Mayslake Update: Vertebrates

by Carl Strang

The buck mentioned recently continues to hang around the eastern portion of Mayslake Forest Preserve, but his footprints reveal nocturnal excursions onto the mansion grounds.

He has picked up a scratch on his right antler.

He has picked up a scratch on his right antler.

The nesting season proceeds for Mayslake’s birds. Tree swallows are busily feeding nestlings.

Though most are using the bluebird houses, this pair is nesting more traditionally.

Though most are using the bluebird houses, this pair is nesting more traditionally.

Meanwhile, just to keep things interesting, a few late migrants continue to trickle through.

This least flycatcher was calling and foraging on the south end of the savanna ridge on Friday morning.

This least flycatcher was calling and foraging on the south end of the savanna ridge on Friday morning.

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

We have entered the time when most birds are focused on raising young. It is much quieter at Mayslake Forest Preserve now that territories are established and the effort of feeding nestlings occupies the parents’ time and energy.

This Baltimore oriole’s nest hangs above the trail near the northeast corner of Mays’ Lake.

This Baltimore oriole’s nest hangs above the trail near the northeast corner of Mays’ Lake.

The nest is sufficiently concealed by black cherry leaves that its composition is difficult to read, but I would be surprised if it is not constructed largely of fishing line, as has been the case for all recent oriole nests there.

Red-winged blackbirds are ever-ready to cuss out any person who comes anywhere near their nests.

Red-winged blackbirds are ever-ready to cuss out any person who comes anywhere near their nests.

The preserve’s pair of eastern kingbirds is much quieter than they were before nesting.

The preserve’s pair of eastern kingbirds is much quieter than they were before nesting.

Some broods already have fledged.

Yesterday this tree swallow brood occupied a dead tree at the stream corridor marsh.

Yesterday this tree swallow brood occupied a dead tree at the stream corridor marsh.

A final, sad note was the find of a dead chimney swift in Mayslake Hall.

It’s not clear how the swift got inside, or how a bird that nests in dark chimneys could have met its end in a room as spacious as the Event Hall.

It’s not clear how the swift got inside, or how a bird that nests in dark chimneys could have met its end in a room as spacious as the Event Hall.

Swifts have stiff tail feathers, which they use to prop themselves against interior chimney walls.

Swifts have stiff tail feathers, which they use to prop themselves against interior chimney walls.

I took the swift to Willowbrook, which periodically delivers specimens to the bird department at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.

The Flood and Animals

by Carl Strang

Yesterday I shared some images of last week’s flood at Mayslake Forest Preserve. When I saw how high the water had risen, I expected to find the Canada goose nest washed out. She was in the bowl-like parking lot marsh, on top of a muskrat house. When I got there I found that the water was high, but it had found a new outlet that limited its rise.

The water came within a few inches of the nest, but did not flood it.

The water came within a few inches of the nest, but did not flood it.

As I walked the east shore of Mays’ Lake that day, I heard a sudden loud splash above the roar of the nearby stream. It reminded me of a beaver’s warning dive, but there have been no resident beavers on the preserve in some years, so I passed it off as something else. On the next day, however, I found this:

A beaver had been there indeed. The freshly gnawed cuts showed the wide grooves made by beaver incisor teeth.

A beaver had been there indeed. The freshly gnawed cuts showed the wide grooves made by beaver incisor teeth.

Until I have reason to believe otherwise, I imagine this beaver was passing through, following the course of the flood or perhaps using the elevated waters to make an exploratory trip.

A final image comes from the day after the flood, as a northern rough-winged swallow rested at the edge of the lake.

A number of rough-wings, tree and barn swallows were foraging close above the water’s surface.

A number of rough-wings, tree and barn swallows were foraging close above the water’s surface.

This was a reminder that the spring migration is accelerating as the end of April approaches.

Barn Swallow Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Swallow, Barn

A barn swallow at its nest

A barn swallow at its nest

These swallows build supported mud nests in the shelter of barn structures or bridges. They catch insects during continuous, usually fairly low flight. I have seen similar nests in Pennsylvania, Indiana and Illinois. The vocalizations are chattery relative to those of tree swallows.

26MY86. I compared barn and tree swallows foraging over a meadow near McKee Marsh. Both species flew low over the grass tops. Barn swallows had a somewhat smoother, more fluid flight path.

Summer 1986. Barn swallows nested on buildings of the Basin lodge complex at Big Bend National Park. They were very tame and approachable. One started a beautiful, complex song just before 5am, 1.5 hours before sunrise, and some were out flying in the dark that early. That song seemed to develop at first slow and more measured with simpler phrases and longer intervals between them. Gradually it accelerated and increased in complexity.

Migrating barn swallows take a break

Migrating barn swallows take a break

Mid-SE86. Barn swallows migrated in small groups (1-4), sometimes in the company of other swallows or swifts. Mostly they were 100 or more feet above the ground.

20JL99. More than a dozen barn swallows have appeared over the Willowbrook Nature Trail area, flying low; cloudy with occasional showers.

24AP00. First barn swallow of the season was a single individual flying over Willowbrook.

23AU09. They seem to be migrating, but there still are nestlings at Springbrook Prairie.

Migrants Trickle In

by Carl Strang

It’s time to play catch up on the migration season. We have been seeing mainly birds that spend the winter in the southern U.S., but the last week of April usually brings the first wave of tropical migrants, so I want to clear the deck of accumulated migrant photos from Mayslake Forest Preserve.

Every spring a few lesser scaup stop by the preserve’s lakes on their way north.

Last week a ruddy duck spent a day on May’s Lake.

This was a new species for the preserve bird list.

Waves of northern flickers have been passing through.

This has been more a migrant than a nesting species at Mayslake.

Brown-headed cowbirds have been around for a few weeks, now.

Some of these males have been setting up group territories and courting females.

Ospreys have stopped by a couple times, but we haven’t yet seen a prolonged stay by one as has happened the past two years.

Nevertheless, a glimpse of this species always is welcome.

 Swallows have been coming through in large numbers.

In addition to tree swallows, many northern rough-legged and barn swallows have been foraging over May’s Lake.

 While the golden-crowned kinglets mainly have shifted north of us, ruby-crowneds still are coming through.

These tiny birds delight with their active movement and their bubbling, forceful songs.

 As of last week, most early migrants have made their first appearances earlier than in 2009 and 2010 despite the cold weather we have been experiencing. While weather can influence them, they are driven mainly by photoperiod and will push north as long as they are finding food.

Eastern Bluebird Dossier

by Carl Strang

A couple weeks ago I shared my dossier on the great blue heron. Today’s choice is an example of a species for which I have not made a lot of observations, and so my personal knowledge is more limited.

Eastern Bluebird

As a child, occasionally I saw these at the horse-jumping practice ground in the Culver Military Academy’s Bird Sanctuary near Culver.

They nested in birdhouses mounted on posts in a tall-grass meadow with widely scattered trees at the Tyler Arboretum near Philadelphia in 1980.

I saw them in a similar area in spring 1986 at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage Co. I also saw them in southern Illinois at Giant City State Park. [Bluebirds once were so uncommon that simply listing the places where I had seen them was most of what I could write when I first created this dossier].

23MR88. A bluebird singing from the top of a nest box, one of those posted out from a fencerow. [Location not indicated; Blackwell?]

29AP90. Indian Knoll Schoolyard, near Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. Bluebird foraging on mowed lawn by perching 8-15 feet up and sallying out 20-40 feet from perch to land on ground and take food, then returning to same perch or moving to another. [I since have concluded that this version of sit-and-wait foraging is their primary hunting method. Other birds I have seen hunting in this way are Australia’s kookaburras. Of course, the latter are after larger insects, small lizards, etc.]

20FE93. Bluebirds at the boundary between Hidden Lake F.P. and Morton Arboretum.

6FE99. Bluebirds wintering in a savannah area in the Morton Arboretum.

29AP00. Apparent territorial boundary dispute between two male bluebirds near prairie at Morton Arboretum. Song “peer, peer, poowee,” wings flutter when singing. Flying bird has an appearance like horned lark or swallow.

8OC00. Flock at West Chicago Prairie.

26MY01. A protracted dispute between a pair of bluebirds and a pair of tree swallows at a nest box in the prairie area at the Morton Arboretum’s Heritage Trail. The male bluebird was at the entrance on the outside of the box, with the female on the ground nearby, when the swallows arrived. At first it appeared that the swallows were attempting to chase the bluebirds away, but then the male bluebird became vigorous in chasing after the swallows. After 5 minutes of this, the bluebirds backed off and a swallow took the perch on top of the house. Soon, though, the bluebirds returned and the male resumed his attack. I never saw any of the birds enter the house.

5JA06. Fullersburg. A small flock of bluebirds feeding on honeysuckle berries near the Visitor Center bridge. (These stayed around for another week or so).

4AU09. Mayslake. Bluebirds nesting near the chapel have fledged at least one youngster.

(Dates are coded with the day, two-letter month code, and two-digit year).

Mayslake Species Counts

by Carl Strang

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

Barn Swallows b

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

Banded hairstreak b

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

Blazing star b

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

Mayslake Bird Notes

by Carl Strang

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

Nuthatch fledge 1b

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

Gnatcatcher b

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

Rb woodpecker nestling 1b

and soon is gratified by Mom’s arrival.

RB woodpecker mom at nest b

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

Bluebird cross b

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

Chimney swift 1b

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

Chimney 2b

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

Chimney 3b

Here is yet another tall chimney.

Chimney 4b

Especially intriguing are the fake chimneys.

Chimney 1b

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

Some Bird Firsts

by Carl Strang

 

Yesterday I introduced the topic of phenology, focusing on first flowering dates. Today I want to share some recent bird firsts for this year at Mayslake Forest Preserve.

 

Last week saw the completion and start to incubation of the first mallard nest of the season, in one of the marshes.

 

mallard-incubating-b

 

Not so easy to see through the cattails; let’s zoom in.

 

mallard-incubating-b-cropped

 

On Friday I was delighted to hear the beautiful tinkling song of a winter wren, first of the year for the preserve. I had been expecting them. They are early migrants, and the small stream near Mays Lake resembled other places where I have seen them. This little guy just kept singing and singing, more than I remember hearing one before. I did my best to photograph him.

 

winter-wren-1b

 

Every shot was partly blocked by intervening plant stems.

 

winter-wren-2b

 

But in both these pictures his beak is open as he sings.

 

The first tree swallow arrived earlier in the season, on March 18.

 

tree-swallow-1b

 

Its photo will represent the family, the second of which (northern rough-winged swallow) arrived at Mayslake on the same day as the wren. On Monday April 13 two additional and instructive new arrivals appeared on the preserve. One of these was a common loon, beautiful in full breeding plumage. Regionally they have been passing through for weeks, so this simply adds a species to the preserve list. A little more interesting was Monday’s second new bird for the year, a barn swallow. This is the earliest I have encountered this species, though in 2006 I saw one on the 14th. Usually I see the first of these around the 24th or so. Given the cool weather of late, this is an even more remarkable appearance. As with the plants, I am establishing a baseline in my first year at Mayslake of what bird species to expect and where and when to find them. But birds’ great mobility adds more happenstance to sightings of them, and a single person’s observations at a single place are less meaningful than are phenological events in plants. With birds, trends over decades by large numbers of observers are more likely to produce usable results.

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