Three Days at the Portage – Day 3

Well here it is, the long-anticipated last act to the Memorial Day weekend of birding at the Chicago Portage. Compared to the previous two days, I didn’t have a lot of photographs. I reported as many species as the previous day (41), but between extremely bright light conditions and my inability to focus, perhaps in part due to the light shining in my eyes, the day had a different feel to it.

But it was a great day for discovery and observation. The bird of the day was a Prothonotary Warbler. I have been looking for this species to appear at the Portage for years every spring or fall when the Des Plaines River floods the lowlands because then the habitat reminds me of the Cache River Basin in southern Illinois where I saw my first of many Prothonotary Warblers.

Flooding on the Des Plaines River

As it turns out, I didn’t see it in the flooded area but directly across the trail from it. Although I got great views with the naked eye, I was not able to capture the bird well with the camera, so going back through these photographs I had my doubts. But the photograph above with the head cut off confirms the ID for me because of the white undertail coverts showing. I confess I still have my doubts about the other photos, but I know I saw the bird, so maybe there will be a next time.

Just so you can appreciate how frustrating this can be and why I sometimes spend entire days thinking about identification challenges, below is a Wilson’s Warbler I photographed on the same day, if not in the exact same spot. I do know the gizz of a Wilson’s since I have seen them frequently enough for years. When I saw the Prothonotary, it appeared larger and moved more slowly and deliberately than the Wilson’s.

And now for another sort-of warbler challenge, the American Redstart below. I have seen this coloration a few times before so I was not confused, only fascinated. The tail immediately gives this bird away as an American Redstart, but it is showing yellow and white with black coming in on the body. What you are seeing is a soon-to-be second-year male American Redstart. When the summer is over he may be entirely black and orange in place of the gray and yellow, and will be considered an adult.

And below is a female American Redstart. She will always be gray, yellow and white. Not the best photograph but you might be able to see just a little of the yellow peeking out on her breast.

That was about it for the warblers that day. I just took a tally for the season and I have seen 24 warbler species this spring. That’s 2/3 of the possible number I might have seen. But given the fact that I was basically birding in only one area I feel pretty fortunate to have seen all these warblers, sometimes even seeing them very well.

On to the rest of the birds I managed to photograph on Memorial Day. Below are some male Brown-headed Cowbirds who don’t seem to have much to do except hang out on bare branches.

I don’t remember how I managed to get the photos below of a flying Red-Bellied Woodpecker but I don’t get this lucky very often! I was probably trying to focus on it perched somewhere and it took off.

Red-winged Blackbirds…are a given. The bird in the second photograph knocked the Northern Flicker in the photos below off its perch, which enabled me to get pictures of some of those elusive but brilliant golden shafts underwing.

There were a couple Eastern Kingbirds for a day or two, and I haven’t seen them since. Maybe they were shopping for nesting spots and decided to go elsewhere.

Below is a trail at the Portage I have only walked recently. For years I stayed away from the gravel road that ran between the official forest preserve and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District property because it used to be patrolled by police and photographers were not welcome. The past couple years now, I think, restrictions to access have been lifted, but it took this year along with the impression of having extra time to decide to walk the extra mile as it were. The road itself runs along some woods that border the Des Plaines River, and then splits in two, with the one fork below wooded on both sides. This might have been a very good place to look for the earlier warblers back in April. I will definitely keep it on my agenda of places to visit in the fall. Recently, although it’s getting very buggy there were not very many birds available.

Birds that fly over on occasion and if I’m lucky, I can capture them. This time it was more as a record of their presence than anything else.

Great Blue Heron
Northern Harrier – considered rare at this location but I don’t know why, as I have seen them every so often

Indigo Buntings and House Wrens will be available all summer.

The Downy Woodpecker below was challenging to capture.

If you click on the photos below, you will be able to see a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher that looks more like a Blue-Green Gnatcatcher. This was another ID I struggled with a bit when going through the pictures, but the eye ring in the first photo and the cocked tail in the next give the bird away. It’s a testament to how lighting can change everything. I have never seen this bird look green before.

American Goldfinches foraging in the duckweed
American Robin of the Day (there are always at least 20-30 of them about)
Baltimore Oriole – too busy now to pose for pictures

I’ve been to the Portage a few times since the big weekend and I will likely be visiting regularly to check up on summertime birds, and I anticipate a return of dragonflies and butterflies. I have been a couple other places too and plan to publish those posts when possible. Lately it’s easier to sit inside on a hot day, slaving over a laptop in air conditioning. Thanks again for stopping by, and congratulations making it to the end of another long post!

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.

Cerro de San Juan / Pine-Oak Forest Birds

Bumblebee Hummingbird (female)

After my one-day bout with whatever it was, I rejoined the group for a side-trip to higher elevations to see a variety of small birds. The few that weren’t small wound up that way in my pictures for the most part, being very far away.

I was delighted to manage a few shots of the Bumblebee Hummingbirds which were very tiny.

Most accommodating were one or two White-eared Hummingbirds.

I couldn’t find Red-headed Tanager on our triplist, but that’s definitely what this is. It’s likely it was on the list and I just wasn’t back up to speed enough to stay on top of Steve’s rapid-fire recitation of what we saw at the end of the day. As far as I can tell this is still a tanager and hasn’t been reclassified, which seems to be happening constantly.

Warblers were present. It was difficult to get a clear shot of the Rufous-Capped but these are good enough for identification anyway. Notice the similarities between the Townsend’s and the Black-Throated Green below it…

Black-throated Green Warbler

I was very happy to get such good looks at a Grace’s Warbler. This is another first-timer for me.

Grace’s Warbler

Our daily Western Flycatcher…

And another new wren!

We get Hepatic Tanagers sometimes in migration. This one seemed to be attracted to a gate resembling its own color.

A coy Black-throated Magpie Jay…

Another bird we see in the spring and fall…Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

Ruby-Crowned Kinglet

I nearly didn’t find this next bird in my photographs but when I did, even though it’s not fully visible, the beautiful contrast between the blue on its back and the yellow on the throat made me glad I managed to capture it at all.

Crescent-chested Warbler

I vaguely remember seeing a Cordilleran Flycatcher in Texas… And nice to see again a little bit better perhaps this time.

It’s always a bit of a surprise to see a bird that’s relatively common at home in the summer or during migration, like this Eastern Bluebird, and the Chipping Sparrow below it…

Chipping Sparrow

Bullock’s Oriole was another species I saw first in Texas.

Sudden escape of a Broad-winged Hawk…

I wish I lived closer to Acorn Woodpeckers.

There’s a distant Bat Falcon perched on the tree. I included this photograph more for the habitat.

Grosbeaks are so…distinctive!

Black-headed Grosbeak
American White Pelicans flying overhead

I like Pewees…

Well I think I have two more days of photographs to sift through from this trip. Meanwhile, the real-time days keep getting longer here farther north. And the birds have taken notice. I have been hearing cardinals singing on sunny mornings at least for the past two weeks, but I have never heard what I heard this morning. My Northern Cardinal was practicing his entire repertoire. He sang four different songs, one right after the other, as if he was making sure they were all still there. Wish I could have recorded it but probably no one would have believed I didn’t edit it anyway. 🙂

Ah, the Sewage Ponds

It may sound awful, but sewage ponds are a good place to look for birds. And that is exactly where we went on our first morning outing in San Blas.

If I can trust my camera roll, the first birds we saw were an assortment of seedeaters and kingbirds, but I have given first position to this very attractive Groove-Billed Ani, because I never noticed the unique woven-looking pattern of the nape feathers before.

And now, the Seedeaters…

Tropical Kingbirds can be good subjects. Below this one is a Thick-billed Kingbird for comparison, but the name doesn’t seem all that descriptive to me.

Tropical Kingbird
Thick-billed Kingbird

Those of you who know me know I adore Crows, so I was thrilled to observe a new species doing Crow Stuff.

I don’t think a day went by without a Zone-tailed Hawk, either…

I was impressed with the graceful flight of a Wood Stork.

This falcon could have been laughing at me for as long as I waited for him to turn his head for a profile shot.

Laughing Falcon

Unlike my last Texas trip, I don’t recall hearing the incessant chatter of a Bell’s Vireo, but at least we saw this one.

Bell’s Vireo

Great Kiskadees were ever-present but nearly impossible to photograph. I wonder why I bothered with this one.

Great Kiskadee
Inca Doves
Great-tailed Grackle

Not sure I have any better images coming of Roseate Spoonbills, but here’s one flying.

All these species would have been way too many for me to get my head around without taking pictures. A new woodpecker!

Below, what an endearing little flycatcher for such a long name. I confess I don’t know what makes it “beardless.”

Not a day went by without a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher distraction. Some days were Blue-grey though.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

I think we had a record number of pygmy owls on this trip.

Ferruginous Pygmy-Owl

The remaining images are…more birds seen.

Black-chinned Hummingbird (female)
White-faced Ibis (immature)
Willet

This Yellow-Winged Cacique was having a bad hair day. Lovely flower though.

I didn’t manage to photograph many butterflies with a 100-400mm lens, but these are a few that we saw. I’ve put the Vermilion Flycatcher with them because unlike previous trips, I never got close enough to one to do it justice. I will try to identify the rest of the butterflies when my new butterfly book arrives…

Raptors aplenty – Short-Tailed Hawk is new for me.

Crested Caracara

I was going to include the afternoon river excursion photos, but I think they deserve their own space. So my chronicle of this day in San Blas will continue soon.

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.”

San Blas Bookends

It’s been a longer haul than usual, and I apologize, but I find myself finally ready to start writing some posts from my trip to San Blas, Mexico, which occurred officially between January 6 and 14, 2020. I arrived a day early to take advantage of the weekend, since the tour didn’t begin until Monday. The myriad images in this first post are actually from the very first and last days of the tour. That leaves several days in between with more photographs to sort through.

The trip started in Puerto Vallarta. I went for a walk the morning of the 6th and came back for lunch to sit around the pool area which had its own visiting Green Iguana. Click on the images if you want to see any of them more clearly.

The birds in the immediate hotel vicinity were… a Eurasian Collared Dove, later in the afternoon, an Inca Dove, Great-Tailed Grackles. Then there was a nice Black-Chinned Hummingbird feeding on the red flowers.

Eurasian Collared Dove
Inca Dove

On my way to the beach in the morning, I encountered a tree full of Orchard Orioles, Streak-Backed Orioles and Yellow-Winged Caciques, the latter two species, for all practical purposes, endemic to the region. There were also Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers everywhere. And of course, Yellow Warblers. Now you know where they go for the winter. In any event it was a good start for birds seen practically every day.

At the beach, there were some people things going on…

And the reminder of countless daily Magnificent Frigatebirds…

In the afternoon of Monday the 6th, the group met up to go on a short walk with our guide, none other than the incomparable Steve Howell, who is also the author of the impressive field guide, A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America. We were fortunate to see our first Ferruginous Pygmy Owl, below. The Western Flycatcher, Grayish Saltator and Rufous-Backed Thrush were introductory birds we would see often throughout the tour.

Ferruginous Pygmy Owl
Western Flycatcher (a/k/a Pacific Slope Flycatcher)
Grayish Saltator
Rufous-backed Thrush (an endemic)

Now to the images from our last morning of birding. I am starting off with sketchy-but-the-best-I-could-do-at-quite-a-distance images of the bird that inspired my decision to go on this trip altogether. The Black-Capped Vireo, below, is a beautiful little vireo I missed on the trip to Southwest Texas last spring. I decided to see if I might be able to meet it on its wintering grounds, and this trip to San Blas seemed to be the best opportunity.

I did get a much better first look at the vireo on the Friday of our trip, thanks to Steve who knew I really wanted to see it. I was sick after breakfast the day before so I missed an entire day of the trip, but this made up for it. In any event, I decided not to try taking a picture of it the first time in case I might send it flying a lot sooner than the wonderful view I had.

Other vireos from that last morning I will likely never see again are below, the Plumbeous Vireo, and the Golden Vireo, which is an endemic to Mexico.

Steve found us another pygmy owl, this one, the Colima, also an endemic species.

Colima Pygmy Owl

These are not in any kind of order… we spent some time at the beach that last day.

Royal Tern and (mostly) Heermann’s Gulls

We had seen Magpie Jays off and on flying about but on the last day, this was a rare treat to be able to actually capture one doing its thing. The last Magpie Jays I saw were much closer, hanging out at the breakfast table at the hotel in Nicaragua, which is also very much what jays do, I suppose, depending on their habitat.

We had several Grey Hawks on the trip, but this might have been the only juvenile.

Juvenile Grey Hawk

I still have to tally up all the new species I added to my “life list” but I’m pretty sure this was the first time I have seen a Western Tanager. This one appears to be a young male bird.

One more endemic – the Rusty-Crowned Ground Sparrow. Such a long name! It’s quite flashy-looking for a sparrow, though.

We were taunted by Orange-Fronted Parakeets and other psittacidae throughout the trip, but it was extra special to see these two perched and looking at us.

Orange-fronted Parakeets

I haven’t seen a Masked Tityra in a while. Nice to get a good look at this one.

Masked Tityra
Social Flycatcher
We saw plenty of its cousins, the Great Kiskadees, but Socials are special to me, in particular because now I will always remember their song as “tortilla, tortilla, tortilla” – thanks to Steve.
One more from the Orange-Fronted Parakeets

So I hope to be back with more to report a little sooner. My travel laptop seems to be cooperating, and it probably likes the attention it doesn’t get the rest of the year. I’ve gotten over whatever it was that attacked me, although I think it took maybe a full two weeks to feel totally sound. Work, choir, the birds at home, everything is back in full swing. Thanks for stopping by!

December Already?

I find myself taking stock of things and at the same time wondering how I got here.

I’ve been trying to get back to finishing my review of the New Brunswick-Grand Manan photographs, but it’s always a struggle with the travel laptop, so the task inevitably fell to today when I had some extra time, if there is such a thing, or at least I felt like I could afford it. Ironically years ago when film was the medium, I never would have had this problem. I certainly would not have had hundreds of photographs to go through. Okay, enough complaining. It only took half an hour to install a software update before I had to start and restart Lightroom several times. These are photographs from August 18 when we first visited the Sackville Waterfowl Park in the morning, in the rain, and then later we went to Johnson’s Mills.

The inclement weather bonus was this sighting of Virginia Rails crossing the path to feed their young.