Skulkers and Flycatchers

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler, Millennium Park

Still coming down from a weekend of intense but wonderful birding in Michigan. I might have managed a post Tuesday night were it not for a power outage around 8:00 p.m. that lasted three-plus hours. But it turned out to be an unexpected opportunity to catch up on some sleep, after whispering admonitions to the house birds to stay perched and sleep through the thunder and lightning.

Least Flycatcher

Least Flycatcher, Millennium Park

So I got up early yesterday morning and went to Millennium Park, dodging the imminent rain drops. Flycatchers were abundant, as reported from other lakefront locations.

Alder Flycatcher

Alder Flycatcher?

Anyway here are some birds I encountered yesterday morning and later in the afternoon at Lake Shore East Park. I think the bird above is an Alder Flycatcher, but he didn’t say anything, so technically I should call him “Empidonax Species.”

The real surprises, or I suppose you could say wish-list possibilities, appeared in Lake Shore East Park yesterday afternoon. I went back this morning and could not find them… One was the prized Connecticut Warbler, skulking around in dark places: I guess the photograph below will have to do for now.

Connecticut Warbler

Connecticut Warbler, Lake Shore East Park

Add a female Common Yellowthroat. Perhaps she is the mate of the male who was singing yesterday and again this morning. She is the least uncommon of the three birds here, but lovely nonetheless, and easy to confuse with the other two.

Female Common Yellowthroat

Female Common Yellowthroat

The female Mourning Warbler below…

Female Mourning Warbler

Female Mourning Warbler

and again here… is another less-commonly seen “skulker.”

Female Mourning Warbler

Female Mourning Warbler

Thus we have three skulkers who all look quite a bit alike, and in most field guides they’re not far from each other, so you can make the comparisons and note the differences or throw up your hands in total confusion.

Eastern Wood Pewee, Lake Shore East Park

Eastern Wood Pewee, Lake Shore East Park

Not to skimp on flycatchers, the one above is at least recognizable as a Pewee. He sang a bit, too – always nice to hear. If I run into a Pewee song soon I’ll update this post.

Crow with Bat

Crow with Bat

On my way out, I walked through the back of the Aon Building where I have seen birds on occasion, and encountered this crow with its prey: I suspect it’s a little brown bat.

Crow with Bat IMG_2273_1

The crow took off with its bat soon after I shot a few more photos. I’m sure it didn’t want me to draw attention to its prize.

My last momentary offering is a recording of Beniamino, one of my Zebra Finch males, singing his heart out from atop a microphone while I’m practicing the prelude to the F major English Suite by Bach (it may take me a year, but I’ll get through these suites – 2 more to go after this one). Travel time has taken its toll on playing for the birds but I plan to stay put for a few months and get some more music in my fingers.

Endless thanks to all who follow me and to those I follow – I have some catching up to do! I’ll be back soon with reports from Michigan and the Kirtland’s Warbler.

Please Let It Snow

Sunrise IMG_9126_1

Sunrise, 1-4-13

 January finds us in a winter drought. The lake level is so low, the shallow water froze overnight as soon the temperature dropped, something that normally takes weeks…

Ice Lake IMG_9131_1

and even the ice looked like it was caught by surprise…

Ice IMG_9175_1

jagged, disjointed,

Ice IMG_9219_1


Ice IMG_9183_1

and the water stains on the sides of the harbor show just how low the water is.

Water Level IMG_9215_1

There were no diving ducks Friday morning, only some Canada Geese and a few gulls sitting on the ice. And a handful of crows came to my party.

Hot dogs always go first.

Hot Dogs First IMG_9156_1In weather this cold, make as few trips as possible. Cache and carry.

Flight IMG_9160_1

All You Can Stash…

All You Can Stash IMG_9168_1

Hold on for dear life.

Windblown Crow IMG_9199_1

Windblown Crow

I didn’t realize until I developed the photograph below that the sculpture pays tribute to the ferris wheel at Navy Pier…!

Wheel IMG_9192_1

Anyway, I’m glad I finally figured out the new image editor.

Briefly, on the home front, here’s a quick rendition of the Gigue to the Bach A Minor English Suite recorded yesterday afternoon when I was trying to see if I still remember it. If you can last until the end (it’s only about 2 minutes total) one of my spice finches sings a final note, and I decided to leave my appreciation of his contribution in the recording.

Music isn’t just for the birds

The first day of the Memorial Day weekend was so temperate, I was able to open all the windows. So when the birds and I got around to practicing the prelude to the G Minor English Suite by J.S. Bach, apparently we were audible to creatures with good ears. A dog joined in from across the street, and it was in key with the music. You can hear a little sample right here. The birds had plenty of input too.

Acadian Flycatcher

Defiant in face of the horrible heat of the next two days, I got up early to go birding. On Memorial Day, I went to Montrose Harbor, finally giving in to a birding hot spot on the (sorry) hottest day of the year. It was quite windy as well. While I did not see too many birds. I got a few nice pictures. There were a lot of flycatchers, and the one above turned out to be an Acadian.

Baltimore Oriole

This was the best I could get of a Baltimore Oriole with all the leaf cover.

Cedar Waxwing

Well-shaded, birds sought refuge from the heat in the “Magic Hedge.”

While on the beach, I caught a Northern Rough-Winged Swallow taking a preening break.

Northern Rough-Winged Swallow

And although Montrose Beach often has more exotic shorebird species, Memorial Day brought me only good looks at one Kildeer.


He’s still a pretty bird.


I’ll be back sometime next week, hopefully with more pictures from somewhere I’ve never been (don’t you love the mystery?). And yes, the AP now approves this usage of the word “hopefully.” While I have always inwardly cringed, I like to reassure myself with the knowledge that hardly any of the words still used after 300 years have the same meanings today, and I am just as guilty as anyone of going with the flow…

Winter in Chicago, then and now


This has been the warmest La Nina ever, and I have to wonder if this hasn’t been the warmest January in Chicago. Of course it’s early yet. Last year on January 13 we had snow and the lake had a think layer of ice on it.

Snowcrow 01-13-2011

Lake birds, 01-13-2011

But the prediction this coming Friday is for above-normal temperatures to continue.

The lakefront sunrise Wednesday morning was earlier, the days are getting ever so slightly longer.

The crows, of course, were in attendance.

A now very famous Black-Throated Blue Warbler hanging out by the bicycle rental at Millennium Park…

has been sipping sap from the trees the Sapsuckers have drilled into.

The Sapsuckers themselves are late to leave.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

There was also a Cooper’s Hawk at Millennium Park that morning, and I annoyed him enough by taking his picture. He eventually moved on, leaving the warbler safe.

I woke up this morning with the prelude to the Bach A minor English Suite playing in my head. Only the purest silence eventually makes me aware. There was a little frost last night, but by the time I left the house it had melted off. I went to the Chicago Portage to see what exists. The tangled web of bare trees and dried vegetation offered winter views. All quiet, asleep, but potential lurks in that dormancy.

I did not get pictures of all 11 species that I saw. The first bird was a flyover Mallard duck. A little later I heard a constant sound that resembled a murmuring quack, or perhaps it was a squirrel sound. It turned out to be a Downy Woodpecker pecking away at the dried stems of Phragmites that grow by the water. I can’t imagine if the stems harbor dead bugs or some other delicacy but the Downy was persistent, until he flew up into the tree and gave me this nice photograph, one of several.

There were Mourning Doves sitting quietly in a tree.

Music in my head at the Portage was Albeniz, since I recently decided to revive the few pieces I once knew. The birds complied and remained in C#.

Female Northern Cardinal

On the path ahead there were several cardinals and goldfinches foraging.

American Goldfinches

It has been so warm, lichens are growing on this dead log.

I left the Portage and went to the grocery store, where by this time my head was playing the Tango by Albeniz which is in D major. I only remember this because the woman in line behind me thanked me for giving her my “tickets” – there’s some kind of promotion going on that I don’t have time for – and our conversation was in D. What would she think if I told her I had made her talk to me in the key of the music playing in my head? Was it worth the tickets I gave her?

I saw a Junco at the Portage but didn’t get a picture of one until I got home. This one is through the porch window.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Later this evening I counted 23 Mourning Doves under my feeder. It was too dark to take a picture, but I counted them three times to be sure. I had thought they were in decline because I wasn’t seeing them. I have never seen that many in my yard, ever! The new feeder must be doing a good job.

With a little luck I’ll have some musical excerpts coming up soon. So you won’t have to try so hard to hear the music playing in my head…

Obsession in A Minor

Increasingly over the last month, every waking moment of my life, my inner soundtrack has been overtaken by the prelude to the A minor English Suite by Johann Sebastian Bach. Invariably some passage is running through my head, and because it goes in and out of A minor into E minor and G major, C major and a few other places, it has a way of fitting in with everything. But now that I have it almost completely memorized, I am in a state of torture bordering euphoria. It is impossible to describe the excitement that builds while playing it. I am partial to the key of A Minor, anyway, as if I was born into it. I favored composing in A minor and I suspect Bach did too because he comes up with more interesting conversations, although that might be said of any of his minor key efforts.

This prelude is really somewhat of a two-part invention. The right hand makes a statement and the left hand answers. It’s ongoing banter back and forth. Although I am right-handed I try to pay equal attention to my left hand because there’s just as much going on there. I think one thing that made Glenn Gould’s Bach playing sound so unique was the fact that he was left-handed. I like to think if I try to listen to both voices, maybe somewhere in my head I have room for the birds too.

This is the second of the English Suites. The first was the A Major and it has taken me forever to wade through. I still struggle with the A Major: there are parts I like, but the “Doubles” in particular I find boring and am at a loss as to how to bring life to them. I don’t generally have this problem with Bach, but I suppose even he ran out of steam every now and then. So it was with eager anticipation that I moved on to the A minor. My ultimate goal is to learn all the English Suites. Part of my lifelong project which I started over 10 years ago: to learn all the Bach keyboard music. I probably won’t accomplish it but it’s a nice thought.

The birds have been enthusiastic about this suite, and I don’t know if it’s because they’re reading my enthusiasm or if they actually like A minor better too. Here’s a budgie who was keeping time with the upbeats in part of the prelude a few days ago. I couldn’t believe my ears when I first heard this.

The best part of the four-day holiday weekend has been time to play every day. I miss this so much I am afraid to admit it to myself. But my “normal” workday schedule doesn’t allow time to play every day. Sometimes it’s hard not to sit and cry “What’s wrong with this picture?” since my normal state of being is to play music…for birds. I have to say my birds are good sports. Today was what my mother used to call “glismal.” It rained or looked like rain all day and never got bright enough inside the house to feel like doing much of anything, but the birds woke came alive when I sat down to play and they participated for most of it.

I wonder if they don’t know the music better than I do as they listen to classical music on the radio all day. I have seen the surprised look on their faces every once in a while when something comes on the radio that we’ve practiced a lot. It’s a double take experience: she’s not playing, where’s the music coming from? So they must be paying attention!

The birds were most vocal today in the Bourree as I was reading through it. Here’s a little excerpt of the Zebra Finches calling back and forth. Or maybe they’re laughing at me…

We’ll check back with the birds in a month or two or three when I might be lucky enough to have the entire A minor English Suite in my fingers, and see what they have to say about it then.

The Original Budgie

On my way to Wherever this weekend I grabbed a couple older tapes to listen to in the car, just to see what was going on at the time. No, I’m not kidding, my car is that old. And the tape player is on the fritz but every once in a while if I’m not going too fast I can listen to a tape if I crank the volume all the way up.

I had previously labeled the tapes notable for the vocalizations of the original male budgie Pete, a beautiful little green and yellow guy, the adopted bird who came with Blanche. When these recordings were made, I had only the two budgies, Pete and Blanche, maybe five or eight (by then) zebra finches, Fabrizio and Serafina being the originals, and the two original Spice Finches, Hidalgo and Sam, and Jules and Sophia, the two females I got when Sam turned out to be a male. I wasn’t sure of Jules so I gave her a name that could go either way. But that’s another story for a later post.

Hidalgo, the Caruso of Spice Finches, was on both tapes, and it’s probably his fault that I wasn’t listening to Pete the budgie when I played them in the car. I wonder if perhaps I have heard so many budgies since him I don’t have an ear for listening anymore. But when I listened back through headphones while trying to make clips from these tapes, I realized he sounds entirely different from the budgies that have all grown up in the house and are related to Zeke, the gray-blue budgie who still lives.

I play a little game with myself sometimes, when I’m in the kitchen and a budgie flies in, I don’t turn around to see who it is before I try to guess based on the sound of the patter. I’m right about 99% of the time, and I don’t know how I do it. If you asked me to tell you the difference between one budgie’s song and another’s, I couldn’t do it. But something in the pattern must be different enough that I recognize it, albeit unconsciously. Such is the thing with Pete’s song. The sounds are familiar, but the cadence is different. And I remember distinctly that after he died and Blanche was left alone, she sat around and sang his songs as if to recreate his presence, a fitting eulogy for her old friend. That was before she gave me the “If you think I’m going to sit here alone and be amused by these finches laying eggs and having babies, you’ve got another thing coming” ultimatum, which sent me to the pet store for Another Budgie.

So this clip has a couple of solos by Hidalgo and then Pete is singing with an almost passable version of the Adagio to Mozart’s C Major Sonata K 310, until I flub the very end of it. There are contributions from a zebra finch or two. I suspect the zebra finch songs have gained differentiation and complexity over the years. I’m sorry I did not keep a detailed family tree; I don’t think I was aware I was running an experiment until years after it started. I know I didn’t pay attention to the zebra finch songs until long after I noticed they were all different. I hope after I identify all the zebra finch songs I can make more sense out of their progression.

At any rate it seems I was still practicing the Goldberg, and it had to have been a once-a-week run-through at the time, so a haphazard rendition of the aria and the first few variations appears here until the phone rings. I did go back to playing but it was hard for us all to get back in the groove after the interruption; in particular we lost Pete. Here Pete adds constant comment and Hidalgo throws in his two cents among several zebra finch vocals. Note how Hidalgo always sings his long “mwah mwah” notes in key with the music.

Zebra Finch Song: Zorro

Zorro the Zebra Finch is the only one of my little guys who got his name by association with another finch, and not by the character of his song. Indeed his song eluded me for a long time, until maybe about a year ago I started to get the gist of it. I’m sure he’s honed it down and it has matured over time, but I also think like acquiring a taste for a new style of music, I was paying more attention to it.

Zorro was a solo finch in that he had no siblings, so for company he started hanging out with his Aunt Zelda. I don’t know if she was really his aunt, but she was probably old enough to be. Zelda was the only female Zebra Finch I ever named outside of Serafina who was the original hen, because after that the females all started to look the same, had no distinguishing vocalizations, and I had no way to keep them straight, so the girls remained anonymous. But Zelda stood apart because of the skin disease or whatever it was that caused all the feathers on her head to finally disappear. Her condition made her kind of a loner and she probably had other symptoms as well that I couldn’t see or diagnose, as I kept expecting her to die. But she was a hearty little soul who outlived my expectations and she showered attention on the little guy I started calling Zorro. He was faithful to her and hung with her as he grew up, defending her in her final days.

Zelda the Zebra Finch

Maybe one consequence of Zorro’s hanging out with Zelda was that it affected his song development. For the longest time his song sounded immature to me, like a little subsong that never grew up, or stuttered. Upon first listening you might think he still sounds that way, but I have been able to detect more of a pattern to it, and there seems to be a little hurried musical phrase that rushes into the chorus which he then repeats over and over. It’s not easy to write out. “Ta ta TA ta, ta-TAH, ta ta TA ta, ta-TAH” is the rhythm I hear. I have absolutely no idea what I could have named this bird if I had to come up with a name based on his song!

What’s interesting to me about this excerpt is that while Zorro is singing along with the Bach in the prelude, he pauses when the key varies from C major, waits and comes back in when it’s in C. He gets impatient though in the fugue and starts singing when it’s not in C, so I don’t think C is the only key he can sing in, but it was the one he had decided upon to convey his mood.

Many more individual Zebra Finch males’ songs will come as I ferret them out of the tapes.

Aria to the Goldberg

In a rare moment of organization, I labeled part of a tape on which I found this recording of the Aria of the Goldberg Variations and the first variation as made on May 9, 2001. There’s no significance to the date other than the fact that I wrote it down. I would have been able to tell from the quality of the recording and the background noise (a leaf blower was prominent on the first part of the tape) that it was recorded back at my old apartment. So the sound quality isn’t superb. But there’s a few nice singers.

There’s a House Finch singing right off the top, and then a White-Throated Sparrow seems to be trying out his song here and there throughout the rest of the aria and the first variation. At the end of the first variation, a chorus of House Sparrows cheers. At least they sound cheery.

I found this House Finch picture while I was waiting to make the MP3 file.

Male House Finch

And a picture of a White-Throated Sparrow taken in the spring, when he’s more likely to be singing.

White-Throated Sparrow

Listening back to the Goldberg I’m reminded of the first time I saw Vladimir Feltsman play it at Symphony Center. Not because I sound anything like him, but how much easier it was to play the first variation after observing his fingering.

Back to the “chorus” at the end. Here’s a picture of a House Sparrow. These birds are maligned and disrespected in this country for their uncanny ability to live better among us than the native species. But it was their welcoming attitude toward me that got me started observing birds, and I can’t totally write them off. You can learn a lot about bird behavior, and maybe even human behavior, if you hang out with these guys for a while. They are the ultimate opportunists.

Male House Sparrow

More begging baby birds

Zebra Finch Fledglings

I happened upon a tape with a lot of “fledgling feed-me’s” on it. This must have been years ago when my indoor population explosion was just getting underway. I had zebra finches and budgies reproducing. The zebra finches tended to build nests anywhere and I caught them double-clutching a couple times early on before I figured out how to discourage such behavior, so that might explain why the zebra finch children are so loud, there must have been a lot of them. They are at what you might call full-fledged volume (sorry), the decibels having increased with age. When they start out as hatchlings, they sound like someone is quietly shaking a box of pins.

Zebra Finch Hen on Nest

The budgie begging is somehow not quite as raucous, it’s rather pleasant. It’s hard to tell what effect my tortured reading through Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier had on the birds’ future vocalizations.

Recording of Zebra Finch and Budgie Fledglings Begging in Key

On the recording, the zebra finch fledglings have just started in after I finished practicing the C# major fugue (they came in earlier but I decided to spare you), right before the C# minor prelude. Then shortly after they subside you can hear a little trilling chorus of budgie babes.

A clutch of budgie nestlings

5-Part Fugue with Crow

Recording of Elvis and Bach 5-part Fugue in C# Minor

Attached is a recording of my old buddy Elvis cawing along to Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier Book I, the C# minor fugue. He sang along with the prelude very nicely too but here he came in quite strong, and then managed to carry on somewhere where there was an echo, creating his own “reverb.” How ingenious of him. In any event, I was pleased to discover this recording because he has a lovely voice, unlike any other crow I have heard since, and I suspect if I was really paying attention all along I might be able to discern certain crows by their voices.

In the park I had a crow friend I called Sam–should he turn out to be Samantha–who is probably by now paired up with someone else of his own species, but we became good friends soon after he had fledged. I remember his first spring after leaving the nest, he was hanging out with other crows when a young Cooper’s Hawk decided to threaten him. When he just barely evaded attack, the Cooper’s must have made an impression on him because he memorized the Cooper’s Hawk’s call perfectly, and for quite a while afterward almost every time he saw me, Sam would imitate the Cooper’s Hawk. It soon became a little joke we shared with each other. In fact I had become so used to Sam imitating the Cooper’s Hawk that a year or so later I did not pay attention in the company of crows when I heard a Cooper’s Hawk, only to look above my head and suddenly realize it was an actual Cooper’s Hawk and not Sam imitating one!

The park crows do have a special call when they see me, it’s usually CAW-caw-caw, which I like to imagine is “Lisa’s here.” But they also do one that is more “CAW caw, CAW caw” which could be “hot dogs, hot dogs.” I hope as the crow numbers increase I will be able to hear and distinguish more vocalizations.

Anyway, my apologies to Bach for this somewhat feeble early rendition of his fugue.