Autumn at War Bluff

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Bumblebees discover nature’s umbrellas

bumblebeeSeptember is usually fairly dry in southern Illinois, but this year War Bluff saw nearly 3 inches of rain fall during the last half of the month. On the 29th, during a foray into the garden between rain showers, I witnessed a phenomenon I’d never seen before. The New York aster is one of the last flowers to bloom and therefore one of the few late-season sources of nectar for insects. So, I wasn’t surprised to see a bumblebee taking refuge from the rain under a clump of blossoms. But, what did surprise me was discovering that there weren’t just a few bumblebees using these little aster blossom umbrellas, but there were hundreds of bumblebees–all striking the identical, motionless pose under their own private little umbrella. Nature holds a wonderful surprise every day!

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Spicebush Swallowtail

IMG_1273This cute little guy, a late-stage instar of the spicebush swallowtail butterfly (Papilio troilus), was hiding inside a folded leaf of a spicebush (Lindera benzoin) along Turkey Trot trail on September 2nd.

The “eye spots” are actually on the thorax of the caterpillar and function as a predator deterrent. Masters of mimicry, the larva hide in the folds of leaves during the day, coming out at night to feed. The early stage instars are colored to look like bird droppings. As the larva grows, the “eye spots” that look like snake eyes become more prevalent. When the larva gets ready to pupate it does so on the underside of a suitable leaf fairly close to the ground where it transforms into what looks like a dead leaf.

For a look at great photos of the entire metamorphosis check out Field Notes from the Beiser Field Station.

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August — Catchin’ up!

August came and went without one post! The first half of the month, with over 4 inches of rain and delightfully cool temperatures (for August), brought a lovely array of wildflowers. Ripening pokeberry fruits brought in an entire family of bluebirds on August 19th. On August 24th Shawnee Chapter of Illinois Audubon Society hosted the 18th Annual Insect Awareness and Appreciation Day.

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Any beetle fans out there?

IMG_1054This little guy showed up last week. I’m no entomologist, but a quick look through Peterson’s Field Guide to the Insects indicates it is one of the five reticulated beetles, family Cupedidae, found in N. America.

The guide describes this family of beetle as having a distinctive elongate body shape resembling leaf-mining beetles. The long forewings are parallel-sided with rows of square punctures between longitudinal ridges (seen better in the next photo). The guide aptly describes the long antennae as thread or bead-like. The antennae of this species are as long as its body.


According to Peterson’s, cupedids are found in logs where larvae occur, on vegetation, or flying in sunlight. The larvae bore in rotting oak, chestnut, and pine logs.

The guide also says its among the primitive suborder Archostemata of which its members are relatively rare and are infrequently collected.


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Typical summer day at the santuary

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Summer settles in at War Bluff

And what a wonderful summer it’s turning out to be! Relatively cool temps and ample rain add up to welcome relief from last summer’s scorching temps and drought. The Carolina wren that built a nest in the support pole of the satellite dish last month successfully fledged her brood last week. A check of bluebird nest boxes yesterday revealed several new nests containing tiny, featherless babies. Juvenile ruby-throated hummingbirds have joined the adults at the nectar feeders evidenced by a noticeable jump in patrons. The mad frenzy of springtime bird territory-setting and mate-finding song has mellowed into the comforting rhythm of day-to-day communication song and chatter.

Another spring to summer transition are the wildflowers and native grasses. See photos below for a glimpse at some of the plants flowering right now.


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Summer Solstice

IMG_1005With Summer Solstice is just a couple days behind us its time to check in with an update! A fresh new batch of tiger swallowtail butterflies emerged today and were seen nectaring all day on common milkweed blossoms, which are at their peak right now.



For years a Carolina wreIMG_0999n has built her nest under the cover of large begonia leaves in a large flower pot. This year, possibly because the container was put out late, she opted for a nook on the back side of the satellite dish right outside the window. I got to watch her all day as she brought succulent caterpillars, grubs, and baby grasshoppers to her young. She would fly in to the nearby TV antenna tower where she has a good vantage point to observe her surroundings and her nest. Then she swoops over to the satellite dish where she perches in the loop of excess wire and again observes for signs of danger for a minute or two before making the short, quick jump up into the nest to deliver the goods. At any point during this procedure if she detects even the slightest problem (like me sittiIMG_1001ng in a nearby lawn chair on a conference call) she would ring out her loud “tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle” call all the while holding the insect she was carrying in her mouth.

A mother wood duck is currently rearing up a brood of six ducklings on Dragonfly Pond. They are still fairly tiny, only donning their mono-colored yellowish baby feathers. I try not to get too close, as mom is very wary of me–I have no desire to cause her any extra angst. After a quick look I strolled over to see what was going on at Barn Pond. At least 3 Eastern phoebes and an Eastern wood peewee were hawking insects over the pond, while a pair of green herons perched high in the branches of dead tree, and a beaver swam laps back and forth in the center of the pond.

Two Eastern kingbirds spent much of the day hawking insects from the top of the large pine tree between the house and the barn, while the orchard oriole, yellow billed cuckoo, and wood thrush could be heard singing from the protected cover of trees and shrubs.

Evening is settling in, which means the whippoorwills and chuck wills widows will step in soon to fill the airwaves with the wonderful sounds of nature.


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Rainy, cool start to June

June 1st brought 3 inches of rain to the sanctuary, followed by three days of gorgeous, cool sunny days. The primary vocalists right now around the house include indigo bunting, orchard oriole, summer tanager, chat and the occasional yellow-billed cuckoo. Singers in the forest include wood thrush, oven bird, red-eyed vireo and Eastern wood peewee. In the evening, gray tree frogs are taking center stage, with the song of at least one Chuck-Will’s-widow in the background.

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Chuck-Will’s Widow. Photo credit: Dick Daniels (

Chuck-Will’s-widow (Antrostomus carolinensis) have been singing near the sanctuary headquarters for the past three evenings. This is the first time in the 11 years in residence here that I’ve heard Chuck-Will’s-widow.

Like the whippoorwill (Antrostmous vociferus), Chuck-Will’s widow also calls out his name when he sings. And, also like the whips, the repetitive singing can go on for several minutes without stopping. If one isn’t accustomed to knowing birds by their songs one might think whips and chucks sound alike. But, if one is lucky enough to hear both birds singing at the same time the distinction is immediately obvious.

Chuck-Will’s-widow and whippoorwills are in the same family as nighthawks, the Caprimulgidae family. The word comes from the  latin word Caprimulgus, which translate to goatsucker. If you’ve ever wondered why nightjars are often referred to as goatsuckers, it comes from an ancient, widespread belief that they sucked milk from goats.

Nightjars are primarily nocturnal birds that are most active in the late evening and early morning. They feed on moths and other large flying insects taken in flight or by foraging in decaying wood or on the ground. They have a disproportionately small beak compared to an extremely large mouth. Chuck-Will’s-widow are the largest of the nightjars and it’s been reported that they occasionally eat small birds and bats. They also have extraordinarily short legs and small feet in comparison to their bulky bodies. Nevertheless, they are often found perched lengthwise along a tree branch. Due to the cryptic nature of their coloration they are incredibly well camouflaged as bark or leaves.

Nightjars don’t build nests, but instead lay one or two patterned eggs directly onto a carpet leaves directly on the ground. In 1840 John James Audubon described this observation of a Chuck-Will’s-widow nesting:

When the Chuck-wills-widow either male or female (for each sits alternately) has discovered that the eggs have been touched, it ruffle its feathers and appears extremely dejected for a minute or two, after which it emits a low murmuring cry, scarcely audible at a distance of more than eighteen or twenty yards. At this time the other parent reaches the spot, flying so low over the ground that I thought its little feet must have touched it, as it skimmed along, and after a few low notes and some gesticulations all indicative of great distress, takes an egg in its large mouth, the other bird doing the same, when they would fly off together, skimming closely over the ground, until they disappeared among the branches and trees. But to what distance they remove the eggs, I have never been able to ascertain; nor have I ever had an opportunity of witnessing the removal of the young. Should a person, coming upon the nest when the bird is sitting, refrain from touching the eggs, the bird returns to them and sits as before. This fact I have also ascertained by observations.

chuck-wills-widowThe summer, breeding range of the Chuck-Will’s-widow comes up into far southern Illinois. Whereas the eastern whippoorwill breeds all the way up to the U.S. border with Canada.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology points to Breeding Bird Survey results that suggest a decline in eastern U.S. populations of about 1.8 percent per year between 1966 and 1991. But since Chuck-will’s-widows aren’t active during most of the day, they are difficult to survey. Cornell suggests that interested individuals can help count nightjars by joining the United States Nightjar Survey. Here in Illinois people can volunteer with the Illinois Natural History Survey’s Monitoring of Owls and Nightjars (MOON) project.

While the seemingly incessant singing of both the Chuck-Will’s-widow and eastern whippoorwill right outside one’s bedroom window is often cause to complain, consider this–it could be a freight train rumbling by or sirens screaming. So if you are ever tempted to complain, consider yourself lucky to get to hear one of the most iconic sounds of summer in the Midwest!

For more interesting natural history of the nightjars see Life Histories of North American Cuckoos, Goatsuckers, Hummingbirds, and Their Allies by Arthur Cleveland Bent, 1940.


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