Autumn Whitetails

A large White-tailed buck walks out of the woods and looks around at the does foraging in the field.

November 7, 2022 – Freeze warnings and frosty nights lit by the autumn moon cause ghostly shadows to appear from things both known and unknown in the fields and woodlands of Northeastern Illinois. The night creatures, large and small, are aware of the changes that come in the fall and are on-task with finding and caching food, while others are fattening up on the summer’s bounty of acorns, grasses, and small prey for the coming long and challenging cold Midwestern winter. For Illinois’ largest mammal, the White-tailed deer, autumn is the breeding season for these majestic creatures, and an uneasy tension seems to hang like a ground fog across the autumn landscape.

The female whitetails are on heightened alert as a small herd of does and yearlings all look towards a wooded area trying to avoid roaming bucks with big ideas. The days are becoming shorter, there’s a chill in the air, and by mid-October, the rut, the period of breeding, will intensify and continue through December with a bit of overlap into the new year. The new generation of fawns will be born in the spring in May or June of the coming new year. In the meantime, awe-inspiring shades of red and golden leaves rattle in the autumn breeze surrounding the farm fields, hills, and hollows throughout our river valleys; these are the homes of the celebrated Illinois White-tailed deer. The bucks have been leaving calling cards by scraping saplings and low-hanging branches, licking, chewing, and leaving scent markings from the glands on their forehead.

The changes in the behavior of the male whitetail deer during the time of rut become deliberate as he is focused only on finding a doe. Those dominant White-tailed bucks, some of which have become nocturnal, venture out into the open during daylight hours, throwing caution to the wind in their pursuit of that doe in heat. Those dramas in nature play out consistently year after year with new players over time. A perfectly worded description, a photograph, or even a trophy mount cannot come close to the actual observation of one of these monarch bucks foraging at the edge of a field near some does on a beautiful autumn afternoon. In the coming weeks, the rut will begin to cool off a bit, the landscape will take on more of a winter look as 2022 autumn fades into the history books. There will still be bucks chasing females that come into heat late; even into January, the passing on of genes continues.

Along the field’s edge a buck using some low-hanging branches as a rub is leaving his scent as a message to other deer.

Southbound Warblers

A beautiful male American redstart pauses on a branch only for a moment before continuing its search for insects

October 10, 2022 – There are telling changes in the air that don’t require a calendar to say fall has arrived. As the days grow shorter and the cool nights summon an extra blanket or two, the long-anticipated little fall warblers from points north have been moving through Northeastern Illinois for some weeks now on their travels south to warmer climates for the long winter months. Many warbler species have been showing up in backyards, parks, and thickets throughout our river valley for a needed rest and nourishment required for such a challenging journey as this grand autumnal event. From the tree tops to the shadowy undergrowth, the little birds search for insects and wild seeds to replenish the fat reserves lost during their long flights. North America certainly has a variety of these stunning fairy-like little birds. There are more than 50 species of warblers across the contiguous United States, 35 of which are known to the midwest. A number of the little birds will spend only a brief time in our area during the great migrations as they are just passing through. Some species of warblers nest here in Northeastern Illinois, often noted by bird watchers throughout the summer months. Other species that briefly appear during the spring and fall migrations require some understanding of avian behavior and timing with a bit of luck to observe those little beauties. Weather fronts, prevailing winds, and years of collected data from bird observations are closely monitored by bird enthusiasts during the spring and fall as they watch for the big push north or south of migrants. Today, bird watchers can also take advantage of the radar technology that monitors bird movement. A collaborative called BirdCast provides this service; BirdCast is accessed on the internet and gives daily updates on bird movements in an easy-to-understand animated graphical interface helpful in locating the little travelers moving through your area. Bird migrations have been going on for thousands of years, adapting and evolving with a planet in flux. Today a rapidly warming environment is having a noticeable impact on bird behavior that is playing out before our eyes. The collection of data by citizen scientists reveals changes in migratory birds’ behavior. The data shows birds are migrating earlier in spring and later in the fall, with nesting ranges expanding, bringing into focus our canary in the coal mine, which should be a warning for us all.

A southbound Black-throated green warbler on its long journey to Mexico for the winter

Life On the Road

A number of Clouded Sulphur butterflies gather around a damp spot on a gravel road feeding on the minerals leaching out of the ground.

September 5, 2022 – A short drive down a gravel road scatters hundreds of puddling butterflies from their feeding spots. Those delicate little fliers quickly surround the car in a flurry of yellow that appears like floating confetti in the warm late-summer air and soon becomes a storm of wonder and delight as many more butterflies fill the air. It is, after all, that time of year when the Sulphur butterfly population, after several broods, has grown quite large in numbers. They are easily found on and along most rural roads in large concentrations, especially on the clover growing in the uncut and weedy areas. Like other butterfly species, the Clouded Sulphur butterflies become drawn to the moist areas and puddles found in low spots and ruts along the edge of the road, hence the name puddling. The butterflies feed on the salts and minerals leaching out of the dirt in these spots. They congregate in groups of ten or more and are quite the late-summer spectacle as they encircle these mineral-rich wet spots on gravel and dirt roads of rural Illinois.

Along those same roads, a keen eye can spot other wonders of the insect world, like other species of butterflies, as well as several species of dragonflies. When flushed, dragonflies fly back and forth along the overgrown and weedy edge of the road looking for the perfect perch. Widow skimmers and Common whitetail dragonflies look like shimmering jewels when covered in the morning dew. Close-up photos reveal the complex patterns in their ornate wings that appear like tiny stained glass windows reflecting the early sun. Remaining very still while observing the colorful and fascinating dragonfly is a most important practice. Dragonflies have large compound wrap-around eyes that encompass almost the whole head, and they can pick up on any movement of the observer from all directions, sending your subject off to the next perch in the blink of an eye. The roads less traveled that seem mundane and uninteresting are most likely full of hundreds or even thousands of exciting discoveries. Binoculars or a camera will give you the best views of a subject. Getting a close look at these small animals will be an exciting experience and offer the observer incite into the behavior of these creatures.

A mature male Widow skimmer dragonfly clings to a weed growing along a gravel road in Iroquois County.

The Upland Sandpiper 2022

Keeping a watchful eye, an Upland sandpiper shows nervous behavior before quickly moving away farther into the field where it can continue its search for food.

July 12, 2022 – The increasingly rare Upland sandpipers have returned for another nesting season here in Northern Illinois. So well camouflaged as they hunt for insects in the agricultural fields and along the rural roads of Kankakee County and Iroquois County, they will quite easily go unnoticed if not flushed or heard by the traveler speeding by. It is always exciting to have my first sightings of the Upland sandpiper for a new year, especially knowing the challenges these survivors endure in such an ever-changing and warming world. It is equally as exciting to hear the unique songs of these birds coming across the fields and from the grassy areas. There are times that it is only those unmistakable songs of the Upland sandpiper that let you know they have returned. I have tallied 11 sightings of Upland sandpipers during May this year in Iroquois County, giving me hope for some successful nesting. The migration of the Upland sandpiper, a grassland shorebird that has the alarming status of endangered, is one of an epic journey crossing grasslands, tropical jungles, and turbulent seas to arrive in Northern Illinois in April for the nesting season, where they will remain until late August. There was a time in Illinois history before widespread destruction of the natural habitat and thoughtless over-hunting when these birds thrived, with an estimated population of 283,000 sandpipers in 1907-09. Today the estimated count of nesting sandpipers is but a small fraction of those early numbers. When nature was in balance across this state, many thousands of migrating Upland sandpipers would arrive each spring from South America, a flight of over 5000 miles from the countries of Uruguay and Argentina. Today the expansion of humans and other factors like mowing, pesticides, and construction, have reduced the safe and sustainable habitat for these ground-nesting birds here in the Midwest. Loss of habitat for the Upland sandpiper on their wintering grounds in South America also adds to their struggles for survival. Wisconsin and Illinois populations of the Upland sandpiper are most certainly in peril, leaving only a small and fragmented population that has somehow appeared to have adapted to the vast agricultural areas of Illinois. A few western states in the Great Plain have stable and secure breeding populations, while some surrounding states have shown a decline in the sandpiper. There are a few states where the Upland sandpiper is sadly presumed extirpated. Without awareness and protected areas and a change in human behavior, I fear for the future of the Upland sandpiper in Illinois.

Moving through the agricultural field, an Upland sandpiper in the company of two other sandpipers searches for insects and worms.

Spring Migration

A beautiful long-distance migrant, the male Baltimore oriole, pauses for a moment on the branch.

May 10, 2022 – During spring, when anticipation is thick in the air and weather conditions line up to provide some favorable winds out of the south, many migrants take advantage of the strong tailwinds to move north towards their summer ranges. Shorebirds, warblers, sparrows, and hummingbirds travel from points south and appear like magic at backyard feeders, flooded fields, lakes, rivers, and rural thickets along their route. Some of these avian travelers have flown a great distance only to stop here in the Midwest to rest and build fat reserves until the time is right and the cold and foul weather of Northern Canada is on its way out. Some species have already arrived at their summer range here in the midwest, like these backyard favorites, the Baltimore oriole, and the Ruby-throated hummingbird. These birds have traveled a long way, coming from as far as Central and South America, arriving just as the plants spring forth and insects emerge, the tiny insects providing the needed food for the new arrivals and the ones yet to come. Many species of warblers have arrived, some just passing through while others will nest here. The spring warblers in their breeding plumage are always a thrill to the observer. The bright colors of the male Baltimore oriole stand out as it flutters from branch to branch among the new spring growth. The distinct rich songs of the orioles will also delight and alert you to their presence. Ruby-throated hummingbirds zip about at high speed from tree branch to feeder as they try to chase the persistent orioles away from their sweet food source. In our rural areas, hundreds of American golden plovers stand like statues across the expanse of the unplanted agricultural fields in Iroquois County. The American golden plover is a long-distance migrant that spends the cold winter months in South America and travels to far Northern Canada’s arctic region for the nesting season. The plovers have been here for weeks feeding and resting and waiting for the cues of nature that tell them when to take to the air and continue their epic journey towards their nesting range.

The tiny Golden-crowned kinglet,a medium distance migrant that winters in Illinois, searches for insects through the branches.

The Short-eared Owl

Blending in with the dry brown winter grasses a Short-eared owl sits motionless on a cold February morning.

March 10, 2022 – The winter migrants were almost invisible sitting along a rural road in Iroquois County during the mid-morning. Blending in quite well with the soft dried grasses, surrounded by mounds of snow on an extremely-cold February morning, five wintering Short-eared owls seemed little bothered by the passerby. The owls appeared motionless while taking advantage of a bit of warmth from the morning sun. I tried to envision a time in the midwest when marsh and prairie habitats were vast and uncorrupted. Midwestern America was a perfect nesting habitat for the ground-nesting birds, a time before European settlements when Short-eared owls were a common species found in our area of Illinois and the surrounding states. The Short-eared owl is now considered an endangered native. Today there are only a handful of records of Short-eared owls nesting in Illinois, which is occurring on some large blocks of restored and protected grassland habitat. The destruction and reduction of the grassland and wetland over the years that are important for a healthy population of Short-eared owls are the main reason they are listed as endangered in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Michigan. Other Great Lake states have the owls listed as threatened or as a species “of special concern.” Observing the sleepy little owls, they would at times open their large round yellow eyes, the short tufts of feathers would stick up like little horns on top of their head, resembling some underworld deity. The hornlike tufts of feathers that stand upon the heads of many owls like the Great-horned owl, and the Long-eared owl, are neither horns nor ears. Some believe that the erect feathers that can be raised or lowered at will on the Short-eared owls might be a means of non-vocal communicating with other Short-eared owls. Others have suggested that the feathers are just additional camouflage, for when the owl roost or nest on the ground among the grasses, helping them to blend into their surroundings. The Short-eared owl is medium-sized with a wingspan of up to 40 inches. They have rounded heads that is more obvious when the feathers on top of their head are not standing up. As spring nears, the wintering Short-eared owls will move north towards their nesting areas for the breeding season. Except for the rare summer sighting, most of us will have to wait until late fall and throughout the winter to experience the thrill of the Short-eared owls rising out of their roost at dusk for the hunt.

A little Short-eared owl finds shelter along an eroded ditch bank in Iroquois County.

Snowflakes

A small flock of 20 Snow buntings foraging for fallen seeds in a snow-covered field in Iroquois County.

February 8, 2022 – Snow buntings migrate to the lower 48 each year to escape the howling winds that push blinding blizzards and deadly cold temperatures in the northern latitudes turning their summer range on the Arctic tundra into a bleak and inhospitable place for the little birds. Even during the nesting season, the high Arctic can be a hostile place where temperatures dip into the negative 20s and 30s, challenging the early spring arrivals. Snow buntings have adapted like other animals of the north. The mostly white-feathered male buntings in their breeding plumage become somewhat invisible on a snow-covered spring landscape, a necessary adaptation to go unnoticed for the ground-nesting birds. They build their nests in the cracks and crevasses among the rocks. The buntings line them with fur and feathers for insulation. The little white birds are sometimes called Snowflakes, perhaps like real snowflakes, they show up during the winter, and a large flock of these little white birds swirling through the air can give only one perception. Snow buntings persevere in an unforgiving world of extremes. When they finally leave the Arctic for their summer range, they travel as far south as the Texas panhandle and east to the Carolinas. It can be easy to miss these sparrow-sized winter migrants feeding in the harvested winter fields of the Midwest unless they take to the air. But when the snows finally come and cover the agricultural expanse, here in northeastern Illinois, the migratory birds like Lapland longspurs and the beautiful Snow buntings appear at the roadway’s edge, where the snowplow has scraped bare the ground, and where the little birds can search for seeds. Snow buntings are sometimes only found one or two mixed in with a flock of longspurs, and some years there can be large flocks of hundred or more seen taking advantage of a good winter food source. Each year is different when it comes to finding Snow buntings, some years, you may be lucky to see even a single bird, but there are years when there are large foraging flocks in our rural areas. The hard truth is that Snow buntings, according to research studies, are in decline, and the world population has dropped 60% over the last 45 years. Climate change, pesticides, and the loss of habitat have certainly been a quantitative threat to many species around the globe, and the little Snowflake is no exception. The recently reported and highly concerning rapid warming of the Arctic brings a whole new set of questions for researchers.

Snow buntings in their winter plumage search for food through a recent snowfall.

The North Winds

A young White-tailed buck seems to defy gravity as it speeds across a field in Iroquois County.

December 7, 2021 – Those inevitable cold fronts bring damp and chilly changes to the Midwest, causing white crusty ice crystals to form during the night. Across the tired and dejected-looking landscape, a delightful sugary coating enhanced by the morning light shimmers and sparkles, the heavy frost covers the withering but determined understory and tells the tale of the coming change. Strong north winds remove stubborn leaves from the nearly bare trees. Marcescent hardwoods, with their tattered dried leaves, rattle in the breeze, a somewhat haunting sound that will continue through the dormant season. The pockets of cover that wildlife like White-tailed deer and Coyotes have used all summer will no longer be the havens of safety and vantage for these large mammals, although they remain to be quick escapes for pheasants, cottontails, and fox squirrels. Those tangled bare stemmed forms that border woods and prairies that were once places of a safe retreat have been reduced to transparent wiry frames offering much less safety and protection for the coming months. The struggles of winter are within sight. Flushed out into the open by the strong desire to breed, the behavior of White-tailed deer has changed with the colder weather of late autumn. Meteorological winter began December 1st, and although the rut will soon start to decline, the breeding will continue a bit longer. It is not unusual to see a doe bed down in corn stubble mid-morning in a wide-open area with a few bucks standing nearby waiting for an opportunity to breed. The gestation period for the White-tailed deer is about six months. The female deer will carry her unborn through the harshness of winter, a time of snow, arctic blasts, and food supplies that become increasingly limited. With the unpredictable calamities caused by climate change and the effects on the jetstream that impact all of us, the periods of extended cold and snow cover potentially affect the development of the White-tails’ fetus. Other animals surviving the winter in the Midwest require food and habitat to get them through those hard times. Nature restoration programs and land left undeveloped provide year-round safe places for nature. It is easy for humans to go indoors by a fire to warm up during the coldest of times, but wildlife of the Midwest endures some unimaginable bitter conditions during the winter. Let’s not forget to leave them some habitat.

A wary Coyote in its new winter coat crosses a recently harvested bean field.

The Autumn Nudge

A Neotropical bird, the Black-throated Green warbler pauses for a moment on a dried stem in Iroquois County with a freshly caught caterpillar.

October 11, 2021 – Another year has tilted quietly into the splendid season of autumn, a time of bounty, preparedness, and introspection that nudges all living things in the Northern Hemisphere. While humans adjust to their seasonal changes and challenges, animals have been fattening up, growing new coats, and gathering food. Birds and insects have been on the move for weeks. Many plants continue to provide, but many have gone to seed and withered, a change is in the air. Feeding, resting, and building strength, many species have been working their way south towards their winter ranges. Recent weather radar over the Great Plains displayed not a weather disturbance moving south but a remarkable radar return of many thousands of Monarch butterflies on their fall migration. Changing weather systems across the American flyways, like cold fronts, air pressure, and strong autumn tailwinds can be a great predictor and the ideal opportunity for a mass movement of birds and insects out of the north. Bird enthusiasts, throughout the range of bird migration, hope and watch for unusual avian visitors to their woodlands, wetlands, and backyard feeders in their areas, including the highly anticipated and always delightful many species of warblers. Those early migrating warblers can still show their beautiful summer plumage, but as the weeks pass, the birds become a bit harder to identify as they transition into their winter plumage. Young birds born during the summer may look different than adults. The fading of the adult warbler’s strong summer markings may also require close study with thorough identification guides and even the valued opinions of expert birders to help identify those notoriously difficult fall migrants. By mid-October, many warblers and other songbirds have moved farther south out of Illinois. The tiny Ruby-crowned and Yellow-crowned Kinglets, Yellow-rumped, and Palm warblers continue to pluck insects from the bushes and trees in our area. Sparrows that spent their nesting season north of Illinois, some as far as the Arctic, have arrived and are taking advantage of the available seeds and insects. Sandhill cranes, Whooping cranes, Arctic hawks, Golden eagles, Short-eared owls, and Snowy owls are moving south and will satisfactorily fill the void of our summer visitors until the spring rings true once again.

A boreal songbird, the Blackpoll warbler, is bound for northern South America for the winter. The small wooded area in Iroquois County and others like it along the migration route are lifesavers and provides the much-needed food for that bird and many others on their long journeys south.

Many Species of Shorebirds

Small Least sandpipers and a Semipalmated sandpiper take a short rest after feeding, on a tiny mud island in a flooded corn field.

August 8, 2021 – We had plenty of rain in the second half of July and that extra precipitation created a kind of pseudo wetlands in the low areas of the agricultural fields here in northeastern Illinois. As a result of the heavy rains some corn and bean crops were unfortunately damaged or completely destroyed in the low areas making an extra expense for some farmers. Some areas looked like large lakes stretching out across the landscape giving us a hint of what it must of looked like before the Europeans arrived. Much of the land in some of these locations were in fact lakes, ponds, and wetlands before being settled and drained for farming. In the days following the recent flooding the submerged crops began to die back and as the waters slowly receded, these areas started to resemble coastal mudflats. Soon herons, ducks, and egrets began to show up. Many species of shorebirds, some of which had nested as far north as the Arctic, took advantage of these flooded areas for hunting and resting as they worked their way south towards their winter range. These short-lived oases are an important food source for the migrating birds. Some of the wet areas are void of birds while others are quite busy with avian activity. When you begin to see a number of species congregating and foraging day after day, before the waters disappear, that is a sure indicator of an abundance of food in the shallow waters and soft mud for the weary travelers. Worms, nymphs, midges and terrestrial invertebrates are all on the menu in and around these pop-up wet areas for both long-legged and short-legged shorebirds. Some of the shorebirds I have seen recently in Iroquois County in those flooded spots are the Greater and Lesser yellowlegs, Least sandpiper, Semipalmated sandpiper, Semipalmated plover, Stilt sandpiper, Short-billed dowitcher, Spotted sandpiper, Killdeer, Solitary sandpiper, Pectoral sandpiper, and Wilson’s phalaropes. The long-legged shorebirds, like the Greater yellowlegs and the Stilt sandpiper, hunt the deeper waters wading and feeling for movement with their feet and then probing and grasping the prey with their long bills. The short-legged shorebirds, like the Least sandpiper and the Semipalmated sandpiper, stay at the edges and hunt the soft mud and the shallow waters that are barely a few inches deep. My thoughts while observing these shorebirds is always of amazement knowing where they were just weeks ago. Some of these birds summer on the open Arctic tundra while others nest along the coastal areas of the Arctic ocean, and now here they are for a brief time on their arduous journey south feeding and resting in a flooded field in Iroquois County Illinois.

A pair of Stilt sandpipers move their feet across the mud bottom searching for prey in the standing water in an agricultural field in Iroquois County.