Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owls resting in the winter sun

January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl sitting in a small depression in the snow

During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl perched in the dried grasses

The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl

The Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur Wintering in Illinois

December 27, 2017 – The Lapland Longspur is a small songbird of the Arctic tundra and a winter visitor to most of the lower 48. Feeding on natural occurring seeds and waste corn dropped during harvest, large flocks of longspurs, sometimes numbering in the thousands, can be seen fighting those strong winter winds and blowing snow while scratching out food in those areas of open ground exposed by those same winds.

Lapland Longspur

Lapland Longspur

Snowy Owls Irruption

 Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl in Southwest Iroquois county at the Ford county line.

December 4, 2017 – Experts are calling the increased number of sightings of Snowy owls this year a possible irruption as large numbers of these Arctic visitors are showing up in the lower 48. There are reports of sightings here in the Midwest about every day as they continue to spread south out of Canada. I found this beautiful Snowy owl in Iroquois county hunkered down and using the utility pole and the thick grasses around the base to block the strong 27 mph winds that were gusting out of the south Monday morning. Snowy owls move into Illinois every year from the north during the winter months but in an irruption year, about every four years, the increased presence can show that the Snowy owls had a good breeding season and research indicates it coinciding with an increase in their food supply of Arctic rodents.

December 5, 2017

Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl in Iroquois county near the Kankakee county line.

The Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

October  25, 2017 – Perched on a branch low to the ground or scratching the leaf litter below a bush in search of insects is the lovely Hermit Thrush that can silently slip from branch to shadow with little notice. Migrating south out of Canada and the northern most parts of the lower 48 the Hermit Thrush is considered a short-distance migrant and can be seen during its’ south bound travels at the edge of a forest opening while feeding on insects and berries in the shrubs and trees in the company of other migrating species. If not actually seen you may hear the exquisite but melancholy songs that can easily send one down an introspective path when experiencing those delicate notes heard in the woodlots on an early autumn morning here in Illinois. This unassuming bird, the Hermit Thrush, has become the subject and inspiration for poets and authors. Walt Whitman includes the Hermit Thrush in his lament for the death of Abraham Lincoln in the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Keep your eyes and ears open for a visit by the Hermit Thrush as it passes through northern Illinois heading south where it will winter in far southern Illinois and the southern United States and south into Central America.

The Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

The Red Fox Sparrow

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.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

Golden-crowned Kinglets

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

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.

Golden-crowned Kinglet caught in burdock

Golden-crowned Kinglet caught in burdock.

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.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Unfortunate kinglet deceased.

A Bird of a Different Feather

Leucistic Starling

Leucistic Starling

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.

European Starlings

European Starlings

The Palm warbler

Palm warbler in non-breeding plumage

Palm warbler in non-breeding plumage

Palm warbler in its' breeding plumage

Palm warbler in its’ breeding plumage

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.

The Dog-Days of Summer

 

Monarch

Monarch

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.

Tiger Swallowtail

Tiger Swallowtail

The American Badger in Iroquois county Illinois

American Badger Illinois

American Badger

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.

American Badger Illinois

American Badger