The Upland Sandpiper

An Upland sandpiper stands in corn stubble vocalizing with those distinct whistles to other nearby sandpipers.

May 23, 2019 – It is springtime in Illinois and the endangered Upland Sandpipers have returned to the Prairie State for the nesting season. These long-distance travelers make their way back to Northern Illinois in April each year from their wintering prairies of Brazil and Argentina in southern South America. While it is winter here in Illinois, the Upland sandpipers time in South America from November to March is actually the austral spring-summer on the Pampas. The Upland sandpipers nest across the Northern United States from east of the Rockies to the east coast. The sandpipers seem to be more common throughout the great plains of the United State where habitat remains. Their summer range reaches north through the central provinces of Canada and north to Alaska. The sandpipers have become more scarce in Illinois over the years and observations are less frequent as they become somewhat of a rare breeder. There are signs though, that they may be adapting to some agricultural areas, at least in small numbers.

The Upland sandpiper finds a birdbath in some standing water this past week in Iroquois county.

The Upland sandpipers start arriving in Illinois in the middle of April producing eggs from the middle of May into June. They produce three to four in a clutch that have a 21 day incubation period. Both male and female birds take turns on the nest during the incubation. The nests are constructed in depressions in the ground that are lined with leaf litter and grasses and are hidden by grasses arched over the top according to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Early season mowing along roadways and intensive farming that removes nesting habitat has a negative impact on this struggling bird in Illinois. From the Upland Sandpiper Conservation Plan (Vickery et al. 2010): The greatest threats the Upland Sandpiper faces are loss and degradation of habitat and the use of agrochemicals on both the breeding and nonbreeding grounds; and loss or degradation of critical stopover habitat.

The American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover in full breeding plumage in Iroquois county

May 16, 2019 – On their way to the high arctic for the nesting season, those grassland shorebirds, American golden plovers, have been staging in good numbers in parts of the Midwest and have been here in Northern Illinois for the past few weeks. You must look with a careful eye to see these visitors from South America as they blend in quite well in the unbroken agricultural fields in our rural areas. When these well camouflaged little birds, that are about the size of the American robin, are resting in the midday sun they lay flat on the ground in small depressions and are almost impossible to see. These swift flying, long-distance migrants winter on the Pampas of South America from central Argentina and Patagonia south to Tierra del Fuego and we get to see them while they migrate north in the spring.

A number of American Golden Plover standing in a flooded field south of Kankakee

The plovers start heading north in February, gathering in large numbers in northwestern Argentina. I was able to photograph the the leg bands of one of these birds in September of 2017 near Momence. The bird had been banded in July of 2012 on Bylot island, Nunavut Canada. The Bird Banding Biologist of the Canadian Wildlife Service have two years of telemetry for that particular plover for the years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 showing two migratory tracks. The spring migration from South America for both northbound trips where it had departed land was off the coast of Chile, south of Peru heading out over the Pacific ocean moving northwest and rounding to the south and west of the Galapagos islands.

The plovers’ path went north crossing Central America over the Gulf of Mexico and entering the United States at New Orleans. The plover followed the Mississippi river valley north, spending time in the state of Mississippi south of Memphis Tennessee. It eventually entered Illinois where it zigzagged across Illinois and Indiana as far east as Indianapolis before working its’ way to Northern Illinois. The plover was just south of Kankakee in Iroquois county where it spent a number of weeks before exiting west out of the state. When the bird finally did leave Illinois, probably in mid to late May, it headed west to the great plains of Nebraska, South Dakota then North Dakota before leaving the United States and moving north into Canada.

The plover continued north and moved out over Hudson Bay across the Hudson strait towards Baffin Island above the arctic circle where it spent the breeding season. After the nesting season, sometime in late July or early August, the plover used a more direct route south. Leaving the arctic heading south across Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia the Plover started the long crossing of the Atlantic ocean as it flew non-stop towards South America. Reaching land, the little plover entered South America on the northeast side between Guyana and French Guiana continuing on for almost 3000 miles south to Uruguay where it spent the next six or seven months.

A Prairie Island of Habitat

The strikingly beautiful male Scarlet tanager in breeding plumage is a long-distance migrant from South America.

May 8, 2019 – A wooded area south of Kankakee that appears like a tiny island surrounded by an ocean of agricultural fields becomes a respite for the weary travelers during the spring migration. The trees and understory were alive with a number of species of migrating birds that were taking advantage of the safety of the brushy cover and the good food source of worms and insects that the little woods offered. Some of the birds had selected this spot for the summer and were already nesting in the thicket while others were resting and feeding for their continued trip north.

An olive-yellow colored female Scarlet tanager with darker wings and tail pauses for moment before continuing her search for insects and worms.

Yellow-rumped warblers in full breeding plumage were busy searching the tree branches and emerging leaves for insects while in the company of tiny Blue-gray gnatcatchers that were extremely animated as they fluttered from branch to branch. Common yellowthroat warblers were staying among the low branches and shorter vegetation as they appeared and disappeared quickly to and from the waters edge and through the brush. A small Least flycatcher was working its’ way through the branches searching for insects while at times stopping for a rest on a nearby perch.

A Northern water thrush, a small Hermit thrush, and a cautious Ovenbird were using the same territory and could be seen at times moving stealthily across the ground through the shadows of the bushes and trees. A perched White-eyed vireo was removing the wings from a dead Red admiral butterfly, the wing dust and wing parts surrounded the gruesome scene as the beautiful little vireo with impressive white eyes consumed its’ prey.

Baltimore orioles and Rose-breasted grosbeaks flying-about lit up like flickering lights among the softened springtime color tones of the wooded acre. The distant whistles of the male Baltimore oriole were such clear and clean songs that they conjured up a vision of the vibrant colored bird perched and displaying that coal black head and wings contrasted with that beautiful yellow-orange body. A female and male Scarlet tanager were searching the ground for worms and small insects. Scarlet tanagers are long-distance Neotropical migrants that nest in the eastern half of United States and all of Illinois and winters in the tropical rain forests in northern and western South America east of the Andes and as far south as the lowlands of Bolivia.

The Sandy Mocker

April 22, 2019 – What are those clear and rich bird songs coming from the tree tops with tones and musical phrases that seem sampled from the songs of other avian species? There it is, perched high in the tree, its’ bill pointing towards the clouds. It is that mimic, the Brown thrasher, with its’ piercing yellow eyes, boldly streaked body and a mostly reddish brown back, tail, and wings that sport bright white and dark wing bars. You better look quick before it darts to a lower perch or down deeper into the understory to search for beetles and worms. Seeds and fruits will come later in the season, it is still the early part of spring and the insects and other tiny invertebrates are the food for now for this melodic courting songbird.

Listen for the male Brown thrasher early in the season when he is on his brushy habitat and his songs are a much stronger proclamation of his territory. After the nesting begins, the songs of the male thrasher are somewhat lower in volume. The Brown thrasher can mimic the songs of other birds with a repertoire of up to 3,000 cataloged sounds, according to Stan Stewart, Wildlife Biologist, Alabama Division of Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries.

Over the years in the other parts of the country, the Brown thrasher has been known by other names. Fence-corner bird, Sandy mocker, Planting bird, and Brown thrush are a few of the names. The thrasher is not part of the thrush family at all and actually belongs to the family Mimidea. Mimidea is the same family as the Northern mocking bird and the Gray catbird, two other mimics we see here in northern Illinois during the nesting season. The Brown thrasher can be found year-round from southern Illinois, south from east Texas to the Carolinas, and into all of Florida. The thrasher is a short-distance migrant and breeds across most of the northern half of the United States from the Great Plains to the Atlantic and north into southern Canada.

Tiny Swarming Gnats

April 22, 2019 – Gnatcatchers, warblers, kinglets and wrens were feeding on the abundance of tiny swarming gnats this past week at the edge of a small wooded area south of Kankakee. There were five Blue-gray gnatcatchers quickly hopping from branch to branch feasting on the large number of gnats that were covering the tree branches. The gnatcatchers are migrants that winter from the Southeastern coast of the United States, Florida, along the Gulf coast west and down into Mexico and Central America. Northern Illinois is near the northern edge of their nesting range that stretches up into Wisconsin and may be expanding as the climate warms.

A Northern parula warbler studies the bark of the tree looking intently for a small insect.

A pair of Ruby-crowned kinglets were visiting the same tree taking advantage of the abundance of protein. The little kinglets are about halfway between their winter range and their summer nesting territory. A house wren was also at the banquet and is now in its’ summer range while the smaller Winter wren that was busy searching for insects lower on a tree stump still has a little ways to go before it reaches its’ summer nesting territory. Field sparrows were there looking through the nooks and crannies of the decaying wood stumps for insects and worms.

A Northern parula warbler which nest in most of the eastern half of United States brought the most color to the brunch. The small parula warbler is a long-distance neotropical migrant that winters along the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico down into Central America and east throughout the Caribbean. The tiny warbler has yellow from under its’ chin down across its’ breast. The lower half of the birds bill is a bright yellow that matches those bright yellow feathers on its’ chin and even in the muted light looked brilliant against the bluish feathers on the upper parts of the little warbler.

Turkey Vultures

April 18, 2019 – As springtime advances and the migrants move north, Turkey vultures, those masters of the air currents, are once again gliding across the skies of Northern Illinois in large circling flocks that are sometimes referred to as a kettle. Even though a few of these large dark colored vultures are spotted in northern Illinois during the winter months, most migrate south in the fall after the nesting season. They spend the winter from Southern Illinois and across the southern United States, south through Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America and as far south as ‘the end of the world’ Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.

North America has three of the six subspecies of Turkey vultures. Cathartes aura septentrionalis is found in the eastern United States.(Palmer, 1988) With a wingspan of around six feet these large slow flying birds are hard to miss as they fly off of the carcass of the unfortunate roadkill as a vehicle approaches. Those close encounters certainly gives the observer an appreciation for the impressive size of the Turkey vulture. They usually don’t go far when flushed from the carrion and soon return to their feeding when the threat is gone. They are often seen still on their roosts in dead trees, utility poles or buildings early in the morning. With their wings spread wide like a parabolic antenna while facing the warm morning sun they are warming their bodies and drying their feathers from a rain shower or the dampness of the night.

Nesting Turkey vultures will use the abandoned nest of other large avian species in secluded areas far from human traffic. They will also use old sheds, barns, and houses that are remote, grown-up, neglected and open to the elements. The Turkey vulture may choose to lay their clutch of 1 to 3 eggs in a nest on the ground that they scrap out in the leaf litter in a dense thicket or near a fallen tree or even in a hollow log. The vultures will have only one brood over a 60-84 day nesting period and may return to the same nest year-after-year according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Palmer, R. 1988. Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 4. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Song sparrows

April 11, 2019 – An unrelenting and attention grabbing chase scene was on, as two small Song sparrows pursued each other in an amazing high speed aerial flight that took them zipping between small openings in the woods, over and under bushes, and around trees, a display that lasted well over ten minutes. Soon though, the two birds were on the ground in a small gassy area and appeared to be locked in a serious battle. The pair of male Song sparrows were having a territorial dispute that boiled over into a crescendo of a blurred feathery terror that played out in an opening at the edge of small woods this past week in Iroquois county.

It is not uncommon to see two or more birds having some sort of disagreement over a territory, mate, or reasons not fully understood, but most of the time it only lasts a few seconds with minimal to no physical contact at all. Less often though, one may witness an epic knock-down-drag-out fight at a level that raises a concern of a not so cheerful outcome. The fight which lasted a good four minutes looked at times to be quite violent. The little birds seemed to be going for each others head and face area with those long sharp claws normally used to scratch the earth for seeds and insects.

With the exception of an occasional pause during the fight when the birds had each other restrained, the struggle was much too quick for the human eye to comprehend. The details of the struggle could only be understood in the photos after the fact. Just as quickly as the ground battle started it was all over and they both disappeared from the battlefield. A few minutes later a single male Song sparrow was perched and singing on a small branch nearby as order seemed to have been restored and the intruder had fled the area.

A study that tested the hypothesis of song-matching, “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System”, was published online in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2013. Song matching is the matching of the song of the intruder, sung by the territorial male Song sparrow as an early warning signal to the intruder to stay away. The researchers found that song matching begins at low-level and then switches to higher-level that almost always predicts an attack on the intruder. The bird may also try other signals to send warnings to the intruder such as wing waving combined with song-matching as part of the early warning signals. .Akcay, C., M. E. Tom, S. E. Campbell, and M. D. Beecher. “Song Type Matching Is an Honest Early Threat Signal in a Hierarchical Animal Communication System.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 280, no. 1756 (2013): 20122517. doi:10.1098/rspb.2012.2517.

American Tree Sparrow

April 5, 2019 – The soft songs of the American Tree Sparrow are like a pleasant melodic whispering that easily causes one to momentarily pause and focus. This medium size sparrow can be seen at times singing from a low perch on a bush or while foraging on the ground at the edge of a thicket. Winter flocks of these little rusty capped birds have been gathering, feeding, and building energy while waiting for that moment during their spring migration when they take their night flight north towards the Arctic tundra of Canada and Alaska.

As days begin to grow longer metabolic changes occur that help prepare the birds for their long flight. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a huge increase in appetite helps to build up fat reserves that are required for such a physically demanding journey. Both internal and external factors play a role that triggers the big push north for the nesting season. Weather conditions are important so as to coincide with insect hatching in the stopping areas along the migratory route.

One can only imagine what it would be like to be part of a flock of a few hundred small birds on a cool, crisp starry night flying towards that shimmering fiery glow of the auroras above the northern latitudes. Those little sparrows face many miles and a number of challenges as they work very hard to reach their nesting grounds north of the tree line where the Arctic fox, the polar bear, and the ptarmigan call home.

Merlin Falcon

The little falcon perched on a branch watching a large number of Red-winged blackbirds.

March 20, 2019 – The little falcon was perched and alert with its’ senses focused on a few thousand loud clattering mostly male Red-winged blackbirds that were on their spring migration. There was such an impressive number of birds in this flock that they gave the late winter trees and shrubs an appearance of being covered in dark leaves. Patiently watching from an old snag, the Merlin concentrated on a part of the flock that were flying, resting, and feeding in the grasses and along the roadway just to the north. Soon the little raptor, with a sudden and great speed, left its’ vantage causing the flock to take to the air in a large cloud of an evasive synchronization that resembled that well known and mesmerizing murmuration of starlings. I quickly lost sight of the little falcon, but I suspect after all of that commotion, which lasted no longer than 30 seconds, there may be one less blackbird in that huge flock of travelers.

Hundreds of Red-winged blackbirds and a few other species in a large tree in view of the Merlin.

The Merlin falcon is a compact and powerful bird of prey, it is slightly larger then the American Kestrel, which is the smallest falcon in North America. The Kestrel is a common falcon in our area that can be observed year-round, often perched on a utility wire while it is hunting voles, mice and insects in the grassy ditches and waterways along our rural roads. The less common to our area is the Merlin, it is often recorded in Illinois during the winter months. It spends the summer, during the breeding season, in the boreal forests of Canada. It appears though, that the Merlin is expanding its’ summer range. In recent years there has been an increase in nesting records in Wisconsin that seems to be expanding south, according an article by Eric Walters “Merlins Nesting In Illinois” published in a journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society. Data collected daily from bird enthusiasts is reflected in the eBird range maps for this species and shows that there has been a number of recorded Merlin sightings in June and July in Illinois along with a few confirmed nesting records in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana in recent years.

The Great Migration

Last Sunday a number of waterfowl species congregated in some open water of a flooded field near Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife area as a morning snow made a winter scene.

March 6, 2019 – Despite the single digits and wind-chills to consider, some hints and signs of spring are starting to come into focus. The backwaters of the Kankakee river, the ponds, ditches, and flooded fields are slowly being liberated from their cold icy carapace. Male Red-winged blackbirds are beginning to stake-out their territories. They could be seen this past week perched on last years faded cattail stems and in small trees near water as they sang their songs of spring. Some ducks and geese are pairing up and keeping to themselves, while others with much greater distances to travel are together in flocks waiting to move north. Small flocks of Sandhill cranes have been seen heading north and recent reports out of Wisconsin state the news of early arrivals.

A pair of Hooded mergansers stay close together resting on the open water and feeding on frogs east of Kankakee this past week.

Soon our winter visitors from the upper Great-lakes, Canada and the North-west territories, and points east and west will be harder and harder to find as their numbers dwindle from our area and they push towards their nesting grounds. Rough-legged hawks will be noticeably absent from the skies above our prairies when they soon leave for the Arctic tundra. Greater-white fronted geese have recently been seen through-out the state and in our area in large flocks waiting for that moment to push north towards the high Arctic for their breeding season. As the weeks go by and warmer temperatures are here to stay and conditions north are stable and suitable for nesting, the waders and shorebirds will be making their move as the great migration continues.