The Great Migration

A Tennessee warbler searches for prey from a branch just above a patch of Waterhemp.

September 10, 2020 – An exciting forecast for a big push of migratory birds moving south went out last week as favorable weather conditions supported by historic data lined up for this spectacular seasonal event that would start about three hours after sunset, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hundreds of thousands of birds moved over Illinois in a massive migration during the night of Thursday the 3rd and continuing through Saturday the 5th. Although this is a very large mass movement of many birds all at once, the migration will continue through autumn as late migrants continue to head south to a warmer climate. A small wooded area south of Kankakee that has been the summer home for Indigo buntings, Song sparrows, Cardinals, Robins, Common yellowthroat, and Brown thrashers suddenly sees an uptick in activity as many small migrants resting and recharging their fat reserves arrive. High in the trees bright flashes of color catches the eye as male and female American redstarts that are searching every leaf and branch for small insects move at a fast pace from branch to branch. The little quick moving colorful redstarts have many miles to go in their journey to their winter homes in southern Mexico, Central America and northern South America. Another small bird that is a long-distance migrant and winters in Central America and northern South America is the Tennessee warbler. Three or four of these drab colored little warblers were hunting a little closer to the ground where they were checking the late summer plants for prey. With a thorough precision, and from every angle, they were plucking tiny insects off the stems and leaves in a patch of five foot tall Waterhemp in an opening at the edge of the thicket. Blue-gray gnatcatchers and Black-and-white warblers could be seen in numbers in the distant trees searching for prey. A Canada warbler that has a distinct bright-white eye-ring, on its’ way to South America, shows up for a moment in a bush at the edge of the woods before disappearing into the thick undergrowth. On the way to its’ wintering grounds in the tropics a Magnolia warbler searches for insects alongside the Tennessee warblers on the bushes and plants low to the ground. This is a great time to watch for a variety of species of migratory birds in the parks, along the waterways, and at backyard feeders, but they will only be here a short time as they continue south for the winter.

Pausing for a moment on a branch, a Magnolia warbler seems to reconnoiter its next move as it searches for insects.

A Change In The Air

A female Indigo bunting with a plump little Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillar in her beak on a perch at the edge of a late summer woods.

September 3, 2020 – The Dog Star Sirius is currently about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, those are the hottest days, the most sultry days of summer, and those dates coincide with the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. In the past when that bright star became visible in the northern latitudes it was a precise celestial event telling those ancient people in the northern hemisphere that a seasonal change was coming. We can look around at nature and see, and even hear, other signs of change as we enter the final weeks of summer. The loud and repetitive bird songs of desperate males seeking mates has gone mostly silent. Like hundreds of tiny high pitched tambourines being shaken all at once the sounds of the cicada fills our ears replacing those spring and summer sounds with a kind of swan song telling us that summer is passing away and fall beckons our attention. The migrating warblers moving south show only hints of those fine bright colored feathers of the breeding season as their spring adornments fade to a more subtle, less showy winter plumage. Even the bright greens of the summer foliage is starting to become a little less intense and is showing signs of wear. Plants are at their peak in growth and some have already gone to seed while others continue to flower and bloom and bear fruit attracting insects, hummingbirds and other animals to the banquet. Another sign of late summer/early fall are the ripened dark purple berries of the Pokeweed plant that are attached to a bright reddish purplish stem. Those late season fruits will feed songbirds and mammals that will in turn spread the seeds far and wide. Over the coming weeks even the miniature Ruby-throated fliers of the northern summer gardens will have moved on as the blooms dry up and the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler. Certainly, a change is in the air, and if we slow down, listen, observe and learn from nature, we may find that we are able to look at our calendars a little less often as we tune in to the natural world in the same way our ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly perched and hunting from a convenient perch as she nears the end of her flight season.

The Busy House Wren

A House wren searches on a lichen covered dead limb for insects.

August 27, 2020 – The little House wren is a busy, sometimes quite vocal, but mostly secretive bird that stays on the edges and in the shadows where the thick growth and shrubbery becomes a small bird sized labyrinth to hunt, hide, and guard against intruders. The wren has brownish toned plumage with subtle dark markings and grayish colored breast with slightly brown colored underparts. With such plain dull earthy colors the little bird can easily go unseen as it zips through the shadowy understory. There is not a dead tree or a broken limb that this little hunter doesn’t give a thorough search. From the ground up the bird checks every nook and cranny for small insects like spiders, crickets, and beetles as it moves in and out of the natural openings and dark crevices of the fallen bough. When the House wrens arrive in the spring the male searches for what he thinks is a perfect nest site. He may use old abandoned woodpecker holes, fractures in old dead trees, man made bird houses, or even old discarded and forgotten man made items. The male will make many trips bringing small twigs to the nest site angling longer twigs that are too wide for the hole, sideways to fit through the small opening. Filling the hole with nesting material, he tirelessly builds the nest in hopes of impressing a mate. The House wren has a large range which includes most of the Western Hemisphere. The birds nest in most of the northern two thirds of the United States, from coast to coast, and north into southern Canada. The wren spends the winters in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. The little birds can be found year round in parts of Mexico, Central America, and south all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Somewhat hidden among the shadows, a small House wren searches the undersides of the leaves for prey

Small Birds and Big Winds

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes time to stretch and preen on a perch near a feeder the day after the violent derecho.

August 20, 2020 – August 10th brought a weather event across the Midwest that I will not soon forget. The National Weather Service describes the storm as a long-lasting severe wind thunderstorm complex known as a derecho, with much of the winds at 75+ mph. By the afternoon, sometime after 3:00, the air felt hot, humid, and very heavy. I thought how lucky I was to have air conditioning, as I stepped back into the house from checking for mail. Little did I know, the cool air I was enjoying would soon end with a power outage that would last for days. It wasn’t long until things started to change as some darker clouds began to roll in, bringing some swirling winds to the treetops. Those winds didn’t seem so bad. A little before 4:00 pm I was looking out the kitchen window and could see the birds at the feeders and some squirrels that were busy with a new crop of walnuts next door. Hummingbirds were defending their territory, vigorously chasing intruders away from the feeders when the high winds struck. The birds and squirrels cleared the area as the winds became seriously stronger and within seconds the true nature of the derecho was revealed. The giant sycamore in the backyard was being shaken violently like a little toy, it’s large limbs snapping and dropping to the ground, taking out the electric and covering my truck in debris. I have to admit fear and some confusion was orbiting my thoughts while overloading my rational thinking and preventing me from retreating to the basement. If I was living in ancient Greece, in the time of Homer, I would be absolutely convinced that all four of the gods of the winds were involved and very angry at me for something. Soon though, the weather began to ease and when it seemed the storm had passed I cautiously ventured outside to inspect the damage and it was a bit shocking to see how fast things can change. I noticed that I was not the only one inspecting the backyard, Hummingbirds could be seen hovering over fallen limbs and debris. They were going from one limb to the next as if they were investigating those new things that earlier were not there, the landscape had definitely changed. By the next afternoon, with lots of hard work, the yard appeared much like it did before the storm, except for a damaged truck, broken fence, and electrical wires hanging down. House finches, Nut hatches, sparrows, and Hummingbirds appeared to be back to their normal routine seemingly unfazed, taking up where they left off before the storm. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are one of the smallest birds to visit North America and are a long-distance migrant that travels all the way from Mexico and Central America each spring and back again by early fall, flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Watching those Hummingbirds really made me think, in the wake of the violent storm, about the many obstacles and dangers that these tiny birds, weighing in at about 0.12 oz., must encounter in their life. The dangers are many for the little hummingbirds, from reptilians, insects, to birds of prey, but now we can add one more challenge to that list, and that is the derecho after the devastation of the August inland hurricane of 2020 that visited Illinois.

With an increase in Hummingbirds to the yard after the storm a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers near a feeder chasing away intruders.

Upland Sandpipers

An Upland Sandpiper lands and scurries across the road in front of me trying to entice me to follow, leading me away from it’s young hiding nearby.

August 13, 2020 – Every year, it seems, I am a bit nervous that this will be the last year of having any sightings in our area of Northeastern Illinois of the endangered long-distance migratory bird the Upland Sandpiper. I must admit that this year was not any different than past years, I always have a concern that eventually conjures up a bit of anxiety that grows until a bird is actually sighted. On May 15th of this year relief came as I had a pair flush along a rural road south of Kankakee. I have had sightings of multiple Upland Sandpipers in the general area almost once a week since this year’s first sighting in May. Besides the chance encounters, the patience in observation, listening for their unusual calls, or scanning the fields with binoculars while the crops are small can often produce sightings if the birds are in fact in the area. On August 3rd I had one fly, circle and land near where I had stopped my vehicle. The bird was certainly upset and scolding me as it landed and scurried across the roadway in front of my car before taking to the air again to circle my position. The sandpiper then landed on a utility wire behind me for no longer than five seconds before flying again back and forth past me. The encounter, the observation, and a couple fast photos lasted under two minutes and I quickly moved on so as not to stress the bird. My opinion is that this looks very much like the behavior of the Killdeer, a common upland plover that we see in numbers here in Illinois, especially along rural gravel roads during the nesting season when they have young nearby. The Killdeer uses distraction techniques to lead the intruder away from any chance of discovering their young that are staying low nearby. Perhaps this behavior is a telltale sign of a successful nesting season for the Upland Sandpiper, I can’t say for sure that this is whats going on, but it does give me hope that there are young birds nearby and the adult bird is doing its best to draw the intruder away. Hopes are that soon there will be new generation of Upland Sandpipers heading south to the prairies of the South America for the winter . This type of encounter with the Upland Sandpiper always seems to happen around this time every year from late July through late August when there should be young birds in the area. In fact I did get a glimpse at a flightless young bird being led away through rows of beans a few years back. When the adult bird circled me it was being very vocal as it flew out into the field joining the young bird, moving away and disappearing in the sea of green.

Perching on a utility wire for only a few seconds the Upland Sandpiper let’s me know that it is not happy with me in the area.

Listen to the Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird perches for a moment as it searches for prey at the edge of a woods in Iroquois County.

August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.

A closeup look at those well lit beautiful brown-orange colored eyes of this handsome mockingbird.

Southbound

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs Sandpipers standing tall face to face having a dispute over the hunting area that will eventually lead to a noisy fight.

July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.

A small sharp looking Semipalmated Sandpiper on it’s way to Central and South America feeding in a small flooded field in Iroquois County this past week.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a toxic Monarch butterfly clinched in the bill.

July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.

A tiny insect held firmly in at the tip of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s long down curved bill.

Semipalmated Plover

The profile of Semipalmated Plover show its’ dark cheek and fine orange eye-ring and the stout looking short, orange and black bill.

July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.

The photo shows the webbing on the middle and outside toes of the little plover from whence it gets it’s name.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) in the early morning hours of July 11th rising above the northeastern horizon at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area just before the sun. On July 22nd Neowise will be at it closest approach to Earth at a distance of 64.3 million miles. The comet is now visible after sunset in the northwest and will be at about 10 degrees above the horizon by the 14th. If you miss this amazing comet it will be back in the neighborhood in about 6000 years. The comet was discovered March 27, 2020 by a NASA solar telescope.

July 11, 2020 – I had been waiting for some cloudless skies to possibly get a look and maybe a photo of this amazing comet that was discovered March 27, 2020 by a NASA solar telescope. Photos and testimonies from around the world were lighting up the internet feeding the excitement. Finely it looked like the early morning of July 11th would be my first chance to witness this spectacular event. I picked up my son Benjamin at 3:00 am to make the 28 mile drive to the dark skies on the Illinois Indiana boarder east of Kankakee. We arrived at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area where Ben first spotted the comet in the northeast above the lake as was drove past the boat launch. The comet looked so amazing it was brightest at the tip, where the nucleus was pointing toward the horizon, looking like a long brush stroke of white paint on a dark canvas where the amazingly long tail stretched towards the heavens away from the sun that was below the horizon.

July 14, 2020