Home is Where the Birds…Are!

I thought I’d be returning to this page with pictures from my travels but my plans have been derailed by local distractions. It seems I cannot stand at the kitchen sink and look out the window for more than a minute before a Downy Woodpecker is on the suet feeder that hangs from the sumac tree.

I planned to go to the Portage yesterday, but the weather kept me home with 35 mph winds and gusts of up to 50 miles per hour and also flood warnings along the Des Plaines. I decided not to take the chance of being blown around the trail with the possibility of trees falling on me. The Portage is likely high enough above the Des Plaines River basin not to be affected too much by its flooding but I wasn’t all that curious either. Not sure if fear of catching or spreading a virus is making me more timid to take any chances at all. Combining the weather warnings with cloudy skies and birds predictably hunkered down, I decided it was advisable to stay home. But I would go out for a walk a little later, just to experience the wind at a safe distance.

As it turned out, soon after I was out the front door, three, possibly four, Turkey Vultures appeared, coasting about on the wind. They were sallying around the neighborhood for half an hour at least. Then when I returned to my front door, I heard a nearby Dark-Eyed Junco, and got lucky with one and then another perching in the little apple tree where they posed for a minute or two. I have been trying to take pictures of Juncos for months to no avail, but have managed the past couple days to photograph the ones that visit my yard. I wonder if the birds are more curious about me, now that they are relatively free of constant human activity.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Most of the photographs below are from one sunny day last week, March 25. I went out and sat in the back of the yard soaking up the sunshine. It was midday, not the optimum for light conditions, but outside was the place to be, relatively warm, hanging out with the feeder crowd.

Even the local songster Northern Cardinal made a guest appearance…!

On Saturday afternoon late, when there were no birds in the yard, I saw the reason why. I couldn’t get very good images between the lack of light and the window screens on the porch, but here is a very hungry looking Cooper’s Hawk.

Of course as I tried to sneak out the back door for a better photo, it left.

Below is a little expression inspired by the indoor crowd yesterday. I’ve titled it “Minimalist Zebra Finches” and, of course, they participated enthusiastically.

Minimalist Zebra Finches

The Mourning Doves below: I love how the male is “politely” chasing the female. I tried to capture how his neck was lit up in the second photograph.

It must have been the lighting – I was pretty far away – but this is an interesting-looking House Sparrow.

And there are worms to be had for the Robin…

Spring is coming. The days are getting longer. It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed.

Snow: Before and After

Hairy Woodpecker at the Portage

Yesterday morning I got up and went to see how the birds were doing at the Portage. It was a cold, windy, bleary morning, and as far as I could tell, nobody was having a good time.

When the large black blob in the distance turned out to be a windblown Bald Eagle, I was encouraged to investigate. I couldn’t get very close to where it was perched high above the railroad tracks.

The Red-Winged Blackbirds weren’t singing much. This one appeared to look as if he was reconsidering his early arrival.

I did finally manage to see one of perhaps four Song Sparrows who were carrying on vocally as if spring had sprung. But he wasn’t flaunting his presence.

Perhaps the nicest surprise was an Eastern Phoebe. I felt for him, though, as there were no bugs to eat and it made me wonder what else he could get by on a couple days before the scheduled warmup.

Even the Robins weren’t having a good time.

The cardinals have been singing for weeks. They started earlier than the Robins. There was one singing along with the piano a few days ago. I was surprised, since the windows aren’t open. He must have heard the keyboard through the front door and I assume he was perched on the little apple tree outside of it. Below is a recording of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and just at the end where I start playing some other chords you can hear the cardinal singing along.

Northern Cardinal at the Portage
Cardinal singing with us toward the end of this clip

This Downy Woodpecker was foraging low with the sparrows.

I never did see if there was a hen sitting on a presumably well-hidden nest who belonged to this Mallard but he was definitely taking it easy.

I really hoped we were done with this snow stuff, although it was less than a minor inconvenience considering I didn’t have to go anywhere and it has now melted away. These few photos are from yesterday afternoon through the porch windows. The wet snow was falling and I didn’t feel like joining the birds in it, but I wanted to commemorate its arrival since I banished all my snow-in-the-yard photos from this “past” winter to external storage to make room for spring.

I’ve gone back to the photos from my August trip to New Brunswick and Grand Manan and hope to follow with a post or two featuring bright sunshiny blue skies shortly.

I hope you are in good health, and pray you are making some sense out of all the chaos. We will get through this.

Going the Distance

It’s a slow, steady drip as the bucket of What Next is filling rapidly and seems about to overflow. I keep falling back into the grounding exercises that keep me going. Bake a loaf of bread. Go for a walk in the woods. Chocolate-covered almonds.

I voted yesterday morning. I wonder now if it was worth the effort. After cutting my little voter ID card out of the flyer I received in the mail weeks ago, I walked around the block to the elementary school entrance where the polls were open. The voter ID was identical to the two older ones that were still living in my wallet, but I wanted to make everything as easy as possible for the over-taxed election officials. I have voted in every election since I moved here 19 years ago. But yesterday, I could not be found in the system. I had to re-register. When I did finally get my paper ballot, which was what I preferred anyway over the new voting machines that weren’t working, my ballot could not be scanned until some future time when the scanner would be operating. I hope things improved after I left and went into the office for the last time until further notice. I worked a full day and came home to my birds and to ponder my newly-enforced remote existence.

These photographs are from Sunday. The morning was cloudy so I spent some time in the yard trying to get pictures of my most frequent visitors. The Goldfinches are still dominating the action. I estimated there were perhaps forty or more of them, outnumbering the House Sparrows. That’s a thing.

The afternoon promised sunshine so I decided to check McGinnis Slough. As usual, most of the birds were waterfowl way beyond my ability to distinguish them, and I had not felt like taking my scope. There were pitifully few passerines. In fact, I did not see or hear one Red-Winged Blackbird, which seems very odd, especially after having them at the Portage last week.

There were a lot of Northern Shovelers, and I managed to get one in flight early on. Beyond that, the only “near” bird that stood out was a Blue-Winged Teal.

Rain is in the forecast for today, tomorrow and Friday. So I will definitely have to go out this weekend. The gym was officially closed for business yesterday, so I can’t swim. I am going to try to work from home, which is something I never did very often to begin with. But all connection now will be over the Internet entirely, save for the very few times I may have to go out and buy something. I have enough food for myself to likely last a year. (As for toilet paper, I ordered a case of bamboo toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap months ago and just opened it recently. I am not in the habit of giving plugs to anybody but they seem to be a worthwhile organization, donating a portion of their profits to providing sanitation facilities in underdeveloped areas of the world. Unfortunately if you are so tempted, they are out of stock as well, I just checked.) If I need to buy anything, it will be food for the birds that will dictate my immediate spending habits.

The weekend provided a little entertainment indoors. My Zebra Finches found interest in my socks, and I started to build a little musical interlude with Dudlee’s cooing for inspiration.

Here are a few more pictures from Sunday’s yard. I’m getting restless to start cleaning it up but we still have the possibility of frost. However, I suspect projects will develop with the enduring isolation. Beyond music and other indoor diversions, I need exercise and I need to go outside. Plain and simple. I’ll likely visit the Portage a lot more these next few weeks, to monitor the beginnings of Spring Migration.

Scruffy-looking male American Goldfinches are molting away into their breeding plumage.

I hope you are all safe and well and finding some solace in the extra peace and quiet that is inevitable with sequestration. I also hope your connections with loved ones are substantial and enduring. We can all discover a lot more about ourselves when we’re tested like this. Let’s look for a silver lining somewhere in all of this and the world comes together for the common good.

Spring Fever on Hold

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see Red-Winged Blackbirds arrive at the Portage and start singing. It’s likely an intense desire to embrace any sense of Normal.

All these photos are from a quick trip to the Chicago Portage last Sunday morning, after the clocks were set ahead. There were not a lot of birds, but I managed to capture a few.

I’m happy to see the Robins returning too. The anticipation of spring is palpable. Now, if I can just get over the time change. It’s hard to get up in the morning, in the dark. Even harder perhaps knowing that nearly everything has been put on hold for voluntary, and increasingly involuntary, “self-distancing.”

After a fairly well-attended choir rehearsal on Wednesday, we received notice yesterday that the temple will be closed for the next four weeks, which totally puts on hold our entire schedule. We were to sing on Sunday and prepare for our special Choir Sunday on the 29th, but that’s not going to happen. No rehearsal, no services. We will stay tuned, but I know without rehearsal, it will be harder to hold those notes when we resume.

I managed to capture this Rusty Blackbird flying in with the Red-Wingeds, likely on his way north.

Even European Starlings are returning. They used to be present year-round but in the last few years I’ve missed their presence in the dead of winter.

There are always Downy Woodpeckers, though I might not always see them.

Same goes for the Black-capped Chickadees. It was chilly and windy but the days are getting longer and the birds have their work ahead of them.

Flyovers included a singular Ring-Billed Gull and One American Crow. I suppose Crows are a reminder of what happens if you don’t “self-distance”, as in the spread of West Nile Virus.

On the trail that runs behind the opening in the fence and runs parallel to the Des Plaines River, I witnessed a flurry of White-Breasted Nuthatch activity with what appeared to be one male and two females.

I missed any opportunity to snatch the last Super Moon because it was pouring rain on Monday night, but here’s a glimpse of what it looked like back home after swimming on Tuesday.

One more of this buff blackbird.

The extra time to lay low has given me an absurd sense of precarious calm, in that, I suppose, it takes a little pressure off the time crunch that normally accompanies my daily routine, even if it adds a new, rapidly-changing stress. Suddenly all the solo activities that I squeeze into tiny time fragments are clamoring for attention. Among them are playing more music, processing more pictures and writing more blog posts… There’s a desire to commence spring cleanup too. The challenge will be to stay awake. If I’m at home and sitting on the futon with my laptop, naptime is a real threat.

I hope for your wellness and safety, wherever you are. As much as we must distance ourselves physically, we need to come together in spirit all the more.

Quick Portage Check-up

I have been trying to take advantage of any better weekend weather since I got back from Mexico, specifically just to wander the Portage and see what’s going on. Last weekend, Sunday was beautiful and warm, but I had to spend the morning indoors singing in the choir, but even though I didn’t have high expectations for an afternoon walk, I thought anything might be interesting. As it turned out, I heard only a few birds and saw absolutely nothing save some Canada Geese and a Red-Tailed Hawk. I went out again yesterday morning, to take advantage of the only sunshine this weekend, and after walking for nearly half an hour to only hear a few birds, I finally caught up with a flock of foraging sparrows and the woodpeckers and Blue Jays I had been hearing.

Canada Geese – when there was open water

Yesterday’s stars were a couple Red-Bellied Woodpeckers.

The Downies were busy too.

When the flock first appeared it seemed to be mostly Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows. They weren’t particularly interested in coming any closer to me. But it was a delight to just stand still and watch the flock forage and move through. And when the sun was shining, it was nearly warm on my back. It was otherwise seasonably cold yesterday, with hardly any open water.

White-Throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
American Tree Sparrow – found in my photographs later

There were likely a few more cardinals around than the two I saw briefly. Below is one of them.

Northern Cardinal

One of a few storyboards along the trail…dressed in snow and ice.

And right behind the storyboard location appeared something I wasn’t expecting so late in the morning – a foraging White-Tailed Deer. I didn’t want to disturb her so after we connected with a few photographs I turned back and made my way out of the preserve.

I was surprised to turn around and see a Brown Creeper busy poking up this tree.

Throughout the morning the Blue Jays were noisily carrying on but they were quite distant when they finally appeared.

In all maybe there were four robins yesterday morning. I’m sure there’s a larger flock somewhere.

Grey Squirrel…
Song Sparrow – as at the very top of this post

I will be back soon with warmer memories from Mexico. As of this moment, it has just started snowing. In the interim, I would like to leave with a quote from Bill Penzey which I read this morning:

“When they do their best to get us to abandon all hope is when we must embrace it more tightly than ever.”

Goose Lake Prairie: Happy Fourth

Field Sparrow

The forecast was for rain not starting until maybe 11:30 or so this morning, so it seemed like a good day to restart my lapsed tradition of visiting Goose Lake Prairie on the Fourth of July. It turned out to be a beautiful morning and the threat of rain never occurred. Even though I arrived later than I had planned, for quite a while I was the only human, which suited me just fine.

Song Sparrow, the first of many

Dragonflies were everywhere. I guess the one I’ll be seeing a lot of this year is the Blue Dasher. Last year it was the Halloween Pennant. Nice to see all of these this morning.

Blue Dasher (female)
Blue Dasher
Widow Skimmer Female
Common Whitetail (female)
Halloween Pennant
Dickcissel
Dickcissel

So I’m trying to write this blog post tonight with the explosions going off all around the neighborhood, frequently sounding like a bomb exploding next to my house. I hate this holiday. I don’t understand why I have to be miserable and endure this every year. Maybe it’s why I decided not to be born until after midnight 71 years ago – it was too scary to start living with all this going on.

Luckily it never seems to bother my birds, they just endure it, likely chalking it up to more stupid human noise. We have pretty music playing on the radio. What’s one or two or fifty explosions?

But I can’t imagine the outdoor birds are too fond of this. Oh well. Back to the blog post. This morning I got to see some nice birds. There are a lot of pictures in this post. Let’s just leave it at that.

Eastern Kingbird

There was one Brown Thrasher who barely showed its face and then hid from me as I tried to see the rest of it.

I hoped for a Henslow’s Sparrow and one complied. Their return to Illinois grasslands is one of the few success stories over recent years. If you provide habitat, they will come.

Henslow’s Sparrow

The Red-Winged Blackbirds weren’t bothering to sing, so the guys looked a little bored with their guard duty.

There were a lot of Common Yellowthroats and as secretive as they sometimes are, I managed to see a few.

I’m still on the verge of tears from the explosions. I guess tomorrow morning I can go around and see how many fireworks shells are in the yard. Something to look forward to. My indoor birds are ready to fall asleep. I keep praying for rain.

Summer Comes to the Portage

Blue Dasher

I have been going to the Portage just about every weekend this month, and I’ve also been working my tail off during the week, so it’s been hard to sit down and make sense of anything. These few pictures are the highlights from this past Sunday morning.

Right away I was suddenly engaged following a hungry vireo as it foraged not too far away, right about eye-level. It was a Warbling Vireo, but I had never seen such a wide-eyed one before. He looked surprised to see me as well.The Portage has five or more nesting pairs and I hear them singing all the time, but rarely see them. This is the closest and longest I’ve ever observed a Warbling Vireo.

Summer brings out lots of dragonflies and some other critters I don’t often see, like this Bullfrog.

The frog fanciers were present too, although instead of fishing, I saw them only perched or in flight this time.

Maybe you’ve noticed how bouncy goldfinches are in flight, they seem to propel themselves through the air, and that’s exactly what they were doing on Sunday. The only goldfinches I saw were flying, below.

Not seeing many butterflies, but there seem to be a reasonable number of dragonflies. And then there was this metallic turquoise beetle…

Juvenile robins are gawky and spotted and just generally at an awkward stage…

In general, the Baltimore Orioles weren’t posing, and if they were still for a moment they were still quite far away. They weren’t even bothering to sing hardly at all. Everybody is busy rearing youngsters.

Baltimore Oriole

After crazy busy at work I am looking forward to the four-day weekend. Weather permitting, I hope to venture a little farther than the Portage; I feel the need to at least attempt to see some grassland birds. But if the weather doesn’t cooperate, there’s plenty more to do – like finish processing the Texas pictures and those from my previous visits to the Portage this month. One cannot plan ahead anymore. The weather changes ever five minutes, so I am going with the flow. It’s been thundering and raining tonight as I write. Even if we’ve managed to totally mess it up, weather is still something we cannot control. Haha.

Portage Promise

Never knowing what to expect but full of expectation is how I approach the Portage on a regular basis. So arriving late last Saturday morning was bound to be a mixed bag. I stopped on the bridge to talk with another birder I’ve run into lately there, and snapped the photograph of the female Baltimore Oriole below. And then as I started to walk, an adult Bald Eagle flew over. I didn’t have time to capture it the first time but it came back and so the image above.

Baltimore Oriole (female)

As usual there were more birds heard than seen at this hour but I was content to see what I did. Indigo Buntings are still evading the lens, but I will have many more opportunities to endure their frustrating behavior.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are abundant and usually hard to spot, but I found this busy nesting pair.

Tree Swallows used to nest here…this one looks like he’s thinking about it.

Tree Swallow

Warbling Vireos…I always hear several of them, but they are normally very hard to see. However this one was singing and perched at a comfortable height for me to capture him.

This is the time of year when dandelions get a bad rap, but I found it interesting to see a Song Sparrow eating the seeds before they had a chance to disburse. So there, I have proof that dandelions aren’t just attractive to pollinators but they are also a source of food for birds, and of course humans. We may need them some day!

One of the two Green Herons was hunting. At one point it took off across the water and caused a sunning turtle to slide off its stump. There were a lot of turtles out. Click on the images below and you can see what I mean.

A few more pictures of Portage breeders… I’m leading one more walk tomorrow morning as an auction donation to Unity Temple and the forecast is for thunderstorms. But the weather changes every few minutes. We had the same forecast for this morning and except for a few thunderclaps around 6:15 a.m. and a little rain, now it is cloudy but clear. I am hoping for the same sort of cooperation tomorrow, it will make dealing with the muddy spots a lot easier.

Red-winged Blackbird (female)
American Goldfinch (female)

It’s been a great year so far for robins taking advantage of all the earthworms the rain has stirred up.

Even with all the rain it’s still better to be outside!

Spring Preview: Columbus Park

I had planned to write a post before my departure for Big Bend but it didn’t happen. Now I am back from an amazing trip, but even though I have started processing my pictures, it will probably take me a couple of weeks given the busy schedule I am returning to, so I will see if I can manage this post for the moment.

I did a Columbus Park walk on the Saturday before I left, and it was to witness the first hint of migrating birds, but our spring has been anything but spring-like, with snow occurring the next day and from what I hear, another wet, fluffy snowfall the Saturday before my return. Yet I’m planning on putting out the hummingbird feeders tomorrow morning. C’mon, it’s May!

The big wading and diving birds were easiest to spot… It was particularly entertaining to watch the Double-Crested Cormorants drying off in the sun. Maybe the Canada Goose thought I was trying to take its picture.

We had several Wood Ducks, but this was perhaps the closest view I got of a male swimming in front of a female Mallard.

A little army of hungry Golden-Crowned Kinglets appeared on the grass in front of us at one point, reminding me of the very first time I ever saw them years ago doing the same thing on the lawn at Millennium Park.

The female Belted Kingfisher below was pretty far away but nice to see.

This Black-crowned Night-Heron flew by us before landing in a tree.

American Robins have been on their territories for weeks now and we saw many.

Swamp Sparrows outnumbered Song Sparrows (4 to 2!) but were hard to photograph.

Eastern Phoebe arrivals are always a sign of spring. The similarly-colored bird below the Eastern Phoebe is a Northern Rough-Winged Swallow.

You know the Red-Winged Blackbirds are ready for business when the girls start arriving.

Northern Flickers put on a show for us but they were hard to capture as well.

Our last “lawn” species was Killdeer.

I got caught up on my sleep last night, but I’m heading into a busy weekend. Saturday morning is the Spring Bird Count, Saturday night is the Spring Music Festival…and with any luck on Sunday, I can start cleaning up my yard, as green things, both wanted and invasive, are starting to emerge. The recommendation to not clear anything until the temperature stays above 50 degrees Fahrenheit will be difficult to adhere to… we are still dropping into the 40’s, albeit the higher 40’s, overnight. I do remember seeing a butterfly or two before I left. I hope to see some insects Sunday and maybe a better forecast.

Hodgepodge

My bird observation life has been peripatetic at best. Last Saturday was probably the best recent weekend day to go out, but I was at our annual choir retreat for three hours in the morning to prepare for this coming Choir Sunday. The weather was predictably cloudy and more miserable last Sunday so I stayed at home and took some pictures of the yard crowd.

I did manage to get out on March 31st to the Portage. Even though it was chilly and cloudy, I wanted to see if there were any new arrivals. For the most part I saw regular visitors. One White-Breasted Nuthatch was particularly cooperative. Perhaps he is related to the one who visits my yard on occasion.

The locals were all busy.

Perhaps the most evident Sign of Spring was seeing the return of a Turkey Vulture.

March 31st at the Portage still sleepy.

In the yard, I am happy to still have two Pine Siskins hanging out. I hope this means they have become regular visitors.

The Goldfinches are looking a little in-betweenish these days.

Not too clear pictures through the porch windows and screens but the House Finches are bonding. There’s a Pine Siskin mixed in the group shots too.

When I managed to stand in the backyard and wait for the birds to come back for photos, a male Downy Woodpecker made sure he checked out everything.

I still have a Dark-Eyed Junco or two, as of Sunday. And even though we had a nice warmup on Monday and Tuesday, the winds have shifted and we are back into chilly, windy gloom.

In a way I am glad I have not had time to start cleaning up my yard because there are undoubtedly a lot of overwintering insects I don’t want to disturb.

This Saturday I’m “leading” a walk at Columbus Park. So far the weather looks promising. I expect we will have a few migrants and with any luck I’ll get some pictures of them.

I’m looking forward to Choir Sunday. Our last rehearsal is tonight. We are singing a wonderful work by John Kramer entitled “The Immigrant Experience.” If you are anywhere within striking distance of Oak Park, Illinois, I urge you to attend either one of the two Sunday services at Unity Temple. Yes, this is a plug, but for a good cause. The music will be breathtaking.

With any luck I’ll be back to this page before next Saturday. Then I will be gone for a birding trip to Big Bend and the Hill Country in Texas. It’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and I wanted to see it before any habitat is destroyed by the border fiasco.