Friday, April 15, 2011

Early Spring Migratory Birds in Northern Illinois: Northern Shovelers & Common Loons

It's that time of year, when the birds that have been gone all winter start appearing  - initially, one or two sightings at a time, then suddenly they are all over the place. This spring I have been trying to keep a record on which migrant birds I have seen first (As birders put it FOY birds - "First of Year").

For the past couple of weeks, I have been highlighting those birds which spend the entire year in our parts of Northern Illinois. Before that, I featured those birds who just spend the winter here. Now its time to concentrate on those birds who are passing through from their winter grounds somewhere south of here to their summer digs - somewhere north or west of here.

The first sign of migrants already started appearing in late February. Eastern Bluebirds, American Robins, and Hermit Thrushes seemed to be in that first group. Some of the first two species could very well have been here all winter, but definetely the numbers increased everyday until they were both quite common by the first couple of weeks of March, and of course, will stay all summer. The latter of the three, The Hermit Thrush (Below), is historically an early arriver, on its way to Northern Wisconsin, Minnesota, Canada, the Northeast States and the mountain states of the Rockies and the Appalachians.

The Hermit Thrush is one of the first migrants to appear travelling through Northern Illinois
The next wave of birds that I noticed were the Red-winged Blackbirds, Killdeers, and Common Grackles. These three started showing up in early March little by little, but by the 2nd week of March, they were here by the droves.  All three of these species will spend the entire summer here; some will be travelling further north, but many will stay.

The next wave of migrants seemed to happen by mid-March.  Waterbirds such as American Coots, Northern Shovelers, Common Loons, Sandhill Cranes, and Great Blue Herons were appearing on the lakes at Rock Cut State Park and the marshes of Nygren Wetlands Preserve, both near Rockford, and both excellent birding spots in our area. Of this group, the Coots and Herons will stay all summer, but the Northern Shovelers (Below) and Common Loons (Bottom) are passing through to more northern territories, and the Sandhill Cranes are on the very edge of the southernmost summer range. They don't often spend the summer in Northern Illinois (however, they are frequently seen at the Nygren Wetlands Preserve); however, they will spend the summers just north of here in Wisconsin.

A Northern Shoveler, Nygren Wetlands Preserve, Rockton, IL; 4/10/11.

A pair of Northern Shovelers coming in for a landing at the Nygren Wetlands Preserve, Rockton, IL; 4/10/11.
Northern Shovelers (Above) are aptly named beacuse of how they use their bills to "shovel" up the weeds of muddy ponds and marshes looking for plankton and seeds. They use their unusually shaped bills to skim the surface of the water straining off the water and keeping the food in their bills. They travel through our area on their way to their summer grounds in Western Canada, Alaska, and much of the North West quadrant of the U.S. Even though they spend their summers west of here, we get to see them in Illinois because they winter in the southern third of the U.S and throughout the Atlantic Coast, Gulf Coast. So they use the Mississippi flyway as their route. Often many N. Shovelers will stay in the Horicon Marsh Wildlife Preserve in Wisconsin all summer long. The male Northern Shoveler has a very striking breeding plumage: a dark green (almost black) head and bill, white breast, and  reddish flanks. The females are less colorful with their pale buffy body spotted with darker brown feathers and a large orange bill. If not for their long bills, that gives them a unique profile, from a distance they could be mistaken for the Mallards. The first time I saw Northern Shovelers (Below) was in the winter of 2009, while we were in Arizona, and they were in their winter grounds.
This pic of  a pair of Northern Shovelers shows their uniquely shaped bill and profile; Phoenix, AZ; 12/26/09. 

Another water bird travelling through the area are the Common Loons. I remember being surprised to see one in the lake at Bauman Park a year ago, especially in a park that is very busy - knowing Loons like solitude and tend to stray away from people.  This early spring of 2011, has been Loon heaven at Rock Cut State Park. I have seen as many as 12 loons on the same day on Pierce Lake (March 26). It's always a treat to hear them yodeling their haunting calls. They have been at Rock Cut State Park for the past three weeks. Even last weekend when boats were allowed on the lake, I still counted no less than 5 Loons.
A Common Loon on Pierce Lake, Rock Cut State Park, Rockford, IL; 3/31/11.
Common Loons will spend their summers on fresh water lakes in Canada and Alaska, as well as throughout Great Lakes and the Northeast corner states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and the Adirondaks of New York. Go out and try to spot these two great birds (Loons & Shovelers) before they are gone North.

Tomorrow I will feature the Sandhill Crane.


Anonymous said...

Wonderful site, wish I could meet other people in my area interested in birds. Thank you for posting such nice pictures and great descriptions.


Anonymous said...

To ~m~ and any others who want to meet people around the area of Lake Co. who are interested in birds just google Audubon Lake Co., or contact me at There's a bunch of us. Plus you may be interest to know that the National Audubon Society has started a Mississippi Flyway Initiative to connect save places for birds to rest and feed when migrating.