Goings On at SJF

by Carl Strang

Winter is relatively slow and quiet in places like St. James Farm Forest Preserve, but plenty still is happening. Today’s sharing will proceed north to south.

American coots have been a constant presence in the stream.

American coots have been a constant presence in the stream.

Entrance to a mink den just above the edge of the north pond.

Entrance to a mink den just above the edge of the north pond.

In mid-February I begin the search for the preserve’s great horned owl nest. I wait until then so that the incubation is thoroughly committed and my potential disturbance is minimized. This is the first time I have conducted such a search at St. James Farm. That relatively large, old forest provides a handicap.

So far, with less than a quarter of the preserve covered, I have found more than ten cavities where an incubating owl could not be seen from the ground.

So far, with less than a quarter of the preserve covered, I have found more than ten cavities where an incubating owl could not be seen from the ground.

The south forest also hosts wildlife activity.

Fox squirrels have been exploiting the abundant Norway spruce cones in the plantation.

Fox squirrels have been exploiting the abundant Norway spruce cones in the plantation.

The ground beneath those trees is littered with gleaned cone cores.

The ground beneath those trees is littered with gleaned cone cores.

The south forest receives its share of attention from bark-foraging birds like this hairy woodpecker.

The south forest receives its share of attention from bark-foraging birds like this hairy woodpecker.

Each visit to the preserve brings highlights like these.

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St. James Farm January Summary

by Carl Strang

Part of my preserve monitoring practice is to write a monthly summary of observations. Today I am sharing the one from January just past:

Most of January was seasonably cold, with significant warming the last few days of the month. Little snow fell, on two occasions about an inch at a time.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fox squirrels enjoyed the occasional sunny days, and feasted on the abundant walnuts.

Fresh snow at the beginning of the year permitted a general assessment of mammal activity in the preserve. Raccoons appear to be more abundant here than at other preserves I have monitored, with the greatest concentration of activity in the northern portion of the main forest. Skunks were surprisingly active through January, coming out even on nights when the temperature dropped into the teens. This is in contrast to other preserves, where overnight temperatures in the 30’s, at least, were required until the start of the mating season in February. A couple chipmunks also emerged from their holes, likewise unusual in mid-winter. At least one mink includes the stream and the northern portion of the main forest in its territory. Cottontails were scattered throughout, though their activity was mainly around the forest edges. A very few opossums, perhaps no more than 4-5, were active on the preserve. Meadow voles, short-tailed shrews and white-footed mice are common, and occasionally I encountered tracks of masked shrews (vole, mouse, and small shrew identifications based on habitat and regional abundance as opposed to prairie vole, deer mouse and least shrew alternative possibilities). Two domestic cats occasionally moved through the northern edge of the forest, possibly connected to the houses off the preserve’s NE corner.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

This coyote caught a meadow vole shortly after I took this photo.

Coyotes covered the entire preserve. Early in January I watched a slightly scruffy looking individual with much red and black in its fur catch and consume a vole in the meadow alongside the entrance drive. At the end of January, a coyote with much more of a white color dominance, very alert and fat looking, passed through the western part of the forest. Tracks revealed that two coyotes occasionally hunt together. I did not detect a consistent activity pattern in the deer. At times 4-5 moved together, that group size suggesting does. Elsewhere, single sets with the foot placement of bucks indicated at least one individual of that gender remains on the preserve.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Canada geese in DuPage County are grazers in winter.

Geese maintained a roost at south Blackwell through the month. Most mornings they flew over St. James Farm heading east, but occasionally a few dozens to a few hundred stopped and grazed the preserve’s lawns and meadows.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Part of a large goose flock feeding on a SJF lawn.

Over a hundred mallards utilized the newly reconfigured stream bed in the last half of January. One of them attempted to choke down a leopard frog that apparently had been unable to tunnel deep enough into the rocky stream edge when the weather turned cold in December. On another day a coot joined the ducks in the stream. The only pileated woodpecker observation during the month was one calling in the western forest on January 4.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

White-breasted nuthatches are common in this preserve’s forests.

Cardinals and chickadees began to sing, and downy woodpeckers to drum, in the last half of the month. There are at least 7 chickadee groups of various sizes scattered over the preserve. 1-2 adult red-tailed hawks frequently hunted the preserve’s meadows.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

A red-tailed hawk scans a meadow for vole movements.

St. James Farm received a gratifying amount of restoration attention in January, with seeds scattered over the meadow or prairie area north of the stream, and the clearing of buckthorn and other undesirable woody plants from an extensive portion of the western forest.

 

Skunk Surprise

by Carl Strang

Snow that fell around the turn of the year has provided good tracking opportunities at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. As I walk the new survey routes I established in December, I am beginning to assemble a sense of the general mammal presence and activities on the preserve. For instance, I found that cottontail rabbits are much more abundant and widely distributed than my earlier first impression indicated. The species list also is growing. For example, I ran across some mink tracks on New Year’s Day.

At first I was excited, because they seemed smaller and less round than mink tracks usually are, but they proved to be those of a mink rather than the locally rarer long-tailed weasel.

At first I was excited, because they seemed smaller and less round than mink tracks usually are, but they proved to be those of a mink rather than the locally rarer long-tailed weasel.

With minimal wandering the mink, possibly a female by the small size, came straight out of the forest and into the newly reconfigured stream.

With minimal wandering the mink, possibly a female by the small size, came straight out of the forest and into the newly reconfigured stream.

A new species record is welcome, but even more welcome was a bit of a mystery that came the next day.

Skunk tracks in the snow!

Skunk tracks in the snow!

This was surprising because, in my previous experience, skunks didn’t emerge from their dens in early January unless the temperature overnight was at least 30-40F. It had been in the mid-teens. As I followed my route I was able to trace the skunk’s course, roughly a straight line to the preserve’s boundary against a residential neighborhood. Later I backtracked this individual to a contorted tangle of footprints in a difficult to negotiate (for me) spot in the woods just north of Butterfield Road. I wasn’t able to cut this skunk’s entry into that area, so perhaps its den is there.

That wasn’t the end of it, though, as I soon crossed a second skunk’s trail. This was a different individual, larger and with a significantly wider straddle. Its feet were dragging significantly. Sorry, it didn’t occur to me at the time to photograph those tracks. I encountered them near where skunk #2 was exiting the preserve, again into the neighborhood to the east. As I continued my walk I was able to backtrack this second animal, occasionally cutting his trail and occasionally following it.

Here is the habitat map of northern St. James Farm. M shows where the mink was, S1 is the narrow-straddle skunk, and S2 is the wider-straddle individual. Solid lines show where I followed the tracks, dashed lines indicate areas between places where I cut the animals’ trails.

Here is the habitat map of northern St. James Farm. M shows where the mink was, S1 is the narrow-straddle skunk, and S2 is the wider-straddle individual. Solid lines show where I followed the tracks, dashed lines indicate areas between places where I cut the animals’ trails.

Ultimately I traced a good mile that skunk #2 had hiked. No wonder its feet were dragging at the end, and the foot drag gradually vanished as I backtracked it. It had crossed the parking lot after visits to the ranger residence and the round office building. Before that it had crossed the trail of skunk #1 (close enough in time that my skills are inadequate to say which individual passed that way first) after taking the Prairie Path tunnel under Butterfield Road. It had emerged from the woods south of Butterfield, still on the preserve, but a locked gate blocked my further progress.

This is the kind of traveling I expect in February, when the striped skunk mating season arrives. Then, they are much more likely to come out on the colder nights. As this winter progresses I look forward to learning whether St. James Farm’s skunks in the winter of 2015-16 habitually emerge to wander more often and in colder weather than skunks in other years in other places.

 

First Snow

by Carl Strang

Our first winter storm of the season was worthy of the name, with 24 hours of occasionally heavy snowfall and strong winds. Even after some of the first snow melted in contact with the ground, St. James Farm Forest Preserve ended up with 3-6 inches on the ground. On Sunday I took an extended walk through the northern, forested portion of the preserve.

I wasn’t alone. Many hikers, skiers and snowshoers took advantage of the fresh snow.

I wasn’t alone. Many hikers, skiers and snowshoers took advantage of the fresh snow.

The wet snow stuck to the vegetation.

The wet snow stuck to the vegetation.

Herbaceous plants bowed under the weight.

Herbaceous plants bowed under the weight.

The smaller birds were challenged to find food through this obstruction. The temperature was cold enough to freeze shallow ponds.

This pond is hidden in the northwest corner of the woods.

This pond is hidden in the northwest corner of the woods.

This was my first opportunity to get an overview of mammal activity across the preserve. The absence of cottontail tracks perhaps was the biggest surprise. The more open southern part of the preserve, which I did not check, is more suited to them.

I saw only one set of opossum tracks, but would not expect much activity from them under the conditions.

I saw only one set of opossum tracks, but would not expect much activity from them under the conditions.

White-footed mice are abundant in the forest.

White-footed mice are abundant in the forest.

Coyote tracks showed a thorough coverage of the area overnight.

This footprint was made soon after the main snowfall ended. Ice crystals formed within it afterward.

This footprint was made soon after the main snowfall ended. Ice crystals formed within it afterward.

A pair of coyotes hunted together for a time.

A pair of coyotes hunted together for a time.

Though the disruption of the rut makes any pattern temporary, I was interested in assessing deer activity as well.

A few individuals crossed Winfield Road between St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves.

A few individuals crossed Winfield Road between St. James Farm and Blackwell Forest Preserves.

Half a dozen deer moved together at one point. The main activity was in the western portion of the woods, with almost all movement trending east-west. Only a couple deer, moving north-south, left tracks in the eastern portion. All of this is subject to change when things settle into the winter pattern over the next month.

 

SJF Miscellany

by Carl Strang

There has been a gradual buildup of photos from my monitoring excursions at St. James Farm, and it’s time to empty the bin. Some are pictures of birds.

Ruby-crowned kinglets have been common migrants around the forest edges.

Ruby-crowned kinglets have been common migrants around the forest edges.

A pair of adult red-tailed hawks frequently patrols the sky overhead.

A pair of adult red-tailed hawks frequently patrols the sky.

This juvenile red-tail was tolerated or unnoticed by the residents as it perched near the preserve’s boundary on Sunday.

This juvenile red-tail was tolerated or unnoticed by the residents as it perched near the preserve’s boundary on Sunday.

These young red-tails often are naïve and approachable. This was one of the first photos I took, from just a few yards away. I had to back off to get the entire bird in the frame for the previous photo.

These young red-tails often are naïve and approachable. This was one of the first photos I took, from just a few yards away. I had to back off to get the entire bird in the frame for the previous photo.

Proper awareness in monitoring includes looking in all directions and all size scales.

A small mushroom and moss growing on a fallen log.

A small mushroom and moss growing on a fallen log.

Elsewhere on the same log, a raccoon left a record of its passing. Its five toenails left characteristically spaced scratches when it leaped up to the log. It did not gain purchase here, so either fell back to the ground or otherwise had enough momentum and grip to gain the log.

Elsewhere on the same log, a raccoon left a record of its passing. Its five toenails left characteristically spaced scratches when it leaped up to the log. It did not gain purchase here, so either fell back to the ground or otherwise had enough momentum and grip to gain the log.

Building the story of a preserve also means looking for clues to the landscape’s human history.

These corroding pieces of metal slowly are being engulfed by the continued growth of this tree. They are 30 feet above the ground. At some point I hope to learn the story here.

These corroding pieces of metal slowly are being engulfed by the continued growth of this tree. They are 30 feet above the ground. At some point I hope to learn the story here.

Accumulating experiences of an area’s beauty and blemishes leads to an internal transformation: falling in love with a place.

 

Whitetail Deer Dossier

by Carl Strang

It’s time to start sharing some of my larger files of notes from personal observations of our vertebrate wildlife. This week’s feature is our local hoofed critter. The preliminary notes, written in the mid-80’s, are more extensive than usual. The dated notes that follow provide many illustrations of the value of tracking in behavior studies.

Deer, Whitetail

Buck in a bed

Buck in a bed

Deer can be seen in a variety of habitats. Their home range always includes some woodland, brush and meadow or marsh areas. They travel on well used trails, occasionally wandering off them to feed. Commonly they enter meadows to feed at dusk. In winter, they feed on browse. In northern Illinois they hit Rosaceae (blackberries, roses, etc.) early in winter, then eat a variety of woody plants, then by mid-February are eating poison ivy almost exclusively. Cottontails follow the same sequence of foods, but deer-browsed twigs usually are bitten off higher and have a torn edge from the deer’s lack of upper incisors. Through January (though mainly in October and November), bucks attack certain shrubs and saplings along trails, breaking twigs and usually also eating a couple (antler rubs). At Herrick Lake Forest Preserve I noticed that pioneer bur oaks in fields were especially exposed to this abuse.

Shrubs missing bark after being rubbed by a buck’s antlers

Shrubs missing bark after being rubbed by a buck’s antlers

Does in spring have fawns which at first remain quietly curled up on ground, freezing when approached. If they do wander, they will call for mother with a sheep-like bleating sound. As their size and strength improve they begin to travel with mother, although on occasion they will drop into a frozen curled position when a threat is detected. Spots can remain into late summer.

Deer flushed close have tail-lifting display, spreading the white hairs underneath (on small fawns the display is disproportionately large). At a distance, when at least partly in cover, they give a high-pitched, whistling snort, often accompanied by a stomping of the feet.

Bony antlers grow slowly through summer, covered with velvety skin. In late fall they dry, the skin comes off. By spring the antlers have been shed.

Tracks usually are 2-toed hoof marks. Leaping deer or those in deep soft substrates also will make 2 smaller dewclaw prints. In deep snow, the tips of the nails often make drag marks. I have seen deer leap over 6-foot fences, and tracks have shown horizontal jumps of more than 12 feet.

In May, deer on Reineman Sanctuary (PA) fed on fiddleheads of hay-scented ferns, but didn’t touch them after they unfolded. Among summer foods were leaves and twigs of greenbrier.

Deer tracks typically show two toes. Here, a deer was walking but accelerating.

Deer tracks typically show two toes. Here, a deer was walking but accelerating.

27DE86, Memorial Forest near Culver: deer recently browsed sassafras.

10JA87. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. After last night’s heavy snow, tracks (made this morning, early) only abundant at a large patch of brush in SE corner of preserve, along N edge. All made early this morning except one flushed by a person who was tracking it.

11JA87. Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve. Deer were bedding in snow in same general area, had been there a while before my approach scared them up around 11:30 a.m. They had not cleared a place but just lay down, and the snow barely melted. Beds of the 4 deer were 5-20m apart. Other areas, similar in size and with sides pressed smooth by deer’s body (1 with hairs), had ground bare on the bottom (snow 6 inches deep). In the one with the hairs there were no clear signs of digging, but the others clearly had been dug out.

17JA87, Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. Half an inch of new snow fell the night before. I started tracking in the afternoon, but the tracks were difficult to follow as individual deer and small groups flowed together and apart, anastomosing their trails so that I couldn’t follow an individual for long.

18JA87. McKee Marsh. Better luck. 4 inches of new snow fell overnight, and I was able to follow a single deer for 2 hours, covering about a mile. I was able to stick with him (I believe it was a large buck). I began in the woods near the parking lot, where he followed a winding path, sniffing several shrubs and browsing on a Viburnum (3-lobed leaves and paired red basswood-like buds) and on buckthorn. In one spot where he urinated copiously there were symmetrical shallow hoof marks on either side of his trail, which had the effect of scooping snow into the spot where the urine fell. Then he emerged into open fields E of the woods, wound through a marshy spot, crossed Mack Road, then angled ESE. At one point he suddenly was spooked by a fresh snowmobile track, jumped to the left, then walked across the track and rejoined the trail. Occasionally I had problems when he joined another deer, but by finding every footprint I was able to stay with him until he re-entered the woods and joined 3 other deer. When they split I could not be absolutely sure which he was, but I have about 50% confidence that I followed the right one. He ate more Rhamnus, paused to browse heavily on a young bur oak, wandered up a hill, then joined another galloping deer (and 2-3 others), they all crossed Mack Road onto private property and I could not follow.

Where a buck urinated on his feet, blending tarsal gland secretions with urinary scents

Where a buck urinated on his feet, blending tarsal gland secretions with urinary scents

1FE87. Freshly browsed poison ivy, McKee Marsh. Also white ash within the past 2 weeks. Another deer browsed a woodland rosaceous small tree (probably crabapple), 2 inches dbh. Also a basswood. Twice, it defecated shortly after passing under low branches and browsing a few bites. I tracked the deer until I caught up with it in the cattail marsh north of the woods E of the marsh. It had turned to stand in a well hidden spot to watch me. When I got too close it burst from cover, bounded on through the cattails and through the field on the other side. Tracks in field took more of a bound pattern (not so spread front to back) before and after taller weeds, bounding high to clear them.

Later that same day, following another group of deer, I found where one had bedded briefly, at least, in the wet snow.

21FE87. At Greene Valley Forest Preserve. 5 bucks, still with antlers, traveling together as a group. They were moving fast when first seen, traveling through an open field between hedgerows at around noon. They stopped for a while after gaining a second hedgerow, then slowly moved in my direction (I was wearing a navy blue sweatshirt and dark brown pants, and kneeling). They always had one watching me, often all did, but didn’t run away until much later when I stood and walked. Once, a couple sparred with antlers. Mostly 4-6-pointers.

28FE87. At least 3 deer flushed from area thick with saplings and brush under scattered trees, only 150m from busy highway.

23MR87. Waterfall Glen. Deer dead beside creek near intersection of Cass Ave. and 91st Street. Lying in deer-beaver trail, hind feet in water (fracture of left hind tibia partly healed), head end up on bank. Dead at least a week, ribs largely gnawed away, head gone, muscle and internal organs mostly gone except hindquarters. Other tracks of beavers and dog or coyote (probably latter) nearby.

MY87. New Jersey Pine Barrens. Deer browsing blueberries, a little on oaks.

4AU87. Lebanon State Forest, NJ. 4-5 deer flushed from blueberry undergrowth, bounded until out of sight. Then one snorted a couple of times. I could hear them walking in even steps, without the hitching, explosive quality of a towhee. A little sharper and louder than the sound made by the gray fox seen shortly before. That night, as I walked barefoot in the dark, I came within 10 feet of a bedded deer. The deer detected me, and made a terrific racket getting to its feet. By the time it snorted so I knew what it was, I had taken 2 steps back.

Bumps on the head identify this newly spot-free fawn as a male.

Bumps on the head identify this newly spot-free fawn as a male.

3JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Following deer tracks, at least 4 days old. Browsed black maple, as well as several scotch pine branch tips (a broken-off branch, about 0.25 inches in diameter where browsed off; twisting and tearing of adjacent needles. Soon thereafter, browsed from a rose bush (prior to all this eating had followed a slightly sinuous path through maple woods, walking steadily). Tracks probably made New Year’s Eve (day before cold front). Feet compacted very wet snow, so probably late afternoon. Stopped to rub antlers on 0.75-inch dbh maple sapling, on its trunk from 1 foot to 2 feet up from ground, bark removed from one side. Soon thereafter it fell in with 2 other deer. Tracks same age, difficult to distinguish, but I believe the one I’m following has a longer stride. They paused to browse buckthorn, maple, rose (mainly the other 2?). Eventually the 3 bedded down beside a multi-stemmed, branchy silver maple in the midst of a field, about 100m from I-88 (in clear view; dark by then). 2 bedded together, third 10 feet from them. They stayed a little while, but still slushy when they left. They headed for the West Branch of the DuPage River, meandered, browsed, another antler rub. Lots of beds in that area. Tracks turn back along stream toward center of preserve. Lots of deer tracks enter and are present in that area by the stream, but none leave. The deer must cross the stream. I backtracked a bit. Buck had been with the others just before I picked up trail, probably was within sight of them throughout.

9JA88. Most of the needles on that pine branch now are browsed away. Deer commonly cross the river just opposite that grove, though routinely bedding among the yews and other ornamental shrubs between there and the stream. Once across, there is a tall fence paralleling the river and about 30 yards on average from it. The deer remain between river bank and fence. A heavily traveled corridor, a bedding area not far from that crossing site. Opposite the zone where I presume they also crossed the river last week, the fence is low enough for them to jump easily, and they either do that, or go under it at a nearby creek (more common), or continue along fence (also common). But soon comes I-88, and it appears to be a complete barrier on that side. A few cross the river there, a few go around the end of the fence. A very few go under I-88, on west side of river. None have crossed in that presumed crossing zone, but the ice probably has been thick enough to support them for only a couple days, and an open lead about 3 feet across runs along the entire east side along that stretch. That might explain why the tracks were running the opposite direction from last week on the stretches-in-common.

When you hold still and allow a deer to approach, it will stare at you and occasionally stomp a foot as though to startle you into moving and revealing yourself.

When you hold still and allow a deer to approach, it will stare at you and occasionally stomp a foot as though to startle you into moving and revealing yourself.

16JA88. McDowell deer crossed the preserve entrance road just west of the bridge, followed trail steadily between road and river (top of bank). Night before last, not last night. Lost in human and dog tracks, just before widening of area and feeding signs spread out from trail. Well below dam (at least 200m). There signs of much deer activity. Several beds in hill and old-wall area. More feeding and trails (well-used) in even wider area S of there. I flushed a large doe and 2 non-spotted fawns from beds in a pole-tree area a little farther down. They soon circled back around me (to my N). Visible parts: sharp dark horizontal line of back, horizontal white streak of belly cutting through trunks, from side; narrow white outline of tail from back, black nose and eye; brownish cast of fur against gray of trunks (not as distinct).

23JA88. McDowell. Deer recently browsed bur oak sapling. Tracked group of 4-8 deer into NW corner of preserve, brushy area seldom frequented by people, W of beaver pond (dam long, a winding 20-30 yards).

27JA88. Dan Ludwig flew over McDowell and passed on observations of deer: 8 in NW corner, 3 in NE near toll road (both groups west of river, and 6 SE, possibly off preserve.

30JA88. Hartz Lake. Deer trails through woods generally straight, and located to accommodate traveling from one goal to another (goals on either side of woods). Much interdigitation and side-paths abundant around the moist, tall meadows.

29AP88. Pratts Wayne Forest Preserve. Micro pressure releases in one or other toe show where push or pivot was greatest.

1MY88. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. Deer ate off tops of several Smilacina racemosa, plus a couple of Alliaria (and other plants, individually removed lower leaves). Not real recently, say 3-8 days ago.

7MY88. Deer tracks, Indian trails of Culver, also ate off tops of a few Smilacina stellata. At Hartz Lake, when one broke a twig loudly, jay responded with “thief” call.

15JL88. Deer heavily eating the Tradescantia at Fulton County museum property, not too long ago. Also eating Seymeria macrophylla.

Antlers nearly grown, but still covered in velvety skin as the bone matures

Antlers nearly grown, but still covered in velvety skin as the bone matures

1AP89. Patch of deer hair on ground in clearing at Hartz Lake. (I also saw some at Winfield Mounds last weekend). Shedding already.

2AP89. Hartz Lake. Deer in groups around clearing (in woods with very little understory) around 9 a.m. A deer snorted. I could just see it through the trees. The nose moved, perhaps a couple inches, but that was the largest motion I could see when it snorted.

13MY89. Hartz Lake, camping. In the dusk, 8 deer came to the prairie area (I was sitting at the opposite edge, by fire). Though basically a doe group, one yearling (small) buck was with them. He was chased a couple times, and a deer struck his back with a forefoot (not a mounting, but a blow). Smaller does still chase after mothers (presumed relationship) to be close to them, when alarmed. I kept still. They saw me, frequently moved heads side to side for parallax.

4JE89. Elsen’s Hill: deer trot pattern showing groups of two prints, 1 foot between prints in a group and 3 feet between groups. Two alternating group types, with front foot of each side ahead of hind foot of other side in that group.

21AU89. Deer tracks, Willowbrook Back 40. Emerged from run, NE corner. Walked down to pond, but stayed above edge (recently arrived, and had drunk from brook?). Nervous. Much starting and stopping, and stomping. Reached a small gulley, then broke into lope, as though the need for the longer step set off a release of nervous energy. 24-inch steps before the lope (toe-tip to toe-tip, measured diagonally). Tendency to splay left front foot and show its dew claws in the lope. While loping, set of 4 tracks 35 inches front to back, groups about 70 inches apart. The tracks were made last night (it had rained the night before last, the tracks made after the rain and after the soil surface had dried). About ten days later: In a hard lope up the hill, the deer showed dewclaws and spread toes on all but the right front. The deer stayed only a couple of weeks. We heard of someone who saw 2 bucks.

2SE89. Tracking deer across screenings trail, McKee Marsh. Stride tended to be slightly longer (23 inches toe tip to toe tip) in tall grass than on path (19-21 inches), except where adjusting stride to clear obstacles. At one point, a hind foot seemed to indicate a turn, falling and pointing to left of the front print, but in fact kept going in the same direction. Response to a disturbance as that foot came down? Implies independence of the 4 feet. Also happened the previous step with that foot.

15SE89. Hartz Lake, edge of open dune. Deer usually pause at edge of clear area before entering it. Shorter strides, and standing.

20SE89. McKee Marsh. A deer, steps 20-20.5 inches on packed screenings trail, became 25-27 inches in tall grass.

Sometimes deer tracks through tall grass are quite clear.

Sometimes deer tracks through tall grass are quite clear.

23SE89. Forest Park Nature Center, Peoria, IL. Deer have been browsing Aster shortii, a species of ridgetops, heavily in recent weeks. This has been their main food within the forest in this period, except for acorns.

24NO89. Hartz Lake. 2 deer beds, SE corner (behind cemetery) in woods. Windy day, saw 2 deer crossing road mid-afternoon, and as I studied tracks on the open dune a doe with a broken or injured right front leg limped past.

13DE89. Hartz Lake. Deer heavily using main north-south trail past couple of days (since snowfall).

16DE89. McDowell Forest Preserve. Patterns of deer activity in west part of preserve much the same as last winter. The only difference is a possible shift from the old home site to the center of the adjacent field in the north part of the preserve. If anything, there is even more concentration of activity to the north end of the preserve than before.

4FE90. Recently shed antler near mouth of Sawmill Creek, Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve.

Late MY90. Hartz Lake. A deer appeared to stomp and snort as a gambit to make me move. Odor and sound spooked them more than small movements.

9JE90. Winfield Mounds. Heavy feeding by deer on goldenrods, past couple of weeks.

Wet forest litter from a recent rain foiled this fawn’s camouflage. Fawn spots form individualized patterns that permit recognition of individuals as long as they last.

Wet forest litter from a recent rain foiled this fawn’s camouflage. Fawn spots form individualized patterns that permit recognition of individuals as long as they last.

30JE90. West DuPage Woods. Fawn moving about and exploring on its own. Still small, but strong. I held still, it slowly moved toward me, sniffing and occasionally stamping like an adult. When mother appeared, and bolted, it ran, too. Tail flag.

13JL90. McKee Marsh. As I was running through the forest, I saw a fawn, approaching half adult size, on the trail ahead. I slowed and quieted my steps. It bolted when I was 10 yards away, and its mother and its sibling, who were close by, bolted as well. Unless the mother gave an audible signal I missed (unlikely, though I was so focused on the fawn that I didn’t see her), she was waiting for the fawn to make the move. If so, she was teaching it to run away from people and to react on its own without depending on her signal.

2JE91. First fawn tracks of the year, Pratts Wayne Woods Forest Preserve.

Doe and fawn. By November, the fawns’ spots are gone.

Doe and fawn. By November, the fawns’ spots are gone.

21DE91. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Followed last night’s tracks of a very large deer, sex uncertain but more likely male. Traveled relatively straight lines through open field, but began highly convoluted turnings in a brushier area as it began feeding. Principal (only?) food Geum laciniatum basal leaves, nosed rather than pawed snow to reach them. Ate many. Went out of its way to examine a coyote or dog bed. Bedded, itself, several hours. Note: outward tracks from bed looked older than inward ones. Snow apparently less compactable, or more easily self-kicked back into track, with less smoothly compacted bottom of track and less crisp edges. Wandered and fed more after leaving bed. Defecated several times.

17FE92. Elsen’s Hill (W. DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.). I kept mainly to deer trails, saw 2 deer in a brushy area and, later, in a forest, saw 2 getting up from their beds. I stood still for a while, there, listening, and soon caught movement. Three deer slowly moved into view. Almost certainly the ones I had spooked, a doe and 2 fawns. I kept very still and they approached, the doe doing the foot-stomping test. Sometimes it appears to be largely a nervous expression, others it is very deliberate and calculated, the deer staring hard and keeping its head still while doing so. The fawns kept back. Several times she gradually worked to within 20 yards, then abruptly turned and ran, tail flagging, the fawns doing so as well. On one of these occasions she snorted several times. But I kept still, she didn’t go far, and repeated the process. The closest she ever came was 40 feet. I was wearing the green and black wool coat, standing clear of trees, with a medium density of 2-4-inch dbh trees and a few large ones in that area. The deer finally left for good at the sound of human voices on a trail not too far away, but the deer walked away rather than ran. During all of this there were occasional crows and squirrels seeing me and vocalizing. The deer attended the squirrels, but not the crows, starting at the squirrel’s bark and becoming more wary of me.

3OC93. Rock Island Park, Wisconsin. 2 bucks facing one another, heads lowered near to ground, maneuvering antlers. Like arm-wrestlers seeking best grip.

Early in the 90’s I had a season of deer hunting. During a several-day cold rainy period I sat for hours without seeing any deer. On drier days they were active.

Deer visited several times during the 90’s at Willowbrook. Usually they stayed 2 weeks at most, but during the summer of 1997 a couple of them stayed from May into August.

JE99, Kansas, Konza Prairie. A deer snorted and ran as I approached, holding head and nose above horizontal a bit while snorting.

15MY06. Fullersburg. A deer eating Virginia creeper leaves from a ground vine.

During the 3 years my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I mapped the winter movements of the preserve’s deer. In the winter of 2006-7 there were 4 groups which followed consistent daily routes as shown.

During the 3 years my office was at Fullersburg Woods Forest Preserve, I mapped the winter movements of the preserve’s deer. In the winter of 2006-7 there were 4 groups which followed consistent daily routes as shown.

28AP08. New antlers beginning to grow on bucks (similar stage photographed 3 May last year).

New antlers just starting to grow

New antlers just starting to grow

15SE10. Meacham Grove. While doing herbivory data collecting I saw 3 antlerless deer. One, a fawn that had become spotless, made a persistent effort to nurse from its mother for a minute or so until she pushed it away. The third I believe was another adult doe.

Reading an Old Story

by Carl Strang

The landscape is a book of many chapters, waiting to be read. Some chapters are fleeting, and must be read within days of their writing (before the snow melts). Others last for years. Near the south shore of Mays’ Lake at Mayslake Forest Preserve there is a decaying tree stump.

The stump is on the right, with a stem of similar color and diameter beside it. Both have lost their bark.

The stump is on the right, with a stem of similar color and diameter beside it. Both have lost their bark.

A closer examination reveals the tooth marks of a beaver on the ends of both pieces. Looking up, we find that the stem leads to branches tangled in those of adjacent trees.

No bark remains anywhere. This has been here for years.

No bark remains anywhere. This has been here for years.

This view best shows how the tree's fall was arrested.

This view best shows how the tree’s fall was arrested.

Cutting this tree probably was a full night’s work or more. All the beaver obtained was the cambium it could reach from the ground. We got a chapter to read, all the more valuable because there have been no beavers resident on this lake for at least 5 years.

And Baby Makes Three

by Carl Strang

Our recent snowfalls have been a boon, making it easier to read certain of the landscape’s stories. Last week at Mayslake Forest Preserve I saw this:

Three coyotes covered a large part of the preserve, moving in parallel.

Three coyotes covered a large part of the preserve, moving in parallel.

Sometimes they were close together, sometimes they spread out, sometimes one walked in another’s footprints, but it was clear they were a trio on a coordinated hunt. Last winter there never were more than two, and last summer their den clearly was in use much of the season. All of this points to a successful reproduction in 2013 with at least one pup surviving, and the parents are keeping it with them for the winter.

Mayslake’s coyotes have looked healthy and strong on the rare occasions when I have seen one (that infrequency itself a sign of their competence). If they were weak, they would not be able to afford to apprentice a youngster in this way. Doing so, they enhance their own fitness (in the genetic sense) by improving the likelihood that this offspring will survive its challenging first winter.

A different point came from an observation following our first significant snow, back in November. I noticed something in coyote tracks on the ice of Mayslake’s parking lot marsh.

The coyotes were trotting, as they usually do, but they were sticking to the straight trot rather than the diagonal trot.

The coyotes were trotting, as they usually do, but they were sticking to the straight trot rather than the diagonal trot.

I have noticed the straight trot in new snow before, and now I am wondering if it is an adjustment to an uncertain, potentially slippery surface. (For a primer on the trot gait, go to this earlier post). Certainly cottontails make an adjustment to such conditions, as I also have explained. Now I am wondering, in general, how often and in what conditions coyotes use the diagonal and straight versions of the trot.

Lessons from Travels: Great Basin Ecology

by Carl Strang

A November conference in 2003 gave me the opportunity to take some extra time off, rent a car, and tour central Nevada. Previous Lessons from Travels posts have highlighted the Lehman Cave and Extraterrestrial Aliens aspects of that trip. Today’s focus is on the ecology of the Great Basin. This is an area where the crust of the Earth stretched thin, as though pulled from its eastern and western edges. It occupies much of Nevada, and extends south. The stretching produced a series of north-south cracks, or faults. Alternate wide blocks dropped down to produce low basins, and the areas between them thrust upward to produce narrow mountain ranges. The spacing of these ranges and basins is rhythmic and regular.

The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.

The low areas are flat and dominated by sagebrush, but there are plenty of other plants and animals to lend diversity to this desert.

Higher mountains bounding the west edge of the Great Basin draw most of the moisture from the prevailing westerlies. The little remaining rain falls mostly on the ranges and evaporates, or soaks into the ground long before it can flow to the centers of the desert plains.

Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

Here is a typical view of one of the many ranges that divide the basins. The dominant trees are singleleaf pinyon pines and Utah junipers.

This landscape is not monotonous. There are abundant unique features sprinkling it. Sand Mountain is one example.

This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.

This enormous isolated dune is composed of sand blown up from a source 40 miles away. It stopped traveling when it hit a bight in one of the ranges.

The thinning of the crust produced volcanic activity in places.

Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.

Core of an ancient volcano, dark with basalt.

There are occasional badlands areas as well, where weakly cemented stone has eroded into beautiful shapes.

Cathedral Gorge badlands

Cathedral Gorge badlands

People have lived in this region for thousands of years, and left their mark in many areas.

Grimes Point petroglyphs

Grimes Point petroglyphs

Wildlife is diverse, as well, in the region.

Mule deer in the mountains

Mule deer in the mountains

I took a hike on the Pole Creek Trail, in Big Basin National Park.

The scene from my turn-around point

The scene from my turn-around point

On the way back down I found where a bobcat had stepped in my tracks.

The feline had passed within the hour.

The feline had passed within the hour.

The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.

The mountain chickadee is one of the delightful upland birds.

The basins have their own array of wildlife.

Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.

Pronghorns occur in scattered small groups.

It was still warm enough for a snake and other reptiles to be active in southern Nevada.

Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park

Striped whipsnake at Kershaw State Park

From its geology to its distinctive ecology, the Great Basin provides no end of contrasts that, upon reflection, help to define our own home region.

P.S. This is the 1000th post of this blog.

Coyote Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I’ve been sharing smaller dossiers in recent weeks. Here is a somewhat longer one. This is a rare instance in which nearly all of my experience with a species came as an adult, in DuPage County.

Coyote

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

Coyote. The eyes, glowing from the flash, suggest the fearful image many suburbanites have of coyotes. They are actually relatively small animals, usually less than 30 pounds, but look bigger thanks to the long legs.

When I came to DuPage County in the early 1980’s, coyotes were known to live at Waterfall Glen and the West Chicago Prairie area. My first experiences were footprints at the Tracker Farm in New Jersey, and then a bed at the far end of a private (now destroyed) marsh in Glendale Heights, Illinois. I saw one briefly in the desert at Big Bend National Park, Texas.

30JA88. Hartz Lake area, near Monterey, Indiana. A coyote slow-loped across a dune. Front foot 2×2 inches, hind foot 2 long by 1.5 wide. The coyote loped with its body held at an angle so the front feet were on one side, hind feet on the other.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

A computer rendition of the original sketch.

29JE89. Coyote at McKee Marsh. It stopped briefly as it came around a bend in the mowed trail and saw me coming toward it. Big ears, light build and size gave it away immediately. It held still only a couple seconds, then turned and ran. After I got around the bend I got a glimpse of movement to the right as it leaped through a tall grass meadow and ran into the forest.

19NO89. Tracking coyotes in the half inch of snow that fell last night on the McKee Marsh area. The coyotes’ activity was mainly on and around the frozen ponds. Frequent rolling, sometimes in urine. Fox tracks were absent from the wide area I walked in north Blackwell. Foxes were common there before; have coyotes driven them off? Trot the most common gait, in the diagonal position. Diagonal walk frequent, lope occasional. Prints’ actual size 2.25 long x 2 wide, 22-24 inches between corresponding track in each pair. A coyote picked up an old, small dead snake and played with it. Rolled in small amount of its urine on ice of marsh. Stopped and removed 2 burdock burs (some hairs still were attached). Coyote diagonal walk on ice 19-21.5 inches between steps. Lots of activity possibly by one individual, with lots of coming and going (small loops out and back), centering on a rotten goose egg, frozen in ice and apparently opened last night.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

Diagonal trot gait, the usual pattern used by coyotes. In this case, the front feet made the right-hand tracks, the hind feet the left-hand tracks.

13DE89. Probable coyote scat, 3/4 x 3.5 inches, Hartz Lake.

16DE89. Both red foxes and coyotes present, yet, at McDowell Forest Preserve. Former about 12-16 inches between steps in walk, latter 15-20 inches.

20JA91. I saw two coyotes working together at McDowell. When first spotted they were about 20 yards apart, walking single file. I was able to approach within 60 yards on the path, then they detected me and bolted. They had been investigating a brushy area near a bridge over a small stream, they ran back north and east when escaping.

26JA92. Tracks of a coyote in woods at Hidden Lake, in an area also visited some nights by red fox. Strides were 20-inch steps compared to the fox’s 16 inches. Coyote followed deer trails sometimes.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

The hind foot of a coyote, left, is smaller and has a rounder heel. The front foot, right, is larger and has a more triangular heel shape.

28JA99. Cottontails this winter are not visible during the day. Tracks indicate they are hiding in metal drainage culverts. Coyotes occasionally vainly try to dig them out, or perhaps are trying to spook them out.

10FE99. A fresh coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail near the marsh contained both hairs and feathers, the latter from a bird in the cardinal to mourning dove size range.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

Coyote scats, often deposited in the middle of trails, provide a dietary record. Either don’t handle them, or do so with disposable gloves or sticks, as they may contain parasite eggs.

25FE99. Willowbrook. Fresh snow fell yesterday evening, and reveals that 2 coyotes covered the entire preserve thoroughly last night, and more, going out into surrounding residential areas. Sometimes the coyotes were on the same route, sometimes they separated. Once they bedded down within 2 feet of one another in a dense brushy area roughly equidistant from the nature trail and residences, impossible to see by anyone more than 50 feet away.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

Here a pair of coyotes traveled together, then one veered off.

26FE99. A coyote made a remarkable vertical 4-foot jump out of the creek at Willowbrook, having crossed to the point where the Safari Trail meets the stream at the high bank.

MR99. During the 90’s, coyotes have become much more abundant in the western suburbs. Tracks frequently encountered on the preserves, and in absence usually of fox sign until the past couple of years. One appeared at Willowbrook frequently around 1994-96, after the fox there was gone. Then the coyote vanished, after it was seen several times apparently weakened by mange. A red fox came in that winter, lasted a year, then it left. At that time coyote sign returned and have been frequent for more than two years, now. The common pattern has been for signs to be abundant for several weeks, then absent for several weeks, in alternation through the warm months, with 2 coyotes taking up steady residence on the preserve through the winter. I saw two different individuals one morning in winter of 1997-98, one missing all but a stub of its tail and so easy to recognize. They often deposit feces in the center of the nature trail, occasionally in other clear areas or smaller trails. Hair the most common dominant food remains in the scats, occasionally feathers or skins of fruits dominate. I saw a coyote crossing Kirk Road in Kane County at dusk one summer evening. Their howling, which I have heard at Pratts Wayne Woods, Hidden Lake, Lincoln Marsh and Fermilab, is extremely high-pitched and wailing in quality, and I have heard several animals howling together or howling back and forth in contact call style but not a single individual howling alone. During a night hike in September 1996 at Hidden Lake, a siren set off a probable family group of 4 individuals, and for the rest of the evening the scattered coyotes howled at regular intervals, producing the contact call effect.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

Usually coyotes are shy and seldom seen.

14AP99. The goose nest has been destroyed, the eggs preyed upon, at Willowbrook. Tracks in mud show at least 2 coyote round trips wading out to the nest island. No other predator tracks.

25JE99. I heard a coyote barking at a neighbor walking dogs at Willowbrook.

30AU99. Coyote scats at Willowbrook have been rich in fruit. This remained the case for weeks, with fruit appearing to be the dominant food.

5OC99. A heavy red fabric strip, 10 inches long, possibly a collar, in a coyote scat on the Willowbrook Nature Trail. Fruit remains dominant food in scats.

1NO99. Hair becoming more common, fruit less, in scats at Willowbrook.

2NO99. A coyote scat at Willowbrook had a bit of candy wrapper in it (shortly after Halloween).

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Half-grown coyote pup, in a meadow at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

1999-2013. It has become clear that coyotes are everywhere in the Chicago area, with even centers of towns being parts of territories. The coyotes, unless someone feeds them, are very good at staying out of sight. Reports from neighbors suggest that the pair at Willowbrook had a home range that extended from the East Branch of the DuPage River to the Village Links Golf Course, and so they were absent from the preserve for weeks at a time, but in some seasons centered their activity on the preserve (they never denned there, however).

At Fullersburg Woods, the pair was active year-round in the more open northern part of the preserve and presumably extended into adjacent areas off the preserve. In winter, the pair regularly wandered into the forested southern part of the preserve, usually hunting apart but joining up as they returned to their northern center of activity. I never found a den on that preserve.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

Former coyote den, Mayslake. The buried concrete had provided a stable roof, but its removal as part of the demolition process ended this den. Coyotes only use dens in late spring and early summer, to shelter their young pups.

At Mayslake the pair had a den in the former friary garden area, but the den was destroyed as an incidental consequence of the friary demolition. Until then the coyotes were a constant presence on the preserve, but now they are there regularly but somewhat intermittently. They have been healthy and strong when I have seen them, and had pups most years. One odd observation was that one chewed up and swallowed a tennis ball discarded near the off-leash dog area. The fragmented ball passed completely through the coyote. Rabbits and voles are the more typical contents of scats.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

Scat composed of tennis ball pieces.

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