The Magnolia Warbler

A Magnolia warbler stops for just a moment as it forages through the bushes looking for insects.

October 1, 2020 – The Magnolia warbler is a small songbird that nests across the provinces of Canada, from British Colombia, to Nova Scotia, and the Upper Great Lakes, to the northeastern US. The warblers have striking colors even after the breeding season, when many birds lose their bold colorful plumage and become rather dull. During the fall migration these little warblers bring some bright yellows to the early autumn Midwestern woods. These long-distance Neotropical migrants are on their way south stopping for a few days in a small woods in Iroquois County. Suddenly appearing out of the thicket, the Magnolia warblers forage for insects through the leafy bushes at the sunny edge of the small wooded area no larger then an acre. These small patches of land that have for some reason avoided the plow are life savers for migrating birds, insects, and bats. Whether seasonal migrants, or wildlife that is here year around, these small untouched habitats that are few and far between, and barely surviving among the cultivated lands of Illinois are pieces of land that are of the utmost importance to many species. The loss of habitat at wintering and nesting sites as well as the food and resting areas along the migratory routes can have a devastating impact on many species of birds. The Magnolia warblers travel from Panama and Mexico to the far northern US and up into Canada and back again in the fall. These migratory trips can be as much as 4000 miles one way. It is a hard trip for the little fliers and those exhausted birds that can’t find places to rest and feed don’t make it. Awareness and conservation are key to help prevent many species of birds from being listed as rare, or worse, cannot be found. Shade coffee farms that are replacing the sun coffee farms have provided good habitat for the warblers, Hummingbirds, and other species, and supporting shade grown coffee goes a long way in helping provide a winter habitat for these migrants. River valleys, lakes, and the islands of uncut forests across Illinois are the refueling stations for these tired night travelers that still have many miles to go during another exhausting and challenging migration.

A lovely display from a beautiful warbler as it perches on a dried stem in the morning sun.

Southbound

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs Sandpipers standing tall face to face having a dispute over the hunting area that will eventually lead to a noisy fight.

July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.

A small sharp looking Semipalmated Sandpiper on it’s way to Central and South America feeding in a small flooded field in Iroquois County this past week.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a toxic Monarch butterfly clinched in the bill.

July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.

A tiny insect held firmly in at the tip of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s long down curved bill.

Beautiful Dragonflies

A male Common Green Darner with a bright turquoise blue colored abdomen holds tight to the female just behind her head with his claspers as they fly to some floating debris where she will deposit her eggs into the water.

July 9, 2020 – Roadside ditches, marshes, wetlands and prairies are alive with many beautiful species of dragonflies. From the dainty Eastern Amberwings that are warmly illuminated by sun and perched on the lovely petals in the low growing carpet of color, to the large Green Darners flying in tandem across a shallow wetland, one can hardly find a view that is lacking of these winged jewels. The sight of those zigzagging, quick flying marvels is almost more than the human eye can follow, registering only a blur, until they light nearby. The black and white spots on the Twelve-spotted Skimmer are bright and beautiful making this dragonfly stand out quite well as it flies in the sunlight or perches in the broken light of a shadowy wet ditch. Blue Dashers are visible as far as the eye can see, perched in the open areas on the tips of the many available stems, branches, and tall flowers along roads and on the summer growth surrounding the wet prairies. Sitting in the bright sun the dashers rotate regularly to regulate their body temperature, at times taking what is known as the “obelisk” position where they stick their abdomen in a straight up posture to help cool their bodies. The Common Green Darner is a large beautiful dragonfly that migrates over long distances from the south and breeds here in Northern Illinois during the summer. In July and August the larvae develop and the young dragonflies emerge and work their way south to a warm climate for the winter where they will breed and lay eggs and their young will develop from larvae to dragonfly and fly north in the spring repeating the process. There are 98 species of dragonflies in Illinois and all offer something unique that makes them easy to identify. Male and female of the same species can look similar with only subtle differences or they can look very different with confusing markings and colors. The Common Whitetail dragonfly is a good example of males and females having very different markings on both their wings and bodies that differ in pattern and color. The male has a white body while the female has mostly brown body but they both share a very similar stocky shape. These hot, humid, summer days demand a certain amount of attention devoted to observation of the dragonflies of Illinois. Bring binoculars.

A beautiful Twelve-spotted Skimmer returns to a perch just above some still water where other skimmers are also perched.

The Water Hole

A King rail holding one of the crayfish’s claws in it’s beak that it just removed by violently shaking the crayfish.

July 2, 2020 – Several acres of low ground in Iroquois County that is surrounded by a large tract of lovely cultivated prairie has retained water for a number of months providing a perfect habitat and a food source for resting ducks, geese, herons, egrets, and a number of species of migrating shorebirds. Now, as the water is disappearing and the temporary wetland pond is starting to dry up, it is resembling a coastal mud flat, with small areas of water that are barely a few inches in depth. The small pools of water now hold concentrations of crayfish, frogs, and turtles, and the muddy areas expose worms, snails, and insects for an easy meal for the visiting wildlife. The puddles and the surrounding mud left behind, that was until recently covered in at least a foot of water, has attracted gulls, grackles, and even a family of raccoons that are visiting the buffet daily feasting on crayfish. Individual grackles that are part of several large flocks can be seen at times standing over a crayfish that is in a defensive posture with its’ pincers up towards the much larger bird. The grackle will try repeatedly pecking at the crayfish but if the crayfish is too large and aggressive the grackle will move on to an easier prey. A lone Bonaparte’s gull wades through the shallow, dirty, water stirring it with its’ feet as it searches for snails, worms, or any other likely prey in the dwindling pools. A pair of rare King rails staying close to the tall grasses and aquatic plants wander out into the open areas searching for the abundant crayfish. The skittish rails cautiously hunt the edges of the little pools for prey and even at some distance away, when the prey is spotted, the rail quickly dashes over and grabs the little crustacean and hurries back closer to the safety of weedy cover. The King rail, the largest rail in North America, begins removing the pincers from the crayfish before eating it by grasping the large claws and shaking the crayfish violently until those large intimidating claws are removed. The King rails are not as common in Illinois as they once were because of the loss of wetland habitat, the Illinois Natural History Survey explains their occurrence in Illinois as uncommon migrant and locally uncommon summer resident.

The rarely seen King rail is holding a crayfish in it’s beak as it moves into the tall grass and out of sight.

The Muskrat House

An adult Muskrat cautiously looks out from the entrance of its bank lodge before leaving.

June 25, 2020 – Low water reveals the damp, muddy entrance to the den of a family of Muskrats east of Kankakee recently. The homes of these small aquatic mammals are called lodges and are similar to a Beaver lodge. The Beaver is the much larger relative of the Muskrat and both animals use several similar options for their lodges. One of the options is a structure that the Muskrat builds and it looks very much like that celebrated, iconic style made by the North American Beaver that most would envision on a small lake in the North Woods, but the Muskrat’s lodge is much smaller and the construction is not as durable as the Beaver’s. The Muskrat house is conical in shape, like the Beaver lodge, and is surrounded by water. It is heaped up in a pile of mud, cattails and sedges, along with other handy plant materials found in the shallow wetlands here in the Midwest. The Muskrat is relatively safe and protected from cold winter conditions in their homes, and like the Beaver lodge, the Muskrat lodge has an underwater entrance. The Muskrat does not store food for the winter like the Beaver, so it must find food every day and harsh winters can be a challenge. Another type of den that is more common to our area, because of the loss of wetland habitat, is the bank lodge. The Muskrat burrows into the banks along ditches, creeks, ponds, and rivers to create their earthen lodge. The Muskrat may burrow as far as fifteen feet into the bank raising up above the waterline and ending in a dry chamber where they can huddle in numbers during the cold of winter The chamber is used as a nursery for their young during the warm months. Even though Muskrats are more active at night and are considered nocturnal they can be seen at all times of the day busily feeding on an aquatic plant or bringing some fresh greens home to the den for their young.

Bringing food home for the young, an adult Muskrat carries some freshly cut green vegetation in its mouth for the kits deep in the burrow.

Lark Sparrow

With its’ chest out a beautiful Lark Sparrow appears to be marching along a gravel road as it searches for insects.

June 4, 2020 – The Lark Sparrow is a large, sharp-looking, sparrow with strong facial markings of rich chestnut, bright white, and coal black. Those amazingly crisp colors on the face of these birds help to distinguish the Lark from most other sparrows, making them an easy bird to identify. The Lark Sparrow also can quickly be recognized even at some distance because of the unique patterns of its’ long tail feathers. When the bird is in flight and the tail feathers are spread wide, the white tips on the dark tail feathers are revealed identifying the bird as a Lark Sparrow. The lovely contrast of the sparrows’ tail feathers makes the bird stand out against the mix of green tones in the tangle of vegetation of its’ spring and summer habitat. As the Lark Sparrow swoops over the prairies of the Midwest it will easily catch the eye of the observant bird watcher. This is the time of the year that Lark Sparrows can be found in open country here in Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. The restored sandy prairies, grasslands, and pastures, with some trees and bushes nearby, are ideal location and probable nesting areas for the sparrow. In these locations of prime Lark Sparrow habitat one might get a glimpse of a bird that is less common east of the Mississippi. The sparrow arrives in our area in the spring for the nesting season from its’ winter range in the Southwestern United States and south into Mexico. You may be lucky enough to get a close-up look at Lark Sparrows as they regularly forage, often in pairs, along the less traveled roads searching the weedy edges for seeds, caterpillars, and other insects.

A Lark Sparrow perches on the stem of a tall prairie plant but soon disappears into some tall grasses.

Large Shorebirds

A large Marbled Godwit in breeding plumage gives a profile look at that impressively long orange colored upturned bill.

May 7, 2020 – A large number of shorebirds stopping off in Iroquois County on their spring migration could be seen feeding in a flooded field this past week. There were at least twenty Lesser Yellowlegs, and four Greater Yellowlegs, along with some Short-billed Dowitchers, and some small Dunlins. The variety of shorebirds were working the shallow waters and shoreline searching and probing in the soft mud for worms, arthropods, and other tiny creatures to replenish their fat reserves and building up the needed energy to reach their summer nesting grounds for the breeding season. Even more exciting were some obviously larger and less often seen visitors that seemed to dwarf the other species. There were four large shorebirds that are called Willets, all in their breeding plumage. The Willets are slightly larger than the more common Greater Yellowlegs, which is also a fairly large shorebird and is often seen in our area during the spring and fall migrations. The Willet has a heavier build than the Greater Yellowlegs, a thick straight bill and long legs for wading. Willets are seen during the winter months along the seacoasts of North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America. They nest inland making their nests in small depressions lined with grasses on the prairies of Northwestern United States and into the grasslands of Southern Canada. Some eastern Willets nest closer to the coast in the salt marshes and dunes of the Northeastern United States as far north as Newfoundland. Even more rare to see here in Northeastern Illinois was a very large shorebird with a long multicolored upturned bill. This large heavy looking bird, known as Marbled Godwit, is a little bigger than the Blue-winged teal ducks that were swimming nearby. The Marbled Godwit has a winter range on coastal beaches and mudflats almost identical to the Willet winter range. The Godwits nest in the native prairie grasslands, preferably close to wetlands located in the northern boarder states of the great plains and on into southern Canada. The Marbled Godwit is a very large sandpiper that has an interesting color and shape to its’ extra long bill. The bill is sword shaped, slightly upturned, with a dull pinkish to bright orange color extending from the base that continues about halfway down the bill where it turns dark all the way to the tip. These temporary flooded areas that were once wetlands across the prairies and are dreaded by today’s farmers are always a challenge to agriculture but they do play an important role with migratory shorebirds as they travel hundreds to thousands of miles in some cases to their summer and winter ranges.

A pair of Willets wade into deep water to search for insects and worms in the depths of the muddy standing water where they will probe the mud with their long sensitive bills to locate prey.

Songs and Flashy Colors

A male Ruby-crowned Kinglet flashes his bright red feathers atop his head as a warning to other kinglets to stay out of his territory.

April 30, 2020 – The season of new growth and flowery fragrant blooms brings fresh songs and flashy colors, as migrating warblers and Kinglets show up in the thickets and along the brambly prairie edges. Busily feeding, while taking little time to preen or rest, some of these travelers have reached their summer nesting areas while other birds still have miles to go and are loading up on insects and worms while at this bountiful northbound sojourn. On some days these temporary stops can be very busy places with many species of birds. Some are here the year around, like the bright red singing male Cardinal calling out to a female and bringing her seeds as she glides in and perches nearby. A Brown thrasher, a short-distance migrant that winters from the tip of Southern Illinois and all of the Southeastern United States, has arrived. It is hard to miss this large songbird with its’ bright yellow eyes and impressive chisel-like bill and long tail feathers. Often seen perched and singing its’ many songs, a faceted repertoire of melodious lyric that sounds as if there are five or six other birds making those rich notes, the Brown thrasher without a doubt is an inspiration and an uplifting treat to the senses. The shadowy places beneath overgrown bushes and briers are the hunting grounds for the Hermit thrush. The little brown bird, with a spotted breast, and large dark eyes, adorned with distinct white eye-rings, is a secretive bird that may be watching you before you ever notice it. The sparrow sized bird is occasionally revealed as it moves through the broken sunlight that has illuminated the fallen limbs and leaf litter in the small open areas below the thick understory. Scratching the litter as it looks for insects, the little thrush eventually disappears from sight as it continues its’ ground level hunt though the woody labyrinth. Ruby-crowned kinglets are busy in the trees and bushes searching for insects. These tiny birds are on their way north to northern Wisconsin and on into Canada for the nesting season. A male kinglet has lay claim to some nearby bushes and the branches in a tree about ten feet above the ground that he is aggressively guarding and will not allow any other kinglets to come near. When an intruder comes too close, the little male quickly swoops in showing his fiery red feathers on top of his head, that are normally flat and almost hidden. That blazing red flashy plumage, that is only erect for a few seconds, is standing straight up in a threatening display as he chases the other birds away from his claimed hunting spot. Soon more colors will arrive with the warm southern winds, some of these birds will stay, and some will continue north and for the lucky observers there will be those less often seen warblers, those mysterious neotropical beauties that are sure to touch ones heart with only a momentary glimpse that leaves a lasting impression as they pass through on their way north.

A male Yellow-rumped warbler in his breeding plumage stops for a moment on a branch as it searches for insects in a small tree.

Shorebirds Stopping by

A large Greater Yellowlegs shorebird wading through shallow water looking for prey while at times stopping to probe the mud with its’ long bill.

April 16, 2020 – When the spring rains create temporary flooded pools in the agricultural fields, pastures, and on the low well saturated land of restored prairies here in Northern Illinois, the migratory shorebirds large and small will show-up tired and hungry. A variety of shorebird species are working their way across Illinois this time of year. These birds must feed and rest and sometimes wait for the right weather conditions as they instinctively know when to continue the push north. The mudflat-like edges surrounding the flooded slow draining areas in the fields are the perfect habitat where these birds can find the tiny worms, mollusks, and insects that are important to rebuild their depleted energy. Building up fat reserves and resting is key to the survival for both medium and long distance migrants as they pass through on their challenging springtime journey, moving to their northern summer nesting areas. Many of the shorebirds travel great distances to reach their nesting areas on the high Arctic tundra. Pectoral Sandpipers spend the winter on the wetlands and agricultural areas of South America but they nest many thousands of miles north on the sometimes cold springtime Arctic tundra. Here in Illinois we see many flocks, some quite large, of the Pectoral sandpipers using the flooded fields to rest and feed as they work their way north. The sandpipers stay together in and around the flooded wet spots feeding, preening and occasionally taking to the air when a bird of prey comes too close. Flying in a tight pattern the birds circle back and forth until all is clear and then quickly return to the same wet spot to continue their feeding. The much larger Greater Yellowlegs has longer legs than the Pectoral Sandpiper and are often in deeper water searching for prey. The Greater Yellowlegs migrates a shorter distance than the Pectoral. They spend the winter on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf coast, Florida, Mexico, Central and South America. The Greater Yellowlegs nest across Canada just south of Arctic Circle and on the coastal areas of Southwestern Alaska. Those are just two species that are fairly easy to identify during the northern movement, there are many others to watch for in these short-lived shallow pools that temporarily linger in the fields. Some of these shorebirds are quite small, others are in their impressive breeding plumage, sometimes there are rare species, but one thing is for sure they all are in need of food and rest as they still have many miles ahead.

A Pectoral Sandpiper plucks a small snail out of the water and quickly swallows it.