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.

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.

Tundra Swan

February 5, 2019 – Last weeks little bit of open water on the river at Cobb park was a gathering place for a few hundred Canada geese. A number of ducks, both divers and dabblers, swam, rested, and hunted the open water between the ice while at times disappearing into those dark cold winter pools of the Kankakee river only to reemerge a short time later with their catch. A single Tundra Swan, larger than the Canada geese that surrounded it, stood-out with its’ bright white feathers and elegant presence. The Tundra Swan is a visitor seen during the winter months or during migration on the open waters of large lakes, rivers, and in grain fields in the northern parts of the US. During the nesting season the Tundra Swan, sometimes called the Whistling Swan because of the sounds emitted from their wingbeats as they fly, are on their breeding grounds in the remote wetlands of the high Arctic. There are only two native species of swans in North America, the Tundra and the Trumpeter. The Trumpeter swan is slightly larger than the Tundra and for the observer it sometimes requires a close look to determine which species you are looking at.

Winter Waterfowl

February 5, 2019 – The cold weather has brought the winter waterfowl to the open icy waters of the Kankakee river. Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, Redheads, Canvasback ducks and more can be seen feeding and resting below the dam near Jeffers park in Kankakee. Jed Hertz spotted a White-winged Scoter this past Saturday, the Scoter is a rare visitor that is usually seen during the winter months on the Great lakes and the coastal areas of the United States and Canada. In one photo a male Canvasback duck is swimming with two male Redheads, look close, they are very similar species. The other photo shows a male Canvasback and a female that appears to be sleeping, don’t let her fool you, she is quite alert as she floats along the icy shore of the Kankakee river.

The Common Goldeneye ducks fly up river towards the dam and land near the Washington Street bridge where they begin diving for crayfish as the current takes them back down river, a process that is repeated over-and-over again. The Common Mergansers do the same thing, catching small catfish, bass and shad. Ring-billed and Herring gulls swoop in to steal the prey from the ducks as soon as they surface with their catch. Mallard ducks, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup and the American Black duck can also be seen down river from the dam.

Wintering Cranes

Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes flying with legs and feet pulled up under their bodies, temperatures at the time were in the single digits.

January 24, 2019 – It is late January and temperatures have dipped into the single digits with wind chills sinking into the negative double digits, so why are there so many Sandhill cranes along with a small number of Whooping cranes still in Northwestern Indiana? Hundreds of Sandhill cranes are using an area a few miles Northwest of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, just south of the Kankakee river in the vicinity of a large power generating plant. According to Elisabeth Condon who is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin, if the conditions are right for the cranes, both the Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes, they may stay in a place like Northwestern Indiana where they can roost at night near the power station and feed in the corn fields and wet areas during the day. Condon also stated that there was a Whooping crane that wintered in Horican Wisconsin last year and survived the sub-zero temperatures.

A few miles southwest of the cranes roosting area I photographed two Whooping cranes flying with a small number of Sandhill cranes, all of those birds had their legs folded up under their bodies looking more like geese. This was an unusual sight for me, I have only observed the Sandhill cranes in less extreme winter condition where they always have their legs fully extended trailing behind. When questioned about the cranes pulling their legs and feet up under their bodies while flying, Condon explained this has been observed under the extremely cold conditions of winter, the cranes are just trying to keep their feet and legs warm, but also noted their legs extended in flight are used for control and balance.

A single adult Whooping crane surrounded by hundreds of Sandhill cranes feeding in the corn stubble of an agricultural field.

A scientific paper published in 2015, “Changes in the number and distribution of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Eastern Population”, used data from the Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 – 2013. The paper explains not only the increase in the number of the eastern population of Sandhill cranes but also changes in cranes nesting, migration and wintering patterns. It seems that historic southbound migration staging areas for the cranes have become, when conditions are right, wintering grounds. The authors claim “Factors such as annual weather, long-term climate change, and changes in land use may influence future population trends and changes in both breeding and wintering ranges and are not mutually exclusive factors.” (Lacy et al. 324).

Hawks and Owls

Northern Harrier
A female Northern Harrier perched on a fence post resting but also listening and watching for prey in the grasses along the roadway.

January 21, 2019 – There is snow on the prairie and some of the young bulls in the bison herd at the Kankakee Sands, in Newton county Indiana, challenge each others strength in their play fighting. Butting heads, jumping, and pushing each other until one walks away, but the bested young bull returns for more, unable to resist the challenge. Above in the winter skies, the Rough-legged hawks, in their varied shades of black, brown and white, hover over the cold white blanket pressing down on the sleeping grasses of bleak winter fields. Northern Harriers glide low, back and forth over the prairie at times looking like a kite that has come loose from its’ tether as they drop down on an unwitting prey. Late afternoon the Short-eared owls awaken from their roosts, flying in circles rising up high above the prairie in a group of four or five that soon descend in different directions finding their area to hunt. Perched on a sign or fence post or small tree they are wide eyed and alert, watching with those keen yellow eyes, for any movement surrounding their vantage.

A Short-eared owl is perched and hunting from a low tree surrounded by snow and fog as the last bit of light dims for the day.

The Lapland Longspur

December 31, 2018 – A small bird that is very difficult to see without snow cover, flocks of the Lapland longspur are in our area for the winter. The Arctic bird is easy to spot after a heavy snow. They can be seen in numbers foraging along the windswept and plowed roadways for wild seeds and spilled grain. I counted 50 in several large flocks, that I only noticed because they were flushed from the snowless landscape south of Aroma Park during the Christmas bird count this past Saturday. Keep your eyes open for these long distance migrants in and around the agricultural fields along with another visitor from the north, the beautiful little Snow bunting.


Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk perched on a steel cable

December 9, 2018 – Perched on a steel cable above a grassy area a Rough-legged hawk, a large raptor of the high arctic during the summer, keeps an eye out below for prey. The photo shows the feathers covering the legs, extending down to their small feet. The tip of the beak is stained red from a recent kill. The Rough-legged hawks have migrated south out the Arctic and are now on their wintering grounds. The wintering ground of the Rough-legged hawk includes most of the United States, minus the states south of the Ohio river and East of the Mississippi. According to The Cornell lab of Ornithology these wintering hawks feed mostly on voles, mice and shews while in our area of Illinois. I have personally witnessed them on the carrion of a rather large mammal a few winters back. With a wingspan of over 4′ they can’t be missed as they hover and glide over the farm fields and prairies. Watch for them perched on utility poles or on the small branches of trees or even sitting on the ground throughout the winter months.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared owls

Short-eared owl

November 17, 2018 – A small bird of prey sat perched on an old weathered fence post just before sunset near The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands restored prairies in Newton county Indiana. The small yellow eyed raptor, about the size of a crow, and sometimes referred to as “the ghost of the grasslands”, is a Short-eared owl. A number of Short-eared owls recently seen at the Kankakee Sands have found the perfect prairie habitat for food and shelter while they spend those cold, dusky winter months waiting for spring. These wintering owls can also be seen in the rural areas of Kankakee and Iroquois counties hunting at dusk or just before sunrise.

House Wren

 House Wren

A little House Wren

October  24, 2018 – A little House wren stops for a moment to look down towards the lower branches of a small leafless bush as it surveys its’ next perch. According to recent reported sightings, reflected in the online eBird species maps of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many of the House wrens are moving south, pushed by the strong northerly winds and cold air from the higher latitudes. The House wrens will winter in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. Of course the little songbirds are still being seen in the area, but in greatly reduced numbers as the migration continues.

Migrating Palm warbler

Palm warbler

A southbound migrating Palm warbler

October 15, 2018 – A southbound, migrating Palm warbler in its’ autumn drab blends in quite well as it finds the perfect perch to quickly survey the surroundings. The Palm warbler is known for its’ tail-wagging and this one doesn’t disappoint, showing off those bright yellow feathers under the tail. In an instant though, the little bird is off to continue its’ hunt for insects or seeds among the tall, dried vegetation.