A Wet Christmas Morning

December 24, 2023 – It was a wet, dreary, and cold Christmas morning in 2015 when I headed out early to find and photograph a Snowy owl wintering south of Kankakee, an owl I had previously seen in that area over the past few weeks. When I arrived at the general location of the most recent sightings of the great white bird, I turned west off the main highway onto a small rural road and almost instantly was rewarded. About 75 yards down the road on the right, standing out like a beacon of white in the gray gloom of a steady cold winter rain, was the soggy-looking Snowy owl. I drove past where the bird was sitting a short distance out in the bean stubble and turned the truck around for a better vantage. I slowly and cautiously pulled up where I could safely observe the bird and got some photos out the driver’s side window, careful not to disturb the Arctic visitor. Even though the lighting couldn’t get any worse, I settled in to enjoy the moment, which lasted for over an hour. The owl seemed to have no interest in me as it preened its wet feathers with a persistent but gentle focus, dragging each feather through its sharply pointed bill multiple times, squeezing out the dampness, and straightening the plumes. Occasionally, the owl would rise on its feet and shake violently, the wetness of the relentless and confounded rain off its ruffled feathers, only to settle back to continue preening.

Snowy owl shaking the wetness from its feathers during a steady rain.

Snowy owls escape the cold, snow, and fierce blizzards of the Arctic winter by going south, many well into the interior of the United States. Some years are exceptional; the migration becomes very exciting when there is an irruption of Snowy owls, with record numbers appearing throughout the lower forty-eight. The excitement and stories quickly spread through the birding community and the general public as owl sightings began to add up. Irruptions coincide with the increase in the Lemming population in the north, a primary food source of the owls. When the lemmings do well, the owls do well, but when the lemmings crash, the owl population drops. The owl eventually flew a short distance to a grassy waterway that snaked through the field and hunkered down in the soft cover. Feeling the chill, I fired up the truck and headed towards town with warm and lasting memories of a visitor from the high north that I was lucky enough to spend some time with on a cold, wet Christmas morning.

The owl eventually flew a short distance to a grassy waterway that snaked through the field and hunkered down in the soft cover.

Sparrows of Winter

A sharp-looking White-crowned sparrow arrives in our area, the northern edge of its winter range, during the fall migration.

November 11, 2023 – Soon after the much-anticipated fall warblers have moved through, peaking in late September through early October and heading south towards their winter homes, autumn hardens its stance, and winter awaits its stage call. Arriving from the boreal forests of Canada, the sparrows, those northern nesters, show up like magic in the yards and the parks amongst the yellowing leaves and dwindling berries on their way to their winter ranges, which can include Illinois. White-crowned, Lincolns, White-throated, Tree, and Fox are just some of the sparrows we see here in Illinois during the spring and fall migrations, some of which stay throughout the cold months. Over a dozen species of sparrows visit Illinois at different times of the year and are considered seasonal. Some species of sparrows arrive in the early spring and nest throughout the summer on the prairies and in the grassy areas along wooded edges across the state. The non-native House sparrow, introduced in North America in the mid-1800s, is a year-round resident and often congregates in numbers at backyard feeders, a nemesis to the human seed provider and probably appreciated only by the Cooper’s hawk. Unlike the bright-colored neotropical warblers, sparrows have muted, earthy colors that can be as beautiful as any, with sharp edges and contrasted tones in their tiny plumage. It is always a treat to see the beautiful White-crowned sparrows arrive in our area in the fall. White-crowned sparrows nest in the far north in Canada and Alaska, which includes the vast arctic tundra region. When it suddenly appears on an exposed branch in a brushy area, the adult White-crowned sparrow is striking in its confident-looking posture, with a bold black and white striped head above a grey-to-brown body. The White-crowned sparrow is a winter resident across Illinois, with higher numbers in the southern part of the state. Another common migrant in Illinois is the Lincoln’s sparrow. These little sparrows are ground nesters, having a summer range from the northern United States across Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritimes. There are also summer populations in the western mountainous regions of the United States. The Lincoln’s sparrows go further south for the winter than the White-crowned sparrows. Their winter range is from the far southern tip of Illinois to Central America. While some continue south, many other species stay throughout the winter here in Northeastern Illinois; it is difficult to imagine a cold and snowy winter scene of leafless bushes and dried plants without those small birds of winter digging and scraping the snow for fallen seeds during those dark months.

A lovely Lincoln’s sparrow passing through spends a little time before continuing south for the winter.

The Changing Light

A beautiful white Great egret glides in over some prime feeding areas in the backwaters of the Kankakee River.

October 7, 2023 – That old familiar change is in the air as fall arrives. The cooler nights provide a restful sleep and easy dreams as open windows bring a gentle breeze replacing noisy air conditioners. The changing light and long shadows give a new look and feel to a tired countryside. Even though the gardens and prairies still have plenty of nectarous blooms for the pollinators while adding color to the glorious landscape, many plants have gone to seed and are showing signs of wear and tear as they begin to reveal the yellows and oranges of autumn. It is that time of year before the ice and snow that summer residents migrate south. Many species of birds are on the move coming south from the higher latitudes, while others are preparing to move south by gorging on nature’s bounty of seeds, nectar, and insects, building up their fat reserves for their challenging journeys. Monarch butterflies, Common green darner dragonflies, and even Eastern red bats are taking to the skies and are heading to a warmer climate for the winter. Long-distance migrants like Broad-winged hawks have recently been photographed in the area working their way south towards Central and South America, where they will wait for spring near the equatorial latitudes, wisely retreating far away from those cold north winds. Large, bright white, wading birds, the Great egrets, stand out against the changing colors as they feed in the backwaters of the Kankakee. Hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s for their beautiful plumes, new conservation laws in the early 1900s implemented to protect birds are why we see the Great egrets today. While there are always a few egrets that stay in Northern Illinois through a mild winter, most of the summer population of Great egrets in the lakes and marches of the Great Lakes region will have gone as far south as Central America for the cold months. In the coming weeks, large flocks of Sandhill cranes will be in the air over Northern Illinois and Indiana as they have done for thousands of years. The Sandhill crane population has rebounded over the years from the low numbers of only a few dozen in the 1930s thanks to protective laws; today, we enjoy the sites and sounds of the cranes in migration, those bugling rattles that demand one’s attention, are a sampling of the bygone days before the Europeans expanded into North America, where they nearly wiped out the Sandhill and Whooping cranes forever. Shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, songbirds, and waterfowl travel through Illinois during the fall migration, some spending the winter in the state. Backyard feeders are a great place to monitor during the fall migration; watching and listening for those unusual migrating songbirds is an exciting and rewarding moment when one witnesses an uncommon fall traveler that probably goes unnoticed by most.

Walking through the muck, a Great egret searches for a meal in the shallows watching for the slightest movement.

Fire Smoke and Migration

A Blackburnian warbler with a long flight ahead stops in Iroquois County to recharge before continuing to Central or South America for the winter.

September 9, 2023 – The calendar, a shared understanding of humans, says that autumn does not officially begin in the Northern Hemisphere until the 23rd of this month on the day of the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox. For Warblers, those dainty little songbirds, instinct is the main driving force, and we begin to see the movement of these birds south of their summer range in mid-August as their fall migration begins. Blackburnian and Black-and-white warblers are just a few recent sightings in Kankakee and Iroquois counties. Seasonal weather patterns are part of what stimulates the bird migration; the strong northerly winds and cooler nights influence when the birds move south, but this year there is another factor that is not yet fully understood, and that is the impact from the historic, widespread, and devastating wildfires burning to the north. The wildfires in Canada began in March and have burned millions of acres of Canada’s boreal forests across all provinces and territories. The smoke and flames are as dangerous to birds as to humans, and there is little doubt that many birds have had to abandon nesting attempts in and around the impacted areas. There is still a good chance that the birds escaping the fire and smoke attempted to nest again in other areas. Nesting habitats in these northern forests have been and continue to be destroyed by this extreme climate event, and that charred landscape in the coming spring may be a real challenge for birds arriving for the breeding season. Fire has always had a role in the life cycle of the forested ecosystem, actually helping renew the boreal landscape; experts acknowledge that today’s fires are more extreme than in the past and can change which plant species grow back after these scorched earth events. As the fall migration intensifies over the coming days, migrating warblers from points north will hopefully be seen in our area of Illinois as they head south toward their winter range in the Gulf states, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Only time will tell how these extreme climate events of our warmer, drier, and changing planet will impact the warblers and all other plant and animal species, for that matter. Let us hope that our indecisiveness and resistance to implementing a more urgent plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has not manifested into those proverbial chickens that have come home to roost.

Searching through the leafy branches for insects a Tennessee warbler shows itself for just a moment before continuing its hunt.

The Eastern Cottontail

An Eastern cottontail rabbit searches for something to eat at the edge of a grassy area.

August 11, 2023 – Long ears, large back feet, big dark eyes, a rusty brown coat, and a small round fluffy white tail that looks like a cotton ball, last seen nibbling grasses at the edge of a brush pile early this morning. That general description matches only one creature known to inhabit the thickets and the brushy areas here in Northeastern Illinois, the prolific and celebrated Eastern cottontail rabbit. Besides those remote thickets and brushy areas, the cottontail is a common sight around farmsteads, along rural roads, and even in urban yards and parks. Where there is cover and a food source, cottontail rabbits are most likely nearby. Sometimes the cottontail is a nuisance to hobby gardeners, a nemesis to some, provoking an ongoing battle of determination between species. Cottontails are prey for hawks, foxes, snakes, coyotes, domesticated carnivores, and even humans. The quick and alert bunnies always have a nearby fast escape route down a small shadowy path and into the thickest of cover, where they can hold tight until the danger is gone. Cottontails are, unfortunately for them, a winter game to hunters using dogs, usually beagles, to find the hunkered rabbit and start the chase; when pursued, the cottontail will run in large circles coming back near where the chase began trying to throw off the pursuer. During the great depression, the Eastern cottontail and other small game became a necessary meat source for many hungry Americans. The cottontail fell victim to snares, clubs, and guns, most certainly thinning out the local rabbit populations during that difficult and needy time. Native Americans would use the soft rabbitskins for blankets, clothing, and slippers for their newborns and toddlers to keep them toasty warm on those cold winter nights. One early account describes a Chippewa-made rabbitskin baby blanket, sewn with fifty to seventy skins and measured fifty inches square. The cottontail rabbit helped stave off hunger and provided protection from the elements during the hard times for humans; it has found a place in the lore and literature of generations, passing on life lessons in song, poetry, children’s books, and oral tradition. We all have stories of the Eastern cottontail rabbit, and I remember a frosty morning in Grampa’s leafless sleeping orchard; a small pile of yellow apples lay mostly brown and rotting near a stump. There was a thicket at the edge with cockleburs and briars, brown, sticky, barbed, and tangled; my 12-year-old face was red from the cold air, it was an unusually chilly late November, and the wind came with a sting. Suddenly with a step that crunched and smashed the frozen weeds, the explosion startled me; a cottontail, a blur of fur, darts from its hiding place, and for that brief moment, I had all but forgotten the bitter wind that tortured me. But the trickster was gone, over the rise and out of sight. After a pause and a sniffle, my heart resumed its usual rhythm, and the chill set in once more. Next time you see that little cottontail out there nibbling the grasses in your yard, take a moment and think about the long history of that resident of the briar patch and its deep connection to man.

The cottontail takes a moment to groom and wash its face.

A Remarkable Migrant

A good look at the Upland sandpiper’s large, dark eye and thin, mostly yellow bill.

July 7, 2023 – It is always a great feeling in the spring when I get my first sighting of an Upland sandpiper for the new year, which happened with a single bird flushed from the roadside on May 4th in Iroquois County. Upland sandpipers stand about 12 inches and have a 20-inch wingspan; their plumage is a light tan color covered in black and brown streaks, and they have large dark eyes and a yellow and black bill. The sandpiper flew only about ten feet, landing in some corn stubble, where it slowly and cautiously strolled away, which allowed for a few pictures before I moved on, not wanting to put any unnecessary pressure on the bird. So far, since that first bird of the year, I have had 19 sightings of these remarkable but endangered migrant birds, mostly in pairs, as they searched for insects in the grassy areas along the roads in the same general area where they are sighted each year. There was a time in the 1800s when areas of Illinois would have hosted many thousands of these long-distance migrants during the nesting season. It must have been amazing to hear the Upland sandpiper’s unique songs ring out across the prairies and pastures of Illinois during the warm months. The encroachment of man with the destruction of habitat combined with unregulated hunting has left only some small localized nesting groups that seem to be having a bit of success in the small fragmented areas in and around the agricultural fields of Iroquois County. Early mowing along the roads and in the waterways in these areas could be postponed until August for the benefit of these nesting birds. This species needs all the help it can get, and leaving nesting and feeding areas untouched until the end of the season, is such a simple change that could have some positive effects, which would also benefit many other species of migratory birds and pollinators. The Upland sandpipers also face challenges in their non-breeding range that threaten their population. In South America, the sandpipers suffer from loss of grassland habitat, encroachment, and grassland burning practices by cattle ranchers across their winter range of southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. It is a remarkable story of avian migration, survival, and determination when one stops to realize the distance these birds travel each year to end up in Illinois and to nest in this area that offers only remnants of suitable habitat in Iroquois County and surrounding counties. I can’t help but think that we could do more to protect these nesting areas and give these determined travelers some recognition and support to ensure a successful nesting season.

Bitterns

An American Bittern out in the open wades through flooded corn stubble in a field in Iroquois County.

June 10, 2023 – More often heard than seen are those secretive herons of the marshlands, the American bittern, and the smaller and less common Least bittern. The peculiar calls of the American bittern remind one of the sounds of liquid pouring from a large jug with a small neck and have been aptly described as a repeating oonk-ga-chonk, oonk-ga-chonk, earning the bittern nicknames like mire-drum, thunder-pumper, and stake-driver. The American bittern has a status in Illinois as an endangered native, and the loss of wetlands has reduced nesting habitat and contributed to the decline of this species over the years, which continues even today across its range from pollution, climate change, and habitat loss. The Least bittern is about half the size of the American bittern at about 13 inches, making it the smallest heron in the Americas. The little heron is listed as threatened in Illinois, suffering from the same environmental challenges as many wetland birds. The smaller bittern has several calls that are familiar sounds in the marshes and bogs with shallow water and tall cover, high-pitched clucking, and springtime mating calls of coo-coo-coo-coo heard in the wetlands are sometimes mistaken for the sounds of frogs or the songs of other birds like the Black-billed cuckoo. Once a common summer bird in Illinois, their decline began with a reckless assault on the land in the late 1800s. The destruction of wetlands by the draining of shallow lakes and ponds that once dotted Northern Illinois had a devastating impact on the local and migratory wildlife. With the encroachment of man determined to tame the land for other uses, the Least bittern is now seen or heard only in the limited areas of its favored habitat. Traveling at night during the migration Least bitterns begin arriving from Central and South America in April. The little herons build their nests among the tall, dense vegetation, where they interweave a platform above the water from dead plants. They will produce four or five eggs with two broods each year. Spring migration of the American bittern starts in March and April, and this might be the best opportunity for a lucky person to get a glimpse of this secretive and well-camouflaged bird. Although nesting does occur in Illinois in the limited marshes and sloughs, the American bittern is considered an uncommon summer resident. More widespread nesting occurs in the vast dense wetlands of our northern border states, continuing into southern Canada.

Clinging tightly to the long stems of reeds, the Least bittern blends in quite well as it slowly works its way through the dense growth.

Curious Shadows

Gliding low across the corn stubble a Turkey vulture flies towards and lands in the field joining other vultures on the ground.

May 6, 2023 – Casting curious shadows that flow like a dark liquid across the Midwestern landscape, they silently glide to and fro like paper kites in the blue mid-morning sky, becoming a vision that is the envy of the earthbound. The large black and brown birds with an almost six-foot wing span and bald red faces with pale-colored beaks are Turkey vultures. Once a rare sight in these parts, they are now a common migrant in Northern Illinois from February through November; even though most have moved south by late fall towards their winter range, some remain during the sometimes harsh Midwestern winter. Springtime has brought large numbers of vultures back to Northeastern Illinois for the breeding season, which lasts from March through May. Turkey vultures are monogamous and mate for life. Their courtship behavior involves a dance where they hop around each other with their wings outstretched; the courtship also involves an aerial chase that can go on for some time. The vultures do not build a nest like other birds. They will lay their eggs, usually two, in tree hollows, abandoned buildings, abandoned hawk nests, and even in some thick sheltered cover on the ground. Both the male and female vultures take turns incubating the eggs. The parents will feed the chicks for about 11 weeks until they are fledged. By about 12 weeks, the young birds will have moved off and away from the nesting site exploring on their own and will be ready to join the fall migration in November. Throughout the warm months, a seemingly endless stream of Turkey vultures leaving their nightly roost take to the air looking for the thermal updrafts that will help them rise in the sky and glide with little effort while searching for food above the open country. With good vision and a great sense of smell, the vultures can locate even the smallest carrion in wooded areas, fields, and along roadways. Early mornings, throughout the summer, it is not uncommon to find large groups of Turkey vultures, also known as a committee of vultures, in dead trees, on rooftops, and utility poles with their wings spread wide, allowing the breeze and the morning sun to dry the night time dampness from their feathers and warm their bodies before they take flight. On those mornings of inclement weather, the Turkey vultures may stay on their roosts until conditions improve. Even though Turkey vultures have always had a dark and sinister eerie feel to their presence, they are very beneficial in the natural world. The vultures rid the environment of the carcasses of diseased animals stopping the spread of the dangerous organisms to other animals. As a natural clean-up crew, the vultures feed on the remains of those unfortunate creatures that met their tragic end along the roadways.

A committee of Turkey vultures in a field in Iroquois County soon disperse and take to the air.

Warmer Days

A beautiful male Eastern bluebird takes a moment on the branch of a small tree and scans its surroundings for insects.

April 8, 2023 – Early spring here in the Midwest sometimes seems like nature has problems making decisions. Warm days cool nights, and even snow and freezing temperatures keep eager gardeners on their toes as they prepare their plots and bestow excessive care on their new trays of spring plants while impatiently waiting for the frosty nights to go away so they can start a new season of splendor for the senses and nourishment for the pollinators. Emerging Insects, spring wildflowers, and migrating waterfowl are encouraging signs that the weather will comply sooner rather than later. Many feathered migrants have already arrived in the area for the nesting season others are staging here, building energy and fat reserves in the safe areas of refuge until the time is right to push further north toward their nesting range. The large flocks of noisy Greater white-fronted geese in the backwaters and flooded fields during the night began flying out in the early mornings to forage on spilled grain in the nearby ag fields. There are species of ducks, grebes, and swarms of coots in the flooded cover of the sloughs this time of year as the backwaters begin to ripple with life. Diving ducks, Buffleheads, Scaup, and Hooded mergansers are out in the open water bobbing on the waves, occasionally disappearing below the surface to search for food. Male Red-winged blackbirds have claimed their perch near some possible nesting sights; the males display their flash of color while continuously singing songs of love trying to attract a mate along the rural roads near ditches and around the wetlands. Tree swallows are long-distance migrants and are back in our area tired and hungry from their travels. The swallows arrive back in Northern Illinois in March when the weather can be more winter-like and pose a challenge for these migrants. Flocks of the graceful birds glide and circle just above the water in an attempt to catch small insects, often dipping down and skimming the surface for a quick drink. Another highly anticipated springtime migrant is the celebrated summer resident, the Eastern Bluebird. Bluebirds spend winter in the southern parts of Illinois to the southeastern coastal areas of the United States and begin arriving in Northern Illinois for the nesting season in February. Appearing as if dipped in lovely powdered pigments of eye-catching blue over pale orange-brown, one cannot deny the beauty of Eastern bluebirds in the spring perched on fence posts or the branches of a small tree at the edge of an open meadow. The bluebird brings joy and inspiration to poets, lyricists, and illustrators of nature and also for the cultivators and casual observer a reassurance that the warm days of springtime are near.

The colors are not as intense on the female Eastern bluebird as they are on the male but still she is a very attractive bird.

Winter Sparrow

An American tree sparrow appears out in the open, pausing for only a moment while searching for seeds.

March 12, 2023 – Of the many species of birds, the hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, waterfowl, and songbirds that migrate south and spend the winter in our area, there is one bird that probably goes unnoticed by most, and that bird is the lovely American tree sparrow. These small, well-camouflaged sparrows blend well with the leafless winter landscape of the Midwest, where they find seed sand safety at the edges of brushy wooded areas of undergrowth and thickets where they can quickly disappear into the dense woody maze when danger threatens. Even though these mid-sized sparrows are called American Tree sparrows, you are more likely to find them on or near the ground. Small flocks of the American tree sparrows spend daylight hours foraging on the ground amongst the dried plants where seeds have fallen. Weed seeds are the primary food of the sparrows during winter. During the summer months, while in their nesting range in Northern Canada and Alaska, they switch to insects as a food source for themselves and their young. The little birds take frequent but short breaks to preen and rest on a convenient perch in a small tree or bush lit by the winter sun. The well-defined earthy colors of this sharp little bird become very apparent when viewing through binoculars or at closeby backyard feeders. The sparrow has a beautiful rufous crown, a gray face with rusty colors near the eyes, and a beak of black over yellow. It has a light-colored gray breast with a distinct dark-colored smudge of a spot in the middle. It has rufous patches on the sides that blend into the gray unstreaked breast, with well-defined brown streaks running down its back towards its long narrow tail. As the winter begins to wane and the days begin to grow longer, that desire to head north for the breeding season becomes stronger. When the time is right, and the weather condition becomes favorable for the American tree sparrows to move north, they will disappear from the winter range during the nighttime and begin their starry flight towards the arctic for the nesting season. The male sparrows will reach the breeding grounds before the females. The male will seek out, claim, and aggressively protect the territory he has chosen for nesting. In a little over a month, a new generation of American tree sparrows has fledged and is building strength from the abundance of insects the arctic provides as they prepare for a long flight south as the cycle continues.

Perched on a fallen limb the American tree sparrow surveys its surroundings before it makes its next move.