Chilling on the Fourth

The week so far has seemed surreal. Last Sunday, the day Linda and I played flute and piano music for Unity Temple’s superb shared pulpit service led by Charlie Hoch, an all-day downpour began just shortly before I left the house to pick up Linda and arrive by 8:30 AM. But oh, how we needed the rain. The US Drought Monitor hasn’t been updated yet but I suspect we are at least out of “severe” drought now.

In my suburb the accumulation was reported at 9 inches. There were flood warnings lighting up my cellphone, but I was not worried. I have so many trees and native plants, I did not have one drop of water in the house. Both rain barrels were full. So was a previously empty plastic gallon bottle sitting next to them for handy refilling of the birdbaths. The next day, my front yard was abuzz with bees and other pollinators as the flowers had also taken a drink and opened.

The photos in this post were taken in Riverside by the Des Plaines River on June 19, and from my front yard this morning. I am trying to write this post while the bombs are going off in the neighborhood. At least that’s what it feels like. I hate fireworks. I am not looking forward to finding fireworks debris in my yard tomorrow. I can’t imagine how the wild animals tolerate this idiocy. My indoor birds have always been very good sports about it. They seem less bothered by the noise. I suspect they consider humans generally noisy anyway and they just deal with it much better than I do.

Back to the subject… So when I took the photos in Riverside, the Des Plaines River was very low. Gulls seemed to consider this an opportunity. I followed the Ring-billed Gull below as it caught something in the river, close to the Joliet Avenue bridge.

I started noticing Cliff Swallows nesting in the holes in the wall left after the removal of the Hofmann Dam.

I didn’t realize until I went through these photos that I saw a Herring Gull that day. They are less frequently seen than the Ring-billed Gulls.

Also not far from the bridge was a female Red-winged Blackbird.

The birds that seemed to be especially enjoying the low water level were Common Grackles. Below is a series of photos as I saw one bathing in the shallow water.

A pair of Mallards claimed a no-longer-submerged rock as their own.

Across the river in Riverside Lawn, a hollowed-out fallen tree caught my eye.

When I crossed the foot bridge there was a Double-crested Cormorant in the water. I wondered how well a diving cormorant could fish in such shallow water. As if in answer to my question, the cormorant started to take off for another location.

Taking note of some year-round residents. Below, a Mourning Dove and a Blue Jay.

The Common Grackle below had a rather large stick in its bill. I never saw what it did with it.

There are a couple places with fallen logs by the river on the Riverside Lawn side where I can sit and watch the birds. I had been noticing this one Tree Swallow that seemed to have a nest in a tree stump on the other side.

Back to the Common Grackles.

Suddenly a fledgling appeared. The parent bird was not pleased. Maybe it was time for the youngster to find out how to forage for itself.

I saw a couple Gray Catbirds that day. The disheveled one looks like a newbie.

Back by the exposed rocks near the Joliet Avenue Bridge was a Killdeer.

This morning, before the heat and the noise, I took a quick peek at the front yard. Below is a nice bunch of Silene Stellata – Starry Campion. I am puzzled because I have never seen this before. It’s a native, so I’m not worried. But I did not plant it. I wonder if there is an outside chance that the person who planted my front yard however many years ago had it in the mix and it never managed to express itself until now, but that seems beyond belief.

A Red Admiral was enjoying the Purple Coneflowers.

I also have a few Pink Coneflowers but I am not sure if they are blooming yet or maybe I just can’t tell the difference. I’m just so happy to see so many bees.

The bees were also busy with the Shrubby Saint Johns Wort. The blossoms don’t seem to be as full as usual but maybe more rain will take care of that.

I was delighted to see a female Widow Skimmer.

Also, I planted a little Bergamot last year and this morning I noticed it is now in bloom. I had this flower in the backyard years ago and it didn’t last after the trees grew and cast too much shade. I am glad to have it back again.

Briefly, in the backyard, buds abound but less is in bloom at the moment. By July 22, the day of the Wild Ones West Cook Garden Tour, there should be a riot of color mainly orchestrated by Tall Ironweed that wants to take over the planet. Below, some Rudbeckia, I think it’s fulgida, a/k/a Brown-eyed Susan, and blossoms on the quickly growing Elderberry I planted just last year.

I will be back with more of this sort of thing as the month progresses. Right now all I care about is an end to the fireworks. Every time there’s a lull I think, could it be over? Not yet as of 11:30 PM.

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

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.

I Found It!


Thanks to the beautiful weather and the perfect alignment of the planets (just guessing), I am thrilled to announce the recovery of my car title. I can now mark the end of my 65th year with a problem solved and spend the rest of my weekend celebrating!


It wasn’t carelessly thrown in a box to be filed. It was in a brown folder tucked in amongst my song copyrights, probably just as I had taken it from my safety deposit box, and put in the file cabinet upstairs. Only the folder had fallen underneath the hanging folders and was on the bottom of the drawer. But it was cool enough this evening to sit upstairs and start going through the drawer again, and that’s when I noticed the brown folder.


Of course all those boxes I started to tear through, the contents of which I hope to either reorganize or discard, are still waiting for me in the basement, but with much less urgency. And now I have the rest of the summer to work on donating or recycling many more items.


The fireworks are detonating…and like every other year I look at my watch and wonder how long before it stops. Also like every other year, my birds are quiet. It seems to bother them much less than it does me. I guess they’ve had a long time to get used to stupid human noise.

I’ll be back later with pictures from this morning’s outing. Happy Fourth!


Grackle HS Bath IMG_5551_1

One thing about the fountains at Lake Shore East Park – they provide an irresistible temptation to bathe for the birds. At least for the Common Grackles that have been hanging out there in numbers.

The first video is from September 4 and the second one is from yesterday, September 18, exactly two weeks later. On the 4th a House Sparrow joined in but I didn’t manage to get him in the video. Yesterday a Gray-Cheeked Thrush responded to the temptation of flowing water.

Gray-Cheeked Thrush

Gray-Cheeked Thrush

At first I thought this was a Swainson’s Thrush but on closer review it turned out to be Gray-Cheeked which is much more unusual.

Apologies for the construction noise accompanying the second video! They’re building another high-rise apartment building across from the park.

Grackle Bath LSE IMG_6645

A few more bathing stills…

Grackle Bath IMG_6646

The last is with the House Sparrow before I started the video recording.

Grackle HS Bath IMG_5541

Come on in, the water’s fine!

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

There’s Noise, and then there’s NOISE

Recording of Haydn C Major and Constant Budgies

Recording of Scarlatti C Major Sonata with Budgies

Attached is part of a Haydn sonata I was apparently reading through (please accept my apologies, although I warned you in the beginning this was NOT about my playing), with my budgies carrying on constantly. It reminds me of their “cocktail hour,” which is something they used to do with regularity in the early evening: just break out into constant commentary. Also attached is part of a Scarlatti sonata which was part of the same session; they’ve calmed down quite a bit, but I included it because it’s pretty music that I’d forgotten about and was delighted to find.

One talks, the other listens

Budgies carrying on while I play piano may sound noisy. In some respects, they are. But compared to the vast array of human-created noises (including my piano), they barely contribute to the pollution of the aural airspace.

Listening to birds made me more aware of my hearing and what I was and was not listening to. As I strove to hear more birds, I wanted to hear less and less of the human noise that drowns them out. That I live in a suburban area and work in an urban environment doesn’t help.

A few years ago I was fortunate enough to go on a naturalist tour of the Burren in Ireland, and I can remember waking up mornings thinking the bird song was incredible. Nobody considers Ireland a top destination for birds and so this may be hard to imagine, but by comparison to where I live, with traffic noise constant, whether loud or a low murmur, planes flying overhead, not to mention booming car stereos, lawn mowers or snow plows–depending on the season–leaf blowers, what-have-you, a rural town in Ireland is a very quiet place, so you get to hear the birds sing in the morning. And realize what you’ve been missing the rest of your life.

I work downtown and the noise is deafening. At any moment a car horn can blast in your ear or an emergency vehicle siren ricocheting off the concrete canyons can make your ears hurt, if your ears are still able to feel and not permanently dulled from hearing loss. Here I had discovered birds late in life and I want to hear them, but if I continue to subject myself to the urban noise, I wouldn’t be able to hear at all. I had to do something, not always having hands free to plug up my ears with my fingers (which is by far most effective). So I started wearing earplugs, fashion be damned, from the moment I get on the train in the morning, because the train too is noisy, and when you get off in the station it’s a whole other experience of idling engines spitting, arriving trains clanging their bells and screeching their brakes, not to mention the distorted, ear-splitting announcements over the PA system that are still too loud even if I press my fingers against my ears. Earplugs cushion your ears against harm but you can still hear, and if it’s too loud, the earplugs are only making the decibels a little less detrimental. Conversely it’s quite possible to go to a rock concert or a hockey game with your earplugs and be able to hear everything just fine, including your un-earplugged friends yelling to you over the noise.

There have been plenty of studies about how all this noise pollution is dehumanizing us, affecting our health, contributing to our demise. But nobody seems to think about it. I cannot recall seeing one other person with earplugs. Occasionally I will see someone’s hands go up to their ears, but for the most part, people walk through the city stopping only their conversation as ear-blasting noise like a fire truck or ambulance approaches and drives by.

The best antidote to all this damage, of course, is getting back to nature. The birds remind me of this all the time. My birds at home will never be so tame that they’ll allow me to watch TV with the sound on. Not that I am much of a TV watcher anyway, but the budgies shout over it in their “noise” voice, the same one they use to communicate or to try to drown out the vacuum cleaner, which is probably the worst noisy appliance I subject them to (the blender and food processors are short-lived noises, so it must be the droning-on that gets them). Yes, believe it or not, their “noise” voice is harsher than their “rap” that goes along with the piano.

Something about the tinny sound of the TV just drives the budgies crazy and they immediately have to drown it out. So I have learned to live with closed captioning, although I don’t know how anyone who cannot hear makes sense of it since half the interpretations are phonetic and the words often come out completely unrelated to the subject at hand. Only if there’s something I really want to watch do I go to another part of the house where the birds don’t hang out. But I don’t feel deprived. I don’t miss TV, and I’m glad, because now there are studies saying the more we watch TV, the more years we take off our lives.

The birds taught me how to listen to them and a lot of other things I used to blot out along with noise. I don’t want to be incapable of hearing them, or anything else I want to listen to. Hearing loss is not a necessary result of aging. It’s due to noise pollution.