A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

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.

The Golden Eagle

A 4th year sub-adult Golden Eagle south of the Kankakee river this past week. The bird’s golden feathered head clearly visible as it flies out from a perch and glides over the winter landscape.

February 13, 2020 – Here in the Midwest it is now a common sight to see Bald eagles gliding high above the flat terrain of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. Nesting Bald eagles are also a more common occurrence in Illinois and Indiana, a remarkable rebound since the ban on DDT’s agricultural use in 1972. Illinois estimates indicate well over 300 active nests and for the state of Indiana a 2016 estimate shows close to 400 breeding pairs. Most often we see a magnificent Bald eagle or even a few of these great birds perched in a tall snag above open water along our rivers here in the Midwest, especially during those hard winter months. The eagles sit patiently waiting and watching while hunting ducks, coots, and fish or any other food opportunity that might come along. There is another species of eagle, the Golden eagle, that is less common and only seen or noticed by a lucky few during the fall and spring migrations. The Golden eagle may also be seen during the winter months in locations that provide open spaces, forests, and abundant prey. This winter a pair of Golden eagles were recorded in Iroquois county where they were photographed by bird enthusiast and nature photographer Bronson Ratcliff of Bourbonnais. Having a pair of wintering Golden eagles in our area is an exciting discovery. The Golden eagle nests across Canada and Alaska and in the mountainous western United States. They are year round residents and nest on the high cliffs and steep slopes with a open views throughout the Rocky Mountain states and west to the Pacific.
Here in the Midwest we watch for these large dark birds during the migrations. They are easily confused with Turkey vultures, Juvenile Bald eagles, or any large dark raptor. The 1st year juvenile Golden eagles have bright white tail feathers except for 2 or 3 inches of the tips which are dark brown. They can also have bright white patches on the tops and bottoms of the their wings from the middle of the wings out towards the ends, and are easy to see during flight. The 1st year bird is probably the easiest to identify with those good solid markings, but as they age, those bright white feathers start to fade as they get their adult feathers and other indicators must be looked at. The gold feathers on the back of the head and nape of the neck is another obvious clue that is easy to spot. The two tones of light and dark feathers on the head and neck, even on a perched bird in the shadows of a tree, stand out. The Golden eagle also has a shorter neck and smaller bill than the juvenile Bald eagle. Another comparison is the Golden eagle has feathered legs that go down to the feet and the Bald eagle does not. Next time you see that large dark raptor soaring above, look a little closer, it may be a Golden eagle.

The tail-feathers of this 4th year bird show the white colors disappearing as the eagle nears adulthood.

The Brown Creeper

A Brown creeper probes with its’ long curved bill behind the bark of a tree looking for insects.

January 1, 2020 – The Brown Creeper is a tiny well camouflaged bird that seems to defy the forces of nature as it swiftly moves across the jagged edged bark of a tree. It pauses momentarily to search, with its’ long curved bill, the cracks and openings in and behind the tree bark for insects. The bird is an expert contortionist twisting its’ head to just the right angle to probe the difficult fissures to find its’ unsuspecting prey. The fast moving little Brown creeper, also searches the undersides of large limbs and is probably less often noticed by humans due to its’ size and dark colors than any other species of bird that spends as much time in the trees. The little bird blends in quite well to the tree bark of the large dark trees on which it hunts. The Brown creeper will land low on the trunk of a tree and work its’ way up and around the trunk eventually searching the higher branches for prey before moving to another tree. From my observations at multiple locations while watching the tiny creeper, within a short time of leaving one tree it will return back to the same tree repeating its’ search several times before moving on to continue its’ hunt on other trees. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey “the Brown creeper occurs in Illinois as a common migrant and winter resident and occasional summer resident. The Cache, Kankakee, Mississippi, Sangamon and Sugar Rivers appeared (1981) to be the center of distribution for nesting populations in Illinois.” Known as a short-distance migrant to resident we notice the wintering birds that have arrived in numbers from the north when we notice them hunting on the leafless trees in wooded areas and on the parameters of those timbered tracts of land.

A light colored Brown creeper pauses a momentarily as it searches a tree for prey

Snowy Owl

A Snowy owl is perched on a utility pole this past week in Iroquois county.

December 5, 2019 -Recently, on the 18th of November, the people of Barrow Alaska, at a latitude of 71º north, got their last glimpse of the Sun until late January 2020. Over these next few months, winters’ frigid grip will take hold in the extreme for the people and the wildlife above the arctic circle. Those high latitudes will become a dim world of unforgiving temperatures, short days, civil twilight, and darkness. One feathery inhabitant of the north is the Snowy owl, also known as the Snow owl, Arctic owl, and Ukpik in the Inukitut language of the Inuit people that live north of the tree line. Many of these beautiful white owls will move south off of their summer nesting range for the winter, but not all. According to Project Snow Storm, an ongoing research project into the yearly movements of Snowy owls, some of the owls actually move further north onto the Arctic sea ice to hunt through the winter. The second largest and heaviest owl in North America, the Snowy owl lives and breeds on the arctic tundra and spends the winter over a wide range from the interior and southern coastline of Alaska, across the Northwest Territories, most of Canada and south into the northern two-thirds of the United State including the flat agricultural land of Illinois. Some years, here in Illinois, higher numbers of Snowy owls are recorded, a phenomenon known as irruptions. Those record years of snowy invasions average every four or five years with the so called mega-irruptions bringing more owls further south then normal. I usually record a few Snowy owls in our area each year, but last year, 2017-18, I recorded seven and of course many other areas of Illinois saw an increase. Research has proven that an increase in prey animals like lemmings and voles on the breeding grounds of Snowy owls also insures the possibility of a successful nesting season. Irruption years of these white raptors spreading southward from their breeding range in the land of the midnight sun is always exciting and increases the chance encounter to actually witness this large white owl hunting over the croplands of Illinois.

The feather covered feet of the Snowy owl are visible on the flying raptor.

The Lincoln’s Sparrow

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

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

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

Home for the winter

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

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

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

Song sparrows

April 11, 2019 – An unrelenting and attention grabbing chase scene was on, as two small Song sparrows pursued each other in an amazing high speed aerial flight that took them zipping between small openings in the woods, over and under bushes, and around trees, a display that lasted well over ten minutes. Soon though, the two birds were on the ground in a small gassy area and appeared to be locked in a serious battle. The pair of male Song sparrows were having a territorial dispute that boiled over into a crescendo of a blurred feathery terror that played out in an opening at the edge of small woods this past week in Iroquois county.

It is not uncommon to see two or more birds having some sort of disagreement over a territory, mate, or reasons not fully understood, but most of the time it only lasts a few seconds with minimal to no physical contact at all. Less often though, one may witness an epic knock-down-drag-out fight at a level that raises a concern of a not so cheerful outcome. The fight which lasted a good four minutes looked at times to be quite violent. The little birds seemed to be going for each others head and face area with those long sharp claws normally used to scratch the earth for seeds and insects.

With the exception of an occasional pause during the fight when the birds had each other restrained, the struggle was much too quick for the human eye to comprehend. The details of the struggle could only be understood in the photos after the fact. Just as quickly as the ground battle started it was all over and they both disappeared from the battlefield. A few minutes later a single male Song sparrow was perched and singing on a small branch nearby as order seemed to have been restored and the intruder had fled the area.

A study that tested the hypothesis of song-matching, “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System”, was published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2013. Song matching is the matching of the song of the intruder, sung by the territorial male Song sparrow as an early warning signal to the intruder to stay away. The researchers found that song matching begins at low-level and then switches to higher-level that almost always predicts an attack on the intruder. The bird may also try other signals to send warnings to the intruder such as wing waving combined with song-matching as part of the early warning signals. .Akcay, C., M. E. Tom, S. E. Campbell, and M. D. Beecher. “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1756 (2013): 20122517. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.2517.

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.