September 9, 2023 – The calendar, a shared understanding of humans, says that autumn does not officially begin in the Northern Hemisphere until the 23rd of this month on the day of the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox. For Warblers, those dainty little songbirds, instinct is the main driving force, and we begin to see the movement of these birds south of their summer range in mid-August as their fall migration begins. Blackburnian and Black-and-white warblers are just a few recent sightings in Kankakee and Iroquois counties. Seasonal weather patterns are part of what stimulates the bird migration; the strong northerly winds and cooler nights influence when the birds move south, but this year there is another factor that is not yet fully understood, and that is the impact from the historic, widespread, and devastating wildfires burning to the north. The wildfires in Canada began in March and have burned millions of acres of Canada’s boreal forests across all provinces and territories. The smoke and flames are as dangerous to birds as to humans, and there is little doubt that many birds have had to abandon nesting attempts in and around the impacted areas. There is still a good chance that the birds escaping the fire and smoke attempted to nest again in other areas. Nesting habitats in these northern forests have been and continue to be destroyed by this extreme climate event, and that charred landscape in the coming spring may be a real challenge for birds arriving for the breeding season. Fire has always had a role in the life cycle of the forested ecosystem, actually helping renew the boreal landscape; experts acknowledge that today’s fires are more extreme than in the past and can change which plant species grow back after these scorched earth events. As the fall migration intensifies over the coming days, migrating warblers from points north will hopefully be seen in our area of Illinois as they head south toward their winter range in the Gulf states, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Only time will tell how these extreme climate events of our warmer, drier, and changing planet will impact the warblers and all other plant and animal species, for that matter. Let us hope that our indecisiveness and resistance to implementing a more urgent plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has not manifested into those proverbial chickens that have come home to roost.
August 11, 2023 – Long ears, large back feet, big dark eyes, a rusty brown coat, and a small round fluffy white tail that looks like a cotton ball, last seen nibbling grasses at the edge of a brush pile early this morning. That general description matches only one creature known to inhabit the thickets and the brushy areas here in Northeastern Illinois, the prolific and celebrated Eastern cottontail rabbit. Besides those remote thickets and brushy areas, the cottontail is a common sight around farmsteads, along rural roads, and even in urban yards and parks. Where there is cover and a food source, cottontail rabbits are most likely nearby. Sometimes the cottontail is a nuisance to hobby gardeners, a nemesis to some, provoking an ongoing battle of determination between species. Cottontails are prey for hawks, foxes, snakes, coyotes, domesticated carnivores, and even humans. The quick and alert bunnies always have a nearby fast escape route down a small shadowy path and into the thickest of cover, where they can hold tight until the danger is gone. Cottontails are, unfortunately for them, a winter game to hunters using dogs, usually beagles, to find the hunkered rabbit and start the chase; when pursued, the cottontail will run in large circles coming back near where the chase began trying to throw off the pursuer. During the great depression, the Eastern cottontail and other small game became a necessary meat source for many hungry Americans. The cottontail fell victim to snares, clubs, and guns, most certainly thinning out the local rabbit populations during that difficult and needy time. Native Americans would use the soft rabbitskins for blankets, clothing, and slippers for their newborns and toddlers to keep them toasty warm on those cold winter nights. One early account describes a Chippewa-made rabbitskin baby blanket, sewn with fifty to seventy skins and measured fifty inches square. The cottontail rabbit helped stave off hunger and provided protection from the elements during the hard times for humans; it has found a place in the lore and literature of generations, passing on life lessons in song, poetry, children’s books, and oral tradition. We all have stories of the Eastern cottontail rabbit, and I remember a frosty morning in Grampa’s leafless sleeping orchard; a small pile of yellow apples lay mostly brown and rotting near a stump. There was a thicket at the edge with cockleburs and briars, brown, sticky, barbed, and tangled; my 12-year-old face was red from the cold air, it was an unusually chilly late November, and the wind came with a sting. Suddenly with a step that crunched and smashed the frozen weeds, the explosion startled me; a cottontail, a blur of fur, darts from its hiding place, and for that brief moment, I had all but forgotten the bitter wind that tortured me. But the trickster was gone, over the rise and out of sight. After a pause and a sniffle, my heart resumed its usual rhythm, and the chill set in once more. Next time you see that little cottontail out there nibbling the grasses in your yard, take a moment and think about the long history of that resident of the briar patch and its deep connection to man.
July 7, 2023 – It is always a great feeling in the spring when I get my first sighting of an Upland sandpiper for the new year, which happened with a single bird flushed from the roadside on May 4th in Iroquois County. Upland sandpipers stand about 12 inches and have a 20-inch wingspan; their plumage is a light tan color covered in black and brown streaks, and they have large dark eyes and a yellow and black bill. The sandpiper flew only about ten feet, landing in some corn stubble, where it slowly and cautiously strolled away, which allowed for a few pictures before I moved on, not wanting to put any unnecessary pressure on the bird. So far, since that first bird of the year, I have had 19 sightings of these remarkable but endangered migrant birds, mostly in pairs, as they searched for insects in the grassy areas along the roads in the same general area where they are sighted each year. There was a time in the 1800s when areas of Illinois would have hosted many thousands of these long-distance migrants during the nesting season. It must have been amazing to hear the Upland sandpiper’s unique songs ring out across the prairies and pastures of Illinois during the warm months. The encroachment of man with the destruction of habitat combined with unregulated hunting has left only some small localized nesting groups that seem to be having a bit of success in the small fragmented areas in and around the agricultural fields of Iroquois County. Early mowing along the roads and in the waterways in these areas could be postponed until August for the benefit of these nesting birds. This species needs all the help it can get, and leaving nesting and feeding areas untouched until the end of the season, is such a simple change that could have some positive effects, which would also benefit many other species of migratory birds and pollinators. The Upland sandpipers also face challenges in their non-breeding range that threaten their population. In South America, the sandpipers suffer from loss of grassland habitat, encroachment, and grassland burning practices by cattle ranchers across their winter range of southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. It is a remarkable story of avian migration, survival, and determination when one stops to realize the distance these birds travel each year to end up in Illinois and to nest in this area that offers only remnants of suitable habitat in Iroquois County and surrounding counties. I can’t help but think that we could do more to protect these nesting areas and give these determined travelers some recognition and support to ensure a successful nesting season.
June 10, 2023 – More often heard than seen are those secretive herons of the marshlands, the American bittern, and the smaller and less common Least bittern. The peculiar calls of the American bittern remind one of the sounds of liquid pouring from a large jug with a small neck and have been aptly described as a repeating oonk-ga-chonk, oonk-ga-chonk, earning the bittern nicknames like mire-drum, thunder-pumper, and stake-driver. The American bittern has a status in Illinois as an endangered native, and the loss of wetlands has reduced nesting habitat and contributed to the decline of this species over the years, which continues even today across its range from pollution, climate change, and habitat loss. The Least bittern is about half the size of the American bittern at about 13 inches, making it the smallest heron in the Americas. The little heron is listed as threatened in Illinois, suffering from the same environmental challenges as many wetland birds. The smaller bittern has several calls that are familiar sounds in the marshes and bogs with shallow water and tall cover, high-pitched clucking, and springtime mating calls of coo-coo-coo-coo heard in the wetlands are sometimes mistaken for the sounds of frogs or the songs of other birds like the Black-billed cuckoo. Once a common summer bird in Illinois, their decline began with a reckless assault on the land in the late 1800s. The destruction of wetlands by the draining of shallow lakes and ponds that once dotted Northern Illinois had a devastating impact on the local and migratory wildlife. With the encroachment of man determined to tame the land for other uses, the Least bittern is now seen or heard only in the limited areas of its favored habitat. Traveling at night during the migration Least bitterns begin arriving from Central and South America in April. The little herons build their nests among the tall, dense vegetation, where they interweave a platform above the water from dead plants. They will produce four or five eggs with two broods each year. Spring migration of the American bittern starts in March and April, and this might be the best opportunity for a lucky person to get a glimpse of this secretive and well-camouflaged bird. Although nesting does occur in Illinois in the limited marshes and sloughs, the American bittern is considered an uncommon summer resident. More widespread nesting occurs in the vast dense wetlands of our northern border states, continuing into southern Canada.
May 6, 2023 – Casting curious shadows that flow like a dark liquid across the Midwestern landscape, they silently glide to and fro like paper kites in the blue mid-morning sky, becoming a vision that is the envy of the earthbound. The large black and brown birds with an almost six-foot wing span and bald red faces with pale-colored beaks are Turkey vultures. Once a rare sight in these parts, they are now a common migrant in Northern Illinois from February through November; even though most have moved south by late fall towards their winter range, some remain during the sometimes harsh Midwestern winter. Springtime has brought large numbers of vultures back to Northeastern Illinois for the breeding season, which lasts from March through May. Turkey vultures are monogamous and mate for life. Their courtship behavior involves a dance where they hop around each other with their wings outstretched; the courtship also involves an aerial chase that can go on for some time. The vultures do not build a nest like other birds. They will lay their eggs, usually two, in tree hollows, abandoned buildings, abandoned hawk nests, and even in some thick sheltered cover on the ground. Both the male and female vultures take turns incubating the eggs. The parents will feed the chicks for about 11 weeks until they are fledged. By about 12 weeks, the young birds will have moved off and away from the nesting site exploring on their own and will be ready to join the fall migration in November. Throughout the warm months, a seemingly endless stream of Turkey vultures leaving their nightly roost take to the air looking for the thermal updrafts that will help them rise in the sky and glide with little effort while searching for food above the open country. With good vision and a great sense of smell, the vultures can locate even the smallest carrion in wooded areas, fields, and along roadways. Early mornings, throughout the summer, it is not uncommon to find large groups of Turkey vultures, also known as a committee of vultures, in dead trees, on rooftops, and utility poles with their wings spread wide, allowing the breeze and the morning sun to dry the night time dampness from their feathers and warm their bodies before they take flight. On those mornings of inclement weather, the Turkey vultures may stay on their roosts until conditions improve. Even though Turkey vultures have always had a dark and sinister eerie feel to their presence, they are very beneficial in the natural world. The vultures rid the environment of the carcasses of diseased animals stopping the spread of the dangerous organisms to other animals. As a natural clean-up crew, the vultures feed on the remains of those unfortunate creatures that met their tragic end along the roadways.
March 12, 2023 – Of the many species of birds, the hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, waterfowl, and songbirds that migrate south and spend the winter in our area, there is one bird that probably goes unnoticed by most, and that bird is the lovely American tree sparrow. These small, well-camouflaged sparrows blend well with the leafless winter landscape of the Midwest, where they find seed sand safety at the edges of brushy wooded areas of undergrowth and thickets where they can quickly disappear into the dense woody maze when danger threatens. Even though these mid-sized sparrows are called American Tree sparrows, you are more likely to find them on or near the ground. Small flocks of the American tree sparrows spend daylight hours foraging on the ground amongst the dried plants where seeds have fallen. Weed seeds are the primary food of the sparrows during winter. During the summer months, while in their nesting range in Northern Canada and Alaska, they switch to insects as a food source for themselves and their young. The little birds take frequent but short breaks to preen and rest on a convenient perch in a small tree or bush lit by the winter sun. The well-defined earthy colors of this sharp little bird become very apparent when viewing through binoculars or at closeby backyard feeders. The sparrow has a beautiful rufous crown, a gray face with rusty colors near the eyes, and a beak of black over yellow. It has a light-colored gray breast with a distinct dark-colored smudge of a spot in the middle. It has rufous patches on the sides that blend into the gray unstreaked breast, with well-defined brown streaks running down its back towards its long narrow tail. As the winter begins to wane and the days begin to grow longer, that desire to head north for the breeding season becomes stronger. When the time is right, and the weather condition becomes favorable for the American tree sparrows to move north, they will disappear from the winter range during the nighttime and begin their starry flight towards the arctic for the nesting season. The male sparrows will reach the breeding grounds before the females. The male will seek out, claim, and aggressively protect the territory he has chosen for nesting. In a little over a month, a new generation of American tree sparrows has fledged and is building strength from the abundance of insects the arctic provides as they prepare for a long flight south as the cycle continues.
February 10, 2023 – A light and steady snow floated out of the chilled gray January sky onto the open waters along the Illinois-Indiana border. Hundreds of Greater white-fronted geese and a small number of Tundra and Trumpeter swans here for at least part of the winter were resting and feeding. The flooded, unfrozen fields of corn stubble at the Willow Slough Fishing & Wildlife Area in Newton County offer a perfect resting area for these wintering waterfowl waiting for spring. A family of Trumpeter swans, two adults, and three first winter birds feeding nearby were beautiful subjects on such a dream-like morning. Enhanced by the sounds from the large flocks of Greater white-fronted and Canada geese, the scene couldn’t have been any better. The lighting was near perfect, and the snowfall provided an unusual photo opportunity for these large elegant birds. Having a six-foot wingspan and a weight of up to 26 lbs, the Trumpeters are North America’s biggest waterfowl and are twice as heavy as our other native swan, the Tundra swan. Spending some time observing and photographing the trumpeters as they fed, preened, and occasionally expanded their magnificent wings making powerful and load-flapping sounds that carried for some distance, was an unusual and exciting opportunity to watch at close range the behavior of the swans. Standing motionless behind the camera and tripod for quite some time, I watched them as they fed together, stretching their long necks down into the cold water, searching the submerged vegetation for the much-needed nutrition required by wintering waterfowl as they prepare for the spring migration. Feeling fortunate as I observed these beautiful swans and knowing that there was a time in the 1930s only 69 trumpeters were known to biologists in the lower 48. Although small pockets of surviving birds were discovered in Canada and eventually a few 1000 in Alaska, it took some acts from the government to put some protection on these birds. That dedication to protecting the swans continues today through the laws of the states and the federal government, combined with educating the public about the rapid downfall of the Trumpeter swan from the market hunters and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s that nearly eradicated the swans from the United States. Recovery of the Trumpeter swan population continues with the ongoing efforts to expand their habitat while fighting against other factors that negatively affect the swans, like climate change, pollution, and lead poisoning from lead ammunition and lead fishing weights. Biologists, citizen scientists, and volunteers take on the challenges with a dedication to protecting and expanding quality nesting and wintering habitat while monitoring the North American population of around 63,000 Trumpeters. Those results are a true testament to the success of the combined efforts of many individuals with a powerful commitment to save the Trumpeters. It also must be realized that all the hard work and progress made from helping the Trumpeter swan is most certainly having a positive impact on many other wetland species.
January 6, 2023 – The last weeks of 2022 brought a bone-chilling assault of arctic cold with snow and relentless strong winds to the midwest. The high winds pushed temperatures down into negative double digits, impacting most of the United States east of the Rockies for about a week. Here in the Midwest, the dangers from the extreme cold were real, and the constant winds made it easy to imagine what it is like to be in a winter storm high in the Arctic. The cold temperatures froze moisture on contact, and the clear morning sky on Christmas eve displayed a beautiful parhelic circle and halo with iridescent red and blue sundogs flanking the sun above the eastern horizon. The sun was at the center of the icy atmospheric phenomenon and appeared like a giant glowing diamond floating in a fog of ice crystals. Flocks of foraging winter birds at the road’s edge fighting the fierce winds were swept hundreds of yards within seconds when flushed. Lapland longspurs wintering far from their Arctic nesting range were battling powerful gusts as they searched for seeds trapped among the rocks along gravel roads. Large flocks of Horned larks dotted the windswept fields and road edges as they foraged for much-needed nourishment during the extreme weather. Like other birds here during the winter in Northern Illinois, the Lapland longspur and Horned lark generate heat by feeding continuously on spilled seeds left by man and nature during daylight hours to help them stay warm during extreme weather events. At night the small birds fluff their feathers, find hollows and wind blocks and even shiver to generate heat. During harsh winter conditions of strong winds and cold, I have witnessed longspurs taking breaks from the strong winds by using small depressions in the snow, like little snow caves, during the day to protect themselves before going back to feeding. The somewhat rare weather event known as a “bomb cyclone” struck Christmas week and was a challenge for wildlife. The heavy snows first predicted here in Northern Illinois did not transpire. An accumulation of several inches or more did arrive with the powerful winds creating a hazardous situation for all living things. The strong winds produced some bitter cold but helped by sweeping the fields and roadways of snow, making it easier for the birds to forage and get to those energy-producing seeds that keep them alive through the nights during the unusually rapid Arctic cold blast.
November 7, 2022 – Freeze warnings and frosty nights lit by the autumn moon cause ghostly shadows to appear from things both known and unknown in the fields and woodlands of Northeastern Illinois. The night creatures, large and small, are aware of the changes that come in the fall and are on-task with finding and caching food, while others are fattening up on the summer’s bounty of acorns, grasses, and small prey for the coming long and challenging cold Midwestern winter. For Illinois’ largest mammal, the White-tailed deer, autumn is the breeding season for these majestic creatures, and an uneasy tension seems to hang like a ground fog across the autumn landscape.
The female whitetails are on heightened alert as a small herd of does and yearlings all look towards a wooded area trying to avoid roaming bucks with big ideas. The days are becoming shorter, there’s a chill in the air, and by mid-October, the rut, the period of breeding, will intensify and continue through December with a bit of overlap into the new year. The new generation of fawns will be born in the spring in May or June of the coming new year. In the meantime, awe-inspiring shades of red and golden leaves rattle in the autumn breeze surrounding the farm fields, hills, and hollows throughout our river valleys; these are the homes of the celebrated Illinois White-tailed deer. The bucks have been leaving calling cards by scraping saplings and low-hanging branches, licking, chewing, and leaving scent markings from the glands on their forehead.
The changes in the behavior of the male whitetail deer during the time of rut become deliberate as he is focused only on finding a doe. Those dominant White-tailed bucks, some of which have become nocturnal, venture out into the open during daylight hours, throwing caution to the wind in their pursuit of that doe in heat. Those dramas in nature play out consistently year after year with new players over time. A perfectly worded description, a photograph, or even a trophy mount cannot come close to the actual observation of one of these monarch bucks foraging at the edge of a field near some does on a beautiful autumn afternoon. In the coming weeks, the rut will begin to cool off a bit, the landscape will take on more of a winter look as 2022 autumn fades into the history books. There will still be bucks chasing females that come into heat late; even into January, the passing on of genes continues.
A beautiful male American redstart pauses on a branch only for a moment before continuing its search for insects
October 10, 2022 – There are telling changes in the air that don’t require a calendar to say fall has arrived. As the days grow shorter and the cool nights summon an extra blanket or two, the long-anticipated little fall warblers from points north have been moving through Northeastern Illinois for some weeks now on their travels south to warmer climates for the long winter months. Many warbler species have been showing up in backyards, parks, and thickets throughout our river valley for a needed rest and nourishment required for such a challenging journey as this grand autumnal event. From the tree tops to the shadowy undergrowth, the little birds search for insects and wild seeds to replenish the fat reserves lost during their long flights. North America certainly has a variety of these stunning fairy-like little birds. There are more than 50 species of warblers across the contiguous United States, 35 of which are known to the midwest. A number of the little birds will spend only a brief time in our area during the great migrations as they are just passing through. Some species of warblers nest here in Northeastern Illinois, often noted by bird watchers throughout the summer months. Other species that briefly appear during the spring and fall migrations require some understanding of avian behavior and timing with a bit of luck to observe those little beauties. Weather fronts, prevailing winds, and years of collected data from bird observations are closely monitored by bird enthusiasts during the spring and fall as they watch for the big push north or south of migrants. Today, bird watchers can also take advantage of the radar technology that monitors bird movement. A collaborative called BirdCast provides this service; BirdCast is accessed on the internet and gives daily updates on bird movements in an easy-to-understand animated graphical interface helpful in locating the little travelers moving through your area. Bird migrations have been going on for thousands of years, adapting and evolving with a planet in flux. Today a rapidly warming environment is having a noticeable impact on bird behavior that is playing out before our eyes. The collection of data by citizen scientists reveals changes in migratory birds’ behavior. The data shows birds are migrating earlier in spring and later in the fall, with nesting ranges expanding, bringing into focus our canary in the coal mine, which should be a warning for us all.