SJF March Summary

by Carl Strang

Weather in March at St. James Farm Forest Preserve was variable, but on the whole was relatively warm with frequent rainy periods. At the beginning of the month there was a little lingering snow on the ground, and ponds were frozen, but all of this quickly was gone.

I used my old GPS unit to map my survey routes and to locate positions of previously discovered cavity trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest. One of these indeed proved to hold the nest, and the female still was present on March 25, late enough to indicate that hatched young were being brooded. Two attempts to find displaying woodcocks were unsuccessful, but during the first evening visit on March 17 I heard what I thought was a short call by a barred owl in the eastern portion of the preserve. Scott Meister reported hearing the species in the forest one evening the following week. No pileated woodpecker observations in March, but recent observations in preserves to the north along the West Branch suggest that the bird or birds seen here earlier may be wandering widely. Canada geese were down to small groups and pairs early in the month. By March 31 a nest was under incubation on the small island in the pond below the former house site.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Many killdeers were displaying in the restoration project area around the stream early in the month, but these were down to just a few individuals by month’s end. Bird activity generally increased as the season progressed, with the first cowbirds arriving March 8, a pair of hooded mergansers and 2 pairs of wood ducks present in the pond in the NW corner of the preserve for much of the month, sandhill crane flocks frequently passing overhead, a northern flicker and the first golden-crowned kinglets appearing on March 14, tree swallows on March 25, and two pairs of green-winged teals in the restored stream on March 26.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

A shed antler found on March 17 in the forest near Winfield Road matched the buck photographed in the same area on November 1.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

The first snake observed on the preserve was a midland brown snake on March 29. That same day several painted turtles were sunning in the eastern pond.

Western chorus frogs began singing on March 11, and ultimately displayed in three locations. The largest number were in the fringes of the eastern pond, and many also were in two temporary ponds in the meadow north of the entrance drive. Numbers of bullfrogs, large and small, had emerged by March 21.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

The first butterfly of the year was a mourning cloak observed on March 21. A cabbage white appeared on March 29. The former overwinters in the adult form, the latter as a pupa. Several small brown moths were active on the forest floor on March 31. One was photographed and appears to be a tortricid, close to several similar species of Pelochrista or perhaps Eucosma.

A possible Pelochrista

A possible Pelochrista

Silver maples were blooming by March 11, and spring beauties by March 31.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Restoration clearing of the forest was completed by mid-March, and a new set of stakes presumably marking the new trail route was placed in the final week.

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SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

Beginning in the middle of the month, I went through all of St. James Farm Forest Preserve seeking the great horned owl nest. I did not find it, but did create an inventory of 25 large tree cavities where an incubating owl might not be visible from the ground. An additional possibility would be a hawk nest in the dense top of one of the spruces. Twice I saw an owl, presumably the male if they are nesting this year, in the same north central portion of the main forest. In past observations elsewhere, the male usually perched in the vicinity of the nest. I will continue to monitor the suspect cavities, but may need to see branched young later in the season to narrow down possibilities further.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

I had not seen or heard a pileated woodpecker on the preserve for more than 6 weeks (though occasionally I heard suspicious loud, spaced tapping sounds), but in the second half of February heard or saw one on three different days. The one close sighting was of a male.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

American coots and large numbers of mallards were a continuing presence on the stream. For much of the month the Canada geese roosting at Blackwell frequently passed over St. James Farm in large numbers, occasionally stopping to graze the lawns and meadow areas. Geese began to break off into pairs as ponds opened up during the last third of February. Interesting bird sightings included a bald eagle flying over, and a hermit thrush on February 16. Migrating sandhill crane flocks began to pass over beginning on the 21st. A small group of white-throated sparrows in the eastern part of the main forest were the first observed on the preserve this year. The first red-winged blackbirds arrived, and eastern bluebirds became a more consistent presence in the last part of February.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

Fox squirrels fed heavily from Norway spruce cones in the south forest, and on tree buds elsewhere. Skunk and deer activity was much as described for January. The preserve’s deer minimally are a group of 3 does, a group of 2 deer which occasionally associate with those does, and a single buck. The snow was never deep enough to discourage raccoons. A mink used a den off the south edge of the pond in the preserve’s northwest corner.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The large area of restoration brush clearing in the main forest was expanded greatly by District staff, generally following the route of the new trail mapped in the preserve’s master plan. Among the more interesting plants encountered during the owl nest search were two of the most massive black walnuts I have ever seen, and a prickly-stemmed greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides).

Bark Birds Big and Small

by Carl Strang

As the season progresses, numbers of passing migrant birds at St. James Farm Forest Preserve have diminished. Residents, augmented by winter additions from the North, increasingly dominate the avian communities. Prominent among these hangers-on are the birds that forage on tree bark. Downy, hairy and red-bellied woodpeckers are year-round residents covering three body sizes and the particular foraging advantages of each. Nuthatches are still smaller, songbirds that have the ability to crawl sideways or upside down on the tree bark, finding hiding insects the woodpeckers might miss. Red-breasted nuthatches have become common in the coniferous forest this fall, while resident white-breasted nuthatches are scattered through the deciduous woodlands.

On Saturday this white-breasted nuthatch caught a harvestman that did not find a sufficiently secure bark crevice.

On Saturday this white-breasted nuthatch caught a harvestman that did not find a sufficiently secure bark crevice.

While photographing the nuthatch I heard in the distance a loud call which was entirely unexpected. Eventually my monitoring route took me into that part of the forest, and the calling resumed close by.

A pileated woodpecker!

A pileated woodpecker!

This huge bird is not one we encounter very often in DuPage County. I know of two resident pairs in the eastern half of the county. Others occasionally wander through, and this male at St. James Farm qualifies as one such traveler.

Continuing to call frequently, he actually flew closer to me. Here he cries from just above.

Continuing to call frequently, he actually flew closer to me. Here he cries from just above.

On Sunday I was in a different part of the same forest, but it was calm. I did not hear a pileated calling in the distance. I hope he moved on, rather than becoming dinner that night for the great horned owl I saw being harassed by crows not far from the woodpecker’s attention-drawing display. On the other hand, it would be nice if the pileated decided to hang around for the winter. As the largest block of old trees in the western half of DuPage County, the forest at St. James Farm is the place most likely to host our largest woodpecker species. Pileateds need lots of big old trees harboring carpenter ant colonies. In any case this was exciting, the highlight to date of my young monitoring program at St. James Farm.

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.

Another Pileated Surprise

by Carl Strang

Sitting at the computer early Saturday morning in my parents’ house in Culver, Indiana, I heard a pileated woodpecker calling. I didn’t believe it at first, which also was my reaction when I first heard one at Mayslake Forest Preserve last spring. A few minutes later it called again and I had to go out and see. Sure enough.

It was shy, and I couldn’t get close, but there’s no mistaking the bird’s identity in this highly magnified photo fragment.

The local red-headed woodpeckers were going nuts. Yes, in town, albeit a small town, where the trees don’t look all that different in size and scatter from many a suburban Chicago area neighborhood, there have been red-headed woodpeckers nesting for years.

The red-headeds have nested successfully, too. Taking advantage of the disturbance the pileated left in its wake, I photographed this fledgling.

This incident was yet another bit of experience leading me to believe that pileated woodpeckers, once very rare regionally, are expanding their numbers and acceptable habitat range.

The Wave Function Collapses

by Carl Strang

Quantum physics is based on equations that express probabilities and uncertainties. But when certain measurements are taken and some facts acquired, a common expression is to say the wave function has collapsed. Such became the case yesterday with Schrödinger’s woodpecker. As I mentioned on Monday, I had reason to believe a woodpecker I heard calling on Saturday at Mayslake Forest Preserve was a pileated woodpecker. But it only called once, and I never saw it, so I simultaneously held in mind the possibility that it was another species. That changed yesterday.

It was right here. If only I’d lifted the camera instead of the binoculars.

I was crossing the mansion lawn after sampling stream invertebrates (more on that later) when a big bird flew overhead and landed on a tree trunk in front of me. The bird’s size, and the black wings fanned for braking with a white star in the middle of each, was enough. I should have lifted the camera. Instead my instinct was to raise the binoculars, and I got a nice clear view of a pileated woodpecker, which by then had turned its profile and was looking at me. By the time I lowered the binoculars and got the camera fumbled into place the bird was gone. I spent my lunch break looking for it but got no second chance.

The wave function had collapsed. I found myself thinking of variations on the probability theme. My space-time path just happened to intersect that of the woodpecker at a point. A physicist might express this in terms of world tubes. What were the chances that this would happen? Probability also relates to luck. I felt very lucky to have seen a pileated woodpecker in such a highly unlikely place. But then during my lunch break I felt very unlucky not to get a photo. That bird stuck around for 5 days. I can’t imagine it staying much longer. But if it does, and I do get a photo, you can bet I’m going to squeeze yet a third blog entry out of it!

Schrödinger’s Woodpecker

by Carl Strang

On Saturday I led a group of teachers through Mayslake Forest Preserve. I was reviewing part of the Franciscan phase of the preserve’s history when suddenly a bird called, loudly, from the strip of woodland between the two lakes. Focused as I was on my audience and subject, I was delayed in attending that remarkable call until it was nearly over. My first impression was that it was the call of a pileated woodpecker.

To date this is the best photo I have taken of a pileated woodpecker.

A pair of these huge woodpeckers has been resident at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve for years, now, but they would not have gone this far from home. One was reported at the Morton Arboretum not so long ago, however, and the species appears to be on the increase regionally. One relevant memory is of a duck hunting float trip with my brother on the Tippecanoe River when we were young men. I don’t remember if we got any ducks that day, but I vividly recall two pileated woodpeckers, the first I’d ever seen. They were using that snowy riparian corridor to wander far from their then nesting range.

Back to Saturday. I paused, hoping the bird would call again, but it did not. We were on a tight schedule, and I could not take my group on a side trip to seek it. During the lunch break, hours later, I went to the place from which the call had come. I didn’t really expect the bird to be there, but I hoped at least to hear another distant call. What I found instead is shown in the following photo.

The oblong hole is 4-5 inches in its longest dimension.

Pileated woodpeckers make holes like this, and there were a few fresh wood chips on the ground beneath. In my mind, though, doubts remain. Sounds were carrying better than usual that morning, and the northern flicker has a call with a similar pattern. A pair of red-bellied woodpeckers frequents the area where I saw that hole, and I can’t rule it out as their work.

I am reminded of Schrödinger’s cat. This is a famous thought experiment from quantum physics, an argument pointing out the apparent absurdity of certain theoretical implications. It creates a scenario in which a cat simultaneously is alive and dead. In my mind dwells Schrödinger’s woodpecker. The bird that called on Saturday simultaneously is a pileated woodpecker and some combination of a flicker and a red-bellied. That is where it must remain. I wish it had called just one more time.

Miscellaneous U.P. Notes

by Carl Strang

In this final chapter of my Michigan vacation account, I will bring together assorted observations of other animals and sights. None of this truly counts as inquiry, except that travel and the exposure it gives us to new places leads us to make comparisons with our familiar environment. Such comparisons often lead to questions and inquiries on down the line.

At Muskallonge Lake, after completing my investigation at the beach, I went for a walk along the state park’s trails.

Muskallonge Lake trail b

There were spectacular views of Lake Superior from elevated points, and flocks of migrating songbirds to investigate.

Tahquamenon Falls State Park is named for various waterfalls along the Tahquamenon River. Especially spectacular are the upper falls.

Tahquamenon Falls upper 1b

After a summer in which I made good progress in my knowledge of Illinois bumblebees, I was interested to find that in that part of the U.P., as back home, only one common species of short-tongued, generalist bumblebee is active at this point in the season. Here it’s Bombus impatiens; at the tip of the U.P. it was the beautifully marked Bombus ternarius.

Bombus ternarius 2b

B. ternarius is a northern species that does not extend its range down to Illinois.

One of the more charismatic birds that one hears and, sometimes, sees in the north woods is the pileated woodpecker. Here is a tree that has been well worked by that species.

Pileated work b

Beauty on a smaller scale, which provided a reminder of the season in transition, took the form of this aspen leaf lying on a trail.

Aspen leaf 1b

I spent most of my time at Whitefish Point. Here is a small scene I found especially compelling.

Whitefish Point 7b

As I walked out from the point to the parking lot for the final time, I found an enchanting little animal crossing the trail.

Smooth green snake 3b

Smooth green snakes occur in many places, but are so well camouflaged that we seldom have the good fortune to see them.

On my final morning at the Tahquamenon Falls campground, I found that a large number of moths had been drawn to the restroom building’s lights.

Nepytia canosaria 1b

These were nearly all males of the same species, emerging all at once.

Nepytia canosaria 3b

Nepytia canosaria, the false hemlock looper moth, is a common northern species whose larvae feed on a wide range of coniferous species including firs, hemlock, pines and spruces.

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