Portage Presents

It’s getting colder. Winter’s last gasp, I hope. But the sunshine returned this afternoon and gave me some well-desired energy that has been lacking the past couple days. This is a little collection of photos from the Chicago Portage earlier this month (and a couple I snuck in from yesterday) – with the exception of some Eastern Towhee photos which I took way back in November. It was to be a reminder to look for their return this spring.

As it turns out, when I visited the Portage yesterday morning in cloudy gloom, I did catch a glimpse of a male Eastern Towhee with the blur of Juncos, White-throats and Song Sparrows. It was impossible to capture a decent image of the bird but I did have proof that it was indeed what I and the camera barely saw.

Below are more photos of the Towhees in early November. The female has her back to us in the top left photo. There were still a few leaves on the trees.

Back to the reality of March 2 and 4.

On March 2, the sun was trying to force its way through the clouds

I spent time staring down a White-throated Sparrow.

The American Tree Sparrows have been faithful to this location all winter.

Downy Woodpeckers are more visible lately chasing around with the sparrow flock, closer to the ground.

On March 4, I encountered a Downy Woodpecker on the paved part of the trail who seemed to be interested in something undetectable by me.

A delicate-looking Dark-eyed Junco

A male Northern Cardinal tolerated my attention briefly, at a distance.

Deer were present earlier this month but I haven’t seen any lately.

Below, the Mallard couple I continue to encounter when the water isn’t frozen.

Sometimes Black-capped Chickadees seem glad to see me.

March 2 was a day for an observing male Belted Kingfisher.

More recently, as in yesterday morning, I briefly saw the female or immature Belted Kingfisher below. It’s definitely a different bird from the one above. As if to prove spring is indeed on the way, more birds are coming through.

I have been seeing House Sparrows a lot more lately, albeit around the parking lot. Even their comings and goings are no doubt affected by the longer days.

European Starlings and House Sparrows

Also never far from the parking lot, American Robins hunting in the grass,

I spent a pensive moment on the trail with a Song Sparrow.

The bottomlands were completely flooded on March 4.

Two more long shots of obliging birds perched over the marsh background.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day to all those celebrating. The forecast is for wind chills around zero tomorrow morning, mostly cloudy and windy. It doesn’t sound too promising, but I will probably go for a walk around the Portage anyway and see what happens.

Two Sunday Sloughs

Two Sundays ago, I went first to McGinnis Slough, and then to Little Red Schoolhouse, which features Long John Slough. Suffice it to say the air was filled with the songs of Red-winged Blackbirds. I must have encountered at least 100 of the birds between the two locations.

Yet there was very little happening at McGinnis. I didn’t realize until I took my photos off the camera that the Red-tailed Hawk below was carrying nesting material in its talons.

A Northern Cardinal managed to pose while still feeling protected by branches.

There weren’t many birds to see in the water. Over on the far side I could barely see two Trumpeter Swans and a few gulls. I assumed that they are Trumpeter Swans as they always nest here.

I continued on to Little Red Schoolhouse.

Not much was going on at the feeders near the visitor center.

In the slough, there were perhaps fifty or so Common Mergansers. They were quite far away so the photo below is quite cropped.

I walked the Black Oak Trail and found myself looking out at the slough with a couple other birders when we spotted a juvenile Bald Eagle taking flight. It appears to be 3 to 3-1/2 years old.

One more distant look at a few Common Mergansers.

About the only thing I could get close enough to as I walked the rest of the Black Oak Trail was a tree stump with a conflomeration of fungus, lichen and moss.

The weather continues to interfere with my resolve to take a daily walk. But there was enough to accomplish inside today. I filed my first “totally retired” tax return. I formatted the lyrics for the program which will accompany our choir Sunday performance of a chamber version of “Considering Matthew Shepard” on April 2. And I just made a batch of red lentil soup with lemon, and some Peruvian aji amarillo dipping sauce. I will have some roasted veggies with the dipping sauce for dinner. This will help me get over the idea of “losing” an hour: I can’t wait for the birds to wake me up at sunrise anymore, it will be too late.


After a beautiful but somewhat uneventful morning walk in Riverside, I went swimming. By the time I got to the gym, the temperature was probably around 54 degrees F. I had a good swim, walked out to my car and heard Sandhill Cranes. I have heard Sandhills but not seen them the last few days. This time, I looked up, and saw about 30 flying northwest, but they were too far away to photograph. Or so I thought. I took out my camera anyway, and then as if on cue, more cranes kept coming. They dropped their elevation and swirled around in a kettle, joining each other with exuberance. I couldn’t help but feel it was just for me. I kept looking around for someone to share the glorious experience, but there was no one to witness this moment but me. I tried to capture it best I could.

Below is a Very Short Video I took with my phone which at least gives you a glimpse – and a little soundtrack.

And here are some of the many photos I took of various groups and configurations.

It occurred to me that the Sandhills were dancing in the air, their choreography as precise as when they perform their courtship dances on the ground.

I’ll be back with some of Riverside later, but I just had to share this now. Birders on the Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts (IBET) list serve have been posting about Sandhills for the last few days. If you’re in the Chicago area and outside between 10:30 AM and 2:30 PM you just might get lucky and hear and see some of this spectacle.

Portage Potpourri

I have way too many photographs taking up space on my hard drive, so I decided to do a brief post with just a few of them that were probably more effort to take than they were worth. Yesterday I was totally rained out and I thought that would make me more productive indoors, but after swimming I took too many naps to accomplish anything.

So here’s a small but select group of photos taken on September 4 of last year. It looks like it was overcast. Below, a Swainson’s Thrush, a barely visible back end of a Pine Warbler, and a Tennessee Warbler. Ah yes, remember those birds?

I had the bird below tagged as a juvenile Swainson’s Thrush.

The Portage was in late-summer-stage green and yellow.

And two more – a Bay-breasted Warbler and a Gray-cheeked Thrush,

How about a tree full of backlit Cedar Waxwings?

I didn’t seem to be able to capture any better photos of an American Goldfinch or a young American Robin in that light.

More recently, a low-light day on February 25 – just this past Saturday morning.

The Des Plaines River – from the railroad bridge
A dramatic-looking sky

There was still a little snow left and we hadn’t received so much rain yet.

A few more Red-winged Blackbirds were hanging out.

A White-throated Sparrow scratching around in the snow

I discovered this thoroughly chilly-looking male House Finch in my photos while I was trying to focus on someone else.

I have heard a Song Sparrow singing on my last two visits, so it could have been this one.

A female Northern Cardinal is an expert at blending into her surroundings
A Mourning Dove was trying, as usual, to not be seen
The light was perfect for fungus
Just a pair of Mallards in the water

So sunshine should make a difference, right? I went out this sunny morning to the Chicago Portage. It started out a bit nippy but soon warmed up enough for me to start loosening my layers. Outside of a few robins that did not pose for any length of time, I saw very few birds and heard only a few more. Talked with some humans.

For the first bird beside the robins, right off the parking lot as I started to walk, I saw a Red-tailed Hawk fly and land to perch on a very distant branch obscured by a lot more trees.

One Red-winged Blackbird did offer himself up to me but he was backlit and obscured by twigs.

Then suddenly in the distance, an unmistakable adult Bald Eagle flew, going southeast.

I stopped to glimpse at the bottomlands and the Des Plaines River beyond, which was still in flood stage from yesterday’s rain. It could be too soggy for me to walk in Riverside Lawn tomorrow.

Maybe it was the light, maybe it was the lack of birds, you never know, but I was attracted to the design of this cherry bark.

When I first came in, I saw only one Mallard in the water, but on the way out, I noticed there were two napping in what looks like it could be a possible nest location.

And the young deer were back.

I have now made some more room on my laptop hard drive in anticipation of the coming days ahead. There are still a lot more recent photos to share from other places. As for my motivation to get anything done, sunshine makes all the difference. I hope you are enjoying some sunshine soon, wherever you are.

A Rather Gull-less Frolic

The weather wasn’t too bad for mid-February. The sun was shining and although it’s always colder by the lake, the wind chill wasn’t prohibitive. Indeed, it was quite easy to spend more time outside.

As in the past few previous years, the better the weather for humans, the fewer gulls come to this event. But this year was exceptionally pretty gull-less. With virtually no ice on the lake, there was no reason for the gulls to come to the shore. A lot of bread was thrown into the lake that day, but even the Canada Geese weren’t interested in it.

It was good to see some people I hadn’t seen in a long time, and the talk was interesting and informative. If I had stayed the entire day I might have seen a male Harlequin Duck that was reported being seen first over the Wisconsin border. But I had a busy evening and next day ahead and knew I would need a nap after the long drive back home.

Much of the time I spent outside was looking at some ducks. There were several Common Goldeneye.

It seemed most of the gulls were out on the ice beyond the yacht club. But as birders with scopes examined the flock, nothing unusual was reported to have been seen.

So I took a few token photos of the Herring Gulls that came in for bread early.

In addition to the Common Goldeneye there were some Lesser and Greater Scaup. When I managed to capture some of them in flight, I looked them up and discovered that the easiest way to tell them apart in flight is the white on the wing, which is a longer stripe on the Greater Scaup.

It was a beautiful day, and from time to time I took a few photos just to celebrate the blue horizon.

February is almost over. We’ve had a little more snow, a lot more rain, blustery cold and warmer temperatures. A bit more like March, perhaps, minus the longer days, but those are on the way too. And those increasingly longer days are calling some birds back to their breeding grounds already. I am starting to see American Robins here and there – individually, not in flocks. And Red-winged Blackbirds are proclaiming territories. Here’s a little sneak preview.

Winter Scenes at the Portage

We haven’t had much snow this year. That which we have received did not last for long. These photos are from two visits to the Chicago Portage on February 2 and February 7 respectively. There haven’t been a lot of birds available for photographs lately but it’s still good to go out because sometimes the unexpected occurs.

At least it was nice and sunny. American Tree Sparrows are still a possibility.

The Dark-eyed Junco below was barely visible in the snow.

Also tucked into the snow, a Song Sparrow, a male House Finch and another American Tree Sparrow.

The Downy Woodpecker below was a willing subject.

On my way out, I saw a coyote in the distance.

And then I had a brief, close encounter with a Red-bellied Woodpecker and his friend, the White-breasted Nuthatch.

I suspect the man who feeds the deer is responsible for the ridiculous offering below.

On the 7th it was quite cloudy, with most of the snow gone.

The best part of that visit was the local pair of Bald Eagles. Unfortunately because of the light, and the fact that they were fairly distant, I couldn’t get great photos. But it was nice to see them fly over.

Not much going on with this Downy Woodpecker.

And then I caught him briefly in flight.

All the other birds were at a considerable distance and with the lack of light, focusing was problematic. Below, a Song Sparrow, an American Tree Sparrow and a Dark-eyed Junco leaving the bridge.

I did follow a White-throated Sparrow as it foraged for seeds to eat.

A group of American Goldfinches was happy to sit still, probably because they knew they were barely noticeable. This is more goldfinches than I have seen all winter at my feeders. They have been staying in the wild, so to speak, I suspect because it hasn’t been all that cold and bleak and they are still able to find plenty of food.

It’s hard for a male Northern Cardinal to disappear in any season.

I am recovering from a little right-knee setback – thankfully it hasn’t lasted long at all and I am already back to about 97%. It was also a busy weekend with the 21st annual Gull Frolic on Saturday and singing two of my favorite songs with the choir on Sunday morning.

This morning in Riverside, in addition to Northern Cardinals singing, I heard and saw three Red-winged Blackbirds, a Black-capped Chickadee trying out his “hey, sweetie” tune, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers have started singing their quirky song as well. I heard a House Finch vocalizing a couple days ago. An American Robin has been here and there, albeit not singing quite yet. Spring is coming. Any minute now. I hope to be back soon.

On and About the River

It’s been a slow week or two out on the trails but every once in a while there’s a surprise. Such was the morning of February 6 when shortly after I started walking the paved trail by the Des Plaines River in Riverside, I saw a young-looking Pied-billed Grebe sitting in the water by the near shore with a couple Mallards. Even though there was vegetation in the way of my lens, it occurred to me when I later looked at these photos that I don’t think I have ever been this close to a Pied-billed Grebe.