Starry Travelers

The beautiful male Indigo bunting in full breeding plumage.

June 13, 2019 – The color indigo is described as a deep rich blue, and that is exactly what catches one’s eye at the forest’s edge beginning in the spring and lasting through the warm months of summer here in Northern Illinois. The flash of that stunning blue feathered breeder fluttering across a brown, black, and green environment can mean only one thing, that those long-distance migrants, the male Indigo buntings, in their alternate plumage, are here for the nesting season. The breeding range of the Indigo bunting stretches from central Texas north across the Great Plains into Canada, east to the Atlantic, and south into central Florida. The Indigo bunting winters in the southern half of Florida, the Bahamas, Cuba, southern Mexico, Central America and south into northern South America.

A female Indigo bunting shows that hint on blue on her shoulders.

The females and immature Indigo buntings show less impressive colors than the breeding males. The females and immature birds are brown and tan, with some black in the wings, and dark broken streaks on a white and faded tan chest extending down the front of the bird. The female shows only hints of that famous blue on their shoulders and tail feathers. These little birds come a long way, about 1200 miles each way, in their amazing migration just to nest here in our area where there is suitable habitat of thickets and brushy wooded space bordering open fields and prairies. While many other migrating birds follow river valleys and other landmarks by day, the Indigo bunting uses the celestial map above for navigation making their magical journey on those clear dark starry nights.

The American Golden Plover

American Golden Plover in full breeding plumage in Iroquois county

May 16, 2019 – On their way to the high arctic for the nesting season, those grassland shorebirds, American golden plovers, have been staging in good numbers in parts of the Midwest and have been here in Northern Illinois for the past few weeks. You must look with a careful eye to see these visitors from South America as they blend in quite well in the unbroken agricultural fields in our rural areas. When these well camouflaged little birds, that are about the size of the American robin, are resting in the midday sun they lay flat on the ground in small depressions and are almost impossible to see. These swift flying, long-distance migrants winter on the Pampas of South America from central Argentina and Patagonia south to Tierra del Fuego and we get to see them while they migrate north in the spring.

A number of American Golden Plover standing in a flooded field south of Kankakee

The plovers start heading north in February, gathering in large numbers in northwestern Argentina. I was able to photograph the the leg bands of one of these birds in September of 2017 near Momence. The bird had been banded in July of 2012 on Bylot island, Nunavut Canada. The Bird Banding Biologist of the Canadian Wildlife Service have two years of telemetry for that particular plover for the years 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 showing two migratory tracks. The spring migration from South America for both northbound trips where it had departed land was off the coast of Chile, south of Peru heading out over the Pacific ocean moving northwest and rounding to the south and west of the Galapagos islands.

The plovers’ path went north crossing Central America over the Gulf of Mexico and entering the United States at New Orleans. The plover followed the Mississippi river valley north, spending time in the state of Mississippi south of Memphis Tennessee. It eventually entered Illinois where it zigzagged across Illinois and Indiana as far east as Indianapolis before working its’ way to Northern Illinois. The plover was just south of Kankakee in Iroquois county where it spent a number of weeks before exiting west out of the state. When the bird finally did leave Illinois, probably in mid to late May, it headed west to the great plains of Nebraska, South Dakota then North Dakota before leaving the United States and moving north into Canada.

The plover continued north and moved out over Hudson Bay across the Hudson strait towards Baffin Island above the arctic circle where it spent the breeding season. After the nesting season, sometime in late July or early August, the plover used a more direct route south. Leaving the arctic heading south across Quebec, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia the Plover started the long crossing of the Atlantic ocean as it flew non-stop towards South America. Reaching land, the little plover entered South America on the northeast side between Guyana and French Guiana continuing on for almost 3000 miles south to Uruguay where it spent the next six or seven months.

Tiny Swarming Gnats

April 22, 2019 – Gnatcatchers, warblers, kinglets and wrens were feeding on the abundance of tiny swarming gnats this past week at the edge of a small wooded area south of Kankakee. There were five Blue-gray gnatcatchers quickly hopping from branch to branch feasting on the large number of gnats that were covering the tree branches. The gnatcatchers are migrants that winter from the Southeastern coast of the United States, Florida, along the Gulf coast west and down into Mexico and Central America. Northern Illinois is near the northern edge of their nesting range that stretches up into Wisconsin and may be expanding as the climate warms.

A Northern parula warbler studies the bark of the tree looking intently for a small insect.

A pair of Ruby-crowned kinglets were visiting the same tree taking advantage of the abundance of protein. The little kinglets are about halfway between their winter range and their summer nesting territory. A house wren was also at the banquet and is now in its’ summer range while the smaller Winter wren that was busy searching for insects lower on a tree stump still has a little ways to go before it reaches its’ summer nesting territory. Field sparrows were there looking through the nooks and crannies of the decaying wood stumps for insects and worms.

A Northern parula warbler which nest in most of the eastern half of United States brought the most color to the brunch. The small parula warbler is a long-distance neotropical migrant that winters along the Gulf of Mexico from Mexico down into Central America and east throughout the Caribbean. The tiny warbler has yellow from under its’ chin down across its’ breast. The lower half of the birds bill is a bright yellow that matches those bright yellow feathers on its’ chin and even in the muted light looked brilliant against the bluish feathers on the upper parts of the little warbler.

Trumpeter Swans

March 25, 2019 – A small flock of Trumpeter swans, four adults and one juvenile, could be seen resting and feeding recently in some corn stubble in Iroquois county near Ashkum. Even at some distance these large, impressive white birds with jet-black bills easily stood out against a backdrop of a pale, dead, and dormant late winter landscape. The Trumpeter swan is a very large waterfowl, much larger than the Tundra swan, the other native swan to North America. Trumpeters are a medium-distance migrant that move through our area in small numbers during late winter as they head north to the shallow lakes and wetlands of Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan for their nesting season.

During the winter months large flocks of Trumpeters, sometimes in the company of Tundra swans, congregate in the flooded agricultural fields and on the ice free lakes and rivers in the southern part of the state. Big numbers of Trumpeters, with counts in the hundreds, were reported at the Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge near Havana in west-central Illinois at the end of February. Even higher numbers of swans had been reported along the Mississippi river. Jed Hertz photographed six Trumpeter swans, two adults and four juveniles, on the Kankakee river near Gar creek in the first week of March.

It is really hard to imagine that about 90 years ago there were only 69 Trumpeter swans left in the wild here in the United States. According to information on the website for The Trumpeter Swan Society, a non-profit organization that advocates for the welfare of the Trumpeter swan, these surviving swans were protected from hunting and the harsh winter conditions surviving in remote areas of Yellowstone and the Centennial Valley of Montana where hot spring and geysers provided ice free areas for them throughout the winter. Efforts by biologists in the late 30’s worked towards saving the trumpeters from extinction. Surveys of Canada and Alaska gave hope as a small flock had survived in Alberta Canada and a large flock of 2000 swans was discovered in Alaska,. The website goes on to say that the Trumpeter swans that are part of the interior population are now over forty percent (27,055) of the total Trumpeter swan population. The swans that we are lucky enough to see here in the Mid-west are part of that interior population.

House Wren

 House Wren

A little House Wren

October  24, 2018 – A little House wren stops for a moment to look down towards the lower branches of a small leafless bush as it surveys its’ next perch. According to recent reported sightings, reflected in the online eBird species maps of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, many of the House wrens are moving south, pushed by the strong northerly winds and cold air from the higher latitudes. The House wrens will winter in the southern third of the United States south into Mexico. Of course the little songbirds are still being seen in the area, but in greatly reduced numbers as the migration continues.

Ruby-throated Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

October 9, 2018 – A tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet works its’ way up a dried stalk at the edge of a thicket in search of insects in Iroquois county recently. The little bird, which is only 4.3 inches in length, is making its’ way south where it may winter in the southern half of the United States or as far south as Mexico according to The Cornell lab of Ornithology.

Reference:

“Ruby-Crowned Kinglet Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” , All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ruby-crowned_Kinglet/overview.

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker

September 27, 2018 – A beautiful and colorful female Yellow-shafted Northern Flicker announced its’ arrival as it landed and perched on the branch of a tall snag in Iroquois county. The flickers’ black bib on its’ chest over a peachy light brown color that is covered with black spots from the chest to the belly, is further enhanced with the bright yellow shafts of the tail feathers and a red bar on the nape of the neck. The Northern Flicker is a large and impressive woodpecker that does feed on berries and seed, but its’ primary diet consists of ants, beetles and larvae that can be found in the ground.

Reference:

“Northern Flicker Overview, All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology.” , All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Northern_Flicker/overview.

Common Green Darner

 Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

July 22, 2018 – The dragonfly has had its’ place in the myth and symbolism of humans for thousands of years, both good and evil has manifested in the folklore and the art of both prehistoric and modern humans. From the primitive cave paintings to the Art Nouveau dragonfly pendants there is no denying that their beauty is an inspiration. Their evolution began over 300 million years ago, as some fossil records show amazing giant dragonfly like insects with wingspans of over two feet. But from a different path millions of years ago our modern dragonfly evolved. The modern dragonfly is much smaller, the largest dragonfly in North America is the Giant Green Darner of the Southwest that has a wingspan of around five inches. Here in Illinois we have the Common Green Darner that looks similar to the Giant Green Darner but it is a little smaller with a wingspan of a little over three inches. The photo shows the Common Green Darner clinging to a corn stalk leaf where many others were feeding along a grassy road in rural Iroquois county.

Dragonflies

Twelve Spotted Skimmer

Twelve Spotted Skimmer

June 26, 2018 – Along the uncut rural roadsides and in the meadows where the butterflies go, along the creeks and over the sparkling waters of ponds, the delightful summer air is in motion with dragonflies of many shapes and sizes with a variety of color patterns. Halloween Pennants, Common Whitetails, Eastern Pondhawks, Widow Skimmers and other species like the Twelve Spotted Skimmer which is found throughout the U.S. and southern Canada is shown in the photo perched on a dried weed in Iroquois county. Mostly unnoticed or ignored, dragonflies can only really be appreciated for their unique beauty and color patterns when seen through binoculars or a camera zoom.

Widow Skimmer

Widow Skimmer

Upland Sandpiper

Adult Upland Sandpiper

Adult Upland sandpiper moving through the new soybeans wary of the photographer and vocalizing June 2018

June 18, 2018 – An Upland sandpiper, a bird that spends the winter as far south as Argentina and Uruguay, walks through the new growth of soybeans in a field in Iroquois county recently, the same field where five were spotted the day before. The Upland sandpiper is endangered in Illinois and increasingly rare to even see. An encouraging study that was done in two counties in Central Illinois in 2014 by a team from the University of Illinois has indicated apparent adaptations for a number of grassland species including the Upland sandpiper. The Upland sandpipers are using no-till soybean fields as nesting sites according to wildlife biologist Kelly R. VanBeek who coordinated the 2014 study.

Adult Upland Sandpiper

An adult Upland sandpiper lands on a the gravel road while the roadside is being mowed in June 2017

This is the forth year that I have photographed Upland sandpipers that are using an area in Iroquois county for nesting. Last year I observed a chick with an adult and that event was the exciting confirmation that they were indeed nesting there with some success. With the cooperation of the land owners and farmers we have an opportunity to get a better understanding of why it seems to be working for the Upland sandpipers at this location and possibly encourage some management ideas that can help increase their odds for success. Some simple things like a moratorium on roadside mowing, the spraying of dangerous chemicals or even closing nonessential roads during the nesting season could go a long way towards that goal. With common sense actions and a greater understanding we may find that with just some small tweaks in our behavior we could have a huge positive impact on the struggling Upland sandpiper, a species that needs our prompt focus.