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.

The Northern Pintail Duck

A male Northern pintail duck in full breeding plumage with female.

March 13, 2019 – The elegant and quite handsome male Northern pintail duck in its’ full breeding plumage stands out among the other waterfowl. During the breeding season the male pintail has elongated tail feathers and a striking overall enhanced and well defined coloration of gray, bright-white, coal-black, and chocolate- brown. The breeding male pintail is a sleek long-necked duck with a blue bill outlined in black, with iridescent green or an almost black speculum on the secondary wing feathers that are visible in flight.

Three Northern pintail males swimming near other resting waterfowl.

The Northern pintail is a long distance migrant with a winter range stretching from Central America, Mexico, Cuba, and coast-to-coast across the southern half of the United States. During the breeding season pintail ducks nest on the Great Plains east across the Great lakes and north throughout Canada and Alaska. According to the National Wildlife Federation “In general, pintails breed in prairie habitats-open country near lakes, rivers, and wetlands dominated by low vegetation and small, shallow water bodies, such as prairie potholes of the Midwestern United States.”

Male taking to the sky moving to some open water further out.

This is the time of the year, late winter, when we see those migrating Northern pintail ducks in our area. Most often flocks of pintail are in the company of many other migrating species of ducks and geese that are slowly working their way north waiting for that exact moment to continue that journey to their summer nesting habitat. Staging can last a number of weeks, the ducks use the open shallow waters of our wetlands and the flooded agricultural fields for resting, feeding, and pairing up for the nesting season. This is when we have the opportunity to see that beautiful plumage of the male Northern pintails as they swim, feed, and rest and try to impress the females.

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.

Winter Waterfowl

February 5, 2019 – The cold weather has brought the winter waterfowl to the open icy waters of the Kankakee river. Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, Redheads, Canvasback ducks and more can be seen feeding and resting below the dam near Jeffers park in Kankakee. Jed Hertz spotted a White-winged Scoter this past Saturday, the Scoter is a rare visitor that is usually seen during the winter months on the Great lakes and the coastal areas of the United States and Canada. In one photo a male Canvasback duck is swimming with two male Redheads, look close, they are very similar species. The other photo shows a male Canvasback and a female that appears to be sleeping, don’t let her fool you, she is quite alert as she floats along the icy shore of the Kankakee river.

The Common Goldeneye ducks fly up river towards the dam and land near the Washington Street bridge where they begin diving for crayfish as the current takes them back down river, a process that is repeated over-and-over again. The Common Mergansers do the same thing, catching small catfish, bass and shad. Ring-billed and Herring gulls swoop in to steal the prey from the ducks as soon as they surface with their catch. Mallard ducks, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup and the American Black duck can also be seen down river from the dam.

Wintering Cranes

Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes flying with legs and feet pulled up under their bodies, temperatures at the time were in the single digits.

January 24, 2019 – It is late January and temperatures have dipped into the single digits with wind chills sinking into the negative double digits, so why are there so many Sandhill cranes along with a small number of Whooping cranes still in Northwestern Indiana? Hundreds of Sandhill cranes are using an area a few miles Northwest of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, just south of the Kankakee river in the vicinity of a large power generating plant. According to Elisabeth Condon who is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin, if the conditions are right for the cranes, both the Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes, they may stay in a place like Northwestern Indiana where they can roost at night near the power station and feed in the corn fields and wet areas during the day. Condon also stated that there was a Whooping crane that wintered in Horican Wisconsin last year and survived the sub-zero temperatures.

A few miles southwest of the cranes roosting area I photographed two Whooping cranes flying with a small number of Sandhill cranes, all of those birds had their legs folded up under their bodies looking more like geese. This was an unusual sight for me, I have only observed the Sandhill cranes in less extreme winter condition where they always have their legs fully extended trailing behind. When questioned about the cranes pulling their legs and feet up under their bodies while flying, Condon explained this has been observed under the extremely cold conditions of winter, the cranes are just trying to keep their feet and legs warm, but also noted their legs extended in flight are used for control and balance.

A single adult Whooping crane surrounded by hundreds of Sandhill cranes feeding in the corn stubble of an agricultural field.

A scientific paper published in 2015, “Changes in the number and distribution of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Eastern Population”, used data from the Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 – 2013. The paper explains not only the increase in the number of the eastern population of Sandhill cranes but also changes in cranes nesting, migration and wintering patterns. It seems that historic southbound migration staging areas for the cranes have become, when conditions are right, wintering grounds. The authors claim “Factors such as annual weather, long-term climate change, and changes in land use may influence future population trends and changes in both breeding and wintering ranges and are not mutually exclusive factors.” (Lacy et al. 324).

Hawks and Owls

Northern Harrier
A female Northern Harrier perched on a fence post resting but also listening and watching for prey in the grasses along the roadway.

January 21, 2019 – There is snow on the prairie and some of the young bulls in the bison herd at the Kankakee Sands, in Newton county Indiana, challenge each others strength in their play fighting. Butting heads, jumping, and pushing each other until one walks away, but the bested young bull returns for more, unable to resist the challenge. Above in the winter skies, the Rough-legged hawks, in their varied shades of black, brown and white, hover over the cold white blanket pressing down on the sleeping grasses of bleak winter fields. Northern Harriers glide low, back and forth over the prairie at times looking like a kite that has come loose from its’ tether as they drop down on an unwitting prey. Late afternoon the Short-eared owls awaken from their roosts, flying in circles rising up high above the prairie in a group of four or five that soon descend in different directions finding their area to hunt. Perched on a sign or fence post or small tree they are wide eyed and alert, watching with those keen yellow eyes, for any movement surrounding their vantage.

A Short-eared owl is perched and hunting from a low tree surrounded by snow and fog as the last bit of light dims for the day.

Hawks And Deer

A Red-tailed hawk, one of the most recognized birds of prey in North America

January 14, 2019 – A Red-tailed hawk, one of the most recognized birds of prey in North America, seen perched in a dead tree watching for movement in a nearby field. The Red-tailed hawk is most often seen hunting along rural highways and busy interstates perched on fence posts and in trees with an intense focus on the grassy areas where a prey animal, like a vole, a mouse or even a Cottontail rabbit might make a fatal mistake and show itself. It is not unusual to see a pair of Red-tailed hawks perched side-by-side during the winter months prior to the nesting season.

The buck was running in obvious fear with its’ mouth wide open and its’ tail straight up

A beautiful fast moving White-tailed buck that was spooked by hunters who were removing their deer stands for the season from a woods east of Kankakee. The buck was running in obvious fear with its’ mouth wide open and its’ tail straight up, a doe not far behind the buck followed in the same direction. In a matter of seconds the two scared deer were across a harvested bean field through a hedge into another field before vanishing into another woods.