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.

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Northern Flicker Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The flicker was a favorite bird of my childhood; it is so unlike other woodpeckers. That’s not to say that I can offer a lengthy dissertation about them from my own experience, hence the moderate length of my dossier on them.

Flicker, Northern

Male northern flicker

Male northern flicker

This is a woodpecker of savanna and open forest. Most migrate south in winter, passing through DuPage County in large waves. They nest in tree cavities (I have seen them excavating near Lafayette, Indiana, and at Willowbrook and Meacham Grove Forest Preserves in Illinois). Nests may be near the ground or higher in trees (6 feet up at Meacham, in a 7-foot-tall stump in a clearing; 20 feet up in a large black willow at Willowbrook). Flickers frequently forage on the ground, sometimes around ant nests. They also may feed on tree trunks in usual woodpecker fashion. Their flight is strong and direct; the white rump patch is distinctive. Vocalizations are diverse: “Flicka-flicka-flicka;” “E-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e,” rising in volume and perhaps a little in pitch, gradually, then dropping again the last couple of notes (staccato short e’s). A “whoop-whoop-whoop” display flight sound, made by wings or voice. Alarm: flew up from ground with whooping wingbeats, and emitted a couple of loud “kleel” sounds.

27MY86. One flicker chased another quietly from perch to perch in part of a willow canopy at Willowbrook. Chasing not too vigorous, and without vocalizations. Part of courtship?

The stiff tail feathers demonstrate this is a woodpecker. It is a little too intuitive to us that females like this one lack the male’s “mustache” marks.

The stiff tail feathers demonstrate this is a woodpecker. It is a little too intuitive to us that females like this one lack the male’s “mustache” marks.

30MR87. First of year observed.

15SE87. Several in Willowbrook Back 40. Also, 2 on 25SE, 1 on 30SE, and on 19OC.

13FE88. First flicker of the year near Culver, along S.R. 110.

17MR88. First arrival at Willowbrook.

16AP88. A flicker at the Morton Arboretum displaced a red-bellied woodpecker which landed on a major branch of the same tree the larger flicker was in. It chased and displaced the red-bellied twice, and uttered a faint “flicka-flicka-flicka” series, then the red-bellied flew off.

27SE88. Still present at Willowbrook. Also seen 3OC, 6OC, and one on 11OC.

17AP89. Lots of flickers in Willowbrook’s Back 40.

17JE89. A broad-winged hawk called repeatedly, in the north end of Maple Grove. Jays, flickers and grackles were highly agitated, flickers the most continuously vocal with “keels” every 2 seconds (2 birds).

11FE90. Flicker near Hartz Lake, IN.

7OC99. Last flicker of season at Willowbrook.

21NO99. Flicker perched at edge of Fermilab along Kirk Road.

18DE99. Very late flicker at Fermilab.

17JA00. Even later flicker at Greene Valley Forest Preserve. This individual looked very dark.

29-31AU01. Flickers fairly common at Algonquin Park, Ontario. Feeding on ground, usually in groups of 2-3.

Flickers consume many ants, like other woodpeckers, but unlike them often feed on the ground.

Flickers consume many ants, like other woodpeckers, but unlike them often feed on the ground.

2005-7, Greene Valley and Tri-County. Flickers overwintering in open areas.

20AP09. Flicker drumming in W part of Mayslake savanna. Drumming relatively light but very fast.

As the dossier reveals, it took me a while to figure out that flickers winter here more regularly than I had thought. They especially like prairies and other really open areas in that season.

One Less Red-bellied

by Carl Strang

Birds don’t molt feathers in clumps. When you find a bunch of feathers together, you can take it as a sign of predation.

This group of feathers on the mansion lawn at Mayslake Forest Preserve last week is an example.

The black and white barring all across the feathers, and their size, identify the vic as a red-bellied woodpecker. The perp? My vote goes to one of the preserve’s great horned owls. The feathers appeared plucked rather than pulled out and mangled as teeth would have done. Red-tailed hawks can take birds of this size, but woodpeckers are so nervous and alert that a nighttime hit seems more likely. A migrating Cooper’s hawk is another possibility to consider. They are predators of birds, and have a variety of sneaky tactics that might catch even a woodpecker off guard. In any case there is one less red-bellied on the preserve, but others still are around. This year’s resident pair at Mayslake raised two broods successfully, for example, so even if one of those adults was the prey, there will be a new generation ready to take its place.

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.

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.

Red-bellied Woodpecker Dossier

by Carl Strang

I established my vertebrate species dossiers in the 1980’s as an antidote to relying too heavily on the scientific literature and the stories of others for my natural history knowledge. I wrote everything I could remember about each species from personal experience, which generally was embarrassingly little. Then I began to add notes as I made new observations to beef out the files. Each subsequent entry begins with my date code: the day of the month, two-letter month code, and year. Today’s example still is nothing to brag about, but on the other hand woodpeckers can be shy and resistant to casual observation.

The lack of red on the front of the head indicates that this bird is a female.

Woodpecker, Red-bellied

Frequently seen in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Illinois. Stays in forested areas most of the year. Frequently goes into towns to visit feeders in winter. I found a nest at Meacham Grove Forest Preserve in the large hollow branch of a live tree. They search for food on tree trunks and large branches. Their voice is similar to that of the red-headed woodpecker. Harsh vocal quality, difficult to render, “yooch yerch,” (short oo’s), sometimes the latter syllable repeated several more times. Very quick to call when a person comes into its vicinity in winter, more so even than the blue jay.

2AP88. Near Hartz Lake, Indiana. Call between chasing intervals, apparently expelling a rival: “rook-tik.” Haven’t noted that vocalization before.

31MR99. An excavation started by one of the red-bellied woodpeckers at Willowbrook on the 29th now is a full-sized hole and goes into the tree an undetermined amount. Near the creek.

14JA00. Red-bellied woodpecker drumming repeatedly.

22MY00. Red-headed woodpecker’s trill call is flatter in tone, not rising or falling like red-bellied’s.

A nestling, close to fledgling, is anticipating its next meal.

5JL00. Willowbrook. Many robins, adult and first‑year, on the preserve today. A young one, and also a red‑bellied woodpecker, sally‑foraging for insects, possibly flying ants, from the top of a tall dead tree near the stream. (One passing insect was observed for a few seconds before the robin flew out and caught it).

26FE01. McDowell Grove. A male red-bellied woodpecker spent over half an hour excavating a cavity previously begun (it could stick its entire head in the hole). The tree was a dead stem, 20 feet tall, at the edge of the creek, the hole was facing south, away from the creek, and was surrounded by other trees. The hole was 6-8 inches from the squared, broken-off top of the stem, and the stem there was 6-8 inches in diameter. The bird paused to call frequently.

16-17MR06. On the 16th, a red-bellied woodpecker was drumming at Fullersburg. Drumming very rapid. The next day, a hairy woodpecker drumming at Tri-County State Park was drumming, similar in length but even more rapid.

Red-bellied woodpecker nest at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

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.

9NO09. Female red-bellied eating an apple in the Mayslake mansion orchard.

Spring Comes to Mayslake

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I looked back at late winter on Mayslake Forest Preserve. Today I want to share some early signs of spring. There still was a patch of ice on May’s Lake when the first migrant ducks, some lesser scaup, stopped by.

Flocks of sandhill cranes have been passing over on the nicer days.

We also have seen the first flowers of the season already, on silver maples.

Garlic mustard seedlings have germinated.

Soon I’ll resume my experiments on controlling this problem species. Other recent spring events have been chorus frogs singing, the first active chipmunks, red-bellied woodpeckers calling near where they nested last year, and the appearance of insects that overwintered as adults, including a box elder bug and a mourning cloak butterfly.

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.

Mayslake Species Counts

by Carl Strang

Earlier this week I completed my first year of observations at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Many of the posts in this blog, which also is approaching its first birthday, have shared pieces of Mayslake’s ongoing natural history. It’s appropriate to look back at what I have learned there so far. Today I’ll simply share some numbers, the counts of species I have observed on the preserve to date.

Barn Swallows b

Resident vertebrates include 14 species of mammals, 4 reptiles and 3 amphibians (though additional frogs have been observed at Mayslake by others in recent years). The bird species count is 130, many of which were migrants passing through. I saw evidence for successful nests, fledging at least 1 young, in the following 21 species: eastern bluebird, chimney swift, song sparrow, house wren, eastern kingbird, robin, northern flicker, blue jay, eastern phoebe (cowbird produced), chipping sparrow (cowbird produced), downy woodpecker, red-winged blackbird, red-bellied woodpecker, common grackle, black-capped chickadee, tree swallow, European starling, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Baltimore oriole, white-breasted nuthatch, mallard.

Banded hairstreak b

The insect species count is only 97 so far, but most of these belong to 4 groups to which I have directed most of my attention: 26 species of singing insects, 29 dragonflies and damselflies, 24 butterflies and moths, and 6 bumblebees.

Blazing star b

Likewise my attention to Mayslake’s vegetation has been limited to certain groups of vascular plants. These include 49 trees (including those planted by landowners prior to forest preserve acquisition), 23 vines and shrubs, and 184 forbs. I’ll elaborate the last a little by mentioning genera represented by 4 or more species: so far I know of 4 Asclepias (milkweeds), 6 Aster, 4 Erigeron (fleabanes), 5 Eupatorium (a diverse genus including Joe Pye weeds, bonesets, and white snakeroot), 4 Polygonum (knotweeds), 5 Ranunculus (buttercups), and 7 Solidago (goldenrods).

Mayslake Bird Notes

by Carl Strang

We are well into the nesting season for nearly all species of birds in northeastern Illinois. The white-breasted nuthatches in the savanna have fledged their young.

Nuthatch fledge 1b

There were four fledglings. They moved about 50 yards from the nest and stayed in a small area for a few days, then drifted west out of the savanna. Nearby, blue-gray gnatcatchers scrambled to keep up with the demands of their more scattered youngsters.

Gnatcatcher b

The red-bellied woodpeckers (one pair on the preserve) have their young near to fledging. Here an older nestling peers out,

Rb woodpecker nestling 1b

and soon is gratified by Mom’s arrival.

RB woodpecker mom at nest b

Meanwhile, a male bluebird has been favoring a song perch atop the chapel.

Bluebird cross b

(That’s the tip of a lightning rod behind his head). Several bluebird houses are near, but some are occupied by tree swallows. I have seen fledgling swallows recently, which means there are vacancies. A final bird topic pertains to chimney swifts.

Chimney swift 1b

A review of the literature on the species indicated that a given chimney will have only one nest in it. The Mayslake mansion provides for a possible inquiry on this subject. Some active chimneys have been capped, and so are unavailable.

Chimney 2b

Other chimneys are not capped. I once saw a swift drop into one of the chimneys in this pair.

Chimney 3b

Here is yet another tall chimney.

Chimney 4b

Especially intriguing are the fake chimneys.

Chimney 1b

This set of 8 stacks is entirely decorative, but I have twice seen swifts drop into one of the holes in the southwest quarter. This is where the potential for inquiry comes in. Given that a single hole will have only one swift nest, do the extra holes in clustered chimneys, fake or real, provide additional nesting habitat or will one pair claim the entire cluster? I have not seen swifts entering chimneys often at Mayslake, but I will continue to collect observations in hopes of addressing this question.

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