A Bird in the Hand

Mourning Warbler

Mourning Warbler

As I start to go through the pictures from Costa Rica, some of the best bird images are invariably closeups of birds shown to us by Dr. Bill Hilton Jr. These were invaluable teaching moments on the part of Bill and the birds themselves.

Female Indigo Bunting

Female Indigo Bunting

Although the focus of the Operation Rubythroat trip to chayote fields in Ujarras Valley, Costa Rica, was ultimately to trap, band and release as many Ruby-Throated Hummingbirds as possible over six days in the field (more about all this in a future post), invariably, other birds sometimes got trapped in the nets. Any bird trapped was a potential teaching opportunity. Neotropical migrants were retained for banding. But after we had seen a species native to Costa Rica once at the banding table, which is where we gathered for these demonstrations, all future caught birds of that species were immediately released.

Bananaquit

Bananaquit

With field guides in hand, we studied the birds until we were able to identify the species. Bill would only help by pointing out various field marks, but he also elaborated on other features you might never see unless you had the bird in your hand. Some species were familiar, but the opportunity to study them so closely was absolutely phenomenal. For those who are squeamish about the trapping and handling, I admit I once was too, but Bill treats the birds with the utmost respect and care. You can go to a museum and study skins, but for color and presence there is nothing like a live bird.

Blue-Grey Tanager

Blue-Grey Tanager

I have seen Blue-Grey Tanagers virtually every time I have visited the American tropics. They are ubiquitous and easy to identify. But I have never seen a Blue-Grey Tanager like this before.Blue-Grey Tanager 11-10-14-9026

The afternoons invariably turned cloudy and sometimes rainy, which made taking pictures of other birds anything from challenging to impossible. Nevertheless I managed to get some good photographs, and I will be back with many more.

These are just a sampling of some of the earliest birds we saw in the hand, and I will be back with others, as well as eventually adding pictures to my flickr page.

House Wren - the same species, but not the same population we have at home

House Wren – the same species, but not the same population we have at home

As for the timing of this post, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about the past week. Sleep has been erratic at best, and I’ve been emotionally exhausted. I went to bed early last night, so I guess it’s not altogether strange that I am awake at 3:00 a.m. Trying to go back to sleep I started reviewing the past week, and that wasn’t all good, so I shifted my thoughts to things I want to accomplish, which woke me up even more. When I started thinking about this post which I started to work on last night before I conked out on the futon, it seemed prudent to just wake up and finish the post. I apologize for any detectible grogginess. I think I’ll grab a drink of water and go back to sleep for a couple hours.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warblers and Tennessee Warblers were the most-frequently-caught neotropical migrants. At some point, we had caught so many Tennessee Warblers, we released them from the nets without banding them.

Tennesee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Tyrant Flycatchers can be confusing.

A Yellow-Bellied Elaenia, looking every inch the Tyrant Flycatcher it is

A Yellow-Bellied Elaenia, looking every inch the Tyrant Flycatcher it is

Yellow-Bellied Elaenia

Yellow-Bellied Elaenia

One more of the Blue-Grey Tanager, up close and personal.

Blue-Grey Tanager 11-10-14-9068

 

Saved by the Birds – Again

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Costa Rica, much warmer than Chicago

The pain of losing my housemates upon returning from Costa Rica hits like a heavy weight as I prepare the birds’ breakfast every morning. I am still plenty angry too, but there is no gain in holding that inside of me. I had hoped to manage some photographs more related to this post before publishing but it didn’t happen, so I’ve mixed in a few photos prescient of the Costa Rica posts to come.

Blue and Dudley, with my cell phone last night

Blue and Dudley, with my cell phone last night

Not having much time yet to observe the new charges but very interested in their individual abilities to adapt to the new environment, the survivors and each other, I am pleased to report that so far, so good. I was most worried about the Diamond Dove making an adjustment – to be sure I have never had one of these birds before and am not exactly sure why I brought him home, except that I have a soft spot for doves, it’s a beautiful bird, and, well, maybe I even wondered if my last remaining budgie wouldn’t feel so put out if he was not the only single. The dove is more settled in every day, and even might have said something as early as Tuesday morning while I was putting food in the second large cage.  It was such a strange, loud sound and I wasn’t sure where it came from, but I could not connect it to anything going on outside.By Tuesday night he was cooing along with the music on the radio. I named him Dudley last night after Dudley Do-Right, one of my favorite cartoon characters. He follows Blue, the budgie, around, and may even have a crush on him (her? – too old to tell anymore). I can hardly wait to play music this weekend and see what transpires. And I hope Dudley gets more used to my real camera so I can take better pictures of him because he’s quite lovely.

Stuck in the office all day Tuesday while the reports of Sandhill Cranes flying over by the hundreds and thousands crammed the email–and I don’t even have a window to look out of–I was dispatched to Walgreen’s to buy some air freshener, so I chose the store that was on the corner of Randolph and State. Waiting at the light to cross State Street, almost before the light changed, I looked up and saw perhaps 250 Sandhill Cranes flying overhead – very high, and in a beautiful extended V formation, floating on the air currents, and felt redeemed.

Gray Catbird, Thompson Center

Gray Catbird, Thompson Center

Wednesday morning I packed my camera and lens in the camera backpack, because my regular backpack has ceased to fasten around my waist after the trip to Costa Rica. Even though I was absolutely sure I would have no opportunity to use the camera, it seemed silly to be using a camera backpack without a camera in it. I got off the train and walked 6 blocks before a woman stopped me to tell me the back of my pack was open! Not thinking (again), I slung the pack off my shoulder to check on it (I should have asked her to zip it up, I suppose) and the camera fell out onto the sidewalk. What More Could Go Wrong? was my sentiment at the time. But I thanked her, put the camera back in the pack, started going through the mental exercise of replacement/repair…and then, as I approached the Thompson Center, I decided to do the sensible thing and take the camera out, attach the lens, and see if it was still working. After readjusting the function wheel, it seemed to be fine (maybe that’s why those Canons are so heavy, they are encased in armor). I shot a couple sidewalk scenes, and then started walking along the planted berm which is full of scrubby little yews, cigarette butts, garbage, and birds – invariably a Rock Pigeon and House Sparrow hangout. Except a Gray Catbird jumped out in front of me and let me take its picture before darting back into the yews. I found my cell phone and reported it to ebird. I am glad I got a picture because the sighting is unusual for this time of year, as I suspected. I have checked every morning since and cannot find the bird, so this was its farewell photo.

A little more poking around produced one or two White-Throated Sparrows–a bit less unusual–and plenty of the predictable pigeons and House Sparrows. But then it occurred to me that if my pack had not been open, and I had not dropped the camera, I would most likely have walked right by the berm without noticing the Catbird. So the birds have triumphed again in making sense under even the most ridiculous circumstances.

CR Rufous-Tailed 11-9-14-4763

All of this chaos has caused me to sit back and take stock of where I am and where I really want to be. Instead of plunging ahead into the day-to-day-never-ending-existence that I inhabit. I am reminded of the more important work that I really want to get done–my work–and I am trying to find new resolve to make the time off from trips and some inclement weather birding count for something, for a while, and see if I can at least write the book that has been on my mind the past few years – if not the opera. It’s the least I can do in memory of all my dearly departed bird friends. I tried to take pictures of the temperature this morning with the cell phone so I could include them in this post, but it was apparently too cold for the phone to take the picture. As of 8:00 AM it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit or -6 Centigrade.

Two New Zebra Finch Guys

Two New Zebra Finch Guys (again with the cell last night) – awaiting Zebra Finch Girls

I will be back soon with pictures from Costa Rica, progress reports on the evolving indoor crowd, and eventually some winter birding in Chicago area too.

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Here’s looking at you, from a Grayish Saltator

Thanks to all my followers and commenters and dear friends who are a great comfort and also more inspiration to carry on. :-)

A Sad State of Affairs

I got home tonight around 11:30 PM after a day spent traveling back from Costa Rica. I will write about the trip in future posts, But I feel I must come to the page about what has just transpired because I am still trying to figure it out.

Prior to leaving I was scrambling to put together better bird-care instructions for the new bird care person I had found. I trusted him to follow the instructions which came with pictures of how everything should look. The instructions were detailed and when I ran out of time to finish adding all the pictures, I believe I wrote copiously about every step. The pictures and these short videos were taken with the iPhone.

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While I was taking pictures of food preparation, I also managed to get a video of Zorro singing. He appears in the video above.

Sitting in the airport in San Jose this afternoon, I got a disturbing text message from the bird care person I had hired for the second time. He told me 6 birds had died and he was upset, because he thought he was following all the instructions. Two of them, he said, were the ones that were failing. I asked him if the other four were the rest of the Zebra Finches. He said yes.

Beau's Cage all done 11-1-14-0725

I came in the house tonight and was shocked to find only 3 birds. One budgie and two Society Finches. When I left I had 17 birds: Two budgies (one of whom was on his last legs), five Zebra Finch males, two Spice Finches and 8 – yes 8 – Society Finches, including my two little singer guys, Hector and Franklin. Neither one of them survived. I have found some corpses but not all, and I will not elaborate on where I found them. I have found none of the Society Finches. They were very young and the healthiest. I have two left, but I’m not sure if they are the two females that came with Hector or their daughters. Well I guess I don’t have to worry anymore about them multiplying.

Finches on the budgie cage 11-2-14-0803

But I am devastated. I cannot imagine what was done or not done to kill 13 birds in a little over one week, when I have left birds for up to three weeks before this. And I am wondering what I should do. My first instinct is to try to find more birds – not 14 replacements, but at least a couple young Zebra Finches that would reproduce, so I could have several little songsters again. But then I wonder if it is wise to take on another 12-year project at my age. Is this a sign that I should stop playing music for birds? Should I get used to silence and being alone? I don’t think I could stand it.

I guess I will know the answer when I wake up to silence tomorrow morning. It will take me a week or two, perhaps, to sort this all out. I will be looking for birds, perhaps, but I am not taking in just anyone. And I will certainly be looking for another bird care person when I decide to travel again. It won’t be any time soon.

R.I.P. Hector, Franklin, Gregorio, Zorro, Beniamino, Adolfo, Pietro, Beau Budgie, Marty, Johnnie, Isabella…and one whose name I can’t remember presently, if Phoenix and Ricki are still with me.

 

Fall Farewell

Song Sparrow, Springbrook Prairie

Song Sparrow, Springbrook Prairie

I am trying hard to get my head around my imminent departure. There are simply too many things to do, and I seem to have left them all to the last moment. The laundry list gave me an excuse to stay home this weekend, although it would have been a beautiful one to be out birding. But perhaps my one triumph was to rearrange the feeders a bit and stump the gray squirrels. Watching one squirrel slide off a baffle guarding the peanut feeder, which has not been up for months, gave me hope. And I haven’t seen a squirrel sitting on the “squirrel proof” sunflower seed feeder either. Of course I have been gone all day and it’s pitch dark now when I get home, so I won’t know if any of this is working until I get back. The squirrels have always proven to be smarter than I am and I am sure they will come up with a new plan. But I have a sizable investment in birdseed from the Audubon sale and I’d like as much of it as possible to go to the birds.

Canada Geese

Canada Geese

Mallards

Mallards

The pictures are from a couple weeks ago when I paid a visit to Springbrook Prairie in DuPage County. I didn’t see all that many birds and definitely missed the legendary Nelson’s Sharp-Tailed and LeConte’s Sparrows, but it was another chance to wield the Tamron 150-600mm lens around and try getting used to it.

White-Crowned Sparrow

White-Crowned Sparrow

As much as I look forward to my trip, I hate to leave my birds. It’s also frustrating to find myself thinking about what I will do when I get back, when I haven’t even left yet!

Mallards

Mallards

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

It’s amazing how a difference in light can almost obscure the identity of a bird like the American Goldfinch below.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

I haven’t seen many Field Sparrows this year so it was nice to catch this one.

Song Sparrow

Field Sparrow

No matter how big the lens, a bird that is far away remains…far away.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

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It’s hard to capture the enormity of Springbrook Prairie. I did not walk the entire trail, which can take hours. Nevertheless, several cyclists and runners kept passing me by again and again.

Cedar Waxwing

Cedar Waxwing

I will try to come back with one more post before I disappear for a while, as a few last minute contributors to my inner and outer landscape have vied for my attention.

 

Staying In To Finish This Post

Juvenile Pied-Billed Grebe, McGinnis Slough

Juvenile Pied-Billed Grebe, McGinnis Slough

I would be out visiting with the Crows but the entire week is going a bit insanely so I am finishing up this post I started last night. When it takes days to write a blog post I have to keep revising those optimistic references to “yesterday” and put them in the proper perspective.

The pictures in this post are from the Chicago Portage and McGinnis Slough, both Cook County Forest Preserves, taken this past Sunday.

Chicago Portage

Chicago Portage

Encouraged after I managed to fold the back seats down Saturday morning in the Prius (a first!) to accommodate my birdseed order from Chicago Audubon, and then carried all several hundred pounds of it from the car to the back porch without throwing out my back, I ventured out Sunday morning with the Tamron 150-600mm lens attached to the 5D, just to see how it handled the lens. I decided the weight difference between the 5D and the 70D is minimal.

Wood Duck, Chicago Portage

Wood Duck, Chicago Portage

Because I was looking for the turkeys at the Portage, I decided to walk in from the opposite direction than what I usually take, which was a stupid thing to do from a photography perspective because I was walking into the sun, but I persisted anyway, and never encountered any turkeys. It was an otherwise beautiful morning, starting out a bit chilly but quite clear and later becoming warm.

Canada Geese, Portage

Canada Geese, Portage

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Portage

Red-Bellied Woodpecker, Portage

Downy Woodpecker, Portage

Downy Woodpecker, Portage

Monday was heralded as our Last Likely Warm Day. Monday evening was opening night for Il Trovatore at the Lyric Opera, so I met my friend after work, we went to dinner, then attended most of the pre-opera lecture which was helpful and amusing, and then we saw the opera. The production was stunning, Stephanie Blythe was magnificent, as was the entire cast and chorus. I have not heard so much beautiful and strong singing from every cast member in a long, long time. It was nice to renew my relationship with the art form if not my subscription.

(Below, probably the last warblers I will have seen around here this year.)

Orange-Crowned Warbler, Portage

Orange-Crowned Warbler, Portage

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Portage

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Portage

I did not get home until 11:15 or thereabouts after the opera, so I managed to get only about 5 hours of sleep or less. In the meantime at work we endured almost two entire days without the ability to communicate by email or Internet. Now that the problem has been resolved we are playing catch-up with a lot of work. The trip to Costa Rica, in the back of my mind for months, is now racing to the forefront, making almost every waking moment into a decision about to take place.

McGinnis Slough

McGinnis Slough

Most of the birds at McGinnis were too far away to identify even with a scope. There were several hundred American Coots and it appeared there were Scaup but I could not identify whether they were Lesser or Greater. I thought I could see three Harlequin Ducks, but I could not see enough of them beyond telltale white patches on their cheeks so I did not report them. They would have been lifers for me, I think, but not really if I couldn’t see them completely (they don’t look very fancy this time of year anyway, yet). Plus people get excited about Harlequin Ducks and I didn’t want to get them started on a wild duck chase…

Northern Cardinal, McGinnis

Northern Cardinal, McGinnis

Except for the Pied-Billed Grebe at the start of the post (there were several of them) and the female Northern Cardinal above eating buckthorn berries, I did not get many photographs at the Slough. But the seasonal landscape changes attracted me.

McGinnis 10-26-14-7958

McGinnis Slough

White-Throated Sparrows, so common in the Chicago Loop, are special to see anywhere else. There were several at the Portage, along with a few White-Crowned Sparrows, and also some Fox Sparrows who continue to evade the lens.

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White-Throated Sparrow, Chicago Portage

I will be back with a post or two before my trip to CR.

Strolling Through Lake Shore East Park

White-Throated Sparrow, Lake Shore East Park

White-Throated Sparrow, Lake Shore East Park

Up until the arrival of the famous Harris’s Sparrow in Millennium Park’s Lurie Garden, I was routinely spending my late afternoon lunch hours in Lake Shore East Park. The two parks are not very far away from each other, but there is much less foot or tourist traffic in Lake Shore East Park, so I have been going there more often. Which is not to say it lacks people. There are frequently people walking their dogs or children in baby strollers.

Hermit Thrushes

Hermit Thrushes – I counted 11 individuals at one time (here’s 4 of them)

I have been trying to write this post since October 9. On that day, the most numerous birds in the park were predictably White-Throated Sparrows and Hermit Thrushes. The Hermit Thrushes were the largest group I have ever seen. Even going back the next day I counted 12 of them.

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Perhaps you’ve seen Robins pull worms out of the earth, but this is the first time I’ve caught a Hermit Thrush in the act.

HETH LSE 9-10-14-1710

Hermit

Juncos have shown up here and there, although not in numbers yet.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

The fountains have been shut down for the winter, leaving their rocky bottoms free for exploration.

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

Other birds I saw that day were two Brown Creepers and an American Redstart. I did not get photographs of them, though. So here’s a couple more of Hermit Thrushes.  The remaining pictures except for the last one are from October 1, but they were also taken in Lake Shore East Park.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

HETH LSE 9-10-14-1600

But my most pleasant encounter on October 9 was a human one. Soon after I arrived at the park, a woman walking her dog approached me and asked about my camera equipment. This is the second time this month I have met people this way: Canon must have put some new elixir in the 70D! We got to talking about photography and birds and then she let it slip that she was from the East Coast and amazed to see a Redstart in this small park in the city. She said she was in town to sing at the opera.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Lake Shore East Park

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet, Lake Shore East Park

A brief cloud of Opera Guilt wafted over me. (I was a subscriber for several years but gave it up along with my other subscriptions a few years ago because I realized I no longer had the time or energy to do everything, so it was time to focus on birds and music.) When I told her the birds have taken over my life she understood. Then I thought to myself surely I should maybe recognize her but you rarely get to see an opera singer out of costume. I asked, and she said she was Stephanie Blythe. I confirmed later that she is singing Il Trovatore at the Lyric Opera. I didn’t faint, but I will say I haven’t had a brush with fame in many, many years…!

Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Lake Shore East Park

Golden-Crowned Kinglet, Lake Shore East Park

Stephanie stopped me again to ask me about a bird or two she had seen (one turned out to be one of the Creepers I saw later after I talked to her) and I felt so lucky to have made her acquaintance. She also seemed happy to have found a kindred spirit. But as excited as I was to have met her, I was reluctant to write about it, right away. I didn’t want her to be mobbed by opera fanatics. (In retrospect, I’m thinking very few people even know the park exists.)

Northern Waterthrush with bug, Lake Shore East Park

Northern Waterthrush with bug, Lake Shore East Park

As it turns out I did not see Stephanie again (turning in ebird lists I was tempted to note “no opera singers today” but restrained myself). Chances are her rehearsal schedule and my work schedule kept us from running into each other again. But listening to the Operathon on WFMT on Saturday, October 11th, there was an offer for two tickets to any opera, and a choice of dates, with seats on the first floor, for a donation, the amount of which was much less than the cost of the tickets. This was too good to pass up: it would be wonderful to use this as an opportunity to see Stephanie sing. I have heard her on the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, but was no longer a subscriber by the time she started singing at the Lyric.

Common Grackle

Common Grackle

So I got tickets for opening night for Il Trovatore, an opera I have never seen. I am taking my friend from the former workplace: it will be her first opera. The way this whole thing has turned out really feels like kismet or karma or something.

White-Crowned Sparrow

White-Crowned Sparrow

Ultimately I must give the birds credit for everything. They continue to enrich my life. The birds paid attention to the music, then enticed me into green spaces every day I can manage to hang out with them. The birds know a bird person, and I think kindred spirits do too. One more time, in an entirely new context, the birds have returned the favor and my attention to the music.

WTSP LSE 9-9-14-1517

A Rare Visitor and a Lifer

Harris's Sparrow, Lurie Garden, Millennium Park

Harris’s Sparrow, Lurie Garden, Millennium Park

Wednesday afternoon I caught Joan Norek’s post on IBET (Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts) in my email about a Harris’s Sparrow at Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. David Johnson had posted the initial sighting but I was so late checking my email I was unaware of it until I saw Joan’s follow-up. Wednesday was the third day in a row I was not carrying the camera with me because of rain and clouds. But I was also going stir crazy, and I had enough peanuts for the crows, so I decided to walk over to Lurie Garden to see if I could find this bird. I have perhaps been within striking distance of seeing a Harris’s Sparrow over the years but have never managed to see one. It was worth checking out and if nothing else it was good to go for a walk.

Cloud Gate sculpture, Millennium Park

Cloud Gate sculpture, Millennium Park

As it turned out it wasn’t raining, just misty/drizzly and yes, overcast. But I had my new cell phone with me and it was probably time to see how much of a picture I could get with it. So I took pictures of various things along the way to Lurie Garden at the southeast end of the park. It seemed hopeless to try to get a picture of anything so small as a sparrow. Even a large sparrow, Harris’s being our largest species.

Harris's Sparrow with iPhone

Harris’s Sparrow with iPhone

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Again with the iPhone – you really have to dig to find the bird in this cropped photo

I did find the Harris’s feeding in the beds that have all gloriously gone to seed and are left that way to feed the birds over the winter. There were also very many White-Throated Sparrows, some White-Crowned Sparrows, and a few Swamp and Lincoln’s Sparrows. But when I found the Harris’s I stayed with him and talked with him and made him promise he would be available for photos the next day when I brought the real camera.

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Sure enough I returned Thursday with my fall migration getup, which basically now consists of a Canon EOS 70D and a 100-300mm L lens, and that’s only thanks to acquiring an inexpensive but practical camera backpack from amazon. The light was again nonexistent but this is a less critical event in an open space such as Lurie Garden. And even though I could not get pictures of the Harris’s without him being obstructed somewhere by grasses or the wild quinine he was eating, I like the way he blends in and contrasts at the same time (“you are what you eat”!). This also reminds me of something I learned from Bill Hilton Jr. on the Belize trip, about birds (and other creatures) getting their feather colors from the plants they consume.

As David Johnson described in a later post, the bird was very tame. But “tame” is not a favorite word of mine when it comes to birds, so I would rather describe the bird, at least when I saw him and took more photographs, as very hungry and nonplussed by my presence. “Go ahead, take all the photos you want, I’m fattening up for my trip to Texas” or wherever he’s going to wind up.

HASP Lurie 10-16-14-2289 HASP Lurie 10-16-14-2255 HASP Lurie 10-16-14-2200

I looked up the distribution range for this bird and the map explains perfectly to me why I am not likely to see this bird in Illinois, even in migration, so I am really thrilled to have gotten such long, loving looks at him and I will remember this bird next time I see it.

Harris's Sparrow Range Map - Cornell

Harris’s Sparrow Range Map – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Also at Lurie Garden on Thursday, many more White-Crowned Sparrows than White-Throated, and this time I did not see any Lincoln’s although they could still be about.

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

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Adult White-Crowned Sparrow

Adult White-Crowned Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

The goldfinches are still having a great time at Lurie, even if the one below looks less enthusiastic about it.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

On the Great Lawn close to the entrance to Lurie Garden there were perhaps 100 House Sparrows, and I took photographs of this one whose coloration looked quite different to me. Maybe he was just wet?

House Sparrow, Great Lawn, Millennium Park

House Sparrow, Great Lawn, Millennium Park

I decided not to bother the Harris’s again yesterday. Instead I went to Lake Shore East Park to see what was up there. I’ll (try to) be back with a report about yesterday’s discoveries later on. I would not be surprised if the Harris’s Sparrow hangs out a bit longer at Lurie, given the current weather patterns, in which case I might drop in on him again next week. This is a first-year bird, which means I have yet to see an adult Harris’s Sparrow, but it’s still so nice to get such a good, solid lifer in one’s proverbial own backyard.

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