Listen to the Mockingbird

A Northern Mockingbird perches for a moment as it searches for prey at the edge of a woods in Iroquois County.

August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.

A closeup look at those well lit beautiful brown-orange colored eyes of this handsome mockingbird.

Southbound

A pair of Lesser Yellowlegs Sandpipers standing tall face to face having a dispute over the hunting area that will eventually lead to a noisy fight.

July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.

A small sharp looking Semipalmated Sandpiper on it’s way to Central and South America feeding in a small flooded field in Iroquois County this past week.

Yellow-billed Cuckoo

A Yellow-billed Cuckoo with a toxic Monarch butterfly clinched in the bill.

July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.

A tiny insect held firmly in at the tip of the Yellow-billed Cuckoo’s long down curved bill.

Semipalmated Plover

The profile of Semipalmated Plover show its’ dark cheek and fine orange eye-ring and the stout looking short, orange and black bill.

July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.

The photo shows the webbing on the middle and outside toes of the little plover from whence it gets it’s name.

The Water Hole

A King rail holding one of the crayfish’s claws in it’s beak that it just removed by violently shaking the crayfish.

July 2, 2020 – Several acres of low ground in Iroquois County that is surrounded by a large tract of lovely cultivated prairie has retained water for a number of months providing a perfect habitat and a food source for resting ducks, geese, herons, egrets, and a number of species of migrating shorebirds. Now, as the water is disappearing and the temporary wetland pond is starting to dry up, it is resembling a coastal mud flat, with small areas of water that are barely a few inches in depth. The small pools of water now hold concentrations of crayfish, frogs, and turtles, and the muddy areas expose worms, snails, and insects for an easy meal for the visiting wildlife. The puddles and the surrounding mud left behind, that was until recently covered in at least a foot of water, has attracted gulls, grackles, and even a family of raccoons that are visiting the buffet daily feasting on crayfish. Individual grackles that are part of several large flocks can be seen at times standing over a crayfish that is in a defensive posture with its’ pincers up towards the much larger bird. The grackle will try repeatedly pecking at the crayfish but if the crayfish is too large and aggressive the grackle will move on to an easier prey. A lone Bonaparte’s gull wades through the shallow, dirty, water stirring it with its’ feet as it searches for snails, worms, or any other likely prey in the dwindling pools. A pair of rare King rails staying close to the tall grasses and aquatic plants wander out into the open areas searching for the abundant crayfish. The skittish rails cautiously hunt the edges of the little pools for prey and even at some distance away, when the prey is spotted, the rail quickly dashes over and grabs the little crustacean and hurries back closer to the safety of weedy cover. The King rail, the largest rail in North America, begins removing the pincers from the crayfish before eating it by grasping the large claws and shaking the crayfish violently until those large intimidating claws are removed. The King rails are not as common in Illinois as they once were because of the loss of wetland habitat, the Illinois Natural History Survey explains their occurrence in Illinois as uncommon migrant and locally uncommon summer resident.

The rarely seen King rail is holding a crayfish in it’s beak as it moves into the tall grass and out of sight.

Cattle Egrets

A Cattle Egret with its’ beautiful reddish-brown plumage standing straight up on the crown of its’ head after preening.

May 28, 2020 – Standing out among the greens and yellows of a spring prairie that surrounds a shallow, seasonal, wetland of only a few acres, the bright white color of the four migrating Cattle Egrets in Iroquois County recently made for an easy count. While two of the birds were occupied preening, the other two were busy hunting through the prairie flowers and grasses for prey. Earthworms, frogs, and insects were on the menu this day. The egrets eventually came into range as they worked their way around the waters edge hunting the surrounding grasses. I could now observe through my camera their successful hunting techniques getting a close-up look at their focused behavior as they cautiously stepped through the taller grasses carefully looking for prey. A large nightcrawler worm is consumed quickly, but a big frog takes some work to dispatch and eat, a process that quickly becomes a challenge to keep the catch from being stolen by another egret. Before long, keeping the frog turns into an aerial pursuit across the water to the other side of the wetland where the successful hunter eventually wins the prize as the thief soon gives up.

Cattle Egrets are not native to the Americas, they are believed to have flown across the Atlantic via the northeast trade winds and arrived in South America in the late 1800’s from Africa. The Cattle Egrets expanded north into North America and were nesting here by the 1950’s. Most people would recognize images of these birds in the country from which they migrated from, Africa. One can easily visualize these birds perched on a large Cape buffalo, Zebras, or walking around close to the trunks of grazing Elephants. Here in America the egrets are often seen in cow pastures perched on domestic livestock and walking near the head of foraging cattle waiting for insects or other prey to be flushed by the large grazer. The little birds have no problem plucking insects and parasites off the faces of the cooperative cattle. These recent visitors to Iroquois County were in their beautiful breeding plumage. Three Cattle Egrets in breeding plumage were most recently reported by Jed Hertz in Kankakee County feeding in a similar habit as those found in Iroquois County.

A pair of Cattle Egrets slowly search through the spring prairie for prey.

Large Shorebirds

A large Marbled Godwit in breeding plumage gives a profile look at that impressively long orange colored upturned bill.

May 7, 2020 – A large number of shorebirds stopping off in Iroquois County on their spring migration could be seen feeding in a flooded field this past week. There were at least twenty Lesser Yellowlegs, and four Greater Yellowlegs, along with some Short-billed Dowitchers, and some small Dunlins. The variety of shorebirds were working the shallow waters and shoreline searching and probing in the soft mud for worms, arthropods, and other tiny creatures to replenish their fat reserves and building up the needed energy to reach their summer nesting grounds for the breeding season. Even more exciting were some obviously larger and less often seen visitors that seemed to dwarf the other species. There were four large shorebirds that are called Willets, all in their breeding plumage. The Willets are slightly larger than the more common Greater Yellowlegs, which is also a fairly large shorebird and is often seen in our area during the spring and fall migrations. The Willet has a heavier build than the Greater Yellowlegs, a thick straight bill and long legs for wading. Willets are seen during the winter months along the seacoasts of North America, Mexico, Central America, and South America. They nest inland making their nests in small depressions lined with grasses on the prairies of Northwestern United States and into the grasslands of Southern Canada. Some eastern Willets nest closer to the coast in the salt marshes and dunes of the Northeastern United States as far north as Newfoundland. Even more rare to see here in Northeastern Illinois was a very large shorebird with a long multicolored upturned bill. This large heavy looking bird, known as Marbled Godwit, is a little bigger than the Blue-winged teal ducks that were swimming nearby. The Marbled Godwit has a winter range on coastal beaches and mudflats almost identical to the Willet winter range. The Godwits nest in the native prairie grasslands, preferably close to wetlands located in the northern boarder states of the great plains and on into southern Canada. The Marbled Godwit is a very large sandpiper that has an interesting color and shape to its’ extra long bill. The bill is sword shaped, slightly upturned, with a dull pinkish to bright orange color extending from the base that continues about halfway down the bill where it turns dark all the way to the tip. These temporary flooded areas that were once wetlands across the prairies and are dreaded by today’s farmers are always a challenge to agriculture but they do play an important role with migratory shorebirds as they travel hundreds to thousands of miles in some cases to their summer and winter ranges.

A pair of Willets wade into deep water to search for insects and worms in the depths of the muddy standing water where they will probe the mud with their long sensitive bills to locate prey.

A Steady Migration

A little Winter wren, our smallest wren, poses for a split second with a captured fly. The wren will soon head north into Wisconsin and up into Canada for the nesting season.

April 9, 2020 – As nature steadily advances into another spring, more species of birds appear in the thicket each day. Some don’t stay long and leave during the night, while others spend a few days or even longer resting and feeding on the abundances of emerging insects and the remnants of last years seeds. A few Golden-crowned Kinglets are noticed high-up in the tree canopy searching every limb and branch for insects. On the perimeters of the small woodlot, any tall dried sturdy stem, or low hanging branches near the weedy ditch, becomes the ideal perch for some Eastern Phoebes that are busy catching and consuming small insects on the wing. The elegant little flycatchers quickly return to a nearby branch to continue their hunt after successfully spotting, pursuing, and catching an insect. A pair of large Northern flickers are only sometimes visible as they search through the tall grass chiseling into the earth with their large powerful bills looking for ants and other insects. Movement on the ground near some thick cover alerts me to not one, not two, but three Hermit thrushes searching in a stop and go method for insects in the dark shadowy places among the leaf litter and new growth on the forest floor. A tiny Winter wren, our smallest wren, searches the decaying remains of a fallen tree for insects. The small brown wren is hard to see as it disappears into the dark nooks and behind the twisted dead limbs of a once mighty tree. Soon the little bird reappears, only for a moment, as it continues to looks for a meal but quickly vanishes once more. Building strength before continuing north on their spring migration gives the travelers, both long-distance and short-distance migrants, the best chances for another, or even a first time, successful nesting season. The countryside is greening up, grasses are quickly growing, many trees and shrubs are just beyond buds with tiny, furrowed, developing leaves. The sound of chorus frogs ringing out from every ditch and wetland puddle across Illinois is signaling those glorious vernal changes that seem to appear overnight revealing a new beginning.

Perched on a long stalk, an Eastern phoebe watches for flying insects that it can catch and consume on the wing

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.