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.
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.
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.
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.
October 29, 2020 – It is late October and the unmistakable and lovely echoing song of the Tufted titmouse, a small gray songbird with large black eyes, is in the air. Four of the fine-looking little birds descend to the ground to search through the leaf litter for fallen seeds. After finding a large seed, the titmouse quickly flies up to a branch and holds the seed between its’ feet and hammers away on the food with its’ bill to break the seed into smaller, edible pieces The Tufted titmouse is a common year-round resident to the eastern forests of the United States, most often seen during the fall and winter months at backyard feeders, parks, and open brushy areas at the edges of wooded landscapes where fruits, seeds, and insects are available. Northern Illinois, and states east to the Atlantic, are at the northern edge of the little birds’ range, although surveys have shown that they have been expanding their range northward as far as southern Canada for sometime, possibly due to a warming climate and the fact that more people are feeding birds during the winter. With a gray crest, dark forehead, a stubby black bill, and rusty colored flanks with white underparts the little Tufted titmouse stands out against the dull shades of brown on the autumn landscape, much like its’ smaller cousin, the Chickadee, with its’ bright crisp colors. It’s a speedy little bird that can suddenly appear, sometimes in a banditry of three or four bold little titmice, where there is a good food source. Cautiously but quickly the titmouse hops from branch to branch and then to the ground, many times chasing other birds away, finding a large seed to either eat now or take away and cache for later. The Tufted titmouse is a joy to see and a treat to hear, somehow their beauty is enhanced when snow comes to the woods. Maybe it’s the soft illumination from the blanket of white under the stark winter sky or just bottled up nostalgia that seems ready to burst with each new encounter.
October 15, 2020 – The Swamp sparrow is an elegant, long-legged, medium-sized sparrow that is well adapted and right at home in the thick cover of marshes, swamps, and bogs of the north across eastern and central North America, stretching up into Canada’s Northwest Territories during the nesting season. The Swamp sparrow is more often detected by its song rather than actually being seen in its’ dense summer habitat of sedges, cattails, and shrubs. The variations of songs and calls of the Swamp sparrow have been studied, admired, and described as a slow, sweet, trill that will evoke the vision of a northern wetland to the observer just as the call of the Common loon sends ones’ thoughts to a clear secluded lake in the north woods. Ornithologists have even discovered regional dialects for Swamp sparrows located in different parts of the country. Through the study of the Swamp sparrow’s songs and calls researchers have gained an understanding on how these birds learn and continue to use songs that vary across different geographical regions, and how the sparrows are influenced as young by the popular songs used by the adults of those regions. It seems the most popular songs are the ones that are learned and repeated by the new generation of sparrows and any new variation that a young bird may come up with in its’ song learning practice that is not useful will soon fade away over time. The study also shows those popular songs have persisted in those regions for generations, possibly hundreds of years. The term used to explain how these song types are learned and stay popular to a region is known as “conformist bias”. The sparrows have a song repertoire, depending on the region, of popular tunes that have stood the test of time over many generations, influenced by the adults and put in to practice each year by a new generation of Swamp sparrows. Those tunes that work ring-out across the varied wetlands of North America.
October 8, 2020 – A small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had moved south out of their northern breeding range of Canada and the upper Great Lakes were busy foraging for insects south of Kankakee this past week. A cold front brought the chilly winds of change out of the north that provided incentive and opportunity to move south and many birds, including the kinglets, took advantage of the prevailing winds to do just that. Holding quite still, being very careful to resist sudden movements that might frighten the petite, swift moving birds, I was able to easily observe the kinglets as they went from dried weed stems, to low hanging branches, and back again searching for insects. Sometimes the little hunters were only a few feet away, too close for a long lens, but just right for a memorable experience. This encounter was some good medicine, the kind of medicine that can easily provide a temporary reprieve from the tightly wound human existence for any willing person that would take a moment to pause and look around. Larger than the hummingbird, the Golden-crowned kinglet is one of North America’s smallest birds. They have a black and white striped face, olive colored back with wings that have two white bars, and their round little bodies are white and pale gray on the underparts. The kinglets have black legs and yellowish feet that look as though they are wearing little golden socks. Both the male and the female have the bright yellow stripe on their heads, that golden crown from which they get their name. The bold yellow stripe almost seems to flash like a tiny beacon as they move through the shadowy patches of undergrowth at the woods edge. The male birds show some orange color blended into their golden crown that becomes more noticeable when their flashy crest is raised. As the little birds move south on their short-distance migration they can turn up almost anywhere, even near backyard feeders where other birds are foraging. Some will continue south while others will spend the winter in our area, preferring stands of conifers that most likely provide some protection from the bitter cold and a safe retreat from predators.
October 1, 2020 – The Magnolia warbler is a small songbird that nests across the provinces of Canada, from British Colombia, to Nova Scotia, and the Upper Great Lakes, to the northeastern US. The warblers have striking colors even after the breeding season, when many birds lose their bold colorful plumage and become rather dull. During the fall migration these little warblers bring some bright yellows to the early autumn Midwestern woods. These long-distance Neotropical migrants are on their way south stopping for a few days in a small woods in Iroquois County. Suddenly appearing out of the thicket, the Magnolia warblers forage for insects through the leafy bushes at the sunny edge of the small wooded area no larger then an acre. These small patches of land that have for some reason avoided the plow are life savers for migrating birds, insects, and bats. Whether seasonal migrants, or wildlife that is here year around, these small untouched habitats that are few and far between, and barely surviving among the cultivated lands of Illinois are pieces of land that are of the utmost importance to many species. The loss of habitat at wintering and nesting sites as well as the food and resting areas along the migratory routes can have a devastating impact on many species of birds. The Magnolia warblers travel from Panama and Mexico to the far northern US and up into Canada and back again in the fall. These migratory trips can be as much as 4000 miles one way. It is a hard trip for the little fliers and those exhausted birds that can’t find places to rest and feed don’t make it. Awareness and conservation are key to help prevent many species of birds from being listed as rare, or worse, cannot be found. Shade coffee farms that are replacing the sun coffee farms have provided good habitat for the warblers, Hummingbirds, and other species, and supporting shade grown coffee goes a long way in helping provide a winter habitat for these migrants. River valleys, lakes, and the islands of uncut forests across Illinois are the refueling stations for these tired night travelers that still have many miles to go during another exhausting and challenging migration.
September 24, 2020 – The Cape May warbler winters in the West Indies and breeds in the boreal forests of the northern border states from Minnesota east to Maine, and north into southern Canada, from Quebec west to Alberta, and into the southern edge of the Northwest Territories. These warblers are highly dependent on the spruce budworms as a source of food, a good year for the budworms means a great year for the warblers. Those banner years for spruce budworms coincide with more fall sightings in places where the Cape May warblers are less often seen. Although the Cape May warblers specialize in the spruce budworms that are plentiful in their summer nesting areas, they also can take advantage of other sources of nourishment such as the nectar from flowering plants, and the juices from ripe fruits. Similar to hummingbirds, flowering nectar rich plants are an important source in their winter habitats as well during the fall migration. These warblers have a specialized tongue that is semi-tubular that allows them to lap up nectar with ease. They also can use their sharp, pointed bill to puncture the skins of fruits to get to those sweet sugary juices. The little warbler gets its name from Cape May, a county in New Jersey, where the species was first collected, not far from the coast in a maple swamp where George Ord, a zoologist, was on a collecting trip with the celebrated ornithologist Alexander Wilson in1812. There is more to this story about when the Cape May warbler may have actually been collected at a much earlier date, in the Caribbean in 1751, and named the Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher, but that’s another story and it seems the name Cape May has stuck. After discovering the species in Cape May, the next recorded sighting of the bird at that location would not happen for another 100 years.
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.