Exploring the Interior

by Carl Strang

Now that the leaves are down from the trees and shrubs, I have been exploring the areas between the forest trails at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Those areas are large enough that I cannot cover the forest adequately from the trails. I have found deer runs and old equestrian paths that will provide sufficient access for routine monitoring. Along the way I have found some interesting places. One foggy day I zig-zagged my way through part of the western forest.

This area has been cleared of invasive honeysuckles and other shrubs. Part of it is young second growth with a few clearings where perennial herbaceous plants are growing.

This area has been cleared of invasive honeysuckles and other shrubs. Part of it is young second growth with a few clearings where perennial herbaceous plants are growing.

Elsewhere there are old trees, many of them red oaks.

Elsewhere there are old trees, many of them red oaks.

Among the occasional boulders was this outwash-rounded fossiliferous one.

Among the occasional boulders was this outwash-rounded fossiliferous one.

The chunk of local Silurian dolomite appears to have been a spot on the ocean floor, adjacent to a reef, where there was a crinoid colony.

The chunk of local Silurian dolomite appears to have been a spot on the ocean floor, adjacent to a reef, where there was a crinoid colony.

A morainal depression held a huge fallen red oak.

A morainal depression held a huge fallen red oak.

The tree had lost the grip of most of its roots in the soil.

The last roots that were holding the tree up still show the relatively fresh color where they fractured.

The last roots that were holding the tree up still show the relatively fresh color where they fractured.

The orientation of the trunk relative to those broken roots suggests that a very strong wind from the west was the culprit.

 The oak didn’t go down alone. Broken stems reveal the trees it took out on either side. The force of the fall split the oak’s stem lengthwise.

The oak didn’t go down alone. Broken stems reveal the trees it took out on either side. The force of the fall split the oak’s stem lengthwise.

Each day in this exploration has brought its own delights.

Here, a beautiful moss colony became established on an old burn scar.

Here, a beautiful moss colony became established on an old burn scar.

One day when I was the preserve’s only human visitor, I saw one of St. James Farm’s coyotes. The fat belly and good coat indicate that this animal is a successful hunter.

One day when I was the preserve’s only human visitor, I saw one of St. James Farm’s coyotes. The fat belly and good coat indicate that this animal is a successful hunter.

So now the stage is set for routine coverage of St. James Farm’s ongoing natural history story.

 

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.

 

Gray Squirrel Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

For several winters, now, I have been sharing my notes on various species of our vertebrate wildlife. The main idea is to step away from the literature and other second-hand sources, and document what I know about each species from my own observations. At last I have reached the end of the list of dossiers which contain enough information to post here. There may be more in the future, as I add to the limited notes presently in unshared dossiers, but this will be the last for a while. I hope the main point has been clear: to remind you, as well as myself, to pay attention and learn from experience rather than rely on the sometimes limited or misleading second-hand reports (I shouldn’t need to point out that from your perspective, this dossier is itself a second-hand report!)

Squirrel, Gray

Gray squirrel

Gray squirrel

This species is more typical of larger forests and cities. Its relative the fox squirrel is the savanna and small woodlot species, though both can occur together (this one is not found around Culver, Indiana, however). Many notes from the fox squirrel dossier also apply to this one.

27JL77. Gray squirrels fed on unripe red oak acorns at Reineman Sanctuary, Perry County, Pennsylvania. The next day, one was eating Nyssa (black gum) seeds (discarding the fruit).

29JE86. One gray squirrel foraging on the ground in an old pine plantation at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage County, IL. It moved slowly (diagonal walk), nose to the ground, sometimes pushing the nose beneath the litter and walking several inches with the face thus submerged. Stopped and ate 3 small objects. Later investigation of the site revealed small oval shells with tough skins, possibly coccoons, flattened ovals viewed from side with a circular cross section, with one end neatly removed and empty inside.

20OC86. Squirrels in dense brushy old field of Willowbrook Back 40. Sounds, when alarmed, like 2-3 steps or jumps, the last louder, then quiet. Is squirrel getting to bigger shrub or a tree, jumping onto trunk then freezing and watching?

23FE87. Much renewal of nut-digging (removal) past few days (and continued next 10 days or so).

28FE87. Wayne Grove Forest Preserve. Gray squirrel stuffing itself with American elm buds in top of 8″dbh tree. Later another, also in a 5″dbh American elm. Much recent excavation of buried nuts. A third individual ate a few black cherry buds.

6MR87. Squirrel high in a black willow, cutting twigs 4-12 inches long and carrying them one at a time to the top of a major 3-branch crotch high in the tree, where it was stuffing or sewing them into a mass of them.

7AP87. A gray squirrel on the ground responded to chipmunk’s chip-trill at my approach, jumping onto low branch and looking alert.

28SE87. Lots of them on the ground in Willowbrook old field. Old and young of year, both.

23JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Gray squirrel dug up shallowly buried hickory nut, cutting a 1.5′-tall elm to get face in close for leverage in digging. Carried nut into tree, spent about 4-5 minutes consuming it, then ate snow off top of branch it was sitting on (about 1′ worth, a powdery, thin 0.5″ wide), went down tree and continued. Paused and looked back at me.

20MR88. A gray squirrel at Meacham Grove gathering dry leaves from ground, stuffing them into its mouth with its paws then taking them into cavity nest up in old white oak. Also gathering from among the few leaves still attached to the tree itself.

10AP88. Touched a squirrel at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve (tips of his tail hairs as he “hid” on the other side of a tree trunk barely too big for him to look around).

17AU88. A chase between squirrels, apparently not play. Gray squirrel pursuing a larger fox squirrel, which jumped out of trees twice from 15-20 feet up, landing hard, to escape (in the second jump it leaped out, seemed to sail a bit, and its fall was partly broken by a small shrub). The fox squirrel uttered a harsh call, short and sharp, like part of a mobbing call, on 2 occasions. There was an un-play-like seriousness about the pursuer.

27MY89. Young gray squirrels very curious, approach when you hold still (yesterday in the park at the Newberry Library in Chicago, today in Maple Grove Forest Preserve). They have a buzzing call, precursor of the adult’s bark.

22JE89. 2 gray squirrels eating red (not quite ripe) mulberries at Willowbrook. The berries began to ripen the previous weeks, so many other ripe ones were available.

29AU89. Many twig ends, some more than 1 foot long, cut from a sugar maple in Back Yards exhibit by Sciurus sp. The twigs were laden with developing new seeds, but only a few of these were eaten. Happened in last 24 hours (lawn mowed yesterday). No nest visible in nearby trees, and this tree 25 feet from edge of lawn, similar distance from nearest other tree.

3SE89. Gray squirrel youngster (from spring litter) passing through yard, east to west (not a neighborhood where squirrels lived).

20MR90. Gray squirrel chased fox squirrel away from Willowbrook crow cage area, then came back (note: squirrels often enter Willowbrook cages to take food from dishes. A squirrel nest has been found in the bullwinkle in that cage).

22AP90. Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. 2 gray squirrels eating enlarged cottonwood buds high in the tree. They ascended together, the larger almost seeming to pursue, certainly to follow, the smaller. The smaller climbed in 2-foot spurts, the larger following, beginning its move as soon as the smaller’s ended. Larger flicked tail in rippling pattern reminiscent of fish or salamander courtship. The smaller may have done so once or twice, but less forcefully. Slow and deliberate, not a rapid play chase. When they were high up, it appeared the smaller would leap to another branch to escape. Larger broke off chase, and they fed. Didn’t take every bud, examined many without taking. Later, larger followed smaller to ground, then up another tree, same way. Larger sometimes sniffed where smaller had been. Larger got ahead of smaller and turned to face it, flicking tail. Smaller turned away. Etc.

1JL90. Gray squirrel in mulberry tree, feeding on ripe berries, West DuPage Woods.

26JA92. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Lots of nut digging by squirrels, last 24 hours. Fresh snow, overnight low 20F.

21SE97. Gray squirrel eating gilled mushroom cap, Petoskey State Park, MI. Both gray and black individuals common. One chased by red squirrel briefly.

4MR99. At mid-day a gray squirrel emerged from a hole in a large, dead willow across from the Safari Trail/Glen Crest Creek junction at Willowbrook to drive away an approaching fox squirrel. The gray immediately returned to the hole.

27OC99. Fox and gray squirrels active. Former have been eating nuts in recent days, one this morning in a box elder eating seeds, another appearing to work on a broken down old nest. Gray squirrels on ground this morning, some in woods, at least one in base of savanna finger at Willowbrook.

28OC99. Gray squirrel with nut, fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

17NO99. A gray squirrel (young) and a fox squirrel both eating box elder seeds at Willowbrook.

2DE99. Several gray squirrels and 1 fox squirrel foraging on ground.

9FE00. Gray squirrel using an exposed (though low) leaf nest at Willowbrook.

14FE00. Many gray and fox squirrels this winter in nests only 12‑14 inches outer diameter at Willowbrook.

4MR00. A gray and 2 fox squirrels feeding on the expanding buds of an American elm near the Joy Path of Morton Arboretum. As I left the path to approach the tree to ID it, the gray squirrel immediately left and ran to other trees. As I walked up to the trunk, the lower of the fox squirrels finally left, but the higher one remained.

15MR00. Willowbrook. A gray squirrel carrying a walnut, in vicinity of trail willow den (have seen a squirrel eating a walnut near there recently).

11JE00. In a morning’s hiking south of Langlade, WI, 1 gray squirrel seen.

21OC05. Willowbrook. Gray squirrel, tail curled over its head, giving its growling-snarling-whining call with an education raptor volunteer holding a red-tailed hawk on a glove nearby. Squirrel holding still, oriented so that its right side is toward the hawk.

25JA06. Fullersburg. 2 pairs gray squirrels chasing one another, probably courtship.

10JL06. Gray squirrel eating ripening hackberries, Fullersburg’s Willow Island.

5OC10. Mayslake. A fox squirrel chased a gray squirrel on the ground in the south savanna.

Indiana Dunes State Park Mystery

by Carl Strang

Indiana Dunes State Park is an older preserve than the National Lakeshore that surrounds it. Last week I spent a day there searching for singing insects. As was true at the National Lakeshore earlier in the month, most of the species I found were familiar, but there were a few added ones. For instance, a female rattler round-wing katydid was climbing the outside wall of the park’s nature center.

Later in the evening I heard a couple males singing nearby.

Also that evening I heard a number of jumping bush crickets. The dunes area had, as expected, gray ground crickets.

The day also brought a mystery. As had been the case at the National Lakeshore forest, confused ground crickets were common in the shaded areas, and there were a few tinkling ground crickets around the dry edges. In addition, however, in the wet-mesic forest south of the State Park’s great marsh, and extending well into the wooded margins of the marsh, a common third species was singing a clear and steady trill. It was similar in pattern, but distinctly lower in pitch and with a different tonal quality, than the Say’s trigs that were abundant in more open areas nearby.

Red oaks, ferns and deep leaf litter were characteristic of the mystery cricket’s song sites.

I remembered that the spotted ground cricket is a forest species I had not yet found, and thought that perhaps this would prove to be the solution. Later, however, when I consulted reference recordings, I was reminded that the spotted ground cricket has a pulsing trill unlike the mystery cricket’s steady song. Reviewing other possibilities, I hit upon the melodious ground cricket. The song was very close to what I heard.

The melodious ground cricket is not as well known as many other ground crickets. Edward S. Thomas and Richard Alexander first described it in 1957, and their work provides much of what has been published about it, at least in the North. They characterized it as a marsh species, but their more detailed site descriptions often, if not usually, place it among woody plants. “The majority of our specimens of melodius were secured by tearing apart a soggy, decayed log, honey-combed with insect burrows, about 20 feet from the marsh proper.” While this supports my tentative identification, at some point I will need to get back there and catch some of these crickets to make a positive determination.

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.

Mayslake Plant Notes

by Carl Strang

This is the time of year when the prairies and meadows at Mayslake Forest Preserve are spectacular with masses of asters, goldenrods and other prairie plants.

Many plants also are fruiting now. I took a moment to study some fallen ginkgo fruits.

They are about an inch in diameter, and each contains a single seed that fills much of its volume.

I have heard they have an awful smell, so this was one of those rare occasions when I was glad for my nose-plugging allergies. I was reminded of the ginkgo seedling I spotted last year below the friary, half a mile distant on the far side of May’s Lake.

Now that I’ve seen the size of that seed, I am less inclined to think that a bird transported it. Now coyote seems the likely disperser, unless there is a female ginkgo off the preserve that is closer.

The red oaks are producing a lot of acorns this fall.

Mayslake doesn’t have many red oaks, but the large ones all seem to have plenty of acorns beneath them.

This may be a regional mast year for them, as I have noticed the same production across the county at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve.

Needless to say, squirrels like mast years.

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