Black-necked Stilts

A male Black-necked Stilt wades in a flooded field in Iroquois County as a northwest breeze blows the feathers up into a point on his head.

May 14, 2020 – The Black-necked Stilt is an elegant wader with some extremely long pink legs and a body covered in black over white plumage, it has a long neck and a small head with a long thin black-colored needle-like bill. This is a lovely, delicate, and regal looking shorebird that proportionate to its’ body, accordingly to the American Bird Conservancy, has the longest legs, second only to the flamingo. Standing out, a migrating pair of Black-necked Stilts were busy feeding in a flooded field this past week in Iroquois County. At one point while observing the pair, the birds came together in a display of their courtship ritual and breeding behavior that is initiated by the female. Standing close together, the male began with a bit of preening as well as the female, then together they began to stir the water rapidly with their long bills. The female stood with her head extended and her back flat, an invitation for the male who promptly climbed on the females back. He slowly folded his long legs and settled down, but moments later, less than fifteen seconds, he was back in the water where they stood snug together. The stilts then put their heads close together and the male put his bill over the top of hers with his wings partially extended as they stood still in a moment of intimate display, an affirmation to their commitment. The breeding was complete. Black-necked Stilts winter along the southern coastlines and south into Central and South America. These birds are known for nesting in numbers in the western United States, but nesting records have been showing up in Midwest in recent years. Observations by Jed Hertz of Kankakee have shown adults and then eventually juvenile Black-necked Stilts together in suitable nesting habitat during the nesting season in Kankakee County. There was also a nesting attempt at the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area along the Kankakee River in Newton County Indiana a few years ago.

A pair of Black-necked Stilts involved in their breeding behavior at a stop on their spring migration.

Large Shorebirds

A large Marbled Godwit in breeding plumage gives a profile look at that impressively long orange colored upturned bill.

May 7, 2020 – A large number of shorebirds stopping off in Iroquois County on their spring migration could be seen feeding in a flooded field this past week. There were at least twenty Lesser Yellowlegs, and four Greater Yellowlegs, along with some Short-billed Dowitchers, and some small Dunlins. The variety of shorebirds were working the shallow waters and shoreline searching and probing in the soft mud for worms, arthropods, and other tiny creatures to replenish their fat reserves and building up the needed energy to reach their summer nesting grounds for the breeding season. Even more exciting were some obviously larger and less often seen visitors that seemed to dwarf the other species. There were four large shorebirds that are called Willets, all in their breeding plumage. The Willets are slightly larger than the more common Greater Yellowlegs, which is also a fairly large shorebird and is often seen in our area during the spring and fall migrations. The Willet has a heavier build than the Greater Yellowlegs, a thick straight bill and long legs for wading. Willets are seen during the winter months along the seacoasts of North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America. They nest inland making their nests in small depressions lined with grasses on the prairies of Northwestern United States and into the grasslands of Southern Canada. Some eastern Willets nest closer to the coast in the salt marshes and dunes of the Northeastern United States as far north as Newfoundland. Even more rare to see here in Northeastern Illinois was a very large shorebird with a long multicolored upturned bill. This large heavy looking bird, known as Marbled Godwit, is a little bigger than the Blue-winged teal ducks that were swimming nearby. The Marbled Godwit has a winter range on coastal beaches and mudflats almost identical to the Willet winter range. The Godwits nest in the native prairie grasslands, preferably close to wetlands located in the northern boarder states of the great plains and on into southern Canada. The Marbled Godwit is a very large sandpiper that has an interesting color and shape to its’ extra long bill. The bill is sword shaped, slightly upturned, with a dull pinkish to bright orange color extending from the base that continues about halfway down the bill where it turns dark all the way to the tip. These temporary flooded areas that were once wetlands across the prairies and are dreaded by today’s farmers are always a challenge to agriculture but they do play an important role with migratory shorebirds as they travel hundreds to thousands of miles in some cases to their summer and winter ranges.

A pair of Willets wade into deep water to search for insects and worms in the depths of the muddy standing water where they will probe the mud with their long sensitive bills to locate prey.

The Purple Martin

A pair of Purple martin males warm up on a gravel road in the morning sun after a cold spring night near the Kankakee river.

April 23, 2020 – The Purple martin is a long-distance migrant that winters in South America and migrates 5000 miles north over a two or three week period eventually arriving in United States each spring for the breeding season. The Purple martin is the largest and probably the most well known of the swallow species in North America. These dark, purple colored, elegant fliers that seem to be in constant song, show up in our area of Northern Illinois for the nesting season by April of each year. Their nesting colonies are now mostly in the familiar man made martin houses. Those large white bird houses that are called ‘condos’ and look like apartment complexes on tall poles placed around lakes and ponds, near open wetlands, in parks, along the rivers, and in many rural backyards across eastern North America are key to the survival of Purple martins. The nesting houses are kept clean and protected from predators and other birds trying to use them for nesting by the landlords, the dedicated human hosts that erect and care for the nesting houses. There are organizations and clubs across the country, like The Purple Martin Conservation Association (PMCA) https://www.purplemartin.org , which is a great resource for supplies and learning how to create houses, maintain them, and share important data that is used in the interest of Purple martin conservation. Habitat loss, climate change, and competition for nesting holes from invasive species like European starlings and English house sparrows have made it very difficult for the Purple martins. Records show populations have been decreasing by large percentages in many areas over the years and more landlords are needed to provide and maintain nesting houses.

A female Purple martin perches on a small stone resting and warming in the morning sun.

Shorebirds Stopping by

A large Greater Yellowlegs shorebird wading through shallow water looking for prey while at times stopping to probe the mud with its’ long bill.

April 16, 2020 – When the spring rains create temporary flooded pools in the agricultural fields, pastures, and on the low well saturated land of restored prairies here in Northern Illinois, the migratory shorebirds large and small will show-up tired and hungry. A variety of shorebird species are working their way across Illinois this time of year. These birds must feed and rest and sometimes wait for the right weather conditions as they instinctively know when to continue the push north. The mudflat-like edges surrounding the flooded slow draining areas in the fields are the perfect habitat where these birds can find the tiny worms, mollusks, and insects that are important to rebuild their depleted energy. Building up fat reserves and resting is key to the survival for both medium and long distance migrants as they pass through on their challenging springtime journey, moving to their northern summer nesting areas. Many of the shorebirds travel great distances to reach their nesting areas on the high Arctic tundra. Pectoral Sandpipers spend the winter on the wetlands and agricultural areas of South America but they nest many thousands of miles north on the sometimes cold springtime Arctic tundra. Here in Illinois we see many flocks, some quite large, of the Pectoral sandpipers using the flooded fields to rest and feed as they work their way north. The sandpipers stay together in and around the flooded wet spots feeding, preening and occasionally taking to the air when a bird of prey comes too close. Flying in a tight pattern the birds circle back and forth until all is clear and then quickly return to the same wet spot to continue their feeding. The much larger Greater Yellowlegs has longer legs than the Pectoral Sandpiper and are often in deeper water searching for prey. The Greater Yellowlegs migrates a shorter distance than the Pectoral. They spend the winter on the Atlantic coast, the Gulf coast, Florida, Mexico, Central and South America. The Greater Yellowlegs nest across Canada just south of Arctic Circle and on the coastal areas of Southwestern Alaska. Those are just two species that are fairly easy to identify during the northern movement, there are many others to watch for in these short-lived shallow pools that temporarily linger in the fields. Some of these shorebirds are quite small, others are in their impressive breeding plumage, sometimes there are rare species, but one thing is for sure they all are in need of food and rest as they still have many miles ahead.

A Pectoral Sandpiper plucks a small snail out of the water and quickly swallows it.

A Steady Migration

A little Winter wren, our smallest wren, poses for a split second with a captured fly. The wren will soon head north into Wisconsin and up into Canada for the nesting season.

April 9, 2020 – As nature steadily advances into another spring, more species of birds appear in the thicket each day. Some don’t stay long and leave during the night, while others spend a few days or even longer resting and feeding on the abundances of emerging insects and the remnants of last years seeds. A few Golden-crowned Kinglets are noticed high-up in the tree canopy searching every limb and branch for insects. On the perimeters of the small woodlot, any tall dried sturdy stem, or low hanging branches near the weedy ditch, becomes the ideal perch for some Eastern Phoebes that are busy catching and consuming small insects on the wing. The elegant little flycatchers quickly return to a nearby branch to continue their hunt after successfully spotting, pursuing, and catching an insect. A pair of large Northern flickers are only sometimes visible as they search through the tall grass chiseling into the earth with their large powerful bills looking for ants and other insects. Movement on the ground near some thick cover alerts me to not one, not two, but three Hermit thrushes searching in a stop and go method for insects in the dark shadowy places among the leaf litter and new growth on the forest floor. A tiny Winter wren, our smallest wren, searches the decaying remains of a fallen tree for insects. The small brown wren is hard to see as it disappears into the dark nooks and behind the twisted dead limbs of a once mighty tree. Soon the little bird reappears, only for a moment, as it continues to looks for a meal but quickly vanishes once more. Building strength before continuing north on their spring migration gives the travelers, both long-distance and short-distance migrants, the best chances for another, or even a first time, successful nesting season. The countryside is greening up, grasses are quickly growing, many trees and shrubs are just beyond buds with tiny, furrowed, developing leaves. The sound of chorus frogs ringing out from every ditch and wetland puddle across Illinois is signaling those glorious vernal changes that seem to appear overnight revealing a new beginning.

Perched on a long stalk, an Eastern phoebe watches for flying insects that it can catch and consume on the wing

Beautiful Songster

An American Robin eyeing a dried red berry from last years’ crop before plucking it off and continuing its’ hunt

April 2, 2020 – There is nothing that alerts us to a change of the seasons more than those early morning songs of the American Robin. The Robin has a strong, rich whistle that begins to invade our dreams not long before the glow of first light. This medium sized, orange breasted, dark headed bird with a bright yellow bill is probably one of the most familiar and common birds we see. The Robin likely draws attention more often than other species as it runs, stops, and probes the grassy spring and summer lawns here in the Midwest searching for earthworms large and small. Although there are Robins in our area of Northeastern Illinois year round, they are more often seen in their winter flocks in our rural areas where there is plenty of food like wild fruits and berries along with thick cover that can protect them from harsh cold weather and dangerous predators. Even though many Robins remain in our natural areas throughout the cold months, some do migrate. The springtime brings a behavioral change to the wintering birds as the large winter flocks break-up into small flocks dispersing from their winter habitat. The birds become more territorial and we begin to see those Robins in our city parks and on our grassy lawns as worms become a warm weather food source and nesting sites are the focus. Soon there will be nesting Robins everywhere, the female will be sitting on her perfectly constructed nest made of sticks, grass, and mud keeping her three to five sky blue colored eggs warm for about fourteen days. Robins are good at putting their nests in some of the most inconvenient places, like above exterior doors, below eaves, on gutters and electrical services, and sometimes in trees. The American Robin may have up to three broods in one season and the female and the young join the males in the roosts after the last brood is fledged and the nesting season ends. As cold weather once again approaches and the ground freezes and the worms are gone, the American Robin will rejoin the winter flocks where fruits and berries will become an important food source for the coming months.

A Robin stops at the waters’ edge for a drink before quickly flying to join another bird perched in a nearby tree

Spring Has Arrived

A Snowy owl perched in the morning sun this past week in Iroquois county will soon feel the urge to head north towards the vast Arctic Tundra for the summer

March 26, 2020 – Looking out across empty agricultural fields separated by waterways of dried grasses, flowing ditches, fallen fences, and the occasional leafless trees in the small and forgotten gnarly thickets that have somehow been spared the plow, we bear witness to a season in change. The picture before us speaks of a tired and somber late winter that is ready to give up its’ frail but respected hold to a new, strong, and hopeful spring. The spring migration brings temporary visitors that are working their way northward, while wintering birds are gathering and waiting for that call to move north. Some of our resident birds of prey, like Bald eagles, Great Horned owls, and Red-railed hawks, in Northeastern Illinois are already nesting, and some are tending to young. The feathered travelers, those long-distance migrants from the southern hemisphere, are yet to arrive but will stage in our area in the coming weeks resting and feeding before continuing north. Others are patiently waiting for those longer warmer days before moving north towards the high latitudes and a short nesting season above the Arctic Circle. Rough-legged hawks, Snowy owls, and American Tree sparrows are some of the birds that have some distance to travel, and in a month or so, those birds will be hard to find as they eventually disappear from the Lower Forty-eight for the summer. This past week two Snowy owls, only a few miles apart, continued their presence in Iroquois county. A dark morph Rough-legged hawk, another wintering Arctic bird, was hovering over a field hunting in the same area not far from one of the owls. On the first day of spring nine Trumpeter swans could be seen resting in some corn stubble east of the Iroquois river, these great white birds will soon move north into the marshlands of Michigan,Wisconsin, and Minnesota for the nesting season. A small flock of American Tree sparrows have been taking advantage of the remaining seeds on an overgrown lot south of Kankakee while finding safety and insects among the web of thick overgrown bushes and small trees. Spring has certainly arrived and the migration brings hope for new generations of many species and a promise of stability for all creatures on this little planet.

A male Red-winged blackbird singing loud with his red epaulets on display may be trying to entice a mate at the edge of a woods south of Kankakee.

The Ruddy Duck

Three male Ruddy ducks pop to the surface while feeding, giving a good look at their blue bills and developing summer breeding plumage.

March 19, 2020 – The Ruddy duck is a small diving duck that has somewhat of an amusing but interesting appearance. With a small bit of imagination, especially while viewing a male in his wonderful breeding plumage, one can see that this stout looking little bird with a bright blue bill and a warm chestnut colored body could easily be adapted as a quirky cartoon character in the next great animated blockbuster. These stiff-tailed divers are often seen in small flocks on the open waters of southern wetlands, lakes, and rivers during the cold months and also in the late winter gearing up for the spring migration as they start to stage in areas with great flocks of other waterfowl. The compact little ducks stay close together feeding and socializing as they rest and build energy for that magic moment when the big push happens and their night flight north begins. Like many other species, the Ruddy ducks head towards their breeding areas, the shallow lakes, and marshes to the north and to the west where they will take up residence for the summer. There are breeding populations of Ruddy ducks throughout the marshes and wetlands of the great lakes, but the areas that have the highest percentage of nesting Ruddy ducks are on the Prairie Pothole Region of North America. The female will seek out dense vegetation in the backwaters of lakes and marshes using cattails and grasses to weave together a simple platform above the water to hold a well hidden nest that is eventually lined with soft, warm, down feathers. She will lay somewhere around eight rather large white eggs and incubate them for about 26 days. Not more than a day after hatching, the young little ducks leave the nest swimming close behind their mother diving and feeding themselves. The young Ruddy ducks are on their own after about 30 days and after another 30 days they learn to fly and take to the air and will migrate south in the fall. Simply a beautiful and an interesting little stiff-tailed duck with an air of attitude and the blue billed summer drake in his breeding plumage is a sight to behold.

A drab colored Ruddy duck hen with her stiff tail slightly raised looks alert to my presence as she swims by.

A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

Canvasback Ducks

A mixed flock of mostly Canvasback ducks feeding and socializing on a flooded access road leading into the Kaskaskia bottoms in Southern Illinois this past week.

February 27, 2020 – The male Canvasback duck has a rich chestnut colored head and neck, black chest and tail area, with a bright white body and wings. These large ducks have beautiful red eyes that when illuminated by the sun can penetrate the thoughts of the human observer laying waste to any earthly woes, at least temporarily. Those unique eyes of this big diving duck absolutely contribute to making this bird a strikingly handsome fellow. The female, on the the other hand, is less colorful and has a pale-brown overall plumage that is most certainly required for a nesting female duck. Her camouflaged coloring is mandatory to helping keep her and her nest hidden from predators. But even without the strong contrasted colors she is still quite beautiful and is easily identified as a Canvasback. The female has the same sloping forehead and large black pointed bill but she does not have those amazing red eyes like the male. Her eyes are very dark in color, perhaps part of her specialized trait of survival. Throughout the Mississippi Flyway these fast flying migrating ducks, that are considered diving ducks, congregate in flocks from ten to many thousands. During the winter in the southern half of the United States including most of Illinois from southern Lake Michigan south where they can find open water and food they can be found in their winter flocks. In the southern winter marshes, lakes, rivers, and flooded fields the Canvasbacks feed together in an amazing display. The ducks come together over the area to forage and begin their search for tubers and invertebrates by diving repeatedly in a rolling head-first fashion that is somewhat mesmerizing when there are a large number of birds involved. The Canvasback ducks migrate north and west in the spring and nest in the prairie pothole region, those glacial wetlands of North America and Canada. They also nest north in the wetlands and marsh areas from the Great plains to Alaska.

Two male Canvasbacks swimming with a female following close behind, the red eyes of the male ducks seem to glow in the morning sun.