Sunday, June 11, 2017

Birds Moving Into Open Woods

Today we found this woodcock chick deep in Somme Woods. I used to think of woodcocks as birds of thickets and openings. But as we restored quality to formerly-buckthorn-choked preserve, the woodcock started doing their spectacular mating dances/performances - deep in the woods, among the tall oaks. And now today - while we were out controlling invasive reed canary grass - suddenly a woodhen flies up, hovering, tail spread wide and hanging low, labored, slow.

I know this trick. Whenever I see it I tell everyone, "Freeze!" Young woodchicks are around our feet. Often after careful looking, we can see all four. Today we backed off, but took this photo of one, close by, obvious, motionless (as their instincts insist they be).

Baby woodcocks freeze - as their mothers perform diversion tactics. The return of breeding woodcocks
to Somme Woods after many decades absence seems like a happy vote of confidence in our restoration efforts. 

What is an open woods? Why might they be worth some restoration and research? The photo below gives a sense of what ours are starting to look like. Though improved enough for many bird species, they're still far from natural (defining "natural" as what this kind of woods was like as its species evolved over millions of years).

In the photo below, all the trees are tall and thin. That's in part because the old spreading oaks have mostly died, and the young ones struggled against each other for light. This woods was so dense with buckthorn that it was difficult to walk through it. At that time, no birds sang in the dark tangle. 

Old bur oaks and young pole trees. Still far from natural,
but many birds of conservation concern seem to like it. 

I've been surprised at the birds that moved in. Brown thrashers this year seem to spend a lot of time singing and foraging in the woods. They've joined indigo buntings, yellowthroats, red-headed woodpeckers, and northern flickers - all of which I thought needed more open areas. But how would we know what would have been the breeding birds of open oaks woodlands? They degraded swiftly after the natural fires stopped, and open oak woods haven't been present to study during the rise of ecology.

As we get to know the ecology of woods with-and-without shurbs - and with-and-without sufficient openness for the reproduction of open-grown and woodland-grown oaks, we'll no doubt have exciting surprises. But in the meantime, they're already wonderful.

Below are some photos - taken at Somme by Lisa Culp Musgrave - of birds now breeding in our open oaks:

Indigo buntings were common in the open areas. Now they're singing, building nests,
and defending territories well into the open woods. 

It shouldn't be a surprise that humming birds didn't nest in dark buckthorn. But we were surprised how many we started to find wherever the woods was opened up enough for columbine, Michigan lily, and cardinal flower. 

The wood pewee is now perhaps the commonest bird in the woods.
They sing all day long. We wonder if they follow us to eat mosquitoes.

Scarlet tanagers live high in the trees. Why would they care if there was buckthorn underneath?
But they seem to nest where we've cleared it out. This year we have three pairs nesting
in the about-one-hundred acres of woods we've begun restoring. 
Other birds that we've found nesting in the open woods include yellow-billed cuckoo, hairy woodpecker, great-crested flycatcher, blue-gray gnatcatcher, yellow-throated vireo, white-breasted nuthatch, eastern bluebird, Cooper's hawk, red-tailed hawk, and great-horned owl. 

It feels like an honor to have this kind of mutually positive relationship with all these feathery wonders.


Andrew St. Paul said...

Hello Stephen! This is great read and great success story. I would like to featured your blog in our Newsletter tonight with the woodcock photo and link back to the vestal grove. I am part of a an all volunteer Chicago community and I would love to have our readers learn more about the ongoing work done by local Stewards and engage more people in ecological restoration. Please let me know if it would be okay to use the Woodcock photo with a link back the Blog. - -Much Love, Andrew

Stephen Packard said...

Thanks, Andrew. Yes by all means feel free to use the woodcock photo. Let me know if this attempt at a response gets to you.