January 10, 2022 – The bleakness of a winters afternoon and the silhouette of a small songbird off in the distance perched at the end of a spindly sapling can send chills having nothing to do with the cold weather down the back of even the strongest and most rational when the sweet songs barely heard are that of the butcherbird. An uncommon winter visitor, the Northern Shrike is about the size of the American Robin, with similar colors to that of the Northern mockingbird. Northeastern Illinois and northwestern Indiana are on the southern edge of the Shrikes winter range, where a lucky few get to see this remarkable bird each year. The shrike prefers open wetlands and shrubby grassland areas with tall saplings and snags to perch on to watch for prey. The little songbird is much different than the other songbirds that live or spend the cold winter months here in northeastern Illinois. The shrike has an appetite for small rodents and other birds; it is a swift, effective hunter with a sharply hooked bill and a tomial tooth, a tooth-like feature on the upper part of the beak similar to falcons and is used to dispatch their prey. Northern Shrike is also known as the butcherbird or the butcher watchman, names well earned from its’ macabre survival skills. Birds of prey like Hawks, eagles, and falcons have powerful talons that are key to securing the victim. The Northern shrike has claws that are not any different than other songbirds. To help hold their victim while tearing into the flesh with their strong-curved bill, the shrike will carefully impale the prey on the pointed barbs of a barbed-wire fence or a long thorn. A fork in a convenient tree also works well to secure the victim. Killing more than it can eat caching of prey is a survival skill and can grow to six or seven locations throughout the shrike’s wintering territory. The Northern shrikes breed in the partly-open areas of the far north along the Arctic circle from Alaska east across northern Canada and south around Hudson Bay to Labrador.
August 9, 2021 – Gone but not forgotten, the rare visitor at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area in Newton County, Indiana, a little over 30 miles southeast of Kankakee, was witnessed, documented, and photographed by many lucky observers. The raptor was in the area of the Willow Slough shooting range for over two weeks in August. It spent much of its morning hunting near the shooting range. The impressive bird of prey has a four-foot wingspan and long forked tail. The bird would circle above the prairies, soaring and gliding near the shooting range; it would dive down to catch dragonflies and cicadas that it would eat on the wing before continuing its hunt. The kite is a master of flight and was exciting to watch with its beautiful white head and body, black on its back, tail feathers, and wingtips.
September 9, 2021 – Some strange sounds were coming from the cattails as I approached the edge of the slough, a startling communication among the shadow skulkers that slowly and eerily waned with each note. The distinct, loud, and familiar alarm calls from a well-hidden creature instantly conjured the vision of a small marshland bird common to this area during the warm months. The Sora is a water bird about the size of a robin, Soras nest in our area of Illinois from May through August. They build a woven platform nest out of grasses and cattails above the waterline, creating a kind of hollowed nest that adds protection from predators and the elements for about a dozen eggs. After some quiet and patient waiting time, on my part, some movement caught my eye among the shadowy cattail stalks just to my left. A juvenile Sora appeared and was foraging much like domestic fowl, plucking the ground as it cautiously moved in an unpredictable jerky and bobbing motion. The bird probed with its thick yellow bill into the soft, damp, ground watching and feeling for prey as it braved into the clearing. The flashy white stubby tail of the small bird would stand straight up at times as it stretched its neck to pluck a small worm or a tiny insect from the muddy earth. Soon three more Sora appeared; two adults and another juvenile wandered into the broken light and began their search for insects, seeds, tiny worms, and mollusks. As one of the juveniles worked its way across the open area, an adult squawked with a rapid, high-pitched call while running swiftly towards the juvenile bird, chasing the young bird around almost in circles until the intruder retreated into the cover of the cattails. Less than five minutes later, the scolded young Sora returned quietly out of sight of the adult to resume foraging. The small rails remind me of a miniature chicken, a bird that would not seem to be a strong flier. It is amazing that the Soras travel many hundreds of miles to their winter range along the coasts of the Gulf of Mexico and the marshes of Central America each fall and then return to the Midwest to nest in the spring.
Comet C/2020 F3 (NEOWISE) in the early morning hours of July 11th rising above the northeastern horizon at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area just before the sun. On July 22nd Neowise will be at it closest approach to Earth at a distance of 64.3 million miles. The comet is now visible after sunset in the northwest and will be at about 10 degrees above the horizon by the 14th. If you miss this amazing comet it will be back in the neighborhood in about 6000 years. The comet was discovered March 27, 2020 by a NASA solar telescope.
July 11, 2020 – I had been waiting for some cloudless skies to possibly get a look and maybe a photo of this amazing comet that was discovered March 27, 2020 by a NASA solar telescope. Photos and testimonies from around the world were lighting up the internet feeding the excitement. Finely it looked like the early morning of July 11th would be my first chance to witness this spectacular event. I picked up my son Benjamin at 3:00 am to make the 28 mile drive to the dark skies on the Illinois Indiana boarder east of Kankakee. We arrived at Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area where Ben first spotted the comet in the northeast above the lake as was drove past the boat launch. The comet looked so amazing it was brightest at the tip, where the nucleus was pointing toward the horizon, looking like a long brush stroke of white paint on a dark canvas where the amazingly long tail stretched towards the heavens away from the sun that was below the horizon.
January 30, 2010 – A pair of Trumpeter swans surrounded by a number of Canada geese and a a few Mallard ducks were taking advantage of the open waters near the boat docks at the headquarters at the Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area near Morocco Indiana this past week. A submerged aerator system sending bubbles of air to the surface keeps some small pools open and ice free. The open water attracts waterfowl during the winter when the rest of J.C. Murphey Lake is locked in ice. Getting a close look at the pair of swans, that have been seen at the lake for some months now, show that one of the birds does not have the usual black legs and feet that is normally seen on an adult Trumpeter. While photographing the Trumpeters at some distance this past August I noticed the yellow colored legs on one of the birds and assumed it was a juvenile. I was told at the headquarters at Willow-slough this past week that the swan with yellow legs was believed to be leucistic. Leucism is a genetic mutation that causes a reduction of pigments. We see the abnormality in mammals, birds, and even in reptiles. A few times a year while great flocks of Starlings are feeding in fields it is not uncommon to see a flash of white from the wings, tail, or the head of one of the birds in the flock. The birds with white feathers are missing the normal dark colors of the Starling and are considered leucistic. The young cygnet (baby swan) that is leucistic is bright white and the non leucistic young Trumpeter is gray. The leucistic birds end up with yellow legs and feet as adults Trumpeters. These rare leucistic Trumpeter swans have been reported and are still occasionally seen in Ontario. The leucistic swans are bit more common in the Rocky Mountain population and are also seen in the Yellowstone summer population.
March 6, 2019 – Despite the single digits and wind-chills to consider, some hints and signs of spring are starting to come into focus. The backwaters of the Kankakee river, the ponds, ditches, and flooded fields are slowly being liberated from their cold icy carapace. Male Red-winged blackbirds are beginning to stake-out their territories. They could be seen this past week perched on last years faded cattail stems and in small trees near water as they sang their songs of spring. Some ducks and geese are pairing up and keeping to themselves, while others with much greater distances to travel are together in flocks waiting to move north. Small flocks of Sandhill cranes have been seen heading north and recent reports out of Wisconsin state the news of early arrivals.
Soon our winter visitors from the upper Great-lakes, Canada and the North-west territories, and points east and west will be harder and harder to find as their numbers dwindle from our area and they push towards their nesting grounds. Rough-legged hawks will be noticeably absent from the skies above our prairies when they soon leave for the Arctic tundra. Greater-white fronted geese have recently been seen through-out the state and in our area in large flocks waiting for that moment to push north towards the high Arctic for their breeding season. As the weeks go by and warmer temperatures are here to stay and conditions north are stable and suitable for nesting, the waders and shorebirds will be making their move as the great migration continues.
September 2, 2018 – A Great Spangled Fritillary butterfly probes with its’ long unfurled proboscis into the flower of a native species of thistle in search of that life giving sustenance, nectar. Native thistle is a very important plant for pollinators and non-pollinators alike, along with providing nectar for insects and hummingbirds. The plant also produces the thistle seed that is so important to finches, buntings and other songbirds. Little flecks of light colored pollen cover the legs, face and hairs around the head of the butterfly as it moves from flower to flower picking up and depositing the pollen, a trade off worked out over eons through a remarkable co-evolution.
August 3, 2018 – A little White-tailed fawn stepped out of the woods into a sunny clearing as it explored its’ new world. I sit still while the fearless little fawn smelled and tasted plants. The mother soon came up the hill and into the clearing, immediately looking in my direction and giving a few warning snorts. The little fawn swiftly ran to the doe and they both vanished over the hill and into the shadows of the forest.
July 18, 2018 – Alert and vocal, a male Northern Bobwhite finally came into view as it cautiously but quickly moved across the sandy ground into an opening surrounded by thick green cover near Stateline road at Willow Slough this past week. The bobwhite quail has struggled since the mid sixties from habitat loss and the widespread use of pesticides. Habitat management programs involving conservation groups, state properties and private landowners has shown positive results for the bobwhite. In those areas of good quail habitat, if not actually seen, the Bobwhite quail can often be heard calling to other quail with that clear and strong song “bob-white” or “bob-bob-white”.
July 5, 2018 – The Michigan lily is a strikingly beautiful flower having blooms of yellow-orange to orange-red that are covered with purplish spots. The flower seems to float in the sea of the surrounding summer foliage. Their contrast of color against that summer world dominated by green can easily remind one of the paper lanterns of the Chinese Shangyuan lantern festival as the orange lilies give the impression of a glowing lantern hanging at the end of their long sturdy green stems. The lilies, with their unusual recurved peddles, bloom for about a month from early to mid-summer. They are perennial and can reach a height of 4 feet. These pendent lilies attract hummingbirds, butterflies and many other species of insects to their nectar. The winged visitors become covered in a yellow-orange pigment of pollen as they fly from flower to flower finding sustenance while at the same time pollinating the lilies. As the flowering stage wanes the glorious attraction of bright color soon gives way to those less glamorous earthy seedpods. The Michigan lily is not considered rare, compared to the almost indistinguishable Turks Cap lily found in a few counties in far Southern Illinois, but it is an uncommon native plant species found in scattered counties throughout the state and does require a healthy natural area to even exist. Michigan lilies can be cultivated adding both beauty and the benefits of nectar to a personal garden or landscape but the real treat is to see the plants with their showy blossoms thriving in the wild in some remote sunny opening at the edge of a wooded area where they will most certainly attract pollinators and nature lovers alike.