October 25, 2017 – A large stocky and vibrant rufous Fox Sparrow momentarily strikes a pose on the branch of a thick bush were it had been spending the morning on the ground below scratching the earth and kicking leaf litter in search of insects. Fox Sparrows spend the winter in the southern parts Illinois and the states south from Texas to the east coast. There are four groups of Fox Sparrows that are seen in North America but in Illinois we have the red group which nests during the warm months from Alaska to eastern Canada. This bird with its’ impressive size and red color really catches a person eye and is easy to distinguish between other heavily streaked sparrows and thrushes.
October 26, 2017 – Golden-crowned Kinglets have migrated south from their northern summer nesting range of Canada and have been quite busy feeding on insects in the bushes and in the dense canopy of the deciduous trees of their winter range, which Illinois is part of. The tiny Kinglets are not much bigger than a hummingbird and have been known to get themselves caught on the little hooks of cockleburs and burdock bracts as they search for insects through the branches and leaves of a thicket. An example is the Kinglet in the photo that needed my assistance this past week. These amazing little hunters can be seen launching off of a branch to hover in midair at the edge of a leaf and pluck off an insect with an astonishing determination, at times making more than one attempt when necessary. One photo shows a successful catch of a small winged insect moments before the prey was consumed and then with little hesitation the Kinglet was off to continue its’ hunt spending only a fraction of a second in any one spot. The quick moving subject was certainly a remarkable challenge for this photographer.
October 27, 2017 – As I was leaving and going past the area where I had discovered the trapped kinglet earlier in the week, I found an unfortunate kinglet deceased and stuck in the burdock. A close up look shows the tiny hooks of the burdock latched to the wings feathers. Hooking the wings probably did seal the birds fate the more it thrashed about trying to escape.
October 13, 2017 – A flash of white caught my eye as I was driving past a partially harvested field of soybeans in Iroquois county this past Friday the 13th. A flock of over 50 European Starlings were feeding on the ground near the edge of the field when I noticed the leucistic bird of the same species. Leucism is genetic condition that prevents melanin pigments to be deposited into the feathers properly. The lack of melanin pigments can cause a range of visible abnormality in the plumage color of birds. The results of this condition can manifest from an faint washed out look barely showing any semblance to a birds normal strong color patterns, to showing just small patches of white feathers lacking pigment. In some cases the affects of leucism can even produce a white bird that appears completely devoid of any plumage color.
September 14, 2017 – The Palm warbler is considered a medium distance migrant wintering in the Gulf Coastal region of the United States and the islands of the Caribbean west to the Yucatan Peninsula. The Palm warbler spends the summer on its’ breeding habitat in the low marshy areas of the Northern United State and the fens and marshes in the boreal forests of Canada which is quite appropriately known as “North America’s bird nursery”. The warbler can lay up to five eggs in its’ specialized grass nest lined with feathers and soft plants near the base of a small conifer tree or shrub. One photo shows a Palm warbler in its’ breeding plumage which was photographed in May during the northerly spring migration and the other photo shows a Palm warbler in non-breeding plumage captured this past week in mid September as the little warblers are heading south during the fall migration.
August 13, 2017 – During the dog-days of summer I get a feeling of calm and peace and a sense that all things in nature have nearly completed a cycle and are now mostly enjoying the rewards of their struggle. The animal kingdom has been replenished with a new generation and plants are in full-bloom. Some flowering species have already gone to seed with blooms shriveled and fallen but many others are providing the nectar that attracts those colorful fluttering wings of many shapes and sizes. Butterflies are thick in the meadows and pastures. Uncut roadways are high traffic areas for these pollinators like Eastern tiger and Black swallowtails, Common buckeye, Monarchs and Painted lady butterflies. There are 150 species of butterflies in Illinois and they are out there right now to behold.
June 22, 2017 – Stories shared and repeated over the years of a farmer getting a glimpse or a truck driver seeing one along a quiet rural roadway in the middle of the night in western Iroquois county was enough to keep that hope of photographing one of these apex predators, that nocturnal phantom of the prairie, on my wish list of a possible photographic encounter. Before the first settlers came to the prairies of Illinois the badger was thought to be abundant through the northern two-thirds of the state. But with the cultivation of the prairies and pasture lands needed for livestock the badger became a target and were nearly wiped out by the late 1800’s reducing them to a small population in the northern third of Illinois.
By the 1950’s the badger had rebound and had actually expanded its’ range south into southern Illinois, although less abundant. As it turns out, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the sand prairies of northwestern and central Illinois have the highest populations. These days the badgers make use of railroad rights-of-way, ditches , fence rows and areas along less traveled roads for its’ burrows while using these same areas for hunting small game, nesting birds and other burrowing mammals. The American badger has an average weight from 12-25 pounds but a large male can reach 50 pounds with a 30” length. The front feet of the badger are larger then their rear feet and have 2” claws.
Those claws on their front feet along with their strong neck and shoulder muscles make them powerful diggers using their rear feet to propel the dirt to a pile behind them. I have heard their digging activity described as a buzz saw cutting into the ground as they disappear into a new excavation at an amazing speed.
Badger tunnels have been measured going 12 feet down and over twice that in length. Although it is rare for anyone to even see a badger the few studies that have been done suggest that they have most likely adapted to live within these fragments of habitat that can offer some protection and have the food source that is required for these carnivores to scratch out an existence in the least touched areas like CRP, ditches, fence rows and uncut edges of roadways between the modern agricultural fields of Illinois.
May 26, 2017 – The Red-necked Phalarope is a small delicate looking bird about 7 inches in length with an elegant form and dance like movements as it swims across the water hunting for insects. On a less traveled migratory route the Phalarope is occasionally seen by a lucky few each year in Illinois. The west coast and the western states of North American and off shore on the east coast is the birds normal pattern of migration as it heads for the lakes and ponds on the tundra in the arctic for the nesting season. This spring migration was no exception when I came across a pair in north western Iroquois county in a small flooded area surrounded by corn stubble. The pair were in breeding plumage and were on constant hunt for small worms and insects, at times spinning around in circles in the water churning up a vortex of sediment and exposing perhaps a tasty insect larvae. During the winter the Red-necked Phalarope is out to sea off the coast of Ecuador and Peru with concentrations around the Galapagos Islands where the warm and cold ocean currents meet creating a plankton rich food source for this pelagic species.
April 17, 2017 – On the morning of April 17, 2017 in Iroquois County a few miles south of the Kankakee county line I saw something that I have never witnessed before. On the horizon to the south and southwest there looked to be many buildings, a vast metropolis that looked like some mythical city or a wall stretching out across the landscape rising maybe 10 degrees off the horizon. There before me was the most distorted, stretched out inverted mess I have ever seen. Some barns had peaks that seemed to rise up higher than the barn was tall. One cupola looked so stretched out on the peak of the building that it seemed to be reaching upwards like a cathedral spire.
The normally flat prairie looked to have a long tall bluff with some rolling hills and a dense forest and some oddly shaped structures that made no sense. One could have perhaps imagined that this must have been what the edge of the ice sheet looked like thousands of years ago. What I was actually seeing was an optical phenomenon called a superior mirage or Fata Morgana mirage. This is a more rare type of the mirage phenomenon caused by a temperature inversion, warmer temperatures above cooler temperature with the light being refracted or bent as it passes through layers of varied air temperatures which causes a view of reflected distortions with the stretching of objects.
The Fata Morgana has a history in sailing lore with stories of ghost ships, uncharted land masses that don’t exist, phantom islands and floating cities. The haunted visions of early mariners and the sudden appearance of a city that is miles away coming into view and seen by hundreds are recorded events that inspire the imagination and I feel very lucky to have witnessed a superior mirage that held me spellbound for a time on that morning of the 17th.
April 14, 2017 – The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper is considered a medium sized shorebird standing up to 15 inches tall, they are an elegant long-legged wader that is a migrant through our part of the Midwest in the spring and in the fall. Currently they are on their spring migration and we can find the birds in the flooded fields and the shallows of ponds and lakes as the Midwest becomes a staging area for many shorebirds including the Greater Yellowlegs as they head into Canada where they will spend the summer months, the breeding season, on the marshy areas and the tundra from southern Alaska to Newfoundland. I was able to watch six Greater Yellowlegs and five Lesser Yellowlegs feeding in a small flooded area south of Herscher.
The Lesser Yellowlegs looks very similar to the Greater Yellowlegs but are noticeably smaller when observed side by side, The Greater Yellowlegs has a 26 inch wingspan and certainly appears somewhat lanky as it steps through the shallows with those long yellow legs. All of the birds in the group were moving mostly the same direction as they waded through the shallow water with some zigzagging, some darting and even crossing each others path. The Greater Yellowlegs would appear to push the Lesser along if it slowed its’ progress. At times the birds would pause to stick their faces and that long slightly turned up bill into the water and with a swiping motion they would move their heads side to side as they searched for prey. The birds seemed to have one thing in mind and that was to find food, many of these birds have come a great distance and still have a long way to go as they make their way to the nesting grounds. The Greater Yellowlegs spends the winter months along the coasts of North America from New York to California including the Gulf of Mexico and Central and South America. Even though their population is believed to be stable the loss of habitat in the winter range is the biggest threat to the Greater Yellowlegs
April 9, 2017 – Last week some remarkable birds, the American Golden-plover, had been seen resting and feeding in the agricultural fields of Iroquois county as they are on their spring migration crossing the United States on their way north to the high Arctic for another breeding season. Well over a 100 of these birds were sharing a wet field near Ashkum with nearly 70 Pectoral Sandpipers that also winter in South America. For more then a week as the miserable weather conditions and relentless northerly winds held them fast the plovers could be seen spread out and walking across the wet field hunting in their typical method of run, stop, run, stop, look then grab a worm or bug. The plovers’ are very well camouflaged, they quite easily blend into the surroundings and they most likely go unnoticed.
When they bed down for a midday nap they locate a little nest-like depression in the field and they seem to disappear as they settle down into it for some sleep. A smaller group, less then 50 were resting about four miles west of Askum this past Sunday. I was able to observe them for nearly four hours as they hunted the field until about 12:30 pm when I noticed about fifteen of them fly out of the field and stand on the roadway for about ten minutes until they slowly walked to another field and out of sight. Others, about ten, bedded down about twenty-five feet from where I was located. These little birds seemed really tired and over the next three hours there wasn’t much activity, only the occasional getting up to stretch, with a few walking around at times but quickly they would find a spot to lay.
Most of the birds were still in their winter plumage with a few showing darkening feathers as they transition to their beautiful breeding colors of a coal black face and chin and underparts with a bright white stripe that runs from their forehead above the eyes down the side of the neck to the breast. Their backs are browns with gold spots. It is a remarkable migration cycle that takes these Robin sized birds over 20,000 miles on their amazing journey. The plover spends the winter months on the grasslands of Argentina and the summer, their nesting season, on the rocky tundra of the high Arctic.