A Big Winter for Finches?

by Carl Strang

Last week at St. James Farm Forest Preserve I saw a huge flock of pine siskins, quick eyeball estimate count 130.

They were drawn to the preserve’s heavy production of conifer seeds.

They were drawn to the preserve’s heavy production of conifer seeds.

Here one processes a seed it drew from a cone scale.

Here one processes a seed it drew from a cone scale.

A flashing wing reveals some yellow, a reminder that these are close relatives of our resident American goldfinches.

A flashing wing reveals some yellow, a reminder that these are close relatives of our resident American goldfinches.

In some winters, siskins are few to none. Is this early abundance a sign that other northern finches might visit us in good numbers? Though not finches, red-breasted nuthatches are another northern forest bird that populated St. James Farm’s conifer plantings in October.

Introduction to Saint James Farm II: Landscape Architecture

by Carl Strang

The green portions of St. James Farm Forest Preserve are not all wildlands. There are extensive grounds, some of which are paddock and events areas from the farm’s equestrian past, and some of which are designed plantings of various sorts. One prominent feature, borrowed from European design, is a scattered array of allees, paired rows of trees of the same species.

Immediately south of the parking lot is the river birch allee.

Immediately south of the parking lot is the river birch allee.

The pin oak allee is near the east border of the preserve.

The pin oak allee is near the east border of the preserve.

In my preliminary monitoring walks, the pin oak allee area is the only place where I have seen gray squirrels. Elsewhere there have been only fox squirrels so far. The ash allee is history, thanks to the emerald ash borer, but there are several other allees constructed with other tree species.

A variety of exotic woody plants may be found on the grounds. Many of these are concentrated around the former home site.

This magnolia is an example.

This magnolia is an example.

Brooks McCormick’s conservation interests were expressed in ponds and prairie plots at the edges of the grounds.

This pond has produced a brood of hooded mergansers annually the past few years.

This pond has produced a brood of hooded mergansers annually the past few years.

The prairie plots are diverse but small. They host a variety of generalist insects, and in recent weeks have attracted numbers of seed-feeding sparrows and finches.

The prairie plots are diverse but small. They host a variety of generalist insects, and in recent weeks have attracted numbers of seed-feeding sparrows and finches.

There also are significant conifer plantings, which already this fall have attracted pine siskins and red-breasted nuthatches down from the north.

 

Pine Siskin Nest

by Carl Strang

(This is a cross posting from the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Observe Your Preserve website’s Nature Notes). Pine siskins are northern relatives of our familiar goldfinches. In some winters, including this past one, many come south to find food when their northern coniferous trees are stingy with the seed production. Given the many coniferous trees belonging to several species at Mayslake Forest Preserve, I expected to see plenty of siskins here, but such was not the case until Leap Year Day, when two made an appearance. After that siskins became a fixture around the mansion, to the point where I thought some might nest. That seemed even more likely when I witnessed a territorial squabble on April 9. Yesterday morning when I arrived at the Mayslake mansion I heard nestling calls that sounded very much like the “beer-be” calls of goldfinch fledglings. Those calls led me to the nest.

Not much to see from below, the nest is well concealed among the spruce branches. It is slightly larger than a goldfinch nest but made of coarser material, and perhaps 4 inches in diameter.

The nest branch is visible from my office window, and every once in a while through the morning I lifted the binoculars in hope of seeing an adult siskin coming to the nest. As I returned from my lunchtime walk on the preserve I paused by the nest, just in time to see an adult siskin rise and then resettle itself to brood its babies.

The parent’s tail extends from the upper right edge of the nest.

There are precedents for pine siskins nesting in northern Illinois, but it is an uncommon event.

Are Siskins Nesting at Mayslake?

by Carl Strang

This past winter brought good numbers of winter finches down from the North. The last time that happened, Mayslake was a beneficiary with pine siskins all winter and occasional visits by groups of white-winged crossbills to the assorted conifers around the mansion. This year I was disappointed that such visitations were not repeated. Then, in early spring, siskins began to appear.

Pine siskins are close relatives of goldfinches, with many similar vocalizations, but browner and streaked down the front.

The siskins haven’t left. They have hung around in some past springs, too, and though I haven’t seen any young, again I am suspicious that they may be nesting. Last week I saw a squabble between a couple pairs that looked territorial. Their nests are small (4 inches in diameter according to my references), and won’t be easy to spot in the dense foliage of a conifer. If they are neatniks, there won’t be telltale bits of grass hanging down. Still, every time I walk past those conifers I am looking up, trying to spot a nest. If I find one I’ll let you know. Siskins are mainly birds of the North, but they are known to nest in Illinois.

Mayslake Birds

by Carl Strang

Birds still are showing migratory activity at Mayslake Forest Preserve in the second half of November. As I wander the preserve early in the morning or on my lunch break, the birds I find often are changing significantly from one day to the next.

Some, like the golden-crowned kinglet in the photo, come and go day to day. Others may be settling down, as they are present each day and their numbers are more stable. These include dark-eyed juncos and American tree sparrows.

One promising sign that this may be a livelier winter than last is that I have seen pine siskins on three occasions. There were none last year, but the winter before last was a good one for winter finches from the North. That will make for a more interesting season if it happens again.

The Birch Birds Came Back

by Carl Strang

 

Two days ago I described how the Mayslake paper birch had opened its cones and dropped some seeds. Yesterday morning that tree was the focus of attention for around 30 goldfinches and 30 pine siskins, all busily digging into the opening cones for dinner.

 

birch-goldfinches-siskins-b

 

Goldfinches and siskins are close relatives, with goldfinches abundant DuPage County residents, and siskins mainly winter visitors from the North, though the odd pair has been known to nest locally. At this time of year, goldfinches are pale greenish yellow and white with darker wings, the males having molted out of their bright yellow summer plumage.

 

birch-goldfinch-b

 

Pine siskins have bits of yellow here and there, but are distinctive with their dark stripes. The voices of these two finch species are different from one another as well, but I don’t believe I can describe the difference adequately in words. Seek out reference CD’s or a website with recordings of their calls, if you are interested.

 

birch-siskin-b

 

The sudden appearance of so many of these birds brings out an observation I have made about Mayslake. The birds I encounter there have been highly variable from day to day. Yesterday I also saw the first American tree sparrows I have observed at that preserve. In both of my two previous office locations, Willowbrook and Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserves, tree sparrows have come and gone at widely spaced intervals through the winters. Tree sparrows do not make use of bird feeders as consistently as many other species. I am beginning to wonder if the variability of small winter birds at Mayslake is connected to the lack of bird feeders there. Willowbrook and Fullersburg both have feeders, and both have a more consistent presence of birds through the winter than I have observed at Mayslake so far. I resist drawing conclusions so soon, but I find myself asking whether birds undisturbed by human influences are inclined to wander over wider areas, so they appear in a given location less frequently.

 

There is more to report from yesterday at Mayslake. I’ll share the rest tomorrow.

Seeds on Snow

By Carl Strang

 

There is a magnificent paper birch near the entrance of Mayslake Hall which has managed to evade the bronze birch borers long enough to become robust and beautiful.

 

paper-birch-2b

 

Yesterday I noticed that the birch had dropped seeds onto the snow.

 

paper-birch-seeds-2b

 

For a moment I was a little surprised that there were any seeds left. A couple weeks ago that tree was filled with goldfinches, juncos and pine siskins pigging out on seeds they were digging out of the tree’s cones. Obviously they missed some, for the snow was covered with yellow-brown seeds and shed cone scales.

 

paper-birch-1b

 

After taking some photos, I thought about the timing. Now, with leaves dropped from deciduous trees, the little winged seeds have their best chance of being carried away on the wind. Furthermore, if there happens to be snow on the ground, the wind can further push the seeds, increasing the area over which they are spread. This might improve the possibility that some will find suitable places to grow.

 

That thought brought out a memory, of a presentation decades ago at an Ecological Society meeting. Someone had studied Queen Anne’s lace and found that its seeds are contained within the closed umbrella of its flower/fruit support struts.

 

qa-lace-closed-b

 

The struts remain closed when the air’s humidity is high, but open as humidity drops, so that seeds are released in the dry air of winter when there is a good chance the ground will be snow-covered, allowing the seeds to be wind dispersed over a smooth surface.

 

qa-lace-open-2b

 

Later during my lunchtime walk I found some Queen Anne’s lace, and sure enough, though some were closed, others had opened and begun to drop their seeds onto the snow.

 

qa-lace-and-unknown-seeds-2b

%d bloggers like this: