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.

Common Yellow-throat Warbler

Female Common Yellow-throat Warbler

Female Common Yellow-throat Warbler

September 13, 2018 – A female Common Yellow-throat warbler pauses for only a moment atop some dried thistle standing at the edge of the thick undergrowth. Quickly the little bird vanishes into a maze of green as she searches for insects on top and below every leaf she encounters, at times revealing her location as she flutters from branch to branch in her quest.

Common Green Darner

 Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

July 22, 2018 – The dragonfly has had its’ place in the myth and symbolism of humans for thousands of years, both good and evil has manifested in the folklore and the art of both prehistoric and modern humans. From the primitive cave paintings to the Art Nouveau dragonfly pendants there is no denying that their beauty is an inspiration. Their evolution began over 300 million years ago, as some fossil records show amazing giant dragonfly like insects with wingspans of over two feet. But from a different path millions of years ago our modern dragonfly evolved. The modern dragonfly is much smaller, the largest dragonfly in North America is the Giant Green Darner of the Southwest that has a wingspan of around five inches. Here in Illinois we have the Common Green Darner that looks similar to the Giant Green Darner but it is a little smaller with a wingspan of a little over three inches. The photo shows the Common Green Darner clinging to a corn stalk leaf where many others were feeding along a grassy road in rural Iroquois county.

Dragonflies

Twelve Spotted Skimmer

Twelve Spotted Skimmer

June 26, 2018 – Along the uncut rural roadsides and in the meadows where the butterflies go, along the creeks and over the sparkling waters of ponds, the delightful summer air is in motion with dragonflies of many shapes and sizes with a variety of color patterns. Halloween Pennants, Common Whitetails, Eastern Pondhawks, Widow Skimmers and other species like the Twelve Spotted Skimmer which is found throughout the U.S. and southern Canada is shown in the photo perched on a dried weed in Iroquois county. Mostly unnoticed or ignored, dragonflies can only really be appreciated for their unique beauty and color patterns when seen through binoculars or a camera zoom.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Black Terns

Black Tern

Black Tern

June 10, 2018 – A small number of migrating Black terns have been reported recently at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area adjacent to the Kankakee river in Newton County Indiana. The Black terns could be seen flying low over the water as they hunt. With their silver wings spread wide they gracefully swooped from side to side, at times stopping to hover. The small terns would stretch their neck as they would look down towards the water to focus on the movement of a potential prey while their aerodynamic skills kept them suspended in one place. They would take insects off the water or out of the air or from a protruding limb of a submerged snag with remarkable precision.

Black Tern

Black Tern

They would glide with the sun to their back slowly working their way from east to west over the glimmering sparkles of the shallow waters of the bayou. Suddenly with a decision only they understood they would swiftly turn and fly quickly back toward the east and start over with their slow and methodical hunting technique which would repeat many times before they would find a small tree stump barely showing just above the water line to perch and rest a short time before the next hunt. The drainage of wetlands along with dangerous agricultural chemical runoff have had significant negative impacts on the nesting areas of the Black tern. Loss of migratory wetlands from drainage and pollution has added to a steep decline of the North American population of Black tern along with many other species. Overfishing of the Black terns coastal tropical winter range is also believed to have contributed to the somewhat sharp decline of this species.

Black Terns Hunting

Black Terns Hunting

The Yellow Warbler

Male Yellow-warbler

Male Yellow-warbler

May 22, 2018 – The Yellow-warbler is considered an early long distance migrant that winters along the coasts of Mexico, the interior of Central America, and south to the equatorial countries in the Amazon basin. Widely distributed, the Yellow-warbler is also found throughout the islands of the Caribbean. A trepidation of these small bright yellow spring migrants can appear without notice as they hunt insects amongst the vivid green leaves of new growth at the edge of a thicket. The little songbirds nest from Mexico north into the northern third of the United States and most of Canada and Alaska. The bright yellow male has bold red-orange brown streaks on the breast sides, the female lacks or may have just a very slight hint of those streaks.

Female Yellow-warbler

Female Yellow-warbler

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared Owls resting in the winter sun

January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl sitting in a small depression in the snow

During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl perched in the dried grasses

The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.

Short-eared Owl

Short-eared Owl