The mysteries of The Magic Stump

An Illinois farm field--and an old Osage Orange tree--attract a phenomenal variety of raptors.

“With all that said, northern Coles County still appears to be an enigma. It is hard to argue against it, with all that has transpired over the past six years. The one fact that still makes me consider this area to be special is that all these raptors move to a one square mile patch of corn stubble to roost each night. It is not unlikely by January to observe 4 Merlins, 3 Rough-legged Hawks, 6 Northern Harriers and 2 Prairie Falcons all in the same evening coming in to roost here.”

The above excerpt is from an article by birder Tyler Funk, who’s been tracking the presence of an assortment of raptors in the same Illinois farm field for most of the past decade. It’s an odd and seemingly extraordinary convergence of wintering birds of prey. In addition to the above, the same parcel has attracted Gyrfalcon, Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Snowy Owl and Short-eared Owl through the years. And, at the center of it all, there’s the stump of an Osage Orange tree that serves as a landmark and raptor roost site.

The saga began when Funk started commuting along country roads “to get in a little extra birding time.” In 2010, he had his first encounter with a Prairie Falcon, which is exceedingly scarce in Illinois and most anywhere east of the Mississippi. Then the parade of other raptors began, as Funk and others began to drive the grid of gravel county thoroughfares. The stump at the center of it became the Magic Stump, a slight nod to Chicago’s famed Magic Hedge to the north.

“It would be speculative at best for me to answer the question, ‘Why here?” Funk wrote in a 2017 edition of Meadowlark, Illinois’ ornithology journal. “Trust me, I think about it every day while visiting the area.”

I visited with Funk almost six months ago to get a better sense of the story. It seemed it would make a nice follow-up to “Monty and Rose.” My hope is to make a short documentary about the stump and probe into the mysteries of the land and the birds that find refuge there. (If you’d like to contribute to that effort, you may do so here.)

My trek to the stump didn’t disappoint: There’s something about the bleak setting and subtle terrain that’s really stuck with me. There’s also Funk’s dedication to birding relatively nondescript rural roads, which is something I enjoy as well.

I plan to visit again this winter and look forward to providing updates as this project progresses.

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Confusing fall warblers, volume 1

’Tis the season of warbler chips! These are the little call notes that migrating wood warblers emit, often obscured high in the tops of tall trees. Fall migration poses a number of challenges, the primary one being just how plainly marked warblers are at this time of year. Another is that they generally aren’t singing as it’s long past time for that. The chip notes themselves are difficult to distinguish also. Still, it can be a great time to be outdoors and there are plenty of birds around.

Here’s a look at just one of the more confounding fall warbler identification challenges: Nashville Warbler versus Mourning Warbler. I kicked myself all last winter because I likely missed a Mourning Warbler at my local birding patch (interestingly, as of this writing I now have a Mourning from my second nearest patch but not THE patch). It would have been a nice add to my patch list, but I was fussing with my camera too much to get a good look. This year, I’ll be ready!

A lot of this is like an old Hocus Focus puzzle. What are the differences between these two birds? Mourning Warblers are a little bigger than Nashville Warblers, but that’s not always going to stand out in the field. The first thing I’d look at here are the eyes: The Mourning Warbler has no eye ring; the Nashville Warbler has a bright white eye ring. Then I’m looking at the gray hoods on these birds. The Mourning Warbler has a gray hood that goes all the way down to the upper chest. The Nashville Warbler has a gray hood, too, but it’s clearly shorter and it even has a yellow throat.

There’s another species that can get into this mix, Connecticut Warbler, but it’s scarce. The main thing to look for there is an eye ring on a bird that looks a lot more like a Mourning Warbler--lengthier gray hood and all.

I’ll post about the Tennessee Warbler, a whole fall conundrum unto itself, in a future newsletter.

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