Home for the winter

A first-winter White-crowned sparrow in Iroquois county this past week.

October 17, 2019 -It is that time of the year once again when we start seeing those attractive arctic breeders returning to Illinois for the winter. The White-crowned sparrow, with its’ dark black and bright white crown stripes and that distinct gray breast, stands tall in somewhat of a stylish pose while perched on a nearby branch. The sparrow disappears and reappears as it busily speeds through the undergrowth searching for food. An overgrown thicket with wild fruits, seeds, and plenty of insects and protection from the weather and the predators, like hawks and falcons, is an ideal winter home for the White-crowned sparrow. The first-winter birds do not have the black and white crown but they stand out nonetheless in their new sharp looking feathers of a reddish-brown and gray raised crest and their pinkish bill, a youthful look that remains until spring. The White-crowned sparrow is a tall elegant presence compared to our darker drab colored resident sparrows that we oftentimes take for granted. With the exception of White-crowned sparrows in the northwestern United State that are considered resident or medium-distance migrants, most nest from from St. Johns bay north above the arctic circle, east to Newfoundland, and west to Alaska. According to the Cornell lab of Ornithology, “birds along the Pacific Coast and in parts of the interior West don’t migrate”. Illinois is the northern most part of the the White-crowned sparrows winter range which extends as far south as central Mexico. The fall migrants start arriving in numbers from the north in late September and October. The birds that wintered farther south and are migrating north in the spring start showing up in May as they work their way towards Canada.

The adult White-crowned sparrow showing those famous white stripes during the spring migration south of Kankakee.

Those Wrens

A Carolina wren pauses for a moment on a branch near some feeding sparrows.

October 10, 2019 – The mostly drab and well camouflaged light brown House wren, or the glamorous Carolina wren with its’ rich reddish brown over pale brown tones with distinctive white eyebrows, makes those two wrens easy to recognize. The House wren and the Carolina wren are two of the five common wrens we find here in Northeastern Illinois. The House wren, like the Carolina wren, is a small bird with a big sound system. Their songs are most often noticed before the birds are ever located and sometimes those clear rich sounds are both baffling and uplifting to the observer when they witness such small birds with very large and impressive songs. The little House wrens build their nests in the holes and cavities of living and dead trees. They will use nesting boxes, holes in buildings, or abandoned machinery, if it provides just the right sized hole and offers protection from predators and other birds. Carolina wrens will use tree cavities, flower pots, tree stumps, overhangs, tin cans, or thick vegetation for nesting. The poet William Wordsworth’s poem “A Wren’s Nest” describes quite well, in his inspiring verse, the competence of the nesting wren and their choice of the perfect nest location. The Carolina wren prefers thick bushy overgrown areas of habitat. The House wren also likes similar habitat as the Carolina wren but is just as happy in yards and on farms that offer places to nest and find food in and around farm buildings and brush piles. The House wren is a short to medium-distance migrant that spends the nesting season in the northern two thirds of the United States and into southern Canada. It winters in the warmer climate of the southern US and Mexico. The Carolina wren is a year-round resident in the eastern United States from the southern great lakes to the eastern seaboard, south to Florida, west to east Texas and south into Mexico.

A cautious House wren comes out of the thicket just long enough to survey the surroundings.

Fall Migrants

A first winter Chestnut-sided warbler comes into view for a moment to perch on a nearby plant.

September 26, 2019 – On any morning this time of the year the subtle seasonal changes seem to bring, to those who are willing to show patients and perseverance while keeping a watchful eye, an exciting surprise of another species or two of warbler that can be noted, as those little fall migrants work their way south. A wooded area with brushy, dark-shadowy cover that is loosely bordered with well seeded weedy plants and an abundance of insects that live among them, can appear almost void of any birds except for those resident feathery inhabitants that have been there all summer. But during the night things can change quickly as new arrivals, from the north, find a place to rest and recharge or wait for better weather. Through the dim morning light in the thick dark green and black understory a sudden movement with a flash of color catches ones eye, there are a small number of male and female American redstarts that have just arrived. Working their way through the thicket vanishing at times, they would quickly reappear checking each leaf and branch for insects with a quickness and a gentle fairy-like lightness as one of the little birds would hover in mid-air to get a better vantage of the underside of a leaf. In the fork of a tree where it is clearly wet with sap, a few Tennessee warblers are clinging from different angles while feeding on the insects in and around the wet spot. In the nearby elm, higher up in the canopy, adult Bay-breasted and first winter Chestnut-sided warblers move from leaf to leaf looking for insects. The adult Bay-breasted male, now in his non-breeding plumage, still shows the glorious rufous color on his flanks. Common yellow-throat and Magnolia warblers unexpectedly pop into view on the sunny side of the thicket only to disappear within seconds. The fall migration of warblers can be just as exciting as the highly anticipated spring migration and well worth keeping an eye on those woody areas and green spaces in the parks and along the creeks and rivers.

A Nashville warbler stands out with its’ bright yellow color in the dim light.

Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty, Wich-i-ty

A Juvenile male with a developing black mask pauses on a stem as he moves through the undergrowth.

September 19, 2019 – Common yellowthroat warblers are a summer visitor during their nesting season here in northern Illinois, across all of the United States, and most of Canada. A first winter male Common yellowthroat can have a faded black mask from July to March while the adult males have a stunning coal back mask with a white border across the top of the mask and a bright yellow throat that extends down the chest. The flashy little males can stand out in contrast of their habitat at woody edges of a marshy thicket. The small warbler sometimes give away their location by the clear and rapid song of wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty, wich-i-ty. Often though, the little bird appears without notice clinging to one side of the rigid stem of a cattail or other suitable plants, pausing momentarily before disappearing into the thick undergrowth searching each leaf and stem for insects. The female Common yellowthroat have a pale yellow throat and they lack the black mask and white headband of the male. The muted colors of the female yellowthroat are beautiful tones of brown, gray, and olive-yellow. The nesting Common yellowthroat put their nest in thick growth well hidden and low to the ground. The parents drop down into the nest area but always leave from a different route to fool potential predators. After the nesting season, by November the little birds have gone south for the winter. The little warblers will return to our area of northern Illinois in the spring and are here in numbers by April. The Common yellowthroat is a Neotropical warbler that winters in Mexico and Central America, with non-migrating permanent residents in the southern coastal areas of the United States and western and central Mexico.

A female Common yellowthroat cautiously looks around before moving on.

House Finch

Looking back at another House finch, a female with her bill covered in the skins of berries pauses for a moment before continuing to feed.

September 12, 2019 – The House finch is a native of the west with a range that stretches from Oregon south into Mexico and east to the western edge of the Great plains. The House finch is very much at home in desert habitats of the southwest. Today though, after being illegally introduced in the 1940’s in the state of New York, their range has expanded to include most of the the Eastern half of the United states with kind of a gap between the eastern and western populations across the Great plains that runs from Canada south to eastern Texas. The expansion into the eastern United States was a result of escaped finches from the illegal pet trade. The captured House finches from the western United States were sent to pet stores in the east. The House finches were marketed as the California Linnet and the Hollywood finch, but soon failed as caged pets. The finches did succeed as escaped wild birds breeding and expanding their range. The proliferation of House finches along with changes to habitats by humans is believed to be key in the decline of the Cassin’s finch in the west and the Purple finch in the east, two species very similar in appearance to the House finch. The House finch is mainly a seed and fruit eater, when fruit is in season. Flocks can be spotted in Eastern red cedar trees feeding on the fruit in late summer. House finches are social and are common in numbers at backyard feeders, here in Illinois, competing for food with other finches like the Purple finch and the Gold finch.

A male House finch busy eating the fruit from an Eastern Red Cedar.

The Barn Swallow

A beautiful male Barn swallow perched on a reed-stem takes a short break from hunting.

July 18, 2019 – The adult Barn swallows are sleek and swift with vibrant colors and long forked tails, they are both elegant and beautiful in flight or perched. The American Barn swallows are long-distance migrants and spend the nesting season in most all of the United State and north into southeastern and northwestern Canada and into southern Alaska. The swallows winter in Central and South America. Barn swallows are seen here in Illinois during their nesting season. Most often they are noticed in large numbers around open farm buildings where they build their nests in the rafters and eaves. They also use large and small bridges where they build their nests in the underneath structure of the bridge supports. The swallows construct their nests out of wet mud and grasses forming them into a half cup shape in the relative safety of the man-made structures or natural shelters like cliff overhangs.

The female swallow with an insect in her beak brings the small meal to one of her young.

These medium size birds fly up and down the creeks and ditches and across open areas zigzagging in confusing maneuvers as they hunt for insects. The young are brought food, usually large insects, while still in the nest or as fledglings perched together near the nest site. Their little bright yellow beaks all pop open at the same time like little beacons as their heads move in unison following the adult birds as they fly by. The adults seem to know who’s turn it is eat next when they return with a plump insect. Folklore and religious tales relating to the Barn swallow have endured throughout the ages. It is said the Barn swallows bring good luck if it nests on your farm but removing the swallows nest would bring bad karma to the farm. It is also said that the Barn swallow brings us the good news, with their chatter, that summer is on its’ way.

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.