Spring in Illinois, 2015

A group of American Avocets in breeding plumage, stopped over in Northern Illinois during migration.

Central Illinois isn’t particularly well known for its abundance of diverse exotic wildlife, but having grown up with them, I have a particular fondness for the enterprising creatures that are hardy enough to survive among the cornfields.

A juvenile Cooper’s Hawk perched in the snow.

I bought my first telephoto lens secondhand at the beginning of 2015, with money saved from my job as a teaching assistant for the undergraduate computer science curriculum at university. In between classes we wandered around, investigating restored prairie, pockets of bottomland forest, local cemeteries, and even agricultural manure lagoons so I could (rather slowly) learn how to use it and the little camera it was attached to. Not being particularly good birders (and limited to stolen hours between classes and work obligations), we struck out more often than we found anything, but through some level of sheer persistence, we managed to learn a little bit about the creatures that call a central Illinois university town home.

An Eastern Gray Squirrel contemplating a leap, and an Eastern Chipmunk peeking out of a hidey-hole in early spring.

A beautiful little Brown Creeper, showing his excellent camouflage against the tree bark.

Three gentlemen in red: a Downy Woodpecker, Northern Cardinal, and House Finch.

An American Coot showing off its extraordinary feet, and a napping Canada Goose.

Over the spring break, we visited Matt’s family in northern IL. Spring snowstorms made wildlife scarce, but we spotted a few hardy individuals weathering the conditions. Above, a female American Kestrel, and a surprisingly chipper Song Sparrow. Spring was a bit late this year.

A Black-capped Chickadee perched on spent flower heads, a female White-tailed Deer, a surprisingly quiet male Red-winged Blackbird in the early morning, and an Eastern Meadowlark.

A pair of Sandhill Cranes spotted feeding on waste grain. After eating they bugle together.

In some areas, fire suppression has lead to the predominance of unwanted species in an ecosystem, as more ecologically typical species that are dependent on fire (to clear brush, stimulate germination, and to return vital nutrients to the soil) die off or fail to thrive. At the bog where these sandhill cranes were spotted feeding on waste grain, invasive buckthorn outcompetes native prairie grasses and shrubs, increasing topsoil erosion and even inhibiting the growth of aquatic amphibians. Now, prescribed burns are part of a restoration plan to return the bog to its former bog-glory.

Above, Red-breasted Merganser drakes provided quite a show one evening, between dramatic displays and high-speed chases over fish. Each time a duck surfaces with a fish, every duck in the vicinity gives chase. Most often, either the original duck managed to consume the kill, or he dropped it and to no one went the spoils. It doesn’t seem like the most effective strategy! Between fish fights, the brightly-colored males performed their courtship displays, bowing low in the water to a likely female. Her response is to jab him with her bill.

In Urbana, an adult Cooper’s Hawk killed a blackbird, somewhat ironically, in the local graveyard. It was a real privilege to watch this beautiful, powerful bird pluck and consume the kill. Eating half turns out to have been a good strategy, since when he took off with it gripped in his talons (maybe to deliver to a waiting mate), it was still almost too heavy to carry.

A White-crowned Sparrow perched, and a tiny Blue-gray Gnatcatcher singing to a quiet forest.

Back in northern IL, a pair of Osprey (Matt’s favourite raptor) was in the early stages of building a nest. They flew over a handful of times as they negotiated their perch positions, giving us great views of the classic “M” posture.

A male Red-winged Blackbird singing from a cherry blossom perch.

On the shore of Lake Michigan, we spotted an odd sight among the more typical Caspian Terns and gulls: sixteen soft orange and black shorebirds, huddled in a group, occasionally fleeing as one from the advances of the larger birds. These turned out to be American Avocets in breeding plumage, an uncommon migrant in the area. (Our report of these birds set off a minor flurry of activity! I’m pleased that many people got to see them before they moved on.) As we watched them, they began to relax a little, stretching and dipping their bills to drink.

Two rather different birds on the same day: a Turkey Vulture catching a thermal, and a male Eastern Bluebird perched in a colorful meadow.

An eastern Fox Squirrel, a typical view of the elusive Sora, and a Green Heron catching a huge bullfrog.

A Green Heron at a flowery pond in the evening.

A Broad-winged Hawk in the forest in the early morning.

We were due to leave for Seattle for work shortly after the semester ended. These Eastern Cottontails and this juvenile Eastern Gray Squirrel were shot in my mother’s yard in between bouts of packing. Violets bloom in the somewhat untended grass, which really only adds to the charm for a tired rabbit. The old mulberry tree in the backyard had an impressive split down its trunk that periodically threatened the neighbourhood with destruction, but it made for a great playground for young squirrels while it stood.

A red-headed woodpecker, one of my favourite birds to spot, reaching the top of a snag in the bottomland forest.

Add a comment...

Your email is never published or shared. Required fields are marked *