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July 2012
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Black-throated Buntings in Illinois
Filed under: General, Birding & Outdoors, Illinois, Birding "Patches"
Posted by: Ken @ 6:10 am

The past couple of weeks have been so hot here in Chicagoland that we have had to curtail much of our outdoor activity. On most days the temperatures back home in south Florida were actually much cooler. This past week we had one record-breaking day after the other, with three days in a row over 100 degrees (F).

In Illinois this time of the year, sunrise occurs very early (around 5:20 AM), and temperatures have been reaching the 90 degree range before 8:30 AM. At the beginning of summer, days in Illinois are more than one hour and 20 minutes longer than in Florida, although the sun sets at about the same local time in both locations. The longer day and the high angle of the midday sun are great for growing corn, provided there is ample rain.

We got out to bird in nearby Nelson Lake several mornings, usually not walking more than a mile or two over an hour and a half, accepting about all the heat we could bear.

While walking the north prairie of Nelson Lake we sometimes hear dozens of Dickcissels singing in the tall grasses, but get good looks at but a small fraction of the total population. Dickcissel males seem to arrive before the females, in mid May, a few weeks later than other migrants. On June 20 we encountered dozens of singing males, but only five days later we neither heard nor saw a single one! Had they departed, or were they strangely silent and reclusive?

This male Dickcissel was singing exuberantly on May 29th (click on the photos for additional images).

Dicksissel 4-20120529

In Audubon’s time, this colorful bird was known as the “Black-throated Bunting.” Its scientific name is Spiza americana, which means American finch. It is actually more closely related to Cardinals than to the true finches.

Our Illinois condo, some 48 miles east of Chicago,  sits on land that was a cornfield until only about 5 years ago. Corn and soybean fields extend for miles around. Nearer to Chicago, suburbs have expanded to replace most of them. Remnants of original or restored prairie persist, mostly on State, County and municipal preserves.

Nelson Lake and Marsh occupy 172 acres of the 997.7 acre Dick Young Kane County Forest Preserve, only a five minute drive from our home. An extensive old growth woodland that includes maple, oak and hickory is adjacent to the lake. Restored tall grass prairie occupies the remaining 800 acres. 

Our move to Illinois about four years ago exposed us, for the first time, to a habitat that I thought would be, well, flat, windy and boring. Yet, I have come to appreciate the dynamics and the beauty of the prairie.

Wind blowing from behind creates a peak on the head of this bird (a “Crested Black-throated Bunting”), seen on June 20th.

Dicksissel windblown 20120620

The female Dickcissel lacks the strong black throat and chest markings.

Dicksissel female 20120529

Another female Dickcissel provided one of my favorite photos of this species. Her subdued colors seem so suited to the textures of the sparse vegetation and murky background.

Dicksissel female 2-20120529

This male assumed almost the same pose.

Dicksissel 5-20120529

The amount and distribution of black on the male’s throat and breast varies.

Dicksissel 20120529

Dicksissel singing 2-20120620

Dicksissel 2-20100607

These photos show off the rich rufous of the male Dickcissel’s scapulars.

Dicksissel 6-20120529

Dicksissel 20110707

Only rarely have I seen one pose out in the open on the ground.

Dicksissel 20100607

Brown-headed Cowbirds can be major nest parasites of Dickcissels, depositing their eggs in anywhere from 30 to 90 percent of their nests. It seems odd that Dickcissels, which evolved in the same habitat as cowbirds, did not develop a defense against their onslaught. We saw many cowbirds in the grass and in the small trees, including this male.

Brown-headed Cowbird 20120521

Other birds displayed some yellow in their plumage… a few Bobolinks, in their upside-down garb…

Bobolink 3-20120529

…numerous Common Yellowthroats…

Common Yellowthroat 2-20120705

…and a singing Eastern Meadowlark.

Eastern Meadowlark 3-20120521