Invasion of the Nesters

Tree Swallow Nest, Chicago Portage

Tree Swallow Nest, Chicago Portage

Yesterday, whatever holiday you may have been celebrating, was also a beautiful day in the Chicago area. For that matter, Saturday was quite wonderful as well: I had a visceral perception of my depression lifting and concluded it must have been directly related to abundant sunshine. Although having a new car to drive to the pool and grocery shopping didn’t hurt either.

Ottawa Trail Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois

Ottawa Trail Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois

Sunshine aside, it was warm yesterday as well. I started out at Ottawa Trail around 8:00 a.m. wearing a t-shirt, sweat shirt and windbreaker. I shed the sweatshirt before I left and by the time I got to the Portage at 10:00 I was minus the windbreaker too.

Robin with nesting material, Ottawa Trail

Robin with nesting material, Ottawa Trail

For all the warm weather, there weren’t an awful lot of birds at Ottawa Trail, but improvements have been made and it’s easier to walk all the way now, it doesn’t stop abruptly anymore and insist that you be in good enough shape to climb down and back up a 3-foot cement retaining wall, while still leaving enough of the former demolished structure to stop and rest, lay down your optics and take off your sweatshirt to stuff in a backpack.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

It’s always nice to see a Turkey Vulture flying overhead. Another raptor seen here was a Cooper’s Hawk but the photographs were good only for later verification of its ID.

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The designated Black-Capped Chickadee greeted me.

Blending in at the Ottawa Trail

Blending in at the Ottawa Trail

The image of a Canada Goose above explains to me how even if you have black and white markings on your body you can still blend in with the scenery.

Blending in at Ottawa Trail

Blending in at Ottawa Trail

Walking back along the Des Plaines, I saw something black and white across the river but had no idea what it was until I got it in the camera view. The nesting spot above looks like a fort.

Tree Swallow Nest

Tree Swallow Nest

I stopped at the Jewel-Osco and then went on to the Chicago Portage to see what, if anything, had changed over the week. The ground is a lot drier, leaving the bottomlands almost drained. But I was quickly awakened by chirps of dueling Tree Swallows. The one I photographed most was protecting his prime nesting spot in a dead stump right by the south foot bridge.

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It occurred to me that a lot of male birds were strutting their stuff yesterday, and with good reason. “It’s my job to be beautiful – go ahead, look at me! Just don’t look at my nest!!”

Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

The Canada Geese were defending their territories too, sometimes quite vigorously.

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I must have startled this Mallard, but he gave me some interesting shots.

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Blue-Winged Teal have decided they like the Portage. I wonder if they will stay. I counted four pairs yesterday!

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

The first picture below illustrates how well they can blend in too. The second shows a flash of that blue wing.

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There was another warbler I have yet to identify from many crummy pictures, but below is the only Yellow-Rumped I could find.

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There were two Blue-Gray Gnatcacthers chasing each other, probably over that nesting thing.

Blue-Gray Gnatcactcher, Portage

Blue-Gray Gnatcactcher, Portage

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers won’t nest here, they travel much farther north. But it sure was nice to see this guy in his breeding plumage.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

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I am sparing you a lot of Painted Turtle Pictures this time, although they were out in great force soaking up the sun. Below is my cooperative Tree Swallow once more.

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I will try very hard to come back one more time before leaving for the Edwards Plateau in Texas on Friday.

 

 

 

 

Coming Soon to a Hummingbird Feeder Near You

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Male Ruby-Throated Hummingbird

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are the most numerous of the neotropical migrant hummingbirds. If there is anything you ever wanted to know about Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds, all you need do is visit Dr. Bill Hilton Jr.’s Operation Rubythroat pages on the Web.

Having said that, after following Bill’s posts from time to time on another of his main pages, This Week At Hilton Pond, for years through the Birdchat Listserv and then directly to my email, I became intrigued when I realized that he was leading trips to Costa Rica for volunteers to help with his bird banding project which specifically targets Ruby-Throats (“RTHU”).

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Female RTHU

Bill’s last Costa Rica trip coincided with my safari last November, so I explored his other options, and was intrigued by the idea of going to Nicaragua this spring. I signed up, paid for the trip, and then unbeknownst to me, the moment I landed in Nairobi I got a call from Holbrook Travel in Florida. My brain was not ready to process who I knew in Florida when I was trying to figure out Nairobi, so I didn’t return the call until I got back to the States. As it turned out, I had a delightful conversation with Debbie Sturdivant Jordan who inevitably told me that the Nicaragua trip was being canceled due to lack of participants, and would I be interested in Belize?

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Bill Hilton teaching visiting students

I had been in Belize before, but I said yes, because by this time I was simply intrigued by the whole idea of what it would like to assist a bird-banding operation and get to stay in one place, soak up the birds around the lodge and learn a few things. And the thought of seeing some birds again is very attractive to me: I am not obsessed with building my list. Maybe I’m becoming even more philosophical about this direction… (“How many birds have you seen?” “I don’t know, how many books do you own?”)

It’s a short trip by comparison to a birding tour, and just as you’re beginning to get the hang of it and start feeling like you could do it every day for the rest of your life, it’s over. I am not trying to sugarcoat it: it’s work getting down to breakfast every morning at 5:30 and onto the vehicle by 6:00 to drive to the banding location and start setting up nets. You’re out all morning monitoring or helping at the banding table. But you’re back for lunch and after that there are planned activities or you can relax.

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At the banding table

I have never been much of a spectator. I like to be doing things. So maybe from that standpoint this is a natural thing for me to be doing. But the other thing that really intrigued me was feeling like I was getting to know some birds really well, better than I ever could by simply going out and looking at them. It’s more like hanging out with birds to me, which is what I’m used to anyway at home, where they are my companions. Multiply this feeling a million times and you might know what Bill Hilton must feel like by now with all the intimate experience he’s had with birds literally in his hands.

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After-Hatch-Year RTHU

Suffice it to say that I learned more than I ever expected, and that left me only wanting to know more, and to be a better participant next time. I still have to get the hang of taking down the nets…

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Attaching the band…the feet are so small, and the bands so tiny, the only way to handle these birds is to stuff them in a little cardboard tube!

I could go on, and from time to time I will try to write more about other facets of the trip, but I do want to leave the presentation to William Hilton Jr. who has just published a wonderful and detailed recap of the entire trip to Belize, as only he can, at this link. And while I’m a bit embarrassed seeing all the pictures that have me in them, it’s not deterring me from going on Operation Rubythroat’s trip to Costa Rica this November.

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Bill is a born educator. He is a former high school biology teacher, and he has never stopped teaching, going on to win awards and an honorary doctorate. I learned so much in one week I am compelled to go back to learn more. Perhaps the biggest impression I got from the entire experience was the importance of the data that he collects from banding the birds. You might think he’s keeping track of individuals for purposes of counting or aging re-caught birds, but it goes far beyond that.

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Bill with the local school kids, at a net

Bill is on a mission to get local students interested enough in birds to become guides, so that they will have employment and in turn, habitat will be preserved for the birds. His data prove that birds have site fidelity and return to the same place year after year after year. If you have sometimes wondered whether certain individual birds that visit your yard every spring or fall are the same ones, your hunch is probably correct.

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A sheet of bands for RTHUs – each band has a different number, and the bands have to be cut separately, filed down, and bent into shape to fit onto the birds foot.

Bill told a story about going back to Belize one year and all the trees had been cleared from a particular location where he had banded the previous year, near the hurricane shelter. Loss of habitat is devastating to birds. Whoever cleared the lot probably thought they had a good reason for doing so, but loss of habitat due to human activity probably has the most negative impact on birds, particularly during migration when they need to fuel up for long flights. Bill has found another location (“Hurricane 2″) and he hopes to instill the importance of preserving it in the hearts and minds of the local students.

After the rigors of banding, which include weighing, sexing, assessing feather molt, measuring wing length, judging for fat deposits…

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Bill offers sugar-water to the Ruby Throated Hummingbirds before he releases them.

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I leave you with this thought: two male Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds weigh about as much as a nickel. And yet they migrate hundreds of miles every spring and fall. It boggles the mind. This is what keeps Bill going. And will keep me going back.

 

 

Fits and Starts

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The Turtle and the Pied-Billed Grebe

I’m not getting any “planned” posts done, so this one is an interim life-goes-on-in-spite-of-me digression.

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Canada Goose with Painted Turtles

Spring is arriving, and we even had some warm days to go with it. Yesterday morning began still quite warm, but along with predictable April Showers, we are now plunging ever-so-slightly back into temperatures cool enough to flirt with snow.

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

My fits and starts seem as arbitrary as the weather. Tuesday night on the way to the pool, about halfway, the power steering began to groan loudly on the old, rusted out Ford Taurus. After a good swim, we moaned and groaned all the way home. Glad I made it, because the writing was on the wall: you know it’s over when your mechanic doesn’t want to try fixing things any longer. Knowing the end was nigh, I hoped to make the car last a couple more weeks until I got back from Texas, but apparently Little HP (named after its Hewlett-Packard fleet car origination: purchased with 20,000 miles on it, now has only 81,000, but once when getting a fairly minor dent straightened out discovered it had been in an accident from the tell-tale difference in paint color, which explained a lot of its odd quirks) already sensed rejection and, as little as I drive, is now unsafe at any speed.

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I already knew what I wanted to buy, so after researching the possibilities online, I made an appointment with the nearest Toyota dealer for Saturday, and bought a 2013 Prius c. I’ve been trying to substitute “Priuses” for “Porsches” in that lyric from Janis Joplin’s “Oh Lord Won’t You Buy Me a Mercedes Benz” …”My friends all drive Priuses, I must make amends.” It’s true, three (if not all) of my friends drive Priuses. Maybe this should be the 21st century version of the song.

I have already lowered  my carbon footprint. I’ve put 57 miles on the car and the needle has not moved from “full.” The purchase will probably force me to lower my footprint even more since I won’t be able to afford any long trips overseas for quite a while.

After running errands with the Prius, I met Lesa at Wolf Road Prairie around dusk to see if any American Woodcocks were displaying. You can take a virtual tour of this site at the first link and learn all about Woodcocks from Cornell at the second.

Wolf Road Prairie

Wolf Road Prairie

The Woodcocks started to “peent” some time after I took the above photo but did not fly until it was as dark as when I took the one below. Needless to say we barely saw anything.

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But I got to practice driving in the dark with the new car. It took me a while to find the lights: I was a little dismayed that the options on the column were not illuminated, since this car seems to tell you what it’s doing Every Second. But I’m sure I’ll get the clicks memorized and won’t need to look at them. Or maybe there’s some setting somewhere that makes them go on and off by themselves. Everything else seems to be Twilight Zone about it, like the smart key. Have to study the manual thoroughly this week.

Chicago Portage

Chicago Portage

Yesterday morning I took the new car to the Portage which is where the remaining photos on this page were taken, including the car’s portrait. It was a good day for turtles. And I had 25 species of birds which is not remarkable, but among them were Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Brown Creeper and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, first-of-year sightings for me, confirming passerine migration has definitely begun. The warblers and kinglets were up too high in the treetops for photographs, but that’s where the bugs were on our first really balmy day. More Painted Turtles.

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I spent most of yesterday evening looking for title to the Taurus because I want to donate it as it was definitely not worth trading in. I didn’t even drive it to the dealer, I took a taxi. I was sure I knew where I was hiding the title, but after much ridiculous and hapless searching, I have given up looking for it and am going to get a duplicate issued. Getting organized is on my list of things to do this summer, not this week.

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Two more Blue-Winged Teal flushed when I walked by, and while I’m sorry I disturbed them, you can see the blue on their wings.

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Wetlands and Bottomlands

Hennepin-Hopper

Hennepin-Hopper

Last Sunday my friend Lesa and I joined Jeff Smith’s DuPage Birding Club outing to the Dixon Waterfowl Refuge at Hennepin-Hopper Lakes in Bureau County, Illinois.  The weather was cooler than predicted and cloudy, but it was good to get out. As you can read the link, the refuge is fairly new. Twenty years ago the water was still drained out of it for soybean and corn fields. Since restoration, Hennepin-Hopper has attained Audubon Important Bird Area status and in February of 2012 was listed as a wetland of international importance.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird

On the map, Hennepin-Hopper inhabits an area to the south and east of the crook in the Illinois River when it changes course from west to south. In addition to marshes and lakes, there are a lot of bottomlands close to the river as well. We walked a trail through the marshes that border the lakes, and there we saw and heard plenty of Red-Winged Blackbirds and Song Sparrows proclaiming their territories.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

I believe we had all seven woodpecker species: Downy, Hairy, Northern Flicker, Red-Bellied, Red-Headed, Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker and Pileated, which is the rarest of all, but for some reason the Pileated was the only one I got representative pictures of, and it was far away.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

We had a couple Red-Tailed Hawks and Northern Harriers. One Red-Tail was close enough to photograph. Click on the picture to see a larger image.

Red-Tailed Hawk

Red-Tailed Hawk

At one point we heard Blue Jays harassing something and it turned out to be a Barred Owl, distant and well-hidden behind several trees. The only thing making this photograph possible, I suppose, is the absence of leaves.

Barred Owl

Barred Owl

Also a bit rare, Rusty Blackbirds. We’re always on the lookout for them as they pass through. The drab backlighting doesn’t do them justice unfortunately.

Female Rusty Blackbird

Female Rusty Blackbird

Male Rusty Blackbird

Male Rusty Blackbird

This Great Blue Heron blended in, even in silhouette.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

So where are the lakes and the waterfowl, you say? A lot of pictures like the one below, but hardly ever close enough to take pictures of the several species we had.

Waterfowl at Hennepin-Hopper

Waterfowl at Hennepin-Hopper

A few species hung a bit closer to the edges, like Bufflehead…

Bufflehead

Bufflehead

and Northern Shovelers.

Northern Shovelers

Northern Shovelers

And our only shorebird species was a Killdeer.

Kildeer

Kildeer

American White Pelicans were a presence. Below, several flew over shortly after we arrived.

American White Pelicans

American White Pelicans

Later we caught up with them or some others on the Illinois.

Pelicans on the Illinois River

Pelicans on the Illinois River

Here’s a closer view of one that flew overhead.

American White Pelican

American White Pelican

Perhaps the bottomlands left the greatest impression on me. The reflection of the tree trunks in the water is mesmerizing.

Bottomlands

Bottomlands

Turning homeward, we stopped by some bottomlands to see Wood Ducks and Mallards, but were eventually distracted by a Little Brown Bat hunting over the water.

Little Brown Bat

Little Brown Bat

It’s been a hellishly busy week but I will be back.

 

Crooked Tree Lagoon: Black-Crowned Night Heron

Black-Crowned Night Heron

Black-Crowned Night Heron

This week, going through the Belize photographs (almost done!), I found this series of Black-Crowned Night Heron pictures, and decided the bird deserves its own post, which almost reminds me of a fashion layout. I set the first photo as my desktop background at work so I can be greeted by a little cheer as I sign in every morning (work and the weather being what they are lately).

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I have seen Black-Crowned Night Herons before but never like this one. If there was a momentary realization that the heron was hanging out in some astounding scenery, I think my autopilot kicked in and just kept shooting as many pictures as I could. These pictures were taken the day we went on a boat ride around the lagoon that surrounds Crooked Tree and its environs.

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Above was the first sighting of the heron. Although the photographs were in sequence I cannot remember now, three weeks later, if this was the exact same individual. Although I think it’s likely that as the boat moved, it flushed the heron and the bird flew ahead of us to land eventually in the flowering shrubs.

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So at a greater distance the heron was in a less colorful habitat which made for less attractive pictures.

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There were pictures of other birds between these two settings, but I don’t think the boat had moved all that far. I’d like to think after the heron saw us with cameras it decided to go for the best background for its photo shoot.

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If anyone knows this shrub, please tell me what it is. I bought a beautiful little book on the Trees of Belize by Kate Harris at the Audubon Society in Crooked Tree, but so far have not been able to locate this plant by pictures of its flowers and leaves. (Birds this life; in my next life, plants.)

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I won’t tell you how many pictures I took of the heron at this particular spot but I think the bird almost looks quite pleased with itself. Close scrutiny being what it is, though, eventually it was time to move on. The heron took the first cue.

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It’s going to be a busy weekend, but I will try to accomplish my post about the focus of the trip, which hopefully will coincide with our fearless leader’s report as well.

Is It Spring Yet?

McGinnis Slough

McGinnis Slough

Any prediction of warmer temperatures and sunshine, however brief, is all it takes to make me a little nuts these days, especially if it falls on a weekend. So Sunday I tested the forecast for the last days of March and headed toward the Palos Forest Preserves of Cook County, starting with my favorite, McGinnis Slough.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbirds were singing on territory, but much of the water was still frozen. I managed to see ten species of ducks, including Ring-Necked, Lesser Scaup, Gadwall, American Black Duck, Mallard, Bufflehead, Common Merganser, Northern Shoveler, Blue-Winged Teal and Green-Winged Teal, plus American Coots and there was one Trumpeter Swan at the far side of the larger expanse of water.

Canada Geese at McGinnis

Canada Geese at McGinnis

Not much in the way of land birds, save a few skittish Song Sparrows

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

and a Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

Even the closer ducks at McGinnis’s south end were still too far away to photograph, but that never stops me.

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From McGinnis, I went next to Saganashkee Slough, where American White Pelicans and Common Loon had been reported. I saw neither, but added Red-Breasted Merganser, Hooded Merganser, White-Winged Scoter, Pin-Tailed Duck and Common Goldeneye to my duck list. There was also a distant Horned Grebe and an immature Bald Eagle soaring over the water. It was even more useless to photograph anything here but I’m still including a picture of a lot of white blobs that were Herring and Ring-Billed Gulls.

Saganashkee Slough

Saganashkee Slough

On the way home, I stopped at The Chicago Portage to see if anything new was going on since last week. It was midday so I didn’t expect to see many birds. But there was a lot of melt and mud.

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And a White-Breasted Nuthatch, heard first and seen at a distance later.

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Also heard before seen, a male Belted Kingfisher. This guy was really far away but the camera saw him. I think this might be the first one I have actually seen at the Portage.

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I decided to capture a close-up of some lichens growing on a dead stump, the only green going on.

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So much for the early spring report, it’s back to finishing going through my Belize pictures. It won’t be long before McGinnis is full of Great Blue Herons like this one. Only the vegetation will look a bit different… :-)

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Great Blue Heron, Belize 3-12-14

 

A Little Gray-Necked Wood Rail, Please

Gray-Necked Wood-Rail, Belize, March 9, 2014

Gray-Necked Wood Rail, Belize, March 9, 2014

I don’t know, would the first thing you noticed about this bird be its Gray Neck? This most spectacular-looking creature made itself available nearly every day we walked by a partially flooded section near the road not far from the lodge where we were staying. I think it would take me several pages to accurately describe what this bird looks like and I still could not convey it. But I don’t know if I would start with the gray neck as being the most striking feature…

Check out the black that runs under his belly and up his tail. I mean, is this bird fancy or what?

As I recall there were several comments among participants about desiring these colors for interior decorating schemes.

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If it weren’t for the pink legs, maybe this bird would be well-camouflaged against this chaotic background.