Home for the winter

A first-winter White-crowned sparrow in Iroquois county this past week.

October 17, 2019 -It is that time of the year once again when we start seeing those attractive arctic breeders returning to Illinois for the winter. The White-crowned sparrow, with its’ dark black and bright white crown stripes and that distinct gray breast, stands tall in somewhat of a stylish pose while perched on a nearby branch. The sparrow disappears and reappears as it busily speeds through the undergrowth searching for food. An overgrown thicket with wild fruits, seeds, and plenty of insects and protection from the weather and the predators, like hawks and falcons, is an ideal winter home for the White-crowned sparrow. The first-winter birds do not have the black and white crown but they stand out nonetheless in their new sharp looking feathers of a reddish-brown and gray raised crest and their pinkish bill, a youthful look that remains until spring. The White-crowned sparrow is a tall elegant presence compared to our darker drab colored resident sparrows that we oftentimes take for granted. With the exception of White-crowned sparrows in the northwestern United State that are considered resident or medium-distance migrants, most nest from from St. Johns bay north above the arctic circle, east to Newfoundland, and west to Alaska. According to the Cornell lab of Ornithology, “birds along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the interior West don’t migrate”. Illinois is the northern most part of the the White-crowned sparrows winter range which extends as far south as central Mexico. The fall migrants start arriving in numbers from the north in late September and October. The birds that wintered farther south and are migrating north in the spring start showing up in May as they work their way towards Canada.

The adult White-crowned sparrow showing those famous white stripes during the spring migration south of Kankakee.

Those Wrens

A Carolina wren pauses for a moment on a branch near some feeding sparrows.

October 10, 2019 – The mostly drab and well camouflaged light brown House wren, or the glamorous Carolina wren with its’ rich reddish brown over pale brown tones with distinctive white eyebrows, makes those two wrens easy to recognize. The House wren and the Carolina wren are two of the five common wrens we find here in Northeastern Illinois. The House wren, like the Carolina wren, is a small bird with a big sound system. Their songs are most often noticed before the birds are ever located and sometimes those clear rich sounds are both baffling and uplifting to the observer when they witness such small birds with very large and impressive songs. The little House wrens build their nests in the holes and cavities of living and dead trees. They will use nesting boxes, holes in buildings, or abandoned machinery, if it provides just the right sized hole and offers protection from predators and other birds. Carolina wrens will use tree cavities, flower pots, tree stumps, overhangs, tin cans, or thick vegetation for nesting. The poet William Wordsworth’s poem “A Wren’s Nest” describes quite well, in his inspiring verse, the competence of the nesting wren and their choice of the perfect nest location. The Carolina wren prefers thick bushy overgrown areas of habitat. The House wren also likes similar habitat as the Carolina wren but is just as happy in yards and on farms that offer places to nest and find food in and around farm buildings and brush piles. The House wren is a short to medium-distance migrant that spends the nesting season in the northern two thirds of the United States and into southern Canada. It winters in the warmer climate of the southern US and Mexico. The Carolina wren is a year-round resident in the eastern United States from the southern great lakes to the eastern seaboard, south to Florida, west to east Texas and south into Mexico.

A cautious House wren comes out of the thicket just long enough to survey the surroundings.

Fall Migrants

A first winter Chestnut-sided warbler comes into view for a moment to perch on a nearby plant.

September 26, 2019 – On any morning this time of the year the subtle seasonal changes seem to bring, to those who are willing to show patients and perseverance while keeping a watchful eye, an exciting surprise of another species or two of warbler that can be noted, as those little fall migrants work their way south. A wooded area with brushy, dark-shadowy cover that is loosely bordered with well seeded weedy plants and an abundance of insects that live among them, can appear almost void of any birds except for those resident feathery inhabitants that have been there all summer. But during the night things can change quickly as new arrivals, from the north, find a place to rest and recharge or wait for better weather. Through the dim morning light in the thick dark green and black understory a sudden movement with a flash of color catches ones eye, there are a small number of male and female American redstarts that have just arrived. Working their way through the thicket vanishing at times, they would quickly reappear checking each leaf and branch for insects with a quickness and a gentle fairy-like lightness as one of the little birds would hover in mid-air to get a better vantage of the underside of a leaf. In the fork of a tree where it is clearly wet with sap, a few Tennessee warblers are clinging from different angles while feeding on the insects in and around the wet spot. In the nearby elm, higher up in the canopy, adult Bay-breasted and first winter Chestnut-sided warblers move from leaf to leaf looking for insects. The adult Bay-breasted male, now in his non-breeding plumage, still shows the glorious rufous color on his flanks. Common yellow-throat and Magnolia warblers unexpectedly pop into view on the sunny side of the thicket only to disappear within seconds. The fall migration of warblers can be just as exciting as the highly anticipated spring migration and well worth keeping an eye on those woody areas and green spaces in the parks and along the creeks and rivers.

A Nashville warbler stands out with its’ bright yellow color in the dim light.

Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty

A Juvenile male with a developing black mask pauses on a stem as he moves through the undergrowth.

September 19, 2019 – Common yellowthroat warblers are a summer visitor during their nesting season here in northern Illinois, across all of the United States, and most of Canada. A first winter male Common yellowthroat can have a faded black mask from July to March while the adult males have a stunning coal back mask with a white border across the top of the mask and a bright yellow throat that extends down the chest. The flashy little males can stand out in contrast of their habitat at woody edges of a marshy thicket. The small warbler sometimes give away their location by the clear and rapid song of wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty. Often though, the little bird appears without notice clinging to one side of the rigid stem of a cattail or other suitable plants, pausing momentarily before disappearing into the thick undergrowth searching each leaf and stem for insects. The female Common yellowthroat have a pale yellow throat and they lack the black mask and white headband of the male. The muted colors of the female yellowthroat are beautiful tones of brown, gray, and olive-yellow. The nesting Common yellowthroat put their nest in thick growth well hidden and low to the ground. The parents drop down into the nest area but always leave from a different route to fool potential predators. After the nesting season, by November the little birds have gone south for the winter. The little warblers will return to our area of northern Illinois in the spring and are here in numbers by April. The Common yellowthroat is a Neotropical warbler that winters in Mexico and Central America, with non-migrating permanent residents in the southern coastal areas of the United States and western and central Mexico.

A female Common yellowthroat cautiously looks around before moving on.

House Finch

Looking back at another House finch, a female with her bill covered in the skins of berries pauses for a moment before continuing to feed.

September 12, 2019 – The House finch is a native of the west with a range that stretches from Oregon south into Mexico and east to the western edge of the Great plains. The House finch is very much at home in desert habitats of the southwest. Today though, after being illegally introduced in the 1940’s in the state of New York, their range has expanded to include most of the the Eastern half of the United states with kind of a gap between the eastern and western populations across the Great plains that runs from Canada south to eastern Texas. The expansion into the eastern United States was a result of escaped finches from the illegal pet trade. The captured House finches from the western United States were sent to pet stores in the east. The House finches were marketed as the California Linnet and the Hollywood finch, but soon failed as caged pets. The finches did succeed as escaped wild birds breeding and expanding their range. The proliferation of House finches along with changes to habitats by humans is believed to be key in the decline of the Cassin’s finch in the west and the Purple finch in the east, two species very similar in appearance to the House finch. The House finch is mainly a seed and fruit eater, when fruit is in season. Flocks can be spotted in Eastern red cedar trees feeding on the fruit in late summer. House finches are social and are common in numbers at backyard feeders, here in Illinois, competing for food with other finches like the Purple finch and the Gold finch.

A male House finch busy eating the fruit from an Eastern Red Cedar.

Plenty To Eat

A Warbling vireo pauses for only a moment as it searches the leaves for insects.

August 5, 2019 – As we are coming to the end of August one can not help but notice the changes that are happening as another autumn nears and summer contemplates its’ well earned rest. The changes that have been a bit subtle are now upon us. The angle of the sunlight brings an inspiring warm tone to the landscape. The gentle breezes swirling through the forest canopy rustles and rattles the matured leaves allowing us to hear those uplifting whispers of the mighty Cottonwood. We have come to that time of the year where there is a bounty in the northern hemisphere for the avian migrants and those birds that are here year-round. Recently fledged birds, along with the adults, are fattening up for the migration, checking every leaf, stem, and branch for insects and worms. Little Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Warbling vireos, and Chickadees are persistently looking over and under every leaf while they cling tightly to the stems as they feed. Thistle and other seeds, berries, and nectar are available for the birds that are coming south from the higher latitudes as well as the birds that have nested here in Northeastern Illinois.

A female yellow warbler looking for a meal carefully surveys her next move into the thicket.

Prothonotary warblers stand out with their bright yellow feathers and olive-gray toned back and wings while gobbling up caterpillars with amazing success as they pluck them off those woody plants at the waters edge. Goldfinches are on the beautiful purple blooming thistle plants along roadways and on the prairies searching for the high fat and protein rich thistle seeds. Adults and this years’ young Hummingbirds stake out and fearlessly defend, from a good perch, their abundant food source, a large thick patch of Orange Jewelweed surrounded by other nectar giving plants. Some of these travelers will be around for a while feeding and fattening-up and growing strong for either a long or short migration. As the weeks go by though, and those abundant food sources in our area start to wane, the north wind bringing cooler temperatures, many birds will leave our area in a final push and continue south where they will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

Ground Squirrels

An Eastern Chipmunk stops for a moment on a fallen limb where it had been eating a seed.

July 25, 2019 – There are three species of small ground squirrels in Illinois, the Eastern Chipmunk, the Thirteen-lined, and the Franklin’s. Actually, a forth member of the ground squirrel group in Illinois should be noted and that is the Groundhog, also known as a Woodchuck. The Eastern Chipmunk is the smallest ground squirrel in Illinois with a body length of up to 7 inches not including their furry tail that is about 4 inches in length. Chipmunks have a reddish brown coat with black and white stripes on their back and the sides of their face, and a white stripe above each eye. They are most often seen in or along wooded or thick brushy areas where they have their borrows nearby. They may construct their borrows beneath fallen trees or even within the roots of living trees. They also use rocky environments where they can easily create borrows beneath or between the rocks.

Staying low in the grass, a Thirteen-lined ground squirrel is ready to bolt to its’ barrow.

A little larger than the Eastern Chipmunk is the Thirteen-lined ground squirrel which is 13 inches in length including a small 3 inch tail. The Thirteen-lined ground squirrel is a prairie or grassland animal that actually expanded its’ range after the Europeans arrived and began clearing timber and creating pasture lands. Here in Northeastern Illinois you are most likely to get a glimpse of this little ground squirrel on a sunny day, standing up straight on its’ back legs near its’ borrow keeping a wary eye as you approach along a rural less traveled road. Look for those large dark eyes and those many stripes, thirteen to be exact, that alternate in different shades of browns, yellows, blacks and have light spots in the darker stripes.

And larger yet, at about 16 inches, including the tail, is the Franklin’s ground squirrel. Sightings are rare and highly localized in the northern two thirds of Illinois for this ground squirrel that sort of resembles a cross between a tree squirrel and tiny marmot. The habitat of tall grasses that the Franklin’s ground squirrel requires makes actually seeing one very difficult. Researchers have used trained dogs in some areas to help locate ground squirrel activity in suitable tall grass habitat of the Franklin’s, a technique mentioned in an article of Outdoor Illinois, Duggan et al.(2009) “Finding Franklin’s”. The Franklin’s ground squirrel in Illinois has a status of “Uncommon, listed as state-threatened in 2014” and they are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act according the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).

The Barn Swallow

A beautiful male Barn swallow perched on a reed-stem takes a short break from hunting.

July 18, 2019 – The adult Barn swallows are sleek and swift with vibrant colors and long forked tails, they are both elegant and beautiful in flight or perched. The American Barn swallows are long-distance migrants and spend the nesting season in most all of the United State and north into southeastern and northwestern Canada and into southern Alaska. The swallows winter in Central and South America. Barn swallows are seen here in Illinois during their nesting season. Most often they are noticed in large numbers around open farm buildings where they build their nests in the rafters and eaves. They also use large and small bridges where they build their nests in the underneath structure of the bridge supports. The swallows construct their nests out of wet mud and grasses forming them into a half cup shape in the relative safety of the man-made structures or natural shelters like cliff overhangs.

The female swallow with an insect in her beak brings the small meal to one of her young.

These medium size birds fly up and down the creeks and ditches and across open areas zigzagging in confusing maneuvers as they hunt for insects. The young are brought food, usually large insects, while still in the nest or as fledglings perched together near the nest site. Their little bright yellow beaks all pop open at the same time like little beacons as their heads move in unison following the adult birds as they fly by. The adults seem to know who’s turn it is eat next when they return with a plump insect. Folklore and religious tales relating to the Barn swallow have endured throughout the ages. It is said the Barn swallows bring good luck if it nests on your farm but removing the swallows nest would bring bad karma to the farm. It is also said that the Barn swallow brings us the good news, with their chatter, that summer is on its’ way.

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.