The feathered friends of fall migration

Guest post by Ken Klick

Fall bird migration is happening now at the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois, and each day (and night) brings tens of thousands of newly arrived birds. Yet finding fall migrants can be challenging. Their subdued palettes of brown, tan, and olive feathers hide in sharp contrast to their resplendent springtime colors.

Unlike spring migration, most birds travel quietly in the fall, barely whispering a note to indicate their presence. In Lake County, fall migration starts in July, when our forests and prairies are green and full of blooming flowers. It’s a five-month-long period involving more than 200 species that rest and feed in our nearly 31,000 acres of preserves.

Spotting a bird can be difficult when vegetation conceals fleeting glimpses, making observations tricky and identification nearly impossible. Besides, who’s thinking of fall migration in July’s summer vacation mindset?

Either way, here are some of my favorite fall birding observations by month, over my past five decades of birdwatching.

July brings our first fall migrants: shorebirds. A visit to the Lake Michigan shoreline at Fort Sheridan in Lake Forest finds sanderlings (Calidris alba), sandpipers (Scolopacidae family), and yellowlegs (Tringa spp.) avoiding people and surf while searching for food. Many migrating shorebirds have just finished raising young in the tundra’s perpetual daylight and have embarked on a 6,000-mile round trip journey.

Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Solitary sandpiper (Tringa solitaria). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A few weeks later, near the tail end of August, is when swallows (Hirundinidae family) and common nighthawks (Chordeiles minor) congregate in ever-increasing numbers for their South American destinations. Six kinds of swallows can be seen skimming our lakes and ponds, catching insects such as flies and beetles. Each evening the swallows gather in large, swirling flocks before resting on power lines, bridges, buildings, or treetops for the night. These communal gatherings become seasonal tourist attractions, often garnering news coverage.

Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Tree swallow (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Nighthawks are my favorite. Like winged darts, these sleek birds can be seen sailing south high in late summer’s humid air. Nighthawks sometimes catch the season’s first cold front in late August for an easy tailwind ride south. Sadly, this bird is becoming rare in Lake County due to toxic pesticides and habitat loss. I know of only a few breeding pairs remaining.

Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d'Entremont.
Common nighthawk (Chordeiles minor). Photo © Ronnie d’Entremont.

September is the month when fall bird diversity and numbers reach their peak. Think warblers (Parulidae family), vireos (Vireonidae family), tanagers (Thraupidae family), grosbeaks (Passeroidea superfamily), and thrushes (Turdidae family). It’s the time when the air can have a hint of autumnal crispness. Leaves begin to change colors, fewer mosquitoes are around, and yet asters, goldenrods, and gentians still bloom. This is the time when bird identification can be very challenging, especially considering the abundance of first-year young with immature plumages.

Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus). Photo © Phil Hauck.

A visit to a preserve now can seem quiet and lacking birds, but there’s a little trick I use to draw distant birds closer—sometimes within inches. I sit quietly and “squeak,” a sound that birds either find alarming or intriguing; I’m not sure which. When the purse-lipped squeak works, birds seem to drip from every branch and descend from all directions. There’s something magical about being that close to a bird weighing a mere three ounces, eye to eye. Moments like that don’t require formal names. I just marvel at the incredible journey this tiny bird faces and it helps put my life in perspective.

Living close to the western shores of Lake Michigan provides us with some of the world’s best hawk viewing opportunities. It’s in October when strong northwesterly winds blow migrating raptors—hawks, eagles, and vultures—eastward until they reach the undesirable airspace over the Great Lake’s open water. (It’s undesirable because there are no rising thermals to improve flight.)

Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.
Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo © Phil Hauck.

Patient, dedicated hawk watchers sit in comfortable chairs scanning the sky. On a good flight day when the wind, cloud cover, and barometric pressure are just right, counters log thousands of hawks silently passing at dizzying heights, some singly and some in swirling masses of thousands called kettles. Visit the Hawk Migration Association of North America’s website to learn more about our local hawk watch sites at Fort Sheridan and Illinois Beach State Park. Unless it’s raining, there are always dedicated volunteers there from Labor Day to Thanksgiving keeping an eagle-eye view of the sky. They love having visitors and appreciate an extra set of fresh eyes to help.

Compared to October, November’s sky is loud like a concert, and it delivers our area’s most recognizable bird migration scene. This is the month when skeins of sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) and Canada geese (Branta canadensis) fly in their iconic V-shaped formations. We often hear these birds long before spotting them high in the blue-domed sky. There’s no doubt winter is just around the corner when we see them, since ice-laden wetlands and fields drive them southward.

Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis). Photo © Lake County Forest Preserves.

There’s one last migrant you might see in November, often when the weather is most unpleasant with snow and wind. The golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos) can be spotted locally, a real rarity. It’s amazing to think these November birds—the eagle, crane, and goose—were nearly extinct when I first started birdwatching 50 years ago.

Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.
Golden eagle (Aquila chrysaetos). Photo © Jeff Bleam.

As you can see, each month of the year provides unique birding experiences. Yet they’re fairly predictable by those who venture out and look. These annual events unfold in nature’s rhythms and patterns, and have brought comfort to many during this pandemic. Do what you can to protect bird habitat by planting native plants on as much of your property as possible. Birdwatching places our local and global community in context. Our feathered friends are bellwethers of how well we share our world. 

The solace of purple martins

Post by Jen Berlinghof

There’s solace to be found in the fact that the rhythms of nature march on. This spring, the sun still rises. The wild leek (Allium tricoccum) still pulses its verdant green arms through the pulpy leaf litter of the forest floor. The birds still surge through the skies as they migrate to and through the Lake County Forest Preserves in northern Illinois. Like us, some of these birds are inclined to congregate in large communities. Over the years, the colonies of a particular species, the purple martin (Progne subis), have become largely reliant on people to provide shelter for their nesting flocks.

Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
Two purple martins look at each other on the ledge of a martin house. Photo © Phil Hauck.
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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.

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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