Deep Freeze

I wasn’t going out today. At least not for a walk. I got out of bed later than usual. The birds were waiting to be fed as the bright sunshine poured through the east windows. By the time I got done feeding everyone I had convinced myself the sun was shining and there was no reason not to go for a walk, so I put on extra layers and drove over to the Portage where I was the only car in the lot.

Plenty of people had been there yesterday after the snow. Yesterday wasn’t such a bad day by comparison but I was preoccupied with the snow and stayed home. This morning we were in the single digits. But the sun was shining and there was no wind to speak of. So I walked – and I’m glad I did. My mind and body seem to need this.

Below, footprints in the snow that preceded my visit. But still better than the ice from my last visit four days earlier.

There were not a lot of birds on either day, but I was delighted to see an albeit rather distant American Kestrel land on top of a tree this morning just as I approached the first bridge. I took several photographs like the one below and then managed to capture its departure.

The first bridge

I always take photos of the landscape just to see how it changes with the seasons… There seemed to be a lot of deer tracks across the frozen stream. And then there was a family of deer.

I was fortunate enough to visit with a greeter Black-capped Chickadee for a moment.

On the earlier visit with the little camera I managed to get the images below of Northern Cardinals and an American Tree Sparrow. I saw none of these species today.

Front and back of the statue – today with snow, on the 21st without.

American Robins from my first visit and today. You can see how much colder it was today by how fluffed up the Robin below is.

I also managed to get a few photos of White-throated Sparrows both visits. The closest ones were with the little camera – better weather and a less-intimidating lens, perhaps.

I noticed the wasp nest had a nice snow cap.

There was a Red-tailed Hawk on my way out, but it refused to stay put in its perch locations long enough to photograph and I didn’t capture it well enough in flight to reproduce here.

When I got home, I decided to walk around the back with the camera to see if I could sneak a few shots of my yard birds. They know me best for when they can expect me to fill the feeders. The rest of the time they tend not to tolerate my presence outside much. They are so exposed right now. It will be easier to hang with them when the trees start filling out with leaves.

The American Goldfinches are my steadiest customers up until about 3;00 in the afternoon. I fill up the new thistle feeders every day so more of them can feed at the same time. Every morning there are at least 30 to 40 of them. This is the first winter in a couple years that I haven’t had Pine Siskins visiting the thistle feeders as well.

American Goldfinch

House Sparrows…an exiting House Finch and American Goldfinch…and some Goldfinches on the thistle feeders. Those feeders were full this morning before I left.

I won’t know if I’m going for a walk tomorrow until I venture out into the yard. Dangerous wind chills are in the forecast. But if the sun is shining as brightly as it did today, it may still seem tolerable. I like to walk at Riverside which is a shorter trek lately anyway, and it’s on my way to the pool. Either way, I likely won’t be going out until something like 9:30. Swimming will be cold enough. I noticed Monday night that the pool has more pockets of colder than warmer water. Keeps me moving!

Miller Meadows Hawk Fest

Way back on September 7 when I had just begun my new retirement protocol of birding every morning there was good weather, I decided to visit Miller Meadows which is directly across from the health club where I swim, with the idea that I could then go swimming afterwards. I had seen hawks flying on occasion from the health club parking lot, so I should not have been surprised by the number of hawks I saw that morning. It started off with an American Kestrel backlit in poor light. I don’t get to see Kestrels too often so I was happy to take some far-away pictures anyway.

Perhaps what I wasn’t prepared for was the degraded landscape. Invasive teasel has overtaken much of the meadow.

There were a few Palm Warblers trying to make something out of nothing. They were also the first I had seen this fall.

Hawks apparently found the landscape attractive for hunting. I saw several Red-tailed Hawks kiting over the open field, and was fascinated to observe this behavior. There was a Northern Harrier as well. The harrier photos are directly below, and all the rest are various Red-tailed Hawks. How I managed to capture enough detail at considerable distance still surprises me, but also encourages me to continue what otherwise sometimes seems a fruitless endeavor. These are all closely cropped, but if you click on the photos it’s kind of nice to see how the Red-tailed Hawks navigate the air.

The Northern Harrier is below.

i did see an Eastern Kingbird…closer to the ground!

A view of the paved path with phragmites, another invasive species, on the left.

I always try to appreciate at least one American Robin.

Back down on the ground in early September there were still butterflies.

And some interesting beetles… I found my Beetles book but I got even more confused trying to identify them so they will remain nameless – unless you can tell me who they are.

I will continue poring through the last two or three months’ outings for photographs as we are having some more of the rain we didn’t get in the spring. Cloudy, drizzly weather has its advantages, I guess. The disadvantage is lots of mud in the backyard…

Blood, Birds and…Crutches?

Green-Winged Teal

Tuesday morning I headed out for the doctor’s office with my camera, backpack and a water bottle, because by now I knew the routine: start with a blood draw and return hours later to have my own enriched blood returned to my body. The four hours or so in between procedures was an opportunity to walk through the lakefront parks, specifically the Lincoln Park Zoo environs. It was cool and cloudy, but I was determined to go birding because I knew it was likely my last outing for at least a week or two.

American Kestrel

I was early for my appointment, so I got off the bus at Fullerton and walked in along North Pond. The first bird I saw was the kestrel above. It was just far enough away to practically elude my 300mm lens. A bit later there were two Downy Woodpeckers and a strangely decorated tree.

After 20 or more vials of blood (I thought it best not to count, but it was practically a whole tray full) I was on my own until 2:00 p.m., so I started slowly on my walk. I decided to visit South Pond since I had never been there for birding as far as I could recall, and there were two rare-for-this-time-of-year birds hanging out there. South Pond is part of Lincoln Park Zoo. I basically avoid Lincoln Park Zoo because parking is ridiculously expensive, but the Zoo itself is free and because I had arrived on public transportation, this was a delightful discovery. On the way, I encountered a pair of Northern Cardinals. Then it was on to the water.

American Wigeon

Basically the two rare birds were the Green-Winged Teal at the top of the post and the American Wigeon. But there were a number of other birds to see quite well in the water. And since I haven’t been able to visit the lakefront nearly every day like I used to, I was quite happy to get up close and personal with a few individuals.

The zoo-resident flamingos don’t “count” but they were fun to see, adding a tease of warm-climate connection to a drab Chicago winter.

Of course there were plenty of Canada Geese and Mallards, but there were also a couple Northern Pintails, Ruddy Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, Common Goldeneyes and Wood Ducks.

Ruddy Duck
Male Hooded Merganser

I’m so glad I got the opportunity to see these lovely ducks before I went under the needle, so to speak. My blood went back into my right knee and my left foot. My right knee was already familiar with this sort of thing from months ago so it didn’t seem to be too bothered by it, but my left foot was not happy for the rest of the day and evening, which made hobbling around the house a bit difficult. Thanks to my friends Linda and Ed for picking me up and taking me home from the train station. I decided upon one crutch to use more as a deterrent negotiating the commute on Wednesday, when I was good enough to walk to the train, however slowly. By Wednesday evening I was feeling much better and by Thursday I was practically dancing. I still have a little residual pain and swelling but it’s encouraging to be recovering so quickly and I am hopeful this might be it for a while. I am disappointed to learn that my doctor is moving his clinic away from the park, though!

Raptor Reminiscence: Hawks on the Move

Turkey Vulture, IBSP

Turkey Vulture, IBSP

Two Sundays ago, I joined a field trip organized through the Evanston North Shore Bird Club to the hawk watch at Illinois Beach State Park (“IBSP”). I have known about the hawk watch for years but never managed to get there until now (it’s an hour-and-a-half drive, which usually discourages me). But it’s a treat to visit IBSP altogether. The expanse of fairly undisturbed habitat along the lakefront is restorative.

IBSP Hawk Watch 1I2A3583

The hawk watch is a special, different kind of bird watching. Basically it’s sitting or standing around and waiting for raptors to fly over. And when the raptors are too far away to identify by field marks, it’s great to have the counters available to help you identify them by shape and flight pattern. Luckily not all the birds were that far away.

Red-Tailed Hawk, IBSP

Red-Tailed Hawk, IBSP

Red-Tailed Hawk, IBSP

Red-Tailed Hawk, IBSP

Northern Harrier, IBSP

Northern Harrier, IBSP

Then this past Sunday I birded much closer to home. My friend Lesa met me at Miller Meadow and we walked around there for a couple hours.

American Kestrel, Miller Meadow

American Kestrel, Miller Meadow

From the beginning, we kept running into this American Kestrel who was hunting the preserve. Eventually we were treated to our own miniature hawk watch. As we started to turn back, we counted a Cooper’s Hawk, four Red-Tailed Hawks, a Northern Harrier, a Golden Eagle and fifty-five Turkey Vultures.

Northern Harrier, Miller Meadow

Northern Harrier, Miller Meadow

Turkey Vultures kettling, Miller Meadow

Turkey Vultures kettling, Miller Meadow

Turkey Vulture, Miller Meadow

Turkey Vulture, Miller Meadow

I did not manage to get pictures of all the birds that flew over but considering that most of the year you feel lucky to see one or two raptors on an outing, seeing so many fly overhead was quite exciting.

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron

Juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron

Earlier in the day, we also had a migrating juvenile Black-Crowned Night Heron… sometime before the 200 or so Canada Geese that had been feeding in the fields took to the air.

Geese 1I2A3696

Canada Geese

Chasing Predators: In Search of Snowy Owls and Prairie Falcons

Falcon Sky IMG_9454_1

Unidentified Falcon

Reports came last weekend from Coles County, Illinois–farm country about 3 hours south of Chicago–of sightings for two rare visitors: Snowy Owl and Prairie Falcon.

Even though Illinois is a “prairie” state, a Prairie Falcon sighting is a rarity. I saw one fly by in New Mexico last year but it’s a bird I would definitely like to see again. So I gladly joined three friends (as an aside, when we go out on expeditions together we call ourselves the 4 L’s or the Four Elles, all of our names beginning with “L”) for a day trip Sunday to comb the farm roads searching for these elusive creatures.

Farm Road wih Horned Lark - can you find it?

Farm Road wih Horned Lark – can you find it?

Alas, we did not find our target birds. An hour or two into our drive, in fact, we read a report of two Snowy Owls at Northerly Island back on the Chicago lakefront, the direction we were driving away from. But they were being harassed by…my crows, I’m afraid, and eventually left. I have reason to believe they are my crows evicted from the former Daley Bicentennial Plaza now under current destruction; earlier this winter an increase in the crow population was reported at Northerly Island. Crows would be the first to notice the Snowy Owls. But I’m also thinking if they had not harassed the owls, the owls might have gone unnoticed. There’s nothing like crows to detect the presence of predators and call your attention to them. Come to think of it, we could have used a few crows on Sunday to find the falcon for us…

Kestrel Hunting IMG_9321_1

Our first bird was an American Kestrel, hunting in a field, then perched on the wire,

Kestrel w prey IMG_9382_1

that just would not become a Prairie Falcon. It had a vole and was trying to eat its prey, but we couldn’t get close enough for decent photographs.

Kestrel w prey IMG_9383_1

Kestrel w prey IMG_9384_1

I’m afraid he got tired of us watching him.

After several more Kestrels, which I was still thrilled to see as they have all but disappeared from the Chicago area, we did have another falcon… this solitary creature, which might have been a Merlin. The bird appeared to be a juvenile, whatever it was. No matter how much we tried to make it into the sought-after species, it sat quietly in the middle of the field, no doubt amused by all the people peering at it, by now, with scopes from both sides, knowing we were too far away to get really decent looks.

Falcon IMG_9493_1

Even though these pictures are hardly worth publishing, we Four Elles had a great time, over the course of the day getting great if brief looks at Rough-Legged Hawk and Northern Harriers, lots of American Tree Sparrows and Horned Larks, and it was our last chance for sunshine for quite a while. The days are getting longer, but it seems the winter weather is just beginning.