Slow Walks through the Portage

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Baltimore Oriole

I have never been a hurry-up-let’s-get-this-over-with birder, but I am certainly moving more slowly these days because of my knee. But life in the slow lane has its advantages and the reduced speed has paid off. Two weeks ago I managed to count 55 species when I visited the Portage for four hours instead of the usual two, and last week with my first group we had 51 species in nearly about the same amount of time due in part to the fact that we got off to a late start because of the weather. Between the two lists I had 73 different species total. Of course it is spring migration, and it is not hard to spend a lot of time when you keep seeing more birds. Needless to say I did not get pictures of them all, or some pictures were useful later only for the purpose of identification. But in spite of having hardly any time or place to bird during the week, I feel as if I have seen some nice migrants in spite of my physical limitations. I took these pictures two weeks ago. I felt bad about not being able to do the Spring Bird Count, but I’m glad I managed to get out.

Breeding birds are back, and the most numerous after the Robins, Red-Winged Blackbirds and Goldfinches are probably Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers.

Lots of Indigo Buntings are on site too. Many of them are first-year males like the ones below.

There are also several Warbling Vireos that have set up territories. I usually hear them more than I see them, but I got good views of this individual.

Some Yellow Warblers will likely breed here too.

I don’t think the Portage has breeding Ovenbirds but it was nice to see this one out in the open.

Two more warblers I was able to photograph…but they won’t be staying.

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Northern Parula

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Male American Redstart

My best surprise was to briefly see a Hooded Warbler and manage to get a picture of him. These are far less common. I used to see them on the lakefront occasionally. This was a real treat.

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Hooded Warbler

The Great-Horned Owls appear to have just one owlet but it’s gotten pretty big and last week we saw all three of them all take off from their tree. I took these pictures of junior and mom two weeks ago.

The Downy Woodpeckers are busy.

Migrant thrushes, like the Gray-Cheeked on the left and the Swainson’s on the right, below, are passing through.

I don’t think there are enough places left at the Portage for Tree Swallows to nest.

Goldfinches are in full breeding plumage now.

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On the sparrow front, I found a Chipping Sparrow, a few White-Crowned Sparrows who have all flown north by now, and one hard-to-see Song Sparrow. The Portage is home to breeding Song Sparrows, but I’m not sure about Chipping Sparrows.

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Song Sparrow

As ubiquitous as Red-Winged Blackbirds are, they can still be beautiful.

House Wrens breed at the Portage. They’re always singing a lot, and every once in a while I might even see one… But it always takes me a few repeats to remember their song.

I have one more walk to lead at the Portage this coming Saturday. The last time I checked the weather the prediction was for thunderstorms, but that was the forecast last Saturday and we still managed to dodge the rain and see a lot of birds, so I am hopeful. It should be warmer too, which will add a whole new dimension – mosquitoes – after all the rain. As much as I find mosquitoes a nuisance, I also realize they’re food for a lot of birds.

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Springtime in the Yard

WCSP 5-5-18-2371At last. It didn’t last long, but we had a beautiful weekend last week and the trees were excited and blooming and the birds were singing and courting and I was recovering by sitting still and watching it all.

While I sat there I counted five White-Crowned Sparrows in the yard. That’s an all-time high.  I am delighted that they considered my yard a stopover for at least week, on their way north to their breeding grounds. In particular, one male was singing loud and clear directly over me and as hard as I tried to get a video, I had too large a lens to capture his image with his song, but I did manage to record him on my cellphone which I was using to do a yard list on ebird.

The neighbors’ dog was out in their yard and she was going crazy over any squirrel that appeared.

The usual cast of characters included a Mourning Dove, an American Robin, and a few American Goldfinches.

There was some serious courting going on with a couple House Finches.

The Redbud is in full bloom.

HOSP 5-5-18-2452And it’s hard to find a spot in the yard that doesn’t have some wild violets blooming on it. My plan is to try to eradicate most of it today. Presently we have had cool, rainy weather, so it will be a muddy business to remove, but no more rain is predicted until later tonight, and this may be my last chance to remediate the landscape.

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I visited the Portage last Sunday to see how spring migration was unfolding there, and again yesterday to lead the first of my two bird walks donated to the Unity Temple auction. Both outings were full of birds and good times. I will be back with photos. My knee is not too happy about spending so much time negotiating uneven ground, but like physical therapy, in the end, I am regaining mobility. No pain, no gain. To be continued.

 

Suddenly Spring

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Northern Waterthrush

I almost could have called it “Suddenly This Summer” because on May 1 we skipped spring and went straight into summer temperatures by noon. But along with the sudden push of warm air from the south came a lot of migrating birds, and after all, it was finally the real start to Spring Migration.

As luck would have it I was near the lakefront for the last part of the stem cell procedure on my right knee, which consisted of a blood draw early in the morning and then having a few hours before a return to the doctor’s office for the final injection. I realized the location’s potential the week before when I had the major procedure done. The medical building is virtually right across the street from North Pond, which is a favorite hot spot with lakefront birders. The week before it was blustery and cold with only a few of the hardiest migrants. But now I had a birder in my friend Lesa to whom I am grateful for being my chauffeur for the day. I was walking without crutches if moving slowly, but I was walking, and slow is generally good for birding. The slower you move, the more birds you eventually will see. And seeing birds was a great distraction from whatever pain I was feeling.

Perhaps the first warblers to greet us were four or five Ovenbirds poking about in the grass. Even though the weather was warmer, the trees and accompanying insects had not caught up with it yet and so a lot of birds were foraging on the ground for something to eat. The ground is an Ovenbird’s preferred foraging spot anyway. Ovenbirds can be nearly impossible to see on their breeding grounds, but in migration on the lakefront they are all over the place this year. I have seen them since everywhere I go for midday walks near my workplace.

Then it seemed there were Black-Throated Green Warblers everywhere.

Predictably, especially in the grass, were Palm Warblers. A note about these pictures, being my first warbler photographs of the season. The morning started off a bit overcast, and then I had only my 75-300mm lens as it seemed ridiculous to be carrying around anything larger in my compromised condition, so I didn’t get quite the clarity I wanted for many of these birds. But it was just such a joyous way to spend a medical day and provided an extra therapeutic perk altogether.

I am always so happy to see a Lincoln’s Sparrow. It’s not quite rare, but you never see more than one of them at a time, and they’re such delicate-looking little birds.

Yellow-Rumped Warblers were predictable, but not easy to capture as they frantically searched for food.

Our look at the Pine Warbler below was brief, but this is a more unusual species in migration so I am glad I got this shot.

PIWA 5-1-18-1893The three species below are Yellow, Black-and-White, and Nashville Warblers.

Another spring migrant that seems to be showing up in force is the Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher.

Meanwhile, on their way out were Golden-Crowned Kinglet on the left and Ruby-Crowned Kinglet on the right, below.

Then there are the migrating Thrushes. Two below are a Swainson’s Thrush on the left and a Gray-Cheeked Thrush on the right.

I have been out since last Tuesday and have a lot more pictures to process and share with you, but it’s been really difficult to get caught up. All I can say is every day I’m a little bit better and there have even been a few moments when I’ve forgotten about my knee altogether!

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White-Crowned Sparrow

Below, two glimpses of a female Eastern Towhee…

I will be back soon with more from Instant Spring Migration. Until then, spring on!

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Tennessee Warbler

 

Owls at the Portage

GHOW 04-08-18-9007Last year two fellows I run into occasionally at the Chicago Portage, Steve and Mike, told me they had seen a Great Horned Owl. I believe it was Mike who showed me his stunning photo of the owl sitting on a stump over the water. But I never saw the owl until two weeks ago making my return trip on the trail that runs along the south side of the stream, when I flushed it and watched it fly to perch in a tree on the other side.

Then last weekend I saw two owls perched on the same branch, looking down at me. The first owl decided to take off when I lifted the camera, but the second owl sat there and stared sleepily at me.

GHOW 04-22-18-0989So are they a pair? Most likely. I suspect the first owl is the female as it is larger. Then I wonder if they have a nest somewhere or if they’re shopping for one. Will I see baby owls? It’s more excitement than I can handle at the moment. But I do suspect that the owls’ presence will keep the other raptors I normally expect to see at the Portage away.

The Portage keeps changing. More trees coming down. I was saddened to see one of my two favorite birch trees in smaller pieces. I can’t imagine what was wrong with it.

I have seen Blue-Winged Teal the last two visits as well. I suspect they’re just visiting though and will go elsewhere to breed.

And a Canada Goose seems to have found her nesting spot in tree trunk.

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Two weekends ago, it was Golden-Crowned Kinglets…

Last weekend there were a few Yellow-Rumped Warblers, although only one captured by the camera.

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I was very happy to see a Tree Swallow last weekend.

Not so many sparrow species. Song and Fox Sparrows, still a few Juncos, and American Tree Sparrows still hanging on through the cold not-quite-spring-weather-yet.

Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow above, Dark-Eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow below…

Woodpeckers: Downy, Red-Bellied, Northern Flicker…

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker

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Northern Flicker

A few more captures before I go… White-Breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, preening Mallard, American Goldfinch.

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Brown-headed Cowbird

These pictures were all taken on April 8 and April 22. Unfortunately I don’t expect I’ll be getting near the Portage again until May 12 when I’m leading a small group on a bird walk as my donation to the fundraising member auction for Unity Temple. Until then, I will be traveling at a slower pace. Yesterday I had stem cell replacement therapy on my right knee. The procedure itself was not too awful, indeed I told the physician that his description of what he was about to do to me was far worse than the actual operation and I am hopeful recovery goes smoothly. I’m feeling better than last night: I woke up with very little pain, so now it’s more a matter of keeping stable using crutches for a couple more days to keep weight off the joint whenever I can. I’m looking forward to the final portion of the therapy on Tuesday which involves a simple plasma injection. If the weather is nice, which it is predicted to be, I will be spending the time in between blood draw and later injection birding North Pond and the Peggy Notebaert Museum grounds, a local birding hotspot right across the street from the medical building. I couldn’t have picked a better location to have this done!

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Requiem Eternam…

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Two “regulars” in the Rosebud

How long does it take to stop hearing a piece like the Faure Requiem in one’s head? The powerful experience Sunday morning of singing the Requiem twice as a member of the Unity Temple Choir, after the anticipation of the event woke me up periodically the night before, not to mention the weeks of rehearsal: I guess I have been living the Requiem. In spite of the incessant rain we had an ample and appreciative audience. After services the rain stopped for a while, so I took a walk around my neighborhood to see what spring migrants, if any, were trapped by the cold north winds. Internally possessed by the music, birding allowed the music to go on playing in my head at full blast. So far I have gotten through yesterday and this morning with my usual distractions of Spanish and French on the phone and summoning Peter Mayer on my way into the office, but bits and pieces of the Requiem still haunt me. Yesterday with the Kyrie it occurred to me that I caused conversations to be held in D minor.

Here’s a little roundup of two weekends in the yard and environs. I struggle with how long I can endure the cold, and the birds struggle with deciding when their hunger overcomes their inability to ignore my presence.

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Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker inspecting the utility pole

More Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers in the conifers around the edge of Freedom Park which is just at the end of my block.

The rain changed to snow overnight. Again. It’s as if there was a repeat sign at the end of last weekend. While I am still thankful for my undisturbed leaf litter cradling the new green shoots that seem to be emerging from the soil nevertheless, the greenery is beginning to look tired and frozen. The snow shots are from last weekend when unfortunately I had to take them through the porch windows.

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Hermit Thrush (Freedom Park)

The mourning doves are in full courtship mode, in spite of the chill.

Dark-Eyed Juncos have been a force, and it’s delightful to hear them sing on occasion. I love the subtlety of their individual variations in plumage.

Last Sunday I was surprised to discover an Oregon Dark-Eyed Junco in the yard. There are six subspecies of Dark-Eyed Junco, and the one we get consistently is the Slate-Colored. The easternmost normal occurrence of the Oregon in its winter range is Nebraska and its breeding range is in the northwest, so it’s considered rare in Illinois. There have been a couple other reports of other individuals locally.

The American Goldfinches are coming into their breeding plumage slowly but steadily, some more advanced than others. I’ve been seeing mainly males at the feeders.

One of my backyard robins put on a little fashion show using the new back gate as its catwalk.

Ho hum winter grey clouds…

A little ray of sunshine: a goldfinch enjoying a drink of water.

AMG0 04-08-18-9339On the radio this morning I heard that this date last year, we were in the 80’s. Likely I was complaining about that. Oh well. We won’t be getting anywhere near that for a while, I suspect, but with any luck we are done with snow until – dare I say it – November.

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The River’s Edge

RBGU 03-22-18-7362On workdays, I can take a short walk along the Chicago River downtown sometimes in the early afternoon, weather permitting. Invariably there are always a few gulls. Herring Gulls watched over the river all winter, and now the Ring-Billed Gulls like the one above are coming in. I have decided it can’t hurt me to get better acquainted with them.

With the change of seasons other birds show up as well. Last week one day there were about twenty Red-Breasted Mergansers. I first followed one female fishing alone in the water right outside my office building.

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When she took off in a northerly direction, I followed her and soon found the rest of the group. Several of the males were hanging around together.

RBME 03-29-18-8403RBME 03-27-18-8390Also going on the last couple weeks, demolishment of the General Growth Properties building. The low-rise structure broke up the dominant high-rise footprint but predictably, a huge development devoted to office space is going in its place.

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A Herring Gull that hadn’t left…yet

 

It was nice to see the Red-Breasted Mergansers well one more time before they take off for their northern breeding grounds. They were busy disappearing quickly into the water for fish, and try as hard as I might, I could never capture the actual dive.

The light made interesting reflections on the water and the buildings. I have to wonder how it looks to the gulls that navigate this corridor daily.

Reflections 03-22-18-7411Reflections 03-22-18-7408Below is one of the Canada Geese that likely breed somewhere along the river this time of year. I keep thinking I see the same couple every year, in which case I imagine this could be the gander who swam off too far from wherever his beloved is nesting while patrolling the river, and is in a hurry to get back.

CAGO 03-27-18-8343We are still enduring a blustery chill, but the sun is out today, at least for a while before the cloud cover comes back and the predicted rain will turn to snow. I doubt there will be much accumulation, and we may finally get a spring warm up toward the middle of next week. Migrant passerines are starting to show up, the cardinals were engaged in a sing-off this morning, and I am thankful life still has a reset button.

Cold Storage

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Red-Breasted Mergansers at Saganashkee Slough

Some days spring seems inevitable, others it seems to be lagging behind a cold front. I’m trying to get caught up with posts that have escaped my ability to sit down and write them. So these pictures from two weekends ago start off the Slow Spring documentation. I was joined by my friend Lesa and we started off early at the Chicago Portage. Note for Sunday birders: it was easily an hour past sunrise but the forest preserve employees had not shown up yet to unlock the gate to the parking lot. We waited perhaps five minutes…

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Song Sparrow, Chicago Portage

I was hoping an earlier start might reveal more activity, perhaps a mammal or two, anything different. But just as I can’t predict surprises I apparently can’t predict nothing happening either. Maybe for the birds, waterfowl in particular, nothing seemed out of whack. Except I wonder what happened to the Mallard on the upper right below, who seems to have lost a lot of neck feathers, perhaps getting caught in something while he was dabbling for food. He otherwise seemed to be okay.

The stream scene at the Portage hadn’t changed too much for the Canada Geese, except that there were fewer of them than the last time. We walked out the back trail by the train tracks that leads to the Des Plaines River and saw distant Common Goldeneye and Common Mergansers, but for the most part, the birds were just too darned far away to see well without a scope. My monster lens managed to identify three Wood Ducks hanging out on a fallen limb enhanced with detritus and trash.

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Wood Ducks on the Des Plaines

Song Sparrows were the most visible passerine species…

And one lady cardinal volunteered a brief acknowledgment after sitting with her back to us for several moments. Her expression conveys to me, “Just what do you want?”

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Frustrated by the lack of participation at the Portage, we stopped by the house to pick up the scope and drove out to Saganashkee Slough in Palos to see the reported Eared Grebe. Eared Grebe isn’t one we see often in this area, so it seemed like a worthwhile venture. The sun was getting higher which made backlighting a bit of a problem, but we appreciated whatever perceived warmth the sun had to offer. Thanks to generous and helpful birders already at the scene, we located the Eared Grebe. It was swimming around on the far side of the slough, of course, not too far from the men fishing in the first photo below with the Red-Breasted Mergansers flying. The second photo shows the wake behind the Eared Grebe and the last photo was the best I could get from such a distance. You can click on it to get a bit of a better view.

In contrast there were perhaps twenty or more Horned Grebes (top pix below), although I was unable to find one in breeding plumage. And those show-off Red-Breasted Mergansers again.

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Horned Grebe, Saganashkee Slough

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Mallard drake, Chicago Portage Woods, with neck feathers…

Apologies are in order, I have been a bad blogger lately. It’s not for laziness so much as exhaustion by everything else that has to get done in life. I also think my body slowing down with its latest complaint affects everything since it’s hard to totally dismiss chronic pain. But don’t worry, temporary remedies work well and I’m looking forward to engaging with a more permanent remedy starting in a few weeks. (And I’m thinking beyond the procedure: if I have to sit around a bit more for a few days maybe I can amuse a few of us with on onslaught of blog posts…)

I have more recent excursions to report as soon as I can. I also am waking up to thinking about those big life questions that surprise me every once in a while when I come to realize how I have succumbed to the general malaise reinforced by the bombardment of media, which are designed to distract from reality. I think we’re all hovering around our own versions of this existential enigma, and once I can find all the little nuggets of inspiration that I have gleaned lately from various sources, I will try to offer them up in the context of this blog space. Thank you for being patient and staying with me.