Gray Squirrel Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

For several winters, now, I have been sharing my notes on various species of our vertebrate wildlife. The main idea is to step away from the literature and other second-hand sources, and document what I know about each species from my own observations. At last I have reached the end of the list of dossiers which contain enough information to post here. There may be more in the future, as I add to the limited notes presently in unshared dossiers, but this will be the last for a while. I hope the main point has been clear: to remind you, as well as myself, to pay attention and learn from experience rather than rely on the sometimes limited or misleading second-hand reports (I shouldn’t need to point out that from your perspective, this dossier is itself a second-hand report!)

Squirrel, Gray

Gray squirrel

Gray squirrel

This species is more typical of larger forests and cities. Its relative the fox squirrel is the savanna and small woodlot species, though both can occur together (this one is not found around Culver, Indiana, however). Many notes from the fox squirrel dossier also apply to this one.

27JL77. Gray squirrels fed on unripe red oak acorns at Reineman Sanctuary, Perry County, Pennsylvania. The next day, one was eating Nyssa (black gum) seeds (discarding the fruit).

29JE86. One gray squirrel foraging on the ground in an old pine plantation at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve, DuPage County, IL. It moved slowly (diagonal walk), nose to the ground, sometimes pushing the nose beneath the litter and walking several inches with the face thus submerged. Stopped and ate 3 small objects. Later investigation of the site revealed small oval shells with tough skins, possibly coccoons, flattened ovals viewed from side with a circular cross section, with one end neatly removed and empty inside.

20OC86. Squirrels in dense brushy old field of Willowbrook Back 40. Sounds, when alarmed, like 2-3 steps or jumps, the last louder, then quiet. Is squirrel getting to bigger shrub or a tree, jumping onto trunk then freezing and watching?

23FE87. Much renewal of nut-digging (removal) past few days (and continued next 10 days or so).

28FE87. Wayne Grove Forest Preserve. Gray squirrel stuffing itself with American elm buds in top of 8″dbh tree. Later another, also in a 5″dbh American elm. Much recent excavation of buried nuts. A third individual ate a few black cherry buds.

6MR87. Squirrel high in a black willow, cutting twigs 4-12 inches long and carrying them one at a time to the top of a major 3-branch crotch high in the tree, where it was stuffing or sewing them into a mass of them.

7AP87. A gray squirrel on the ground responded to chipmunk’s chip-trill at my approach, jumping onto low branch and looking alert.

28SE87. Lots of them on the ground in Willowbrook old field. Old and young of year, both.

23JA88. McDowell Forest Preserve. Gray squirrel dug up shallowly buried hickory nut, cutting a 1.5′-tall elm to get face in close for leverage in digging. Carried nut into tree, spent about 4-5 minutes consuming it, then ate snow off top of branch it was sitting on (about 1′ worth, a powdery, thin 0.5″ wide), went down tree and continued. Paused and looked back at me.

20MR88. A gray squirrel at Meacham Grove gathering dry leaves from ground, stuffing them into its mouth with its paws then taking them into cavity nest up in old white oak. Also gathering from among the few leaves still attached to the tree itself.

10AP88. Touched a squirrel at Hidden Lake Forest Preserve (tips of his tail hairs as he “hid” on the other side of a tree trunk barely too big for him to look around).

17AU88. A chase between squirrels, apparently not play. Gray squirrel pursuing a larger fox squirrel, which jumped out of trees twice from 15-20 feet up, landing hard, to escape (in the second jump it leaped out, seemed to sail a bit, and its fall was partly broken by a small shrub). The fox squirrel uttered a harsh call, short and sharp, like part of a mobbing call, on 2 occasions. There was an un-play-like seriousness about the pursuer.

27MY89. Young gray squirrels very curious, approach when you hold still (yesterday in the park at the Newberry Library in Chicago, today in Maple Grove Forest Preserve). They have a buzzing call, precursor of the adult’s bark.

22JE89. 2 gray squirrels eating red (not quite ripe) mulberries at Willowbrook. The berries began to ripen the previous weeks, so many other ripe ones were available.

29AU89. Many twig ends, some more than 1 foot long, cut from a sugar maple in Back Yards exhibit by Sciurus sp. The twigs were laden with developing new seeds, but only a few of these were eaten. Happened in last 24 hours (lawn mowed yesterday). No nest visible in nearby trees, and this tree 25 feet from edge of lawn, similar distance from nearest other tree.

3SE89. Gray squirrel youngster (from spring litter) passing through yard, east to west (not a neighborhood where squirrels lived).

20MR90. Gray squirrel chased fox squirrel away from Willowbrook crow cage area, then came back (note: squirrels often enter Willowbrook cages to take food from dishes. A squirrel nest has been found in the bullwinkle in that cage).

22AP90. Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. 2 gray squirrels eating enlarged cottonwood buds high in the tree. They ascended together, the larger almost seeming to pursue, certainly to follow, the smaller. The smaller climbed in 2-foot spurts, the larger following, beginning its move as soon as the smaller’s ended. Larger flicked tail in rippling pattern reminiscent of fish or salamander courtship. The smaller may have done so once or twice, but less forcefully. Slow and deliberate, not a rapid play chase. When they were high up, it appeared the smaller would leap to another branch to escape. Larger broke off chase, and they fed. Didn’t take every bud, examined many without taking. Later, larger followed smaller to ground, then up another tree, same way. Larger sometimes sniffed where smaller had been. Larger got ahead of smaller and turned to face it, flicking tail. Smaller turned away. Etc.

1JL90. Gray squirrel in mulberry tree, feeding on ripe berries, West DuPage Woods.

26JA92. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Lots of nut digging by squirrels, last 24 hours. Fresh snow, overnight low 20F.

21SE97. Gray squirrel eating gilled mushroom cap, Petoskey State Park, MI. Both gray and black individuals common. One chased by red squirrel briefly.

4MR99. At mid-day a gray squirrel emerged from a hole in a large, dead willow across from the Safari Trail/Glen Crest Creek junction at Willowbrook to drive away an approaching fox squirrel. The gray immediately returned to the hole.

27OC99. Fox and gray squirrels active. Former have been eating nuts in recent days, one this morning in a box elder eating seeds, another appearing to work on a broken down old nest. Gray squirrels on ground this morning, some in woods, at least one in base of savanna finger at Willowbrook.

28OC99. Gray squirrel with nut, fox squirrel eating box elder seeds.

17NO99. A gray squirrel (young) and a fox squirrel both eating box elder seeds at Willowbrook.

2DE99. Several gray squirrels and 1 fox squirrel foraging on ground.

9FE00. Gray squirrel using an exposed (though low) leaf nest at Willowbrook.

14FE00. Many gray and fox squirrels this winter in nests only 12‑14 inches outer diameter at Willowbrook.

4MR00. A gray and 2 fox squirrels feeding on the expanding buds of an American elm near the Joy Path of Morton Arboretum. As I left the path to approach the tree to ID it, the gray squirrel immediately left and ran to other trees. As I walked up to the trunk, the lower of the fox squirrels finally left, but the higher one remained.

15MR00. Willowbrook. A gray squirrel carrying a walnut, in vicinity of trail willow den (have seen a squirrel eating a walnut near there recently).

11JE00. In a morning’s hiking south of Langlade, WI, 1 gray squirrel seen.

21OC05. Willowbrook. Gray squirrel, tail curled over its head, giving its growling-snarling-whining call with an education raptor volunteer holding a red-tailed hawk on a glove nearby. Squirrel holding still, oriented so that its right side is toward the hawk.

25JA06. Fullersburg. 2 pairs gray squirrels chasing one another, probably courtship.

10JL06. Gray squirrel eating ripening hackberries, Fullersburg’s Willow Island.

5OC10. Mayslake. A fox squirrel chased a gray squirrel on the ground in the south savanna.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Our two species of kinglets are early season migrants. Today’s featured species usually shows up a little later than the golden-crowned kinglet.

Kinglet, Ruby-crowned

Ruby-crowned kinglet

Ruby-crowned kinglet

I have seen this little northern-breeding bird in migrations, in northern IL and IN. Usually they travel in flocks. In 1986 they moved north later than golden-crowned kinglets, in mid-late April, mainly, in DuPage County.

26OC86. Single seen in brush at Willowbrook.

18AP87. First of year seen at Dunes State Park, IN. Has louder, harsher voice than golden-crowned. More chatter. Resembles goldfinch with a burr.

24AP87. Pratts Wayne Woods (Prairie Path). Moving from bush to bush. No vocalizations. Also, little or no probing; foraging by sight only.

21AP89. First migrants of year seen in the little park across from the Newberry Library, Chicago.

22AP89. Both kinglets at Willowbrook, using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit. Also, this is the kinglet with the song, high and thin, that has one section of accelerating notes flowing into a “chee-chee-per-chi-bee” section.

24AP89. Still at Willowbrook.

25AP89. Lots of them at Willowbrook today. First warm early morning of the year.

26AP89. A few present at Willowbrook.

3MY89. Still a few.

21OC89. Present in West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

22AP90. Winfield Mounds. Has song “tsee-tsee-…(accelerating)…tsee-tsurd-tserber-tsee-tsurd-tserber-tsee.”

15OC90. Ruby-crowned kinglets at Willowbrook.

23SE91. IL Beach State Park. Kinglet in black oak, reaching, lunging, and very short-flight hover gleaning. 3-12″ per move, less than 0.5 second per perch.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived.

20AP99. Ruby-crowneds are showing their red crests today (first time since they started arriving), defending little feeding areas along the stream at Willowbrook. Flycatching and flush-pursuit foraging.

21AP99. Today they still are foraging with much aerial pursuit, but are moving together in groups. No crests showing.

7MY99. A second major wave of ruby-crowned kinglets, probably females, at Willowbrook. None seen after this date that spring.

1&11OC99. Migrants at Willowbrook.

12AP00. Migrants at Willowbrook, singing occasionally.

16AP00. Willowbrook. Several ruby‑crowned kinglets on the preserve, some singing. Two observed showed much more flycatching than golden‑crowneds showed this spring, and some hover‑gleaning. Longer pauses on each perch while searching for an insect to pursue.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

14OC00. The past week at Willowbrook, and today at Fermilab, ruby-crowneds foraging mainly in prairie areas with scattered shrubs, concentrating on the shrubs but occasionally visiting goldenrods as well. This open area foraging contrasts with their usual spring woodland preference. Golden-crowneds this fall have been sticking to the woodlands.

7AP01. A couple ruby-crowns seen among numerous golden-crowns at Greene Valley Forest Preserve. One of them occasionally sang.

20OC01. A kinglet foraging alone in a tall herbaceous patch (mainly goldenrods that have gone to seed) at McKee Marsh. I have seen several others behaving similarly the past couple of weeks. It flies from stalk to stalk, perching just below the seed/flower heads and looking all around, apparently for insects. Occasionally makes a hover-gleaning move, often against a seed head.

13OC02. An individual giving a quick, 2-noted call similar to chattering of house wren or perhaps yellowthroat.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of the ground in herbs and shrubs beneath, only occasionally and briefly venturing into the lower canopies. Ruby-crowneds have a quick, chattering-quality “checkit” call. Hover-gleaning their most common foraging method today.

5-11NO05. During my southern vacation, I found golden-crowned and ruby-crowned kinglets all the way to the Gulf of Mexico

23OC07. Fullersburg. A ruby-crowned flashed red in a brief squabble with another.

9AP13. Mayslake. A ruby-crowned kinglet was perched in place and chattering much like an irritated house wren.

Mourning Dove Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

This week’s species dossier features a bird that is familiar and common. Over the course of my developing this dossier (established in the mid-1980’s) there seems to have been a change, with mourning doves wintering this far north with increasing frequency.

Dove, Mourning

Mourning dove

Mourning dove

Mourning doves usually live in open areas with some trees. In winter, they sometimes roost in thick evergreen plantations. They feed on the ground, picking up seeds. Nesting begins early in spring (March), with adults’ walking around, picking up sticks the first sign. Usually the first nest is in the branches of a conifer; subsequent nests may be in deciduous trees. The nest is a flimsy, loose platform of sticks. Two eggs almost always complete the clutch. Both adults incubate; early morning is a common switching time. The call is a mournful “cooweeoo, coo, coo-coo” (“bachelor song,” after literature). They produce a loud whistling of wings in flight. Generally they are not seen in northeast Illinois in winter, though occasional adults stick it out around feeders in Culver, Indiana. (Some were present all winter of 1998-9 at Willowbrook). There is a distinctive pumping of the head while walking. Mourning doves were very common in Texas, in brushlands, mountains and desert.

Mourning dove fledglings. This species lays 2 eggs per clutch.

Mourning dove fledglings. This species lays 2 eggs per clutch.

Late MY90, Hartz Lake. A mourning dove singing his bachelor song low in a tree flew off in a startle as a female sharp-shin landed in the same tree. The dove stayed within tree canopies as it flew.

27JA97. Morning. Snow fairly deep. A red-tailed hawk flew over the College of DuPage parking lot with something in its talons, pursued by half a dozen crows. The hawk perched on a flat-topped, wooden light pole and began plucking prey while crows sporadically left nearby perches and swooped at it. After 10-15 minutes it flew away, and I checked the feathers, which were scattered in singles and small clumps over a 20×30 foot area: mourning dove. Crow calls resembled owl mobbing, but smaller number of birds and less sustained.


11MR99. First “bachelor calls” of the season at Willowbrook.

31OC01. At least 20 mourning doves, more than I have seen together in months in northeast Illinois, at a savanna area in the Nelson Lake property, Kane Co.


18FE05. First bachelor calls of the season, Winfield Mounds.

Mourning dove incubating its nest

Mourning dove incubating its nest

30MR09. Mayslake. A pair of mourning doves has a nest in a spruce in front of the mansion. (This nest later was abandoned, possibly because of the heavy human traffic that was passing close by).

American Goldfinch Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today I share what little I know of goldfinches. They are common, we find them throughout the year, but apart from their vocalizations, their plumages, and the fact that they like seeds, how much more can be said? Beautiful, interesting birds, though.

Goldfinch, American

American goldfinch, male in summer plumage.

American goldfinch, male in summer plumage.

Male goldfinches are bright yellow, black and white in summer. They molt into more subdued colors like those of females in winter, with yellow replaced by greenish. They spend most of the year in flocks. Their flight has a distinctive rollercoaster pattern, accompanied by “chip-chip-chip” and “ziiiiip” vocalizations. Males have a chittering musical song with occasional “zip” notes (slur up), sung from a tall tree or the top of a bush. They sing in early spring, long before nesting, then again in the mid to late summer nesting season. Usually they are seen in or around old fields. They nest in late summer, not beginning until other passerines are done nesting. The nest often is built in a bush in an old field, generally with weed seed down or spider webs used in nest construction. Goldfinches eat seeds.

3SE86. A flock preened at midday in thick tree foliage along Glen Crest Creek at Willowbrook Forest Preserve. They used a “chee-chur-chur” call for contact, giving it whenever changing perches (even flying short distances), and in long flights.

12AP87. First song of year noted, at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve.

26AP87. Male goldfinch singing in birch in Warrenville yard, 2/3 up the tree. Head facing slightly down toward a female. Then it took off, chasing her with a third goldfinch, gender not noted, joining them.

Goldfinches are the masters of plant seeds, and they can find them in every season. Here a bird in winter plumage extracts seeds from paper birch cones.

Goldfinches are the masters of plant seeds, and they can find them in every season. Here a bird in winter plumage extracts seeds from paper birch cones.

30AU90. Goldfinches working the thistles (Cirsium discolor and bull thistle) of late. The bird perches on a flower head going to seed and pulls it apart, tossing detached down aside.

25JE99. Goldfinch spring singing has ended.

13JL99. Goldfinches singing again.

10JA01. At Willowbrook, a couple of goldfinches were feeding on silver maple buds in the top of the tree, pecking at them.

15AP06. Mayslake. First goldfinch song of the year.

Goldfinches spend much of their time in open places, especially fields rich in seed-bearing annuals and perennials.

Goldfinches spend much of their time in open places, especially fields rich in seed-bearing annuals and perennials.

16JL09. A female goldfinch seeking fibers from my garden plants, therefore nest building nearby.

5AP10. Mayslake. A goldfinch male sang as it closely pursued a rapidly flying female, with twists and turns, similar to the behavior of red-winged blackbirds.

6MY10. Goldfinches have variable songs that often for a moment sound like those of other birds. Examples include Nashville and other warblers, catbird, cardinal. Are they song mimics, with an even heavier accent than that of the catbird?

The literature illuminates some of these observations. The two main functions of song are divided in this species. Spring singing is for finding a mate, and late summer singing is territorial.

Raccoon Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

I am overdue to share one of my mammal dossiers. This one is relatively large. As always, the dossier is limited to my own experience. I established it in the mid-1980’s, and since have added dated notes.


Raccoon, Aransas NWR picnic area, Texas

Raccoons occur in a fairly wide range of habitats, though they usually live in areas with some trees and wetlands. They can be abundant in residential areas. Raccoons are nocturnal, spending the day in a hollow tree or a woodchuck burrow (alternatively, in shed, attic, or chimney). They are active all year round, though somewhat less so in winter. They avoid activity in storms or extremely cold temperatures. Sometimes they sun themselves on a branch in summer. Centers of foraging activity are garbage cans in residential areas, and ponds, streams or marshes elsewhere. Their diet is extremely broad, but features small aquatic invertebrates and vertebrates (crayfish especially favored), also fruits and insects from terrestrial areas.

Females have 1 litter of young per year, born mostly in April or early May in northeast Illinois. Young remain in the nest several weeks, then begin following the mother (father doesn’t participate in rearing). Separation begins around September. Young often remain together in 2’s or more through their first winter. The young are especially vocal, uttering a rolling chatter when interacting with one another, giving loud cries when picked up, and occasionally giving a distinctive rising whimper which may be a call for mother. In play, young bounce around with shoulders humped above stiff front legs and hair raised. This probably leads into an aggressive display of adulthood.

21DE86. A well-established trail leads from a bur oak den tree for 20m, then splits 3 ways into fainter paths. All sets of tracks visible on that trunk led away from the den tree.

Raccoons, creatures of habit with a heavy walk on flat feet, produce clear trails in winter.

15JA87. Raccoon tracks in Willowbrook Back 40 are the first sign of that species I have seen on several preserves since heavy snow fell almost a week ago. This one seemed to be trying to minimize contact with the snow by walking on logs, walking on melted patches, and bounding in open stretches where deeper snow couldn’t be avoided.

20JA87. No raccoon signs in 3 days since new snow.

9FE87. Raccoon were active in the center of the Willowbrook Back 40 last night.

3JE87. A raccoon gnawed on a rabbit hind foot in brush near the great horned owl nest, Willowbrook Forest Preserve, at mid-day. It ran off quietly as I passed, at a fast diagonal walk or a trot.

22AU87. Photo and sketch of raccoon gallop, lope. 15 inches up to next set, 16.5 inches back to previous set, which was 14 x 5.5″ and looked a little more gallop-like. The set before that (19 inches back) was a gallop, borderline bound.

Sketch of raccoon gallop

Sketch of raccoon lope

14NO87. A raccoon was dying of distemper at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. It was on its back, eyes crusted shut.

Canine distemper is one of the most important causes of death in northeast Illinois raccoons.

10DE87. Lots of fresh raccoon tracks are all over Willowbrook Back 40 trails, compared to only 1 fresh set of opossum tracks.

23DE87. There has been some raccoon activity in recent nights, and much opossum activity.

16JA88. Considerable raccoon action last night, which was warm. No opossum tracks.

20JA88. Lots of raccoon and opossum activity last 2 warm nights, Willowbrook. The stream was high, no crossings observed.

The flat-footed, 5-fingered raccoon footprint is distinctive.

17MY88. A raccoon was resting, perhaps sleeping, on an exposed horizontal branch near the top of a big willow, at midday.

12OC88. A raccoon was out at midday, Willowbrook Back 40 (I made several daytime observations of this animal in the rest of this month).

19DE88. 2 raccoons but no opossums were active the last 2 nights around the Back 40 Nature Trail.

Raccoons normally walk in the pace gait.

9MR89. Despite increased warmth over past 2 nights, there has been no use of trails by raccoons.

2AP89. Photos of 2 raccoons asleep in the 29-inch pin oak near the NE corner of Cactus Camp, near Hartz Lake, in Indiana. I saw the one in the hole first, didn’t see the other (in the crotch of a fork just above hole) until I looked with binoculars.

The raccoons described on April 2, 1989. These probably were siblings from the previous year, not yet breeding.

13MY89. 2 raccoons in the same sleeping places as on 2AP.

10JE90. Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve. A raccoon was active in the woods not far from the river (though at least 30 yards from it), half an hour after sunrise, foraging among Solomon’s plume in the forest. When I, standing still 15 yards away, shifted, it jumped onto a tree trunk, but I kept still in my camo sweatshirt and the raccoon resumed its foraging. Later I looked at the area. The vegetation was stepped on and disrupted, with common 2-3-inch holes, scrapes.

26JA92. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Raccoons were active last night (fresh snow yesterday, overnight low around 20F). I found a raccoon inside a hollow oak, at ground level, sheltered by the overhang of the leaning trunk. It looked back at me, but did nothing more.

JE99. Tracks seen at Horsethief Canyon, central Kansas.

19JA99. Willowbrook. Raccoons came out for the first time since the major snowstorm of 2JA, sometime between the 15th and today.

26JA00. In spite of the very cold previous night (subzero F), raccoons were out, at least 2 individuals moving together. This winter a group of raccoons is moving back and forth between a den high up in a dead willow near the Willowbrook bridge, and a den along the nature trail in a smaller dying willow. On the coldest nights they tend not to use the bridge willow den, which is higher up and has a larger hole which goes practically down to the bottom of the den. The trail willow den has a smaller hole, is not so exposed, and at least one animal can fit below the bottom edge of the hole. On the warmer nights, though, they seem to prefer the more spacious bridge willow den.

Raccoon skeleton. Raccoon and deer bones are the ones most frequently encountered in the field.

31JA00. A raccoon was out last night in the newly added 6 inches of snow, gait in the deep snow entirely a diagonal walk for a long distance.

4MR00. Hemlock Hill, Morton Arboretum. After a night that dropped into the 20’s, a raccoon slept in the open crotch of a large red oak, 10 feet off the ground. Now sunny, 30’s.

1AP00. While running on the Prairie Path between Butterfield and Kirk Roads, I spotted a raccoon sleeping on a large, open branch of an oak in a small wooded area beside the trail. A warm, sunny day.

30AP00. Raccoon snoozing in a dead tree trunk, largely hidden in a rotted out cavity 12 feet up and only about 20 feet from the busy main trail at Waterfall Glen (section parallel to S railroad tracks).

The raccoon skull is distinctive in its size, rounded form, and mix of canine and flattened molar teeth.

9AU00. Last night at 3am, loud cries eventually got me out of a deep sleep. Going to the window I saw a raccoon below, uttering the last of the cries. They were loud, and different from other raccoon vocalizations I have heard. The sound was sniffing or snorting, even whinnying in quality but very high pitched and sounding like a conflict or fear-driven vocalization.

28DE00. At 1:30 p.m., a raccoon was eating snow from the large upper limbs of the big, largely dead tree 40‑50 yards NNE of the Willowbrook office building (visible from the north office window). It then turned around and climbed down into the large crack on the SE corner of the trunk. This marks the 4th confirmed den on the preserve, and the 3rd winter den (the hollow catalpa behind the opossum cage in the outdoor animal exhibit is known only to have been used by a female to keep her tiny cubs in spring of this year). The deep snow that fell in mid-December has kept raccoons in their dens for more than 2 weeks.

Raccoons create communal toilets, often on elevated tree branches. This one, at the base of several joined tree trunks, shows a heavy recent diet of mulberries by the local raccoons.

13JA01. At 10:30 a.m., a large raccoon was walking a deer trail near the place where the regional trail crosses the back marsh at Herrick Lake. It seemed perfectly healthy. After a short time it left the deer trail and, with some effort, forged its own path through the still-deep snow.

26AP01. Sounds of baby raccoons coming from the same catalpa as last year at Willowbrook. (Last year she moved the 2 young to another tree when they were old enough to walk; this one has a very small entrance).

Older youngsters peek out from their den.

19MY01. A large raccoon was well exposed on the open branches of a dying oak at the Arboretum, grooming itself at 9 a.m.

21MR02. A raccoon shifted into a diagonal walk on a wet-snow hillside. Better traction? No overlap-separation between the tracks of each side. Elsewhere in flat areas, it used the pace gait.

14AP02. A female raccoon carrying a baby smaller than her head, more than 250 yards along the edge of the east side of Lake Maxinkuckee (Indiana), between 2:30 and 3:00 p.m.

2012. My notes since 2002 have been logged mainly in my natural history survey records at Willowbrook, Fullersburg and Mayslake. At Willowbrook it seemed that every year a female had her litter in a smaller den (warmer? more secure from males?), and at some point shifted them to a larger more open one. At Fullersburg I was impressed by the raccoons’ willingness to go out on very cold nights that elsewhere usually would keep them in. Even on single digit (F) nights, they routinely swam across Salt Creek rather than going the long way and taking a bridge. I started this blog at the same time my office shifted to Mayslake, and any significant observations from November 2008 on could be found by searching on “raccoon.”

Starling Species Dossier

by Carl Strang

The European starling was one of the species that prompted me to begin my species dossiers. The first short paragraph contained everything I could say I knew about the species from personal experience when I set up the dossiers in 1985-86. It was embarrassing, and prompted me to pay more attention. Notes added later begin with date codes.


Starlings usually are associated with human structures.

A year-round resident throughout Indiana and Illinois, as well as southern Pennsylvania. Usually they are seen around human constructs, nesting in buildings, street lights, etc. They also nest in tree cavities and bird houses, even in open woods well away from people. In late winter they become vocal, mixing squeaky “querk” and “joo” notes with mimicries that are realistic but low in volume. Frequently they perch in and around tops of chimneys on cold winter days. Their plumage adds abundant white spots to feather tips in winter. Observations of a nest in a hollow catalpa on the Purdue campus, spring 1976, impressed me with the frequency of feeding trips and the domination of the diet with large caterpillars. They forage mostly on the ground in short grass. The young are very noisy, especially when a parent returns with food. Eggs are pale blue. The young are a uniform gray in color, forming into flocks of their own after leaving their parents. In fall, starlings often form large flocks, sometimes mixed with assorted blackbirds.

15JE86. A pair of starlings chased a broad-winged hawk in Maple Grove. It had paused briefly in the tree where they were, but I could not see if it carried anything. They uttered rattling calls throughout.

Starlings mobbing red-tailed hawk at Mayslake.

29MR87. Starlings on a road after rain, apparently eating worms.

6AP87. Starling at Willowbrook mimicking spotted sandpiper.

14MY87. Bird on horizontal branch of dead tree performing a display: bill pointed up, neck only stretched a little, wings lowered and fluttering more or less in coordination with a continuous calling, a mix of rattles, whistles and gurgles that continued for over a minute.

5MR88. Starlings imitating pewees, McKee Marsh.

21MR88. Starlings imitating purple martins, Willowbrook.

2MY88. Gathering nest material.

5MY88. First thin, high begging cries heard from a nest.

Older starling nestlings.

6JE88. First independent starling youngster seen, and the harsh “jeer” begging notes are not nearly as ubiquitous as during the past 10 or so days. First brood done.

4AU88. Youngster (independent) in Willowbrook Back 40 eating fruit from black cherry tree, spitting out seeds.

22MR89. Starling at Willowbrook loudly and accurately imitating the sound of a squirrel chewing on a nut.

24MR89. At Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve, starling imitations of nighthawk, meadowlark.

4JL89. Second brood of starling young chattering in nests, Myers Grove, near Jeffersonville, Indiana.

Starling pauses during a frigid mid-winter bath.

24JA90. Extended (at least 2 minutes) fight between starlings. They locked bills and beat one another with their wings, each trying to force the other onto its back. When beak grip lost, they sought it again. Finally one broke free and flew away. The other flew up to the top of an adjacent building and sang, with slight lifting of wings at 1-2-second intervals.

1NO99. Starlings mimicking killdeers at Willowbrook.

30JL00. Large flock of starlings, many or most of them immature, in trees on south side of McKee Marsh.

Starling flock on an early December morning.

9MR01. On 3 occasions this week, I have seen an interesting reaction by the flock of starlings hanging around the outdoor cages at Willowbrook to a hawk passing through. On 3 different days there were low flying hawks, an adult red-tail, a Cooper’s, and a young red-tail. Each time, the starlings all took off and flew in a tight flock. At first it reminded me of a mobbing flight, or a shielding as the red-necked phalaropes do, but soon it became clear that the flock was not pacing the hawk but adopting a course oblique to its path. The remarkable features were the flock’s tightness, which was a little greater and with no outliers in contrast to the usual, and the coincidence in their taking flight with the arrival of the hawk. They landed as soon as the hawk was gone.

1JA02. Starlings at the Morton Arboretum are feeding heavily on a bumper crop of red cedar fruit.

Seeking Singers

by Carl Strang

The middle of August through September is the peak singing insect season, and on Tuesday I took the first of a scattered series of vacation days to work on a long checklist of targets. I started with searches of the McKee Marsh edge at Blackwell Forest Preserve, and the area around the bridge over the West Branch of the DuPage River at Winfield Mounds Forest Preserve. My main targets were long-tailed and black-sided meadow katydids. I first found those two species in the county last year, and went to these likely locations in hope of finding more. At Blackwell I found mainly black-legged and short-winged meadow katydids, our two most common species in their respective genera. I also saw a few conehead nymphs like this.

Only about an inch long, and lacking wings, these will have to grow fast to complete their development this season. I suspect they are round-tipped coneheads.

After considerable wading through vegetation depressingly dominated by reed canary grass, I finally spotted a female long-tailed meadow katydid. She did not provide a photo op, but I did post some photos last year from another location.

The Winfield Mounds bridge was on the list thanks to my meeting a photographer who had placed a photo of a black-sided meadow katydid on his website. He said he took the picture at the bridge. Again I found a lot of reed canary grass, but dutifully waded in. Again, plenty of black-legs and short-wingeds, but there were scattered others including a female Say’s trig who hopped onto my net.

I didn’t realize how big the females can get, and how they can have long wing extensions reminiscent of a two-spotted tree cricket’s, until I met this individual. She was a good centimeter long.

Shortly after photographing the trig I spotted a black-sided meadow katydid, and so they indeed persist in that area.

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).

Insect Absences

by Carl Strang

This past weekend I took advantage of the warm weather to see about filling some absences in my singing insects records. First, I wanted to get some clarity on the apparent absence of fall field crickets (FFC) from Winfield Mounds and East Branch Forest Preserves. Second, I hoped to find woodland meadow katydids. Winfield Mounds is a fairly large preserve, and it contains a considerable area of habitat that appears to be suitable for FFC.

I extended my search through several habitats like this, and despite repeated visits to this preserve have failed to find FFC there. Winfield Mounds does, however, have the spring field cricket, sibling species to the FFC. The closest FFC I found to the preserve were several singing in a railroad embankment just across the road from the preserve’s southern edge.

I frequently put on the SongFinder to see if I could locate woodland meadow katydids in or near the woods edges. There were none. Mostly I was hearing short-winged meadow katydids. As I was checking the reconstructed mounds for which the preserve was named, I found this singer.

Its song was that of a short-winged, and the grassy bit of habitat was appropriate despite being in the center of the woods.

However, this insect had very long wings. Its song, coloration, and cerci (below) showed it to be a rare short-winged meadow katydid with long wings.

I went on to the area surrounding East Branch Forest Preserve. The closest FFC I found was in a residential neighborhood, several blocks away from the preserve boundary. There is a lacuna in the species’ local distribution, but it is not huge. East Branch, like Winfield Mounds, has spring field crickets.

Waterfall Glen would seem the most likely place to find woodland meadow katydids in DuPage County. Earlier I had searched without success in the western part of that large preserve. This weekend I made two stops in the eastern part. Again, I was hearing plenty of short-winged meadow katydids. Here is one of them, with a more conventional wing length.

I have come to the conclusion that this is the most abundant meadow katydid by far in DuPage, and among singing insects is rivaled only by the three common ground cricket species. I failed again to find woodland meadow katydids, and I wonder if they are supplanted locally by short-wingeds.

Sandhill Crane Dossier

by Carl Strang

We have been seeing sandhill crane flocks passing over northeast Illinois, their calls announcing the new season and making them a good choice for this week’s species dossier.

Crane, Sandhill

DuPage County, IL, is under a major flyway in both spring and fall migrations (Jasper-Pulaski wildlife area in IN and Horicon Marsh in WI their equidistant destinations, so they usually pass over at midday in both spring and fall). Altitude usually fairly high; use thermals over Glen Ellyn, for example, to make large spiralling climbs. Ratchety calls generally made in flight. Occasionally a very few stop overnight at McKee Marsh. They take advantage of weather systems to get wind pushes to north or south while migrating.

I know them best from western Alaska, breeding grounds. Arrived very early in spring. Nest generally 2 eggs. Territory marked with duet call, one bird bugling, the other with rattling call in time. When I approached nest or hidden young, parents would sneak away with body and head held low. Flocks organized by August 1.

A distraction display?: bird walked slowly with back arched, wings hooded and held out to sides.

Arrived on the breeding grounds in flocks. Fed on old berries, and probably voles and cocoons.

Nest: “2 eggs in a dry area with scattered standing Elymus stems but no real cover. Nest a bunch of flattened Elymus stems.” Another on a pingo top.

21MY74. Kashunuk study area. “Territorial encounter between 2 crane pairs. The defending pair walked toward the intruders and when they came within 20 feet the latter showed a posture like gulls’ Anxiety Upright and took off. As they ran into take-off, one defender followed them for several steps, body bent forward and neck arched down, then up.” Defending pair duetted after intruders left.

1JL74. I watched an arctic fox testing an adult crane. Made short dashes in, then leaped back. Crane charged back at fox with neck low, bill forward, head about 1 foot above ground, wings part open, when fox came closest. No chick or eggs observed nearby.

In fall 1986 first migrants heard 13SE. Large flight 2NO.

22SE87. Migrant flock passed over Willowbrook, midday.

10MR88. Large flock passed over Willowbrook at noon.

22MR88. Cranes over Willowbrook at noon. Wind from south, warm.

1MY88. A pair flew up from West Chicago Prairie F.P., gone the following morning.

10MR89. Cranes passing by Hartz Lake property (Starke County, IN), mainly to south.

21MR89. Cranes over Willowbrook, noon. Several high V’s.

2AP89. Pairs and singles going by Hartz Lake, morning.

22SE89. 3 cranes passing over Willowbrook, late morning.

3NO89. A couple large flocks over Willowbrook. High, in V’s. Wind mainly west to east with slight north to south component.

13NO89. Crane flock over Winfield Mounds F.P., 11 a.m. Later, another, rising on thermals of Winfield town.

16NO89. Large crane flock over Willowbrook, high and fast-moving on a cold north wind.

Crane flight in 3 parts: slow for most of downbeat, quick end of downbeat, snapping into quick upbeat.

20MR93. Lots of cranes passing over, today and for past week.

24MR97. Cranes getting anxious? Flock passed over Willowbrook 9 am. Two days ago another flock passed over at 4 p.m., into north wind.

In spring of 97 I saw migrant cranes in the Platte River area of Nebraska.

4MR99. First cranes of spring passing over Willowbrook, several flocks at mid-day. Also noted there 18MR, 19MR.

29SE99. First cranes of fall passing over Willowbrook.

3MR00. 3 flocks of cranes went over Willowbrook around 2-3 pm, the first of the year for me.

24SE00. The first crane flocks of the fall passing over West Chicago Prairie and Fermilab. Flocks of 21, 23, 20 and 48 counted.

23FE02. A flock of 14 flew over Willowbrook around 1p.m., flying high, heading north. This is the earliest record for me; the winter has been mild.

23FE05. A flock of at least 30 passed over Mayslake Forest Preserve around 1:15 p.m.

« Older entries

%d bloggers like this: