few inches of the nest, but did not flood it.

As I walked the east shore of Mays’ Lake that day, I heard a sudden loud splash above the roar of the nearby stream. It reminded me of a beaver’s warning dive, but there have been no resident beavers on the preserve in some years, so I passed it off as something else. On the next day, however, I found this:

A beaver had been there indeed. The freshly gnawed cuts showed the wide grooves made by beaver incisor teeth.

A beaver had been there indeed. The freshly gnawed cuts showed the wide grooves made by beaver incisor teeth.

Until I have reason to believe otherwise, I imagine this beaver was passing through, following the course of the flood or perhaps using the elevated waters to make an exploratory trip.

A final image comes from the day after the flood, as a northern rough-winged swallow rested at the edge of the lake.

A number of rough-wings, tree and barn swallows were foraging close above the water’s surface.

A number of rough-wings, tree and barn swallows were foraging close above the water’s surface.

This was a reminder that the spring migration is accelerating as the end of April approaches.

The Marsh Returns

by Carl Strang

Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh went dry last July, and it wasn’t until the middle of winter that it began to show surface water again. Gradually the water level, generally capped by ice, rose thanks to some heavy midwinter rains. Now, at last, the marsh is full again, and the ice has thawed.

The marsh on March 28. Smoke from the prairie burn is visible beyond the marsh.

The marsh on March 28. Smoke from the prairie burn is visible beyond the marsh.

The ducks and geese showed their approval by returning, and the first significant news was the appearance of some green-winged teals. I had not observed this species on the preserve in my previous 5 years there.

These two male green-winged teals accompanied a female.

These two male green-winged teals accompanied a female.

The prairie fire burned off the old willow branch that tempted a pair of Canada geese into an ill-fated nesting attempt last year.

The coyotes won’t have the same good fortune this year.

The coyotes won’t have the same good fortune this year.

Meanwhile, another goose pair is nesting at Mayslake’s other marsh, at the edge of the parking lot.

Only a dense strip of cattails is between the nest, which the geese built on top of a muskrat house, and the shore.

Only a dense strip of cattails is between the nest, which the geese built on top of a muskrat house, and the shore.

The coyotes will have a harder time reaching the incubating goose without giving a warning.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier covers my observations of our only eastern hummingbird, the ruby-throated.

Hummingbird, Ruby-throated

Young or female ruby-throated hummingbird

Young or female ruby-throated hummingbird

1986. To this point I have seen hummingbirds in the Culver, Indiana, area, near Jeffersonville, Indiana, in south central Pennsylvania, once in fall migration at Ann Arbor, Michigan, in Maryland on the Delmarva Peninsula, and in Virginia. They visit flowers, especially bright orange or red ones including trumpet creeper, cardinal flower, and jewelweed. They are occasional migrants at Willowbrook Wildlife Center, DuPage County, Illinois. They seem to require forests or woods edges.

15SE87. Young or female hummer (dark stripes on pale throat) feeding from orange jewelweed, midday, Willowbrook.

27JL99. Hummingbird made brief appearance near Willowbrook picnic shelter.

22AU99. Hummer on jewelweed at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

8&17SE99. Migrant hummers at Willowbrook.

Hummingbird at wild bergamot, my back yard.

Hummingbird at wild bergamot, my back yard.

8MY00. Arboretum. At parking lot 23, a hummingbird nest, perhaps still under construction because it is pale and obvious, well out from the trunk of a tamarack on a horizontal branch 20 feet up.

15JE00. Arboretum. At Parking Lot 23, hummingbird female is on the nest, which does not stand out as much as last week (outer surface has more material added).

17JE00. Arboretum. The hummingbird female leaves the nest frequently, perhaps for 30 seconds every 5 minutes.

16JE01. Arboretum, Heritage Trail. Many scattered fire pinks are flowering, and a hummer was visiting one of them briefly, then moved on.

22AU(year not indicated). West DuPage Woods. A hummingbird on jewelweed.

2AU04. An immature or female hummingbird visited the royal catchflies in my back yard flowerbeds.

21JL06. An immature or female hummingbird at back yard royal catchflies.

15JL09. First immature or female hummer visiting the first royal catchflies, also bergamot and the last white wild indigo flowers.

Hummingbird at cardinal flower, Mayslake

Hummingbird at cardinal flower, Mayslake

24AU10. Mayslake. A hummingbird visiting cardinal flowers and Liatris near the bridge.

Eastern Phoebe Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The eastern phoebe is the earliest tyrant flycatcher to appear in our area, thanks to its overwintering in the southern U.S. rather than the tropics. It won’t be long now, though the snow must go away first.

Phoebe, Eastern

Eastern phoebe

Eastern phoebe

(Initial paragraph establishing this dossier in the mid-1980’s) Phoebe locations have included the Bird Sanctuary near Culver, Indiana, along streams around Lafayette, and at Reineman Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. Usually nests have been near water (streams). The nest, built with much mud, rests on a small shelf against a wall under an overhang (e.g. on cliff, bridge or against building). They catch insects with normal flycatching foraging behavior, sallying from perches into openings. Song “fee-bee” or “fee-beehee” (last 2 syllables sounding like a hiccup), with equal accent on the 2 syllables.

21OC89. A phoebe foraged from low perches in forest, West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve (perches no more than 8 feet up).

8MR92. A phoebe called near Hartz Lake in Indiana.

6-7AP96. Phoebes are passing through in woodlands, despite the late spring: 2 together at Elsen’s Hill on a slope overlooking the West Branch of the DuPage River on the 6th, one at Fabyan Park, Kane County, on the 7th.

16OC96. Phoebe singing high in tree at Willowbrook.

1AP99. First phoebe of the year, Willowbrook.

26MR00. A phoebe foraged high in trees near the river at West DuPage Woods, flycatching a good 30 feet up.

12AP00. A migrant in the savanna at Willowbrook.

Phoebe fledglings

Phoebe fledglings

27AU00. Migrants were common today in the Natural Area at Illinois Beach State Park.

3AP02. Willowbrook. Soil blackened by the prairie burn proved attractive to the early migrant eastern phoebes, which took advantage of sun-warmed activity by insects to collect food in the prairie.

21MR04. Willowbrook. Two phoebes in the prairie.

3NO04. Willowbrook. A phoebe still present on the preserve.

MY05. Willowbrook. For the first time, nesting was confirmed on the preserve for eastern phoebes. The flycatchers built their nest in the beams beneath the bridge over Glen Crest Creek, and 4 large nestlings still were present on May 31. (They fledged by mid-June).

13AP09. Phoebes at least in migration commonly produce a loud sharp call note, “tsewp!”

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

Phoebe incubating a nest on the former friary building at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Phoebes have taken advantage of bridges and other human structures to provide foundations for their nests of mud and vegetation.

Phoebe incubating a nest on the former friary building at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Phoebes have taken advantage of bridges and other human structures to provide foundations for their nests of mud and vegetation.

6AP11. Mayslake. Phoebe calling continuously from the tip of a tree close to where they nested last year at the now removed friary. Trying to connect with mate before searching for a new spot? (The previous 2 years they had nested on the friary building. Two years ago they had 2 broods, produced only a cowbird each time).

Osprey Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This dossier centers on a couple days from my kayak circumnavigation of Isle Royale, when weather compelled a 2-day stay at Hay Bay. It proved to be a highlight of the trip, and I learned most of what I know from experience of moose and ospreys during that stop. Otherwise, my knowledge of ospreys consists of limited snapshots of observations.

Osprey

Osprey

Osprey

I saw ospreys regularly over the Tippecanoe River, in Indiana, in summer in my childhood and early teens, but then they declined. By 1970, ospreys had become rare enough that a sighting in fall at Hawk Lake was remarkable. Then we saw some at Assateague Island, Virginia, occasionally carrying a large fish in their talons or catching one from the water’s surface. They had large nests of sticks there and on buoys in the Eastern Shore area of Maryland.

Osprey nest on buoy, Chesapeake Bay

Osprey nest on buoy, Chesapeake Bay

4SE88. Osprey flying south along the Fox River between North Aurora and Batavia, Illinois, at Red Oak Nature Center.

18AU96. Hay Bay, Isle Royale National Park. At around 12:30 an osprey appeared, coursing over the bay at 30-50 feet of altitude. After about 5 minutes it dove from more than 30 feet and plunged into the water, catching a good-sized, silvery looking fish (appeared to be about as long as the bird’s wing width). With much effort the bird flew up to the ridgetop across the bay. Between 3 and 3:30, two ospreys hunted over the bay, one started a dive but aborted, one after the other drifted over toward the bay entrance. They returned around 4:00, one perching on a tree and calling with loud, high-pitched chirps. The other aborted several dives and completed one in the 10 minutes I watched, but caught nothing. By 5:00, water had greatly calmed in Hay Bay. An osprey with a fish landed in trees back from shore, opposite me. A few minutes later one flew over the bay while another called. At 5:30 an osprey flew over camp with a fish. By then it was clear that there were 3 individuals, one possible youngster calling while the other two hunted. One successful catch, a larger fish, was carried out of view. Those plunges are dramatic, the birds highly specialized. Try to talk politics with an osprey, it’ll just say, “What’s that got to do with catching fish with your feet?”

After catching a fish, the osprey turns it around head first for easier handling in flight.

After catching a fish, the osprey turns it around head first for easier handling in flight.

19AU96. Hay Bay. Ospreys were hunting by 7:30 a.m. Their ker-plooshing plunges are audible at some distance. I saw an osprey catch a good-sized fish. “Kibitzing” calls increased from a bird on shore, but then it flew out and I saw that it had a fish, too. Both flew toward the ridge across the bay, but carried their fish up and over it. Around 11 a.m. an osprey hunted the bay for a good 20 minutes, with few dive attempts. It hovered in place 2-3 seconds a couple of times. On the third complete plunge, it caught a fish and flew with it in the same direction that the two went earlier. Much calling by another, perched bird during the first half of that hunt. 2:00 decisions, decisions: do I watch the moose feeding or the osprey hunting? The osprey dove close enough to me that I could see how it holds its feet up by its head. A miss. They always shake water off in mid-air, a few wing beats after clearing the surface. 3:00 There are at least 4 osprey, all at the bay now. 5:00 An osprey caught a good-sized fish (half its length), and carried it in the same direction, followed by another, fishless bird. Ripples only, still, in the bay.

16AP00. Willowbrook. An osprey flew over, SW to NE, with a fish in its talons possibly caught in one of the ponds at the College of DuPage campus.

19AP01. Willowbrook. An osprey flew over with a large goldfish in its talons. I’m not sure what direction it was coming from, possibly north.

2009. Tri-County (JPP) State Park. Ospreys nested atop the very high utility pole at the boundary of this park and Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve.

Osprey nest, James Pate Philip State Park

Osprey nest, James Pate Philip State Park

2009-12. In most springs an osprey has spent some time (most of a week at times) at Mayslake, perching on trees at the edges of the lakes and occasionally fishing.

Lessons from Travels: Upland vs. Lowland Tundra

by Carl Strang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some animals are connected with the upland tundra.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

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

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

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

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

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

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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