The Great Migration

A Tennessee warbler searches for prey from a branch just above a patch of Waterhemp.

September 10, 2020 – An exciting forecast for a big push of migratory birds moving south went out last week as favorable weather conditions supported by historic data lined up for this spectacular seasonal event that would start about three hours after sunset, according to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Hundreds of thousands of birds moved over Illinois in a massive migration during the night of Thursday the 3rd and continuing through Saturday the 5th. Although this is a very large mass movement of many birds all at once, the migration will continue through autumn as late migrants continue to head south to a warmer climate. A small wooded area south of Kankakee that has been the summer home for Indigo buntings, Song sparrows, Cardinals, Robins, Common yellowthroat, and Brown thrashers suddenly sees an uptick in activity as many small migrants resting and recharging their fat reserves arrive. High in the trees bright flashes of color catches the eye as male and female American redstarts that are searching every leaf and branch for small insects move at a fast pace from branch to branch. The little quick moving colorful redstarts have many miles to go in their journey to their winter homes in southern Mexico, Central America and northern South America. Another small bird that is a long-distance migrant and winters in Central America and northern South America is the Tennessee warbler. Three or four of these drab colored little warblers were hunting a little closer to the ground where they were checking the late summer plants for prey. With a thorough precision, and from every angle, they were plucking tiny insects off the stems and leaves in a patch of five foot tall Waterhemp in an opening at the edge of the thicket. Blue-gray gnatcatchers and Black-and-white warblers could be seen in numbers in the distant trees searching for prey. A Canada warbler that has a distinct bright-white eye-ring, on its’ way to South America, shows up for a moment in a bush at the edge of the woods before disappearing into the thick undergrowth. On the way to its’ wintering grounds in the tropics a Magnolia warbler searches for insects alongside the Tennessee warblers on the bushes and plants low to the ground. This is a great time to watch for a variety of species of migratory birds in the parks, along the waterways, and at backyard feeders, but they will only be here a short time as they continue south for the winter.

Pausing for a moment on a branch, a Magnolia warbler seems to reconnoiter its next move as it searches for insects.

A Change In The Air

A female Indigo bunting with a plump little Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillar in her beak on a perch at the edge of a late summer woods.

September 3, 2020 – The Dog Star Sirius is currently about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, those are the hottest days, the most sultry days of summer, and those dates coincide with the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. In the past when that bright star became visible in the northern latitudes it was a precise celestial event telling those ancient people in the northern hemisphere that a seasonal change was coming. We can look around at nature and see, and even hear, other signs of change as we enter the final weeks of summer. The loud and repetitive bird songs of desperate males seeking mates has gone mostly silent. Like hundreds of tiny high pitched tambourines being shaken all at once the sounds of the cicada fills our ears replacing those spring and summer sounds with a kind of swan song telling us that summer is passing away and fall beckons our attention. The migrating warblers moving south show only hints of those fine bright colored feathers of the breeding season as their spring adornments fade to a more subtle, less showy winter plumage. Even the bright greens of the summer foliage is starting to become a little less intense and is showing signs of wear. Plants are at their peak in growth and some have already gone to seed while others continue to flower and bloom and bear fruit attracting insects, hummingbirds and other animals to the banquet. Another sign of late summer/early fall are the ripened dark purple berries of the Pokeweed plant that are attached to a bright reddish purplish stem. Those late season fruits will feed songbirds and mammals that will in turn spread the seeds far and wide. Over the coming weeks even the miniature Ruby-throated fliers of the northern summer gardens will have moved on as the blooms dry up and the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler. Certainly, a change is in the air, and if we slow down, listen, observe and learn from nature, we may find that we are able to look at our calendars a little less often as we tune in to the natural world in the same way our ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly perched and hunting from a convenient perch as she nears the end of her flight season.

The Busy House Wren

A House wren searches on a lichen covered dead limb for insects.

August 27, 2020 – The little House wren is a busy, sometimes quite vocal, but mostly secretive bird that stays on the edges and in the shadows where the thick growth and shrubbery becomes a small bird sized labyrinth to hunt, hide, and guard against intruders. The wren has brownish toned plumage with subtle dark markings and grayish colored breast with slightly brown colored underparts. With such plain dull earthy colors the little bird can easily go unseen as it zips through the shadowy understory. There is not a dead tree or a broken limb that this little hunter doesn’t give a thorough search. From the ground up the bird checks every nook and cranny for small insects like spiders, crickets, and beetles as it moves in and out of the natural openings and dark crevices of the fallen bough. When the House wrens arrive in the spring the male searches for what he thinks is a perfect nest site. He may use old abandoned woodpecker holes, fractures in old dead trees, man made bird houses, or even old discarded and forgotten man made items. The male will make many trips bringing small twigs to the nest site angling longer twigs that are too wide for the hole, sideways to fit through the small opening. Filling the hole with nesting material, he tirelessly builds the nest in hopes of impressing a mate. The House wren has a large range which includes most of the Western Hemisphere. The birds nest in most of the northern two thirds of the United States, from coast to coast, and north into southern Canada. The wren spends the winters in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. The little birds can be found year round in parts of Mexico, Central America, and south all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Somewhat hidden among the shadows, a small House wren searches the undersides of the leaves for prey

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.

Upland Sandpipers

An Upland Sandpiper lands and scurries across the road in front of me trying to entice me to follow, leading me away from it’s young hiding nearby.

August 13, 2020 – Every year, it seems, I am a bit nervous that this will be the last year of having any sightings in our area of Northeastern Illinois of the endangered long-distance migratory bird the Upland Sandpiper. I must admit that this year was not any different than past years, I always have a concern that eventually conjures up a bit of anxiety that grows until a bird is actually sighted. On May 15th of this year relief came as I had a pair flush along a rural road south of Kankakee. I have had sightings of multiple Upland Sandpipers in the general area almost once a week since this year’s first sighting in May. Besides the chance encounters, the patience in observation, listening for their unusual calls, or scanning the fields with binoculars while the crops are small can often produce sightings if the birds are in fact in the area. On August 3rd I had one fly, circle and land near where I had stopped my vehicle. The bird was certainly upset and scolding me as it landed and scurried across the roadway in front of my car before taking to the air again to circle my position. The sandpiper then landed on a utility wire behind me for no longer than five seconds before flying again back and forth past me. The encounter, the observation, and a couple fast photos lasted under two minutes and I quickly moved on so as not to stress the bird. My opinion is that this looks very much like the behavior of the Killdeer, a common upland plover that we see in numbers here in Illinois, especially along rural gravel roads during the nesting season when they have young nearby. The Killdeer uses distraction techniques to lead the intruder away from any chance of discovering their young that are staying low nearby. Perhaps this behavior is a telltale sign of a successful nesting season for the Upland Sandpiper, I can’t say for sure that this is whats going on, but it does give me hope that there are young birds nearby and the adult bird is doing its best to draw the intruder away. Hopes are that soon there will be new generation of Upland Sandpipers heading south to the prairies of the South America for the winter . This type of encounter with the Upland Sandpiper always seems to happen around this time every year from late July through late August when there should be young birds in the area. In fact I did get a glimpse at a flightless young bird being led away through rows of beans a few years back. When the adult bird circled me it was being very vocal as it flew out into the field joining the young bird, moving away and disappearing in the sea of green.

Perching on a utility wire for only a few seconds the Upland Sandpiper let’s me know that it is not happy with me in the area.

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.

Southbound

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs Sandpipers standing tall face to face having a dispute over the hunting area that will eventually lead to a noisy fight.

July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.

A small sharp looking Semipalmated Sandpiper on it’s way to Central and South America feeding in a small flooded field in Iroquois County this past week.

Semipalmated Plover

The profile of Semipalmated Plover show its’ dark cheek and fine orange eye-ring and the stout looking short, orange and black bill.

July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.

The photo shows the webbing on the middle and outside toes of the little plover from whence it gets it’s name.

Beautiful Dragonflies

A male Common Green Darner with a bright turquoise blue colored abdomen holds tight to the female just behind her head with his claspers as they fly to some floating debris where she will deposit her eggs into the water.

July 9, 2020 – Roadside ditches, marshes, wetlands and prairies are alive with many beautiful species of dragonflies. From the dainty Eastern Amberwings that are warmly illuminated by sun and perched on the lovely petals in the low growing carpet of color, to the large Green Darners flying in tandem across a shallow wetland, one can hardly find a view that is lacking of these winged jewels. The sight of those zigzagging, quick flying marvels is almost more than the human eye can follow, registering only a blur, until they light nearby. The black and white spots on the Twelve-spotted Skimmer are bright and beautiful making this dragonfly stand out quite well as it flies in the sunlight or perches in the broken light of a shadowy wet ditch. Blue Dashers are visible as far as the eye can see, perched in the open areas on the tips of the many available stems, branches, and tall flowers along roads and on the summer growth surrounding the wet prairies. Sitting in the bright sun the dashers rotate regularly to regulate their body temperature, at times taking what is known as the “obelisk” position where they stick their abdomen in a straight up posture to help cool their bodies. The Common Green Darner is a large beautiful dragonfly that migrates over long distances from the south and breeds here in Northern Illinois during the summer. In July and August the larvae develop and the young dragonflies emerge and work their way south to a warm climate for the winter where they will breed and lay eggs and their young will develop from larvae to dragonfly and fly north in the spring repeating the process. There are 98 species of dragonflies in Illinois and all offer something unique that makes them easy to identify. Male and female of the same species can look similar with only subtle differences or they can look very different with confusing markings and colors. The Common Whitetail dragonfly is a good example of males and females having very different markings on both their wings and bodies that differ in pattern and color. The male has a white body while the female has mostly brown body but they both share a very similar stocky shape. These hot, humid, summer days demand a certain amount of attention devoted to observation of the dragonflies of Illinois. Bring binoculars.

A beautiful Twelve-spotted Skimmer returns to a perch just above some still water where other skimmers are also perched.

Black-necked Stilts

A male Black-necked Stilt wades in a flooded field in Iroquois County as a northwest breeze blows the feathers up into a point on his head.

May 14, 2020 – The Black-necked Stilt is an elegant wader with some extremely long pink legs and a body covered in black over white plumage, it has a long neck and a small head with a long thin black-colored needle-like bill. This is a lovely, delicate, and regal looking shorebird that proportionate to its’ body, accordingly to the American Bird Conservancy, has the longest legs, second only to the flamingo. Standing out, a migrating pair of Black-necked Stilts were busy feeding in a flooded field this past week in Iroquois County. At one point while observing the pair, the birds came together in a display of their courtship ritual and breeding behavior that is initiated by the female. Standing close together, the male began with a bit of preening as well as the female, then together they began to stir the water rapidly with their long bills. The female stood with her head extended and her back flat, an invitation for the male who promptly climbed on the females back. He slowly folded his long legs and settled down, but moments later, less than fifteen seconds, he was back in the water where they stood snug together. The stilts then put their heads close together and the male put his bill over the top of hers with his wings partially extended as they stood still in a moment of intimate display, an affirmation to their commitment. The breeding was complete. Black-necked Stilts winter along the southern coastlines and south into Central and South America. These birds are known for nesting in numbers in the western United States, but nesting records have been showing up in Midwest in recent years. Observations by Jed Hertz of Kankakee have shown adults and then eventually juvenile Black-necked Stilts together in suitable nesting habitat during the nesting season in Kankakee County. There was also a nesting attempt at the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area along the Kankakee River in Newton County Indiana a few years ago.

A pair of Black-necked Stilts involved in their breeding behavior at a stop on their spring migration.