Honeysuckle Signpost

by Carl Strang

Last week I was walking through the south savanna at Mayslake Forest Preserve when my eye was drawn to this old signpost.

The post once held a sign warning people to stay away from the friary, which was demolished last year.

What struck me was how the post was partly surrounded by a honeysuckle bush.

This vase-like, fanning array of stems is typical of honeysuckles.

No one would have forced their way into the bush to place the sign, so it seems likely that the bush grew up after the sign was in the ground. Furthermore, the sign may be responsible for the bush being there. Honeysuckles disperse with the aid of birds, which eat their berries.

Fruits of amur honeysuckle.

I am guessing that a robin, a catbird or one of the other species that eat these berries, facing south while perched on the sign, ejected the seed which had passed through its digestive tract, planting the bush which ultimately embraced the north side of the signpost.

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Cedar Waxwing Dossier

by Carl Strang

One delightful bird which can be seen in northeast Illinois throughout the year is the cedar waxwing. Today I share my dossier for the species, consisting entirely of my own observations. Though references are valuable it also is important, I think, to keep track of one’s own experiences with a species.

Cedar waxwings are smaller than robins but larger than sparrows, crested, soft brown and yellow in color with bright yellow follow-me bands on the tail tips.

Waxwing, Cedar

My principal childhood memory is of waxwings that nested around brushy thickets and willow clumps along the Tippecanoe River near Monterey, IN. Adults hunted insects in flycatcher fashion from bare twigs over the river. In DuPage County they are evident in wandering flocks through all parts of the year except the breeding season. They travel in flocks, staying one to many days in an area and feeding on berries in fall and winter. This also occurred in Cumberland County, PA. Mountain-ash berries were a favorite food in both places. Also consumed are dogwood, and buckthorn berries. Flock cohesion is aided by the bright-yellow tips of the tail feathers, and by the unique high-pitched thin contact call. First winter birds have breasts striped longitudinally with cream and the soft brown adults’ breast color. At the Willowbrook Wildlife Center clinic, waxwings frequently came in with broken wings and other injuries suffered in collisions with windows. In the cages they showed an open-mouthed threat display, possibly made more effective by the black facial markings. In mid-September at Herrick Lake, a single waxwing perched in an old-field treetop gave a single loud note and flew away into thicker trees. Several seconds later a sharp-shinned hawk flew by the waxwing’s original perch, heading in the same direction. (This first paragraph, written from memory, established the dossier in the early 1980’s. Subsequent additions begin with date codes.)

When not feeding, cedar waxwings typically perch high in trees.

30OC86. Willowbrook Back 40. Waxwings feeding heavily from honeysuckle (berries and leaves still on bushes).

16OC87. First autumn appearance of a flock at Willowbrook Back 40.

13JA88. Lots of waxwings in Back 40.

27OC88. Feeding on honeysuckle berries, Willowbrook Back 40.

13DE88. Waxwings abundant in Back 40, stuffing down rose hips.

3SE89. Mixed young and old waxwings eating honeysuckle berries, Island Park, Geneva.

JA99. Waxwing flocks frequently at Willowbrook. Eating, among other things, Asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus) berries.

11MR99. Last of winter waxwings noted. Not seen again at Willowbrook until 25MY. Then after 1JE another gap until 12&20JL. Became a frequent visitor again in early August.

These waxwings are drinking meltwater where snow is being warmed on a roof at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Much energy is saved by drinking, even if the water is cold, instead of eating snow.

7JA00. Waxwing eating buckthorn berries.

31JA00. Waxwing, again at Willowbrook, again eating buckthorn berries.

8FE00. Waxwings eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook.

17FE00. Several waxwings on the ground eating snow (buckthorn berries available on bushes nearby).

19MY01. Many flocking waxwings spread out over a large area at the Arboretum, mainly in treetops in forest as well as more open areas.

12MR06. Cedar waxwings delicately picking anthers from silver maple flowers in the yard. [Note: studies have shown that waxwings use protein from pollen to render certain berries more digestible]

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Cedar waxwing working on a nest in the topmost leaf cluster in a 25-30-foot box elder within 30 yards of Brewster Creek. Weaving, using long slender strands, at least some of which are stripped from grape vines. Spending considerable time with each strand. Mate perched in same cluster of trees. Bird completely concealed when weaving.

This is the tree where waxwings built a nest at (then) Tri-County State Park in 2006.

16JE06. The nest looks complete, a significant lump in the first branching of twigs about a foot from the tip.

22MY08. Fullersburg. An interesting display between 2 cedar waxwings, appears highly stereotyped. They were perched side by side well up in a tree in SW Butler Woods. They took turns quickly hopping away from the other bird a few inches, and returning, at which point the two birds touched or nearly touched beaks, which were angled up. Each of these cycles (or half-cycles, for each bird) took 1-2 seconds, and there were perhaps 20 reps that I observed (i.e. at least 10 per bird). At first they faced the same way, at some point one turned to face the other way and they continued. Eventually one moved to a different twig, but still was close. [Note: this is called the Side-hop display in the Stokes bird behavior guide, and is part of courtship].

6JL09 Mayslake. 14 cedar waxwings foraging like swallows out over May’s Lake. (This was repeated over several days.)

1JA10. Hidden Lake. Waxwings and robins feeding on buckthorn berries.

Early Bird Arrivals

by Carl Strang

The migration season still is young, but already we are seeing the northward push from birds that wintered in the southern U.S. Tropical migrants will be arriving soon. At Mayslake Forest Preserve I have added a few new species to the all-time preserve list. These include horned grebe, a couple of which spent a few days on May’s Lake.

I never had encountered any yellow-bellied sapsuckers at Mayslake before last week, when two different individuals stopped by. Here’s one of them:

An osprey lingered and fished May’s Lake for more than a week, recently.

One of these piscivorous raptors stayed several days last year, as well, though later in the season. And, of course, the usual customers have been appearing in good numbers.

Robins will nest.

Cowbirds will not, though they will deposit plenty of parasitic eggs in host nests. Many of these migrants are showing up earlier than they did last year, reflecting the relative warmth of this spring. Tropical migrants are less influenced by weather, and probably won’t appear in numbers before the last week of April.

Black-capped Chickadee Dossier

by Carl Strang

I have mentioned black-capped chickadees from time to time in this blog, most notably when introducing the topic of mixed flocks. Today I want to share my dossier on this species. In my dossiers I try to summarize what I know of a species from my own observations, as opposed to information from the literature or other outside sources. I began writing the dossier in the mid-1980’s. Observations begin with my date codes.

Chickadee, Black-capped

Ca. 1979. I remember sitting on the hawk watch at Reineman Sanctuary in PA in fall and watching as a sharp-shinned hawk zipping along the ridge suddenly turned its course so as to enter the tree canopy and caught a chickadee.

Boiling Springs, PA, 1980. A pair nested in hollow Ailanthus branch. One bird was electrocuted by a nearby electric fence. The other completed incubation and at least began to rear the brood alone. “Cheeseburger” call (more formally known as the fee-bee call) used early as apparent territorial signal.

Lombard, IL, 1981. A pair nested in a wren house, raised a brood, then returned and raised a second brood in the same house. In both cases, the pair traveled the neighborhood with their groups of fledglings.

Maple Grove Forest Preserve (F.P.), 1986. A pair was cleaning out an old cavity in a 10 foot snag in the maple forest. The excavating bird periodically removed beaks full of sawdust. Other bird remained nearby, giving occasional “chickadee” contact call.

Meacham Grove F.P., 24MY86. For the first time, I saw a chickadee taking advantage of tortricids hidden in folded leaves. One individual moved from one folded leaf to the next, vigorously tearing them open. I expected to see it more frequently than I have, given the lack of other birds with the appropriate foraging behavior in their repertoire, and the abundance of this food resource.

Willowbrook F.P., 1984-86. Chickadees have broods in the wooded riparian strip each spring. One pair appears to control the entire 1/4 mi. X 100-foot strip. Groups of more than 2 chickadees stay together through the winter. “Chickittaperk” vocalization appears to be an interspecific agonistic (dispute) display.

Chickadees weren’t common in Culver, Indiana when I was growing up. I remember being pleasantly surprised that a pair was present, nesting, at Miracles’ house in summer. This implies they were more easily seen in winter, at the feeder. Old trees and branches were scarce in our neighborhood.

Alarm call: one used a sharp “chiburr,” another answered with the same call.

11FE87. Willowbrook. Widely scattered chickadees in the Back 40 old field are maintaining contact mainly via the feebee call.

28FE87. A group of a half-dozen chickadees in trees: much sneeze-calling and chick-chick-chick-chick, but few chickadee calls, with much chasing and displacement. Later, many individuals made chickadee calls from widely separated perches. Then a period of silence followed.

14MR87. Maple Grove F.P. Seven chickadees moved together with a mix of chickadee and sneeze calls, occasionally briefly chasing one another. The group spread out widely, then used very high-pitched brief “cheeks” for contact.

29AP87. Chickadee caught adult noctuid moth, pecked body (scales puffed into the air), removed wings one at a time and they drifted to the ground, landing at least 3 feet apart.

1JL87. Willowbrook F.P. Chickadee pecking at mulberries.

10SE87. 0.5-3 seconds per perch in foraging, flying or hopping a few inches to 6 feet or occasionally 10 feet between perches, acrobatic hanging or hover-gleaning, pecking at dried leaves, turning and lowering body almost to upside down position to peer different ways.

13SE87. At West DuPage Woods F.P., several chickadees in a mixed flock with a redstart and a bay-breasted warbler.

17JE89. A broad-winged hawk callied repeatedly, in north end of Maple Grove F.P. Jays, flickers and grackles were highly agitated, flickers the most continuously vocal with “keels” every 2 seconds (2 birds). Grackles gacking frequently, too. A great crested flycatcher near, also vocal, but not clearly in response to the hawk; same with chickadees. Robins definitely disturbed, with nervous dee-dee-dee’s every 20 seconds or so. Jays in bursts, with several birds mobbing.

10JE90. Warrenville Grove. Chickadee saw me at sit near edge of woods. Alarm call “chicka-chicka-…(rapid)-dee-dee-dee”

3JL90. Chickadee plucked 2 unripe (white) mulberries from the branches. Dropped the first, then went for the second. Worked on it several seconds, holding it against a twig with its toes. I couldn’t tell if it ate the whole berry or just extracted seeds. Suspect latter.

7SE90. 2 chickadees eating dried crabapples, eating, pulling out and eating little bites.

30SE90. Chickadee and downy woodpecker eating poison ivy berries at Ann’s business property near Lafayette.

8FE00. Chickadees heard singing for the first time of the year at Willowbrook, and continuing in the following days. Also vigorously chasing each other this day, with agonistic vocalizations.

10FE00. Chickadees singing (feebee song) at Willowbrook.

1AP00. Morton Arboretum, Heritage Trail. A mixed flock with at least 1 brown creeper, 2-3 chickadees; juncos and robin in area. Chickadees longer on each perch than golden-crowned kinglets observed yesterday. A lot of looking around, not so constantly moving between perches, and making larger jumps between perches, 3′ common. Later, another association of chickadees, golden-crowned kinglets and a white-breasted nuthatch. These mixed flocks stand out because after going through a long segment of forest path where there are essentially no birds, suddenly there are many at once of several species. Again, chickadees sitting longer in one place and moving farther between perches. All moving together in same direction through forest, and moved away from me as I observed them. Later still, a couple of chickadees without associates. Perhaps this is the kind of observation that led to the local core species idea.

25JE00. This spring I have observed 3 chickadee groups with parents and fledglings, one at the Arboretum on 1JE, one yesterday at Willowbrook, and a third in another part of the Arboretum today. Instead of being spread out, in each case the groups were clustered in a small area no more than 20 feet in diameter, and they moved only very slowly. Feedings were frequent, so apparently the parents directed or led their young to food-rich locations.

11MR01. A chickadee at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve with a variation on the fee-bee song: the “bee” syllable is repeated, and each syllable has the usual hinged quality, i.e., “fee-bee-ee-bee-ee.”

More recent observations have focused on the role of black-capped chickadees in mixed flocks.

29AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario, Mizzy Lake Trail. Flock 1: Golden-crowned kinglets, a young-of-the-year black-throated green warbler, black-and-white warbler, black-capped chickadees. Flock 2: At an edge between mixed forest and a lake. Black-capped chickadees, several black-throated green warblers (appear to be sticking together to form their own group within the flock), at least 1 blue-headed vireo, 1 female or young blackburnian warbler, 1 chestnut-sided warbler, and 1 Tennessee warbler. The black-capped chickadees are very abundant here, the most apparently numerous birds in the forest (because of their frequent calling and frequent presence). It is easy to see how migrant birds accustomed to forming mixed flocks with them here in the north could attach to resident birds they encounter on the trip south. Flock 3: Black-capped chickadees, Swainson’s thrush.

30AU01. Algonquin Park, Bat Lake Trail. Flock 1: Black-capped chickadees, a black-and-white warbler, the latter singing. Flock 2: Black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets, 1 or 2 black-throated blue warblers, at least 1 Tennessee warbler, yellow-rumped warbler. The first three species are the vocal ones. These flocks are distinctive: you go for hundreds of yards seeing or hearing no small birds, then suddenly there is one of these diverse groups in a small area.

31AU01. Algonquin Park, Spruce Bog Trail. Flock 1: Yellow-rumped warblers, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches, golden-crowned kinglets. Do more northern birds, living in more open forests, either not have chickadees to associate with, or perhaps the scattered trees (if they are) remove the advantages of mixed flocks? See if it’s true that the non-mixed-flock species tend to be more northern.

12SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1 around west end of cross trail. 2 chickadees and 1@ of black-throated green, magnolia, Tennessee (sang a couple times), and 1 unidentified species. Flock 2 near the NW corner of nature trail, a magnolia warbler apparently alone.

13SE01. Willowbrook. A large but difficult to view mixed flock near office building: 3 chickadees, 2 redstarts, a blackpoll warbler, a red-breasted nuthatch, and many others.

14SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1 around NW corner of nature trail: redstart, chickadee, downy woodpecker, Tennessee warbler, black-throated green warbler, magnolia warbler, red-eyed vireo. Flock 2 between eastern part of animal exhibit and bridge. Chickadee, 3 redstarts, downy woodpecker, blackpoll warbler (it is possible that the one seen earlier joined this flock; it was near this location).

17SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1: 3 chickadees, 1 redstart, others perhaps; near west end cross trail. Flock 2, base of savanna, 2 palm warblers only. Flock 3, brush area east of Nature Trail, 2 chickadees only. Flock 4, another part of same brush area, 2 chickadees, a magnolia warbler, 1 other unidentified.

19SE01. Willowbrook. Flock 1, east exhibit area to bridge: 2 chickadees, 1 black-throated blue warbler, 1 redstart, possibly others. Flock 2, west end cross trail: staying around berry-feeding robins, waxwings and catbird, with no chickadees around: a black-and-white warbler, 2 downy woodpeckers, a redstart, a blackpoll warbler, possibly others.

25SE01. Elsen’s Hill, plateau above river. Flock 1: at least 8 vocal, active yellow-rumped warblers, and a ruby-crowned kinglet. Flock 2, very large and diverse, only some individuals identified: 2 chickadees, black-throated green warbler, blackpoll warbler, 2 Nashville warblers (1 low in an aster thicket another in low tree branches), downy woodpeckers, a parula behaving like the Nashville, 2 redstarts, a chestnut-sided warbler.

26SE01. Willowbrook, between bridge and animal exhibit. 2 chickadees, and at least one @ of vireos (Philadelphia, red-eyed, yellow-throated), warblers (Tennessee, magnolia, parula, black-throated green), scarlet tanager, red-breasted nuthatch.

27SE01. Willowbrook. Flock between bridge and exhibit fence. 2 chickadees, 1 Tennessee and 1 magnolia warbler.

30SE01. Fox River and Island Park, Batavia. Many yellow-rumped warblers spread out all over, some hover-gleaning, some flycatching, others reaching for poison ivy berries. With them, a chickadee, a male Cape May warbler in the top of a silver maple, very active in the short time I saw it.

14SE02. Elsen’s Hill. I walked for several minutes, seeing apparently independent Tennessee warblers (2 together) and a Nashville warbler before encountering a large flock. This flock seemed to be changing composition over time, i.e., after my initial observations I walked a short distance away, then returned, and when I came back, some birds were the same but there were several new ones, as well. Later, after following the flock for 50 minutes or so and losing them in a direction I did not want to pursue in the brush, I returned to the starting point and a small mixed flock was there, with some of the birds I saw initially (apparently, none were marked of course) and a couple added ones. Initial group: a blackpoll warbler, 2 red-eyed vireos, 2 redstarts, an essentially silent chickadee, a black and white warbler, a Tennessee warbler, a Swainson’s thrush, a female or young black-throated blue warbler that was the only flock member calling consistently, all foraging in brush understory within 15 feet of the ground (the redstarts were the only ones consistently going above 10 feet; this was after 9 a.m.). Flock after my return: golden-winged warbler (like the redstarts, up higher, and very active, including flush and pursuit), a male and 2 female or young black-throated blue warblers, 2 Tennessee warblers, a black-throated green warbler, 3 redstarts, 2 blackpoll warblers, a black and white warbler, a blackburnian warbler. After it had warmed up some, later, a magnolia warbler foraging 20-25 feet up and the other birds also have gone higher. Doing a lot of reaching, and spending much time looking from each perch. At 10:45 I returned to the starting point: 4 noisier chickadees, 2 red-eyed vireos, a blackpoll warbler, a male redstart, a magnolia warbler, all except the chickadees foraging higher, throughout the tree canopies. Also a downy woodpecker, black-throated green warbler, Swainson’s thrush.

25AU08. Fullersburg Woods. First mixed flock of the fall migration has 2 chickadees, a downy woodpecker, a Tennessee warbler and a Canada warbler.

28AU08. Fullersburg Woods. Mixed flock just S of Willow Island bridge: 2 chickadees, 2 Tennessee warblers, 2 magnolia warblers, a gnatcatcher.

29AU08. Fullersburg Woods. Mixed flocks: One with four chickadees, two Tennessee warblers, a magnolia warbler and a black-and-white warbler. Also, 2 Tennessee warblers together apart from mixed flock. At mid-day a mixed flock near the junction of trails with 3 chickadees, 3 Tennessee warblers, a white-breasted nuthatch, a magnolia warbler, a parula. Chickadees were doing a lot of hanging upside down, Tennessees less acrobatic running along tops of branches and reaching, magnolia and parula more rapid movements, hopping between branches, nuthatch on bark, all in top half of canopy.

13SE08. Kettle Lakes Provincial Park, Ontario. Large, mixed flock in an area around 75 yards in diameter: at least 2 black-capped chickadees, 5 golden-crowned and 4 ruby-crowned kinglets, 4 yellow-rumped warblers, 2 red-eyed vireos, downy woodpecker, black-and-white warbler, black-throated green warbler, redstart, red-breasted nuthatch. I’m hearing white-throated sparrows, but they seem all near the ground rather than up in the trees with the others. Weak songs from ruby-crowneds, the black-throated green and the black-and-white. This is mainly an area of aspens with some jack pines. Mixed flock: at least 2 chickadees, at least 2 golden-crowned kinglets, 2 ruby-crowned, and a yellow-rump. Aspen grove again with some jack pines and a couple white pines.

15SE08. Nagagamisis Provincial Park. On trails, encountered a little flock of at least 7 ruby-crowned kinglets. Nothing up with them first time through, but white-throated sparrows lower down in that area (on the way back a chickadee, a brown creeper, 3 golden-crowned kinglets and a Swainson’s thrush added). Birds have been few, and I cannot discount the possibility of an association of the white-throated sparrows with this group. On the Time Trail, balsam fir the dominant tree with plenty of white spruces, some black spruces, white cedars, paper birches. Another mixed flock with at least one chickadee, 2 ruby-crowns, 3 golden-crowns.

21SE. Mayslake. A mixed flock at edge of Area 9 and grounds containing a black-throated blue warbler (new preserve species), black-throated green, 2 redstarts, 2 blackpolls, chestnut-sided, Nashville, black-and-white, magnolia, and a chickadee.

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).

More Mayslake Fruits

by Carl Strang

Earlier I featured several plants at Mayslake Forest Preserve that produce fruits timed to coincide with the fall migration of berry-eating birds. This mutualistic interaction for the most part benefits the birds, through nutritional provisioning, while the plants get their seeds dispersed. Today I want to feature some outliers to this pattern. Let’s start with Solomon’s plume, also known as false Solomon’s seal.

Solomon's plume fruit b

Like many fall fruits, these advertise themselves to birds with a bright red color. When analyzed, however, the berries proved to be junk food, or perhaps are more accurately described as food mimics (White and Stiles 1985, Ecology 66:303-307). The plants save their energy, investing no nutritional value in these fruits. The ruse works, apparently, by exploiting the naïve instinctive response of first-time autumn migrants, the young of the year. A little different from this is the offering of the European highbush cranberry.

European highbush cranberry fruit b

Another study (Witmer 2001, Ecology 82:3120-3130) showed that the nutritional value of these berries becomes available only when they are consumed along with a significant protein source. I was impressed to learn that, like the waxwings native to the shrub’s European home, our North American cedar waxwings ignore these tempting berries until spring, when cottonwoods or other poplars are flowering. Then the birds consume the berries along with cottonwood catkins, protein in the pollen providing access to the berries’ nutritional value.

Common buckthorn fruit b

These black berries are common buckthorn fruits. They generally are ignored by birds until late winter when, apparently, the better quality foods have been depleted. Then, robins and waxwings consume them, unfortunately dispersing the seeds throughout our woodlands. Buckthorns leaf out early and lose their leaves late, casting a shade so dense that no other plants can grow beneath them. This is why these Eurasian shrubs must be removed at the beginning of woodland restoration projects. A final fruit is of no interest to birds.

Buckeye fruit 2b

Ohio buckeyes in fact are largely ignored by animals generally. This opens the possibility that, like other trees I discussed earlier, buckeyes may have been dispersed by now-extinct mastodons and other large herbivores.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

Spring migration is nearly done. This was my first at Mayslake Forest Preserve, and I was pleased to find that the preserve hosted a wide range of species stopping to refuel on their way north. I was not very successful in photographing them in the late part of the season, however. One reasonably decent exception was an olive-sided flycatcher.

Olive-sided flycatcher 1b

This north woods nester has a large head in comparison to other flycatchers, the extra jaw musculature needed to crunch its preferred diet of bees, wasps and other relatively hard-shelled insects. This diet also accounts for the olive-sided’s late appearance in the migration season. Don’t expect to find it by its distinctive song. I have heard the “quick-three-beers!” in DuPage County only once in more than 25 years. Its preferred hunting perch is a high dead tree branch, which makes it fairly easy to find when it is present.

Nesting continues. My count of first-round robin nests reached half a dozen on the preserve, and they have been fledging young for the past week. Soon they’ll begin round two. A few mallard and Canada goose broods have made regular appearances around May’s Lake and Trinity Lake.

Goose family b

A pair of phoebes is nesting at the friary.

Phoebe nest b

I taped over the unoccupied chambers of the purple martin house, leaving open the two with starling broods.

Starling nestlings b

Purple martin colonies are few in our area, but this house is in a good location and there is hope that young birds will find it attractive in June.

Martin house 1b

With the migrants refueled and on their way, my attention will focus more on the preserve’s nesting residents. Among them, I hope, will be this yellow-billed cuckoo.

Yellow-billed cuckoo 2b

The cuckoo was foraging at the edge of the savanna, where the gypsy moth eggs have hatched.

GM eggs hatched 2b

Cuckoos are caterpillar specialists, and may be attracted by the gypsy moths.

Another Nest Finding Technique

by Carl Strang

A few days ago I pointed to one method of finding bird nests: watching birds carrying nest material. Another way is to watch birds carrying food.

Robin caterpillar 2b

I found a robin nest at Mayslake this past week by noticing an adult carrying a worm in its beak, and hearing the cries of the begging babies in the nest. After the parent left I took a quick peek at the nest in a small pine tree.

Robin nestlings b

Minimizing my disturbance, I took a quick photo and left, and within moments one of the parents was back at the nest stuffing another hungry mouth. The same method revealed the savanna white-breasted nuthatch nest. Both parent birds flew to the same spot on the far side of a large bur oak trunk, one of them clearly carrying food. The nest cavity proved to be a knothole.

Nuthatch nest hole b

Nuthatches don’t have the excavating capabilities of woodpeckers, but they can use cavities they discover, removing bits of rotten wood to open them up. They are very secretive, fledging the young early in the morning and taking them some distance from the nest. I seldom have seen fledglings, and hope to be more successful this time.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

The first week of May continued the pattern of new migrant bird species appearing while others progressed with nesting and raising young. Among the new arrivals were indigo buntings, which immediately began to establish territories through singing and bickering between neighbors.

Indigo bunting b

The week’s bird highlight for me at Mayslake was this Caspian tern.

Caspian Mayslake 2b

It stayed only briefly, but I was privileged to watch it make two spectacular vertical dives from 20-30 feet into May’s Lake. It appeared to be successful at least on the second dive, as it took a few seconds to swallow the small fish it caught.

Among the earlier arrivals were chipping sparrows, and I am confident they will nest on the mansion grounds.

Chipping Sparrow 1b

I haven’t been seeing savanna sparrows consistently yet, but there is habitat for them around the off-leash dog fence, where I photographed this individual.

Savanna sparrow b

Nesting is confirmed for song sparrow, thanks to co-steward Jacqui G.’s discovery of this nest while she removed invasive weeds.

Song sparrow nest b

The red-bellied woodpeckers claimed this tree cavity early in the season, and the male’s frequent visits with tiny tapping signals suggest to me that they have eggs under incubation.

Red-bellied at nest b

Robins also are nesting. I don’t have a photo, yet, as the first nest under incubation I found is in a dense red cedar. I found the nest only because of the way the incubating bird’s mate reacted to an approaching blue jay. Meanwhile, the single duckling of the pair I reported earlier  is getting bigger.

Mallard family 3b

I commented then on the presence of the adult male, that this is a sign of a domestic background. During the week I watched him chase off another male who approached the female, probably to attempt a forced mating. That strange male’s interference might have endangered the duckling, and may point to a positive selective pressure maintaining this particular domestic trait in our suburban ducks.

American Robin Dossier

by Carl Strang

 

Today’s post is another in my series of species dossiers. It begins with the summary paragraph written when I established the dossier in late 1986 or early 1987. I have edited out some less informative entries.

 

robin-1b

 

American Robin. Familiar bird of natural and artificial savannas. Primarily a summer resident, although small numbers remain in northern IN and IL around fruit-rich areas as long as winter weather is not too severe. Waves of migrants seen each spring and fall. Nest typically on branches of broadleaf trees, or in shrubs. Nest of grasses and mud, with deep inner cup. Sometimes grasses dipped in mud before delivery to nest. Eggs deep sky-blue. Young may get out of nest a short distance a couple of days before fledging, but after early-morning departure from nest they tend to travel some distance and do not return. Young scattered, tended individually by parents, who swoop and may peck at people or mammals which approach the young. Fledglings have dark spots on breast. Worms and insects hunted on ground in summer; fruit the winter food. Mulberries eaten by both adults and young in early summer. Winter berries include buckthorn, mountain ash. Song dominates habitat in early morning and dusk. A musical series of phrases, each composed of 2-3 clear, slurred whistling notes sung from mid to high perches in trees, on aerials, etc. Alarm call “cheet’-der-der-der-der.” Occasional battles, presumably territorial, take place. Striking white spots on tips of tail feathers may be “follow-me” signals. Preyed upon by cats, on occasion. When hunting worms, run 2-20 feet over the ground, stop, then may move a short distance, lean down with side of head turned toward Earth, then possibly reach down and pull up worm with beak.

26AP80. Pennsylvania. Robins, when startled into flight across the path of an approaching car, appear to use body-twisting and turning tactics more appropriate to flight from a hawk.

14JE87. Young-of-year eating mulberries at Culver Fish Hatchery.

9SE87. Large flock in Willowbrook Back 40. One ate grapes.

16SE87. In the evening, within a half-hour before sunset, robins were migrating south over Willowbrook. They flew just above treetop level, in flocks of 3-30, occasionally perching to rest for a time in the treetops, then moving on. The birds occasionally called to one another in flight, alternately flapping in short bursts, and gliding.

29AP88. A robin on a nest at Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve, 6 feet up in crotch of a 15-foot, 3″dbh fencerow box elder.

7AU88. Young robin, apparently independent but still with spots, eating black cherries in Willowbrook Back 40.

30AU88. Lots in Back 40, mostly on ground but 1 in black cherry going after fruit.

5OC88. Robins eating grapes, Back 40.

6OC88. Robins eating gray dogwood fruits, Back 40.

12OC88. Robins eating honeysuckle fruits, Back 40.

17JE89. A broad-wing calling repeatedly, in north end of Maple Grove Forest Preserve. Robins definitely disturbed, with nervous dee-dee-dee’s every 20 seconds or so.

28AU89. Robins eating gray dogwood fruit, Back 40.

21OC89. Robins eating buckthorn berries, West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

3JA90. A robin singing very softly at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. Temperature ~40F, sun.

 

robin-b

 

14JA90. A large robin flock, scattered in woods on ground, moving as they do when hunting worms. Ground frozen. Saw occasional reaches to turn over a leaf, but no feeding.

7AP90. Robins in forest at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve, throwing leaves with beaks to find food.

2JE90. Culver. A robin foraging on lawn (20 feet from nearest shrub) singing, 7:30am.

14SE90. Willowbrook, robin ate a couple small grapes, swallowing them whole.

JA99. Robins present on Willowbrook preserve all winter. Heavily fruiting asiatic bittersweet (Celastrus vine) a particular attraction.

6FE99. At Morton Arboretum, in an area thick with honeysuckle beneath a mesic forest, many robins feeding on the ground, vigorously throwing leaves aside and eating very small things too quickly to identify. I dug, found a mix of insects and fruit-like items.

9SE99. 2 robins eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook.

13OC99. Robin occasionally singing at Willowbrook.

8FE00. Robin eating buckthorn berries at Willowbrook. They are fewer and more intermittent than last winter, 1 or 2 at most at any time.

13AP00. Willowbrook. One robin chasing another in the savanna. Could robins have nested in prairie savannas in years when fire burned off the tall plants beneath the trees? They might have fledged an early brood before the new plants got too tall for them.

16AP00. Willowbrook. A robin carrying nesting material.

1JE00. Arboretum. Along the Joy Path, a robin was perched in the lower branches of a maple, well concealed from above by leaves, sitting absolutely still and barely opening its beak at intervals to give a high-pitched note, somewhat waxwing-like but louder, better defined, that was difficult to locate.

15JE00. Arboretum. Near Parking Lot 7, when I arrived around 8am, 3 robins were giving the high‑pitched thin call repeatedly, and the forest otherwise was relatively quiet. After 10 minutes, a Cooper’s hawk started calling nearby, then flew out away from the forest edge until an eastern kingbird started to chase it. It immediately turned around and flew back the way it had come, and kept going. The robins then were quiet.

16JE00. Willowbrook. In the afternoon, a Cooper’s hawk perched near the west edge of the prairie, drawing alarm calls from a robin (the hawk‑whistle warning call) and a cardinal, and a chorus of 7 loudly mobbing jays.

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).

11MR01. A robin singing loudly, Timber Ridge Forest Preserve.

28JL01. A newly on-its-own robin chased a cicada through the air, the insect giving its predator-discouraging call, but broke off the chase and flew back the way it came. The robin was never close to the cicada during the part of the chase I saw.

13MR02. First morning of robin (or any) dawn chorus at my house.

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