June 11, 2020 – A flash of white catches my eye as an interesting bird with peculiar markings flies just above some intentionally destroyed, non-native invasive plants that are known as the common reed or Phragmites. The stems of the dead Phragmites lay strewn like pick-up-sticks across the soft, damp, muddy shallows. The mystery bird perched for a moment on the tall stem of a native wetland grass, but soon flew down to the mucky waters edge where it began searching through the dark, wet organic debris occasionally using the dead Phragmites as a convenient perch. The bird began picking up small pieces of plant material and appeared to be looking for something specific as it hopped over standing water to the next little bit of duckweed covered mud and broken reeds. Soon the birds’ beak was full of small pieces of plant material. The curious colorful bird flew up and over the higher dry ground where prairie plants were thriving and dropped down into the thick green cover where it disappeared. In no time at all the busy bird was back on the marshy ground continuing its’ search for nesting material. By now the bird was no longer a mystery, its’ behavior, its’ song, and the nearby male that was protecting the territory revealed the species as a female Red-winged Blackbird that was working on a nest. The unusual coloring of the birds’ feathers is caused by a genetic condition known as leucism, a condition that prevents melanin from being sent to some of the birds plumage. Leucistic birds are recorded and photographed across many species each year, from Great Horned Owls and Bald Eagles to Cardinals and Hummingbirds, and in this case a Red-winged Blackbird. Some of the leucistic birds are almost completely white while others might only have some plumage that is affected, sometimes referred to as piebald.
February 6, 2019 – The amazing sounds of wintering Sandhill cranes echoes out across the chilled and colorless January landscape of Northwest Indiana. Uncertain to the exact number of cranes that have spent their winter in the general region of the Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area this year, I was told by a local resident that he would guess maybe as many as 10,000. I am not sure about that amount, but I can say with a bit of certainty that I did observe a few thousand birds in and around and above the agricultural fields as I meandered through the back roads of rural Indiana this past week. The Sandhill cranes that stop short of their southern migration and remain in northwest Indiana throughout the winter take advantage of the open waters in the marsh at Jasper-Pulaski state park during a mild winter. They also use the shallow waters of the cooling lakes at the power plant just northwest of the state park. When the winter is more severe and the marsh is frozen the cranes are more numerous near the power plant . At night the cranes roost in the safety of numbers, while standing in the shallow waters of the cooling lakes, in relative comfort during those cold winter nights. The cranes, this past Friday, were flying out to the fields joining large flocks that were feeding and socializing when I arrived to the area at about 9am. Last winter at the end of January when the air temperature dropped down into the negative 20’s the cranes did not leave the cooling lake for the surrounding fields until almost noon. The steam from the lakes and the tall stacks at the plant produced huge white billowing clouds that became a backdrop to the thousands of cranes in the sky braving the elements flying out to the frozen fields of corn and bean stubble. This sight of the cranes flying in such an extreme weather event made it clear to me that hardy is an understatement for this ancient species.
December 19, 2019 – Gliding low and slow across the agricultural fields and the grassy waterways and prairies here in Northeastern Illinois are the beautiful Northern harriers. Once known as the Marsh hawk, these steep banking, quick stopping, hunting birds are considered here in the United States as “resident to long-distance migrants” According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We see an increase in numbers during the fall migration and into the winter months throughout Illinois. The harriers nest in numbers from Northern Wisconsin north into Canada and Alaska. These ground nesting hawks require large amounts of grasslands or wetland habitats for successful nesting. Some of the harriers winter from just south of the southern edge of their summer range, while others migrate all the way south to Central and South America. The stealthy, medium-sized hawks can be seen flying and hunting across Illinois’s cold sleeping landscape, looking and listening for movement coming from the dried dormant grasses just beneath their silent glide. When the focused hunters detect prey they use their long wings and long tail feathers to quickly turn and stop their graceful forward movement and instantly drop down on a field mouse or vole. The harriers are often seen diving at and chasing away Rough-legged hawks, Red-tailed hawks and even other harriers that get too close to their perceived hunting areas. The Northern Harriers are easily identified as they fly low across fields and prairies, their wings most often in a v-shape, and there is a white rump patch at the top of their long tail feathers. The female harriers and the immature birds are dark reddish-brown and tan, and the male adult birds, slightly smaller than the female, are a light-gray and almost white on some parts of the body, the tips of their wings are black. Often perched on a fence post or sitting in a field with a captured prey, one can get a good look at the feather pattern on the harrier’s face, it has a round appearance and resembles that of an owl. The disk like pattern of feathers on the harriers face is believed to help the hawks hear their prey as they hunt.
November 12, 2018 – A large 12 point buck, photographed just west of Kankakee recently, displays those tell tale signs that the breeding season for White-tailed deer is occurring in our area. Also known as the “rut”, the mating season for the White-tails really gets in gear by the end of October and lasts through January. This burly buck with his huge swollen neck stands like a stone fence between the doe and the intruder. The explanation for the enlarged necks on White-tailed bucks this time of the year during rut is widely believed by wildlife biologists to be the affects of a surge of the testosterone hormone. The increase in hormones is also believed to cause the aggression and the lack of fear that is a well known behavior of the White-tailed buck during the rut.
August 7, 2018 – Standing just over three feet tall, the Great egret overshadows the smaller Snowy egret that only reaches a height of two feet. At White Oak Slough and the Black Oak Bayou at the LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area, which is located along the Kankakee river in Newton County Indiana, there have been large numbers of Great egrets over the past few weeks hunting the shallows as well as using the trees to roost. The Snowy egret was an exciting find as the little bird would stay close with a group of Great egrets at the Black Oak Bayou. Snowy egrets have interesting techniques for hunting. I observed the little bird vibrating its’ leg as it moved through the water trying to scare up prey. It also has a behavior called bill-vibrating where it will rapidly open and close its’ submerged bill to confuse and force up frogs, fish, insects or crayfish. They also stomp their feet up and down as they move through the water as another one of their interesting hunting behaviors, to root out prey. Another exciting species of wading bird was noted at the bayou by Jed Hertz when he discovered two juvenile Little Blue Herons with a group of Great egrets on August 6th.
July 18, 2018 – Alert and vocal, a male Northern Bobwhite finally came into view as it cautiously but quickly moved across the sandy ground into an opening surrounded by thick green cover near Stateline road at Willow Slough this past week. The bobwhite quail has struggled since the mid sixties from habitat loss and the widespread use of pesticides. Habitat management programs involving conservation groups, state properties and private landowners has shown positive results for the bobwhite. In those areas of good quail habitat, if not actually seen, the Bobwhite quail can often be heard calling to other quail with that clear and strong song “bob-white” or “bob-bob-white”.
July 1, 2018 – Standing at the edge of a drainage ditch admiring some white water lilies and the beautiful pickerel plants that are now in full bloom I noticed a mother Raccoon with her young crossing a gavel utility road east of Kankakee just before noon this past Friday. Encouraging her five kits to keep moving, the furry little rascals quickly vanished into the deep grasses and that was the last I saw of them, but the mother stopped and turned towards me. Standing on her hind legs, rising above the cover of green and summer flowers to get a better view, she kept a leery eye my direction before she too, without further delay, disappeared into the maze of green near the edge of some cattails as the expected oppressive summer heat began to take hold.
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 4, 2018 – Of the nine species of orioles in North America, springtime brings us the rich songs and beautiful colors of two of those species. From the tree tops of our natural areas and throughout the neighborhoods and rural country homes with backyard feeders they suddenly arrive. The branches come alive with the black and bright yellow/orange Baltimore orioles along with the smallest oriole in North America, the black and chestnut colored Orchard oriole. Although less often seen with their darker colors they are no less beautiful. The two species nest in most of the eastern half of the United States. The Baltimore orioles’ nesting range also extends into the southern part of Canada. The Baltimore oriole spends the winter from Florida and the Caribbean south to Central America and the Northern most edge of South America. The little Orchard oriole spends its’ winter in southern Mexico and Central America. Keep your eyes and ears open for the sight and sounds of some our most spectacular visitors, the migrating spring orioles.
January 18, 2018 – A Snowy Owl was perched at the top of an evergreen last week in Iroquois county and seemed to have set its sights on a Fox Squirrel busy looking for food around the base of a large cottonwood. A small flock of Tree Sparrows and the intended target, the surprised squirrel, scattered and vanished when the owl swooped in. A moment after the failed attempt the owl took to the air and headed to a waterway in the middle of the field. The number of reported sightings of Snowy Owls starting to come in for Illinois have exceeded 100 so far. Those numbers are likely to increase from the encounters yet to be reported. In a small part of Iroquois county my high count for these owls is three but this year it has doubled with six individuals and possibly a seventh. It has been a banner season for these beautiful visitors from the Canadian Arctic, they have brought much excitement across the United States along with much science yet to be understood. Remember, if you encounter a Snowy Owl please respect the owl and keep your distance, do not try to approach the owl just to get a photo, observe from a distance with binoculars or a spotting scope. Snowy Owls have just recently been listed as vulnerable by the Union for Conservation of Nature.