Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Finally, a Cute Mammal! October 26, 2009

As part of the World Wide Web, this blog is legally and morally obligated to display photos of cute mammals at least once a quarter. However, because we show so many photos of birds and insects, we have probably fallen behind on this responsibility. Granted, we posted a photo of our kittens back in March. And many people would consider our Possum from back in February to be cute in a homely sort of way, even if you had to wade through worms and millipedes to see the cuteness. But I guess our squirrel photos tended to look either really tough, like the one from last week, or kind of demonic, because of the flash effects on their eyes.

But now, how can you say this photo of a vole from Columbus Park isn’t cute?

Who can deny that this vole is a cute, fuzzy little mammal?

It’s really round and fuzzy, right? With tiny little ears? And it eats plants? Granted the eyes are small and beady, but check this out:

The tail is really short, which mean this vole is not on of those hated house mice!

The tail (yellow arrow) is really short! That means it's not a house mouse!

If you look really close, you’ll even see some short hairs covering the tail. That’s pretty good for an urban rodent!

So, I think Neighborhood Nature has met its cuteness obligation for the fall quarter. If you disagree, then next time I go to Columbus Park I guess I’ll have to carry a tiny costume in my pocket, so I can dress our vole as a cat.

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If you want to get serious about voles, you can go here or here.

 

Soggy Hawk, Feisty Squirrel October 23, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Mammals,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 9:14 pm
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By this morning it had been raining off and on for more than 24 hours, so when a juvenile Cooper’s Hawk showed up in our back yard, I wasn’t surprised that it looked like this:

After all that rain, this young Cooper's Hawk was pretty soggy.

After all that rain, this young Cooper's Hawk was pretty soggy.

Gail had spotted the hawk and called me up from the basement. She had first seen the hawk on the back fence, but a squirrel had chased it off. The hawk had sought some safety in our small ash tree.

Well, guess what happened next?

At first the Gray Squirrel did not seem to pay much attention to the young Cooper's Hawk.

At first the Gray Squirrel did not seem to pay much attention to the young Cooper's Hawk, but the hawk kept an eye on the squirrel.

When the squirrel got a bit closer to the hawk, it seemed to put them both on alert.

When the squirrel got a bit closer to the hawk, it seemed to put them both on alert.

The squirrel and hawk eyed each other warily, but the squirrel did not back down.

The squirrel and hawk eyed each other warily, but the squirrel crept closer rather than backing down.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get a shot of what happened next. The squirrel edged a bit closer, and the hawk flew back to the fence.

The Cooper’s Hawk did not just sit there on the fence. Instead, it tried to shake off some of the water that had soaked its feathers:

The young Cooper's Hawk shook its head, trying to shed some water.

The young Cooper's Hawk shook its head, trying to shed some water.

It didn't seem to do much good -- the hawk's feathers still looked pretty soggy.

It didn't seem to work. The hawk's feathers still looked pretty soggy.

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Now, let’s zoom ahead four hours. The rain has stopped, and Aaron just got home from a friend’s house. He spotted the hawk on a utility wire in the alley. It had hung itself out, like laundry on a clothesline, trying to dry its feathers in the breeze:

Later that afternoon the Cooper's Hawk was still drying its feathers, this time but spreading them in the breeze.

Later that afternoon the Cooper's Hawk was still drying its feathers, this time but spreading them in the breeze. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

Aaron managed to get closer to the hawk, whose feathers were finally starting to dry:

Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

The young Cooper's Hawk was finally drying out. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

So far the squirrels have won every confrontation we’ve seen in our yard. However, it seems the birds have not been as lucky. We’ve found the remains of several Pigeons near our home. Maybe that’s why the daily Pigeon counts on our yard have dropped from more than 30 during hawk-free September to only nine today.

 

Katydids 1, Cicadas 0 October 20, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Fall,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 6:16 pm
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When I stepped outside this evening — about a half hour after sunset — I heard a single Katydid singing slowly in a backyard tree. That reminded me: Even though yesterday was 70s and sunny, and this morning was sunny and 60s, I had not heard an Annual Cicada singing either day. In fact, the last time I heard a Cicada song in our neighborhood was October 9th. Temperatures dropped below freezing in Oak Park during Columbus Day weekend, and that must have been enough to kill off the last of our Cicadas. Grasshoppers, Crickets, and at least a few Katydids are still holding on, but the Cicadas’ season seems to be over.

I like fall — I even like winter — but I’m still going to miss the Cicadas.

To hear a Katydid song, go here. To hear the song of a Scissor-grinder Cicada — the last kind heard singing in our neighborhood — go here.

 

We Found Tiny Insects Inside Hackberry Nipple Galls

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Fall,Plants,Seasons,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 4:50 pm
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Way back on June 18 we did a Neighborhood Nature blog post about Hackberry Nipple Galls, which you can read here. On this morning’s walk I found two Hackberry trees with half a dozen or more Yellow-rumped Warblers in them, hunting for bugs to eat. That got me thinking that maybe some of the bugs they were eating had grown up inside Nipple Galls. The warblers wouldn’t let me get close enough to see what they were eating, so instead I found some Hackberry leaves with lots of galls on them and took them home to dissect.

Before I picked them, the leaves looked like this — covered with nipple-shaped growths, called galls, that grew when insects called Psyllids (SILL-lids) laid their eggs on the leaves:

These Hackberry leaves are covered with Nipple Galls. These galls formed when insects lay their eggs on leaves or stems. The gall becomes a nursery for the baby bugs, which feed on the insides  -- the gall is shelter and food at the same time.

These Hackberry leaves are covered with Nipple Galls. The galls formed when insects, called Psyllids, laid their eggs on the leaves. The gall became a nursery for the baby Psyllids, which fed on the insides of the gall. The gall provided shelter and food at the same time.

After I cut open one of the galls on our kitchen table, it looked like this:

The cut-open nipple gall had a tiny Psyllid insect inside a hollowed-out cavity.

The cut-open nipple gall had a tiny Psyllid insect inside a hollowed-out cavity.

I cut open a few more galls, and more tiny Psyllids crawled out. They were about as big as the head of a straight pin:

The lower left Psyllid was walking around, but the Psyllid on the upper right was upside down.

The pinhead-sized Psyllid on the lower left was walking around, but the Psyllid on the upper right was upside down. You can tell these Psyllids are not yet fully grown, because they don't have wings. They just have "wing buds" behind the head, which will become wings after they shed their skins another time or two.

So, maybe the warblers were eating adult Psyllids that had emerged from galls on the Hackberry trees, or maybe they were eating something else. But what I really want to know is if any birds peck open Nipple Galls to catch the not-yet-fully grown Psyllids. (I’ve seen Downy Woodpeckers break into Goldenrod Galls, but those galls are somewhat larger.) I guess I’ll have to keep a close eye on any birds I see in Hackberry trees this fall. I’ll also search through Hackberry leaves for galls dissected by bird beaks instead of knives.

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Update added two days later (October 22, 2009):  Rather than throw the gall-covered Hackberry leaves outside, we put them in a container with a lid and waited to see if adult Psyllids would emerge. When we opened the container this morning, this is what we found:

There were at least for of these winged adult Psyllids in the container with the gally Hackberry leaves.

There were at least four of these winged adult Psyllids in the container with the gall-covered Hackberry leaves. (Because of the wings, they were twice as long as a pinhead is wide.)

Now, doesn’t that look like a good snack for a warbler?

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You can read more about Psyllids and Nipple Galls here and here and here.

 

Our First Yard Junco of the Fall! October 13, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 2:30 pm
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I spotted our first yard Junco of the fall at 2:30 this afternoon! It stuck around for several minutes, so I grabbed Aaron’s camera and snapped a for-the-record photo through the back window:

This is the first dark-eyed Junco we've seen in our yard since last spring!

This is the first Dark-eyed Junco we've seen in our yard since last spring!

You can tell it’s a Dark-eyed Junco because it’s grayish above and whitish below, and it has a very pale bill (that may look pinkish). Here’s more evidence that it’s a Junco: It flashed its white outer tail feathers a couple of times, but not while I had the camera. Because there’s little contrast between the head and body, it’s just a garden variety Junco (not something exotic to Illinois, like an Oregon Junco). Because it’s a lighter shade of gray with some brownish touches on the back (not a darker slate gray), it’s probably a female.

Other birders have been seeing Juncos in northern Illinois for a few weeks now, but this Junco is the first we’ve seen in Illinois this fall. During 2008 the first Junco arrived on October 17, and then we saw Juncos in our yard almost every day through April 29. That means that we had Juncos in our yard for more than half the year! I guess they’re more than just “winter birds.”

So, I was wondering whether I should feel happy, because the Juncos are back, or sad, because that means that winter is almost here. Obviously, we still have lots of autumn remaining! So, I’ll celebrate the Juncos’ arrival by throwing some seed under the brush pile, where they can feed safe from our neighborhood hawks and cats.

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You can read more about Dark-eyed Juncos at the All About Birds website or at the Boreal Songbird Initiative website.

 

First Yard Hawk of the Fall — but What Kind? October 8, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Neighborhood Habitats,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 3:52 pm
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We knew hawks were in the neighborhood. A week or two ago the Pigeons started getting nervous. Instead of 10 or more Pigeons feeding in our yard at once, we began seeing only one or two at a time. Then Monday I saw a Cooper’s Hawk flying over the highway at the end of our block, and Tuesday I saw a Sharp-shinned Hawk soaring west to east above the trees in our neighbors’ yards.

Then this morning a dark shape swooped into our yard, over the rooftops and towards a Mourning Dove on the feeder. The dove took off, all the House Sparrows scattered, and the dark shape landed in a small ash tree, hidden by leaves. The shape dropped down to Ethan’s brush pile — it was a hawk, reaching its head and legs through the dead sticks towards a sparrow cowering within. By the time I had grabbed Aaron’s camera, the hawk had given up and hopped onto the grass, where it stood quietly for a few seconds:

The hawk sat quietly on the grass before beginning to fly around the yard.

The hawk stood quietly on the grass before beginning to fly around the yard.

Then the hawk began to fly around our small yard. It landed briefly on the back fence, where a Fox Squirrel charged it, forcing it to fly. It landed on the feeder’s squirrel baffle, but slipped on the plastic. So it took off again, landing atop the wooden birdhouse built by Uncle Will:

The hawk landed briefly on Uncle Will's birdhouse before taking off again.

The hawk landed briefly on Uncle Will's birdhouse before taking off again.

Then it landed on the fence and was chased off by the squirrel again. After another brief stop in our ash tree, it took off and headed west over the neighbor’s garage towards Rehm Park.

Now the question was, what kind of hawk was it? The long tail, rounded wings, and overall shape identified it as a type of forest-living hawk called an Accipiter. But there are two common types of Accipiters in our neighborhood this time of year, and I had seen both of them earlier this week: The larger Cooper’s Hawk and the smaller Sharp-shinned Hawk.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’ Project FeederWatch developed an online table to help tell these hawks apart. With its slate gray back and reddish barring on the front, this was an adult bird. So we are going to use the first part of the table to try to identify it. Since I mostly saw the bird from behind or from the side, we have four useful clues to work with:

1. SIZE:  Feederwatch says Sharp-shinned Hawks average 10 to 14 inches long and Cooper’s Hawks average 14 to 18 inches long. Female Sharp-shinned Hawks are larger than males — sometimes as large as male Cooper’s Hawks. We could estimate the size of our hawk by comparing it with things in our yard. In the next photo we inserted a red bar that’s about 12 inches long (by comparison with the size of the nest box):

If the red bar is about 12 inches long, then how long is the hawk (from tip of tail to beak)?

If the red bar is about 12 inches long, then how long is the hawk (from tip of tail to beak)?

2. HEAD: The FeederWatch site says of the Sharp-shinned Hawk, “The feathers on the crown and the back of the neck are dark, giving the bird a ‘hooded’ appearance.” The Cooper’s hawk, in contrast, has a darker crown and lighter gray neck, so it looks like it’s wearing a dark cap. Here’s what our yard hawk looked like:

Does the dark on the hawk's bead and neck look more like a hood or a cap?

Does the dark on the hawk's head and the back of its neck look more like a hood or a cap?

3. LEGS: FeederWatch says the Sharp-shinned Hawk has “thinner, pencil-like legs that can look long when compared to Cooper’s,” while the Cooper’s Hawk’s legs are thicker and shorter looking. Here’s a close-up view of our yard hawk’s legs:

Do these legs look thin or thick, long or short?

Do these legs look thin or thick, long or short?

4. TAIL: FeederWatch says the Sharp-shinned Hawk’s tail is long and “typically square, showing prominent corners. The outer tail feathers are usually the longest (or nearly so).” It also says the Sharp-shinned’s tail has a “narrow white tip.” Here’s the tail from our yard bird:

Is the tip of its tail rounded or straight? Is the white strip at the end narrow or wide?

Is the tip of its tail rounded or square? Is the white tip narrow or wide?

So, how did you score each question? Here’s what other people — including me– said (revised November 16, 2009 based on comments, emails, and arguments with my older son):

1. Length. Our hawk looks about 14 or maybe 15 inches long. That’s big for a Sharp-shinned Hawk, small for a Cooper’s — but most people other than me counted that as a point for Cooper’s Hawk.

2. Head. The dark on the head and neck looks more like a hood than a cap to me, but birders with more experience said it looked like a cap to them — score another for Cooper’s Hawk.

3. Legs. The legs look relatively narrow and long to  me, but others disagreed — I’ll call this a draw.

4. Tail. The tail looked more squared than rounded to me — all the tail feathers looked about the same length (especially when it was spread open, but I didn’t get a good photo of that). So, tail shape suggested Sharp-shinned Hawk to me (although others disagreed). However, the thickness of the white band on the tail tip leans more towards Cooper’s Hawk.

Looking at all the evidence — as reinterpreted for me by more expert birders — I now think this was a small Cooper’s Hawk, probably a male. Do you agree with me? Either way, please leave a comment, below.

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Note added October 13 at 4:30 p.m.: We just had a very large adult Cooper’s Hawk land on our back fence — our second yard hawk of the fall! It sat on the fence, about four feet from a Gray Squirrel, for almost a minute. The squirrel didn’t charge the hawk, and it also didn’t back off. The hawk saw us through the window and flew off before the squirrel left (and before Ethan could get a photo.)

By comparison with the fence, I’d say this hawk was at least 18 inches long. It had a dark cap, plus almost as much dark on the upper neck as the hawk I wrote about above. That’s one of the reasons I’m reconsidering my identification of that first yard hawk of the fall.

 

The Birds Made it Feel Like Fall at Columbus Park October 5, 2009

Both the weather and the birds made it feel like fall at Columbus Park as I monitored birds there this morning.

The weather was sunny, but temperatures were still in the 40s when I arrived. I forgot my hat and — although the sun is lower in the sky now — I managed to get a mild sunburn on my bald spot during the three and a half hours I was there.

Columbus Park’s birds are taking on a mid-fall flavor as summer residents are leaving and later migrants and winter residents are arriving. I saw my first-of-season Brown Creepers and Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers today — and I flushed at least two migrant Woodcock from the Austin woods. I did not see Catbirds or Swainson’s Thrushes today, but I did see a Hermit Thrush. Robin numbers have dropped from more than 100 a few weeks ago to 12 today. Late-season warblers, like Yellow-rumped and Palm, were everywhere, but other warblers were hard to find. And the Wood Duck family that grew up on the lagoon this summer is gone, but Canada Goose numbers continue to increase. (We will probably have more than 400 geese on the golf course this winter.)

As hawks migrate to and through Columbus Park, it becomes a “landscape of fear” for small birds and mammals. Today a Cooper’s Hawk and Sharp-shinned Hawk were hunting small birds, and a juvenile Red-tailed Hawk was trying to catch tree squirrels (without much success). I also saw an adult Red-tail spiraling upwards over the south end of the golf course and then heading southeast, perhaps continuing its migration.

Of course, there will be many more changes over the next few weeks. For instance, we’re still waiting for our first Dark-eyed Juncos and American Tree Sparrows of the fall, and both of those species should spend the most of the winter in the Park. When the down has settled after fall migration, we expect to have about 20 species of birds remaining in Columbus Park. That’s less than a third of the 65 species we saw during September.

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As always, you can find complete daily, monthly, and yearly summaries of our eBird data for Columbus Park on this page.

You can read more about Columbus Park here and  here. You can also read pages 15-16 in The Chicago Region Birding Trail Guide, a BIG pdf file you can get here.