Late Summer

A male Ruby-throated hummingbird inspects some blooms at the edge of a small wooded area in Iroquois County.

August 9, 2022 – The August landscape in the midwest is a palette of joy and inspiration that can make the most iron-clad cynic forget their desperate solitude to frolic like a child with unfettered jubilation in the wonder of nature, freeing themselves from those worries in life while rejuvenating their existence. Backyard gardens, parks, and prairies are alive and full of pollinators like wasps, bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds going from flower to flower, some so heavily laden with pollen that they are barely able to fly as they stay focused on their task at hand. Young birds are now foraging for themselves but are still not far from their parents and siblings. A young Gray catbird preens on a barely visible but convenient and sunny perch in an overgrown bush at the edge of a thicket. Four young Blue-gray gnatcatchers fly in and out of view high in the tree canopy, searching every leaf and branch as they chase the tiny winged insects for a well-earned meal.
Young Ruby-throated hummingbirds have taken over the best food sources in the neighborhood. They guard and chase away other hummingbirds who are also trying to feed on the nectar from a cornucopia of alluring fragrances and blooms, including the sugary feeders that hang in numbers around the backyard garden retreats provided by human hosts. Hummingbird feeders are well cleaned and maintained weekly by nature lovers who look forward to the arrival of the long-distance summer migrants that spend the nesting season here in Northern Illinois. The simple recipe for hummingbird feeders is one cup of granulated sugar dissolved into four cups of boiled water, put in the refrigerator, and cooled before filling feeders. Do not use red dye in your feeders! It is not needed to attract hummingbirds and may be harmful. It is good practice to clean feeders before each refill at least once a week to provide safe mold-free sugar water for the hummingbirds. It is always amazing to think about how far these tiny birds travel to end up in our backyards and natural areas here in Northern Illinois for the summer. Most of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the Midwest spend the winter in Central America, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. The beautiful Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird that nests in the Eastern half of the United States. I often think how lucky we are to have these little jewels spend the summer with us.

A female Ruby-throated hummingbird visits each flower of the “red birds in a tree” plant with graceful precision.

The Upland Sandpiper 2022

Keeping a watchful eye, an Upland sandpiper shows nervous behavior before quickly moving away farther into the field where it can continue its search for food.

July 12, 2022 – The increasingly rare Upland sandpipers have returned for another nesting season here in Northern Illinois. So well camouflaged as they hunt for insects in the agricultural fields and along the rural roads of Kankakee County and Iroquois County, they will quite easily go unnoticed if not flushed or heard by the traveler speeding by. It is always exciting to have my first sightings of the Upland sandpiper for a new year, especially knowing the challenges these survivors endure in such an ever-changing and warming world. It is equally as exciting to hear the unique songs of these birds coming across the fields and from the grassy areas. There are times that it is only those unmistakable songs of the Upland sandpiper that let you know they have returned. I have tallied 11 sightings of Upland sandpipers during May this year in Iroquois County, giving me hope for some successful nesting. The migration of the Upland sandpiper, a grassland shorebird that has the alarming status of endangered, is one of an epic journey crossing grasslands, tropical jungles, and turbulent seas to arrive in Northern Illinois in April for the nesting season, where they will remain until late August. There was a time in Illinois history before widespread destruction of the natural habitat and thoughtless over-hunting when these birds thrived, with an estimated population of 283,000 sandpipers in 1907-09. Today the estimated count of nesting sandpipers is but a small fraction of those early numbers. When nature was in balance across this state, many thousands of migrating Upland sandpipers would arrive each spring from South America, a flight of over 5000 miles from the countries of Uruguay and Argentina. Today the expansion of humans and other factors like mowing, pesticides, and construction, have reduced the safe and sustainable habitat for these ground-nesting birds here in the Midwest. Loss of habitat for the Upland sandpiper on their wintering grounds in South America also adds to their struggles for survival. Wisconsin and Illinois populations of the Upland sandpiper are most certainly in peril, leaving only a small and fragmented population that has somehow appeared to have adapted to the vast agricultural areas of Illinois. A few western states in the Great Plain have stable and secure breeding populations, while some surrounding states have shown a decline in the sandpiper. There are a few states where the Upland sandpiper is sadly presumed extirpated. Without awareness and protected areas and a change in human behavior, I fear for the future of the Upland sandpiper in Illinois.

Moving through the agricultural field, an Upland sandpiper in the company of two other sandpipers searches for insects and worms.

Wilson’s Snipe

A number of Wilson’s snipe rest in the soft and safe grasses near a small flooded area where 15 snipe had congregated in Iroquois County.

June 9, 2022 – A secretive and strange-looking plump-bodied bird with a long beak and short legs cautiously forages among the grasses around the wet areas of standing water where food and low-lying cover can be found. Becoming almost invisible by crouching low to the ground when possible danger enters the scene, the well-camouflaged member of the sandpiper family silently becomes part of the landscape. In an instant, the bird freezes as it watches with care, holding steady until it is safe. Only patience allows for close observation of this wary migrant. One shouldn’t confuse the actual snipe bird whose name has become chiseled in the lore of the youthful pranksters who have embellished their campfire stories to entice those who may take the bait for a midnight snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunny sack for a mythical creature of the same name. Once the snipe is off high alert, if not flushed in their typical zigzagging escape flight, they will continue their behavior of feeding or resting as long as the threat appears gone and they see no movement from a possible intruder. When not eating seeds or vegetation, the snipe will use its long sensitive bill to probe the soft mud as it searches for prey such as earthworms, slugs, and other tiny insects. Some prey animals, such as a long and determined earthworm, may cause the snipe and the earthworm to engage in a tug-a-war that requires the snipe to pull it out of the mud to eat it. Small invertebrates are consumed with their flexible bill while the long appendage is still deep in the damp earth. The snipe is known to be somewhat solitary, but usually where there is one there are probably more nearby, especially during migration when they may be in the company of a small group of up to 10 or more. The Wilson’s snipe is considered a medium to long-distance migrant that spends the breeding season from the northern third of Illinois to Northern Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritime provinces.

An earthworm puts up a fight as a snipe pulls the long wiggling meal out of the earth.

Spring Migration

A beautiful long-distance migrant, the male Baltimore oriole, pauses for a moment on the branch.

May 10, 2022 – During spring, when anticipation is thick in the air and weather conditions line up to provide some favorable winds out of the south, many migrants take advantage of the strong tailwinds to move north towards their summer ranges. Shorebirds, warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds travel from points south and appear like magic at backyard feeders, flooded fields, lakes, rivers, and rural thickets along their route. Some of these avian travelers have flown a great distance only to stop here in the Midwest to rest and build fat reserves until the time is right and the cold and foul weather of Northern Canada is on its way out. Some species have already arrived at their summer range here in the midwest, like these backyard favorites, the Baltimore oriole, and the Ruby-throated hummingbird. These birds have traveled a long way, coming from as far as Central and South America, arriving just as the plants spring forth and insects emerge, the tiny insects providing the needed food for the new arrivals and the ones yet to come. Many species of warblers have arrived, some just passing through while others will nest here. The spring warblers in their breeding plumage are always a thrill to the observer. The bright colors of the male Baltimore oriole stand out as it flutters from branch to branch among the new spring growth. The distinct rich songs of the orioles will also delight and alert you to their presence. Ruby-throated hummingbirds zip about at high speed from tree branch to feeder as they try to chase the persistent orioles away from their sweet food source. In our rural areas, hundreds of American golden plovers stand like statues across the expanse of the unplanted agricultural fields in Iroquois County. The American golden plover is a long-distance migrant that spends the cold winter months in South America and travels to far Northern Canada’s arctic region for the nesting season. The plovers have been here for weeks feeding and resting and waiting for the cues of nature that tell them when to take to the air and continue their epic journey towards their nesting range.

The tiny Golden-crowned kinglet,a medium distance migrant that winters in Illinois, searches for insects through the branches.

The American White Pelican

Well lighted by the morning sun a large American white pelican with a wingspan of nine feet glides past giving us a nice look at this beautiful bird.

April 11, 2022 – As spring continues to battle a winter that seems unwilling to step aside, the unstoppable woodland wildflowers have brought new color to the drab understory along the streams and trails of Illinois. This year in southern Illinois, Western chorus frogs sang their love songs under starry skies with an incredibly piercing volume lasting well into the chilly late February night. Waves of many thousands of noisy Snow geese have moved out of the southern part of the state, working their way towards their breeding grounds on the vast lands of the Arctic tundra. Every year American white pelicans that are becoming a more common sight in Illinois can be seen during the winter on the large lakes and river bottoms of Southern Illinois. American white pelican population has grown along with its nesting habitat from the northern Great Plains of the United States and Canada and south and east into Northern Wisconsin. The male and female pelican develop a flat plate that sticks up like a horn on their upper bill during the breeding season, which falls off after the season is over. The American white pelican has a 9-foot wingspan that easily carries the large body of those remarkable birds, having an average weight of between 11 and 30 pounds. Large flocks of these bright white birds with black flight feathers, circling in unison in a graceful formation, high over the lakes and wetlands illuminated by the sun, is a sight to behold, truly breathtaking. As spring arrives and winter musters its last bit of icy effort during its final curtain calls, those large, strange, delightful-looking pelicans will show up in small numbers here in Northeastern Illinois. Reports of sightings have already been recorded this year in Northern Illinois; I witnessed four low flying pelicans from my backyard in Kankakee within the last few weeks. For a brief time before moving further north and west to their summer nesting areas, the American white pelican will rest, feed and take flight on and over the rivers and lakes of Northern Illinois.

The strange flat plate on top of the pelican’s bill indicates an adult bird during the breeding season.

The Short-eared Owl

Blending in with the dry brown winter grasses a Short-eared owl sits motionless on a cold February morning.

March 10, 2022 – The winter migrants were almost invisible sitting along a rural road in Iroquois County during the mid-morning. Blending in quite well with the soft dried grasses, surrounded by mounds of snow on an extremely-cold February morning, five wintering Short-eared owls seemed little bothered by the passerby. The owls appeared motionless while taking advantage of a bit of warmth from the morning sun. I tried to envision a time in the midwest when marsh and prairie habitats were vast and uncorrupted. Midwestern America was a perfect nesting habitat for the ground-nesting birds, a time before European settlements when Short-eared owls were a common species found in our area of Illinois and the surrounding states. The Short-eared owl is now considered an endangered native. Today there are only a handful of records of Short-eared owls nesting in Illinois, which is occurring on some large blocks of restored and protected grassland habitat. The destruction and reduction of the grassland and wetland over the years that are important for a healthy population of Short-eared owls are the main reason they are listed as endangered in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Other Great Lake states have the owls listed as threatened or as a species “of special concern.” Observing the sleepy little owls, they would at times open their large round yellow eyes, the short tufts of feathers would stick up like little horns on top of their head, resembling some underworld deity. The hornlike tufts of feathers that stand upon the heads of many owls like the Great-horned owl, and the Long-eared owl, are neither horns nor ears. Some believe that the erect feathers that can be raised or lowered at will on the Short-eared owls might be a means of non-vocal communicating with other Short-eared owls. Others have suggested that the feathers are just additional camouflage, for when the owl roost or nest on the ground among the grasses, helping them to blend into their surroundings. The Short-eared owl is medium-sized with a wingspan of up to 40 inches. They have rounded heads that is more obvious when the feathers on top of their head are not standing up. As spring nears, the wintering Short-eared owls will move north towards their nesting areas for the breeding season. Except for the rare summer sighting, most of us will have to wait until late fall and throughout the winter to experience the thrill of the Short-eared owls rising out of their roost at dusk for the hunt.

A little Short-eared owl finds shelter along an eroded ditch bank in Iroquois County.

Snowflakes

A small flock of 20 Snow buntings foraging for fallen seeds in a snow-covered field in Iroquois County.

February 8, 2022 – Snow buntings migrate to the lower 48 each year to escape the howling winds that push blinding blizzards and deadly cold temperatures in the northern latitudes turning their summer range on the Arctic tundra into a bleak and inhospitable place for the little birds. Even during the nesting season, the high Arctic can be a hostile place where temperatures dip into the negative 20s and 30s, challenging the early spring arrivals. Snow buntings have adapted like other animals of the north. The mostly white-feathered male buntings in their breeding plumage become somewhat invisible on a snow-covered spring landscape, a necessary adaptation to go unnoticed for the ground-nesting birds. They build their nests in the cracks and crevasses among the rocks. The buntings line them with fur and feathers for insulation. The little white birds are sometimes called Snowflakes, perhaps like real snowflakes, they show up during the winter, and a large flock of these little white birds swirling through the air can give only one perception. Snow buntings persevere in an unforgiving world of extremes. When they finally leave the Arctic for their summer range, they travel as far south as the Texas panhandle and east to the Carolinas. It can be easy to miss these sparrow-sized winter migrants feeding in the harvested winter fields of the Midwest unless they take to the air. But when the snows finally come and cover the agricultural expanse, here in northeastern Illinois, the migratory birds like Lapland longspurs and the beautiful Snow buntings appear at the roadway’s edge, where the snowplow has scraped bare the ground, and where the little birds can search for seeds. Snow buntings are sometimes only found one or two mixed in with a flock of longspurs, and some years there can be large flocks of hundred or more seen taking advantage of a good winter food source. Each year is different when it comes to finding Snow buntings, some years, you may be lucky to see even a single bird, but there are years when there are large foraging flocks in our rural areas. The hard truth is that Snow buntings, according to research studies, are in decline, and the world population has dropped 60% over the last 45 years. Climate change, pesticides, and the loss of habitat have certainly been a quantitative threat to many species around the globe, and the little Snowflake is no exception. The recently reported and highly concerning rapid warming of the Arctic brings a whole new set of questions for researchers.

Snow buntings in their winter plumage search for food through a recent snowfall.

The Autumn Nudge

A Neotropical bird, the Black-throated Green warbler pauses for a moment on a dried stem in Iroquois County with a freshly caught caterpillar.

October 11, 2021 – Another year has tilted quietly into the splendid season of autumn, a time of bounty, preparedness, and introspection that nudges all living things in the Northern Hemisphere. While humans adjust to their seasonal changes and challenges, animals have been fattening up, growing new coats, and gathering food. Birds and insects have been on the move for weeks. Many plants continue to provide, but many have gone to seed and withered, a change is in the air. Feeding, resting, and building strength, many species have been working their way south towards their winter ranges. Recent weather radar over the Great Plains displayed not a weather disturbance moving south but a remarkable radar return of many thousands of Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. Changing weather systems across the American flyways, like cold fronts, air pressure, and strong autumn tailwinds can be a great predictor and the ideal opportunity for a mass movement of birds and insects out of the north. Bird enthusiasts, throughout the range of bird migration, hope and watch for unusual avian visitors to their woodlands, wetlands, and backyard feeders in their areas, including the highly anticipated and always delightful many species of warblers. Those early migrating warblers can still show their beautiful summer plumage, but as the weeks pass, the birds become a bit harder to identify as they transition into their winter plumage. Young birds born during the summer may look different than adults. The fading of the adult warbler’s strong summer markings may also require close study with thorough identification guides and even the valued opinions of expert birders to help identify those notoriously difficult fall migrants. By mid-October, many warblers and other songbirds have moved farther south out of Illinois. The tiny Ruby-crowned and Yellow-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped, and Palm warblers continue to pluck insects from the bushes and trees in our area. Sparrows that spent their nesting season north of Illinois, some as far as the Arctic, have arrived and are taking advantage of the available seeds and insects. Sandhill cranes, Whooping cranes, Arctic hawks, Golden eagles, Short-eared owls, and Snowy owls are moving south and will satisfactorily fill the void of our summer visitors until the spring rings true once again.

A boreal songbird, the Blackpoll warbler, is bound for northern South America for the winter. The small wooded area in Iroquois County and others like it along the migration route are lifesavers and provides the much-needed food for that bird and many others on their long journeys south.

Many Species of Shorebirds

Small Least sandpipers and a Semipalmated sandpiper take a short rest after feeding, on a tiny mud island in a flooded corn field.

August 8, 2021 – We had plenty of rain in the second half of July and that extra precipitation created a kind of pseudo wetlands in the low areas of the agricultural fields here in northeastern Illinois. As a result of the heavy rains some corn and bean crops were unfortunately damaged or completely destroyed in the low areas making an extra expense for some farmers. Some areas looked like large lakes stretching out across the landscape giving us a hint of what it must of looked like before the Europeans arrived. Much of the land in some of these locations were in fact lakes, ponds, and wetlands before being settled and drained for farming. In the days following the recent flooding the submerged crops began to die back and as the waters slowly receded, these areas started to resemble coastal mudflats. Soon herons, ducks, and egrets began to show up. Many species of shorebirds, some of which had nested as far north as the Arctic, took advantage of these flooded areas for hunting and resting as they worked their way south towards their winter range. These short-lived oases are an important food source for the migrating birds. Some of the wet areas are void of birds while others are quite busy with avian activity. When you begin to see a number of species congregating and foraging day after day, before the waters disappear, that is a sure indicator of an abundance of food in the shallow waters and soft mud for the weary travelers. Worms, nymphs, midges and terrestrial invertebrates are all on the menu in and around these pop-up wet areas for both long-legged and short-legged shorebirds. Some of the shorebirds I have seen recently in Iroquois County in those flooded spots are the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Least sandpiper, Semipalmated sandpiper, Semipalmated plover, Stilt sandpiper, Short-billed dowitcher, Spotted sandpiper, Killdeer, Solitary sandpiper, Pectoral sandpiper, and Wilson’s phalaropes. The long-legged shorebirds, like the Greater yellowlegs and the Stilt sandpiper, hunt the deeper waters wading and feeling for movement with their feet and then probing and grasping the prey with their long bills. The short-legged shorebirds, like the Least sandpiper and the Semipalmated sandpiper, stay at the edges and hunt the soft mud and the shallow waters that are barely a few inches deep. My thoughts while observing these shorebirds is always of amazement knowing where they were just weeks ago. Some of these birds summer on the open Arctic tundra while others nest along the coastal areas of the Arctic ocean, and now here they are for a brief time on their arduous journey south feeding and resting in a flooded field in Iroquois County Illinois.

A pair of Stilt sandpipers move their feet across the mud bottom searching for prey in the standing water in an agricultural field in Iroquois County.

Amazing Long-distance Travelers

An Upland sandpiper moves away swiftly through some newly emerging corn in a field in Iroquois County.

June 7, 2021 – Those amazing long-distance travelers, the Upland sandpipers, have returned to the rural areas of Iroquois County for the nesting season. The well camouflaged birds that are about the size of a Rock pigeon, can easily be overlooked by the passerby. The birds search for insects in the newly planted agricultural fields, or in the no-till corn stubble where they can become nearly invisible as their plumage blends in extremely well against the browns and tans of last year’s crop remains. The Upland sandpipers start arriving at their breeding grounds here in Northeastern Illinois in April.
The sandpipers, with their typical stop-and-go sudden jerky movements can be spotted by a lucky few, as the birds look for insects near grassy areas along the rural roadways of Northern Illinois. They are sometimes seen perched on fence posts or utility wires near nesting sites. Upland sandpiper populations were hit dramatically hard in the late 1800s by market hunters. Other factors that added to the decline of the Upland sandpiper was the loss and fragmentation of habitat in North America and the loss of grasslands on their wintering grounds in South America. Today, researchers believe the sandpipers population is holding steady across the Great Plains of North America. East of the Mississippi numbers unfortunately are low, and in Northern Illinois the Upland sandpiper is becoming a bit more difficult to find. It is always a hopeful sign to see even a small number of sandpipers return to an area of Iroquois County every year. The sandpipers manage to nest in the dense grasses around the row-crop fields but they struggle against farm machinery, pesticides, and roadside mowing, which in fact should probably be restricted in those nesting areas until at least August. After about 25 days of sharing the job of incubation by the male and the female sandpipers, the young birds are born. The newly hatched chicks are ready to leave the nest after all the eggs have hatched, the young start feeding immediately while the parents work hard to protect them from the many dangers of the new world. After about a month of being limited to just foot travel a new generation of Upland sandpipers are ready to take to the air. By the end of the July through the end of August the sandpipers begin moving south where they work their way to that long-distance crossing the Gulf of Mexico, which takes them to the northern parts of South America. Eventually the birds go much further south into central Argentina and Uruguay where they will spend the winter on the immense Pampas grasslands until the springtime once again beckons their desire to move north for another incredible journey.

A pair of long-distance migrants from South America search for insects along a rural road in Iroquois County.