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.)

ColumbusGooseCounts2007-2015

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.

DouglasGooseCounts2007-2015

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:

CGeeseBandedDouglas12-3-14-

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:

NeckBand78A-66C-Columbus4-18-15

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:

SteelworkersGooseDataGIF

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.

 

Our Chicago Urban Christmas Bird Count Data 2009 December 20, 2009

The boys and I spent the entire day conducting our part of the Chicago Urban Christmas Bird Count. Nationally, Christmas counts are organized by the National Audubon Society. The Chicago Urban count circle is sponsored by Evanston North Shore Bird Club and Chicago Audubon Society, with Jeff Sanders as the compiler.

Our part of the count covers the following areas in Chicago and Oak Park: Birding on foot in Columbus Park, Douglas Park, and south Oak Park residential areas; feeder watching at our home on South Elmwood in Oak Park; and driving through industrial and residential areas in between these sites.

This year, birding from sunrise to sunset, we found a total of 26 species. The highlights of our day included:

  • Four species of hawks, including a MERLIN at Columbus Park (photo below), 2 AMERICAN KESTRELS, 2 COOPER’S HAWKS, and 2 RED-TAILED HAWKS.
  • A WINTER WREN beside the Columbus Park lagoon (where we saw this species often through the fall — photo below).
  • An AMERICAN PIPIT at Columbus Park, in the same field where we saw a Pipt on December 11 (photo below).
  • A SWAMP SPARROW at Columbus Park (photo of its rump, below), plus 20 AMERICAN TREE SPARROWS (15 at Douglas, 5 at Columbus).

We were also pleased that WHITE-BREASTED NUTHATCHES put in 2 appearances, since we’ve been seeing them much more frequently this year. We also were happy to see a BLUE JAY, because they were common this summer, then mostly disappeared within the last few weeks. We were disappointed that overall sparrow numbers were down at Douglas Park, where the golf-course sanctuary often holds 50 or 60 sparrows this late in the year. And we were very sad that we did NOT see the Great Horned Owl that had been roosting near Austin in late November and early December. (We still hope it returns in time to be registered as a count-week species!)

Here’s our entire list for today, with count numbers:

Canada Goose    280

Cooper’s Hawk     2

Red-tailed Hawk     2

American Kestrel     2

Merlin     1

Herring Gull     1

Ring-billed Gull     5

Rock Pigeon     115

Mourning Dove     45

Downy Woodpecker     4

Hairy Woodpecker     3

Blue Jay     1

American Crow     9

Black-capped Chickadee     9

White-breasted Nuthatch     2

Winter Wren     1

American Robin     55

European Starling    350

American Pipit     1

American Tree Sparrow    20

Swamp Sparrow     1

Dark-eyed Junco     25

Northern Cardinal     21

House Finch     14

American Goldfinch  30

House Sparrow     180

We also have two count-week species so far for our areas:

1 Red-bellied Woodpecker  (seen in Douglas Park 12/17/09)

2 African Collared-Dove and/or African X Eurasian Collared-Dove (seen in south Oak Park 12/18/09).  We are soliciting input on these photos, taken on Dec. 18th — what do you think they are?

Here are some of Aaron’s photos from today:

Merlin, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.

The Merlin roosted in several trees around the lagoon, but it was tough to get a good photo because of the distance and overcast skies. Note the back color, streaking on the side of the breast, and minimal patterning on the head (all of which we could see much better through our binoculars). Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

Merlin, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.

This shot, from even further away, gives another view of the Merlin's head. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

Winter Wren, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.

Although it was hard to get a clear shot at the Winter Wren, a few times it hopped into the open, possibly to get a better look at us! Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

American Pipit, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.

There was a large, if late, migration of American Pipits to inland parts of Chicago earlier in December. We were happy that one stuck around Columbus Park for the Christmas Count! Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

American Pipit, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.

Here's a front-on view of the American Pipit. It was hanging out at the north end of the large ball field that fills the southeast corner of Columbus Park, sometimes visiting a seepage area that has some unfrozen water. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

Swamp Sparrow, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, December 20, 2009.

Although we got good binocular views of the Swamp Sparrow's gray-patterned head, Aaron only got photos of its butt! Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal.

We’ll post links to Ethan’s photos once he gets them online.

 

Now Citizen Scientists Can Report Chicago Parakeet Nests September 22, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Citizen Science Projects — saltthesandbox @ 4:25 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Welcome, Oak Parkers and River Foresters!

The following post is about Monk Parakeet nests found in neighboring towns. If you want to read about a time when Monk Parakeets visited our backyard in south Oak Park, then check out this post:  https://neighborhoodnature.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/backyard-parakeets-and-more/

Many of our other Neighborhood Nature blog posts are about nature in Oak Park and nearby Columbus Park (just east of Austin).

Thanks for stopping by!

Eric, Ethan, and Aaron Gyllenhaal & Gail Fisher (our wife/Mom)

(This updated added 12/15/2010.)

————-

Monk Parakeets have a special place in our family’s hearts. Although we usually aren’t big fans of non-native birds (like Starlings, House Sparrows, and Pigeons), we kind of make an exception for Monk Parakeets. That’s because these birds jump started our family’s interest in birding when Aaron saw his first Monk Parakeet nest on the south side of Chicago. Plus Monk Parakeets are really cute, as we are reminded when we welcome them to our backyard feeders several times a year. (To read more about Monk Parakeets, go here or here.)

So, this morning we were excited to learn about a new citizen science project that lets ordinary folks help scientists by reporting Monk Parakeet nests. If the scientists get enough citizen reports, they can be certain they have included all the Chicago-area nests in their research. It’s called the Chicago Parakeet Project, and the project’s home page is here. You can also read a press release here and a news article about the Chicago Parakeet Project here.

Once you’ve found a nest in the Chicago area, entering data is really simple. You just complete a Survey Monkey form that tells the scientists where the nest is located, what kind of tree or structure the nest was built on, and how many parakeets you saw around the nest, and then you tell them a bit about yourself. It’s as simple as that! At this point you can’t see your nest data plotted on a map, but the project scientists hope to include those sorts of features in the future.

So, we couldn’t wait — we filled out forms for two nests immediately, and then went back to enter some more data when a friend gave us some news about the second nest.

The first nest is in the Austin neighborhood of Chicago. It was built on a utility pole in an alley, and it looks like this:

This Monk Parakeet nest was built on a utility pole in a Chicago alley. It's made of sticks woven together by the parakeets.

This Monk Parakeet nest was built on a utility pole in a Chicago alley. It's made of sticks woven together by the parakeets. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

This closer view shows the openings through which the parakeets entered their nest. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

This closer view shows the openings through which the parakeets entered their nest. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We first learned about this nest from a Chicago Police officer we met in  Columbus Park. He had seen birds in the nest several times, but we did not see any Monk Parakeets while we were there.

The second nest was in Berwyn, Illinois. We had known about it for years, and when I drove past the nest last Friday there was a Monk Parakeet on a nearby wire. The second nest was built in a spruce tree in a residential neighborhood:

A red arrow points to the Monk Parakeet nest high in a spruce tree.

A red arrow points to the Monk Parakeet nest high in a spruce tree.

The nest, once again, is bulit of sticks woven together by the parakeets.

The nest, once again, was built of sticks woven together by the parakeets.

Right after we reported this nest, we heard from a friend who told us that the parakeet colony that built this nest had relocated to a tall tower near North Riverside Mall, about a half mile away. Sure enough, we checked it out, and this is what we found:

This nest was well protected: It was built high in the tower, and the base of the tower is surround by a fence.

This nest was well protected: It was built high in the tower, and the base of the tower is surround by a fence.

The red arrows point to different sections of the nest. The green arrow points to the head of a Monk Parakeet, peering out of an opening in the nest.

The red arrows point to different sections of the nest. The green arrow points to where the head of a Monk Parakeet peered out of an opening in the nest.

I saw several Monk Parakeets at this nest, and I heard even more while I was parking near a mall entrance. If you want to see this nest, go to the far south side of the North Riverside Mall parking lot, near the railroad tracks. Be sure to take binoculars or, better yet, a telescope!