Spring Has Arrived

A Snowy owl perched in the morning sun this past week in Iroquois county will soon feel the urge to head north towards the vast Arctic Tundra for the summer

March 26, 2020 – Looking out across empty agricultural fields separated by waterways of dried grasses, flowing ditches, fallen fences, and the occasional leafless trees in the small and forgotten gnarly thickets that have somehow been spared the plow, we bear witness to a season in change. The picture before us speaks of a tired and somber late winter that is ready to give up its’ frail but respected hold to a new, strong, and hopeful spring. The spring migration brings temporary visitors that are working their way northward, while wintering birds are gathering and waiting for that call to move north. Some of our resident birds of prey, like Bald eagles, Great Horned owls, and Red-railed hawks, in Northeastern Illinois are already nesting, and some are tending to young. The feathered travelers, those long-distance migrants from the southern hemisphere, are yet to arrive but will stage in our area in the coming weeks resting and feeding before continuing north. Others are patiently waiting for those longer warmer days before moving north towards the high latitudes and a short nesting season above the Arctic Circle. Rough-legged hawks, Snowy owls, and American Tree sparrows are some of the birds that have some distance to travel, and in a month or so, those birds will be hard to find as they eventually disappear from the Lower Forty-eight for the summer. This past week two Snowy owls, only a few miles apart, continued their presence in Iroquois county. A dark morph Rough-legged hawk, another wintering Arctic bird, was hovering over a field hunting in the same area not far from one of the owls. On the first day of spring nine Trumpeter swans could be seen resting in some corn stubble east of the Iroquois river, these great white birds will soon move north into the marshlands of Michigan,Wisconsin, and Minnesota for the nesting season. A small flock of American Tree sparrows have been taking advantage of the remaining seeds on an overgrown lot south of Kankakee while finding safety and insects among the web of thick overgrown bushes and small trees. Spring has certainly arrived and the migration brings hope for new generations of many species and a promise of stability for all creatures on this little planet.

A male Red-winged blackbird singing loud with his red epaulets on display may be trying to entice a mate at the edge of a woods south of Kankakee.

A Murmuration of Blackbirds

Looking like a prairie cyclone, thousands of Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles rise in a storm of organized chaos.

March 5, 2020 – A few miles to the northeast I could see some strange and ominous dark, rolling clouds floating just above a large wooded tract of leafless late-winter Pin oak and Hickory. Within a short time after observing what appeared to be dark puffs of smoke, I began to notice the odd undulating movements of those faux clouds and quickly realized that it was not smoke at all but flocks of birds flying in a tight formation known as a murmuration. After a short drive I pulled to the side of the road, exited the car, and found I was in the midst of this huge noisy flock of Red-winged blackbirds and Common Grackles. The perched birds looked somewhat like dark sentries filling stems and branches in every tree that continued back to the north for at least a half mile. The trees that were full of blackbirds connected with a larger woods that ran east and west that also held many perched blackbirds. Scanning the trees with my binoculars for Starlings and Cowbirds turned up none. It seems that this huge number of birds were only Red-winged Blackbirds and Common Grackles. There were a few hawks and eagles in the area causing anxiety among the flock and that nervousness could be detected in their chatter which would reach a deafening volume when a bird of prey flew near the perched birds. At times a hawk would cause some of the birds to go silent and to flush a short distance to the other side of the tree as it glided low above the wary flock. Soon the birds began leaving the trees for the fields on the south side of the road passing right in front of me. I have read about enormous flocks of flying blackbirds like this one, described as, “rivers of blackbirds”, when they are on the move and that seems to fit quite well as thousands of birds flowed past me like a swollen river for 15 minutes landing in the nearby fields. Behind me, coming from the west at the same time, was another huge river of blackbirds all converging in the same fields just to my right with a flow that lasted just as long as the other flock. At times thousands of these birds would rise above the fields in a typical murmuration of swooping tight patterns, flying back and forth above the terrain before settling back to the ground. The sounds coming from the wings of these birds as they took to the air sounded like tightly wounded rubber bands on millions of toy balsa wood airplanes being released at the same time. Barns, houses, and trees would disappear from view as the murmuration crossed the landscape. A wall of black would cause vehicles coming towards me to slow and disappear until the birds passed. This late-winter, late-afternoon observation of a such a huge flock of blackbirds is not unheard of, although sightings are usually that of much smaller flocks. I am not certain of the exact number of birds witnessed that afternoon but I say with confidence that I did see a concentration of Common Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds that reached into the hundreds of thousands, perhaps a half million, a sight that will linger in my memory as one of natures great gifts.

A large flock of many thousands of blackbirds move across the road in a cloud that eventually blocks the view ahead in a wall of black.

The Golden Eagle

A 4th year sub-adult Golden Eagle south of the Kankakee river this past week. The bird’s golden feathered head clearly visible as it flies out from a perch and glides over the winter landscape.

February 13, 2020 – Here in the Midwest it is now a common sight to see Bald eagles gliding high above the flat terrain of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. Nesting Bald eagles are also a more common occurrence in Illinois and Indiana, a remarkable rebound since the ban on DDT’s agricultural use in 1972. Illinois estimates indicate well over 300 active nests and for the state of Indiana a 2016 estimate shows close to 400 breeding pairs. Most often we see a magnificent Bald eagle or even a few of these great birds perched in a tall snag above open water along our rivers here in the Midwest, especially during those hard winter months. The eagles sit patiently waiting and watching while hunting ducks, coots, and fish or any other food opportunity that might come along. There is another species of eagle, the Golden eagle, that is less common and only seen or noticed by a lucky few during the fall and spring migrations. The Golden eagle may also be seen during the winter months in locations that provide open spaces, forests, and abundant prey. This winter a pair of Golden eagles were recorded in Iroquois county where they were photographed by bird enthusiast and nature photographer Bronson Ratcliff of Bourbonnais. Having a pair of wintering Golden eagles in our area is an exciting discovery. The Golden eagle nests across Canada and Alaska and in the mountainous western United States. They are year round residents and nest on the high cliffs and steep slopes with a open views throughout the Rocky Mountain states and west to the Pacific.
Here in the Midwest we watch for these large dark birds during the migrations. They are easily confused with Turkey vultures, Juvenile Bald eagles, or any large dark raptor. The 1st year juvenile Golden eagles have bright white tail feathers except for 2 or 3 inches of the tips which are dark brown. They can also have bright white patches on the tops and bottoms of the their wings from the middle of the wings out towards the ends, and are easy to see during flight. The 1st year bird is probably the easiest to identify with those good solid markings, but as they age, those bright white feathers start to fade as they get their adult feathers and other indicators must be looked at. The gold feathers on the back of the head and nape of the neck is another obvious clue that is easy to spot. The two tones of light and dark feathers on the head and neck, even on a perched bird in the shadows of a tree, stand out. The Golden eagle also has a shorter neck and smaller bill than the juvenile Bald eagle. Another comparison is the Golden eagle has feathered legs that go down to the feet and the Bald eagle does not. Next time you see that large dark raptor soaring above, look a little closer, it may be a Golden eagle.

The tail-feathers of this 4th year bird show the white colors disappearing as the eagle nears adulthood.

Wintering Cranes

A small group of Sandhill Cranes lean into the wind preparing to take to air.

February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.

A juvenile Sandhill Crane plays with corn stalks, picking them up and tossing them into the air, as it dances about with wings spread wide.

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.