Introduction to St. James Farm III: Forest, Field, Restoration

by Carl Strang

The dominant wild habitat at St. James Farm Forest Preserve is its forest, the largest wooded block in the western half of DuPage County to survive from the original land survey to the present day.

[SJF forest 1. Caption: Portions of the forest are dominated by red oaks, some of which are huge. This is very unusual in DuPage County. ]

Portions of the forest are dominated by red oaks, some of which are huge. This is very unusual in DuPage County.

White and bur oaks, more typical of the county’s woodlands historically, are well represented as well.

White and bur oaks, more typical of the county’s woodlands historically, are well represented as well.

Not as big as the oaks, but equally remarkable, is this ironwood. It has a stem diameter of 11 inches.

Not as big as the oaks, but equally remarkable, is this ironwood. It has a stem diameter of 11 inches.

Ironwood seldom grows big enough to become part of the canopy.

Ironwood seldom grows big enough to become part of the canopy.

Significant portions of the forest recently have been cleared of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle, and a first response has been a heavy growth of white snakeroot, a native forest annual.

Significant portions of the forest recently have been cleared of invasive buckthorn and honeysuckle, and a first response has been a heavy growth of white snakeroot, a native forest annual.

Trails ultimately will be improved to provide ready access through the preserve.

Here a recently constructed trail curves through a meadow. It also extends into the southern part of the forest.

Here a recently constructed trail curves through a meadow. It also extends into the southern part of the forest.

At the moment, the northern part of the preserve is closed as a major restoration project proceeds.

The focus of the project is this stream, once a straight ditch, now improved with meanders and streambed improvements.

The focus of the project is this stream, once a straight ditch, now improved with meanders and streambed improvements.

Following the ensuing growth and development of that area will be one theme of my monitoring observations to come.


More Early Plants

by Carl Strang

The weather has become more seasonable of late, but plants continue to respond to the early warming of the soil. Last week brought the first winter cress flowers of the season.

The April 7 flowering date compares to 29 April last year, 13 April in 2010 and 27 April in 2009.

Oaks have broken their buds and are on the verge of flowering, as well.

White oaks usually are relatively late to open their leaves compared to other trees.

I would like to think that this will impede development of gypsy moth caterpillars. Those invasive insects hatch from egg masses which mostly are well above the ground, and it would be nice if that removal from the warm soil delayed their appearance until after the oak leaves have established some chemical protection. More likely, though, is that the caterpillars will be equally early and there will be no advantage to the trees. The coincidental timing of oak bud break and gypsy moth egg hatch is what makes oaks as a group more susceptible to defoliation by the caterpillars.

Literature Review: Oaks as Islands

by Carl Strang

One paper in the journal Ecology this year caught my eye because of its relevance to my study of leaf miners in maples (Barber, Nicholas A., and Robert J. Marquis. 2011. Leaf quality, predators, and stochastic processes in the assembly of a diverse herbivore community. Ecology 92:699-708). They studied white oaks in Missouri.

White oak leaves

Barber and Marquis looked at leaf chewing herbivores on accessible lower tree branches, as I have done in sugar/black maples, but with much greater elaboration. They grouped the species they found into guilds based on their feeding style: free-feeding (e.g., chewers of holes or gouges in leaves), shelter building (insects that roll leaves or tie them with silk to form little hiding places), leaf-mining (tiny insects that live between the upper and lower surfaces of the leaves), and arthropod predators. They recognized separate herbivore assemblages divided by season with peaks in May, early July, and late August-early September, and found little or no species overlap between these periods.

They assessed predation by birds, using exclosures to prevent avian access to some branches, and found that birds had a negligible impact on insect abundance or community structure.

They also measured the nutritional value of the individual trees, and found that most of the invertebrate guilds preferred plants with high nitrogen and low tannin levels. This was especially true late in the season. Higher quality plants had larger communities, and sometimes higher species counts. On the other hand, similarity between communities on different trees was not based on similarity of nutritional value, but rather on how far apart the trees were. They concluded that community species composition is driven more by stochastic processes (the likelihood that dispersing insects will find a tree) than by host plant quality. This tied their study to the venerable body of research on island biogeography. Their insects behave as though these white oaks are islands, with some trees more remote than others and thus less likely to be reached by the less effective dispersers.

Golden-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here is my dossier for another northern species which often winters in northeastern Illinois in small numbers.

Kinglet, Golden-crowned

Migrant in northern Illinois, northern Indiana. Flight has the quality of falling snowflakes. Two foraging together at Willowbrook in early 1986 gave a contact call whenever flying between trees in which they were foraging. Song jumbling, chattering in high-pitched, thin tinkling voice.

1AP87. First of year seen.

3AP87. Willowbrook. The kinglets are as acrobatic as chickadees, but less assertive and so less noticed. A male fed at edge of the stream, hopping on mud, rocks, sticks, picking at ground, snapping at air, picking tiny things from water. Crest center yellow, but parts or all became red for split-second periods, either from change in bird’s orientation to light, or from minute elevations and depressions of feathers.

10AP87. A kinglet approached within 3 feet of me, hopping on sticks low to the ground.

11AP87. Maple Grove Forest Preserve, IL: Kinglets in trees, 10-40 feet up.

15AP87. Golden-crowneds done passing through.

4NO87. A Missouri state park south of St. Louis. Golden-crowned kinglets behaving much as I have seen them in spring migrations.

16AP88. Morton Arboretum. Flock feeding in forest treetops.

29AP88. Golden-crowned kinglets still present.

15OC88. First fall migrants, Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve.

18OC88. Foraging with yellow-rumped warblers.

31MR89. First of year seen, Willowbrook Back 40.

22AP89. Both kinglet species at Willowbrook. Both using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit.

24AP89. Still there. May only use movement-contact call when scattered out. Those on 22nd, foraging in easy view of one another, weren’t using it while today they are.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

31MR99. Many kinglets foraging along stream, Willowbrook.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived. Last G-crowned in spring seen on 14AP.

5OC99. First migrant of fall noted at Willowbrook. Last seen 21OC.

11MR00. First kinglet of year at Willowbrook, only 1 seen. 3-syllable high-pitched contact call distinctive [for some reason it took me this long to learn to recognize this common call].

One reason I mentioned foraging technique so often is that, according to the literature, golden-crowned kinglets reach for food from perches more, while ruby-crowneds hover-glean and use flush-and-pursuit more. These behavioral differences are consistent with slight proportional differences in wing and foot length.

26MR00. West DuPage Woods. Today they are foraging high (20+ feet up), in canopies of white oak and other forest trees. One moving steadily, with hops of 1-3 inches mainly, occasionally larger jumps between major branches and trees, both reaching and hover gleaning. Hover-gleaning pursuits of 1-2 feet. In mixed flock with creepers and 2 white-breasted nuthatches. Another kinglet moved 6″-2′ between perches, remaining 2-3 seconds per perch with head constantly turning.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen, beside Sawmill Creek, several golden-crowned kinglets in apparent mixed flock with brown creepers and a couple white-breasted nuthatches. One moving 4″-2′ between perches, most often around 1 foot, with occasional flycatching move but most often flying to a perch and immediately reaching for something. The reach was done with no searching after landing, and so the bird had spotted the prey and flown to it. Later, I encountered another group of kinglets with chickadees nearby. One made shorter, 1-2″ hops with much looking around, 8-10 feet up in tree. I saw no foraging moves.

1AP00. Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum. Several in mixed flock with chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch. High, 40-50 feet in crowns of white oaks. Kinglets moving more constantly than chickadees, with smaller hops, doing a lot of reaching for prey.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets and ruby-crowneds both have been at Willowbrook all week.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

2AP01. First golden-crown of the year at Willowbrook.

29-31AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario. Small groups of golden-crowned kinglets frequently encountered, one of the more commonly observed birds, easily located by their contact calls. Almost always in association with black-capped chickadees. Once or twice, perhaps, not with other birds I could see. Usually seemed to be 3-5 individuals in a group, and almost always if not always in conifers. Note: the branches are fairly dense in these forests, promoting a reaching foraging style. Are forests more open farther north, where ruby-crowneds live, so that a hover-gleaning style is favored?

1FE02. One or two feeding with chickadees at Waterfall Glen, just east of Poverty Savanna area.

18AU04. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario. A golden-crowned kinglet showed very unusual behavior as it foraged among balsam fir branches hanging out on the trail. It did a lot of hovering just beyond the branch tips, visually scanning as it did so. Perhaps it’s a young bird that will learn to abandon this energy-wasting behavior.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of ground in herbs and shrubs beneath, only occasionally and briefly venturing into the lower canopies. Ruby-crowneds have a quick, chattering-quality “checkit” call. Hover-gleaning their most common foraging method today.

5-11NO05. During my southern vacation, I found golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.

16AP09. Golden-crowned kinglet, late in migration and apparently alone, uttering a different call. Same pitch as usual, but a longer burred call much like the rougher waxwing call.

Brown Creeper Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week I am sharing my species dossier for the brown creeper, a species which seems increasingly to be present in DuPage County through the winters in recent years. I wrote the initial paragraph in 1986 as I established the dossier, then added observations with their date codes.

Brown Creeper

Observed during migration in DuPage Co., sometimes all winter there and in Culver. Latest spring observation 13AP86 [April 13, 1986]. When foraging they commonly fly to the base of a tree and work their way up, climbing on and searching the bark. Often when changing trees they produce a high-pitched cheeping contact call as they fly.

1AP87. First of year seen at Pratts Wayne F.P.

12MR88. First of year at McDowell.

28AP88. Migrants still present.

14AP89. Creepers at Hartz Lake.

18AP90. Creeper on 6-inch box elder at Willowbrook.

31JA99. First of year at McDowell.

1AP99. Willowbrook’s first of year. Also seen there on 5AP.

1OC99. First fall migrant at Willowbrook.

26MR00. Several observed at West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. All but 1 foraging selectively on white oaks, flying to within 3 feet of the ground on the main trunk and working up it, staying on the shaded side (sunny afternoon) and within an 8-inch width, mainly going straight up even over bumps. When up in crown, fly down to base of next tree. High-pitched contact calls similar in pitch and tonal quality to those of golden-crowned kinglets. One paused to preen body feathers on anterior part of body, remaining perched on vertical bark while doing so. The only one on another species of tree was on a black cherry. During the brief time I watched, it both came into the sun briefly and exceeded the 8-inch path width.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. Brown creepers feeding along Sawmill Creek, with golden-crowned kinglets and a couple white-breasted nuthatches nearby (essentially a bird desert for more than half a mile until I reached this point). One feeding on a 6″dbh hackberry, going straight up the shaded side (sunny afternoon). Either the same bird on several similar sized hackberries, or several birds on same, always staying shaded side except for brief moments in the sun. When that happened, though, the creeper quickly returned to the shaded side of the stem. Once a creeper paused briefly, made a flycatcher-like sally from the bark into the air, reached with its head and beak at the turn-around point, then returned to the same point on the stem it had left. Flew out 3 feet or so. Another creeper was moving up the shaded side of an 18″ white oak, every few seconds reaching its bill to the bark and then making eating motions. Another creeper on a 12″ forked tree spent some time on the sun side (= side toward creek) of one fork, but the other larger fork was shading it.

1AP00. Morton Arboretum, Heritage Trail. A mixed flock with at least 1 brown creeper and 2-3 chickadees; juncos and robin nearby. Overcast day, no shaded side, but creeper still mainly going straight up the trunk. When defecating, lifts tail high, bending it well over back. When searching, doesn’t probe but rather peers, looking into crevices and going to different angles to do so as needed. Song “tsee-er-tser-tseree,” quick, high pitched like call but not as thin, sweet and musical tone. On a white oak, spiraled up a high 8″ branch.

13AP00. Willowbrook. 1 brown creeper observed.

13AP07. Brown creeper vocalizations include a rough call similar to that of cedar waxwing, faint thin high pitched notes given singly, and several such notes given in quick succession and similar to those of golden-crowned kinglet but a little fainter and more irregularly spaced.

2JA08. First creeper of the year, at Fullersburg (two stuck around for weeks afterward).

29AP08. Last creeper of the spring, at Fullersburg.

21OC08. Fullersburg. First creeper, fall migration.

29JA09. Mayslake. First creeper of the year.

25FE09. Mayslake. Another creeper, after a space of nearly a month, suggesting midwinter wandering.

25MR09. Mayslake. Another month between sightings.

21AP09. Mayslake. Final creeper of the spring at Mayslake (often present in past month)

29OC09. Mayslake. First creeper of the fall migration.

8JA10. Mayslake. Creepers seen in two locations.

1FE10. Mayslake. Another creeper, after a space of nearly a month.

19MR10. Mayslake. First spring migrant creeper.

13AP10. Mayslake. Last spring migrant creeper.

13OC10. Mayslake. First fall migrant creeper.

Black Oak, Maybe

by Carl Strang

Not being a botanist, primarily, I am inclined to miss plants unless I really focus on them. I count on their flowers or some other eye-catching feature to draw my attention. Such was the case last week with a particular oak in the north savanna at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

It doesn’t show so well in the above photo, but the leaves on the tree had turned yellow.

That is in contrast to the generally reddish and brown tones of the dominant white and bur oaks, as well as the bright red of the Hill’s oaks. I made my way to the tree, and found that its leaves were shaped like typical black oak leaves.

The lobes are shallow, unlike those of pin or Hill’s oak, and they don’t show the rhythmic size and shape of red oak lobes. The bark is consistent with black oak, though the tree is only a foot in diameter and so I can’t call that conclusive. The acorn caps are somewhere between those of black and Hill’s oak, though more like the former. For now I am calling it a black oak, though I think there’s a good chance that it’s a black/Hill’s hybrid. I am comforted by the fact that even botanists struggle with the oaks.

Downy Woodpecker Dossier

by Carl Strang

This is another of my dossiers, a collection of observations that represents what I know about a particular species from my own experience. Following an initial description that summarizes what I remembered when I set up the dossier in the mid-1980’s, each individual entry begins with my date code.

Downy Woodpecker

This is an abundant, year-round resident of forested areas and savannas. They nest in small tree cavities. Feed by searching on small twigs up to the size of tree trunks, on shrubs, sturdier weed stems, occasionally on the ground. They crawl rather than hitch along. Voice a rapid whinny, individual tones mores musical than hairy woodpecker’s and lower in pitch; reminds me of a movie witch’s cackle. When feeding, they pick at twigs or flake bark. They do much pecking under bark edges, when foraging on a tree trunk. Nest in hollow branches or main tree stems.

30MR86. 2 male downy woodpeckers in an aggressive encounter. Frequent flicking of wings and spreading of tail. Assumption of posture in which body is upright and neck arched back so bill points straight up. Appeared to be trying to get above one another. Generally faced one another when in bill-up posture, and both did it at once. Red feathers conspicuous.

Late summer 1986. As a flock of ground-feeding grackles flushed at the approach of people, downies and jays at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve emitted contact calls, apparently as a final check of location and status before possible flight.

8MR87. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Male appears to be exploring the acoustic properties of a white oak limb. Spiralling up it, drumming frequently. Full drum about 1 second, poor spots drummed 0.5-0.75 seconds. Repeatedly drummed fully the spots that gave the greatest volume and lowest pitch. As I wrote the above, I heard vocalizations. Three downies now in that tree. The drummer and a second, presumably its mate, chased a third which gave fragments of the whinny call. They held themselves flat against branches, tails fanned, and gave whinny fragments and a more chattering, flatter sort of vocalization. The third bird left, but a few seconds later I heard a brief drumming about 50m in the direction it had gone. The other two immediately flew in pursuit, and after a few brief whinnies all was quiet.

7MY88. Indian Trails area, Culver. One systematically probing and pecking bases of hickory buds, open with leaves about 1/4 expanded.

18OC88. Hartz Lake area, Indiana. A vigorous, repeated displacement of one individual by another, though they stick together.

7MR89. Extended confrontation between 2 male downies. Mostly jerkily hopped up small tree stems within 3 feet of one another, flicking wings almost constantly, approaching, withdrawing, occasionally expanding and flashing the red patches, changing trees together, occasionally getting out of sight of one another momentarily, overall appearance of jerky movement. After more than 5 minutes of this, one displaced the other several times in rapid succession, but then they returned to the jerky maneuvering, with occasional rests on opposite sides of the trunk, out of sight of one another. Before all this, one of them called repeatedly, loud single-note reps. Another bird (female? Not seen) called or drummed a couple times during this from at least 50 feet away.

26-31MY90. Hartz Lake area. A nest in a river birch, entrance 12 feet up. Both parents fed, about 10 minutes between arrivals for each parent. Young still small, faint cheeping voices. When screech owl family passed by early one morning, one adult mobbed at a distance with alarm notes.

30SE90. Downy woodpecker eating poison ivy berries near Lafayette, IN.

10FE99. Two pairs of downy woodpeckers are actively engaged in drumming, calling, displaying and chasing in an area that centers on the Willowbrook bridge but extends most of the way to the marsh in one direction, and up to the big willow near the marsh’s water intake pipe in the other.

23MR99. The situation has become very complex at Willowbrook and difficult to follow, with displaying and chases, drumming and calls going on all day. It appears that at least 3 pairs are involved, with the center of the activity between the creek and the center of the outdoor animal exhibit. A downy woodpecker also was drumming in the big cottonwoods in the center of the Nature Trail circle, the first I’ve noticed there this year.

29MY99. Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Young audible in nest.

5OC99. Willowbrook. Downy eating poison ivy berries.

23FE00. Willowbrook. Male downy woodpecker displaying toward female, body in a stiff posture, tail fanned, unusual chattering vocalization, following or chasing her, matches Stokes’ description of Bill Waving.

1-2JL00. Juvenile downies have large red patches on top of head.

27MR06. Downy woodpecker drumming is so rapid that individual strikes cannot be followed. Hairy woodpecker drumming very rapid, individual strikes can be distinguished. Red-bellied rapid but slightly less so.

2009. Mayslake. One successful nest was in a large weeping willow branch in the SE corner of the mansion grounds. Young were vocal for several days before fledging. There was at least one other successful nest on the preserve.

Mast Year

by Carl Strang

Mast is a collective term referring to nuts and acorns. Trees do not produce these in the same amounts each year. In some years very few nuts or acorns develop in a given species, and in other years prodigious numbers appear. High production seasons are called mast years. 2009 is proving to be a mast year for bur oaks and white oaks at Mayslake Forest Preserve, where the trails in places are littered with the fallen acorns. Here is an example for bur oak.

Bur oak mast b

Here, white oak acorns abound.

White oak mast b

Though elsewhere I am seeing lots of walnuts, this does not seem true for that species at Mayslake, which also is having an unremarkable year for hickory nuts. Nearby, at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I noted in 2007 that walnuts, hickories and red oaks had a mast year. It is common for members of the white oak group and red oak group of species to be decoupled from one another in their mast years.

Fox squirrel 1b

As you might imagine, animals such as tree squirrels are impacted by mast years. Mayslake’s gray and fox squirrels will have an easy winter with so much food available. They help their cause by biting acorns before burying them in an effort to kill them. The acorns, in a countermeasure, are quick to sprout when they fall to the ground. A study published in 2006 in Science (314:1928) found that red squirrels (which live north and south of us, but not in DuPage County) themselves reproduce more heavily in mast years (perhaps responding to an increase in flowering or other advance cue). Such adaptive interactions between species are referred to as coevolution. The phenomenon of the mast year itself likely is, at least in part, an evolutionary tactic by the trees. By coordinating their mast production they can limit their seed-predators’ survival in some years, overwhelm them in others. Such an episodic mass reproduction is reminiscent of the periodical cicadas.

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