Turkey Vultures

A flock of over 30 adult and juvenile Turkey vultures on a rural road east of Kankakee recently.

September 5, 2019 – Throughout the summer months, in the skies over northeastern Illinois, all one has to do is look up to see those large, soaring, dark colored birds gently gliding in the summer thermals. The wings of the Turkey vultures are slightly, but noticeably, pointing up. The unmistakable dihedral angle or “v” shape of their wings while in flight are much different from other large birds like eagles and hawks. Those birds extend their wings straight out and flat from their body when soaring, and appear more like a sailplane. Even at a distance a Turkey vulture can be quickly ID’d by its’ shape and flight patterns. It is not uncommon to witness large numbers of Turkey vultures perched in an old snag preening and drying their wings in the morning sun. It seems that if one bird spreads its’ wings to warm up and dry out, the other perched vultures quickly follow suit. Soon that old tree full of vultures with wings spread wide begins to take on the appearance of the partially furrowed sails hanging from the foremast of an 18 century brigantine. The birds, with their wings stretched out, slowly and carefully begin to turn and reposition on those sometimes shaky branches as they continue their warming in the early sun drying the nighttime dew from their damp feathers. When the time is right and the their feathers are dry and ready for flight the birds begin to lift off from their roost. They leave, a few at a time, flapping their large wings and climbing upward into a column of the warm rising air to begin their daily search for carrion. Throughout the day the vultures are found in fields and along the rural roads and highways where their keen sense of smell and great vision has lead them to their primary food source, road kill. Most of the Turkey vultures will start moving south late in the year and spend the winter from far southern Illinois on south. In recent years though, with milder winters, there are larger numbers remaining throughout the winter months in central Illinois. The Turkey vultures are some of the first to arrive in numbers here in northern Illinois in late winter for another nesting season.

An adult Turkey vulture quickly moves away from the road walking further into a field with other birds.

Plenty To Eat

A Warbling vireo pauses for only a moment as it searches the leaves for insects.

August 5, 2019 – As we are coming to the end of August one can not help but notice the changes that are happening as another autumn nears and summer contemplates its’ well earned rest. The changes that have been a bit subtle are now upon us. The angle of the sunlight brings an inspiring warm tone to the landscape. The gentle breezes swirling through the forest canopy rustles and rattles the matured leaves allowing us to hear those uplifting whispers of the mighty Cottonwood. We have come to that time of the year where there is a bounty in the northern hemisphere for the avian migrants and those birds that are here year-round. Recently fledged birds, along with the adults, are fattening up for the migration, checking every leaf, stem, and branch for insects and worms. Little Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Warbling vireos, and Chickadees are persistently looking over and under every leaf while they cling tightly to the stems as they feed. Thistle and other seeds, berries, and nectar are available for the birds that are coming south from the higher latitudes as well as the birds that have nested here in Northeastern Illinois.

A female yellow warbler looking for a meal carefully surveys her next move into the thicket.

Prothonotary warblers stand out with their bright yellow feathers and olive-gray toned back and wings while gobbling up caterpillars with amazing success as they pluck them off those woody plants at the waters edge. Goldfinches are on the beautiful purple blooming thistle plants along roadways and on the prairies searching for the high fat and protein rich thistle seeds. Adults and this years’ young Hummingbirds stake out and fearlessly defend, from a good perch, their abundant food source, a large thick patch of Orange Jewelweed surrounded by other nectar giving plants. Some of these travelers will be around for a while feeding and fattening-up and growing strong for either a long or short migration. As the weeks go by though, and those abundant food sources in our area start to wane, the north wind bringing cooler temperatures, many birds will leave our area in a final push and continue south where they will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

The Green Heron

A wary adult Green heron stretches out its’ long neck to get a better view of the surroundings.

August 22, 2019 – What are those little dark colored squawking herons seen perched in the dead trees in and around our wetlands, ponds, and creeks? These wary birds are often seen stalking, with only the slightest of movement, as they inch across the branches of a partially submerged fallen snag in the duckweed covered still backwaters of our river. It is now August and soon the little Green herons will be heading south for the winter. The sightings have most definitely increased recently as the new generation of young Green herons, those feathery squawkers that are the results of a successful nesting season, are fledged and hunting on their own. The crow sized herons are dark colored and appear as silhouettes in the dim lit habitat of a slough, but when they are illuminated by the sunlight the beauty of Green heron is revealed. Their feathers are a rich color of chestnut, dark green, and blue-gray and they have yellow eyes and a dagger like bill that shoots out in the blink of an eye as they extend with great speed their long neck to grab an unsuspecting fish, frog or insect. According to Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Green herons begin arriving in Illinois in April and nesting occurs from May through early July and the fall migration starts in August.

A juvenile Green heron waits and watches patiently for any movement of potential prey.

There have been observations and even videos of this remarkable hunter that have verified that some of these birds have learned to use lures to get small fish to come in close. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology stated, “The Green Heron is one of the world’s few tool-using bird species. It creates fishing lures with bread crusts, insects, earthworms, twigs, feathers, and other objects, dropping them on the surface of the water to entice small fish.” As we are now seeing other species of herons and egrets staging and working their way south as autumn draws near, these little night fliers, those squawking Green herons, will soon disappear from our sloughs and wetlands until next April. The Green heron is considered a medium-distance migrant here in northeastern Illinois and winters along the southern coastal areas of North America, and south into Mexico, and Central 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).

The Barn Swallow

A beautiful male Barn swallow perched on a reed-stem takes a short break from hunting.

July 18, 2019 – The adult Barn swallows are sleek and swift with vibrant colors and long forked tails, they are both elegant and beautiful in flight or perched. The American Barn swallows are long-distance migrants and spend the nesting season in most all of the United State and north into southeastern and northwestern Canada and into southern Alaska. The swallows winter in Central and South America. Barn swallows are seen here in Illinois during their nesting season. Most often they are noticed in large numbers around open farm buildings where they build their nests in the rafters and eaves. They also use large and small bridges where they build their nests in the underneath structure of the bridge supports. The swallows construct their nests out of wet mud and grasses forming them into a half cup shape in the relative safety of the man-made structures or natural shelters like cliff overhangs.

The female swallow with an insect in her beak brings the small meal to one of her young.

These medium size birds fly up and down the creeks and ditches and across open areas zigzagging in confusing maneuvers as they hunt for insects. The young are brought food, usually large insects, while still in the nest or as fledglings perched together near the nest site. Their little bright yellow beaks all pop open at the same time like little beacons as their heads move in unison following the adult birds as they fly by. The adults seem to know who’s turn it is eat next when they return with a plump insect. Folklore and religious tales relating to the Barn swallow have endured throughout the ages. It is said the Barn swallows bring good luck if it nests on your farm but removing the swallows nest would bring bad karma to the farm. It is also said that the Barn swallow brings us the good news, with their chatter, that summer is on its’ way.

Northern Bobwhite Quail

A female Northern Bobwhite quail flushed to a tree branch keeps an eye on the intruder below.

July 11, 2019 – Foraging on the ground near a dense wooded thicket or obscured by the shrubs, forbs, and native prairie grasses in its’ northern range, an individual or a covey of 20 or more quail could easily go unseen by a passerby. The amazing and well camouflaged Northern Bobwhite quail is less often seen and more frequently heard when finally its’ presence is announced with that famous clear, rich, whistle that sounds just like its’ name “Bob-White!”. In fact, those most recognized and predictable whistles of the Northern Bobwhite are counted at certain times of the year by biologists, citizen scientists, researchers, and landowners. Using the collected data in set formulas is one method to determine the population of bobwhites on a piece of property. The Northern Bobwhite quail has struggled across its’ range, which is much of the eastern half of the United States including Illinois. Over the years harvest records from the IDNR have shown a sharp decrease in bobwhite numbers from the 1950’s through 2017. A number of reasons for the decline of quail populations in Illinois have been identified. According to a document published by Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Bobwhite in Illinois: Its Past, Present and Future”, primitive farming in Illinois actually benefited the Northern Bobwhite quail. Hedgerows, fallowing, and crop rotation provided both cover and food for the quail. Advances in modern intense agricultural practices, the clearing of cover, and the increased use of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides has had a negative impact on the Northern Bobwhite quail.

A close look at the female Northern Bobwhite quail.

The flat farmland in north-central and east-central Illinois where intense row crop agriculture is practiced has become void of the required habitat for a sustainable quail population. Human expansion has also taken a toll on quail habitat. Areas that once held quail habitat are turned into shopping centers, home sites, and sport fields. Management programs to benefit the quail continue to be a challenge for biologists, the complexity of a fragile species, and the human influence on the Northern Bobwhite quail that has changed a landscapes has left little room for this remarkable bird.

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 Great Egret

A beautiful Great egret glides low over the water passing a Great-blue heron foraging in the background.

June 6, 2019 – Appearing like ghostly aberrations in the soft morning light of late spring the five beautiful Great egrets were spread out around a pond in southwestern Kankakee county last week. Most were wading in the shallows searching for food, while a few were perched and preening on a fallen snag at the ponds edge. One of these hunting birds focused on something in the aquatic vegetation at the north end of the pond. The Great egret pulled out a large fish that it held in its’ bill for only a short time, and for reasons one can only speculate, the bird discarded the catch and moved on and continued hunting. It wasn’t long before the egrets took to the air, their impressive wings spread wide as they gracefully circled and gained altitude. Having used the pond for the night for resting and feeding, the birds flew northwest continuing their migration towards the nesting colonies on the lakes and in the river valleys.

The egret standing in the shallows holding the soon rejected fish.

The Great egret is considered a resident to medium-distance migrant and range widely over the continent, according to The Cornell lab of Ornithology. Many of these birds nest in colonies in the backwaters and wetlands of small and large lakes and rivers like the Mississippi and the Illinois. The Great egrets are in northern Illinois from early April to late October when they, along with a new generation of young egrets, migrate back south for the winter. The Great egret has struggled throughout the years. They suffered major declines of more than 95% from plume hunters for the fashion trade in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. The egret population began rebounding as a result of the Migratory bird laws that were enacted in the the first decades of the twentieth century. The birds are considered to be stable today despite the challenges of habitat destruction.

Flycatchers Large and Small

The Least Flycatcher is the smallest flycatchers you will see in our area and one of the early spring arrivals to Illinois from Central America.

May 30, 2019 – Flycatchers have returned to northern Illinois for the season. They are most often seen perched at the edges of wooded thickets, along rural ditches or open areas near ponds, creeks, and meadows waiting for insects to take to the air. Patiently perched on a tall sturdy dried stem from last years growth or on a limb of a fallen tree, the mostly drab colored little birds can quickly fly off their perch and grab insects in midair or pluck one off a nearby leaf. They detect the slightest movement from a walking or flying insect with their keen vision.

A Great-Crested Flycatcher is perched and watching for prey. The bird is a large heavy billed flycatcher with a noticeable yellow belly.

Consuming their prey promptly, the flycatcher resumes focus on their surroundings, watching for prey from a satisfactory random perch. Small crawling and flying insects such as beetles, leafhoppers, and dragonflies are a few of the types of insects that the flycatchers feed on. Some flycatchers, like the Eastern Kingbird, primarily feed on insects early in the season while in their summer range here in Illinois, but wild fruits become part of their diet as this supplemental food source becomes available later in the season. During the months that the Eastern Kingbird spend in the western Amazon basin in South America fruits are a main food source for these birds.

Like many of the other traveling birds we see during the spring migration and during the nesting months here in Illinois, the flycatchers migrate north from the southeastern coastal areas of the United States and southwest into Mexico, Central and South America. While some nest in the United States others continue north into Canada and Alaska, like the Alder flycatcher for example that has a large nesting range and breeds in the area of the Great Lakes in the United States, and most of Canada and Alaska. Some of the more common flycatchers we see during the summer nesting season in Northern Illinois are Eastern wood-Pewee, Great-Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Least Flycatcher, and the Eastern Kingbird.