The Ruddy Duck

Three male Ruddy ducks pop to the surface while feeding, giving a good look at their blue bills and developing summer breeding plumage.

March 19, 2020 – The Ruddy duck is a small diving duck that has somewhat of an amusing but interesting appearance. With a small bit of imagination, especially while viewing a male in his wonderful breeding plumage, one can see that this stout looking little bird with a bright blue bill and a warm chestnut colored body could easily be adapted as a quirky cartoon character in the next great animated blockbuster. These stiff-tailed divers are often seen in small flocks on the open waters of southern wetlands, lakes, and rivers during the cold months and also in the late winter gearing up for the spring migration as they start to stage in areas with great flocks of other waterfowl. The compact little ducks stay close together feeding and socializing as they rest and build energy for that magic moment when the big push happens and their night flight north begins. Like many other species, the Ruddy ducks head towards their breeding areas, the shallow lakes, and marshes to the north and to the west where they will take up residence for the summer. There are breeding populations of Ruddy ducks throughout the marshes and wetlands of the great lakes, but the areas that have the highest percentage of nesting Ruddy ducks are on the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. The female will seek out dense vegetation in the backwaters of lakes and marshes using cattails and grasses to weave together a simple platform above the water to hold a well hidden nest that is eventually lined with soft, warm, down feathers. She will lay somewhere around eight rather large white eggs and incubate them for about 26 days. Not more than a day after hatching, the young little ducks leave the nest swimming close behind their mother diving and feeding themselves. The young Ruddy ducks are on their own after about 30 days and after another 30 days they learn to fly and take to the air and will migrate south in the fall. Simply a beautiful and an interesting little stiff-tailed duck with an air of attitude and the blue billed summer drake in his breeding plumage is a sight to behold.

A drab colored Ruddy duck hen with her stiff tail slightly raised looks alert to my presence as she swims by.

The Tundra swan

A pair of Tundra swan at Black Oak Bayou, part of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area along the Kankakee River in Newton County Indiana this past week. The swan on the right shows a very small yellow spot while the swan on the left has a much larger spot.

March 12, 2020 – The Tundra swan, also known as the Whistling swan, is a large handsome white bird with coal black legs and feet and a matching black bill. The Tundra appears very similar to the Trumpeter swan but is somewhat smaller, the Trumpeter being the largest waterfowl in North America with a wingspan that can exceed 8 ft. The Tundra swan also has a yellow spot to the front of each eye that is sometimes quite small and not easy to see without the help of a scope or binoculars. The Tundra and Trumpeter are true native swans that we get to see here in Illinois during the winter months and during spring and fall migrations. I should also mention another swan that is a year around resident and actually breeds here in Illinois, the Mute swan. The Mute swan is larger then the Tundra and a little smaller than the Trumpeter and is an Eurasian species that was introduced for its elegance and beauty to grace private estates, park lakes, and ponds and eventually escaped into the environment. The Mute has a bright orange bill with a black knob where the bill meets the face on the forehead helping make the bird easy to identify. When our native swans the Tundra and Trumpeter are seen together, the size difference helps distinguish them, but when seen separately one has to rely on other physical clues such as the yellow spot near their eyes on the “lores”, the area between the nostrils and the eyes. Something else to consider is that about 10% of Tundra swans will not have the yellow spots at all according to Sibley Guides. The bill of each bird offers even more clues, when looking directly face to face with the swans, the Tundra has more of rounded boarder along the top of the bill between the eyes while the Trumpeter has V shape. The slope of the head of each bird offers even more to be examined when looking at the birds profile, the Tundra has a rounded crown and the Trumpeter has more of a slope that lines up and continues down the bill. Now we are in late winter and the swans have been staging in our area for many weeks with other waterfowl waiting to move north. Soon these wonderful birds will start their flight towards the Arctic where they will spend a short summer nesting on the ponds, lakes, and the wetlands on the vast tundra of Canada and Alaska.

A closer look at the Tundra swan with a much larger yellow spot on the lores.

Canvasback Ducks

A mixed flock of mostly Canvasback ducks feeding and socializing on a flooded access road leading into the Kaskaskia bottoms in Southern Illinois this past week.

February 27, 2020 – The male Canvasback duck has a rich chestnut colored head and neck, black chest and tail area, with a bright white body and wings. These large ducks have beautiful red eyes that when illuminated by the sun can penetrate the thoughts of the human observer laying waste to any earthly woes, at least temporarily. Those unique eyes of this big diving duck absolutely contribute to making this bird a strikingly handsome fellow. The female, on the the other hand, is less colorful and has a pale-brown overall plumage that is most certainly required for a nesting female duck. Her camouflaged coloring is mandatory to helping keep her and her nest hidden from predators. But even without the strong contrasted colors she is still quite beautiful and is easily identified as a Canvasback. The female has the same sloping forehead and large black pointed bill but she does not have those amazing red eyes like the male. Her eyes are very dark in color, perhaps part of her specialized trait of survival. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway these fast flying migrating ducks, that are considered diving ducks, congregate in flocks from ten to many thousands. During the winter in the southern half of the United States including most of Illinois from southern Lake Michigan south where they can find open water and food they can be found in their winter flocks. In the southern winter marshes, lakes, rivers, and flooded fields the Canvasbacks feed together in an amazing display. The ducks come together over the area to forage and begin their search for tubers and invertebrates by diving repeatedly in a rolling head-first fashion that is somewhat mesmerizing when there are a large number of birds involved. The Canvasback ducks migrate north and west in the spring and nest in the prairie pothole region, those glacial wetlands of North America and Canada. They also nest north in the wetlands and marsh areas from the Great plains to Alaska.

Two male Canvasbacks swimming with a female following close behind, the red eyes of the male ducks seem to glow in the morning sun.

White-breasted Nuthatch

A female White-breasted nuthatch pauses for a moment on a branch, the chestnut color below the tail is clearly visible.

February 20, 2020 – The big raspy voice of the little White-breasted nuthatch is a familiar sound in the winter woods of Illinois. Throughout the softly illuminated and leafless winter forest, or at a busy backyard feeder, it is easy to spot those colorful little hunters as they noisily swoop in. Suddenly there is a flash of blue-gray, then another, and yet another as four, maybe more of those regal looking little birds appear. A male and a female nuthatch light on the patchwork bark of a large sycamore and quickly begin searching tree and limb for food. The little birds move up and down the trunk like acrobats as they move head first down the tree searching the nooks and crannies for insects. Not long after the small winter flock of White-breasted nuthatches appear, their songs begin to fade into the distance as they continue their search for food on the trees and shrubs along an overgrown and abandoned road that the woods has mostly reclaimed. The White-breasted nuthatch is common across most of the United States and is a year-round resident here in Illinois. The male nuthatch has a dark black cap, white face and underparts with splashes of chestnut colors under the tail. Their wings and back are mostly blue-gray. The little birds have large heads, large feet, and a long pointy bill. The female looks pretty much like the male nuthatch except they have more of a gray colored cap with stronger chestnut coloring near their rear under the tail and their overall colors are a bit weaker than the male. The nuthatches eat nuts, acorns, insects and cache food items around their territory. You may find the winter flocks of nuthatches mixed with chickadees and woodpeckers.

A male White-breasted nuthatch works its’ way down the trunk of a tree with some food in its’ long bill.

Wintering Cranes

A small group of Sandhill Cranes lean into the wind preparing to take to air.

February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.

A juvenile Sandhill Crane plays with corn stalks, picking them up and tossing them into the air, as it dances about with wings spread wide.

The Northern Harrier

A hunting Northern Harrier spreads its’ tail-feathers slowing down quickly to catch the prey below.

December 19, 2019 – Gliding low and slow across the agricultural fields and the grassy waterways and prairies here in Northeastern Illinois are the beautiful Northern harriers. Once known as the Marsh hawk, these steep banking, quick stopping, hunting birds are considered here in the United States as “resident to long-distance migrants” According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We see an increase in numbers during the fall migration and into the winter months throughout Illinois. The harriers nest in numbers from Northern Wisconsin north into Canada and Alaska. These ground nesting hawks require large amounts of grasslands or wetland habitats for successful nesting. Some of the harriers winter from just south of the southern edge of their summer range, while others migrate all the way south to Central and South America. The stealthy, medium-sized hawks can be seen flying and hunting across Illinois’s cold sleeping landscape, looking and listening for movement coming from the dried dormant grasses just beneath their silent glide. When the focused hunters detect prey they use their long wings and long tail feathers to quickly turn and stop their graceful forward movement and instantly drop down on a field mouse or vole. The harriers are often seen diving at and chasing away Rough-legged hawks, Red-tailed hawks and even other harriers that get too close to their perceived hunting areas. The Northern Harriers are easily identified as they fly low across fields and prairies, their wings most often in a v-shape, and there is a white rump patch at the top of their long tail feathers. The female harriers and the immature birds are dark reddish-brown and tan, and the male adult birds, slightly smaller than the female, are a light-gray and almost white on some parts of the body, the tips of their wings are black. Often perched on a fence post or sitting in a field with a captured prey, one can get a good look at the feather pattern on the harrier’s face, it has a round appearance and resembles that of an owl. The disk like pattern of feathers on the harriers face is believed to help the hawks hear their prey as they hunt.

An adult female Northern Harrier keeps a wary eye as it glides by the photographer.

The Ring-necked Pheasant

A male Ring-necked pheasant gives a broadside look a those glorious tail feathers.

December 12, 2019 – Four fine-looking multicolored male Ring-necked pheasants cautiously search the ground for seeds and insects, pecking with their pale-yellow curved beaks at the low grasses and dried leaves, along the edge of thick cover, this past week in Iroquois county. The elaborate flashy birds could be heard vocalizing, much like farmyard fowl, as they nervously moved away from the photographer. The male pheasants, commonly called roosters, have some spectacular colors with long, elegant tail feathers. The females or hens, however, have shorter tail feathers and are well camouflaged for nesting and caring for their brood. The Ring-necked pheasant was introduced to the United States in Oregon in 1882, after several attempts at releasing the exotic birds into the wilds of the northwest were needed. Eventually the transplants were successful and began to take hold. The introduction of the Ring-necked pheasants continued across the county. Over many years the pheasants have been a common sight and a popular upland game bird for hunters in and around the grassland and agricultural fields here in northern Illinois. The removal of hedge-rows along with the clearing of small stands of timber and brushy areas has taken away the needed habitat for the pheasants and native wildlife alike. The wholesale clearing of habitat has made the pheasants vulnerable. Sightings of pheasants have been less common in areas where the habitat has disappeared. The grasslands and brushy idle areas provide cover from predators and the sometimes harsh weather conditions here in the Midwest. Wet springs with flooding have a negative impact on nesting birds, likewise the exposure to heavy snows and sub temperatures can be hard on the birds when they can’t find cover for refuge. Fortunately for these celebrated game birds efforts by conservation groups, sportsman, and land owners working together to provide and restore habitat needed by the pheasants seems to be a successful and an ongoing desire that benefits native wildlife as well. An slight uptick in reported sightings recently here in northeastern Illinois seems to tell an encouraging story for the Ring-necked pheasant.

Four Roosters swiftly walk away as one bird keeps a wary eye towards the rear.

The Lapland Longspur

A flurry of Lapland Longspur’s burst into the air off of a snowy road in Iroquois county this past week.

November 20, 2019 – Across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland, in the remote places at the top of the world like Baffin Island, Southampton Island, and Melville Island in the regions of Nunavut, there is a small bird called the Lapland Longspur that spends the short breeding season courting, nesting, and raising its’ young. On the treeless tundra where packs of hunting wolves, Polar bears, and Arctic foxes eke out a living on the vast cold landscape, large migratory populations of Lapland longspurs, a small well camouflaged bird, begin arriving in the spring for the nesting season which starts by early June. These little ground nesting birds, that are about the size of a Song sparrow but with longer and more pointed wings, have a clutch of 3 to 7 eggs and only one brood. Their nests are constructed in a shallow depression lined with coarse grasses, mosses, and sedges. The nest itself is lined with finer, softer, materials from arctic plants and provides a cushioned place for the fragile eggs helping to keep them warm during the incubation period. After about 14 days, hatching begins and 10 days after that the young birds are able to leave the nest. The fledglings are equally divided and separately reared by each parent, according to the National Park Service. The time from nest to fully fledged is short in the arctic and soon the young longspurs will have developed their flight feathers and can forage on their own. As the summer comes to an end, the land of the midnight sun begins giving hints of the inevitable dark winter freeze. The Sun sinks low on the horizon as the calendar nears the Fall Equinox. By September, the longspurs are migrating south out of the dimming arctic leaving their breeding grounds for a less hostile and sunnier climate south of the Canadian boarder. By November, they are in the fallow crop fields and along rural roadways of Northern Illinois. Large flocks of these arctic birds can be seen feeding on spilled grain from the harvest. The little birds blend in quite well in the winter fields that are free of snow, but they frequently take to the air in a large flock flying and circling around only to return to the same spot. Foul weather with heavy snow brings the longspurs to the windswept or plowed edges along rural roadways where they find seeds and seek shelter from strong cold winter winds behind the tall drifts of snow. The Lapland longspurs will remain until late May fattening up for their springtime migration northward back to the breeding grounds of the high arctic.

Lapland Longspur’s in their non-breeding plumage feeding on spilled corn next to a recently harvested field.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow

A Lincoln’s Sparrow perched on a branch with its’ feathers raised on its’ crown.

October 31, 2019 – The Lincoln’s sparrow is a cautious little bird that doesn’t stray far from the safety of a partially obscured perch in a small shrub at the edge of the woods as it surveys it’s surroundings. The delightful little migratory visitor with its’ buff-colored chest and sides, cream-colored belly, and well defined dark streaks that run through those buffy areas, appears more light-colored overall than some of the other sparrows in and around the woods. The Lincoln’s sparrow has a finely detailed head with a brown, black, and gray striped crown, that sometimes in a moment of excitement, is raised into a crest. Compared to other sparrows, the Song sparrow for example that has more of a muddied color pattern, the Lincoln’s sparrow stands out like the new kid on the block because of those bold, sharp, streaked flanks, and the buff-colored chest that gives the bird an overall elegant appearance that easily captures one’s interest. The Lincoln’s sparrow is a rare winter visitor, according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, that winters from the southern United States south to central America. It is known to venture further than other similar species of sparrows during their winter migration which starts in September. The little sparrow has been recorded as far south as Panama in Central America,with one record apparently in northern Venezuela. The wandering Lincoln’s sparrow is reported every year during the winter months on the islands in the Caribbean. The northbound sparrow will make another appearance in Illinois in late April. Although records do show the Lincoln’s sparrow occasionally nesting in Illinois they are mostly known to nest in the boreal forests from northern Wisconsin across Canada and north into Alaska.

The perched sparrow shows the buff-colored chest with dark lines over its’ cream-colored belly.

Home for the winter

A first-winter White-crowned sparrow in Iroquois county this past week.

October 17, 2019 -It is that time of the year once again when we start seeing those attractive arctic breeders returning to Illinois for the winter. The White-crowned sparrow, with its’ dark black and bright white crown stripes and that distinct gray breast, stands tall in somewhat of a stylish pose while perched on a nearby branch. The sparrow disappears and reappears as it busily speeds through the undergrowth searching for food. An overgrown thicket with wild fruits, seeds, and plenty of insects and protection from the weather and the predators, like hawks and falcons, is an ideal winter home for the White-crowned sparrow. The first-winter birds do not have the black and white crown but they stand out nonetheless in their new sharp looking feathers of a reddish-brown and gray raised crest and their pinkish bill, a youthful look that remains until spring. The White-crowned sparrow is a tall elegant presence compared to our darker drab colored resident sparrows that we oftentimes take for granted. With the exception of White-crowned sparrows in the northwestern United State that are considered resident or medium-distance migrants, most nest from from St. Johns bay north above the arctic circle, east to Newfoundland, and west to Alaska. According to the Cornell lab of Ornithology, “birds along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the interior West don’t migrate”. Illinois is the northern most part of the the White-crowned sparrows winter range which extends as far south as central Mexico. The fall migrants start arriving in numbers from the north in late September and October. The birds that wintered farther south and are migrating north in the spring start showing up in May as they work their way towards Canada.

The adult White-crowned sparrow showing those famous white stripes during the spring migration south of Kankakee.