Notes from the Thaw

This post started out last weekend when we could finally see the promise of large piles of snow melting. I went to the Portage but didn’t get very far, the trails were not really passable in my estimation. And I was hardly even hearing any birds. So I focused on trying to get a few pictures of the birds in the yard. The American Goldfinches have been enjoying the thistle socks filled with new nyjer. The Downy Woodpecker below was likely tired of trying to drill into frozen suet so he was sampling from the peanut feeder instead.

I finally got to see why there was an unusual accumulation of peanut shells under the squirrel peanut feeder. Because of all the snow and cold, it wasn’t practical to waste energy taking peanuts away from the feeder and maybe stashing them for later, so the squirrels have been hanging upside down eating them as they take them.

So here’s what the Portage looked like last weekend, at least as far as I got.

Creatures using the snow pack as habitat – self-styled igloos. I had some rats doing this in my yard, unfortunately. I don’t mind the field mice but I am sure my neighbors are not fond of rats.

Below is how the Portage looked yesterday. Still some snow, but not so bad. Bright and sunny, and even a few birds, although more heard than seen. I did see maybe 10 Red-winged Blackbirds but they were too far away to photograph. I heard them first. Some Robins were returning as well.

Otherwise uninterrupted blue sky.

A nice-looking European Starling…

I heard this Brown-headed Cowbird singing before I saw him. Not easy to capture high up in this tree but his cap is glistening in the sun.

In the Des Plaines River, pretty far away, were several Common Goldeneye. I am surprised I was able to capture them – I seem to be having issues with macular degeneration in my right eye so it’s getting harder to focus. Time to make an appointment with the ophthalmologist. (Yikes – I thought I was a good speller but I just had to re-learn that word. More h’s than I imagined.) I vaguely remember him suggesting there were remedies if it started getting worse.

A Mallard couple in the river.

I was trying to follow a goose flying around looking for a way to join the geese and mallards in the marshy area of the Portage that had sufficiently melted. I was delighted to find I captured the median coverts on the wings flapping up to slow down for landing.

One more thoughtful pose from last week’s Goldfinches.

We are going to have a few days in the 60’s before we settle back into the 40’s and 50’s. The overnight temperatures still prohibit things like setting up the rain barrels and cleaning up the dead stalks where pollinators are still taking cover. But the hostas are starting to emerge green from the ground. The snow pack made the compost pile that much more beautiful – I admit I had no idea what would be going on underneath it. I’m going to clean up under the feeders today and look forward to more arrivals at the Portage next weekend. I hope your March is going well so far. In spite of everything, spring has a way of insisting upon renewal.

Baby Bird Distractions

Pandemic fatigue. Winter doldrums. Whatever it was, I don’t know, but I decided a little over a month ago to let down my guard against new inhabitants just once, quit being the Grim Reaper during every week’s cleaning, and see what happened. What happened was inevitable, although I wasn’t too sure how it was going to go. I don’t think the birds knew either, but they quickly remembered how to take care of their offspring.

I was reflecting one morning last month after cleaning the night before that there were no cries of anguish which normally followed the typical Grim Reaper inspections: “I don’t know if it’s worth having a veritable second flock of baby birds just as a goodwill gesture, but for the moment, in the scheme of this incredibly senseless life we all seem to be participating in, knowingly or not, I don’t see any grave harm in it. I live here alone with these birds. I am fully aware of the consequences of adding to the flock, but I was also making a conscious decision that I didn’t want all the finches to just die away in a few years and leave me alone with the girl doves, not that I don’t love part of that idea – less work, less noise, less everything. But maybe it is in response to the idea that there would be less to do – which is inevitable anyway, the older I get – that I decided to let the Zebra Finches have one last fling with immortality. I can live forever too, vicariously, through their efforts.”

It started with one fledgling youngster around the end of January, and maybe almost a week later, there was another, and two became three, then four, then five – and now there are eight. I will resume Grim Reaper duties this weekend so anyone who hasn’t hatched, sadly, gets tossed, but I am happy to have these youngsters to watch grow up and glad they have each other’s company. They are a lot smarter as a group. They are not all from the same clutch but I’m not sure if the clutch number was 2 or 3. Indeed the first bird might have been a “solo finch” were it not for the fledglings that followed later.

I managed to capture a fledgling being fed in the video below.

It turns out the first bird is a male and he is already starting to break out into adult plumage. I was able to record a teentsy bit of his subsong activity yesterday morning (see video below). Please pardon our mess. We are almost done tearing up what is left of two-year-old newspaper.

Below is a little gallery of images from the cell phone.

Outside, the snow persists. Below, a few images with the cell phone, starting with my back steps one morning and ending with ever-persistent Common Milkweed seeds.

Shoveling snow off my car…

And below the way the walk between my house and my neighbor’s before and after shoveling.

When I go into work once or twice a week and get off the train, there’s ice in the river.

One morning on my way to the train I could not resist taking a picture of the sunrise, even obscured by all the houses.

Back indoors with a few more bird scenes…

The Diamond Doves like to sit in the sprouting “soak” seed on top of the microwave.
The Society Finches love trapping a corn kernel under one foot to extract the insides.
The irrepressible Mr. Green.

We have yet more snow in the forecast, but we are starting to warm up so maybe it’s only another week or two before it disappears. I have heard birds singing outdoors: Northern Cardinal, House Finch, Black-capped Chickadee. Spring is coming. The angle of light intensifies and the days are getting longer. My birds told me sunrise was at 6:25 this morning. They were only two minutes early.

Snow Upon Snow: Cold, Snowy Continuum at the Home Front

It seems like it will never stop snowing. And it’s generally been too cold to stay outside for very long. I am not good with the camera if I’m wearing gloves, let alone mittens. So several of these photographs were taken from the porch through the screened windows.

The first significant snowfall – it was still January.

Two pairs of Northern Cardinals have been hanging out in the yard regularly. It’s always nice to see them. They tend to show up as a group later in the day when they are less visible to predators. Or at least I think that’s their strategy.

I don’t seem to see the woodpeckers as often but was able to capture this Downy through the kitchen window when he showed up on a sunnier day.

The one day last week when it wasn’t prohibitively cold, I went out to take a few pictures and found this American Tree Sparrow in the snow next to the dogwood.

One morning when I was in the kitchen I spotted the reason for the lack of birds in the yard – a Cooper’s Hawk enjoying its meal way down at the end of the fence by the alley. I couldn’t determine what it was eating with my binoculars but it stayed a long time to finish its meal. There is so much snow it wasn’t possible to walk back there after it left to see what the remains looked like either. I had to take pictures through the window as I would have immediately flushed the hawk if I had stepped outside onto the stairs.

My most frequent and numerous visitors are House Sparrows. I think there are often upwards of 50 at a time.

I’ve had more American Goldfinches too since I replaced the old nyjer with a fresh supply. The one sunny day I was out for a few minutes gave me the opportunity to photograph the bird below.

Through the porch window, goldfinches on the thistle socks.

I sometimes see a Black-capped Chickadee in the yard when I go out to fill the feeders, and I have seen some House Finches and Dark-eyed Juncos, but I haven’t been able to photograph them. I haven’t seen Mourning Doves very often. Sadly they are likely victims of the Cooper’s Hawks.

I don’t know when I’ll be going back to the Portage or walking anywhere else for that matter. It may not be for a couple weeks. I have managed to dig out my car in between snowstorms and go swimming twice a week. I have also been walking a mile to the train to go into the office a couple times a week. This schedule will likely continue. I am looking forward to my first dose of the vaccine next Monday. Beyond all that, my next post will feature the birds inside the house as we have some new, cute kids.

Settling into Snow – Before and After

I went to the Portage last Saturday before the big snow, thinking it might be my last chance for a while. I could have gone back yesterday morning, but I decided to give in to the single-digit cold and get my grocery shopping done before it became prohibitive to go anywhere. I think I made the right decision.

It was a cloudy, gloomy morning and hardly anyone else was there, except for the volunteer crew below. They came to take out invasive species. Some time later I could smell and then see the fire they started to burn what they cut down.

I saw virtually no birds, and didn’t hear very many of them either. There were a few ducks in the Des Plaines River. One Common Merganser, four Goldeneye and a couple Mallards – none of them really identifiable below – are the only ones I saw, at a distance. While I was down by the river, four train engines came down the middle track.

Whatever the landscape had to offer I attempted to commemorate…

The iconic stump…
A snowman in the middle of the frozen stream…

Snowy scenes, gray skies…and a distant coyote.

And then came the snow. I took a picture of the accumulation on the feeder baffles through the porch window the next morning, just to document how much snow we got. A bit harder to find the female cardinal in the snowy branches.

I have had two pairs of Northern Cardinals in the yard this winter. They tend to all show up together at dusk and individually in between times. Staying home more has afforded familiarity and they seem to be a bit less wary of my presence. I was peering down at the male on the ground through the porch windows. The feeder shots were taken outside.

If I stand at the back of the lot I can watch the birds at the feeders a bit, albeit through the dogwood branches that offer the birds cover. But I don’t know how much of that I will be doing in single-digit weather…

The forecast is grim with more cold and snow for the coming week, but after that it seems we will start to warm up and maybe with some melting, we can dig ourselves out of all this snow. I should try to remember years ago when I was playing in a band, on the road at a Holiday Inn in Ogallala, Nebraska, on Thanksgiving…and going out the next day to find the snow plowed and piled up 10-12 feet high in the middle of the street. I should not feel inconvenienced by a few feet of piled-up snow! For the moment I’m going to go out and do a little snow removal so I can still open my back gate to access the trash containers. The yard birds could probably use a refill and some clean water in the heated birdbaths too. I hope you are having a lovely, warm-enough week somewhere.

Comfort Food and At Home with the Birds

In anticipation of the coming snowstorm, I have been reflecting on indoor pleasures. As I tweak this post, my two Diamond Dove Girls are hanging out with me on the futon. The image below is straight from my phone: I managed to lower the screen to take it before they left. Actually just about everything else in this post is from the phone camera.

I don’t try to take good pictures of the indoor crowd very often because it’s simply too complicated. And they don’t like it. Let a Zebra Finch perch on top of my laptop screen and start singing – I’ll whip out my phone to record a video and he vanishes. Beyond the screen sometimes I can catch the Zebra Finches playing with my socks. But this post isn’t about the birds so much as it’s a little ode to the food we eat. One word for the bird at the top of the post. It’s Mr. Green. He still wants to be a Zebra Finch. He keeps practicing his Zebra Finch vocabulary.

We just got a new 25-lb. box of spray millet, which now comes imported from France (on the left, above). It used to come from Canada. And then for a while from somewhere in the US. I don’t know why the market has moved to France but it comes loose in a nice box and takes me about an hour to cut off all the stems and put into plastic bags of about 5 lbs. each for storage, to be broken down into smaller plastic bags as needed. The birds adore it. But they eat a lot of other healthy stuff. I grow spouts for them, and every morning they get little platters consisting of chopped curly parsley, Kray diet (rice, beans, peas and corn) mixed with fortified Roudybush Nibles, egg food, dried bugs, and another cooked food prepared for bird appetites. In addition to all that, they have excellent Abba seed mixes. They are spoiled!

Feeding the birds so well has had an effect on my own diet. I gave up chicken and meat in general soon after I started living with birds and have never missed it. And after cooking good food for the birds every morning, I think it was a natural progression to make beautiful, healthy food for myself.

I decided to take pictures a couple days ago while I was assembling a roasted veggie melange – I usually have roasted veggies on hand but hadn’t made any for a while. I love root veggies and beets in particular. So it started out with carrots, turnips and both red and golden beets. Then I put the beet greens loosely chopped on top to steam the root veggies. Eggplant and cauliflower atop that, whole garlic cloves, olive oil, rosemary, thyme, salt and pepper, and then baked for an hour and a half in a 350-degree oven. The last photograph is what it looks like just out of the oven – not too colorful with cauliflower on top.

But look at it on the plate. Beet colors and the greens are the best.

My travels to see birds in other countries have inspired my cooking too. I fell in love with farofa in Brazil and decided to make some to have on hand. There are more elaborate recipes I’m sure, but I just saute chopped onions and add cassava flour to the pan and toss until golden. This particular batch was made with already toasted farinha. I just season with salt and pepper.

I added some farofa to my plate of roasted vegetables below. Normally I would just scatter it on top but I wanted you to be able to see it. Also, the green Aji Amarillo dipping sauce that is kind of ignominiously glommed onto the plate, is a really wonderful recipe I found on the internet before I went to Peru. (It has a mayonnaise base which has encouraged me to make my own mayo.) I have been making it ever since. It’s good with everything.

Roasted veggies often serve as a base for a wonderful salad. I reheat the veggies on my plate in the microwave and build a salad on top of it. Hidden treasure lurks beneath the lettuce, radicchio, and whatever.

Something else I discovered online this year when I was looking for something to do with extra cilantro was a vegan recipe for cream of cilantro soup. I modified the recipe by adding serrano chile, because I like the flavor and I am a chile fan. Below is a picture of my last bowlful, to which I added popcorn, which is a tradition in Ecuador.

It’s easy to take pictures of food, especially with the cell phone – so handy – I do it a lot. Thanks to my birds, I think I celebrate making my own meals as much as I do theirs, if not more.

One of my many male Zebra Finches in a quiet moment

The birds have been very, very good for me. They are certainly keeping me good company through this pandemic winter. I hope to find time to devote to sharing some of their singing in future posts. But in the meantime I felt like taking a little break to celebrate food.

Thanks for tolerating my totally off-topic foray into dispelling the winter doldrums. Hope you are comfortable and eating well.

Cold, Snowy January – Part 3

From no light to almost too much, this past Saturday! It was clear and cold. The sunshine helped my mood a lot, especially because it wasn’t particularly windy.

It’s always good to see a Red-tailed Hawk, even if you can’t see the red tail – at least I could make out the belly band in the pictures.

Just when you think you know a place by heart, somebody does something to totally disrupt your perception of it. The first thing I noticed were tire tracks leading from the parking lot to a spot where there used to be some nice flat rocks I often sat on to take a break and look over the water. They were accompanied by a large pointy boulder. The rocks and boulder have been removed and this fence put around the area. I can’t imagine what is going in their place. Unfortunately I don’t believe I ever took any pictures of the rocks themselves. The goal was always to sit on them.

My stump was looking well-defined that morning.

A couple White-Throated Sparrows made themselves available on the way out after I answered their calls.

This Black-Capped Chickadee was fascinated by something in the wasp nest.

And a Red-Belled Woodpecker was busy digging around for bugs in tree bark.