The Swamp sparrow

A beautiful Swamp sparrow stands tall on a dry weed stem in Iroquois County during the fall migration.

October 15, 2020 – The Swamp sparrow is an elegant, long-legged, medium-sized sparrow that is well adapted and right at home in the thick cover of marshes, swamps, and bogs of the north across eastern and central North America, stretching up into Canada’s Northwest Territories during the nesting season. The Swamp sparrow is more often detected by its song rather than actually being seen in its’ dense summer habitat of sedges, cattails, and shrubs. The variations of songs and calls of the Swamp sparrow have been studied, admired, and described as a slow, sweet, trill that will evoke the vision of a northern wetland to the observer just as the call of the Common loon sends ones’ thoughts to a clear secluded lake in the north woods. Ornithologists have even discovered regional dialects for Swamp sparrows located in different parts of the country. Through the study of the Swamp sparrow’s songs and calls researchers have gained an understanding on how these birds learn and continue to use songs that vary across different geographical regions, and how the sparrows are influenced as young by the popular songs used by the adults of those regions. It seems the most popular songs are the ones that are learned and repeated by the new generation of sparrows and any new variation that a young bird may come up with in its’ song learning practice that is not useful will soon fade away over time. The study also shows those popular songs have persisted in those regions for generations, possibly hundreds of years. The term used to explain how these song types are learned and stay popular to a region is known as “conformist bias”. The sparrows have a song repertoire, depending on the region, of popular tunes that have stood the test of time over many generations, influenced by the adults and put in to practice each year by a new generation of Swamp sparrows. Those tunes that work ring-out across the varied wetlands of North America.

Wonderful colors of reddish brown, blacks, and gray plumage adorn the long-legged Swamp sparrow as it pauses for a moment in its search for insects.

The Magnolia Warbler

A Magnolia warbler stops for just a moment as it forages through the bushes looking for insects.

October 1, 2020 – The Magnolia warbler is a small songbird that nests across the provinces of Canada, from British Colombia, to Nova Scotia, and the Upper Great Lakes, to the northeastern US. The warblers have striking colors even after the breeding season, when many birds lose their bold colorful plumage and become rather dull. During the fall migration these little warblers bring some bright yellows to the early autumn Midwestern woods. These long-distance Neotropical migrants are on their way south stopping for a few days in a small woods in Iroquois County. Suddenly appearing out of the thicket, the Magnolia warblers forage for insects through the leafy bushes at the sunny edge of the small wooded area no larger then an acre. These small patches of land that have for some reason avoided the plow are life savers for migrating birds, insects, and bats. Whether seasonal migrants, or wildlife that is here year around, these small untouched habitats that are few and far between, and barely surviving among the cultivated lands of Illinois are pieces of land that are of the utmost importance to many species. The loss of habitat at wintering and nesting sites as well as the food and resting areas along the migratory routes can have a devastating impact on many species of birds. The Magnolia warblers travel from Panama and Mexico to the far northern US and up into Canada and back again in the fall. These migratory trips can be as much as 4000 miles one way. It is a hard trip for the little fliers and those exhausted birds that can’t find places to rest and feed don’t make it. Awareness and conservation are key to help prevent many species of birds from being listed as rare, or worse, cannot be found. Shade coffee farms that are replacing the sun coffee farms have provided good habitat for the warblers, Hummingbirds, and other species, and supporting shade grown coffee goes a long way in helping provide a winter habitat for these migrants. River valleys, lakes, and the islands of uncut forests across Illinois are the refueling stations for these tired night travelers that still have many miles to go during another exhausting and challenging migration.

A lovely display from a beautiful warbler as it perches on a dried stem in the morning sun.

The American Redstart

A female or maybe a first year male American redstart comes out of the shadowy woods and perches for just seconds before disappearing into the thicket.

September 17, 2020 – A quick movement with a flash of color reveals a small silhouetted figure in the low branches just inside the thicket. The sudden motion that has caught my eye is a dark colored bird with bright orange markings that became apparent as the little bird moved to a branch in a spot of filtered September light. A male American redstart with his stunning jet black plumage that is enhanced with bright yellow-orange feathers, and white underparts, moves quickly from branch to branch searching for insects. Soon two more redstarts appear in the trees nearby, but these tiny warblers have a different color pattern than the black male. The new arrivals are either females or first year male birds. The little travelers are gray overall with yellow markings, and although different than the adult male redstart, the flittering little fliers are as captivating as any warbler in the forest. These southbound migrating warblers are on their way to the shrubby forested areas and shade-grown coffee plantations where they will spend the winter in the equatorial latitudes of Central America and western South America. Just like when the redstarts arrive to the spring nesting grounds, the first thing they do when they arrive at the wintering grounds is to establish territories. The little birds become very aggressive and determined to win when it comes to the best shady hunting spots. This type of territorial aggression is sometimes seen at stopovers along the southbound migration route when the aggressor quickly descends on the intruder chasing it away from its temporary hunting area. The American redstart is referred to by some as the Christmas bird because they are in those areas of the tropics around Christmas time. They also have a less dignified name given by locals as the latrine bird because they are attracted to the flies that are numerous in those undesirable locations such as outhouses and dumps. I say what happens in the tropics stays in the tropics. The American redstarts we see in the woodlands of Northern Illinois during the nesting season and during the migrations are always a treat to watch as they fan their tails, spooking insects, and catching them on the wing. We will continue to see migrating redstarts for a while longer but soon they will be gone for the winter.

An American redstart male stops for a moment as it searches for insects on the branches below.

Small Birds and Big Winds

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes time to stretch and preen on a perch near a feeder the day after the violent derecho.

August 20, 2020 – August 10th brought a weather event across the Midwest that I will not soon forget. The National Weather Service describes the storm as a long-lasting severe wind thunderstorm complex known as a derecho, with much of the winds at 75+ mph. By the afternoon, sometime after 3:00, the air felt hot, humid, and very heavy. I thought how lucky I was to have air conditioning, as I stepped back into the house from checking for mail. Little did I know, the cool air I was enjoying would soon end with a power outage that would last for days. It wasn’t long until things started to change as some darker clouds began to roll in, bringing some swirling winds to the treetops. Those winds didn’t seem so bad. A little before 4:00 pm I was looking out the kitchen window and could see the birds at the feeders and some squirrels that were busy with a new crop of walnuts next door. Hummingbirds were defending their territory, vigorously chasing intruders away from the feeders when the high winds struck. The birds and squirrels cleared the area as the winds became seriously stronger and within seconds the true nature of the derecho was revealed. The giant sycamore in the backyard was being shaken violently like a little toy, it’s large limbs snapping and dropping to the ground, taking out the electric and covering my truck in debris. I have to admit fear and some confusion was orbiting my thoughts while overloading my rational thinking and preventing me from retreating to the basement. If I was living in ancient Greece, in the time of Homer, I would be absolutely convinced that all four of the gods of the winds were involved and very angry at me for something. Soon though, the weather began to ease and when it seemed the storm had passed I cautiously ventured outside to inspect the damage and it was a bit shocking to see how fast things can change. I noticed that I was not the only one inspecting the backyard, Hummingbirds could be seen hovering over fallen limbs and debris. They were going from one limb to the next as if they were investigating those new things that earlier were not there, the landscape had definitely changed. By the next afternoon, with lots of hard work, the yard appeared much like it did before the storm, except for a damaged truck, broken fence, and electrical wires hanging down. House finches, Nut hatches, sparrows, and Hummingbirds appeared to be back to their normal routine seemingly unfazed, taking up where they left off before the storm. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are one of the smallest birds to visit North America and are a long-distance migrant that travels all the way from Mexico and Central America each spring and back again by early fall, flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Watching those Hummingbirds really made me think, in the wake of the violent storm, about the many obstacles and dangers that these tiny birds, weighing in at about 0.12 oz., must encounter in their life. The dangers are many for the little hummingbirds, from reptilians, insects, to birds of prey, but now we can add one more challenge to that list, and that is the derecho after the devastation of the August inland hurricane of 2020 that visited Illinois.

With an increase in Hummingbirds to the yard after the storm a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers near a feeder chasing away intruders.

Listen to the Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird perches for a moment as it searches for prey at the edge of a woods in Iroquois County.

August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.

A closeup look at those well lit beautiful brown-orange colored eyes of this handsome mockingbird.

Leucistic Red-winged Blackbird

A leucistic female Red-winged Blackbird perches for a moment showing her peach colored head and white wings where pigment is missing from the birds feathers.

June 11, 2020 – A flash of white catches my eye as an interesting bird with peculiar markings flies just above some intentionally destroyed, non-native invasive plants that are known as the common reed or Phragmites. The stems of the dead Phragmites lay strewn like pick-up-sticks across the soft, damp, muddy shallows. The mystery bird perched for a moment on the tall stem of a native wetland grass, but soon flew down to the mucky waters edge where it began searching through the dark, wet organic debris occasionally using the dead Phragmites as a convenient perch. The bird began picking up small pieces of plant material and appeared to be looking for something specific as it hopped over standing water to the next little bit of duckweed covered mud and broken reeds. Soon the birds’ beak was full of small pieces of plant material. The curious colorful bird flew up and over the higher dry ground where prairie plants were thriving and dropped down into the thick green cover where it disappeared. In no time at all the busy bird was back on the marshy ground continuing its’ search for nesting material. By now the bird was no longer a mystery, its’ behavior, its’ song, and the nearby male that was protecting the territory revealed the species as a female Red-winged Blackbird that was working on a nest. The unusual coloring of the birds’ feathers is caused by a genetic condition known as leucism, a condition that prevents melanin from being sent to some of the birds plumage. Leucistic birds are recorded and photographed across many species each year, from Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles to Cardinals and Hummingbirds, and in this case a Red-winged Blackbird. Some of the leucistic birds are almost completely white while others might only have some plumage that is affected, sometimes referred to as piebald.

An example of a female Red-winged Blackbird that is not affected by leucism.

Tanagers and Flycatchers

A beautiful male Scarlet Tanager pauses for a moment as it searches from a convenient perch for prey.

May 21, 2020 – As we near the end of May we are about two thirds of the way through another spring season as newly arriving migratory birds continue to be seen in our area of Northeastern Illinois as summer draws near. The Great Crested Flycatcher is a recent arrival and is a large colorful bird that has a bright yellow belly and an impressive crest on top of its’ head, that feathery crest promptly raised straight up when the bird is excited. These beautiful flycatchers can be found hunting along wooded areas and near grasslands and along the rural roadways of Illinois. Sightings of this common bird are now being recorded in Northern Illinois and one was just recently found in Iroquois County hunting the edge of a small woods perched near some tall grass. The Crested Flycatcher stands out among the smaller and more drab flycatchers like the Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-Pewee that have the same hunting behavior and can be found hunting the same territory. The Great-Crested Flycatcher winters from southern Mexico south into South America. Another recent arrival that looks quite dignified covered in black and charcoal-gray feathers, white throat, chest and belly with white-tipped tail feathers is the Eastern Kingbird. Like other flycatchers the Kingbird prefers perches near open grassy areas with a good view of flying insects where the fast flying, quick turning, Kingbird will quickly catch the prey on the wing. The Kingbird spends the winter in the western Amazon basin of South America and nests in almost all of the United States, except for the deep southwest. It also nests in most of southern Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Exciting flashy red male tanagers, both Summer Tanagers and Scarlet Tanagers, have just recently arrived. The female Scarlet Tanagers do not have those bright red feathers but are covered in olive-yellow plumage with dark wings. The Summer Tanager females are mostly yellow and do not have dark wings. The Summer Tanagers are a long-distance migrant that winter in southern Mexico, Central America, and northwestern South America. The beautifully striking Scarlet Tanager spends the winter months in the foothills of the Andes in South America. This year seems to be a banner year for Scarlet Tanager sightings as there are a large number of people reporting and photographing for the first time Scarlet Tanagers at their backyard feeders Ruby-throated hummingbirds are establishing territories near good food sources and a variety of colorful warblers continue to excite birdwatchers as many will be nesting here and others will continue north.

A lovely female Scarlet Tanager looks back over her shoulder as she rests momentarily on a perch just above the ground.

Songs and Flashy Colors

A male Ruby-crowned Kinglet flashes his bright red feathers atop his head as a warning to other kinglets to stay out of his territory.

April 30, 2020 – The season of new growth and flowery fragrant blooms brings fresh songs and flashy colors, as migrating warblers and Kinglets show up in the thickets and along the brambly prairie edges. Busily feeding, while taking little time to preen or rest, some of these travelers have reached their summer nesting areas while other birds still have miles to go and are loading up on insects and worms while at this bountiful northbound sojourn. On some days these temporary stops can be very busy places with many species of birds. Some are here the year around, like the bright red singing male Cardinal calling out to a female and bringing her seeds as she glides in and perches nearby. A Brown thrasher, a short-distance migrant that winters from the tip of Southern Illinois and all of the Southeastern United States, has arrived. It is hard to miss this large songbird with its’ bright yellow eyes and impressive chisel-like bill and long tail feathers. Often seen perched and singing its’ many songs, a faceted repertoire of melodious lyric that sounds as if there are five or six other birds making those rich notes, the Brown thrasher without a doubt is an inspiration and an uplifting treat to the senses. The shadowy places beneath overgrown bushes and briers are the hunting grounds for the Hermit thrush. The little brown bird, with a spotted breast, and large dark eyes, adorned with distinct white eye-rings, is a secretive bird that may be watching you before you ever notice it. The sparrow sized bird is occasionally revealed as it moves through the broken sunlight that has illuminated the fallen limbs and leaf litter in the small open areas below the thick understory. Scratching the litter as it looks for insects, the little thrush eventually disappears from sight as it continues its’ ground level hunt though the woody labyrinth. Ruby-crowned kinglets are busy in the trees and bushes searching for insects. These tiny birds are on their way north to northern Wisconsin and on into Canada for the nesting season. A male kinglet has lay claim to some nearby bushes and the branches in a tree about ten feet above the ground that he is aggressively guarding and will not allow any other kinglets to come near. When an intruder comes too close, the little male quickly swoops in showing his fiery red feathers on top of his head, that are normally flat and almost hidden. That blazing red flashy plumage, that is only erect for a few seconds, is standing straight up in a threatening display as he chases the other birds away from his claimed hunting spot. Soon more colors will arrive with the warm southern winds, some of these birds will stay, and some will continue north and for the lucky observers there will be those less often seen warblers, those mysterious neotropical beauties that are sure to touch ones heart with only a momentary glimpse that leaves a lasting impression as they pass through on their way north.

A male Yellow-rumped warbler in his breeding plumage stops for a moment on a branch as it searches for insects in a small tree.

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.

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.