Bonaparte’s gulls

Adult Bonaparte's gull in full breeding plumage

Adult Bonaparte’s gull in full breeding plumage

April 19, 2018 – Good size flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls have been reported in Kankakee county and throughout Northern Illinois in recent weeks as they are working their way north to the boreal forests of western and central Canada and the southern half of Alaska where they will nest in the conifers. The small gulls prefer trees separated from the dense growth that are at the edges of marshes and bogs. A flock of 50 of these small and elegant tern like gulls was spotted in a flooded area of an agricultural field busily feeding on insects and worms, certainly to bulk up for their long journey north. The winter plumage of these gulls is mostly white, with a light gray on the tops of their wings and black wingtips, plus a dark spot on the sides of the head behind the eye. During the nesting season the adult birds’ head transitions to a slaty black as they get that wonderful dark hood that stands out in a beautiful contrast to their white body. This flock was made up of adult birds in full breeding plumage with some that were at different stages of transition, plus a number first year birds.

Bonaparte's gull not in breeding plumage

Bonaparte’s gull not in breeding plumage

American White pelicans

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

April 14, 2018 – Numbers of American White pelicans have been reported in our area for the past month. East of Momence near the Illinois/Indiana state line in Newton county Indiana, small and large flocks have been observed at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. The pelicans are using the local small lakes, cooling lakes, and the backwaters of the Kankakee river as staging areas where they can rest and feed while waiting for that moment when that strong hormonal drive pushes them to head further north for the nesting season. Fifty of the large white birds have been counted at Black Oak with similar counts for J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA. A flock of these great birds have been using a small rocky island in the Kankakee River State Park with a number of 25 birds reported on April 7th. Even larger numbers exceeding 100 have been reported near Braidwood and north to the Des Plains river.

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Traveling Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

April 5, 2018 – Most had their heads cocked with their faces tucked deep into their feathers as they perched sleeping side-by-side on this cold April morning in a springtime where winter was refusing to yield. Their long extended wing feathers, their primaries, appeared like little brown scabbards hanging from the belts of tiny soldiers that were dressed in their finest blue jackets. The weather was right for the snow that was predicted for later in the day and they seemed reluctant to leave their bivouac even well after sunup. There were more then 150 of these tired travelers roosting in a small tree at the edge of some flooded timber in the backwaters of the Kankakee river. Tree Swallows are known as short-distance migrators even though some travel as far as Alaska for the breeding season and nest in most of Canada and much of the United States. The Swallows winter along the South Eastern coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and south into Central America. Some Tree Swallows have arrived even earlier and have been in our area for at least a month and they have already paired up and staked out their territory. This flock appears to be a recent arrival and may have traveled many miles in the last few days. They may still have some distance to go before they reach their destination, hopefully a more temperate weather pattern will soon take hold for this sleepy flock of traveling Tree Swallows.

Tree Swallows sleeping

Tree Swallows sleeping

Horned Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

March 28, 2018 – A pair of Horned Grebes glide silently across the placid waters of the Black Oak Bayou. One is still in its’ mostly achromatic winter plumage, while the other is transitioning towards the more impressive breeding colors of gold, black and chestnut. These small divers with their intriguing red eyes are on their northerly migration. The birds have been spending some time at a good food source of aquatic invertebrates and small fish at the Black Oak Bayou in the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area in Newton county Indiana. Soon the grebes will follow their instincts and continue the journey north into Canada towards the boreal lakes and marshes where their impressive courtship display will once again signify a bonding and the coming of a new generation of those red eyed divers.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe starting to show breeding colors

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

March 23, 2018 – Perched on a branch amongst the cones and catkins of an Alder tree, a female Red-winged blackbird momentarily halts her search for insects as a large flock of Rusty Blackbirds suddenly and with an explosion of noise ascend from the swampy ground to the high branches of the surrounding trees.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird perched in a small tree

March 19, 2018 – A brightly colored male Eastern Bluebird perched in a small tree overlooking its’ territory appears to be taking in the warmth of the morning sun. The nesting season is here for the Eastern Bluebirds as they seek out small cavities in trees, old woodpecker holes, or a man made nesting box along a fence row. The males can be seen bringing material to a possible nest site hoping to entice the females with their excellent choice and seductive wing display. The male Bluebird is very aggressive towards other males that enter its’ territory as is the female towards other females. Soon the female Bluebird, upon excepting the offer from the male, will complete the building of a nest, selecting the right materials, and constructing the nest just the way she wants it. In about 15 days a new generation of Eastern Bluebirds will hatch into a world with many challenges.

Sandhill cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

March 5, 2018 – Sandhill cranes have been seen in the area for the past month as they have been working their way north. Flocks small and large can be seen in the wet areas and agricultural fields across Northern Illinois and Indiana with larger concentration south of the Kankakee river valley near Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. It is also a good time to spot Golden eagles as they seem to follow the crane migration in both spring and fall. One was recently seen gliding low over some pine trees near the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands prairies.

Golden Eagle near Kankakee Sands

Golden Eagle near Kankakee Sands

Short-eared owls at the Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl Perched Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl Perched

March 9, 2018 – The light had changed on the prairie as it neared the late part of the afternoon. The sun, now in the western sky, cast a warm glow that saturated the earthy colors at the Kankakee sands. It was like a switch had been thrown when they suddenly appeared, the Short-eared owls were up and hunting! Two of the owls swooped in working together to drive away a Northern Harrier that was gliding low just above the prairie in search of its’ next meal. Two other owls could be seen perched on small bushes that stood above the tall brown grasses to the north. The irregular flight path of the hunting owls had them flying away but quick turns brought them back towards me for a fly by and then away again as they continued their search for prey. A cloud bank above the western horizon quickly narrowed the window of light needed for my camera, but a quick drive though the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands located 7 more of these remarkable owls. Swooping and banking as the light grew dim the Short-eared owls took over the evening skies at the Kankakee Sands while the Northern Harriers and Rough-legged hawks found their roosts for the night.

Short-eared Owl at the Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl

Thousands of Snow Geese

Thousands of Snow Geese Carlyle lake Illinois

Thousands of Snow Geese

February 26, 2018 – On a recent visit to Carlyle lake in Clinton county, the largest man-made lake in Illinois, I experienced the deafening and somewhat hypnotic sounds of thousands of Snow Geese that seemed to overwhelm the senses. Looking up I observed a seemingly endless vortex of white and dark Snow Geese descending literally out of the clear blue sky. Soon thousands more geese were added to the extraordinary sight amassed before me in a crowded expanse of white and dark morph Snow Geese which included a number of the smaller Ross’s Snow Geese. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, a rolling wave of white lifted off the ice and into the sky in a domino effect like chain reaction in this beautiful expanding upheaval. The sounds from the geese increased in volume and pitch as the mass moved horizontally in a awe inspiring visual display resembling a giant shimmering electric animated sign, only to settle back to the ice and water a short distance away.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

Just days before my visit an official count for Snow Geese on the lake was completed showing a total of 90,750. Most certainly a remarkable site to see but in February 2014 the DNR reported an incredible 1.1 million Snow Geese on the lake. Looking out on the lake, on the huge floating sheets of ice, Bald Eagles, both juveniles and adults, could be seen feeding on the white geese. I counted 22 eagles at one time on the ice and in the trees near the Coals Creek access on the south east side of the lake not far from a large concentration of geese. On the far south side of the lake, east of the dam along the spillway, I witnessed 12 eagles on the ice with a few of them eating on the carcasses of Snow Geese. In the surrounding agricultural fields the Snow Goose hunter’s strategically placed decoys could be seen. The spring light goose conservation hunt, which began February 1st and ends March 31st in the this part of the State was in full swing. The extended spring hunt is part of the conservation efforts to reduce the numbers of Snow Geese and there are no daily bag limits on the white, blue, and Ross’s.

Snow Goose Hunt

Snow Goose Hunt

The Mid-Continent Snow Goose populations have exploded over the years and the Subarctic and Arctic nesting sites are being destroyed by the overpopulation of these light geese which is having a measurable and devastating impact on other species that nest in the Arctic. The habitat in the Arctic is being overgrazed by the Snow Geese which destroys the plants on the tundra when the geese dig up and eat the roots which eventually turns the tundra into an inhospitable ecosystem of mud. The impact of the geese could take decades to recover from, with some areas that may never recover after the destroyed grasslands become salty mudflats.

Thousands of Snow Geese in Illinois

Thousands of Snow Geese

There is some cautious optimism that the goose population is stabilizing and some areas around Hudson Bay may be showing signs of improvement. Humans extreme affects on nature are apparent and we have driven many species to the edge of extinction, some gone forever. It is a learning experiment of balance, science and conscience as we try to backpedal our impact on other life forms we share the planet with. It is not an easy task to understand the equilibrium of conservation and the Snow Geese appear to be a great example of the importance of science and the dedication to understanding.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

February 11, 2018 – A Tufted Titmouse holds a momentary pose while foraging with a flock of seven other Titmice for seeds and nuts through the leaf litter this past week. These little birds upon finding a seed, that is to large to swallow, will perch on a small limb or log with the seed held between its’ feet and hammer away with there beak breaking the seed into smaller manageable bits. You may hear the song of the Tufted Titmouse before actually seeing the little bird. One song that is rich and clear and echoes through the woods on a spring morning, sounds like peter-peter-peter. The powerful sound from a little bird will undoubtedly stop you in your tracks and briefly draw your attention away from your mission as you search for the delightful songster.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse breaking seed