Whoooo’s up there?

On a woodland hike in early February my family discovered a great horned owl nest. We stopped to search the treetops after hearing two owls hooting back and forth. One owl flew away in a presumed attempt at distraction. While scanning the canopy we noticed a second owl. She was peeking over the edge of a nest at least 60 feet above us! As soon as the nest was spotted, we gave the surprised owls some space. After a month of watching these two owls from afar, I decided to take my voyeurism to the next level.

At work, a set of motion-detection cameras is used every autumn to survey the mesocarnivore populations in Lake County, Illinois. The rest of the year these cameras just sit in the lab on a shelf. It didn’t take much begging to get the forestry crew excited about the prospect of climbing a tree for me. We chose a tree next to the nest that would provide a good view of the nest. One rainy Friday (the only break during controlled burn season) a professional tree climber headed up to install two cameras. I equipped them with 16 GB memory cards and eight AA batteries in hopes that would be enough “juice” to last the full nesting season. I don’t want to climb up and down to empty the cameras, as that might cause undue stress to the owl family. The cameras use infrared technology and won’t disturb the owls but will provide some fun shots of the owlets developing. I set up four cameras—three for stills and one for videos—at ground level surrounding the owls’ tree. I hope these cameras will record footage during the owlets’ brief flightless stage on the ground.

From the ground, a viewing scope and photos from generous volunteer photographers with long lenses will be the only way to watch this owl family. In the meantime, the motion-detection cameras at ground level are providing other entertaining wildlife footage.

If you’re interested in watching the owls progress, a colleague and I created a Nature Cam page for the Lake County Forest Preserves website. Highlights so far: up-close and personal footage of a raccoon investigating a camera, ghost-like images of animals running through a dark forest, myriad squirrels searching for their caches, and a random hiker wearing no socks, pants a couple of sizes too small, a backpack and rubber gloves. Yes, rubber gloves. I’m puzzled. I didn’t share that one on the Nature Cam site, but you can view the other wildlife highlights.

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Ephemeral chorus

After a full season surrounded by a quiet woodland, it is exciting to hear the woods come to life. First, high winds whipped through the treetops—creaking, rushing and whistling. Then the birds added their own lines, beginning with the chickadee singing its two-toned “Hey! This is MY territory!” song. Slowly more and more birds joined in the chorus. A new song is now introduced each day: cardinals, song sparrows, eastern bluebirds, red-bellied woodpeckers …

Then, one warm night very recently, that fabulously odd little bird started peenting. The mating ritual of the American woodcock always puts me on the prowl. “Peent”. I stop in my tracks. “Peent”. I turn my ear towards its nasal buzz. “Peent”. I stay very still, waiting for the … “Chirp, chirp, twitter, twitter, twitter.” He’s up! I scurry towards the area where I think heard him, keeping my eyes to the sky and looking for his spiraling flight and focusing my ears on the metallic twitter of his wings. If I get there before he lands I might get to see him! I do this for a few of his courtship displays, impressed every time (and I’m not even his type!) Hey, how else am I going to see one? They have such amazing camouflage! I give chase every year—I can’t help myself. Out of breath and giddy, I know that spring is on its way.

Next to join the woodland ensemble are my favorite vocalists—frogs! After a few consecutive warm nights and warmer days I listen intently for their song, which I began this past weekend. First, the chorus frogs began with their rasping trill. Their song is similar to a fingernail running down the teeth of a comb. Though that description simply does not do their chorus justice. Many chorus frogs trilling at once is truly awesome. Don’t have a vernal pond near your home? Listen to a chorus here. Once the chorus frogs really get going, spring peepers add their voices to the mix. This is a welcome sign that winter has indeed given way to spring. These tiny tree frogs are my favorite harbinger of spring. If these little guys are brave enough to venture out from under logs, then wildflowers and warm rains aren’t far behind.

Now, it’s time to begin the search for sprouts under the leaf litter.

Beautiful spring day—in January

What better time for my first post about local phenomena than a 60-degree day in January? We, in the Chicago area, were promised a “severe winter”. Well, that may still be in store for us, but standing outside today in the warm sunshine it is hard to imagine.

No lone frogs are peeping, though. We may not be off track just yet …