Summer Surprises at the Chicago Portage

I began writing this post while I was sitting here with the sun pouring through the half-closed slats of the blinds, the curse of facing east in the morning, artificially cooled by the fans and air conditioning going more often than I’d like to maintain an inside temperature of 80 degrees. I paid the Chicago Portage a visit Monday and before that on Saturday, when the morning temperatures were much cooler, but decided to stay home yesterday, worked in the yard for brief periods, and gave my recuperating knee a rest. At least I have shade in the backyard. We are in the middle of a hot, dry spell again. The later-week predictions of rain have disappeared.

Oh – that beautiful male Eastern Towhee at the top of the post – I encountered him briefly right off the trail. It’s the second time I’ve seen him in the past couple weeks.

Monday as I was putting my camera and backpack in the hatch of the car, I looked up to see a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird first check the front yard, then zip over to the feeder on the porch and then over the roof toward the backyard where there are three more feeders. I haven’t seen a hummingbird for weeks, maybe months. That proved to be a good sign. When I got to the first bridge at the Portage, although very distant and the photos below are severely cropped, I did see a male Ruby-throat, perched on a dead tree over the water from where I stood.

I hoped to see a hummingbird again, perhaps in the Red Bee Balm that is in bloom, but did not.

Red Bee Balm at the Portage

After the hummingbird left, I spotted one American Goldfinch on the same tree.

Whereas on Saturday, I spotted five distant American Goldfinches trying to brighten up the gloom.

Monday was bright and sunshiny with most birds still at a distance. An American Robin and a Red-bellied Woodpecker share this frame.

The Prairie Coneflower, below left, is starting to bloom. It’s one of my favorites at the Portage. I still haven’t figured out the other yellow flower.

There are a lot of American Robins here even when you don’t see them. Below are two juveniles. The second photograph, taken in the mulberry tree, indicates the berries aren’t quite ready yet. I expect when they are ripe, flocks of Cedar Waxwings will join the Robins.

Here’s a Robin I managed to follow as it decided what to do with its catch.

There are quite a few Blue-fronted Dancer damselflies. I wish this one had chosen a better-looking place to rest.

I was intrigued by the new growth starting from a long-dead fragment of log poking out from the bottomlands through the fence.

Here’s what it looked like after the rain, back there on Sunday. I’m sure it’s all dried out now.

Sunday was not a great day to photograph Indigo Buntings but this one picked an interesting perch.

As a contrast, there was too much light on Monday.

The brightness did justice to two butterflies, a Silver-spotted Skipper and a Red Admiral.

I was surprised to see what had been an iconic dead tree by the second, or northernmost bridge, broken in half as it was a magnet for nesting Northern Flickers. I could not locate what happened to the rest of it.

The most interesting bird on Saturday was a Peregrine Falcon perched at quite a distance from where I stood across the water. When I got a bit closer to it, it fixed its gaze on me. Alas we grew bored with each other and I was looking elsewhere when it finally took off, missing a flight shot.

On Monday one Pearl Crescent became two.

I felt lucky to see an Eastern Wood-Pewee as I usually only hear him, but I didn’t manage to get him in great focus. Oh well.

Tadziu was on territory Monday.

I haven’t been able to find a Red-winged Blackbird anywhere at the Portage although I know they exist. So I had to settle Monday for a female Brown-headed Cowbird as a substitute blackbird.

A bucolic young rabbit with a couple Robins on the path.

Early Monday I encountered a very young deer.

It looks like the Elderberry is going to have ripe fruit soon too. Let the fun begin. I have just planted one of these in my backyard and I expect it won’t produce fruit for a while but I look forward to watching it grow.

A view of Tadziu’s bridge through the trees.

There is simply a lot of Tall Bellflower in bloom here.

One more of the Peregrine Falcon.

I’m not going out walking every day in this heat – more like every other day or so. There’s plenty to do around the house and in the yard. And there is that book. I had a revelation the other day while I was swimming, I think. Water has always inspired me, even doing dishes over the sink. That and sometimes while I’m playing piano for the birds. Anyway I think I fit some puzzle pieces together in my head so I am going to write a synopsis tonight and tomorrow which will give me a roadmap.

More to come. Still trying to fill up these longer days while we have them.

A Quick Note from the Yard

I will miss the American Goldfinches that have faithfully visited my yard all winter and into the spring, especially as they quickly figured out and appreciated this seed feeder which I resurrected from the basement when I could no longer tolerate a squirrel taking over the feeder pole (which you can see is leaning over thanks to the squirrel). I even hoped to get a few photos this weekend of the goldfinches and the House Finches on this feeder because they make it look like one of those attractive advertisements for the feeder itself. But yesterday it became apparent that an avian flu is spreading, albeit among waterfowl and not detected in passerines yet, and we are advised to take down our feeders until May 31st unless otherwise notified.

My first thought was that I would save a lot of money on birdseed. My second thought was that this was the perfect opportunity to clean up and restore the soil underneath the feeder poles which has been poisoned by fallen seed. I have a mountain of compost to work into the soil. It will be more of a challenge to remove the fallen seed, as much as I have cleaned up I can’t get it all. As for that money I’m saving on birdseed, I have already invested it in some seed catchers that I can attach to the feeders when I put them back up.

Of course I quit feeding the squirrels too and they are apoplectic. But I managed to do this for several weeks last year before the inaugural Berwyn Historical Society Garden Walk, primarily to help get rats out of the yard, and nobody suffered terribly and everyone came back almost immediately the day I put feeders back out. So as bad as I feel about stiffing my friends, they will survive. In case you’re wondering, these photos were taken on April 10.

Beyond that, there are two lovely blooms in the backyard – the only flowers so far. I thought I had identified this plant but now I can’t remember what it is. It showed up by itself and keeps coming back, but it is not aggressive, so even if it’s not native I am happy to see it. If you recognize it, please let me know and I will try not to forget it.

And the other lovely surprise is what I thought was the beginnings of a Virginia Bluebell that I planted from a bare root last fall, on a hope and a prayer, after I had removed all the Hostas from the back of the house. I planted Jack in the Pulpit back there too but likely it won’t take. I am just curious to see what happens. I was just out in the yard and this turns out to be more of the same unidentified plant…

Beyond that, I have my work cut out for me. I am going to start trimming the stalks in the front yard this morning in between the raindrops and tomorrow after I recover from “leading” a bird walk at Thatcher Woods in River Forest that starts at 7:00 AM which means I have to get up by 4:30.

One more thought. I am waiting to hear the official word on hummingbird feeders. I haven’t put mine out yet but there are reports of hummingbirds showing up in the state. I hope I can at least put the hummer feeders out next week. After the Spring Music Festival…

More September Songs

I spent all day Saturday at a women’s retreat – my very first retreat ever with any organization (I don’t count a job-related paralegal “retreat” years ago) and after two years of virtual isolation save day-to-day brief interactions here and there, I am still basking in the love and inclusion of the community experience. We were all masked and sufficiently socially distanced most of the time. Normally this retreat would occur over a weekend, so this was the first (and I hope last) pandemic-influenced gathering. Actually the fact that it was contained in one day made it easier for me to attend because the thought of finding someone to take care of the birds these days doesn’t even enter my mind.

I spent yesterday still processing the insights and new relationships. In a way, I was still on the retreat. I fully intended to go for a walk this morning, but if the ground is anything like my backyard, there is likely ice everywhere, possible snow flurries are in the forecast this morning, and the windchill is in the single digits. I am still wearing my long underwear. Maybe I’ll go out and see if I can sneak a photo or two of the yard birds. But I think I will wait until tomorrow to go walking anywhere. We have a promised warmup which, by Wednesday, looks to be a big, soggy meltdown.

This is a brief photographic return to September 13th at the Portage. The only warbler I managed to photograph well was the American Redstart at the top of the post, but there were many more later. Perhaps the most spectacular sighting that day was the Red-headed Woodpecker below, albeit too far away to get a decent photograph. This is still a very infrequent visitor to the Portage but the habitat keeps changing, so we shall see.

Also spectacular that day was to see a beautiful Mourning Cloak caterpillar.

Young American Robins, in various plumages.

We must have gotten some rain, everything looked a little greener than the more parched summer images.

I do remember seeing one or two Ruby-throated Hummingbirds like this female that would sit and rest by the trail.

Downy Woodpeckers – all year long.

Had to check my ebird list to make sure I reported both… I believe the top photo is a Swainson’s Thrush, and the one below it, a Gray-cheeked Thrush.

I think this is Silphium pinnatifidum, which has a lot of different common names: Cutleaf Rosinweed, Cutleaf Prairie Dock, Tansy Rosinweed, Southern Dock … the wildflower challenge will resume this summer.

Perhaps the most gratifying part of the retreat was having the opportunity to share my love of birds and music and how profoundly the birds have changed my life for the better. I retrieved this published article from long ago and read it to the participants during the “sharing show” at the end of the retreat. I have added this as a page to the menu where it is a bit easier to read if you are so inclined. I was just becoming aware of birds and my observations are definitely of the novice variety, but I was delighted to rediscover the beginnings of all this, so to speak. Even more wonderful was to receive spontaneous praise for my writing. In retrospect I realize I have needed that encouragement, if I am going to go back to writing the elusive book I keep starting in my head. This experience will carry me forward to my start deadline which is now July 5.

Spring will soon be intoxicating and toss all these reflections asunder. But I still have some photos left over from September and of course there’s the here-and-there of more recent outings. I think my goal will be to get caught up enough so I can be more current by spring. It’s always good to have goals. I think.

Going Back a Bit – Now and Then

Suffice it to say we are presently in the middle of a cloud. I took the little camera out this morning trying to capture it. The rain overnight and the cloud cover made the prospect of going for a walk in the woods less attractive than usual.

In the backyard, the cloud continued…

This is a perfectly senseless segue to some photos from July 31st taken at the Portage on the cusp of what would soon be the beginning of fall migration. The photos have been languishing on my hard drive and in the name of creating space I have archived them to storage. I found I had one photograph of a Big Bluestem that day in my backyard (below).

Big Bluestem

It appears to have been a suitably sunny morning at the Portage.

It was getting more difficult to find an Indigo Bunting still singing (above) and what was my last attempt to capture a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in the Monarda below.

A Chimney Swift…

Summertime flora…

Queen Anne’s Lace
Squirrel Tail-Grass
Tall Bellflower, also at the top of the post

An elusive Gray Catbird in a mulberry tree…

As I recall there wasn’t enough water to support a lot of turtles last summer but here is one.

An Osprey flew over…

A young American Robin perched on the statue, getting its bearings…

Belted Kingfishers are not often easy to capture but I managed this one, a male.

Ah, dragonflies… a female 12-Spotted Skimmer.

The Portage pond, as it were, on the left, and the low level of the Des Plaines River on the right.

Two Cabbage White Butterflies…

A Monarch Butterfly in the Red Milkweed below.

And a Pearl Crescent Butterfly…

I have been out to the Portage a couple times in the last week and will be back with some of that, but I thought it might be nice to briefly remember what the sunlight looked like in the middle of summer before we finally plunge into some winter weather. Rain may turn to snow with some accumulation tomorrow.

More Portage Warblers and Friends

I’m taking advantage of the rainy forecast – we’re not getting much rain yet but it is quite cloudy and we could get more. I needed a morning off from birding anyway as my left foot was complaining about something of unknown origin yesterday. It’s better this morning, but I’ll defer the walking part of my day and swim a mile in the pool later this evening.

These photographs are from my second visit to the Portage now almost two weeks ago – on September 8th. The clear skies gave way to intense light which made for some interesting contrasts when I found a cooperative Black-throated Green Warbler.

I found it hard to resist taking one photo of my favorite shelf fungus which is conveniently located close to the trail.

Two-year male American Redstarts have been few and far between and avoiding me, but I sort of managed a furtive representation of this one. The first-year males have been plentiful, but I think that’s a female below as the flank color isn’t quite orangey enough.

Female American Redstart

I have seen a good number of Blackpoll Warblers this fall, like the one below.

Here’s one of my favorite combinations – Canada Goldenrod and Boneset seem to have an affinity for each other. A closeup of the Boneset is below.

Here’s a European Starling in the Pokeweed berries.

I had a nice look at a light morph Red-tailed Hawk.

Certain birds tend to stand out and the number of Eastern Wood-Pewees I have seen well fall into this category.

Swainson’s Thrushes have been everywhere. Period. But sometimes they look like Gray-Cheeked Thrushes and vice versa…

This looks like a Gray-Cheeked Thrush to me.

Here’s what the Des Plaines River looked like two weeks ago – it’s even lower now.

Red-eyed Vireos were abundant.

Maybe – just maybe – the bird below was a Wilson’s Warbler. Sadly, I have no other views of it. I am still trying to codify warbler colors. This looks like Wilson’s Warbler Yellow to me.

The Portage colors match the birds.

There was a Canada Warbler that day.

And American Robins are so ubiquitous that when one stands out, I sometimes have to capture it. The bird below looks to be very young and quite curious.

It’s been a rewarding fall migration season so far for me, albeit tucked away in my location limits. Eventually I will have to go down to the lakefront and other places a little more far-flung but for the moment I feel like I am enjoying my morning outings around here.

One more – Magnolia Warbler

Sundays at McGinnis – Part 2

As promised, here’s my last visit to McGinnis Slough. I have been out birding every morning since, mainly at the Chicago Portage but a couple other places too, and fall passerine migration is in full swing. I don’t know if I will ever get through all my photographs, but I intend to start posting them soon as much as possible.

It was delightful to spend a little time with a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher at McGinnis.

This Song Sparrow perched nicely for me.

Another bird I felt very privileged to see well was the Marsh Wren below. I could hear wrens in the reeds but they are always nearly impossible to see. Then, while I stood in the same spot looking at whatever waterfowl I could see, this one popped out in a bush to get a closer look at me.

I also saw a Brown Thrasher – a bird I used to see a lot more of but now rarely. And then my first Palm Warbler of the fall season.

A few more of the Marsh Wren…

Finally, a cooperative flower. It appears to be a hibiscus. But I am used to seeing the big pink rose mallow flowers that bloom here every year and they have been few and far between.

More views of the American Redstart that is at the top of the post.

I wonder if the slough will ever have enough water again to host the hundreds of ducks that usually show up in the early spring.

Common Green Darner

Tall Boneset is now blooming with the Canada goldenrod.

Several Barn Swallows took a break from scooping bugs out of the air…

And there was one lone Tree Swallow.

I managed to barely see the Trumpeter Swans – and noticed there was only one Cygnet. I fear the other two did not survive. I suppose the likeliest predator would be a coyote.

Peter Mayer has just written a beautiful song called “Trumpeter Swans” which I have already listened to maybe a hundred times…

The Herons were all hanging out in what little water is left.

And I caught a Wood Duck in flight.