The Eastern Prickly Pear

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

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

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

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

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

The Upland Sandpiper

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

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

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

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

A Prairie Island of Habitat

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sandy Mocker

April 22, 2019 – What are those clear and rich bird songs coming from the tree tops with tones and musical phrases that seem sampled from the songs of other avian species? There it is, perched high in the tree, its’ bill pointing towards the clouds. It is that mimic, the Brown thrasher, with its’ piercing yellow eyes, boldly streaked body and a mostly reddish brown back, tail, and wings that sport bright white and dark wing bars. You better look quick before it darts to a lower perch or down deeper into the understory to search for beetles and worms. Seeds and fruits will come later in the season, it is still the early part of spring and the insects and other tiny invertebrates are the food for now for this melodic courting songbird.

Listen for the male Brown thrasher early in the season when he is on his brushy habitat and his songs are a much stronger proclamation of his territory. After the nesting begins, the songs of the male thrasher are somewhat lower in volume. The Brown thrasher can mimic the songs of other birds with a repertoire of up to 3,000 cataloged sounds, according to Stan Stewart, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

Over the years in the other parts of the country, the Brown thrasher has been known by other names. Fence-corner bird, Sandy mocker, Planting bird, and Brown thrush are a few of the names. The thrasher is not part of the thrush family at all and actually belongs to the family Mimidea. Mimidea is the same family as the Northern mocking bird and the Gray catbird, two other mimics we see here in northern Illinois during the nesting season. The Brown thrasher can be found year-round from southern Illinois, south from east Texas to the Carolinas, and into all of Florida. The thrasher is a short-distance migrant and breeds across most of the northern half of the United States from the Great Plains to the Atlantic and north into southern Canada.

The Boss

Large 12 point White-tailed Buck with swollen neck.

Large 12 point White-tailed Buck with swollen neck.

November 12, 2018 – A large 12 point buck, photographed just west of Kankakee recently, displays those tell tale signs that the breeding season for White-tailed deer is occurring in our area. Also known as the “rut”, the mating season for the White-tails really gets in gear by the end of October and lasts through January. This burly buck with his huge swollen neck stands like a stone fence between the doe and the intruder. The explanation for the enlarged necks on White-tailed bucks this time of the year during rut is widely believed by wildlife biologists to be the affects of a surge of the testosterone hormone. The increase in hormones is also believed to cause the aggression and the lack of fear that is a well known behavior of the White-tailed buck during the rut.

House Wren

 House Wren

A little House Wren

October  24, 2018 – A little House wren stops for a moment to look down towards the lower branches of a small leafless bush as it surveys its’ next perch. According to recent reported sightings, reflected in the online eBird species maps of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many of the House wrens are moving south, pushed by the strong northerly winds and cold air from the higher latitudes. The House wrens will winter in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. Of course the little songbirds are still being seen in the area, but in greatly reduced numbers as the migration continues.

Migrating Palm warbler

Palm warbler

A southbound migrating Palm warbler

October 15, 2018 – A southbound, migrating Palm warbler in its’ autumn drab blends in quite well as it finds the perfect perch to quickly survey the surroundings. The Palm warbler is known for its’ tail-wagging and this one doesn’t disappoint, showing off those bright yellow feathers under the tail. In an instant though, the little bird is off to continue its’ hunt for insects or seeds among the tall, dried vegetation.

Ruby-throated Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

October 9, 2018 – A tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet works its’ way up a dried stalk at the edge of a thicket in search of insects in Iroquois county recently. The little bird, which is only 4.3 inches in length, is making its’ way south where it may winter in the southern half of the United States or as far south as Mexico according to The Cornell lab of Ornithology.

Reference:

“Ruby-Crowned Kinglet Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” , All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-crowned_Kinglet/overview.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

September 27, 2018 – A beautiful and colorful female Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker announced its’ arrival as it landed and perched on the branch of a tall snag in Iroquois county. The flickers’ black bib on its’ chest over a peachy light brown color that is covered with black spots from the chest to the belly, is further enhanced with the bright yellow shafts of the tail feathers and a red bar on the nape of the neck. The Northern Flicker is a large and impressive woodpecker that does feed on berries and seed, but its’ primary diet consists of ants, beetles and larvae that can be found in the ground.

Reference:

“Northern Flicker Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” , All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Flicker/overview.

North American River Otter

North American River Otter

North American River Otter

September 27, 2018 – The North American river otter can weigh as much as 30 pounds and can grow to a length of almost four and half feet. Their sleek muscular body and webbed toes make them very efficient underwater swimmers, stirring the water up, and chasing prey, as they roll and make quick turns in their pursuit. The otter can hold its’ breath for as long as eight minutes and can cover some distance as it swims. Fish, frogs and crayfish are a big part of the otters diet, the otter is a carnivore, a predator with strong jaws and sharp teeth and will also take birds or other animals that are near the water. The river otter is a symbol or totem of many Native American groups, the Pottawatomie and the Seminole people see the river otter as one of their clan animals. The Ojibwa called the river otter Nigig, its’ skin, teeth and claws were used in their medicine bundles. The otter was hunted and trapped for its’ meat and skin, the skins were respectfully turned into pipe bags, pouches and quivers by the indigenous people of North America.

The otter eating a fish it just caught

The otter eating a fish it just caught

Once a common sight in Illinois, the river otter was all but wiped out by the mid 1800’s as human expansion continued and the settlers cleared and drained the wetlands. With no regulations and the wholesale trapping and shooting of these semi-aquatic creatures, any sightings were becoming quite rare. Most ponds, lakes and rivers were now void of this remarkable animal and they were now sadly missing from most of Illinois, with the exception of far southwestern Illinois in the area of the Cache river and along the Mississippi in the northwestern part of the state. Trapping was eventually closed for river otter in1929. By 1989 the otter was listed as endangered and the future for the North American river otter was not looking good here in Illinois. The population had shrunk to an all time low and there were only a few areas that held the total population of this species for the state, which was believed to be as low as 100. But there was hope as things were changing throughout Illinois, the health of our natural resources had improved and this presented an opportunity for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Conservation efforts on wetlands combined with the laws enacted over the past decade to improve water quality in the rivers and streams in Illinois were paying off and by the mid 90’s improved habitats existed where beaver were thriving and and beaver dams helped create wetlands with healthy aquatic systems and these positive changes to our natural areas was great news for the otter.

Large canines of the otter as it swims with its' mouth open

Large canines of the otter as it swims with its’ mouth open

Reintroduction efforts were in the works for the DNR from 1994 through 1997 with the release of captured river otters from Louisiana. The released otters were reintroduced in central and southeastern Illinois. Around that same time the Indiana DNR was reintroducing river otter to a few watersheds in the northern and southern parts of the state. Today we see the results of those efforts of reintroduction, which would not have been possible without the conservation laws of the 70’s. The American river otter has expanded north and west in Illinois and into northeastern Illinois most likely out of Indiana using ditches and creeks and the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers. Today in Illinois river otters can be found in every county with an overall population that may be greater than 20,000 and possibly as high as 30,000. Recent sightings of river otters in our general area have been reported in Newton county Indiana where Jed Hertz photographed a pair on August 30th at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle FWA. I also observed a single otter at the White Oak Slough of the LaSalle FWA along the Kankakee river. Jed recently encountered an otter east of Kankakee, in Kankakee county, on September 14th. I was able to photograph that particular individual over a number of days while observing its’ ability to hunt. The otter certainly seems to be an effective hunter catching large and small frogs along with a number of fish species. The small prey was consumed on the fly, but a large Bullfrog or fish required two to five minutes to consume before the hunt would continue.

The North American River Otter

The North American River Otter

 

Reference:

“Wildlife Directory: River Otter – Living with Wildlife – University of Illinois Extension, https://m.extension.illinois.edu/wildlife/directory_show.cfm?species=river_otter

“River Otter.” Education, Illinois DNR, www.dnr.illinois.gov/conservation/wildlife/Pages/River-Otter.aspx

“North American River Otter.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 26 Sept. 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_American_river_otter

“The Ojibwe Native Americans.” The Ojibwe Native Americans – Traditions, http://ojibwenativeamericans.weebly.com/religion.html

webmaster@aaanativearts.com. “Potawatomi Bands and Clans:” Cherokee Houses, AAA Native Arts, https://www.aaanativearts.com/potawatomi/potawatomi_clans.htm