Turkey Vultures

April 18, 2019 – As springtime advances and the migrants move north, Turkey vultures, those masters of the air currents, are once again gliding across the skies of Northern Illinois in large circling flocks that are sometimes referred to as a kettle. Even though a few of these large dark colored vultures are spotted in northern Illinois during the winter months, most migrate south in the fall after the nesting season. They spend the winter from Southern Illinois and across the southern United States, south through Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America and as far south as ‘the end of the world’ Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.

North America has three of the six subspecies of Turkey vultures. Cathartes aura septentrionalis is found in the eastern United States.(Palmer, 1988) With a wingspan of around six feet these large slow flying birds are hard to miss as they fly off of the carcass of the unfortunate roadkill as a vehicle approaches. Those close encounters certainly gives the observer an appreciation for the impressive size of the Turkey vulture. They usually don’t go far when flushed from the carrion and soon return to their feeding when the threat is gone. They are often seen still on their roosts in dead trees, utility poles or buildings early in the morning. With their wings spread wide like a parabolic antenna while facing the warm morning sun they are warming their bodies and drying their feathers from a rain shower or the dampness of the night.

Nesting Turkey vultures will use the abandoned nest of other large avian species in secluded areas far from human traffic. They will also use old sheds, barns, and houses that are remote, grown-up, neglected and open to the elements. The Turkey vulture may choose to lay their clutch of 1 to 3 eggs in a nest on the ground that they scrap out in the leaf litter in a dense thicket or near a fallen tree or even in a hollow log. The vultures will have only one brood over a 60-84 day nesting period and may return to the same nest year-after-year according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Palmer, R. 1988. Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 4. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Song sparrows

April 11, 2019 – An unrelenting and attention grabbing chase scene was on, as two small Song sparrows pursued each other in an amazing high speed aerial flight that took them zipping between small openings in the woods, over and under bushes, and around trees, a display that lasted well over ten minutes. Soon though, the two birds were on the ground in a small gassy area and appeared to be locked in a serious battle. The pair of male Song sparrows were having a territorial dispute that boiled over into a crescendo of a blurred feathery terror that played out in an opening at the edge of small woods this past week in Iroquois county.

It is not uncommon to see two or more birds having some sort of disagreement over a territory, mate, or reasons not fully understood, but most of the time it only lasts a few seconds with minimal to no physical contact at all. Less often though, one may witness an epic knock-down-drag-out fight at a level that raises a concern of a not so cheerful outcome. The fight which lasted a good four minutes looked at times to be quite violent. The little birds seemed to be going for each others head and face area with those long sharp claws normally used to scratch the earth for seeds and insects.

With the exception of an occasional pause during the fight when the birds had each other restrained, the struggle was much too quick for the human eye to comprehend. The details of the struggle could only be understood in the photos after the fact. Just as quickly as the ground battle started it was all over and they both disappeared from the battlefield. A few minutes later a single male Song sparrow was perched and singing on a small branch nearby as order seemed to have been restored and the intruder had fled the area.

A study that tested the hypothesis of song-matching, “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System”, was published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2013. Song matching is the matching of the song of the intruder, sung by the territorial male Song sparrow as an early warning signal to the intruder to stay away. The researchers found that song matching begins at low-level and then switches to higher-level that almost always predicts an attack on the intruder. The bird may also try other signals to send warnings to the intruder such as wing waving combined with song-matching as part of the early warning signals. .Akcay, C., M. E. Tom, S. E. Campbell, and M. D. Beecher. “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1756 (2013): 20122517. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.2517.

American Tree Sparrow

April 5, 2019 – The soft songs of the American Tree Sparrow are like a pleasant melodic whispering that easily causes one to momentarily pause and focus. This medium size sparrow can be seen at times singing from a low perch on a bush or while foraging on the ground at the edge of a thicket. Winter flocks of these little rusty capped birds have been gathering, feeding, and building energy while waiting for that moment during their spring migration when they take their night flight north towards the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska.

As days begin to grow longer metabolic changes occur that help prepare the birds for their long flight. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a huge increase in appetite helps to build up fat reserves that are required for such a physically demanding journey. Both internal and external factors play a role that triggers the big push north for the nesting season. Weather conditions are important so as to coincide with insect hatching in the stopping areas along the migratory route.

One can only imagine what it would be like to be part of a flock of a few hundred small birds on a cool, crisp starry night flying towards that shimmering fiery glow of the auroras above the northern latitudes. Those little sparrows face many miles and a number of challenges as they work very hard to reach their nesting grounds north of the tree line where the Arctic fox, the polar bear, and the ptarmigan call home.

Trumpeter Swans

March 25, 2019 – A small flock of Trumpeter swans, four adults and one juvenile, could be seen resting and feeding recently in some corn stubble in Iroquois county near Ashkum. Even at some distance these large, impressive white birds with jet-black bills easily stood out against a backdrop of a pale, dead, and dormant late winter landscape. The Trumpeter swan is a very large waterfowl, much larger than the Tundra swan, the other native swan to North America. Trumpeters are a medium-distance migrant that move through our area in small numbers during late winter as they head north to the shallow lakes and wetlands of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan for their nesting season.

During the winter months large flocks of Trumpeters, sometimes in the company of Tundra swans, congregate in the flooded agricultural fields and on the ice free lakes and rivers in the southern part of the state. Big numbers of Trumpeters, with counts in the hundreds, were reported at the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge near Havana in west-central Illinois at the end of February. Even higher numbers of swans had been reported along the Mississippi river. Jed Hertz photographed six Trumpeter swans, two adults and four juveniles, on the Kankakee river near Gar creek in the first week of March.

It is really hard to imagine that about 90 years ago there were only 69 Trumpeter swans left in the wild here in the United States. According to information on the website for The Trumpeter Swan Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for the welfare of the Trumpeter swan, these surviving swans were protected from hunting and the harsh winter conditions surviving in remote areas of Yellowstone and the Centennial Valley of Montana where hot spring and geysers provided ice free areas for them throughout the winter. Efforts by biologists in the late 30’s worked towards saving the trumpeters from extinction. Surveys of Canada and Alaska gave hope as a small flock had survived in Alberta Canada and a large flock of 2000 swans was discovered in Alaska,. The website goes on to say that the Trumpeter swans that are part of the interior population are now over forty percent (27,055) of the total Trumpeter swan population. The swans that we are lucky enough to see here in the Mid-west are part of that interior population.

Merlin Falcon

The little falcon perched on a branch watching a large number of Red-winged blackbirds.

March 20, 2019 – The little falcon was perched and alert with its’ senses focused on a few thousand loud clattering mostly male Red-winged blackbirds that were on their spring migration. There was such an impressive number of birds in this flock that they gave the late winter trees and shrubs an appearance of being covered in dark leaves. Patiently watching from an old snag, the Merlin concentrated on a part of the flock that were flying, resting, and feeding in the grasses and along the roadway just to the north. Soon the little raptor, with a sudden and great speed, left its’ vantage causing the flock to take to the air in a large cloud of an evasive synchronization that resembled that well known and mesmerizing murmuration of starlings. I quickly lost sight of the little falcon, but I suspect after all of that commotion, which lasted no longer than 30 seconds, there may be one less blackbird in that huge flock of travelers.

Hundreds of Red-winged blackbirds and a few other species in a large tree in view of the Merlin.

The Merlin falcon is a compact and powerful bird of prey, it is slightly larger then the American Kestrel, which is the smallest falcon in North America. The Kestrel is a common falcon in our area that can be observed year-round, often perched on a utility wire while it is hunting voles, mice and insects in the grassy ditches and waterways along our rural roads. The less common to our area is the Merlin, it is often recorded in Illinois during the winter months. It spends the summer, during the breeding season, in the boreal forests of Canada. It appears though, that the Merlin is expanding its’ summer range. In recent years there has been an increase in nesting records in Wisconsin that seems to be expanding south, according an article by Eric Walters “Merlins Nesting In Illinois” published in a journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society. Data collected daily from bird enthusiasts is reflected in the eBird range maps for this species and shows that there has been a number of recorded Merlin sightings in June and July in Illinois along with a few confirmed nesting records in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana in recent years.

The Northern Pintail Duck

A male Northern pintail duck in full breeding plumage with female.

March 13, 2019 – The elegant and quite handsome male Northern pintail duck in its’ full breeding plumage stands out among the other waterfowl. During the breeding season the male pintail has elongated tail feathers and a striking overall enhanced and well defined coloration of gray, bright-white, coal-black, and chocolate- brown. The breeding male pintail is a sleek long-necked duck with a blue bill outlined in black, with iridescent green or an almost black speculum on the secondary wing feathers that are visible in flight.

Three Northern pintail males swimming near other resting waterfowl.

The Northern pintail is a long distance migrant with a winter range stretching from Central America, Mexico, Cuba, and coast-to-coast across the southern half of the United States. During the breeding season pintail ducks nest on the Great Plains east across the Great lakes and north throughout Canada and Alaska. According to the National Wildlife Federation “In general, pintails breed in prairie habitats-open country near lakes, rivers, and wetlands dominated by low vegetation and small, shallow water bodies, such as prairie potholes of the Midwestern United States.”

Male taking to the sky moving to some open water further out.

This is the time of the year, late winter, when we see those migrating Northern pintail ducks in our area. Most often flocks of pintail are in the company of many other migrating species of ducks and geese that are slowly working their way north waiting for that exact moment to continue that journey to their summer nesting habitat. Staging can last a number of weeks, the ducks use the open shallow waters of our wetlands and the flooded agricultural fields for resting, feeding, and pairing up for the nesting season. This is when we have the opportunity to see that beautiful plumage of the male Northern pintails as they swim, feed, and rest and try to impress the females.

The Great Migration

Last Sunday a number of waterfowl species congregated in some open water of a flooded field near Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife area as a morning snow made a winter scene.

March 6, 2019 – Despite the single digits and wind-chills to consider, some hints and signs of spring are starting to come into focus. The backwaters of the Kankakee river, the ponds, ditches, and flooded fields are slowly being liberated from their cold icy carapace. Male Red-winged blackbirds are beginning to stake-out their territories. They could be seen this past week perched on last years faded cattail stems and in small trees near water as they sang their songs of spring. Some ducks and geese are pairing up and keeping to themselves, while others with much greater distances to travel are together in flocks waiting to move north. Small flocks of Sandhill cranes have been seen heading north and recent reports out of Wisconsin state the news of early arrivals.

A pair of Hooded mergansers stay close together resting on the open water and feeding on frogs east of Kankakee this past week.

Soon our winter visitors from the upper Great-lakes, Canada and the North-west territories, and points east and west will be harder and harder to find as their numbers dwindle from our area and they push towards their nesting grounds. Rough-legged hawks will be noticeably absent from the skies above our prairies when they soon leave for the Arctic tundra. Greater-white fronted geese have recently been seen through-out the state and in our area in large flocks waiting for that moment to push north towards the high Arctic for their breeding season. As the weeks go by and warmer temperatures are here to stay and conditions north are stable and suitable for nesting, the waders and shorebirds will be making their move as the great migration continues.

The Kaskaskia River Bottoms

A flock of ducks and geese flushed a short distance by eagles before settling back to the shallow waters of the flooded field.

February 22, 2019 – There were many species of migratory birds to be seen during last weeks visit to Carlyle lake and the Kaskaskia river bottoms in Clinton county. Snow geese, Greater white-fronted geese and even a number of the smaller Ross’s snow geese could be found. On a foggy morning I observed both large and small rafts of ducks with a variety of species that were noted as they drifted in and out of view in the distance. Lesser scaup, Canvasback, Common goldeneye, Common and Red-breasted mergansers, Ring-necked, Ruddy and Bufflehead ducks were on the lake. There were also over 400 American white pelicans feeding, resting, and waiting for spring.

A juvenile bald eagle in close pursuit of an adult eagle that had just picked up a dead fish out the flooded corn stubble. The dead fish along with some pieces of corn stalk can be seen in the eagles talons.

Many thousands of Ring-billed gulls, some Herring gulls and a few Lesser black-backed gulls were also on the lake, notably in the harbors and inlets. Huge numbers of gulls could be seen and heard, flying in what appeared to be a chaotic flurry of white where they were vigorously hunting and feeding on gizzard shad. Large flocks of Ring-billed gulls could also be found foraging in the surrounding agricultural fields, where they looked a vivid white against dark fallow fields of late winter.

Juvenile bald eagles chase each other around over a snow goose kill

In the Kaskaskia river bottoms south of the town of Carlyle, the American bald eagles were an impressive sight. I counted around 35 in a stretch of about 7 miles. A quick glance as something caught my eye while driving, standing in close proximity in a muddy field near the river, were 10 adults and three juvenile Bald eagles. A few miles further south in flood plains of the Kaskaskia that still had standing water, Trumpeter and Tundra swans congregated. Many ducks and geese were using the area along with a number Ringed-billed gulls. Snow and Greater white-fronted geese were in the wet areas of the flooded corn stubble. Pintails, wigeons, scaups, mallards and mergansers stayed close together mixed in with the geese as eagles continued their repeated low flights just above the resting waterfowl looking for an opportunity.


White-winged Scoter

February 16, 2019 – Considered a sea duck, White-winged Scoters are observed in numbers primarily along the coastal areas of the US and Canada. They winter along the coastlines from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific and along the coastal areas of the south and eastern US from the Gulf of Mexico north to the Canadian Maritimes. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology online resource, All About Birds, “Although the White-winged Scoter winters primarily along the coasts, small numbers winter on the eastern Great Lakes.”

A solitary bird or just a few are often recorded inland on ice free open areas of lakes and rivers during late winter in Illinois. Higher numbers of scoters will be found across the area of the Great Lakes north into Canada on the migratory staging areas of late winter and early spring as they push towards those summer nesting grounds in the central Canadian provinces, Northwest Territories, and north into central and northern Alaska.

Over the years Jed Hertz has recorded a number of White-winged Scoters on the Kankakee river. This year is no exception. On January 2nd , below the dam near Jeffers park, Hertz spotted a single White-winged Scoter. On Monday February 11th Jed again found a duck that could actually be the same scoter on the river east of Aroma Park. Photos allow for a closer look of the scoter and it appears to be an immature drake. Jed notified me and I was able to get a few shots of the duck as it worked on an aquatic plant stem, biting and chewing it between its’ thick bill, possibly trying to remove a larvae from the hollow parts of the segmented stem.

White-winged Scoters are a diving duck that feed mainly on mollusks. In wintering areas, crustaceans are an import food source. Scoters have a unique ability to use their wings and feet to propel quickly to the bottom. I observed this behavior from my vantage while watching three scoters feeding near 4th avenue in Kankakee in January of 2014. When they began their head first dive their wings became partially opened and used as if in flight as they disappeared into the depths. A science journal article called “Costs of diving by wing and foot propulsion in a sea duck, the white-winged scoter”, states that, “Most birds swim underwater by either feet alone or wings alone, but some sea ducks often use both.”, perhaps an adaptation required for deep water dives. ”Scoters using wings + feet had 13% shorter descent duration, 18% faster descent speed, 31% fewer strokes/m, and 59% longer bottom duration than with feet only.” J Comp Physiol B. 2008 Mar;178(3):321-32. Epub 2007 Dec 7.

Tundra Swan

February 5, 2019 – Last weeks little bit of open water on the river at Cobb park was a gathering place for a few hundred Canada geese. A number of ducks, both divers and dabblers, swam, rested, and hunted the open water between the ice while at times disappearing into those dark cold winter pools of the Kankakee river only to reemerge a short time later with their catch. A single Tundra Swan, larger than the Canada geese that surrounded it, stood-out with its’ bright white feathers and elegant presence. The Tundra Swan is a visitor seen during the winter months or during migration on the open waters of large lakes, rivers, and in grain fields in the northern parts of the US. During the nesting season the Tundra Swan, sometimes called the Whistling Swan because of the sounds emitted from their wingbeats as they fly, are on their breeding grounds in the remote wetlands of the high Arctic. There are only two native species of swans in North America, the Tundra and the Trumpeter. The Trumpeter swan is slightly larger than the Tundra and for the observer it sometimes requires a close look to determine which species you are looking at.