Winter Larks

A Horned lark flushed from the roadside where it was searching for food landed on the undisturbed snow nearby.

February 11, 2021 – The bitter winds from an Arctic blast of snow and falling temperatures arrives in Northeastern Illinois. Temperatures drop as a result of a strong negative Arctic oscillation which indicates that some very cold air has meandered out of the Arctic and moved south across Canada and into the northern United States. The Arctic oscillation is an index of mean weather data that meteorologists and climatologists use to understand the stability of the weather over the pole. The weather data moves the Arctic oscillation index between negative and positive numbers, mild winter weather would be indicated by the latter. As the challenging cold weather takes hold, ice quickly forms on our river, and open water on ponds and creeks begins to disappear as the icy blanket is pulled tight. The muffled sounds in the winter air cause us to trust our other senses a bit more. The honking voices from a flock of Canada geese flying overhead is softened by the snowy landscape of sound absorbing crystals in the new snow. During these harsh cold conditions geese and dabbling ducks begin to look somewhat ragged and spend more time hunkered together with little movement. Diving ducks like Common goldeneye continue their hunt for crayfish in the rivers’ open waters. Along the snowplowed country roads and on the high areas of windswept agricultural fields Horned larks fight strong winds searching for small seeds in the exposed areas. At times the little birds try to walk across the icy road only to be blown by a strong cold gust causing them to skate most of the way across while using their wings to balance. Horned larks are in Illinois year- round and are considered resident to short-distance migrants. During the winter months the number of Horned larks increase as birds from further north come south to winter in Illinois. This is a good time, especially when we have snow, to locate and observe the little larks along with Lapland longspurs and Snow buntings foraging the edges of less traveled rural roads where it can be done safely. Snowplows expose grassy areas where small seeds can be found by the larks when other areas are buried under deep snow during those brutal and challenging periods of winter.

Hunting the edge of a rural road, a pair of Horned larks battle a steady wind as they search for seeds.

Whooping Cranes

A beautiful rare Whooping crane with leg bands visible flying to another field to feed.

January 28, 2021 – Nearing the end of January on a cold and cloudy morning a ghostly white figure stood out among a large number of wintering Sandhill cranes. The cranes were socializing and feeding in some corn stubble a few miles south of the Kankakee river. Large and small flocks of Sandhill cranes were flying across the sky in all directions and many hundreds were crowded together in the surrounding fields. At times a Sandhill crane would seem to challenge the larger white crane that appeared to be minding its’ own business only to be pushed back by the larger bird and disappear into the crowd of gray. Soon another white figure began to come in view as it slowly emerged from the deep drainage ditch that cut through the agricultural fields. A large beautiful white crane was feeding with the Sandhill cranes that were foraging along the weedy banks and in the shallow icy waters of the ditch. I always have somewhat of a mixed feeling of joy and sadness to see those glorious but rare and endangered Whooping cranes. Understanding their struggles and knowing how few there really are can certainly occupy the emotional part of your brain after the experience. Larger than the Sandhill crane, the Whooping crane is the tallest bird in North American and also one of the rarest. Currently the International Crane Foundation puts the numbers of Whooping cranes in the world at 826, the Eastern migratory population nest in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, and are the Whooping cranes that we see here in the Midwest and are estimated at 80 birds as of January 2021. Out of that estimated number in the Eastern population, 17 were wild-hatched, and the rest are captive-reared. There are 504 in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory population that migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast in Texas. Louisiana has a non-migratory population of 69 and Florida has 9. There are 159 Whooping cranes in captivity

The bright-white Whooping crane stands out among the gray Sandhill cranes crowded together in the corn stubble.

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.

Winter Birds

A Merlin falcon perched on an icy branch, drying out its tail feathers along the river at Jeffers Park this past week.

January 14, 2021 – Common mergansers, Golden-eye ducks, and Greater white-fronted geese have all been spotted from our river parks here in Kankakee County this past week. Four Greater white-fronted geese swam up river at Cobb park past a large number of Canada geese and a few Mallard ducks that were gathered along the north bank. The nervous white-fronted geese, also known as the “specklebelly”, were spooked by runners as they jogged through the park. The geese flew upstream making their strange high pitched laughing sounds as they went out of sight. An adult Bald eagle could be seen perched high in a tall tree down river from Jeffers park watching for a meal opportunity on the ice free waters of the Kankakee. A Merlin falcon was at the rivers’ edge at Jeffers park in the shallows bathing in the cold water. The little falcon soon flew up into a tree, the same tree where a Belted kingfisher was watching for small fish from a good perch that stretched out above the water. The Merlin perched on a cold looking icy branch after its chilled bath. The little falcon spread its tail feathers wide, drying them in the frigid January air for a good fifteen minutes before heading a short distance west to another tree. Down river at the Kankakee River State Park on the west end of Langham island four beautiful Tundra swans, two adults and two juveniles, were spending the morning among a number of Canada geese. The white swans stuck out like a sore thumb among the dark colored smaller Canada geese. The Tundra swans are here through the winter months taking up temporary residence on the open waters of lakes and rivers in the lower 48. These swans are probably part of the eastern population and are a long way from their summer nesting range on the northern coastal areas of Alaska east along Canada’s Arctic coast to Hudson Bay and north up into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The dynamic winter weather of the Midwest can bring wintering birds to any open water as rivers and lakes freeze during cold periods. Those weeks of cold temperatures can be an exciting time for nature lovers and bird watchers, concentrating many species of waterfowl and birds-of-prey to those shrinking areas of ice free water.

Two juvenile and two adult Tundra swans rest near Langham Island at the Kankakee River State Park.

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.

Snowy Owl

Stretching before flying off to another perch, the Snowy owl shows its large yellow eyes just before spreading it’s wings.

December 24, 2020 – Perched at the top of a utility pole calmly scanning the surrounding landscape for prey, a beautiful Snowy owl appears in Iroquois County the day before our first snow. To the Inuit people of the north, the owl represents guidance and wisdom and has an important relationship with both humans and the environment. Snowy owl sightings have been reported in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana recently as more birds move south to escape the blizzards and sub-temperatures of the Arctic. As I write this, there are blizzard warnings in the area of Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut in Canada as a low pressure system is making its way through Hudson Bay toward southern Baffin Island bringing cold temperatures, snow, and 50 mile per hour winds. Here in northern Illinois the arriving Snowy owls are enjoying 37 degrees with 11 mile an hour winds on the mostly flat and sleeping winter landscape of the prairie state that somewhat resembles the Arctic tundra above the tree line, a place familiar to the owls. The female Snowy owl is larger than the male and has a wingspan of about 4.5 feet and weighs almost 5 pounds. They have a white face and large yellow eyes, a black bill surrounded by feathers, and they have acute hearing and vision. These Arctic owls are the heaviest owls in North America. To observe them flying low over corn stubble here in Illinois, with their large white wings slowly flapping as they make their approach and glide towards a low perch with some cover hundreds of yards away is an amazing sight. The Snowy owls that have come south for the winter will start moving northward toward their breeding grounds in the Arctic in February and March, and most will be gone by April. The owls will be back on their snow covered breeding grounds where the courtship will start in early May. The cycle will continue high in the north as new generations will be fed, protected, and fledged, and maybe even spend the cold months in a field near you, here in Illinois.

Searching for prey from the vantage of a utility pole, the Snowy owl looks towards the rear for any movement.

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.

Rough-legged Hawk

Perched on the small branches in a tree a light colored Rough-legged hawk watches for movement in the prairie grasses below.

December 10, 2020 – Early December brings us some crystal clear and cold nights under brilliant waning moonlight that seems to sparkle on the frosty panes of thin ice forming on the creeks and along the river’s edge. The low temperatures create icy patterns that surround the many exposed and weathered rocks in the shallows with delicate chilly collars that will soon grow into thick cold locks that will hold fast in the coming weeks. These cold months also bring those Arctic hawks that will spend the winter hunting the prairies and farm fields here in the Midwest. The Rough-legged hawk’s diet has changed from the Lemmings of the Arctic tundra to the small mammals, like mice and voles, found here in our area of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. During the nesting season in the high Arctic the Rough-legged hawks use rock ledges to build their nest in the vast and remote land of the midnight sun. While on their winter range, if they are not hovering or kiting over the grassy prairies and fields searching for prey, the hawks can be seen perched on the small branches in the tops of trees, or on utility poles and fence posts near a good hunting area. Like Snowy owls and other predators that migrate south out of the Arctic, the years of abundance in prey, especially Lemmings, means an increase in the predictors population, and an increase in numbers of migrants that winter here in the lower 48. The Rough-legged hawk is one of three raptors that have feathers down it’s legs to the tops of its feet, certainly an adaptation for colder conditions of the unpredictable Arctic. Watch for the Rough-legged hawks perched or gliding into wind above the prairies throughout the winter and keep in mind there are light and dark-morphs, some are quite dark and some have very light plumage. They have small feet with feathers on their legs that can easily be seen with binoculars.

A Rough-legged hawk with dark plumage hunts only about 15 feet above the ground clinging tight with its small feather covered feet.

The Rut

A big White-tailed buck stands at the edge of a road in Iroquois County in pursuit of a doe.

December 3, 2020 – The Midwestern autumn brings shorter days, colder temperatures, and behavior changes to those majestic whitetail bucks. The new growth of antlers that began in the spring has hardened and reached its’ maximum growth for the year. The bachelor groups of spring and summer have disbanded and the males are now on their own. Standing and showing little concern while in plain sight at the edge of a woods, or in the corn stubble of a harvested field, with his mouth open and head tilted up into the wind, the buck is clearly focused on something else. White-tailed deer have very keen senses and along with the bucks very sensitive nose, he also has a special sensory organ in the roof of his mouth that can detect females that are approaching estrous. The strong desire to breed is why, at this time of the year, we see those seemingly out of place whitetail bucks that are in pursuit of a mate. Standing with their nose in the air and with their mouth open and lip curled up blocking their nostrils they are tasting the air for that special signal, and during this time that buck has only one thing on his mind. The male deer can actually locate a doe nearing estrus by tasting the airborne chemical signals from quite a distance. Seeing the normally shy, overly cautious, and sometimes totally nocturnal whitetail buck out during the middle of the day can mean only one thing, it is the breeding season, also known as the rut. The breeding season for White-tailed deer is where caution is truly thrown to the wind and love is literally in the air. The peak of rut takes place from late October through November, but breeding will continue through January as the rut heats and cools and finally ends for another mating season for the whitetails of Illinois.

With lip curled up and mouth open a small buck chases a doe through the prairie grasses.