A Change In The Air

A female Indigo bunting with a plump little Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillar in her beak on a perch at the edge of a late summer woods.

September 3, 2020 – The Dog Star Sirius is currently about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, those are the hottest days, the most sultry days of summer, and those dates coincide with the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. In the past when that bright star became visible in the northern latitudes it was a precise celestial event telling those ancient people in the northern hemisphere that a seasonal change was coming. We can look around at nature and see, and even hear, other signs of change as we enter the final weeks of summer. The loud and repetitive bird songs of desperate males seeking mates has gone mostly silent. Like hundreds of tiny high pitched tambourines being shaken all at once the sounds of the cicada fills our ears replacing those spring and summer sounds with a kind of swan song telling us that summer is passing away and fall beckons our attention. The migrating warblers moving south show only hints of those fine bright colored feathers of the breeding season as their spring adornments fade to a more subtle, less showy winter plumage. Even the bright greens of the summer foliage is starting to become a little less intense and is showing signs of wear. Plants are at their peak in growth and some have already gone to seed while others continue to flower and bloom and bear fruit attracting insects, hummingbirds and other animals to the banquet. Another sign of late summer/early fall are the ripened dark purple berries of the Pokeweed plant that are attached to a bright reddish purplish stem. Those late season fruits will feed songbirds and mammals that will in turn spread the seeds far and wide. Over the coming weeks even the miniature Ruby-throated fliers of the northern summer gardens will have moved on as the blooms dry up and the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler. Certainly, a change is in the air, and if we slow down, listen, observe and learn from nature, we may find that we are able to look at our calendars a little less often as we tune in to the natural world in the same way our ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly perched and hunting from a convenient perch as she nears the end of her flight season.

Small Birds and Big Winds

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes time to stretch and preen on a perch near a feeder the day after the violent derecho.

August 20, 2020 – August 10th brought a weather event across the Midwest that I will not soon forget. The National Weather Service describes the storm as a long-lasting severe wind thunderstorm complex known as a derecho, with much of the winds at 75+ mph. By the afternoon, sometime after 3:00, the air felt hot, humid, and very heavy. I thought how lucky I was to have air conditioning, as I stepped back into the house from checking for mail. Little did I know, the cool air I was enjoying would soon end with a power outage that would last for days. It wasn’t long until things started to change as some darker clouds began to roll in, bringing some swirling winds to the treetops. Those winds didn’t seem so bad. A little before 4:00 pm I was looking out the kitchen window and could see the birds at the feeders and some squirrels that were busy with a new crop of walnuts next door. Hummingbirds were defending their territory, vigorously chasing intruders away from the feeders when the high winds struck. The birds and squirrels cleared the area as the winds became seriously stronger and within seconds the true nature of the derecho was revealed. The giant sycamore in the backyard was being shaken violently like a little toy, it’s large limbs snapping and dropping to the ground, taking out the electric and covering my truck in debris. I have to admit fear and some confusion was orbiting my thoughts while overloading my rational thinking and preventing me from retreating to the basement. If I was living in ancient Greece, in the time of Homer, I would be absolutely convinced that all four of the gods of the winds were involved and very angry at me for something. Soon though, the weather began to ease and when it seemed the storm had passed I cautiously ventured outside to inspect the damage and it was a bit shocking to see how fast things can change. I noticed that I was not the only one inspecting the backyard, Hummingbirds could be seen hovering over fallen limbs and debris. They were going from one limb to the next as if they were investigating those new things that earlier were not there, the landscape had definitely changed. By the next afternoon, with lots of hard work, the yard appeared much like it did before the storm, except for a damaged truck, broken fence, and electrical wires hanging down. House finches, Nut hatches, sparrows, and Hummingbirds appeared to be back to their normal routine seemingly unfazed, taking up where they left off before the storm. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are one of the smallest birds to visit North America and are a long-distance migrant that travels all the way from Mexico and Central America each spring and back again by early fall, flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Watching those Hummingbirds really made me think, in the wake of the violent storm, about the many obstacles and dangers that these tiny birds, weighing in at about 0.12 oz., must encounter in their life. The dangers are many for the little hummingbirds, from reptilians, insects, to birds of prey, but now we can add one more challenge to that list, and that is the derecho after the devastation of the August inland hurricane of 2020 that visited Illinois.

With an increase in Hummingbirds to the yard after the storm a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers near a feeder chasing away intruders.

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.

Listen to the Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird perches for a moment as it searches for prey at the edge of a woods in Iroquois County.

August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.

A closeup look at those well lit beautiful brown-orange colored eyes of this handsome mockingbird.

Leucistic Red-winged Blackbird

A leucistic female Red-winged Blackbird perches for a moment showing her peach colored head and white wings where pigment is missing from the birds feathers.

June 11, 2020 – A flash of white catches my eye as an interesting bird with peculiar markings flies just above some intentionally destroyed, non-native invasive plants that are known as the common reed or Phragmites. The stems of the dead Phragmites lay strewn like pick-up-sticks across the soft, damp, muddy shallows. The mystery bird perched for a moment on the tall stem of a native wetland grass, but soon flew down to the mucky waters edge where it began searching through the dark, wet organic debris occasionally using the dead Phragmites as a convenient perch. The bird began picking up small pieces of plant material and appeared to be looking for something specific as it hopped over standing water to the next little bit of duckweed covered mud and broken reeds. Soon the birds’ beak was full of small pieces of plant material. The curious colorful bird flew up and over the higher dry ground where prairie plants were thriving and dropped down into the thick green cover where it disappeared. In no time at all the busy bird was back on the marshy ground continuing its’ search for nesting material. By now the bird was no longer a mystery, its’ behavior, its’ song, and the nearby male that was protecting the territory revealed the species as a female Red-winged Blackbird that was working on a nest. The unusual coloring of the birds’ feathers is caused by a genetic condition known as leucism, a condition that prevents melanin from being sent to some of the birds plumage. Leucistic birds are recorded and photographed across many species each year, from Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles to Cardinals and Hummingbirds, and in this case a Red-winged Blackbird. Some of the leucistic birds are almost completely white while others might only have some plumage that is affected, sometimes referred to as piebald.

An example of a female Red-winged Blackbird that is not affected by leucism.

The Purple Martin

A pair of Purple martin males warm up on a gravel road in the morning sun after a cold spring night near the Kankakee river.

April 23, 2020 – The Purple martin is a long-distance migrant that winters in South America and migrates 5000 miles north over a two or three week period eventually arriving in United States each spring for the breeding season. The Purple martin is the largest and probably the most well known of the swallow species in North America. These dark, purple colored, elegant fliers that seem to be in constant song, show up in our area of Northern Illinois for the nesting season by April of each year. Their nesting colonies are now mostly in the familiar man made martin houses. Those large white bird houses that are called ‘condos’ and look like apartment complexes on tall poles placed around lakes and ponds, near open wetlands, in parks, along the rivers, and in many rural backyards across eastern North America are key to the survival of Purple martins. The nesting houses are kept clean and protected from predators and other birds trying to use them for nesting by the landlords, the dedicated human hosts that erect and care for the nesting houses. There are organizations and clubs across the country, like The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) https://www.purplemartin.org , which is a great resource for supplies and learning how to create houses, maintain them, and share important data that is used in the interest of Purple martin conservation. Habitat loss, climate change, and competition for nesting holes from invasive species like European starlings and English house sparrows have made it very difficult for the Purple martins. Records show populations have been decreasing by large percentages in many areas over the years and more landlords are needed to provide and maintain nesting houses.

A female Purple martin perches on a small stone resting and warming in the morning sun.

A Steady Migration

A little Winter wren, our smallest wren, poses for a split second with a captured fly. The wren will soon head north into Wisconsin and up into Canada for the nesting season.

April 9, 2020 – As nature steadily advances into another spring, more species of birds appear in the thicket each day. Some don’t stay long and leave during the night, while others spend a few days or even longer resting and feeding on the abundances of emerging insects and the remnants of last years seeds. A few Golden-crowned Kinglets are noticed high-up in the tree canopy searching every limb and branch for insects. On the perimeters of the small woodlot, any tall dried sturdy stem, or low hanging branches near the weedy ditch, becomes the ideal perch for some Eastern Phoebes that are busy catching and consuming small insects on the wing. The elegant little flycatchers quickly return to a nearby branch to continue their hunt after successfully spotting, pursuing, and catching an insect. A pair of large Northern flickers are only sometimes visible as they search through the tall grass chiseling into the earth with their large powerful bills looking for ants and other insects. Movement on the ground near some thick cover alerts me to not one, not two, but three Hermit thrushes searching in a stop and go method for insects in the dark shadowy places among the leaf litter and new growth on the forest floor. A tiny Winter wren, our smallest wren, searches the decaying remains of a fallen tree for insects. The small brown wren is hard to see as it disappears into the dark nooks and behind the twisted dead limbs of a once mighty tree. Soon the little bird reappears, only for a moment, as it continues to looks for a meal but quickly vanishes once more. Building strength before continuing north on their spring migration gives the travelers, both long-distance and short-distance migrants, the best chances for another, or even a first time, successful nesting season. The countryside is greening up, grasses are quickly growing, many trees and shrubs are just beyond buds with tiny, furrowed, developing leaves. The sound of chorus frogs ringing out from every ditch and wetland puddle across Illinois is signaling those glorious vernal changes that seem to appear overnight revealing a new beginning.

Perched on a long stalk, an Eastern phoebe watches for flying insects that it can catch and consume on the wing

Beautiful Songster

An American Robin eyeing a dried red berry from last years’ crop before plucking it off and continuing its’ hunt

April 2, 2020 – There is nothing that alerts us to a change of the seasons more than those early morning songs of the American Robin. The Robin has a strong, rich whistle that begins to invade our dreams not long before the glow of first light. This medium sized, orange breasted, dark headed bird with a bright yellow bill is probably one of the most familiar and common birds we see. The Robin likely draws attention more often than other species as it runs, stops, and probes the grassy spring and summer lawns here in the Midwest searching for earthworms large and small. Although there are Robins in our area of Northeastern Illinois year round, they are more often seen in their winter flocks in our rural areas where there is plenty of food like wild fruits and berries along with thick cover that can protect them from harsh cold weather and dangerous predators. Even though many Robins remain in our natural areas throughout the cold months, some do migrate. The springtime brings a behavioral change to the wintering birds as the large winter flocks break-up into small flocks dispersing from their winter habitat. The birds become more territorial and we begin to see those Robins in our city parks and on our grassy lawns as worms become a warm weather food source and nesting sites are the focus. Soon there will be nesting Robins everywhere, the female will be sitting on her perfectly constructed nest made of sticks, grass, and mud keeping her three to five sky blue colored eggs warm for about fourteen days. Robins are good at putting their nests in some of the most inconvenient places, like above exterior doors, below eaves, on gutters and electrical services, and sometimes in trees. The American Robin may have up to three broods in one season and the female and the young join the males in the roosts after the last brood is fledged and the nesting season ends. As cold weather once again approaches and the ground freezes and the worms are gone, the American Robin will rejoin the winter flocks where fruits and berries will become an important food source for the coming months.

A Robin stops at the waters’ edge for a drink before quickly flying to join another bird perched in a nearby tree

Ambush Hunters

A Black Swallowtail butterfly becomes a meal for the large Bullfrog.

August 8, 2019 – Having noticed two large bright green American bullfrogs sitting motionless on some rocky soil east of Kankakee this past week I stopped, reversed and pulled over for a photo. It soon became quite clear why these two frogs sat exposed and away from the safety of their nearby duckweed covered watery habitat when two Black Swallowtail butterflies came fluttering in. The unsuspecting swallowtails, in their wandering flight, glided much too low and close to the patient amphibians, and then in the flash of an eye with an explosive lunge, one of the bullfrogs caught and quickly devoured one of the butterflies. I spent the next hour and a half watching these two ambush hunters and I can say with absolute certainty that these frogs missed more prey than they caught. It seems that the frogs were quite skilled at remaining still for long periods of time as they waited for the next opportunity. However ,when a dragonfly, a butterfly or even a fly caught their attention but landed somewhat out of range, the frogs would give themselves away with their sudden movement as they turned toward the prey or tried to move closer. If the insects came within range the frogs mostly won.

Two American Bullfrogs get a little to close to each others hunting territory.

The American Bullfrog has long been celebrated in both dark and whimsical literature, even Mark Twain had his celebrated jumping frog. These large green croaking frogs have inspired poetry, songs, stories and myths that have been shared by the indigenous in their traditions and oral histories and are well recognized in American folklore. The bullfrog has a strong, unworldly song that can grab the attention of even the most heedless. They can jump quick and far, they are absolutely voracious hunters and to the bullfrog all is game if it can fit it in its’ mouth. I know for a fact that there are no night sounds that can make the lonely nighttime fisherman feel less alone than those wonderful guttural songs of the bullfrog from the the dark water edges of ponds, lakes and rivers of Illinois. The American Bullfrog is the largest frog in America and most widely known in Illinois and is native to eastern North America.

Ground Squirrels

An Eastern Chipmunk stops for a moment on a fallen limb where it had been eating a seed.

July 25, 2019 – There are three species of small ground squirrels in Illinois, the Eastern Chipmunk, the Thirteen-lined, and the Franklin’s. Actually, a forth member of the ground squirrel group in Illinois should be noted and that is the Groundhog, also known as a Woodchuck. The Eastern Chipmunk is the smallest ground squirrel in Illinois with a body length of up to 7 inches not including their furry tail that is about 4 inches in length. Chipmunks have a reddish brown coat with black and white stripes on their back and the sides of their face, and a white stripe above each eye. They are most often seen in or along wooded or thick brushy areas where they have their borrows nearby. They may construct their borrows beneath fallen trees or even within the roots of living trees. They also use rocky environments where they can easily create borrows beneath or between the rocks.

Staying low in the grass, a Thirteen-lined ground squirrel is ready to bolt to its’ barrow.

A little larger than the Eastern Chipmunk is the Thirteen-lined ground squirrel which is 13 inches in length including a small 3 inch tail. The Thirteen-lined ground squirrel is a prairie or grassland animal that actually expanded its’ range after the Europeans arrived and began clearing timber and creating pasture lands. Here in Northeastern Illinois you are most likely to get a glimpse of this little ground squirrel on a sunny day, standing up straight on its’ back legs near its’ borrow keeping a wary eye as you approach along a rural less traveled road. Look for those large dark eyes and those many stripes, thirteen to be exact, that alternate in different shades of browns, yellows, blacks and have light spots in the darker stripes.

And larger yet, at about 16 inches, including the tail, is the Franklin’s ground squirrel. Sightings are rare and highly localized in the northern two thirds of Illinois for this ground squirrel that sort of resembles a cross between a tree squirrel and tiny marmot. The habitat of tall grasses that the Franklin’s ground squirrel requires makes actually seeing one very difficult. Researchers have used trained dogs in some areas to help locate ground squirrel activity in suitable tall grass habitat of the Franklin’s, a technique mentioned in an article of Outdoor Illinois, Duggan et al.(2009) “Finding Franklin’s”. The Franklin’s ground squirrel in Illinois has a status of “Uncommon, listed as state-threatened in 2014” and they are a protected species under the Endangered Species Act according the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR).