Home for the winter

A first-winter White-crowned sparrow in Iroquois county this past week.

October 17, 2019 -It is that time of the year once again when we start seeing those attractive arctic breeders returning to Illinois for the winter. The White-crowned sparrow, with its’ dark black and bright white crown stripes and that distinct gray breast, stands tall in somewhat of a stylish pose while perched on a nearby branch. The sparrow disappears and reappears as it busily speeds through the undergrowth searching for food. An overgrown thicket with wild fruits, seeds, and plenty of insects and protection from the weather and the predators, like hawks and falcons, is an ideal winter home for the White-crowned sparrow. The first-winter birds do not have the black and white crown but they stand out nonetheless in their new sharp looking feathers of a reddish-brown and gray raised crest and their pinkish bill, a youthful look that remains until spring. The White-crowned sparrow is a tall elegant presence compared to our darker drab colored resident sparrows that we oftentimes take for granted. With the exception of White-crowned sparrows in the northwestern United State that are considered resident or medium-distance migrants, most nest from from St. Johns bay north above the arctic circle, east to Newfoundland, and west to Alaska. According to the Cornell lab of Ornithology, “birds along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the interior West don’t migrate”. Illinois is the northern most part of the the White-crowned sparrows winter range which extends as far south as central Mexico. The fall migrants start arriving in numbers from the north in late September and October. The birds that wintered farther south and are migrating north in the spring start showing up in May as they work their way towards Canada.

The adult White-crowned sparrow showing those famous white stripes during the spring migration south of Kankakee.

Those Wrens

A Carolina wren pauses for a moment on a branch near some feeding sparrows.

October 10, 2019 – The mostly drab and well camouflaged light brown House wren, or the glamorous Carolina wren with its’ rich reddish brown over pale brown tones with distinctive white eyebrows, makes those two wrens easy to recognize. The House wren and the Carolina wren are two of the five common wrens we find here in Northeastern Illinois. The House wren, like the Carolina wren, is a small bird with a big sound system. Their songs are most often noticed before the birds are ever located and sometimes those clear rich sounds are both baffling and uplifting to the observer when they witness such small birds with very large and impressive songs. The little House wrens build their nests in the holes and cavities of living and dead trees. They will use nesting boxes, holes in buildings, or abandoned machinery, if it provides just the right sized hole and offers protection from predators and other birds. Carolina wrens will use tree cavities, flower pots, tree stumps, overhangs, tin cans, or thick vegetation for nesting. The poet William Wordsworth’s poem “A Wren’s Nest” describes quite well, in his inspiring verse, the competence of the nesting wren and their choice of the perfect nest location. The Carolina wren prefers thick bushy overgrown areas of habitat. The House wren also likes similar habitat as the Carolina wren but is just as happy in yards and on farms that offer places to nest and find food in and around farm buildings and brush piles. The House wren is a short to medium-distance migrant that spends the nesting season in the northern two thirds of the United States and into southern Canada. It winters in the warmer climate of the southern US and Mexico. The Carolina wren is a year-round resident in the eastern United States from the southern great lakes to the eastern seaboard, south to Florida, west to east Texas and south into Mexico.

A cautious House wren comes out of the thicket just long enough to survey the surroundings.

Turkey Vultures

A flock of over 30 adult and juvenile Turkey vultures on a rural road east of Kankakee recently.

September 5, 2019 – Throughout the summer months, in the skies over northeastern Illinois, all one has to do is look up to see those large, soaring, dark colored birds gently gliding in the summer thermals. The wings of the Turkey vultures are slightly, but noticeably, pointing up. The unmistakable dihedral angle or “v” shape of their wings while in flight are much different from other large birds like eagles and hawks. Those birds extend their wings straight out and flat from their body when soaring, and appear more like a sailplane. Even at a distance a Turkey vulture can be quickly ID’d by its’ shape and flight patterns. It is not uncommon to witness large numbers of Turkey vultures perched in an old snag preening and drying their wings in the morning sun. It seems that if one bird spreads its’ wings to warm up and dry out, the other perched vultures quickly follow suit. Soon that old tree full of vultures with wings spread wide begins to take on the appearance of the partially furrowed sails hanging from the foremast of an 18 century brigantine. The birds, with their wings stretched out, slowly and carefully begin to turn and reposition on those sometimes shaky branches as they continue their warming in the early sun drying the nighttime dew from their damp feathers. When the time is right and the their feathers are dry and ready for flight the birds begin to lift off from their roost. They leave, a few at a time, flapping their large wings and climbing upward into a column of the warm rising air to begin their daily search for carrion. Throughout the day the vultures are found in fields and along the rural roads and highways where their keen sense of smell and great vision has lead them to their primary food source, road kill. Most of the Turkey vultures will start moving south late in the year and spend the winter from far southern Illinois on south. In recent years though, with milder winters, there are larger numbers remaining throughout the winter months in central Illinois. The Turkey vultures are some of the first to arrive in numbers here in northern Illinois in late winter for another nesting season.

An adult Turkey vulture quickly moves away from the road walking further into a field with other birds.

Fall Migrants

A first winter Chestnut-sided warbler comes into view for a moment to perch on a nearby plant.

September 26, 2019 – On any morning this time of the year the subtle seasonal changes seem to bring, to those who are willing to show patients and perseverance while keeping a watchful eye, an exciting surprise of another species or two of warbler that can be noted, as those little fall migrants work their way south. A wooded area with brushy, dark-shadowy cover that is loosely bordered with well seeded weedy plants and an abundance of insects that live among them, can appear almost void of any birds except for those resident feathery inhabitants that have been there all summer. But during the night things can change quickly as new arrivals, from the north, find a place to rest and recharge or wait for better weather. Through the dim morning light in the thick dark green and black understory a sudden movement with a flash of color catches ones eye, there are a small number of male and female American redstarts that have just arrived. Working their way through the thicket vanishing at times, they would quickly reappear checking each leaf and branch for insects with a quickness and a gentle fairy-like lightness as one of the little birds would hover in mid-air to get a better vantage of the underside of a leaf. In the fork of a tree where it is clearly wet with sap, a few Tennessee warblers are clinging from different angles while feeding on the insects in and around the wet spot. In the nearby elm, higher up in the canopy, adult Bay-breasted and first winter Chestnut-sided warblers move from leaf to leaf looking for insects. The adult Bay-breasted male, now in his non-breeding plumage, still shows the glorious rufous color on his flanks. Common yellow-throat and Magnolia warblers unexpectedly pop into view on the sunny side of the thicket only to disappear within seconds. The fall migration of warblers can be just as exciting as the highly anticipated spring migration and well worth keeping an eye on those woody areas and green spaces in the parks and along the creeks and rivers.

A Nashville warbler stands out with its’ bright yellow color in the dim light.

Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty

A Juvenile male with a developing black mask pauses on a stem as he moves through the undergrowth.

September 19, 2019 – Common yellowthroat warblers are a summer visitor during their nesting season here in northern Illinois, across all of the United States, and most of Canada. A first winter male Common yellowthroat can have a faded black mask from July to March while the adult males have a stunning coal back mask with a white border across the top of the mask and a bright yellow throat that extends down the chest. The flashy little males can stand out in contrast of their habitat at woody edges of a marshy thicket. The small warbler sometimes give away their location by the clear and rapid song of wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty. Often though, the little bird appears without notice clinging to one side of the rigid stem of a cattail or other suitable plants, pausing momentarily before disappearing into the thick undergrowth searching each leaf and stem for insects. The female Common yellowthroat have a pale yellow throat and they lack the black mask and white headband of the male. The muted colors of the female yellowthroat are beautiful tones of brown, gray, and olive-yellow. The nesting Common yellowthroat put their nest in thick growth well hidden and low to the ground. The parents drop down into the nest area but always leave from a different route to fool potential predators. After the nesting season, by November the little birds have gone south for the winter. The little warblers will return to our area of northern Illinois in the spring and are here in numbers by April. The Common yellowthroat is a Neotropical warbler that winters in Mexico and Central America, with non-migrating permanent residents in the southern coastal areas of the United States and western and central Mexico.

A female Common yellowthroat cautiously looks around before moving on.

House Finch

Looking back at another House finch, a female with her bill covered in the skins of berries pauses for a moment before continuing to feed.

September 12, 2019 – The House finch is a native of the west with a range that stretches from Oregon south into Mexico and east to the western edge of the Great plains. The House finch is very much at home in desert habitats of the southwest. Today though, after being illegally introduced in the 1940’s in the state of New York, their range has expanded to include most of the the Eastern half of the United states with kind of a gap between the eastern and western populations across the Great plains that runs from Canada south to eastern Texas. The expansion into the eastern United States was a result of escaped finches from the illegal pet trade. The captured House finches from the western United States were sent to pet stores in the east. The House finches were marketed as the California Linnet and the Hollywood finch, but soon failed as caged pets. The finches did succeed as escaped wild birds breeding and expanding their range. The proliferation of House finches along with changes to habitats by humans is believed to be key in the decline of the Cassin’s finch in the west and the Purple finch in the east, two species very similar in appearance to the House finch. The House finch is mainly a seed and fruit eater, when fruit is in season. Flocks can be spotted in Eastern red cedar trees feeding on the fruit in late summer. House finches are social and are common in numbers at backyard feeders, here in Illinois, competing for food with other finches like the Purple finch and the Gold finch.

A male House finch busy eating the fruit from an Eastern Red Cedar.

Plenty To Eat

A Warbling vireo pauses for only a moment as it searches the leaves for insects.

August 5, 2019 – As we are coming to the end of August one can not help but notice the changes that are happening as another autumn nears and summer contemplates its’ well earned rest. The changes that have been a bit subtle are now upon us. The angle of the sunlight brings an inspiring warm tone to the landscape. The gentle breezes swirling through the forest canopy rustles and rattles the matured leaves allowing us to hear those uplifting whispers of the mighty Cottonwood. We have come to that time of the year where there is a bounty in the northern hemisphere for the avian migrants and those birds that are here year-round. Recently fledged birds, along with the adults, are fattening up for the migration, checking every leaf, stem, and branch for insects and worms. Little Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Warbling vireos, and Chickadees are persistently looking over and under every leaf while they cling tightly to the stems as they feed. Thistle and other seeds, berries, and nectar are available for the birds that are coming south from the higher latitudes as well as the birds that have nested here in Northeastern Illinois.

A female yellow warbler looking for a meal carefully surveys her next move into the thicket.

Prothonotary warblers stand out with their bright yellow feathers and olive-gray toned back and wings while gobbling up caterpillars with amazing success as they pluck them off those woody plants at the waters edge. Goldfinches are on the beautiful purple blooming thistle plants along roadways and on the prairies searching for the high fat and protein rich thistle seeds. Adults and this years’ young Hummingbirds stake out and fearlessly defend, from a good perch, their abundant food source, a large thick patch of Orange Jewelweed surrounded by other nectar giving plants. Some of these travelers will be around for a while feeding and fattening-up and growing strong for either a long or short migration. As the weeks go by though, and those abundant food sources in our area start to wane, the north wind bringing cooler temperatures, many birds will leave our area in a final push and continue south where they will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

The Green Heron

A wary adult Green heron stretches out its’ long neck to get a better view of the surroundings.

August 22, 2019 – What are those little dark colored squawking herons seen perched in the dead trees in and around our wetlands, ponds, and creeks? These wary birds are often seen stalking, with only the slightest of movement, as they inch across the branches of a partially submerged fallen snag in the duckweed covered still backwaters of our river. It is now August and soon the little Green herons will be heading south for the winter. The sightings have most definitely increased recently as the new generation of young Green herons, those feathery squawkers that are the results of a successful nesting season, are fledged and hunting on their own. The crow sized herons are dark colored and appear as silhouettes in the dim lit habitat of a slough, but when they are illuminated by the sunlight the beauty of Green heron is revealed. Their feathers are a rich color of chestnut, dark green, and blue-gray and they have yellow eyes and a dagger like bill that shoots out in the blink of an eye as they extend with great speed their long neck to grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or insect. According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Green herons begin arriving in Illinois in April and nesting occurs from May through early July and the fall migration starts in August.

A juvenile Green heron waits and watches patiently for any movement of potential prey.

There have been observations and even videos of this remarkable hunter that have verified that some of these birds have learned to use lures to get small fish to come in close. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology stated, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” As we are now seeing other species of herons and egrets staging and working their way south as autumn draws near, these little night fliers, those squawking Green herons, will soon disappear from our sloughs and wetlands until next April. The Green heron is considered a medium-distance migrant here in northeastern Illinois and winters along the southern coastal areas of North America, and south into Mexico, and Central America.

Ambush Hunters

A Black Swallowtail butterfly becomes a meal for the large Bullfrog.

August 8, 2019 – Having noticed two large bright green American bullfrogs sitting motionless on some rocky soil east of Kankakee this past week I stopped, reversed and pulled over for a photo. It soon became quite clear why these two frogs sat exposed and away from the safety of their nearby duckweed covered watery habitat when two Black Swallowtail butterflies came fluttering in. The unsuspecting swallowtails, in their wandering flight, glided much too low and close to the patient amphibians, and then in the flash of an eye with an explosive lunge, one of the bullfrogs caught and quickly devoured one of the butterflies. I spent the next hour and a half watching these two ambush hunters and I can say with absolute certainty that these frogs missed more prey than they caught. It seems that the frogs were quite skilled at remaining still for long periods of time as they waited for the next opportunity. However ,when a dragonfly, a butterfly or even a fly caught their attention but landed somewhat out of range, the frogs would give themselves away with their sudden movement as they turned toward the prey or tried to move closer. If the insects came within range the frogs mostly won.

Two American Bullfrogs get a little to close to each others hunting territory.

The American Bullfrog has long been celebrated in both dark and whimsical literature, even Mark Twain had his celebrated jumping frog. These large green croaking frogs have inspired poetry, songs, stories and myths that have been shared by the indigenous in their traditions and oral histories and are well recognized in American folklore. The bullfrog has a strong, unworldly song that can grab the attention of even the most heedless. They can jump quick and far, they are absolutely voracious hunters and to the bullfrog all is game if it can fit it in its’ mouth. I know for a fact that there are no night sounds that can make the lonely nighttime fisherman feel less alone than those wonderful guttural songs of the bullfrog from the the dark water edges of ponds, lakes and rivers of Illinois. The American Bullfrog is the largest frog in America and most widely known in Illinois and is native to eastern North America.

Ground Squirrels

An Eastern Chipmunk stops for a moment on a fallen limb where it had been eating a seed.

July 25, 2019 – There are three species of small ground squirrels in Illinois, the Eastern Chipmunk, the Thirteen-lined, and the Franklin’s. Actually, a forth member of the ground squirrel group in Illinois should be noted and that is the Groundhog, also known as a Woodchuck. The Eastern Chipmunk is the smallest ground squirrel in Illinois with a body length of up to 7 inches not including their furry tail that is about 4 inches in length. Chipmunks have a reddish brown coat with black and white stripes on their back and the sides of their face, and a white stripe above each eye. They are most often seen in or along wooded or thick brushy areas where they have their borrows nearby. They may construct their borrows beneath fallen trees or even within the roots of living trees. They also use rocky environments where they can easily create borrows beneath or between the rocks.

Staying low in the grass, a Thirteen-lined ground squirrel is ready to bolt to its’ barrow.

A little larger than the Eastern Chipmunk is the Thirteen-lined ground squirrel which is 13 inches in length including a small 3 inch tail. The Thirteen-lined ground squirrel is a prairie or grassland animal that actually expanded its’ range after the Europeans arrived and began clearing timber and creating pasture lands. Here in Northeastern Illinois you are most likely to get a glimpse of this little ground squirrel on a sunny day, standing up straight on its’ back legs near its’ borrow keeping a wary eye as you approach along a rural less traveled road. Look for those large dark eyes and those many stripes, thirteen to be exact, that alternate in different shades of browns, yellows, blacks and have light spots in the darker stripes.

And larger yet, at about 16 inches, including the tail, is the Franklin’s ground squirrel. Sightings are rare and highly localized in the northern two thirds of Illinois for this ground squirrel that sort of resembles a cross between a tree squirrel and tiny marmot. The habitat of tall grasses that the Franklin’s ground squirrel requires makes actually seeing one very difficult. Researchers have used trained dogs in some areas to help locate ground squirrel activity in suitable tall grass habitat of the Franklin’s, a technique mentioned in an article of Outdoor Illinois, Duggan et al.(2009) “Finding Franklin’s”. The Franklin’s ground squirrel in Illinois has a status of “Uncommon, listed as state-threatened in 2014” and they are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act according the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).