Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Returns of the Winter Geese October 22, 2015

Filed under: Birds,Citizen Science Projects — saltthesandbox @ 1:20 pm

My sons and I have been monitoring birds at Chicago’s Westside parks for almost a decade. Now that Ethan and Aaron are off at college, I still visit Columbus, Douglas, and Riis Parks at least three or four times each month. In each park I walk a route that takes me to most of the places where birds hang out and count every bird I see. I carefully count even the most common species, like American Robin, European Starling, and Canada Goose. We’ve gathered a lot of data over the years, and we’ve learned a lot about the seasonal changes in bird populations in this part of town. (Much of this data is summarized elsewhere on this blog: Columbus Park, Douglas Park, Riis Park.)

One thing that we quickly learned is that Canada Goose populations in the parks fluctuate quite a bit each year, as shown in the following graph of goose count data from Columbus Park, where we have been monitoring since 2007. (Click on the graph to make it larger.)


Seasonal changes in the Canada Goose population at Columbus Park on Chicago’s Westside, April 2007 through October 2015.

During the summer months there are often a few geese at Columbus Park, and some years a pair or two raise a brood of goslings. Other years the resident coyotes and goose-managing humans eliminate all geese from the park, at least during mid summer. Starting in September the park’s goose population begins to increase, and by Christmas Bird Count in mid December we often count 500 or more geese on the lagoon, lawns, and golf course at Columbus Park. During cold and snowy winters the geese may head elsewhere for a month or more, but goose populations usually increase again once the snow and ice melt. Sometime in March northward migration begins, and by April Canada Goose populations have fallen back to their late spring through summer levels. Although it’s not shown on the graph, goose populations in the park also fluctuate during the day, as many geese fly elsewhere at night.

Our monitoring data from Douglas Park is much less complete, since we only started going there regularly in 2012. However, the available data indicate that the yearly cycle at Douglas is similar to Columbus: Lower counts during the spring and summer, sharp increase in fall, drop off mid winter if there are deep snows, and at least a partial recovery before spring migration begins in March.


Seasonal changes in the Canada Goose population at Douglas Park on Chicago’s Westside. Although we visited Douglas several times a year starting in 2007, we only started monitoring there regularly in March, 2012.

We’ve always assumed that the winter Canada Geese in our parks come from somewhere to the north; however, I’ve wondered where, exactly, they spent their summers. Did they nest a hundred miles to the north, in Wisconsin? Or a thousand miles or more from Chicago, in arctic Canada? I’ve also wondered if the winter geese are loyal to one park, returning day after day, month after month, or if they wander from park to park, county to county, state to state, always looking for greener grass? And finally, I’ve wondered if the same Canada Geese return to Chicago, and maybe even to the same park, year after year?

I stumbled on some answers to my questions last December (2014) at Douglas Park. I was following my usual route around the north lagoon when my path was blocked by a small flock of geese. I slowly walked to and through the flock, and as they parted to let me through, I happened to look down. Here’s what I saw:


Canada Geese with leg markers C120 and C105, seen on December 3, 2014, at Douglas Park.

In all my years of monitoring birds, I had never seen markers like these. Of course, I rarely got this close to geese, and when I did I rarely looked at their legs. Looking around online I found a United States Geological Survey (USGS) website where I could submit my marker observations. I completed online forms for these two geese, and a few weeks later I received an email with a certificate of appreciation that looked like this. (I removed the bander’s address to respect his privacy.) :

Certificate of Appreciation for submitting data on the goose with leg marker C120.

Certificate of Appreciation for submitting data on the goose with leg marker C120.

Now I had at least a partial answer to one of my questions about Chicago’s winter geese. Both C120 and C105 had been banded the previous summer in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada, when they were too young to fly. Intrigued, I started paying much more attention to goose legs as I monitored birds. By slowly walking through goose flocks on the lawns and ball fields, I was able to address another question when I relocated both C105 and C120 at Douglas Park later that month. It seemed that at least some geese were returning to the same park more than once.

By staring at lots of goose legs through the winter and early spring of 2014-2015, I eventually found eight different leg-marked geese at Douglas Park, two at Columbus Park, and six at Steelworkers’ Park on Chicago’s far southeast lakeshore (where my younger son, Aaron, monitors birds). Once the winter’s snows melted, I also started seeing a different sort of marker, a white neck collar with black letter and numbers:


Canada Geese with neck collars 66C and 78A, seen at Columbus Park on Chicago’s Westside, on April 8, 2015.

Following up on information in the Certificates of Appreciation I received for the collared geese, I learned they had been marked the previous summer by a local research project, the Ecology of Wintering Canada Geese in the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Area (more information here and here). Through the spring I found eleven different neck-collared geese: Two at Douglas Park, six at Columbus Park, one at Riis Park, and two at Steelworker’s Park.

Even after local goose populations had decreased in the spring I kept looking for marked geese, but I did not see any after late May. However, in early August I received an email from the Canadian goose bander informing me that C165 had returned to Thunder Bay, Ontario.

As usual, local goose populations started increasing in September, and on September 30, 2015, I found two marked geese at Douglas Park, C120 and C151. I now had a partial answer to another of my questions, since I had seen C120 at Douglas twice before during December, 2014. Additional visits to Douglas Park through mid October located four more geese that I recorded the previous winter. In other words, by October 18, five of the eight leg-marked geese seen at Douglas during the winter of 2014-2015 had returned to the park.

Although I continue to stare at goose legs and necks in Chicago Parks (and plan to do so for years to come), this seems like a good time to tabulate my findings to date. The table for Douglas Park pretty much summarizes what I’ve learned so far:

Table summarizing data od marked Canada Geese at Douglas Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through October 18, 2015.

Table summarizing data on marked Canada Geese at Douglas Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through October 18, 2015.

Looking back at the questions I asked earlier in this blog post, here are some partial answers. (I call the answers partial because I saw markers on about one-in-a-hundred winter geese.):

  • Where did the winter (and spring) geese spend their summers?  My sample includes both geese banded during summers in Canada and geese banded during summer of 2014 in the Chicago area.
  • Are the winter geese loyal to one park, returning day after day?  My sample includes five geese that were present at Douglas twice in a month.
  • …month after month? Two of the seven geese that were seen at Douglas during December, 2014, returned to Douglas after the winter snows melted, during March, 2015. (Apparently they sought greener pastures when the snow got too deep at Douglas Park.)
  • Do the same Canada Geese return to Chicago, and maybe even to the same park, year after year?  Five of the eight leg-banded geese seen at Douglas Park last winter have been seen in the park so far this fall.

One more interesting finding from the age column of the Douglas Park table. The oldest goose in that sample, A657, was at least one year old when it was banded during July, 2008. That means it could have spent seven or more winters in Chicago before I finally saw it. I really wish I knew back then that goose legs could be so interesting!

My Douglas Park sample has more leg-marked geese than collared geese, but that pattern is reversed in my Columbus Park sample, as shown in the following table:

Table summarizing data on marked Canada Geese at Columbus Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through mid October, 2015.

Table summarizing data on marked Canada Geese at Columbus Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through mid October, 2015.

Of the two leg-marked geese seen at Columbus Park, one returned multiple times, both before and after the winter snows. Also, with a larger sample of neck-collared geese at this park, maybe it’s time to ask, why did I only see collared geese after the winter snows? Hundreds of geese received neck collars in the Chicago area during summer 2014, and even if they migrated south at some point, they could have been in the area for a couple months after banding. Neck collars, unlike leg markers, are pretty obvious when you are counting geese, even if they are too far away to read the numbers. I can make excuses for not seeing leg markers: They can’t be seen when the geese are on water or in the air, and they can’t be seen when the geese are far away or when the grass is too tall. Therefore, absences for leg markers probably don’t mean very much. However, I can’t make excuses for missing neck collars, especially when I was already looking for the much less conspicuous leg markers. There’s got to be an interesting story about the travels of neck-collared geese, but my Douglas and Columbus data are too sketchy to tell it. However, data from two other parks provide a bit more information about the collared geese.

Riis Park, on Chicago’s northwest side, attracts fewer geese than Douglas or Columbus Parks. Perhaps that’s why I only found one marked goose there, neck collar C111:

Table summarizing data on marked Canada Geese at Riis Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through mid October, 2015.

Table summarizing data on marked Canada Geese at Riis Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through mid October, 2015.

Like the other collared geese this one did not appear in the park until spring. Unlike the collared geese from Douglas and Columbus, this one stuck around for awhile: I saw it on both April 1 and May 27 at Riis, and I also saw it during the May 9th Illinois Spring Bird Count, at Garfield Park a few miles southeast of Riis. Like the other collared geese, it has not been seen since May, 2014 — at least so far.

Finally, here’s some data about marked geese seen at Steelworkers Park on the far southeast side of Chicago. My son, Aaron, and I visited this area once or twice a week until Aaron left for college.  Aaron monitors birds in and around the entire South Works steel mill property, but all our marker sightings were on the lawn Steelworkers Park, on Lake Michigan just north of the mouth of the Calumet River:


Table summarizing data on marked Canada Geese at Steelworks Park, Chicago, from December, 2014, through mid October, 2015.

There was one day in March when we saw a lot of marked geese at Steelworks Park: Six with leg markers and one with a neck collar. Those geese then disappeared, perhaps flying north or maybe just deciding that the grass at nearby Rainbow Beach and Calumet Park was more tasty. A second collared goose (24C, a male) was seen at least four times during April and May (April 2 and 16, May 2 and 21). Sometimes 24C was seen with other geese, and sometimes he was all alone. By May there were many goose nests on the old ore retaining walls near Steelworkers, so it’s possible 24C was the male in a mated pair. However, we never saw him with goslings, so we will never know for sure.

That’s where things stand as the end of October approaches. I’ve begun to answer some of my long-standing questions about wintering Canada Geese by piggy-backing on other people’s efforts. (Banding Canada Geese in July must be hot and dirty work!). I find the results amazing, but not surprising. Amazing things happen in goose brains to make them return time and again to the Westside parks. But they’re birds, after all, and birds do even more amazing things every migration season.

My findings are at most a few pixels in a much larger picture of Canada Goose yearly cycles, but they are a start, and they are the pixels I’m going to value most. Of course the two-year Ecology of Wintering Canada Geese in the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Area is going to fill in a lot more pixels in the Chicago area, and I look forward to reading their reports.

Until then, I’ll keep looking at goose legs and goose necks everywhere I go. If you do the same, and you find any of “my” geese, please report them on the USGS website. I’d also appreciate it if you send me a message about your sighting.


Sites Where We Monitor Birds August 31, 2015

Filed under: Uncategorized — saltthesandbox @ 3:00 pm

Here’s a list of the sites where my sons and I monitor birds in Oak Park and on Chicago’s Westside.

South Oak Park

Our Block in South Oak Park

Columbus Park, Chicago

Douglas Park, Chicago

Riis Park, Chicago

Taylor Park, Oak Park


Restarting, and Redirecting, the Neighborhood Nature Blog May 5, 2014

Filed under: Administration,Neighborhood Habitats — saltthesandbox @ 4:24 pm

As I first wrote here last spring, this blog has been inactive during the past few years as I devoted myself to other projects. This year, however, I have shifted the focus of my nature time and will, eventually, shift the focus of my posts for Neighborhood Nature. Rather than studying and writing about whatever aspects of nature catch my eye on a given day, I have been focusing on a more specific aspect of our neighborhood: the urban parks and suburban landscapes were my sons and I monitor birds for Chicago’s Bird Conservation Network. That includes:

  • The birds we find in these places,
  • The urban and suburban habitats where we find these birds,
  • The plants, bugs, and other resources that birds find and use within these habitats,
  • How bird numbers and behaviors change through the seasons, and
  • How the habitats and their resources change over time.

In preparation for the renewal of this blog, starting spring, 2014, I did the following::

  • Added a couple of additional monitoring sites,
  • Increased my monitoring at my existing sites (to weekly visits to all sites),
  • Did a more thorough job of documenting breeding success using eBird’s breeding codes,
  • Photographed and otherwise documented the plant and water resources available at those sites, and how they changed with the seasons, and
  • Made more notes about the birds’ use of plant and water resources.

That’s where my focus has been from last spring through mid fall. Soon it will be time to start writing and posting photos about my discoveries to date.


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:


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.


More Great Horned Owl Pellets at Columbus Park January 31, 2010

It’s been a busy month at work, but this morning, for the first time in two weeks, I monitored birds at Columbus Park. I saw 13 species of birds, including a Red-tailed Hawk whose tail was a mix of banded juvenile feathers and bright red adult feathers. However, I did not see the on-again-off-again Great Horned Owl who sometimes roosts in an oak tree on the west side of the Park. (Read about it here.)

I always enjoy seeing the owl, but when the owl’s gone I’m not too sad, because then I can search for owl pellets under its roosting tree. The pellets I’ve found so far (shown in this post) contained a mix of medium and small mammal bones, but no teeth. So I figured the owl was feeding on squirrel, rabbit, or maybe possum-sized mammals. Since I can’t often identify bones to species, I was really hoping to find some owl pellets with teeth or jar bones, which I often can identify. Today I lucked out:

Great Horned Owl pellets, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2010

Pellets spit out by the Great Horned Owl who sometimes roosts in Columbus Park. The large, snow-crusted pellet on the right includes a lower jaw. (Taken with my iPhone.)

Here’s a closer look at the jaw:

Owl pellet with rabbit jaw, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, January 31, 2010

I dug the jaw out of the frozen pellet so I could see the teeth. With the front gnawing teeth and grinding cheek teeth exposed, I recognized it as the mandible (lower jaw) of a Cottontail Rabbit. (Taken with my iPhone.)

Go here to see a photo of a complete Cottontail Rabbit skull with mandible.

This fall we had lots more rabbits than normal in Columbus Park, and I’d noticed gnawing damage to shrubs and small trees that was probably the work of rabbits. My neighbors in Oak Park had also noticed more rabbits in their yards this year and complained about damage to their gardens.  So, now there’s evidence that our Great Horned Owl is bringing the rabbit population back to normal.


Here are links to information and activities about owl pellets:



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