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.

Short-eared Owl

The bright round yellow eyes of the Short-eared owl are sharp and watching for prey as it swoops just above the tall prairie grasses.

December 31, 2020 – The colors of the summer prairie are all but forgotten as the chill of December takes hold across a landscape of golds, browns, and faded tans. Snow squalls move across the land with the bitter winds, reducing visibility and dimming down the sunlight reminding us that it is the end of December and winter holds the cards. The subdued sunlight does appear at times, filtered but shining through the gray and white ever- changing troubled and cheerless clouds that seems to roll like a swollen river, fast and turbulent across the bleak wintry sky. Wildlife behavior has changed with the cold weather as great flocks of Sandhill cranes in Northern Indiana huddle together like blizzard bound Emperor penguins of Antarctica as the temperatures drop by 40 degrees. Birds of prey feel the sting of winter but must continue their hunt no matter what the weather conditions are. Red-tailed hawks, Kestrel, and Merlin falcons watch the ground below a convenient perch on a blustery day ready to quickly pounce on an unsuspecting prey like a vole or a field mouse oblivious to the danger above. Rough-legged hawks expend precious energy hovering and fighting the challenging winds while Northern harriers fly low into the gusts gliding from side-to-side over the winter grasses along the perimeters of ditches and fields watching for signs of prey. The Short-eared owls are hunkered down in the shelter of the prairie grasses and the thick cover along the drainage ditches and fence-rows until late afternoon when the sun nears the southwestern horizon. On this day though, with the strong and relentless winds, the medium-sized owls may wait for conditions to improve before taking to the sky for the hunt. The Short-eared owls are wintering on our restored prairies and CRP grasslands of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana and are considered a medium-distance migrant that will leave their wintering sites by March. There was a time in Illinois when Short-eared owls were common throughout the state but they are now an endangered native. Wetlands and grasslands destruction is the main reason for their decline. Restoration of large areas of grasslands and wetlands would provide a safe place to winter and could also provide a safe place to nest someday.

Busy defending its’ hunting territory from another owl, the medium-sized short-eared owl appears to fly with purpose.

The Rut

A big White-tailed buck stands at the edge of a road in Iroquois County in pursuit of a doe.

December 3, 2020 – The Midwestern autumn brings shorter days, colder temperatures, and behavior changes to those majestic whitetail bucks. The new growth of antlers that began in the spring has hardened and reached its’ maximum growth for the year. The bachelor groups of spring and summer have disbanded and the males are now on their own. Standing and showing little concern while in plain sight at the edge of a woods, or in the corn stubble of a harvested field, with his mouth open and head tilted up into the wind, the buck is clearly focused on something else. White-tailed deer have very keen senses and along with the bucks very sensitive nose, he also has a special sensory organ in the roof of his mouth that can detect females that are approaching estrous. The strong desire to breed is why, at this time of the year, we see those seemingly out of place whitetail bucks that are in pursuit of a mate. Standing with their nose in the air and with their mouth open and lip curled up blocking their nostrils they are tasting the air for that special signal, and during this time that buck has only one thing on his mind. The male deer can actually locate a doe nearing estrus by tasting the airborne chemical signals from quite a distance. Seeing the normally shy, overly cautious, and sometimes totally nocturnal whitetail buck out during the middle of the day can mean only one thing, it is the breeding season, also known as the rut. The breeding season for White-tailed deer is where caution is truly thrown to the wind and love is literally in the air. The peak of rut takes place from late October through November, but breeding will continue through January as the rut heats and cools and finally ends for another mating season for the whitetails of Illinois.

With lip curled up and mouth open a small buck chases a doe through the prairie grasses.

The Common Redpoll

The male Common redpoll shows its’ bold streaked side while perched on the end of fallen limb.

November 19, 2020 – As we ease through the chilly days of November, the leafless trees and frosty mornings remind us of the coming winter as do the new arrivals of Arctic birds that we now see in flocks great and small in our rural areas of Northeastern Illinois. Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are now feeding along the gravel roads and in the harvested fields of Kankakee and Iroquois counties. This year also seems to be a year where some other species of birds that normally winter a bit further north, have come south into Illinois in larger numbers. The Pine Siskins are here in large numbers, Red Crossbills, and White-winged Crossbills are being seen in the Chicago area, and even a few places south. Another little bird that has a more northern winter range, that I had the pleasure of seeing in Iroquois County this past week, is the Common redpoll. A number of reported sightings of redpolls continue to come in for Northern Illinois, one reported sighting of a flock of 15. This little finch, the Common redpoll, breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and winters across the Provinces of Canada and south into the area of the Great Lakes. They are about the same size as the Pine siskin with similar markings but lighter overall. The male redpoll has a beautiful red crown with some rosy-pink color on the chest, and dark streaks on its underparts. The female is a bit duller overall, and lacks the pink-washed color on the chest, but does have the red feathers on the head, the red poll. The bright yellow bill of the redpoll is made for eating seeds, it is small and pointed for getting to those tiny seeds of the birch, alder, and willow trees. The sighting last week in Iroquois County was of a single male Common redpoll in the company of a small flock of House finches that were feeding on some ripe wild berries on the sunny side of a thicket. It was an exciting treat to observe this little Arctic breeder in a rural area of Illinois.

Puffed up after preening, the lovely colors of red, yellow, gray, and brown show the amazing beauty of the Common redpoll.

Sandhill Cranes

Walking together at the edge of a grassy field some adult and juvenile Sandhill cranes move to join a larger flock at the edge of a wooded area.

November 12, 2020 – It’s that time of year when those amazing bugling and rattling sounds from thousands of Sandhill cranes echo across the countryside of Northern Indiana at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area just north of Medaryville, a little over an hour east of Kankakee. Jasper-Pulaski FWA is a great place to witness the fall migration of the Sandhill cranes where they can easily and safely be viewed from the parking lot at the Goose Pasture viewing area or from the nearby viewing platform. As more cranes arrive and numbers continue to grow, so do visitors who want to experience that autumnal spectacle of nature that can quite easily overwhelm the senses with the sights and sounds that have occurred each fall across the great Midwestern prairies for thousands of years. Mid-November is considered the peak time for highest numbers of cranes, with a record number topping 30,000. By mid-December, many will have moved further south, but it’s no secret that there is a healthy winter population of cranes that remain in the general area. Even during the harshest of winters, cranes can be found in the bean and corn stubble foraging. Currently during the fall after leaving the roosting areas for the day, the cranes can be found feeding, socializing, and resting in the harvested agricultural fields and on the grassy areas along the big drainage ditches. Sunrise and sunset are great times to experience large flocks leaving the roosting marshes in the morning and gathering at the Goose Pasture, or again after a day of feeding in the agricultural fields, returning about an hour before sunset in large numbers. There is nothing more surreal than viewing Sandhill cranes in large numbers as far as the eye can see, stretching out across a rolling landscape and looking more like herds of ice-age animals than flocks of birds. It is truly an amazing sight.

Lying down in the soft grass on a sunny morning some Sandhill cranes look to be enjoying the mild November weather.

White-throated Sparrow

Perched in the morning sunlight the bold beautiful markings on the face and throat of the White-throated sparrow standout.

November 5, 2020 – Back in Illinois for the winter months are the White-throated sparrows, a large and attractive bird with a long tail and a bright-white throat and bold face patterns of black, white, gray, and yellow. The White-throated sparrows are considered a short to medium-distance migrant. It breeds in the United States in the Upper Great Lake region and in the coniferous and mixed forests across most of Canada. There are small pockets of year around birds in the northeast U.S. The sparrows leave the impending harsh winter of the north in autumn before the first snow and head south into the United States to a more hospitable climate that is not totally locked in ice during those cold months. They appear in northeastern Illinois about the same time in the fall each year as many other sparrows, like the White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. Similar to the Fox sparrow, the White-throated sparrows forage on the ground under the thick gnarly cover of the shadowed understory kicking leaf litter with its feet searching for insects, seeds and fruit in a very focused but alert manner. The sparrow can be found near heavily vegetated areas around parks and near rivers and creeks where there is plenty of cover. Also, during prolonged snow cover, many birds, including the White-throated sparrow, can be found in the windswept areas along roads and in fields searching for seeds. The White-throated sparrows will show up at backyard feeders during the winter here in Illinois with other birds providing there is some good cover nearby. Backyard feeders are favorite haunts for predators like Cooper’s hawk, domestic and feral cats, so quick escapes into thickets, bushes, and trees are a necessary part of a safe habitat for feeding birds.

Landing on a branch for only a moment the White-throated sparrow drops down into the dark understory to search for food.