The Short-eared Owl

Blending in with the dry brown winter grasses a Short-eared owl sits motionless on a cold February morning.

March 10, 2022 – The winter migrants were almost invisible sitting along a rural road in Iroquois County during the mid-morning. Blending in quite well with the soft dried grasses, surrounded by mounds of snow on an extremely-cold February morning, five wintering Short-eared owls seemed little bothered by the passerby. The owls appeared motionless while taking advantage of a bit of warmth from the morning sun. I tried to envision a time in the midwest when marsh and prairie habitats were vast and uncorrupted. Midwestern America was a perfect nesting habitat for the ground-nesting birds, a time before European settlements when Short-eared owls were a common species found in our area of Illinois and the surrounding states. The Short-eared owl is now considered an endangered native. Today there are only a handful of records of Short-eared owls nesting in Illinois, which is occurring on some large blocks of restored and protected grassland habitat. The destruction and reduction of the grassland and wetland over the years that are important for a healthy population of Short-eared owls are the main reason they are listed as endangered in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Other Great Lake states have the owls listed as threatened or as a species “of special concern.” Observing the sleepy little owls, they would at times open their large round yellow eyes, the short tufts of feathers would stick up like little horns on top of their head, resembling some underworld deity. The hornlike tufts of feathers that stand upon the heads of many owls like the Great-horned owl, and the Long-eared owl, are neither horns nor ears. Some believe that the erect feathers that can be raised or lowered at will on the Short-eared owls might be a means of non-vocal communicating with other Short-eared owls. Others have suggested that the feathers are just additional camouflage, for when the owl roost or nest on the ground among the grasses, helping them to blend into their surroundings. The Short-eared owl is medium-sized with a wingspan of up to 40 inches. They have rounded heads that is more obvious when the feathers on top of their head are not standing up. As spring nears, the wintering Short-eared owls will move north towards their nesting areas for the breeding season. Except for the rare summer sighting, most of us will have to wait until late fall and throughout the winter to experience the thrill of the Short-eared owls rising out of their roost at dusk for the hunt.

A little Short-eared owl finds shelter along an eroded ditch bank in Iroquois County.

Snowflakes

A small flock of 20 Snow buntings foraging for fallen seeds in a snow-covered field in Iroquois County.

February 8, 2022 – Snow buntings migrate to the lower 48 each year to escape the howling winds that push blinding blizzards and deadly cold temperatures in the northern latitudes turning their summer range on the Arctic tundra into a bleak and inhospitable place for the little birds. Even during the nesting season, the high Arctic can be a hostile place where temperatures dip into the negative 20s and 30s, challenging the early spring arrivals. Snow buntings have adapted like other animals of the north. The mostly white-feathered male buntings in their breeding plumage become somewhat invisible on a snow-covered spring landscape, a necessary adaptation to go unnoticed for the ground-nesting birds. They build their nests in the cracks and crevasses among the rocks. The buntings line them with fur and feathers for insulation. The little white birds are sometimes called Snowflakes, perhaps like real snowflakes, they show up during the winter, and a large flock of these little white birds swirling through the air can give only one perception. Snow buntings persevere in an unforgiving world of extremes. When they finally leave the Arctic for their summer range, they travel as far south as the Texas panhandle and east to the Carolinas. It can be easy to miss these sparrow-sized winter migrants feeding in the harvested winter fields of the Midwest unless they take to the air. But when the snows finally come and cover the agricultural expanse, here in northeastern Illinois, the migratory birds like Lapland longspurs and the beautiful Snow buntings appear at the roadway’s edge, where the snowplow has scraped bare the ground, and where the little birds can search for seeds. Snow buntings are sometimes only found one or two mixed in with a flock of longspurs, and some years there can be large flocks of hundred or more seen taking advantage of a good winter food source. Each year is different when it comes to finding Snow buntings, some years, you may be lucky to see even a single bird, but there are years when there are large foraging flocks in our rural areas. The hard truth is that Snow buntings, according to research studies, are in decline, and the world population has dropped 60% over the last 45 years. Climate change, pesticides, and the loss of habitat have certainly been a quantitative threat to many species around the globe, and the little Snowflake is no exception. The recently reported and highly concerning rapid warming of the Arctic brings a whole new set of questions for researchers.

Snow buntings in their winter plumage search for food through a recent snowfall.

The Butcher Watchman

A Northern shrike watching for prey quickly wings to another small tree as it continues its hunt.

January 10, 2022 – The bleakness of a winters afternoon and the silhouette of a small songbird off in the distance perched at the end of a spindly sapling can send chills having nothing to do with the cold weather down the back of even the strongest and most rational when the sweet songs barely heard are that of the butcherbird. An uncommon winter visitor, the Northern Shrike is about the size of the American Robin, with similar colors to that of the Northern mockingbird. Northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana are on the southern edge of the Shrikes winter range, where a lucky few get to see this remarkable bird each year. The shrike prefers open wetlands and shrubby grassland areas with tall saplings and snags to perch on to watch for prey. The little songbird is much different than the other songbirds that live or spend the cold winter months here in northeastern Illinois. The shrike has an appetite for small rodents and other birds; it is a swift, effective hunter with a sharply hooked bill and a tomial tooth, a tooth-like feature on the upper part of the beak similar to falcons and is used to dispatch their prey. Northern Shrike is also known as the butcherbird or the butcher watchman, names well earned from its’ macabre survival skills. Birds of prey like Hawks, eagles, and falcons have powerful talons that are key to securing the victim. The Northern shrike has claws that are not any different than other songbirds. To help hold their victim while tearing into the flesh with their strong-curved bill, the shrike will carefully impale the prey on the pointed barbs of a barbed-wire fence or a long thorn. A fork in a convenient tree also works well to secure the victim. Killing more than it can eat caching of prey is a survival skill and can grow to six or seven locations throughout the shrike’s wintering territory. The Northern shrikes breed in the partly-open areas of the far north along the Arctic circle from Alaska east across northern Canada and south around Hudson Bay to Labrador.

Perched and watching for any movement along a brushy creek, a shrike is on high alert.

The North Winds

A young White-tailed buck seems to defy gravity as it speeds across a field in Iroquois County.

December 7, 2021 – Those inevitable cold fronts bring damp and chilly changes to the Midwest, causing white crusty ice crystals to form during the night. Across the tired and dejected-looking landscape, a delightful sugary coating enhanced by the morning light shimmers and sparkles, the heavy frost covers the withering but determined understory and tells the tale of the coming change. Strong north winds remove stubborn leaves from the nearly bare trees. Marcescent hardwoods, with their tattered dried leaves, rattle in the breeze, a somewhat haunting sound that will continue through the dormant season. The pockets of cover that wildlife like White-tailed deer and Coyotes have used all summer will no longer be the havens of safety and vantage for these large mammals, although they remain to be quick escapes for pheasants, cottontails, and fox squirrels. Those tangled bare stemmed forms that border woods and prairies that were once places of a safe retreat have been reduced to transparent wiry frames offering much less safety and protection for the coming months. The struggles of winter are within sight. Flushed out into the open by the strong desire to breed, the behavior of White-tailed deer has changed with the colder weather of late autumn. Meteorological winter began December 1st, and although the rut will soon start to decline, the breeding will continue a bit longer. It is not unusual to see a doe bed down in corn stubble mid-morning in a wide-open area with a few bucks standing nearby waiting for an opportunity to breed. The gestation period for the White-tailed deer is about six months. The female deer will carry her unborn through the harshness of winter, a time of snow, arctic blasts, and food supplies that become increasingly limited. With the unpredictable calamities caused by climate change and the effects on the jetstream that impact all of us, the periods of extended cold and snow cover potentially affect the development of the White-tails’ fetus. Other animals surviving the winter in the Midwest require food and habitat to get them through those hard times. Nature restoration programs and land left undeveloped provide year-round safe places for nature. It is easy for humans to go indoors by a fire to warm up during the coldest of times, but wildlife of the Midwest endures some unimaginable bitter conditions during the winter. Let’s not forget to leave them some habitat.

A wary Coyote in its new winter coat crosses a recently harvested bean field.

Sandhill Migration

Adult Sandhill cranes seem to bow to each other as they perform their elaborate dance display. The Sandhill cranes are most famous for their beautiful courtship dancing, which is more common, but they dance year-round while socializing, which is believed to be a way to bond with their partner.

November 11, 2021 – Chilly early November mornings in the Midwest bring sensational enhancements that satisfy the consciousness. There are the familiar smells of wood-burning stoves and mixed stands of trees in delightful shades of umber above their sturdy black trunks surrounded in silvery pockets of shifting ground fog that floats like ghostly spirits across the countryside. The senses are quickly lifted and seem to fall under a spell of nostalgic longing to the observer. A subtle change presents itself with color and complexity during this most thought-provoking and inspiring season of the year, the back-end period. Above in the slow-rolling gray skies, small flocks of low flying and noisy Canada geese are sharing airspace with much larger flocks of those great birds, the Sandhill cranes. As far as the eye can see, hundreds of Sandhill cranes, flying in all directions, have left their nightly roosts and are heading to their daytime feeding and socializing areas along the ditches and agricultural fields of Northern Indiana. The loud rattling calls of the Sandhill cranes fill the morning air, faint sounds of cranes off in the distance can be heard across the fields and past the woods over a mile away. Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area near Medaryville in Northern Indiana is a stopover during autumn for Sandhill cranes moving south for the winter. Each year the southbound Sandhill cranes begin arriving in northern Indiana in October. The numbers peak in late November through December. Thousands of cranes move out of the area and head further south towards the Gulf states by the end of December, but many cranes remain where they take advantage of a nearby power plant where they find open water year-round. For thousands of years, Sandhill cranes have followed the same routes south during the fall migration taking them where fair weather and food can sustain them through the cold winter months. With a fossil record dating back two and a half million years, Sandhill cranes are one of the oldest living bird species in North America. There is not a painting so beautiful as the experience of watching a flock of Sandhill cranes illuminated by the morning sun gliding low across a backdrop of autumn color.

Three Sandhill cranes, two juveniles, and an adult stand close together while cautiously watching an intruder pass by.

The Autumn Nudge

A Neotropical bird, the Black-throated Green warbler pauses for a moment on a dried stem in Iroquois County with a freshly caught caterpillar.

October 11, 2021 – Another year has tilted quietly into the splendid season of autumn, a time of bounty, preparedness, and introspection that nudges all living things in the Northern Hemisphere. While humans adjust to their seasonal changes and challenges, animals have been fattening up, growing new coats, and gathering food. Birds and insects have been on the move for weeks. Many plants continue to provide, but many have gone to seed and withered, a change is in the air. Feeding, resting, and building strength, many species have been working their way south towards their winter ranges. Recent weather radar over the Great Plains displayed not a weather disturbance moving south but a remarkable radar return of many thousands of Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. Changing weather systems across the American flyways, like cold fronts, air pressure, and strong autumn tailwinds can be a great predictor and the ideal opportunity for a mass movement of birds and insects out of the north. Bird enthusiasts, throughout the range of bird migration, hope and watch for unusual avian visitors to their woodlands, wetlands, and backyard feeders in their areas, including the highly anticipated and always delightful many species of warblers. Those early migrating warblers can still show their beautiful summer plumage, but as the weeks pass, the birds become a bit harder to identify as they transition into their winter plumage. Young birds born during the summer may look different than adults. The fading of the adult warbler’s strong summer markings may also require close study with thorough identification guides and even the valued opinions of expert birders to help identify those notoriously difficult fall migrants. By mid-October, many warblers and other songbirds have moved farther south out of Illinois. The tiny Ruby-crowned and Yellow-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped, and Palm warblers continue to pluck insects from the bushes and trees in our area. Sparrows that spent their nesting season north of Illinois, some as far as the Arctic, have arrived and are taking advantage of the available seeds and insects. Sandhill cranes, Whooping cranes, Arctic hawks, Golden eagles, Short-eared owls, and Snowy owls are moving south and will satisfactorily fill the void of our summer visitors until the spring rings true once again.

A boreal songbird, the Blackpoll warbler, is bound for northern South America for the winter. The small wooded area in Iroquois County and others like it along the migration route are lifesavers and provides the much-needed food for that bird and many others on their long journeys south.

Swallow-tailed kite

August 9, 2021 – Gone but not forgotten, the rare visitor at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in Newton County, Indiana, a little over 30 miles southeast of Kankakee, was witnessed, documented, and photographed by many lucky observers. The raptor was in the area of the Willow Slough shooting range for over two weeks in August. It spent much of its morning hunting near the shooting range. The impressive bird of prey has a four-foot wingspan and long forked tail. The bird would circle above the prairies, soaring and gliding near the shooting range; it would dive down to catch dragonflies and cicadas that it would eat on the wing before continuing its hunt. The kite is a master of flight and was exciting to watch with its beautiful white head and body, black on its back, tail feathers, and wingtips.

The Sora Rail

An adult Sora with its’ bright yellow bill searches for food on the muddy exposed area at the edge of some cattails.

September 9, 2021 – Some strange sounds were coming from the cattails as I approached the edge of the slough, a startling communication among the shadow skulkers that slowly and eerily waned with each note. The distinct, loud, and familiar alarm calls from a well-hidden creature instantly conjured the vision of a small marshland bird common to this area during the warm months. The Sora is a water bird about the size of a robin, Soras nest in our area of Illinois from May through August. They build a woven platform nest out of grasses and cattails above the waterline, creating a kind of hollowed nest that adds protection from predators and the elements for about a dozen eggs. After some quiet and patient waiting time, on my part, some movement caught my eye among the shadowy cattail stalks just to my left. A juvenile Sora appeared and was foraging much like domestic fowl, plucking the ground as it cautiously moved in an unpredictable jerky and bobbing motion. The bird probed with its thick yellow bill into the soft, damp, ground watching and feeling for prey as it braved into the clearing. The flashy white stubby tail of the small bird would stand straight up at times as it stretched its neck to pluck a small worm or a tiny insect from the muddy earth. Soon three more Sora appeared; two adults and another juvenile wandered into the broken light and began their search for insects, seeds, tiny worms, and mollusks. As one of the juveniles worked its way across the open area, an adult squawked with a rapid, high-pitched call while running swiftly towards the juvenile bird, chasing the young bird around almost in circles until the intruder retreated into the cover of the cattails. Less than five minutes later, the scolded young Sora returned quietly out of sight of the adult to resume foraging. The small rails remind me of a miniature chicken, a bird that would not seem to be a strong flier. It is amazing that the Soras travel many hundreds of miles to their winter range along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes of Central America each fall and then return to the Midwest to nest in the spring.

A juvenile Sora forages cautiously, keeping its’ distance from the territorial adults feeding nearby.

Many Species of Shorebirds

Small Least sandpipers and a Semipalmated sandpiper take a short rest after feeding, on a tiny mud island in a flooded corn field.

August 8, 2021 – We had plenty of rain in the second half of July and that extra precipitation created a kind of pseudo wetlands in the low areas of the agricultural fields here in northeastern Illinois. As a result of the heavy rains some corn and bean crops were unfortunately damaged or completely destroyed in the low areas making an extra expense for some farmers. Some areas looked like large lakes stretching out across the landscape giving us a hint of what it must of looked like before the Europeans arrived. Much of the land in some of these locations were in fact lakes, ponds, and wetlands before being settled and drained for farming. In the days following the recent flooding the submerged crops began to die back and as the waters slowly receded, these areas started to resemble coastal mudflats. Soon herons, ducks, and egrets began to show up. Many species of shorebirds, some of which had nested as far north as the Arctic, took advantage of these flooded areas for hunting and resting as they worked their way south towards their winter range. These short-lived oases are an important food source for the migrating birds. Some of the wet areas are void of birds while others are quite busy with avian activity. When you begin to see a number of species congregating and foraging day after day, before the waters disappear, that is a sure indicator of an abundance of food in the shallow waters and soft mud for the weary travelers. Worms, nymphs, midges and terrestrial invertebrates are all on the menu in and around these pop-up wet areas for both long-legged and short-legged shorebirds. Some of the shorebirds I have seen recently in Iroquois County in those flooded spots are the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Least sandpiper, Semipalmated sandpiper, Semipalmated plover, Stilt sandpiper, Short-billed dowitcher, Spotted sandpiper, Killdeer, Solitary sandpiper, Pectoral sandpiper, and Wilson’s phalaropes. The long-legged shorebirds, like the Greater yellowlegs and the Stilt sandpiper, hunt the deeper waters wading and feeling for movement with their feet and then probing and grasping the prey with their long bills. The short-legged shorebirds, like the Least sandpiper and the Semipalmated sandpiper, stay at the edges and hunt the soft mud and the shallow waters that are barely a few inches deep. My thoughts while observing these shorebirds is always of amazement knowing where they were just weeks ago. Some of these birds summer on the open Arctic tundra while others nest along the coastal areas of the Arctic ocean, and now here they are for a brief time on their arduous journey south feeding and resting in a flooded field in Iroquois County Illinois.

A pair of Stilt sandpipers move their feet across the mud bottom searching for prey in the standing water in an agricultural field in Iroquois County.

The Green Heron

An adult Green heron flies across the shallow end of a small lake landing on some vegetation where it soon began hunting in the ankle-deep waters.

July 8, 2021 – Wetlands, creeks, lakes, and rivers across Illinois provide a good summer habitat during the nesting season for the Green heron. These small herons, also known as little Green herons, are often seen perched in the trees around wetlands or silently hunting in the shallows for fish, frogs, and even small snakes. The keen eye of the skilled observer can find these well camouflaged little birds standing at the waters edge almost motionless while hunting. The Green heron, that are about the size of a crow, are often seen searching for prey along the shadowy, damp banks of a meandering creek, or hunting the still dark waters from a low branch just above a fishy habitat. They are common to lakes, ponds, and wetland habitat where their prey is available. Appearing dark in color from a distance, the Green herons are often crouched down and standing as still as a statue, any movement from the little bird is slow and precise as they intently focus on the task of watching for the slightest ripple or movement from an unsuspecting prey. It is well known and documented that Green herons are part of a small group of birds that at times use bait to attract prey. The cunning birds drop insects, small sticks, or tiny feathers on top of the water to lure fish close enough to catch them with their long dagger-like bill. Getting a good close look in the bright sunlight, the adult Green heron reveals their long bill, short bright-yellow legs, and the rich colors of a plumage that is gray, blue, chestnut, and of course, the subtle greens on the back and wings. Late winter through early spring the Green herons work their way north out of Florida and areas of the Gulf Coast for the nesting season. The herons nest from May through July where they have two to five eggs in a nest that is built on a platform of sticks. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young nestlings caring for the birds for a time even after they leave the nest. By late August the adults and a new generation of Green herons are making their way to the warm winter habitat of the far southern states and coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

Perched in a tree just above a creek, a Green heron with its crown plumage partially raised surveys the surroundings.