January 21, 2019 – There is snow on the prairie and some of the young bulls in the bison herd at the Kankakee Sands, in Newton county Indiana, challenge each others strength in their play fighting. Butting heads, jumping, and pushing each other until one walks away, but the bested young bull returns for more, unable to resist the challenge. Above in the winter skies, the Rough-legged hawks, in their varied shades of black, brown and white, hover over the cold white blanket pressing down on the sleeping grasses of bleak winter fields. Northern Harriers glide low, back and forth over the prairie at times looking like a kite that has come loose from its’ tether as they drop down on an unwitting prey. Late afternoon the Short-eared owls awaken from their roosts, flying in circles rising up high above the prairie in a group of four or five that soon descend in different directions finding their area to hunt. Perched on a sign or fence post or small tree they are wide eyed and alert, watching with those keen yellow eyes, for any movement surrounding their vantage.
December 12, 2018 – The late season birth of a bison calf just recently discovered at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana stays close to its’ mother on a cold but sunny December day. A small group of mature bulls could be seen grazing and resting in a northwest part of the north pasture, but the bulk of the herd was on one of the sand hills, near the remains of Bogus Island, where they had a nice southern exposure to the morning sun. The other young bison that were born in the spring, now looking somewhat like small adults, seemed to be enjoying the sunshine as they butted heads and rolled in a dusty wallow, at times completely covering their furry faces in a dusty mask. The new calf in its’ cinnamon-colored coat stood out as it walked across the hill not venturing far from its’ mother. Ted Anchor, the Project Manager at the Kankakee Sands, says that this late birth is uncommon but not unheard of. Anchor also reported that 16 calves were born during the spring and the bison herd at The Kankakee Sands is now at 50+. More information on The Kankakee Sands can be found at https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/kankakee-sands/
December 9, 2018 – Perched on a steel cable above a grassy area a Rough-legged hawk, a large raptor of the high arctic during the summer, keeps an eye out below for prey. The photo shows the feathers covering the legs, extending down to their small feet. The tip of the beak is stained red from a recent kill. The Rough-legged hawks have migrated south out the Arctic and are now on their wintering grounds. The wintering ground of the Rough-legged hawk includes most of the United States, minus the states south of the Ohio river and East of the Mississippi. According to The Cornell lab of Ornithology these wintering hawks feed mostly on voles, mice and shews while in our area of Illinois. I have personally witnessed them on the carrion of a rather large mammal a few winters back. With a wingspan of over 4′ they can’t be missed as they hover and glide over the farm fields and prairies. Watch for them perched on utility poles or on the small branches of trees or even sitting on the ground throughout the winter months.
November 10, 2017 – A steady and chilly wind reminds us that another winter is approaching the prairies of Illinois and now, just ahead of that stark and frozen season, the Rough-legged hawks have returned. High over the fallow fields, pastures, and the dormant prairies, appearing suspended like tethered kites hovering and maneuvering in the gusts are the arctic birds of prey that have migrated to their less forbidden winter range. There are no ptarmigans or lemmings here, a food source on the tundra during the hawks nesting season but there are plenty of other small mammals and birds that will sustain these wonderful hunters for the next five or six months before they return to their nesting areas on the cliff faces and outcroppings overlooking the vast and open country of the arctic.
July 23, 2017 – While perched on a fence post at the The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana a Grasshopper Sparrow sings out a song that resembles the sounds of its’ favorite food, the grasshopper. The little songbird has a perfect habitat at the Kankakee Sands with the open grasslands, plenty of insects and a good place for these ground nesting little migrants to have a successful breeding season. The Grasshopper Sparrow has shown a decline in recent years from habitat loss throughout its’ range with the fragmentation and degradation from intensive agriculture. The 2014 state of the birds report has the Grasshopper Sparrow listed as a common bird in steep decline.
March 25, 2017 – The Rough-legged hawk can be spotted perched on utility poles, fence posts or gliding low across the frozen agricultural fields and the waterways of dormant grasses and weeds during the winter months here in the mid-west. Oftentimes these birds can be seen sitting on the ground along the roadway or in the desolate looking winter farm fields as they keep a wary eye and scan their surrounding for potential prey. In the summer one would have to travel to Hudson Bay and the High Arctic to see them hunting lemmings or voles on the tundra or nesting on a rock ledge or a ground level rocky outcropping with their brood of 2-6 eggs. Weighing up to 3lbs and having a wing-span of 4 ½ ft they are easy to spot as they seem to be a fixture in the winter sky gliding with eyes down into the wind hovering at times as they watch for movement of a mouse, ground squirrel or even a rabbit. Identifying the Rough-legged hawk is really not that difficult, although they could be mistaken for the Northern Harrier that has a similar hunting method. I always look for that tell-tale pattern, easier to see on the light-morph birds, those somewhat square or rectangle looking dark bold patches on the underside of the wings between the wing-tips and the first joint. Another thing to look for on these hawks are the feathers on the legs, the Rough-legged hawk gets its name from the feathers that cover the legs extending all the way to the toes, which are believed to help conserve heat. In our rural areas from November to March one has the best chance to have an encounter with these Arctic visitors.
December 31, 2016 – There was cold stiff December wind blowing across the prairie at Kankakee Sands Saturday morning, a good way to make a fine memory on the last day of the year. The Bison herd were keeping a tall sand ridge between them and the relentless winds as they grouped together near some small oak trees. I noticed that 10 white-tailed deer had found some protection from the wind in the tall grasses west of the Bison. Rough legged hawks and Northern Harriers seemed suspended in the sky above the prairie using the wind to their advantage as they hunted for small mammals. For a moment one could imagine a time before the Europeans when the indigenous people and nature existed as one. The primitive roads through the dense prairie grasses of their original range were made by these grand beast migrating north and south and stretching from Michigan to Kentucky across a vast prairie, passing oak savannas, marshes, campsites and villages of the natives. I can sense a rumble like thunder under clear skies, dust clouds of movement as a herd passes long ago near where I sit.