St. James Farm Autumn Update

by Carl Strang

This blog has been on hiatus while I work on my annual research summary documents, but I have been paying regular visits to St. James Farm Forest Preserve, the site I monitor and where I soon will begin as volunteer steward. Today’s entry shares some photos from recent weeks.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

Winged euonymus adds color to the autumn scene, but is an invasive shrub that will need to be removed at some point.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

As leaves come off the trees, bird nests are revealed. This oriole nest had a significant content of synthetic fibers, including fishing line from the nearby ponds. The fuzzy white object hanging below the nest is a fishing lure, the hook not quite visible at this angle.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

This silver-spotted skipper still was active on November 16.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

The opossum lay dead in the center of a trail, also on November 16. Cause of death was not evident.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

Late autumn migrants included this white-crowned sparrow youngster.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

The most unusual stopover duck was a female pintail on the east pond.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

Another duck worth noting was this male. Accompanied by a female mallard, his huge size and her identity suggest that he may be a mallard-black duck hybrid.

 

Update

by Carl Strang

Circumstances have prevented me from gathering much new blog material for the past week and a half, but I hope to have more to share soon. The bird migration continues, but there’s only one photo in the hopper.

White-crowned sparrow, Mayslake Forest Preserve

White-crowned sparrow, Mayslake Forest Preserve

As for singing insects, the first few spring field crickets began singing in Marshall County, Indiana, last week, but I have yet to hear any farther north (DuPage County, Illinois).

The one significant new development came yesterday, as I was running the trails at Herrick Lake Forest Preserve. A grasshopper flew up from the trail in the large meadow of the preserve’s southeast corner. It had hind wings that were bright yellow with broad black edges. This was the first opportunity to take advantage of my recent literature research on possible new singing grasshoppers. It turns out there is only one band-winged grasshopper with that color pattern that matures so early in the season, the sulfur-winged grasshopper (Arphia sulfurea), and so I can already shift one species from the hypothetical list to the verified list for the region.

Song Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

I established my vertebrate species dossiers in the 1980’s as an antidote to relying too heavily on the scientific literature and the stories of others for my natural history knowledge. I wrote everything I could remember about each species from personal experience, which generally was embarrassingly little. Then I began to add notes as I made new observations to beef out the files. Each subsequent entry begins with my date code: the day of the month, two-letter month code, and year. The song sparrow’s song is one of my favorites, evocative of my childhood in a small rural town. Hm…as I read this it is clear that I still can’t say I know all that much about this shy species.

The song sparrow is one of our common birds. The dark streaks and long rounded tail are among its physical features.

Sparrow, Song

Common in weedy to brushy old fields, railroad rights-of-way, etc., around Culver, Indiana, in south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. Sings from a high perch in a bush, on a weed, or in the low branches of tree. Song consists of many short, musical chirping notes, accelerating somewhat toward the end. First song in 1980 in Cumberland County, Pennsylvania, was on 19FE. A year-round resident at Culver, visiting feeders. Also in Pennsylvania. Song sparrows at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve (and one I heard at Waterfall Glen) have a “chew-beecha” phrase which they include in their song (note: this seems less true in recent years). That phrase has a squeaky, raspy quality, loud and interjected clashingly.

6FE87. Heard first song of year, Warrenville back yard.

22MR87. Fish hatchery, Culver. Fights frequent between song sparrows. Tumble together on the ground between short chasing flights. Vocalizations during fight a rapid-fire mix of toops, cheeps and bits of song.

11OC87. One still singing at Pratts Wayne Woods.

Song sparrow singing posture.

23MR88. A song sparrow sang from the end of an oak branch, halfway up a large tree, 15 feet off the ground, at edge of woods. Song: “chick turr, turr, turr-turr-turr, chick-tee-tiddle-tump” (last part variable). Switched to another song after a while: “cheedle, cheedle” was its beginning, but it stopped after a few of those. Throughout, alternated with a nearby male.

30JE90. Willowbrook. Some song sparrow calls have close similarity, even in tonal qualities, to some of chickadees’.

30SE99. Song sparrow at Willowbrook. Also seen 11&12OC.

27FE00. First song sparrow songs of the year heard near west branch of DuPage River at North Blackwell Forest Preserve.

4MR00. Morton Arboretum. A song sparrow displaced another and then sang, in brush beside a pond.

31MR00. Waterfall Glen. A song sparrow singing in tops of isolated 8′ shrubs beside railroad. Did not lift head to sing, but held head normally at 10-20 degrees above horizontal and maintained that angle while singing.

29AP00. Morton Arboretum. The call note is sharply bounded on each end, doesn’t trail off, is very high pitched.

Song sparrow nest on the ground in meadow area, Mayslake.

18JE00. Herrick Lake. A pair was very nervous about my presence, and though one had an insect in its beak they would not go to the nest though I was 20 yards away. A pair at Willowbrook earlier in the month behaved the same way.

22OC00. Song sparrows singing at Blackwell Heron Trail area. Some also were singing in Culver yesterday and the day before.

11MR01. Song sparrow singing at Timber Ridge Forest Preserve.

13OC01. Several at McKee Marsh.

22OC01. Several song sparrows singing, sometimes seeming to answer one another. Heron Trail, South Blackwell Forest Preserve.

3NO01. A single song sparrow song at Herrick Lake F.P., near big south marsh.

12OC02. At Fermilab, 2 kinds of calls from different individuals in different places. One had calls indistinguishable from the high one of white-throated sparrow. Bits of song, too. Another individual, perched in the open on top of a bush, exposed, had a call much like house sparrow’s.

Summer 2008. Song sparrows were among the species at Fullersburg raising cowbird young.

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

Northern Cardinal Dossier

by Carl Strang

This time I share my dossier for a common and beloved species. As usual, it begins with the general account I wrote when I established the file in the 1980’s, then additional entries begin with my date codes.

Cardinal, Northern

The cardinal is the first bird I studied with any intensity, as a child mapping song perches of males in my neighborhood and connecting them into “territories.” Generally they selected highly exposed perches in treetops and on television antennas. The song is highly variable, but tonal qualities of voice and type of song pattern are distinctive. The alarm note is a sharp “teek,” again of a distinctive tonal quality and pitch. The female also sings, the songs following the same pattern as the male’s but sometimes lower in volume.

They nest usually in thick bushes within 10 feet of the ground. A nest at Boiling Springs, PA, was in a rain gutter closely overarched by spruce branches. Young birds in a brood observed in Lombard, IL, were kept together and off the ground by the parents.

Both sexes have bright red beaks surrounded by black feathers. When viewed head-on this has an imposing effect, the bird’s weapon thus being highlighted. No doubt this is of significance in agonistic display. Field guides, with their emphasis on lateral views, lead us away from this kind of discovery.

Cardinals feed in bushes, in trees, and on the ground. They are not acrobatic foragers. They consume large seeds at feeders in winter. Cardinals appear to show some territoriality through winter.

Songs vary among locations, individuals, and times. Each male has more than one song. Some rendered songs are: “chibone, chibone, chibone, chibone;” “What-cheer, wheet wheet wheet wheet;” they beging singing in late January (as early as 23JA83 in DuPage); “pul’see pul’see …” (~7 reps).

17JL84. Male foraging in black cherry tree spent 5-8 sec. on a perch, moving head to look at nearby leaves and twigs in small turning movements, moving 0.5-1m between perches (Willowbrook Back 40).

NO84 they were often feeding on ground, scratching in leaves.

12FE87. Heard first song of year.

5MY87. Nest with 3 eggs, of twigs (slightly loose structure) beside trail in riparian strip at Willowbrook. In honeysuckle, 5 feet up, in fork of branches. Deep cup. Eggs bluish with brown mottling. By a few days later only one egg left, nest apparently abandoned (too close to trail?).

5JE88. In the middle of Geneva I stood under a tree in which a pair of Cardinals suddenly began to alarm-call rapidly. They were close to me, but not paying attention to me. The calls were directed at a blue jay which the cardinals chased from the isolated streetside tree to a clump of trees and brush, and continued the alarm calling and chasing until the jay left. The jay resisted some, was not driven off easily.

19JA89. First Cardinal song, on Willowbrook early morn. In an unusually warm January.

9MR89. Cardinals all singing today through midday (first warm day, 40 degrees F, after a long cold spell). There seem to be too many Cardinals singing, and I see 3 males chasing each other. In this year with such a mild January and no super-severe weather, unusually high survival?

17AP89. A cool, cloudy day. Cardinals all over the Back 40 are giving constant series of “alarm” (?) notes.

29JA90. First cardinal song of year, Willowbrook.

1990. The year of the 17-year cicadas, I caught some at Fullersburg and released them at Willowbrook. One of these flew across a small forest clearing, and a cardinal flew out and caught it with its beak, in mid-air.

26JA99. First cardinal song of year, Willowbrook.

4MR99. Many cardinals singing at Willowbrook, including a female near the Nature Trail head.

3MY99. Cardinals fighting in area of white cedars at Willowbrook.

13MY99. Cardinal nest at Willowbrook in honeysuckle shrub overhanging creek. May still be under construction, though birds agitated when someone is nearby. Female incubating 17MY, 27MY.

10AU99. Cardinal songs distinctly reduced in number, length. Only a few weak, partial songs this morning.

25AU99. Last cardinal song of year noted at Willowbrook.

26AU99. Cardinal fledgling, with rapid notes, similar in pitch to adult’s note but not as sharp, and rapidly repeated rather than separate.

1NO99. Cardinal eating buckthorn berries. 

14JA00. Cardinal sang a half song in afternoon, Willowbrook.

2FE00. First full cardinal song of year, Willowbrook.

21FE00. McKee Marsh, north Blackwell Forest Preserve. A male cardinal singing from a very exposed perch at the top of a 25-foot-tall cottonwood. Doesn’t change posture much when singing. Thrusts face forward a little, but keeps bill level. Sang back and forth with other audible cardinals, answering with full songs, “What-cheer, wheet wheet wheet wheet.” The others stopped singing, it paused for some seconds, then gave a “what-cheer,” paused, did so again, and gradually added “wheet” syllables until it was singing full songs again, even in the others’ absence. When not singing, turned head to look all around.

25FE00. Willowbrook. Several juncos and cardinals singing this morning. A display by a male cardinal that was singing at the service road junction with the Nature Trail. A female was in the same tree, and for a minute or two the male faced her, occasionally adopted an extended, stretched out body posture unlike the normal singing pose, moved with body held rigidly, and emitted a chattering dry trill between some of the songs, all the while facing the female. She stayed in place, he never approached within less than 5 feet, and he then turned away from her and resumed singing normally.

1JL00. A female yellow warbler feeding a cowbird fledgling near the south end of Silver Lake, Blackwell. Earlier this week a pair of scarlet tanagers were feeding a cowbird at Willowbrook, and half a dozen times this spring I have seen male cardinals feeding them (some were the same pair, but at least 3 different broods involved) also at Willowbrook.

2SE05. Had to re-learn fledgling call of rapid high notes lacking sharpness of adult alarm. May have been contact call rather than alarm, though adult nearby gave very occasional alarm, too.

7JA08. Fullersburg. A cardinal sang, briefly and uncertainly, but definitely. My earliest noted song (previous earliest 14JA00). Temperatures in the 50’sF past couple days.

15JA10. Culver. First cardinal song of the year.

5OC10. Mayslake. Singing: white-crowned sparrow, phoebe, cardinal, song sparrow.

7DE10. Mayslake. A cardinal singing, full strong song repeated a couple times. Sunny day but cold, teens F. (I have heard cardinals singing on occasion all through the middle of this winter, the first time I have observed such an extended singing period).

Another observation in recent years is that cardinals in our area seem to raise mainly cowbirds early in the season, but a final August nest nearly always produces only cardinals. If this is correct, it implies a strong selective pressure, at least locally, for shifting the nesting season later.

Sparrow Phase Already!

by Carl Strang

The last of the warblers still are shaking themselves out of the North, but there is no question that the migration season is shifting into its later stages. This week, sparrows appeared at Mayslake Forest Preserve in an unambiguous signal of the season. The prairie garden north of the chapel attracted a mix dominated by white-crowneds.

There also were some Lincoln’s sparrows, the first I’ve seen at Mayslake.

Unphotographed but also present were a swamp sparrow, a number of white-throateds, and (death knell for the warm season) the first juncos. Also unphotographed were my first Mayslake rusty blackbirds, still half in black feathers, half in their new winter browns as they foraged in the stream corridor marsh. Other migrants have been a presence for some days, now.

Yellow-rumped warblers have been abundant, showing their wide ecological range as they forage for insects on the ground, in the trees, in mid-air sallying flights, and also gulp down cedar berries.

Cedar waxwings likewise have been feeding on both insects and fruits. Here a few engage in plumage maintenance.

Enjoy this diversity while you can. Winter is coming!

Mayslake Birds Update

by Carl Strang

It has been a while since I have reported bird observations from Mayslake Forest Preserve. The neotropical migrants, including the eastern wood-pewee, have departed for their winter homes.

Pewee 2b

Wandering youngsters like this great blue heron have turned up from time to time.

GBH youngster Mayslake

Some members of this species will stick around through the winter, and some will make the attempt and fail to survive. One of the more unusual sightings at Mayslake this fall was a heron relative, an American bittern, which flushed from an unusual location in the middle of an upland meadow.

Mixed flocks of warblers and other songbirds stopped by the preserve for fuel in September, and gave way in October to birds that winter in the U.S. These included blackbirds, with large grackle flocks foraging on the mansion lawns on some days.

Grackle flock 2b

Sparrows frequented the habitats suitable for their various species. Meadows and prairies attracted song sparrows, some of which had nested there in the summer.

Song Sparrow 3b

One of the more unusual looking sparrows was this one.

Savannah Sparrow 4b

It proves to be a savanna sparrow, but with very white and high-contrasting plumage compared to most members of its species. Many white-throated and white-crowned sparrows have been refueling at the preserve as well.

The most exciting “maybe” was reported by an experienced birder who got a glimpse of a tiny black bird flying near the stream. He was not willing to commit to it, because his sighting was so brief, but Mayslake may have hosted a black rail this fall.

In the past week the latest of songbirds have been appearing, including a brown creeper, hermit thrushes, fox sparrows and dark-eyed juncos. Some of these may stay for the winter.

Mayslake Migrants Late April

by Carl Strang

The migrant songbirds, and other birds that wintered in the tropics, really begin to flow into northeastern Illinois in the last week of April, and will peak in May. April 24 brought Mayslake’s first chimney swifts, brown thrasher, yellow warblers, and pine warblers including this one.

pine-warbler-b

By the 27th the preserve was hosting newly arrived solitary and spotted sandpipers, green herons, northern waterthrushes, a black-throated green warbler, a blue-winged warbler, a rose-breasted grosbeak, and this Baltimore oriole,

baltimore-oriole-b

as well as a northern parula.

parula-1b

The parula was singing its alternate song, for the most part, the rhythm of which reminds me of the William Tell overture and therefore, inevitably for a member of my generation, the Lone Ranger.

New arrivals on April 28 were warbling vireo, white-crowned and vesper sparrows. The 29th brought house wren, ovenbird, catbird, Tennessee warbler, common yellowthroat, and this red-headed woodpecker.

red-headed-2b

I am hoping that Mayslake’s savanna will be of interest to this relatively rare woodpecker as a nesting area. The last day of April brought a single new species but a good one, a golden-winged warbler.

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