A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

Canvasback Ducks

A mixed flock of mostly Canvasback ducks feeding and socializing on a flooded access road leading into the Kaskaskia bottoms in Southern Illinois this past week.

February 27, 2020 – The male Canvasback duck has a rich chestnut colored head and neck, black chest and tail area, with a bright white body and wings. These large ducks have beautiful red eyes that when illuminated by the sun can penetrate the thoughts of the human observer laying waste to any earthly woes, at least temporarily. Those unique eyes of this big diving duck absolutely contribute to making this bird a strikingly handsome fellow. The female, on the the other hand, is less colorful and has a pale-brown overall plumage that is most certainly required for a nesting female duck. Her camouflaged coloring is mandatory to helping keep her and her nest hidden from predators. But even without the strong contrasted colors she is still quite beautiful and is easily identified as a Canvasback. The female has the same sloping forehead and large black pointed bill but she does not have those amazing red eyes like the male. Her eyes are very dark in color, perhaps part of her specialized trait of survival. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway these fast flying migrating ducks, that are considered diving ducks, congregate in flocks from ten to many thousands. During the winter in the southern half of the United States including most of Illinois from southern Lake Michigan south where they can find open water and food they can be found in their winter flocks. In the southern winter marshes, lakes, rivers, and flooded fields the Canvasbacks feed together in an amazing display. The ducks come together over the area to forage and begin their search for tubers and invertebrates by diving repeatedly in a rolling head-first fashion that is somewhat mesmerizing when there are a large number of birds involved. The Canvasback ducks migrate north and west in the spring and nest in the prairie pothole region, those glacial wetlands of North America and Canada. They also nest north in the wetlands and marsh areas from the Great plains to Alaska.

Two male Canvasbacks swimming with a female following close behind, the red eyes of the male ducks seem to glow in the morning sun.

White-breasted Nuthatch

A female White-breasted nuthatch pauses for a moment on a branch, the chestnut color below the tail is clearly visible.

February 20, 2020 – The big raspy voice of the little White-breasted nuthatch is a familiar sound in the winter woods of Illinois. Throughout the softly illuminated and leafless winter forest, or at a busy backyard feeder, it is easy to spot those colorful little hunters as they noisily swoop in. Suddenly there is a flash of blue-gray, then another, and yet another as four, maybe more of those regal looking little birds appear. A male and a female nuthatch light on the patchwork bark of a large sycamore and quickly begin searching tree and limb for food. The little birds move up and down the trunk like acrobats as they move head first down the tree searching the nooks and crannies for insects. Not long after the small winter flock of White-breasted nuthatches appear, their songs begin to fade into the distance as they continue their search for food on the trees and shrubs along an overgrown and abandoned road that the woods has mostly reclaimed. The White-breasted nuthatch is common across most of the United States and is a year-round resident here in Illinois. The male nuthatch has a dark black cap, white face and underparts with splashes of chestnut colors under the tail. Their wings and back are mostly blue-gray. The little birds have large heads, large feet, and a long pointy bill. The female looks pretty much like the male nuthatch except they have more of a gray colored cap with stronger chestnut coloring near their rear under the tail and their overall colors are a bit weaker than the male. The nuthatches eat nuts, acorns, insects and cache food items around their territory. You may find the winter flocks of nuthatches mixed with chickadees and woodpeckers.

A male White-breasted nuthatch works its’ way down the trunk of a tree with some food in its’ long bill.

The Golden Eagle

A 4th year sub-adult Golden Eagle south of the Kankakee river this past week. The bird’s golden feathered head clearly visible as it flies out from a perch and glides over the winter landscape.

February 13, 2020 – Here in the Midwest it is now a common sight to see Bald eagles gliding high above the flat terrain of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. Nesting Bald eagles are also a more common occurrence in Illinois and Indiana, a remarkable rebound since the ban on DDT’s agricultural use in 1972. Illinois estimates indicate well over 300 active nests and for the state of Indiana a 2016 estimate shows close to 400 breeding pairs. Most often we see a magnificent Bald eagle or even a few of these great birds perched in a tall snag above open water along our rivers here in the Midwest, especially during those hard winter months. The eagles sit patiently waiting and watching while hunting ducks, coots, and fish or any other food opportunity that might come along. There is another species of eagle, the Golden eagle, that is less common and only seen or noticed by a lucky few during the fall and spring migrations. The Golden eagle may also be seen during the winter months in locations that provide open spaces, forests, and abundant prey. This winter a pair of Golden eagles were recorded in Iroquois county where they were photographed by bird enthusiast and nature photographer Bronson Ratcliff of Bourbonnais. Having a pair of wintering Golden eagles in our area is an exciting discovery. The Golden eagle nests across Canada and Alaska and in the mountainous western United States. They are year round residents and nest on the high cliffs and steep slopes with a open views throughout the Rocky Mountain states and west to the Pacific.
Here in the Midwest we watch for these large dark birds during the migrations. They are easily confused with Turkey vultures, Juvenile Bald eagles, or any large dark raptor. The 1st year juvenile Golden eagles have bright white tail feathers except for 2 or 3 inches of the tips which are dark brown. They can also have bright white patches on the tops and bottoms of the their wings from the middle of the wings out towards the ends, and are easy to see during flight. The 1st year bird is probably the easiest to identify with those good solid markings, but as they age, those bright white feathers start to fade as they get their adult feathers and other indicators must be looked at. The gold feathers on the back of the head and nape of the neck is another obvious clue that is easy to spot. The two tones of light and dark feathers on the head and neck, even on a perched bird in the shadows of a tree, stand out. The Golden eagle also has a shorter neck and smaller bill than the juvenile Bald eagle. Another comparison is the Golden eagle has feathered legs that go down to the feet and the Bald eagle does not. Next time you see that large dark raptor soaring above, look a little closer, it may be a Golden eagle.

The tail-feathers of this 4th year bird show the white colors disappearing as the eagle nears adulthood.

Wintering Cranes

A small group of Sandhill Cranes lean into the wind preparing to take to air.

February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.

A juvenile Sandhill Crane plays with corn stalks, picking them up and tossing them into the air, as it dances about with wings spread wide.

Trumpeter Swans

A leucistic adult Trumpeter swan with yellow legs and feet stands next to a normal colored swan with black legs and black feet.

January 30, 2010 – A pair of Trumpeter swans surrounded by a number of Canada geese and a a few Mallard ducks were taking advantage of the open waters near the boat docks at the headquarters at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco Indiana this past week. A submerged aerator system sending bubbles of air to the surface keeps some small pools open and ice free. The open water attracts waterfowl during the winter when the rest of J.C. Murphey Lake is locked in ice. Getting a close look at the pair of swans, that have been seen at the lake for some months now, show that one of the birds does not have the usual black legs and feet that is normally seen on an adult Trumpeter. While photographing the Trumpeters at some distance this past August I noticed the yellow colored legs on one of the birds and assumed it was a juvenile. I was told at the headquarters at Willow-slough this past week that the swan with yellow legs was believed to be leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that causes a reduction of pigments. We see the abnormality in mammals, birds, and even in reptiles. A few times a year while great flocks of Starlings are feeding in fields it is not uncommon to see a flash of white from the wings, tail, or the head of one of the birds in the flock. The birds with white feathers are missing the normal dark colors of the Starling and are considered leucistic. The young cygnet (baby swan) that is leucistic is bright white and the non leucistic young Trumpeter is gray. The leucistic birds end up with yellow legs and feet as adults Trumpeters. These rare leucistic Trumpeter swans have been reported and are still occasionally seen in Ontario. The leucistic swans are bit more common in the Rocky Mountain population and are also seen in the Yellowstone summer population.

The leucistic Trumpeter stretches its’ leg giving a good look at its’ yellow colored leg and foot.

The Pigeon Hawk

Just east of Kankakee recently, a Merlin falcon looks down from its’ tree perch watching for an ambush opportunity.

January 23, 2010 – The Merlin falcon is a small but fierce hunter that is a little larger and heavier than the American kestrel. Looking somewhat like a chunky pigeon in flight the Merlin was once known as the pigeon hawk. The stealthy falcon lacks the bold color patterns and black “mustache” that adorns the face of the more common Kestrel. The Merlin’s may show a faint “mustache”, the black plumage on the sides of the face, but the bird appears a bit drab overall compared to the smaller and more colorful Kestrel. The female Merlin, like other birds of prey, is larger than the male. A large female with a recent catch of a small bird was facing away from me as it sat on a roadway in Iroquois county a few years back. From a distance the bird looked like a small Peregrine falcon, its’ solid blue-gray back and wings stood out and its’ thick body confused me at first until the bird took to the air with its’ prey. At that point I recognized it as a Merlin. The little Merlin is an avian hunting master that can send a flock of birds into a mass of fear and confusion. Outmaneuvering the unfortunate winged victims like Starlings, Sparrows and even small ducks, the Merlin,with a swift and precise attack snags its’ targeted prey while in flight. It also plucks dragonflies and other insects out of midair during its’ migration for a quick and easy snack. If you are fortunate enough to see a Merlin in our area of Northeastern Illinois it will most likely be during the winter months but sightings of the Merlin are becoming more common as the population of the little falcon has improved. The Merlin is known to breed in the boreal forests of the north but the discovery of a hatchling on the ground in Northwestern Cook county in 2016 may signify that they are expanding their breeding range.

A Merlin rests on a fence post keeping an eye on some feeding tree sparrows at the edge of a gravel road.

Rough-legged Hawks

A light morph Rough-legged hawk with wings spread wide searches for prey on the prairie below.

January 16, 2010 – Imagine looking out over a vast expanse of rolling and rocky terrain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Off in the distance you notice, from your high vantage atop a narrow rocky ledge on the southern slope of a mountain, an Arctic fox with its’ nose to the ground as it zigzags in a slow but deliberate trot across the tundra. At times the little fox disappears behind the slight rises of the uneven landscape and soon goes out of view completely. Further out towards the west is the unmistakable and heart stopping sight of a large white predator. A hungry Polar bear is walking with large, intimidating strides along the edge of an Arctic pond, surprising a pair of skittish Eider ducks. The birds quickly begin paddling away towards the center of the pond putting some distance between them and the dangerous intruder. Those sights that we just imagined could be the very real views that the nesting Rough-legged hawks might see while they spend the warmer months in the high Arctic paired up, nesting, and raising their young. The Rough-legged hawk is one of a small number of moderate-distance migratory hawks that we are fortunate enough to see here in Northeastern Illinois during the winter. These amazing hawks will find a good hunting spot, open terrain similar to that of the Arctic tundra, where there is plenty of prey with not much competition and most likely stay in that same general area for the winter. The open agricultural areas and restored prairies of Northern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana are great places to find these large hawks hunting. The plumage of the Rough-legged hawks can differ, some birds are very dark and some are light in color. They are referred to as a dark or a light morph. The Rough-legged hawk will take advantage of windy days and hover into the wind to hold their position above the prairie while hunting mice, voles, and birds. Fence posts, utility poles, and the smaller branches in the tops of trees where they can grip with their small feet are places the hawks will use to watch for prey.

Perched in the mid-morning sun a Rough-legged hawk along a rural road east of Kankakee stays alert for movement below.

Bucks And Toms

A rare look at a giant White-tailed buck out in late morning with a doe during the rut this past November in Iroquois county.

January 9, 2020 – Here in Northeastern Illinois it has been a warmer, more forgiving winter leading up to the new year, and the relatively mild conditions that we have been enjoying have also continued into early January. Open water, and mostly snow-free fields means that there is easy foraging for both migratory and resident wildlife such as birds, waterfowl, turkey, and deer. Large flocks of wild turkeys can be seen feeding on plant material and the spilled grains from the last harvest in the snow-free agricultural fields, the cautious birds usually not far from the safety of their wooded escape. Much like White-tailed deer, wild turkeys separate into groups depending on the time of year. Young male turkeys, in late fall, form jake flocks after leaving their brood flock. The hens also group up after brooding their young. The adult male turkeys stay in bachelor groups until the breeding season arrives in the spring. March and April is the time that the male and female turkeys are joined together in large flocks and then eventually into smaller breeding flocks that are made up of a few toms with ten or fifteen hens. White-tailed deer also form bachelor groups. The bucks group together throughout the spring and summer months and unlike the turkey bachelors that are made up of mostly adult birds, the deer bachelors are made up of many different ages of males. During the warm summer months the White-tailed bucks are growing their antlers back after losing or shedding them during the winter and after the rut (active breeding time). The new growth of antlers starts in the spring and noticeably start out as velvety nubs. During the time of the bucks antler regrowth, the females or does, are giving birth during the spring and summer. By fall the antlers of the White-tailed buck are fully developed. Some antlers are small and are called spikes. While most are average in size there are a few that are huge and impressive but rarely seen. The White-tailed deer in late fall begin another breeding season. The bachelor groups break up and the bucks go their own way in search of does. The wild turkeys, the toms, the hens, and the jakes are still in their groups waiting for spring and another nesting season.

A flock of Wild turkeys that came out of their tall tree roost landing in bean stubble this past week east of Kankakee.

The Brown Creeper

A Brown creeper probes with its’ long curved bill behind the bark of a tree looking for insects.

January 1, 2020 – The Brown Creeper is a tiny well camouflaged bird that seems to defy the forces of nature as it swiftly moves across the jagged edged bark of a tree. It pauses momentarily to search, with its’ long curved bill, the cracks and openings in and behind the tree bark for insects. The bird is an expert contortionist twisting its’ head to just the right angle to probe the difficult fissures to find its’ unsuspecting prey. The fast moving little Brown creeper, also searches the undersides of large limbs and is probably less often noticed by humans due to its’ size and dark colors than any other species of bird that spends as much time in the trees. The little bird blends in quite well to the tree bark of the large dark trees on which it hunts. The Brown creeper will land low on the trunk of a tree and work its’ way up and around the trunk eventually searching the higher branches for prey before moving to another tree. From my observations at multiple locations while watching the tiny creeper, within a short time of leaving one tree it will return back to the same tree repeating its’ search several times before moving on to continue its’ hunt on other trees. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey “the Brown creeper occurs in Illinois as a common migrant and winter resident and occasional summer resident. The Cache, Kankakee, Mississippi, Sangamon and Sugar Rivers appeared (1981) to be the center of distribution for nesting populations in Illinois.” Known as a short-distance migrant to resident we notice the wintering birds that have arrived in numbers from the north when we notice them hunting on the leafless trees in wooded areas and on the parameters of those timbered tracts of land.

A light colored Brown creeper pauses a momentarily as it searches a tree for prey