Upland Sandpipers

An Upland Sandpiper lands and scurries across the road in front of me trying to entice me to follow, leading me away from it’s young hiding nearby.

August 13, 2020 – Every year, it seems, I am a bit nervous that this will be the last year of having any sightings in our area of Northeastern Illinois of the endangered long-distance migratory bird the Upland Sandpiper. I must admit that this year was not any different than past years, I always have a concern that eventually conjures up a bit of anxiety that grows until a bird is actually sighted. On May 15th of this year relief came as I had a pair flush along a rural road south of Kankakee. I have had sightings of multiple Upland Sandpipers in the general area almost once a week since this year’s first sighting in May. Besides the chance encounters, the patience in observation, listening for their unusual calls, or scanning the fields with binoculars while the crops are small can often produce sightings if the birds are in fact in the area. On August 3rd I had one fly, circle and land near where I had stopped my vehicle. The bird was certainly upset and scolding me as it landed and scurried across the roadway in front of my car before taking to the air again to circle my position. The sandpiper then landed on a utility wire behind me for no longer than five seconds before flying again back and forth past me. The encounter, the observation, and a couple fast photos lasted under two minutes and I quickly moved on so as not to stress the bird. My opinion is that this looks very much like the behavior of the Killdeer, a common upland plover that we see in numbers here in Illinois, especially along rural gravel roads during the nesting season when they have young nearby. The Killdeer uses distraction techniques to lead the intruder away from any chance of discovering their young that are staying low nearby. Perhaps this behavior is a telltale sign of a successful nesting season for the Upland Sandpiper, I can’t say for sure that this is whats going on, but it does give me hope that there are young birds nearby and the adult bird is doing its best to draw the intruder away. Hopes are that soon there will be new generation of Upland Sandpipers heading south to the prairies of the South America for the winter . This type of encounter with the Upland Sandpiper always seems to happen around this time every year from late July through late August when there should be young birds in the area. In fact I did get a glimpse at a flightless young bird being led away through rows of beans a few years back. When the adult bird circled me it was being very vocal as it flew out into the field joining the young bird, moving away and disappearing in the sea of green.

Perching on a utility wire for only a few seconds the Upland Sandpiper let’s me know that it is not happy with me in the area.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a toxic Monarch butterfly clinched in the bill.

July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.

A tiny insect held firmly in at the tip of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s long down curved bill.

Semipalmated Plover

The profile of Semipalmated Plover show its’ dark cheek and fine orange eye-ring and the stout looking short, orange and black bill.

July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.

The photo shows the webbing on the middle and outside toes of the little plover from whence it gets it’s name.

The Ruddy Duck

Three male Ruddy ducks pop to the surface while feeding, giving a good look at their blue bills and developing summer breeding plumage.

March 19, 2020 – The Ruddy duck is a small diving duck that has somewhat of an amusing but interesting appearance. With a small bit of imagination, especially while viewing a male in his wonderful breeding plumage, one can see that this stout looking little bird with a bright blue bill and a warm chestnut colored body could easily be adapted as a quirky cartoon character in the next great animated blockbuster. These stiff-tailed divers are often seen in small flocks on the open waters of southern wetlands, lakes, and rivers during the cold months and also in the late winter gearing up for the spring migration as they start to stage in areas with great flocks of other waterfowl. The compact little ducks stay close together feeding and socializing as they rest and build energy for that magic moment when the big push happens and their night flight north begins. Like many other species, the Ruddy ducks head towards their breeding areas, the shallow lakes, and marshes to the north and to the west where they will take up residence for the summer. There are breeding populations of Ruddy ducks throughout the marshes and wetlands of the great lakes, but the areas that have the highest percentage of nesting Ruddy ducks are on the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. The female will seek out dense vegetation in the backwaters of lakes and marshes using cattails and grasses to weave together a simple platform above the water to hold a well hidden nest that is eventually lined with soft, warm, down feathers. She will lay somewhere around eight rather large white eggs and incubate them for about 26 days. Not more than a day after hatching, the young little ducks leave the nest swimming close behind their mother diving and feeding themselves. The young Ruddy ducks are on their own after about 30 days and after another 30 days they learn to fly and take to the air and will migrate south in the fall. Simply a beautiful and an interesting little stiff-tailed duck with an air of attitude and the blue billed summer drake in his breeding plumage is a sight to behold.

A drab colored Ruddy duck hen with her stiff tail slightly raised looks alert to my presence as she swims by.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Female Red-bellied woodpecker
The female Red-bellied woodpecker searches for insects on a dead tree

January 9, 2019 – A female Red-bellied woodpecker, a common year-round bird here in the Midwest, searches the crevices and old nest holes of a dead tree for insects. The woodpecker is seen clinging to the tree with a strong grip while using its’ rigid tail like a third leg to lean out away from the tree as it searches. The Red-bellied woodpecker is usually the dominate bird at backyard feeders. The other smaller birds are most often seen on the nearby branches somewhat patiently waiting their turn while the Red-bellied woodpecker feeds.

The Amazing Log-cock

Pileated woodpecker with its' large vibrant red crest
Pileated woodpecker with its’ large vibrant red crest

December 18, 2018 – The loud hammering sounds catch my attention, movement and a flash of red draw my eyes towards the trunk of a tree where the drummer, a female Pileated woodpecker, is focused on her search for insects. Chips of bark and fine splinters and bits of wood could be seen flying away from the tree as she chiseled with deliberate and powerful strikes into the storm damaged remains of the deformed snag this past week just south of the Kankakee river. The crow-sized Pileated woodpecker also known as the Log-cock is probably the largest woodpecker North of Mexico, and I say probably because the Ivory-billed woodpecker that once flourished in the southeastern parts of the United States and Cuba is larger and is still listed as a ‘critically endangered’ species. There are hopes of rediscovery of the Ivory-billed woodpecker, encouraged by the debated sighting in Arkansas in 2004, but according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology it is most likely extinct making the Pileated the largest.

Debris flying away from the powerful impact from the woodpeckers' chisel like beak.
Debris flying away from the powerful impact from the woodpeckers’ chisel like beak.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

February 11, 2018 – A Tufted Titmouse holds a momentary pose while foraging with a flock of seven other Titmice for seeds and nuts through the leaf litter this past week. These little birds upon finding a seed, that is to large to swallow, will perch on a small limb or log with the seed held between its’ feet and hammer away with there beak breaking the seed into smaller manageable bits. You may hear the song of the Tufted Titmouse before actually seeing the little bird. One song that is rich and clear and echoes through the woods on a spring morning, sounds like peter-peter-peter. The powerful sound from a little bird will undoubtedly stop you in your tracks and briefly draw your attention away from your mission as you search for the delightful songster.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse breaking seed

The Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

The Red Fox Sparrow

October 25, 2017 – A large stocky and vibrant rufous Fox Sparrow momentarily strikes a pose on the branch of a thick bush were it had been spending the morning on the ground below scratching the earth and kicking leaf litter in search of insects. Fox Sparrows spend the winter in the southern parts Illinois and the states south from Texas to the east coast. There are four groups of Fox Sparrows that are seen in North America but in Illinois we have the red group which nests during the warm months from Alaska to eastern Canada. This bird with its’ impressive size and red color really catches a person eye and is easy to distinguish between other heavily streaked sparrows and thrushes.

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow

A Bird of a Different Feather

Leucistic Starling

Leucistic Starling

October 13, 2017 – A flash of white caught my eye as I was driving past a partially harvested field of soybeans in Iroquois county this past Friday the 13th. A flock of over 50 European Starlings were feeding on the ground near the edge of the field when I noticed the leucistic bird of the same species. Leucism is genetic condition that prevents melanin pigments to be deposited into the feathers properly. The lack of melanin pigments can cause a range of visible abnormality in the plumage color of birds. The results of this condition can manifest from an faint washed out look barely showing any semblance to a birds normal strong color patterns, to showing just small patches of white feathers lacking pigment. In some cases the affects of leucism can even produce a white bird that appears completely devoid of any plumage color.

European Starlings

European Starlings

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow

July 23, 2017 – While perched on a fence post at the The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana a Grasshopper Sparrow sings out a song that resembles the sounds of its’ favorite food, the grasshopper. The little songbird has a perfect habitat at the Kankakee Sands with the open grasslands, plenty of insects and a good place for these ground nesting little migrants to have a successful breeding season. The Grasshopper Sparrow has shown a decline in recent years from habitat loss throughout its’ range with the fragmentation and degradation from intensive agriculture. The 2014 state of the birds report has the Grasshopper Sparrow listed as a common bird in steep decline.

Grasshopper Sparrow

Grasshopper Sparrow