Goodbye Winter

A male Ring-necked Pheasant searches for food through a small opening in the melting snow.

March 11, 2021 – The rapid warming of our planet’s surface temperature has caused a wobbling of the jet stream over the Arctic that allowed for some very cold Arctic air to escape and move south across the United States in February bringing plenty of snow, ice, and a challenging late winter for the lower 48. The impact of the extended cold and snowy conditions on wildlife couldn’t have been more apparent as it was in Texas during the Polar Vortex event of 2021. Thousands of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico that were stunned from the unusual cold conditions had to be rescued and cared for during the extended winter storm. Many bats were found dead or injured under bridges due to the extreme cold temperatures. Much of the wildlife has had some kind of negative impact in those areas of Texas that is not used to those extended cold temperatures. From plant life, to fish, and migratory birds, those kinds of extreme cold conditions were a challenge and even a death sentence for many, the effects from this event are still being assessed in that region. Here in Northern Illinois now that we have moved into March, the blanket of heavy snow has retreated and the iced-over waters of lakes, rivers, and wetlands have become ice free as the arctic temperatures seem to be behind us now as the jet stream has regained its strength. A few weeks ago at the end of February, as weather conditions began to show a slight improvement each day with some warming sunshine, a slow melting of the snow was going on revealing tiny bits of last falls’ dropped beans and corn. Turkey, deer, quail, and pheasants were congregating in these small open spots scratching the snow, searching for food after the long spell of deep icy snow-cover. Long periods of cold and snow becomes hard for wildlife if food remains buried and frozen under the snow for long periods. When the wildlife have only their fat reserves to rely on because they can’t get to the food, that is when things can get dangerous if the weather doesn’t improve. Here we are nearing early spring, only remnants of snow remain. Many species of waterfowl are moving through the area, some are here to nest while others are waiting for just the right time to continue north. Food is a little easier to find now and the migration will ramp up over the next few months as the cycle continues as warm weather prevails.

A male and female pheasant look for dropped beans from last years crop to rebuild their fat reserves after some challenging weeks.

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.

Bald Eagles

A mature American Bald eagle watching for a fish from a convenient perch above the river.

January 7, 2021 – Each winter Bald eagles move south into Illinois in large numbers as hundreds can be seen perched in the tall Sycamores and Cottonwoods along the Mississippi river, near the locks and dams, where the churning ice free waters are abundant with fish that are easy pickings for the eagles. From December through March these wintering eagles are not hard to find, where there is fish there are eagles. There are festivals and eagle watches at many cities and parks that have rivers and lakes throughout the state. These celebrations give people the opportunity to learn about eagles from experts while observing these great birds of prey in the wild. Some of the eagle watching events may understandably be postponed or canceled this year due to the coronavirus but eagles can still be observed from the safety of your vehicle from the parking areas around lakes and along rivers. Recent estimates of wintering eagles in Illinois is over 3000 birds. The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service estimates in 2004 there were 100 nesting pairs in Illinois, a number that has likely increased. The American Bald eagle is becoming more of a common sight here in Illinois in recent years. The Bald eagle recovery is the absolute result of the hard work of dedicated biologists, environmentalists, and citizen scientists. A number of state and federal laws enacted over the years, beginning with federal protection specifically for the eagle, was passed by Congress in 1940. Shortly after the Bald Eagle Protection Act became law the Golden eagle was added, and the name was changed to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In 1972 the synthetic pesticides DDT that was being widely used and released into the environment without the proper understanding of the long and short term affects on humans and wildlife was banned in the United States. Rachel Carson’s celebrated but controversial book published in 1962, Silent Spring, raised public awareness with an urgent message of the danger and damage being done to the environment with the use of the pesticide DDT. It was found that DDT does not break down easily and builds up in the tissues of animals causing problems up the food chain. DDT was believed to have a profound consequence on Bald eagle reproduction causing their eggs to be brittle and easily damaged while being incubated. Eagle populations began to drop dramatically until the ban on DDT. Today eagles can be seen year around on the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers and with a little patience and some binoculars you are likely to be rewarded with something memorable.

A juvenile Bald eagle looks out over a field from a tall tree watching for movement as another young eagle is perched nearby.

Short-eared Owl

The bright round yellow eyes of the Short-eared owl are sharp and watching for prey as it swoops just above the tall prairie grasses.

December 31, 2020 – The colors of the summer prairie are all but forgotten as the chill of December takes hold across a landscape of golds, browns, and faded tans. Snow squalls move across the land with the bitter winds, reducing visibility and dimming down the sunlight reminding us that it is the end of December and winter holds the cards. The subdued sunlight does appear at times, filtered but shining through the gray and white ever- changing troubled and cheerless clouds that seems to roll like a swollen river, fast and turbulent across the bleak wintry sky. Wildlife behavior has changed with the cold weather as great flocks of Sandhill cranes in Northern Indiana huddle together like blizzard bound Emperor penguins of Antarctica as the temperatures drop by 40 degrees. Birds of prey feel the sting of winter but must continue their hunt no matter what the weather conditions are. Red-tailed hawks, Kestrel, and Merlin falcons watch the ground below a convenient perch on a blustery day ready to quickly pounce on an unsuspecting prey like a vole or a field mouse oblivious to the danger above. Rough-legged hawks expend precious energy hovering and fighting the challenging winds while Northern harriers fly low into the gusts gliding from side-to-side over the winter grasses along the perimeters of ditches and fields watching for signs of prey. The Short-eared owls are hunkered down in the shelter of the prairie grasses and the thick cover along the drainage ditches and fence-rows until late afternoon when the sun nears the southwestern horizon. On this day though, with the strong and relentless winds, the medium-sized owls may wait for conditions to improve before taking to the sky for the hunt. The Short-eared owls are wintering on our restored prairies and CRP grasslands of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana and are considered a medium-distance migrant that will leave their wintering sites by March. There was a time in Illinois when Short-eared owls were common throughout the state but they are now an endangered native. Wetlands and grasslands destruction is the main reason for their decline. Restoration of large areas of grasslands and wetlands would provide a safe place to winter and could also provide a safe place to nest someday.

Busy defending its’ hunting territory from another owl, the medium-sized short-eared owl appears to fly with purpose.

Red-Red-tailed Hawk

A light colored Red-Red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post is focused on the prairie grasses for any movement of prey.

December 17, 2020 – It seems that one cannot travel more than half-a-mile without noticing a large hawk perched on a utility pole, or on a barn, or a corn crib, often two birds within a short distance of each other, many times even on the same branch of a large tree overlooking a good hunting area. Once known as the “chicken hawk” and blamed for missing poultry, Red-tailed hawks were shot on a regular basis whether they were guilty or not. These great raptors are now protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Red-tailed hawks hunt a variety of prey, from rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, mice, and voles to insects and snakes and even carrion. They have a varied menu of prey to chose from. These hawks hunt and nest not just in the rural countryside but also in populated areas of towns and cities. They are very adaptable and where there are some tall trees, open spaces, and prey to be had, Red-tailed hawks will be found. These large hawks are very territorial and vigorously defend their nesting trees, hunting perches, and the surrounding area. With a four foot wingspan and their well known screaming vocalizations, they can be quite intimidating to other birds of prey that enter their territory. It is not uncommon to see Red-tailed hawks chasing and attacking other large hawks that have drifted into their space. The mostly pale plumage on the chest and belly of a Red-tailed hawk is easily visible when contrasted against the dark leafless trees of winter. Even at some distance you can, with good confidence, ID these large birds-of-prey. Red-tailed hawks are quite common across the United States and are here the year-round in Illinois. The numbers of Red-tailed hawks does increase in the fall as the northern breeders move south for the winter to escape the harsh conditions across Canada and Alaska.

Perched in a tree, a young Red-Red-tailed hawk looks back before taking flight.

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE)

Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) in the early morning hours of July 11th rising above the northeastern horizon at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area just before the sun. On July 22nd Neowise will be at it closest approach to Earth at a distance of 64.3 million miles. The comet is now visible after sunset in the northwest and will be at about 10 degrees above the horizon by the 14th. If you miss this amazing comet it will be back in the neighborhood in about 6000 years. The comet was discovered March 27, 2020 by a NASA solar telescope.

July 11, 2020 – I had been waiting for some cloudless skies to possibly get a look and maybe a photo of this amazing comet that was discovered March 27, 2020 by a NASA solar telescope. Photos and testimonies from around the world were lighting up the internet feeding the excitement. Finely it looked like the early morning of July 11th would be my first chance to witness this spectacular event. I picked up my son Benjamin at 3:00 am to make the 28 mile drive to the dark skies on the Illinois Indiana boarder east of Kankakee. We arrived at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area where Ben first spotted the comet in the northeast above the lake as was drove past the boat launch. The comet looked so amazing it was brightest at the tip, where the nucleus was pointing toward the horizon, looking like a long brush stroke of white paint on a dark canvas where the amazingly long tail stretched towards the heavens away from the sun that was below the horizon.

July 14, 2020

The Muskrat House

An adult Muskrat cautiously looks out from the entrance of its bank lodge before leaving.

June 25, 2020 – Low water reveals the damp, muddy entrance to the den of a family of Muskrats east of Kankakee recently. The homes of these small aquatic mammals are called lodges and are similar to a Beaver lodge. The Beaver is the much larger relative of the Muskrat and both animals use several similar options for their lodges. One of the options is a structure that the Muskrat builds and it looks very much like that celebrated, iconic style made by the North American Beaver that most would envision on a small lake in the North Woods, but the Muskrat’s lodge is much smaller and the construction is not as durable as the Beaver’s. The Muskrat house is conical in shape, like the Beaver lodge, and is surrounded by water. It is heaped up in a pile of mud, cattails and sedges, along with other handy plant materials found in the shallow wetlands here in the Midwest. The Muskrat is relatively safe and protected from cold winter conditions in their homes, and like the Beaver lodge, the Muskrat lodge has an underwater entrance. The Muskrat does not store food for the winter like the Beaver, so it must find food every day and harsh winters can be a challenge. Another type of den that is more common to our area, because of the loss of wetland habitat, is the bank lodge. The Muskrat burrows into the banks along ditches, creeks, ponds, and rivers to create their earthen lodge. The Muskrat may burrow as far as fifteen feet into the bank raising up above the waterline and ending in a dry chamber where they can huddle in numbers during the cold of winter The chamber is used as a nursery for their young during the warm months. Even though Muskrats are more active at night and are considered nocturnal they can be seen at all times of the day busily feeding on an aquatic plant or bringing some fresh greens home to the den for their young.

Bringing food home for the young, an adult Muskrat carries some freshly cut green vegetation in its mouth for the kits deep in the burrow.

Leucistic Red-winged Blackbird

A leucistic female Red-winged Blackbird perches for a moment showing her peach colored head and white wings where pigment is missing from the birds feathers.

June 11, 2020 – A flash of white catches my eye as an interesting bird with peculiar markings flies just above some intentionally destroyed, non-native invasive plants that are known as the common reed or Phragmites. The stems of the dead Phragmites lay strewn like pick-up-sticks across the soft, damp, muddy shallows. The mystery bird perched for a moment on the tall stem of a native wetland grass, but soon flew down to the mucky waters edge where it began searching through the dark, wet organic debris occasionally using the dead Phragmites as a convenient perch. The bird began picking up small pieces of plant material and appeared to be looking for something specific as it hopped over standing water to the next little bit of duckweed covered mud and broken reeds. Soon the birds’ beak was full of small pieces of plant material. The curious colorful bird flew up and over the higher dry ground where prairie plants were thriving and dropped down into the thick green cover where it disappeared. In no time at all the busy bird was back on the marshy ground continuing its’ search for nesting material. By now the bird was no longer a mystery, its’ behavior, its’ song, and the nearby male that was protecting the territory revealed the species as a female Red-winged Blackbird that was working on a nest. The unusual coloring of the birds’ feathers is caused by a genetic condition known as leucism, a condition that prevents melanin from being sent to some of the birds plumage. Leucistic birds are recorded and photographed across many species each year, from Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles to Cardinals and Hummingbirds, and in this case a Red-winged Blackbird. Some of the leucistic birds are almost completely white while others might only have some plumage that is affected, sometimes referred to as piebald.

An example of a female Red-winged Blackbird that is not affected by leucism.

Lark Sparrow

With its’ chest out a beautiful Lark Sparrow appears to be marching along a gravel road as it searches for insects.

June 4, 2020 – The Lark Sparrow is a large, sharp-looking, sparrow with strong facial markings of rich chestnut, bright white, and coal black. Those amazingly crisp colors on the face of these birds help to distinguish the Lark from most other sparrows, making them an easy bird to identify. The Lark Sparrow also can quickly be recognized even at some distance because of the unique patterns of its’ long tail feathers. When the bird is in flight and the tail feathers are spread wide, the white tips on the dark tail feathers are revealed identifying the bird as a Lark Sparrow. The lovely contrast of the sparrows’ tail feathers makes the bird stand out against the mix of green tones in the tangle of vegetation of its’ spring and summer habitat. As the Lark Sparrow swoops over the prairies of the Midwest it will easily catch the eye of the observant bird watcher. This is the time of the year that Lark Sparrows can be found in open country here in Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. The restored sandy prairies, grasslands, and pastures, with some trees and bushes nearby, are ideal location and probable nesting areas for the sparrow. In these locations of prime Lark Sparrow habitat one might get a glimpse of a bird that is less common east of the Mississippi. The sparrow arrives in our area in the spring for the nesting season from its’ winter range in the Southwestern United States and south into Mexico. You may be lucky enough to get a close-up look at Lark Sparrows as they regularly forage, often in pairs, along the less traveled roads searching the weedy edges for seeds, caterpillars, and other insects.

A Lark Sparrow perches on the stem of a tall prairie plant but soon disappears into some tall grasses.

The Purple Martin

A pair of Purple martin males warm up on a gravel road in the morning sun after a cold spring night near the Kankakee river.

April 23, 2020 – The Purple martin is a long-distance migrant that winters in South America and migrates 5000 miles north over a two or three week period eventually arriving in United States each spring for the breeding season. The Purple martin is the largest and probably the most well known of the swallow species in North America. These dark, purple colored, elegant fliers that seem to be in constant song, show up in our area of Northern Illinois for the nesting season by April of each year. Their nesting colonies are now mostly in the familiar man made martin houses. Those large white bird houses that are called ‘condos’ and look like apartment complexes on tall poles placed around lakes and ponds, near open wetlands, in parks, along the rivers, and in many rural backyards across eastern North America are key to the survival of Purple martins. The nesting houses are kept clean and protected from predators and other birds trying to use them for nesting by the landlords, the dedicated human hosts that erect and care for the nesting houses. There are organizations and clubs across the country, like The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) https://www.purplemartin.org , which is a great resource for supplies and learning how to create houses, maintain them, and share important data that is used in the interest of Purple martin conservation. Habitat loss, climate change, and competition for nesting holes from invasive species like European starlings and English house sparrows have made it very difficult for the Purple martins. Records show populations have been decreasing by large percentages in many areas over the years and more landlords are needed to provide and maintain nesting houses.

A female Purple martin perches on a small stone resting and warming in the morning sun.