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.
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.
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.
November 10, 2017 – A steady and chilly wind reminds us that another winter is approaching the prairies of Illinois and now, just ahead of that stark and frozen season, the Rough-legged hawks have returned. High over the fallow fields, pastures, and the dormant prairies, appearing suspended like tethered kites hovering and maneuvering in the gusts are the arctic birds of prey that have migrated to their less forbidden winter range. There are no ptarmigans or lemmings here, a food source on the tundra during the hawks nesting season but there are plenty of other small mammals and birds that will sustain these wonderful hunters for the next five or six months before they return to their nesting areas on the cliff faces and outcroppings overlooking the vast and open country of the arctic.
July 23, 2017 – While perched on a fence post at the The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana a Grasshopper Sparrow sings out a song that resembles the sounds of its’ favorite food, the grasshopper. The little songbird has a perfect habitat at the Kankakee Sands with the open grasslands, plenty of insects and a good place for these ground nesting little migrants to have a successful breeding season. The Grasshopper Sparrow has shown a decline in recent years from habitat loss throughout its’ range with the fragmentation and degradation from intensive agriculture. The 2014 state of the birds report has the Grasshopper Sparrow listed as a common bird in steep decline.
March 25, 2017 – The Rough-legged hawk can be spotted perched on utility poles, fence posts or gliding low across the frozen agricultural fields and the waterways of dormant grasses and weeds during the winter months here in the mid-west. Oftentimes these birds can be seen sitting on the ground along the roadway or in the desolate looking winter farm fields as they keep a wary eye and scan their surrounding for potential prey. In the summer one would have to travel to Hudson Bay and the High Arctic to see them hunting lemmings or voles on the tundra or nesting on a rock ledge or a ground level rocky outcropping with their brood of 2-6 eggs. Weighing up to 3lbs and having a wing-span of 4 ½ ft they are easy to spot as they seem to be a fixture in the winter sky gliding with eyes down into the wind hovering at times as they watch for movement of a mouse, ground squirrel or even a rabbit. Identifying the Rough-legged hawk is really not that difficult, although they could be mistaken for the Northern Harrier that has a similar hunting method. I always look for that tell-tale pattern, easier to see on the light-morph birds, those somewhat square or rectangle looking dark bold patches on the underside of the wings between the wing-tips and the first joint. Another thing to look for on these hawks are the feathers on the legs, the Rough-legged hawk gets its name from the feathers that cover the legs extending all the way to the toes, which are believed to help conserve heat. In our rural areas from November to March one has the best chance to have an encounter with these Arctic visitors.
December 31, 2016 – There was cold stiff December wind blowing across the prairie at Kankakee Sands Saturday morning, a good way to make a fine memory on the last day of the year. The Bison herd were keeping a tall sand ridge between them and the relentless winds as they grouped together near some small oak trees. I noticed that 10 white-tailed deer had found some protection from the wind in the tall grasses west of the Bison. Rough legged hawks and Northern Harriers seemed suspended in the sky above the prairie using the wind to their advantage as they hunted for small mammals. For a moment one could imagine a time before the Europeans when the indigenous people and nature existed as one. The primitive roads through the dense prairie grasses of their original range were made by these grand beast migrating north and south and stretching from Michigan to Kentucky across a vast prairie, passing oak savannas, marshes, campsites and villages of the natives. I can sense a rumble like thunder under clear skies, dust clouds of movement as a herd passes long ago near where I sit.