Starry Travelers

The beautiful male Indigo bunting in full breeding plumage.

June 13, 2019 – The color indigo is described as a deep rich blue, and that is exactly what catches one’s eye at the forest’s edge beginning in the spring and lasting through the warm months of summer here in Northern Illinois. The flash of that stunning blue feathered breeder fluttering across a brown, black, and green environment can mean only one thing, that those long-distance migrants, the male Indigo buntings, in their alternate plumage, are here for the nesting season. The breeding range of the Indigo bunting stretches from central Texas north across the Great Plains into Canada, east to the Atlantic, and south into central Florida. The Indigo bunting winters in the southern half of Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, southern Mexico, Central America and south into northern South America.

A female Indigo bunting shows that hint on blue on her shoulders.

The females and immature Indigo buntings show less impressive colors than the breeding males. The females and immature birds are brown and tan, with some black in the wings, and dark broken streaks on a white and faded tan chest extending down the front of the bird. The female shows only hints of that famous blue on their shoulders and tail feathers. These little birds come a long way, about 1200 miles each way, in their amazing migration just to nest here in our area where there is suitable habitat of thickets and brushy wooded space bordering open fields and prairies. While many other migrating birds follow river valleys and other landmarks by day, the Indigo bunting uses the celestial map above for navigation making their magical journey on those clear dark starry nights.

The Great Egret

A beautiful Great egret glides low over the water passing a Great-blue heron foraging in the background.

June 6, 2019 – Appearing like ghostly aberrations in the soft morning light of late spring the five beautiful Great egrets were spread out around a pond in southwestern Kankakee county last week. Most were wading in the shallows searching for food, while a few were perched and preening on a fallen snag at the ponds edge. One of these hunting birds focused on something in the aquatic vegetation at the north end of the pond. The Great egret pulled out a large fish that it held in its’ bill for only a short time, and for reasons one can only speculate, the bird discarded the catch and moved on and continued hunting. It wasn’t long before the egrets took to the air, their impressive wings spread wide as they gracefully circled and gained altitude. Having used the pond for the night for resting and feeding, the birds flew northwest continuing their migration towards the nesting colonies on the lakes and in the river valleys.

The egret standing in the shallows holding the soon rejected fish.

The Great egret is considered a resident to medium-distance migrant and range widely over the continent, according to The Cornell lab of Ornithology. Many of these birds nest in colonies in the backwaters and wetlands of small and large lakes and rivers like the Mississippi and the Illinois. The Great egrets are in northern Illinois from early April to late October when they, along with a new generation of young egrets, migrate back south for the winter. The Great egret has struggled throughout the years. They suffered major declines of more than 95% from plume hunters for the fashion trade in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. The egret population began rebounding as a result of the Migratory bird laws that were enacted in the the first decades of the twentieth century. The birds are considered to be stable today despite the challenges of habitat destruction.

Flycatchers Large and Small

The Least Flycatcher is the smallest flycatchers you will see in our area and one of the early spring arrivals to Illinois from Central America.

May 30, 2019 – Flycatchers have returned to northern Illinois for the season. They are most often seen perched at the edges of wooded thickets, along rural ditches or open areas near ponds, creeks, and meadows waiting for insects to take to the air. Patiently perched on a tall sturdy dried stem from last years growth or on a limb of a fallen tree, the mostly drab colored little birds can quickly fly off their perch and grab insects in midair or pluck one off a nearby leaf. They detect the slightest movement from a walking or flying insect with their keen vision.

A Great-Crested Flycatcher is perched and watching for prey. The bird is a large heavy billed flycatcher with a noticeable yellow belly.

Consuming their prey promptly, the flycatcher resumes focus on their surroundings, watching for prey from a satisfactory random perch. Small crawling and flying insects such as beetles, leafhoppers, and dragonflies are a few of the types of insects that the flycatchers feed on. Some flycatchers, like the Eastern Kingbird, primarily feed on insects early in the season while in their summer range here in Illinois, but wild fruits become part of their diet as this supplemental food source becomes available later in the season. During the months that the Eastern Kingbird spend in the western Amazon basin in South America fruits are a main food source for these birds.

Like many of the other traveling birds we see during the spring migration and during the nesting months here in Illinois, the flycatchers migrate north from the southeastern coastal areas of the United States and southwest into Mexico, Central and South America. While some nest in the United States others continue north into Canada and Alaska, like the Alder flycatcher for example that has a large nesting range and breeds in the area of the Great Lakes in the United States, and most of Canada and Alaska. Some of the more common flycatchers we see during the summer nesting season in Northern Illinois are Eastern wood-Pewee, Great-Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Least Flycatcher, and the Eastern Kingbird.

The Upland Sandpiper

An Upland sandpiper stands in corn stubble vocalizing with those distinct whistles to other nearby sandpipers.

May 23, 2019 – It is springtime in Illinois and the endangered Upland Sandpipers have returned to the Prairie State for the nesting season. These long-distance travelers make their way back to Northern Illinois in April each year from their wintering prairies of Brazil and Argentina in southern South America. While it is winter here in Illinois, the Upland sandpipers time in South America from November to March is actually the austral spring-summer on the Pampas. The Upland sandpipers nest across the Northern United States from east of the Rockies to the east coast. The sandpipers seem to be more common throughout the great plains of the United State where habitat remains. Their summer range reaches north through the central provinces of Canada and north to Alaska. The sandpipers have become more scarce in Illinois over the years and observations are less frequent as they become somewhat of a rare breeder. There are signs though, that they may be adapting to some agricultural areas, at least in small numbers.

The Upland sandpiper finds a birdbath in some standing water this past week in Iroquois county.

The Upland sandpipers start arriving in Illinois in the middle of April producing eggs from the middle of May into June. They produce three to four in a clutch that have a 21 day incubation period. Both male and female birds take turns on the nest during the incubation. The nests are constructed in depressions in the ground that are lined with leaf litter and grasses and are hidden by grasses arched over the top according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Early season mowing along roadways and intensive farming that removes nesting habitat has a negative impact on this struggling bird in Illinois. From the Upland Sandpiper Conservation Plan (Vickery et al. 2010): The greatest threats the Upland Sandpiper faces are loss and degradation of habitat and the use of agrochemicals on both the breeding and nonbreeding grounds; and loss or degradation of critical stopover habitat.

The American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover in full breeding plumage in Iroquois county

May 16, 2019 – On their way to the high arctic for the nesting season, those grassland shorebirds, American golden plovers, have been staging in good numbers in parts of the Midwest and have been here in Northern Illinois for the past few weeks. You must look with a careful eye to see these visitors from South America as they blend in quite well in the unbroken agricultural fields in our rural areas. When these well camouflaged little birds, that are about the size of the American robin, are resting in the midday sun they lay flat on the ground in small depressions and are almost impossible to see. These swift flying, long-distance migrants winter on the Pampas of South America from central Argentina and Patagonia south to Tierra del Fuego and we get to see them while they migrate north in the spring.

A number of American Golden Plover standing in a flooded field south of Kankakee

The plovers start heading north in February, gathering in large numbers in northwestern Argentina. I was able to photograph the the leg bands of one of these birds in September of 2017 near Momence. The bird had been banded in July of 2012 on Bylot island, Nunavut Canada. The Bird Banding Biologist of the Canadian Wildlife Service have two years of telemetry for that particular plover for the years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 showing two migratory tracks. The spring migration from South America for both northbound trips where it had departed land was off the coast of Chile, south of Peru heading out over the Pacific ocean moving northwest and rounding to the south and west of the Galapagos islands.

The plovers’ path went north crossing Central America over the Gulf of Mexico and entering the United States at New Orleans. The plover followed the Mississippi river valley north, spending time in the state of Mississippi south of Memphis Tennessee. It eventually entered Illinois where it zigzagged across Illinois and Indiana as far east as Indianapolis before working its’ way to Northern Illinois. The plover was just south of Kankakee in Iroquois county where it spent a number of weeks before exiting west out of the state. When the bird finally did leave Illinois, probably in mid to late May, it headed west to the great plains of Nebraska, South Dakota then North Dakota before leaving the United States and moving north into Canada.

The plover continued north and moved out over Hudson Bay across the Hudson strait towards Baffin Island above the arctic circle where it spent the breeding season. After the nesting season, sometime in late July or early August, the plover used a more direct route south. Leaving the arctic heading south across Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia the Plover started the long crossing of the Atlantic ocean as it flew non-stop towards South America. Reaching land, the little plover entered South America on the northeast side between Guyana and French Guiana continuing on for almost 3000 miles south to Uruguay where it spent the next six or seven months.

A Prairie Island of Habitat

The strikingly beautiful male Scarlet tanager in breeding plumage is a long-distance migrant from South America.

May 8, 2019 – A wooded area south of Kankakee that appears like a tiny island surrounded by an ocean of agricultural fields becomes a respite for the weary travelers during the spring migration. The trees and understory were alive with a number of species of migrating birds that were taking advantage of the safety of the brushy cover and the good food source of worms and insects that the little woods offered. Some of the birds had selected this spot for the summer and were already nesting in the thicket while others were resting and feeding for their continued trip north.

An olive-yellow colored female Scarlet tanager with darker wings and tail pauses for moment before continuing her search for insects and worms.

Yellow-rumped warblers in full breeding plumage were busy searching the tree branches and emerging leaves for insects while in the company of tiny Blue-gray gnatcatchers that were extremely animated as they fluttered from branch to branch. Common yellowthroat warblers were staying among the low branches and shorter vegetation as they appeared and disappeared quickly to and from the waters edge and through the brush. A small Least flycatcher was working its’ way through the branches searching for insects while at times stopping for a rest on a nearby perch.

A Northern water thrush, a small Hermit thrush, and a cautious Ovenbird were using the same territory and could be seen at times moving stealthily across the ground through the shadows of the bushes and trees. A perched White-eyed vireo was removing the wings from a dead Red admiral butterfly, the wing dust and wing parts surrounded the gruesome scene as the beautiful little vireo with impressive white eyes consumed its’ prey.

Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted grosbeaks flying-about lit up like flickering lights among the softened springtime color tones of the wooded acre. The distant whistles of the male Baltimore oriole were such clear and clean songs that they conjured up a vision of the vibrant colored bird perched and displaying that coal black head and wings contrasted with that beautiful yellow-orange body. A female and male Scarlet tanager were searching the ground for worms and small insects. Scarlet tanagers are long-distance Neotropical migrants that nest in the eastern half of United States and all of Illinois and winters in the tropical rain forests in northern and western South America east of the Andes and as far south as the lowlands of Bolivia.

The Sandy Mocker

April 22, 2019 – What are those clear and rich bird songs coming from the tree tops with tones and musical phrases that seem sampled from the songs of other avian species? There it is, perched high in the tree, its’ bill pointing towards the clouds. It is that mimic, the Brown thrasher, with its’ piercing yellow eyes, boldly streaked body and a mostly reddish brown back, tail, and wings that sport bright white and dark wing bars. You better look quick before it darts to a lower perch or down deeper into the understory to search for beetles and worms. Seeds and fruits will come later in the season, it is still the early part of spring and the insects and other tiny invertebrates are the food for now for this melodic courting songbird.

Listen for the male Brown thrasher early in the season when he is on his brushy habitat and his songs are a much stronger proclamation of his territory. After the nesting begins, the songs of the male thrasher are somewhat lower in volume. The Brown thrasher can mimic the songs of other birds with a repertoire of up to 3,000 cataloged sounds, according to Stan Stewart, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

Over the years in the other parts of the country, the Brown thrasher has been known by other names. Fence-corner bird, Sandy mocker, Planting bird, and Brown thrush are a few of the names. The thrasher is not part of the thrush family at all and actually belongs to the family Mimidea. Mimidea is the same family as the Northern mocking bird and the Gray catbird, two other mimics we see here in northern Illinois during the nesting season. The Brown thrasher can be found year-round from southern Illinois, south from east Texas to the Carolinas, and into all of Florida. The thrasher is a short-distance migrant and breeds across most of the northern half of the United States from the Great Plains to the Atlantic and north into southern Canada.

White-winged Dove

April 17, 2019 – There was quite a surprise out my kitchen window last week in the late afternoon on Wednesday the 17th. Standing on a branch in a tree where I have a number of bird feeders was an unusual visitor from the Southwestern United States, a White-winged dove. The white wing patches were clearly visible when I first sighted the bird and I immediately knew what it was. Even though they are occasionally seen in Illinois since the first record in 1998, they are listed by the Illinois Ornithology Society as a casual and they are posted on eBirds Illinois Rare Bird Alert when there is a sighting. The dove is more than likely a first record for Kankakee county. White-winged doves live year-round in the Baja California peninsula, southern Arizona, southern New Mexico and southwestern Texas. They are in most of Mexico down into Central America east from the Yucatan peninsula, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Bahamas. By the time I retrieved my camera the dove had laid down on the limb and was facing away. I was never able to photograph the white on the wings.

Tiny Swarming Gnats

April 22, 2019 – Gnatcatchers, warblers, kinglets and wrens were feeding on the abundance of tiny swarming gnats this past week at the edge of a small wooded area south of Kankakee. There were five Blue-gray gnatcatchers quickly hopping from branch to branch feasting on the large number of gnats that were covering the tree branches. The gnatcatchers are migrants that winter from the Southeastern coast of the United States, Florida, along the Gulf coast west and down into Mexico and Central America. Northern Illinois is near the northern edge of their nesting range that stretches up into Wisconsin and may be expanding as the climate warms.

A Northern parula warbler studies the bark of the tree looking intently for a small insect.

A pair of Ruby-crowned kinglets were visiting the same tree taking advantage of the abundance of protein. The little kinglets are about halfway between their winter range and their summer nesting territory. A house wren was also at the banquet and is now in its’ summer range while the smaller Winter wren that was busy searching for insects lower on a tree stump still has a little ways to go before it reaches its’ summer nesting territory. Field sparrows were there looking through the nooks and crannies of the decaying wood stumps for insects and worms.

A Northern parula warbler which nest in most of the eastern half of United States brought the most color to the brunch. The small parula warbler is a long-distance neotropical migrant that winters along the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico down into Central America and east throughout the Caribbean. The tiny warbler has yellow from under its’ chin down across its’ breast. The lower half of the birds bill is a bright yellow that matches those bright yellow feathers on its’ chin and even in the muted light looked brilliant against the bluish feathers on the upper parts of the little warbler.

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.