Owls etc. at St. James Farm

by Carl Strang

This has been an eventful spring at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Thanks to the covid-19 epidemic, volunteers have not been allowed to do restoration work. My response was to take walks through the preserve almost daily in late April and May, gaining a much more detailed understanding of what has been going on there.

Owls, for instance, have provided significant insights. Early in the season I found that great horned owls had commandeered the nest used by Cooper’s hawks the previous two or three years.

My first look at the two nestlings

Though I checked them at a distance, they clearly knew I was there.

Shortly before they branched

The parent, perched nearby, was not concerned.

The youngsters branched (left the nest), and I did not see them beyond a week after that. At the same time, however, I saw an adult great horned owl with a flying youngster at the opposite end of the preserve. Though it is possible that this second nest had been across the road at Blackwell Forest Preserve, the relative number of suitable nest trees leads me to believe there were two great horned owl nests at St. James Farm this year.

The barred owl pair keeps a low profile, and I seldom have heard or seen them. That this is due to the presence of the more powerful great horneds was underlined by my finding on May 13 where an adult barred owl had been killed and plucked. I was left hoping this was a naïve wanderer rather than one of the savvy resident pair, and that hope was intensified when I learned that someone had picked up a young barred owl from one of the interior trails and brought it to the Willowbrook Wildlife Center, the rehab facility for the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. Some days after that I encountered an adult barred owl with a branched youngster, and Willowbrook deputized me to return their bird to its family.

A leaning black cherry provided a good place for the owlet to climb up.

The youngster quickly climbed more than 10 feet above the ground. His wings were sufficiently developed that he probably could fly.

The owls all were elsewhere by the next morning. Normally I would not share information about owls in this way, but at this point in the season they are so good at staying out of sight that it would be a waste of time for anyone to attempt to find them in St. James Farm’s large forest.

Plenty of noteworthy observations added to my knowledge of the preserve’s flora and fauna. For instance, I found a white river crayfish on the lawn near one of the ponds.

White river crayfish

I got a more detailed list of first flower dates this year, thanks to my frequent visits.

Butterweed pops up in widely scattered open areas of the forest.

This was a cold spring, and first flower dates in May were a median 8 days later than in earlier years of my records. A highlight of the season is the blooming of blackhaw, St. James Farm’s dominant understory shrub.

Though some blackhaws mistakenly were cut last winter by some inexperienced seasonal employees, that was in a limited part of the forest, and even there some were missed, as shown here.

The cut ones will resprout, and the restoration clearing of the forest has been followed by places with bunches of small blackhaws, like this one.

It was an enjoyable season, but now my attention shifts to singing insects. Spring field crickets and green-striped grasshoppers are singing, and periodical cicadas have begun to emerge in some open residential areas.

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