Bonaparte’s gulls

Adult Bonaparte's gull in full breeding plumage

Adult Bonaparte’s gull in full breeding plumage

April 19, 2018 – Good size flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls have been reported in Kankakee county and throughout Northern Illinois in recent weeks as they are working their way north to the boreal forests of western and central Canada and the southern half of Alaska where they will nest in the conifers. The small gulls prefer trees separated from the dense growth that are at the edges of marshes and bogs. A flock of 50 of these small and elegant tern like gulls was spotted in a flooded area of an agricultural field busily feeding on insects and worms, certainly to bulk up for their long journey north. The winter plumage of these gulls is mostly white, with a light gray on the tops of their wings and black wingtips, plus a dark spot on the sides of the head behind the eye. During the nesting season the adult birds’ head transitions to a slaty black as they get that wonderful dark hood that stands out in a beautiful contrast to their white body. This flock was made up of adult birds in full breeding plumage with some that were at different stages of transition, plus a number first year birds.

Bonaparte's gull not in breeding plumage

Bonaparte’s gull not in breeding plumage

American White pelicans

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

April 14, 2018 – Numbers of American White pelicans have been reported in our area for the past month. East of Momence near the Illinois/Indiana state line in Newton county Indiana, small and large flocks have been observed at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. The pelicans are using the local small lakes, cooling lakes, and the backwaters of the Kankakee river as staging areas where they can rest and feed while waiting for that moment when that strong hormonal drive pushes them to head further north for the nesting season. Fifty of the large white birds have been counted at Black Oak with similar counts for J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA. A flock of these great birds have been using a small rocky island in the Kankakee River State Park with a number of 25 birds reported on April 7th. Even larger numbers exceeding 100 have been reported near Braidwood and north to the Des Plains river.

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Traveling Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

April 5, 2018 – Most had their heads cocked with their faces tucked deep into their feathers as they perched sleeping side-by-side on this cold April morning in a springtime where winter was refusing to yield. Their long extended wing feathers, their primaries, appeared like little brown scabbards hanging from the belts of tiny soldiers that were dressed in their finest blue jackets. The weather was right for the snow that was predicted for later in the day and they seemed reluctant to leave their bivouac even well after sunup. There were more then 150 of these tired travelers roosting in a small tree at the edge of some flooded timber in the backwaters of the Kankakee river. Tree Swallows are known as short-distance migrators even though some travel as far as Alaska for the breeding season and nest in most of Canada and much of the United States. The Swallows winter along the South Eastern coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and south into Central America. Some Tree Swallows have arrived even earlier and have been in our area for at least a month and they have already paired up and staked out their territory. This flock appears to be a recent arrival and may have traveled many miles in the last few days. They may still have some distance to go before they reach their destination, hopefully a more temperate weather pattern will soon take hold for this sleepy flock of traveling Tree Swallows.

Tree Swallows sleeping

Tree Swallows sleeping

Horned Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

March 28, 2018 – A pair of Horned Grebes glide silently across the placid waters of the Black Oak Bayou. One is still in its’ mostly achromatic winter plumage, while the other is transitioning towards the more impressive breeding colors of gold, black and chestnut. These small divers with their intriguing red eyes are on their northerly migration. The birds have been spending some time at a good food source of aquatic invertebrates and small fish at the Black Oak Bayou in the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area in Newton county Indiana. Soon the grebes will follow their instincts and continue the journey north into Canada towards the boreal lakes and marshes where their impressive courtship display will once again signify a bonding and the coming of a new generation of those red eyed divers.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe starting to show breeding colors

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

March 23, 2018 – Perched on a branch amongst the cones and catkins of an Alder tree, a female Red-winged blackbird momentarily halts her search for insects as a large flock of Rusty Blackbirds suddenly and with an explosion of noise ascend from the swampy ground to the high branches of the surrounding trees.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird perched in a small tree

March 19, 2018 – A brightly colored male Eastern Bluebird perched in a small tree overlooking its’ territory appears to be taking in the warmth of the morning sun. The nesting season is here for the Eastern Bluebirds as they seek out small cavities in trees, old woodpecker holes, or a man made nesting box along a fence row. The males can be seen bringing material to a possible nest site hoping to entice the females with their excellent choice and seductive wing display. The male Bluebird is very aggressive towards other males that enter its’ territory as is the female towards other females. Soon the female Bluebird, upon excepting the offer from the male, will complete the building of a nest, selecting the right materials, and constructing the nest just the way she wants it. In about 15 days a new generation of Eastern Bluebirds will hatch into a world with many challenges.

Sandhill cranes

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

March 5, 2018 – Sandhill cranes have been seen in the area for the past month as they have been working their way north. Flocks small and large can be seen in the wet areas and agricultural fields across Northern Illinois and Indiana with larger concentration south of the Kankakee river valley near Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area. It is also a good time to spot Golden eagles as they seem to follow the crane migration in both spring and fall. One was recently seen gliding low over some pine trees near the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands prairies.

Golden Eagle near Kankakee Sands

Golden Eagle near Kankakee Sands

Short-eared owls at the Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl Perched Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl Perched

March 9, 2018 – The light had changed on the prairie as it neared the late part of the afternoon. The sun, now in the western sky, cast a warm glow that saturated the earthy colors at the Kankakee sands. It was like a switch had been thrown when they suddenly appeared, the Short-eared owls were up and hunting! Two of the owls swooped in working together to drive away a Northern Harrier that was gliding low just above the prairie in search of its’ next meal. Two other owls could be seen perched on small bushes that stood above the tall brown grasses to the north. The irregular flight path of the hunting owls had them flying away but quick turns brought them back towards me for a fly by and then away again as they continued their search for prey. A cloud bank above the western horizon quickly narrowed the window of light needed for my camera, but a quick drive though the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands located 7 more of these remarkable owls. Swooping and banking as the light grew dim the Short-eared owls took over the evening skies at the Kankakee Sands while the Northern Harriers and Rough-legged hawks found their roosts for the night.

Short-eared Owl at the Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl

Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-Headed Woodpecker moving stone

January 27, 2018 – At first I wasn’t sure what all the Red-headed woodpeckers were doing flying out of the woods to the middle of a gravel parking lot. As I pulled in I could see them picking up something and quickly flying back to the woods. My thoughts were, what are they doing with those stones? After getting into position I was then able to observe them with my binoculars and I could see that they were getting bits of what appeared to be cracked corn from between the rocks. They would swiftly fly back to the woods but it wouldn’t be long until they would swoop in once more, three or four at a time. A mix of juvenile and adult birds would quickly locate more corn, sometimes moving stones that looked relatively large. While watching the Red-headed woodpeckers I saw Blue birds, Nuthatches, Blue Jays and a Tufted Titmouse working their way around the edge of the woods. Goldfinches are starting to show some yellow and high overhead the sounds from large flocks of Canada geese and those unique sounds of the Greater White-fronted Goose echoed. There were five Trumpeter Swans moving fast just above the black and gray leafless woods, their white feathers seemed to glow against the blue sky in the bright sunshine.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker with corn.

A Northern Harrier

A Northern Harrier

A Northern Harrier swoops low across the tallgrass prairie

November 27, 2017 – A Northern Harrier swoops low across the tallgrass prairie at the Kankakee Sands on a late November morning as it searches for a vole or a mouse that might be spotted sneaking through their secret trails deep in the winter grasses. A quick mid-air pause, with a sudden turn, and the harrier quickly drops down on the small mammal in the thick tangle of the dried cover. Northern Illinois and Indiana are at the northern edge of the harrier’s winter range where you can see them gliding low across grassy waterways, prairies and roadside ditches. Keep an eye out for the bright white patch at the top of the tail on the harrier’s backside and those long wings of this slow glider.