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.

The Busy House Wren

A House wren searches on a lichen covered dead limb for insects.

August 27, 2020 – The little House wren is a busy, sometimes quite vocal, but mostly secretive bird that stays on the edges and in the shadows where the thick growth and shrubbery becomes a small bird sized labyrinth to hunt, hide, and guard against intruders. The wren has brownish toned plumage with subtle dark markings and grayish colored breast with slightly brown colored underparts. With such plain dull earthy colors the little bird can easily go unseen as it zips through the shadowy understory. There is not a dead tree or a broken limb that this little hunter doesn’t give a thorough search. From the ground up the bird checks every nook and cranny for small insects like spiders, crickets, and beetles as it moves in and out of the natural openings and dark crevices of the fallen bough. When the House wrens arrive in the spring the male searches for what he thinks is a perfect nest site. He may use old abandoned woodpecker holes, fractures in old dead trees, man made bird houses, or even old discarded and forgotten man made items. The male will make many trips bringing small twigs to the nest site angling longer twigs that are too wide for the hole, sideways to fit through the small opening. Filling the hole with nesting material, he tirelessly builds the nest in hopes of impressing a mate. The House wren has a large range which includes most of the Western Hemisphere. The birds nest in most of the northern two thirds of the United States, from coast to coast, and north into southern Canada. The wren spends the winters in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. The little birds can be found year round in parts of Mexico, Central America, and south all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

Somewhat hidden among the shadows, a small House wren searches the undersides of the leaves for prey

Upland Sandpipers

An Upland Sandpiper lands and scurries across the road in front of me trying to entice me to follow, leading me away from it’s young hiding nearby.

August 13, 2020 – Every year, it seems, I am a bit nervous that this will be the last year of having any sightings in our area of Northeastern Illinois of the endangered long-distance migratory bird the Upland Sandpiper. I must admit that this year was not any different than past years, I always have a concern that eventually conjures up a bit of anxiety that grows until a bird is actually sighted. On May 15th of this year relief came as I had a pair flush along a rural road south of Kankakee. I have had sightings of multiple Upland Sandpipers in the general area almost once a week since this year’s first sighting in May. Besides the chance encounters, the patience in observation, listening for their unusual calls, or scanning the fields with binoculars while the crops are small can often produce sightings if the birds are in fact in the area. On August 3rd I had one fly, circle and land near where I had stopped my vehicle. The bird was certainly upset and scolding me as it landed and scurried across the roadway in front of my car before taking to the air again to circle my position. The sandpiper then landed on a utility wire behind me for no longer than five seconds before flying again back and forth past me. The encounter, the observation, and a couple fast photos lasted under two minutes and I quickly moved on so as not to stress the bird. My opinion is that this looks very much like the behavior of the Killdeer, a common upland plover that we see in numbers here in Illinois, especially along rural gravel roads during the nesting season when they have young nearby. The Killdeer uses distraction techniques to lead the intruder away from any chance of discovering their young that are staying low nearby. Perhaps this behavior is a telltale sign of a successful nesting season for the Upland Sandpiper, I can’t say for sure that this is whats going on, but it does give me hope that there are young birds nearby and the adult bird is doing its best to draw the intruder away. Hopes are that soon there will be new generation of Upland Sandpipers heading south to the prairies of the South America for the winter . This type of encounter with the Upland Sandpiper always seems to happen around this time every year from late July through late August when there should be young birds in the area. In fact I did get a glimpse at a flightless young bird being led away through rows of beans a few years back. When the adult bird circled me it was being very vocal as it flew out into the field joining the young bird, moving away and disappearing in the sea of green.

Perching on a utility wire for only a few seconds the Upland Sandpiper let’s me know that it is not happy with me in the area.

Southbound

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs Sandpipers standing tall face to face having a dispute over the hunting area that will eventually lead to a noisy fight.

July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.

A small sharp looking Semipalmated Sandpiper on it’s way to Central and South America feeding in a small flooded field in Iroquois County this past week.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a toxic Monarch butterfly clinched in the bill.

July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.

A tiny insect held firmly in at the tip of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s long down curved bill.

Semipalmated Plover

The profile of Semipalmated Plover show its’ dark cheek and fine orange eye-ring and the stout looking short, orange and black bill.

July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.

The photo shows the webbing on the middle and outside toes of the little plover from whence it gets it’s name.