Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

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.


A January Walk through Columbus Park January 17, 2010

As I monitored birds this morning in Columbus Park, I did an experiment. I took photos with my iPhone and uploaded them live to Facebook. It was kind of like a virtual nature walk!

Here the link to the public Facebook album with this morning’s photos:  A January Walk through Columbus Park.

Please let me know what you think!


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.


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


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

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Fall,Neighborhood Habitats,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 3:52 pm
Tags: , , ,

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.


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.


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.


Pokeweed Berries Ripening, Catbirds and Thrushes Coming Soon! September 3, 2009

On the first Friday in September I noticed ripe Pokeweed berries in our backyard:

These are the first ripe Pokeweed berries I've seen this year, and they are in our backyard!

These are the first ripe Pokeweed berries I've seen this year, and they are in our backyard!

Soon there will be catbirds, thrushes, and many other birds with purple-stained beaks!

Gray Catbirds have spent the last five summers in backyards on our block. They stopped defending their breeding territory weeks ago, but I’ve seen a Catbird visit our Pokeweed once or twice since then. I think they keep track of berry bushes in the neighborhood so they can be the first to feast once the berries are ripe.

Swainson’s Thrushes breed up north, and then migrate south through our area starting late summer. Yesterday I saw two in the woods at nearby Columbus Park. Last September a Swainson’s Thrush stuck around our neighbor’s yard for two weeks feeding on her Pokeweed berries. A few weeks later a Hermit Thrush stopped by to eat its fill.

One nice thing about Pokeweed is that it keeps producing berries for many weeks, September through October. In this photo you can see ripe berries and a tiny flower stalk just starting, plus all stages of flowers and green berries in between:

The ripe Pokeweed berries are hidden among the leaves. A newly opening white flower stalk is to the left and above the berries, and inbetween stages are scattered elsewhere on the plant. By the way, the oval leaves are Pokeweed; the larger heart-shaped leaves are a type of Morning Glory.

The ripe Pokeweed berries are hidden among the leaves. A newly opening white flower stalk is to the left and above the berries, and in between stages are scattered elsewhere on the plant. By the way, the oval leaves are Pokeweed; the larger heart-shaped leaves are a type of Morning Glory.

So, this fall’s backyard catbird and thrush watch starts today, and then continues for almost two months!


Note added Friday, September 4, at 2 p.m.: Early this morning we saw the first bird of the season feeding on our Pokeweed. It was an American Robin (which is a kind of thrush). Then, while monitoring birds at Columbus Park (less than a mile from our house), I saw about a dozen Swainson’s Thrushes and three Catbirds. Three of the Thrushes and one of the Catbirds were feeding on Pokeweed berries.

Note added Sunday, September 6, at 3 p.m.: We just saw three Swainson’s Thrushes in our Pokeweed patch! Aaron got the following for-the-record photo through our back window:

One of the three Swainson's Thrushes we saw on our backyard Pokeweed. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal (shot through a sunlit back window).

One of the three Swainson's Thrushes we saw on our backyard Pokeweed. Note the olive-brown back, lots of spots on a pale breast, and big buffy "spectacles" around its eyes. Photo by Aaron Gyllenhaal (shot through a sunlit back window).


You can find more information about Pokeweed on Wikipedia. Cooked Pokeweed greens can be eaten, but raw Pokeweed can be poisonous to humans, as described on this National Institutes of Health web page.

The All About Birds website has more information about how Gray Catbirds, Swainson’s Thrushes, and Hermit Thrushes live their lives


Block Parties: Outdoor and Nature Play, All Day Long! August 12, 2009

Over the next two weeks, I’ll be working with our neighbors to plan our summer block party. That’s the one day of the summer when all the neighborhood kids play outdoors throughout the day and into the night. On other days, most of the kids I see outside on our block seem to be walking to the nearby pool with their families or middle-school skateboarders reclaiming the street. (Full disclosure: I root for the skateboarders!)

So, this year I’m thinking about block party planning in the context of the movement to get more kids playing outside. Organizations involved in this movement include Children and Nature, Nature Rocks, Green Hour, and Chicago Wilderness, with its Leave No Child Inside campaign. There are also parent-to-parent bloggers helping families with activity and field trip ideas, like 5 Orange Potatoes, Double the Adventure, The Grass Stain Guru, Kids Off the Couch, and Kids Discover Nature. (My blog is kind of in the same vein, although our family has older children who are already obsessively interested in nature, or at least in birds.)

So, I’m thinking about things we can do to with the neighborhood kids that might inspire them to spend more time outside after the block party ends. For instance, we’ll restock our Collector’s Garden (see it here), which is already open spring through fall. We’ll show kids how they can play outside with their indoor toys, like my kids used to do with cars and trains and trucks. We’ll try to interest more kids in building with natural materials by helping them construct a “fairyland” with twigs and bark, and then encouraging them to revisit it the next day to see what rewards the no-longer-homeless fairies have left behind. (My parents used to leave candy, but we’ll probably leave polished rocks.)

I’m sure we’ll come up with many more ideas. I’ll post the best ones on this blog.


Be sure and read the comments section! Folks are adding more ideas for outdoor activities.

If you want to read about our applied philosophy and preliminary schedule for the “No Child Life Inside” block party, please go here.

I searched the Web for ideas for a nature-themed, no-child-left-inside block party. Earth Day on Your Block seemed useful, as did this No Child Left Inside PDF file by Sharron Krull, and some of the more general sites on organizing block parties. But I’ve still got lots more digging to do to develop this theme.