November 11, 2023 – Soon after the much-anticipated fall warblers have moved through, peaking in late September through early October and heading south towards their winter homes, autumn hardens its stance, and winter awaits its stage call. Arriving from the boreal forests of Canada, the sparrows, those northern nesters, show up like magic in the yards and the parks amongst the yellowing leaves and dwindling berries on their way to their winter ranges, which can include Illinois. White-crowned, Lincolns, White-throated, Tree, and Fox are just some of the sparrows we see here in Illinois during the spring and fall migrations, some of which stay throughout the cold months. Over a dozen species of sparrows visit Illinois at different times of the year and are considered seasonal. Some species of sparrows arrive in the early spring and nest throughout the summer on the prairies and in the grassy areas along wooded edges across the state. The non-native House sparrow, introduced in North America in the mid-1800s, is a year-round resident and often congregates in numbers at backyard feeders, a nemesis to the human seed provider and probably appreciated only by the Cooper’s hawk. Unlike the bright-colored neotropical warblers, sparrows have muted, earthy colors that can be as beautiful as any, with sharp edges and contrasted tones in their tiny plumage. It is always a treat to see the beautiful White-crowned sparrows arrive in our area in the fall. White-crowned sparrows nest in the far north in Canada and Alaska, which includes the vast arctic tundra region. When it suddenly appears on an exposed branch in a brushy area, the adult White-crowned sparrow is striking in its confident-looking posture, with a bold black and white striped head above a grey-to-brown body. The White-crowned sparrow is a winter resident across Illinois, with higher numbers in the southern part of the state. Another common migrant in Illinois is the Lincoln’s sparrow. These little sparrows are ground nesters, having a summer range from the northern United States across Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritimes. There are also summer populations in the western mountainous regions of the United States. The Lincoln’s sparrows go further south for the winter than the White-crowned sparrows. Their winter range is from the far southern tip of Illinois to Central America. While some continue south, many other species stay throughout the winter here in Northeastern Illinois; it is difficult to imagine a cold and snowy winter scene of leafless bushes and dried plants without those small birds of winter digging and scraping the snow for fallen seeds during those dark months.
September 9, 2023 – The calendar, a shared understanding of humans, says that autumn does not officially begin in the Northern Hemisphere until the 23rd of this month on the day of the astronomical event known as the autumnal equinox. For Warblers, those dainty little songbirds, instinct is the main driving force, and we begin to see the movement of these birds south of their summer range in mid-August as their fall migration begins. Blackburnian and Black-and-white warblers are just a few recent sightings in Kankakee and Iroquois counties. Seasonal weather patterns are part of what stimulates the bird migration; the strong northerly winds and cooler nights influence when the birds move south, but this year there is another factor that is not yet fully understood, and that is the impact from the historic, widespread, and devastating wildfires burning to the north. The wildfires in Canada began in March and have burned millions of acres of Canada’s boreal forests across all provinces and territories. The smoke and flames are as dangerous to birds as to humans, and there is little doubt that many birds have had to abandon nesting attempts in and around the impacted areas. There is still a good chance that the birds escaping the fire and smoke attempted to nest again in other areas. Nesting habitats in these northern forests have been and continue to be destroyed by this extreme climate event, and that charred landscape in the coming spring may be a real challenge for birds arriving for the breeding season. Fire has always had a role in the life cycle of the forested ecosystem, actually helping renew the boreal landscape; experts acknowledge that today’s fires are more extreme than in the past and can change which plant species grow back after these scorched earth events. As the fall migration intensifies over the coming days, migrating warblers from points north will hopefully be seen in our area of Illinois as they head south toward their winter range in the Gulf states, the Caribbean, and Central and South America. Only time will tell how these extreme climate events of our warmer, drier, and changing planet will impact the warblers and all other plant and animal species, for that matter. Let us hope that our indecisiveness and resistance to implementing a more urgent plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions has not manifested into those proverbial chickens that have come home to roost.
June 10, 2023 – More often heard than seen are those secretive herons of the marshlands, the American bittern, and the smaller and less common Least bittern. The peculiar calls of the American bittern remind one of the sounds of liquid pouring from a large jug with a small neck and have been aptly described as a repeating oonk-ga-chonk, oonk-ga-chonk, earning the bittern nicknames like mire-drum, thunder-pumper, and stake-driver. The American bittern has a status in Illinois as an endangered native, and the loss of wetlands has reduced nesting habitat and contributed to the decline of this species over the years, which continues even today across its range from pollution, climate change, and habitat loss. The Least bittern is about half the size of the American bittern at about 13 inches, making it the smallest heron in the Americas. The little heron is listed as threatened in Illinois, suffering from the same environmental challenges as many wetland birds. The smaller bittern has several calls that are familiar sounds in the marshes and bogs with shallow water and tall cover, high-pitched clucking, and springtime mating calls of coo-coo-coo-coo heard in the wetlands are sometimes mistaken for the sounds of frogs or the songs of other birds like the Black-billed cuckoo. Once a common summer bird in Illinois, their decline began with a reckless assault on the land in the late 1800s. The destruction of wetlands by the draining of shallow lakes and ponds that once dotted Northern Illinois had a devastating impact on the local and migratory wildlife. With the encroachment of man determined to tame the land for other uses, the Least bittern is now seen or heard only in the limited areas of its favored habitat. Traveling at night during the migration Least bitterns begin arriving from Central and South America in April. The little herons build their nests among the tall, dense vegetation, where they interweave a platform above the water from dead plants. They will produce four or five eggs with two broods each year. Spring migration of the American bittern starts in March and April, and this might be the best opportunity for a lucky person to get a glimpse of this secretive and well-camouflaged bird. Although nesting does occur in Illinois in the limited marshes and sloughs, the American bittern is considered an uncommon summer resident. More widespread nesting occurs in the vast dense wetlands of our northern border states, continuing into southern Canada.
May 6, 2023 – Casting curious shadows that flow like a dark liquid across the Midwestern landscape, they silently glide to and fro like paper kites in the blue mid-morning sky, becoming a vision that is the envy of the earthbound. The large black and brown birds with an almost six-foot wing span and bald red faces with pale-colored beaks are Turkey vultures. Once a rare sight in these parts, they are now a common migrant in Northern Illinois from February through November; even though most have moved south by late fall towards their winter range, some remain during the sometimes harsh Midwestern winter. Springtime has brought large numbers of vultures back to Northeastern Illinois for the breeding season, which lasts from March through May. Turkey vultures are monogamous and mate for life. Their courtship behavior involves a dance where they hop around each other with their wings outstretched; the courtship also involves an aerial chase that can go on for some time. The vultures do not build a nest like other birds. They will lay their eggs, usually two, in tree hollows, abandoned buildings, abandoned hawk nests, and even in some thick sheltered cover on the ground. Both the male and female vultures take turns incubating the eggs. The parents will feed the chicks for about 11 weeks until they are fledged. By about 12 weeks, the young birds will have moved off and away from the nesting site exploring on their own and will be ready to join the fall migration in November. Throughout the warm months, a seemingly endless stream of Turkey vultures leaving their nightly roost take to the air looking for the thermal updrafts that will help them rise in the sky and glide with little effort while searching for food above the open country. With good vision and a great sense of smell, the vultures can locate even the smallest carrion in wooded areas, fields, and along roadways. Early mornings, throughout the summer, it is not uncommon to find large groups of Turkey vultures, also known as a committee of vultures, in dead trees, on rooftops, and utility poles with their wings spread wide, allowing the breeze and the morning sun to dry the night time dampness from their feathers and warm their bodies before they take flight. On those mornings of inclement weather, the Turkey vultures may stay on their roosts until conditions improve. Even though Turkey vultures have always had a dark and sinister eerie feel to their presence, they are very beneficial in the natural world. The vultures rid the environment of the carcasses of diseased animals stopping the spread of the dangerous organisms to other animals. As a natural clean-up crew, the vultures feed on the remains of those unfortunate creatures that met their tragic end along the roadways.
March 12, 2023 – Of the many species of birds, the hawks, owls, eagles, cranes, waterfowl, and songbirds that migrate south and spend the winter in our area, there is one bird that probably goes unnoticed by most, and that bird is the lovely American tree sparrow. These small, well-camouflaged sparrows blend well with the leafless winter landscape of the Midwest, where they find seed sand safety at the edges of brushy wooded areas of undergrowth and thickets where they can quickly disappear into the dense woody maze when danger threatens. Even though these mid-sized sparrows are called American Tree sparrows, you are more likely to find them on or near the ground. Small flocks of the American tree sparrows spend daylight hours foraging on the ground amongst the dried plants where seeds have fallen. Weed seeds are the primary food of the sparrows during winter. During the summer months, while in their nesting range in Northern Canada and Alaska, they switch to insects as a food source for themselves and their young. The little birds take frequent but short breaks to preen and rest on a convenient perch in a small tree or bush lit by the winter sun. The well-defined earthy colors of this sharp little bird become very apparent when viewing through binoculars or at closeby backyard feeders. The sparrow has a beautiful rufous crown, a gray face with rusty colors near the eyes, and a beak of black over yellow. It has a light-colored gray breast with a distinct dark-colored smudge of a spot in the middle. It has rufous patches on the sides that blend into the gray unstreaked breast, with well-defined brown streaks running down its back towards its long narrow tail. As the winter begins to wane and the days begin to grow longer, that desire to head north for the breeding season becomes stronger. When the time is right, and the weather condition becomes favorable for the American tree sparrows to move north, they will disappear from the winter range during the nighttime and begin their starry flight towards the arctic for the nesting season. The male sparrows will reach the breeding grounds before the females. The male will seek out, claim, and aggressively protect the territory he has chosen for nesting. In a little over a month, a new generation of American tree sparrows has fledged and is building strength from the abundance of insects the arctic provides as they prepare for a long flight south as the cycle continues.
August 9, 2022 – The August landscape in the midwest is a palette of joy and inspiration that can make the most iron-clad cynic forget their desperate solitude to frolic like a child with unfettered jubilation in the wonder of nature, freeing themselves from those worries in life while rejuvenating their existence. Backyard gardens, parks, and prairies are alive and full of pollinators like wasps, bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds going from flower to flower, some so heavily laden with pollen that they are barely able to fly as they stay focused on their task at hand. Young birds are now foraging for themselves but are still not far from their parents and siblings. A young Gray catbird preens on a barely visible but convenient and sunny perch in an overgrown bush at the edge of a thicket. Four young Blue-gray gnatcatchers fly in and out of view high in the tree canopy, searching every leaf and branch as they chase the tiny winged insects for a well-earned meal.
Young Ruby-throated hummingbirds have taken over the best food sources in the neighborhood. They guard and chase away other hummingbirds who are also trying to feed on the nectar from a cornucopia of alluring fragrances and blooms, including the sugary feeders that hang in numbers around the backyard garden retreats provided by human hosts. Hummingbird feeders are well cleaned and maintained weekly by nature lovers who look forward to the arrival of the long-distance summer migrants that spend the nesting season here in Northern Illinois. The simple recipe for hummingbird feeders is one cup of granulated sugar dissolved into four cups of boiled water, put in the refrigerator, and cooled before filling feeders. Do not use red dye in your feeders! It is not needed to attract hummingbirds and may be harmful. It is good practice to clean feeders before each refill at least once a week to provide safe mold-free sugar water for the hummingbirds. It is always amazing to think about how far these tiny birds travel to end up in our backyards and natural areas here in Northern Illinois for the summer. Most of the Ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit the Midwest spend the winter in Central America, migrating across the Gulf of Mexico. The beautiful Ruby-throated hummingbird is the only hummingbird that nests in the Eastern half of the United States. I often think how lucky we are to have these little jewels spend the summer with us.
July 12, 2022 – The increasingly rare Upland sandpipers have returned for another nesting season here in Northern Illinois. So well camouflaged as they hunt for insects in the agricultural fields and along the rural roads of Kankakee County and Iroquois County, they will quite easily go unnoticed if not flushed or heard by the traveler speeding by. It is always exciting to have my first sightings of the Upland sandpiper for a new year, especially knowing the challenges these survivors endure in such an ever-changing and warming world. It is equally as exciting to hear the unique songs of these birds coming across the fields and from the grassy areas. There are times that it is only those unmistakable songs of the Upland sandpiper that let you know they have returned. I have tallied 11 sightings of Upland sandpipers during May this year in Iroquois County, giving me hope for some successful nesting. The migration of the Upland sandpiper, a grassland shorebird that has the alarming status of endangered, is one of an epic journey crossing grasslands, tropical jungles, and turbulent seas to arrive in Northern Illinois in April for the nesting season, where they will remain until late August. There was a time in Illinois history before widespread destruction of the natural habitat and thoughtless over-hunting when these birds thrived, with an estimated population of 283,000 sandpipers in 1907-09. Today the estimated count of nesting sandpipers is but a small fraction of those early numbers. When nature was in balance across this state, many thousands of migrating Upland sandpipers would arrive each spring from South America, a flight of over 5000 miles from the countries of Uruguay and Argentina. Today the expansion of humans and other factors like mowing, pesticides, and construction, have reduced the safe and sustainable habitat for these ground-nesting birds here in the Midwest. Loss of habitat for the Upland sandpiper on their wintering grounds in South America also adds to their struggles for survival. Wisconsin and Illinois populations of the Upland sandpiper are most certainly in peril, leaving only a small and fragmented population that has somehow appeared to have adapted to the vast agricultural areas of Illinois. A few western states in the Great Plain have stable and secure breeding populations, while some surrounding states have shown a decline in the sandpiper. There are a few states where the Upland sandpiper is sadly presumed extirpated. Without awareness and protected areas and a change in human behavior, I fear for the future of the Upland sandpiper in Illinois.
June 9, 2022 – A secretive and strange-looking plump-bodied bird with a long beak and short legs cautiously forages among the grasses around the wet areas of standing water where food and low-lying cover can be found. Becoming almost invisible by crouching low to the ground when possible danger enters the scene, the well-camouflaged member of the sandpiper family silently becomes part of the landscape. In an instant, the bird freezes as it watches with care, holding steady until it is safe. Only patience allows for close observation of this wary migrant. One shouldn’t confuse the actual snipe bird whose name has become chiseled in the lore of the youthful pranksters who have embellished their campfire stories to entice those who may take the bait for a midnight snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunny sack for a mythical creature of the same name. Once the snipe is off high alert, if not flushed in their typical zigzagging escape flight, they will continue their behavior of feeding or resting as long as the threat appears gone and they see no movement from a possible intruder. When not eating seeds or vegetation, the snipe will use its long sensitive bill to probe the soft mud as it searches for prey such as earthworms, slugs, and other tiny insects. Some prey animals, such as a long and determined earthworm, may cause the snipe and the earthworm to engage in a tug-a-war that requires the snipe to pull it out of the mud to eat it. Small invertebrates are consumed with their flexible bill while the long appendage is still deep in the damp earth. The snipe is known to be somewhat solitary, but usually where there is one there are probably more nearby, especially during migration when they may be in the company of a small group of up to 10 or more. The Wilson’s snipe is considered a medium to long-distance migrant that spends the breeding season from the northern third of Illinois to Northern Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritime provinces.
May 10, 2022 – During spring, when anticipation is thick in the air and weather conditions line up to provide some favorable winds out of the south, many migrants take advantage of the strong tailwinds to move north towards their summer ranges. Shorebirds, warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds travel from points south and appear like magic at backyard feeders, flooded fields, lakes, rivers, and rural thickets along their route. Some of these avian travelers have flown a great distance only to stop here in the Midwest to rest and build fat reserves until the time is right and the cold and foul weather of Northern Canada is on its way out. Some species have already arrived at their summer range here in the midwest, like these backyard favorites, the Baltimore oriole, and the Ruby-throated hummingbird. These birds have traveled a long way, coming from as far as Central and South America, arriving just as the plants spring forth and insects emerge, the tiny insects providing the needed food for the new arrivals and the ones yet to come. Many species of warblers have arrived, some just passing through while others will nest here. The spring warblers in their breeding plumage are always a thrill to the observer. The bright colors of the male Baltimore oriole stand out as it flutters from branch to branch among the new spring growth. The distinct rich songs of the orioles will also delight and alert you to their presence. Ruby-throated hummingbirds zip about at high speed from tree branch to feeder as they try to chase the persistent orioles away from their sweet food source. In our rural areas, hundreds of American golden plovers stand like statues across the expanse of the unplanted agricultural fields in Iroquois County. The American golden plover is a long-distance migrant that spends the cold winter months in South America and travels to far Northern Canada’s arctic region for the nesting season. The plovers have been here for weeks feeding and resting and waiting for the cues of nature that tell them when to take to the air and continue their epic journey towards their nesting range.
April 11, 2022 – As spring continues to battle a winter that seems unwilling to step aside, the unstoppable woodland wildflowers have brought new color to the drab understory along the streams and trails of Illinois. This year in southern Illinois, Western chorus frogs sang their love songs under starry skies with an incredibly piercing volume lasting well into the chilly late February night. Waves of many thousands of noisy Snow geese have moved out of the southern part of the state, working their way towards their breeding grounds on the vast lands of the Arctic tundra. Every year American white pelicans that are becoming a more common sight in Illinois can be seen during the winter on the large lakes and river bottoms of Southern Illinois. American white pelican population has grown along with its nesting habitat from the northern Great Plains of the United States and Canada and south and east into Northern Wisconsin. The male and female pelican develop a flat plate that sticks up like a horn on their upper bill during the breeding season, which falls off after the season is over. The American white pelican has a 9-foot wingspan that easily carries the large body of those remarkable birds, having an average weight of between 11 and 30 pounds. Large flocks of these bright white birds with black flight feathers, circling in unison in a graceful formation, high over the lakes and wetlands illuminated by the sun, is a sight to behold, truly breathtaking. As spring arrives and winter musters its last bit of icy effort during its final curtain calls, those large, strange, delightful-looking pelicans will show up in small numbers here in Northeastern Illinois. Reports of sightings have already been recorded this year in Northern Illinois; I witnessed four low flying pelicans from my backyard in Kankakee within the last few weeks. For a brief time before moving further north and west to their summer nesting areas, the American white pelican will rest, feed and take flight on and over the rivers and lakes of Northern Illinois.