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

Greater White-fronted Geese

Greater White-fronted Goose

Greater White-fronted Goose

February 4, 2018 – A cold and gusting north wind with falling snow was reducing visibility this past Sunday along the Kankakee river. Canada geese, Mallard ducks and Greater White-fronted geese also known as the Specklebelly goose were sticking close to the north bank of the river using it to block the wind. There were eight of these tundra breeders among the Canada geese and they are easy to spot with the patch of white on their forehead and at the base of their pinkish light orange bill. Although they are more common west of the Mississippi during the winter months, we still see them every year both small and large flocks in our area. Many times we hear that unique vocalization before ever seeing them flying overhead.

Greater White-fronted Geese

Greater White-fronted Geese

Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-Headed Woodpecker moving stone

January 27, 2018 – At first I wasn’t sure what all the Red-headed woodpeckers were doing flying out of the woods to the middle of a gravel parking lot. As I pulled in I could see them picking up something and quickly flying back to the woods. My thoughts were, what are they doing with those stones? After getting into position I was then able to observe them with my binoculars and I could see that they were getting bits of what appeared to be cracked corn from between the rocks. They would swiftly fly back to the woods but it wouldn’t be long until they would swoop in once more, three or four at a time. A mix of juvenile and adult birds would quickly locate more corn, sometimes moving stones that looked relatively large. While watching the Red-headed woodpeckers I saw Blue birds, Nuthatches, Blue Jays and a Tufted Titmouse working their way around the edge of the woods. Goldfinches are starting to show some yellow and high overhead the sounds from large flocks of Canada geese and those unique sounds of the Greater White-fronted Goose echoed. There were five Trumpeter Swans moving fast just above the black and gray leafless woods, their white feathers seemed to glow against the blue sky in the bright sunshine.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker with corn.

Backlight Buck

White-tailed Buck

Backlight Buck on the run

January 19, 2018 – Almost silhouetted in the backlight of the morning sun, a spooked White-tailed buck does not waste any time increasing the distance between itself and possible danger. White-tailed deer can reach speeds of 40 mile per hour and easily jump barriers that are 9 feet tall. They have the ability to take to the air and leap an amazing distance of 30 feet while running to escape a threat that is in hot pursuit. In a matter of seconds that buck along with another was across the field, through a small woodlot, down a hillside and into a field of corn stubble well over a half mile away and then like a snowflake in the spring they were gone.

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

January 19, 2018 – Snow Buntings are a small songbird of the high Arctic, a visitor that can be seen in our area with flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs and sometimes in larger flocks of their own species. During the winter months here in Illinois they can be found feeding on dropped seeds along roadways or in the harvested agricultural fields. An interesting fact of these little birds, unlike other birds that can claim and alternate plumage, they only molt once and that is in the late summer. By the time spring rolls around and the Arctic breeding season is underway the browns and tan colored tips of their feathers are worn off showing mostly pure white with coal black wingtips. During their breeding season there are only a few slight differences in the plumage of the female and male.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A Snowy Owl Perched

Snowy Owl Illinois

Snowy Owl after Fox Squirrel

January 18, 2018 – A Snowy Owl was perched at the top of an evergreen last week in Iroquois county and seemed to have set its sights on a Fox Squirrel busy looking for food around the base of a large cottonwood. A small flock of Tree Sparrows and the intended target, the surprised squirrel, scattered and vanished when the owl swooped in. A moment after the failed attempt the owl took to the air and headed to a waterway in the middle of the field. The number of reported sightings of Snowy Owls starting to come in for Illinois have exceeded 100 so far. Those numbers are likely to increase from the encounters yet to be reported. In a small part of Iroquois county my high count for these owls is three but this year it has doubled with six individuals and possibly a seventh. It has been a banner season for these beautiful visitors from the Canadian Arctic, they have brought much excitement across the United States along with much science yet to be understood. Remember, if you encounter a Snowy Owl please respect the owl and keep your distance, do not try to approach the owl just to get a photo, observe from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Snowy Owls have just recently been listed as vulnerable by the Union for Conservation of Nature.

The Coyote

Coyote in corn stubble

Coyote in corn stubble

January 18, 2018 – Persecuted, shot at and mostly misunderstood the coyote plays an important part in a healthy ecosystem. Helping to keep populations of mice, rats, foxes, opossums and raccoons in check which in turn reduces predation on ground nesting birds in areas especially where nesting habitat has been diminished by agriculture or urban expansion, the coyote most certainly plays an important role. Along with deer, small rodents, reptiles and insects; plants and fruits are also part of the coyotes diet when available. Livestock depredation is very rare and overstated in the exaggerated tales of the prairie wolf. The coyote is known as a Keystone species, which means without a healthy population of this carnivore the ecosystem goes out of balance, biodiversity is lost causing immoderate population growth of one species while another species can disappears completely from an area.