Discover more from This Week in Birding
The stark charms of our agricultural landscape
A Prairie Falcon and a historic tornado outbreak
The first thing that stands out about the prairie farmland of east-central Illinois is the silence. There’s nothing to hear but the occasional metallic sound from the taut power lines overhead. No traffic, no airplanes, nothing at all in the distance but more silence.
The views are from one horizon to another and another, in every direction. There’s essentially nothing standing between this spot and the Front Range of the Rockies. The winds are almost constant. As the late Illinois author David Foster Wallace wrote, the winds “move east like streams into rivers and jets and military fronts.”
The place can feel otherworldly, especially at sunrise. Maybe that adds to the aura of Illinois’ only Prairie Falcon and its favorite perch, The Magic Stump. On Dec. 10, a horrific tornado outbreak moved through the southern Midwest. A tornado passed just a few miles south of the stump. The Prairie Falcon wasn’t seen for 12 days. Surely this bird has seen a lot of severe weather in its lifetime, from western grasslands and deserts to the heart of Tornado Alley. But the storm on the 10th was particularly fierce.
Skies were clear and temperatures a frigid 21 degrees at dawn on Dec. 22. The best bet for confirming the continued presence of the falcon was to check its roosting spot on the stump. It’s no easy task: the stump is about 2,500 feet from any road and on private land. A step into the field would be trespassing and would likely scare the falcon off the stump.
The old tree is visible, though, through binoculars or a spotting scope. An actual bird can be seen at about 60x magnification, and that was the case Wednesday. The grayish-brown form of a Prairie Falcon, its back to the south, appeared on the stump. It had made it through the storm.
The falcon suddenly took off to the northeast. One of the fastest birds in the world, it was out of view of my binoculars in less than a minute.
I made a little video about the experience below. I’ll be back again this winter. As you may know, these visits are part of a documentary film that I’m making about the falcon and the stump. We have a Dec. 31 fundraising deadline coming up, if you’d like to sponsor this effort, and view the trailer for the film, you may do so here.
Annual tally provides another day of birding fun
Dozens of birders made their way across the prairies, wetlands and woods of Cook, DuPage and Will counties on Dec. 19 for the 73rd Lisle-Arboretum Christmas Bird Count. If you haven’t done a Christmas Bird Count, the basic idea is to bird from the early-morning hours through the day and even into early evening. There are assigned territories, and counting is mostly done in groups, on foot and by car. Then all the results are tallied up and sent to the National Audubon Society to combine with its data set.
The last few counts have shown two trends that stood up this year, too. One is the increase in the number of woodpeckers: they are way up in recent years, especially our largest, the Pileated Woodpecker. On the other hand, sparrow numbers have decreased quite a bit, unfortunately. There are a few theories for the woodpecker trend: the growth of more mature trees and Emerald Ash Borer among them. For sparrows, it might be something about edge habitat being reduced and perhaps milder winters.
This year’s count recorded 33 Great Horned Owls, which smashed the record of 29 set in 1993. It’s a wonderful development, in part due to the number of people willing to rise in the wee hours and look for owls.
We’ll have a full recap of the count soon. Counts can run as late as early January so if you have a chance to latch onto one it is highly recommended!