Canvasback Ducks

A mixed flock of mostly Canvasback ducks feeding and socializing on a flooded access road leading into the Kaskaskia bottoms in Southern Illinois this past week.

February 27, 2020 – The male Canvasback duck has a rich chestnut colored head and neck, black chest and tail area, with a bright white body and wings. These large ducks have beautiful red eyes that when illuminated by the sun can penetrate the thoughts of the human observer laying waste to any earthly woes, at least temporarily. Those unique eyes of this big diving duck absolutely contribute to making this bird a strikingly handsome fellow. The female, on the the other hand, is less colorful and has a pale-brown overall plumage that is most certainly required for a nesting female duck. Her camouflaged coloring is mandatory to helping keep her and her nest hidden from predators. But even without the strong contrasted colors she is still quite beautiful and is easily identified as a Canvasback. The female has the same sloping forehead and large black pointed bill but she does not have those amazing red eyes like the male. Her eyes are very dark in color, perhaps part of her specialized trait of survival. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway these fast flying migrating ducks, that are considered diving ducks, congregate in flocks from ten to many thousands. During the winter in the southern half of the United States including most of Illinois from southern Lake Michigan south where they can find open water and food they can be found in their winter flocks. In the southern winter marshes, lakes, rivers, and flooded fields the Canvasbacks feed together in an amazing display. The ducks come together over the area to forage and begin their search for tubers and invertebrates by diving repeatedly in a rolling head-first fashion that is somewhat mesmerizing when there are a large number of birds involved. The Canvasback ducks migrate north and west in the spring and nest in the prairie pothole region, those glacial wetlands of North America and Canada. They also nest north in the wetlands and marsh areas from the Great plains to Alaska.

Two male Canvasbacks swimming with a female following close behind, the red eyes of the male ducks seem to glow in the morning sun.

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.

The Lapland Longspur

A flurry of Lapland Longspur’s burst into the air off of a snowy road in Iroquois county this past week.

November 20, 2019 – Across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland, in the remote places at the top of the world like Baffin Island, Southampton Island, and Melville Island in the regions of Nunavut, there is a small bird called the Lapland Longspur that spends the short breeding season courting, nesting, and raising its’ young. On the treeless tundra where packs of hunting wolves, Polar bears, and Arctic foxes eke out a living on the vast cold landscape, large migratory populations of Lapland longspurs, a small well camouflaged bird, begin arriving in the spring for the nesting season which starts by early June. These little ground nesting birds, that are about the size of a Song sparrow but with longer and more pointed wings, have a clutch of 3 to 7 eggs and only one brood. Their nests are constructed in a shallow depression lined with coarse grasses, mosses, and sedges. The nest itself is lined with finer, softer, materials from arctic plants and provides a cushioned place for the fragile eggs helping to keep them warm during the incubation period. After about 14 days, hatching begins and 10 days after that the young birds are able to leave the nest. The fledglings are equally divided and separately reared by each parent, according to the National Park Service. The time from nest to fully fledged is short in the arctic and soon the young longspurs will have developed their flight feathers and can forage on their own. As the summer comes to an end, the land of the midnight sun begins giving hints of the inevitable dark winter freeze. The Sun sinks low on the horizon as the calendar nears the Fall Equinox. By September, the longspurs are migrating south out of the dimming arctic leaving their breeding grounds for a less hostile and sunnier climate south of the Canadian boarder. By November, they are in the fallow crop fields and along rural roadways of Northern Illinois. Large flocks of these arctic birds can be seen feeding on spilled grain from the harvest. The little birds blend in quite well in the winter fields that are free of snow, but they frequently take to the air in a large flock flying and circling around only to return to the same spot. Foul weather with heavy snow brings the longspurs to the windswept or plowed edges along rural roadways where they find seeds and seek shelter from strong cold winter winds behind the tall drifts of snow. The Lapland longspurs will remain until late May fattening up for their springtime migration northward back to the breeding grounds of the high arctic.

Lapland Longspur’s in their non-breeding plumage feeding on spilled corn next to a recently harvested field.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow

A Lincoln’s Sparrow perched on a branch with its’ feathers raised on its’ crown.

October 31, 2019 – The Lincoln’s sparrow is a cautious little bird that doesn’t stray far from the safety of a partially obscured perch in a small shrub at the edge of the woods as it surveys it’s surroundings. The delightful little migratory visitor with its’ buff-colored chest and sides, cream-colored belly, and well defined dark streaks that run through those buffy areas, appears more light-colored overall than some of the other sparrows in and around the woods. The Lincoln’s sparrow has a finely detailed head with a brown, black, and gray striped crown, that sometimes in a moment of excitement, is raised into a crest. Compared to other sparrows, the Song sparrow for example that has more of a muddied color pattern, the Lincoln’s sparrow stands out like the new kid on the block because of those bold, sharp, streaked flanks, and the buff-colored chest that gives the bird an overall elegant appearance that easily captures one’s interest. The Lincoln’s sparrow is a rare winter visitor, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, that winters from the southern United States south to central America. It is known to venture further than other similar species of sparrows during their winter migration which starts in September. The little sparrow has been recorded as far south as Panama in Central America,with one record apparently in northern Venezuela. The wandering Lincoln’s sparrow is reported every year during the winter months on the islands in the Caribbean. The northbound sparrow will make another appearance in Illinois in late April. Although records do show the Lincoln’s sparrow occasionally nesting in Illinois they are mostly known to nest in the boreal forests from northern Wisconsin across Canada and north into Alaska.

The perched sparrow shows the buff-colored chest with dark lines over its’ cream-colored belly.

Dark-eyed Junco

A perched Dark-eyed junco male shows its’ light gray underside and the dark gray of its’ upper body.

October 24, 2019 – The Dark-eyed junco is a small songbird that winters here in Illinois. The male of the slate-colored form of junco that we see here in the Midwest is dark gray with a very dark hood while the female’s feathers are lighter shades of brown and gray, but both the male and the female juncos have white outer tail feathers that are apparent when the birds are in flight. Juncos are a medium-sized sparrow that stand out against the snowy landscape looking somewhat like bouncing lumps of coal on a white sheet as they hop about scratching the icy snow-cover below the brown, dried-out plants vigorously searching for fallen seeds. The juncos are quite common at backyard feeders during the winter where they are regularly seen searching below the feeders with other foraging winter birds. Often called “snowbirds” the Dark-eyed Junco is a familiar sight along woodland trails during those cold months. The little birds are easily flushed to the the thick cover of leafless bushes were they can find protection in the dense shadowy web of dormant branches. During winter storms the little birds can seek shelter in those bushy thickets or quickly escape predators like hawks, foxes, and Bobcats when threatened. The Dark-eyed junco spends the summer during the nesting season in the northern United States and north of the boarder in most of Canada. They start arriving in Illinois during the fall migration in August for their winter stay. The spring migration can start as early as February. It seems, in my opinion, that there cannot be a more thought evoking snow covered winter scene, whether it is a first hand experience along a trail, conjured from ones’ memory, or displayed on a canvas washed by the artists brush, that doesn’t include those Dark-eyed juncos feeding with other winter wildlife on a dim gray and cold afternoon.

The female (Slate-colored) Dark-eyed junco has much lighter colors of gray and brown.

House Finch

Looking back at another House finch, a female with her bill covered in the skins of berries pauses for a moment before continuing to feed.

September 12, 2019 – The House finch is a native of the west with a range that stretches from Oregon south into Mexico and east to the western edge of the Great plains. The House finch is very much at home in desert habitats of the southwest. Today though, after being illegally introduced in the 1940’s in the state of New York, their range has expanded to include most of the the Eastern half of the United states with kind of a gap between the eastern and western populations across the Great plains that runs from Canada south to eastern Texas. The expansion into the eastern United States was a result of escaped finches from the illegal pet trade. The captured House finches from the western United States were sent to pet stores in the east. The House finches were marketed as the California Linnet and the Hollywood finch, but soon failed as caged pets. The finches did succeed as escaped wild birds breeding and expanding their range. The proliferation of House finches along with changes to habitats by humans is believed to be key in the decline of the Cassin’s finch in the west and the Purple finch in the east, two species very similar in appearance to the House finch. The House finch is mainly a seed and fruit eater, when fruit is in season. Flocks can be spotted in Eastern red cedar trees feeding on the fruit in late summer. House finches are social and are common in numbers at backyard feeders, here in Illinois, competing for food with other finches like the Purple finch and the Gold finch.

A male House finch busy eating the fruit from an Eastern Red Cedar.

The Eastern Prickly Pear

A close look at the flower of a Prickly pear cactus showing pollen covering the inside of the bloom.

June 27, 2019 – A closGrowing low to the ground and hidden in the spring vegetation on a well drained sandy ridge or a sunny rocky slope, the native Eastern prickly pear cactus, also known as Devil’s-tongue, finally reveals its’ location when those magnificent yellow blooms appear. The Prickly pear can bloom over a few weeks in the late spring through early summer, but each one of those beautiful yellow flowers last but only one day. The blooms, which are great for the pollinators, will soon be replaced by the vitamin rich edible pear shaped fruit from which the cactus gets its’ name. e look at the flower of a Prickly pear cactus showing pollen covering the inside of the bloom.

The fruit, seeds, pads, and spines of the Prickly pear cactus have been used by the indigenous people throughout the ages. The early explorers sometimes found a challenging and painful travel, where there was an abundance of the Prickly pear, as they forged new trails. Wildlife, such as land turtles, ground squirrels and even deer are known to eat the pads and fruit of the prickly pear. Conditions are right for the Prickly pear cactus here in the Midwest where there is still undisturbed habitat on the sandy prairies, sandy savannas, and the sunny well drained open and rocky hillsides.

A colony of Eastern prickly pear in full bloom thriving in the sandy loam just yards from the Kankakee river.

The Eastern prickly pear is the more common prickly pear found in Illinois but there is also the Brittle prickly pear cactus which is found in the far northwestern county of Jo Daviess and is considered endangered in Illinois. There is also the Big-rooted prickly pear that is also found in Illinois and looks very similar to the eastern prickly pear. The Eastern prickly pear grows from New Mexico, north to Montana and east to the Atlantic and south into Florida according to USDA NRCS National Plant Database. The cactus also is found in far southern Ontario which is at the northern edge of its’ range but is reported endangered by the Canadian Wildlife Federation.

The Upland Sandpiper

An Upland sandpiper stands in corn stubble vocalizing with those distinct whistles to other nearby sandpipers.

May 23, 2019 – It is springtime in Illinois and the endangered Upland Sandpipers have returned to the Prairie State for the nesting season. These long-distance travelers make their way back to Northern Illinois in April each year from their wintering prairies of Brazil and Argentina in southern South America. While it is winter here in Illinois, the Upland sandpipers time in South America from November to March is actually the austral spring-summer on the Pampas. The Upland sandpipers nest across the Northern United States from east of the Rockies to the east coast. The sandpipers seem to be more common throughout the great plains of the United State where habitat remains. Their summer range reaches north through the central provinces of Canada and north to Alaska. The sandpipers have become more scarce in Illinois over the years and observations are less frequent as they become somewhat of a rare breeder. There are signs though, that they may be adapting to some agricultural areas, at least in small numbers.

The Upland sandpiper finds a birdbath in some standing water this past week in Iroquois county.

The Upland sandpipers start arriving in Illinois in the middle of April producing eggs from the middle of May into June. They produce three to four in a clutch that have a 21 day incubation period. Both male and female birds take turns on the nest during the incubation. The nests are constructed in depressions in the ground that are lined with leaf litter and grasses and are hidden by grasses arched over the top according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Early season mowing along roadways and intensive farming that removes nesting habitat has a negative impact on this struggling bird in Illinois. From the Upland Sandpiper Conservation Plan (Vickery et al. 2010): The greatest threats the Upland Sandpiper faces are loss and degradation of habitat and the use of agrochemicals on both the breeding and nonbreeding grounds; and loss or degradation of critical stopover habitat.

A Prairie Island of Habitat

The strikingly beautiful male Scarlet tanager in breeding plumage is a long-distance migrant from South America.

May 8, 2019 – A wooded area south of Kankakee that appears like a tiny island surrounded by an ocean of agricultural fields becomes a respite for the weary travelers during the spring migration. The trees and understory were alive with a number of species of migrating birds that were taking advantage of the safety of the brushy cover and the good food source of worms and insects that the little woods offered. Some of the birds had selected this spot for the summer and were already nesting in the thicket while others were resting and feeding for their continued trip north.

An olive-yellow colored female Scarlet tanager with darker wings and tail pauses for moment before continuing her search for insects and worms.

Yellow-rumped warblers in full breeding plumage were busy searching the tree branches and emerging leaves for insects while in the company of tiny Blue-gray gnatcatchers that were extremely animated as they fluttered from branch to branch. Common yellowthroat warblers were staying among the low branches and shorter vegetation as they appeared and disappeared quickly to and from the waters edge and through the brush. A small Least flycatcher was working its’ way through the branches searching for insects while at times stopping for a rest on a nearby perch.

A Northern water thrush, a small Hermit thrush, and a cautious Ovenbird were using the same territory and could be seen at times moving stealthily across the ground through the shadows of the bushes and trees. A perched White-eyed vireo was removing the wings from a dead Red admiral butterfly, the wing dust and wing parts surrounded the gruesome scene as the beautiful little vireo with impressive white eyes consumed its’ prey.

Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted grosbeaks flying-about lit up like flickering lights among the softened springtime color tones of the wooded acre. The distant whistles of the male Baltimore oriole were such clear and clean songs that they conjured up a vision of the vibrant colored bird perched and displaying that coal black head and wings contrasted with that beautiful yellow-orange body. A female and male Scarlet tanager were searching the ground for worms and small insects. Scarlet tanagers are long-distance Neotropical migrants that nest in the eastern half of United States and all of Illinois and winters in the tropical rain forests in northern and western South America east of the Andes and as far south as the lowlands of Bolivia.