Birds in Transition

by Carl Strang

Soon the first wave of birds that overwintered in the tropics will reach northern Illinois. April has brought a transition from wintry weather to the warmth, plant growth and insects that make the trip worthwhile for the many species whose ancestors were content with tropical conditions.

For most of the month we see birds that are year-round residents or are newly arrived from their wintering grounds in the southern states. They have to deal with the season’s variability, though. Early in April a cold spell brought a thin snowfall. There still were insects to be found, but they were on or close to the ground. A selection of species foraged on the banks of the stream at St. James Farm Forest Preserve.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

These included an eastern bluebird that abandoned his practice of hunting from tree branches, and shifted to hopping around in the open.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

The preserve’s first yellow-rumped warbler of the year also searched for prey there, though such bank foraging is a common practice for that versatile species.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

Even an eastern phoebe was forced to a ground-foraging interval.

On other days, getting set for the nesting season was a priority.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Cooper’s hawks occasionally called in wooded areas, considering whether to nest at St. James Farm.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Song sparrows sang as they began to sort out their territories.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Cardinals have been singing since January, as they are the songbirds most sensitive to day length change.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are wood duck boxes.

Pairs of hooded mergansers hung out on ponds where there are nest boxes.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

The preserve’s red-tailed hawks completed their nest and were good to go.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

A second pair of geese chose St. James Farm for nesting, but their site is a risky ridge beside the stream, with water on each side but reachable from either end by a coyote.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one.

April 21 was warm enough that the great horned owl young did not need brooding. This was my first look, and I could not be certain there was more than one baby.

And now, with the warm days forecast ahead, the big push of migrants soon will diversify the preserve’s avian picture.

 

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Mayslake Bird Action

by Carl Strang

Bird news, like the spring, has been slow in coming to Mayslake Forest Preserve this year. One of our earliest migrants to appear is the red-winged blackbird.

The males usually show up in February, but they did not arrive at Mayslake until well into March this year.

The males usually show up in February, but they did not arrive at Mayslake until well into March this year.

A safe bet was that the large muskrat lodge that sheltered a couple of the rodents through the winter in the center of the parking lot marsh would have a goose nest on it this spring.

This location should be secure from coyotes.

This location should be secure from coyotes.

A week later it was empty, a basking spot for a large snapping turtle. I do not know when incubation began, and so cannot give a likelihood that the nest was successful.

A week later it was empty, a basking spot for a large snapping turtle. I do not know when incubation began, and so cannot give a likelihood that the nest was successful.

A single red-tailed hawk has been hunting the preserve. Its mate no doubt is on a nest somewhere, but if it’s at Mayslake I haven’t found it, yet.

Keeping an eye on things

Keeping an eye on things

Residents, like the downy woodpecker, no longer are keeping the quiet low profile they maintained through the winter.

This one checks out a staghorn sumac stem in the north savanna.

This one checks out a staghorn sumac stem in the north savanna.

Another resident, a white-breasted nuthatch, pauses between bouts of courtship.

Another resident, a white-breasted nuthatch, pauses between bouts of courtship.

The later early-season migrants were abundant last week.

Yellow-rumped warblers actively foraged in Mayslake’s woodlands.

Yellow-rumped warblers actively foraged in Mayslake’s woodlands.

Soon we can expect the floodgates to open and the air will be filled with diverse migrants’ songs.

Mayslake Animal Update

by Carl Strang

Every season contains the seeds of the next, and this was very true at Mayslake Forest Preserve last week. The migration season is well under way, though mainly it still features species that wintered in the southern U.S. rather than the tropics.

This winter wren was a classic example. Its kind invented skulking, but this one came out for a few seconds into plain sight.

This winter wren was a classic example. Its kind invented skulking, but this one came out for a few seconds into plain sight.

This male yellow-rumped warbler, in contrast, was not hiding. The challenge with him was that he seldom held still for more than a second. There was always another insect to chase.

This male yellow-rumped warbler, in contrast, was not hiding. The challenge with him was that he seldom held still for more than a second. There was always another insect to chase.

The wren and the warbler both nest well to the north, and will be with us only a short time.

Home hunting was another theme. The first bumblebee queen I saw this year was a Bombus bimaculatus.

She didn’t hold still, and didn’t stick around for long, but the yellow center of the second abdominal segment is visible in this blurry photo.

She didn’t hold still, and didn’t stick around for long, but the yellow center of the second abdominal segment is visible in this blurry photo.

Bumblebee queens in spring are probing for holes in the ground where they can start their colonies. Some animals make their own holes, and I found what may be a test dig by Mayslake’s pair of coyotes.

It was in an elevated site, and the hole was a foot in diameter, but not yet completely excavated. I’ll check on it occasionally. Coyotes only use dens to shelter their young.

It was in an elevated site, and the hole was a foot in diameter, but not yet completely excavated. I’ll check on it occasionally. Coyotes only use dens to shelter their young.

The abundance of the growing season still is in the future for most, however.

This fox squirrel was making do with some dried rose hips from the bush outside my office window.

This fox squirrel was making do with some dried rose hips from the bush outside my office window.

Clearly we are in a season of promise and preparation.

Yellow-rumped Warbler Dossier

by Carl Strang

Today’s species dossier selection focuses on the yellow-rumped warbler, the species in its family that winters the farthest north, with a few sometimes staying through the winter in northern Illinois. Mainly we see them in migration, however, as they nest in the North Woods.

Warbler, Yellow-rumped

Yellow-rumped warbler

Yellow-rumped warbler

This is a very abundant warbler, observed around Culver and Lafayette in Indiana, DuPage County, Illinois, and Cumberland and Perry Counties, Pennsylvania. Usually they travel in flocks, foraging from the low understory to the canopy top. Many stay late in fall, and some appear early in spring. They retain the yellow rump patch (an obvious “follow-me” signal) year-’round. Call of fall birds “tseeet,” slight slur down in pitch early in call, then up at end, again slightly.

21AP87. Has appeared at McKee Marsh, Blackwell Forest Preserve.

26AP87. Song “tsew, tsew, tsew, tli-tli-tli-tli” (short I’s). In late morning at North Blackwell, these are sitting on perches and looking, as palm warblers did, but traveling farther between perches, working higher (mostly mid tree canopy) and not hover gleaning so much as flycatching.

29AP87. Some have songs composed entirely of the “tli” syllables, others place “tsew” syllables in the middle, others have more “tsew’s” than “tli’s.” Any combination of those two syllables seems possible, 8-15 syllables total in a song.

1MY87. Still a predominantly sit-and-wait foraging style.

4OC87. First fall migrants observed at Maple Grove.

12OC87. A yellow-rumped warbler foraged on the ground, hopping, probing, and peering under the leaves of the plants. It moved slowly, less than 1 foot per minute, turning all around.

13OC87. I observed 2 in Willowbrook’s Back 40, and on the 16th, several in the old field there.

17AP88. A couple at Blackwell Forest Preserve.

29AP88. One observed foraging in trees, spending 1-5 seconds per perch scanning, and moving 3-several feet between perches. It pursued prey once, and also tore apart a cottonwood flower. Then it sally-foraged a while. Later, it switched to reaching and probing in the flowers, moving shorter distances (mostly 1 inch-1 foot). The song was relatively weak for a warbler, accelerating through its 2-3 second duration.

7MY88. Indian Trails, Culver. One flycatching.

8OC88. Hidden Lake Forest Preserve. Abundant in woods, and in fields.

11OC88. Observed in Willowbrook Back 40.

18OC88. Observed at Hartz Lake, foraging with or at least near chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets.

17AP89. First of year seen, Willowbrook Back 40. Next mentioned 30AP, McDowell.

9MY89. One at Willowbrook, flycatching low beside stream.

21OC89. Lots of them in West DuPage Woods Forest Preserve. Foraging mainly by flycatching and hover-gleaning. Air cool, 50F or less, sunny, breezy.

Male breeding colors are much brighter, but I have yet to photograph one.

Male breeding colors are much brighter, but I have yet to photograph one.

17AP90. First of year seen, Willowbrook Back 40.

23AP90. One foraging in silver poplars at Willowbrook, probing etc. in canopies, with song: “we-see’-we-see -we-see -we-see -we-see” very fast, with slight emphasis on 2nd syllable and 20-30 seconds between songs. Afternoon.

19AP99. First of season noted at Willowbrook. Last spring migrant there 13MY.

30SE99. First yellow-rumped warblers of the fall, many at Willowbrook, 2 eating poison ivy berries. Also seen eating them on 5OC, 12OC.

20AP00. First spring migrants at Willowbrook. (I saw my first of the year 18AP while running near Warrenville).

22AP00. East Woods Trail, Morton Arboretum. Several yellow-rumps feeding high in forest canopy. One observed in crown of a sugar maple in flower. The bird was mainly sitting still, reaching into flower clusters for insects. They are singing the weak sounding song that alternates between two notes, beginning weakly, crescendo and decrescendo into a trailing, weak ending. Also calling: a harsh, “pick” sound, dull and flat in tonal quality but a sharply pronounced, sparrow-like note.

7AP01. First yellow-rumps of the season at Greene Valley Forest Preserve, feeding in trees in chickadee style, with much searching of twigs and bark, and a flush-and-pursuit seen.

30SE01. Many yellow-rumped warblers along the Fox River and on Island Park, Batavia. Spread out all over, some hover-gleaning, some flycatching, others getting poison ivy berries.

27DE01: Yellow-rumped warbler at Willowbrook, foraging at the edge of the open stream, seen to catch a small worm prey.

19DE03. A yellow-rumped warbler at Willowbrook feeding on poison ivy berries and calling, the first seen there in weeks.

28SE10. Mayslake. Some yellow-rumps eating cedar berries.

26OC10. Mayslake. In recent days I have found that yellow-rumped warblers can produce the common warbler call-note (high pitched, briefer) in addition to their lower species specific note.

10DE10. Mayslake. Yellow-rumped warbler eating cedar berries near the mansion.

Yellow-rumped warbler eating a red cedar berry

Yellow-rumped warbler eating a red cedar berry

25AP11. Mayslake. A yellow-rump singing a patterned song repeatedly, very similar to Nashville warbler song but ending just different enough to distinguish.

29AP11. Mayslake. Another distinctive yellow-rump song, this one ending like the one earlier in the week but beginning with a rising sequence of notes as in a scale.

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.

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!

Golden-crowned Kinglet Dossier

by Carl Strang

Here is my dossier for another northern species which often winters in northeastern Illinois in small numbers.

Kinglet, Golden-crowned

Migrant in northern Illinois, northern Indiana. Flight has the quality of falling snowflakes. Two foraging together at Willowbrook in early 1986 gave a contact call whenever flying between trees in which they were foraging. Song jumbling, chattering in high-pitched, thin tinkling voice.

1AP87. First of year seen.

3AP87. Willowbrook. The kinglets are as acrobatic as chickadees, but less assertive and so less noticed. A male fed at edge of the stream, hopping on mud, rocks, sticks, picking at ground, snapping at air, picking tiny things from water. Crest center yellow, but parts or all became red for split-second periods, either from change in bird’s orientation to light, or from minute elevations and depressions of feathers.

10AP87. A kinglet approached within 3 feet of me, hopping on sticks low to the ground.

11AP87. Maple Grove Forest Preserve, IL: Kinglets in trees, 10-40 feet up.

15AP87. Golden-crowneds done passing through.

4NO87. A Missouri state park south of St. Louis. Golden-crowned kinglets behaving much as I have seen them in spring migrations.

16AP88. Morton Arboretum. Flock feeding in forest treetops.

29AP88. Golden-crowned kinglets still present.

15OC88. First fall migrants, Warrenville Grove Forest Preserve.

18OC88. Foraging with yellow-rumped warblers.

31MR89. First of year seen, Willowbrook Back 40.

22AP89. Both kinglet species at Willowbrook. Both using a mix of hover-gleaning and even more pursuit.

24AP89. Still there. May only use movement-contact call when scattered out. Those on 22nd, foraging in easy view of one another, weren’t using it while today they are.

17AP90. Observed at Willowbrook.

31MR99. Many kinglets foraging along stream, Willowbrook.

12AP99. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets nearly gone (saw only 1), but ruby-crowneds have arrived. Last G-crowned in spring seen on 14AP.

5OC99. First migrant of fall noted at Willowbrook. Last seen 21OC.

11MR00. First kinglet of year at Willowbrook, only 1 seen. 3-syllable high-pitched contact call distinctive [for some reason it took me this long to learn to recognize this common call].

One reason I mentioned foraging technique so often is that, according to the literature, golden-crowned kinglets reach for food from perches more, while ruby-crowneds hover-glean and use flush-and-pursuit more. These behavioral differences are consistent with slight proportional differences in wing and foot length.

26MR00. West DuPage Woods. Today they are foraging high (20+ feet up), in canopies of white oak and other forest trees. One moving steadily, with hops of 1-3 inches mainly, occasionally larger jumps between major branches and trees, both reaching and hover gleaning. Hover-gleaning pursuits of 1-2 feet. In mixed flock with creepers and 2 white-breasted nuthatches. Another kinglet moved 6″-2′ between perches, remaining 2-3 seconds per perch with head constantly turning.

27MR00. Willowbrook. A number of golden‑crowned kinglets and 3 brown creepers observed. Kinglet contact notes usually more emphatic, in groups of 3 or 4. Creeper notes similar in pitch and tone, but a little fainter, more drawn out, and single notes evenly spaced as the bird flies between trees (spacing a little greater than the notes of the kinglets).

31MR00. Waterfall Glen, beside Sawmill Creek, several golden-crowned kinglets in apparent mixed flock with brown creepers and a couple white-breasted nuthatches. One moving 4″-2′ between perches, most often around 1 foot, with occasional flycatching move but most often flying to a perch and immediately reaching for something. The reach was done with no searching after landing, and so the bird had spotted the prey and flown to it. Later, I encountered another group of kinglets with chickadees nearby. One made shorter, 1-2″ hops with much looking around, 8-10 feet up in tree. I saw no foraging moves.

1AP00. Heritage Trail, Morton Arboretum. Several in mixed flock with chickadees and a white-breasted nuthatch. High, 40-50 feet in crowns of white oaks. Kinglets moving more constantly than chickadees, with smaller hops, doing a lot of reaching for prey.

13AP00. Willowbrook. Golden-crowned kinglets and ruby-crowneds both have been at Willowbrook all week.

22AP00. Morton Arboretum. Both kinglets still present.

2AP01. First golden-crown of the year at Willowbrook.

29-31AU01. Algonquin Park, Ontario. Small groups of golden-crowned kinglets frequently encountered, one of the more commonly observed birds, easily located by their contact calls. Almost always in association with black-capped chickadees. Once or twice, perhaps, not with other birds I could see. Usually seemed to be 3-5 individuals in a group, and almost always if not always in conifers. Note: the branches are fairly dense in these forests, promoting a reaching foraging style. Are forests more open farther north, where ruby-crowneds live, so that a hover-gleaning style is favored?

1FE02. One or two feeding with chickadees at Waterfall Glen, just east of Poverty Savanna area.

18AU04. Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, Ontario. A golden-crowned kinglet showed very unusual behavior as it foraged among balsam fir branches hanging out on the trail. It did a lot of hovering just beyond the branch tips, visually scanning as it did so. Perhaps it’s a young bird that will learn to abandon this energy-wasting behavior.

9OC05. West DuPage Woods. Golden-crowned kinglets foraging in crowns of trees while ruby-crowneds are mainly within 4 feet of 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.

16AP09. Golden-crowned kinglet, late in migration and apparently alone, uttering a different call. Same pitch as usual, but a longer burred call much like the rougher waxwing call.

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!

Bird News

by Carl Strang

 

In my last update of bird arrivals at Mayslake I didn’t have photos of a couple of the species I mentioned. Here is the loon, which stayed for 4 days but left when the weather got nice and the May’s Lake shores became sprinkled with fishermen.

 

loon-mays-lake

 

Here the loon takes a peek to see if there are any particular fish to chase.

 

loon-looking-b

 

I also mentioned the season’s first barn swallow. The next day there were three.

 

barn-swallows-b

 

Lately the most abundant migrants have been yellow-rumped warblers.

 

yellow-rump-1b

 

A new warbler on the scene on April 23 was this palm warbler.

 

palm-warbler-b

 

That same day, the lakes enticed an osprey to stop.

 

osprey-mayslake-cropped-b

 

Later, the osprey caught a bullhead.

 

New arrivals I haven’t gotten a chance to photograph are field sparrow, swamp sparrow, chipping sparrow, Swainson’s thrush, blue-gray gnatcatcher, and eastern kingbird. For now, the rush of migration and seeing familiar birds for the first time in this new place is enough for me. These records provide a foundation from which potential future inquiries may grow.

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