Ancient Birds

A small flock of Sandhill cranes appear to fly with little effort as they head to some corn stubble in a field just to the east where more cranes have gathered.

December 5, 2022 – My annual trip to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area in Indiana to experience the Sandhill cranes in large numbers, a late autumn migration spectacle, did not disappoint. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is a staging area for the southbound cranes. And while thousands will have moved on to the southern United States by the end of December, there will still be hundreds overwintering in the area.
The DNR’s estimated count of Sandhill cranes posted on the park’s website was around 31,000 at the end of November. While many cranes could be viewed and photographed at the Sandhill Crane observation area inside the park from the observation platform, cranes could also be found socializing and resting and feeding in large flocks in the agricultural fields and along large ditches in the surrounding countryside.

The loud bugle calls described by some as a “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” made by the cranes fill the air echoing a feeling of nostalgia for days long gone as small flocks cast shadows as they fly low over the large numbers of cranes resting in grassy waterways and the harvested fields. Based on the fossil record, the spring and fall migrations of the Sandhill crane have been occurring in one form or another for millions of years across the North American continent. Observing the large flocks of these great gray birds flying and vocalizing across an autumn sky is like looking through a window to another time in the distant past; it becomes easy to isolate that feeling, if only for a moment. Spending just a day with the great flocks of Sandhill cranes, it becomes easy to understand how and why the crane is part of the indigenous people’s culture to this day.

Long before the Europeans stepped foot on this continent, the Sandhill crane was part of the stories and legends of the indigenous. The Eastern Sandhill cranes are considered an important totem to the native people of the Great Lakes region. The crane represents leadership, independence, and good fortune. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is about 53 miles east of Kankakee as the crane flies and can be a wonderful day trip and learning experience for families. Don’t forget to bring binoculars and a camera, pack a lunch and make a day of it, stay safe and enjoy. For more information about the cranes, visit the Indiana DNR’s website. https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/properties/jasper-pulaski-fwa/sandhill-cranes/

Jumping into the air with its five-foot wings spread wide, the crane seems to be trying to entice the other crane to join in a dance.

Autumn Whitetails

A large White-tailed buck walks out of the woods and looks around at the does foraging in the field.

November 7, 2022 – Freeze warnings and frosty nights lit by the autumn moon cause ghostly shadows to appear from things both known and unknown in the fields and woodlands of Northeastern Illinois. The night creatures, large and small, are aware of the changes that come in the fall and are on-task with finding and caching food, while others are fattening up on the summer’s bounty of acorns, grasses, and small prey for the coming long and challenging cold Midwestern winter. For Illinois’ largest mammal, the White-tailed deer, autumn is the breeding season for these majestic creatures, and an uneasy tension seems to hang like a ground fog across the autumn landscape.

The female whitetails are on heightened alert as a small herd of does and yearlings all look towards a wooded area trying to avoid roaming bucks with big ideas. The days are becoming shorter, there’s a chill in the air, and by mid-October, the rut, the period of breeding, will intensify and continue through December with a bit of overlap into the new year. The new generation of fawns will be born in the spring in May or June of the coming new year. In the meantime, awe-inspiring shades of red and golden leaves rattle in the autumn breeze surrounding the farm fields, hills, and hollows throughout our river valleys; these are the homes of the celebrated Illinois White-tailed deer. The bucks have been leaving calling cards by scraping saplings and low-hanging branches, licking, chewing, and leaving scent markings from the glands on their forehead.

The changes in the behavior of the male whitetail deer during the time of rut become deliberate as he is focused only on finding a doe. Those dominant White-tailed bucks, some of which have become nocturnal, venture out into the open during daylight hours, throwing caution to the wind in their pursuit of that doe in heat. Those dramas in nature play out consistently year after year with new players over time. A perfectly worded description, a photograph, or even a trophy mount cannot come close to the actual observation of one of these monarch bucks foraging at the edge of a field near some does on a beautiful autumn afternoon. In the coming weeks, the rut will begin to cool off a bit, the landscape will take on more of a winter look as 2022 autumn fades into the history books. There will still be bucks chasing females that come into heat late; even into January, the passing on of genes continues.

Along the field’s edge a buck using some low-hanging branches as a rub is leaving his scent as a message to other deer.

Southbound Warblers

A beautiful male American redstart pauses on a branch only for a moment before continuing its search for insects

October 10, 2022 – There are telling changes in the air that don’t require a calendar to say fall has arrived. As the days grow shorter and the cool nights summon an extra blanket or two, the long-anticipated little fall warblers from points north have been moving through Northeastern Illinois for some weeks now on their travels south to warmer climates for the long winter months. Many warbler species have been showing up in backyards, parks, and thickets throughout our river valley for a needed rest and nourishment required for such a challenging journey as this grand autumnal event. From the tree tops to the shadowy undergrowth, the little birds search for insects and wild seeds to replenish the fat reserves lost during their long flights. North America certainly has a variety of these stunning fairy-like little birds. There are more than 50 species of warblers across the contiguous United States, 35 of which are known to the midwest. A number of the little birds will spend only a brief time in our area during the great migrations as they are just passing through. Some species of warblers nest here in Northeastern Illinois, often noted by bird watchers throughout the summer months. Other species that briefly appear during the spring and fall migrations require some understanding of avian behavior and timing with a bit of luck to observe those little beauties. Weather fronts, prevailing winds, and years of collected data from bird observations are closely monitored by bird enthusiasts during the spring and fall as they watch for the big push north or south of migrants. Today, bird watchers can also take advantage of the radar technology that monitors bird movement. A collaborative called BirdCast provides this service; BirdCast is accessed on the internet and gives daily updates on bird movements in an easy-to-understand animated graphical interface helpful in locating the little travelers moving through your area. Bird migrations have been going on for thousands of years, adapting and evolving with a planet in flux. Today a rapidly warming environment is having a noticeable impact on bird behavior that is playing out before our eyes. The collection of data by citizen scientists reveals changes in migratory birds’ behavior. The data shows birds are migrating earlier in spring and later in the fall, with nesting ranges expanding, bringing into focus our canary in the coal mine, which should be a warning for us all.

A southbound Black-throated green warbler on its long journey to Mexico for the winter

Life On the Road

A number of Clouded Sulphur butterflies gather around a damp spot on a gravel road feeding on the minerals leaching out of the ground.

September 5, 2022 – A short drive down a gravel road scatters hundreds of puddling butterflies from their feeding spots. Those delicate little fliers quickly surround the car in a flurry of yellow that appears like floating confetti in the warm late-summer air and soon becomes a storm of wonder and delight as many more butterflies fill the air. It is, after all, that time of year when the Sulphur butterfly population, after several broods, has grown quite large in numbers. They are easily found on and along most rural roads in large concentrations, especially on the clover growing in the uncut and weedy areas. Like other butterfly species, the Clouded Sulphur butterflies become drawn to the moist areas and puddles found in low spots and ruts along the edge of the road, hence the name puddling. The butterflies feed on the salts and minerals leaching out of the dirt in these spots. They congregate in groups of ten or more and are quite the late-summer spectacle as they encircle these mineral-rich wet spots on gravel and dirt roads of rural Illinois.

Along those same roads, a keen eye can spot other wonders of the insect world, like other species of butterflies, as well as several species of dragonflies. When flushed, dragonflies fly back and forth along the overgrown and weedy edge of the road looking for the perfect perch. Widow skimmers and Common whitetail dragonflies look like shimmering jewels when covered in the morning dew. Close-up photos reveal the complex patterns in their ornate wings that appear like tiny stained glass windows reflecting the early sun. Remaining very still while observing the colorful and fascinating dragonfly is a most important practice. Dragonflies have large compound wrap-around eyes that encompass almost the whole head, and they can pick up on any movement of the observer from all directions, sending your subject off to the next perch in the blink of an eye. The roads less traveled that seem mundane and uninteresting are most likely full of hundreds or even thousands of exciting discoveries. Binoculars or a camera will give you the best views of a subject. Getting a close look at these small animals will be an exciting experience and offer the observer incite into the behavior of these creatures.

A mature male Widow skimmer dragonfly clings to a weed growing along a gravel road in Iroquois County.

Late Summer

A male Ruby-throated hummingbird inspects some blooms at the edge of a small wooded area in Iroquois County.

August 9, 2022 – The August landscape in the midwest is a palette of joy and inspiration that can make the most iron-clad cynic forget their desperate solitude to frolic like a child with unfettered jubilation in the wonder of nature, freeing themselves from those worries in life while rejuvenating their existence. Backyard gardens, parks, and prairies are alive and full of pollinators like wasps, bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds going from flower to flower, some so heavily laden with pollen that they are barely able to fly as they stay focused on their task at hand. Young birds are now foraging for themselves but are still not far from their parents and siblings. A young Gray catbird preens on a barely visible but convenient and sunny perch in an overgrown bush at the edge of a thicket. Four young Blue-gray gnatcatchers fly in and out of view high in the tree canopy, searching every leaf and branch as they chase the tiny winged insects for a well-earned meal.
Young Ruby-throated hummingbirds have taken over the best food sources in the neighborhood. They guard and chase away other hummingbirds who are also trying to feed on the nectar from a cornucopia of alluring fragrances and blooms, including the sugary feeders that hang in numbers around the backyard garden retreats provided by human hosts. Hummingbird feeders are well cleaned and maintained weekly by nature lovers who look forward to the arrival of the long-distance summer migrants that spend the nesting season here in Northern Illinois. The simple recipe for hummingbird feeders is one cup of granulated sugar dissolved into four cups of boiled water, put in the refrigerator, and cooled before filling feeders. Do not use red dye in your feeders! It is not needed to attract hummingbirds and may be harmful. It is good practice to clean feeders before each refill at least once a week to provide safe mold-free sugar water for the hummingbirds. It is always amazing to think about how far these tiny birds travel to end up in our backyards and natural areas here in Northern Illinois for the summer. Most of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the Midwest spend the winter in Central America, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. The beautiful Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird that nests in the Eastern half of the United States. I often think how lucky we are to have these little jewels spend the summer with us.

A female Ruby-throated hummingbird visits each flower of the “red birds in a tree” plant with graceful precision.

The Upland Sandpiper 2022

Keeping a watchful eye, an Upland sandpiper shows nervous behavior before quickly moving away farther into the field where it can continue its search for food.

July 12, 2022 – The increasingly rare Upland sandpipers have returned for another nesting season here in Northern Illinois. So well camouflaged as they hunt for insects in the agricultural fields and along the rural roads of Kankakee County and Iroquois County, they will quite easily go unnoticed if not flushed or heard by the traveler speeding by. It is always exciting to have my first sightings of the Upland sandpiper for a new year, especially knowing the challenges these survivors endure in such an ever-changing and warming world. It is equally as exciting to hear the unique songs of these birds coming across the fields and from the grassy areas. There are times that it is only those unmistakable songs of the Upland sandpiper that let you know they have returned. I have tallied 11 sightings of Upland sandpipers during May this year in Iroquois County, giving me hope for some successful nesting. The migration of the Upland sandpiper, a grassland shorebird that has the alarming status of endangered, is one of an epic journey crossing grasslands, tropical jungles, and turbulent seas to arrive in Northern Illinois in April for the nesting season, where they will remain until late August. There was a time in Illinois history before widespread destruction of the natural habitat and thoughtless over-hunting when these birds thrived, with an estimated population of 283,000 sandpipers in 1907-09. Today the estimated count of nesting sandpipers is but a small fraction of those early numbers. When nature was in balance across this state, many thousands of migrating Upland sandpipers would arrive each spring from South America, a flight of over 5000 miles from the countries of Uruguay and Argentina. Today the expansion of humans and other factors like mowing, pesticides, and construction, have reduced the safe and sustainable habitat for these ground-nesting birds here in the Midwest. Loss of habitat for the Upland sandpiper on their wintering grounds in South America also adds to their struggles for survival. Wisconsin and Illinois populations of the Upland sandpiper are most certainly in peril, leaving only a small and fragmented population that has somehow appeared to have adapted to the vast agricultural areas of Illinois. A few western states in the Great Plain have stable and secure breeding populations, while some surrounding states have shown a decline in the sandpiper. There are a few states where the Upland sandpiper is sadly presumed extirpated. Without awareness and protected areas and a change in human behavior, I fear for the future of the Upland sandpiper in Illinois.

Moving through the agricultural field, an Upland sandpiper in the company of two other sandpipers searches for insects and worms.

Wilson’s Snipe

A number of Wilson’s snipe rest in the soft and safe grasses near a small flooded area where 15 snipe had congregated in Iroquois County.

June 9, 2022 – A secretive and strange-looking plump-bodied bird with a long beak and short legs cautiously forages among the grasses around the wet areas of standing water where food and low-lying cover can be found. Becoming almost invisible by crouching low to the ground when possible danger enters the scene, the well-camouflaged member of the sandpiper family silently becomes part of the landscape. In an instant, the bird freezes as it watches with care, holding steady until it is safe. Only patience allows for close observation of this wary migrant. One shouldn’t confuse the actual snipe bird whose name has become chiseled in the lore of the youthful pranksters who have embellished their campfire stories to entice those who may take the bait for a midnight snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunny sack for a mythical creature of the same name. Once the snipe is off high alert, if not flushed in their typical zigzagging escape flight, they will continue their behavior of feeding or resting as long as the threat appears gone and they see no movement from a possible intruder. When not eating seeds or vegetation, the snipe will use its long sensitive bill to probe the soft mud as it searches for prey such as earthworms, slugs, and other tiny insects. Some prey animals, such as a long and determined earthworm, may cause the snipe and the earthworm to engage in a tug-a-war that requires the snipe to pull it out of the mud to eat it. Small invertebrates are consumed with their flexible bill while the long appendage is still deep in the damp earth. The snipe is known to be somewhat solitary, but usually where there is one there are probably more nearby, especially during migration when they may be in the company of a small group of up to 10 or more. The Wilson’s snipe is considered a medium to long-distance migrant that spends the breeding season from the northern third of Illinois to Northern Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritime provinces.

An earthworm puts up a fight as a snipe pulls the long wiggling meal out of the earth.

Spring Migration

A beautiful long-distance migrant, the male Baltimore oriole, pauses for a moment on the branch.

May 10, 2022 – During spring, when anticipation is thick in the air and weather conditions line up to provide some favorable winds out of the south, many migrants take advantage of the strong tailwinds to move north towards their summer ranges. Shorebirds, warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds travel from points south and appear like magic at backyard feeders, flooded fields, lakes, rivers, and rural thickets along their route. Some of these avian travelers have flown a great distance only to stop here in the Midwest to rest and build fat reserves until the time is right and the cold and foul weather of Northern Canada is on its way out. Some species have already arrived at their summer range here in the midwest, like these backyard favorites, the Baltimore oriole, and the Ruby-throated hummingbird. These birds have traveled a long way, coming from as far as Central and South America, arriving just as the plants spring forth and insects emerge, the tiny insects providing the needed food for the new arrivals and the ones yet to come. Many species of warblers have arrived, some just passing through while others will nest here. The spring warblers in their breeding plumage are always a thrill to the observer. The bright colors of the male Baltimore oriole stand out as it flutters from branch to branch among the new spring growth. The distinct rich songs of the orioles will also delight and alert you to their presence. Ruby-throated hummingbirds zip about at high speed from tree branch to feeder as they try to chase the persistent orioles away from their sweet food source. In our rural areas, hundreds of American golden plovers stand like statues across the expanse of the unplanted agricultural fields in Iroquois County. The American golden plover is a long-distance migrant that spends the cold winter months in South America and travels to far Northern Canada’s arctic region for the nesting season. The plovers have been here for weeks feeding and resting and waiting for the cues of nature that tell them when to take to the air and continue their epic journey towards their nesting range.

The tiny Golden-crowned kinglet,a medium distance migrant that winters in Illinois, searches for insects through the branches.

The American White Pelican

Well lighted by the morning sun a large American white pelican with a wingspan of nine feet glides past giving us a nice look at this beautiful bird.

April 11, 2022 – As spring continues to battle a winter that seems unwilling to step aside, the unstoppable woodland wildflowers have brought new color to the drab understory along the streams and trails of Illinois. This year in southern Illinois, Western chorus frogs sang their love songs under starry skies with an incredibly piercing volume lasting well into the chilly late February night. Waves of many thousands of noisy Snow geese have moved out of the southern part of the state, working their way towards their breeding grounds on the vast lands of the Arctic tundra. Every year American white pelicans that are becoming a more common sight in Illinois can be seen during the winter on the large lakes and river bottoms of Southern Illinois. American white pelican population has grown along with its nesting habitat from the northern Great Plains of the United States and Canada and south and east into Northern Wisconsin. The male and female pelican develop a flat plate that sticks up like a horn on their upper bill during the breeding season, which falls off after the season is over. The American white pelican has a 9-foot wingspan that easily carries the large body of those remarkable birds, having an average weight of between 11 and 30 pounds. Large flocks of these bright white birds with black flight feathers, circling in unison in a graceful formation, high over the lakes and wetlands illuminated by the sun, is a sight to behold, truly breathtaking. As spring arrives and winter musters its last bit of icy effort during its final curtain calls, those large, strange, delightful-looking pelicans will show up in small numbers here in Northeastern Illinois. Reports of sightings have already been recorded this year in Northern Illinois; I witnessed four low flying pelicans from my backyard in Kankakee within the last few weeks. For a brief time before moving further north and west to their summer nesting areas, the American white pelican will rest, feed and take flight on and over the rivers and lakes of Northern Illinois.

The strange flat plate on top of the pelican’s bill indicates an adult bird during the breeding season.

The Short-eared Owl

Blending in with the dry brown winter grasses a Short-eared owl sits motionless on a cold February morning.

March 10, 2022 – The winter migrants were almost invisible sitting along a rural road in Iroquois County during the mid-morning. Blending in quite well with the soft dried grasses, surrounded by mounds of snow on an extremely-cold February morning, five wintering Short-eared owls seemed little bothered by the passerby. The owls appeared motionless while taking advantage of a bit of warmth from the morning sun. I tried to envision a time in the midwest when marsh and prairie habitats were vast and uncorrupted. Midwestern America was a perfect nesting habitat for the ground-nesting birds, a time before European settlements when Short-eared owls were a common species found in our area of Illinois and the surrounding states. The Short-eared owl is now considered an endangered native. Today there are only a handful of records of Short-eared owls nesting in Illinois, which is occurring on some large blocks of restored and protected grassland habitat. The destruction and reduction of the grassland and wetland over the years that are important for a healthy population of Short-eared owls are the main reason they are listed as endangered in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Other Great Lake states have the owls listed as threatened or as a species “of special concern.” Observing the sleepy little owls, they would at times open their large round yellow eyes, the short tufts of feathers would stick up like little horns on top of their head, resembling some underworld deity. The hornlike tufts of feathers that stand upon the heads of many owls like the Great-horned owl, and the Long-eared owl, are neither horns nor ears. Some believe that the erect feathers that can be raised or lowered at will on the Short-eared owls might be a means of non-vocal communicating with other Short-eared owls. Others have suggested that the feathers are just additional camouflage, for when the owl roost or nest on the ground among the grasses, helping them to blend into their surroundings. The Short-eared owl is medium-sized with a wingspan of up to 40 inches. They have rounded heads that is more obvious when the feathers on top of their head are not standing up. As spring nears, the wintering Short-eared owls will move north towards their nesting areas for the breeding season. Except for the rare summer sighting, most of us will have to wait until late fall and throughout the winter to experience the thrill of the Short-eared owls rising out of their roost at dusk for the hunt.

A little Short-eared owl finds shelter along an eroded ditch bank in Iroquois County.