March 12, 2023 – Of the many species of birds, the hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, waterfowl, and songbirds that migrate south and spend the winter in our area, there is one bird that probably goes unnoticed by most, and that bird is the lovely American tree sparrow. These small, well-camouflaged sparrows blend well with the leafless winter landscape of the Midwest, where they find seed sand safety at the edges of brushy wooded areas of undergrowth and thickets where they can quickly disappear into the dense woody maze when danger threatens. Even though these mid-sized sparrows are called American Tree sparrows, you are more likely to find them on or near the ground. Small flocks of the American tree sparrows spend daylight hours foraging on the ground amongst the dried plants where seeds have fallen. Weed seeds are the primary food of the sparrows during winter. During the summer months, while in their nesting range in Northern Canada and Alaska, they switch to insects as a food source for themselves and their young. The little birds take frequent but short breaks to preen and rest on a convenient perch in a small tree or bush lit by the winter sun. The well-defined earthy colors of this sharp little bird become very apparent when viewing through binoculars or at closeby backyard feeders. The sparrow has a beautiful rufous crown, a gray face with rusty colors near the eyes, and a beak of black over yellow. It has a light-colored gray breast with a distinct dark-colored smudge of a spot in the middle. It has rufous patches on the sides that blend into the gray unstreaked breast, with well-defined brown streaks running down its back towards its long narrow tail. As the winter begins to wane and the days begin to grow longer, that desire to head north for the breeding season becomes stronger. When the time is right, and the weather condition becomes favorable for the American tree sparrows to move north, they will disappear from the winter range during the nighttime and begin their starry flight towards the arctic for the nesting season. The male sparrows will reach the breeding grounds before the females. The male will seek out, claim, and aggressively protect the territory he has chosen for nesting. In a little over a month, a new generation of American tree sparrows has fledged and is building strength from the abundance of insects the arctic provides as they prepare for a long flight south as the cycle continues.
January 6, 2023 – The last weeks of 2022 brought a bone-chilling assault of arctic cold with snow and relentless strong winds to the midwest. The high winds pushed temperatures down into negative double digits, impacting most of the United States east of the Rockies for about a week. Here in the Midwest, the dangers from the extreme cold were real, and the constant winds made it easy to imagine what it is like to be in a winter storm high in the Arctic. The cold temperatures froze moisture on contact, and the clear morning sky on Christmas eve displayed a beautiful parhelic circle and halo with iridescent red and blue sundogs flanking the sun above the eastern horizon. The sun was at the center of the icy atmospheric phenomenon and appeared like a giant glowing diamond floating in a fog of ice crystals. Flocks of foraging winter birds at the road’s edge fighting the fierce winds were swept hundreds of yards within seconds when flushed. Lapland longspurs wintering far from their Arctic nesting range were battling powerful gusts as they searched for seeds trapped among the rocks along gravel roads. Large flocks of Horned larks dotted the windswept fields and road edges as they foraged for much-needed nourishment during the extreme weather. Like other birds here during the winter in Northern Illinois, the Lapland longspur and Horned lark generate heat by feeding continuously on spilled seeds left by man and nature during daylight hours to help them stay warm during extreme weather events. At night the small birds fluff their feathers, find hollows and wind blocks and even shiver to generate heat. During harsh winter conditions of strong winds and cold, I have witnessed longspurs taking breaks from the strong winds by using small depressions in the snow, like little snow caves, during the day to protect themselves before going back to feeding. The somewhat rare weather event known as a “bomb cyclone” struck Christmas week and was a challenge for wildlife. The heavy snows first predicted here in Northern Illinois did not transpire. An accumulation of several inches or more did arrive with the powerful winds creating a hazardous situation for all living things. The strong winds produced some bitter cold but helped by sweeping the fields and roadways of snow, making it easier for the birds to forage and get to those energy-producing seeds that keep them alive through the nights during the unusually rapid Arctic cold blast.
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.
March 26, 2020 – Looking out across empty agricultural fields separated by waterways of dried grasses, flowing ditches, fallen fences, and the occasional leafless trees in the small and forgotten gnarly thickets that have somehow been spared the plow, we bear witness to a season in change. The picture before us speaks of a tired and somber late winter that is ready to give up its’ frail but respected hold to a new, strong, and hopeful spring. The spring migration brings temporary visitors that are working their way northward, while wintering birds are gathering and waiting for that call to move north. Some of our resident birds of prey, like Bald eagles, Great Horned owls, and Red-railed hawks, in Northeastern Illinois are already nesting, and some are tending to young. The feathered travelers, those long-distance migrants from the southern hemisphere, are yet to arrive but will stage in our area in the coming weeks resting and feeding before continuing north. Others are patiently waiting for those longer warmer days before moving north towards the high latitudes and a short nesting season above the Arctic Circle. Rough-legged hawks, Snowy owls, and American Tree sparrows are some of the birds that have some distance to travel, and in a month or so, those birds will be hard to find as they eventually disappear from the Lower Forty-eight for the summer. This past week two Snowy owls, only a few miles apart, continued their presence in Iroquois county. A dark morph Rough-legged hawk, another wintering Arctic bird, was hovering over a field hunting in the same area not far from one of the owls. On the first day of spring nine Trumpeter swans could be seen resting in some corn stubble east of the Iroquois river, these great white birds will soon move north into the marshlands of Michigan,Wisconsin, and Minnesota for the nesting season. A small flock of American Tree sparrows have been taking advantage of the remaining seeds on an overgrown lot south of Kankakee while finding safety and insects among the web of thick overgrown bushes and small trees. Spring has certainly arrived and the migration brings hope for new generations of many species and a promise of stability for all creatures on this little planet.
November 20, 2019 – Across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland, in the remote places at the top of the world like Baffin Island, Southampton Island, and Melville Island in the regions of Nunavut, there is a small bird called the Lapland Longspur that spends the short breeding season courting, nesting, and raising its’ young. On the treeless tundra where packs of hunting wolves, Polar bears, and Arctic foxes eke out a living on the vast cold landscape, large migratory populations of Lapland longspurs, a small well camouflaged bird, begin arriving in the spring for the nesting season which starts by early June. These little ground nesting birds, that are about the size of a Song sparrow but with longer and more pointed wings, have a clutch of 3 to 7 eggs and only one brood. Their nests are constructed in a shallow depression lined with coarse grasses, mosses, and sedges. The nest itself is lined with finer, softer, materials from arctic plants and provides a cushioned place for the fragile eggs helping to keep them warm during the incubation period. After about 14 days, hatching begins and 10 days after that the young birds are able to leave the nest. The fledglings are equally divided and separately reared by each parent, according to the National Park Service. The time from nest to fully fledged is short in the arctic and soon the young longspurs will have developed their flight feathers and can forage on their own. As the summer comes to an end, the land of the midnight sun begins giving hints of the inevitable dark winter freeze. The Sun sinks low on the horizon as the calendar nears the Fall Equinox. By September, the longspurs are migrating south out of the dimming arctic leaving their breeding grounds for a less hostile and sunnier climate south of the Canadian boarder. By November, they are in the fallow crop fields and along rural roadways of Northern Illinois. Large flocks of these arctic birds can be seen feeding on spilled grain from the harvest. The little birds blend in quite well in the winter fields that are free of snow, but they frequently take to the air in a large flock flying and circling around only to return to the same spot. Foul weather with heavy snow brings the longspurs to the windswept or plowed edges along rural roadways where they find seeds and seek shelter from strong cold winter winds behind the tall drifts of snow. The Lapland longspurs will remain until late May fattening up for their springtime migration northward back to the breeding grounds of the high arctic.
May 16, 2019 – On their way to the high arctic for the nesting season, those grassland shorebirds, American golden plovers, have been staging in good numbers in parts of the Midwest and have been here in Northern Illinois for the past few weeks. You must look with a careful eye to see these visitors from South America as they blend in quite well in the unbroken agricultural fields in our rural areas. When these well camouflaged little birds, that are about the size of the American robin, are resting in the midday sun they lay flat on the ground in small depressions and are almost impossible to see. These swift flying, long-distance migrants winter on the Pampas of South America from central Argentina and Patagonia south to Tierra del Fuego and we get to see them while they migrate north in the spring.
The plovers start heading north in February, gathering in large numbers in northwestern Argentina. I was able to photograph the the leg bands of one of these birds in September of 2017 near Momence. The bird had been banded in July of 2012 on Bylot island, Nunavut Canada. The Bird Banding Biologist of the Canadian Wildlife Service have two years of telemetry for that particular plover for the years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 showing two migratory tracks. The spring migration from South America for both northbound trips where it had departed land was off the coast of Chile, south of Peru heading out over the Pacific ocean moving northwest and rounding to the south and west of the Galapagos islands.
The plovers’ path went north crossing Central America over the Gulf of Mexico and entering the United States at New Orleans. The plover followed the Mississippi river valley north, spending time in the state of Mississippi south of Memphis Tennessee. It eventually entered Illinois where it zigzagged across Illinois and Indiana as far east as Indianapolis before working its’ way to Northern Illinois. The plover was just south of Kankakee in Iroquois county where it spent a number of weeks before exiting west out of the state. When the bird finally did leave Illinois, probably in mid to late May, it headed west to the great plains of Nebraska, South Dakota then North Dakota before leaving the United States and moving north into Canada.
The plover continued north and moved out over Hudson Bay across the Hudson strait towards Baffin Island above the arctic circle where it spent the breeding season. After the nesting season, sometime in late July or early August, the plover used a more direct route south. Leaving the arctic heading south across Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia the Plover started the long crossing of the Atlantic ocean as it flew non-stop towards South America. Reaching land, the little plover entered South America on the northeast side between Guyana and French Guiana continuing on for almost 3000 miles south to Uruguay where it spent the next six or seven months.
December 31, 2018 – A small bird that is very difficult to see without snow cover, flocks of the Lapland longspur are in our area for the winter. The Arctic bird is easy to spot after a heavy snow. They can be seen in numbers foraging along the windswept and plowed roadways for wild seeds and spilled grain. I counted 50 in several large flocks, that I only noticed because they were flushed from the snowless landscape south of Aroma Park during the Christmas bird count this past Saturday. Keep your eyes open for these long distance migrants in and around the agricultural fields along with another visitor from the north, the beautiful little Snow bunting.
December 9, 2018 – Perched on a steel cable above a grassy area a Rough-legged hawk, a large raptor of the high arctic during the summer, keeps an eye out below for prey. The photo shows the feathers covering the legs, extending down to their small feet. The tip of the beak is stained red from a recent kill. The Rough-legged hawks have migrated south out the Arctic and are now on their wintering grounds. The wintering ground of the Rough-legged hawk includes most of the United States, minus the states south of the Ohio river and East of the Mississippi. According to The Cornell lab of Ornithology these wintering hawks feed mostly on voles, mice and shews while in our area of Illinois. I have personally witnessed them on the carrion of a rather large mammal a few winters back. With a wingspan of over 4′ they can’t be missed as they hover and glide over the farm fields and prairies. Watch for them perched on utility poles or on the small branches of trees or even sitting on the ground throughout the winter months.
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 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.