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.

The Tundra swan

A pair of Tundra swan at Black Oak Bayou, part of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area along the Kankakee River in Newton County Indiana this past week. The swan on the right shows a very small yellow spot while the swan on the left has a much larger spot.

March 12, 2020 – The Tundra swan, also known as the Whistling swan, is a large handsome white bird with coal black legs and feet and a matching black bill. The Tundra appears very similar to the Trumpeter swan but is somewhat smaller, the Trumpeter being the largest waterfowl in North America with a wingspan that can exceed 8 ft. The Tundra swan also has a yellow spot to the front of each eye that is sometimes quite small and not easy to see without the help of a scope or binoculars. The Tundra and Trumpeter are true native swans that we get to see here in Illinois during the winter months and during spring and fall migrations. I should also mention another swan that is a year around resident and actually breeds here in Illinois, the Mute swan. The Mute swan is larger then the Tundra and a little smaller than the Trumpeter and is an Eurasian species that was introduced for its elegance and beauty to grace private estates, park lakes, and ponds and eventually escaped into the environment. The Mute has a bright orange bill with a black knob where the bill meets the face on the forehead helping make the bird easy to identify. When our native swans the Tundra and Trumpeter are seen together, the size difference helps distinguish them, but when seen separately one has to rely on other physical clues such as the yellow spot near their eyes on the “lores”, the area between the nostrils and the eyes. Something else to consider is that about 10% of Tundra swans will not have the yellow spots at all according to Sibley Guides. The bill of each bird offers even more clues, when looking directly face to face with the swans, the Tundra has more of rounded boarder along the top of the bill between the eyes while the Trumpeter has V shape. The slope of the head of each bird offers even more to be examined when looking at the birds profile, the Tundra has a rounded crown and the Trumpeter has more of a slope that lines up and continues down the bill. Now we are in late winter and the swans have been staging in our area for many weeks with other waterfowl waiting to move north. Soon these wonderful birds will start their flight towards the Arctic where they will spend a short summer nesting on the ponds, lakes, and the wetlands on the vast tundra of Canada and Alaska.

A closer look at the Tundra swan with a much larger yellow spot on the lores.

Trumpeter Swans

A leucistic adult Trumpeter swan with yellow legs and feet stands next to a normal colored swan with black legs and black feet.

January 30, 2010 – A pair of Trumpeter swans surrounded by a number of Canada geese and a a few Mallard ducks were taking advantage of the open waters near the boat docks at the headquarters at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco Indiana this past week. A submerged aerator system sending bubbles of air to the surface keeps some small pools open and ice free. The open water attracts waterfowl during the winter when the rest of J.C. Murphey Lake is locked in ice. Getting a close look at the pair of swans, that have been seen at the lake for some months now, show that one of the birds does not have the usual black legs and feet that is normally seen on an adult Trumpeter. While photographing the Trumpeters at some distance this past August I noticed the yellow colored legs on one of the birds and assumed it was a juvenile. I was told at the headquarters at Willow-slough this past week that the swan with yellow legs was believed to be leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that causes a reduction of pigments. We see the abnormality in mammals, birds, and even in reptiles. A few times a year while great flocks of Starlings are feeding in fields it is not uncommon to see a flash of white from the wings, tail, or the head of one of the birds in the flock. The birds with white feathers are missing the normal dark colors of the Starling and are considered leucistic. The young cygnet (baby swan) that is leucistic is bright white and the non leucistic young Trumpeter is gray. The leucistic birds end up with yellow legs and feet as adults Trumpeters. These rare leucistic Trumpeter swans have been reported and are still occasionally seen in Ontario. The leucistic swans are bit more common in the Rocky Mountain population and are also seen in the Yellowstone summer population.

The leucistic Trumpeter stretches its’ leg giving a good look at its’ yellow colored leg and foot.

The Pigeon Hawk

Just east of Kankakee recently, a Merlin falcon looks down from its’ tree perch watching for an ambush opportunity.

January 23, 2010 – The Merlin falcon is a small but fierce hunter that is a little larger and heavier than the American kestrel. Looking somewhat like a chunky pigeon in flight the Merlin was once known as the pigeon hawk. The stealthy falcon lacks the bold color patterns and black “mustache” that adorns the face of the more common Kestrel. The Merlin’s may show a faint “mustache”, the black plumage on the sides of the face, but the bird appears a bit drab overall compared to the smaller and more colorful Kestrel. The female Merlin, like other birds of prey, is larger than the male. A large female with a recent catch of a small bird was facing away from me as it sat on a roadway in Iroquois county a few years back. From a distance the bird looked like a small Peregrine falcon, its’ solid blue-gray back and wings stood out and its’ thick body confused me at first until the bird took to the air with its’ prey. At that point I recognized it as a Merlin. The little Merlin is an avian hunting master that can send a flock of birds into a mass of fear and confusion. Outmaneuvering the unfortunate winged victims like Starlings, Sparrows and even small ducks, the Merlin,with a swift and precise attack snags its’ targeted prey while in flight. It also plucks dragonflies and other insects out of midair during its’ migration for a quick and easy snack. If you are fortunate enough to see a Merlin in our area of Northeastern Illinois it will most likely be during the winter months but sightings of the Merlin are becoming more common as the population of the little falcon has improved. The Merlin is known to breed in the boreal forests of the north but the discovery of a hatchling on the ground in Northwestern Cook county in 2016 may signify that they are expanding their breeding range.

A Merlin rests on a fence post keeping an eye on some feeding tree sparrows at the edge of a gravel road.

Rough-legged Hawks

A light morph Rough-legged hawk with wings spread wide searches for prey on the prairie below.

January 16, 2010 – Imagine looking out over a vast expanse of rolling and rocky terrain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Off in the distance you notice, from your high vantage atop a narrow rocky ledge on the southern slope of a mountain, an Arctic fox with its’ nose to the ground as it zigzags in a slow but deliberate trot across the tundra. At times the little fox disappears behind the slight rises of the uneven landscape and soon goes out of view completely. Further out towards the west is the unmistakable and heart stopping sight of a large white predator. A hungry Polar bear is walking with large, intimidating strides along the edge of an Arctic pond, surprising a pair of skittish Eider ducks. The birds quickly begin paddling away towards the center of the pond putting some distance between them and the dangerous intruder. Those sights that we just imagined could be the very real views that the nesting Rough-legged hawks might see while they spend the warmer months in the high Arctic paired up, nesting, and raising their young. The Rough-legged hawk is one of a small number of moderate-distance migratory hawks that we are fortunate enough to see here in Northeastern Illinois during the winter. These amazing hawks will find a good hunting spot, open terrain similar to that of the Arctic tundra, where there is plenty of prey with not much competition and most likely stay in that same general area for the winter. The open agricultural areas and restored prairies of Northern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana are great places to find these large hawks hunting. The plumage of the Rough-legged hawks can differ, some birds are very dark and some are light in color. They are referred to as a dark or a light morph. The Rough-legged hawk will take advantage of windy days and hover into the wind to hold their position above the prairie while hunting mice, voles, and birds. Fence posts, utility poles, and the smaller branches in the tops of trees where they can grip with their small feet are places the hawks will use to watch for prey.

Perched in the mid-morning sun a Rough-legged hawk along a rural road east of Kankakee stays alert for movement below.

Bucks And Toms

A rare look at a giant White-tailed buck out in late morning with a doe during the rut this past November in Iroquois county.

January 9, 2020 – Here in Northeastern Illinois it has been a warmer, more forgiving winter leading up to the new year, and the relatively mild conditions that we have been enjoying have also continued into early January. Open water, and mostly snow-free fields means that there is easy foraging for both migratory and resident wildlife such as birds, waterfowl, turkey, and deer. Large flocks of wild turkeys can be seen feeding on plant material and the spilled grains from the last harvest in the snow-free agricultural fields, the cautious birds usually not far from the safety of their wooded escape. Much like White-tailed deer, wild turkeys separate into groups depending on the time of year. Young male turkeys, in late fall, form jake flocks after leaving their brood flock. The hens also group up after brooding their young. The adult male turkeys stay in bachelor groups until the breeding season arrives in the spring. March and April is the time that the male and female turkeys are joined together in large flocks and then eventually into smaller breeding flocks that are made up of a few toms with ten or fifteen hens. White-tailed deer also form bachelor groups. The bucks group together throughout the spring and summer months and unlike the turkey bachelors that are made up of mostly adult birds, the deer bachelors are made up of many different ages of males. During the warm summer months the White-tailed bucks are growing their antlers back after losing or shedding them during the winter and after the rut (active breeding time). The new growth of antlers starts in the spring and noticeably start out as velvety nubs. During the time of the bucks antler regrowth, the females or does, are giving birth during the spring and summer. By fall the antlers of the White-tailed buck are fully developed. Some antlers are small and are called spikes. While most are average in size there are a few that are huge and impressive but rarely seen. The White-tailed deer in late fall begin another breeding season. The bachelor groups break up and the bucks go their own way in search of does. The wild turkeys, the toms, the hens, and the jakes are still in their groups waiting for spring and another nesting season.

A flock of Wild turkeys that came out of their tall tree roost landing in bean stubble this past week east of Kankakee.

Short-eared Owl

A Short-eared owl perched on a survey marker at the Kankakee Sands in Newton County Indiana.

December 23, 2019 – It’s the most wonderful time of the year, that time when winters’ late afternoon skies become active with Short-eared owls swooping, gliding, or perched on a fence post or in a small leafless tree just above the tall grasses of their winter roost. Early mornings and overcast days are also good times to see the owls. Where suitable habitat exists on the restored prairies or along the rural roads of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana during those cold winter months, it is during the late afternoon, as the sun retreats towards the southwest, when those delightful medium-sized owls take to the sky in amazing displays of flight. When not chasing each other, in their minor territorial disputes, they search the fields and prairies for prey, occasionally landing on the ground highly alert and watching the other owls flying above. When “The Prairie State” was truly a prairie, before settlements and agriculture claimed the land, the nesting of Short-eared owls was believed to be widespread and numerous on the unbroken grasslands of Illinois and Indiana. Now there are only a few places suitable for nesting in Illinois. Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County is one of those areas and it provides 2000 acres of grassland habitat for these ground nesting owls to roost, hunt, and fledge their young. It should also be mentioned that the 2000 acres at Prairie Ridge has nesting Northern harriers and the states only population of Greater prairie chickens. Closer to home, just east of Kankakee, the 8,400 acres of restored prairie and wetlands owned and managed by the Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy at the Kankakee Sands in Newton County Indiana is a great place to observe wintering Short-eared owls, Harriers, and Rough-legged hawks.

Short-eared owl gliding over the prairie looking for prey this past week.