Sandhill Migration

Adult Sandhill cranes seem to bow to each other as they perform their elaborate dance display. The Sandhill cranes are most famous for their beautiful courtship dancing, which is more common, but they dance year-round while socializing, which is believed to be a way to bond with their partner.

November 11, 2021 – Chilly early November mornings in the Midwest bring sensational enhancements that satisfy the consciousness. There are the familiar smells of wood-burning stoves and mixed stands of trees in delightful shades of umber above their sturdy black trunks surrounded in silvery pockets of shifting ground fog that floats like ghostly spirits across the countryside. The senses are quickly lifted and seem to fall under a spell of nostalgic longing to the observer. A subtle change presents itself with color and complexity during this most thought-provoking and inspiring season of the year, the back-end period. Above in the slow-rolling gray skies, small flocks of low flying and noisy Canada geese are sharing airspace with much larger flocks of those great birds, the Sandhill cranes. As far as the eye can see, hundreds of Sandhill cranes, flying in all directions, have left their nightly roosts and are heading to their daytime feeding and socializing areas along the ditches and agricultural fields of Northern Indiana. The loud rattling calls of the Sandhill cranes fill the morning air, faint sounds of cranes off in the distance can be heard across the fields and past the woods over a mile away. Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area near Medaryville in Northern Indiana is a stopover during autumn for Sandhill cranes moving south for the winter. Each year the southbound Sandhill cranes begin arriving in northern Indiana in October. The numbers peak in late November through December. Thousands of cranes move out of the area and head further south towards the Gulf states by the end of December, but many cranes remain where they take advantage of a nearby power plant where they find open water year-round. For thousands of years, Sandhill cranes have followed the same routes south during the fall migration taking them where fair weather and food can sustain them through the cold winter months. With a fossil record dating back two and a half million years, Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest living bird species in North America. There is not a painting so beautiful as the experience of watching a flock of Sandhill cranes illuminated by the morning sun gliding low across a backdrop of autumn color.

Three Sandhill cranes, two juveniles, and an adult stand close together while cautiously watching an intruder pass by.

The Autumn Nudge

A Neotropical bird, the Black-throated Green warbler pauses for a moment on a dried stem in Iroquois County with a freshly caught caterpillar.

October 11, 2021 – Another year has tilted quietly into the splendid season of autumn, a time of bounty, preparedness, and introspection that nudges all living things in the Northern Hemisphere. While humans adjust to their seasonal changes and challenges, animals have been fattening up, growing new coats, and gathering food. Birds and insects have been on the move for weeks. Many plants continue to provide, but many have gone to seed and withered, a change is in the air. Feeding, resting, and building strength, many species have been working their way south towards their winter ranges. Recent weather radar over the Great Plains displayed not a weather disturbance moving south but a remarkable radar return of many thousands of Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. Changing weather systems across the American flyways, like cold fronts, air pressure, and strong autumn tailwinds can be a great predictor and the ideal opportunity for a mass movement of birds and insects out of the north. Bird enthusiasts, throughout the range of bird migration, hope and watch for unusual avian visitors to their woodlands, wetlands, and backyard feeders in their areas, including the highly anticipated and always delightful many species of warblers. Those early migrating warblers can still show their beautiful summer plumage, but as the weeks pass, the birds become a bit harder to identify as they transition into their winter plumage. Young birds born during the summer may look different than adults. The fading of the adult warbler’s strong summer markings may also require close study with thorough identification guides and even the valued opinions of expert birders to help identify those notoriously difficult fall migrants. By mid-October, many warblers and other songbirds have moved farther south out of Illinois. The tiny Ruby-crowned and Yellow-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped, and Palm warblers continue to pluck insects from the bushes and trees in our area. Sparrows that spent their nesting season north of Illinois, some as far as the Arctic, have arrived and are taking advantage of the available seeds and insects. Sandhill cranes, Whooping cranes, Arctic hawks, Golden eagles, Short-eared owls, and Snowy owls are moving south and will satisfactorily fill the void of our summer visitors until the spring rings true once again.

A boreal songbird, the Blackpoll warbler, is bound for northern South America for the winter. The small wooded area in Iroquois County and others like it along the migration route are lifesavers and provides the much-needed food for that bird and many others on their long journeys south.

Swallow-tailed kite

August 9, 2021 – Gone but not forgotten, the rare visitor at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in Newton County, Indiana, a little over 30 miles southeast of Kankakee, was witnessed, documented, and photographed by many lucky observers. The raptor was in the area of the Willow Slough shooting range for over two weeks in August. It spent much of its morning hunting near the shooting range. The impressive bird of prey has a four-foot wingspan and long forked tail. The bird would circle above the prairies, soaring and gliding near the shooting range; it would dive down to catch dragonflies and cicadas that it would eat on the wing before continuing its hunt. The kite is a master of flight and was exciting to watch with its beautiful white head and body, black on its back, tail feathers, and wingtips.

The Sora Rail

An adult Sora with its’ bright yellow bill searches for food on the muddy exposed area at the edge of some cattails.

September 9, 2021 – Some strange sounds were coming from the cattails as I approached the edge of the slough, a startling communication among the shadow skulkers that slowly and eerily waned with each note. The distinct, loud, and familiar alarm calls from a well-hidden creature instantly conjured the vision of a small marshland bird common to this area during the warm months. The Sora is a water bird about the size of a robin, Soras nest in our area of Illinois from May through August. They build a woven platform nest out of grasses and cattails above the waterline, creating a kind of hollowed nest that adds protection from predators and the elements for about a dozen eggs. After some quiet and patient waiting time, on my part, some movement caught my eye among the shadowy cattail stalks just to my left. A juvenile Sora appeared and was foraging much like domestic fowl, plucking the ground as it cautiously moved in an unpredictable jerky and bobbing motion. The bird probed with its thick yellow bill into the soft, damp, ground watching and feeling for prey as it braved into the clearing. The flashy white stubby tail of the small bird would stand straight up at times as it stretched its neck to pluck a small worm or a tiny insect from the muddy earth. Soon three more Sora appeared; two adults and another juvenile wandered into the broken light and began their search for insects, seeds, tiny worms, and mollusks. As one of the juveniles worked its way across the open area, an adult squawked with a rapid, high-pitched call while running swiftly towards the juvenile bird, chasing the young bird around almost in circles until the intruder retreated into the cover of the cattails. Less than five minutes later, the scolded young Sora returned quietly out of sight of the adult to resume foraging. The small rails remind me of a miniature chicken, a bird that would not seem to be a strong flier. It is amazing that the Soras travel many hundreds of miles to their winter range along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes of Central America each fall and then return to the Midwest to nest in the spring.

A juvenile Sora forages cautiously, keeping its’ distance from the territorial adults feeding nearby.

Many Species of Shorebirds

Small Least sandpipers and a Semipalmated sandpiper take a short rest after feeding, on a tiny mud island in a flooded corn field.

August 8, 2021 – We had plenty of rain in the second half of July and that extra precipitation created a kind of pseudo wetlands in the low areas of the agricultural fields here in northeastern Illinois. As a result of the heavy rains some corn and bean crops were unfortunately damaged or completely destroyed in the low areas making an extra expense for some farmers. Some areas looked like large lakes stretching out across the landscape giving us a hint of what it must of looked like before the Europeans arrived. Much of the land in some of these locations were in fact lakes, ponds, and wetlands before being settled and drained for farming. In the days following the recent flooding the submerged crops began to die back and as the waters slowly receded, these areas started to resemble coastal mudflats. Soon herons, ducks, and egrets began to show up. Many species of shorebirds, some of which had nested as far north as the Arctic, took advantage of these flooded areas for hunting and resting as they worked their way south towards their winter range. These short-lived oases are an important food source for the migrating birds. Some of the wet areas are void of birds while others are quite busy with avian activity. When you begin to see a number of species congregating and foraging day after day, before the waters disappear, that is a sure indicator of an abundance of food in the shallow waters and soft mud for the weary travelers. Worms, nymphs, midges and terrestrial invertebrates are all on the menu in and around these pop-up wet areas for both long-legged and short-legged shorebirds. Some of the shorebirds I have seen recently in Iroquois County in those flooded spots are the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Least sandpiper, Semipalmated sandpiper, Semipalmated plover, Stilt sandpiper, Short-billed dowitcher, Spotted sandpiper, Killdeer, Solitary sandpiper, Pectoral sandpiper, and Wilson’s phalaropes. The long-legged shorebirds, like the Greater yellowlegs and the Stilt sandpiper, hunt the deeper waters wading and feeling for movement with their feet and then probing and grasping the prey with their long bills. The short-legged shorebirds, like the Least sandpiper and the Semipalmated sandpiper, stay at the edges and hunt the soft mud and the shallow waters that are barely a few inches deep. My thoughts while observing these shorebirds is always of amazement knowing where they were just weeks ago. Some of these birds summer on the open Arctic tundra while others nest along the coastal areas of the Arctic ocean, and now here they are for a brief time on their arduous journey south feeding and resting in a flooded field in Iroquois County Illinois.

A pair of Stilt sandpipers move their feet across the mud bottom searching for prey in the standing water in an agricultural field in Iroquois County.

The Green Heron

An adult Green heron flies across the shallow end of a small lake landing on some vegetation where it soon began hunting in the ankle-deep waters.

July 8, 2021 – Wetlands, creeks, lakes, and rivers across Illinois provide a good summer habitat during the nesting season for the Green heron. These small herons, also known as little Green herons, are often seen perched in the trees around wetlands or silently hunting in the shallows for fish, frogs, and even small snakes. The keen eye of the skilled observer can find these well camouflaged little birds standing at the waters edge almost motionless while hunting. The Green heron, that are about the size of a crow, are often seen searching for prey along the shadowy, damp banks of a meandering creek, or hunting the still dark waters from a low branch just above a fishy habitat. They are common to lakes, ponds, and wetland habitat where their prey is available. Appearing dark in color from a distance, the Green herons are often crouched down and standing as still as a statue, any movement from the little bird is slow and precise as they intently focus on the task of watching for the slightest ripple or movement from an unsuspecting prey. It is well known and documented that Green herons are part of a small group of birds that at times use bait to attract prey. The cunning birds drop insects, small sticks, or tiny feathers on top of the water to lure fish close enough to catch them with their long dagger-like bill. Getting a good close look in the bright sunlight, the adult Green heron reveals their long bill, short bright-yellow legs, and the rich colors of a plumage that is gray, blue, chestnut, and of course, the subtle greens on the back and wings. Late winter through early spring the Green herons work their way north out of Florida and areas of the Gulf Coast for the nesting season. The herons nest from May through July where they have two to five eggs in a nest that is built on a platform of sticks. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young nestlings caring for the birds for a time even after they leave the nest. By late August the adults and a new generation of Green herons are making their way to the warm winter habitat of the far southern states and coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

Perched in a tree just above a creek, a Green heron with its crown plumage partially raised surveys the surroundings.

Amazing Long-distance Travelers

An Upland sandpiper moves away swiftly through some newly emerging corn in a field in Iroquois County.

June 7, 2021 – Those amazing long-distance travelers, the Upland sandpipers, have returned to the rural areas of Iroquois County for the nesting season. The well camouflaged birds that are about the size of a Rock pigeon, can easily be overlooked by the passerby. The birds search for insects in the newly planted agricultural fields, or in the no-till corn stubble where they can become nearly invisible as their plumage blends in extremely well against the browns and tans of last year’s crop remains. The Upland sandpipers start arriving at their breeding grounds here in Northeastern Illinois in April.
The sandpipers, with their typical stop-and-go sudden jerky movements can be spotted by a lucky few, as the birds look for insects near grassy areas along the rural roadways of Northern Illinois. They are sometimes seen perched on fence posts or utility wires near nesting sites. Upland sandpiper populations were hit dramatically hard in the late 1800s by market hunters. Other factors that added to the decline of the Upland sandpiper was the loss and fragmentation of habitat in North America and the loss of grasslands on their wintering grounds in South America. Today, researchers believe the sandpipers population is holding steady across the Great Plains of North America. East of the Mississippi numbers unfortunately are low, and in Northern Illinois the Upland sandpiper is becoming a bit more difficult to find. It is always a hopeful sign to see even a small number of sandpipers return to an area of Iroquois County every year. The sandpipers manage to nest in the dense grasses around the row-crop fields but they struggle against farm machinery, pesticides, and roadside mowing, which in fact should probably be restricted in those nesting areas until at least August. After about 25 days of sharing the job of incubation by the male and the female sandpipers, the young birds are born. The newly hatched chicks are ready to leave the nest after all the eggs have hatched, the young start feeding immediately while the parents work hard to protect them from the many dangers of the new world. After about a month of being limited to just foot travel a new generation of Upland sandpipers are ready to take to the air. By the end of the July through the end of August the sandpipers begin moving south where they work their way to that long-distance crossing the Gulf of Mexico, which takes them to the northern parts of South America. Eventually the birds go much further south into central Argentina and Uruguay where they will spend the winter on the immense Pampas grasslands until the springtime once again beckons their desire to move north for another incredible journey.

A pair of long-distance migrants from South America search for insects along a rural road in Iroquois County.

Springtime

Standing cautiously on a gravel road in Iroquois County, an American Golden-plover slowly moves away from the photographer.

May 13, 2021 – As the springtime brings awe-inspiring color to the forest floor with a variety of wildflowers like Dutchman’s breeches, Virginia bluebells and Woodland phlox, likewise the flowering dogwood and redbud trees standout brightening up the understory with their new blooms that is easily visible through the emerging greens of the awakening landscape. April and May are exciting months here in Northeastern Illinois and as the new plant growth comes in, there are also migrating birds arriving and bringing their own variety of color and excitement. The bright orange plumage of the male Baltimore oriole is a highly anticipated favorite this time of year to the backyard feeders. These long-distance migrants are lured in with grape jelly and cut oranges that feeders put out, and these birds never disappoint with their rich songs and amazing beauty. Cat birds, King birds, and flycatchers have arrived to take up summer residence for the nesting season. A variety of small colorful warblers, drab kinglets, and tiny Ruby-throated hummingbirds appear like magic, some are here to nest while others are just passing through on their way much further north. Many species of well known birds show up like clockwork each year, their songs and their plumage are as familiar to most as the clouds in the sky. But there are other birds like American Golden-plover that go practically unnoticed even though they spend three or four weeks staging on the agricultural fields in our rural areas of Iroquois and Kankakee counties. The American Golden-plover is larger than a robin but smaller than a crow. It is not always easy to spot in the farm fields with its dark colored plumage, a good camouflage for a ground nesting bird like the plover. Even when there are hundreds of birds in a field they can be easily missed by the passerby. These birds have come a long way from their winter home on the grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay and it is an amazing sight to see them over the few weeks they spend here waiting for the right conditions to move north. When the plovers do finally leave for their nesting grounds they will fly above the Arctic circle onto the vast tundra from Baffin Island to Alaska completing the northbound part of their trip of over 8000 miles.

Flying in from a nearby field where a few hundred AM Golden-plovers were feeding, a small flock of plovers were taking advantage of some puddles on the roadway.

Trumpeters in Kankakee County

Trumpeter swans seeking refuge in a flooded field in Kankakee County during migration to the northern wetlands.

April 8, 2021 – There were 18 beautiful Trumpeter swans, discovered by Iroquois County resident Rick Rosenboom, resting in a flooded field in southern Kankakee County in early March. Occasionally, one of the great birds among the resting flock would stretch and flap its impressively large wings, which for Trumpeters can span over 6 feet. The flocks’ stunning, bright-white feathers were illuminated by the afternoon light making these migrant travelers appear otherworldly against a drab late-winter landscape. The flooded spot, a low and almost hidden area in an agricultural field, gave the swans a safe place to sleep, preen, and forage for a short time before continuing their migration to a northern wetlands for the nesting season. The Trumpeter swan is the largest native waterfowl in North America. Female Trumpeters can weigh up to 25 pounds, and males up to 38 pounds. There is an obvious difference in size between the other native swan, the smaller Tundra, which we also see during the migrations, often in mixed flocks with Trumpeters. The Mute swan, which was introduced from Europe, has a large orange bill with a bump or ‘bill knob’ at the base of the bill. The Mute swan is a very large bird but it is still a little smaller than the native Trumpeter. Mute swans have been seen on the Kankakee river with cygnets in the springtime over the years, while Trumpeters east of the Mississippi nest on the wetlands in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and southern Canada, and Tundra swans nest up in the Arctic. The loss of habitat and over hunting of the Trumpeters had a devastating impact on the swans, by the 1930s there were only 69 known to be alive in the United States. Biologists began an effort in the late 30s to save and expand the small population to other safe wetlands. There was a small flock discovered in Alberta Canada, and after Alaska became a state there were over 2000 discovered there. Today, according to the The Trumpeter Swan Society, the Interior Population is at 27,055, which is 40 percent of North America’s Trumpeter swan population.

The largest native waterfowl in North America the Trumpeter swan stretches its large wings after preening.

Goodbye Winter

A male Ring-necked Pheasant searches for food through a small opening in the melting snow.

March 11, 2021 – The rapid warming of our planet’s surface temperature has caused a wobbling of the jet stream over the Arctic that allowed for some very cold Arctic air to escape and move south across the United States in February bringing plenty of snow, ice, and a challenging late winter for the lower 48. The impact of the extended cold and snowy conditions on wildlife couldn’t have been more apparent as it was in Texas during the Polar Vortex event of 2021. Thousands of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico that were stunned from the unusual cold conditions had to be rescued and cared for during the extended winter storm. Many bats were found dead or injured under bridges due to the extreme cold temperatures. Much of the wildlife has had some kind of negative impact in those areas of Texas that is not used to those extended cold temperatures. From plant life, to fish, and migratory birds, those kinds of extreme cold conditions were a challenge and even a death sentence for many, the effects from this event are still being assessed in that region. Here in Northern Illinois now that we have moved into March, the blanket of heavy snow has retreated and the iced-over waters of lakes, rivers, and wetlands have become ice free as the arctic temperatures seem to be behind us now as the jet stream has regained its strength. A few weeks ago at the end of February, as weather conditions began to show a slight improvement each day with some warming sunshine, a slow melting of the snow was going on revealing tiny bits of last falls’ dropped beans and corn. Turkey, deer, quail, and pheasants were congregating in these small open spots scratching the snow, searching for food after the long spell of deep icy snow-cover. Long periods of cold and snow becomes hard for wildlife if food remains buried and frozen under the snow for long periods. When the wildlife have only their fat reserves to rely on because they can’t get to the food, that is when things can get dangerous if the weather doesn’t improve. Here we are nearing early spring, only remnants of snow remain. Many species of waterfowl are moving through the area, some are here to nest while others are waiting for just the right time to continue north. Food is a little easier to find now and the migration will ramp up over the next few months as the cycle continues as warm weather prevails.

A male and female pheasant look for dropped beans from last years crop to rebuild their fat reserves after some challenging weeks.