July 5, 2018 – The Michigan lily is a strikingly beautiful flower having blooms of yellow-orange to orange-red that are covered with purplish spots. The flower seems to float in the sea of the surrounding summer foliage. Their contrast of color against that summer world dominated by green can easily remind one of the paper lanterns of the Chinese Shangyuan lantern festival as the orange lilies give the impression of a glowing lantern hanging at the end of their long sturdy green stems. The lilies, with their unusual recurved peddles, bloom for about a month from early to mid-summer. They are perennial and can reach a height of 4 feet. These pendent lilies attract hummingbirds, butterflies and many other species of insects to their nectar. The winged visitors become covered in a yellow-orange pigment of pollen as they fly from flower to flower finding sustenance while at the same time pollinating the lilies. As the flowering stage wanes the glorious attraction of bright color soon gives way to those less glamorous earthy seedpods. The Michigan lily is not considered rare, compared to the almost indistinguishable Turks Cap lily found in a few counties in far Southern Illinois, but it is an uncommon native plant species found in scattered counties throughout the state and does require a healthy natural area to even exist. Michigan lilies can be cultivated adding both beauty and the benefits of nectar to a personal garden or landscape but the real treat is to see the plants with their showy blossoms thriving in the wild in some remote sunny opening at the edge of a wooded area where they will most certainly attract pollinators and nature lovers alike.
June 18, 2018 – An Upland sandpiper, a bird that spends the winter as far south as Argentina and Uruguay, walks through the new growth of soybeans in a field in Iroquois county recently, the same field where five were spotted the day before. The Upland sandpiper is endangered in Illinois and increasingly rare to even see. An encouraging study that was done in two counties in Central Illinois in 2014 by a team from the University of Illinois has indicated apparent adaptations for a number of grassland species including the Upland sandpiper. The Upland sandpipers are using no-till soybean fields as nesting sites according to wildlife biologist Kelly R. VanBeek who coordinated the 2014 study.
This is the forth year that I have photographed Upland sandpipers that are using an area in Iroquois county for nesting. Last year I observed a chick with an adult and that event was the exciting confirmation that they were indeed nesting there with some success. With the cooperation of the land owners and farmers we have an opportunity to get a better understanding of why it seems to be working for the Upland sandpipers at this location and possibly encourage some management ideas that can help increase their odds for success. Some simple things like a moratorium on roadside mowing, the spraying of dangerous chemicals or even closing nonessential roads during the nesting season could go a long way towards that goal. With common sense actions and a greater understanding we may find that with just some small tweaks in our behavior we could have a huge positive impact on the struggling Upland sandpiper, a species that needs our prompt focus.
January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.
During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.
The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.
April 9, 2017 – Last week some remarkable birds, the American Golden-plover, had been seen resting and feeding in the agricultural fields of Iroquois county as they are on their spring migration crossing the United States on their way north to the high Arctic for another breeding season. Well over a 100 of these birds were sharing a wet field near Ashkum with nearly 70 Pectoral Sandpipers that also winter in South America. For more then a week as the miserable weather conditions and relentless northerly winds held them fast the plovers could be seen spread out and walking across the wet field hunting in their typical method of run, stop, run, stop, look then grab a worm or bug. The plovers’ are very well camouflaged, they quite easily blend into the surroundings and they most likely go unnoticed.
When they bed down for a midday nap they locate a little nest-like depression in the field and they seem to disappear as they settle down into it for some sleep. A smaller group, less then 50 were resting about four miles west of Askum this past Sunday. I was able to observe them for nearly four hours as they hunted the field until about 12:30 pm when I noticed about fifteen of them fly out of the field and stand on the roadway for about ten minutes until they slowly walked to another field and out of sight. Others, about ten, bedded down about twenty-five feet from where I was located. These little birds seemed really tired and over the next three hours there wasn’t much activity, only the occasional getting up to stretch, with a few walking around at times but quickly they would find a spot to lay.
Most of the birds were still in their winter plumage with a few showing darkening feathers as they transition to their beautiful breeding colors of a coal black face and chin and underparts with a bright white stripe that runs from their forehead above the eyes down the side of the neck to the breast. Their backs are browns with gold spots. It is a remarkable migration cycle that takes these Robin sized birds over 20,000 miles on their amazing journey. The plover spends the winter months on the grasslands of Argentina and the summer, their nesting season, on the rocky tundra of the high Arctic.
March 25, 2017 – The Rough-legged hawk can be spotted perched on utility poles, fence posts or gliding low across the frozen agricultural fields and the waterways of dormant grasses and weeds during the winter months here in the mid-west. Oftentimes these birds can be seen sitting on the ground along the roadway or in the desolate looking winter farm fields as they keep a wary eye and scan their surrounding for potential prey. In the summer one would have to travel to Hudson Bay and the High Arctic to see them hunting lemmings or voles on the tundra or nesting on a rock ledge or a ground level rocky outcropping with their brood of 2-6 eggs. Weighing up to 3lbs and having a wing-span of 4 ½ ft they are easy to spot as they seem to be a fixture in the winter sky gliding with eyes down into the wind hovering at times as they watch for movement of a mouse, ground squirrel or even a rabbit. Identifying the Rough-legged hawk is really not that difficult, although they could be mistaken for the Northern Harrier that has a similar hunting method. I always look for that tell-tale pattern, easier to see on the light-morph birds, those somewhat square or rectangle looking dark bold patches on the underside of the wings between the wing-tips and the first joint. Another thing to look for on these hawks are the feathers on the legs, the Rough-legged hawk gets its name from the feathers that cover the legs extending all the way to the toes, which are believed to help conserve heat. In our rural areas from November to March one has the best chance to have an encounter with these Arctic visitors.