Give thanks for turkey vultures

Post by Jen Berlinghof

Come late November, most of us have turkeys on the brain. But a different type of turkey is taking to the skies at this time of year on its annual migration south: the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). You can spot them in the sky or on the ground in the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois.

These large, carrion-consuming birds can be seen in clear, open sky riding thermals with raptors in the fall. Their distinctive, teetering flight is punctuated by the V shape their wings create. They have a larger profile than, say, red-tailed hawks (Buteo jamaicensis) when soaring and seem to have long fingers at their wingtips and tails that extend past their toes. While they do appear black from a distance, if you get a closer look you’ll notice their bodies are composed of dark brown feathers and their nearly featherless heads are a stunning blood red.

You can get a close-up view when turkey vultures glide low to sniff out their favorite food: dead animals. The keen sense of smell they employ to find lunch sets them apart from many birds, and they’re often seen huddled on the ground in small groups around roadkill and other carrion. Turkey vultures have refined tastes, though, and won’t eat just any dead thing lying around. They prefer freshly dead mammals and know to eat the softest bits first and leave the unsavory parts like skunk scent glands.

As if their meal preference wasn’t gross enough, turkey vultures sport some disgusting defense and survival strategies. They’ve been known to defecate on their legs to cool themselves off. The strong acids in their urine kill bacteria that inevitably accumulate on their feet given their cuisine of choice. Additionally, they will vomit partially digested meat, which smells foul enough to deter potential predators away from themselves and their nests.

After reading about its habits, you may or may not be happy to hear that the number of turkey vultures in Illinois is on the rise. According to Illinois Natural History Survey breeding bird surveys, overall populations have increased and moved steadily north nationally for decades.

Scientists believe the construction of more heat-reflecting surfaces, such as roads and parking lots, are one reason for the rise, since these surfaces create the thermals that turkey vultures use. And along with more people and development come more cars and naturally more roadkill, which invites more turkey vultures to the table.

As we gather around our tables this holiday season, having more turkey vultures in the area is something we can be thankful for. They do a tremendous job of cleaning up the detritus and debris of the natural world. That ecological niche is incredibly important.

One of the best places to view these massive and amazing creatures in Lake County before they head south is along the newly opened Birding Trail Loop at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest.

Tag along on our Sunrise Stroll at Fort Sheridan on December 21, 7–8:30 am. Greet the day with a peaceful walk while watching the sun rise over Lake Michigan. FREE. No registration required. Adults. Out of respect for all participants, please leave pets at home. Service animals are permitted.

A world of warblers

Guest post by Alyssa Firkus

In my early twenties, I believed adventure was found in the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the largest cavern. I chased whales, orca, brown bears, bald eagles, and other charismatic megafauna. It took decades to realize I didn’t need to seek these animals or climb these mountains to find adventure. Some of the best adventure awaited me in my own backyard. This led me to join the Education Department at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois in October 2018. What an adventure it’s been!

Anyone who’s attended a program taught by our staff or volunteers knows these educators are knowledgeable and passionate. This group ignited my latest adventure—birding—though I can’t point to a single component that sparked my newest hobby. It could have been my awe for the birders in this group, their love for birds and their impressive ability to bird by ear. It might have been my draw to a new challenge. The patience, attention to detail, and dedication it takes to be an effective birder. It may have been the rush of excitement, getting a glimpse of a rare species for a brief moment as it makes its annual migration. Perhaps all of these were feathery factors. Regardless, I’m hooked.

Birding is a rewarding activity that requires patience and knowledge. Photo © Tim Elliott.

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A snowy spark

Many years ago, while running along the Lake Michigan shoreline late on an evening in January, a feathered ghost appeared on top of a flag pole. It was the first time I had ever seen a snowy owl (Bubo scandiacus) and it stopped me in my tracks. This was the spark on that frozen night that lighted my fire of curiosity about birds. This winter, snowy owls have left their Arctic homes in record numbers, causing one of the largest irruptions (sudden increase) in northern Illinois in decades.

Although it seems natural to correlate the arrival of these boreal birds with the extremely cold, snowy winter northern Illinois is having, experts say the motivator is more likely linked to food. On their Arctic breeding grounds, snowy owls feast under 24-hour sunshine. Their food of choice is lemmings, small mammals with an extremely cyclical population. Bird expert Kenn Kaufman explains in a recent Audubon magazine article, that when the lemming population explodes, like it did last summer in northern Quebec, snowy owls have great breeding success, producing large broods of up to 11 chicks. As these chicks quickly grow into juvenile birds, the competition grows for the now dwindling numbers of lemmings. Thus, the young birds get nudged further and further away to find a meal, resulting in them moving to areas that mimic their treeless tundra home, such as the Lake Michigan shoreline. Continue reading

“Kwirr, churr, cha-cha-cha”

Walking through the woods in late fall, everything seems to be settling in—the colors calming to variations of brown, the dull roar of the wind the only sound. That is, until the staccato “cha-cha-cha” call of a red-bellied woodpecker breaks the lull of the wind, and a tiny black and white tuxedo (complete with a red cap) flashes past me, announcing the bird’s entrance into the woods.

Red-bellied woodpeckers (Melanerpes carolinus) are year-round residents of Lake County, Illinois. The sounds and sights of these birds in the woodlands and at backyard feeders command attention, especially against the bland backdrop of late autumn and early winter. Like its six fellow species of woodpeckers in Illinois, the red-bellied woodpecker excavates holes, commonly called cavities, in trees for nesting and shelter—all the while snacking away on the tiny critters crawling under the bark. Continue reading

Warbler fever

Birding fever hit a high this past weekend in natural areas throughout northern Illinois. Birders flocked in throngs with binoculars strung on their necks like potential Olympic medals and a hope of spotting some of the most coveted migratory birds— wood-warblers. Members of the family Parulidae, wood-warblers are the colorful jewels of migration from the sapphire blue of a cerulean warbler (Setophaga cerulea) to the amber orange of a Blackburnian warbler (Setophaga fusca). Yet, as these birds flit about in the treetops, no color is as visually striking as the lemony-yellow citrine that adorns so many warblers as they pass through our area on a flyway. Once these impish birds reach their destinations (as far as northern Canada for some species) and breed, they will molt their flamboyant plumage and become far less conspicuous, which is why seeing them in the spring is considered such a prize for birders.  Continue reading

Glimpses from the car window, bootprints on the trail

Like most of you reading this, my life is busy. Even though I work outdoors in the forest preserves, not all of my nature experiences occur there. Many days I have to take the glimpses of nature where I can get them. On my drive home from work last week, glancing at the “not-so-glamorous” retention pond next to the tollway, I spotted my first hooded merganser of the year. I knew the gang was back, although some of them not for long. This “gang” I’m referring to is the group of migratory waterfowl that show up here in the early spring during migration en route to their final destinations further north. With names like horned grebe, American wigeon, northern shoveler, and gadwall (just a few of the species seen in the past few days at Independence Grove Forest Preserve, here is the complete list), who wouldn’t want to meet this cast of characters?

This time of year is the perfect opportunity to take a peek at some fascinating birds close to home. Continue reading