SJF February Summary

by Carl Strang

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

The pileated’s tongue-spear in action.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

The deer pelvic bone was well gnawed by rodents.

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

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

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

American Tree Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today’s feature is my dossier of the American tree sparrow, a wintering bird that still is with us but soon will head back to the northern nesting grounds. The following notes reveal my interest in the complex range of this species’ vocalizations.

American tree sparrow. The black spot in the clear chest is a helpful identification feature.

American tree sparrow. The black spot in the clear chest is a helpful identification feature.

Sparrow, American Tree

This songbird is a common winter resident in old fields and residential areas with some bushes, in Culver, around Lafayette, in south central Pennsylvania and in DuPage County, IL. Usually they occur in loose flocks, often mixed with juncos. They feed on the ground, especially, taking seeds. Note: “tsew,” “tsoo” or “tsee” in a slightly melancholy minor key, hint of downward slurring. Has a 3-syllable call, a hair slower and more flowing than junco’s, very musical and pleasant in contrast. Single-note call has a descending tail, is much like white-throated sparrow’s.

26FE87. Song heard in Willowbrook Back 40: “Tsoo-too-doo-doo-dee-chew-chew-chew-chew.” Song loud and clear, of water thrush quality.

7MR87. Another song: “tsee-tsoo-bye-tsee-tsoo-tsoo.” First note held longer than others. Tsee syllables highest pitched, tsoo’s lowest. Sang from perch in top of willow clump, 6 feet up, at West Chicago Prairie.

13MR87. Still hearing them singing.

22MR87. Still present and singing at Culver Fish Hatchery.

15OC99. First tree sparrow of the season at Willowbrook.

20DE99. Tree sparrows eating Indian grass seeds at Fermilab. Sometimes their call notes are simple and flat, but sometimes they add a trailer that so far I cannot tell from white-throated sparrow’s. In conflicts they have beautiful, musical clusters of notes.

29JA00. A flock of 30 tree sparrows and 2 juncos feeding on the gravel berm edge of Swenson Road, Fermilab.

5MR00. A single still at Fermilab, in thick grass area with a few shrubs, beside trail.

The red on the top of the head, the white wing features and yellow lower bill mandible are additional distinctions.

The red on the top of the head, the white wing features and yellow lower bill mandible are additional distinctions.

23NO04. Willowbrook. A flock of tree sparrows in tall prairie vegetation using a call I don’t remember hearing before, a pardalote-like “wee’dah.”

16NO10. Mayslake. Many tree sparrows are in the west stream corridor along the southern edge of the mansion grounds. Giving an unusual call, less than a second long, beginning at a high pitch, slurring to a lower one, and quickly back up to the starting pitch.

6JA11. The more complex tree sparrow call can be difficult to pick out when many birds are producing it at once. When a single bird is isolated, the call has the rhythm of a quick, “tit willow,” i.e., three dominant syllables with the last two close together and a little more separated from the first.

2FE12. American tree sparrow call: dedjidu, quickly pronounced.

15NO12. Mayslake. Tree sparrows eating seeds of Canada goldenrod and annuals.

25JA13. Mayslake. On the ground in the off-leash dog area, an enormous flock of at least 100 tree sparrows, 30 juncos with at least one white-throated sparrow mixed in, doing the double-foot scratching to get through the snow and then reach, presumably for seeds.

White-throated Sparrow Dossier

by Carl Strang

The white-throated sparrow is a common migrant and uncommon wintering bird in DuPage County, but it nests well north of here, so my observations are limited accordingly. Most of these notes were made before I knew there are dusky-colored adults, so some of the observations of “immature” birds no doubt were adults.

Sparrow, White-throated

White-throated sparrow

White-throated sparrow

This is a common migrant, observed around Culver, Lafayette, south central Pennsylvania, and DuPage County, Illinois. They occur in flocks, and forage on the ground in woods or old fields with at least some low brush. Often they scratch through litter. Their whistled song has been rendered “Old Sam Peabody, Peabody, Peabody.” The first two syllables are on the same higher pitch, the remaining ones on the same lower pitch.

6NO86. On dry leaf litter in dense brush in Willowbrook’s Back 40, one hopped along a straight course nearly upright, scanning the ground beneath and just ahead of it.

22AP87. First singing I have heard from this sparrow this spring.

27AP87. White-throated sparrows were foraging in the wooded riparian area at Willowbrook by kicking litter backwards with both feet while staying in place and looking down.

29AP87. Young sparrows were foraging up in shrubs and the lower branches of trees, making occasional “tseed” notes (high, thin, but fairly level in pitch). They used a probing-reaching-hopping foraging style.

1MY87. White-throateds are still abundant, adults using the in-place kicking technique on the ground. They also were hopping and looking (10-inch hops, pausing for 1-2 seconds). Two other adults on the ground and a youngster in the trees were probing, looking, hopping and walking among branches.

5MY87. Young birds were eating elm seeds (4 individuals doing so in the same treetop). They pulled seeds off with a sideways twist of the neck.

11MY87. There are still some white-throats around.

23SE87. First fall migrants in Willowbrook’s Back 40 riparian strip. Also observed SE25, 28, 30, and OC9, 11 (Pratts Wayne Woods), 13, 16.

4AP88. A number of white-throated sparrows have arrived in Willowbrook’s Back 40, but are only uttering high-pitched contact calls. A few were singing by 18AP.

13SE88. First fall appearance, Willowbrook Back 40.

21AP89. In the small park across from Newberry Library in Chicago, towhees, hermit thrushes and white-throated sparrows all were feeding out on the mowed lawn at noon like robins, the thrushes even with the run-and-pause.

2NO89. A few still at Willowbrook.

28AP99.  First white-throated sparrows of the season noted at Willowbrook. Also seen 5MY99 at McDowell Forest Preserve. Last seen this spring at Willowbrook 12MY, but only a few observed there this year.

13OC99. White-throated sparrows are much more abundant in fall than in spring at Willowbrook this year. One heard singing occasionally today.

26OC99. Willowbrook. White-throated sparrows are in the old field, brushy prairie area today (yesterday they were in the woods; today it is overcast, cold, calm; yesterday was clear, cool, breezy).

1NO99. At Willowbrook, sparrow eating dried gray dogwood berries.

18NO99. A sparrow eating Amur honeysuckle berries.

19JA00. Two white-throated sparrows at Willowbrook, on ground under dense brush, using the in-place kicking technique.

29-31AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario. White-throated sparrows are in small groups, feeding on the ground and calling, once singing. Their behavior is the same as in migrants at Willowbrook, except that they are in smaller and very widely spread groups.

2FE04. Two at Waterfall Glen near Poverty Savanna, adult plumage.

24OC07. Fullersburg. I spshed out a sparrow that was giving the thin-ending call. It was a young white-throated sparrow, which immediately began emitting the “bink” call while turning in a rapid, jerking manner and turning its head quickly to look around. No other sparrows were calling in that area. (I have come to associate this “bink” contact call with young birds; certainly it is used much more often in the fall migration, seldom in the spring, when the thin whistled contact note predominates).

Mayslake Update

by Carl Strang

Mayslake Forest Preserve has been quiet, and for the most part remains in winter mode. Large numbers of American tree sparrows still are present, though they are wandering into an expanded portion of the preserve. For instance, one day in late January they shifted to the off leash dog area and, joined by some juncos, a couple song sparrows and a white-throated sparrow, fed on weed seeds.

Here is one tiny portion of the flock that contained more than 100 tree sparrows. One of the song sparrows is in the center.

Here is one tiny portion of the flock that contained more than 100 tree sparrows. One of the song sparrows is in the center.

In another part of the flock the tree sparrows are joined by a few juncos.

In another part of the flock the tree sparrows are joined by a few juncos.

At long last the stream corridor marsh has begun to refill.

A tiny, shallow pool had gathered by January 29.

A tiny, shallow pool had gathered by January 29.

That initial pool was perhaps 30 feet across.

That initial pool was perhaps 30 feet across.

A front brought heavy rain, then cold that froze the collected waters.

Here is the marsh two days later.

Here is the marsh two days later.

We continue to get periods of rain, and the river bulrushes have begun to collapse.

By the end of last week, perhaps 80% of the marsh had water in it again.

By the end of last week, perhaps 80% of the marsh had water in it again.

With the ground frozen, much of the rain is running off, but some is collecting in depressions like the marsh. We can hope for the rain to continue and perhaps avoid a repeat of last year’s drought.

In the meantime, skunk tracks have begun to appear, one of the early signs that spring is coming.

Palm Warbler Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Spring emphatically is here. Seasonal milestones are being passed earlier than usual this year. Migrant birds have been coming in, so far mainly the ones that winter in the southern U.S. Migrants that wintered in the tropics are not expected to appear much before they usually do, but among the first will be the palm warbler. Therefore it’s appropriate to conclude this winter’s series of species dossiers with that songbird.

Warbler, Palm

Palm warbler

This small warbler is a frequently observed migrant, both spring and fall, wherever I have lived in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and northeast Illinois. Usually they travel in small groups (2-6). Commonly they feed on the ground, but also forage in tree canopies. They are readily recognized by their distinctive tail-wagging behavior.

26AP87. North Blackwell Forest Preserve. The song can be rendered “witch-witch-witch-witch-witch-chyer-chyer-chyer-…chee.” Very rapid and chattering. An individual observed foraging alone 3-15 feet up in saplings with leaves beginning to open. It spent most of the time perched, turning its head to look every direction, staying at a given perch 3-10 seconds. Prey were obtained mostly through hover-gleaning, with sallies mostly of 2-5 feet out from watch perches. It sang every 10-20 seconds. It also probed into leaf clusters beside its perch once in a while, but more with a drinking motion.

29AP88. Pratts Wayne Forest Preserve. A palm warbler was flycatching in a leafless tree. It also searched, with 1-4-inch hops at 1-3-second intervals, in brush near the ground. Its song was a series of “jerv-jerv-jerv” notes, slightly juicy or buzzy, 4-6 quick syllables.

30AP89. McDowell Grove Forest Preserve. Some palm warblers were performing mid-air sallies (perches achieved at 5-10 second intervals between flights, and the birds did not return after making a grab but continued to a branch straight ahead, after flights of 7-15 feet). Others were foraging on the ground, hopping on paved or graveled areas. One sang a loud song: “Der-see’, der-see’, …” fast, the first syllable barely there, much emphasis on second syllable, ~10 syllables per song, many seconds between songs.

8MY89. Last bird of migration noted.

1OC89. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Palm warblers were in woods at a field edge, with white-throated sparrows.

25AP99. Palm warblers were at the Morton Arboretum in an area with pine warblers and chipping sparrows.

3MY99. A palm warbler was foraging 10-15 feet up in box elder at Willowbrook, the first of the year observed there.

5MY99. McDowell Forest Preserve, afternoon. There was little bird activity, generally, except for lots of palm warblers (and yellow-rumped warblers) feeding.

15MY99. A late bird seen at Red Oak Nature Center.

1MY00. A flock of palm warblers fed on the ground in the center of the cleared prairie at Willowbrook. Some also moved into scattered trees in the prairie area.

24SE00. A couple palm warblers were at the Sparrow Hedge, Fermilab.

20OC01. Blackwell, McKee Marsh. A palm warbler gave call notes similar to those of a yellow-rump.

12OC02. Several palm warblers were at Fermilab in old field areas.

28AP08. Fullersburg. A palm warbler was giving a call note similar to the distinctive one of the yellow-rump, though possibly higher in pitch.

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.

Mayslake’s Winter Birds

by Carl Strang

An interesting mix of bird species wintered on Mayslake Forest Preserve this season, through the storms and the cold. Among them was a yellow-rumped warbler that mainly was active around the south and east shores of May’s Lake.

This warbler often chowed down on the berrylike cones of red cedars.

There always seemed to be jays around, and sometimes when a few became agitated their calls drew in as many as 10 of their kind.

I didn’t see the jays feeding, but there was a good acorn crop last fall and my guess is that the jays stored a sufficient supply.

Some winter residents were steady, and expected. These included cardinals

Cardinals sang for an unusually extended period this winter.

and juncos.

Mayslake’s juncos wandered widely, and I never got a sense of how many groups there were or how their home ranges were distributed.

American tree sparrow numbers fluctuated greatly, but there always were at least a few around. A common redpoll showed up one day and was gone the next. There also were rare appearances by white-throated sparrows.

I saw white-throated sparrows so seldom that I think they were wanderers rather than residents.

Though no red-winged blackbirds have shown up at Mayslake yet, I have seen them elsewhere in DuPage County and expect some at Mayslake any day. An equally sure sign of the transitional season was the arrival of this Canada goose pair at the stream corridor marsh yesterday.

Sure enough, the male had a band on his left leg. I take it that this is the same pair that nested successfully on the preserve last year. I saw no sign of the two surviving young that were with this pair the last time I saw them in the fall.

I am so ready for spring and the progression of migrants. Bring it on!

Recent Animal Activity

by Carl Strang

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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