A Prairie Island of Habitat

The strikingly beautiful male Scarlet tanager in breeding plumage is a long-distance migrant from South America.

May 8, 2019 – A wooded area south of Kankakee that appears like a tiny island surrounded by an ocean of agricultural fields becomes a respite for the weary travelers during the spring migration. The trees and understory were alive with a number of species of migrating birds that were taking advantage of the safety of the brushy cover and the good food source of worms and insects that the little woods offered. Some of the birds had selected this spot for the summer and were already nesting in the thicket while others were resting and feeding for their continued trip north.

An olive-yellow colored female Scarlet tanager with darker wings and tail pauses for moment before continuing her search for insects and worms.

Yellow-rumped warblers in full breeding plumage were busy searching the tree branches and emerging leaves for insects while in the company of tiny Blue-gray gnatcatchers that were extremely animated as they fluttered from branch to branch. Common yellowthroat warblers were staying among the low branches and shorter vegetation as they appeared and disappeared quickly to and from the waters edge and through the brush. A small Least flycatcher was working its’ way through the branches searching for insects while at times stopping for a rest on a nearby perch.

A Northern water thrush, a small Hermit thrush, and a cautious Ovenbird were using the same territory and could be seen at times moving stealthily across the ground through the shadows of the bushes and trees. A perched White-eyed vireo was removing the wings from a dead Red admiral butterfly, the wing dust and wing parts surrounded the gruesome scene as the beautiful little vireo with impressive white eyes consumed its’ prey.

Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted grosbeaks flying-about lit up like flickering lights among the softened springtime color tones of the wooded acre. The distant whistles of the male Baltimore oriole were such clear and clean songs that they conjured up a vision of the vibrant colored bird perched and displaying that coal black head and wings contrasted with that beautiful yellow-orange body. A female and male Scarlet tanager were searching the ground for worms and small insects. Scarlet tanagers are long-distance Neotropical migrants that nest in the eastern half of United States and all of Illinois and winters in the tropical rain forests in northern and western South America east of the Andes and as far south as the lowlands of Bolivia.

The Sandy Mocker

April 22, 2019 – What are those clear and rich bird songs coming from the tree tops with tones and musical phrases that seem sampled from the songs of other avian species? There it is, perched high in the tree, its’ bill pointing towards the clouds. It is that mimic, the Brown thrasher, with its’ piercing yellow eyes, boldly streaked body and a mostly reddish brown back, tail, and wings that sport bright white and dark wing bars. You better look quick before it darts to a lower perch or down deeper into the understory to search for beetles and worms. Seeds and fruits will come later in the season, it is still the early part of spring and the insects and other tiny invertebrates are the food for now for this melodic courting songbird.

Listen for the male Brown thrasher early in the season when he is on his brushy habitat and his songs are a much stronger proclamation of his territory. After the nesting begins, the songs of the male thrasher are somewhat lower in volume. The Brown thrasher can mimic the songs of other birds with a repertoire of up to 3,000 cataloged sounds, according to Stan Stewart, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

Over the years in the other parts of the country, the Brown thrasher has been known by other names. Fence-corner bird, Sandy mocker, Planting bird, and Brown thrush are a few of the names. The thrasher is not part of the thrush family at all and actually belongs to the family Mimidea. Mimidea is the same family as the Northern mocking bird and the Gray catbird, two other mimics we see here in northern Illinois during the nesting season. The Brown thrasher can be found year-round from southern Illinois, south from east Texas to the Carolinas, and into all of Florida. The thrasher is a short-distance migrant and breeds across most of the northern half of the United States from the Great Plains to the Atlantic and north into southern Canada.

Tiny Swarming Gnats

April 22, 2019 – Gnatcatchers, warblers, kinglets and wrens were feeding on the abundance of tiny swarming gnats this past week at the edge of a small wooded area south of Kankakee. There were five Blue-gray gnatcatchers quickly hopping from branch to branch feasting on the large number of gnats that were covering the tree branches. The gnatcatchers are migrants that winter from the Southeastern coast of the United States, Florida, along the Gulf coast west and down into Mexico and Central America. Northern Illinois is near the northern edge of their nesting range that stretches up into Wisconsin and may be expanding as the climate warms.

A Northern parula warbler studies the bark of the tree looking intently for a small insect.

A pair of Ruby-crowned kinglets were visiting the same tree taking advantage of the abundance of protein. The little kinglets are about halfway between their winter range and their summer nesting territory. A house wren was also at the banquet and is now in its’ summer range while the smaller Winter wren that was busy searching for insects lower on a tree stump still has a little ways to go before it reaches its’ summer nesting territory. Field sparrows were there looking through the nooks and crannies of the decaying wood stumps for insects and worms.

A Northern parula warbler which nest in most of the eastern half of United States brought the most color to the brunch. The small parula warbler is a long-distance neotropical migrant that winters along the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico down into Central America and east throughout the Caribbean. The tiny warbler has yellow from under its’ chin down across its’ breast. The lower half of the birds bill is a bright yellow that matches those bright yellow feathers on its’ chin and even in the muted light looked brilliant against the bluish feathers on the upper parts of the little warbler.

Turkey Vultures

April 18, 2019 – As springtime advances and the migrants move north, Turkey vultures, those masters of the air currents, are once again gliding across the skies of Northern Illinois in large circling flocks that are sometimes referred to as a kettle. Even though a few of these large dark colored vultures are spotted in northern Illinois during the winter months, most migrate south in the fall after the nesting season. They spend the winter from Southern Illinois and across the southern United States, south through Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America and as far south as ‘the end of the world’ Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.

North America has three of the six subspecies of Turkey vultures. Cathartes aura septentrionalis is found in the eastern United States.(Palmer, 1988) With a wingspan of around six feet these large slow flying birds are hard to miss as they fly off of the carcass of the unfortunate roadkill as a vehicle approaches. Those close encounters certainly gives the observer an appreciation for the impressive size of the Turkey vulture. They usually don’t go far when flushed from the carrion and soon return to their feeding when the threat is gone. They are often seen still on their roosts in dead trees, utility poles or buildings early in the morning. With their wings spread wide like a parabolic antenna while facing the warm morning sun they are warming their bodies and drying their feathers from a rain shower or the dampness of the night.

Nesting Turkey vultures will use the abandoned nest of other large avian species in secluded areas far from human traffic. They will also use old sheds, barns, and houses that are remote, grown-up, neglected and open to the elements. The Turkey vulture may choose to lay their clutch of 1 to 3 eggs in a nest on the ground that they scrap out in the leaf litter in a dense thicket or near a fallen tree or even in a hollow log. The vultures will have only one brood over a 60-84 day nesting period and may return to the same nest year-after-year according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Palmer, R. 1988. Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 4. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

American Tree Sparrow

April 5, 2019 – The soft songs of the American Tree Sparrow are like a pleasant melodic whispering that easily causes one to momentarily pause and focus. This medium size sparrow can be seen at times singing from a low perch on a bush or while foraging on the ground at the edge of a thicket. Winter flocks of these little rusty capped birds have been gathering, feeding, and building energy while waiting for that moment during their spring migration when they take their night flight north towards the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska.

As days begin to grow longer metabolic changes occur that help prepare the birds for their long flight. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a huge increase in appetite helps to build up fat reserves that are required for such a physically demanding journey. Both internal and external factors play a role that triggers the big push north for the nesting season. Weather conditions are important so as to coincide with insect hatching in the stopping areas along the migratory route.

One can only imagine what it would be like to be part of a flock of a few hundred small birds on a cool, crisp starry night flying towards that shimmering fiery glow of the auroras above the northern latitudes. Those little sparrows face many miles and a number of challenges as they work very hard to reach their nesting grounds north of the tree line where the Arctic fox, the polar bear, and the ptarmigan call home.

Trumpeter Swans

March 25, 2019 – A small flock of Trumpeter swans, four adults and one juvenile, could be seen resting and feeding recently in some corn stubble in Iroquois county near Ashkum. Even at some distance these large, impressive white birds with jet-black bills easily stood out against a backdrop of a pale, dead, and dormant late winter landscape. The Trumpeter swan is a very large waterfowl, much larger than the Tundra swan, the other native swan to North America. Trumpeters are a medium-distance migrant that move through our area in small numbers during late winter as they head north to the shallow lakes and wetlands of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan for their nesting season.

During the winter months large flocks of Trumpeters, sometimes in the company of Tundra swans, congregate in the flooded agricultural fields and on the ice free lakes and rivers in the southern part of the state. Big numbers of Trumpeters, with counts in the hundreds, were reported at the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge near Havana in west-central Illinois at the end of February. Even higher numbers of swans had been reported along the Mississippi river. Jed Hertz photographed six Trumpeter swans, two adults and four juveniles, on the Kankakee river near Gar creek in the first week of March.

It is really hard to imagine that about 90 years ago there were only 69 Trumpeter swans left in the wild here in the United States. According to information on the website for The Trumpeter Swan Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for the welfare of the Trumpeter swan, these surviving swans were protected from hunting and the harsh winter conditions surviving in remote areas of Yellowstone and the Centennial Valley of Montana where hot spring and geysers provided ice free areas for them throughout the winter. Efforts by biologists in the late 30’s worked towards saving the trumpeters from extinction. Surveys of Canada and Alaska gave hope as a small flock had survived in Alberta Canada and a large flock of 2000 swans was discovered in Alaska,. The website goes on to say that the Trumpeter swans that are part of the interior population are now over forty percent (27,055) of the total Trumpeter swan population. The swans that we are lucky enough to see here in the Mid-west are part of that interior population.

Merlin Falcon

The little falcon perched on a branch watching a large number of Red-winged blackbirds.

March 20, 2019 – The little falcon was perched and alert with its’ senses focused on a few thousand loud clattering mostly male Red-winged blackbirds that were on their spring migration. There was such an impressive number of birds in this flock that they gave the late winter trees and shrubs an appearance of being covered in dark leaves. Patiently watching from an old snag, the Merlin concentrated on a part of the flock that were flying, resting, and feeding in the grasses and along the roadway just to the north. Soon the little raptor, with a sudden and great speed, left its’ vantage causing the flock to take to the air in a large cloud of an evasive synchronization that resembled that well known and mesmerizing murmuration of starlings. I quickly lost sight of the little falcon, but I suspect after all of that commotion, which lasted no longer than 30 seconds, there may be one less blackbird in that huge flock of travelers.

Hundreds of Red-winged blackbirds and a few other species in a large tree in view of the Merlin.

The Merlin falcon is a compact and powerful bird of prey, it is slightly larger then the American Kestrel, which is the smallest falcon in North America. The Kestrel is a common falcon in our area that can be observed year-round, often perched on a utility wire while it is hunting voles, mice and insects in the grassy ditches and waterways along our rural roads. The less common to our area is the Merlin, it is often recorded in Illinois during the winter months. It spends the summer, during the breeding season, in the boreal forests of Canada. It appears though, that the Merlin is expanding its’ summer range. In recent years there has been an increase in nesting records in Wisconsin that seems to be expanding south, according an article by Eric Walters “Merlins Nesting In Illinois” published in a journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society. Data collected daily from bird enthusiasts is reflected in the eBird range maps for this species and shows that there has been a number of recorded Merlin sightings in June and July in Illinois along with a few confirmed nesting records in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana in recent years.

The Great Migration

Last Sunday a number of waterfowl species congregated in some open water of a flooded field near Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife area as a morning snow made a winter scene.

March 6, 2019 – Despite the single digits and wind-chills to consider, some hints and signs of spring are starting to come into focus. The backwaters of the Kankakee river, the ponds, ditches, and flooded fields are slowly being liberated from their cold icy carapace. Male Red-winged blackbirds are beginning to stake-out their territories. They could be seen this past week perched on last years faded cattail stems and in small trees near water as they sang their songs of spring. Some ducks and geese are pairing up and keeping to themselves, while others with much greater distances to travel are together in flocks waiting to move north. Small flocks of Sandhill cranes have been seen heading north and recent reports out of Wisconsin state the news of early arrivals.

A pair of Hooded mergansers stay close together resting on the open water and feeding on frogs east of Kankakee this past week.

Soon our winter visitors from the upper Great-lakes, Canada and the North-west territories, and points east and west will be harder and harder to find as their numbers dwindle from our area and they push towards their nesting grounds. Rough-legged hawks will be noticeably absent from the skies above our prairies when they soon leave for the Arctic tundra. Greater-white fronted geese have recently been seen through-out the state and in our area in large flocks waiting for that moment to push north towards the high Arctic for their breeding season. As the weeks go by and warmer temperatures are here to stay and conditions north are stable and suitable for nesting, the waders and shorebirds will be making their move as the great migration continues.

White-winged Scoter

February 16, 2019 – Considered a sea duck, White-winged Scoters are observed in numbers primarily along the coastal areas of the US and Canada. They winter along the coastlines from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific and along the coastal areas of the south and eastern US from the Gulf of Mexico north to the Canadian Maritimes. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology online resource, All About Birds, “Although the White-winged Scoter winters primarily along the coasts, small numbers winter on the eastern Great Lakes.”

A solitary bird or just a few are often recorded inland on ice free open areas of lakes and rivers during late winter in Illinois. Higher numbers of scoters will be found across the area of the Great Lakes north into Canada on the migratory staging areas of late winter and early spring as they push towards those summer nesting grounds in the central Canadian provinces, Northwest Territories, and north into central and northern Alaska.

Over the years Jed Hertz has recorded a number of White-winged Scoters on the Kankakee river. This year is no exception. On January 2nd , below the dam near Jeffers park, Hertz spotted a single White-winged Scoter. On Monday February 11th Jed again found a duck that could actually be the same scoter on the river east of Aroma Park. Photos allow for a closer look of the scoter and it appears to be an immature drake. Jed notified me and I was able to get a few shots of the duck as it worked on an aquatic plant stem, biting and chewing it between its’ thick bill, possibly trying to remove a larvae from the hollow parts of the segmented stem.

White-winged Scoters are a diving duck that feed mainly on mollusks. In wintering areas, crustaceans are an import food source. Scoters have a unique ability to use their wings and feet to propel quickly to the bottom. I observed this behavior from my vantage while watching three scoters feeding near 4th avenue in Kankakee in January of 2014. When they began their head first dive their wings became partially opened and used as if in flight as they disappeared into the depths. A science journal article called “Costs of diving by wing and foot propulsion in a sea duck, the white-winged scoter”, states that, “Most birds swim underwater by either feet alone or wings alone, but some sea ducks often use both.”, perhaps an adaptation required for deep water dives. ”Scoters using wings + feet had 13% shorter descent duration, 18% faster descent speed, 31% fewer strokes/m, and 59% longer bottom duration than with feet only.” J Comp Physiol B. 2008 Mar;178(3):321-32. Epub 2007 Dec 7.

Tundra Swan

February 5, 2019 – Last weeks little bit of open water on the river at Cobb park was a gathering place for a few hundred Canada geese. A number of ducks, both divers and dabblers, swam, rested, and hunted the open water between the ice while at times disappearing into those dark cold winter pools of the Kankakee river only to reemerge a short time later with their catch. A single Tundra Swan, larger than the Canada geese that surrounded it, stood-out with its’ bright white feathers and elegant presence. The Tundra Swan is a visitor seen during the winter months or during migration on the open waters of large lakes, rivers, and in grain fields in the northern parts of the US. During the nesting season the Tundra Swan, sometimes called the Whistling Swan because of the sounds emitted from their wingbeats as they fly, are on their breeding grounds in the remote wetlands of the high Arctic. There are only two native species of swans in North America, the Tundra and the Trumpeter. The Trumpeter swan is slightly larger than the Tundra and for the observer it sometimes requires a close look to determine which species you are looking at.