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.
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.
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.
November 19, 2020 – As we ease through the chilly days of November, the leafless trees and frosty mornings remind us of the coming winter as do the new arrivals of Arctic birds that we now see in flocks great and small in our rural areas of Northeastern Illinois. Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are now feeding along the gravel roads and in the harvested fields of Kankakee and Iroquois counties. This year also seems to be a year where some other species of birds that normally winter a bit further north, have come south into Illinois in larger numbers. The Pine Siskins are here in large numbers, Red Crossbills, and White-winged Crossbills are being seen in the Chicago area, and even a few places south. Another little bird that has a more northern winter range, that I had the pleasure of seeing in Iroquois County this past week, is the Common redpoll. A number of reported sightings of redpolls continue to come in for Northern Illinois, one reported sighting of a flock of 15. This little finch, the Common redpoll, breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and winters across the Provinces of Canada and south into the area of the Great Lakes. They are about the same size as the Pine siskin with similar markings but lighter overall. The male redpoll has a beautiful red crown with some rosy-pink color on the chest, and dark streaks on its underparts. The female is a bit duller overall, and lacks the pink-washed color on the chest, but does have the red feathers on the head, the red poll. The bright yellow bill of the redpoll is made for eating seeds, it is small and pointed for getting to those tiny seeds of the birch, alder, and willow trees. The sighting last week in Iroquois County was of a single male Common redpoll in the company of a small flock of House finches that were feeding on some ripe wild berries on the sunny side of a thicket. It was an exciting treat to observe this little Arctic breeder in a rural area of Illinois.
November 12, 2020 – It’s that time of year when those amazing bugling and rattling sounds from thousands of Sandhill cranes echo across the countryside of Northern Indiana at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just north of Medaryville, a little over an hour east of Kankakee. Jasper-Pulaski FWA is a great place to witness the fall migration of the Sandhill cranes where they can easily and safely be viewed from the parking lot at the Goose Pasture viewing area or from the nearby viewing platform. As more cranes arrive and numbers continue to grow, so do visitors who want to experience that autumnal spectacle of nature that can quite easily overwhelm the senses with the sights and sounds that have occurred each fall across the great Midwestern prairies for thousands of years. Mid-November is considered the peak time for highest numbers of cranes, with a record number topping 30,000. By mid-December, many will have moved further south, but it’s no secret that there is a healthy winter population of cranes that remain in the general area. Even during the harshest of winters, cranes can be found in the bean and corn stubble foraging. Currently during the fall after leaving the roosting areas for the day, the cranes can be found feeding, socializing, and resting in the harvested agricultural fields and on the grassy areas along the big drainage ditches. Sunrise and sunset are great times to experience large flocks leaving the roosting marshes in the morning and gathering at the Goose Pasture, or again after a day of feeding in the agricultural fields, returning about an hour before sunset in large numbers. There is nothing more surreal than viewing Sandhill cranes in large numbers as far as the eye can see, stretching out across a rolling landscape and looking more like herds of ice-age animals than flocks of birds. It is truly an amazing sight.
November 5, 2020 – Back in Illinois for the winter months are the White-throated sparrows, a large and attractive bird with a long tail and a bright-white throat and bold face patterns of black, white, gray, and yellow. The White-throated sparrows are considered a short to medium-distance migrant. It breeds in the United States in the Upper Great Lake region and in the coniferous and mixed forests across most of Canada. There are small pockets of year around birds in the northeast U.S. The sparrows leave the impending harsh winter of the north in autumn before the first snow and head south into the United States to a more hospitable climate that is not totally locked in ice during those cold months. They appear in northeastern Illinois about the same time in the fall each year as many other sparrows, like the White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. Similar to the Fox sparrow, the White-throated sparrows forage on the ground under the thick gnarly cover of the shadowed understory kicking leaf litter with its feet searching for insects, seeds and fruit in a very focused but alert manner. The sparrow can be found near heavily vegetated areas around parks and near rivers and creeks where there is plenty of cover. Also, during prolonged snow cover, many birds, including the White-throated sparrow, can be found in the windswept areas along roads and in fields searching for seeds. The White-throated sparrows will show up at backyard feeders during the winter here in Illinois with other birds providing there is some good cover nearby. Backyard feeders are favorite haunts for predators like Cooper’s hawk, domestic and feral cats, so quick escapes into thickets, bushes, and trees are a necessary part of a safe habitat for feeding birds.
October 29, 2020 – It is late October and the unmistakable and lovely echoing song of the Tufted titmouse, a small gray songbird with large black eyes, is in the air. Four of the fine-looking little birds descend to the ground to search through the leaf litter for fallen seeds. After finding a large seed, the titmouse quickly flies up to a branch and holds the seed between its’ feet and hammers away on the food with its’ bill to break the seed into smaller, edible pieces The Tufted titmouse is a common year-round resident to the eastern forests of the United States, most often seen during the fall and winter months at backyard feeders, parks, and open brushy areas at the edges of wooded landscapes where fruits, seeds, and insects are available. Northern Illinois, and states east to the Atlantic, are at the northern edge of the little birds’ range, although surveys have shown that they have been expanding their range northward as far as southern Canada for sometime, possibly due to a warming climate and the fact that more people are feeding birds during the winter. With a gray crest, dark forehead, a stubby black bill, and rusty colored flanks with white underparts the little Tufted titmouse stands out against the dull shades of brown on the autumn landscape, much like its’ smaller cousin, the Chickadee, with its’ bright crisp colors. It’s a speedy little bird that can suddenly appear, sometimes in a banditry of three or four bold little titmice, where there is a good food source. Cautiously but quickly the titmouse hops from branch to branch and then to the ground, many times chasing other birds away, finding a large seed to either eat now or take away and cache for later. The Tufted titmouse is a joy to see and a treat to hear, somehow their beauty is enhanced when snow comes to the woods. Maybe it’s the soft illumination from the blanket of white under the stark winter sky or just bottled up nostalgia that seems ready to burst with each new encounter.
October 22, 2020 – The cool temperatures of the Midwestern autumn bring a patchwork of awe-inspiring colors to both rural and urban landscapes. Reflections of the changing season fill the rivers, lakes, and slow flowing creeks that meander across the weary prairies and through the used-up pastures with a wonderful palette enhanced by the defused light of the gray autumn sky. The greens of the summer foliage are slowly disappearing into a changing landscape of late October. Large flocks of Turkey vultures, sometimes 40 or more, can be seen gliding in the breezy sky slowly working their way south for the winter. Some of the vultures are high in the sky with wings swept as they cut through the strong winds, others are gliding low across the tree tops and fields making progress working to windward across a gentle rolling sea of color. Winter flocks of black birds flying in unison take to the air from a fencerow as a Cooper’s hawk moves towards the mesmerizing display for a short pursuit that ends quickly as the hawk gives up on the evasive murmuration. Numbers of Pine siskins are seen in large and small flocks in the same areas where Gold finches in their drab winter plumage are feeding. The Pine siskin is a bird of the north that feeds on the seeds of coniferous and deciduous trees, though some years they move south in greater numbers if the seed crop of the north is poor. While fattening up on the available food the thick furred Fox squirrels are busy building their caches for the coming months. Young White-tailed bucks still in their bachelor group spar with each other on the sunny side of a sandy rise. As the rut grows near, these bucks will grow less tolerant of each other and the sparring will become much more serious, the group will break up and the bucks will go off on their own. Soon breeding will be the only thing on their mind as they search far and wide for does. A cold clear starry night accompanied by a freeze warning to gardeners and farmers tell the tale of no return, winter is coming, and that swift moving stream of the cold north winds will bring ice and blowing snow in the coming weeks. The frigged deep freeze of winter that is brought to use by the dynamics of a tilting planet will soon be at the door.
October 15, 2020 – The Swamp sparrow is an elegant, long-legged, medium-sized sparrow that is well adapted and right at home in the thick cover of marshes, swamps, and bogs of the north across eastern and central North America, stretching up into Canada’s Northwest Territories during the nesting season. The Swamp sparrow is more often detected by its song rather than actually being seen in its’ dense summer habitat of sedges, cattails, and shrubs. The variations of songs and calls of the Swamp sparrow have been studied, admired, and described as a slow, sweet, trill that will evoke the vision of a northern wetland to the observer just as the call of the Common loon sends ones’ thoughts to a clear secluded lake in the north woods. Ornithologists have even discovered regional dialects for Swamp sparrows located in different parts of the country. Through the study of the Swamp sparrow’s songs and calls researchers have gained an understanding on how these birds learn and continue to use songs that vary across different geographical regions, and how the sparrows are influenced as young by the popular songs used by the adults of those regions. It seems the most popular songs are the ones that are learned and repeated by the new generation of sparrows and any new variation that a young bird may come up with in its’ song learning practice that is not useful will soon fade away over time. The study also shows those popular songs have persisted in those regions for generations, possibly hundreds of years. The term used to explain how these song types are learned and stay popular to a region is known as “conformist bias”. The sparrows have a song repertoire, depending on the region, of popular tunes that have stood the test of time over many generations, influenced by the adults and put in to practice each year by a new generation of Swamp sparrows. Those tunes that work ring-out across the varied wetlands of North America.
October 8, 2020 – A small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had moved south out of their northern breeding range of Canada and the upper Great Lakes were busy foraging for insects south of Kankakee this past week. A cold front brought the chilly winds of change out of the north that provided incentive and opportunity to move south and many birds, including the kinglets, took advantage of the prevailing winds to do just that. Holding quite still, being very careful to resist sudden movements that might frighten the petite, swift moving birds, I was able to easily observe the kinglets as they went from dried weed stems, to low hanging branches, and back again searching for insects. Sometimes the little hunters were only a few feet away, too close for a long lens, but just right for a memorable experience. This encounter was some good medicine, the kind of medicine that can easily provide a temporary reprieve from the tightly wound human existence for any willing person that would take a moment to pause and look around. Larger than the hummingbird, the Golden-crowned kinglet is one of North America’s smallest birds. They have a black and white striped face, olive colored back with wings that have two white bars, and their round little bodies are white and pale gray on the underparts. The kinglets have black legs and yellowish feet that look as though they are wearing little golden socks. Both the male and the female have the bright yellow stripe on their heads, that golden crown from which they get their name. The bold yellow stripe almost seems to flash like a tiny beacon as they move through the shadowy patches of undergrowth at the woods edge. The male birds show some orange color blended into their golden crown that becomes more noticeable when their flashy crest is raised. As the little birds move south on their short-distance migration they can turn up almost anywhere, even near backyard feeders where other birds are foraging. Some will continue south while others will spend the winter in our area, preferring stands of conifers that most likely provide some protection from the bitter cold and a safe retreat from predators.