Home for the winter

A first-winter White-crowned sparrow in Iroquois county this past week.

October 17, 2019 -It is that time of the year once again when we start seeing those attractive arctic breeders returning to Illinois for the winter. The White-crowned sparrow, with its’ dark black and bright white crown stripes and that distinct gray breast, stands tall in somewhat of a stylish pose while perched on a nearby branch. The sparrow disappears and reappears as it busily speeds through the undergrowth searching for food. An overgrown thicket with wild fruits, seeds, and plenty of insects and protection from the weather and the predators, like hawks and falcons, is an ideal winter home for the White-crowned sparrow. The first-winter birds do not have the black and white crown but they stand out nonetheless in their new sharp looking feathers of a reddish-brown and gray raised crest and their pinkish bill, a youthful look that remains until spring. The White-crowned sparrow is a tall elegant presence compared to our darker drab colored resident sparrows that we oftentimes take for granted. With the exception of White-crowned sparrows in the northwestern United State that are considered resident or medium-distance migrants, most nest from from St. Johns bay north above the arctic circle, east to Newfoundland, and west to Alaska. According to the Cornell lab of Ornithology, “birds along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the interior West don’t migrate”. Illinois is the northern most part of the the White-crowned sparrows winter range which extends as far south as central Mexico. The fall migrants start arriving in numbers from the north in late September and October. The birds that wintered farther south and are migrating north in the spring start showing up in May as they work their way towards Canada.

The adult White-crowned sparrow showing those famous white stripes during the spring migration south of Kankakee.

Turkey Vultures

A flock of over 30 adult and juvenile Turkey vultures on a rural road east of Kankakee recently.

September 5, 2019 – Throughout the summer months, in the skies over northeastern Illinois, all one has to do is look up to see those large, soaring, dark colored birds gently gliding in the summer thermals. The wings of the Turkey vultures are slightly, but noticeably, pointing up. The unmistakable dihedral angle or “v” shape of their wings while in flight are much different from other large birds like eagles and hawks. Those birds extend their wings straight out and flat from their body when soaring, and appear more like a sailplane. Even at a distance a Turkey vulture can be quickly ID’d by its’ shape and flight patterns. It is not uncommon to witness large numbers of Turkey vultures perched in an old snag preening and drying their wings in the morning sun. It seems that if one bird spreads its’ wings to warm up and dry out, the other perched vultures quickly follow suit. Soon that old tree full of vultures with wings spread wide begins to take on the appearance of the partially furrowed sails hanging from the foremast of an 18 century brigantine. The birds, with their wings stretched out, slowly and carefully begin to turn and reposition on those sometimes shaky branches as they continue their warming in the early sun drying the nighttime dew from their damp feathers. When the time is right and the their feathers are dry and ready for flight the birds begin to lift off from their roost. They leave, a few at a time, flapping their large wings and climbing upward into a column of the warm rising air to begin their daily search for carrion. Throughout the day the vultures are found in fields and along the rural roads and highways where their keen sense of smell and great vision has lead them to their primary food source, road kill. Most of the Turkey vultures will start moving south late in the year and spend the winter from far southern Illinois on south. In recent years though, with milder winters, there are larger numbers remaining throughout the winter months in central Illinois. The Turkey vultures are some of the first to arrive in numbers here in northern Illinois in late winter for another nesting season.

An adult Turkey vulture quickly moves away from the road walking further into a field with other birds.

Fall Migrants

A first winter Chestnut-sided warbler comes into view for a moment to perch on a nearby plant.

September 26, 2019 – On any morning this time of the year the subtle seasonal changes seem to bring, to those who are willing to show patients and perseverance while keeping a watchful eye, an exciting surprise of another species or two of warbler that can be noted, as those little fall migrants work their way south. A wooded area with brushy, dark-shadowy cover that is loosely bordered with well seeded weedy plants and an abundance of insects that live among them, can appear almost void of any birds except for those resident feathery inhabitants that have been there all summer. But during the night things can change quickly as new arrivals, from the north, find a place to rest and recharge or wait for better weather. Through the dim morning light in the thick dark green and black understory a sudden movement with a flash of color catches ones eye, there are a small number of male and female American redstarts that have just arrived. Working their way through the thicket vanishing at times, they would quickly reappear checking each leaf and branch for insects with a quickness and a gentle fairy-like lightness as one of the little birds would hover in mid-air to get a better vantage of the underside of a leaf. In the fork of a tree where it is clearly wet with sap, a few Tennessee warblers are clinging from different angles while feeding on the insects in and around the wet spot. In the nearby elm, higher up in the canopy, adult Bay-breasted and first winter Chestnut-sided warblers move from leaf to leaf looking for insects. The adult Bay-breasted male, now in his non-breeding plumage, still shows the glorious rufous color on his flanks. Common yellow-throat and Magnolia warblers unexpectedly pop into view on the sunny side of the thicket only to disappear within seconds. The fall migration of warblers can be just as exciting as the highly anticipated spring migration and well worth keeping an eye on those woody areas and green spaces in the parks and along the creeks and rivers.

A Nashville warbler stands out with its’ bright yellow color in the dim light.

Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty

A Juvenile male with a developing black mask pauses on a stem as he moves through the undergrowth.

September 19, 2019 – Common yellowthroat warblers are a summer visitor during their nesting season here in northern Illinois, across all of the United States, and most of Canada. A first winter male Common yellowthroat can have a faded black mask from July to March while the adult males have a stunning coal back mask with a white border across the top of the mask and a bright yellow throat that extends down the chest. The flashy little males can stand out in contrast of their habitat at woody edges of a marshy thicket. The small warbler sometimes give away their location by the clear and rapid song of wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty. Often though, the little bird appears without notice clinging to one side of the rigid stem of a cattail or other suitable plants, pausing momentarily before disappearing into the thick undergrowth searching each leaf and stem for insects. The female Common yellowthroat have a pale yellow throat and they lack the black mask and white headband of the male. The muted colors of the female yellowthroat are beautiful tones of brown, gray, and olive-yellow. The nesting Common yellowthroat put their nest in thick growth well hidden and low to the ground. The parents drop down into the nest area but always leave from a different route to fool potential predators. After the nesting season, by November the little birds have gone south for the winter. The little warblers will return to our area of northern Illinois in the spring and are here in numbers by April. The Common yellowthroat is a Neotropical warbler that winters in Mexico and Central America, with non-migrating permanent residents in the southern coastal areas of the United States and western and central Mexico.

A female Common yellowthroat cautiously looks around before moving on.

House Finch

Looking back at another House finch, a female with her bill covered in the skins of berries pauses for a moment before continuing to feed.

September 12, 2019 – The House finch is a native of the west with a range that stretches from Oregon south into Mexico and east to the western edge of the Great plains. The House finch is very much at home in desert habitats of the southwest. Today though, after being illegally introduced in the 1940’s in the state of New York, their range has expanded to include most of the the Eastern half of the United states with kind of a gap between the eastern and western populations across the Great plains that runs from Canada south to eastern Texas. The expansion into the eastern United States was a result of escaped finches from the illegal pet trade. The captured House finches from the western United States were sent to pet stores in the east. The House finches were marketed as the California Linnet and the Hollywood finch, but soon failed as caged pets. The finches did succeed as escaped wild birds breeding and expanding their range. The proliferation of House finches along with changes to habitats by humans is believed to be key in the decline of the Cassin’s finch in the west and the Purple finch in the east, two species very similar in appearance to the House finch. The House finch is mainly a seed and fruit eater, when fruit is in season. Flocks can be spotted in Eastern red cedar trees feeding on the fruit in late summer. House finches are social and are common in numbers at backyard feeders, here in Illinois, competing for food with other finches like the Purple finch and the Gold finch.

A male House finch busy eating the fruit from an Eastern Red Cedar.

Plenty To Eat

A Warbling vireo pauses for only a moment as it searches the leaves for insects.

August 5, 2019 – As we are coming to the end of August one can not help but notice the changes that are happening as another autumn nears and summer contemplates its’ well earned rest. The changes that have been a bit subtle are now upon us. The angle of the sunlight brings an inspiring warm tone to the landscape. The gentle breezes swirling through the forest canopy rustles and rattles the matured leaves allowing us to hear those uplifting whispers of the mighty Cottonwood. We have come to that time of the year where there is a bounty in the northern hemisphere for the avian migrants and those birds that are here year-round. Recently fledged birds, along with the adults, are fattening up for the migration, checking every leaf, stem, and branch for insects and worms. Little Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Warbling vireos, and Chickadees are persistently looking over and under every leaf while they cling tightly to the stems as they feed. Thistle and other seeds, berries, and nectar are available for the birds that are coming south from the higher latitudes as well as the birds that have nested here in Northeastern Illinois.

A female yellow warbler looking for a meal carefully surveys her next move into the thicket.

Prothonotary warblers stand out with their bright yellow feathers and olive-gray toned back and wings while gobbling up caterpillars with amazing success as they pluck them off those woody plants at the waters edge. Goldfinches are on the beautiful purple blooming thistle plants along roadways and on the prairies searching for the high fat and protein rich thistle seeds. Adults and this years’ young Hummingbirds stake out and fearlessly defend, from a good perch, their abundant food source, a large thick patch of Orange Jewelweed surrounded by other nectar giving plants. Some of these travelers will be around for a while feeding and fattening-up and growing strong for either a long or short migration. As the weeks go by though, and those abundant food sources in our area start to wane, the north wind bringing cooler temperatures, many birds will leave our area in a final push and continue south where they will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

A Grassland Migrant

A male Dickcissel perched on a branch overlooking his territory sings repeatedly “dick,dick,sizzle,sizzle”.

June 20, 2019 – A female Dickcissel with her beak full of nesting material momentarily perches on a plant stem just before dropping down into the thick prairie grasses to continue the work on her ground nest. The ground nest is a large cup consisting of weeds and grasses with the softer material on the interior that will hold the brood. The nest will hold three to six tiny light blue eggs that will hatch in about thirteen days.

Nearby, the male aggressively guards his claimed territory, keeping intruders out that dare to venture too close. The female does all the work of building the nest and caring for the young. It seems that the male Dickcissel’s only job is to guard the chosen nesting territory. The male may breed with other females that are attracted to his perfect nesting habitat after the first female is on the nest according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The Dickcissels arrive here in northern Illinois towards the end of May.

The female Dickcissel pauses with a beak full of nest building material as the work continues on her ground nest.

The male Dickcissels claim a territory where they sing practically non-stop from their perch on a tall prairie plant or the limb of a short shrub as they try to entice the females. The persistent songs of these sparrow sized grassland birds are common across the springtime prairies and rural agricultural areas of Illinois. The familiar sounds that echo from this little bird can easily identify the vocalist by this mnemonic pattern of “dick,dick,sizzle,sizzle”.

By November the Dickcissels have gone south to a more hospitable climate where food, grasslands, and farmlands are available during our winter months. The birds will winter in large flocks in southern Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America. If you miss them this year just remember next year near the end of May is a great time to listen for their songs when they have returned to the springtime grasslands and prairies of Illinois.

Starry Travelers

The beautiful male Indigo bunting in full breeding plumage.

June 13, 2019 – The color indigo is described as a deep rich blue, and that is exactly what catches one’s eye at the forest’s edge beginning in the spring and lasting through the warm months of summer here in Northern Illinois. The flash of that stunning blue feathered breeder fluttering across a brown, black, and green environment can mean only one thing, that those long-distance migrants, the male Indigo buntings, in their alternate plumage, are here for the nesting season. The breeding range of the Indigo bunting stretches from central Texas north across the Great Plains into Canada, east to the Atlantic, and south into central Florida. The Indigo bunting winters in the southern half of Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, southern Mexico, Central America and south into northern South America.

A female Indigo bunting shows that hint on blue on her shoulders.

The females and immature Indigo buntings show less impressive colors than the breeding males. The females and immature birds are brown and tan, with some black in the wings, and dark broken streaks on a white and faded tan chest extending down the front of the bird. The female shows only hints of that famous blue on their shoulders and tail feathers. These little birds come a long way, about 1200 miles each way, in their amazing migration just to nest here in our area where there is suitable habitat of thickets and brushy wooded space bordering open fields and prairies. While many other migrating birds follow river valleys and other landmarks by day, the Indigo bunting uses the celestial map above for navigation making their magical journey on those clear dark starry nights.

The Great Egret

A beautiful Great egret glides low over the water passing a Great-blue heron foraging in the background.

June 6, 2019 – Appearing like ghostly aberrations in the soft morning light of late spring the five beautiful Great egrets were spread out around a pond in southwestern Kankakee county last week. Most were wading in the shallows searching for food, while a few were perched and preening on a fallen snag at the ponds edge. One of these hunting birds focused on something in the aquatic vegetation at the north end of the pond. The Great egret pulled out a large fish that it held in its’ bill for only a short time, and for reasons one can only speculate, the bird discarded the catch and moved on and continued hunting. It wasn’t long before the egrets took to the air, their impressive wings spread wide as they gracefully circled and gained altitude. Having used the pond for the night for resting and feeding, the birds flew northwest continuing their migration towards the nesting colonies on the lakes and in the river valleys.

The egret standing in the shallows holding the soon rejected fish.

The Great egret is considered a resident to medium-distance migrant and range widely over the continent, according to The Cornell lab of Ornithology. Many of these birds nest in colonies in the backwaters and wetlands of small and large lakes and rivers like the Mississippi and the Illinois. The Great egrets are in northern Illinois from early April to late October when they, along with a new generation of young egrets, migrate back south for the winter. The Great egret has struggled throughout the years. They suffered major declines of more than 95% from plume hunters for the fashion trade in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. The egret population began rebounding as a result of the Migratory bird laws that were enacted in the the first decades of the twentieth century. The birds are considered to be stable today despite the challenges of habitat destruction.

Flycatchers Large and Small

The Least Flycatcher is the smallest flycatchers you will see in our area and one of the early spring arrivals to Illinois from Central America.

May 30, 2019 – Flycatchers have returned to northern Illinois for the season. They are most often seen perched at the edges of wooded thickets, along rural ditches or open areas near ponds, creeks, and meadows waiting for insects to take to the air. Patiently perched on a tall sturdy dried stem from last years growth or on a limb of a fallen tree, the mostly drab colored little birds can quickly fly off their perch and grab insects in midair or pluck one off a nearby leaf. They detect the slightest movement from a walking or flying insect with their keen vision.

A Great-Crested Flycatcher is perched and watching for prey. The bird is a large heavy billed flycatcher with a noticeable yellow belly.

Consuming their prey promptly, the flycatcher resumes focus on their surroundings, watching for prey from a satisfactory random perch. Small crawling and flying insects such as beetles, leafhoppers, and dragonflies are a few of the types of insects that the flycatchers feed on. Some flycatchers, like the Eastern Kingbird, primarily feed on insects early in the season while in their summer range here in Illinois, but wild fruits become part of their diet as this supplemental food source becomes available later in the season. During the months that the Eastern Kingbird spend in the western Amazon basin in South America fruits are a main food source for these birds.

Like many of the other traveling birds we see during the spring migration and during the nesting months here in Illinois, the flycatchers migrate north from the southeastern coastal areas of the United States and southwest into Mexico, Central and South America. While some nest in the United States others continue north into Canada and Alaska, like the Alder flycatcher for example that has a large nesting range and breeds in the area of the Great Lakes in the United States, and most of Canada and Alaska. Some of the more common flycatchers we see during the summer nesting season in Northern Illinois are Eastern wood-Pewee, Great-Crested Flycatcher, Eastern Phoebe, Least Flycatcher, and the Eastern Kingbird.