January 19, 2018 – Snow Buntings are a small songbird of the high Arctic, a visitor that can be seen in our area with flocks of Horned Larks and Lapland Longspurs and sometimes in larger flocks of their own species. During the winter months here in Illinois they can be found feeding on dropped seeds along roadways or in the harvested agricultural fields. An interesting fact of these little birds, unlike other birds that can claim and alternate plumage, they only molt once and that is in the late summer. By the time spring rolls around and the Arctic breeding season is underway the browns and tan colored tips of their feathers are worn off showing mostly pure white with coal black wingtips. During their breeding season there are only a few slight differences in the plumage of the female and male.
January 18, 2018 – Persecuted, shot at and mostly misunderstood the coyote plays an important part in a healthy ecosystem. Helping to keep populations of mice, rats, foxes, opossums and raccoons in check which in turn reduces predation on ground nesting birds in areas especially where nesting habitat has been diminished by agriculture or urban expansion, the coyote most certainly plays an important role. Along with deer, small rodents, reptiles and insects; plants and fruits are also part of the coyotes diet when available. Livestock depredation is very rare and overstated in the exaggerated tales of the prairie wolf. The coyote is known as a Keystone species, which means without a healthy population of this carnivore the ecosystem goes out of balance, biodiversity is lost causing immoderate population growth of one species while another species can disappears completely from an area.
January 2, 2018 – Perched on the soft exposed dried grasses and using a snow bank piled up by a snowplow to reflect the morning sun three Short-eared Owls were soaking in a little bit of warmth on a bitterly cold morning in rural Iroquois county this past week. If a person is lucky enough to experience an encounter with a Short-eared Owl it would most likely be in that brief time at dawn or dusk while the owl might be perched on a fence post or gliding low over the grasslands searching for small prey animals. The negative temperatures with dangerous wind chills may have brought them to the edge of a less traveled country road in the late morning for some relief in the warmth of the winter sun. If not for the snow a person could quite easily pass right by these midsize owls and never see them. One can most certainly see from the photos how well the colors of the Short-eared Owls blend in with the dried vegetation they are sitting on.
During the winter months here in North Eastern Illinois is the best opportunity to observe the Short-eared Owl. Areas set aside for the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) and restored prairies are good places to stake out in the late afternoon with binoculars and patience, scan the area for a perched or low flying bird that may be hunting over the grassland. The Northern Harrier and Short-eared Owl are very similar looking so it is a good idea to do a little homework before your adventure. The Nature Conservancy Kankakee Sands project in Newton county Indiana is a short drive east of Kankakee and is also a great place to see the Short-eared Owls hunting in the late afternoon over the dormant winter prairies.
The summer range during the nesting season, from mid-March to May, of the Short-eared Owl overlaps their winter range in the northern half of the United States from the Great Lakes west to the Pacific ocean. The owls also nest in most of Canada and Alaska. Listed as an endangered species in Illinois the Short-eared Owls do nest in our state, most likely the northern half and in very low numbers with the exception of Prairie Ridge State Natural Area. Located in southeastern Illinois in Jasper county, Prairie Ridge State Natural Area boasts the largest population of nesting Short-eared Owls in Illinois while providing nearly 2000 acres of grassland habitat. In Canada and the United States the loss of habitat from agriculture and urban expansion, mining and the use of pesticides and dangerous rodent control methods can have a negative impact on the Short-eared Owl and other grassland raptors.
December 27, 2017 – The Lapland Longspur is a small songbird of the Arctic tundra and a winter visitor to most of the lower 48. Feeding on natural occurring seeds and waste corn dropped during harvest, large flocks of longspurs, sometimes numbering in the thousands, can be seen fighting those strong winter winds and blowing snow while scratching out food in those areas of open ground exposed by those same winds.
December 4, 2017 – Experts are calling the increased number of sightings of Snowy owls this year a possible irruption as large numbers of these Arctic visitors are showing up in the lower 48. There are reports of sightings here in the Midwest about every day as they continue to spread south out of Canada. I found this beautiful Snowy owl in Iroquois county hunkered down and using the utility pole and the thick grasses around the base to block the strong 27 mph winds that were gusting out of the south Monday morning. Snowy owls move into Illinois every year from the north during the winter months but in an irruption year, about every four years, the increased presence can show that the Snowy owls had a good breeding season and research indicates it coinciding with an increase in their food supply of Arctic rodents.
December 5, 2017
October 25, 2017 – Perched on a branch low to the ground or scratching the leaf litter below a bush in search of insects is the lovely Hermit Thrush that can silently slip from branch to shadow with little notice. Migrating south out of Canada and the northern most parts of the lower 48 the Hermit Thrush is considered a short-distance migrant and can be seen during its’ south bound travels at the edge of a forest opening while feeding on insects and berries in the shrubs and trees in the company of other migrating species. If not actually seen you may hear the exquisite but melancholy songs that can easily send one down an introspective path when experiencing those delicate notes heard in the woodlots on an early autumn morning here in Illinois. This unassuming bird, the Hermit Thrush, has become the subject and inspiration for poets and authors. Walt Whitman includes the Hermit Thrush in his lament for the death of Abraham Lincoln in the poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”. Keep your eyes and ears open for a visit by the Hermit Thrush as it passes through northern Illinois heading south where it will winter in far southern Illinois and the southern United States and south into Central America.
October 25, 2017 – A large stocky and vibrant rufous Fox Sparrow momentarily strikes a pose on the branch of a thick bush were it had been spending the morning on the ground below scratching the earth and kicking leaf litter in search of insects. Fox Sparrows spend the winter in the southern parts Illinois and the states south from Texas to the east coast. There are four groups of Fox Sparrows that are seen in North America but in Illinois we have the red group which nests during the warm months from Alaska to eastern Canada. This bird with its’ impressive size and red color really catches a person eye and is easy to distinguish between other heavily streaked sparrows and thrushes.
April 14, 2017 – The Greater Yellowlegs Sandpiper is considered a medium sized shorebird standing up to 15 inches tall, they are an elegant long-legged wader that is a migrant through our part of the Midwest in the spring and in the fall. Currently they are on their spring migration and we can find the birds in the flooded fields and the shallows of ponds and lakes as the Midwest becomes a staging area for many shorebirds including the Greater Yellowlegs as they head into Canada where they will spend the summer months, the breeding season, on the marshy areas and the tundra from southern Alaska to Newfoundland. I was able to watch six Greater Yellowlegs and five Lesser Yellowlegs feeding in a small flooded area south of Herscher.
The Lesser Yellowlegs looks very similar to the Greater Yellowlegs but are noticeably smaller when observed side by side, The Greater Yellowlegs has a 26 inch wingspan and certainly appears somewhat lanky as it steps through the shallows with those long yellow legs. All of the birds in the group were moving mostly the same direction as they waded through the shallow water with some zigzagging, some darting and even crossing each others path. The Greater Yellowlegs would appear to push the Lesser along if it slowed its’ progress. At times the birds would pause to stick their faces and that long slightly turned up bill into the water and with a swiping motion they would move their heads side to side as they searched for prey. The birds seemed to have one thing in mind and that was to find food, many of these birds have come a great distance and still have a long way to go as they make their way to the nesting grounds. The Greater Yellowlegs spends the winter months along the coasts of North America from New York to California including the Gulf of Mexico and Central and South America. Even though their population is believed to be stable the loss of habitat in the winter range is the biggest threat to the Greater Yellowlegs
April 9, 2017 – Last week some remarkable birds, the American Golden-plover, had been seen resting and feeding in the agricultural fields of Iroquois county as they are on their spring migration crossing the United States on their way north to the high Arctic for another breeding season. Well over a 100 of these birds were sharing a wet field near Ashkum with nearly 70 Pectoral Sandpipers that also winter in South America. For more then a week as the miserable weather conditions and relentless northerly winds held them fast the plovers could be seen spread out and walking across the wet field hunting in their typical method of run, stop, run, stop, look then grab a worm or bug. The plovers’ are very well camouflaged, they quite easily blend into the surroundings and they most likely go unnoticed.
When they bed down for a midday nap they locate a little nest-like depression in the field and they seem to disappear as they settle down into it for some sleep. A smaller group, less then 50 were resting about four miles west of Askum this past Sunday. I was able to observe them for nearly four hours as they hunted the field until about 12:30 pm when I noticed about fifteen of them fly out of the field and stand on the roadway for about ten minutes until they slowly walked to another field and out of sight. Others, about ten, bedded down about twenty-five feet from where I was located. These little birds seemed really tired and over the next three hours there wasn’t much activity, only the occasional getting up to stretch, with a few walking around at times but quickly they would find a spot to lay.
Most of the birds were still in their winter plumage with a few showing darkening feathers as they transition to their beautiful breeding colors of a coal black face and chin and underparts with a bright white stripe that runs from their forehead above the eyes down the side of the neck to the breast. Their backs are browns with gold spots. It is a remarkable migration cycle that takes these Robin sized birds over 20,000 miles on their amazing journey. The plover spends the winter months on the grasslands of Argentina and the summer, their nesting season, on the rocky tundra of the high Arctic.