The American Kestrel

Hovering into the wind above an open grassy area along a creek in Iroquois County a beautiful male American Kestrel falcon searches for prey.

January 21, 2021 – A little bit smaller than the Merlin falcon and very close in size to the Mourning dove, the American Kestrel is the smallest falcon in North America. These determined little predators are focused hunters, whether perched on a utility wire, fence post, or hovering over grassy areas intently watching for any movement from small mammals, insects, and birds. Their keen vision and superb flying ability allow for a stealthy and swift attack from above on their unsuspecting prey. The drama of predator and prey plays out hour after hour, day after day above the grassy areas along the rural roads, ditches, and busy highway medians here in Northeastern Illinois and across the United States. Because of their small size the falcons go mostly unnoticed by humans speeding past the little perched hunters. It doesn’t take much effort to be just a bit more observant to a moment in nature, it will quickly become almost impossible to not see these little predators perched and hunting. Soon the sightings of Kestrels add up and the mind expands beyond the mundane for the human observer as that moment in nature is understood. Also known as the Sparrow hawk, the Kestrel is certainly the best known and most colorful and boldly marked falcon in North America. The male Kestrel has slate blue-gray colored wings while the females have reddish-brown wings,a heavily streaked chest and they are also up to 15% larger than the male. The bold and vibrant colors of the male Kestrel are quite intense under bright sunlight. The females, while they still have beautiful colors, are less vibrant than the males. The Kestrel lives year around in Illinois and nest in natural occurring places like rock crevices and overhangs, they also take advantage of abandoned woodpecker holes, man-made nest-boxes, old buildings and structures near a good hunting area. They most often have only a single brood. Incubation of four or five eggs last about 30 days, the female will brood for about nine days after the last egg has hatched and then only at night or during harsh weather conditions. The American Kestrel falcons are widespread in the Western Hemisphere and occur from Alaska and Canada to Tierra del Fuego in South America.

A female Kestrel falcon perched and hunting on a utility wire along a rural road.

Winter Birds

A Merlin falcon perched on an icy branch, drying out its tail feathers along the river at Jeffers Park this past week.

January 14, 2021 – Common mergansers, Golden-eye ducks, and Greater white-fronted geese have all been spotted from our river parks here in Kankakee County this past week. Four Greater white-fronted geese swam up river at Cobb park past a large number of Canada geese and a few Mallard ducks that were gathered along the north bank. The nervous white-fronted geese, also known as the “specklebelly”, were spooked by runners as they jogged through the park. The geese flew upstream making their strange high pitched laughing sounds as they went out of sight. An adult Bald eagle could be seen perched high in a tall tree down river from Jeffers park watching for a meal opportunity on the ice free waters of the Kankakee. A Merlin falcon was at the rivers’ edge at Jeffers park in the shallows bathing in the cold water. The little falcon soon flew up into a tree, the same tree where a Belted kingfisher was watching for small fish from a good perch that stretched out above the water. The Merlin perched on a cold looking icy branch after its chilled bath. The little falcon spread its tail feathers wide, drying them in the frigid January air for a good fifteen minutes before heading a short distance west to another tree. Down river at the Kankakee River State Park on the west end of Langham island four beautiful Tundra swans, two adults and two juveniles, were spending the morning among a number of Canada geese. The white swans stuck out like a sore thumb among the dark colored smaller Canada geese. The Tundra swans are here through the winter months taking up temporary residence on the open waters of lakes and rivers in the lower 48. These swans are probably part of the eastern population and are a long way from their summer nesting range on the northern coastal areas of Alaska east along Canada’s Arctic coast to Hudson Bay and north up into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. The dynamic winter weather of the Midwest can bring wintering birds to any open water as rivers and lakes freeze during cold periods. Those weeks of cold temperatures can be an exciting time for nature lovers and bird watchers, concentrating many species of waterfowl and birds-of-prey to those shrinking areas of ice free water.

Two juvenile and two adult Tundra swans rest near Langham Island at the Kankakee River State Park.

Red-Red-tailed Hawk

A light colored Red-Red-tailed hawk perched on a fence post is focused on the prairie grasses for any movement of prey.

December 17, 2020 – It seems that one cannot travel more than half-a-mile without noticing a large hawk perched on a utility pole, or on a barn, or a corn crib, often two birds within a short distance of each other, many times even on the same branch of a large tree overlooking a good hunting area. Once known as the “chicken hawk” and blamed for missing poultry, Red-tailed hawks were shot on a regular basis whether they were guilty or not. These great raptors are now protected under the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Red-tailed hawks hunt a variety of prey, from rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, mice, and voles to insects and snakes and even carrion. They have a varied menu of prey to chose from. These hawks hunt and nest not just in the rural countryside but also in populated areas of towns and cities. They are very adaptable and where there are some tall trees, open spaces, and prey to be had, Red-tailed hawks will be found. These large hawks are very territorial and vigorously defend their nesting trees, hunting perches, and the surrounding area. With a four foot wingspan and their well known screaming vocalizations, they can be quite intimidating to other birds of prey that enter their territory. It is not uncommon to see Red-tailed hawks chasing and attacking other large hawks that have drifted into their space. The mostly pale plumage on the chest and belly of a Red-tailed hawk is easily visible when contrasted against the dark leafless trees of winter. Even at some distance you can, with good confidence, ID these large birds-of-prey. Red-tailed hawks are quite common across the United States and are here the year-round in Illinois. The numbers of Red-tailed hawks does increase in the fall as the northern breeders move south for the winter to escape the harsh conditions across Canada and Alaska.

Perched in a tree, a young Red-Red-tailed hawk looks back before taking flight.

Beautiful Songster

An American Robin eyeing a dried red berry from last years’ crop before plucking it off and continuing its’ hunt

April 2, 2020 – There is nothing that alerts us to a change of the seasons more than those early morning songs of the American Robin. The Robin has a strong, rich whistle that begins to invade our dreams not long before the glow of first light. This medium sized, orange breasted, dark headed bird with a bright yellow bill is probably one of the most familiar and common birds we see. The Robin likely draws attention more often than other species as it runs, stops, and probes the grassy spring and summer lawns here in the Midwest searching for earthworms large and small. Although there are Robins in our area of Northeastern Illinois year round, they are more often seen in their winter flocks in our rural areas where there is plenty of food like wild fruits and berries along with thick cover that can protect them from harsh cold weather and dangerous predators. Even though many Robins remain in our natural areas throughout the cold months, some do migrate. The springtime brings a behavioral change to the wintering birds as the large winter flocks break-up into small flocks dispersing from their winter habitat. The birds become more territorial and we begin to see those Robins in our city parks and on our grassy lawns as worms become a warm weather food source and nesting sites are the focus. Soon there will be nesting Robins everywhere, the female will be sitting on her perfectly constructed nest made of sticks, grass, and mud keeping her three to five sky blue colored eggs warm for about fourteen days. Robins are good at putting their nests in some of the most inconvenient places, like above exterior doors, below eaves, on gutters and electrical services, and sometimes in trees. The American Robin may have up to three broods in one season and the female and the young join the males in the roosts after the last brood is fledged and the nesting season ends. As cold weather once again approaches and the ground freezes and the worms are gone, the American Robin will rejoin the winter flocks where fruits and berries will become an important food source for the coming months.

A Robin stops at the waters’ edge for a drink before quickly flying to join another bird perched in a nearby tree

White-breasted Nuthatch

A female White-breasted nuthatch pauses for a moment on a branch, the chestnut color below the tail is clearly visible.

February 20, 2020 – The big raspy voice of the little White-breasted nuthatch is a familiar sound in the winter woods of Illinois. Throughout the softly illuminated and leafless winter forest, or at a busy backyard feeder, it is easy to spot those colorful little hunters as they noisily swoop in. Suddenly there is a flash of blue-gray, then another, and yet another as four, maybe more of those regal looking little birds appear. A male and a female nuthatch light on the patchwork bark of a large sycamore and quickly begin searching tree and limb for food. The little birds move up and down the trunk like acrobats as they move head first down the tree searching the nooks and crannies for insects. Not long after the small winter flock of White-breasted nuthatches appear, their songs begin to fade into the distance as they continue their search for food on the trees and shrubs along an overgrown and abandoned road that the woods has mostly reclaimed. The White-breasted nuthatch is common across most of the United States and is a year-round resident here in Illinois. The male nuthatch has a dark black cap, white face and underparts with splashes of chestnut colors under the tail. Their wings and back are mostly blue-gray. The little birds have large heads, large feet, and a long pointy bill. The female looks pretty much like the male nuthatch except they have more of a gray colored cap with stronger chestnut coloring near their rear under the tail and their overall colors are a bit weaker than the male. The nuthatches eat nuts, acorns, insects and cache food items around their territory. You may find the winter flocks of nuthatches mixed with chickadees and woodpeckers.

A male White-breasted nuthatch works its’ way down the trunk of a tree with some food in its’ long bill.

The Brown Creeper

A Brown creeper probes with its’ long curved bill behind the bark of a tree looking for insects.

January 1, 2020 – The Brown Creeper is a tiny well camouflaged bird that seems to defy the forces of nature as it swiftly moves across the jagged edged bark of a tree. It pauses momentarily to search, with its’ long curved bill, the cracks and openings in and behind the tree bark for insects. The bird is an expert contortionist twisting its’ head to just the right angle to probe the difficult fissures to find its’ unsuspecting prey. The fast moving little Brown creeper, also searches the undersides of large limbs and is probably less often noticed by humans due to its’ size and dark colors than any other species of bird that spends as much time in the trees. The little bird blends in quite well to the tree bark of the large dark trees on which it hunts. The Brown creeper will land low on the trunk of a tree and work its’ way up and around the trunk eventually searching the higher branches for prey before moving to another tree. From my observations at multiple locations while watching the tiny creeper, within a short time of leaving one tree it will return back to the same tree repeating its’ search several times before moving on to continue its’ hunt on other trees. According to the Illinois Natural History Survey “the Brown creeper occurs in Illinois as a common migrant and winter resident and occasional summer resident. The Cache, Kankakee, Mississippi, Sangamon and Sugar Rivers appeared (1981) to be the center of distribution for nesting populations in Illinois.” Known as a short-distance migrant to resident we notice the wintering birds that have arrived in numbers from the north when we notice them hunting on the leafless trees in wooded areas and on the parameters of those timbered tracts of land.

A light colored Brown creeper pauses a momentarily as it searches a tree for prey

The Great Egret

A beautiful Great egret glides low over the water passing a Great-blue heron foraging in the background.

June 6, 2019 – Appearing like ghostly aberrations in the soft morning light of late spring the five beautiful Great egrets were spread out around a pond in southwestern Kankakee county last week. Most were wading in the shallows searching for food, while a few were perched and preening on a fallen snag at the ponds edge. One of these hunting birds focused on something in the aquatic vegetation at the north end of the pond. The Great egret pulled out a large fish that it held in its’ bill for only a short time, and for reasons one can only speculate, the bird discarded the catch and moved on and continued hunting. It wasn’t long before the egrets took to the air, their impressive wings spread wide as they gracefully circled and gained altitude. Having used the pond for the night for resting and feeding, the birds flew northwest continuing their migration towards the nesting colonies on the lakes and in the river valleys.

The egret standing in the shallows holding the soon rejected fish.

The Great egret is considered a resident to medium-distance migrant and range widely over the continent, according to The Cornell lab of Ornithology. Many of these birds nest in colonies in the backwaters and wetlands of small and large lakes and rivers like the Mississippi and the Illinois. The Great egrets are in northern Illinois from early April to late October when they, along with a new generation of young egrets, migrate back south for the winter. The Great egret has struggled throughout the years. They suffered major declines of more than 95% from plume hunters for the fashion trade in the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s. The egret population began rebounding as a result of the Migratory bird laws that were enacted in the the first decades of the twentieth century. The birds are considered to be stable today despite the challenges of habitat destruction.

Turkey Vultures

April 18, 2019 – As springtime advances and the migrants move north, Turkey vultures, those masters of the air currents, are once again gliding across the skies of Northern Illinois in large circling flocks that are sometimes referred to as a kettle. Even though a few of these large dark colored vultures are spotted in northern Illinois during the winter months, most migrate south in the fall after the nesting season. They spend the winter from Southern Illinois and across the southern United States, south through Cuba, Mexico, Central and South America and as far south as ‘the end of the world’ Tierra del Fuego in southern Chile.

North America has three of the six subspecies of Turkey vultures. Cathartes aura septentrionalis is found in the eastern United States.(Palmer, 1988) With a wingspan of around six feet these large slow flying birds are hard to miss as they fly off of the carcass of the unfortunate roadkill as a vehicle approaches. Those close encounters certainly gives the observer an appreciation for the impressive size of the Turkey vulture. They usually don’t go far when flushed from the carrion and soon return to their feeding when the threat is gone. They are often seen still on their roosts in dead trees, utility poles or buildings early in the morning. With their wings spread wide like a parabolic antenna while facing the warm morning sun they are warming their bodies and drying their feathers from a rain shower or the dampness of the night.

Nesting Turkey vultures will use the abandoned nest of other large avian species in secluded areas far from human traffic. They will also use old sheds, barns, and houses that are remote, grown-up, neglected and open to the elements. The Turkey vulture may choose to lay their clutch of 1 to 3 eggs in a nest on the ground that they scrap out in the leaf litter in a dense thicket or near a fallen tree or even in a hollow log. The vultures will have only one brood over a 60-84 day nesting period and may return to the same nest year-after-year according to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, All About Birds. Palmer, R. 1988. Handbook of North American Birds, Volume 4. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

White-winged Scoter

February 16, 2019 – Considered a sea duck, White-winged Scoters are observed in numbers primarily along the coastal areas of the US and Canada. They winter along the coastlines from Baja California to the Aleutian Islands in the North Pacific and along the coastal areas of the south and eastern US from the Gulf of Mexico north to the Canadian Maritimes. According to The Cornell Lab of Ornithology online resource, All About Birds, “Although the White-winged Scoter winters primarily along the coasts, small numbers winter on the eastern Great Lakes.”

A solitary bird or just a few are often recorded inland on ice free open areas of lakes and rivers during late winter in Illinois. Higher numbers of scoters will be found across the area of the Great Lakes north into Canada on the migratory staging areas of late winter and early spring as they push towards those summer nesting grounds in the central Canadian provinces, Northwest Territories, and north into central and northern Alaska.

Over the years Jed Hertz has recorded a number of White-winged Scoters on the Kankakee river. This year is no exception. On January 2nd , below the dam near Jeffers park, Hertz spotted a single White-winged Scoter. On Monday February 11th Jed again found a duck that could actually be the same scoter on the river east of Aroma Park. Photos allow for a closer look of the scoter and it appears to be an immature drake. Jed notified me and I was able to get a few shots of the duck as it worked on an aquatic plant stem, biting and chewing it between its’ thick bill, possibly trying to remove a larvae from the hollow parts of the segmented stem.

White-winged Scoters are a diving duck that feed mainly on mollusks. In wintering areas, crustaceans are an import food source. Scoters have a unique ability to use their wings and feet to propel quickly to the bottom. I observed this behavior from my vantage while watching three scoters feeding near 4th avenue in Kankakee in January of 2014. When they began their head first dive their wings became partially opened and used as if in flight as they disappeared into the depths. A science journal article called “Costs of diving by wing and foot propulsion in a sea duck, the white-winged scoter”, states that, “Most birds swim underwater by either feet alone or wings alone, but some sea ducks often use both.”, perhaps an adaptation required for deep water dives. ”Scoters using wings + feet had 13% shorter descent duration, 18% faster descent speed, 31% fewer strokes/m, and 59% longer bottom duration than with feet only.” J Comp Physiol B. 2008 Mar;178(3):321-32. Epub 2007 Dec 7.

Tundra Swan

February 5, 2019 – Last weeks little bit of open water on the river at Cobb park was a gathering place for a few hundred Canada geese. A number of ducks, both divers and dabblers, swam, rested, and hunted the open water between the ice while at times disappearing into those dark cold winter pools of the Kankakee river only to reemerge a short time later with their catch. A single Tundra Swan, larger than the Canada geese that surrounded it, stood-out with its’ bright white feathers and elegant presence. The Tundra Swan is a visitor seen during the winter months or during migration on the open waters of large lakes, rivers, and in grain fields in the northern parts of the US. During the nesting season the Tundra Swan, sometimes called the Whistling Swan because of the sounds emitted from their wingbeats as they fly, are on their breeding grounds in the remote wetlands of the high Arctic. There are only two native species of swans in North America, the Tundra and the Trumpeter. The Trumpeter swan is slightly larger than the Tundra and for the observer it sometimes requires a close look to determine which species you are looking at.