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.

The American Redstart

A female or maybe a first year male American redstart comes out of the shadowy woods and perches for just seconds before disappearing into the thicket.

September 17, 2020 – A quick movement with a flash of color reveals a small silhouetted figure in the low branches just inside the thicket. The sudden motion that has caught my eye is a dark colored bird with bright orange markings that became apparent as the little bird moved to a branch in a spot of filtered September light. A male American redstart with his stunning jet black plumage that is enhanced with bright yellow-orange feathers, and white underparts, moves quickly from branch to branch searching for insects. Soon two more redstarts appear in the trees nearby, but these tiny warblers have a different color pattern than the black male. The new arrivals are either females or first year male birds. The little travelers are gray overall with yellow markings, and although different than the adult male redstart, the flittering little fliers are as captivating as any warbler in the forest. These southbound migrating warblers are on their way to the shrubby forested areas and shade-grown coffee plantations where they will spend the winter in the equatorial latitudes of Central America and western South America. Just like when the redstarts arrive to the spring nesting grounds, the first thing they do when they arrive at the wintering grounds is to establish territories. The little birds become very aggressive and determined to win when it comes to the best shady hunting spots. This type of territorial aggression is sometimes seen at stopovers along the southbound migration route when the aggressor quickly descends on the intruder chasing it away from its temporary hunting area. The American redstart is referred to by some as the Christmas bird because they are in those areas of the tropics around Christmas time. They also have a less dignified name given by locals as the latrine bird because they are attracted to the flies that are numerous in those undesirable locations such as outhouses and dumps. I say what happens in the tropics stays in the tropics. The American redstarts we see in the woodlands of Northern Illinois during the nesting season and during the migrations are always a treat to watch as they fan their tails, spooking insects, and catching them on the wing. We will continue to see migrating redstarts for a while longer but soon they will be gone for the winter.

An American redstart male stops for a moment as it searches for insects on the branches below.

The Great Migration

A Tennessee warbler searches for prey from a branch just above a patch of Waterhemp.

September 10, 2020 – An exciting forecast for a big push of migratory birds moving south went out last week as favorable weather conditions supported by historic data lined up for this spectacular seasonal event that would start about three hours after sunset, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hundreds of thousands of birds moved over Illinois in a massive migration during the night of Thursday the 3rd and continuing through Saturday the 5th. Although this is a very large mass movement of many birds all at once, the migration will continue through autumn as late migrants continue to head south to a warmer climate. A small wooded area south of Kankakee that has been the summer home for Indigo buntings, Song sparrows, Cardinals, Robins, Common yellowthroat, and Brown thrashers suddenly sees an uptick in activity as many small migrants resting and recharging their fat reserves arrive. High in the trees bright flashes of color catches the eye as male and female American redstarts that are searching every leaf and branch for small insects move at a fast pace from branch to branch. The little quick moving colorful redstarts have many miles to go in their journey to their winter homes in southern Mexico, Central America and northern South America. Another small bird that is a long-distance migrant and winters in Central America and northern South America is the Tennessee warbler. Three or four of these drab colored little warblers were hunting a little closer to the ground where they were checking the late summer plants for prey. With a thorough precision, and from every angle, they were plucking tiny insects off the stems and leaves in a patch of five foot tall Waterhemp in an opening at the edge of the thicket. Blue-gray gnatcatchers and Black-and-white warblers could be seen in numbers in the distant trees searching for prey. A Canada warbler that has a distinct bright-white eye-ring, on its’ way to South America, shows up for a moment in a bush at the edge of the woods before disappearing into the thick undergrowth. On the way to its’ wintering grounds in the tropics a Magnolia warbler searches for insects alongside the Tennessee warblers on the bushes and plants low to the ground. This is a great time to watch for a variety of species of migratory birds in the parks, along the waterways, and at backyard feeders, but they will only be here a short time as they continue south for the winter.

Pausing for a moment on a branch, a Magnolia warbler seems to reconnoiter its next move as it searches for insects.

A Change In The Air

A female Indigo bunting with a plump little Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillar in her beak on a perch at the edge of a late summer woods.

September 3, 2020 – The Dog Star Sirius is currently about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, those are the hottest days, the most sultry days of summer, and those dates coincide with the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. In the past when that bright star became visible in the northern latitudes it was a precise celestial event telling those ancient people in the northern hemisphere that a seasonal change was coming. We can look around at nature and see, and even hear, other signs of change as we enter the final weeks of summer. The loud and repetitive bird songs of desperate males seeking mates has gone mostly silent. Like hundreds of tiny high pitched tambourines being shaken all at once the sounds of the cicada fills our ears replacing those spring and summer sounds with a kind of swan song telling us that summer is passing away and fall beckons our attention. The migrating warblers moving south show only hints of those fine bright colored feathers of the breeding season as their spring adornments fade to a more subtle, less showy winter plumage. Even the bright greens of the summer foliage is starting to become a little less intense and is showing signs of wear. Plants are at their peak in growth and some have already gone to seed while others continue to flower and bloom and bear fruit attracting insects, hummingbirds and other animals to the banquet. Another sign of late summer/early fall are the ripened dark purple berries of the Pokeweed plant that are attached to a bright reddish purplish stem. Those late season fruits will feed songbirds and mammals that will in turn spread the seeds far and wide. Over the coming weeks even the miniature Ruby-throated fliers of the northern summer gardens will have moved on as the blooms dry up and the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler. Certainly, a change is in the air, and if we slow down, listen, observe and learn from nature, we may find that we are able to look at our calendars a little less often as we tune in to the natural world in the same way our ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly perched and hunting from a convenient perch as she nears the end of her flight season.

The Busy House Wren

A House wren searches on a lichen covered dead limb for insects.

August 27, 2020 – The little House wren is a busy, sometimes quite vocal, but mostly secretive bird that stays on the edges and in the shadows where the thick growth and shrubbery becomes a small bird sized labyrinth to hunt, hide, and guard against intruders. The wren has brownish toned plumage with subtle dark markings and grayish colored breast with slightly brown colored underparts. With such plain dull earthy colors the little bird can easily go unseen as it zips through the shadowy understory. There is not a dead tree or a broken limb that this little hunter doesn’t give a thorough search. From the ground up the bird checks every nook and cranny for small insects like spiders, crickets, and beetles as it moves in and out of the natural openings and dark crevices of the fallen bough. When the House wrens arrive in the spring the male searches for what he thinks is a perfect nest site. He may use old abandoned woodpecker holes, fractures in old dead trees, man made bird houses, or even old discarded and forgotten man made items. The male will make many trips bringing small twigs to the nest site angling longer twigs that are too wide for the hole, sideways to fit through the small opening. Filling the hole with nesting material, he tirelessly builds the nest in hopes of impressing a mate. The House wren has a large range which includes most of the Western Hemisphere. The birds nest in most of the northern two thirds of the United States, from coast to coast, and north into southern Canada. The wren spends the winters in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. The little birds can be found year round in parts of Mexico, Central America, and south all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Somewhat hidden among the shadows, a small House wren searches the undersides of the leaves for prey

Upland Sandpipers

An Upland Sandpiper lands and scurries across the road in front of me trying to entice me to follow, leading me away from it’s young hiding nearby.

August 13, 2020 – Every year, it seems, I am a bit nervous that this will be the last year of having any sightings in our area of Northeastern Illinois of the endangered long-distance migratory bird the Upland Sandpiper. I must admit that this year was not any different than past years, I always have a concern that eventually conjures up a bit of anxiety that grows until a bird is actually sighted. On May 15th of this year relief came as I had a pair flush along a rural road south of Kankakee. I have had sightings of multiple Upland Sandpipers in the general area almost once a week since this year’s first sighting in May. Besides the chance encounters, the patience in observation, listening for their unusual calls, or scanning the fields with binoculars while the crops are small can often produce sightings if the birds are in fact in the area. On August 3rd I had one fly, circle and land near where I had stopped my vehicle. The bird was certainly upset and scolding me as it landed and scurried across the roadway in front of my car before taking to the air again to circle my position. The sandpiper then landed on a utility wire behind me for no longer than five seconds before flying again back and forth past me. The encounter, the observation, and a couple fast photos lasted under two minutes and I quickly moved on so as not to stress the bird. My opinion is that this looks very much like the behavior of the Killdeer, a common upland plover that we see in numbers here in Illinois, especially along rural gravel roads during the nesting season when they have young nearby. The Killdeer uses distraction techniques to lead the intruder away from any chance of discovering their young that are staying low nearby. Perhaps this behavior is a telltale sign of a successful nesting season for the Upland Sandpiper, I can’t say for sure that this is whats going on, but it does give me hope that there are young birds nearby and the adult bird is doing its best to draw the intruder away. Hopes are that soon there will be new generation of Upland Sandpipers heading south to the prairies of the South America for the winter . This type of encounter with the Upland Sandpiper always seems to happen around this time every year from late July through late August when there should be young birds in the area. In fact I did get a glimpse at a flightless young bird being led away through rows of beans a few years back. When the adult bird circled me it was being very vocal as it flew out into the field joining the young bird, moving away and disappearing in the sea of green.

Perching on a utility wire for only a few seconds the Upland Sandpiper let’s me know that it is not happy with me in the area.

Listen to the Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird perches for a moment as it searches for prey at the edge of a woods in Iroquois County.

August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.

A closeup look at those well lit beautiful brown-orange colored eyes of this handsome mockingbird.