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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Mayslake Marsh Update: Amphibian Traps

by Carl Strang

I set out some amphibian traps in Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh to assess how the marsh has recovered from the drought of 2012 and another drying out in 2013.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

This leopard frog still is dark from its recent emergence.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

I have caught and released several of the large predaceous diving beetles, Dytiscus hybridus.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

Similar in size, this water scavenger beetle, Hydrophilus triangularis, was an addition to the preserve species list.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The club-like end of the antenna separates the water scavenger beetles from the predaceous diving beetles, whose antennae are thread-like.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

The identification of this juvenile crayfish is uncertain, but the slender pincers have me thinking White River crayfish, in the past the most common species in that marsh.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

I caught only one magnificent adult White River crayfish against 10 or so juveniles, sign of a recovering population.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Meanwhile, the grassland crayfish have been opening up their tunnels around the peripheries of the wet areas.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

Grassland crayfish mainly come out at night to forage on land. Sometimes these foragers become foragees.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

The marsh’s muskrats regard the amphibian traps as suitable platforms for their territorial markings.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

Through all of this, the marsh’s sounds have been dominated by the songs of western chorus frogs. They are so small that they can squeeze their way out of the traps.

 

Species Dossier: Pied-billed Grebe

by Carl Strang

Grebes are cool. I love the way pied-billed grebes can sink without diving, and come to the surface with just the top of their head showing as they check out whether the coast is clear. They also have proven to have odd and unexpected evolutionary relationships. A recent study confirmed that the grebes are closest to the flamingos. Once you get your head around that one, add this result: among our local birds, the next closest relatives to the grebe-flamingos are the doves. Here are my observations on this species:

Grebe, Pied-billed

Pied-billed Grebe

Pied-billed Grebe

Common migrant on Maxinkuckee and ponds around Culver, generally appearing as individuals either isolated or on the fringes of duck or coot rafts. Breeder at McKee Marsh in DuPage County, IL. By mid-July the young were foraging with the parents, catching newly metamorphosed bullfrogs. Sings from water, a strange pumping song. “Ah-ah-ah…ah-ah-ah’dool-ah’dool-ah’dool…” The “ah” syllable increases in pitch untill it is very high when compared with the lower-pitched “dool” syllable.

4AP99. First of year seen, Culver.

10SE99. A single youngster spent a day on the Willowbrook marsh. This is the first one to stop at Willowbrook, perhaps because this was the first year with significant emergent vegetation along the edge. Still had some pied markings on the face.

30OC99. 3 on a lake at Fermilab.

8NO99. Lots of pied-billed grebes scattered among coot and duck rafts at Lake Maxinkuckee. Horned grebes outside, separate, and a few of the pied-billeds as well.

2AP00. One individual at Lincoln Marsh, Wheaton.

1JL00. An adult with at least 2 swimming small young, Brewster Creek marsh at Pratts Wayne F.P.

24SE00. Several migrants at McKee Marsh.

28OC09. Mayslake. A pied-billed grebe on May’s Lake swallowed a small fish.

23NO09. Mayslake. A dozen mallards diving for food in May’s Lake, coming up with aquatic vegetation after being completely under water 3-5 seconds. The grebe that has been staying close to them for a week still is present, and also diving.

5AP10. Mayslake. In the stream corridor marsh, 6 hooded mergansers and a pied-billed grebe diving for tiny prey, insect larvae and/or chorus frog tadpoles. Two of the mergansers were first-year males, with nearly white, indistinctly defined boundaries, in crests.

15OC. Mayslake. Two pied-billed grebes in the NW corner of May’s Lake. One flew when I came up on them, the other dove.

7SE12. Maylake. In the SE corner of May’s Lake, 25 mallards accompanied by a single immature pied-billed grebe that at times appeared to be dabbling.

 

Western Chorus Frog Dossier

by Carl Strang

An early sign of spring’s arrival is the sound of massed chorus frogs. Here are my limited specific observations of them.

Western chorus frog

Western chorus frog

Frog, Western Chorus Known in my experience mainly from DuPage County, IL, and the Culver, Indiana, area. In early spring they sing in large numbers, in crickety sounding calls, in temporary ponds. I saw one in the back yard of the house we rented in Glendale Heights. Small and striped, crawling in the grass. Closest pond where they sang was at least 200m away.

7MR87. Singing at West Chicago Prairie.

22MR87. Singing at Fish Hatchery, Culver, in first partial pond west of ditches.

12MR88. Brief song from one at McDowell Forest Preserve.

26MR88. Singing just west of Hartz Lake property.

27MR89. First song of year heard at McKee Marsh.

23AP89. Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. I water-stalked a singing frog, close enough to see it, or at least the movement caused by its singing. It was in or just above the water, which vibrated with the song. It was in a place where broken-down cattails created a small (almost completely covering) shelter. They sing in alternation: pairs, high and low. High starts. If a few calls do not involve a nearby frog in a duet, the first stops.

10MR97. Heard one singing while I ran on Prairie Path near Rt. 59.

20MR99. First chorus frogs of spring heard in 2 places.

30OC99. 1-2 (same one found twice?) found on an extensive mudflat at Fermilab.

5MR00. A few singing at Lake Law, Fermilab, in an area of shallow water and dense dead stems of cattails and grasses.

2MY00. A couple still singing.

24SE00. A few individuals singing weakly in the tall, goldenrod-dominated upland vegetation between the large lakes at Fermilab.

14OC00. Occasional song, still, at Fermilab. Much like spring peeper’s pattern of fall singing.

21MR01. First of year, a couple only, heard near Prairie Path east of Warrenville. A cold, lingering winter.

15AP01. Quite a few singing near the McKee Marsh outlet. 12SE01. I heard single brief song beside the prairie path north of Butterfield and west of Fermilab in late afternoon.

12OC02. A few weakly singing individuals at Fermilab, in low spots.

21MR05. One singer at the Hartz Lake property.

13JE06. Tri-County State Park. Chorus frogs and American toads have resumed singing after heavy recent rains have raised water levels, here and at Fermilab for chorus frogs, and here and at Fullersburg for toads.

5AP10. Mayslake. A jump in chorus frog numbers from last year. Last year they were at the stream corridor marsh only, and the maximum male count was 12. This year, up to 22. Furthermore, there were satellite groups in the parking lot marsh (3) and the reed-canary-grass pool east of the dog fence (5).

25OC10. Mayslake. Chorus frogs calling, three individuals in three places: one on top of a wooded hill; one in the middle of the meadow west of the dog area, and one a short distance south of the stream corridor marsh.

27OC10. Mayslake. A western chorus frog called from on or right beside the path N of the stream corridor marsh. No hibernaculum candidate there.

17MR11. Mayslake. First singers of the season, in stream corridor and parking lot marshes.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

One reason chorus frogs can be difficult to see is that they often select sheltered places from which to sing. The edge of one’s expanded throat is just visible beneath the log.

29SE11. Mayslake. At least 3 chorus frogs calling in close proximity in a reed canary grass area. Another in the main meadow W of dog fence.

Spring 2013. Mayslake. Hardly any chorus frog activity this spring, in the wake of last year’s drought, despite the re-filling of the marshes.

Measuring Marsh Recovery

by Carl Strang

Now that Mayslake Forest Preserve’s stream corridor marsh is full of water again after several months’ drying out, I am curious as to how fast its animal community will recover. Apart from simply observing what I can on the surface (waterfowl have been back, and last week there were a muskrat and a few singing western chorus frogs), my best tool is the amphibian trap.

Each end is capped by an inward-angling funnel with a 1-inch hole in the end. Animals that enter through the hole have a hard time finding their way back out. The top of the trap is out of the water so they can breathe if they need to.

Each end is capped by an inward-angling funnel with a 1-inch hole in the end. Animals that enter through the hole have a hard time finding their way back out. The top of the trap is out of the water so they can breathe if they need to.

Five traps placed around the marsh produced nothing for two days, and were absolutely clean, suggesting little or no activity around them. The third day brought the first capture.

One of the traps had a medium-sized White River crayfish.

One of the traps had a medium-sized White River crayfish.

I don’t believe this species could survive the marsh drying out, so this individual probably was a recent immigrant from the nearby stream.

Friday was the big day, however. The first three traps I checked were empty, but in the fourth I found these:

Five tiger salamanders.

Five tiger salamanders.

Prior to that moment, in two springs of trapping I had caught a grand total of one salamander. But that wasn’t all.

The final trap held two more.

The final trap held two more.

Most of these appeared to be males, but at least one appeared to be a female (proportionately shorter tail, with less tail fin, and much less swelling around the genital area). Furthermore, none of them had spot patterns matching the one I caught last year. With predatory insects diminished, this would seem to be a promising year for tadpole survival. A final observation as I released them was that they swim by folding their limbs against their bodies and propelling themselves entirely with their tails. This is interesting, given that they move about their terrestrial tunnels all the rest of the year with their legs.

Why this sudden success? Looking back, I suspect that in previous years I may have put the traps out too late, and the salamanders were done and gone. This year I got the traps out within days of the last ice melting away.

Chorus Frogs in Hiding

by Carl Strang

This year the early songs of western chorus frogs at Mayslake Forest Preserve are coming mainly from locations inland from the water’s edge at the stream corridor marsh, their biggest breeding area. I don’t know if this represents a change in behavior, or whether I simply had failed to notice it in the past. Most of the little guys seem to be singing within clumps of brown grasses and sedges, usually within a few feet of the water’s edge. Last week I was able to get a partial peek at one which had chosen a slightly more exposed spot.

In the exact center of this photo is a tiny puddle of water, about 4 inches across, between the two sticks. Whenever the frog sang, the water in the puddle vibrated, giving him away.

I was able to get close enough to see his exact location under the smaller stick.

Can you see the little highlight in the stick’s shadow?

Unfortunately for me, the bigger stick blocked my view and prevented me from holding the camera at a low enough angle to see more than the tiniest part of the frog.

This expanded part of the previous photo shows the yellow edge of the frog’s bag-like expanded throat.

After a few days last week when dozens of frogs sang, nearly all have gone quiet. They barely had started, and I can’t believe they have finished already. I find myself attributing the many bizarre things I am observing on the preserve to the abnormally warm, dry weather. The main pool of the stream corridor marsh has shrunk slightly, and this week the tiny puddle shown in the photos is gone. Chorus frogs breed in temporary pools. Their tadpoles develop fast, but need to have those pools last a few weeks. The marsh will be there for them, but they don’t know that and I suspect that some cue is telling them to wait. If I am right, a period of rain and/or cooler temperatures should get them going again.

First Frog

by Carl Strang

Last week I put out the amphibian traps in the stream corridor marsh at Mayslake Forest Preserve. On the first two days the traps caught nothing, but while wading out to one of them I did see the first amphibian of the year. It was not, however, what I would have expected.

Northern leopard frog

As a general rule, and in my experience true in every year before this one, the first frogs we notice in DuPage County are the western chorus frogs. Though I have heard reports of others hearing them, the chorus frogs at Mayslake haven’t started singing yet. While others have reported seeing or hearing leopard frogs at Mayslake in recent years, this was my first.

The frog, very cold and newly out of hibernation, didn’t twitch as I maneuvered around it taking pictures.

The empty traps were themselves of some interest. Last year I put them out later in March, and right away began catching some of the large Dytiscus water beetles. So, I expect to learn something about them this year, either that there is a later time when they become active, or that there is significant variation in their numbers from year to year.

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.

Chorus Frog Mystery

by Carl Strang

Yesterday was warm, and as I enjoyed my lunch break walk I heard 3 different chorus frogs calling in 3 different places. One was on top of one of Mayslake Forest Preserve’s hilltops.

One was in the middle of a meadow, far from water.

The third was close to the stream corridor marsh, where most of the preserve’s chorus frogs gathered last spring.

Their calling reminded me of the spring peeper mystery I described in an earlier post. The circumstances are a little different, in that chorus frogs’ fall voices are much closer to their sound when advertising for mates in spring. Also, instead of calling over a period of weeks to months, they have a more abbreviated period of autumnal calling. A year ago I heard just one at Mayslake, also calling from an elevated spot late in the season. As was the case with the spring peepers, I have not encountered an explanation for this behavior. The only possibility that has come to mind so far is that this might have something to do with finding a safe place to hibernate. The calling frog may be advertising the discovery of such a spot, or announcing the need for help in finding one. I’m not a theoretical evolutionary ecologist, but I don’t think kin selection needs to be invoked here. If these males help females survive the winter they are helping themselves, even if other males also respond. That’s the best speculative stab I’ve been able to come up with so far.

Ten Toads A-Trilling

by Carl Strang

As the western chorus frogs began to wind down their extended breeding season at Mayslake Forest Preserve, the American toads were getting underway with their briefer one.

Like the chorus frogs, toads come to water only to breed, spending the rest of the warm months foraging in upland habitats. I find their beautiful trilling choruses to be a calming reminder of the warm season to come. American toads need a few years to grow, in contrast to the rapidly maturing chorus frogs. Nevertheless, the ongoing restoration work at the stream corridor marsh is paying off with the toad population as well. This year I have a minimum count of 10 singing male toads in two locations, many more than the high of 3 in a single location I noted last year.

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