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.

Those Wrens

A Carolina wren pauses for a moment on a branch near some feeding sparrows.

October 10, 2019 – The mostly drab and well camouflaged light brown House wren, or the glamorous Carolina wren with its’ rich reddish brown over pale brown tones with distinctive white eyebrows, makes those two wrens easy to recognize. The House wren and the Carolina wren are two of the five common wrens we find here in Northeastern Illinois. The House wren, like the Carolina wren, is a small bird with a big sound system. Their songs are most often noticed before the birds are ever located and sometimes those clear rich sounds are both baffling and uplifting to the observer when they witness such small birds with very large and impressive songs. The little House wrens build their nests in the holes and cavities of living and dead trees. They will use nesting boxes, holes in buildings, or abandoned machinery, if it provides just the right sized hole and offers protection from predators and other birds. Carolina wrens will use tree cavities, flower pots, tree stumps, overhangs, tin cans, or thick vegetation for nesting. The poet William Wordsworth’s poem “A Wren’s Nest” describes quite well, in his inspiring verse, the competence of the nesting wren and their choice of the perfect nest location. The Carolina wren prefers thick bushy overgrown areas of habitat. The House wren also likes similar habitat as the Carolina wren but is just as happy in yards and on farms that offer places to nest and find food in and around farm buildings and brush piles. The House wren is a short to medium-distance migrant that spends the nesting season in the northern two thirds of the United States and into southern Canada. It winters in the warmer climate of the southern US and Mexico. The Carolina wren is a year-round resident in the eastern United States from the southern great lakes to the eastern seaboard, south to Florida, west to east Texas and south into Mexico.

A cautious House wren comes out of the thicket just long enough to survey the surroundings.

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.

The Barn Swallow

A beautiful male Barn swallow perched on a reed-stem takes a short break from hunting.

July 18, 2019 – The adult Barn swallows are sleek and swift with vibrant colors and long forked tails, they are both elegant and beautiful in flight or perched. The American Barn swallows are long-distance migrants and spend the nesting season in most all of the United State and north into southeastern and northwestern Canada and into southern Alaska. The swallows winter in Central and South America. Barn swallows are seen here in Illinois during their nesting season. Most often they are noticed in large numbers around open farm buildings where they build their nests in the rafters and eaves. They also use large and small bridges where they build their nests in the underneath structure of the bridge supports. The swallows construct their nests out of wet mud and grasses forming them into a half cup shape in the relative safety of the man-made structures or natural shelters like cliff overhangs.

The female swallow with an insect in her beak brings the small meal to one of her young.

These medium size birds fly up and down the creeks and ditches and across open areas zigzagging in confusing maneuvers as they hunt for insects. The young are brought food, usually large insects, while still in the nest or as fledglings perched together near the nest site. Their little bright yellow beaks all pop open at the same time like little beacons as their heads move in unison following the adult birds as they fly by. The adults seem to know who’s turn it is eat next when they return with a plump insect. Folklore and religious tales relating to the Barn swallow have endured throughout the ages. It is said the Barn swallows bring good luck if it nests on your farm but removing the swallows nest would bring bad karma to the farm. It is also said that the Barn swallow brings us the good news, with their chatter, that summer is on its’ way.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.