Short-eared Owl

The bright round yellow eyes of the Short-eared owl are sharp and watching for prey as it swoops just above the tall prairie grasses.

December 31, 2020 – The colors of the summer prairie are all but forgotten as the chill of December takes hold across a landscape of golds, browns, and faded tans. Snow squalls move across the land with the bitter winds, reducing visibility and dimming down the sunlight reminding us that it is the end of December and winter holds the cards. The subdued sunlight does appear at times, filtered but shining through the gray and white ever- changing troubled and cheerless clouds that seems to roll like a swollen river, fast and turbulent across the bleak wintry sky. Wildlife behavior has changed with the cold weather as great flocks of Sandhill cranes in Northern Indiana huddle together like blizzard bound Emperor penguins of Antarctica as the temperatures drop by 40 degrees. Birds of prey feel the sting of winter but must continue their hunt no matter what the weather conditions are. Red-tailed hawks, Kestrel, and Merlin falcons watch the ground below a convenient perch on a blustery day ready to quickly pounce on an unsuspecting prey like a vole or a field mouse oblivious to the danger above. Rough-legged hawks expend precious energy hovering and fighting the challenging winds while Northern harriers fly low into the gusts gliding from side-to-side over the winter grasses along the perimeters of ditches and fields watching for signs of prey. The Short-eared owls are hunkered down in the shelter of the prairie grasses and the thick cover along the drainage ditches and fence-rows until late afternoon when the sun nears the southwestern horizon. On this day though, with the strong and relentless winds, the medium-sized owls may wait for conditions to improve before taking to the sky for the hunt. The Short-eared owls are wintering on our restored prairies and CRP grasslands of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana and are considered a medium-distance migrant that will leave their wintering sites by March. There was a time in Illinois when Short-eared owls were common throughout the state but they are now an endangered native. Wetlands and grasslands destruction is the main reason for their decline. Restoration of large areas of grasslands and wetlands would provide a safe place to winter and could also provide a safe place to nest someday.

Busy defending its’ hunting territory from another owl, the medium-sized short-eared owl appears to fly with purpose.

Rough-legged Hawk

Perched on the small branches in a tree a light colored Rough-legged hawk watches for movement in the prairie grasses below.

December 10, 2020 – Early December brings us some crystal clear and cold nights under brilliant waning moonlight that seems to sparkle on the frosty panes of thin ice forming on the creeks and along the river’s edge. The low temperatures create icy patterns that surround the many exposed and weathered rocks in the shallows with delicate chilly collars that will soon grow into thick cold locks that will hold fast in the coming weeks. These cold months also bring those Arctic hawks that will spend the winter hunting the prairies and farm fields here in the Midwest. The Rough-legged hawk’s diet has changed from the Lemmings of the Arctic tundra to the small mammals, like mice and voles, found here in our area of Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. During the nesting season in the high Arctic the Rough-legged hawks use rock ledges to build their nest in the vast and remote land of the midnight sun. While on their winter range, if they are not hovering or kiting over the grassy prairies and fields searching for prey, the hawks can be seen perched on the small branches in the tops of trees, or on utility poles and fence posts near a good hunting area. Like Snowy owls and other predators that migrate south out of the Arctic, the years of abundance in prey, especially Lemmings, means an increase in the predictors population, and an increase in numbers of migrants that winter here in the lower 48. The Rough-legged hawk is one of three raptors that have feathers down it’s legs to the tops of its feet, certainly an adaptation for colder conditions of the unpredictable Arctic. Watch for the Rough-legged hawks perched or gliding into wind above the prairies throughout the winter and keep in mind there are light and dark-morphs, some are quite dark and some have very light plumage. They have small feet with feathers on their legs that can easily be seen with binoculars.

A Rough-legged hawk with dark plumage hunts only about 15 feet above the ground clinging tight with its small feather covered feet.

The Rut

A big White-tailed buck stands at the edge of a road in Iroquois County in pursuit of a doe.

December 3, 2020 – The Midwestern autumn brings shorter days, colder temperatures, and behavior changes to those majestic whitetail bucks. The new growth of antlers that began in the spring has hardened and reached its’ maximum growth for the year. The bachelor groups of spring and summer have disbanded and the males are now on their own. Standing and showing little concern while in plain sight at the edge of a woods, or in the corn stubble of a harvested field, with his mouth open and head tilted up into the wind, the buck is clearly focused on something else. White-tailed deer have very keen senses and along with the bucks very sensitive nose, he also has a special sensory organ in the roof of his mouth that can detect females that are approaching estrous. The strong desire to breed is why, at this time of the year, we see those seemingly out of place whitetail bucks that are in pursuit of a mate. Standing with their nose in the air and with their mouth open and lip curled up blocking their nostrils they are tasting the air for that special signal, and during this time that buck has only one thing on his mind. The male deer can actually locate a doe nearing estrus by tasting the airborne chemical signals from quite a distance. Seeing the normally shy, overly cautious, and sometimes totally nocturnal whitetail buck out during the middle of the day can mean only one thing, it is the breeding season, also known as the rut. The breeding season for White-tailed deer is where caution is truly thrown to the wind and love is literally in the air. The peak of rut takes place from late October through November, but breeding will continue through January as the rut heats and cools and finally ends for another mating season for the whitetails of Illinois.

With lip curled up and mouth open a small buck chases a doe through the prairie grasses.

Lark Sparrow

With its’ chest out a beautiful Lark Sparrow appears to be marching along a gravel road as it searches for insects.

June 4, 2020 – The Lark Sparrow is a large, sharp-looking, sparrow with strong facial markings of rich chestnut, bright white, and coal black. Those amazingly crisp colors on the face of these birds help to distinguish the Lark from most other sparrows, making them an easy bird to identify. The Lark Sparrow also can quickly be recognized even at some distance because of the unique patterns of its’ long tail feathers. When the bird is in flight and the tail feathers are spread wide, the white tips on the dark tail feathers are revealed identifying the bird as a Lark Sparrow. The lovely contrast of the sparrows’ tail feathers makes the bird stand out against the mix of green tones in the tangle of vegetation of its’ spring and summer habitat. As the Lark Sparrow swoops over the prairies of the Midwest it will easily catch the eye of the observant bird watcher. This is the time of the year that Lark Sparrows can be found in open country here in Northeastern Illinois and Northwestern Indiana. The restored sandy prairies, grasslands, and pastures, with some trees and bushes nearby, are ideal location and probable nesting areas for the sparrow. In these locations of prime Lark Sparrow habitat one might get a glimpse of a bird that is less common east of the Mississippi. The sparrow arrives in our area in the spring for the nesting season from its’ winter range in the Southwestern United States and south into Mexico. You may be lucky enough to get a close-up look at Lark Sparrows as they regularly forage, often in pairs, along the less traveled roads searching the weedy edges for seeds, caterpillars, and other insects.

A Lark Sparrow perches on the stem of a tall prairie plant but soon disappears into some tall grasses.

Trumpeter Swans

A leucistic adult Trumpeter swan with yellow legs and feet stands next to a normal colored swan with black legs and black feet.

January 30, 2010 – A pair of Trumpeter swans surrounded by a number of Canada geese and a a few Mallard ducks were taking advantage of the open waters near the boat docks at the headquarters at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco Indiana this past week. A submerged aerator system sending bubbles of air to the surface keeps some small pools open and ice free. The open water attracts waterfowl during the winter when the rest of J.C. Murphey Lake is locked in ice. Getting a close look at the pair of swans, that have been seen at the lake for some months now, show that one of the birds does not have the usual black legs and feet that is normally seen on an adult Trumpeter. While photographing the Trumpeters at some distance this past August I noticed the yellow colored legs on one of the birds and assumed it was a juvenile. I was told at the headquarters at Willow-slough this past week that the swan with yellow legs was believed to be leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that causes a reduction of pigments. We see the abnormality in mammals, birds, and even in reptiles. A few times a year while great flocks of Starlings are feeding in fields it is not uncommon to see a flash of white from the wings, tail, or the head of one of the birds in the flock. The birds with white feathers are missing the normal dark colors of the Starling and are considered leucistic. The young cygnet (baby swan) that is leucistic is bright white and the non leucistic young Trumpeter is gray. The leucistic birds end up with yellow legs and feet as adults Trumpeters. These rare leucistic Trumpeter swans have been reported and are still occasionally seen in Ontario. The leucistic swans are bit more common in the Rocky Mountain population and are also seen in the Yellowstone summer population.

The leucistic Trumpeter stretches its’ leg giving a good look at its’ yellow colored leg and foot.

Bucks And Toms

A rare look at a giant White-tailed buck out in late morning with a doe during the rut this past November in Iroquois county.

January 9, 2020 – Here in Northeastern Illinois it has been a warmer, more forgiving winter leading up to the new year, and the relatively mild conditions that we have been enjoying have also continued into early January. Open water, and mostly snow-free fields means that there is easy foraging for both migratory and resident wildlife such as birds, waterfowl, turkey, and deer. Large flocks of wild turkeys can be seen feeding on plant material and the spilled grains from the last harvest in the snow-free agricultural fields, the cautious birds usually not far from the safety of their wooded escape. Much like White-tailed deer, wild turkeys separate into groups depending on the time of year. Young male turkeys, in late fall, form jake flocks after leaving their brood flock. The hens also group up after brooding their young. The adult male turkeys stay in bachelor groups until the breeding season arrives in the spring. March and April is the time that the male and female turkeys are joined together in large flocks and then eventually into smaller breeding flocks that are made up of a few toms with ten or fifteen hens. White-tailed deer also form bachelor groups. The bucks group together throughout the spring and summer months and unlike the turkey bachelors that are made up of mostly adult birds, the deer bachelors are made up of many different ages of males. During the warm summer months the White-tailed bucks are growing their antlers back after losing or shedding them during the winter and after the rut (active breeding time). The new growth of antlers starts in the spring and noticeably start out as velvety nubs. During the time of the bucks antler regrowth, the females or does, are giving birth during the spring and summer. By fall the antlers of the White-tailed buck are fully developed. Some antlers are small and are called spikes. While most are average in size there are a few that are huge and impressive but rarely seen. The White-tailed deer in late fall begin another breeding season. The bachelor groups break up and the bucks go their own way in search of does. The wild turkeys, the toms, the hens, and the jakes are still in their groups waiting for spring and another nesting season.

A flock of Wild turkeys that came out of their tall tree roost landing in bean stubble this past week east of Kankakee.

Plenty To Eat

A Warbling vireo pauses for only a moment as it searches the leaves for insects.

August 5, 2019 – As we are coming to the end of August one can not help but notice the changes that are happening as another autumn nears and summer contemplates its’ well earned rest. The changes that have been a bit subtle are now upon us. The angle of the sunlight brings an inspiring warm tone to the landscape. The gentle breezes swirling through the forest canopy rustles and rattles the matured leaves allowing us to hear those uplifting whispers of the mighty Cottonwood. We have come to that time of the year where there is a bounty in the northern hemisphere for the avian migrants and those birds that are here year-round. Recently fledged birds, along with the adults, are fattening up for the migration, checking every leaf, stem, and branch for insects and worms. Little Blue-gray gnatcatchers, Warbling vireos, and Chickadees are persistently looking over and under every leaf while they cling tightly to the stems as they feed. Thistle and other seeds, berries, and nectar are available for the birds that are coming south from the higher latitudes as well as the birds that have nested here in Northeastern Illinois.

A female yellow warbler looking for a meal carefully surveys her next move into the thicket.

Prothonotary warblers stand out with their bright yellow feathers and olive-gray toned back and wings while gobbling up caterpillars with amazing success as they pluck them off those woody plants at the waters edge. Goldfinches are on the beautiful purple blooming thistle plants along roadways and on the prairies searching for the high fat and protein rich thistle seeds. Adults and this years’ young Hummingbirds stake out and fearlessly defend, from a good perch, their abundant food source, a large thick patch of Orange Jewelweed surrounded by other nectar giving plants. Some of these travelers will be around for a while feeding and fattening-up and growing strong for either a long or short migration. As the weeks go by though, and those abundant food sources in our area start to wane, the north wind bringing cooler temperatures, many birds will leave our area in a final push and continue south where they will spend the winter in a warmer climate.

Northern Bobwhite Quail

A female Northern Bobwhite quail flushed to a tree branch keeps an eye on the intruder below.

July 11, 2019 – Foraging on the ground near a dense wooded thicket or obscured by the shrubs, forbs, and native prairie grasses in its’ northern range, an individual or a covey of 20 or more quail could easily go unseen by a passerby. The amazing and well camouflaged Northern Bobwhite quail is less often seen and more frequently heard when finally its’ presence is announced with that famous clear, rich, whistle that sounds just like its’ name “Bob-White!”. In fact, those most recognized and predictable whistles of the Northern Bobwhite are counted at certain times of the year by biologists, citizen scientists, researchers, and landowners. Using the collected data in set formulas is one method to determine the population of bobwhites on a piece of property. The Northern Bobwhite quail has struggled across its’ range, which is much of the eastern half of the United States including Illinois. Over the years harvest records from the IDNR have shown a sharp decrease in bobwhite numbers from the 1950’s through 2017. A number of reasons for the decline of quail populations in Illinois have been identified. According to a document published by Illinois Department of Natural Resources, “The Bobwhite in Illinois: Its Past, Present and Future”, primitive farming in Illinois actually benefited the Northern Bobwhite quail. Hedgerows, fallowing, and crop rotation provided both cover and food for the quail. Advances in modern intense agricultural practices, the clearing of cover, and the increased use of fertilizers, herbicides, and insecticides has had a negative impact on the Northern Bobwhite quail.

A close look at the female Northern Bobwhite quail.

The flat farmland in north-central and east-central Illinois where intense row crop agriculture is practiced has become void of the required habitat for a sustainable quail population. Human expansion has also taken a toll on quail habitat. Areas that once held quail habitat are turned into shopping centers, home sites, and sport fields. Management programs to benefit the quail continue to be a challenge for biologists, the complexity of a fragile species, and the human influence on the Northern Bobwhite quail that has changed a landscapes has left little room for this remarkable bird.

Merlin Falcon

The little falcon perched on a branch watching a large number of Red-winged blackbirds.

March 20, 2019 – The little falcon was perched and alert with its’ senses focused on a few thousand loud clattering mostly male Red-winged blackbirds that were on their spring migration. There was such an impressive number of birds in this flock that they gave the late winter trees and shrubs an appearance of being covered in dark leaves. Patiently watching from an old snag, the Merlin concentrated on a part of the flock that were flying, resting, and feeding in the grasses and along the roadway just to the north. Soon the little raptor, with a sudden and great speed, left its’ vantage causing the flock to take to the air in a large cloud of an evasive synchronization that resembled that well known and mesmerizing murmuration of starlings. I quickly lost sight of the little falcon, but I suspect after all of that commotion, which lasted no longer than 30 seconds, there may be one less blackbird in that huge flock of travelers.

Hundreds of Red-winged blackbirds and a few other species in a large tree in view of the Merlin.

The Merlin falcon is a compact and powerful bird of prey, it is slightly larger then the American Kestrel, which is the smallest falcon in North America. The Kestrel is a common falcon in our area that can be observed year-round, often perched on a utility wire while it is hunting voles, mice and insects in the grassy ditches and waterways along our rural roads. The less common to our area is the Merlin, it is often recorded in Illinois during the winter months. It spends the summer, during the breeding season, in the boreal forests of Canada. It appears though, that the Merlin is expanding its’ summer range. In recent years there has been an increase in nesting records in Wisconsin that seems to be expanding south, according an article by Eric Walters “Merlins Nesting In Illinois” published in a journal of the Illinois Ornithological Society. Data collected daily from bird enthusiasts is reflected in the eBird range maps for this species and shows that there has been a number of recorded Merlin sightings in June and July in Illinois along with a few confirmed nesting records in Northern Illinois and Northern Indiana in recent years.

The Christmas Bison

Baby Bison

Photo taken on December 12, 2018 of a Bison calf at TNC Kankakee Sands.

December 12, 2018 – The late season birth of a bison calf just recently discovered at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands in Newton county Indiana stays close to its’ mother on a cold but sunny December day. A small group of mature bulls could be seen grazing and resting in a northwest part of the north pasture, but the bulk of the herd was on one of the sand hills, near the remains of Bogus Island, where they had a nice southern exposure to the morning sun. The other young bison that were born in the spring, now looking somewhat like small adults, seemed to be enjoying the sunshine as they butted heads and rolled in a dusty wallow, at times completely covering their furry faces in a dusty mask. The new calf in its’ cinnamon-colored coat stood out as it walked across the hill not venturing far from its’ mother. Ted Anchor, the Project Manager at the Kankakee Sands, says that this late birth is uncommon but not unheard of. Anchor also reported that 16 calves were born during the spring and the bison herd at The Kankakee Sands is now at 50+. More information on The Kankakee Sands can be found at https://www.nature.org/en-us/get-involved/how-to-help/places-we-protect/kankakee-sands/