Neighborhood Nature

Our Family’s Nature Blog

Neighborhood Nature is spending the summer at Wonder Works June 21, 2012

Filed under: Animals,Children's Interests,Rocks,Upcoming Events — saltthesandbox @ 5:11 pm

This summer the Neighborhood Nature team will be doing nature programs at Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park, Illinois.

We call our programming Nature Works at Wonder Works.  You’ll find us there in person with lots of cool stuff on Friday and Saturday mornings from late June through mid July (and maybe beyond, if things go well).

You can find out more on the Nature Works blog and Facebook page:

Nature Works Blog:

Nature Works on Facebook:

Hope to see you there!

Eric Gyllenhaal


Welcome to the Gyllenhaal’s Neighborhood Nature Blog! May 16, 2012

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests,Neighborhood Habitats — saltthesandbox @ 2:50 am

Perhaps you found this page by reading the recent Wednesday Journal article about our family:

If so, here are some links that might interest you:

Here’s a page with lists of the birds we’ve seen in Columbus Park (within the past week, month, year, and even earlier):

This page has similar bird lists for south Oak Park, where Eric walks twice a week or so:  (I may have seen and talked with you on some of these walks!)

And here are bird lists for our home and block in south Oak Park, updated about five times a week:


You can find more of Aaron’s bird photos here:

And here are some of Ethan’s photos:  (These days he puts many of his photos on Facebook.)


If your family is interested in nature, you may want to attend Eric’s Nature Works programming this summer at Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park.

Here’s a link to Wonder Works:

And here’s a PDF poster about Nature Works:


You may also be interested in our Salt the Sandbox website, started more than 10 years ago. It includes modules about the boys’ past interests in cicadas, rocks, cars, dinosaurs, and more:  Many Nature Works activities will be based on things Eric did with his boys when they were young.

That’s it for now. Thanks for visiting!


And now they are eating…caterpillars! May 18, 2011

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Bugs,Experiments,Plants,Puzzles and Mysteries,Seasons,Spring,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 8:20 pm

Almost two weeks ago we solved the mystery of what warblers were eating in the streets of south Oak Park: Beetle larvae!

Well, the beetle larvae are not longer tumbling from our elm trees, but the warblers and thrushes and Indigo Buntings keep coming, along with tanagers and orioles and more! So, to find out what the birds are eating now, I grabbed a white plastic box lid, held it under some low elm branches, and started shaking:

I shook the elm branches and caught whatever fell off them with a white plastic lid.

Here’s what I found: Little green caterpillars! (I put the dime there. Money doesn’t grow on trees in our neighborhood.)

Little green caterpillars that have been feeding on newly opened elm leaves.

Just in case someone out there can identify what type of moths or butterflies these become, here are some closer views:

Little green caterpillar number 1.

Little green caterpillar number 2.

I can’t identify the caterpillars, but I do know they taste good to birds. During the past week, we’ve seen 23 kinds of warblers feeding in and under our elm trees:

Golden-winged Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Orange-crowned Warbler

Nashville Warbler

Northern Parula

Yellow Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Black-throated Green Warbler

Blackburnian Warbler

Palm Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Blackpoll Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

American Redstart


Northern Waterthrush

Mourning Warbler

Hooded Warbler

Wilson’s Warbler

Canada Warbler

Feeding along with the warblers we’ve seen:

Yellow-throated Vireo, Warbling Vireo, and Red-eyed Vireo

Veery, Gray-cheeked Thrush, and Swainson’s Thrush

Gray Catbird

Summer Tanager and Scarlet Tanager

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Indigo Bunting

and Baltimore Oriole

These birds are all spring migrants. The Catbird is the only one who’s likely to stay and nest in our neighborhood. The caterpillars in our elm trees have helped them survive and refuel before the next night with southerly winds to speed them on their journey north.

Did I mention that last week we found thousands of tiny caterpillar poops on our cars each morning? The polite term for caterpillar poop is frass. This morning our cars were almost frass-free, although there was lots of bird poop on our windshields.

We’ll finally get some southerly winds later this week, so we expect most migrant birds to continue north. In their wake we expect our elms to enjoy an almost caterpillar-free summer.

Now if we could just find a biological control for the bark beetles that spread Dutch Elm Disease….


Look What’s Falling from Our Elm Trees! May 4, 2011

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Plants,Puzzles and Mysteries,Seasons,Spring,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 7:59 am

Every spring there are a few days in late April and early May when we see warblers in the streets, feeding on something. Two years ago it happened in late April, as seen in these photos of Yellow-rumped Warblers on our south Oak Park  block:

Yellow-rumped Warblers feeding on South Elmwood Street, April 27, 2009

Yellow-rumped Warbler on South Elmwood Street, April 27, 2009

Well, it’s been happening again the past few days. It’s like a block party for the birds, and it got me wondering–what’s for breakfast, lunch, and dinner? What tasty things are the warblers feeding on?

My best guess was that there was some sort of insect feeding on the opening leaves of the American Elms that tower over many sections of our block. Every spring there are also warblers feeding on something in the treetops, and every year there are tiny holes chewed in the leaves:

American Elm leaves - note the insect-chewed holes.

So, I was thinking that maybe whatever was feeding on the leaves somehow fell to the ground, where sharp-eyed warblers could spot them on the asphalt and continue their meals.

To test my hypothesis, I placed a white plastic lid where it could catch whatever was falling. I left it there from late afternoon yesterday until early this morning:

White plastic lid set up to catch whatever fell from the elms. May 4, 2011

Then, this morning, I brought the lid inside to see what I could find. It was covered with tiny, pale yellow grub-like insect larvae!

Tiny, pale yellow grub-like insect larvae that fell onto the lid

Closer view of grub-like insect larvae

So, one question answered: That’s what’s falling from the trees, and probably what the warblers are eating. But many questions remain:

  • What are these things? Hatchling caterpillars, or some other kind of insect?
  • Why are so many falling from the trees? Shouldn’t they be better adapted to hang onto the leaves? Or do they “jump” whenever a bird is picking at their leaf?
  • Once they hit the ground, they are still alive–you can see them moving. Can they somehow continue to live on the ground, perhaps feeding on fallen elm leaves and elm seeds? If so, when they are larger and stronger, would they climb back up into the trees?

So, I guess our next challenge is to try to raise a bunch of the larvae until they are large enough to identify. And once they are bigger we can put some of them at the base of an elm tree and see what happens.

I’ll let you know what happens!


A few hours I posted this, a Facebook friend and garden designer made this comment (Thanks, René!):

“I’m no entomologist, but after some research, my best guess is Elm Leaf Beetle. These guys feed on elms and drop to the ground in large numbers as little yellow guys to pupate. Sounds like the yellow-rumped Warblers are doing a good job of natural pest control.”

Here’s a photo of Elm Leaf Beetle damage:
Here’s a drawing of the Elm Leaf Beetle life cycle:
Here’s a photo of some Elm Leaf Beetle pupae:

We’ve put some of our fallen larvae (or whatever) into a plastic box with newly opened leaves–now we’ll see what happens!


Here are links to our earlier blog posts about birds in our streets:


I’m Devoting this Spring to Mobile Media April 14, 2010

Last fall I got my first iPhone, so I’m devoting this year to exploring nature with mobile devices. I bought bird guide apps like iBird Pro and Sibley Birds, and they’re pretty useful. However, I’m most interested in using my iPhone to enter and explore data about the nature in our neighborhood. Here are three ways I’m doing that, using both my iPhone and laptop computer:

  • Project Noah. Read about my early experiences with Project Noah here. To date I’ve posted 30 photos, mostly from Columbus Park and our neighborhood in south Oak Park. To find them, go to the Project Noah home page, type Chicago in the search box, and zoom into the center of the map. I planted most of the tiny leaves on the west side of town. Click on a leaf to see and read about my sightings.
  • @NearbyNature on Twitter. Twitter is where I post frequent, really short reports about the nature seen in our neighborhood (and elsewhere). These Nature Updates are also listed on this blog page at the top of the right menu.
  • eBird. I’ve been using eBird for three years now, and I’ve submitted more than 1000 lists, mostly from our neighborhood. You can see my latest lists on the Web by visiting my blog pages for Columbus Park, south Oak Park, and our block. Now you can also access eBird data using an iPhone app called BirdsEye.

So, that’s where most my online time and effort are going this spring and summer. I won’t be posting as often on this blog, but if you want to find out what I’m up to, now you know where to look.


I’m On Board With Project Noah March 15, 2010

A few days ago I uploaded my first post to Project Noah. “Noah” stands for “Networked Organisms And Habitats.” To quote from their About page:

“Noah is a tool that nature lovers can use to explore and document local wildlife and a common technology platform that research groups can use to harness the power of citizen scientists everywhere.”

I loaded the free Noah app onto my iPhone, and now I can upload photos to Project Noah from almost anywhere I go. I also can access Noah posts from either my iPhone or over the Web on my home computer. I can choose nearby Noah post locations to investigate from either a stack of photos (arranged by distance, closest first) or from a satellite map (precise locations marked on the map by small leaves).

So far, I’ve uploaded photos of:

  • Spring flowers, like Snowdrops (go here to see them)
  • A pellet from our favorite Great Horned Owl (go here)
  • Some Herring Gulls eating dead fish on the ice at Columbus Park (go here)

But my favorite post is a photo of a white Opossum I found a few days ago at Columbus Park:

I snapped this iPhone photo of the white Opossum in Columbus Park on the west side of Chicago.

My Noah post for this Possum can be found here.

So, for the next month or so I’ll be posting iPhotos I take around the neighborhood and beyond. If enough folks start doing the same thing in their neighborhoods, Project Noah could become a really cool resource for anyone interested in finding nature near their homes and beyond.

To see what’s been posted near you, just:

  • Go the the Project Noah home page (here).
  • Type your location into the search box above the map.
  • Look for the tiny leaves (individual photos) or round circles with numbers (when the leaves overlap because there are lots of posts from the same area).
  • Then start clicking to see what other folks have been seeing in your neighborhood.


To read about the Project Noah development team, go here.

Here’s what some other folks have to say about Project Noah:


Coyote Returns to Columbus Park! February 19, 2010

Filed under: Animals,Mammals,Seasons,Winter — saltthesandbox @ 3:44 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

When we first started birding at Columbus Park almost four years ago, Coyotes were year-round residents in the Park. We used to find their tracks crossing the snow-covered golf course, and we sometimes saw the Coyotes if we arrived early in the morning. Some folks even said they had seen a Coyote den in the Park.

Then about 14 months ago, Coyotes disappeared from the Park. The last time I saw one there was December 18, 2008. So, I was very pleased this morning when I saw a Coyote just standing there in the middle of the golf course:

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.

The Coyote was just standing there in the middle of Columbus Park golf course.

I only had the Sony DSC-H50 camera, with its 15 times zoom, so my photos only hint at how beautiful it was:

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.

The Coyote kept an eye me and everything else that moved or made noise around the edges of the golf course.

Coyote, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, February 19, 2010.

I tried to sneak closer by walking up behind the golf-course sanctuary prairie, but no such luck. When I peeked around the dried wildflowers, it was gone.

So, what’s a Coyote going to eat in Columbus Park? This past summer and fall we saw lots more Cottontail Rabbits than usual, and there are still lots of Gray and Fox Squirrels in the Park. Also, the snow is melting, and small flocks of Canada Geese have been returning to feed on exposed grass. Later this spring there may be 500 or more geese visiting the Park each day. For a lighter snack, there are often 40 or 50 Mourning Doves roosting on the south sides of wooded areas. Today they were just sitting on the ground, soaking up the sunlight. If all else fails, there’s usually something edible in the trash bins near the food bank, and some folks scatter bread to feed the wildlife.

So, it seems an enterprising Coyote could make a life for itself in this Chicago city park. We’ll see if this one sticks around.


For lots more information about the Coyotes that live in the Chicago area, check out The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project: Urban Coyote Ecology and Management.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.