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.
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.
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.
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.
May 22, 2018 – The Yellow-warbler is considered an early long distance migrant that winters along the coasts of Mexico, the interior of Central America, and south to the equatorial countries in the Amazon basin. Widely distributed, the Yellow-warbler is also found throughout the islands of the Caribbean. A trepidation of these small bright yellow spring migrants can appear without notice as they hunt insects amongst the vivid green leaves of new growth at the edge of a thicket. The little songbirds nest from Mexico north into the northern third of the United States and most of Canada and Alaska. The bright yellow male has bold red-orange brown streaks on the breast sides, the female lacks or may have just a very slight hint of those streaks.
January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.
During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.
The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.
December 10, 2017 – North America’s tallest bird at nearly 5 feet, the adult Whooping Crane is quite elegant and is as white as snow, except for the shades of red on its’ head and the black wingtips that can be seen in flight or when those nearly eight foot wings are stretched out. The Whooping Crane was at the edge of its’ existence as it was becoming locally extinct and rapidly moving towards a total extinction by man. Loss of habitat from industrialization and the expanding agricultural needs causing extensive wetlands to be drained, the Whooping Crane’s winter range and summer nesting areas were being destroyed. Shooting and collecting the eggs of these grand birds with no regard to the impact on the species, the nature of the shortsighted was taking its toll. In 1941 there were only around 20 Whooping Cranes known to remain, extinction seemed emanate. The story of this challenge continues today even though the alarm bells rang years ago. Projects and experiments for saving this species continue through hard work and dedication from biologists, conservationists and volunteers with the long term hopes of restoring the crane to the self-sustaining species it once was.
The population of these birds is only around 600 across the country. Living in the Midwest, we get to sometimes witness the Eastern flock, a small monitored percentage of the total population of these birds that is part of the Operation Migration project out of Wisconsin. If you are lucky enough to see a rare Whooping Crane you might notice the color coded radio transmitters on the birds upper legs, taking note of the color codes is an important way of identifying the cranes and their location back to Operation Migration for their records. These photos of the cranes were taken this past week here in the Midwest in Northern Indiana. The crane in the photograph that is standing clearly shows the color codes, Right leg r/w Left leg w/g. In the photograph of the flying crane you can see one of the antenna for the radio and also the coal black color of the feathers at the ends of the outspread wings. Who is the celebrity crane in the photographs? It is an adult female crane #14-15 that first left Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin on October 3, 2015. She has been returning to Wisconsin in the spring and wintering in Alabama and the photo shows her on December 10th of this year at a staging area here in the Midwest before she continues south. Not far from where I photographed #14-15 I also was able to photograph two adults, a male #63-15 and a female #71-16 with, according to Heather Ray of Operation Migration, a young parent-reared #24-17 male that was raised in captivity by adult birds before being transferred to Wisconsin and released in in late September.
October 25, 2017 – Perched on a branch low to the ground or scratching the leaf litter below a bush in search of insects is the lovely Hermit Thrush that can silently slip from branch to shadow with little notice. Migrating south out of Canada and the northern most parts of the lower 48 the Hermit Thrush is considered a short-distance migrant and can be seen during its’ south bound travels at the edge of a forest opening while feeding on insects and berries in the shrubs and trees in the company of other migrating species. If not actually seen you may hear the exquisite but melancholy songs that can easily send one down an introspective path when experiencing those delicate notes heard in the woodlots on an early autumn morning here in Illinois. This unassuming bird, the Hermit Thrush, has become the subject and inspiration for poets and authors. Walt Whitman includes the Hermit Thrush in his lament for the death of Abraham Lincoln in the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Keep your eyes and ears open for a visit by the Hermit Thrush as it passes through northern Illinois heading south where it will winter in far southern Illinois and the southern United States and south into Central America.
October 25, 2017 – A large stocky and vibrant rufous Fox Sparrow momentarily strikes a pose on the branch of a thick bush were it had been spending the morning on the ground below scratching the earth and kicking leaf litter in search of insects. Fox Sparrows spend the winter in the southern parts Illinois and the states south from Texas to the east coast. There are four groups of Fox Sparrows that are seen in North America but in Illinois we have the red group which nests during the warm months from Alaska to eastern Canada. This bird with its’ impressive size and red color really catches a person eye and is easy to distinguish between other heavily streaked sparrows and thrushes.
May 26, 2017 – The Red-necked Phalarope is a small delicate looking bird about 7 inches in length with an elegant form and dance like movements as it swims across the water hunting for insects. On a less traveled migratory route the Phalarope is occasionally seen by a lucky few each year in Illinois. The west coast and the western states of North American and off shore on the east coast is the birds normal pattern of migration as it heads for the lakes and ponds on the tundra in the arctic for the nesting season. This spring migration was no exception when I came across a pair in north western Iroquois county in a small flooded area surrounded by corn stubble. The pair were in breeding plumage and were on constant hunt for small worms and insects, at times spinning around in circles in the water churning up a vortex of sediment and exposing perhaps a tasty insect larvae. During the winter the Red-necked Phalarope is out to sea off the coast of Ecuador and Peru with concentrations around the Galapagos Islands where the warm and cold ocean currents meet creating a plankton rich food source for this pelagic species.
March 17, 2017 – A small flock of Rusty Blackbirds work the muddy edge of a pond, moving quickly with a focused intensity as they turn over leaf litter and sticks looking for insects on a cold and cloudy wet March morning in Kankakee county. It is the time of year that these birds, with a conservation status of vulnerable, migrate north to the boreal forests where another breeding and nesting season will begin around the Beaver ponds and bogs in the wet woods of the north.
The Rusty Blackbird, upon close examination, looks very different than most blackbirds with their rusty colored edges that highlight their dark feathers. The female has more of a colorful look with lighter shades of earth-tones and a mixture of that rusty color edging on the feathers and a grayish underside. Like the Common Grackle, the Rusty Blackbird has bright yellow eyes that are rather conspicuous and seem to penetrate ones imagination as you notice a look coming your way.
The Rusty Blackbird is a bird on the edge. It has been a mystery to scientist and ornithologist why there has been such an alarming decline of this species. “North American Breeding Bird Survey and Christmas Bird Count suggest that Rusty Blackbird numbers have plummeted a staggering 85-95% since the mid-1900’s” (Greenberg and Droege, 1999) . Among other possible causes are climatic change and high levels of mercury that have been found in the birds from pollution. Some speculate that the large scale draining of Beaver ponds and clearing of wooded wet lands for agriculture and development throughout its wintering range is a large part of this devastating impact on a bird that relies on a healthy ecosystem and wetland habitat. Many other migratory bird species suffer from this loss of habitat along with local flora and fauna that can vanish from the landscape seemingly in the blink of an eye with such a negative impact on these natural areas.
An organization called International Rusty Blackbird Working Group (IRBWG) was founded in 2005 to aggressively gain understanding by collecting data and monitoring the Rusty Blackbirds on both summer and winter ranges. The goal, through their research, is to lead to conservation methods and programs that help reverse the rapid decline of this species. http://rustyblackbird.org/