The Golden Eagle

A 4th year sub-adult Golden Eagle south of the Kankakee river this past week. The bird’s golden feathered head clearly visible as it flies out from a perch and glides over the winter landscape.

February 13, 2020 – Here in the Midwest it is now a common sight to see Bald eagles gliding high above the flat terrain of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. Nesting Bald eagles are also a more common occurrence in Illinois and Indiana, a remarkable rebound since the ban on DDT’s agricultural use in 1972. Illinois estimates indicate well over 300 active nests and for the state of Indiana a 2016 estimate shows close to 400 breeding pairs. Most often we see a magnificent Bald eagle or even a few of these great birds perched in a tall snag above open water along our rivers here in the Midwest, especially during those hard winter months. The eagles sit patiently waiting and watching while hunting ducks, coots, and fish or any other food opportunity that might come along. There is another species of eagle, the Golden eagle, that is less common and only seen or noticed by a lucky few during the fall and spring migrations. The Golden eagle may also be seen during the winter months in locations that provide open spaces, forests, and abundant prey. This winter a pair of Golden eagles were recorded in Iroquois county where they were photographed by bird enthusiast and nature photographer Bronson Ratcliff of Bourbonnais. Having a pair of wintering Golden eagles in our area is an exciting discovery. The Golden eagle nests across Canada and Alaska and in the mountainous western United States. They are year round residents and nest on the high cliffs and steep slopes with a open views throughout the Rocky Mountain states and west to the Pacific.
Here in the Midwest we watch for these large dark birds during the migrations. They are easily confused with Turkey vultures, Juvenile Bald eagles, or any large dark raptor. The 1st year juvenile Golden eagles have bright white tail feathers except for 2 or 3 inches of the tips which are dark brown. They can also have bright white patches on the tops and bottoms of the their wings from the middle of the wings out towards the ends, and are easy to see during flight. The 1st year bird is probably the easiest to identify with those good solid markings, but as they age, those bright white feathers start to fade as they get their adult feathers and other indicators must be looked at. The gold feathers on the back of the head and nape of the neck is another obvious clue that is easy to spot. The two tones of light and dark feathers on the head and neck, even on a perched bird in the shadows of a tree, stand out. The Golden eagle also has a shorter neck and smaller bill than the juvenile Bald eagle. Another comparison is the Golden eagle has feathered legs that go down to the feet and the Bald eagle does not. Next time you see that large dark raptor soaring above, look a little closer, it may be a Golden eagle.

The tail-feathers of this 4th year bird show the white colors disappearing as the eagle nears adulthood.

Wintering Cranes

A small group of Sandhill Cranes lean into the wind preparing to take to air.

February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.

A juvenile Sandhill Crane plays with corn stalks, picking them up and tossing them into the air, as it dances about with wings spread wide.

The Pigeon Hawk

Just east of Kankakee recently, a Merlin falcon looks down from its’ tree perch watching for an ambush opportunity.

January 23, 2010 – The Merlin falcon is a small but fierce hunter that is a little larger and heavier than the American kestrel. Looking somewhat like a chunky pigeon in flight the Merlin was once known as the pigeon hawk. The stealthy falcon lacks the bold color patterns and black “mustache” that adorns the face of the more common Kestrel. The Merlin’s may show a faint “mustache”, the black plumage on the sides of the face, but the bird appears a bit drab overall compared to the smaller and more colorful Kestrel. The female Merlin, like other birds of prey, is larger than the male. A large female with a recent catch of a small bird was facing away from me as it sat on a roadway in Iroquois county a few years back. From a distance the bird looked like a small Peregrine falcon, its’ solid blue-gray back and wings stood out and its’ thick body confused me at first until the bird took to the air with its’ prey. At that point I recognized it as a Merlin. The little Merlin is an avian hunting master that can send a flock of birds into a mass of fear and confusion. Outmaneuvering the unfortunate winged victims like Starlings, Sparrows and even small ducks, the Merlin,with a swift and precise attack snags its’ targeted prey while in flight. It also plucks dragonflies and other insects out of midair during its’ migration for a quick and easy snack. If you are fortunate enough to see a Merlin in our area of Northeastern Illinois it will most likely be during the winter months but sightings of the Merlin are becoming more common as the population of the little falcon has improved. The Merlin is known to breed in the boreal forests of the north but the discovery of a hatchling on the ground in Northwestern Cook county in 2016 may signify that they are expanding their breeding range.

A Merlin rests on a fence post keeping an eye on some feeding tree sparrows at the edge of a gravel road.

Rough-legged Hawks

A light morph Rough-legged hawk with wings spread wide searches for prey on the prairie below.

January 16, 2010 – Imagine looking out over a vast expanse of rolling and rocky terrain that stretches as far as the eye can see. Off in the distance you notice, from your high vantage atop a narrow rocky ledge on the southern slope of a mountain, an Arctic fox with its’ nose to the ground as it zigzags in a slow but deliberate trot across the tundra. At times the little fox disappears behind the slight rises of the uneven landscape and soon goes out of view completely. Further out towards the west is the unmistakable and heart stopping sight of a large white predator. A hungry Polar bear is walking with large, intimidating strides along the edge of an Arctic pond, surprising a pair of skittish Eider ducks. The birds quickly begin paddling away towards the center of the pond putting some distance between them and the dangerous intruder. Those sights that we just imagined could be the very real views that the nesting Rough-legged hawks might see while they spend the warmer months in the high Arctic paired up, nesting, and raising their young. The Rough-legged hawk is one of a small number of moderate-distance migratory hawks that we are fortunate enough to see here in Northeastern Illinois during the winter. These amazing hawks will find a good hunting spot, open terrain similar to that of the Arctic tundra, where there is plenty of prey with not much competition and most likely stay in that same general area for the winter. The open agricultural areas and restored prairies of Northern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana are great places to find these large hawks hunting. The plumage of the Rough-legged hawks can differ, some birds are very dark and some are light in color. They are referred to as a dark or a light morph. The Rough-legged hawk will take advantage of windy days and hover into the wind to hold their position above the prairie while hunting mice, voles, and birds. Fence posts, utility poles, and the smaller branches in the tops of trees where they can grip with their small feet are places the hawks will use to watch for prey.

Perched in the mid-morning sun a Rough-legged hawk along a rural road east of Kankakee stays alert for movement below.

The Brown Creeper

A Brown creeper probes with its’ long curved bill behind the bark of a tree looking for insects.

January 1, 2020 – The Brown Creeper is a tiny well camouflaged bird that seems to defy the forces of nature as it swiftly moves across the jagged edged bark of a tree. It pauses momentarily to search, with its’ long curved bill, the cracks and openings in and behind the tree bark for insects. The bird is an expert contortionist twisting its’ head to just the right angle to probe the difficult fissures to find its’ unsuspecting prey. The fast moving little Brown creeper, also searches the undersides of large limbs and is probably less often noticed by humans due to its’ size and dark colors than any other species of bird that spends as much time in the trees. The little bird blends in quite well to the tree bark of the large dark trees on which it hunts. The Brown creeper will land low on the trunk of a tree and work its’ way up and around the trunk eventually searching the higher branches for prey before moving to another tree. From my observations at multiple locations while watching the tiny creeper, within a short time of leaving one tree it will return back to the same tree repeating its’ search several times before moving on to continue its’ hunt on other trees. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey “the Brown creeper occurs in Illinois as a common migrant and winter resident and occasional summer resident. The Cache, Kankakee, Mississippi, Sangamon and Sugar Rivers appeared (1981) to be the center of distribution for nesting populations in Illinois.” Known as a short-distance migrant to resident we notice the wintering birds that have arrived in numbers from the north when we notice them hunting on the leafless trees in wooded areas and on the parameters of those timbered tracts of land.

A light colored Brown creeper pauses a momentarily as it searches a tree for prey

Short-eared Owl

A Short-eared owl perched on a survey marker at the Kankakee Sands in Newton County Indiana.

December 23, 2019 – It’s the most wonderful time of the year, that time when winters’ late afternoon skies become active with Short-eared owls swooping, gliding, or perched on a fence post or in a small leafless tree just above the tall grasses of their winter roost. Early mornings and overcast days are also good times to see the owls. Where suitable habitat exists on the restored prairies or along the rural roads of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana during those cold winter months, it is during the late afternoon, as the sun retreats towards the southwest, when those delightful medium-sized owls take to the sky in amazing displays of flight. When not chasing each other, in their minor territorial disputes, they search the fields and prairies for prey, occasionally landing on the ground highly alert and watching the other owls flying above. When “The Prairie State” was truly a prairie, before settlements and agriculture claimed the land, the nesting of Short-eared owls was believed to be widespread and numerous on the unbroken grasslands of Illinois and Indiana. Now there are only a few places suitable for nesting in Illinois. Prairie Ridge State Natural Area in Jasper County is one of those areas and it provides 2000 acres of grassland habitat for these ground nesting owls to roost, hunt, and fledge their young. It should also be mentioned that the 2000 acres at Prairie Ridge has nesting Northern harriers and the states only population of Greater prairie chickens. Closer to home, just east of Kankakee, the 8,400 acres of restored prairie and wetlands owned and managed by the Indiana Chapter of the Nature Conservancy at the Kankakee Sands in Newton County Indiana is a great place to observe wintering Short-eared owls, Harriers, and Rough-legged hawks.

Short-eared owl gliding over the prairie looking for prey this past week.

Snowy Owl

A Snowy owl is perched on a utility pole this past week in Iroquois county.

December 5, 2019 -Recently, on the 18th of November, the people of Barrow Alaska, at a latitude of 71º north, got their last glimpse of the Sun until late January 2020. Over these next few months, winters’ frigid grip will take hold in the extreme for the people and the wildlife above the arctic circle. Those high latitudes will become a dim world of unforgiving temperatures, short days, civil twilight, and darkness. One feathery inhabitant of the north is the Snowy owl, also known as the Snow owl, Arctic owl, and Ukpik in the Inukitut language of the Inuit people that live north of the tree line. Many of these beautiful white owls will move south off of their summer nesting range for the winter, but not all. According to Project Snow Storm, an ongoing research project into the yearly movements of Snowy owls, some of the owls actually move further north onto the Arctic sea ice to hunt through the winter. The second largest and heaviest owl in North America, the Snowy owl lives and breeds on the arctic tundra and spends the winter over a wide range from the interior and southern coastline of Alaska, across the Northwest Territories, most of Canada and south into the northern two-thirds of the United State including the flat agricultural land of Illinois. Some years, here in Illinois, higher numbers of Snowy owls are recorded, a phenomenon known as irruptions. Those record years of snowy invasions average every four or five years with the so called mega-irruptions bringing more owls further south then normal. I usually record a few Snowy owls in our area each year, but last year, 2017-18, I recorded seven and of course many other areas of Illinois saw an increase. Research has proven that an increase in prey animals like lemmings and voles on the breeding grounds of Snowy owls also insures the possibility of a successful nesting season. Irruption years of these white raptors spreading southward from their breeding range in the land of the midnight sun is always exciting and increases the chance encounter to actually witness this large white owl hunting over the croplands of Illinois.

The feather covered feet of the Snowy owl are visible on the flying raptor.

The Lapland Longspur

A flurry of Lapland Longspur’s burst into the air off of a snowy road in Iroquois county this past week.

November 20, 2019 – Across the Arctic from Alaska to Greenland, in the remote places at the top of the world like Baffin Island, Southampton Island, and Melville Island in the regions of Nunavut, there is a small bird called the Lapland Longspur that spends the short breeding season courting, nesting, and raising its’ young. On the treeless tundra where packs of hunting wolves, Polar bears, and Arctic foxes eke out a living on the vast cold landscape, large migratory populations of Lapland longspurs, a small well camouflaged bird, begin arriving in the spring for the nesting season which starts by early June. These little ground nesting birds, that are about the size of a Song sparrow but with longer and more pointed wings, have a clutch of 3 to 7 eggs and only one brood. Their nests are constructed in a shallow depression lined with coarse grasses, mosses, and sedges. The nest itself is lined with finer, softer, materials from arctic plants and provides a cushioned place for the fragile eggs helping to keep them warm during the incubation period. After about 14 days, hatching begins and 10 days after that the young birds are able to leave the nest. The fledglings are equally divided and separately reared by each parent, according to the National Park Service. The time from nest to fully fledged is short in the arctic and soon the young longspurs will have developed their flight feathers and can forage on their own. As the summer comes to an end, the land of the midnight sun begins giving hints of the inevitable dark winter freeze. The Sun sinks low on the horizon as the calendar nears the Fall Equinox. By September, the longspurs are migrating south out of the dimming arctic leaving their breeding grounds for a less hostile and sunnier climate south of the Canadian boarder. By November, they are in the fallow crop fields and along rural roadways of Northern Illinois. Large flocks of these arctic birds can be seen feeding on spilled grain from the harvest. The little birds blend in quite well in the winter fields that are free of snow, but they frequently take to the air in a large flock flying and circling around only to return to the same spot. Foul weather with heavy snow brings the longspurs to the windswept or plowed edges along rural roadways where they find seeds and seek shelter from strong cold winter winds behind the tall drifts of snow. The Lapland longspurs will remain until late May fattening up for their springtime migration northward back to the breeding grounds of the high arctic.

Lapland Longspur’s in their non-breeding plumage feeding on spilled corn next to a recently harvested field.

Dark-eyed Junco

A perched Dark-eyed junco male shows its’ light gray underside and the dark gray of its’ upper body.

October 24, 2019 – The Dark-eyed junco is a small songbird that winters here in Illinois. The male of the slate-colored form of junco that we see here in the Midwest is dark gray with a very dark hood while the female’s feathers are lighter shades of brown and gray, but both the male and the female juncos have white outer tail feathers that are apparent when the birds are in flight. Juncos are a medium-sized sparrow that stand out against the snowy landscape looking somewhat like bouncing lumps of coal on a white sheet as they hop about scratching the icy snow-cover below the brown, dried-out plants vigorously searching for fallen seeds. The juncos are quite common at backyard feeders during the winter where they are regularly seen searching below the feeders with other foraging winter birds. Often called “snowbirds” the Dark-eyed Junco is a familiar sight along woodland trails during those cold months. The little birds are easily flushed to the the thick cover of leafless bushes were they can find protection in the dense shadowy web of dormant branches. During winter storms the little birds can seek shelter in those bushy thickets or quickly escape predators like hawks, foxes, and Bobcats when threatened. The Dark-eyed junco spends the summer during the nesting season in the northern United States and north of the boarder in most of Canada. They start arriving in Illinois during the fall migration in August for their winter stay. The spring migration can start as early as February. It seems, in my opinion, that there cannot be a more thought evoking snow covered winter scene, whether it is a first hand experience along a trail, conjured from ones’ memory, or displayed on a canvas washed by the artists brush, that doesn’t include those Dark-eyed juncos feeding with other winter wildlife on a dim gray and cold afternoon.

The female (Slate-colored) Dark-eyed junco has much lighter colors of gray and brown.

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.