The Ruddy Duck

Three male Ruddy ducks pop to the surface while feeding, giving a good look at their blue bills and developing summer breeding plumage.

March 19, 2020 – The Ruddy duck is a small diving duck that has somewhat of an amusing but interesting appearance. With a small bit of imagination, especially while viewing a male in his wonderful breeding plumage, one can see that this stout looking little bird with a bright blue bill and a warm chestnut colored body could easily be adapted as a quirky cartoon character in the next great animated blockbuster. These stiff-tailed divers are often seen in small flocks on the open waters of southern wetlands, lakes, and rivers during the cold months and also in the late winter gearing up for the spring migration as they start to stage in areas with great flocks of other waterfowl. The compact little ducks stay close together feeding and socializing as they rest and build energy for that magic moment when the big push happens and their night flight north begins. Like many other species, the Ruddy ducks head towards their breeding areas, the shallow lakes, and marshes to the north and to the west where they will take up residence for the summer. There are breeding populations of Ruddy ducks throughout the marshes and wetlands of the great lakes, but the areas that have the highest percentage of nesting Ruddy ducks are on the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. The female will seek out dense vegetation in the backwaters of lakes and marshes using cattails and grasses to weave together a simple platform above the water to hold a well hidden nest that is eventually lined with soft, warm, down feathers. She will lay somewhere around eight rather large white eggs and incubate them for about 26 days. Not more than a day after hatching, the young little ducks leave the nest swimming close behind their mother diving and feeding themselves. The young Ruddy ducks are on their own after about 30 days and after another 30 days they learn to fly and take to the air and will migrate south in the fall. Simply a beautiful and an interesting little stiff-tailed duck with an air of attitude and the blue billed summer drake in his breeding plumage is a sight to behold.

A drab colored Ruddy duck hen with her stiff tail slightly raised looks alert to my presence as she swims by.

A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

Canvasback Ducks

A mixed flock of mostly Canvasback ducks feeding and socializing on a flooded access road leading into the Kaskaskia bottoms in Southern Illinois this past week.

February 27, 2020 – The male Canvasback duck has a rich chestnut colored head and neck, black chest and tail area, with a bright white body and wings. These large ducks have beautiful red eyes that when illuminated by the sun can penetrate the thoughts of the human observer laying waste to any earthly woes, at least temporarily. Those unique eyes of this big diving duck absolutely contribute to making this bird a strikingly handsome fellow. The female, on the the other hand, is less colorful and has a pale-brown overall plumage that is most certainly required for a nesting female duck. Her camouflaged coloring is mandatory to helping keep her and her nest hidden from predators. But even without the strong contrasted colors she is still quite beautiful and is easily identified as a Canvasback. The female has the same sloping forehead and large black pointed bill but she does not have those amazing red eyes like the male. Her eyes are very dark in color, perhaps part of her specialized trait of survival. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway these fast flying migrating ducks, that are considered diving ducks, congregate in flocks from ten to many thousands. During the winter in the southern half of the United States including most of Illinois from southern Lake Michigan south where they can find open water and food they can be found in their winter flocks. In the southern winter marshes, lakes, rivers, and flooded fields the Canvasbacks feed together in an amazing display. The ducks come together over the area to forage and begin their search for tubers and invertebrates by diving repeatedly in a rolling head-first fashion that is somewhat mesmerizing when there are a large number of birds involved. The Canvasback ducks migrate north and west in the spring and nest in the prairie pothole region, those glacial wetlands of North America and Canada. They also nest north in the wetlands and marsh areas from the Great plains to Alaska.

Two male Canvasbacks swimming with a female following close behind, the red eyes of the male ducks seem to glow in the morning sun.

The Kaskaskia River Bottoms

A flock of ducks and geese flushed a short distance by eagles before settling back to the shallow waters of the flooded field.

February 22, 2019 – There were many species of migratory birds to be seen during last weeks visit to Carlyle lake and the Kaskaskia river bottoms in Clinton county. Snow geese, Greater white-fronted geese and even a number of the smaller Ross’s snow geese could be found. On a foggy morning I observed both large and small rafts of ducks with a variety of species that were noted as they drifted in and out of view in the distance. Lesser scaup, Canvasback, Common goldeneye, Common and Red-breasted mergansers, Ring-necked, Ruddy and Bufflehead ducks were on the lake. There were also over 400 American white pelicans feeding, resting, and waiting for spring.

A juvenile bald eagle in close pursuit of an adult eagle that had just picked up a dead fish out the flooded corn stubble. The dead fish along with some pieces of corn stalk can be seen in the eagles talons.

Many thousands of Ring-billed gulls, some Herring gulls and a few Lesser black-backed gulls were also on the lake, notably in the harbors and inlets. Huge numbers of gulls could be seen and heard, flying in what appeared to be a chaotic flurry of white where they were vigorously hunting and feeding on gizzard shad. Large flocks of Ring-billed gulls could also be found foraging in the surrounding agricultural fields, where they looked a vivid white against dark fallow fields of late winter.

Juvenile bald eagles chase each other around over a snow goose kill

In the Kaskaskia river bottoms south of the town of Carlyle, the American bald eagles were an impressive sight. I counted around 35 in a stretch of about 7 miles. A quick glance as something caught my eye while driving, standing in close proximity in a muddy field near the river, were 10 adults and three juvenile Bald eagles. A few miles further south in flood plains of the Kaskaskia that still had standing water, Trumpeter and Tundra swans congregated. Many ducks and geese were using the area along with a number Ringed-billed gulls. Snow and Greater white-fronted geese were in the wet areas of the flooded corn stubble. Pintails, wigeons, scaups, mallards and mergansers stayed close together mixed in with the geese as eagles continued their repeated low flights just above the resting waterfowl looking for an opportunity.


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.

Bonaparte’s gulls Kaskaskia River at Carlyle in Clinton county Illinois

Bonaparte's gull

Bonaparte’s gull

February 23-24, 2017 – While on a visit to Southern Illinois this past week I came across over 30 beautiful Bonaparte’s gulls in their winter plumage fishing in the Kaskaskia River at Carlyle in Clinton county. These gulls are small and can be seen over most of North America during the winter but breed in the remote coniferous forest of the high northern latitudes nesting mostly in spruce trees. It was amazing to watch these little gulls, which have been described as more tern like, fly in a tight formation, making quick turns and then hovering and diving head first into the swirling waters below the rapids. When a small fish was caught the gull would fly up and away from the action and quickly swallow the catch but would get right back to the business of fishing in less then five seconds. At recently as January 20th over 800 were reported on Carlyle Lake.

Bonaparte's gulls

Bonaparte’s gulls Kaskaskia River at Carlyle in Clinton county