Bonaparte’s gulls

Adult Bonaparte's gull in full breeding plumage

Adult Bonaparte’s gull in full breeding plumage

April 19, 2018 – Good size flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls have been reported in Kankakee county and throughout Northern Illinois in recent weeks as they are working their way north to the boreal forests of western and central Canada and the southern half of Alaska where they will nest in the conifers. The small gulls prefer trees separated from the dense growth that are at the edges of marshes and bogs. A flock of 50 of these small and elegant tern like gulls was spotted in a flooded area of an agricultural field busily feeding on insects and worms, certainly to bulk up for their long journey north. The winter plumage of these gulls is mostly white, with a light gray on the tops of their wings and black wingtips, plus a dark spot on the sides of the head behind the eye. During the nesting season the adult birds’ head transitions to a slaty black as they get that wonderful dark hood that stands out in a beautiful contrast to their white body. This flock was made up of adult birds in full breeding plumage with some that were at different stages of transition, plus a number first year birds.

Bonaparte's gull not in breeding plumage

Bonaparte’s gull not in breeding plumage

American White pelicans

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

April 14, 2018 – Numbers of American White pelicans have been reported in our area for the past month. East of Momence near the Illinois/Indiana state line in Newton county Indiana, small and large flocks have been observed at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. The pelicans are using the local small lakes, cooling lakes, and the backwaters of the Kankakee river as staging areas where they can rest and feed while waiting for that moment when that strong hormonal drive pushes them to head further north for the nesting season. Fifty of the large white birds have been counted at Black Oak with similar counts for J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA. A flock of these great birds have been using a small rocky island in the Kankakee River State Park with a number of 25 birds reported on April 7th. Even larger numbers exceeding 100 have been reported near Braidwood and north to the Des Plains river.

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Traveling Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

Tired Tree Swallows

April 5, 2018 – Most had their heads cocked with their faces tucked deep into their feathers as they perched sleeping side-by-side on this cold April morning in a springtime where winter was refusing to yield. Their long extended wing feathers, their primaries, appeared like little brown scabbards hanging from the belts of tiny soldiers that were dressed in their finest blue jackets. The weather was right for the snow that was predicted for later in the day and they seemed reluctant to leave their bivouac even well after sunup. There were more then 150 of these tired travelers roosting in a small tree at the edge of some flooded timber in the backwaters of the Kankakee river. Tree Swallows are known as short-distance migrators even though some travel as far as Alaska for the breeding season and nest in most of Canada and much of the United States. The Swallows winter along the South Eastern coast of the United States, the Gulf of Mexico and south into Central America. Some Tree Swallows have arrived even earlier and have been in our area for at least a month and they have already paired up and staked out their territory. This flock appears to be a recent arrival and may have traveled many miles in the last few days. They may still have some distance to go before they reach their destination, hopefully a more temperate weather pattern will soon take hold for this sleepy flock of traveling Tree Swallows.

Tree Swallows sleeping

Tree Swallows sleeping

Horned Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

March 28, 2018 – A pair of Horned Grebes glide silently across the placid waters of the Black Oak Bayou. One is still in its’ mostly achromatic winter plumage, while the other is transitioning towards the more impressive breeding colors of gold, black and chestnut. These small divers with their intriguing red eyes are on their northerly migration. The birds have been spending some time at a good food source of aquatic invertebrates and small fish at the Black Oak Bayou in the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area in Newton county Indiana. Soon the grebes will follow their instincts and continue the journey north into Canada towards the boreal lakes and marshes where their impressive courtship display will once again signify a bonding and the coming of a new generation of those red eyed divers.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe starting to show breeding colors

Snow Buntings

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

January 19, 2018 – Snow Buntings are a small songbird of the high Arctic, a visitor that can be seen in our area with flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs and sometimes in larger flocks of their own species. During the winter months here in Illinois they can be found feeding on dropped seeds along roadways or in the harvested agricultural fields. An interesting fact of these little birds, unlike other birds that can claim and alternate plumage, they only molt once and that is in the late summer. By the time spring rolls around and the Arctic breeding season is underway the browns and tan colored tips of their feathers are worn off showing mostly pure white with coal black wingtips. During their breeding season there are only a few slight differences in the plumage of the female and male.

Snow Bunting

Snow Bunting

A Snowy Owl Perched

Snowy Owl Illinois

Snowy Owl after Fox Squirrel

January 18, 2018 – A Snowy Owl was perched at the top of an evergreen last week in Iroquois county and seemed to have set its sights on a Fox Squirrel busy looking for food around the base of a large cottonwood. A small flock of Tree Sparrows and the intended target, the surprised squirrel, scattered and vanished when the owl swooped in. A moment after the failed attempt the owl took to the air and headed to a waterway in the middle of the field. The number of reported sightings of Snowy Owls starting to come in for Illinois have exceeded 100 so far. Those numbers are likely to increase from the encounters yet to be reported. In a small part of Iroquois county my high count for these owls is three but this year it has doubled with six individuals and possibly a seventh. It has been a banner season for these beautiful visitors from the Canadian Arctic, they have brought much excitement across the United States along with much science yet to be understood. Remember, if you encounter a Snowy Owl please respect the owl and keep your distance, do not try to approach the owl just to get a photo, observe from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Snowy Owls have just recently been listed as vulnerable by the Union for Conservation of Nature.

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Crane

Female #14-15

December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Fly Over

The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.

Whooping Cranes

Male 63-15, Female 71-16 and a young parent-reared #24-17

Golden-crowned Kinglets

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

Golden-Crowned Kinglet

October 26, 2017 – Golden-crowned Kinglets have migrated south from their northern summer nesting range of Canada and have been quite busy feeding on insects in the bushes and in the dense canopy of the deciduous trees of their winter range, which Illinois is part of. The tiny Kinglets are not much bigger than a hummingbird and have been known to get themselves caught on the little hooks of cockleburs and burdock bracts as they search for insects through the branches and leaves of a thicket. An example is the Kinglet in the photo that needed my assistance this past week. These amazing little hunters can be seen launching off of a branch to hover in midair at the edge of a leaf and pluck off an insect with an astonishing determination, at times making more than one attempt when necessary. One photo shows a successful catch of a small winged insect moments before the prey was consumed and then with little hesitation the Kinglet was off to continue its’ hunt spending only a fraction of a second in any one spot. The quick moving subject was certainly a remarkable challenge for this photographer.

Golden-crowned Kinglet caught in burdock

Golden-crowned Kinglet caught in burdock.

October 27, 2017 – As I was leaving and going past the area where I had discovered the trapped kinglet earlier in the week, I found an unfortunate kinglet deceased and stuck in the burdock. A close up look shows the tiny hooks of the burdock latched to the wings feathers. Hooking the wings probably did seal the birds fate the more it thrashed about trying to escape.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Unfortunate kinglet deceased.

The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper

Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper

Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper

April 14, 2017 – The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper is considered a medium sized shorebird standing up to 15 inches tall, they are an elegant long-legged wader that is a migrant through our part of the Midwest in the spring and in the fall. Currently they are on their spring migration and we can find the birds in the flooded fields and the shallows of ponds and lakes as the Midwest becomes a staging area for many shorebirds including the Greater Yellowlegs as they head into Canada where they will spend the summer months, the breeding season, on the marshy areas and the tundra from southern Alaska to Newfoundland. I was able to watch six Greater Yellowlegs and five Lesser Yellowlegs feeding in a small flooded area south of Herscher.

Greater Yellowlegs

Greater Yellowlegs

The Lesser Yellowlegs looks very similar to the Greater Yellowlegs but are noticeably smaller when observed side by side, The Greater Yellowlegs has a 26 inch wingspan and certainly appears somewhat lanky as it steps through the shallows with those long yellow legs. All of the birds in the group were moving mostly the same direction as they waded through the shallow water with some zigzagging, some darting and even crossing each others path. The Greater Yellowlegs would appear to push the Lesser along if it slowed its’ progress. At times the birds would pause to stick their faces and that long slightly turned up bill into the water and with a swiping motion they would move their heads side to side as they searched for prey. The birds seemed to have one thing in mind and that was to find food, many of these birds have come a great distance and still have a long way to go as they make their way to the nesting grounds. The Greater Yellowlegs spends the winter months along the coasts of North America from New York to California including the Gulf of Mexico and Central and South America. Even though their population is believed to be stable the loss of habitat in the winter range is the biggest threat to the Greater Yellowlegs