March 25, 2017 – The Rough-legged hawk can be spotted perched on utility poles, fence posts or gliding low across the frozen agricultural fields and the waterways of dormant grasses and weeds during the winter months here in the mid-west. Oftentimes these birds can be seen sitting on the ground along the roadway or in the desolate looking winter farm fields as they keep a wary eye and scan their surrounding for potential prey. In the summer one would have to travel to Hudson Bay and the High Arctic to see them hunting lemmings or voles on the tundra or nesting on a rock ledge or a ground level rocky outcropping with their brood of 2-6 eggs. Weighing up to 3lbs and having a wing-span of 4 ½ ft they are easy to spot as they seem to be a fixture in the winter sky gliding with eyes down into the wind hovering at times as they watch for movement of a mouse, ground squirrel or even a rabbit. Identifying the Rough-legged hawk is really not that difficult, although they could be mistaken for the Northern Harrier that has a similar hunting method. I always look for that tell-tale pattern, easier to see on the light-morph birds, those somewhat square or rectangle looking dark bold patches on the underside of the wings between the wing-tips and the first joint. Another thing to look for on these hawks are the feathers on the legs, the Rough-legged hawk gets its name from the feathers that cover the legs extending all the way to the toes, which are believed to help conserve heat. In our rural areas from November to March one has the best chance to have an encounter with these Arctic visitors.
March 17, 2017 – A small flock of Rusty Blackbirds work the muddy edge of a pond, moving quickly with a focused intensity as they turn over leaf litter and sticks looking for insects on a cold and cloudy wet March morning in Kankakee county. It is the time of year that these birds, with a conservation status of vulnerable, migrate north to the boreal forests where another breeding and nesting season will begin around the Beaver ponds and bogs in the wet woods of the north.
The Rusty Blackbird, upon close examination, looks very different than most blackbirds with their rusty colored edges that highlight their dark feathers. The female has more of a colorful look with lighter shades of earth-tones and a mixture of that rusty color edging on the feathers and a grayish underside. Like the Common Grackle, the Rusty Blackbird has bright yellow eyes that are rather conspicuous and seem to penetrate ones imagination as you notice a look coming your way.
The Rusty Blackbird is a bird on the edge. It has been a mystery to scientist and ornithologist why there has been such an alarming decline of this species. “North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count suggest that Rusty Blackbird numbers have plummeted a staggering 85-95% since the mid-1900’s” (Greenberg and Droege, 1999) . Among other possible causes are climatic change and high levels of mercury that have been found in the birds from pollution. Some speculate that the large scale draining of Beaver ponds and clearing of wooded wet lands for agriculture and development throughout its wintering range is a large part of this devastating impact on a bird that relies on a healthy ecosystem and wetland habitat. Many other migratory bird species suffer from this loss of habitat along with local flora and fauna that can vanish from the landscape seemingly in the blink of an eye with such a negative impact on these natural areas.
An organization called International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) was founded in 2005 to aggressively gain understanding by collecting data and monitoring the Rusty Blackbirds on both summer and winter ranges. The goal, through their research, is to lead to conservation methods and programs that help reverse the rapid decline of this species. http://rustyblackbird.org/
March 2, 2017 – Concentrations of Sandhill Cranes dot the gentle sloping meadows along the waterways of the fallow winter fields in Northern Indiana. Many hundreds of these cranes can also be seen around wet spots of ponding water socializing and foraging for food in Jasper and Pulaski counties. The spring migration has began and the rattling and honking sounds of these travelers echoes today as it must have for thousands of years. The sudden increase in the volume of a dramatic chatter in the cranes vocalization draws the eye towards the jumping and bowing birds as their elegant dance is reaffirming life partners or a potential mate for the new generations of mature single birds. Throughout time the crane has had a place in myth and story telling, Native Americans tell stories emphasizing the slyness of the crane, others see the cranes as good luck or even a sign of fertility and death as part of the lore. To watch these cranes, with their beaks pointed straight up to the sky or heads and necks bent back or low to the ground the sudden twisting and twirling bodies and stamping feet with feathers spread out in their dance performance, one truly sees the borrowed from nature positions used in ballet or the stances used in martial arts or Yoga. Soon these birds will continue their trips to points north where another brooding season begins, nesting amongst the cattails and sedges with a clutch of 1 to 3 eggs. In late summer early fall the migration once again will bring the cranes back to Jasper and Pulaski counties where they will rest and feed with flocks that can grow to as much as 25,000. By early December they will have all headed farther south to a less hostile environment for the winter where the birds will enjoy food and rest until the days start to grow longer and the spring dance of the Sandhill Crane calls once more as the cycle continues.