Arctic Oscillation

An amazing site of ice crystals and sunlight in the eastern sky on Christmas eve morning.

January 6, 2023 – The last weeks of 2022 brought a bone-chilling assault of arctic cold with snow and relentless strong winds to the midwest. The high winds pushed temperatures down into negative double digits, impacting most of the United States east of the Rockies for about a week. Here in the Midwest, the dangers from the extreme cold were real, and the constant winds made it easy to imagine what it is like to be in a winter storm high in the Arctic. The cold temperatures froze moisture on contact, and the clear morning sky on Christmas eve displayed a beautiful parhelic circle and halo with iridescent red and blue sundogs flanking the sun above the eastern horizon. The sun was at the center of the icy atmospheric phenomenon and appeared like a giant glowing diamond floating in a fog of ice crystals. Flocks of foraging winter birds at the road’s edge fighting the fierce winds were swept hundreds of yards within seconds when flushed. Lapland longspurs wintering far from their Arctic nesting range were battling powerful gusts as they searched for seeds trapped among the rocks along gravel roads. Large flocks of Horned larks dotted the windswept fields and road edges as they foraged for much-needed nourishment during the extreme weather. Like other birds here during the winter in Northern Illinois, the Lapland longspur and Horned lark generate heat by feeding continuously on spilled seeds left by man and nature during daylight hours to help them stay warm during extreme weather events. At night the small birds fluff their feathers, find hollows and wind blocks and even shiver to generate heat. During harsh winter conditions of strong winds and cold, I have witnessed longspurs taking breaks from the strong winds by using small depressions in the snow, like little snow caves, during the day to protect themselves before going back to feeding. The somewhat rare weather event known as a “bomb cyclone” struck Christmas week and was a challenge for wildlife. The heavy snows first predicted here in Northern Illinois did not transpire. An accumulation of several inches or more did arrive with the powerful winds creating a hazardous situation for all living things. The strong winds produced some bitter cold but helped by sweeping the fields and roadways of snow, making it easier for the birds to forage and get to those energy-producing seeds that keep them alive through the nights during the unusually rapid Arctic cold blast.

Horned larks foraging along a gravel road in Iroquois County during strong winds and bitter cold.

Ancient Birds

A small flock of Sandhill cranes appear to fly with little effort as they head to some corn stubble in a field just to the east where more cranes have gathered.

December 5, 2022 – My annual trip to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area in Indiana to experience the Sandhill cranes in large numbers, a late autumn migration spectacle, did not disappoint. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is a staging area for the southbound cranes. And while thousands will have moved on to the southern United States by the end of December, there will still be hundreds overwintering in the area.
The DNR’s estimated count of Sandhill cranes posted on the park’s website was around 31,000 at the end of November. While many cranes could be viewed and photographed at the Sandhill Crane observation area inside the park from the observation platform, cranes could also be found socializing and resting and feeding in large flocks in the agricultural fields and along large ditches in the surrounding countryside.

The loud bugle calls described by some as a “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” made by the cranes fill the air echoing a feeling of nostalgia for days long gone as small flocks cast shadows as they fly low over the large numbers of cranes resting in grassy waterways and the harvested fields. Based on the fossil record, the spring and fall migrations of the Sandhill crane have been occurring in one form or another for millions of years across the North American continent. Observing the large flocks of these great gray birds flying and vocalizing across an autumn sky is like looking through a window to another time in the distant past; it becomes easy to isolate that feeling, if only for a moment. Spending just a day with the great flocks of Sandhill cranes, it becomes easy to understand how and why the crane is part of the indigenous people’s culture to this day.

Long before the Europeans stepped foot on this continent, the Sandhill crane was part of the stories and legends of the indigenous. The Eastern Sandhill cranes are considered an important totem to the native people of the Great Lakes region. The crane represents leadership, independence, and good fortune. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is about 53 miles east of Kankakee as the crane flies and can be a wonderful day trip and learning experience for families. Don’t forget to bring binoculars and a camera, pack a lunch and make a day of it, stay safe and enjoy. For more information about the cranes, visit the Indiana DNR’s website. https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/properties/jasper-pulaski-fwa/sandhill-cranes/

Jumping into the air with its five-foot wings spread wide, the crane seems to be trying to entice the other crane to join in a dance.

The Short-eared Owl

Blending in with the dry brown winter grasses a Short-eared owl sits motionless on a cold February morning.

March 10, 2022 – The winter migrants were almost invisible sitting along a rural road in Iroquois County during the mid-morning. Blending in quite well with the soft dried grasses, surrounded by mounds of snow on an extremely-cold February morning, five wintering Short-eared owls seemed little bothered by the passerby. The owls appeared motionless while taking advantage of a bit of warmth from the morning sun. I tried to envision a time in the midwest when marsh and prairie habitats were vast and uncorrupted. Midwestern America was a perfect nesting habitat for the ground-nesting birds, a time before European settlements when Short-eared owls were a common species found in our area of Illinois and the surrounding states. The Short-eared owl is now considered an endangered native. Today there are only a handful of records of Short-eared owls nesting in Illinois, which is occurring on some large blocks of restored and protected grassland habitat. The destruction and reduction of the grassland and wetland over the years that are important for a healthy population of Short-eared owls are the main reason they are listed as endangered in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Other Great Lake states have the owls listed as threatened or as a species “of special concern.” Observing the sleepy little owls, they would at times open their large round yellow eyes, the short tufts of feathers would stick up like little horns on top of their head, resembling some underworld deity. The hornlike tufts of feathers that stand upon the heads of many owls like the Great-horned owl, and the Long-eared owl, are neither horns nor ears. Some believe that the erect feathers that can be raised or lowered at will on the Short-eared owls might be a means of non-vocal communicating with other Short-eared owls. Others have suggested that the feathers are just additional camouflage, for when the owl roost or nest on the ground among the grasses, helping them to blend into their surroundings. The Short-eared owl is medium-sized with a wingspan of up to 40 inches. They have rounded heads that is more obvious when the feathers on top of their head are not standing up. As spring nears, the wintering Short-eared owls will move north towards their nesting areas for the breeding season. Except for the rare summer sighting, most of us will have to wait until late fall and throughout the winter to experience the thrill of the Short-eared owls rising out of their roost at dusk for the hunt.

A little Short-eared owl finds shelter along an eroded ditch bank in Iroquois County.

The Butcher Watchman

A Northern shrike watching for prey quickly wings to another small tree as it continues its hunt.

January 10, 2022 – The bleakness of a winters afternoon and the silhouette of a small songbird off in the distance perched at the end of a spindly sapling can send chills having nothing to do with the cold weather down the back of even the strongest and most rational when the sweet songs barely heard are that of the butcherbird. An uncommon winter visitor, the Northern Shrike is about the size of the American Robin, with similar colors to that of the Northern mockingbird. Northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana are on the southern edge of the Shrikes winter range, where a lucky few get to see this remarkable bird each year. The shrike prefers open wetlands and shrubby grassland areas with tall saplings and snags to perch on to watch for prey. The little songbird is much different than the other songbirds that live or spend the cold winter months here in northeastern Illinois. The shrike has an appetite for small rodents and other birds; it is a swift, effective hunter with a sharply hooked bill and a tomial tooth, a tooth-like feature on the upper part of the beak similar to falcons and is used to dispatch their prey. Northern Shrike is also known as the butcherbird or the butcher watchman, names well earned from its’ macabre survival skills. Birds of prey like Hawks, eagles, and falcons have powerful talons that are key to securing the victim. The Northern shrike has claws that are not any different than other songbirds. To help hold their victim while tearing into the flesh with their strong-curved bill, the shrike will carefully impale the prey on the pointed barbs of a barbed-wire fence or a long thorn. A fork in a convenient tree also works well to secure the victim. Killing more than it can eat caching of prey is a survival skill and can grow to six or seven locations throughout the shrike’s wintering territory. The Northern shrikes breed in the partly-open areas of the far north along the Arctic circle from Alaska east across northern Canada and south around Hudson Bay to Labrador.

Perched and watching for any movement along a brushy creek, a shrike is on high alert.

The North Winds

A young White-tailed buck seems to defy gravity as it speeds across a field in Iroquois County.

December 7, 2021 – Those inevitable cold fronts bring damp and chilly changes to the Midwest, causing white crusty ice crystals to form during the night. Across the tired and dejected-looking landscape, a delightful sugary coating enhanced by the morning light shimmers and sparkles, the heavy frost covers the withering but determined understory and tells the tale of the coming change. Strong north winds remove stubborn leaves from the nearly bare trees. Marcescent hardwoods, with their tattered dried leaves, rattle in the breeze, a somewhat haunting sound that will continue through the dormant season. The pockets of cover that wildlife like White-tailed deer and Coyotes have used all summer will no longer be the havens of safety and vantage for these large mammals, although they remain to be quick escapes for pheasants, cottontails, and fox squirrels. Those tangled bare stemmed forms that border woods and prairies that were once places of a safe retreat have been reduced to transparent wiry frames offering much less safety and protection for the coming months. The struggles of winter are within sight. Flushed out into the open by the strong desire to breed, the behavior of White-tailed deer has changed with the colder weather of late autumn. Meteorological winter began December 1st, and although the rut will soon start to decline, the breeding will continue a bit longer. It is not unusual to see a doe bed down in corn stubble mid-morning in a wide-open area with a few bucks standing nearby waiting for an opportunity to breed. The gestation period for the White-tailed deer is about six months. The female deer will carry her unborn through the harshness of winter, a time of snow, arctic blasts, and food supplies that become increasingly limited. With the unpredictable calamities caused by climate change and the effects on the jetstream that impact all of us, the periods of extended cold and snow cover potentially affect the development of the White-tails’ fetus. Other animals surviving the winter in the Midwest require food and habitat to get them through those hard times. Nature restoration programs and land left undeveloped provide year-round safe places for nature. It is easy for humans to go indoors by a fire to warm up during the coldest of times, but wildlife of the Midwest endures some unimaginable bitter conditions during the winter. Let’s not forget to leave them some habitat.

A wary Coyote in its new winter coat crosses a recently harvested bean field.

Goodbye Winter

A male Ring-necked Pheasant searches for food through a small opening in the melting snow.

March 11, 2021 – The rapid warming of our planet’s surface temperature has caused a wobbling of the jet stream over the Arctic that allowed for some very cold Arctic air to escape and move south across the United States in February bringing plenty of snow, ice, and a challenging late winter for the lower 48. The impact of the extended cold and snowy conditions on wildlife couldn’t have been more apparent as it was in Texas during the Polar Vortex event of 2021. Thousands of sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico that were stunned from the unusual cold conditions had to be rescued and cared for during the extended winter storm. Many bats were found dead or injured under bridges due to the extreme cold temperatures. Much of the wildlife has had some kind of negative impact in those areas of Texas that is not used to those extended cold temperatures. From plant life, to fish, and migratory birds, those kinds of extreme cold conditions were a challenge and even a death sentence for many, the effects from this event are still being assessed in that region. Here in Northern Illinois now that we have moved into March, the blanket of heavy snow has retreated and the iced-over waters of lakes, rivers, and wetlands have become ice free as the arctic temperatures seem to be behind us now as the jet stream has regained its strength. A few weeks ago at the end of February, as weather conditions began to show a slight improvement each day with some warming sunshine, a slow melting of the snow was going on revealing tiny bits of last falls’ dropped beans and corn. Turkey, deer, quail, and pheasants were congregating in these small open spots scratching the snow, searching for food after the long spell of deep icy snow-cover. Long periods of cold and snow becomes hard for wildlife if food remains buried and frozen under the snow for long periods. When the wildlife have only their fat reserves to rely on because they can’t get to the food, that is when things can get dangerous if the weather doesn’t improve. Here we are nearing early spring, only remnants of snow remain. Many species of waterfowl are moving through the area, some are here to nest while others are waiting for just the right time to continue north. Food is a little easier to find now and the migration will ramp up over the next few months as the cycle continues as warm weather prevails.

A male and female pheasant look for dropped beans from last years crop to rebuild their fat reserves after some challenging weeks.

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.

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.