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Open Mic: A Glimpse From the Magic Stump

At the Mic: Tyler Funk

Five winters have come and gone since my first Prairie Falcon sighting in northern Coles County, Illinois, in October of 2010. Four seasons have passed since discovering that, in fact, two Prairie Falcons have been utilizing this area as their winter range, often roosting on what is now called “The Magic Stump”. As Greg Neise has stated, “Naming something the Magic something-or-other is just an Illinois thing”.

These two falcons have been wintering in northern Coles County within an agricultural area that, to the eye, looks not unlike most other habitats which make up the majority of the northern two-thirds of Illinois. Yet, for some reason, this area has become a bit of a Patagonia in it’s own right. All 5 of North America’s falcons have been seen here along with Bald Eagle, Golden Eagle, Rough-legged Hawk, Red-tailed Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, and a bounty of Northern Harriers. In fact, it is not unusual to see four Merlins, three Rough-legged Hawks, ten Northern Harriers, and the two Prairie Falcons gliding in to roost on most January evenings. A pretty impressive list for such a small geographical area.

Many late afternoons, you will find anxious bird watchers with tears streaming across their frozen wind blown cheeks, scanning the area for the falcons. For whatever reason, most of the raptors which winter in this area come to this one square mile patch of corn stubble to roost for the evening. This is typically when the falcons return to the area, making for a cold stake out to catch a glimpse of the falcons while the light is fading. Certainly, not the scenario for a cover page photograph, but adding this bird to your day, state, or life list is well worth your effort.

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One such cold evening at the roost site.

Photographing these amazing falcons through the daylight hours can be a challenge. While they are out hunting across their winter ranges, the falcons are easily “bumped” from their hunting perches, and once on the wing, tracking them across the plowed fields during a low aerial assault is next to impossible. Attempting to photograph the falcons while perched on the “Magic Stump” is equally difficult, as the stump sits nearly in the center of this square mile field. Yet for five seasons, I have been driving what I call the “grid” of country roads watching, observing, and attempting to photograph these magnificent birds. During such observations, I have had the fortune of witnessing the falcons performing “aerial ballets”. These ballets, as I call them, consist of the two falcons flying tightly together, rising and dipping, and making soft grabs at each other with their talons. Absolutely amazing to watch! On a side note, this behavior is contra-indicated from Beuvais studies which indicate that Prairie Falcons rarely interact with each other on their winter ranges.(Beuvais, 1992) On other occasions, I have seen the falcons being harassed by passing Northern Harriers, or by a Merlin which happens to come zipping past. These occurrences are very interesting to watch, and equally difficult to describe in such a way to do it justice.

Through the process of posting photographs and/or documenting sighting through IBET (Illinois Birders Exchange Thoughts), something gets lost in the translation. Posting information about the falcons being harassed by Northern Harriers, is completely different than actually seeing it first hand. It was for this reason, I began to speculate on the idea of placing a trail cam on the stump. There was no guarantee that I would capture the activity I was hoping for, but it was likely the only way.

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Prairie Falcon. While hunting Lapland Longspurs it ends the chase to vent its wrath on an unsuspecting coyote. An example of an interaction that is difficult to appreciate without a photo.

In January of 2015, Ron Bradley, another local birder, photographed a falcon on a utility pole that sits along the eastern edge of this roosting area and after posting the photograph, it was determined to have been a Gyrfalcon!  This event sealed the deal for me. I had to start monitoring activity on the “Magic Stump”!

In mid-October 2015, I noticed the landowner out plowing in his field. He was gracious enough to drive the tractor (If you can even call those huge machines they use these days tractors) over to the edge of the field for a visit. He said he was aware of the falcons due to all the activity that has been taking place over the past few seasons, and had even stopped to look at the birds through a scope on one occasion. He did not however, understand the significance of the “Magic Stump”, nor the square mile roosting area. In the end, he was willing to grant me access to his property, and I set up a trail camera to monitor the activity. More importantly, the stump will not be disappearing anytime soon! You can’t take it for granted that people see things the same way a bird watcher does. It’s okay to talk to people!

The “Magic Stump” is 4’ tall, and 3’ in diameter. It is an old Hedge-apple tree that had been cut down many years prior, and had been left as a property boundary marker. It is old and withered, but a perfect landing spot for large birds of prey. To my good fortune, an additional post was placed beside it as a more traditional property marker, This served well for the camera set up. It was a bit close for the focal range, but beggars can’t be choosers.

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The “Magic Stump”, and the post where the trail cam was eventually mounted, taken from 1200E in Coles County, Illinois.

I did some research to determine which camera would work well for this project. I wanted some quality, but was also concerned about the camera “disappearing”, so I did not want to sink too much money into the equipment. Based on some research and word of mouth, I opted for the Browning® Strike Force HD. There may be better cameras, but for the price ($130.00) it was hard to beat.

I began my first session of captures in picture mode, but eventually switched to all video for most of the rest of the season. The last week of February, I switched back to picture mode, as the falcons typically leave the area for their nesting grounds by the 10th of March, and I wanted to leave the camera out as long as possible. I used fairly large storage cards which cut down on the required marches out to the camera. In video mode, I was able to catch all of the action, and if there was a picture I wanted from it, I could pause the video and do a scene capture. I was able to get better quality pictures using this method than when I was in straight picture mode.

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Screen shot from the trail cam video. Prairie Falcon being harassed by a Northern Harrier.

Capturing interspecific and intraspecific interactions, vocalizations, and Prairie Falcons with prey were my main objectives for setting the camera. I was able to accomplish the first two, but struck out on getting any video with prey. I was able to get a good sense of the fauna associated with the stump. Coyotes, Opossum, Raccoon, Wood Rat, peromyscus were all captured on or near the stump. Bird species captured included Red-tailed Hawk, Rough-legged Hawk, American Kestrel, Northern Harrier, and Brown-headed Cowbirds.

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A Red-tailed Hawk visits the Magic Stump

By the end of the season, I had viewed, and edited 730 videos, and 564 photographs. Overall, I felt it was a huge success. If we are fortunate enough to have another season, the landowner has already granted access for another exciting season of observation. I would like to add that the IOS (Illinois Ornithological Society) honored this landowner with a framed photograph and plaque for his support to bird watching.

Along with placing the trail camera this season, I have also been keeping an online (to some degree) journal of each sighting since the Prairie Falcon’s initial discovery. I logged all of the data from observations in Google Maps. This has allowed me to pin locations of sightings and make a journal entry for each observation. If you would like to view this document here is the link to that page. (http://bit.ly/1NnpOMR) I have also placed a few of the more interesting videos on Youtube and they can be found through this link. (http://bit.ly/1qH3edq)

When I was first approached about writing this article, I was undecided as to what I wanted to express concerning the trail camera, and the falcons in general. Over these past four seasons, I have spent a lot of time researching, and reading online studies. I was seeking to get an understanding of the falcons migratory patterns (Steenhof, 2005),  principle food sources, and inter- and intraspecific interactions (Beuvais, 1992). Through my own personal accounts, and from the my readings I learned much about these wonderful birds. All of which I would love to share and ponder with any of you. However, the trail camera has really opened up a different side to this story for me. Through sharing information and in particular video, bird watchers (including myself) have a deeper appreciation for these birds beyond just a check mark on a list. Furthermore, it has taught me a valuable lesson in sharing that same information with landowners. They do not always understand their importance in protecting privately owned habitat. I am sure you have all had the same experience in your birding life where you find a privately owned tract of land that holds amazing birds, only to see it altered or destroyed. We may not be able to change the outcomes of every situation like this, but maybe we can change a few. Just making landowners aware is a start. This is a microscopic example of habitat protection, but I am certain you understand my meaning.