Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Last of the Fall Wildflowers at Columbus Park? November 20, 2009

Earlier this year Neighborhood Nature showed the earliest examples of spring flowers we could find. Now that November’s two-thirds gone, I guess it’s time to show the last wildflowers still blooming in Columbus Park. (I’ll do my best to give their names, but bear with me — I’m not a botanist!)

It was sunny and almost warm during this morning’s bird monitoring in Columbus Park. However, some parts of the Park were devoid of birds, so I had time to look down as I listened hard for any birdlike sounds. These nickle-sized flowers caught my eye — I’m pretty sure they’re Daisy Fleabane. (You can see a photo of the entire plant here.)

I'm guessing Daisy Fleabane, Columbus Park, Chicago, November 20, 2009.

Although these look like daisies, the flowers are much too small. So I think it's Daisy Fleabane.

The small patch of prairie habitat beside the lagoon held two plants in flower. The first one looked like a very small example of Queen Anne’s Lace (aslo called Wild Carrot) — the flower head was less than two inches across. (You can see a photo that shows the leaves here. Please use the comments, below, to correct me if I’m wrong.)

I think this one is Queen Anne's Lace, Columbus Park, Chicago, November 20, 2009.

This one looked like a very small example of Queen Anne's Lace (also known as Wild Carrot).

I’m also uncertain what this plant is called. I’m guessing this might be False Dragonhead, a kind of mint. Another name for this species is Obedient Plant, since if you push the flowers to one side, they stay there until you push them back. However, I forgot the try that test today, so my identification has not been physically confirmed. Also, this flower looked more pinkish in the field — I’m not sure why the photos don’t do justice to the color. (You can see a photo of the entire plant here.)

I'm guessing this is False Dragonhead, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 20, 2009.

I'm guessing this is False Dragonhead, a kind of mint. (Again, use the comments, below, to help me out!)

My final flowers were just hanging on — most of the others on this plant had gone to seed. It was a kind of thistle, found in Austin woods — but don’t ask me what kind of thistle, I wouldn’t have a clue. (Again, these looked more pinkish in the field. You can see a photo that shows some leaves here.):

Thistle flowers, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 20, 2009.

A few thistle flowers remained, but the rest had gone to seed.

“Gone to seed” is where all these flowers are bound. Food for birds, and sometimes a feast for the eyes despite the lack of color. Check out these goldenrod seeds, which may be Showy Goldenrod, one of the most beautiful of its kind. (You can see a photo that shows more of the plant here.)

Gone-to-seed goldenrod, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 20, 2009.

Even gone to seed, goldenrods are beautiful.

So, are these the last wildflowers I’ll see this year in Columbus Park? I’ll keep looking for more on future visits. (And I’ll also try to tame that possible Obedient Plant.)

 

Hornet Nests Now Visible in Our Neighborhood November 18, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Bugs,Fall,Seasons — saltthesandbox @ 2:43 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Now that most trees have lost their leaves, we find out what was hiding in their branches all summer long. Bird and squirrel nests are suddenly visible, and hornet nests turn out to be much more common than we ever imagined. I almost never see a Bald-faced Hornet in summer, but now I’m finding their nests in many trees in Columbus Park and throughout our Oak Park neighborhood. They look like big gray basketballs silhouetted against the sky:

Hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.

Hornet nests look like big gray basketballs or balloons stuck in trees.

But when you get closer, you can see the arcs of hornet-made paper, glued by hornet “spit” to build the outer layers of the nest:

Hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.

Hornets chew up dead wood, mixing it with saliva to make their own brand of paper.

Some brave creature tore off the bottom of this nest:

Hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.

I'm hoping whoever tore into this nest waited until all the hornets were gone. (Worker hornets die off each fall, and next year's queen hornets burrow into soil or rotten logs to spend the winter in suspended animation.)

The outer layers of protective paper were torn away, exposing the inner cells — hexagonal tubes that look a bit like honeycomb:

Inside of hornet nest, Columbus Park, Chicago, Illinois, November 17, 2009.

Although the inside of a hornet nest looks like the honeycomb inside a bee hive, hornets build their entire nest with home-made paper (not beeswax).

Now, I’m not going to get all didactic and lecture you about the differences between honeybees and hornets. Let’s just say they both sting if you get too close, you’re not going to get much honey from a hornet, and honeybees won’t help control the fly population around your home. If you want to learn more, check out these online references:

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One of my Facebook friends had some advice for anyone who might consider bring a hornet nest inside for the winter. Patrick wrote, “I remember, as a kid, bringing one inside before the cold had done its deed to the hornets.” In other words, wait until there have been a couple of good hard freezes to kill off any remaining hornets (or other insects) inside the nest.

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P.S. Thanks to the Columbus Park walker who told me where to find the broken-open nest!

 

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.

 

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.

 

Cicada Killer Wasps Are Back! August 16, 2009

On this morning’s walk through south Oak Park, I got my first close look at a Cicada Killer Wasp for 2009:

This Cicada Killer Wasp kept perching on a plant overlooking a rather barren garden. That made me suspect it might be a male, guarding a space where he hoped females might dig their burrows.

This Cicada Killer Wasp kept perching on a plant overlooking a rather barren garden. That made me suspect it might be a male, guarding a space where he hoped females might dig their burrows. (The wasp must have been about an inch-and-a-half long, but it looked much larger in person!)

Most of the Cicada Killer Wasps I’ve seen have been near burrows in bare soil, like in a construction site or at the edge of a playground sandpit. In fact, just yesterday I was scanning the Columbus Park golf course, looking for birds, when I spotted a Cicada Killer Wasp at the edge of a sand trap. Then I saw another — and another — and another — until I counted 25 Cicada Killers flying just above that sand trap. Then I looked at the next sand trap west and saw at least 25 more. (Now there’s a hazard that might scare even Tiger Woods!)

This wasp was behaving differently. It kept perching on the top of an 18-inch-tall plant, flying off when I tried to take its photo, then landing again as I pulled back. Once it hovered right in front of my face, looking me in the eye, before returning to its perch. This made me wonder — was this a male Cicada Killer guarding some sort of territory? If so, I’d never seen one of those before — but how could I tell for sure? I decided to check my photos for a stinger — I expected a female would have one, but a male would not. This is what I found:

The tip of the Cicada Killer Wasp had what looked like a small stinger -- not as big as I expected.

The tip of the Cicada Killer Wasp's butt had what looked like a small stinger -- not as big as I expected.

I’ve seen really long stingers on dead Cicada Killers, but this one looked really short. What was going on?

I searched the web for answers and found some useful photos and a surprising fact (here). Female Cicada Killers can retract their long stingers inside their bodies, so you don’t always see stingers on live female wasps. However, male Cicada Killers have a pseudostinger — a fake stinger, one that doesn’t work — that you can see when they are alive.

So, it seems I really did see a male Cicada Killer in that south Oak Park garden. Next time I walk past there, I’ll look for females and burrows.

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Here are some websites about Cicada Killer Wasps:

Five-year-old Ethan holding dead Cicada Killer Wasps

Five-year-old Ethan holding dead Cicada Killer Wasps

 

More Baby Birds at Columbus Park: Green Herons and Mallards August 13, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Seasons,Summer — saltthesandbox @ 4:36 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

There were some new baby birds at Columbus Park yesterday (August 12). Or at least they were new to me — because of our California vacation, I hadn’t been to the Park in three weeks. Here’s my favorite:

This fledgling Green Heron was hanging out in a tree where this spoecies has nested before. The striped breast shows its a young Green Heron -- and the fuzzy head means that it recently left the nest.

This fledgling Green Heron was hanging out in a tree where this species has nested before. The striped breast and belly show it's a young Green Heron -- and the fuzzy head means that it recently left the nest.

A second fledgling Green Heron was hiding in the same tree. Two summers ago two pairs of Green Herons built a total of four nests on Columbus Park lagoon, raising at least a half dozen young (probably more). Last year we didn’t have any successful nests, as far as we could tell. I was afraid Green Herons were headed for another unsuccessful year in 2009, but I guess they’ve just gotten better at hiding their nest. (Or maybe I’m getting worse at finding nests, and I need Ethan and Aaron to help me search for them.)

We also have a fourth brood of Mallards on the lagoon. I first saw them mucking about at the edge of the lagoon:

Them baby Mallards were intently feeding in the mud at the edge of the lagoon, while their Mom hung out with other adult Mallards a couple of feet awa.

The baby Mallards were intently feeding in the mud at the edge of the lagoon, while their mom hung out with other adult Mallards a couple of feet away.

At first none of them noticed me, so I got pretty close. Then a baby quacked a warning, and all six ducklings headed for deeper water:

The Mallard ducklings swam away, and their mother soon joined them.

The Mallard ducklings swam away, and their mother soon joined them.

The Canada Goose family we’ve been following was still hanging out together, even though they can all fly and are all about the same size. However, I saw only four Wood Duck young on the pond, and only two of those were with their mother. Here are links to our earlier postings about goose and duck families at Columbus Park:

I also saw two fledgling Red-eyed Vireos with their parent in the Austin woods — the first time we’ve confirmed successful nesting by this species! I’ll post a full report on breeding birds in the Park in a few weeks, once we’re sure everyone is done for the year. Until then, you can visit our Columbus Park eBird page (here).

 

Columbus Park: New Ducklings Have Hatched, Old Goslings Have Learned to Fly July 21, 2009

We’ve got lots of news to share about the ducks and geese at Columbus Park on Chicago’s Westside. First, two families of Mallards have appeared within the past week. One family has two ducklings that are at least a week old:

This Mallard family had two ducklings that were more than a week old.

This Mallard family has two ducklings that were more than a week old.

The other family has seven babies that are just a few days old:

The mother Mallard led her brood to safety, but one duckling was already lagging behind.

The mother Mallard leads her brood to safety, but one duckling is already lagging behind

We were getting worried about our Mallards. The female Mallards had gone into hiding months ago, building nests and trying to hatch some young. They must have had a rough time with predators and such, since it took them so long to be successful.

Meanwhile, the ducklings in the Wood Duck family are now about six weeks old. We have not seen them fly yet, but they are becoming much more independent of their mother. She still keeps an eye on me when I try to take their photo:

A mother Wood Duck watches me while five of her young hide in the leafy branches around here. The other four seem to have wandered off.

The mother Wood Duck watches me while five of her young hide in leafy branches around her (you can't really see them). The other four ducklings seem to have wandered off.

However, at least some of the young Wood Ducks wander off as I approach, and she can no longer call them all together into a tight bunch to swim for cover.

Here are three previous posts about this Wood Duck family:

The young Canada Geese we’ve been following are now eleven weeks old. A few weeks ago they learned to fly, and now we see them every other time we go to the Park. (Today we did not see them.) Here’s our last photo of this family, taken on July 11, right after they had flown in from another part of the lagoon:

The three young Canada Geese in this photo are nine-and-a-half weeks old.

The three young Canada Geese in this July 11 photo are nine-and-a-half weeks old. They are almost as big as their parents!

Here are links to five previous posts about this Canada Goose family:

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To learn more about Mallard families, you can check these websites:

  • All About Birds – Basic information about Mallard natural history, including nesting.
  • Wikipedia – Encyclopedia-style information about Mallards.

To learn more about how Wood Ducks raise their young, you can check these websites:

  • All About Birds – Basic information about Wood Duck natural history, including nesting.
  • YouTube – First of a series of videos of Wood Ducks hatching and leaving the nest.
  • Wikipedia – Encyclopedia-style information about Wood Ducks.
  • Daily Herald – Story about how Wood Ducks are becoming more common in urban areas.
  • Squidoo. Great video of baby Wood Ducks jumping out of nest (half way down the page).

To learn more about Canada Goose families, you can check these websites:

  • All About Birds – Basic information about Canada Goose natural history, including nesting.
  • Wikipedia – Encyclopedia-style information about Canada Geese.