Turkey Vultures

A flock of over 30 adult and juvenile Turkey vultures on a rural road east of Kankakee recently.

September 5, 2019 – Throughout the summer months, in the skies over northeastern Illinois, all one has to do is look up to see those large, soaring, dark colored birds gently gliding in the summer thermals. The wings of the Turkey vultures are slightly, but noticeably, pointing up. The unmistakable dihedral angle or “v” shape of their wings while in flight are much different from other large birds like eagles and hawks. Those birds extend their wings straight out and flat from their body when soaring, and appear more like a sailplane. Even at a distance a Turkey vulture can be quickly ID’d by its’ shape and flight patterns. It is not uncommon to witness large numbers of Turkey vultures perched in an old snag preening and drying their wings in the morning sun. It seems that if one bird spreads its’ wings to warm up and dry out, the other perched vultures quickly follow suit. Soon that old tree full of vultures with wings spread wide begins to take on the appearance of the partially furrowed sails hanging from the foremast of an 18 century brigantine. The birds, with their wings stretched out, slowly and carefully begin to turn and reposition on those sometimes shaky branches as they continue their warming in the early sun drying the nighttime dew from their damp feathers. When the time is right and the their feathers are dry and ready for flight the birds begin to lift off from their roost. They leave, a few at a time, flapping their large wings and climbing upward into a column of the warm rising air to begin their daily search for carrion. Throughout the day the vultures are found in fields and along the rural roads and highways where their keen sense of smell and great vision has lead them to their primary food source, road kill. Most of the Turkey vultures will start moving south late in the year and spend the winter from far southern Illinois on south. In recent years though, with milder winters, there are larger numbers remaining throughout the winter months in central Illinois. The Turkey vultures are some of the first to arrive in numbers here in northern Illinois in late winter for another nesting season.

An adult Turkey vulture quickly moves away from the road walking further into a field with other birds.

Ambush Hunters

A Black Swallowtail butterfly becomes a meal for the large Bullfrog.

August 8, 2019 – Having noticed two large bright green American bullfrogs sitting motionless on some rocky soil east of Kankakee this past week I stopped, reversed and pulled over for a photo. It soon became quite clear why these two frogs sat exposed and away from the safety of their nearby duckweed covered watery habitat when two Black Swallowtail butterflies came fluttering in. The unsuspecting swallowtails, in their wandering flight, glided much too low and close to the patient amphibians, and then in the flash of an eye with an explosive lunge, one of the bullfrogs caught and quickly devoured one of the butterflies. I spent the next hour and a half watching these two ambush hunters and I can say with absolute certainty that these frogs missed more prey than they caught. It seems that the frogs were quite skilled at remaining still for long periods of time as they waited for the next opportunity. However ,when a dragonfly, a butterfly or even a fly caught their attention but landed somewhat out of range, the frogs would give themselves away with their sudden movement as they turned toward the prey or tried to move closer. If the insects came within range the frogs mostly won.

Two American Bullfrogs get a little to close to each others hunting territory.

The American Bullfrog has long been celebrated in both dark and whimsical literature, even Mark Twain had his celebrated jumping frog. These large green croaking frogs have inspired poetry, songs, stories and myths that have been shared by the indigenous in their traditions and oral histories and are well recognized in American folklore. The bullfrog has a strong, unworldly song that can grab the attention of even the most heedless. They can jump quick and far, they are absolutely voracious hunters and to the bullfrog all is game if it can fit it in its’ mouth. I know for a fact that there are no night sounds that can make the lonely nighttime fisherman feel less alone than those wonderful guttural songs of the bullfrog from the the dark water edges of ponds, lakes and rivers of Illinois. The American Bullfrog is the largest frog in America and most widely known in Illinois and is native to eastern North America.

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.

The Great Migration

Last Sunday a number of waterfowl species congregated in some open water of a flooded field near Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife area as a morning snow made a winter scene.

March 6, 2019 – Despite the single digits and wind-chills to consider, some hints and signs of spring are starting to come into focus. The backwaters of the Kankakee river, the ponds, ditches, and flooded fields are slowly being liberated from their cold icy carapace. Male Red-winged blackbirds are beginning to stake-out their territories. They could be seen this past week perched on last years faded cattail stems and in small trees near water as they sang their songs of spring. Some ducks and geese are pairing up and keeping to themselves, while others with much greater distances to travel are together in flocks waiting to move north. Small flocks of Sandhill cranes have been seen heading north and recent reports out of Wisconsin state the news of early arrivals.

A pair of Hooded mergansers stay close together resting on the open water and feeding on frogs east of Kankakee this past week.

Soon our winter visitors from the upper Great-lakes, Canada and the North-west territories, and points east and west will be harder and harder to find as their numbers dwindle from our area and they push towards their nesting grounds. Rough-legged hawks will be noticeably absent from the skies above our prairies when they soon leave for the Arctic tundra. Greater-white fronted geese have recently been seen through-out the state and in our area in large flocks waiting for that moment to push north towards the high Arctic for their breeding season. As the weeks go by and warmer temperatures are here to stay and conditions north are stable and suitable for nesting, the waders and shorebirds will be making their move as the great migration continues.

Wintering Cranes

Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes flying with legs and feet pulled up under their bodies, temperatures at the time were in the single digits.

January 24, 2019 – It is late January and temperatures have dipped into the single digits with wind chills sinking into the negative double digits, so why are there so many Sandhill cranes along with a small number of Whooping cranes still in Northwestern Indiana? Hundreds of Sandhill cranes are using an area a few miles Northwest of Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, just south of the Kankakee river in the vicinity of a large power generating plant. According to Elisabeth Condon who is the Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator for The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo Wisconsin, if the conditions are right for the cranes, both the Whooping cranes and Sandhill cranes, they may stay in a place like Northwestern Indiana where they can roost at night near the power station and feed in the corn fields and wet areas during the day. Condon also stated that there was a Whooping crane that wintered in Horican Wisconsin last year and survived the sub-zero temperatures.

A few miles southwest of the cranes roosting area I photographed two Whooping cranes flying with a small number of Sandhill cranes, all of those birds had their legs folded up under their bodies looking more like geese. This was an unusual sight for me, I have only observed the Sandhill cranes in less extreme winter condition where they always have their legs fully extended trailing behind. When questioned about the cranes pulling their legs and feet up under their bodies while flying, Condon explained this has been observed under the extremely cold conditions of winter, the cranes are just trying to keep their feet and legs warm, but also noted their legs extended in flight are used for control and balance.

A single adult Whooping crane surrounded by hundreds of Sandhill cranes feeding in the corn stubble of an agricultural field.

A scientific paper published in 2015, “Changes in the number and distribution of Greater Sandhill Cranes in the Eastern Population”, used data from the Christmas Bird Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys from 1966 – 2013. The paper explains not only the increase in the number of the eastern population of Sandhill cranes but also changes in cranes nesting, migration and wintering patterns. It seems that historic southbound migration staging areas for the cranes have become, when conditions are right, wintering grounds. The authors claim “Factors such as annual weather, long-term climate change, and changes in land use may influence future population trends and changes in both breeding and wintering ranges and are not mutually exclusive factors.” (Lacy et al. 324).

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Female Red-bellied woodpecker
The female Red-bellied woodpecker searches for insects on a dead tree

January 9, 2019 – A female Red-bellied woodpecker, a common year-round bird here in the Midwest, searches the crevices and old nest holes of a dead tree for insects. The woodpecker is seen clinging to the tree with a strong grip while using its’ rigid tail like a third leg to lean out away from the tree as it searches. The Red-bellied woodpecker is usually the dominate bird at backyard feeders. The other smaller birds are most often seen on the nearby branches somewhat patiently waiting their turn while the Red-bellied woodpecker feeds.

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/

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk perched on a steel cable

December 9, 2018 – Perched on a steel cable above a grassy area a Rough-legged hawk, a large raptor of the high arctic during the summer, keeps an eye out below for prey. The photo shows the feathers covering the legs, extending down to their small feet. The tip of the beak is stained red from a recent kill. The Rough-legged hawks have migrated south out the Arctic and are now on their wintering grounds. The wintering ground of the Rough-legged hawk includes most of the United States, minus the states south of the Ohio river and East of the Mississippi. According to The Cornell lab of Ornithology these wintering hawks feed mostly on voles, mice and shews while in our area of Illinois. I have personally witnessed them on the carrion of a rather large mammal a few winters back. With a wingspan of over 4′ they can’t be missed as they hover and glide over the farm fields and prairies. Watch for them perched on utility poles or on the small branches of trees or even sitting on the ground throughout the winter months.

Short-eared Owls

Short-eared owls

Short-eared owl

November 17, 2018 – A small bird of prey sat perched on an old weathered fence post just before sunset near The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands restored prairies in Newton county Indiana. The small yellow eyed raptor, about the size of a crow, and sometimes referred to as “the ghost of the grasslands”, is a Short-eared owl. A number of Short-eared owls recently seen at the Kankakee Sands have found the perfect prairie habitat for food and shelter while they spend those cold, dusky winter months waiting for spring. These wintering owls can also be seen in the rural areas of Kankakee and Iroquois counties hunting at dusk or just before sunrise.

Sandhill Crane Southerly Migration

Sandhill cranes

Two immature Sandhill cranes, probably siblings, practicing their dancing while adult birds look on.

October 31, 2018 – It’s autumn in Northwestern Indiana and the dynamic shades of orange and yellow have proven especially inspiring this year. But those changes to a landscape that is filled with that nostalgic fall delight also means that it is the season for the Sandhill crane southerly migration. A major stopover or staging area for the Eastern population of cranes is at the Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area and it is happening now. According to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources Sandhill crane count, for 2018-19 at the Jasper-Pulaski FWA, the numbers have increased from the October 16th count of 2,067 to 4,591 for the Oct 23rd count. The Sandhill cranes will continue to arrive daily in large and small flocks from points north and will peak with many thousands resting and feeding in the area by mid-November. According to Audubon’s online ornithological summary the highest count for Sandhill cranes a Jasper-Pulaski FWA happened on November 26, 2002 with a count of 34,629. By the end of December the cranes will have moved south, mostly into Florida. Information for the best times and locations for viewing along with updated counts can be found at the Sandhill Cranes Fall Migration page of the Indiana DNR https://www.in.gov/dnr/fishwild/3109.htm.