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.

The Northern Harrier

A hunting Northern Harrier spreads its’ tail-feathers slowing down quickly to catch the prey below.

December 19, 2019 – Gliding low and slow across the agricultural fields and the grassy waterways and prairies here in Northeastern Illinois are the beautiful Northern harriers. Once known as the Marsh hawk, these steep banking, quick stopping, hunting birds are considered here in the United States as “resident to long-distance migrants” According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We see an increase in numbers during the fall migration and into the winter months throughout Illinois. The harriers nest in numbers from Northern Wisconsin north into Canada and Alaska. These ground nesting hawks require large amounts of grasslands or wetland habitats for successful nesting. Some of the harriers winter from just south of the southern edge of their summer range, while others migrate all the way south to Central and South America. The stealthy, medium-sized hawks can be seen flying and hunting across Illinois’s cold sleeping landscape, looking and listening for movement coming from the dried dormant grasses just beneath their silent glide. When the focused hunters detect prey they use their long wings and long tail feathers to quickly turn and stop their graceful forward movement and instantly drop down on a field mouse or vole. The harriers are often seen diving at and chasing away Rough-legged hawks, Red-tailed hawks and even other harriers that get too close to their perceived hunting areas. The Northern Harriers are easily identified as they fly low across fields and prairies, their wings most often in a v-shape, and there is a white rump patch at the top of their long tail feathers. The female harriers and the immature birds are dark reddish-brown and tan, and the male adult birds, slightly smaller than the female, are a light-gray and almost white on some parts of the body, the tips of their wings are black. Often perched on a fence post or sitting in a field with a captured prey, one can get a good look at the feather pattern on the harrier’s face, it has a round appearance and resembles that of an owl. The disk like pattern of feathers on the harriers face is believed to help the hawks hear their prey as they hunt.

An adult female Northern Harrier keeps a wary eye as it glides by the photographer.

Turkey Vultures

A flock of over 30 adult and juvenile Turkey vultures on a rural road east of Kankakee recently.

September 5, 2019 – Throughout the summer months, in the skies over northeastern Illinois, all one has to do is look up to see those large, soaring, dark colored birds gently gliding in the summer thermals. The wings of the Turkey vultures are slightly, but noticeably, pointing up. The unmistakable dihedral angle or “v” shape of their wings while in flight are much different from other large birds like eagles and hawks. Those birds extend their wings straight out and flat from their body when soaring, and appear more like a sailplane. Even at a distance a Turkey vulture can be quickly ID’d by its’ shape and flight patterns. It is not uncommon to witness large numbers of Turkey vultures perched in an old snag preening and drying their wings in the morning sun. It seems that if one bird spreads its’ wings to warm up and dry out, the other perched vultures quickly follow suit. Soon that old tree full of vultures with wings spread wide begins to take on the appearance of the partially furrowed sails hanging from the foremast of an 18 century brigantine. The birds, with their wings stretched out, slowly and carefully begin to turn and reposition on those sometimes shaky branches as they continue their warming in the early sun drying the nighttime dew from their damp feathers. When the time is right and the their feathers are dry and ready for flight the birds begin to lift off from their roost. They leave, a few at a time, flapping their large wings and climbing upward into a column of the warm rising air to begin their daily search for carrion. Throughout the day the vultures are found in fields and along the rural roads and highways where their keen sense of smell and great vision has lead them to their primary food source, road kill. Most of the Turkey vultures will start moving south late in the year and spend the winter from far southern Illinois on south. In recent years though, with milder winters, there are larger numbers remaining throughout the winter months in central Illinois. The Turkey vultures are some of the first to arrive in numbers here in northern Illinois in late winter for another nesting season.

An adult Turkey vulture quickly moves away from the road walking further into a field with other birds.

Plenty To Eat

A Warbling vireo pauses for only a moment as it searches the leaves for insects.

August 5, 2019 – As we are coming to the end of August one can not help but notice the changes that are happening as another autumn nears and summer contemplates its’ well earned rest. The changes that have been a bit subtle are now upon us. The angle of the sunlight brings an inspiring warm tone to the landscape. The gentle breezes swirling through the forest canopy rustles and rattles the matured leaves allowing us to hear those uplifting whispers of the mighty Cottonwood. We have come to that time of the year where there is a bounty in the northern hemisphere for the avian migrants and those birds that are here year-round. Recently fledged birds, along with the adults, are fattening up for the migration, checking every leaf, stem, and branch for insects and worms. Little Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Warbling vireos, and Chickadees are persistently looking over and under every leaf while they cling tightly to the stems as they feed. Thistle and other seeds, berries, and nectar are available for the birds that are coming south from the higher latitudes as well as the birds that have nested here in Northeastern Illinois.

A female yellow warbler looking for a meal carefully surveys her next move into the thicket.

Prothonotary warblers stand out with their bright yellow feathers and olive-gray toned back and wings while gobbling up caterpillars with amazing success as they pluck them off those woody plants at the waters edge. Goldfinches are on the beautiful purple blooming thistle plants along roadways and on the prairies searching for the high fat and protein rich thistle seeds. Adults and this years’ young Hummingbirds stake out and fearlessly defend, from a good perch, their abundant food source, a large thick patch of Orange Jewelweed surrounded by other nectar giving plants. Some of these travelers will be around for a while feeding and fattening-up and growing strong for either a long or short migration. As the weeks go by though, and those abundant food sources in our area start to wane, the north wind bringing cooler temperatures, many birds will leave our area in a final push and continue south where they will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

The Green Heron

A wary adult Green heron stretches out its’ long neck to get a better view of the surroundings.

August 22, 2019 – What are those little dark colored squawking herons seen perched in the dead trees in and around our wetlands, ponds, and creeks? These wary birds are often seen stalking, with only the slightest of movement, as they inch across the branches of a partially submerged fallen snag in the duckweed covered still backwaters of our river. It is now August and soon the little Green herons will be heading south for the winter. The sightings have most definitely increased recently as the new generation of young Green herons, those feathery squawkers that are the results of a successful nesting season, are fledged and hunting on their own. The crow sized herons are dark colored and appear as silhouettes in the dim lit habitat of a slough, but when they are illuminated by the sunlight the beauty of Green heron is revealed. Their feathers are a rich color of chestnut, dark green, and blue-gray and they have yellow eyes and a dagger like bill that shoots out in the blink of an eye as they extend with great speed their long neck to grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or insect. According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Green herons begin arriving in Illinois in April and nesting occurs from May through early July and the fall migration starts in August.

A juvenile Green heron waits and watches patiently for any movement of potential prey.

There have been observations and even videos of this remarkable hunter that have verified that some of these birds have learned to use lures to get small fish to come in close. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology stated, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” As we are now seeing other species of herons and egrets staging and working their way south as autumn draws near, these little night fliers, those squawking Green herons, will soon disappear from our sloughs and wetlands until next April. The Green heron is considered a medium-distance migrant here in northeastern Illinois and winters along the southern coastal areas of North America, and south into Mexico, and Central America.