The Purple Martin

A pair of Purple martin males warm up on a gravel road in the morning sun after a cold spring night near the Kankakee river.

April 23, 2020 – The Purple martin is a long-distance migrant that winters in South America and migrates 5000 miles north over a two or three week period eventually arriving in United States each spring for the breeding season. The Purple martin is the largest and probably the most well known of the swallow species in North America. These dark, purple colored, elegant fliers that seem to be in constant song, show up in our area of Northern Illinois for the nesting season by April of each year. Their nesting colonies are now mostly in the familiar man made martin houses. Those large white bird houses that are called ‘condos’ and look like apartment complexes on tall poles placed around lakes and ponds, near open wetlands, in parks, along the rivers, and in many rural backyards across eastern North America are key to the survival of Purple martins. The nesting houses are kept clean and protected from predators and other birds trying to use them for nesting by the landlords, the dedicated human hosts that erect and care for the nesting houses. There are organizations and clubs across the country, like The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) https://www.purplemartin.org , which is a great resource for supplies and learning how to create houses, maintain them, and share important data that is used in the interest of Purple martin conservation. Habitat loss, climate change, and competition for nesting holes from invasive species like European starlings and English house sparrows have made it very difficult for the Purple martins. Records show populations have been decreasing by large percentages in many areas over the years and more landlords are needed to provide and maintain nesting houses.

A female Purple martin perches on a small stone resting and warming in the morning sun.

The Tundra swan

A pair of Tundra swan at Black Oak Bayou, part of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area along the Kankakee River in Newton County Indiana this past week. The swan on the right shows a very small yellow spot while the swan on the left has a much larger spot.

March 12, 2020 – The Tundra swan, also known as the Whistling swan, is a large handsome white bird with coal black legs and feet and a matching black bill. The Tundra appears very similar to the Trumpeter swan but is somewhat smaller, the Trumpeter being the largest waterfowl in North America with a wingspan that can exceed 8 ft. The Tundra swan also has a yellow spot to the front of each eye that is sometimes quite small and not easy to see without the help of a scope or binoculars. The Tundra and Trumpeter are true native swans that we get to see here in Illinois during the winter months and during spring and fall migrations. I should also mention another swan that is a year around resident and actually breeds here in Illinois, the Mute swan. The Mute swan is larger then the Tundra and a little smaller than the Trumpeter and is an Eurasian species that was introduced for its elegance and beauty to grace private estates, park lakes, and ponds and eventually escaped into the environment. The Mute has a bright orange bill with a black knob where the bill meets the face on the forehead helping make the bird easy to identify. When our native swans the Tundra and Trumpeter are seen together, the size difference helps distinguish them, but when seen separately one has to rely on other physical clues such as the yellow spot near their eyes on the “lores”, the area between the nostrils and the eyes. Something else to consider is that about 10% of Tundra swans will not have the yellow spots at all according to Sibley Guides. The bill of each bird offers even more clues, when looking directly face to face with the swans, the Tundra has more of rounded boarder along the top of the bill between the eyes while the Trumpeter has V shape. The slope of the head of each bird offers even more to be examined when looking at the birds profile, the Tundra has a rounded crown and the Trumpeter has more of a slope that lines up and continues down the bill. Now we are in late winter and the swans have been staging in our area for many weeks with other waterfowl waiting to move north. Soon these wonderful birds will start their flight towards the Arctic where they will spend a short summer nesting on the ponds, lakes, and the wetlands on the vast tundra of Canada and Alaska.

A closer look at the Tundra swan with a much larger yellow spot on the lores.

The Green Heron

A wary adult Green heron stretches out its’ long neck to get a better view of the surroundings.

August 22, 2019 – What are those little dark colored squawking herons seen perched in the dead trees in and around our wetlands, ponds, and creeks? These wary birds are often seen stalking, with only the slightest of movement, as they inch across the branches of a partially submerged fallen snag in the duckweed covered still backwaters of our river. It is now August and soon the little Green herons will be heading south for the winter. The sightings have most definitely increased recently as the new generation of young Green herons, those feathery squawkers that are the results of a successful nesting season, are fledged and hunting on their own. The crow sized herons are dark colored and appear as silhouettes in the dim lit habitat of a slough, but when they are illuminated by the sunlight the beauty of Green heron is revealed. Their feathers are a rich color of chestnut, dark green, and blue-gray and they have yellow eyes and a dagger like bill that shoots out in the blink of an eye as they extend with great speed their long neck to grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or insect. According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Green herons begin arriving in Illinois in April and nesting occurs from May through early July and the fall migration starts in August.

A juvenile Green heron waits and watches patiently for any movement of potential prey.

There have been observations and even videos of this remarkable hunter that have verified that some of these birds have learned to use lures to get small fish to come in close. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology stated, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” As we are now seeing other species of herons and egrets staging and working their way south as autumn draws near, these little night fliers, those squawking Green herons, will soon disappear from our sloughs and wetlands until next April. The Green heron is considered a medium-distance migrant here in northeastern Illinois and winters along the southern coastal areas of North America, and south into Mexico, and Central America.

North American River Otter

North American River Otter

North American River Otter

September 27, 2018 – The North American river otter can weigh as much as 30 pounds and can grow to a length of almost four and half feet. Their sleek muscular body and webbed toes make them very efficient underwater swimmers, stirring the water up, and chasing prey, as they roll and make quick turns in their pursuit. The otter can hold its’ breath for as long as eight minutes and can cover some distance as it swims. Fish, frogs and crayfish are a big part of the otters diet, the otter is a carnivore, a predator with strong jaws and sharp teeth and will also take birds or other animals that are near the water. The river otter is a symbol or totem of many Native American groups, the Pottawatomie and the Seminole people see the river otter as one of their clan animals. The Ojibwa called the river otter Nigig, its’ skin, teeth and claws were used in their medicine bundles. The otter was hunted and trapped for its’ meat and skin, the skins were respectfully turned into pipe bags, pouches and quivers by the indigenous people of North America.

The otter eating a fish it just caught

The otter eating a fish it just caught

Once a common sight in Illinois, the river otter was all but wiped out by the mid 1800’s as human expansion continued and the settlers cleared and drained the wetlands. With no regulations and the wholesale trapping and shooting of these semi-aquatic creatures, any sightings were becoming quite rare. Most ponds, lakes and rivers were now void of this remarkable animal and they were now sadly missing from most of Illinois, with the exception of far southwestern Illinois in the area of the Cache river and along the Mississippi in the northwestern part of the state. Trapping was eventually closed for river otter in1929. By 1989 the otter was listed as endangered and the future for the North American river otter was not looking good here in Illinois. The population had shrunk to an all time low and there were only a few areas that held the total population of this species for the state, which was believed to be as low as 100. But there was hope as things were changing throughout Illinois, the health of our natural resources had improved and this presented an opportunity for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Conservation efforts on wetlands combined with the laws enacted over the past decade to improve water quality in the rivers and streams in Illinois were paying off and by the mid 90’s improved habitats existed where beaver were thriving and and beaver dams helped create wetlands with healthy aquatic systems and these positive changes to our natural areas was great news for the otter.

Large canines of the otter as it swims with its' mouth open

Large canines of the otter as it swims with its’ mouth open

Reintroduction efforts were in the works for the DNR from 1994 through 1997 with the release of captured river otters from Louisiana. The released otters were reintroduced in central and southeastern Illinois. Around that same time the Indiana DNR was reintroducing river otter to a few watersheds in the northern and southern parts of the state. Today we see the results of those efforts of reintroduction, which would not have been possible without the conservation laws of the 70’s. The American river otter has expanded north and west in Illinois and into northeastern Illinois most likely out of Indiana using ditches and creeks and the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers. Today in Illinois river otters can be found in every county with an overall population that may be greater than 20,000 and possibly as high as 30,000. Recent sightings of river otters in our general area have been reported in Newton county Indiana where Jed Hertz photographed a pair on August 30th at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle FWA. I also observed a single otter at the White Oak Slough of the LaSalle FWA along the Kankakee river. Jed recently encountered an otter east of Kankakee, in Kankakee county, on September 14th. I was able to photograph that particular individual over a number of days while observing its’ ability to hunt. The otter certainly seems to be an effective hunter catching large and small frogs along with a number of fish species. The small prey was consumed on the fly, but a large Bullfrog or fish required two to five minutes to consume before the hunt would continue.

The North American River Otter

The North American River Otter

 

Reference:

“Wildlife Directory: River Otter – Living with Wildlife – University of Illinois Extension, https://m.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/directory_show.cfm?species=river_otter

“River Otter.” Education, Illinois DNR, www.dnr.illinois.gov/conservation/wildlife/Pages/River-Otter.aspx

“North American River Otter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_river_otter

“The Ojibwe Native Americans.” The Ojibwe Native Americans – Traditions, http://ojibwenativeamericans.weebly.com/religion.html

webmaster@aaanativearts.com. “Potawatomi Bands and Clans:” Cherokee Houses, AAA Native Arts, https://www.aaanativearts.com/potawatomi/potawatomi_clans.htm

Sandhill Cranes Migration

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

August 20, 2018 – Only a month from now the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox will signal the official change from those lazy days of summer to the cool nights and colorful days of inspiration, reflection and the fall migration of the Sandhill cranes. There are small numbers of Sandhill cranes in areas of Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana that have been here through the summer and a few pair of the great birds that have successfully nested. Soon though, there will be a big push from points north as much cooler temperatures become apparent in Canada and the Upper Midwest. The spectacular migration will fill the eyes and ears of the fortunate with the amazing sights and sounds of hundreds of southbound Sandhill cranes heading for their staging areas of the Midwest. The cranes will amass in flocks of thousands where they will spend their days feeding, resting and dancing over the next few months. A well known and wonderful place to view the concentrations of Sandhill cranes is a little over fifty miles east of Kankakee at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area in Indiana. By late December, as winter tightens its’ grip, most of the Sandhill cranes will have continued south where food can easily be found in the unfrozen fields and marshes of a much more tolerant climate of the southern United States.

Egrets

Great Egret and the smaller Snowy Egret

Great Egret and the smaller Snowy Egret

August 7, 2018 – Standing just over three feet tall, the Great egret overshadows the smaller Snowy egret that only reaches a height of two feet. At White Oak Slough and the Black Oak Bayou at the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area, which is located along the Kankakee river in Newton County Indiana, there have been large numbers of Great egrets over the past few weeks hunting the shallows as well as using the trees to roost. The Snowy egret was an exciting find as the little bird would stay close with a group of Great egrets at the Black Oak Bayou. Snowy egrets have interesting techniques for hunting. I observed the little bird vibrating its’ leg as it moved through the water trying to scare up prey. It also has a behavior called bill-vibrating where it will rapidly open and close its’ submerged bill to confuse and force up frogs, fish, insects or crayfish. They also stomp their feet up and down as they move through the water as another one of their interesting hunting behaviors, to root out prey. Another exciting species of wading bird was noted at the bayou by Jed Hertz when he discovered two juvenile Little Blue Herons with a group of Great egrets on August 6th.

Juvenile Little Blue Herons

Juvenile Little Blue Herons

Wood ducks In Molt

Wood ducks

Male and female Wood ducks

August 1, 2018 – Feathers lay scattered and suspended on top of the green floating duckweed and watermeal below a pair of molting Wood ducks perched on a limb just above the water. The male Wood duck in the foreground with his red bill and blood red eyes, that are focused on the intruder, is lacking that stunning alternate plumage of those celebrated nuptial feathers seen during the breeding season. The males drab color is very similar to the female or a young male during this phase of the basic post nesting molt. As we move through the late summer the male that has been in his basic or eclipse plumage for the past few months will show signs of the pre-alernate molt which will eventually give the little duck those glorious and amazing patterns of color that is known as alternate plumage. Courting will not be far behind that dramatic change that is coming for the secretive little Wood ducks and continue into spring. After the paired ducks have completed a successful nesting season nature will once again trigger the next pre-basic molt and the cycle continues.

Turkey Vultures

Turkey vulture

Rain soaked Turkey vulture

July 16, 2018 – After a brief but heavy morning rain a small group of soaked Turkey vultures rotate on their perches to face the direction of the emerging sun. Their nearly six foot wingspan spread and slightly cupped helps dry those wet feathers and regulate body temperatures of the vultures before they can take to the thermals and glide above the summer landscape in search of carrion.

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.

Black Terns

Black Tern

Black Tern

June 10, 2018 – A small number of migrating Black terns have been reported recently at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area adjacent to the Kankakee river in Newton County Indiana. The Black terns could be seen flying low over the water as they hunt. With their silver wings spread wide they gracefully swooped from side to side, at times stopping to hover. The small terns would stretch their neck as they would look down towards the water to focus on the movement of a potential prey while their aerodynamic skills kept them suspended in one place. They would take insects off the water or out of the air or from a protruding limb of a submerged snag with remarkable precision.

Black Tern

Black Tern

They would glide with the sun to their back slowly working their way from east to west over the glimmering sparkles of the shallow waters of the bayou. Suddenly with a decision only they understood they would swiftly turn and fly quickly back toward the east and start over with their slow and methodical hunting technique which would repeat many times before they would find a small tree stump barely showing just above the water line to perch and rest a short time before the next hunt. The drainage of wetlands along with dangerous agricultural chemical runoff have had significant negative impacts on the nesting areas of the Black tern. Loss of migratory wetlands from drainage and pollution has added to a steep decline of the North American population of Black tern along with many other species. Overfishing of the Black terns coastal tropical winter range is also believed to have contributed to the somewhat sharp decline of this species.

Black Terns Hunting

Black Terns Hunting