Thoughts on Songs for Birds

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

(All the photographs in this post were taken at Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago on a couple afternoons last week…and have nothing to do with the content.)

It was a somewhat quiet weekend, with plenty of time to sleep and reflect. I had only one mission, and that was to drive into the city on Saturday morning to take my guitars in to Chicago Fretworks for repair. I have been thinking about doing this for years, only to somehow talk myself out of it with that inner voice that asked, “When are you going to find the time to play?” and knowing full well that after not having played for more years than I care to admit, it would be worse than riding a bicycle after a long absence, for the frustration of trying to build up calluses on my left fingertips alone.

Clouded Sulphur Lurie 8-5-15-8464

Clouded Sulphur

But a number of forces have converged to light the fire under me to start playing my guitars again. Perhaps the most significant force is a need to respond to all the insanity. It has been and will always be wonderful to play piano, but I miss the guitar for the intimacy of cradling an instrument on my lap, with the vibrations of the strings going right through me. This is how I will write songs again. Only this time, they will be songs for birds.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

I trust the indoor crowd will bear with me while I regain enough facility to sound not too bad. I have fewer expectations of any prowess than I did when I went back to playing piano, so it shouldn’t be too humiliating. Then there lurks in the back of my mind the thought that eventually, weather permitting, I could play music for wild birds again. Even if it means coming downtown on a weekend, I would love to play music for my crows. And by that time have something else to sing for them besides “There is Nothing Like a Crow” to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune for “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

The forces that have converged? I am giving credit at this point only to the positive ones. Falling in love with David Wax Museum. Not wishing I was young and on the road again, just finding so much in their music to explore and connect with. The music is infectious, and David Wax’s lyrics are often priceless. Personal Anthems.

Hearing Mavis Staples interviewed twice on NPR: she talked about singing protest songs for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sense that music had a purpose beyond music. I don’t necessarily aim to inspire anyone, but I feel the need to protest the insanity. To make noise. And this is the only true way I know how.

American Lady

American Lady

If there can be any silver lining in the disappointing fact that Operation Rubythroat’s excursion to Guatemala in November–which I was looking forward to–has been canceled due to lack of participation, I will have more time to play the guitars and the cost of rebuilding my Guild 12-string will be less painful!

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Making music is good for an old body, too. All the pains and inconvenient stiffnesses that were making my life miserable, no doubt in a negative response to the insanity, seem to be floating outward, released, wafting in the air, or in the case of swimming, lost to the water in the pool… I can almost fly. If nothing else, my heart will soar. With the birds.

P.S. The pictures in this post are not related to the topic but I suspect they’re not totally unrelated either?

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

Last Looks in the (Chicago) Loop

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

While taking a break from getting organized and trying to locate the title to my old car… Every morning I look out the back window at the dead Ford sitting on the slab and vow to get rid of it. It’s only a matter of weeks before I will have to buy a new city sticker even though I’m not driving it. I’m sure the cat takes refuge underneath its rusting hulk when she isn’t hiding in the hostas. All reasons to motivate me to tear the house apart, calmly, until I find the misplaced title so I can donate the car to a good cause.

Lincoln's Sparrow

Lincoln’s Sparrow

Here are a few pictures taken the end of last week, which was the last time I saw migrants in the city. Some are from 155 N. Wacker on my way into the office. The others were taken in Lake Shore East Park.

Up until Friday there was at least one White-Throated Sparrow at 155 N. Wacker who would start singing whenever I showed up, but Friday I saw a Lincoln’s Sparrow, which is highly unusual this late in the year. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Lincoln’s Sparrow vocalize, though.

Chestnut-Sided Warbler, 155 N. Wacker

There was a Chestnut-Sided Warbler at 155 N. Wacker as well, but the mainstay had been a male Common Yellowthroat who was on site for a couple weeks. As of Tuesday he was gone.

American Redstart, LSE Park

American Redstart, LSE Park

At Lake Shore East Park among the last migrants I saw last week were the female American Redstart, above, and a Least Flycatcher, below.

Least Flycatcher, LSE Park

Least Flycatcher, LSE Park

But now the newest arrivals are fledgling crows. I think there are two, although I saw only this one being weaned last week. Oddly enough, there was never any sound to go with that wide gaping mouth. Perhaps there is a different protocol at hand for Lake Shore East Park and this youngster was instructed not to draw attention to itself by making a racket.

Crow Fledgling, LSE Park

Crow Fledgling, LSE Park

That wide-eyed look of “now what?” is unmistakable.

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A series of photographs as the parents’ body language tells the story: “We are not feeding you anymore.” I think I recognize the crow with the bouffant hairdo as a former fledgling from about 4 years ago. Notice how he tries to look profoundly disinterested in the interaction between the fledgling and its mother.

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The ultimate insult, after waving the peanut around in front of the fledgling, she takes off with it!

On Tuesday I had some time to hang out with the crows. As far as I could tell, the youngster had not figured out how to do its own peanuts yet and was still falling into a bit of the gaping mouth routine.

By next year if it survives, this fledgling may turn into a peanut expert like the bird below.

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AMCR-0887

 

Invasion of the Nesters

Tree Swallow Nest, Chicago Portage

Tree Swallow Nest, Chicago Portage

Yesterday, whatever holiday you may have been celebrating, was also a beautiful day in the Chicago area. For that matter, Saturday was quite wonderful as well: I had a visceral perception of my depression lifting and concluded it must have been directly related to abundant sunshine. Although having a new car to drive to the pool and grocery shopping didn’t hurt either.

Ottawa Trail Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois

Ottawa Trail Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois

Sunshine aside, it was warm yesterday as well. I started out at Ottawa Trail around 8:00 a.m. wearing a t-shirt, sweat shirt and windbreaker. I shed the sweatshirt before I left and by the time I got to the Portage at 10:00 I was minus the windbreaker too.

Robin with nesting material, Ottawa Trail

Robin with nesting material, Ottawa Trail

For all the warm weather, there weren’t an awful lot of birds at Ottawa Trail, but improvements have been made and it’s easier to walk all the way now, it doesn’t stop abruptly anymore and insist that you be in good enough shape to climb down and back up a 3-foot cement retaining wall, while still leaving enough of the former demolished structure to stop and rest, lay down your optics and take off your sweatshirt to stuff in a backpack.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

It’s always nice to see a Turkey Vulture flying overhead. Another raptor seen here was a Cooper’s Hawk but the photographs were good only for later verification of its ID.

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The designated Black-Capped Chickadee greeted me.

Blending in at the Ottawa Trail

Blending in at the Ottawa Trail

The image of a Canada Goose above explains to me how even if you have black and white markings on your body you can still blend in with the scenery.

Blending in at Ottawa Trail

Blending in at Ottawa Trail

Walking back along the Des Plaines, I saw something black and white across the river but had no idea what it was until I got it in the camera view. The nesting spot above looks like a fort.

Tree Swallow Nest

Tree Swallow Nest

I stopped at the Jewel-Osco and then went on to the Chicago Portage to see what, if anything, had changed over the week. The ground is a lot drier, leaving the bottomlands almost drained. But I was quickly awakened by chirps of dueling Tree Swallows. The one I photographed most was protecting his prime nesting spot in a dead stump right by the south foot bridge.

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It occurred to me that a lot of male birds were strutting their stuff yesterday, and with good reason. “It’s my job to be beautiful – go ahead, look at me! Just don’t look at my nest!!”

Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

The Canada Geese were defending their territories too, sometimes quite vigorously.

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I must have startled this Mallard, but he gave me some interesting shots.

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Blue-Winged Teal have decided they like the Portage. I wonder if they will stay. I counted four pairs yesterday!

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

The first picture below illustrates how well they can blend in too. The second shows a flash of that blue wing.

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There was another warbler I have yet to identify from many crummy pictures, but below is the only Yellow-Rumped I could find.

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There were two Blue-Gray Gnatcacthers chasing each other, probably over that nesting thing.

Blue-Gray Gnatcactcher, Portage

Blue-Gray Gnatcactcher, Portage

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers won’t nest here, they travel much farther north. But it sure was nice to see this guy in his breeding plumage.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

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I am sparing you a lot of Painted Turtle Pictures this time, although they were out in great force soaking up the sun. Below is my cooperative Tree Swallow once more.

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I will try very hard to come back one more time before leaving for the Edwards Plateau in Texas on Friday.

 

 

 

 

I Can Hear You Callin’

Black-Capped Chickadee

Black-Capped Chickadee

I think I was hearing the music to “It Keeps You Runnin'” by the Doobie Brothers/Michael McDonald when I thought up this title instead of the Three Dog Night music which is where it belongs, but the phrase was inspired by two experiences I had this week on the way to the train in the morning through the snow and cold.

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As if to welcome the new year, I heard both a Black-Capped Chickadee and a Northern Cardinal singing on January 2. It seemed quite remarkable then, as it was already snowy and cold, but as the weather deteriorated further, it has been eerily quiet around the neighborhood through all the arctic chill. Wolf-whistling European Starlings, something I could always count upon in previous years, are a distant memory,

Thursday morning I was in a general funk on the way to the train. Every body part ached, piles of snow seemed almost insurmountable, layers of clumsy clothing further impeding whatever is left of my agility, and I was not looking forward to going to work and was generally tired of even trying to deal with it.

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Then when I was perhaps three blocks from home, a distant Black-Capped Chickadee started to sing, immediately interrupting my misery. I  tried to respond – my whistle not being very whet – and he sang back. My whistle improved, and we continued like this, back and forth, for a moment of another block or so until I got out of range. Donald Kroodsma so aptly describes the song, “Hey, Sweetie” – and I realized the Chickadee had come to my rescue and completely dispelled all my negative, self-absorbed thoughts. It was almost as if he heard me calling out for help and responded in the only way he could, by offering song, since he was too far away for me to hear his call, “dee-dee-dee.” How wonderful for him to be there to remind me that music is the most important thing in life.

Northern Cardinal

Northern Cardinal

And yesterday morning, again on the way to the train, albeit the weather forecast improving slightly and my mood much improved by the fact that it was Friday, a Northern Cardinal began to sing with a bit of reserve. I whistled back, almost under my breath, and that must have inspired him because he started to sing louder, more elaborate phrases. I do not in any way attribute this to “countersinging.” He knew I was not another bird and he was not trying to out-whistle me. Indeed, I think he was glad to have an audience and was inspired by my response to his singing because then he knew someone was listening. And this gets back to the very first times I started playing music for birds and listening to their response. We began to communicate in this way: we were listening to each other. It’s not all about territory and attracting mates. It’s about the sheer joy of making music and offering communication to the universe. The birds have known this for millennia. Through them I again come to realize music is the defining force in my life.

As I sit here brewing another pot of bird-friendly coffee, my indoor birds call and sing, back and forth, and the radio is playing infinite Strauss waltzes and polkas. Outside, a considerable melt is progressing, now with a forecast for flooding. Walking home through driving rain, deep puddles and melting snow and ice last night was an adventure I don’t care to repeat. Although I welcome changes in weather as they dispel monotony, now a little monotony would be appreciated.

But the birds never stop paying attention, and to them, every day is new, and now, longer than the last. They are attuned to every nuance in the climate because they live in it. Most likely the extended daylight has triggered the singing responses of my avian friends in the morning. And I am thankful that I was out walking early enough to hear them. I am also convinced my responses to their singing were almost as important to them as their expressions of life were to me.

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I’ll Scratch Your Back if…

African Spoonbill and Sacred Ibis

African Spoonbill and Sacred Ibis

I’m finally starting to go through all my pictures from the East African safari and instead of feeling overwhelmed, I’m enjoying the process. I’m also surprised at how many species I still remember. Two weeks in Central Standard Time has not totally wiped away the experience.

Allopreening in birds has always fascinated me. I’m sure it’s related to grooming in primates, which I think some propose led to the human behaviors of smiling, laughing and talking. It’s definitely a social, bonding function.

For instance I have two surviving healthy budgies who would never have had anything to do with each other until it became apparent to both of them that they were It, and in addition to keeping each other company, they now engage in allopreening more and more, and it’s lovely to see.

African Spoonbill

African Spoonbill

On the second day in Tanzania when we stopped to look at some shorebirds, spoonbills, ibises and herons, I could not help but notice an unusual instance of interspecies allopreening, namely a Sacred Ibis preening a bent-over African Spoonbill. I don’t know if I pay more attention to this kind of behavior because I live with birds, but I suspect that might be why it came up on my radar.

Sacred Ibis Preening African Spoonbill

Sacred Ibis Preening African Spoonbill

This is an extraordinary amount of cooperation, and I only have to wonder what precipitated it…that silent, unspoken world of communication that birds are so much better at than we are.

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It then occurred to me that I could also get a video clip, and so there is a short one below.

It’s obvious that the bird being preened is getting a lot out of this, but there has to be something in it for the preener too. It seems almost more enjoyable for the bird doing the preening. Maybe in another life he was a hair stylist. “You have such beautiful white feathers. Let me straighten them out for you.”

Off the Beaten Track

Brown Thrasher, Millennium Park, 4-24-13

Brown Thrasher, Millennium Park, 4-23-13

I want to take a moment to thank you all for encouraging me to do this! Before I started the blog I was approaching a point in my life when I realized I had to make decisions about how I was going to be spending whatever “free” time I have, as there is so little of it left to my own discretion. Maybe in the back of my mind I did realize that keeping up the blog was going to consume a lot of that time. There was an “oh no” moment when I wondered what I had gotten myself into, but it didn’t last long.

And the blog took a different turn than I had originally planned. It has strayed more than a bit from the music and is often more about the birds, and in particular, pictures of birds. But in pursuit of those pictures, I find myself even more connected to the original conception.

I never set out to be a photographer: I only wanted to capture the birds’ images. Looking at them through the lens and later developing the images continues to inform me of the nuances in appearance and behavior, and reinforces what I remember from my encounters with them.

Indeed, they are encounters. One reason why I love to go looking for birds alone is because there are often one-on-one exchanges between us, when we both become creatures inhabiting the same space for a moment, and we acknowledge each other’s presence: it’s a form of recognition, of greeting, of communication that I find so special I am drawn to seek further encounters, wherever and whenever they may occur.

And therein lies the magic of it all. By making photography part of the obsession, I now go out more often, have more encounters, learn more, and feel inspired by the whole quest. And lately I have had this feeling, which I know I should distrust, but that I am becoming perhaps just a little bit better at it, with the sounds and the sights, of birds. I will never approach the level of those who have been searching after birds their entire lives, or certainly anyone who has years more of field experience than I do, but it is indeed a cumulative thing, and every year I feel more confident, more informed, and all the more curious. I have to keep reminding myself never to assume I know anything because a bird will surprise me when I least expect it to.

The birds are watching us all the time. They are curious about us too. We’re all in this together.

White-Throated Sparrow, Millennium Park, 4-24-13

White-Throated Sparrow, Millennium Park, 4-24-13

A Backyard Visitor

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

I certainly don’t have anything as exotic as a Varied Thrush visiting my yard, but last weekend before I took off on the owl excursion, I managed to get pictures of an American Tree Sparrow who seemed not only to know he was the only one of his species foraging in my space but also recognized my awareness of him, and did not disappear on account of it.

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I first thought I spotted him out the back window, which, between the screens and the frames, is a pretty lousy view, so I decided to go out with the camera to test the light for my later adventure and maybe get a photo of whoever was out there.

(The yard was blissfully free of the Gray Squirrels who are aggressive feeder-raiders. I love my Fox Squirrels, that have better manners.)

Fox Squirrel

Fox Squirrel

Dark-Eyed Junco

Dark-Eyed Junco

One of many Juncos…

and a female Cardinal…

Female Northern Cardinal

Female Northern Cardinal

Lo and behold, it was indeed an American Tree Sparrow and after a few minutes of clicking away watching him forage, I got the picture below.

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“You lookin’ at me?”

Then he flew into a tree and “challenged” me again.

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I don’t think this is a new species for my yard, but I am almost reluctant to check, because then I tend to wonder what else I might have been missing while I’m away at work. I’m just glad to have had this encounter with the visiting American Tree Sparrow.

Tree Sparrow IMG_9983_1