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.

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