Seasons of Wildlife
In late winter, bald eagles dot trees along the bluff and river shoreline, snow geese mass in the thousands, hundreds of trumpeter swans bugle their return from near extinction. Coyotes are often spotted traveling across frozen lake or trotting down the levee tops. Spend a few moments in one of the wooded areas and you will likely be greeted by the checkered black, white and red flash of the red-headed woodpecker or hear their characteristic tapping on a tree nearby.
As spring migration begins - typically late February to early March - waves of white and blue snow geese descend into the river valley. It is not uncommon to see more than 100,000 snow geese undulating in unison over large opening in the ice. As more openings in the ice emerge in mid-March, the monochromatic colors of winter are replaced by the flashy plumes of green-winged teal, northern pintails, northern shovelers, canvasbacks, redheads and mergansers. While watching ducks dabble and dive, don’t forget to look up. Wood ducks may be perched above your head, searching for nesting locations in tree cavities above the water.
In late spring, commotions of American coots arrive. They can be seen milling around the water’s edge, tending to stay near tall vegetation. If water level conditions allow for emergent vegetation to persist through the summer, you might see strange looking orange, fluffy coot chicks! April and May are also the time to strain your eyes, necks and ears for migrating warbler species.
Late May to early June, ibis may be spotted. By June, summer residents are more typical in the wetland areas. Squadrons of American white pelicans often dominate the landscape, but keen observers will find black-crowned night-heron nesting among lush wetland vegetation. The bright yellow prothonotary warbles may be observed nesting among the swampy bottomland forest areas during the summer months. Wood duck broods are commonly seen along creeks and ditched in the area. Brilliantly blue indigo buntings are frequently seen on roadsides and grassland areas.
By July, seasonal wetlands give way to mudflats as flood waters retreat. These areas are typically teaming with shore birds. From July through September, look sandpipers, plovers and dowitchers. You’re also likely to spot gulls and terns.
Fall rains usher in the fall migration. From October through late November, wetlands are filled with the calls and quacks of dabbling and diving ducks. Migration typically peaks in November, with 28 species of waterfowl known to use the refuge. In December, most to the waterfowl have moved south. Northern harriers and red-tailed hawks are often easy to spot cruising the landscape.
Chautauqua National Wildlife Refuge serves as a temporary home to hundreds of thousands of waterfowl that feed and rest on their annual spring and fall migration and has historically provided habitat for 60 to 70 % of the waterfowl that migrate along the Illinois River corridor. The north and south pools of the refuge provide a mix of prime habitat for diving and dabbling ducks, with 28 species of waterfowl are known to use the refuge. The area is also a significant area for wood duck production.
In addition to waterfowl, the low water during summer drawdowns and the resulting mudflats attract many species of shorebirds, especially sandpipers along with gulls and terns. May and August can be the best time to see many shorebird species. In late summer, the showy white flowers of the federally threatened decurrent false aster can occasionally be seen in disturbed areas left behind by the flood pulses of the river. Dense wetland vegetation provides shelter and feeding habitat for marsh birds like rails, herons and egrets. The area regularly supports more than 2 % of the entire North American population of American Coots, particularly during fall migration.
Refuge lands host more than 150 species of songbirds at various times of the year, because of the great diversity of habitats. Significant tracts of bottomland forest support specialist species during periods of both nesting and migration. Notable species include: prothonotary warblers, red-headed woodpeckers, pileated woodpeckers and rusty blackbirds. In the drier upland forests along the east edge of the refuge, it is common to hear and see a different group of passerines, with thrushes, ovenbirds and cardinals being among the more common species. Edge species, like flycatchers, can often be seen across the refuge perched along the water’s edge. The variety of habitats also support a diverse population of charismatic species including river otters, beavers, bobcats, the federally endangered Indiana bats and monarch butterflies.