Spring Rolls Out Slowly

It’s been a weird week and a half. I have gone for walks off and on, weather has been iffy at best. More threat than actual thunder. This will be a little bit of a catch-up post, but I can’t promise any focus or real theme as my life for the moment is taken up with the choir’s imminent performance for our Choir Sunday.

I won’t get into any details, but I have been immersed in the story behind the story upon which Considering Matthew Shepard, by Craig Hella Johnson, is based. The oratorio not only tells a story but reflects upon the idea of story telling as central to our lives. We had an electrifying dress rehearsal with the soloists and chamber orchestra Sunday night. The choir has one last rehearsal tonight to smooth over the rough edges before the performance.

Back to the birds. Two Sundays ago now, I decided to visit the zoo, to see if there were any interesting ducks in the man-made lake. It was a cold day, but sunny. And the first bird I noticed was a tagged Canada Goose with whom I am not familiar. I haven’t filed a report – yet – for H60.

Walking the trail around “Swan Lake,” I encountered a few curious White-breasted Nuthatches.

Black-capped Chickadees were not far behind.

There were only two ducks in the water – and they weren’t Mallards. But they were so far away it was hard to get good images of them. They were Ring-necked Ducks.

American Robins are everywhere again, but they only started singing a couple days ago.

Four rescued American Pelicans were hanging out near another water feature.

I was in Riverside the next morning. There was even less going on there.

I managed to see one male Red-breasted Merganser in the Des Plaines River.

Then I went to the Portage on the 21st. A couple first-of-year birds for me: a Turkey Vulture, and two Brown-headed Cowbirds.

I spent the 22nd at home and tried to get a few photos of birds in the yard. It never goes well through the back porch windows. But I have more American Goldfinches in the yard now than I have had all winter. And they are starting to transform.

I spent a while with the Song Sparrow who’s been happy to hang out in the yard lately.

A few other likely characters showed up.

A Gray Squirrel enjoying a likely peanut
Ring-billed Gulls are coming back to the burbs

Just one Mourning Dove posed, but I caught a glimpse of a Eurasian Collared Dove as it flew in and landed in a tree. Years ago I used to have a pair that visited the yard quite often. I have been looking for them ever since.

The light was too poor to capture these birds well. But it was still nice to be outside altogether.

I have more dribs and drabs to report, but it will be a busy remainder of the week. Still I’ll try to come up for air a little sooner. It does look like April will be starting right off the bat with showers and more. I hope I can get the rain barrels installed and start capturing the gallons.

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.

River Rounds

One snowy day back in February – the 17th, to be exact – I wound up spending a lot of time with a male Belted Kingfisher that I have seen periodically all winter long. As reluctant as I might be to show photos with snowy backgrounds these days, we have snow now in our immediate forecast, and sunshine beats all the odds as far as I’m concerned.

The snow made a great contrasting background for the Belted Kingfisher and it was a delight to have time to focus on his comings and goings along the river that morning.

The Red-tailed Hawk was calmly surveying the scene.

Below, what the river looked like from the Joliet Avenue bridge, and the snowy footsteps preserved in ice on the paved path.

Four days earlier, on February 13, it was a sunny day but without snow cover yet. Sunshine was nice on this Red-bellied Woodpecker.

A Red-winged Blackbird was chasing the Red-tailed Hawk.

Ring-billed Gulls are returning to the area.

That was the last time I saw the Common Merganser couple that was lounging around the river just beyond the Hoffman Tower.

Two last photos of the Belted Kingfisher – your choice – tail up or down?

The weather has been off-and-on crappy and I have not gone out every morning for a walk, but the birds are still on schedule. I hope to be back a little sooner with a few more.

Apologies for the boredom of this post . I kept falling asleep while writing it.


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.