Spring Has Arrived

A Snowy owl perched in the morning sun this past week in Iroquois county will soon feel the urge to head north towards the vast Arctic Tundra for the summer

March 26, 2020 – Looking out across empty agricultural fields separated by waterways of dried grasses, flowing ditches, fallen fences, and the occasional leafless trees in the small and forgotten gnarly thickets that have somehow been spared the plow, we bear witness to a season in change. The picture before us speaks of a tired and somber late winter that is ready to give up its’ frail but respected hold to a new, strong, and hopeful spring. The spring migration brings temporary visitors that are working their way northward, while wintering birds are gathering and waiting for that call to move north. Some of our resident birds of prey, like Bald eagles, Great Horned owls, and Red-railed hawks, in Northeastern Illinois are already nesting, and some are tending to young. The feathered travelers, those long-distance migrants from the southern hemisphere, are yet to arrive but will stage in our area in the coming weeks resting and feeding before continuing north. Others are patiently waiting for those longer warmer days before moving north towards the high latitudes and a short nesting season above the Arctic Circle. Rough-legged hawks, Snowy owls, and American Tree sparrows are some of the birds that have some distance to travel, and in a month or so, those birds will be hard to find as they eventually disappear from the Lower Forty-eight for the summer. This past week two Snowy owls, only a few miles apart, continued their presence in Iroquois county. A dark morph Rough-legged hawk, another wintering Arctic bird, was hovering over a field hunting in the same area not far from one of the owls. On the first day of spring nine Trumpeter swans could be seen resting in some corn stubble east of the Iroquois river, these great white birds will soon move north into the marshlands of Michigan,Wisconsin, and Minnesota for the nesting season. A small flock of American Tree sparrows have been taking advantage of the remaining seeds on an overgrown lot south of Kankakee while finding safety and insects among the web of thick overgrown bushes and small trees. Spring has certainly arrived and the migration brings hope for new generations of many species and a promise of stability for all creatures on this little planet.

A male Red-winged blackbird singing loud with his red epaulets on display may be trying to entice a mate at the edge of a woods south of Kankakee.

The Ruddy Duck

Three male Ruddy ducks pop to the surface while feeding, giving a good look at their blue bills and developing summer breeding plumage.

March 19, 2020 – The Ruddy duck is a small diving duck that has somewhat of an amusing but interesting appearance. With a small bit of imagination, especially while viewing a male in his wonderful breeding plumage, one can see that this stout looking little bird with a bright blue bill and a warm chestnut colored body could easily be adapted as a quirky cartoon character in the next great animated blockbuster. These stiff-tailed divers are often seen in small flocks on the open waters of southern wetlands, lakes, and rivers during the cold months and also in the late winter gearing up for the spring migration as they start to stage in areas with great flocks of other waterfowl. The compact little ducks stay close together feeding and socializing as they rest and build energy for that magic moment when the big push happens and their night flight north begins. Like many other species, the Ruddy ducks head towards their breeding areas, the shallow lakes, and marshes to the north and to the west where they will take up residence for the summer. There are breeding populations of Ruddy ducks throughout the marshes and wetlands of the great lakes, but the areas that have the highest percentage of nesting Ruddy ducks are on the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. The female will seek out dense vegetation in the backwaters of lakes and marshes using cattails and grasses to weave together a simple platform above the water to hold a well hidden nest that is eventually lined with soft, warm, down feathers. She will lay somewhere around eight rather large white eggs and incubate them for about 26 days. Not more than a day after hatching, the young little ducks leave the nest swimming close behind their mother diving and feeding themselves. The young Ruddy ducks are on their own after about 30 days and after another 30 days they learn to fly and take to the air and will migrate south in the fall. Simply a beautiful and an interesting little stiff-tailed duck with an air of attitude and the blue billed summer drake in his breeding plumage is a sight to behold.

A drab colored Ruddy duck hen with her stiff tail slightly raised looks alert to my presence as she swims by.

The Tundra swan

A pair of Tundra swan at Black Oak Bayou, part of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area along the Kankakee River in Newton County Indiana this past week. The swan on the right shows a very small yellow spot while the swan on the left has a much larger spot.

March 12, 2020 – The Tundra swan, also known as the Whistling swan, is a large handsome white bird with coal black legs and feet and a matching black bill. The Tundra appears very similar to the Trumpeter swan but is somewhat smaller, the Trumpeter being the largest waterfowl in North America with a wingspan that can exceed 8 ft. The Tundra swan also has a yellow spot to the front of each eye that is sometimes quite small and not easy to see without the help of a scope or binoculars. The Tundra and Trumpeter are true native swans that we get to see here in Illinois during the winter months and during spring and fall migrations. I should also mention another swan that is a year around resident and actually breeds here in Illinois, the Mute swan. The Mute swan is larger then the Tundra and a little smaller than the Trumpeter and is an Eurasian species that was introduced for its elegance and beauty to grace private estates, park lakes, and ponds and eventually escaped into the environment. The Mute has a bright orange bill with a black knob where the bill meets the face on the forehead helping make the bird easy to identify. When our native swans the Tundra and Trumpeter are seen together, the size difference helps distinguish them, but when seen separately one has to rely on other physical clues such as the yellow spot near their eyes on the “lores”, the area between the nostrils and the eyes. Something else to consider is that about 10% of Tundra swans will not have the yellow spots at all according to Sibley Guides. The bill of each bird offers even more clues, when looking directly face to face with the swans, the Tundra has more of rounded boarder along the top of the bill between the eyes while the Trumpeter has V shape. The slope of the head of each bird offers even more to be examined when looking at the birds profile, the Tundra has a rounded crown and the Trumpeter has more of a slope that lines up and continues down the bill. Now we are in late winter and the swans have been staging in our area for many weeks with other waterfowl waiting to move north. Soon these wonderful birds will start their flight towards the Arctic where they will spend a short summer nesting on the ponds, lakes, and the wetlands on the vast tundra of Canada and Alaska.

A closer look at the Tundra swan with a much larger yellow spot on the lores.

A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

Canvasback Ducks

A mixed flock of mostly Canvasback ducks feeding and socializing on a flooded access road leading into the Kaskaskia bottoms in Southern Illinois this past week.

February 27, 2020 – The male Canvasback duck has a rich chestnut colored head and neck, black chest and tail area, with a bright white body and wings. These large ducks have beautiful red eyes that when illuminated by the sun can penetrate the thoughts of the human observer laying waste to any earthly woes, at least temporarily. Those unique eyes of this big diving duck absolutely contribute to making this bird a strikingly handsome fellow. The female, on the the other hand, is less colorful and has a pale-brown overall plumage that is most certainly required for a nesting female duck. Her camouflaged coloring is mandatory to helping keep her and her nest hidden from predators. But even without the strong contrasted colors she is still quite beautiful and is easily identified as a Canvasback. The female has the same sloping forehead and large black pointed bill but she does not have those amazing red eyes like the male. Her eyes are very dark in color, perhaps part of her specialized trait of survival. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway these fast flying migrating ducks, that are considered diving ducks, congregate in flocks from ten to many thousands. During the winter in the southern half of the United States including most of Illinois from southern Lake Michigan south where they can find open water and food they can be found in their winter flocks. In the southern winter marshes, lakes, rivers, and flooded fields the Canvasbacks feed together in an amazing display. The ducks come together over the area to forage and begin their search for tubers and invertebrates by diving repeatedly in a rolling head-first fashion that is somewhat mesmerizing when there are a large number of birds involved. The Canvasback ducks migrate north and west in the spring and nest in the prairie pothole region, those glacial wetlands of North America and Canada. They also nest north in the wetlands and marsh areas from the Great plains to Alaska.

Two male Canvasbacks swimming with a female following close behind, the red eyes of the male ducks seem to glow in the morning sun.

White-breasted Nuthatch

A female White-breasted nuthatch pauses for a moment on a branch, the chestnut color below the tail is clearly visible.

February 20, 2020 – The big raspy voice of the little White-breasted nuthatch is a familiar sound in the winter woods of Illinois. Throughout the softly illuminated and leafless winter forest, or at a busy backyard feeder, it is easy to spot those colorful little hunters as they noisily swoop in. Suddenly there is a flash of blue-gray, then another, and yet another as four, maybe more of those regal looking little birds appear. A male and a female nuthatch light on the patchwork bark of a large sycamore and quickly begin searching tree and limb for food. The little birds move up and down the trunk like acrobats as they move head first down the tree searching the nooks and crannies for insects. Not long after the small winter flock of White-breasted nuthatches appear, their songs begin to fade into the distance as they continue their search for food on the trees and shrubs along an overgrown and abandoned road that the woods has mostly reclaimed. The White-breasted nuthatch is common across most of the United States and is a year-round resident here in Illinois. The male nuthatch has a dark black cap, white face and underparts with splashes of chestnut colors under the tail. Their wings and back are mostly blue-gray. The little birds have large heads, large feet, and a long pointy bill. The female looks pretty much like the male nuthatch except they have more of a gray colored cap with stronger chestnut coloring near their rear under the tail and their overall colors are a bit weaker than the male. The nuthatches eat nuts, acorns, insects and cache food items around their territory. You may find the winter flocks of nuthatches mixed with chickadees and woodpeckers.

A male White-breasted nuthatch works its’ way down the trunk of a tree with some food in its’ long bill.

The Golden Eagle

A 4th year sub-adult Golden Eagle south of the Kankakee river this past week. The bird’s golden feathered head clearly visible as it flies out from a perch and glides over the winter landscape.

February 13, 2020 – Here in the Midwest it is now a common sight to see Bald eagles gliding high above the flat terrain of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. Nesting Bald eagles are also a more common occurrence in Illinois and Indiana, a remarkable rebound since the ban on DDT’s agricultural use in 1972. Illinois estimates indicate well over 300 active nests and for the state of Indiana a 2016 estimate shows close to 400 breeding pairs. Most often we see a magnificent Bald eagle or even a few of these great birds perched in a tall snag above open water along our rivers here in the Midwest, especially during those hard winter months. The eagles sit patiently waiting and watching while hunting ducks, coots, and fish or any other food opportunity that might come along. There is another species of eagle, the Golden eagle, that is less common and only seen or noticed by a lucky few during the fall and spring migrations. The Golden eagle may also be seen during the winter months in locations that provide open spaces, forests, and abundant prey. This winter a pair of Golden eagles were recorded in Iroquois county where they were photographed by bird enthusiast and nature photographer Bronson Ratcliff of Bourbonnais. Having a pair of wintering Golden eagles in our area is an exciting discovery. The Golden eagle nests across Canada and Alaska and in the mountainous western United States. They are year round residents and nest on the high cliffs and steep slopes with a open views throughout the Rocky Mountain states and west to the Pacific.
Here in the Midwest we watch for these large dark birds during the migrations. They are easily confused with Turkey vultures, Juvenile Bald eagles, or any large dark raptor. The 1st year juvenile Golden eagles have bright white tail feathers except for 2 or 3 inches of the tips which are dark brown. They can also have bright white patches on the tops and bottoms of the their wings from the middle of the wings out towards the ends, and are easy to see during flight. The 1st year bird is probably the easiest to identify with those good solid markings, but as they age, those bright white feathers start to fade as they get their adult feathers and other indicators must be looked at. The gold feathers on the back of the head and nape of the neck is another obvious clue that is easy to spot. The two tones of light and dark feathers on the head and neck, even on a perched bird in the shadows of a tree, stand out. The Golden eagle also has a shorter neck and smaller bill than the juvenile Bald eagle. Another comparison is the Golden eagle has feathered legs that go down to the feet and the Bald eagle does not. Next time you see that large dark raptor soaring above, look a little closer, it may be a Golden eagle.

The tail-feathers of this 4th year bird show the white colors disappearing as the eagle nears adulthood.

Wintering Cranes

A small group of Sandhill Cranes lean into the wind preparing to take to air.

February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.

A juvenile Sandhill Crane plays with corn stalks, picking them up and tossing them into the air, as it dances about with wings spread wide.

Trumpeter Swans

A leucistic adult Trumpeter swan with yellow legs and feet stands next to a normal colored swan with black legs and black feet.

January 30, 2010 – A pair of Trumpeter swans surrounded by a number of Canada geese and a a few Mallard ducks were taking advantage of the open waters near the boat docks at the headquarters at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco Indiana this past week. A submerged aerator system sending bubbles of air to the surface keeps some small pools open and ice free. The open water attracts waterfowl during the winter when the rest of J.C. Murphey Lake is locked in ice. Getting a close look at the pair of swans, that have been seen at the lake for some months now, show that one of the birds does not have the usual black legs and feet that is normally seen on an adult Trumpeter. While photographing the Trumpeters at some distance this past August I noticed the yellow colored legs on one of the birds and assumed it was a juvenile. I was told at the headquarters at Willow-slough this past week that the swan with yellow legs was believed to be leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that causes a reduction of pigments. We see the abnormality in mammals, birds, and even in reptiles. A few times a year while great flocks of Starlings are feeding in fields it is not uncommon to see a flash of white from the wings, tail, or the head of one of the birds in the flock. The birds with white feathers are missing the normal dark colors of the Starling and are considered leucistic. The young cygnet (baby swan) that is leucistic is bright white and the non leucistic young Trumpeter is gray. The leucistic birds end up with yellow legs and feet as adults Trumpeters. These rare leucistic Trumpeter swans have been reported and are still occasionally seen in Ontario. The leucistic swans are bit more common in the Rocky Mountain population and are also seen in the Yellowstone summer population.

The leucistic Trumpeter stretches its’ leg giving a good look at its’ yellow colored leg and foot.

The Pigeon Hawk

Just east of Kankakee recently, a Merlin falcon looks down from its’ tree perch watching for an ambush opportunity.

January 23, 2010 – The Merlin falcon is a small but fierce hunter that is a little larger and heavier than the American kestrel. Looking somewhat like a chunky pigeon in flight the Merlin was once known as the pigeon hawk. The stealthy falcon lacks the bold color patterns and black “mustache” that adorns the face of the more common Kestrel. The Merlin’s may show a faint “mustache”, the black plumage on the sides of the face, but the bird appears a bit drab overall compared to the smaller and more colorful Kestrel. The female Merlin, like other birds of prey, is larger than the male. A large female with a recent catch of a small bird was facing away from me as it sat on a roadway in Iroquois county a few years back. From a distance the bird looked like a small Peregrine falcon, its’ solid blue-gray back and wings stood out and its’ thick body confused me at first until the bird took to the air with its’ prey. At that point I recognized it as a Merlin. The little Merlin is an avian hunting master that can send a flock of birds into a mass of fear and confusion. Outmaneuvering the unfortunate winged victims like Starlings, Sparrows and even small ducks, the Merlin,with a swift and precise attack snags its’ targeted prey while in flight. It also plucks dragonflies and other insects out of midair during its’ migration for a quick and easy snack. If you are fortunate enough to see a Merlin in our area of Northeastern Illinois it will most likely be during the winter months but sightings of the Merlin are becoming more common as the population of the little falcon has improved. The Merlin is known to breed in the boreal forests of the north but the discovery of a hatchling on the ground in Northwestern Cook county in 2016 may signify that they are expanding their breeding range.

A Merlin rests on a fence post keeping an eye on some feeding tree sparrows at the edge of a gravel road.