The Autumn Nudge

A Neotropical bird, the Black-throated Green warbler pauses for a moment on a dried stem in Iroquois County with a freshly caught caterpillar.

October 11, 2021 – Another year has tilted quietly into the splendid season of autumn, a time of bounty, preparedness, and introspection that nudges all living things in the Northern Hemisphere. While humans adjust to their seasonal changes and challenges, animals have been fattening up, growing new coats, and gathering food. Birds and insects have been on the move for weeks. Many plants continue to provide, but many have gone to seed and withered, a change is in the air. Feeding, resting, and building strength, many species have been working their way south towards their winter ranges. Recent weather radar over the Great Plains displayed not a weather disturbance moving south but a remarkable radar return of many thousands of Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. Changing weather systems across the American flyways, like cold fronts, air pressure, and strong autumn tailwinds can be a great predictor and the ideal opportunity for a mass movement of birds and insects out of the north. Bird enthusiasts, throughout the range of bird migration, hope and watch for unusual avian visitors to their woodlands, wetlands, and backyard feeders in their areas, including the highly anticipated and always delightful many species of warblers. Those early migrating warblers can still show their beautiful summer plumage, but as the weeks pass, the birds become a bit harder to identify as they transition into their winter plumage. Young birds born during the summer may look different than adults. The fading of the adult warbler’s strong summer markings may also require close study with thorough identification guides and even the valued opinions of expert birders to help identify those notoriously difficult fall migrants. By mid-October, many warblers and other songbirds have moved farther south out of Illinois. The tiny Ruby-crowned and Yellow-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped, and Palm warblers continue to pluck insects from the bushes and trees in our area. Sparrows that spent their nesting season north of Illinois, some as far as the Arctic, have arrived and are taking advantage of the available seeds and insects. Sandhill cranes, Whooping cranes, Arctic hawks, Golden eagles, Short-eared owls, and Snowy owls are moving south and will satisfactorily fill the void of our summer visitors until the spring rings true once again.

A boreal songbird, the Blackpoll warbler, is bound for northern South America for the winter. The small wooded area in Iroquois County and others like it along the migration route are lifesavers and provides the much-needed food for that bird and many others on their long journeys south.

Swallow-tailed kite

August 9, 2021 – Gone but not forgotten, the rare visitor at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in Newton County, Indiana, a little over 30 miles southeast of Kankakee, was witnessed, documented, and photographed by many lucky observers. The raptor was in the area of the Willow Slough shooting range for over two weeks in August. It spent much of its morning hunting near the shooting range. The impressive bird of prey has a four-foot wingspan and long forked tail. The bird would circle above the prairies, soaring and gliding near the shooting range; it would dive down to catch dragonflies and cicadas that it would eat on the wing before continuing its hunt. The kite is a master of flight and was exciting to watch with its beautiful white head and body, black on its back, tail feathers, and wingtips.

The Sora Rail

An adult Sora with its’ bright yellow bill searches for food on the muddy exposed area at the edge of some cattails.

September 9, 2021 – Some strange sounds were coming from the cattails as I approached the edge of the slough, a startling communication among the shadow skulkers that slowly and eerily waned with each note. The distinct, loud, and familiar alarm calls from a well-hidden creature instantly conjured the vision of a small marshland bird common to this area during the warm months. The Sora is a water bird about the size of a robin, Soras nest in our area of Illinois from May through August. They build a woven platform nest out of grasses and cattails above the waterline, creating a kind of hollowed nest that adds protection from predators and the elements for about a dozen eggs. After some quiet and patient waiting time, on my part, some movement caught my eye among the shadowy cattail stalks just to my left. A juvenile Sora appeared and was foraging much like domestic fowl, plucking the ground as it cautiously moved in an unpredictable jerky and bobbing motion. The bird probed with its thick yellow bill into the soft, damp, ground watching and feeling for prey as it braved into the clearing. The flashy white stubby tail of the small bird would stand straight up at times as it stretched its neck to pluck a small worm or a tiny insect from the muddy earth. Soon three more Sora appeared; two adults and another juvenile wandered into the broken light and began their search for insects, seeds, tiny worms, and mollusks. As one of the juveniles worked its way across the open area, an adult squawked with a rapid, high-pitched call while running swiftly towards the juvenile bird, chasing the young bird around almost in circles until the intruder retreated into the cover of the cattails. Less than five minutes later, the scolded young Sora returned quietly out of sight of the adult to resume foraging. The small rails remind me of a miniature chicken, a bird that would not seem to be a strong flier. It is amazing that the Soras travel many hundreds of miles to their winter range along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes of Central America each fall and then return to the Midwest to nest in the spring.

A juvenile Sora forages cautiously, keeping its’ distance from the territorial adults feeding nearby.

The Green Heron

An adult Green heron flies across the shallow end of a small lake landing on some vegetation where it soon began hunting in the ankle-deep waters.

July 8, 2021 – Wetlands, creeks, lakes, and rivers across Illinois provide a good summer habitat during the nesting season for the Green heron. These small herons, also known as little Green herons, are often seen perched in the trees around wetlands or silently hunting in the shallows for fish, frogs, and even small snakes. The keen eye of the skilled observer can find these well camouflaged little birds standing at the waters edge almost motionless while hunting. The Green heron, that are about the size of a crow, are often seen searching for prey along the shadowy, damp banks of a meandering creek, or hunting the still dark waters from a low branch just above a fishy habitat. They are common to lakes, ponds, and wetland habitat where their prey is available. Appearing dark in color from a distance, the Green herons are often crouched down and standing as still as a statue, any movement from the little bird is slow and precise as they intently focus on the task of watching for the slightest ripple or movement from an unsuspecting prey. It is well known and documented that Green herons are part of a small group of birds that at times use bait to attract prey. The cunning birds drop insects, small sticks, or tiny feathers on top of the water to lure fish close enough to catch them with their long dagger-like bill. Getting a good close look in the bright sunlight, the adult Green heron reveals their long bill, short bright-yellow legs, and the rich colors of a plumage that is gray, blue, chestnut, and of course, the subtle greens on the back and wings. Late winter through early spring the Green herons work their way north out of Florida and areas of the Gulf Coast for the nesting season. The herons nest from May through July where they have two to five eggs in a nest that is built on a platform of sticks. Both parents incubate the eggs and feed the young nestlings caring for the birds for a time even after they leave the nest. By late August the adults and a new generation of Green herons are making their way to the warm winter habitat of the far southern states and coastal areas of the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.

Perched in a tree just above a creek, a Green heron with its crown plumage partially raised surveys the surroundings.

Amazing Long-distance Travelers

An Upland sandpiper moves away swiftly through some newly emerging corn in a field in Iroquois County.

June 7, 2021 – Those amazing long-distance travelers, the Upland sandpipers, have returned to the rural areas of Iroquois County for the nesting season. The well camouflaged birds that are about the size of a Rock pigeon, can easily be overlooked by the passerby. The birds search for insects in the newly planted agricultural fields, or in the no-till corn stubble where they can become nearly invisible as their plumage blends in extremely well against the browns and tans of last year’s crop remains. The Upland sandpipers start arriving at their breeding grounds here in Northeastern Illinois in April.
The sandpipers, with their typical stop-and-go sudden jerky movements can be spotted by a lucky few, as the birds look for insects near grassy areas along the rural roadways of Northern Illinois. They are sometimes seen perched on fence posts or utility wires near nesting sites. Upland sandpiper populations were hit dramatically hard in the late 1800s by market hunters. Other factors that added to the decline of the Upland sandpiper was the loss and fragmentation of habitat in North America and the loss of grasslands on their wintering grounds in South America. Today, researchers believe the sandpipers population is holding steady across the Great Plains of North America. East of the Mississippi numbers unfortunately are low, and in Northern Illinois the Upland sandpiper is becoming a bit more difficult to find. It is always a hopeful sign to see even a small number of sandpipers return to an area of Iroquois County every year. The sandpipers manage to nest in the dense grasses around the row-crop fields but they struggle against farm machinery, pesticides, and roadside mowing, which in fact should probably be restricted in those nesting areas until at least August. After about 25 days of sharing the job of incubation by the male and the female sandpipers, the young birds are born. The newly hatched chicks are ready to leave the nest after all the eggs have hatched, the young start feeding immediately while the parents work hard to protect them from the many dangers of the new world. After about a month of being limited to just foot travel a new generation of Upland sandpipers are ready to take to the air. By the end of the July through the end of August the sandpipers begin moving south where they work their way to that long-distance crossing the Gulf of Mexico, which takes them to the northern parts of South America. Eventually the birds go much further south into central Argentina and Uruguay where they will spend the winter on the immense Pampas grasslands until the springtime once again beckons their desire to move north for another incredible journey.

A pair of long-distance migrants from South America search for insects along a rural road in Iroquois County.

Winter Larks

A Horned lark flushed from the roadside where it was searching for food landed on the undisturbed snow nearby.

February 11, 2021 – The bitter winds from an Arctic blast of snow and falling temperatures arrives in Northeastern Illinois. Temperatures drop as a result of a strong negative Arctic oscillation which indicates that some very cold air has meandered out of the Arctic and moved south across Canada and into the northern United States. The Arctic oscillation is an index of mean weather data that meteorologists and climatologists use to understand the stability of the weather over the pole. The weather data moves the Arctic oscillation index between negative and positive numbers, mild winter weather would be indicated by the latter. As the challenging cold weather takes hold, ice quickly forms on our river, and open water on ponds and creeks begins to disappear as the icy blanket is pulled tight. The muffled sounds in the winter air cause us to trust our other senses a bit more. The honking voices from a flock of Canada geese flying overhead is softened by the snowy landscape of sound absorbing crystals in the new snow. During these harsh cold conditions geese and dabbling ducks begin to look somewhat ragged and spend more time hunkered together with little movement. Diving ducks like Common goldeneye continue their hunt for crayfish in the rivers’ open waters. Along the snowplowed country roads and on the high areas of windswept agricultural fields Horned larks fight strong winds searching for small seeds in the exposed areas. At times the little birds try to walk across the icy road only to be blown by a strong cold gust causing them to skate most of the way across while using their wings to balance. Horned larks are in Illinois year- round and are considered resident to short-distance migrants. During the winter months the number of Horned larks increase as birds from further north come south to winter in Illinois. This is a good time, especially when we have snow, to locate and observe the little larks along with Lapland longspurs and Snow buntings foraging the edges of less traveled rural roads where it can be done safely. Snowplows expose grassy areas where small seeds can be found by the larks when other areas are buried under deep snow during those brutal and challenging periods of winter.

Hunting the edge of a rural road, a pair of Horned larks battle a steady wind as they search for seeds.

Whooping Cranes

A beautiful rare Whooping crane with leg bands visible flying to another field to feed.

January 28, 2021 – Nearing the end of January on a cold and cloudy morning a ghostly white figure stood out among a large number of wintering Sandhill cranes. The cranes were socializing and feeding in some corn stubble a few miles south of the Kankakee river. Large and small flocks of Sandhill cranes were flying across the sky in all directions and many hundreds were crowded together in the surrounding fields. At times a Sandhill crane would seem to challenge the larger white crane that appeared to be minding its’ own business only to be pushed back by the larger bird and disappear into the crowd of gray. Soon another white figure began to come in view as it slowly emerged from the deep drainage ditch that cut through the agricultural fields. A large beautiful white crane was feeding with the Sandhill cranes that were foraging along the weedy banks and in the shallow icy waters of the ditch. I always have somewhat of a mixed feeling of joy and sadness to see those glorious but rare and endangered Whooping cranes. Understanding their struggles and knowing how few there really are can certainly occupy the emotional part of your brain after the experience. Larger than the Sandhill crane, the Whooping crane is the tallest bird in North American and also one of the rarest. Currently the International Crane Foundation puts the numbers of Whooping cranes in the world at 826, the Eastern migratory population nest in Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, and are the Whooping cranes that we see here in the Midwest and are estimated at 80 birds as of January 2021. Out of that estimated number in the Eastern population, 17 were wild-hatched, and the rest are captive-reared. There are 504 in the Aransas-Wood Buffalo migratory population that migrate from Wood Buffalo National Park in northeastern Alberta to the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge along the Gulf Coast in Texas. Louisiana has a non-migratory population of 69 and Florida has 9. There are 159 Whooping cranes in captivity

The bright-white Whooping crane stands out among the gray Sandhill cranes crowded together in the corn stubble.

The American Kestrel

Hovering into the wind above an open grassy area along a creek in Iroquois County a beautiful male American Kestrel falcon searches for prey.

January 21, 2021 – A little bit smaller than the Merlin falcon and very close in size to the Mourning dove, the American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America. These determined little predators are focused hunters, whether perched on a utility wire, fence post, or hovering over grassy areas intently watching for any movement from small mammals, insects, and birds. Their keen vision and superb flying ability allow for a stealthy and swift attack from above on their unsuspecting prey. The drama of predator and prey plays out hour after hour, day after day above the grassy areas along the rural roads, ditches, and busy highway medians here in Northeastern Illinois and across the United States. Because of their small size the falcons go mostly unnoticed by humans speeding past the little perched hunters. It doesn’t take much effort to be just a bit more observant to a moment in nature, it will quickly become almost impossible to not see these little predators perched and hunting. Soon the sightings of Kestrels add up and the mind expands beyond the mundane for the human observer as that moment in nature is understood. Also known as the Sparrow hawk, the Kestrel is certainly the best known and most colorful and boldly marked falcon in North America. The male Kestrel has slate blue-gray colored wings while the females have reddish-brown wings,a heavily streaked chest and they are also up to 15% larger than the male. The bold and vibrant colors of the male Kestrel are quite intense under bright sunlight. The females, while they still have beautiful colors, are less vibrant than the males. The Kestrel lives year around in Illinois and nest in natural occurring places like rock crevices and overhangs, they also take advantage of abandoned woodpecker holes, man-made nest-boxes, old buildings and structures near a good hunting area. They most often have only a single brood. Incubation of four or five eggs last about 30 days, the female will brood for about nine days after the last egg has hatched and then only at night or during harsh weather conditions. The American Kestrel falcons are widespread in the Western Hemisphere and occur from Alaska and Canada to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

A female Kestrel falcon perched and hunting on a utility wire along a rural road.

Winter Birds

A Merlin falcon perched on an icy branch, drying out its tail feathers along the river at Jeffers Park this past week.

January 14, 2021 – Common mergansers, Golden-eye ducks, and Greater white-fronted geese have all been spotted from our river parks here in Kankakee County this past week. Four Greater white-fronted geese swam up river at Cobb park past a large number of Canada geese and a few Mallard ducks that were gathered along the north bank. The nervous white-fronted geese, also known as the “specklebelly”, were spooked by runners as they jogged through the park. The geese flew upstream making their strange high pitched laughing sounds as they went out of sight. An adult Bald eagle could be seen perched high in a tall tree down river from Jeffers park watching for a meal opportunity on the ice free waters of the Kankakee. A Merlin falcon was at the rivers’ edge at Jeffers park in the shallows bathing in the cold water. The little falcon soon flew up into a tree, the same tree where a Belted kingfisher was watching for small fish from a good perch that stretched out above the water. The Merlin perched on a cold looking icy branch after its chilled bath. The little falcon spread its tail feathers wide, drying them in the frigid January air for a good fifteen minutes before heading a short distance west to another tree. Down river at the Kankakee River State Park on the west end of Langham island four beautiful Tundra swans, two adults and two juveniles, were spending the morning among a number of Canada geese. The white swans stuck out like a sore thumb among the dark colored smaller Canada geese. The Tundra swans are here through the winter months taking up temporary residence on the open waters of lakes and rivers in the lower 48. These swans are probably part of the eastern population and are a long way from their summer nesting range on the northern coastal areas of Alaska east along Canada’s Arctic coast to Hudson Bay and north up into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The dynamic winter weather of the Midwest can bring wintering birds to any open water as rivers and lakes freeze during cold periods. Those weeks of cold temperatures can be an exciting time for nature lovers and bird watchers, concentrating many species of waterfowl and birds-of-prey to those shrinking areas of ice free water.

Two juvenile and two adult Tundra swans rest near Langham Island at the Kankakee River State Park.

Bald Eagles

A mature American Bald eagle watching for a fish from a convenient perch above the river.

January 7, 2021 – Each winter Bald eagles move south into Illinois in large numbers as hundreds can be seen perched in the tall Sycamores and Cottonwoods along the Mississippi river, near the locks and dams, where the churning ice free waters are abundant with fish that are easy pickings for the eagles. From December through March these wintering eagles are not hard to find, where there is fish there are eagles. There are festivals and eagle watches at many cities and parks that have rivers and lakes throughout the state. These celebrations give people the opportunity to learn about eagles from experts while observing these great birds of prey in the wild. Some of the eagle watching events may understandably be postponed or canceled this year due to the coronavirus but eagles can still be observed from the safety of your vehicle from the parking areas around lakes and along rivers. Recent estimates of wintering eagles in Illinois is over 3000 birds. The U.S. Fish &Wildlife Service estimates in 2004 there were 100 nesting pairs in Illinois, a number that has likely increased. The American Bald eagle is becoming more of a common sight here in Illinois in recent years. The Bald eagle recovery is the absolute result of the hard work of dedicated biologists, environmentalists, and citizen scientists. A number of state and federal laws enacted over the years, beginning with federal protection specifically for the eagle, was passed by Congress in 1940. Shortly after the Bald Eagle Protection Act became law the Golden eagle was added, and the name was changed to the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act. In 1972 the synthetic pesticides DDT that was being widely used and released into the environment without the proper understanding of the long and short term affects on humans and wildlife was banned in the United States. Rachel Carson’s celebrated but controversial book published in 1962, Silent Spring, raised public awareness with an urgent message of the danger and damage being done to the environment with the use of the pesticide DDT. It was found that DDT does not break down easily and builds up in the tissues of animals causing problems up the food chain. DDT was believed to have a profound consequence on Bald eagle reproduction causing their eggs to be brittle and easily damaged while being incubated. Eagle populations began to drop dramatically until the ban on DDT. Today eagles can be seen year around on the Kankakee and Iroquois rivers and with a little patience and some binoculars you are likely to be rewarded with something memorable.

A juvenile Bald eagle looks out over a field from a tall tree watching for movement as another young eagle is perched nearby.