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.

A Grassland Migrant

A male Dickcissel perched on a branch overlooking his territory sings repeatedly “dick,dick,sizzle,sizzle”.

June 20, 2019 – A female Dickcissel with her beak full of nesting material momentarily perches on a plant stem just before dropping down into the thick prairie grasses to continue the work on her ground nest. The ground nest is a large cup consisting of weeds and grasses with the softer material on the interior that will hold the brood. The nest will hold three to six tiny light blue eggs that will hatch in about thirteen days.

Nearby, the male aggressively guards his claimed territory, keeping intruders out that dare to venture too close. The female does all the work of building the nest and caring for the young. It seems that the male Dickcissel’s only job is to guard the chosen nesting territory. The male may breed with other females that are attracted to his perfect nesting habitat after the first female is on the nest according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Dickcissels arrive here in northern Illinois towards the end of May.

The female Dickcissel pauses with a beak full of nest building material as the work continues on her ground nest.

The male Dickcissels claim a territory where they sing practically non-stop from their perch on a tall prairie plant or the limb of a short shrub as they try to entice the females. The persistent songs of these sparrow sized grassland birds are common across the springtime prairies and rural agricultural areas of Illinois. The familiar sounds that echo from this little bird can easily identify the vocalist by this mnemonic pattern of “dick,dick,sizzle,sizzle”.

By November the Dickcissels have gone south to a more hospitable climate where food, grasslands, and farmlands are available during our winter months. The birds will winter in large flocks in southern Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America. If you miss them this year just remember next year near the end of May is a great time to listen for their songs when they have returned to the springtime grasslands and prairies of Illinois.

Starry Travelers

The beautiful male Indigo bunting in full breeding plumage.

June 13, 2019 – The color indigo is described as a deep rich blue, and that is exactly what catches one’s eye at the forest’s edge beginning in the spring and lasting through the warm months of summer here in Northern Illinois. The flash of that stunning blue feathered breeder fluttering across a brown, black, and green environment can mean only one thing, that those long-distance migrants, the male Indigo buntings, in their alternate plumage, are here for the nesting season. The breeding range of the Indigo bunting stretches from central Texas north across the Great Plains into Canada, east to the Atlantic, and south into central Florida. The Indigo bunting winters in the southern half of Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, southern Mexico, Central America and south into northern South America.

A female Indigo bunting shows that hint on blue on her shoulders.

The females and immature Indigo buntings show less impressive colors than the breeding males. The females and immature birds are brown and tan, with some black in the wings, and dark broken streaks on a white and faded tan chest extending down the front of the bird. The female shows only hints of that famous blue on their shoulders and tail feathers. These little birds come a long way, about 1200 miles each way, in their amazing migration just to nest here in our area where there is suitable habitat of thickets and brushy wooded space bordering open fields and prairies. While many other migrating birds follow river valleys and other landmarks by day, the Indigo bunting uses the celestial map above for navigation making their magical journey on those clear dark starry nights.

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.

Tiny Swarming Gnats

April 22, 2019 – Gnatcatchers, warblers, kinglets and wrens were feeding on the abundance of tiny swarming gnats this past week at the edge of a small wooded area south of Kankakee. There were five Blue-gray gnatcatchers quickly hopping from branch to branch feasting on the large number of gnats that were covering the tree branches. The gnatcatchers are migrants that winter from the Southeastern coast of the United States, Florida, along the Gulf coast west and down into Mexico and Central America. Northern Illinois is near the northern edge of their nesting range that stretches up into Wisconsin and may be expanding as the climate warms.

A Northern parula warbler studies the bark of the tree looking intently for a small insect.

A pair of Ruby-crowned kinglets were visiting the same tree taking advantage of the abundance of protein. The little kinglets are about halfway between their winter range and their summer nesting territory. A house wren was also at the banquet and is now in its’ summer range while the smaller Winter wren that was busy searching for insects lower on a tree stump still has a little ways to go before it reaches its’ summer nesting territory. Field sparrows were there looking through the nooks and crannies of the decaying wood stumps for insects and worms.

A Northern parula warbler which nest in most of the eastern half of United States brought the most color to the brunch. The small parula warbler is a long-distance neotropical migrant that winters along the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico down into Central America and east throughout the Caribbean. The tiny warbler has yellow from under its’ chin down across its’ breast. The lower half of the birds bill is a bright yellow that matches those bright yellow feathers on its’ chin and even in the muted light looked brilliant against the bluish feathers on the upper parts of the little warbler.

Turkey Vultures

April 18, 2019 – As springtime advances and the migrants move north, Turkey vultures, those masters of the air currents, are once again gliding across the skies of Northern Illinois in large circling flocks that are sometimes referred to as a kettle. Even though a few of these large dark colored vultures are spotted in northern Illinois during the winter months, most migrate south in the fall after the nesting season. They spend the winter from Southern Illinois and across the southern United States, south through Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America and as far south as ‘the end of the world’ Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.

North America has three of the six subspecies of Turkey vultures. Cathartes aura septentrionalis is found in the eastern United States.(Palmer, 1988) With a wingspan of around six feet these large slow flying birds are hard to miss as they fly off of the carcass of the unfortunate roadkill as a vehicle approaches. Those close encounters certainly gives the observer an appreciation for the impressive size of the Turkey vulture. They usually don’t go far when flushed from the carrion and soon return to their feeding when the threat is gone. They are often seen still on their roosts in dead trees, utility poles or buildings early in the morning. With their wings spread wide like a parabolic antenna while facing the warm morning sun they are warming their bodies and drying their feathers from a rain shower or the dampness of the night.

Nesting Turkey vultures will use the abandoned nest of other large avian species in secluded areas far from human traffic. They will also use old sheds, barns, and houses that are remote, grown-up, neglected and open to the elements. The Turkey vulture may choose to lay their clutch of 1 to 3 eggs in a nest on the ground that they scrap out in the leaf litter in a dense thicket or near a fallen tree or even in a hollow log. The vultures will have only one brood over a 60-84 day nesting period and may return to the same nest year-after-year according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Palmer, R. 1988. Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 4. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Song sparrows

April 11, 2019 – An unrelenting and attention grabbing chase scene was on, as two small Song sparrows pursued each other in an amazing high speed aerial flight that took them zipping between small openings in the woods, over and under bushes, and around trees, a display that lasted well over ten minutes. Soon though, the two birds were on the ground in a small gassy area and appeared to be locked in a serious battle. The pair of male Song sparrows were having a territorial dispute that boiled over into a crescendo of a blurred feathery terror that played out in an opening at the edge of small woods this past week in Iroquois county.

It is not uncommon to see two or more birds having some sort of disagreement over a territory, mate, or reasons not fully understood, but most of the time it only lasts a few seconds with minimal to no physical contact at all. Less often though, one may witness an epic knock-down-drag-out fight at a level that raises a concern of a not so cheerful outcome. The fight which lasted a good four minutes looked at times to be quite violent. The little birds seemed to be going for each others head and face area with those long sharp claws normally used to scratch the earth for seeds and insects.

With the exception of an occasional pause during the fight when the birds had each other restrained, the struggle was much too quick for the human eye to comprehend. The details of the struggle could only be understood in the photos after the fact. Just as quickly as the ground battle started it was all over and they both disappeared from the battlefield. A few minutes later a single male Song sparrow was perched and singing on a small branch nearby as order seemed to have been restored and the intruder had fled the area.

A study that tested the hypothesis of song-matching, “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System”, was published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2013. Song matching is the matching of the song of the intruder, sung by the territorial male Song sparrow as an early warning signal to the intruder to stay away. The researchers found that song matching begins at low-level and then switches to higher-level that almost always predicts an attack on the intruder. The bird may also try other signals to send warnings to the intruder such as wing waving combined with song-matching as part of the early warning signals. .Akcay, C., M. E. Tom, S. E. Campbell, and M. D. Beecher. “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1756 (2013): 20122517. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.2517.