Bonaparte’s gulls

Adult Bonaparte's gull in full breeding plumage

Adult Bonaparte’s gull in full breeding plumage

April 19, 2018 – Good size flocks of Bonaparte’s gulls have been reported in Kankakee county and throughout Northern Illinois in recent weeks as they are working their way north to the boreal forests of western and central Canada and the southern half of Alaska where they will nest in the conifers. The small gulls prefer trees separated from the dense growth that are at the edges of marshes and bogs. A flock of 50 of these small and elegant tern like gulls was spotted in a flooded area of an agricultural field busily feeding on insects and worms, certainly to bulk up for their long journey north. The winter plumage of these gulls is mostly white, with a light gray on the tops of their wings and black wingtips, plus a dark spot on the sides of the head behind the eye. During the nesting season the adult birds’ head transitions to a slaty black as they get that wonderful dark hood that stands out in a beautiful contrast to their white body. This flock was made up of adult birds in full breeding plumage with some that were at different stages of transition, plus a number first year birds.

Bonaparte's gull not in breeding plumage

Bonaparte’s gull not in breeding plumage

American White pelicans

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

American White pelicans J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA

April 14, 2018 – Numbers of American White pelicans have been reported in our area for the past month. East of Momence near the Illinois/Indiana state line in Newton county Indiana, small and large flocks have been observed at the Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area. The pelicans are using the local small lakes, cooling lakes, and the backwaters of the Kankakee river as staging areas where they can rest and feed while waiting for that moment when that strong hormonal drive pushes them to head further north for the nesting season. Fifty of the large white birds have been counted at Black Oak with similar counts for J.C. Murphy lake at Willow Slough FWA. A flock of these great birds have been using a small rocky island in the Kankakee River State Park with a number of 25 birds reported on April 7th. Even larger numbers exceeding 100 have been reported near Braidwood and north to the Des Plains river.

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Pelicans swimming at Black Oak Bayou of the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area

Horned Grebes

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe in winter plumage

March 28, 2018 – A pair of Horned Grebes glide silently across the placid waters of the Black Oak Bayou. One is still in its’ mostly achromatic winter plumage, while the other is transitioning towards the more impressive breeding colors of gold, black and chestnut. These small divers with their intriguing red eyes are on their northerly migration. The birds have been spending some time at a good food source of aquatic invertebrates and small fish at the Black Oak Bayou in the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area in Newton county Indiana. Soon the grebes will follow their instincts and continue the journey north into Canada towards the boreal lakes and marshes where their impressive courtship display will once again signify a bonding and the coming of a new generation of those red eyed divers.

Horned Grebe

Horned Grebe starting to show breeding colors

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

Female Red-winged Blackbird

March 23, 2018 – Perched on a branch amongst the cones and catkins of an Alder tree, a female Red-winged blackbird momentarily halts her search for insects as a large flock of Rusty Blackbirds suddenly and with an explosion of noise ascend from the swampy ground to the high branches of the surrounding trees.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird perched in a small tree

March 19, 2018 – A brightly colored male Eastern Bluebird perched in a small tree overlooking its’ territory appears to be taking in the warmth of the morning sun. The nesting season is here for the Eastern Bluebirds as they seek out small cavities in trees, old woodpecker holes, or a man made nesting box along a fence row. The males can be seen bringing material to a possible nest site hoping to entice the females with their excellent choice and seductive wing display. The male Bluebird is very aggressive towards other males that enter its’ territory as is the female towards other females. Soon the female Bluebird, upon excepting the offer from the male, will complete the building of a nest, selecting the right materials, and constructing the nest just the way she wants it. In about 15 days a new generation of Eastern Bluebirds will hatch into a world with many challenges.

Short-eared owls at the Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl Perched Nature Conservancy's Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl Perched

March 9, 2018 – The light had changed on the prairie as it neared the late part of the afternoon. The sun, now in the western sky, cast a warm glow that saturated the earthy colors at the Kankakee sands. It was like a switch had been thrown when they suddenly appeared, the Short-eared owls were up and hunting! Two of the owls swooped in working together to drive away a Northern Harrier that was gliding low just above the prairie in search of its’ next meal. Two other owls could be seen perched on small bushes that stood above the tall brown grasses to the north. The irregular flight path of the hunting owls had them flying away but quick turns brought them back towards me for a fly by and then away again as they continued their search for prey. A cloud bank above the western horizon quickly narrowed the window of light needed for my camera, but a quick drive though the Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands located 7 more of these remarkable owls. Swooping and banking as the light grew dim the Short-eared owls took over the evening skies at the Kankakee Sands while the Northern Harriers and Rough-legged hawks found their roosts for the night.

Short-eared Owl at the Kankakee Sands

Short-eared Owl

Red-Headed Woodpeckers

Red-Headed Woodpecker

Red-Headed Woodpecker moving stone

January 27, 2018 – At first I wasn’t sure what all the Red-headed woodpeckers were doing flying out of the woods to the middle of a gravel parking lot. As I pulled in I could see them picking up something and quickly flying back to the woods. My thoughts were, what are they doing with those stones? After getting into position I was then able to observe them with my binoculars and I could see that they were getting bits of what appeared to be cracked corn from between the rocks. They would swiftly fly back to the woods but it wouldn’t be long until they would swoop in once more, three or four at a time. A mix of juvenile and adult birds would quickly locate more corn, sometimes moving stones that looked relatively large. While watching the Red-headed woodpeckers I saw Blue birds, Nuthatches, Blue Jays and a Tufted Titmouse working their way around the edge of the woods. Goldfinches are starting to show some yellow and high overhead the sounds from large flocks of Canada geese and those unique sounds of the Greater White-fronted Goose echoed. There were five Trumpeter Swans moving fast just above the black and gray leafless woods, their white feathers seemed to glow against the blue sky in the bright sunshine.

Red-headed Woodpecker

Red-headed Woodpecker with corn.

Whooping Cranes

Whooping Crane

Female #14-15

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.

Whooping Crane

Whooping Crane Fly Over

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.

Whooping Cranes

Male 63-15, Female 71-16 and a young parent-reared #24-17

Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area

Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble

Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble

November 20, 2017 – The last count posted for Sandhill crane numbers at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area was November 14 showing 7,706. On Monday, numbers most certainly have grown with hundreds of new arrivals daily feeding and resting in the surrounding agricultural fields. Many hundreds can be seen at the Goose Pasture Viewing Area in the park. We are now in the peak viewing season for these noisy travelers with their unmistakable chorus of rattling and croaking sounds that fill the chilled November skies. I also spotted a juvenile and an adult Golden eagle patrolling the very windy skies Monday near the Goose Pasture. One photograph shows two adult Sandhill cranes foraging in bean stubble and the other photo shows a young Golden eagle with the bright white tail feathers and the distinct white parts under the wings, the adult Golden eagles being mostly dark.

Young Golden eagle

Juvenile Golden eagle

Rough-legged hawks Return

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk

November 10, 2017 – A steady and chilly wind reminds us that another winter is approaching the prairies of Illinois and now, just ahead of that stark and frozen season, the Rough-legged hawks have returned. High over the fallow fields, pastures, and the dormant prairies, appearing suspended like tethered kites hovering and maneuvering in the gusts are the arctic birds of prey that have migrated to their less forbidden winter range. There are no ptarmigans or lemmings here, a food source on the tundra during the hawks nesting season but there are plenty of other small mammals and birds that will sustain these wonderful hunters for the next five or six months before they return to their nesting areas on the cliff faces and outcroppings overlooking the vast and open country of the arctic.

Rough-legged hawk

Rough-legged hawk hunting over the prairie in Northern Indiana