February 10, 2023 – A light and steady snow floated out of the chilled gray January sky onto the open waters along the Illinois-Indiana border. Hundreds of Greater white-fronted geese and a small number of Tundra and Trumpeter swans here for at least part of the winter were resting and feeding. The flooded, unfrozen fields of corn stubble at the Willow Slough Fishing & Wildlife Area in Newton County offer a perfect resting area for these wintering waterfowl waiting for spring. A family of Trumpeter swans, two adults, and three first winter birds feeding nearby were beautiful subjects on such a dream-like morning. Enhanced by the sounds from the large flocks of Greater white-fronted and Canada geese, the scene couldn’t have been any better. The lighting was near perfect, and the snowfall provided an unusual photo opportunity for these large elegant birds. Having a six-foot wingspan and a weight of up to 26 lbs, the Trumpeters are North America’s biggest waterfowl and are twice as heavy as our other native swan, the Tundra swan. Spending some time observing and photographing the trumpeters as they fed, preened, and occasionally expanded their magnificent wings making powerful and load-flapping sounds that carried for some distance, was an unusual and exciting opportunity to watch at close range the behavior of the swans. Standing motionless behind the camera and tripod for quite some time, I watched them as they fed together, stretching their long necks down into the cold water, searching the submerged vegetation for the much-needed nutrition required by wintering waterfowl as they prepare for the spring migration. Feeling fortunate as I observed these beautiful swans and knowing that there was a time in the 1930s only 69 trumpeters were known to biologists in the lower 48. Although small pockets of surviving birds were discovered in Canada and eventually a few 1000 in Alaska, it took some acts from the government to put some protection on these birds. That dedication to protecting the swans continues today through the laws of the states and the federal government, combined with educating the public about the rapid downfall of the Trumpeter swan from the market hunters and habitat loss in the late 1800s and early 1900s that nearly eradicated the swans from the United States. Recovery of the Trumpeter swan population continues with the ongoing efforts to expand their habitat while fighting against other factors that negatively affect the swans, like climate change, pollution, and lead poisoning from lead ammunition and lead fishing weights. Biologists, citizen scientists, and volunteers take on the challenges with a dedication to protecting and expanding quality nesting and wintering habitat while monitoring the North American population of around 63,000 Trumpeters. Those results are a true testament to the success of the combined efforts of many individuals with a powerful commitment to save the Trumpeters. It also must be realized that all the hard work and progress made from helping the Trumpeter swan is most certainly having a positive impact on many other wetland species.
February 5, 2019 – Last weeks little bit of open water on the river at Cobb park was a gathering place for a few hundred Canada geese. A number of ducks, both divers and dabblers, swam, rested, and hunted the open water between the ice while at times disappearing into those dark cold winter pools of the Kankakee river only to reemerge a short time later with their catch. A single Tundra Swan, larger than the Canada geese that surrounded it, stood-out with its’ bright white feathers and elegant presence. The Tundra Swan is a visitor seen during the winter months or during migration on the open waters of large lakes, rivers, and in grain fields in the northern parts of the US. During the nesting season the Tundra Swan, sometimes called the Whistling Swan because of the sounds emitted from their wingbeats as they fly, are on their breeding grounds in the remote wetlands of the high Arctic. There are only two native species of swans in North America, the Tundra and the Trumpeter. The Trumpeter swan is slightly larger than the Tundra and for the observer it sometimes requires a close look to determine which species you are looking at.
February 5, 2019 – The cold weather has brought the winter waterfowl to the open icy waters of the Kankakee river. Common Goldeneye, Common Mergansers, Redheads, Canvasback ducks and more can be seen feeding and resting below the dam near Jeffers park in Kankakee. Jed Hertz spotted a White-winged Scoter this past Saturday, the Scoter is a rare visitor that is usually seen during the winter months on the Great lakes and the coastal areas of the United States and Canada. In one photo a male Canvasback duck is swimming with two male Redheads, look close, they are very similar species. The other photo shows a male Canvasback and a female that appears to be sleeping, don’t let her fool you, she is quite alert as she floats along the icy shore of the Kankakee river.
The Common Goldeneye ducks fly up river towards the dam and land near the Washington Street bridge where they begin diving for crayfish as the current takes them back down river, a process that is repeated over-and-over again. The Common Mergansers do the same thing, catching small catfish, bass and shad. Ring-billed and Herring gulls swoop in to steal the prey from the ducks as soon as they surface with their catch. Mallard ducks, Greater Scaup, Lesser Scaup and the American Black duck can also be seen down river from the dam.