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.

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.