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.

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

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.