February 4, 2018 – A cold and gusting north wind with falling snow was reducing visibility this past Sunday along the Kankakee river. Canada geese, Mallard ducks and Greater White-fronted geese also known as the Specklebelly goose were sticking close to the north bank of the river using it to block the wind. There were eight of these tundra breeders among the Canada geese and they are easy to spot with the patch of white on their forehead and at the base of their pinkish light orange bill. Although they are more common west of the Mississippi during the winter months, we still see them every year both small and large flocks in our area. Many times we hear that unique vocalization before ever seeing them flying overhead.
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.
January 19, 2018 – Almost silhouetted in the backlight of the morning sun, a spooked White-tailed buck does not waste any time increasing the distance between itself and possible danger. White-tailed deer can reach speeds of 40 mile per hour and easily jump barriers that are 9 feet tall. They have the ability to take to the air and leap an amazing distance of 30 feet while running to escape a threat that is in hot pursuit. In a matter of seconds that buck along with another was across the field, through a small woodlot, down a hillside and into a field of corn stubble well over a half mile away and then like a snowflake in the spring they were gone.
January 19, 2018 – Snow Buntings are a small songbird of the high Arctic, a visitor that can be seen in our area with flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs and sometimes in larger flocks of their own species. During the winter months here in Illinois they can be found feeding on dropped seeds along roadways or in the harvested agricultural fields. An interesting fact of these little birds, unlike other birds that can claim and alternate plumage, they only molt once and that is in the late summer. By the time spring rolls around and the Arctic breeding season is underway the browns and tan colored tips of their feathers are worn off showing mostly pure white with coal black wingtips. During their breeding season there are only a few slight differences in the plumage of the female and male.
January 18, 2018 – A Snowy Owl was perched at the top of an evergreen last week in Iroquois county and seemed to have set its sights on a Fox Squirrel busy looking for food around the base of a large cottonwood. A small flock of Tree Sparrows and the intended target, the surprised squirrel, scattered and vanished when the owl swooped in. A moment after the failed attempt the owl took to the air and headed to a waterway in the middle of the field. The number of reported sightings of Snowy Owls starting to come in for Illinois have exceeded 100 so far. Those numbers are likely to increase from the encounters yet to be reported. In a small part of Iroquois county my high count for these owls is three but this year it has doubled with six individuals and possibly a seventh. It has been a banner season for these beautiful visitors from the Canadian Arctic, they have brought much excitement across the United States along with much science yet to be understood. Remember, if you encounter a Snowy Owl please respect the owl and keep your distance, do not try to approach the owl just to get a photo, observe from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Snowy Owls have just recently been listed as vulnerable by the Union for Conservation of Nature.
January 18, 2018 – Persecuted, shot at and mostly misunderstood the coyote plays an important part in a healthy ecosystem. Helping to keep populations of mice, rats, foxes, opossums and raccoons in check which in turn reduces predation on ground nesting birds in areas especially where nesting habitat has been diminished by agriculture or urban expansion, the coyote most certainly plays an important role. Along with deer, small rodents, reptiles and insects; plants and fruits are also part of the coyotes diet when available. Livestock depredation is very rare and overstated in the exaggerated tales of the prairie wolf. The coyote is known as a Keystone species, which means without a healthy population of this carnivore the ecosystem goes out of balance, biodiversity is lost causing immoderate population growth of one species while another species can disappears completely from an area.
January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.
During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.
The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.
December 27, 2017 – The Lapland Longspur is a small songbird of the Arctic tundra and a winter visitor to most of the lower 48. Feeding on natural occurring seeds and waste corn dropped during harvest, large flocks of longspurs, sometimes numbering in the thousands, can be seen fighting those strong winter winds and blowing snow while scratching out food in those areas of open ground exposed by those same winds.
December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.
The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.
December 4, 2017 – Experts are calling the increased number of sightings of Snowy owls this year a possible irruption as large numbers of these Arctic visitors are showing up in the lower 48. There are reports of sightings here in the Midwest about every day as they continue to spread south out of Canada. I found this beautiful Snowy owl in Iroquois county hunkered down and using the utility pole and the thick grasses around the base to block the strong 27 mph winds that were gusting out of the south Monday morning. Snowy owls move into Illinois every year from the north during the winter months but in an irruption year, about every four years, the increased presence can show that the Snowy owls had a good breeding season and research indicates it coinciding with an increase in their food supply of Arctic rodents.
December 5, 2017