St. James Farm, Lately

by Carl Strang

This has been a relatively slow winter at St. James Farm Forest Preserve. There has been little snow, so my tracking has been limited. Coyotes have been covering the preserve, and the relatively few deer tracks have not revealed a consistent pattern. That in itself suggests buck group, and eventually in January I saw them: a huge buck, a good-sized but clearly subordinate forkhorn, and a newly minted buck fawn. Since that first sighting, I have spotted them twice more in widely separated parts of the preserve.

The boss buck

The boss buck

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the great horned owls’ nest tree of last winter was a casualty of the autumn’s controlled burn. My practice is to wait until mid-February to do the annual nest search. I had my inventory of candidate cavities, made last winter, but it didn’t take long to find the incubating female on last year’s red-tailed hawk nest. In a related note, I spotted a newly available candidate cavity along one of my monitoring routes. The top of an old oak recently broke off, leaving an open top of sufficient diameter that great horneds might consider it. A forest this old probably has some equilibrium of candidate cavities as old ones are lost and new ones form.

The new candidate nesting cavity

The new candidate nesting cavity

With that task out of the way, I decided to see if I could find a little nest in the area where the hooded warbler had his territory last summer. He has been a regular there in recent years, but as far as I know, no one has seen a female or young. I found that his territory has scattered bush honeysuckles and lots of Japanese barberries, bad for forest quality but probably good from the warbler’s viewpoint. Descriptions of hooded warbler nesting suggest that barberry would be an ideal platform. I didn’t find a nest, and ended the search when I found a dense thicket of barberries, with a few multiflora roses mixed in, at least 100 feet in diameter, worthy of Brer Rabbit.

 Part of the thorny tangle

Part of the thorny tangle

As I circumnavigated this patch, which is in a part of the forest with relatively dramatic surface relief, I noticed a few tipped trees whose fall had turned up rounded stones in the soil.

Rounded stones exposed by a tipped tree’s root tangle

Rounded stones exposed by a tipped tree’s root tangle

This suggests that the preserve’s forested hills may in fact be kames, places within the melting continental glacier where the meltwater piled its flow-rounded stones into mounds. St. James Farm is very close to the western edge of the Valparaiso Moraine.

 

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.

Matching a Shed

by Carl Strang

On Thursday, as I was walking through the western edge of the forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, I looked down and saw this:

A recently shed left antler from a whitetail deer.

A recently shed left antler from a whitetail deer.

I had seen and photographed two different bucks over the course of the winter, and took the above photo in hope of finding a match. I had seen both individuals at different times near where I found the shed. The two bucks were quite different, one smaller and younger than the other.

The smaller buck clearly did not match. His left antler was smaller than the one I found, and had only two major tines in addition to the brow tine.

The smaller buck clearly did not match. His left antler was smaller than the one I found, and had only two major tines in addition to the brow tine.

The left antler of the larger buck had the same number of tines, and their proportions appeared to be the same as those of the shed one.

The left antler of the larger buck had the same number of tines, and their proportions appeared to be the same as those of the shed one.

The different angles provided by these views allow a comparison of the various tines’ contours.

The different angles provided by these views allow a comparison of the various tines’ contours.

I conclude that the larger buck, which I saw only on November 1, still is around and is the one who dropped the antler I found.

 

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).

Photo Bag

by Carl Strang

Time to shake out some miscellaneous photos from 2015 that didn’t make other posts.

I liked this October scene of sumacs contrasting with pines.

I liked this October scene of sumacs contrasting with pines.

This buck checked me out as I explored a remote area of Hidden Lake Forest Preserve at the end of October.

This buck checked me out as I explored a remote area of Hidden Lake Forest Preserve at the end of October.

The classic pose of a gray squirrel gnawing into a walnut at Fullersburg Woods in November.

The classic pose of a gray squirrel gnawing into a walnut at Fullersburg Woods in November.

The highlight of my group’s Christmas Bird Count was a merlin at West Branch Forest Preserve.

The highlight of my group’s Christmas Bird Count was a merlin at West Branch Forest Preserve.

I hope your 2015 was a great one, and that 2016 will be as well.

SJFNHS: Slipping into December

by Carl Strang

St. James Farm Forest Preserve has become quieter in recent weeks.

Most migrants, including this swamp sparrow, have moved on south.

Most migrants, including this swamp sparrow, have moved on south.

The frantic rutting season is winding down as does begin to gestate their new embryo fawns.

This young buck has lost any neck swelling he may have had when pumped up by hormones.

This young buck has lost any neck swelling he may have had when pumped up by hormones.

Grazing has his full attention now, though I see that he is about to bite off something with a broader leaf, so “forbsing” would be a more correct term here.

Grazing has his full attention now, though I see that he is about to bite off something with a broader leaf, so “forbsing” would be a more correct term here.

Visibility has increased greatly in the forest after a four-day period in which the honeysuckles and buckthorns dropped nearly all their leaves at the end of November. I have begun to take advantage of this and explore the areas between the trails.

One discovery was this old concrete foundation of a small building close to the preserve’s Winfield Road boundary.

One discovery was this old concrete foundation of a small building close to the preserve’s Winfield Road boundary.

Adjacent to that foundation is an unnaturally steep, eroding slope. It probably was created during the construction or widening of Winfield Road, cutting into the morainal hill.

Adjacent to that foundation is an unnaturally steep, eroding slope. It probably was created during the construction or widening of Winfield Road, cutting into the morainal hill.

As is the case around most former building sites on the preserve, this one is surrounded by a patch of goutweed, an undesirable invasive plant.

As is the case around most former building sites on the preserve, this one is surrounded by a patch of goutweed, an undesirable invasive plant.

I am looking forward to further off-trail exploration as my natural history survey of this preserve continues.

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.

 

Entering the Rut

by Carl Strang

November brings the mating season for whitetail deer, also known as the rut. Hormones peak out and focus narrows down to the point of obliviousness to everything else. Drive carefully. Sunday was November 1, and I saw a sign that the rut already was under way. I was walking through the forest at St. James Farm Forest Preserve, and motion brought my attention to a doe. Her mouth was open, her ears down. I’ve seen those signs of harassment before.

The photo shows that the ears were directed behind her.

The photo shows that the ears were directed behind her.

Sure enough, a buck appeared in her wake soon after.

His antlers were freshly cleaned of velvet, his neck swelling.

His antlers were freshly cleaned of velvet, his neck swelling.

The doe stopped to feed and he did, too. When she moved on he did as well, maintaining a separation of around 50 yards. Neither deer showed any sign that they noticed me or heard the shutter clicks.

I am hopeful for good photo opportunities this month, especially of aggressive interactions among bucks.

Mayslake Animals and Plants

by Carl Strang

Time for an update on Mayslake Forest Preserve’s wildlife, both animal and vegetable.

A house wren has been active in the south part of the preserve.

A house wren has been active in the south part of the preserve.

Incidentally, the least flycatcher continues to hang around and sing. Might it have found a mate?

Tracks last week revealed that in addition to the buck featured in earlier posts, there is a doe with her fawn in residence on the preserve this summer.

Tracks last week revealed that in addition to the buck featured in earlier posts, there is a doe with her fawn in residence on the preserve this summer.

The most recent addition to Mayslake’s insect list is this moth, the six-spotted gray. Though it superficially appeared to be a member of the inchworm family, it proved to be one of the noctuids.

The most recent addition to Mayslake’s insect list is this moth, the six-spotted gray. Though it superficially appeared to be a member of the inchworm family, it proved to be one of the noctuids.

The former friary site gradually will recover from its year as a temporary off-leash dog area. In the meantime, a number of weedy plants have invaded.

One of these is the patience dock.

One of these is the patience dock.

It looks like an overlarge curly dock, with a strong red stem and a heavy array of flowers.

It looks like an overlarge curly dock, with a strong red stem and a heavy array of flowers.

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.

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