Ancient Birds

A small flock of Sandhill cranes appear to fly with little effort as they head to some corn stubble in a field just to the east where more cranes have gathered.

December 5, 2022 – My annual trip to Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area in Indiana to experience the Sandhill cranes in large numbers, a late autumn migration spectacle, did not disappoint. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is a staging area for the southbound cranes. And while thousands will have moved on to the southern United States by the end of December, there will still be hundreds overwintering in the area.
The DNR’s estimated count of Sandhill cranes posted on the park’s website was around 31,000 at the end of November. While many cranes could be viewed and photographed at the Sandhill Crane observation area inside the park from the observation platform, cranes could also be found socializing and resting and feeding in large flocks in the agricultural fields and along large ditches in the surrounding countryside.

The loud bugle calls described by some as a “kar-r-r-r-o-o-o” made by the cranes fill the air echoing a feeling of nostalgia for days long gone as small flocks cast shadows as they fly low over the large numbers of cranes resting in grassy waterways and the harvested fields. Based on the fossil record, the spring and fall migrations of the Sandhill crane have been occurring in one form or another for millions of years across the North American continent. Observing the large flocks of these great gray birds flying and vocalizing across an autumn sky is like looking through a window to another time in the distant past; it becomes easy to isolate that feeling, if only for a moment. Spending just a day with the great flocks of Sandhill cranes, it becomes easy to understand how and why the crane is part of the indigenous people’s culture to this day.

Long before the Europeans stepped foot on this continent, the Sandhill crane was part of the stories and legends of the indigenous. The Eastern Sandhill cranes are considered an important totem to the native people of the Great Lakes region. The crane represents leadership, independence, and good fortune. Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife area is about 53 miles east of Kankakee as the crane flies and can be a wonderful day trip and learning experience for families. Don’t forget to bring binoculars and a camera, pack a lunch and make a day of it, stay safe and enjoy. For more information about the cranes, visit the Indiana DNR’s website. https://www.in.gov/dnr/fish-and-wildlife/properties/jasper-pulaski-fwa/sandhill-cranes/

Jumping into the air with its five-foot wings spread wide, the crane seems to be trying to entice the other crane to join in a dance.

The Upland Sandpiper 2022

Keeping a watchful eye, an Upland sandpiper shows nervous behavior before quickly moving away farther into the field where it can continue its search for food.

July 12, 2022 – The increasingly rare Upland sandpipers have returned for another nesting season here in Northern Illinois. So well camouflaged as they hunt for insects in the agricultural fields and along the rural roads of Kankakee County and Iroquois County, they will quite easily go unnoticed if not flushed or heard by the traveler speeding by. It is always exciting to have my first sightings of the Upland sandpiper for a new year, especially knowing the challenges these survivors endure in such an ever-changing and warming world. It is equally as exciting to hear the unique songs of these birds coming across the fields and from the grassy areas. There are times that it is only those unmistakable songs of the Upland sandpiper that let you know they have returned. I have tallied 11 sightings of Upland sandpipers during May this year in Iroquois County, giving me hope for some successful nesting. The migration of the Upland sandpiper, a grassland shorebird that has the alarming status of endangered, is one of an epic journey crossing grasslands, tropical jungles, and turbulent seas to arrive in Northern Illinois in April for the nesting season, where they will remain until late August. There was a time in Illinois history before widespread destruction of the natural habitat and thoughtless over-hunting when these birds thrived, with an estimated population of 283,000 sandpipers in 1907-09. Today the estimated count of nesting sandpipers is but a small fraction of those early numbers. When nature was in balance across this state, many thousands of migrating Upland sandpipers would arrive each spring from South America, a flight of over 5000 miles from the countries of Uruguay and Argentina. Today the expansion of humans and other factors like mowing, pesticides, and construction, have reduced the safe and sustainable habitat for these ground-nesting birds here in the Midwest. Loss of habitat for the Upland sandpiper on their wintering grounds in South America also adds to their struggles for survival. Wisconsin and Illinois populations of the Upland sandpiper are most certainly in peril, leaving only a small and fragmented population that has somehow appeared to have adapted to the vast agricultural areas of Illinois. A few western states in the Great Plain have stable and secure breeding populations, while some surrounding states have shown a decline in the sandpiper. There are a few states where the Upland sandpiper is sadly presumed extirpated. Without awareness and protected areas and a change in human behavior, I fear for the future of the Upland sandpiper in Illinois.

Moving through the agricultural field, an Upland sandpiper in the company of two other sandpipers searches for insects and worms.

Wilson’s Snipe

A number of Wilson’s snipe rest in the soft and safe grasses near a small flooded area where 15 snipe had congregated in Iroquois County.

June 9, 2022 – A secretive and strange-looking plump-bodied bird with a long beak and short legs cautiously forages among the grasses around the wet areas of standing water where food and low-lying cover can be found. Becoming almost invisible by crouching low to the ground when possible danger enters the scene, the well-camouflaged member of the sandpiper family silently becomes part of the landscape. In an instant, the bird freezes as it watches with care, holding steady until it is safe. Only patience allows for close observation of this wary migrant. One shouldn’t confuse the actual snipe bird whose name has become chiseled in the lore of the youthful pranksters who have embellished their campfire stories to entice those who may take the bait for a midnight snipe hunt with a flashlight and gunny sack for a mythical creature of the same name. Once the snipe is off high alert, if not flushed in their typical zigzagging escape flight, they will continue their behavior of feeding or resting as long as the threat appears gone and they see no movement from a possible intruder. When not eating seeds or vegetation, the snipe will use its long sensitive bill to probe the soft mud as it searches for prey such as earthworms, slugs, and other tiny insects. Some prey animals, such as a long and determined earthworm, may cause the snipe and the earthworm to engage in a tug-a-war that requires the snipe to pull it out of the mud to eat it. Small invertebrates are consumed with their flexible bill while the long appendage is still deep in the damp earth. The snipe is known to be somewhat solitary, but usually where there is one there are probably more nearby, especially during migration when they may be in the company of a small group of up to 10 or more. The Wilson’s snipe is considered a medium to long-distance migrant that spends the breeding season from the northern third of Illinois to Northern Canada and Alaska and east to the Maritime provinces.

An earthworm puts up a fight as a snipe pulls the long wiggling meal out of the earth.

The American White Pelican

Well lighted by the morning sun a large American white pelican with a wingspan of nine feet glides past giving us a nice look at this beautiful bird.

April 11, 2022 – As spring continues to battle a winter that seems unwilling to step aside, the unstoppable woodland wildflowers have brought new color to the drab understory along the streams and trails of Illinois. This year in southern Illinois, Western chorus frogs sang their love songs under starry skies with an incredibly piercing volume lasting well into the chilly late February night. Waves of many thousands of noisy Snow geese have moved out of the southern part of the state, working their way towards their breeding grounds on the vast lands of the Arctic tundra. Every year American white pelicans that are becoming a more common sight in Illinois can be seen during the winter on the large lakes and river bottoms of Southern Illinois. American white pelican population has grown along with its nesting habitat from the northern Great Plains of the United States and Canada and south and east into Northern Wisconsin. The male and female pelican develop a flat plate that sticks up like a horn on their upper bill during the breeding season, which falls off after the season is over. The American white pelican has a 9-foot wingspan that easily carries the large body of those remarkable birds, having an average weight of between 11 and 30 pounds. Large flocks of these bright white birds with black flight feathers, circling in unison in a graceful formation, high over the lakes and wetlands illuminated by the sun, is a sight to behold, truly breathtaking. As spring arrives and winter musters its last bit of icy effort during its final curtain calls, those large, strange, delightful-looking pelicans will show up in small numbers here in Northeastern Illinois. Reports of sightings have already been recorded this year in Northern Illinois; I witnessed four low flying pelicans from my backyard in Kankakee within the last few weeks. For a brief time before moving further north and west to their summer nesting areas, the American white pelican will rest, feed and take flight on and over the rivers and lakes of Northern Illinois.

The strange flat plate on top of the pelican’s bill indicates an adult bird during the breeding season.

Red-Red-tailed Hawk

A light colored Red-Red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post is focused on the prairie grasses for any movement of prey.

December 17, 2020 – It seems that one cannot travel more than half-a-mile without noticing a large hawk perched on a utility pole, or on a barn, or a corn crib, often two birds within a short distance of each other, many times even on the same branch of a large tree overlooking a good hunting area. Once known as the “chicken hawk” and blamed for missing poultry, Red-tailed hawks were shot on a regular basis whether they were guilty or not. These great raptors are now protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Red-tailed hawks hunt a variety of prey, from rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, mice, and voles to insects and snakes and even carrion. They have a varied menu of prey to chose from. These hawks hunt and nest not just in the rural countryside but also in populated areas of towns and cities. They are very adaptable and where there are some tall trees, open spaces, and prey to be had, Red-tailed hawks will be found. These large hawks are very territorial and vigorously defend their nesting trees, hunting perches, and the surrounding area. With a four foot wingspan and their well known screaming vocalizations, they can be quite intimidating to other birds of prey that enter their territory. It is not uncommon to see Red-tailed hawks chasing and attacking other large hawks that have drifted into their space. The mostly pale plumage on the chest and belly of a Red-tailed hawk is easily visible when contrasted against the dark leafless trees of winter. Even at some distance you can, with good confidence, ID these large birds-of-prey. Red-tailed hawks are quite common across the United States and are here the year-round in Illinois. The numbers of Red-tailed hawks does increase in the fall as the northern breeders move south for the winter to escape the harsh conditions across Canada and Alaska.

Perched in a tree, a young Red-Red-tailed hawk looks back before taking flight.

Rough-legged Hawk

Perched on the small branches in a tree a light colored Rough-legged hawk watches for movement in the prairie grasses below.

December 10, 2020 – Early December brings us some crystal clear and cold nights under brilliant waning moonlight that seems to sparkle on the frosty panes of thin ice forming on the creeks and along the river’s edge. The low temperatures create icy patterns that surround the many exposed and weathered rocks in the shallows with delicate chilly collars that will soon grow into thick cold locks that will hold fast in the coming weeks. These cold months also bring those Arctic hawks that will spend the winter hunting the prairies and farm fields here in the Midwest. The Rough-legged hawk’s diet has changed from the Lemmings of the Arctic tundra to the small mammals, like mice and voles, found here in our area of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. During the nesting season in the high Arctic the Rough-legged hawks use rock ledges to build their nest in the vast and remote land of the midnight sun. While on their winter range, if they are not hovering or kiting over the grassy prairies and fields searching for prey, the hawks can be seen perched on the small branches in the tops of trees, or on utility poles and fence posts near a good hunting area. Like Snowy owls and other predators that migrate south out of the Arctic, the years of abundance in prey, especially Lemmings, means an increase in the predictors population, and an increase in numbers of migrants that winter here in the lower 48. The Rough-legged hawk is one of three raptors that have feathers down it’s legs to the tops of its feet, certainly an adaptation for colder conditions of the unpredictable Arctic. Watch for the Rough-legged hawks perched or gliding into wind above the prairies throughout the winter and keep in mind there are light and dark-morphs, some are quite dark and some have very light plumage. They have small feet with feathers on their legs that can easily be seen with binoculars.

A Rough-legged hawk with dark plumage hunts only about 15 feet above the ground clinging tight with its small feather covered feet.

The Common Redpoll

The male Common redpoll shows its’ bold streaked side while perched on the end of fallen limb.

November 19, 2020 – As we ease through the chilly days of November, the leafless trees and frosty mornings remind us of the coming winter as do the new arrivals of Arctic birds that we now see in flocks great and small in our rural areas of Northeastern Illinois. Snow buntings and Lapland longspurs are now feeding along the gravel roads and in the harvested fields of Kankakee and Iroquois counties. This year also seems to be a year where some other species of birds that normally winter a bit further north, have come south into Illinois in larger numbers. The Pine Siskins are here in large numbers, Red Crossbills, and White-winged Crossbills are being seen in the Chicago area, and even a few places south. Another little bird that has a more northern winter range, that I had the pleasure of seeing in Iroquois County this past week, is the Common redpoll. A number of reported sightings of redpolls continue to come in for Northern Illinois, one reported sighting of a flock of 15. This little finch, the Common redpoll, breeds in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions and winters across the Provinces of Canada and south into the area of the Great Lakes. They are about the same size as the Pine siskin with similar markings but lighter overall. The male redpoll has a beautiful red crown with some rosy-pink color on the chest, and dark streaks on its underparts. The female is a bit duller overall, and lacks the pink-washed color on the chest, but does have the red feathers on the head, the red poll. The bright yellow bill of the redpoll is made for eating seeds, it is small and pointed for getting to those tiny seeds of the birch, alder, and willow trees. The sighting last week in Iroquois County was of a single male Common redpoll in the company of a small flock of House finches that were feeding on some ripe wild berries on the sunny side of a thicket. It was an exciting treat to observe this little Arctic breeder in a rural area of Illinois.

Puffed up after preening, the lovely colors of red, yellow, gray, and brown show the amazing beauty of the Common redpoll.

White-throated Sparrow

Perched in the morning sunlight the bold beautiful markings on the face and throat of the White-throated sparrow standout.

November 5, 2020 – Back in Illinois for the winter months are the White-throated sparrows, a large and attractive bird with a long tail and a bright-white throat and bold face patterns of black, white, gray, and yellow. The White-throated sparrows are considered a short to medium-distance migrant. It breeds in the United States in the Upper Great Lake region and in the coniferous and mixed forests across most of Canada. There are small pockets of year around birds in the northeast U.S. The sparrows leave the impending harsh winter of the north in autumn before the first snow and head south into the United States to a more hospitable climate that is not totally locked in ice during those cold months. They appear in northeastern Illinois about the same time in the fall each year as many other sparrows, like the White-crowned, Lincoln’s, and Swamp sparrows. Similar to the Fox sparrow, the White-throated sparrows forage on the ground under the thick gnarly cover of the shadowed understory kicking leaf litter with its feet searching for insects, seeds and fruit in a very focused but alert manner. The sparrow can be found near heavily vegetated areas around parks and near rivers and creeks where there is plenty of cover. Also, during prolonged snow cover, many birds, including the White-throated sparrow, can be found in the windswept areas along roads and in fields searching for seeds. The White-throated sparrows will show up at backyard feeders during the winter here in Illinois with other birds providing there is some good cover nearby. Backyard feeders are favorite haunts for predators like Cooper’s hawk, domestic and feral cats, so quick escapes into thickets, bushes, and trees are a necessary part of a safe habitat for feeding birds.

Landing on a branch for only a moment the White-throated sparrow drops down into the dark understory to search for food.

The Tufted Titmouse

Paused for only a moment, a Tufted titmouse quickly leaves its’ perch and disappears as it continues its’ search for a nice large seed.

October 29, 2020 – It is late October and the unmistakable and lovely echoing song of the Tufted titmouse, a small gray songbird with large black eyes, is in the air. Four of the fine-looking little birds descend to the ground to search through the leaf litter for fallen seeds. After finding a large seed, the titmouse quickly flies up to a branch and holds the seed between its’ feet and hammers away on the food with its’ bill to break the seed into smaller, edible pieces The Tufted titmouse is a common year-round resident to the eastern forests of the United States, most often seen during the fall and winter months at backyard feeders, parks, and open brushy areas at the edges of wooded landscapes where fruits, seeds, and insects are available. Northern Illinois, and states east to the Atlantic, are at the northern edge of the little birds’ range, although surveys have shown that they have been expanding their range northward as far as southern Canada for sometime, possibly due to a warming climate and the fact that more people are feeding birds during the winter. With a gray crest, dark forehead, a stubby black bill, and rusty colored flanks with white underparts the little Tufted titmouse stands out against the dull shades of brown on the autumn landscape, much like its’ smaller cousin, the Chickadee, with its’ bright crisp colors. It’s a speedy little bird that can suddenly appear, sometimes in a banditry of three or four bold little titmice, where there is a good food source. Cautiously but quickly the titmouse hops from branch to branch and then to the ground, many times chasing other birds away, finding a large seed to either eat now or take away and cache for later. The Tufted titmouse is a joy to see and a treat to hear, somehow their beauty is enhanced when snow comes to the woods. Maybe it’s the soft illumination from the blanket of white under the stark winter sky or just bottled up nostalgia that seems ready to burst with each new encounter.

With a seed clutched between its’ feet, a Tufted titmouse is ready to hammer away breaking the seed into small bits.

Winter Is Coming

Young White-tailed bucks spar on a grassy hill as the deer breeding season nears.

October 22, 2020 – The cool temperatures of the Midwestern autumn bring a patchwork of awe-inspiring colors to both rural and urban landscapes. Reflections of the changing season fill the rivers, lakes, and slow flowing creeks that meander across the weary prairies and through the used-up pastures with a wonderful palette enhanced by the defused light of the gray autumn sky. The greens of the summer foliage are slowly disappearing into a changing landscape of late October. Large flocks of Turkey vultures, sometimes 40 or more, can be seen gliding in the breezy sky slowly working their way south for the winter. Some of the vultures are high in the sky with wings swept as they cut through the strong winds, others are gliding low across the tree tops and fields making progress working to windward across a gentle rolling sea of color. Winter flocks of black birds flying in unison take to the air from a fencerow as a Cooper’s hawk moves towards the mesmerizing display for a short pursuit that ends quickly as the hawk gives up on the evasive murmuration. Numbers of Pine siskins are seen in large and small flocks in the same areas where Gold finches in their drab winter plumage are feeding. The Pine siskin is a bird of the north that feeds on the seeds of coniferous and deciduous trees, though some years they move south in greater numbers if the seed crop of the north is poor. While fattening up on the available food the thick furred Fox squirrels are busy building their caches for the coming months. Young White-tailed bucks still in their bachelor group spar with each other on the sunny side of a sandy rise. As the rut grows near, these bucks will grow less tolerant of each other and the sparring will become much more serious, the group will break up and the bucks will go off on their own. Soon breeding will be the only thing on their mind as they search far and wide for does. A cold clear starry night accompanied by a freeze warning to gardeners and farmers tell the tale of no return, winter is coming, and that swift moving stream of the cold north winds will bring ice and blowing snow in the coming weeks. The frigged deep freeze of winter that is brought to use by the dynamics of a tilting planet will soon be at the door.

A large flock of Pine siskins fly to some standing water in a creek bed for a quick drink.