November 11, 2023 – Soon after the much-anticipated fall warblers have moved through, peaking in late September through early October and heading south towards their winter homes, autumn hardens its stance, and winter awaits its stage call. Arriving from the boreal forests of Canada, the sparrows, those northern nesters, show up like magic in the yards and the parks amongst the yellowing leaves and dwindling berries on their way to their winter ranges, which can include Illinois. White-crowned, Lincolns, White-throated, Tree, and Fox are just some of the sparrows we see here in Illinois during the spring and fall migrations, some of which stay throughout the cold months. Over a dozen species of sparrows visit Illinois at different times of the year and are considered seasonal. Some species of sparrows arrive in the early spring and nest throughout the summer on the prairies and in the grassy areas along wooded edges across the state. The non-native House sparrow, introduced in North America in the mid-1800s, is a year-round resident and often congregates in numbers at backyard feeders, a nemesis to the human seed provider and probably appreciated only by the Cooper’s hawk. Unlike the bright-colored neotropical warblers, sparrows have muted, earthy colors that can be as beautiful as any, with sharp edges and contrasted tones in their tiny plumage. It is always a treat to see the beautiful White-crowned sparrows arrive in our area in the fall. White-crowned sparrows nest in the far north in Canada and Alaska, which includes the vast arctic tundra region. When it suddenly appears on an exposed branch in a brushy area, the adult White-crowned sparrow is striking in its confident-looking posture, with a bold black and white striped head above a grey-to-brown body. The White-crowned sparrow is a winter resident across Illinois, with higher numbers in the southern part of the state. Another common migrant in Illinois is the Lincoln’s sparrow. These little sparrows are ground nesters, having a summer range from the northern United States across Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritimes. There are also summer populations in the western mountainous regions of the United States. The Lincoln’s sparrows go further south for the winter than the White-crowned sparrows. Their winter range is from the far southern tip of Illinois to Central America. While some continue south, many other species stay throughout the winter here in Northeastern Illinois; it is difficult to imagine a cold and snowy winter scene of leafless bushes and dried plants without those small birds of winter digging and scraping the snow for fallen seeds during those dark months.
September 9, 2023 – The calendar, a shared understanding of humans, says that autumn does not officially begin in the Northern Hemisphere until the 23rd of this month on the day of the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox. For Warblers, those dainty little songbirds, instinct is the main driving force, and we begin to see the movement of these birds south of their summer range in mid-August as their fall migration begins. Blackburnian and Black-and-white warblers are just a few recent sightings in Kankakee and Iroquois counties. Seasonal weather patterns are part of what stimulates the bird migration; the strong northerly winds and cooler nights influence when the birds move south, but this year there is another factor that is not yet fully understood, and that is the impact from the historic, widespread, and devastating wildfires burning to the north. The wildfires in Canada began in March and have burned millions of acres of Canada’s boreal forests across all provinces and territories. The smoke and flames are as dangerous to birds as to humans, and there is little doubt that many birds have had to abandon nesting attempts in and around the impacted areas. There is still a good chance that the birds escaping the fire and smoke attempted to nest again in other areas. Nesting habitats in these northern forests have been and continue to be destroyed by this extreme climate event, and that charred landscape in the coming spring may be a real challenge for birds arriving for the breeding season. Fire has always had a role in the life cycle of the forested ecosystem, actually helping renew the boreal landscape; experts acknowledge that today’s fires are more extreme than in the past and can change which plant species grow back after these scorched earth events. As the fall migration intensifies over the coming days, migrating warblers from points north will hopefully be seen in our area of Illinois as they head south toward their winter range in the Gulf states, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Only time will tell how these extreme climate events of our warmer, drier, and changing planet will impact the warblers and all other plant and animal species, for that matter. Let us hope that our indecisiveness and resistance to implementing a more urgent plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has not manifested into those proverbial chickens that have come home to roost.
August 11, 2023 – Long ears, large back feet, big dark eyes, a rusty brown coat, and a small round fluffy white tail that looks like a cotton ball, last seen nibbling grasses at the edge of a brush pile early this morning. That general description matches only one creature known to inhabit the thickets and the brushy areas here in Northeastern Illinois, the prolific and celebrated Eastern cottontail rabbit. Besides those remote thickets and brushy areas, the cottontail is a common sight around farmsteads, along rural roads, and even in urban yards and parks. Where there is cover and a food source, cottontail rabbits are most likely nearby. Sometimes the cottontail is a nuisance to hobby gardeners, a nemesis to some, provoking an ongoing battle of determination between species. Cottontails are prey for hawks, foxes, snakes, coyotes, domesticated carnivores, and even humans. The quick and alert bunnies always have a nearby fast escape route down a small shadowy path and into the thickest of cover, where they can hold tight until the danger is gone. Cottontails are, unfortunately for them, a winter game to hunters using dogs, usually beagles, to find the hunkered rabbit and start the chase; when pursued, the cottontail will run in large circles coming back near where the chase began trying to throw off the pursuer. During the great depression, the Eastern cottontail and other small game became a necessary meat source for many hungry Americans. The cottontail fell victim to snares, clubs, and guns, most certainly thinning out the local rabbit populations during that difficult and needy time. Native Americans would use the soft rabbitskins for blankets, clothing, and slippers for their newborns and toddlers to keep them toasty warm on those cold winter nights. One early account describes a Chippewa-made rabbitskin baby blanket, sewn with fifty to seventy skins and measured fifty inches square. The cottontail rabbit helped stave off hunger and provided protection from the elements during the hard times for humans; it has found a place in the lore and literature of generations, passing on life lessons in song, poetry, children’s books, and oral tradition. We all have stories of the Eastern cottontail rabbit, and I remember a frosty morning in Grampa’s leafless sleeping orchard; a small pile of yellow apples lay mostly brown and rotting near a stump. There was a thicket at the edge with cockleburs and briars, brown, sticky, barbed, and tangled; my 12-year-old face was red from the cold air, it was an unusually chilly late November, and the wind came with a sting. Suddenly with a step that crunched and smashed the frozen weeds, the explosion startled me; a cottontail, a blur of fur, darts from its hiding place, and for that brief moment, I had all but forgotten the bitter wind that tortured me. But the trickster was gone, over the rise and out of sight. After a pause and a sniffle, my heart resumed its usual rhythm, and the chill set in once more. Next time you see that little cottontail out there nibbling the grasses in your yard, take a moment and think about the long history of that resident of the briar patch and its deep connection to man.
July 7, 2023 – It is always a great feeling in the spring when I get my first sighting of an Upland sandpiper for the new year, which happened with a single bird flushed from the roadside on May 4th in Iroquois County. Upland sandpipers stand about 12 inches and have a 20-inch wingspan; their plumage is a light tan color covered in black and brown streaks, and they have large dark eyes and a yellow and black bill. The sandpiper flew only about ten feet, landing in some corn stubble, where it slowly and cautiously strolled away, which allowed for a few pictures before I moved on, not wanting to put any unnecessary pressure on the bird. So far, since that first bird of the year, I have had 19 sightings of these remarkable but endangered migrant birds, mostly in pairs, as they searched for insects in the grassy areas along the roads in the same general area where they are sighted each year. There was a time in the 1800s when areas of Illinois would have hosted many thousands of these long-distance migrants during the nesting season. It must have been amazing to hear the Upland sandpiper’s unique songs ring out across the prairies and pastures of Illinois during the warm months. The encroachment of man with the destruction of habitat combined with unregulated hunting has left only some small localized nesting groups that seem to be having a bit of success in the small fragmented areas in and around the agricultural fields of Iroquois County. Early mowing along the roads and in the waterways in these areas could be postponed until August for the benefit of these nesting birds. This species needs all the help it can get, and leaving nesting and feeding areas untouched until the end of the season, is such a simple change that could have some positive effects, which would also benefit many other species of migratory birds and pollinators. The Upland sandpipers also face challenges in their non-breeding range that threaten their population. In South America, the sandpipers suffer from loss of grassland habitat, encroachment, and grassland burning practices by cattle ranchers across their winter range of southern Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina. It is a remarkable story of avian migration, survival, and determination when one stops to realize the distance these birds travel each year to end up in Illinois and to nest in this area that offers only remnants of suitable habitat in Iroquois County and surrounding counties. I can’t help but think that we could do more to protect these nesting areas and give these determined travelers some recognition and support to ensure a successful nesting season.
May 6, 2023 – Casting curious shadows that flow like a dark liquid across the Midwestern landscape, they silently glide to and fro like paper kites in the blue mid-morning sky, becoming a vision that is the envy of the earthbound. The large black and brown birds with an almost six-foot wing span and bald red faces with pale-colored beaks are Turkey vultures. Once a rare sight in these parts, they are now a common migrant in Northern Illinois from February through November; even though most have moved south by late fall towards their winter range, some remain during the sometimes harsh Midwestern winter. Springtime has brought large numbers of vultures back to Northeastern Illinois for the breeding season, which lasts from March through May. Turkey vultures are monogamous and mate for life. Their courtship behavior involves a dance where they hop around each other with their wings outstretched; the courtship also involves an aerial chase that can go on for some time. The vultures do not build a nest like other birds. They will lay their eggs, usually two, in tree hollows, abandoned buildings, abandoned hawk nests, and even in some thick sheltered cover on the ground. Both the male and female vultures take turns incubating the eggs. The parents will feed the chicks for about 11 weeks until they are fledged. By about 12 weeks, the young birds will have moved off and away from the nesting site exploring on their own and will be ready to join the fall migration in November. Throughout the warm months, a seemingly endless stream of Turkey vultures leaving their nightly roost take to the air looking for the thermal updrafts that will help them rise in the sky and glide with little effort while searching for food above the open country. With good vision and a great sense of smell, the vultures can locate even the smallest carrion in wooded areas, fields, and along roadways. Early mornings, throughout the summer, it is not uncommon to find large groups of Turkey vultures, also known as a committee of vultures, in dead trees, on rooftops, and utility poles with their wings spread wide, allowing the breeze and the morning sun to dry the night time dampness from their feathers and warm their bodies before they take flight. On those mornings of inclement weather, the Turkey vultures may stay on their roosts until conditions improve. Even though Turkey vultures have always had a dark and sinister eerie feel to their presence, they are very beneficial in the natural world. The vultures rid the environment of the carcasses of diseased animals stopping the spread of the dangerous organisms to other animals. As a natural clean-up crew, the vultures feed on the remains of those unfortunate creatures that met their tragic end along the roadways.
February 10, 2023 – A light and steady snow floated out of the chilled gray January sky onto the open waters along the Illinois-Indiana border. Hundreds of Greater white-fronted geese and a small number of Tundra and Trumpeter swans here for at least part of the winter were resting and feeding. The flooded, unfrozen fields of corn stubble at the Willow Slough Fishing & Wildlife Area in Newton County offer a perfect resting area for these wintering waterfowl waiting for spring. A family of Trumpeter swans, two adults, and three first winter birds feeding nearby were beautiful subjects on such a dream-like morning. Enhanced by the sounds from the large flocks of Greater white-fronted and Canada geese, the scene couldn’t have been any better. The lighting was near perfect, and the snowfall provided an unusual photo opportunity for these large elegant birds. Having a six-foot wingspan and a weight of up to 26 lbs, the Trumpeters are North America’s biggest waterfowl and are twice as heavy as our other native swan, the Tundra swan. Spending some time observing and photographing the trumpeters as they fed, preened, and occasionally expanded their magnificent wings making powerful and load-flapping sounds that carried for some distance, was an unusual and exciting opportunity to watch at close range the behavior of the swans. Standing motionless behind the camera and tripod for quite some time, I watched them as they fed together, stretching their long necks down into the cold water, searching the submerged vegetation for the much-needed nutrition required by wintering waterfowl as they prepare for the spring migration. Feeling fortunate as I observed these beautiful swans and knowing that there was a time in the 1930s only 69 trumpeters were known to biologists in the lower 48. Although small pockets of surviving birds were discovered in Canada and eventually a few 1000 in Alaska, it took some acts from the government to put some protection on these birds. That dedication to protecting the swans continues today through the laws of the states and the federal government, combined with educating the public about the rapid downfall of the Trumpeter swan from the market hunters and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s that nearly eradicated the swans from the United States. Recovery of the Trumpeter swan population continues with the ongoing efforts to expand their habitat while fighting against other factors that negatively affect the swans, like climate change, pollution, and lead poisoning from lead ammunition and lead fishing weights. Biologists, citizen scientists, and volunteers take on the challenges with a dedication to protecting and expanding quality nesting and wintering habitat while monitoring the North American population of around 63,000 Trumpeters. Those results are a true testament to the success of the combined efforts of many individuals with a powerful commitment to save the Trumpeters. It also must be realized that all the hard work and progress made from helping the Trumpeter swan is most certainly having a positive impact on many other wetland species.
January 6, 2023 – The last weeks of 2022 brought a bone-chilling assault of arctic cold with snow and relentless strong winds to the midwest. The high winds pushed temperatures down into negative double digits, impacting most of the United States east of the Rockies for about a week. Here in the Midwest, the dangers from the extreme cold were real, and the constant winds made it easy to imagine what it is like to be in a winter storm high in the Arctic. The cold temperatures froze moisture on contact, and the clear morning sky on Christmas eve displayed a beautiful parhelic circle and halo with iridescent red and blue sundogs flanking the sun above the eastern horizon. The sun was at the center of the icy atmospheric phenomenon and appeared like a giant glowing diamond floating in a fog of ice crystals. Flocks of foraging winter birds at the road’s edge fighting the fierce winds were swept hundreds of yards within seconds when flushed. Lapland longspurs wintering far from their Arctic nesting range were battling powerful gusts as they searched for seeds trapped among the rocks along gravel roads. Large flocks of Horned larks dotted the windswept fields and road edges as they foraged for much-needed nourishment during the extreme weather. Like other birds here during the winter in Northern Illinois, the Lapland longspur and Horned lark generate heat by feeding continuously on spilled seeds left by man and nature during daylight hours to help them stay warm during extreme weather events. At night the small birds fluff their feathers, find hollows and wind blocks and even shiver to generate heat. During harsh winter conditions of strong winds and cold, I have witnessed longspurs taking breaks from the strong winds by using small depressions in the snow, like little snow caves, during the day to protect themselves before going back to feeding. The somewhat rare weather event known as a “bomb cyclone” struck Christmas week and was a challenge for wildlife. The heavy snows first predicted here in Northern Illinois did not transpire. An accumulation of several inches or more did arrive with the powerful winds creating a hazardous situation for all living things. The strong winds produced some bitter cold but helped by sweeping the fields and roadways of snow, making it easier for the birds to forage and get to those energy-producing seeds that keep them alive through the nights during the unusually rapid Arctic cold blast.
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.
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.
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.