Amazing Long-distance Travelers

An Upland sandpiper moves away swiftly through some newly emerging corn in a field in Iroquois County.

June 7, 2021 – Those amazing long-distance travelers, the Upland sandpipers, have returned to the rural areas of Iroquois County for the nesting season. The well camouflaged birds that are about the size of a Rock pigeon, can easily be overlooked by the passerby. The birds search for insects in the newly planted agricultural fields, or in the no-till corn stubble where they can become nearly invisible as their plumage blends in extremely well against the browns and tans of last year’s crop remains. The Upland sandpipers start arriving at their breeding grounds here in Northeastern Illinois in April.
The sandpipers, with their typical stop-and-go sudden jerky movements can be spotted by a lucky few, as the birds look for insects near grassy areas along the rural roadways of Northern Illinois. They are sometimes seen perched on fence posts or utility wires near nesting sites. Upland sandpiper populations were hit dramatically hard in the late 1800s by market hunters. Other factors that added to the decline of the Upland sandpiper was the loss and fragmentation of habitat in North America and the loss of grasslands on their wintering grounds in South America. Today, researchers believe the sandpipers population is holding steady across the Great Plains of North America. East of the Mississippi numbers unfortunately are low, and in Northern Illinois the Upland sandpiper is becoming a bit more difficult to find. It is always a hopeful sign to see even a small number of sandpipers return to an area of Iroquois County every year. The sandpipers manage to nest in the dense grasses around the row-crop fields but they struggle against farm machinery, pesticides, and roadside mowing, which in fact should probably be restricted in those nesting areas until at least August. After about 25 days of sharing the job of incubation by the male and the female sandpipers, the young birds are born. The newly hatched chicks are ready to leave the nest after all the eggs have hatched, the young start feeding immediately while the parents work hard to protect them from the many dangers of the new world. After about a month of being limited to just foot travel a new generation of Upland sandpipers are ready to take to the air. By the end of the July through the end of August the sandpipers begin moving south where they work their way to that long-distance crossing the Gulf of Mexico, which takes them to the northern parts of South America. Eventually the birds go much further south into central Argentina and Uruguay where they will spend the winter on the immense Pampas grasslands until the springtime once again beckons their desire to move north for another incredible journey.

A pair of long-distance migrants from South America search for insects along a rural road in Iroquois County.

Springtime

Standing cautiously on a gravel road in Iroquois County, an American Golden-plover slowly moves away from the photographer.

May 13, 2021 – As the springtime brings awe-inspiring color to the forest floor with a variety of wildflowers like Dutchman’s breeches, Virginia bluebells and Woodland phlox, likewise the flowering dogwood and redbud trees standout brightening up the understory with their new blooms that is easily visible through the emerging greens of the awakening landscape. April and May are exciting months here in Northeastern Illinois and as the new plant growth comes in, there are also migrating birds arriving and bringing their own variety of color and excitement. The bright orange plumage of the male Baltimore oriole is a highly anticipated favorite this time of year to the backyard feeders. These long-distance migrants are lured in with grape jelly and cut oranges that feeders put out, and these birds never disappoint with their rich songs and amazing beauty. Cat birds, King birds, and flycatchers have arrived to take up summer residence for the nesting season. A variety of small colorful warblers, drab kinglets, and tiny Ruby-throated hummingbirds appear like magic, some are here to nest while others are just passing through on their way much further north. Many species of well known birds show up like clockwork each year, their songs and their plumage are as familiar to most as the clouds in the sky. But there are other birds like American Golden-plover that go practically unnoticed even though they spend three or four weeks staging on the agricultural fields in our rural areas of Iroquois and Kankakee counties. The American Golden-plover is larger than a robin but smaller than a crow. It is not always easy to spot in the farm fields with its dark colored plumage, a good camouflage for a ground nesting bird like the plover. Even when there are hundreds of birds in a field they can be easily missed by the passerby. These birds have come a long way from their winter home on the grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay and it is an amazing sight to see them over the few weeks they spend here waiting for the right conditions to move north. When the plovers do finally leave for their nesting grounds they will fly above the Arctic circle onto the vast tundra from Baffin Island to Alaska completing the northbound part of their trip of over 8000 miles.

Flying in from a nearby field where a few hundred AM Golden-plovers were feeding, a small flock of plovers were taking advantage of some puddles on the roadway.

The American Kestrel

Hovering into the wind above an open grassy area along a creek in Iroquois County a beautiful male American Kestrel falcon searches for prey.

January 21, 2021 – A little bit smaller than the Merlin falcon and very close in size to the Mourning dove, the American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America. These determined little predators are focused hunters, whether perched on a utility wire, fence post, or hovering over grassy areas intently watching for any movement from small mammals, insects, and birds. Their keen vision and superb flying ability allow for a stealthy and swift attack from above on their unsuspecting prey. The drama of predator and prey plays out hour after hour, day after day above the grassy areas along the rural roads, ditches, and busy highway medians here in Northeastern Illinois and across the United States. Because of their small size the falcons go mostly unnoticed by humans speeding past the little perched hunters. It doesn’t take much effort to be just a bit more observant to a moment in nature, it will quickly become almost impossible to not see these little predators perched and hunting. Soon the sightings of Kestrels add up and the mind expands beyond the mundane for the human observer as that moment in nature is understood. Also known as the Sparrow hawk, the Kestrel is certainly the best known and most colorful and boldly marked falcon in North America. The male Kestrel has slate blue-gray colored wings while the females have reddish-brown wings,a heavily streaked chest and they are also up to 15% larger than the male. The bold and vibrant colors of the male Kestrel are quite intense under bright sunlight. The females, while they still have beautiful colors, are less vibrant than the males. The Kestrel lives year around in Illinois and nest in natural occurring places like rock crevices and overhangs, they also take advantage of abandoned woodpecker holes, man-made nest-boxes, old buildings and structures near a good hunting area. They most often have only a single brood. Incubation of four or five eggs last about 30 days, the female will brood for about nine days after the last egg has hatched and then only at night or during harsh weather conditions. The American Kestrel falcons are widespread in the Western Hemisphere and occur from Alaska and Canada to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

A female Kestrel falcon perched and hunting on a utility wire along a rural road.

Snowy Owl

Stretching before flying off to another perch, the Snowy owl shows its large yellow eyes just before spreading it’s wings.

December 24, 2020 – Perched at the top of a utility pole calmly scanning the surrounding landscape for prey, a beautiful Snowy owl appears in Iroquois County the day before our first snow. To the Inuit people of the north, the owl represents guidance and wisdom and has an important relationship with both humans and the environment. Snowy owl sightings have been reported in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana recently as more birds move south to escape the blizzards and sub-temperatures of the Arctic. As I write this, there are blizzard warnings in the area of Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut in Canada as a low pressure system is making its way through Hudson Bay toward southern Baffin Island bringing cold temperatures, snow, and 50 mile per hour winds. Here in northern Illinois the arriving Snowy owls are enjoying 37 degrees with 11 mile an hour winds on the mostly flat and sleeping winter landscape of the prairie state that somewhat resembles the Arctic tundra above the tree line, a place familiar to the owls. The female Snowy owl is larger than the male and has a wingspan of about 4.5 feet and weighs almost 5 pounds. They have a white face and large yellow eyes, a black bill surrounded by feathers, and they have acute hearing and vision. These Arctic owls are the heaviest owls in North America. To observe them flying low over corn stubble here in Illinois, with their large white wings slowly flapping as they make their approach and glide towards a low perch with some cover hundreds of yards away is an amazing sight. The Snowy owls that have come south for the winter will start moving northward toward their breeding grounds in the Arctic in February and March, and most will be gone by April. The owls will be back on their snow covered breeding grounds where the courtship will start in early May. The cycle will continue high in the north as new generations will be fed, protected, and fledged, and maybe even spend the cold months in a field near you, here in Illinois.

Searching for prey from the vantage of a utility pole, the Snowy owl looks towards the rear for any movement.

The Common Redpoll

The male Common redpoll shows its’ bold streaked side while perched on the end of fallen limb.

November 19, 2020 – As we ease through the chilly days of November, the leafless trees and frosty mornings remind us of the coming winter as do the new arrivals of Arctic birds that we now see in flocks great and small in our rural areas of Northeastern Illinois. Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are now feeding along the gravel roads and in the harvested fields of Kankakee and Iroquois counties. This year also seems to be a year where some other species of birds that normally winter a bit further north, have come south into Illinois in larger numbers. The Pine Siskins are here in large numbers, Red Crossbills, and White-winged Crossbills are being seen in the Chicago area, and even a few places south. Another little bird that has a more northern winter range, that I had the pleasure of seeing in Iroquois County this past week, is the Common redpoll. A number of reported sightings of redpolls continue to come in for Northern Illinois, one reported sighting of a flock of 15. This little finch, the Common redpoll, breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and winters across the Provinces of Canada and south into the area of the Great Lakes. They are about the same size as the Pine siskin with similar markings but lighter overall. The male redpoll has a beautiful red crown with some rosy-pink color on the chest, and dark streaks on its underparts. The female is a bit duller overall, and lacks the pink-washed color on the chest, but does have the red feathers on the head, the red poll. The bright yellow bill of the redpoll is made for eating seeds, it is small and pointed for getting to those tiny seeds of the birch, alder, and willow trees. The sighting last week in Iroquois County was of a single male Common redpoll in the company of a small flock of House finches that were feeding on some ripe wild berries on the sunny side of a thicket. It was an exciting treat to observe this little Arctic breeder in a rural area of Illinois.

Puffed up after preening, the lovely colors of red, yellow, gray, and brown show the amazing beauty of the Common redpoll.

White-throated Sparrow

Perched in the morning sunlight the bold beautiful markings on the face and throat of the White-throated sparrow standout.

November 5, 2020 – Back in Illinois for the winter months are the White-throated sparrows, a large and attractive bird with a long tail and a bright-white throat and bold face patterns of black, white, gray, and yellow. The White-throated sparrows are considered a short to medium-distance migrant. It breeds in the United States in the Upper Great Lake region and in the coniferous and mixed forests across most of Canada. There are small pockets of year around birds in the northeast U.S. The sparrows leave the impending harsh winter of the north in autumn before the first snow and head south into the United States to a more hospitable climate that is not totally locked in ice during those cold months. They appear in northeastern Illinois about the same time in the fall each year as many other sparrows, like the White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. Similar to the Fox sparrow, the White-throated sparrows forage on the ground under the thick gnarly cover of the shadowed understory kicking leaf litter with its feet searching for insects, seeds and fruit in a very focused but alert manner. The sparrow can be found near heavily vegetated areas around parks and near rivers and creeks where there is plenty of cover. Also, during prolonged snow cover, many birds, including the White-throated sparrow, can be found in the windswept areas along roads and in fields searching for seeds. The White-throated sparrows will show up at backyard feeders during the winter here in Illinois with other birds providing there is some good cover nearby. Backyard feeders are favorite haunts for predators like Cooper’s hawk, domestic and feral cats, so quick escapes into thickets, bushes, and trees are a necessary part of a safe habitat for feeding birds.

Landing on a branch for only a moment the White-throated sparrow drops down into the dark understory to search for food.

The Swamp sparrow

A beautiful Swamp sparrow stands tall on a dry weed stem in Iroquois County during the fall migration.

October 15, 2020 – The Swamp sparrow is an elegant, long-legged, medium-sized sparrow that is well adapted and right at home in the thick cover of marshes, swamps, and bogs of the north across eastern and central North America, stretching up into Canada’s Northwest Territories during the nesting season. The Swamp sparrow is more often detected by its song rather than actually being seen in its’ dense summer habitat of sedges, cattails, and shrubs. The variations of songs and calls of the Swamp sparrow have been studied, admired, and described as a slow, sweet, trill that will evoke the vision of a northern wetland to the observer just as the call of the Common loon sends ones’ thoughts to a clear secluded lake in the north woods. Ornithologists have even discovered regional dialects for Swamp sparrows located in different parts of the country. Through the study of the Swamp sparrow’s songs and calls researchers have gained an understanding on how these birds learn and continue to use songs that vary across different geographical regions, and how the sparrows are influenced as young by the popular songs used by the adults of those regions. It seems the most popular songs are the ones that are learned and repeated by the new generation of sparrows and any new variation that a young bird may come up with in its’ song learning practice that is not useful will soon fade away over time. The study also shows those popular songs have persisted in those regions for generations, possibly hundreds of years. The term used to explain how these song types are learned and stay popular to a region is known as “conformist bias”. The sparrows have a song repertoire, depending on the region, of popular tunes that have stood the test of time over many generations, influenced by the adults and put in to practice each year by a new generation of Swamp sparrows. Those tunes that work ring-out across the varied wetlands of North America.

Wonderful colors of reddish brown, blacks, and gray plumage adorn the long-legged Swamp sparrow as it pauses for a moment in its search for insects.

Crowns of Gold

An adult Golden-crowned kinglet pauses for only seconds on a handy perch before flying down into a thick weedy patch to search for insects.

October 8, 2020 – A small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had moved south out of their northern breeding range of Canada and the upper Great Lakes were busy foraging for insects south of Kankakee this past week. A cold front brought the chilly winds of change out of the north that provided incentive and opportunity to move south and many birds, including the kinglets, took advantage of the prevailing winds to do just that. Holding quite still, being very careful to resist sudden movements that might frighten the petite, swift moving birds, I was able to easily observe the kinglets as they went from dried weed stems, to low hanging branches, and back again searching for insects. Sometimes the little hunters were only a few feet away, too close for a long lens, but just right for a memorable experience. This encounter was some good medicine, the kind of medicine that can easily provide a temporary reprieve from the tightly wound human existence for any willing person that would take a moment to pause and look around. Larger than the hummingbird, the Golden-crowned kinglet is one of North America’s smallest birds. They have a black and white striped face, olive colored back with wings that have two white bars, and their round little bodies are white and pale gray on the underparts. The kinglets have black legs and yellowish feet that look as though they are wearing little golden socks. Both the male and the female have the bright yellow stripe on their heads, that golden crown from which they get their name. The bold yellow stripe almost seems to flash like a tiny beacon as they move through the shadowy patches of undergrowth at the woods edge. The male birds show some orange color blended into their golden crown that becomes more noticeable when their flashy crest is raised. As the little birds move south on their short-distance migration they can turn up almost anywhere, even near backyard feeders where other birds are foraging. Some will continue south while others will spend the winter in our area, preferring stands of conifers that most likely provide some protection from the bitter cold and a safe retreat from predators.

Clinging to a dried weed a kinglet thoroughly searches under each withered leaf for prey.

The Magnolia Warbler

A Magnolia warbler stops for just a moment as it forages through the bushes looking for insects.

October 1, 2020 – The Magnolia warbler is a small songbird that nests across the provinces of Canada, from British Colombia, to Nova Scotia, and the Upper Great Lakes, to the northeastern US. The warblers have striking colors even after the breeding season, when many birds lose their bold colorful plumage and become rather dull. During the fall migration these little warblers bring some bright yellows to the early autumn Midwestern woods. These long-distance Neotropical migrants are on their way south stopping for a few days in a small woods in Iroquois County. Suddenly appearing out of the thicket, the Magnolia warblers forage for insects through the leafy bushes at the sunny edge of the small wooded area no larger then an acre. These small patches of land that have for some reason avoided the plow are life savers for migrating birds, insects, and bats. Whether seasonal migrants, or wildlife that is here year around, these small untouched habitats that are few and far between, and barely surviving among the cultivated lands of Illinois are pieces of land that are of the utmost importance to many species. The loss of habitat at wintering and nesting sites as well as the food and resting areas along the migratory routes can have a devastating impact on many species of birds. The Magnolia warblers travel from Panama and Mexico to the far northern US and up into Canada and back again in the fall. These migratory trips can be as much as 4000 miles one way. It is a hard trip for the little fliers and those exhausted birds that can’t find places to rest and feed don’t make it. Awareness and conservation are key to help prevent many species of birds from being listed as rare, or worse, cannot be found. Shade coffee farms that are replacing the sun coffee farms have provided good habitat for the warblers, Hummingbirds, and other species, and supporting shade grown coffee goes a long way in helping provide a winter habitat for these migrants. River valleys, lakes, and the islands of uncut forests across Illinois are the refueling stations for these tired night travelers that still have many miles to go during another exhausting and challenging migration.

A lovely display from a beautiful warbler as it perches on a dried stem in the morning sun.

The Cape May Warbler

A Cape May warbler in its’ lovely fall plumage of yellow tones and subtle black stripes.

September 24, 2020 – The Cape May warbler winters in the West Indies and breeds in the boreal forests of the northern border states from Minnesota east to Maine, and north into southern Canada, from Quebec west to Alberta, and into the southern edge of the Northwest Territories. These warblers are highly dependent on the spruce budworms as a source of food, a good year for the budworms means a great year for the warblers. Those banner years for spruce budworms coincide with more fall sightings in places where the Cape May warblers are less often seen. Although the Cape May warblers specialize in the spruce budworms that are plentiful in their summer nesting areas, they also can take advantage of other sources of nourishment such as the nectar from flowering plants, and the juices from ripe fruits. Similar to hummingbirds, flowering nectar rich plants are an important source in their winter habitats as well during the fall migration. These warblers have a specialized tongue that is semi-tubular that allows them to lap up nectar with ease. They also can use their sharp, pointed bill to puncture the skins of fruits to get to those sweet sugary juices. The little warbler gets its name from Cape May, a county in New Jersey, where the species was first collected, not far from the coast in a maple swamp where George Ord, a zoologist, was on a collecting trip with the celebrated ornithologist Alexander Wilson in1812. There is more to this story about when the Cape May warbler may have actually been collected at a much earlier date, in the Caribbean in 1751, and named the Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher, but that’s another story and it seems the name Cape May has stuck. After discovering the species in Cape May, the next recorded sighting of the bird at that location would not happen for another 100 years.

The Cape May warbler that was perched on a branch in Kankakee recently gave a good side view that revealed some its’ less often seen markings.