A January Walk through Columbus Park

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!

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?

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

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!

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

Warblers on the Rooftops, Thrushes in the Alley

Our out-of-town bird visitors have been exploring every aspect of Oak Park’s urbanized habitat. The past few days they’ve been partying in the streets. Maybe they got tired of the traffic, because Thursday afternoon we watched warblers on our neighbors’ rooftops. Ethan captured a Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm Warbler in a single view:

Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm Warblers on a neighbor's roof.
From left to right, Yellow-rumped, Pine, and Palm Warblers on a neighbor's roof. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
They've shoift positions -- now it's Pine, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warbler.
They've shifted positions. Now it's Pine, Yellow-rumped, and Palm Warbler. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
By zooming in on the Pine Warbler, we can see it's white wing bars, olive-brown streaks on the side of the breast, and white under its tail and belly.
By zooming in on the Pine Warbler, we can see it's white wing bars, the brown streaks on the side of the breast, and the white under its tail and belly. The Yellow-rumped Warbler's "butter butt" is obscured by the Pine Warbler's head. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

That wasn’t all we saw today. When he was taking out the recycling at about sunset, Aaron saw two Swainson’s Thrushes and a Gray-cheeked Thrush in the alley. Other than Robins, they were the first thrushes we’ve seen on our block since last fall. Unfortunately, they didn’t stick around for photos.

We also got no photos of the Pine Siskins that visited our backyard thistle sock for less than a minute. I watched the female feed for about 20 seconds. She chased off a male Siskin who tried to land beside her, and then she left before the boys made it to the back window. We hadn’t seen Siskins in our backyard since the day before Christmas.

Overall, it was a great day for neighborhood birding, and we were sorry to see it end. We saw or heard 30 species without leaving our block, including seven species of warbler. To see the full list, please visit the eBird page for our yard and block.

The winds are from the southwest tonight — tail winds for any birds that migrate northwards. I wonder which new birds may arrive overnight, and which ones may leave the neighborhood?

Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment

Next Wednesday, April 22, I’ll be putting on an Earth Day event at Wonder Works, a Children’s Museum in Oak Park. I’ll be using this blog to (1) write about and illustrate the principles that I’m using to design this program, (2) show examples of what we wind up doing at Wonder Works, and (3) give readers ideas about what they can do in their own neighborhoods to support the development of nature-loving kids.

In days to come I’ll expound on the history of the No Child Left Inside movement (which I seem to be a part of) and discuss some authors who have helped me develop my ideas (like Richard Louv, David Sobel, and others). For now, I’ll just spell out the most recent version of my own, personal, Principles for Raising Nature-loving Kids in an Urbanized Environment:

1. Appreciate the nature you’ve got. There’s probably a lot more nature in your neighborhood than you realize. Recognize what you’ve got, pay attention to it, appreciate it, incorporate it into your life and into your kids’ play. (This blog provides ideas of what to look for in your neighborhood.)

2. Make your neighborhood a better place for nature-loving kids. Grow a garden, feed the birds, salt your sandbox, keep outdoor containers filled with water all year ’round, give the kids a corner of your yard where they can build a fort or play in the dirt.

3. Bring the outdoors indoors — but do it as a beginning, not as an end in itself. Collect natural things and bring them home, fill the bathtub with snow, raise indoor plants, make sure the kids’ toy box includes sticks and rocks as well as plastic toys, start an aquarium, make home-made play dough when you can’t play in the mud, keep pets — small wild ones and larger domesticated ones. But realize that this is just a beginning — the real goal is to get back outside and experience nature in an outdoor setting.

4. Bring the indoors outdoors. Toy trucks and cars, wooden trains, and plastic dinosaurs are as much fun outdoors as they are inside — and maybe more! Back when my kids were passionately interested in these things, we used to move our play to the front sidewalk or our vest-pocket backyard once the weather turned warm. You can see examples here and here and here. (Oops, maybe skip the last one if you’re not used to having older b0ys around.)

5. Use all the resources available to you — people, print, and electronic. Find informal mentors in your neighborhood, at local organizations (like clubs and museums), or online. Visit your local library frequently and search the Web for more resources. (As your kids grow older and more media savvy, they may take over this role, like my boys did with our family’s birding interest.)

6. Be prepared to travel. The first four principles are about making your home and neighborhood a better place to raise nature-loving kids. If you are successful, they’ll outgrow the nature you can offer close to home. When my kids were young, we visited local parks, museums, zoos, and arboretums. Now we go still go to parks, but we also search out other places, where we make our own natural experiences. (You can see examples here and here.)

7. Understand and support whatever kinds of nature-loving kids you’ve got. Observe how your child interacts with nature, and start from there. Do they lead with their head or their heart? Do they seek adventure or avoid it? What attracts them, what disgusts or frightens them? Knowing these things will help you design a life-in-nature that builds on their interests and strengths.

That’s almost it for now — but I’ll be writing more over the next few weeks (both before and after Earth Day). Feel free to contribute your own thoughts!

For now, just one more thing: A link to a Pioneer Press article about our Earth Day plans for Wonder Works. (Thanks, Myrna!)


Note: Principles 5 and 6 were added on April 20, 2009. Principle 4 was added on August 11, 2009.

Early Spring Migrants: Watch for these Birds

Spring migration for smaller birds is just getting started, so it’s a good time to get started with watching birds. There’s a good variety of birds flitting through the trees and shrubs, but not so many that you’ll be overwhelmed. With that in mind, here are Ethan’s photos of some birds that arrived in our area during the past month. Most of these birds will continue north to nest — watch for them now, because you might not see them again until fall.

We did a post about Brown Creepers back in mid March, but now we’re seeing more of them than ever (six on our last visit to Columbus Park). Watch for Brown Creepers on tree trunks and larger branches. They’re tiny, but they aren’t too shy — you sometimes can get within 10 or 20 feet of them:

Brown Creeper... Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Brown Creepers typically fly from one tree to the base of another, then work their way up the trunk searching for bugs to eat. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Tiny kinglets explore smaller branches in search of bugs. They are fairly bold around humans, but they rarely sit still for long. Golden-crowned Kinglets arrived first in our neighborhood about a month ago, and they still are the more common kind:

Golden-crowned Kinglet.... Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Golden-crowned Kinglets have obvious yellow-to-orange crowns and black stripes on their faces. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Ruby-crowned Kinglets arrived in Columbus Park in early April, and they’ll stay a bit later in the spring:

Ruby-crowned Kinglet.... Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal
Ruby-crowned Kinglets have a white ring around their eyes, and their red crowns are small and often hard to see. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal

This Ruby-crowned Kinglet turned away and fluffed its head feathers, so you can see its namesake crown:

Ruby-crowned Kinglet, The Grove, Glenview, Illinois, April 12, 2009.
Ruby-crowned Kinglet with its crown fluffed up and visible. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We saw our first warbler this spring on April 5th. It was a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and we watched it flit from branch to trunk to ground and back in Columbus Park. Our friend Ari calls this bird “butter butt,” for an obvious reason:

Yellow-rumped Warbler... Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
This male Yellow-rumped Warbler displays its "butter butt," plus yellow patches at its shoulders and crest. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We saw our second warbler of spring at The Grove in Glenview, Illinois. Although its name, coloration, and behavior suggest another kind of bird, the Louisiana Waterthrush really is a warbler. It’s most often seen near water, bobbing its butt as it walks along the bank:

Louisiana Waterthrush.... Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Louisiana Waterthrush exploring the edges of a pond. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Its cousin, the Northern Waterthrush, arrives a bit later in the spring. We see them both at Columbus Park, often at the base of rockwork that surrounds the pool behind the Refectory. (Telling waterthrushes apart can be a challenge — go here to get some hints.)

Spring is also a season for sparrows, which are slight larger that most kinglets and warblers and often harder to identify. We’ll post photos of common sparrows later this month. For now, here’s a kind of blackbird that looks like a giant sparrow. Male Red-winged Blackbirds arrived here weeks ago to set up territories in marshy spots — now the females are showing up to choose their mates:

Female Red-winged Blackbird... Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.
Its longer, sharper bill helps identify this bird as a female Red-winged Blackbird, not a giant sparrow. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

That’s it for now. We’ll be keeping track of bird arrivals and depatures this spring, and Ethan will take lots more photos. As always, we’ll use this blog to let you know what’s happening with our neighborhood nature.

You can read about our most recent bird sightings at Columbus Park on this page. We track the birds we see on our block on this page, and the other neighborhood birds we see are listed here.


Note added April 17, 2009: This post was our contribution to the I and the Birds #98 blog carnival. Go here to see more examples of the diversity of birds across the globe.

Leaves of Native Wildflowers Are Emerging at Columbus Park

On Sunday, April 12, while birding in the woods beside Columbus Park lagoon, we discovered the emerging leaves of native wildflowers. We found the first Mayapple leaves we’ve seen this spring:

There were several stages of opening Mayapple leaves. Soon we'll see flower buds below some of the leaf umbrellas.
There were several stages of opening Mayapple leaves. Soon we'll see flower buds below some of the leaf umbrellas.

And also the first Trout Lily leaves:

The purplish marked Trout Lily leaves had emerged, but no sign of flower buds so far. This plant is also called.....
The purple-marked Trout Lily leaves had emerged, but no sign of flower buds so far.

We had seen Cutleaf Toothwort blooming earlier this spring at Clinton Lake in central Illinois, so we weren’t surprised to see both leaves and flower buds at Columbus Park:

Cut-leaved Toothwort leaves and buds, Columbus Park, Illinois, April 12, 2009.
Toothwort flowers look like tiny white teeth when they first open, and the leaves look like they've been cut out by tiny scissors.

We also made a slightly more ominous discovery. Back on March 23rd, we showed photos of a cultivated flower which we identified as Siberian Squill, but others know as Scilla (its scientific name). On Sunday we discovered that this garden flower has escaped its intended bounds and invaded the woods beside Columbus Park lagoon. Because this also happens elsewhere, Scilla is listed in the Global Compendium of Weeds and on some web documents about invasive plants. Some folks who track invasive species suggest that Scilla may not harm native wildflowers, like Trout Lily and Mayapple. But another wrote, “the jury is still out whether this is a harmless garden escapee or something to worry about.” So, we’ll keep an eye on the Park’s woodland Scilla this spring and beyond.

Nature News from Columbus Park: New Bird, New Flower, New Burns

On my first day back from Circle Pines, I took an exercise walk to Columbus Park to monitor birds and other forms of nature.

The new bird of the day was a Belted Kingfisher patrolling the lagoon, flying back and forth and making its rattling call. Last year Kingfishers visited Columbus Park in early spring and later in the summer, but went elsewhere to nest. Some Kingfishers stick around Illinois all winter if there’s open water to dive and catch their fish, but last year they left the Park in late October. (Our other bird sightings from the Park are summarized on this page.)

The new flower is a cultivated plant in the shaded garden by Refectory pool. The flowers lent a bluish cast to the green carpet of leaves:

The deep green leaves and blue flowers carpeted the garden near the Refectory pool.
The deep green leaves and blue flowers carpeted a garden near the Refectory pool.

A closer look revealed droopy flowers that looked a bit like a Snowdrops but were intensely blue. Also the leaves were broader and darker green than Snowdrops:

Up close, the flowers where shaped a bit like Snowdrops, but were intensely blue in color.
Up close the flowers were shaped a bit like Snowdrops, but were intensely blue.

I’m no expert on cultivated plants, so I Googled a preliminary identification. My best guess is Siberian Squill — not as poetic as “Snowdrops,” but that seems to be its name. (If you know your flowers, please comment below to correct or confirm my identification.)

Two areas of the Park had prescribed burns this year. The burns were intentionally set fires designed to improve habitats for native plants and animals. The fires must have been set after my visit to the Park on Friday morning and were closely monitored so they didn’t spread too far. One burn was in the restored prairie on the large peninsula, between the arms of the lagoon. The other burn was in the woodland just west of the lagoon. Here’s what the burned prairie looked like:

The blackened area in "peninsula prairie" was burned by land managers to maintain the native grasses and wildflowers.
The blackened area was burned by land managers to protect native grasses and wildflowers from invading shrubs and trees.

Looking closer, patches of prairie grass and dried wildflowers remained:

Some patches of unburned grass remain. The box on a pole is a shelter for bats, recently installed.
The prescribed burn on the "peninsula prairie" left some patches of unburned grass. (The box on a pole is a shelter for bats, recently installed.)

This field, which we call “peninsula prairie,” grows native grasses, sedges, and summer wildflowers. It attracts migrating birds rare elsewhere in our neighborhood, like Lincoln’s and Clay-colored Sparrows. (Obscure sparrows like these both delight and frustrate beginning birders.) Without periodic burning, willows and other woody plants might overwhelm the prairie, and we’d lose the native plants and birds. So far, so good with this round of burning. I heard a male Song Sparrow singing, claiming the blackened ground. An Eastern Phoebe searched for flying insects above the burn, and Dark-eyed Juncos foraged on the edges. We’ll watch the prairie through spring and summer to see how plants and other birds respond.

The second burn was something new. The “lagoon woodland,” as we call it, has lots of oaks and other trees, an understory of shrubs, but few native wildflowers. Without plants covering the ground, fallen leaves blow away, leaving bare soil to erode. The burn seems designed to “open up” the woods, so sun-loving native grass and flowers can flourish:

In the woodland west of the lagoon, the groundcover and shrubs were burned, but the trees were not.
In the woodland west of the lagoon, the ground cover and bases of the shrubs were burned, but the trees were not harmed.

Again, so far so good. Today I saw and heard Cardinals, Juncos, and Phoebes in the woods, and a Swamp Sparrow at the water’s edge. I’m excited to see what happens to the plants — we’ll watch this growing season and next to see how things change. Ethan will record the changing plants, birds, butterflies, and bugs with his new camera.

So, that’s the news from Columbus Park. Tomorrow we’ll update you on spring in south Oak Park.