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.

Rough-legged Hawk

Perched on the small branches in a tree a light colored Rough-legged hawk watches for movement in the prairie grasses below.

December 10, 2020 – Early December brings us some crystal clear and cold nights under brilliant waning moonlight that seems to sparkle on the frosty panes of thin ice forming on the creeks and along the river’s edge. The low temperatures create icy patterns that surround the many exposed and weathered rocks in the shallows with delicate chilly collars that will soon grow into thick cold locks that will hold fast in the coming weeks. These cold months also bring those Arctic hawks that will spend the winter hunting the prairies and farm fields here in the Midwest. The Rough-legged hawk’s diet has changed from the Lemmings of the Arctic tundra to the small mammals, like mice and voles, found here in our area of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. During the nesting season in the high Arctic the Rough-legged hawks use rock ledges to build their nest in the vast and remote land of the midnight sun. While on their winter range, if they are not hovering or kiting over the grassy prairies and fields searching for prey, the hawks can be seen perched on the small branches in the tops of trees, or on utility poles and fence posts near a good hunting area. Like Snowy owls and other predators that migrate south out of the Arctic, the years of abundance in prey, especially Lemmings, means an increase in the predictors population, and an increase in numbers of migrants that winter here in the lower 48. The Rough-legged hawk is one of three raptors that have feathers down it’s legs to the tops of its feet, certainly an adaptation for colder conditions of the unpredictable Arctic. Watch for the Rough-legged hawks perched or gliding into wind above the prairies throughout the winter and keep in mind there are light and dark-morphs, some are quite dark and some have very light plumage. They have small feet with feathers on their legs that can easily be seen with binoculars.

A Rough-legged hawk with dark plumage hunts only about 15 feet above the ground clinging tight with its small feather covered feet.

The Rut

A big White-tailed buck stands at the edge of a road in Iroquois County in pursuit of a doe.

December 3, 2020 – The Midwestern autumn brings shorter days, colder temperatures, and behavior changes to those majestic whitetail bucks. The new growth of antlers that began in the spring has hardened and reached its’ maximum growth for the year. The bachelor groups of spring and summer have disbanded and the males are now on their own. Standing and showing little concern while in plain sight at the edge of a woods, or in the corn stubble of a harvested field, with his mouth open and head tilted up into the wind, the buck is clearly focused on something else. White-tailed deer have very keen senses and along with the bucks very sensitive nose, he also has a special sensory organ in the roof of his mouth that can detect females that are approaching estrous. The strong desire to breed is why, at this time of the year, we see those seemingly out of place whitetail bucks that are in pursuit of a mate. Standing with their nose in the air and with their mouth open and lip curled up blocking their nostrils they are tasting the air for that special signal, and during this time that buck has only one thing on his mind. The male deer can actually locate a doe nearing estrus by tasting the airborne chemical signals from quite a distance. Seeing the normally shy, overly cautious, and sometimes totally nocturnal whitetail buck out during the middle of the day can mean only one thing, it is the breeding season, also known as the rut. The breeding season for White-tailed deer is where caution is truly thrown to the wind and love is literally in the air. The peak of rut takes place from late October through November, but breeding will continue through January as the rut heats and cools and finally ends for another mating season for the whitetails of Illinois.

With lip curled up and mouth open a small buck chases a doe through the prairie grasses.

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.

The Swamp sparrow

A beautiful Swamp sparrow stands tall on a dry weed stem in Iroquois County during the fall migration.

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.

Wonderful colors of reddish brown, blacks, and gray plumage adorn the long-legged Swamp sparrow as it pauses for a moment in its search for insects.

Crowns of Gold

An adult Golden-crowned kinglet pauses for only seconds on a handy perch before flying down into a thick weedy patch to search for insects.

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.

Clinging to a dried weed a kinglet thoroughly searches under each withered leaf for prey.

The Magnolia Warbler

A Magnolia warbler stops for just a moment as it forages through the bushes looking for insects.

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.

A lovely display from a beautiful warbler as it perches on a dried stem in the morning sun.

The Cape May Warbler

A Cape May warbler in its’ lovely fall plumage of yellow tones and subtle black stripes.

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.

The Cape May warbler that was perched on a branch in Kankakee recently gave a good side view that revealed some its’ less often seen markings.

The American Redstart

A female or maybe a first year male American redstart comes out of the shadowy woods and perches for just seconds before disappearing into the thicket.

September 17, 2020 – A quick movement with a flash of color reveals a small silhouetted figure in the low branches just inside the thicket. The sudden motion that has caught my eye is a dark colored bird with bright orange markings that became apparent as the little bird moved to a branch in a spot of filtered September light. A male American redstart with his stunning jet black plumage that is enhanced with bright yellow-orange feathers, and white underparts, moves quickly from branch to branch searching for insects. Soon two more redstarts appear in the trees nearby, but these tiny warblers have a different color pattern than the black male. The new arrivals are either females or first year male birds. The little travelers are gray overall with yellow markings, and although different than the adult male redstart, the flittering little fliers are as captivating as any warbler in the forest. These southbound migrating warblers are on their way to the shrubby forested areas and shade-grown coffee plantations where they will spend the winter in the equatorial latitudes of Central America and western South America. Just like when the redstarts arrive to the spring nesting grounds, the first thing they do when they arrive at the wintering grounds is to establish territories. The little birds become very aggressive and determined to win when it comes to the best shady hunting spots. This type of territorial aggression is sometimes seen at stopovers along the southbound migration route when the aggressor quickly descends on the intruder chasing it away from its temporary hunting area. The American redstart is referred to by some as the Christmas bird because they are in those areas of the tropics around Christmas time. They also have a less dignified name given by locals as the latrine bird because they are attracted to the flies that are numerous in those undesirable locations such as outhouses and dumps. I say what happens in the tropics stays in the tropics. The American redstarts we see in the woodlands of Northern Illinois during the nesting season and during the migrations are always a treat to watch as they fan their tails, spooking insects, and catching them on the wing. We will continue to see migrating redstarts for a while longer but soon they will be gone for the winter.

An American redstart male stops for a moment as it searches for insects on the branches below.