Starry Travelers

The beautiful male Indigo bunting in full breeding plumage.

June 13, 2019 – The color indigo is described as a deep rich blue, and that is exactly what catches one’s eye at the forest’s edge beginning in the spring and lasting through the warm months of summer here in Northern Illinois. The flash of that stunning blue feathered breeder fluttering across a brown, black, and green environment can mean only one thing, that those long-distance migrants, the male Indigo buntings, in their alternate plumage, are here for the nesting season. The breeding range of the Indigo bunting stretches from central Texas north across the Great Plains into Canada, east to the Atlantic, and south into central Florida. The Indigo bunting winters in the southern half of Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, southern Mexico, Central America and south into northern South America.

A female Indigo bunting shows that hint on blue on her shoulders.

The females and immature Indigo buntings show less impressive colors than the breeding males. The females and immature birds are brown and tan, with some black in the wings, and dark broken streaks on a white and faded tan chest extending down the front of the bird. The female shows only hints of that famous blue on their shoulders and tail feathers. These little birds come a long way, about 1200 miles each way, in their amazing migration just to nest here in our area where there is suitable habitat of thickets and brushy wooded space bordering open fields and prairies. While many other migrating birds follow river valleys and other landmarks by day, the Indigo bunting uses the celestial map above for navigation making their magical journey on those clear dark starry nights.

Flycatchers Large and Small

The Least Flycatcher is the smallest flycatchers you will see in our area and one of the early spring arrivals to Illinois from Central America.

May 30, 2019 – Flycatchers have returned to northern Illinois for the season. They are most often seen perched at the edges of wooded thickets, along rural ditches or open areas near ponds, creeks, and meadows waiting for insects to take to the air. Patiently perched on a tall sturdy dried stem from last years growth or on a limb of a fallen tree, the mostly drab colored little birds can quickly fly off their perch and grab insects in midair or pluck one off a nearby leaf. They detect the slightest movement from a walking or flying insect with their keen vision.

A Great-Crested Flycatcher is perched and watching for prey. The bird is a large heavy billed flycatcher with a noticeable yellow belly.

Consuming their prey promptly, the flycatcher resumes focus on their surroundings, watching for prey from a satisfactory random perch. Small crawling and flying insects such as beetles, leafhoppers, and dragonflies are a few of the types of insects that the flycatchers feed on. Some flycatchers, like the Eastern Kingbird, primarily feed on insects early in the season while in their summer range here in Illinois, but wild fruits become part of their diet as this supplemental food source becomes available later in the season. During the months that the Eastern Kingbird spend in the western Amazon basin in South America fruits are a main food source for these birds.

Like many of the other traveling birds we see during the spring migration and during the nesting months here in Illinois, the flycatchers migrate north from the southeastern coastal areas of the United States and southwest into Mexico, Central and South America. While some nest in the United States others continue north into Canada and Alaska, like the Alder flycatcher for example that has a large nesting range and breeds in the area of the Great Lakes in the United States, and most of Canada and Alaska. Some of the more common flycatchers we see during the summer nesting season in Northern Illinois are Eastern wood-Pewee, Great-Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Least Flycatcher, and the Eastern Kingbird.

American Tree Sparrow

April 5, 2019 – The soft songs of the American Tree Sparrow are like a pleasant melodic whispering that easily causes one to momentarily pause and focus. This medium size sparrow can be seen at times singing from a low perch on a bush or while foraging on the ground at the edge of a thicket. Winter flocks of these little rusty capped birds have been gathering, feeding, and building energy while waiting for that moment during their spring migration when they take their night flight north towards the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska.

As days begin to grow longer metabolic changes occur that help prepare the birds for their long flight. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a huge increase in appetite helps to build up fat reserves that are required for such a physically demanding journey. Both internal and external factors play a role that triggers the big push north for the nesting season. Weather conditions are important so as to coincide with insect hatching in the stopping areas along the migratory route.

One can only imagine what it would be like to be part of a flock of a few hundred small birds on a cool, crisp starry night flying towards that shimmering fiery glow of the auroras above the northern latitudes. Those little sparrows face many miles and a number of challenges as they work very hard to reach their nesting grounds north of the tree line where the Arctic fox, the polar bear, and the ptarmigan call home.

Orange Jewelweed

Ruby-Throated hummingbird

A Ruby-Throated hummingbird hovers at the flower of a Jewelweed plant. The bird picks up pollen on the top of its’ beak and face as it laps up nectar from inside the bloom.

September 10, 2018 – The remarkable native plant Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis) goes by many names like spotted, common, spotted touch-me-not and orange balsam. The Jewelweed grows in most counties in Illinois and prefers moist and partly shaded areas. It thrives in low marshy ground, along creeks and trails and the damp areas in and along the forest edge. Appearing like hundreds of tiny silvered-glass mirrors glistening in the morning light, the delicate droplets of condensation that cover the leafs and flowers of a large patch of Orange Jewelweed will cause any traveler to stop and take notice. Blooming from mid-summer until a hard frost the showy flowers of the Jewelweed, with their red-orange speckles and a beautifully curved spur, attract butterflies, bees and other small insects that are in-search of that glorious nectar.

Orange Jewelweed

The flowers of the Orange Jewelweed attract many type of insects like this Viceroy butterfly
and the small Sweat bee on the flowers drooping petal.

It is not unusual to see high numbers of Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, one of the main pollinators of the Jewelweed, busily going from flower to flower through the thick growth of the yellow bounty. When it comes to the season for the Orange Jewelweed to bloom Hummingbirds will certainly be seen in these semi-shaded areas perched at the tip of a long tree branch extending out and over the nectar rich plants. The tiny birds will commandeer a small sapling or tall bush surrounded by the Jewelweed while they vigorously guard their claimed part of the patch. Directly from our planets botanical pharmacy and well-known for generations by the Native Americans, the sap and leaves from the Jewelweed plant have apparent medicinal uses. Jewelweed can be used as a topical ointment for poison ivy, oak and the itching and pain caused by hives, stinging nettle, insect bites and other skin irritations. The sap has also been used as a successful to

Reference:

“Orange Jewelweed (Impatiens Capensis).” Touch-Me-Not family (Balsaminaceae) www.illinoiswildflowers.info/wetland/plants/or_jewelweed.htm.

“For Your Garden – June 2015.” Education, www.dnr.illinois.gov/education/Pages/FYGJun2015.aspx.

“Impatiens Capensis.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Sept. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impatiens_capensis.

“Plant of the Week.” Johnston Ridge Observatory | US Forest Service, www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/plant-of-the-week/impatiens_capensis.shtml.

pical anti-fungal treatment.

The Double-crested Cormorant

 Double-crested Cormorant

A Double-crested Cormorant, illuminated by the morning sun

July 10, 2018 – A Double-crested Cormorant, illuminated by the morning sun, was seen perched on a snag just above the slow but steady flow of the Kankakee river. The Double-crested Cormorant is a goose sized bird that is considered a medium-distance migrant having a winter range from Southern Illinois to the Gulf Coast and from Texas to the Atlantic. They are a seabird that occupy inland lakes and rivers that have a good food source of fish and other aquatic life throughout their range. During the nesting season some populations along the coast are localized and don’t migrate while others head north into the northern parts of United States and Canada with large numbers in the Great Lakes region. The Double-crested Cormorant is federally protected under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but large concentrations of the cormorants are having a negative impact on aquaculture. There are also concerns of the effects on other threatened or endangered species. The science continues on the Double-crested Cormorants helping to gain a better understanding of their interactions with fish, humans and other species of birds that will eventually lead to best management practices for all concerned.

Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-Headed Woodpecker moving stone

January 27, 2018 – At first I wasn’t sure what all the Red-headed woodpeckers were doing flying out of the woods to the middle of a gravel parking lot. As I pulled in I could see them picking up something and quickly flying back to the woods. My thoughts were, what are they doing with those stones? After getting into position I was then able to observe them with my binoculars and I could see that they were getting bits of what appeared to be cracked corn from between the rocks. They would swiftly fly back to the woods but it wouldn’t be long until they would swoop in once more, three or four at a time. A mix of juvenile and adult birds would quickly locate more corn, sometimes moving stones that looked relatively large. While watching the Red-headed woodpeckers I saw Blue birds, Nuthatches, Blue Jays and a Tufted Titmouse working their way around the edge of the woods. Goldfinches are starting to show some yellow and high overhead the sounds from large flocks of Canada geese and those unique sounds of the Greater White-fronted Goose echoed. There were five Trumpeter Swans moving fast just above the black and gray leafless woods, their white feathers seemed to glow against the blue sky in the bright sunshine.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker with corn.

The Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

October  25, 2017 – Perched on a branch low to the ground or scratching the leaf litter below a bush in search of insects is the lovely Hermit Thrush that can silently slip from branch to shadow with little notice. Migrating south out of Canada and the northern most parts of the lower 48 the Hermit Thrush is considered a short-distance migrant and can be seen during its’ south bound travels at the edge of a forest opening while feeding on insects and berries in the shrubs and trees in the company of other migrating species. If not actually seen you may hear the exquisite but melancholy songs that can easily send one down an introspective path when experiencing those delicate notes heard in the woodlots on an early autumn morning here in Illinois. This unassuming bird, the Hermit Thrush, has become the subject and inspiration for poets and authors. Walt Whitman includes the Hermit Thrush in his lament for the death of Abraham Lincoln in the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Keep your eyes and ears open for a visit by the Hermit Thrush as it passes through northern Illinois heading south where it will winter in far southern Illinois and the southern United States and south into Central America.

Golden-crowned Kinglets

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

October 26, 2017 – Golden-crowned Kinglets have migrated south from their northern summer nesting range of Canada and have been quite busy feeding on insects in the bushes and in the dense canopy of the deciduous trees of their winter range, which Illinois is part of. The tiny Kinglets are not much bigger than a hummingbird and have been known to get themselves caught on the little hooks of cockleburs and burdock bracts as they search for insects through the branches and leaves of a thicket. An example is the Kinglet in the photo that needed my assistance this past week. These amazing little hunters can be seen launching off of a branch to hover in midair at the edge of a leaf and pluck off an insect with an astonishing determination, at times making more than one attempt when necessary. One photo shows a successful catch of a small winged insect moments before the prey was consumed and then with little hesitation the Kinglet was off to continue its’ hunt spending only a fraction of a second in any one spot. The quick moving subject was certainly a remarkable challenge for this photographer.

Golden-crowned Kinglet caught in burdock

Golden-crowned Kinglet caught in burdock.

October 27, 2017 – As I was leaving and going past the area where I had discovered the trapped kinglet earlier in the week, I found an unfortunate kinglet deceased and stuck in the burdock. A close up look shows the tiny hooks of the burdock latched to the wings feathers. Hooking the wings probably did seal the birds fate the more it thrashed about trying to escape.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Unfortunate kinglet deceased.

Little baby Killdeer

Little baby Killdeer

Little baby Killdeer

May 2, 2017 – Little baby Killdeer covered in their soft downy feathers hurry to the protection of their mother as she gives the warning call. Five tiny plover chicks could be seen already hunting insects as they moved across a mud flat next to a rural road in Kankakee county Monday. Killdeer are a ground nesting bird and after an incubation of 24-28 days the newly hatched wide eyed Killdeer chicks begin foraging with their parents as soon as their feathers are dry.

Little baby Killdeer

Little baby Killdeer called to safety by mother.

Rusty Blackbirds

Rusty Blackbirds

Rusty Blackbirds

March 17, 2017 – A small flock of Rusty Blackbirds work the muddy edge of a pond, moving quickly with a focused intensity as they turn over leaf litter and sticks looking for insects on a cold and cloudy wet March morning in Kankakee county. It is the time of year that these birds, with a conservation status of vulnerable, migrate north to the boreal forests where another breeding and nesting season will begin around the Beaver ponds and bogs in the wet woods of the north.

The Rusty Blackbird, upon close examination, looks very different than most blackbirds with their rusty colored edges that highlight their dark feathers. The female has more of a colorful look with lighter shades of earth-tones and a mixture of that rusty color edging on the feathers and a grayish underside. Like the Common Grackle, the Rusty Blackbird has bright yellow eyes that are rather conspicuous and seem to penetrate ones imagination as you notice a look coming your way.

 Female Rusty Blackbird

Female Rusty Blackbird

The Rusty Blackbird is a bird on the edge. It has been a mystery to scientist and ornithologist why there has been such an alarming decline of this species. “North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count suggest that Rusty Blackbird numbers have plummeted a staggering 85-95% since the mid-1900’s” (Greenberg and Droege, 1999) . Among other possible causes are climatic change and high levels of mercury that have been found in the birds from pollution. Some speculate that the large scale draining of Beaver ponds and clearing of wooded wet lands for agriculture and development throughout its wintering range is a large part of this devastating impact on a bird that relies on a healthy ecosystem and wetland habitat. Many other migratory bird species suffer from this loss of habitat along with local flora and fauna that can vanish from the landscape seemingly in the blink of an eye with such a negative impact on these natural areas.

Male Rusty Blackbird

Male Rusty Blackbird

An organization called International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) was founded in 2005 to aggressively gain understanding by collecting data and monitoring the Rusty Blackbirds on both summer and winter ranges. The goal, through their research, is to lead to conservation methods and programs that help reverse the rapid decline of this species. http://rustyblackbird.org/