October 8, 2020 – A small flock of Golden-crowned kinglets that had moved south out of their northern breeding range of Canada and the upper Great Lakes were busy foraging for insects south of Kankakee this past week. A cold front brought the chilly winds of change out of the north that provided incentive and opportunity to move south and many birds, including the kinglets, took advantage of the prevailing winds to do just that. Holding quite still, being very careful to resist sudden movements that might frighten the petite, swift moving birds, I was able to easily observe the kinglets as they went from dried weed stems, to low hanging branches, and back again searching for insects. Sometimes the little hunters were only a few feet away, too close for a long lens, but just right for a memorable experience. This encounter was some good medicine, the kind of medicine that can easily provide a temporary reprieve from the tightly wound human existence for any willing person that would take a moment to pause and look around. Larger than the hummingbird, the Golden-crowned kinglet is one of North America’s smallest birds. They have a black and white striped face, olive colored back with wings that have two white bars, and their round little bodies are white and pale gray on the underparts. The kinglets have black legs and yellowish feet that look as though they are wearing little golden socks. Both the male and the female have the bright yellow stripe on their heads, that golden crown from which they get their name. The bold yellow stripe almost seems to flash like a tiny beacon as they move through the shadowy patches of undergrowth at the woods edge. The male birds show some orange color blended into their golden crown that becomes more noticeable when their flashy crest is raised. As the little birds move south on their short-distance migration they can turn up almost anywhere, even near backyard feeders where other birds are foraging. Some will continue south while others will spend the winter in our area, preferring stands of conifers that most likely provide some protection from the bitter cold and a safe retreat from predators.
September 24, 2020 – The Cape May warbler winters in the West Indies and breeds in the boreal forests of the northern border states from Minnesota east to Maine, and north into southern Canada, from Quebec west to Alberta, and into the southern edge of the Northwest Territories. These warblers are highly dependent on the spruce budworms as a source of food, a good year for the budworms means a great year for the warblers. Those banner years for spruce budworms coincide with more fall sightings in places where the Cape May warblers are less often seen. Although the Cape May warblers specialize in the spruce budworms that are plentiful in their summer nesting areas, they also can take advantage of other sources of nourishment such as the nectar from flowering plants, and the juices from ripe fruits. Similar to hummingbirds, flowering nectar rich plants are an important source in their winter habitats as well during the fall migration. These warblers have a specialized tongue that is semi-tubular that allows them to lap up nectar with ease. They also can use their sharp, pointed bill to puncture the skins of fruits to get to those sweet sugary juices. The little warbler gets its name from Cape May, a county in New Jersey, where the species was first collected, not far from the coast in a maple swamp where George Ord, a zoologist, was on a collecting trip with the celebrated ornithologist Alexander Wilson in1812. There is more to this story about when the Cape May warbler may have actually been collected at a much earlier date, in the Caribbean in 1751, and named the Spotted Yellow Fly-catcher, but that’s another story and it seems the name Cape May has stuck. After discovering the species in Cape May, the next recorded sighting of the bird at that location would not happen for another 100 years.
September 3, 2020 – The Dog Star Sirius is currently about 15 degrees above the horizon in the southeastern sky just before sunrise. According to the Old Farmer’s Almanac, the Dog Days are the 40 days beginning July 3 and ending August 11, those are the hottest days, the most sultry days of summer, and those dates coincide with the rising of Sirius, the Dog Star. In the past when that bright star became visible in the northern latitudes it was a precise celestial event telling those ancient people in the northern hemisphere that a seasonal change was coming. We can look around at nature and see, and even hear, other signs of change as we enter the final weeks of summer. The loud and repetitive bird songs of desperate males seeking mates has gone mostly silent. Like hundreds of tiny high pitched tambourines being shaken all at once the sounds of the cicada fills our ears replacing those spring and summer sounds with a kind of swan song telling us that summer is passing away and fall beckons our attention. The migrating warblers moving south show only hints of those fine bright colored feathers of the breeding season as their spring adornments fade to a more subtle, less showy winter plumage. Even the bright greens of the summer foliage is starting to become a little less intense and is showing signs of wear. Plants are at their peak in growth and some have already gone to seed while others continue to flower and bloom and bear fruit attracting insects, hummingbirds and other animals to the banquet. Another sign of late summer/early fall are the ripened dark purple berries of the Pokeweed plant that are attached to a bright reddish purplish stem. Those late season fruits will feed songbirds and mammals that will in turn spread the seeds far and wide. Over the coming weeks even the miniature Ruby-throated fliers of the northern summer gardens will have moved on as the blooms dry up and the days grow shorter and the nights become cooler. Certainly, a change is in the air, and if we slow down, listen, observe and learn from nature, we may find that we are able to look at our calendars a little less often as we tune in to the natural world in the same way our ancestors must have done for thousands of years.
August 27, 2020 – The little House wren is a busy, sometimes quite vocal, but mostly secretive bird that stays on the edges and in the shadows where the thick growth and shrubbery becomes a small bird sized labyrinth to hunt, hide, and guard against intruders. The wren has brownish toned plumage with subtle dark markings and grayish colored breast with slightly brown colored underparts. With such plain dull earthy colors the little bird can easily go unseen as it zips through the shadowy understory. There is not a dead tree or a broken limb that this little hunter doesn’t give a thorough search. From the ground up the bird checks every nook and cranny for small insects like spiders, crickets, and beetles as it moves in and out of the natural openings and dark crevices of the fallen bough. When the House wrens arrive in the spring the male searches for what he thinks is a perfect nest site. He may use old abandoned woodpecker holes, fractures in old dead trees, man made bird houses, or even old discarded and forgotten man made items. The male will make many trips bringing small twigs to the nest site angling longer twigs that are too wide for the hole, sideways to fit through the small opening. Filling the hole with nesting material, he tirelessly builds the nest in hopes of impressing a mate. The House wren has a large range which includes most of the Western Hemisphere. The birds nest in most of the northern two thirds of the United States, from coast to coast, and north into southern Canada. The wren spends the winters in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. The little birds can be found year round in parts of Mexico, Central America, and south all the way to Tierra del Fuego in South America.
August 6, 2020 – An always expanding collection of finely mimicked songs is the beautiful repertoire of the Northern Mockingbird. Both male and female mockingbirds have the amazing ability to vocalize the songs of many other birds and even some sounds found in nature that are not birds at all, like frogs for example. August 6, 2020 – Singing out with some impressive melodies, an effort meant to attract a mate during the spring and summer, the male mockingbird is a highly motivated and persistent melodious suitor. One cannot ever assume that they are hearing the strong rich songs of the Northern Cardinal, or the mysterious unearthly whine of a Gray Catbird, coming from the forest thicket when there is a talented mockingbird with it’s amazing ability in the area. Over the years the celebrated Northern Mockingbird has been, and continues to be, the inspiration for authors, poets, and lyricists as the subject of joy, sadness, or quiet reflection. The unmated bachelor mockingbird is relentless and will sing his desperate love songs late into the night, sometimes detouring their human neighbor from their coveted path to dreamland, causing some frustration for the tired. The disturbed half awake human, perched nearby, find themselves silently rooting for the bachelor’s quick success in finding a mate, an endeavor that would surely put an end to the late night concerts. The Northern Mockingbird is about the size of a Robin, it has a long tail, and is gray over white in color. The mockingbird has some distinct white wing patches and white in the tail that become obvious when the bird is in flight and their feathers are spread wide. The eyes of the mockingbird are light brownish-orange in color and appear quite striking in good light. Our area of Northern Illinois is in the northern edge of the mockingbirds year-round range but they are more common during the winter in the central and southern part of the state.
July 30, 2020 – This past week a number of early migrating shorebirds, on their southbound journey, had stopped at a flooded field in Iroquois County taking advantage of the available but temporary source of food. The largest of the shorebirds that was feeding at the shallow, slow draining, organism rich, field were the Greater Yellowlegs Sandpipers. The smallest birds were the Least and the Semipalmated Sandpipers. The Least, which is the smallest shorebird in the world, and Semipalmated Sandpipers searched for insects around the perimeters. The Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs with the longer bills and legs were wading through the deeper waters probing the soft mud below the surface with their long pointed bills searching and amazingly finding tiny insects and other invertebrates with their sensitive bills. While many of the species feeding in the flooded field get a bit aggressive when it comes to their hunting areas, quickly chasing away other birds that get too close, the Lesser Yellowlegs at this feeding site over a few days of observation seemed to only have conflicts with its’ own species. The Lesser Yellowlegs would fly, sometimes 50 feet, to challenge or chase away an intruder. Sometimes, though, the intruder would hold it’s ground and the excited birds would face off. Standing as tall as they could, bill to bill, making themselves appear large, the birds were certainly trying to intimidate each other. Suddenly, one would jump high into the air above the other coming down with it’s feet in the face of the other bird. With wings flapping, their bills and feet became weapons, the aggressive sounds of fighting sandpipers intensified, then suddenly they would stop. The birds would once again take that face to face bigger than life posture until one would attack. This squabble would happen four or five more times before they would slowly, but carefully, back away from each other and start feeding a short distance away widening the gap to a safe, tolerable, and perhaps agreed upon, distance. Most of the shorebirds were tolerable of each other with little aggression when hunting areas overlapped, at least they weren’t fighting like Lesser Yellowlegs who seemed to be looking for trouble. These shorebirds will work their way south to Gulf Coast, some going as far as South America where they will spend the winter until spring once again calls them north.
July 26, 2020 – Yellow-billed Cuckoos breed in most of the eastern half of the United States including from Texas to Florida and north to the Canadian border including Southeastern Canada. The Yellow-billed Cuckoos are a fairly large bird, larger than a Robin but smaller than a crow. According to The Cornell Lab All About Birds they are a long and slim bird with a bill that is almost as long as the head, thick and slightly down curved. During the North American winter, the cuckoos are in South America from Peru to Northern Argentina inhabiting the scrub forests and mangroves of those regions. The food of the Yellow-billed Cuckoos is not much different from many other birds. Along with small lizards and some invertebrates, they eat primarily large insects like crickets, grasshoppers, and even cicadas. The photos show two individual cuckoos each with insects just caught, one with a small seemingly harmless tiny insect, perhaps some kind of weevil, and the other with a Monarch butterfly just before it was consumed wings and all. The photo of the bird with the butterfly might beg the questions, doesn’t the Monarch butterfly taste bad, or aren’t they poisonous to predators because of the toxic milkweed plant they eat? The milkweed is a vital link to Monarch butterflies survival, the female monarchs deposit their eggs on the leaves of the milkweed. The development from egg to butterfly includes a stage where the monarch caterpillar feeds exclusively on the milkweed until it reaches the chrysalis stage. After about 14 days it will emerge as a beautiful and iconic, but toxic, Monarch butterfly. Monarch butterflies arrive in our area of Illinois from late May to early June and the photo of this cuckoo with the monarch in its bill was taken this year in Iroquois County on May 27, suggesting this butterfly was a spring migrant from an overwintering site probably in central Mexico. Research has shown that the toxins from the milkweed called cardenolides are strongest in the newly emerged monarchs but loses some potency after the fall migration when the butterflies are at their wintering sites. During the winter, predation by birds, primarily Black-headed grosbeaks, Black-backed orioles and Steller’s jays, take a heavy toll on the monarchs, contributing to their winter mortality. Yes, the Monarch butterflies are toxic and they warn predators with their bright colors to stay away, but maybe the spring migrant monarchs arriving in Illinois in May are at their lowest level of toxicity and perhaps the Yellow-billed Cuckoo, like the one in the photo, can tolerate low levels of cardenolides. It is a fact that the Yellow-billed Cuckoo can and will eat the toxic, hairy covered tent caterpillars which is an important food source to these migrants.
July 16, 2020 – A little over a month ago a flock of eight very small shorebirds stopped at a flooded field south of Kankakee for about three days to rebuild their fat reserves and rest. The little plovers were on their northerly migration to their summer nesting grounds on the rocky and sandy terrain and gravel bars along rivers, and around small lakes and ponds in the higher latitudes. The plovers nest on the shoreline around Hudson Bay and east to Newfoundland and west above the Arctic Circle as far as the Aleutian Islands. The little flock of plovers are known as Semipalmated Plovers and they are somewhat similar in color to the common, but larger Killdeer, a relative of the little plover. The Killdeer is a bird we see quite often along rural roads here in Northern Illinois and familiar to most. The Killdeer has two black breast bands and the Semipalmated Plovers have only one. The larger, noisy Killdeers always announce themselves, trying to lure you away from the nests, as you drive along the rural roads. When the low profile dark colored Semipalmated Plovers are in the area during migration they can easily go unnoticed as they quietly hunt for insects and worms along the edges of the muddy undrained wet areas in the agricultural fields. Locating the plover requires more than a quick glance, they can instantly go out of view as they quickly navigate across the rutty ground of a farm field where they can easily be missed. The semi-webbed toes of the plover, which surely must help on mudflats, is where the bird gets it’s name. There is webbing from the middle toe to the outside toe but none from the middle toe to the inside toe. After the breeding season, which runs from early May to late August, the little plovers will once again head south where they will spend the winter months on the south eastern and southwestern coast of North America and the coasts of Central and South America.
July 9, 2020 – Roadside ditches, marshes, wetlands and prairies are alive with many beautiful species of dragonflies. From the dainty Eastern Amberwings that are warmly illuminated by sun and perched on the lovely petals in the low growing carpet of color, to the large Green Darners flying in tandem across a shallow wetland, one can hardly find a view that is lacking of these winged jewels. The sight of those zigzagging, quick flying marvels is almost more than the human eye can follow, registering only a blur, until they light nearby. The black and white spots on the Twelve-spotted Skimmer are bright and beautiful making this dragonfly stand out quite well as it flies in the sunlight or perches in the broken light of a shadowy wet ditch. Blue Dashers are visible as far as the eye can see, perched in the open areas on the tips of the many available stems, branches, and tall flowers along roads and on the summer growth surrounding the wet prairies. Sitting in the bright sun the dashers rotate regularly to regulate their body temperature, at times taking what is known as the “obelisk” position where they stick their abdomen in a straight up posture to help cool their bodies. The Common Green Darner is a large beautiful dragonfly that migrates over long distances from the south and breeds here in Northern Illinois during the summer. In July and August the larvae develop and the young dragonflies emerge and work their way south to a warm climate for the winter where they will breed and lay eggs and their young will develop from larvae to dragonfly and fly north in the spring repeating the process. There are 98 species of dragonflies in Illinois and all offer something unique that makes them easy to identify. Male and female of the same species can look similar with only subtle differences or they can look very different with confusing markings and colors. The Common Whitetail dragonfly is a good example of males and females having very different markings on both their wings and bodies that differ in pattern and color. The male has a white body while the female has mostly brown body but they both share a very similar stocky shape. These hot, humid, summer days demand a certain amount of attention devoted to observation of the dragonflies of Illinois. Bring binoculars.
July 2, 2020 – Several acres of low ground in Iroquois County that is surrounded by a large tract of lovely cultivated prairie has retained water for a number of months providing a perfect habitat and a food source for resting ducks, geese, herons, egrets, and a number of species of migrating shorebirds. Now, as the water is disappearing and the temporary wetland pond is starting to dry up, it is resembling a coastal mud flat, with small areas of water that are barely a few inches in depth. The small pools of water now hold concentrations of crayfish, frogs, and turtles, and the muddy areas expose worms, snails, and insects for an easy meal for the visiting wildlife. The puddles and the surrounding mud left behind, that was until recently covered in at least a foot of water, has attracted gulls, grackles, and even a family of raccoons that are visiting the buffet daily feasting on crayfish. Individual grackles that are part of several large flocks can be seen at times standing over a crayfish that is in a defensive posture with its’ pincers up towards the much larger bird. The grackle will try repeatedly pecking at the crayfish but if the crayfish is too large and aggressive the grackle will move on to an easier prey. A lone Bonaparte’s gull wades through the shallow, dirty, water stirring it with its’ feet as it searches for snails, worms, or any other likely prey in the dwindling pools. A pair of rare King rails staying close to the tall grasses and aquatic plants wander out into the open areas searching for the abundant crayfish. The skittish rails cautiously hunt the edges of the little pools for prey and even at some distance away, when the prey is spotted, the rail quickly dashes over and grabs the little crustacean and hurries back closer to the safety of weedy cover. The King rail, the largest rail in North America, begins removing the pincers from the crayfish before eating it by grasping the large claws and shaking the crayfish violently until those large intimidating claws are removed. The King rails are not as common in Illinois as they once were because of the loss of wetland habitat, the Illinois Natural History Survey explains their occurrence in Illinois as uncommon migrant and locally uncommon summer resident.