A Change In The Air

A female Indigo bunting with a plump little Wild Indigo Duskywing caterpillar in her beak on a perch at the edge of a late summer woods.

September 3, 2020 – The Dog Star Sirius is currently about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, those are the hottest days, the most sultry days of summer, and those dates coincide with the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. In the past when that bright star became visible in the northern latitudes it was a precise celestial event telling those ancient people in the northern hemisphere that a seasonal change was coming. We can look around at nature and see, and even hear, other signs of change as we enter the final weeks of summer. The loud and repetitive bird songs of desperate males seeking mates has gone mostly silent. Like hundreds of tiny high pitched tambourines being shaken all at once the sounds of the cicada fills our ears replacing those spring and summer sounds with a kind of swan song telling us that summer is passing away and fall beckons our attention. The migrating warblers moving south show only hints of those fine bright colored feathers of the breeding season as their spring adornments fade to a more subtle, less showy winter plumage. Even the bright greens of the summer foliage is starting to become a little less intense and is showing signs of wear. Plants are at their peak in growth and some have already gone to seed while others continue to flower and bloom and bear fruit attracting insects, hummingbirds and other animals to the banquet. Another sign of late summer/early fall are the ripened dark purple berries of the Pokeweed plant that are attached to a bright reddish purplish stem. Those late season fruits will feed songbirds and mammals that will in turn spread the seeds far and wide. Over the coming weeks even the miniature Ruby-throated fliers of the northern summer gardens will have moved on as the blooms dry up and the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler. Certainly, a change is in the air, and if we slow down, listen, observe and learn from nature, we may find that we are able to look at our calendars a little less often as we tune in to the natural world in the same way our ancestors must have done for thousands of years.

A female Common Whitetail dragonfly perched and hunting from a convenient perch as she nears the end of her flight season.

Small Birds and Big Winds

A Ruby-throated Hummingbird takes time to stretch and preen on a perch near a feeder the day after the violent derecho.

August 20, 2020 – August 10th brought a weather event across the Midwest that I will not soon forget. The National Weather Service describes the storm as a long-lasting severe wind thunderstorm complex known as a derecho, with much of the winds at 75+ mph. By the afternoon, sometime after 3:00, the air felt hot, humid, and very heavy. I thought how lucky I was to have air conditioning, as I stepped back into the house from checking for mail. Little did I know, the cool air I was enjoying would soon end with a power outage that would last for days. It wasn’t long until things started to change as some darker clouds began to roll in, bringing some swirling winds to the treetops. Those winds didn’t seem so bad. A little before 4:00 pm I was looking out the kitchen window and could see the birds at the feeders and some squirrels that were busy with a new crop of walnuts next door. Hummingbirds were defending their territory, vigorously chasing intruders away from the feeders when the high winds struck. The birds and squirrels cleared the area as the winds became seriously stronger and within seconds the true nature of the derecho was revealed. The giant sycamore in the backyard was being shaken violently like a little toy, it’s large limbs snapping and dropping to the ground, taking out the electric and covering my truck in debris. I have to admit fear and some confusion was orbiting my thoughts while overloading my rational thinking and preventing me from retreating to the basement. If I was living in ancient Greece, in the time of Homer, I would be absolutely convinced that all four of the gods of the winds were involved and very angry at me for something. Soon though, the weather began to ease and when it seemed the storm had passed I cautiously ventured outside to inspect the damage and it was a bit shocking to see how fast things can change. I noticed that I was not the only one inspecting the backyard, Hummingbirds could be seen hovering over fallen limbs and debris. They were going from one limb to the next as if they were investigating those new things that earlier were not there, the landscape had definitely changed. By the next afternoon, with lots of hard work, the yard appeared much like it did before the storm, except for a damaged truck, broken fence, and electrical wires hanging down. House finches, Nut hatches, sparrows, and Hummingbirds appeared to be back to their normal routine seemingly unfazed, taking up where they left off before the storm. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are one of the smallest birds to visit North America and are a long-distance migrant that travels all the way from Mexico and Central America each spring and back again by early fall, flying non-stop across the Gulf of Mexico. Watching those Hummingbirds really made me think, in the wake of the violent storm, about the many obstacles and dangers that these tiny birds, weighing in at about 0.12 oz., must encounter in their life. The dangers are many for the little hummingbirds, from reptilians, insects, to birds of prey, but now we can add one more challenge to that list, and that is the derecho after the devastation of the August inland hurricane of 2020 that visited Illinois.

With an increase in Hummingbirds to the yard after the storm a Ruby-throated Hummingbird hovers near a feeder chasing away intruders.

Listen to the Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird perches for a moment as it searches for prey at the edge of a woods in Iroquois County.

August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.

A closeup look at those well lit beautiful brown-orange colored eyes of this handsome mockingbird.

Southbound

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs Sandpipers standing tall face to face having a dispute over the hunting area that will eventually lead to a noisy fight.

July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.

A small sharp looking Semipalmated Sandpiper on it’s way to Central and South America feeding in a small flooded field in Iroquois County this past week.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a toxic Monarch butterfly clinched in the bill.

July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.

A tiny insect held firmly in at the tip of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s long down curved bill.

Semipalmated Plover

The profile of Semipalmated Plover show its’ dark cheek and fine orange eye-ring and the stout looking short, orange and black bill.

July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.

The photo shows the webbing on the middle and outside toes of the little plover from whence it gets it’s name.

The Water Hole

A King rail holding one of the crayfish’s claws in it’s beak that it just removed by violently shaking the crayfish.

July 2, 2020 – Several acres of low ground in Iroquois County that is surrounded by a large tract of lovely cultivated prairie has retained water for a number of months providing a perfect habitat and a food source for resting ducks, geese, herons, egrets, and a number of species of migrating shorebirds. Now, as the water is disappearing and the temporary wetland pond is starting to dry up, it is resembling a coastal mud flat, with small areas of water that are barely a few inches in depth. The small pools of water now hold concentrations of crayfish, frogs, and turtles, and the muddy areas expose worms, snails, and insects for an easy meal for the visiting wildlife. The puddles and the surrounding mud left behind, that was until recently covered in at least a foot of water, has attracted gulls, grackles, and even a family of raccoons that are visiting the buffet daily feasting on crayfish. Individual grackles that are part of several large flocks can be seen at times standing over a crayfish that is in a defensive posture with its’ pincers up towards the much larger bird. The grackle will try repeatedly pecking at the crayfish but if the crayfish is too large and aggressive the grackle will move on to an easier prey. A lone Bonaparte’s gull wades through the shallow, dirty, water stirring it with its’ feet as it searches for snails, worms, or any other likely prey in the dwindling pools. A pair of rare King rails staying close to the tall grasses and aquatic plants wander out into the open areas searching for the abundant crayfish. The skittish rails cautiously hunt the edges of the little pools for prey and even at some distance away, when the prey is spotted, the rail quickly dashes over and grabs the little crustacean and hurries back closer to the safety of weedy cover. The King rail, the largest rail in North America, begins removing the pincers from the crayfish before eating it by grasping the large claws and shaking the crayfish violently until those large intimidating claws are removed. The King rails are not as common in Illinois as they once were because of the loss of wetland habitat, the Illinois Natural History Survey explains their occurrence in Illinois as uncommon migrant and locally uncommon summer resident.

The rarely seen King rail is holding a crayfish in it’s beak as it moves into the tall grass and out of sight.

Lark Sparrow

With its’ chest out a beautiful Lark Sparrow appears to be marching along a gravel road as it searches for insects.

June 4, 2020 – The Lark Sparrow is a large, sharp-looking, sparrow with strong facial markings of rich chestnut, bright white, and coal black. Those amazingly crisp colors on the face of these birds help to distinguish the Lark from most other sparrows, making them an easy bird to identify. The Lark Sparrow also can quickly be recognized even at some distance because of the unique patterns of its’ long tail feathers. When the bird is in flight and the tail feathers are spread wide, the white tips on the dark tail feathers are revealed identifying the bird as a Lark Sparrow. The lovely contrast of the sparrows’ tail feathers makes the bird stand out against the mix of green tones in the tangle of vegetation of its’ spring and summer habitat. As the Lark Sparrow swoops over the prairies of the Midwest it will easily catch the eye of the observant bird watcher. This is the time of the year that Lark Sparrows can be found in open country here in Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. The restored sandy prairies, grasslands, and pastures, with some trees and bushes nearby, are ideal location and probable nesting areas for the sparrow. In these locations of prime Lark Sparrow habitat one might get a glimpse of a bird that is less common east of the Mississippi. The sparrow arrives in our area in the spring for the nesting season from its’ winter range in the Southwestern United States and south into Mexico. You may be lucky enough to get a close-up look at Lark Sparrows as they regularly forage, often in pairs, along the less traveled roads searching the weedy edges for seeds, caterpillars, and other insects.

A Lark Sparrow perches on the stem of a tall prairie plant but soon disappears into some tall grasses.

Cattle Egrets

A Cattle Egret with its’ beautiful reddish-brown plumage standing straight up on the crown of its’ head after preening.

May 28, 2020 – Standing out among the greens and yellows of a spring prairie that surrounds a shallow, seasonal, wetland of only a few acres, the bright white color of the four migrating Cattle Egrets in Iroquois County recently made for an easy count. While two of the birds were occupied preening, the other two were busy hunting through the prairie flowers and grasses for prey. Earthworms, frogs, and insects were on the menu this day. The egrets eventually came into range as they worked their way around the waters edge hunting the surrounding grasses. I could now observe through my camera their successful hunting techniques getting a close-up look at their focused behavior as they cautiously stepped through the taller grasses carefully looking for prey. A large nightcrawler worm is consumed quickly, but a big frog takes some work to dispatch and eat, a process that quickly becomes a challenge to keep the catch from being stolen by another egret. Before long, keeping the frog turns into an aerial pursuit across the water to the other side of the wetland where the successful hunter eventually wins the prize as the thief soon gives up.

Cattle Egrets are not native to the Americas, they are believed to have flown across the Atlantic via the northeast trade winds and arrived in South America in the late 1800’s from Africa. The Cattle Egrets expanded north into North America and were nesting here by the 1950’s. Most people would recognize images of these birds in the country from which they migrated from, Africa. One can easily visualize these birds perched on a large Cape buffalo, Zebras, or walking around close to the trunks of grazing Elephants. Here in America the egrets are often seen in cow pastures perched on domestic livestock and walking near the head of foraging cattle waiting for insects or other prey to be flushed by the large grazer. The little birds have no problem plucking insects and parasites off the faces of the cooperative cattle. These recent visitors to Iroquois County were in their beautiful breeding plumage. Three Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage were most recently reported by Jed Hertz in Kankakee County feeding in a similar habit as those found in Iroquois County.

A pair of Cattle Egrets slowly search through the spring prairie for prey.

Tanagers and Flycatchers

A beautiful male Scarlet Tanager pauses for a moment as it searches from a convenient perch for prey.

May 21, 2020 – As we near the end of May we are about two thirds of the way through another spring season as newly arriving migratory birds continue to be seen in our area of Northeastern Illinois as summer draws near. The Great Crested Flycatcher is a recent arrival and is a large colorful bird that has a bright yellow belly and an impressive crest on top of its’ head, that feathery crest promptly raised straight up when the bird is excited. These beautiful flycatchers can be found hunting along wooded areas and near grasslands and along the rural roadways of Illinois. Sightings of this common bird are now being recorded in Northern Illinois and one was just recently found in Iroquois County hunting the edge of a small woods perched near some tall grass. The Crested Flycatcher stands out among the smaller and more drab flycatchers like the Eastern Phoebe and Eastern Wood-Pewee that have the same hunting behavior and can be found hunting the same territory. The Great-Crested Flycatcher winters from southern Mexico south into South America. Another recent arrival that looks quite dignified covered in black and charcoal-gray feathers, white throat, chest and belly with white-tipped tail feathers is the Eastern Kingbird. Like other flycatchers the Kingbird prefers perches near open grassy areas with a good view of flying insects where the fast flying, quick turning, Kingbird will quickly catch the prey on the wing. The Kingbird spends the winter in the western Amazon basin of South America and nests in almost all of the United States, except for the deep southwest. It also nests in most of southern Canada from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Exciting flashy red male tanagers, both Summer Tanagers and Scarlet Tanagers, have just recently arrived. The female Scarlet Tanagers do not have those bright red feathers but are covered in olive-yellow plumage with dark wings. The Summer Tanager females are mostly yellow and do not have dark wings. The Summer Tanagers are a long-distance migrant that winter in southern Mexico, Central America, and northwestern South America. The beautifully striking Scarlet Tanager spends the winter months in the foothills of the Andes in South America. This year seems to be a banner year for Scarlet Tanager sightings as there are a large number of people reporting and photographing for the first time Scarlet Tanagers at their backyard feeders Ruby-throated hummingbirds are establishing territories near good food sources and a variety of colorful warblers continue to excite birdwatchers as many will be nesting here and others will continue north.

A lovely female Scarlet Tanager looks back over her shoulder as she rests momentarily on a perch just above the ground.