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.

Advertisements

Concluding the Search

by Carl Strang

This year’s great horned owl nest search was the most intimidating I have done. There are 344 acres in the area I monitor, the portion of St. James Farm Forest Preserve that is north of Butterfield Road. A large portion of that acreage is forested, and it’s an old forest with many large trees that might harbor an owl nest. Furthermore, despite excellent restoration of the forest, a significant portion still has a difficult-to-negotiate understory dense with thorny barberries and roses mixed with way-blocking honeysuckles. Over a two-week period I went through the preserve, noting locations of candidate tree cavities and open tree tops.

One of the many possible nest cavities, large enough to hold an incubating owl that might not be visible from the ground.

One of the many possible nest cavities, large enough to hold an incubating owl that might not be visible from the ground.

Another candidate cavity. The weather often was gloomy, the limited light reducing photo quality and making it difficult to see if anything was inside.

Another candidate cavity. The weather often was gloomy, the limited light reducing photo quality and making it difficult to see if anything was inside.

There also were many old trees that had lost their tops.

There also were many old trees that had lost their tops.

Another example of a topped tree that could host a nest.

Another example of a topped tree that could host a nest.

After that initial survey, I decided to dig out my clunky old GPS unit and determine the latitude-longitude locations of all the candidate trees, while also mapping the survey routes I follow in routine monitoring work.

Here is the resulting map. I created a grid, the finest lines separated by one second of latitude or longitude. The blue dots and white lines mark my survey routes. The red dots are locations of trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest.

Here is the resulting map. I created a grid, the finest lines separated by one second of latitude or longitude. The blue dots and white lines mark my survey routes. The red dots are locations of trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest.

I was a little embarrassed by my failure to re-find 3 candidates from the descriptions in my notes. I ended up with 23 trees, and that turned out to be enough, as I saw this in one of them:

Sometimes a single feather tuft is all you get. In this case I could see part of the top of the head, too.

Sometimes a single feather tuft is all you get. In this case I could see part of the top of the head, too.

I realized that I was fortunate that this was a sunny day, and the additional ambient light made the difference. Now I look forward to following the progress of this nest. The eggs should have hatched by now.

 

St. James Farm January Summary

by Carl Strang

Part of my preserve monitoring practice is to write a monthly summary of observations. Today I am sharing the one from January just past:

Most of January was seasonably cold, with significant warming the last few days of the month. Little snow fell, on two occasions about an inch at a time.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fresh snow at the beginning of the year permitted a general assessment of mammal activity in the preserve. Raccoons appear to be more abundant here than at other preserves I have monitored, with the greatest concentration of activity in the northern portion of the main forest. Skunks were surprisingly active through January, coming out even on nights when the temperature dropped into the teens. This is in contrast to other preserves, where overnight temperatures in the 30’s, at least, were required until the start of the mating season in February. A couple chipmunks also emerged from their holes, likewise unusual in mid-winter. At least one mink includes the stream and the northern portion of the main forest in its territory. Cottontails were scattered throughout, though their activity was mainly around the forest edges. A very few opossums, perhaps no more than 4-5, were active on the preserve. Meadow voles, short-tailed shrews and white-footed mice are common, and occasionally I encountered tracks of masked shrews (vole, mouse, and small shrew identifications based on habitat and regional abundance as opposed to prairie vole, deer mouse and least shrew alternative possibilities). Two domestic cats occasionally moved through the northern edge of the forest, possibly connected to the houses off the preserve’s NE corner.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

Coyotes covered the entire preserve. Early in January I watched a slightly scruffy looking individual with much red and black in its fur catch and consume a vole in the meadow alongside the entrance drive. At the end of January, a coyote with much more of a white color dominance, very alert and fat looking, passed through the western part of the forest. Tracks revealed that two coyotes occasionally hunt together. I did not detect a consistent activity pattern in the deer. At times 4-5 moved together, that group size suggesting does. Elsewhere, single sets with the foot placement of bucks indicated at least one individual of that gender remains on the preserve.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Geese maintained a roost at south Blackwell through the month. Most mornings they flew over St. James Farm heading east, but occasionally a few dozens to a few hundred stopped and grazed the preserve’s lawns and meadows.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Over a hundred mallards utilized the newly reconfigured stream bed in the last half of January. One of them attempted to choke down a leopard frog that apparently had been unable to tunnel deep enough into the rocky stream edge when the weather turned cold in December. On another day a coot joined the ducks in the stream. The only pileated woodpecker observation during the month was one calling in the western forest on January 4.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

Cardinals and chickadees began to sing, and downy woodpeckers to drum, in the last half of the month. There are at least 7 chickadee groups of various sizes scattered over the preserve. 1-2 adult red-tailed hawks frequently hunted the preserve’s meadows.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

St. James Farm received a gratifying amount of restoration attention in January, with seeds scattered over the meadow or prairie area north of the stream, and the clearing of buckthorn and other undesirable woody plants from an extensive portion of the western forest.

 

SJF Miscellany

by Carl Strang

There has been a gradual buildup of photos from my monitoring excursions at St. James Farm, and it’s time to empty the bin. Some are pictures of birds.

Ruby-crowned kinglets have been common migrants around the forest edges.

Ruby-crowned kinglets have been common migrants around the forest edges.

A pair of adult red-tailed hawks frequently patrols the sky overhead.

A pair of adult red-tailed hawks frequently patrols the sky.

This juvenile red-tail was tolerated or unnoticed by the residents as it perched near the preserve’s boundary on Sunday.

This juvenile red-tail was tolerated or unnoticed by the residents as it perched near the preserve’s boundary on Sunday.

These young red-tails often are naïve and approachable. This was one of the first photos I took, from just a few yards away. I had to back off to get the entire bird in the frame for the previous photo.

These young red-tails often are naïve and approachable. This was one of the first photos I took, from just a few yards away. I had to back off to get the entire bird in the frame for the previous photo.

Proper awareness in monitoring includes looking in all directions and all size scales.

A small mushroom and moss growing on a fallen log.

A small mushroom and moss growing on a fallen log.

Elsewhere on the same log, a raccoon left a record of its passing. Its five toenails left characteristically spaced scratches when it leaped up to the log. It did not gain purchase here, so either fell back to the ground or otherwise had enough momentum and grip to gain the log.

Elsewhere on the same log, a raccoon left a record of its passing. Its five toenails left characteristically spaced scratches when it leaped up to the log. It did not gain purchase here, so either fell back to the ground or otherwise had enough momentum and grip to gain the log.

Building the story of a preserve also means looking for clues to the landscape’s human history.

These corroding pieces of metal slowly are being engulfed by the continued growth of this tree. They are 30 feet above the ground. At some point I hope to learn the story here.

These corroding pieces of metal slowly are being engulfed by the continued growth of this tree. They are 30 feet above the ground. At some point I hope to learn the story here.

Accumulating experiences of an area’s beauty and blemishes leads to an internal transformation: falling in love with a place.

 

Introduction to St. James Farm I: Buildings

by Carl Strang

During the first several years of this blog I reported the results of my monitoring activities at Mayslake Forest Preserve. I also took occasional looks back at previous preserve monitoring at Fullersburg Woods and Willowbrook. Those three sites are the ones where my office was located for different segments of my career with the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County. The idea is to take regular walks through a site and to sketch its ongoing story as comprehensively as the observer’s limitations will allow.

Now that I have retired, I wish to continue the satisfying process of preserve monitoring, and am shifting to St. James Farm Forest Preserve. That site is close to my home, and is a relatively recent and relatively little known addition to the county’s preserves (though it became better understood in late spring 2015 thanks to the Centennial Bioblitz). Finally, this preserve holds the largest block of forest in the western half of the county that has persisted from the early 1800’s to the present day.

Today I begin reporting on St. James Farm by highlighting some of the architecture that has made it an attractive site for events and for public visitation. St. James Farm originally was acquired in 1920 by Chauncey and Marion McCormick, whose family co-founded International Harvester. Their interests included equestrian and dairy operations. Their son Brooks continued and expanded the equestrian facilities and events, especially after he retired. He also was interested in conservation, and in 2000 he sold the property to the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County but retained the right to live there until his death. The District took possession in 2007 and gradually has been converting the site to make it amenable to year-round public use. A photo gallery follows.

Stables and a magnificent horse sculpture immediately draw the eye from the viewpoint of the parking lot.

Stables and a magnificent horse sculpture immediately draw the eye from the viewpoint of the parking lot.

The stables and farm buildings form an impressive array.

The stables and farm buildings form an impressive array.

Artifacts from International Harvester’s history were transported to the farm and are preserved there.

Artifacts from International Harvester’s history were transported to the farm and are preserved there.

Beautiful details reward a close study of the buildings.

Beautiful details reward a close study of the buildings.

This dolphin fountain is part of an area that once was a center for equestrian events.

This dolphin fountain is part of an area that once was a center for equestrian events.

Brooks McCormick stipulated that his house be torn down before the District opened the farm to the public, and further forbade staff to take photographs of it. I saw the building before it was demolished, and frankly it was not much to look at. This gate remains at the house’s former location.

Brooks McCormick stipulated that his house be torn down before the District opened the farm to the public, and further forbade staff to take photographs of it. I saw the building before it was demolished, and frankly it was not much to look at. This gate remains at the house’s former location.

The horse and hound cemetery respectfully is preserved.

The horse and hound cemetery respectfully is preserved.

This caboose is an incongruous presence, testimony to a wealthy collector’s interests.

This caboose is an incongruous presence, testimony to a wealthy collector’s interests.

The landscape architecture of the grounds, and the wilder portions of the preserve, will be subjects of the next posts.

 

Finding Changes

by Carl Strang

My back and leg had healed enough for me to retrieve the amphibian traps from the stream corridor marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

The marsh had dried around the edges, making the approach easier.

As I went, I noticed some changes. The shelf of wood that had supported the ill-fated Canada goose nest collapsed.

Traces of the nest remained, but the eggs were long gone.

I also found two new plants. One was abundant enough that I should have seen it before.

Nodding bur marigold, blooming early for a Bidens, like everything else this year.

There was only one individual of the other plant, so I took photos and a single tiny flower.

It proved to be marsh cress, a member of the mustard family.

There always is something new to be found in preserve monitoring.

Shaking a Photo Out of the Bag

by Carl Strang

I find myself caught up for the moment with ideas for blog posts, so today I’m just going to share the last outstanding photo I’d earmarked for the blog.

Male bufflehead, stream corridor marsh, Mayslake Forest Preserve.

This bufflehead appeared on the marsh earlier this spring. Last year a pair of them lingered for more than two weeks. This fellow just stayed 3 days or so and continued on his way. Not much of a story, just one of hundreds of observations in my preserve monitoring that generally don’t make the cut to be shared in this blog, but which collectively make up part of the daily story at Mayslake, and in that sense are important nevertheless.

The Only Oriole Nest

by Carl Strang

Compared to the previous two years at Mayslake Forest Preserve, 2011 seemed relatively depauperate in orioles. Where there had been a pair of orchard orioles in each of the previous two seasons, this year there were none. Where there had been 4-6 pairs of Baltimore orioles, this year all the observations pointed to a single pair. This was supported by my recently finding the nest.

Still intact, the nest contained some synthetic fibers that may have come from a disintegrated toy left behind at the nearby off-leash dog area.

The nest was at the center of the area where I noted orioles this year. Though it was right above one of the trails I regularly use, as you can see in the photo it was buried in an oak branch tip. It would have been well concealed by leaves when it was in use.

I do not know why orioles were so few this year. Without the season-long sets of observations I would not have realized there was even a difference. This exemplifies the value of frequent visits to a monitored area, and taking careful notes that can be reviewed for patterns at the end of a season.

Preserve Monitoring vs. Bioblitz

by Carl Strang

One of the main goals of this blog is to model preserve monitoring: the process of observing, recording and accumulating the ongoing natural history of a place (here, Mayslake Forest Preserve), over an extended period of time. One product of this process is a list of the species that use this preserve as a year round residence, or as a seasonal stopping place. Biodiversity is a term for the variety of life forms found in such a place. There are other ways to measure biodiversity, so one might ask, how does preserve monitoring stack up? Today I want to take a look at how the species counts I have accumulated for 3 preserves compare to some examples from another method, the bioblitz. In an earlier post I referred to an example of a bioblitz that occurred a couple years ago at the Indiana dunes.

The Indiana dunes bioblitz took place on a rainy spring weekend.

The bioblitz has the advantage of bringing in scientists who specialize in various groups of organisms, along with numbers of enthusiastic volunteers to help find the plants, animals and other life forms. There are disadvantages as well, centering around the brief duration of the bioblitz. Only organisms readily found and identified on that particular weekend will be included in the species count. If the weather happens to be bad on those days, the count will suffer.

Preserve monitoring spreads its effort over the full year, and can go on for many years. I continue to add species to Mayslake’s list, almost on a daily basis in the spring. An example of a recent addition was the black crappie.

This addition to my preserve list was facilitated by a fisherman.

Prior to my 2.5 years at Mayslake I spent 3 years at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, and before that, 25 years at Willowbrook Forest Preserve. Those three places occupy 90, 222 and 50 acres, respectively. The respective total species counts to date are 650, 460 and 430. I found 3 bioblitz records on line in roughly the same latitudinal range. All covered much larger areas: Keney, in Connecticut, at 625 acres (1275 species); Kenilworth, in the DC area, at 700 acres (974 species); and Middlefork Savanna, in nearby Lake County, Illinois, at 670 acres (1098 species). While the median bioblitz site is about 7 times larger than the median preserve site, the median total species count is only about 2.5 times larger.

Bioblitz advantages in these species counts fell to groups of organisms where specialist influence is clear: fishes, invertebrates, fungi, protozoa and bacteria. On the other hand, preserve monitoring produced longer species lists for birds and mammals, and plant counts were comparable. These last are groups where the advantage of year-round monitoring provides a big boost.

 Counts from the three preserves are similar to one another except for two groups of organisms: insects and plants. Since I am a common denominator here, these may be real reflections of differences among these preserves. Willowbrook is smallest, but has somewhat greater habitat diversity than Fullersburg. On the other hand, my time at Willowbrook was much longer, giving me a much better opportunity to pick up rare species or species wandering through. My time at Mayslake to this point is a bit shorter than the time I spent at Fullersburg, and Mayslake is less than half Fullersburg’s size. Mayslake’s larger counts probably reflect its greater habitat diversity, augmented by a more advanced restoration effort and somewhat by introduction of certain trees and shrubs during the Peabody and Franciscan periods of Mayslake’s history.

As a method for assembling biodiversity data, preserve monitoring thus is not so much at a disadvantage as one might think when compared to bioblitzes.

%d bloggers like this: