SJF March Summary

by Carl Strang

Weather in March at St. James Farm Forest Preserve was variable, but on the whole was relatively warm with frequent rainy periods. At the beginning of the month there was a little lingering snow on the ground, and ponds were frozen, but all of this quickly was gone.

I used my old GPS unit to map my survey routes and to locate positions of previously discovered cavity trees that might harbor a great horned owl nest. One of these indeed proved to hold the nest, and the female still was present on March 25, late enough to indicate that hatched young were being brooded. Two attempts to find displaying woodcocks were unsuccessful, but during the first evening visit on March 17 I heard what I thought was a short call by a barred owl in the eastern portion of the preserve. Scott Meister reported hearing the species in the forest one evening the following week. No pileated woodpecker observations in March, but recent observations in preserves to the north along the West Branch suggest that the bird or birds seen here earlier may be wandering widely. Canada geese were down to small groups and pairs early in the month. By March 31 a nest was under incubation on the small island in the pond below the former house site.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Canada goose incubating on March 31.

Many killdeers were displaying in the restoration project area around the stream early in the month, but these were down to just a few individuals by month’s end. Bird activity generally increased as the season progressed, with the first cowbirds arriving March 8, a pair of hooded mergansers and 2 pairs of wood ducks present in the pond in the NW corner of the preserve for much of the month, sandhill crane flocks frequently passing overhead, a northern flicker and the first golden-crowned kinglets appearing on March 14, tree swallows on March 25, and two pairs of green-winged teals in the restored stream on March 26.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

This hooded merganser pair may nest in one of the wood duck boxes at the northwest pond.

A shed antler found on March 17 in the forest near Winfield Road matched the buck photographed in the same area on November 1.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

Someone found an old deer skull and propped it against a trailside tree.

The first snake observed on the preserve was a midland brown snake on March 29. That same day several painted turtles were sunning in the eastern pond.

Western chorus frogs began singing on March 11, and ultimately displayed in three locations. The largest number were in the fringes of the eastern pond, and many also were in two temporary ponds in the meadow north of the entrance drive. Numbers of bullfrogs, large and small, had emerged by March 21.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

One of the March 21 bullfrogs.

The first butterfly of the year was a mourning cloak observed on March 21. A cabbage white appeared on March 29. The former overwinters in the adult form, the latter as a pupa. Several small brown moths were active on the forest floor on March 31. One was photographed and appears to be a tortricid, close to several similar species of Pelochrista or perhaps Eucosma.

A possible Pelochrista

A possible Pelochrista

Silver maples were blooming by March 11, and spring beauties by March 31.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Spring beauties were the first native herbaceous wildflowers to bloom at St. James Farm in 2016.

Restoration clearing of the forest was completed by mid-March, and a new set of stakes presumably marking the new trail route was placed in the final week.

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SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

Beginning in the middle of the month, I went through all of St. James Farm Forest Preserve seeking the great horned owl nest. I did not find it, but did create an inventory of 25 large tree cavities where an incubating owl might not be visible from the ground. An additional possibility would be a hawk nest in the dense top of one of the spruces. Twice I saw an owl, presumably the male if they are nesting this year, in the same north central portion of the main forest. In past observations elsewhere, the male usually perched in the vicinity of the nest. I will continue to monitor the suspect cavities, but may need to see branched young later in the season to narrow down possibilities further.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

I was able to eliminate this cavity, as it was otherwise occupied.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

Some photo processing in the computer makes the raccoon easier to see.

I had not seen or heard a pileated woodpecker on the preserve for more than 6 weeks (though occasionally I heard suspicious loud, spaced tapping sounds), but in the second half of February heard or saw one on three different days. The one close sighting was of a male.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

American coots and large numbers of mallards were a continuing presence on the stream. For much of the month the Canada geese roosting at Blackwell frequently passed over St. James Farm in large numbers, occasionally stopping to graze the lawns and meadow areas. Geese began to break off into pairs as ponds opened up during the last third of February. Interesting bird sightings included a bald eagle flying over, and a hermit thrush on February 16. Migrating sandhill crane flocks began to pass over beginning on the 21st. A small group of white-throated sparrows in the eastern part of the main forest were the first observed on the preserve this year. The first red-winged blackbirds arrived, and eastern bluebirds became a more consistent presence in the last part of February.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

This male eastern bluebird seemed to be staking a claim in a corner of the grounds adjacent to a pair of bluebird houses.

Fox squirrels fed heavily from Norway spruce cones in the south forest, and on tree buds elsewhere. Skunk and deer activity was much as described for January. The preserve’s deer minimally are a group of 3 does, a group of 2 deer which occasionally associate with those does, and a single buck. The snow was never deep enough to discourage raccoons. A mink used a den off the south edge of the pond in the preserve’s northwest corner.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

Along the way during the owl nest search I found this curiosity.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The bone has been on this buckthorn twig long enough for the twig to grow several long branches.

The large area of restoration brush clearing in the main forest was expanded greatly by District staff, generally following the route of the new trail mapped in the preserve’s master plan. Among the more interesting plants encountered during the owl nest search were two of the most massive black walnuts I have ever seen, and a prickly-stemmed greenbrier (Smilax tamnoides).

Edging into Autumn at SJF

by Carl Strang

October is the main transitional month from summer to winter, and this has been evident at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. Insects continue to be active, holdouts of the warm months.

Autumn meadowhawks have been one example.

Autumn meadowhawks have been one example.

Plants shift their resources into their roots, shutting down their leaves for the coming winter drought. The process produces the color that characterizes the fall.

The beautiful subtle browns of the prairie grasses are upstaged by the brilliant maples and other trees.

The beautiful subtle browns of the prairie grasses are upstaged by the brilliant maples and other trees.

Though September is the peak migration month for birds that will winter in the tropics, those wintering in the southern U.S. pass through in October.

Sandhill cranes have begun to cross DuPage County on their way to Florida. They will continue for a couple more months.

Sandhill cranes have begun to cross DuPage County on their way to Florida. They will continue for a couple more months.

Fox sparrow, a species that nests well to the north of Illinois

Fox sparrow, a species that nests well to the north of Illinois

Diverse sparrows have been stuffing themselves with seeds in the prairies and meadows of St. James Farm and other preserves, fueling for their continued journey south. Others, such as kinglets, hermit thrushes and the fox sparrow shown above, feed in the forest. If the winter is mild, a few of these may hang around.

 

Seasonal Transition

by Carl Strang

We have long been waiting for spring, and the seasonal transition at last is under way. Soon the snow birds will be heading back north.

Dark-eyed juncos have begun to sing and to chase each other.

Dark-eyed juncos have begun to sing and to chase each other.

The earliest migrants have begun to come through, or to pass over.

A flock of sandhill cranes flies over Mayslake Forest Preserve.

A flock of sandhill cranes flies over Mayslake Forest Preserve.

They hit a thermal, break formation and use its rising air to gain altitude.

They hit a thermal, break formation and use its rising air to gain altitude.

Breeders have begun to arrive and set up shop.

Great blue herons at the Danada colony

Great blue herons at the Danada colony

A recent arrival at Mayslake Forest Preserve has the smaller birds nervous.

The Cooper’s hawk pauses in its patrol…

The Cooper’s hawk pauses in its patrol…

…then resumes.

…then resumes.

The next mini-stage of migrant birds has begun.

Ruby-crowned kinglet at Fermilab, Sunday

Ruby-crowned kinglet at Fermilab, Sunday

Soon I expect to reach my personal criterion for the arrival of spring and the end of winter.

 

Scouting Jasper County

by Carl Strang

The Jasper-Pulaski State Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana started out as a recreational destination for hunters and fishermen. Natural history enthusiasts in the region associate J-P with sandhill cranes, as the big birds pause there by the thousands when they migrate north and south, and birders congregate as well, to see them.

J-P seemed a good place to find singing insects in Jasper County, and I stopped there to scout the property on my way home from last weekend’s trip. Some of the back roads lead to extensive ponds and marshes, which will be of interest later in the season. My favorite spot, though, was at an intersection of two gravel roads where the soil was heavy in sand, with a black oak savanna and wide berms of sand prairie vegetation.

Tiny oaks form a vanguard as the savanna reaches into the prairie.

Tiny oaks form a vanguard as the savanna reaches into the prairie.

As I walked one of the roads, I flushed a sulfur-winged grasshopper. I had been hoping for a photo opportunity with this species.

At first glance this insect seems doomed, its dark color contrasting with the pale sand.

At first glance this insect seems doomed, its dark color contrasting with the pale sand.

Unless you are very close to it, however, the grasshopper just looks like a little stick or piece of debris.

The folded forewings conceal bright yellow hind wings with broad black edges.

The folded forewings conceal bright yellow hind wings with broad black edges.

The next time a similar opportunity comes up, I’ll try for a flight photo that will show those hind wings. In any case, I drove away from J-P with some great locations, and three early-season species to start my Jasper County singing insects list (green-striped grasshopper and spring field cricket were the other two).

Mayslake Burns

by Carl Strang

Smoke rose in thick columns on Thursday as the Forest Preserve District’s controlled burn program reached Mayslake Forest Preserve. Mayslake has well-established restored prairies, and the burn cleared off the dead tops of last year’s growth. The fire released minerals back to the soil, opened the way for the living roots to send new, unimpeded shoots skyward, blackened the soil further to facilitate plant growth by soaking in solar heat, and knocked back undesirable, competing woody plants.

A prairie burn is an impressive thing to watch.

A prairie burn is an impressive thing to watch.

Goldilocks would appreciate the decision to burn on a given day. Everything has to be just right. There needs to be some wind, but not too much. The area has to be large enough but not too large, and bounded by mowed areas or other fire stoppers. The vegetation needs to be dry enough. Finally, the burn crews need to be sufficiently equipped and trained to manage the burn safely.

Ranger staff keep watch from all sides.

Ranger staff keep watch from all sides.

Sometimes burns are incomplete due to the plants being too wet, but this time the prairies burned well. A walk through a recently burned area is worth taking, as it reveals what was hidden by all that herbage: the microtopography of the land, which can help determine exactly which plants grow where; the networks of animal trails, large and small; skeletons of animals that lived their last moments there. No freshly killed animals, though. They have their ways of escaping the flames.

Tiny low spots can host a few plants that prefer slightly wetter soils.

Tiny low spots can host a few plants that prefer slightly wetter soils.

The day after the Mayslake burn I found a number of animals taking advantage of the change. Killdeers and robins ran unimpeded over the cleared ground. Migrating sandhill cranes took advantage of thermals rising from the blackened soil to gain altitude during their journey north. In a few days, the warming soil will release and activate insects, and eastern phoebes likely will congregate to feed on them.

A robin hunts on the newly opened ground.

A robin hunts on the newly opened ground.

Sandhill cranes on the thermal elevator above the burn site.

Sandhill cranes on the thermal elevator above the burn site.

Another month, and the ground will be thick with new green shoots. The prairie always grows better in a burn year. (Note: This post first appeared last week as a Nature Note in the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County’s Observe Your Preserve website. )

Lessons from Travels: Upland vs. Lowland Tundra

by Carl Strang

Kokechik Bay, at the tip of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in Alaska, provided a good opportunity to compare upland and lowland tundra communities.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

Here is an aerial view of classical upland tundra interspersed with lakes.

In western Alaska, the distinction is clear. The more elevated areas, relatively dry and seldom if ever inundated by tides or floods, develop an upland tundra vegetation mix.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Mosses, lichens, dwarf shrubs and a few characteristic herbaceous plants dominate the upland flora.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Here is a mix of lichens, mosses, and cloudberry, a member of the cosmopolitan genus Rubus.

Some animals are connected with the upland tundra.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

Black-bellied plovers nested in the uplands.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

The eggs of the black-bellied plover blend perfectly with the lichens.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Willow ptarmigans associated more with the upland tundra, but made use of both habitats.

Lowland tundra was where we spent most of our time, in waterfowl related studies.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

Grasses and sedges dominate the lowlands.

In coastal western Alaska, the lowlands are subject to at least occasional storm tide flooding. Many more species of birds nest in the lowlands.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

Sandhill cranes are one of the more conspicuous lowland tundra birds.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

The emperor goose is one of the iconic birds of this region and habitat.

As the continental glacier advanced and retreated across northeastern Illinois, the vegetation close to it no doubt had some tundra character. Little evidence remains, however, to give us a clear picture of this. Pollen records are more informative about the vegetation communities that followed as the climate warmed.

Spring Ooching In, Part 2

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I marked the physical advance of the spring season. There also have been plenty of biological signs. Sandhill cranes have been coming over on days with south winds.

Sandhill cranes are a favorite of all the Mayslake staff.

Silver maples have been flowering for more than a week.

This photo is from an earlier year.

The woodpeckers have been drumming like crazy.

This downy woodpecker found a particularly resonant sounding board.

Two days ago I saw Mayslake’s first bluebird of the year.

The bluebird appropriately was foraging in the middle of the north savanna.

Finally, yesterday the first chorus frogs started singing.

The years should have taught me patience by now. But spring ooches its way in, slowly warming, then backing off in another cold spell. I need to come up with an inquiry to keep me focused in this season, but the dreary month of March stifles my creativity. For someone who doesn’t believe in the reality of time, I certainly remain aware of its slow passage. But warm days like we’ve had this week are a soothing reminder of the season to come.

Recent Animal Activity

by Carl Strang

Autumn has transitioned to winter at Mayslake Forest Preserve. Sandhill cranes still were migrating in late November, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see more before the end of the year.

But most migration seems to have passed to our south. Sparrow flocks have been stabilizing.

Last week the first bit of sticking snow drew my eyes to the ground. The season’s first snow tracks were a cottontail’s.

Then, over the weekend we got our first covering snow, 3 inches worth.

But even in winter there can be surprises. On December 7 I heard a cardinal singing.

This is one reason to build species dossiers. Consulting mine, I could find no record of a singing cardinal between October 15 and January 7 in past years. Usually they are done in August and don’t start up again until the second half of January. This is a true oddity. Cardinals are relatively sensitive to changes in daylight hours, and usually can be counted on to start singing before the end of January, but in early December the days still are shortening.

Sandhill Crane Dossier

by Carl Strang

We have been seeing sandhill crane flocks passing over northeast Illinois, their calls announcing the new season and making them a good choice for this week’s species dossier.

Crane, Sandhill

DuPage County, IL, is under a major flyway in both spring and fall migrations (Jasper-Pulaski wildlife area in IN and Horicon Marsh in WI their equidistant destinations, so they usually pass over at midday in both spring and fall). Altitude usually fairly high; use thermals over Glen Ellyn, for example, to make large spiralling climbs. Ratchety calls generally made in flight. Occasionally a very few stop overnight at McKee Marsh. They take advantage of weather systems to get wind pushes to north or south while migrating.

I know them best from western Alaska, breeding grounds. Arrived very early in spring. Nest generally 2 eggs. Territory marked with duet call, one bird bugling, the other with rattling call in time. When I approached nest or hidden young, parents would sneak away with body and head held low. Flocks organized by August 1.

A distraction display?: bird walked slowly with back arched, wings hooded and held out to sides.

Arrived on the breeding grounds in flocks. Fed on old berries, and probably voles and cocoons.

Nest: “2 eggs in a dry area with scattered standing Elymus stems but no real cover. Nest a bunch of flattened Elymus stems.” Another on a pingo top.

21MY74. Kashunuk study area. “Territorial encounter between 2 crane pairs. The defending pair walked toward the intruders and when they came within 20 feet the latter showed a posture like gulls’ Anxiety Upright and took off. As they ran into take-off, one defender followed them for several steps, body bent forward and neck arched down, then up.” Defending pair duetted after intruders left.

1JL74. I watched an arctic fox testing an adult crane. Made short dashes in, then leaped back. Crane charged back at fox with neck low, bill forward, head about 1 foot above ground, wings part open, when fox came closest. No chick or eggs observed nearby.

In fall 1986 first migrants heard 13SE. Large flight 2NO.

22SE87. Migrant flock passed over Willowbrook, midday.

10MR88. Large flock passed over Willowbrook at noon.

22MR88. Cranes over Willowbrook at noon. Wind from south, warm.

1MY88. A pair flew up from West Chicago Prairie F.P., gone the following morning.

10MR89. Cranes passing by Hartz Lake property (Starke County, IN), mainly to south.

21MR89. Cranes over Willowbrook, noon. Several high V’s.

2AP89. Pairs and singles going by Hartz Lake, morning.

22SE89. 3 cranes passing over Willowbrook, late morning.

3NO89. A couple large flocks over Willowbrook. High, in V’s. Wind mainly west to east with slight north to south component.

13NO89. Crane flock over Winfield Mounds F.P., 11 a.m. Later, another, rising on thermals of Winfield town.

16NO89. Large crane flock over Willowbrook, high and fast-moving on a cold north wind.

Crane flight in 3 parts: slow for most of downbeat, quick end of downbeat, snapping into quick upbeat.

20MR93. Lots of cranes passing over, today and for past week.

24MR97. Cranes getting anxious? Flock passed over Willowbrook 9 am. Two days ago another flock passed over at 4 p.m., into north wind.

In spring of 97 I saw migrant cranes in the Platte River area of Nebraska.

4MR99. First cranes of spring passing over Willowbrook, several flocks at mid-day. Also noted there 18MR, 19MR.

29SE99. First cranes of fall passing over Willowbrook.

3MR00. 3 flocks of cranes went over Willowbrook around 2-3 pm, the first of the year for me.

24SE00. The first crane flocks of the fall passing over West Chicago Prairie and Fermilab. Flocks of 21, 23, 20 and 48 counted.

23FE02. A flock of 14 flew over Willowbrook around 1p.m., flying high, heading north. This is the earliest record for me; the winter has been mild.

23FE05. A flock of at least 30 passed over Mayslake Forest Preserve around 1:15 p.m.

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