January 19, 2018 – Snow Buntings are a small songbird of the high Arctic, a visitor that can be seen in our area with flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs and sometimes in larger flocks of their own species. During the winter months here in Illinois they can be found feeding on dropped seeds along roadways or in the harvested agricultural fields. An interesting fact of these little birds, unlike other birds that can claim and alternate plumage, they only molt once and that is in the late summer. By the time spring rolls around and the Arctic breeding season is underway the browns and tan colored tips of their feathers are worn off showing mostly pure white with coal black wingtips. During their breeding season there are only a few slight differences in the plumage of the female and male.
January 18, 2018 – A Snowy Owl was perched at the top of an evergreen last week in Iroquois county and seemed to have set its sights on a Fox Squirrel busy looking for food around the base of a large cottonwood. A small flock of Tree Sparrows and the intended target, the surprised squirrel, scattered and vanished when the owl swooped in. A moment after the failed attempt the owl took to the air and headed to a waterway in the middle of the field. The number of reported sightings of Snowy Owls starting to come in for Illinois have exceeded 100 so far. Those numbers are likely to increase from the encounters yet to be reported. In a small part of Iroquois county my high count for these owls is three but this year it has doubled with six individuals and possibly a seventh. It has been a banner season for these beautiful visitors from the Canadian Arctic, they have brought much excitement across the United States along with much science yet to be understood. Remember, if you encounter a Snowy Owl please respect the owl and keep your distance, do not try to approach the owl just to get a photo, observe from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Snowy Owls have just recently been listed as vulnerable by the Union for Conservation of Nature.
December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.
The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.
October 26, 2017 – Golden-crowned Kinglets have migrated south from their northern summer nesting range of Canada and have been quite busy feeding on insects in the bushes and in the dense canopy of the deciduous trees of their winter range, which Illinois is part of. The tiny Kinglets are not much bigger than a hummingbird and have been known to get themselves caught on the little hooks of cockleburs and burdock bracts as they search for insects through the branches and leaves of a thicket. An example is the Kinglet in the photo that needed my assistance this past week. These amazing little hunters can be seen launching off of a branch to hover in midair at the edge of a leaf and pluck off an insect with an astonishing determination, at times making more than one attempt when necessary. One photo shows a successful catch of a small winged insect moments before the prey was consumed and then with little hesitation the Kinglet was off to continue its’ hunt spending only a fraction of a second in any one spot. The quick moving subject was certainly a remarkable challenge for this photographer.
October 27, 2017 – As I was leaving and going past the area where I had discovered the trapped kinglet earlier in the week, I found an unfortunate kinglet deceased and stuck in the burdock. A close up look shows the tiny hooks of the burdock latched to the wings feathers. Hooking the wings probably did seal the birds fate the more it thrashed about trying to escape.
April 14, 2017 – The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper is considered a medium sized shorebird standing up to 15 inches tall, they are an elegant long-legged wader that is a migrant through our part of the Midwest in the spring and in the fall. Currently they are on their spring migration and we can find the birds in the flooded fields and the shallows of ponds and lakes as the Midwest becomes a staging area for many shorebirds including the Greater Yellowlegs as they head into Canada where they will spend the summer months, the breeding season, on the marshy areas and the tundra from southern Alaska to Newfoundland. I was able to watch six Greater Yellowlegs and five Lesser Yellowlegs feeding in a small flooded area south of Herscher.
The Lesser Yellowlegs looks very similar to the Greater Yellowlegs but are noticeably smaller when observed side by side, The Greater Yellowlegs has a 26 inch wingspan and certainly appears somewhat lanky as it steps through the shallows with those long yellow legs. All of the birds in the group were moving mostly the same direction as they waded through the shallow water with some zigzagging, some darting and even crossing each others path. The Greater Yellowlegs would appear to push the Lesser along if it slowed its’ progress. At times the birds would pause to stick their faces and that long slightly turned up bill into the water and with a swiping motion they would move their heads side to side as they searched for prey. The birds seemed to have one thing in mind and that was to find food, many of these birds have come a great distance and still have a long way to go as they make their way to the nesting grounds. The Greater Yellowlegs spends the winter months along the coasts of North America from New York to California including the Gulf of Mexico and Central and South America. Even though their population is believed to be stable the loss of habitat in the winter range is the biggest threat to the Greater Yellowlegs