St. James Farm is Singing

by Carl Strang

Birds poured into St. James Farm Forest Preserve in mid-May as the wave crest of neotropical migrants pushed through northern Illinois. On some days, sorting through the many songs to note visiting species was a challenge.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Not all were singing, though, for example this bald eagle that stopped in the restored stream corridor.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

Blue-gray gnatcatchers are common on the preserve, and are among the earliest nesters.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I am hoping this hooded warbler, singing among the thicketed portions of the central forest, will find a mate and nest there.

I took that photo from a distance on a foggy day, not wanting to get too close and create a disturbance.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

This sharp-shinned hawk was very vocal, its calls to my ear less like those of its relative the Cooper’s hawk and more like those of a shorebird.

At one point, heavy rains flooded the stream well beyond its banks.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

The engineered restoration corridor held up well to the challenge.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

Among the water-loving birds that took advantage of this temporary habitat expansion was a double-crested cormorant, here taking a break between swims.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

After the water receded, the deposited mud interested a few late shorebird migrants, including this least sandpiper.

For other birds, the breeding season is well under way.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

I am not sure where this goose brood came from, but they have found the restored stream corridor to their liking.

Among my happiest observations in the second half of May has been the discovery of two eastern bluebird nests in natural cavities.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Here the male stuffs food into unseen nestlings in a bur oak cavity.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

Mom takes her turn. In just a few minutes I saw each parent make 3 such feeding trips.

The same story was repeated in a dead tree near the stream. I am relieved that not all bluebirds are dependent upon human-provided nest boxes.

A little earlier in their own cycle, a pair of red-headed woodpeckers has been setting up shop in another dead tree.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird.

They have settled upon the lower of the two holes beside the foreground bird. (Clicking on any photo will blow it up for better viewing).

This pair energetically repelled another pair which expressed interest in their tree. I hope the other pair also will nest at St. James Farm.

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.

Another Pileated Surprise

by Carl Strang

Sitting at the computer early Saturday morning in my parents’ house in Culver, Indiana, I heard a pileated woodpecker calling. I didn’t believe it at first, which also was my reaction when I first heard one at Mayslake Forest Preserve last spring. A few minutes later it called again and I had to go out and see. Sure enough.

It was shy, and I couldn’t get close, but there’s no mistaking the bird’s identity in this highly magnified photo fragment.

The local red-headed woodpeckers were going nuts. Yes, in town, albeit a small town, where the trees don’t look all that different in size and scatter from many a suburban Chicago area neighborhood, there have been red-headed woodpeckers nesting for years.

The red-headeds have nested successfully, too. Taking advantage of the disturbance the pileated left in its wake, I photographed this fledgling.

This incident was yet another bit of experience leading me to believe that pileated woodpeckers, once very rare regionally, are expanding their numbers and acceptable habitat range.

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.

Red-headeds Aplenty

by Carl Strang

As I bicycle the country roads in north-central Indiana’s Marshall County and adjacent portions of Starke and Fulton Counties, I enjoy observing the wild plants and animals along the way. One species that grabs my attention is the red-headed woodpecker (photo from Mayslake Forest Preserve, DuPage County, IL).

These woodpeckers are common in those rural Indiana areas, in contrast to northeastern Illinois where they are uncommon inhabitants of savannas. In recent years a pair has nested in my parents’ neighborhood in the town of Culver. Their surroundings have lost some trees in the decades since my childhood there.

This view toward Lake Maxinkuckee shows how open the area has become. Not only is the habitat structured more like a savanna, but people also take only a casual interest in tree grooming. This leaves dead branches and stems in trees like this one.

The red-headeds nested in one of those holes a couple years ago. I have not yet found their nest this year, but regularly hear them calling back and forth.

Mayslake Migrants Late April

by Carl Strang

The migrant songbirds, and other birds that wintered in the tropics, really begin to flow into northeastern Illinois in the last week of April, and will peak in May. April 24 brought Mayslake’s first chimney swifts, brown thrasher, yellow warblers, and pine warblers including this one.

pine-warbler-b

By the 27th the preserve was hosting newly arrived solitary and spotted sandpipers, green herons, northern waterthrushes, a black-throated green warbler, a blue-winged warbler, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and this Baltimore oriole,

baltimore-oriole-b

as well as a northern parula.

parula-1b

The parula was singing its alternate song, for the most part, the rhythm of which reminds me of the William Tell overture and therefore, inevitably for a member of my generation, the Lone Ranger.

New arrivals on April 28 were warbling vireo, white-crowned and vesper sparrows. The 29th brought house wren, ovenbird, catbird, Tennessee warbler, common yellowthroat, and this red-headed woodpecker.

red-headed-2b

I am hoping that Mayslake’s savanna will be of interest to this relatively rare woodpecker as a nesting area. The last day of April brought a single new species but a good one, a golden-winged warbler.

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