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.

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.