Weekends at the Portage

I spent the mornings of July 4th and Sunday, June 28th, at the Chicago Portage, mainly to see how the birds that spend their breeding season there are doing. Fledglings are starting to show themselves. Sometimes they look so different from the adults it takes a moment or two to figure out exactly who they are.

American Goldfinch

A Green Heron occasionally stops by to see what’s happening, perhaps to see if the water it used to fish in has returned. I suspect the herons miss the water even more than I do. A frequent dog-walker I have exchanged conversation with for years told me that he heard the amount of water flowing into the Portage was being controlled to discourage beavers. That’s extremely disappointing to me, if true. I had read somewhere that efforts were being made to restore the habitat to its original state but I really don’t know how that could happen. I will keep trying to find out the true story. In the meantime the habitat change attracts other species that were absent before, but I miss the old “regulars.”

All that vegetation in the middle used to be water…

Something else: just as I was beginning to explore farther afield, the fence gate has been closed and locked. I am not surprised, with all the extra foot and bicycle traffic – I am sure it is a matter of liability between the water reclamation district and the railroad. Of course I would be able to crawl through the opening on the righthand side of the gate but I don’t think it’s worth doing now. It might be hard to resist during fall migration though. I guess it will depend on how many people are still using the trails.

So the stars of both visits were the male Indigo Buntings. There were plenty of them everywhere and quite a few volunteered for photographs. Since I always take too many pictures and have a hard time deciding which ones to use I have just piled them up here.

There seems to be a good number of Northern Flickers this year.

I am always happy to see a Monarch Butterfly. But sadly I haven’t seen more than two at a time.

Starting to see more dragonflies too.

European Starlings always look more interesting to me in their juvenile plumage.

I never know when I’m going to run into a deer.

Red-winged Blackbirds are less visible now that they’ve accomplished their mission of setting up territories and making babies. This may be the last time I will have seen a male singing.

I found the photos below confusing until I realized, upon closer inspection, that the breast is yellow and the tail has rufous coloration to it. Voila, this is a juvenile Great-crested Flycatcher. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a juvenile before, so I am really happy I managed to capture it.

Another Indigo Bunting…

Here’s a Baltimore Oriole feeding his fledgling.

These are juvenile Red-winged Blackbirds checking out their surroundings.

This is the time of year when robins take on all kinds of plumage variations, particularly among the juveniles.

Downy Woodpecker (juvenile)

Below are photos of an adult Red-bellied Woodpecker and a juvenile, for comparison.

I was intrigued by the House Wren below who disappeared into the cavity in the tree…

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher below seems to have a strange sort of tumorous growth on its back.

My lucky one-shot of a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I haven’t seen any of this species otherwise for quite a while so it’s nice to know they are here.

Well it’s taken me almost two weeks to write this post… I will try to keep up with posting. Today was a gift in that there were clouds and thunderstorms to keep me inside and less tempted to go out. If it were up to me, I would have as many mornings as I wanted each week to do everything I like to do.

Three Days at the Portage – Day 3

Well here it is, the long-anticipated last act to the Memorial Day weekend of birding at the Chicago Portage. Compared to the previous two days, I didn’t have a lot of photographs. I reported as many species as the previous day (41), but between extremely bright light conditions and my inability to focus, perhaps in part due to the light shining in my eyes, the day had a different feel to it.

But it was a great day for discovery and observation. The bird of the day was a Prothonotary Warbler. I have been looking for this species to appear at the Portage for years every spring or fall when the Des Plaines River floods the lowlands because then the habitat reminds me of the Cache River Basin in southern Illinois where I saw my first of many Prothonotary Warblers.

Flooding on the Des Plaines River

As it turns out, I didn’t see it in the flooded area but directly across the trail from it. Although I got great views with the naked eye, I was not able to capture the bird well with the camera, so going back through these photographs I had my doubts. But the photograph above with the head cut off confirms the ID for me because of the white undertail coverts showing. I confess I still have my doubts about the other photos, but I know I saw the bird, so maybe there will be a next time.

Just so you can appreciate how frustrating this can be and why I sometimes spend entire days thinking about identification challenges, below is a Wilson’s Warbler I photographed on the same day, if not in the exact same spot. I do know the gizz of a Wilson’s since I have seen them frequently enough for years. When I saw the Prothonotary, it appeared larger and moved more slowly and deliberately than the Wilson’s.

And now for another sort-of warbler challenge, the American Redstart below. I have seen this coloration a few times before so I was not confused, only fascinated. The tail immediately gives this bird away as an American Redstart, but it is showing yellow and white with black coming in on the body. What you are seeing is a soon-to-be second-year male American Redstart. When the summer is over he may be entirely black and orange in place of the gray and yellow, and will be considered an adult.

And below is a female American Redstart. She will always be gray, yellow and white. Not the best photograph but you might be able to see just a little of the yellow peeking out on her breast.

That was about it for the warblers that day. I just took a tally for the season and I have seen 24 warbler species this spring. That’s 2/3 of the possible number I might have seen. But given the fact that I was basically birding in only one area I feel pretty fortunate to have seen all these warblers, sometimes even seeing them very well.

On to the rest of the birds I managed to photograph on Memorial Day. Below are some male Brown-headed Cowbirds who don’t seem to have much to do except hang out on bare branches.

I don’t remember how I managed to get the photos below of a flying Red-Bellied Woodpecker but I don’t get this lucky very often! I was probably trying to focus on it perched somewhere and it took off.

Red-winged Blackbirds…are a given. The bird in the second photograph knocked the Northern Flicker in the photos below off its perch, which enabled me to get pictures of some of those elusive but brilliant golden shafts underwing.

There were a couple Eastern Kingbirds for a day or two, and I haven’t seen them since. Maybe they were shopping for nesting spots and decided to go elsewhere.

Below is a trail at the Portage I have only walked recently. For years I stayed away from the gravel road that ran between the official forest preserve and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District property because it used to be patrolled by police and photographers were not welcome. The past couple years now, I think, restrictions to access have been lifted, but it took this year along with the impression of having extra time to decide to walk the extra mile as it were. The road itself runs along some woods that border the Des Plaines River, and then splits in two, with the one fork below wooded on both sides. This might have been a very good place to look for the earlier warblers back in April. I will definitely keep it on my agenda of places to visit in the fall. Recently, although it’s getting very buggy there were not very many birds available.

Birds that fly over on occasion and if I’m lucky, I can capture them. This time it was more as a record of their presence than anything else.

Great Blue Heron
Northern Harrier – considered rare at this location but I don’t know why, as I have seen them every so often

Indigo Buntings and House Wrens will be available all summer.

The Downy Woodpecker below was challenging to capture.

If you click on the photos below, you will be able to see a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher that looks more like a Blue-Green Gnatcatcher. This was another ID I struggled with a bit when going through the pictures, but the eye ring in the first photo and the cocked tail in the next give the bird away. It’s a testament to how lighting can change everything. I have never seen this bird look green before.

American Goldfinches foraging in the duckweed
American Robin of the Day (there are always at least 20-30 of them about)
Baltimore Oriole – too busy now to pose for pictures

I’ve been to the Portage a few times since the big weekend and I will likely be visiting regularly to check up on summertime birds, and I anticipate a return of dragonflies and butterflies. I have been a couple other places too and plan to publish those posts when possible. Lately it’s easier to sit inside on a hot day, slaving over a laptop in air conditioning. Thanks again for stopping by, and congratulations making it to the end of another long post!

Three Days at the Portage – Day 2

There were still some warblers on May 24, but the Bird of the Day for me was Red-Eyed Vireo. I had been wondering where these birds were, and then they all seemed to show up at once. Usually you hear them singing and don’t see them very well as they move through the trees chasing insects. But this time they were more often seen than heard. In some of these photographs you might actually be able to see the red eye for which they are named.

Red-eyed Vireo

Many of the warblers I saw that day were females. The females tend to migrate later than the males who are in a hurry to set up their territories. Spring migration this year seemed strange for many reasons – the pandemic affecting where you could go to find birds, the weather which is always a factor, and I guess the knowledge in the back of your mind that birds are in decline and you wonder just how many you’re going to see anyway.

Below is a Yellow Warbler who likely is on territory for the summer. I recorded him singing, and you can hear him three times in the little clip below his picture. Some people find the mnemonic “sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet” helpful in distinguishing this song from others they might be hearing.

Yellow Warbler

I feel fortunate to have seen a Canada Warbler more than once this spring. Unfortunately they prefer somewhat shady spots which I guess they blend into better than bright sunlight. I love the steel-gray blue color of their backs. I would support a Pantone color called Canada Warbler Blue.

Northern Cardinals are all around but not seen too often. This one was far away but distinct.

A Blue Jay on the fly.

Baltimore Orioles are getting harder to see now that they are busy rearing families.

Indigo Buntings are busy too but there are so many of them, they are easier to see.

Indigo Bunting (female)

This might have been the last time I saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Actually I’m surprised I got to see more than its tail. I still hear them, but only on occasion, certainly not constantly like a few weeks ago when they first arrived.

Even Red-Winged Blackbirds are assuming a lower profile.
Two Mallards navigating the flood waters adjacent to the Des Plaines River which were still quite high that day.
Double-Crested Cormorant – an occasional flyover
The back of a Chipmunk

A couple more warblers – there seemed to be fewer American Redstarts this year, at least where I was. And I just learned something I never bothered to look up before about distinguishing the female Chestnut-sided Warbler from the male – the bright chestnut sides don’t extend as far down the side on the female. So the pictures below are of a female. And since I continue to hear a male singing at the Portage I can only wonder if there might be an actual breeding pair.

I still hear the Eastern Wood-Pewee but this might have been the last time I got photo ops.

The big surprise walking back in the opposite direction across the first bridge was to see this Robin’s nest right off the side of the bridge, in plain sight – and I had never noticed it before. Mom was in a nearby tree, waiting to revisit her brood.

A bird more often heard than seen..Gray Catbird.

Red-eyed Vireo

I love this last picture of the Red-eyed Vireo. Having said that, I realized a few days ago that I need to bring more control to my blog posts when I take so many pictures and can’t decide what to do with them and invariably end up with too many – believe it or not, this is a pared-down selection. I really need to use my flickr page more often, so I stuck some other photographs there and if you’re really curious, follow the link to them. I will try to be back sooner with the final installment of the Memorial Day weekend excursions and reports from other destinations since. Hope you are staying safe and well and rising to the daily challenges.

Walking in the Hood

It’s difficult to come to this page after the events of the past week. The Covid-19 depression cycle was insidious enough, but the pain from reopening the festering societal wounds that never heal makes it that much more difficult to rally myself. I started writing a song, the music coming to me over the kitchen sink where I get all my inspiration. I managed to write it down and then, since it is meter-friendly, started writing a few lyrics, but like many things I start and never finish, I don’t know when I will go back to it. At least I have a notebook I can find to write music in: I bought it a week or two ago to start writing down the Zebra Finch songs as they are solidifying. It still fascinates me how it takes years for the males to create and embellish on their songs.

I managed to go back to Goose Lake Natural Area on Saturday morning before the chaos ensued. It was almost like slipping into the fourth dimension if anyone else remembers that Twilight Zone episode. Except that I had to drive an hour and a half to get to another dimension, but I guess that makes it that much more real. I am saving those photographs for a future post.

Black-and-white Warbler

Anyway, about the pictures for this post: about two weeks into working at home I decided that I needed to fit a walk into my daily routine, weather permitting, so I began taking a walk every morning before work, a tame walk by any means encompassing perhaps only a mile, but I could look for birds, particularly as it was spring migration. So I have been going out with binoculars and the camera and settled on a route that gets me out and back in time to go to work without feeling rushed or pressured, and always stopping to check on who’s in the backyard upon my return. The pictures in this post are from one particularly delightful morning roughly two weeks ago when I guess migration was in whatever kind of full swing it was finally coming to. It was overcast which didn’t help too much but the birds were there.

For a week or two, no matter where I was, I was seeing or hearing Chestnut-sided Warblers.
American Robin on her nest

There were not as many White-Crowned Sparrows in the yard this year – I never saw more than one. This particular morning I was lucky enough to capture him. I am convinced he is the same bird whose little syncopated song I heard earlier.

More of the White-breasted Nuthatch at the top of the post.

And here was finally a Black-and-white Warbler who was practically at eye-level, making him easier to capture. This species navigates tree bark like the nuthatch.

Swainson’s Thrush

This might be the only Tennessee Warbler I saw this spring. Certainly the only one I was able to photograph. Usually they are more common and noisy about it. I did manage to capture this one singing a bit.

Northern Cardinal

I missed capturing an Ovenbird in my backyard, but it was likely the same one who was hiding in my apple tree in the front yard, below.

Thanks for visiting. I hope you are doing as well as possible. We all have our own limits, I suppose. I take a short nap when I’m just too tired to continue. But I always feel better getting up and doing something, and my indoor birds provide endless opportunity in that regard. I also revive every time I play music for them. That is how this whole thing started, and it’s turning out to be the one thing that sustains our spirits.

Cloudy Afternoon

I never intend to go birding in the afternoon, but on Friday I jumped at the chance when we were encouraged to take the afternoon off. It was cloudy, and you can never count on what birds will be up to after lunch. Sometimes I like the cloudiness, though, because it reminds me of birding in South America.

Cloudy at the Portage

Maybe cloudy was okay for capturing this Cape May Warbler.

Then there was a very active, backlit Warbling Vireo. This is likely the only Warbling Vireo I will photograph this year. There’s always one. But they are all very busy singing now and protecting their territories.

Sometimes I hardly ever see goldfinches, and at other times they seem to be everywhere. All I know is they’re not in my yard too much anymore so I suspect many of them are at the Portage or other nearby forest preserves.

With all the rain and now warmer temperatures, the green-up is happening rapidly.

I often hear Killdeer but don’t always see them. I managed to capture this one flying across the compost piles on the MWRD property.