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.

Springtime

Standing cautiously on a gravel road in Iroquois County, an American Golden-plover slowly moves away from the photographer.

May 13, 2021 – As the springtime brings awe-inspiring color to the forest floor with a variety of wildflowers like Dutchman’s breeches, Virginia bluebells and Woodland phlox, likewise the flowering dogwood and redbud trees standout brightening up the understory with their new blooms that is easily visible through the emerging greens of the awakening landscape. April and May are exciting months here in Northeastern Illinois and as the new plant growth comes in, there are also migrating birds arriving and bringing their own variety of color and excitement. The bright orange plumage of the male Baltimore oriole is a highly anticipated favorite this time of year to the backyard feeders. These long-distance migrants are lured in with grape jelly and cut oranges that feeders put out, and these birds never disappoint with their rich songs and amazing beauty. Cat birds, King birds, and flycatchers have arrived to take up summer residence for the nesting season. A variety of small colorful warblers, drab kinglets, and tiny Ruby-throated hummingbirds appear like magic, some are here to nest while others are just passing through on their way much further north. Many species of well known birds show up like clockwork each year, their songs and their plumage are as familiar to most as the clouds in the sky. But there are other birds like American Golden-plover that go practically unnoticed even though they spend three or four weeks staging on the agricultural fields in our rural areas of Iroquois and Kankakee counties. The American Golden-plover is larger than a robin but smaller than a crow. It is not always easy to spot in the farm fields with its dark colored plumage, a good camouflage for a ground nesting bird like the plover. Even when there are hundreds of birds in a field they can be easily missed by the passerby. These birds have come a long way from their winter home on the grasslands of Argentina and Uruguay and it is an amazing sight to see them over the few weeks they spend here waiting for the right conditions to move north. When the plovers do finally leave for their nesting grounds they will fly above the Arctic circle onto the vast tundra from Baffin Island to Alaska completing the northbound part of their trip of over 8000 miles.

Flying in from a nearby field where a few hundred AM Golden-plovers were feeding, a small flock of plovers were taking advantage of some puddles on the roadway.

Trumpeters in Kankakee County

Trumpeter swans seeking refuge in a flooded field in Kankakee County during migration to the northern wetlands.

April 8, 2021 – There were 18 beautiful Trumpeter swans, discovered by Iroquois County resident Rick Rosenboom, resting in a flooded field in southern Kankakee County in early March. Occasionally, one of the great birds among the resting flock would stretch and flap its impressively large wings, which for Trumpeters can span over 6 feet. The flocks’ stunning, bright-white feathers were illuminated by the afternoon light making these migrant travelers appear otherworldly against a drab late-winter landscape. The flooded spot, a low and almost hidden area in an agricultural field, gave the swans a safe place to sleep, preen, and forage for a short time before continuing their migration to a northern wetlands for the nesting season. The Trumpeter swan is the largest native waterfowl in North America. Female Trumpeters can weigh up to 25 pounds, and males up to 38 pounds. There is an obvious difference in size between the other native swan, the smaller Tundra, which we also see during the migrations, often in mixed flocks with Trumpeters. The Mute swan, which was introduced from Europe, has a large orange bill with a bump or ‘bill knob’ at the base of the bill. The Mute swan is a very large bird but it is still a little smaller than the native Trumpeter. Mute swans have been seen on the Kankakee river with cygnets in the springtime over the years, while Trumpeters east of the Mississippi nest on the wetlands in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, and southern Canada, and Tundra swans nest up in the Arctic. The loss of habitat and over hunting of the Trumpeters had a devastating impact on the swans, by the 1930s there were only 69 known to be alive in the United States. Biologists began an effort in the late 30s to save and expand the small population to other safe wetlands. There was a small flock discovered in Alberta Canada, and after Alaska became a state there were over 2000 discovered there. Today, according to the The Trumpeter Swan Society, the Interior Population is at 27,055, which is 40 percent of North America’s Trumpeter swan population.

The largest native waterfowl in North America the Trumpeter swan stretches its large wings after preening.

Winter Larks

A Horned lark flushed from the roadside where it was searching for food landed on the undisturbed snow nearby.

February 11, 2021 – The bitter winds from an Arctic blast of snow and falling temperatures arrives in Northeastern Illinois. Temperatures drop as a result of a strong negative Arctic oscillation which indicates that some very cold air has meandered out of the Arctic and moved south across Canada and into the northern United States. The Arctic oscillation is an index of mean weather data that meteorologists and climatologists use to understand the stability of the weather over the pole. The weather data moves the Arctic oscillation index between negative and positive numbers, mild winter weather would be indicated by the latter. As the challenging cold weather takes hold, ice quickly forms on our river, and open water on ponds and creeks begins to disappear as the icy blanket is pulled tight. The muffled sounds in the winter air cause us to trust our other senses a bit more. The honking voices from a flock of Canada geese flying overhead is softened by the snowy landscape of sound absorbing crystals in the new snow. During these harsh cold conditions geese and dabbling ducks begin to look somewhat ragged and spend more time hunkered together with little movement. Diving ducks like Common goldeneye continue their hunt for crayfish in the rivers’ open waters. Along the snowplowed country roads and on the high areas of windswept agricultural fields Horned larks fight strong winds searching for small seeds in the exposed areas. At times the little birds try to walk across the icy road only to be blown by a strong cold gust causing them to skate most of the way across while using their wings to balance. Horned larks are in Illinois year- round and are considered resident to short-distance migrants. During the winter months the number of Horned larks increase as birds from further north come south to winter in Illinois. This is a good time, especially when we have snow, to locate and observe the little larks along with Lapland longspurs and Snow buntings foraging the edges of less traveled rural roads where it can be done safely. Snowplows expose grassy areas where small seeds can be found by the larks when other areas are buried under deep snow during those brutal and challenging periods of winter.

Hunting the edge of a rural road, a pair of Horned larks battle a steady wind as they search for seeds.

Snowy Owl

Stretching before flying off to another perch, the Snowy owl shows its large yellow eyes just before spreading it’s wings.

December 24, 2020 – Perched at the top of a utility pole calmly scanning the surrounding landscape for prey, a beautiful Snowy owl appears in Iroquois County the day before our first snow. To the Inuit people of the north, the owl represents guidance and wisdom and has an important relationship with both humans and the environment. Snowy owl sightings have been reported in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana recently as more birds move south to escape the blizzards and sub-temperatures of the Arctic. As I write this, there are blizzard warnings in the area of Iqaluit in the territory of Nunavut in Canada as a low pressure system is making its way through Hudson Bay toward southern Baffin Island bringing cold temperatures, snow, and 50 mile per hour winds. Here in northern Illinois the arriving Snowy owls are enjoying 37 degrees with 11 mile an hour winds on the mostly flat and sleeping winter landscape of the prairie state that somewhat resembles the Arctic tundra above the tree line, a place familiar to the owls. The female Snowy owl is larger than the male and has a wingspan of about 4.5 feet and weighs almost 5 pounds. They have a white face and large yellow eyes, a black bill surrounded by feathers, and they have acute hearing and vision. These Arctic owls are the heaviest owls in North America. To observe them flying low over corn stubble here in Illinois, with their large white wings slowly flapping as they make their approach and glide towards a low perch with some cover hundreds of yards away is an amazing sight. The Snowy owls that have come south for the winter will start moving northward toward their breeding grounds in the Arctic in February and March, and most will be gone by April. The owls will be back on their snow covered breeding grounds where the courtship will start in early May. The cycle will continue high in the north as new generations will be fed, protected, and fledged, and maybe even spend the cold months in a field near you, here in Illinois.

Searching for prey from the vantage of a utility pole, the Snowy owl looks towards the rear for any movement.

Red-Red-tailed Hawk

A light colored Red-Red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post is focused on the prairie grasses for any movement of prey.

December 17, 2020 – It seems that one cannot travel more than half-a-mile without noticing a large hawk perched on a utility pole, or on a barn, or a corn crib, often two birds within a short distance of each other, many times even on the same branch of a large tree overlooking a good hunting area. Once known as the “chicken hawk” and blamed for missing poultry, Red-tailed hawks were shot on a regular basis whether they were guilty or not. These great raptors are now protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Red-tailed hawks hunt a variety of prey, from rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, mice, and voles to insects and snakes and even carrion. They have a varied menu of prey to chose from. These hawks hunt and nest not just in the rural countryside but also in populated areas of towns and cities. They are very adaptable and where there are some tall trees, open spaces, and prey to be had, Red-tailed hawks will be found. These large hawks are very territorial and vigorously defend their nesting trees, hunting perches, and the surrounding area. With a four foot wingspan and their well known screaming vocalizations, they can be quite intimidating to other birds of prey that enter their territory. It is not uncommon to see Red-tailed hawks chasing and attacking other large hawks that have drifted into their space. The mostly pale plumage on the chest and belly of a Red-tailed hawk is easily visible when contrasted against the dark leafless trees of winter. Even at some distance you can, with good confidence, ID these large birds-of-prey. Red-tailed hawks are quite common across the United States and are here the year-round in Illinois. The numbers of Red-tailed hawks does increase in the fall as the northern breeders move south for the winter to escape the harsh conditions across Canada and Alaska.

Perched in a tree, a young Red-Red-tailed hawk looks back before taking flight.

The Common Redpoll

The male Common redpoll shows its’ bold streaked side while perched on the end of fallen limb.

November 19, 2020 – As we ease through the chilly days of November, the leafless trees and frosty mornings remind us of the coming winter as do the new arrivals of Arctic birds that we now see in flocks great and small in our rural areas of Northeastern Illinois. Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are now feeding along the gravel roads and in the harvested fields of Kankakee and Iroquois counties. This year also seems to be a year where some other species of birds that normally winter a bit further north, have come south into Illinois in larger numbers. The Pine Siskins are here in large numbers, Red Crossbills, and White-winged Crossbills are being seen in the Chicago area, and even a few places south. Another little bird that has a more northern winter range, that I had the pleasure of seeing in Iroquois County this past week, is the Common redpoll. A number of reported sightings of redpolls continue to come in for Northern Illinois, one reported sighting of a flock of 15. This little finch, the Common redpoll, breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and winters across the Provinces of Canada and south into the area of the Great Lakes. They are about the same size as the Pine siskin with similar markings but lighter overall. The male redpoll has a beautiful red crown with some rosy-pink color on the chest, and dark streaks on its underparts. The female is a bit duller overall, and lacks the pink-washed color on the chest, but does have the red feathers on the head, the red poll. The bright yellow bill of the redpoll is made for eating seeds, it is small and pointed for getting to those tiny seeds of the birch, alder, and willow trees. The sighting last week in Iroquois County was of a single male Common redpoll in the company of a small flock of House finches that were feeding on some ripe wild berries on the sunny side of a thicket. It was an exciting treat to observe this little Arctic breeder in a rural area of Illinois.

Puffed up after preening, the lovely colors of red, yellow, gray, and brown show the amazing beauty of the Common redpoll.

White-throated Sparrow

Perched in the morning sunlight the bold beautiful markings on the face and throat of the White-throated sparrow standout.

November 5, 2020 – Back in Illinois for the winter months are the White-throated sparrows, a large and attractive bird with a long tail and a bright-white throat and bold face patterns of black, white, gray, and yellow. The White-throated sparrows are considered a short to medium-distance migrant. It breeds in the United States in the Upper Great Lake region and in the coniferous and mixed forests across most of Canada. There are small pockets of year around birds in the northeast U.S. The sparrows leave the impending harsh winter of the north in autumn before the first snow and head south into the United States to a more hospitable climate that is not totally locked in ice during those cold months. They appear in northeastern Illinois about the same time in the fall each year as many other sparrows, like the White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. Similar to the Fox sparrow, the White-throated sparrows forage on the ground under the thick gnarly cover of the shadowed understory kicking leaf litter with its feet searching for insects, seeds and fruit in a very focused but alert manner. The sparrow can be found near heavily vegetated areas around parks and near rivers and creeks where there is plenty of cover. Also, during prolonged snow cover, many birds, including the White-throated sparrow, can be found in the windswept areas along roads and in fields searching for seeds. The White-throated sparrows will show up at backyard feeders during the winter here in Illinois with other birds providing there is some good cover nearby. Backyard feeders are favorite haunts for predators like Cooper’s hawk, domestic and feral cats, so quick escapes into thickets, bushes, and trees are a necessary part of a safe habitat for feeding birds.

Landing on a branch for only a moment the White-throated sparrow drops down into the dark understory to search for food.