October 7, 2023 – That old familiar change is in the air as fall arrives. The cooler nights provide a restful sleep and easy dreams as open windows bring a gentle breeze replacing noisy air conditioners. The changing light and long shadows give a new look and feel to a tired countryside. Even though the gardens and prairies still have plenty of nectarous blooms for the pollinators while adding color to the glorious landscape, many plants have gone to seed and are showing signs of wear and tear as they begin to reveal the yellows and oranges of autumn. It is that time of year before the ice and snow that summer residents migrate south. Many species of birds are on the move coming south from the higher latitudes, while others are preparing to move south by gorging on nature’s bounty of seeds, nectar, and insects, building up their fat reserves for their challenging journeys. Monarch butterflies, Common green darner dragonflies, and even Eastern red bats are taking to the skies and are heading to a warmer climate for the winter. Long-distance migrants like Broad-winged hawks have recently been photographed in the area working their way south towards Central and South America, where they will wait for spring near the equatorial latitudes, wisely retreating far away from those cold north winds. Large, bright white, wading birds, the Great egrets, stand out against the changing colors as they feed in the backwaters of the Kankakee. Hunted nearly to extinction in the late 1800s for their beautiful plumes, new conservation laws in the early 1900s implemented to protect birds are why we see the Great egrets today. While there are always a few egrets that stay in Northern Illinois through a mild winter, most of the summer population of Great egrets in the lakes and marches of the Great Lakes region will have gone as far south as Central America for the cold months. In the coming weeks, large flocks of Sandhill cranes will be in the air over Northern Illinois and Indiana as they have done for thousands of years. The Sandhill crane population has rebounded over the years from the low numbers of only a few dozen in the 1930s thanks to protective laws; today, we enjoy the sites and sounds of the cranes in migration, those bugling rattles that demand one’s attention, are a sampling of the bygone days before the Europeans expanded into North America, where they nearly wiped out the Sandhill and Whooping cranes forever. Shorebirds, wading birds, raptors, songbirds, and waterfowl travel through Illinois during the fall migration, some spending the winter in the state. Backyard feeders are a great place to monitor during the fall migration; watching and listening for those unusual migrating songbirds is an exciting and rewarding moment when one witnesses an uncommon fall traveler that probably goes unnoticed by most.
May 28, 2020 – Standing out among the greens and yellows of a spring prairie that surrounds a shallow, seasonal, wetland of only a few acres, the bright white color of the four migrating Cattle Egrets in Iroquois County recently made for an easy count. While two of the birds were occupied preening, the other two were busy hunting through the prairie flowers and grasses for prey. Earthworms, frogs, and insects were on the menu this day. The egrets eventually came into range as they worked their way around the waters edge hunting the surrounding grasses. I could now observe through my camera their successful hunting techniques getting a close-up look at their focused behavior as they cautiously stepped through the taller grasses carefully looking for prey. A large nightcrawler worm is consumed quickly, but a big frog takes some work to dispatch and eat, a process that quickly becomes a challenge to keep the catch from being stolen by another egret. Before long, keeping the frog turns into an aerial pursuit across the water to the other side of the wetland where the successful hunter eventually wins the prize as the thief soon gives up.
Cattle Egrets are not native to the Americas, they are believed to have flown across the Atlantic via the northeast trade winds and arrived in South America in the late 1800’s from Africa. The Cattle Egrets expanded north into North America and were nesting here by the 1950’s. Most people would recognize images of these birds in the country from which they migrated from, Africa. One can easily visualize these birds perched on a large Cape buffalo, Zebras, or walking around close to the trunks of grazing Elephants. Here in America the egrets are often seen in cow pastures perched on domestic livestock and walking near the head of foraging cattle waiting for insects or other prey to be flushed by the large grazer. The little birds have no problem plucking insects and parasites off the faces of the cooperative cattle. These recent visitors to Iroquois County were in their beautiful breeding plumage. Three Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage were most recently reported by Jed Hertz in Kankakee County feeding in a similar habit as those found in Iroquois County.