Hot and Dry at the Portage

If my memory serves me correctly, last year we were complaining of too much rain. I remember the tall plants in my backyard towering over everything and wondering if perhaps I should have discouraged them earlier. As it turns out, the tall plants seem to be growing up just as much without rain, but I am in no mood to discourage anything.

Anyway, Saturday I went to the Portage early and encountered John as I pulled into the parking lot. He leads discussions and walks on Saturdays at 10:00 AM regarding the history of the place. He had arrived early, said he was getting into birding but had forgotten his binoculars and wanted to know if he could tag along with me. We had a good time talking and walking along the trail, and he told me the history of the early explorers and how the Des Plaines River was diverted to feed the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. So initially the little bit of water now left to the Portage is part of the original Des Plaines River bed, but nothing feeds it except rain. With that knowledge I am amazed that when I first started coming here, there was enough water to support herons feeding and even a pair of Green Herons nesting. I haven’t seen the Green Herons here for several years now.

This year there doesn’t seem to be water to make it buggy enough to support Eastern Phoebes or Eastern Kingbirds like last year. We do have Eastern Wood-Pewees and Great Crested Flycatchers.

When John and I started up the trail we encountered that large painted turtle featured at the head of this post, on the gravel path. I wonder if it was a female looking for a place to lay her eggs. There haven’t been many turtles visible this year. The drought is affecting them as well.

But then we saw an Eastern Wood-Pewee, who even sang for us. I love these little guys – I often hear them clear across the woods but don’t always see them.

While we paused on the back trail on the other side of the fence, an Osprey flew over.

I was able to show John my most reliable Indigo Bunting whose territory is on the East side of the North bridge. The bunting was happy to pose and sing for us. A recording of his song is below the photos.

John had to leave to get ready for his tour/talk so we parted ways. I will have to attend one of his presentations. I confess I used avoid the Portage on Saturday mornings because of all the extra people, but now I’ve gotten used to it after the pandemic brought in a lot of new visitors.

I continued along the trail in the direction I usually take. The rest of these photos are not in order but they are the only birds I was able to capture. Below is a Red-Belled Woodpecker on the dark side of an oak tree.

I caught this Northern Flicker inspecting a nest hole.

Whatever you may think of Brown-headed Cowbirds, they can still be attractive.

Below is the first butterfly I have seen except for a Monarch here and there. It’s a Skipper, but I haven’t been able to identify it precisely. It was very tiny.

There was a Bald Eagle flying over.

There were very few swallows – this was the only Tree Swallow I saw.

Even the Red-winged Blackbirds were lying low.

I sat on the bench by the parking lot before returning to my car and caught this male Baltimore Oriole foraging around in the low trees at the edge of the lawn.

I decided to forego birding again on Sunday morning and opted to do a little yard work in anticipation of more to come. The Berwyn Historical Society this year decided to start an annual garden walk event on June 19, and my crazy garden, a/k/a postage-stamp-sized wildlife refuge, has been selected. The idea was pandemic-inspired because normally the BHS would be offering a bungalow tour, but since that wasn’t possible, the idea for an outdoor event occurred. My front yard still appears somewhat organized even though its creator, who has since passed, would likely have issues with all the Common Milkweed and other aggressors overtaking his original plan. It was just my luck that a Monarch visited the milkweed a week and a half ago and seemed to be laying eggs so I don’t dare remove any of it. I also have discovered some new visitors, such as Narrow-leafed Blue-eyed Grass.

My backyard is a small forest with a lot of native plants and grasses that need more control than I have been able to do. I am taking the week off before the walk to make as much sense out of it as I can and also to make sure I can identify everything – or almost everything – that’s growing. I have stopped feeding the birds and squirrels, except for the occasional hummingbird or oriole that might stop by, so the rat control project can succeed. The only thing I have to contend with is weather and stamina. So working in the yard is what I am looking forward to next week.

In the meantime I hope to be back with some pictures from previous outings this spring.

Beautiful Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

On May 1st, on a somewhat cloudy morning which turned sunnier, I encountered the first of a few Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers coming to claim their territories for the summer. This provided an unusual opportunity to grab some really nice photographs.

Of course there were other birds available, if not all quite as accessible. Below, my last cooperative Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

Palm Warblers were around – they were in the first wave, so to speak. I may still see one or two but I think for the most part they have moved on to their breeding grounds far north of here.

I did manage to barely capture this Northern Cardinal who was convinced he was pretty hard to see.

I am not sure if Mourning Doves are in decline but according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service their numbers dropped in 2020 from 2018 and 2019. I simply feel as if I have seen fewer of them.

Here’s a little bird I could stand to see more of. Field Sparrow. I likely will see some throughout the summer in their more suitable grassland habitat.

Eastern Phoebes seem to come and go at the Portage so far.

A Canada Goose … and a Turtle. There was slightly more water three weeks ago but the drought was already affecting everyone.

There’s still always a chance to see a Bald Eagle fly over.

Here is a distant Black-Throated Green Warbler that I missed a closer view of while talking to two photographer friends – I was blocked by a tree and thought they were taking pictures of the Palm Warbler I had in the photographs above.

It’s hard not to feel a little disappointed that I have not made it to the Magic Hedge – Montrose – on the lakefront, where as many as 28 warbler species were seen last Saturday. There were also as many as 40 birders. It used to be daunting enough to drive and park when I wanted to go on occasion, and now parking meters are being installed with likely few other options if you don’t find a space. I suppose there are other ways to get to Montrose safely with optics but they all contain extra expense (like an Uber). I would endure public transportation but not with all my gear. I will have to be satisfied with whatever the places I visit have to offer. Birds can still show up anywhere. I hope next year I will not be constrained by my current schedule, and barring any more accidents, I will be able to go out more. Maybe even make a trip to the Magic Hedge.

That said, we are in the 80’s thru Tuesday with a brief drop into the 70’s after that – and praying for rain. I intend to get out early tomorrow for a cloudy walk and see what I can see.

At home, my Zebra Finches are bored with me sitting on the futon working. Up until today I was wearing something they could play with, but today my legs are bare and my half-socks are uninteresting at best. The air conditioning has already come on a couple times to keep us at 79 degrees which is made more comfortable by a couple fans blowing. Summer Mode.

Promises, Promises

I was determined to go out this morning after being tricked by the forecast yesterday which predicted rain that did not happen. If I had not awakened with a sore knee, I might have been tempted to go out yesterday, but I spent much of the day without too much exertion, focusing instead on my three-and-a-half hour cleaning chore last night that was made possible with ibuprofen. This morning I woke up to clouds and wind. Clouds i could deal with, but consistent wind gusts made it prohibitive to go out for a walk, because birds aren’t crazy about windy days. I watched the birds in the yard come and go in between gusts.

These pictures are from last Saturday’s visit to McGinnis Slough. Not a lot going on yet, but at least there was some sunshine. I went to the Portage on Sunday and have decided to make that a separate post.

McGinnis Slough

There are plenty of Red-Winged Blackbirds setting up territories. I also saw one or two females but they were not available for photos. Yet.

In addition to the predictable Mallards there were some other ducks but they were too distant to photograph. Likely if I had my scope I might have seen more species.

Gadwall and Bufflehead

No Great Egrets yet but there were at least one or two Great Blue Herons.

American Coots are always a presence here. They aren’t numbering in the hundreds yet but they will.

It was particularly rewarding to see a juvenile Bald Eagle fly over. The plumage is at about two and a half years old.

Below, a late, extremely backlit American Tree Sparrow.

Quick flyover Osprey…

Always love to see the American White Pelicans, even if they are distant.

A last glimpse at well-preserved seed heads.

Last year’s oriole nests are easy to spot now.

Just one more Coot – closely cropped and brightened up a bit to show of its red eye.

I’ll be back soon with my Portage visit and with any luck I will be going out next weekend, which promises to be warm, sunny and dry – so far!

Snow: Before and After

Hairy Woodpecker at the Portage

Yesterday morning I got up and went to see how the birds were doing at the Portage. It was a cold, windy, bleary morning, and as far as I could tell, nobody was having a good time.

When the large black blob in the distance turned out to be a windblown Bald Eagle, I was encouraged to investigate. I couldn’t get very close to where it was perched high above the railroad tracks.

The Red-Winged Blackbirds weren’t singing much. This one appeared to look as if he was reconsidering his early arrival.

I did finally manage to see one of perhaps four Song Sparrows who were carrying on vocally as if spring had sprung. But he wasn’t flaunting his presence.

Perhaps the nicest surprise was an Eastern Phoebe. I felt for him, though, as there were no bugs to eat and it made me wonder what else he could get by on a couple days before the scheduled warmup.

Even the Robins weren’t having a good time.

The cardinals have been singing for weeks. They started earlier than the Robins. There was one singing along with the piano a few days ago. I was surprised, since the windows aren’t open. He must have heard the keyboard through the front door and I assume he was perched on the little apple tree outside of it. Below is a recording of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and just at the end where I start playing some other chords you can hear the cardinal singing along.

Northern Cardinal at the Portage
Cardinal singing with us toward the end of this clip

This Downy Woodpecker was foraging low with the sparrows.

I never did see if there was a hen sitting on a presumably well-hidden nest who belonged to this Mallard but he was definitely taking it easy.

I really hoped we were done with this snow stuff, although it was less than a minor inconvenience considering I didn’t have to go anywhere and it has now melted away. These few photos are from yesterday afternoon through the porch windows. The wet snow was falling and I didn’t feel like joining the birds in it, but I wanted to commemorate its arrival since I banished all my snow-in-the-yard photos from this “past” winter to external storage to make room for spring.

I’ve gone back to the photos from my August trip to New Brunswick and Grand Manan and hope to follow with a post or two featuring bright sunshiny blue skies shortly.

I hope you are in good health, and pray you are making some sense out of all the chaos. We will get through this.

Portage Promise

Never knowing what to expect but full of expectation is how I approach the Portage on a regular basis. So arriving late last Saturday morning was bound to be a mixed bag. I stopped on the bridge to talk with another birder I’ve run into lately there, and snapped the photograph of the female Baltimore Oriole below. And then as I started to walk, an adult Bald Eagle flew over. I didn’t have time to capture it the first time but it came back and so the image above.

Baltimore Oriole (female)

As usual there were more birds heard than seen at this hour but I was content to see what I did. Indigo Buntings are still evading the lens, but I will have many more opportunities to endure their frustrating behavior.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are abundant and usually hard to spot, but I found this busy nesting pair.

Tree Swallows used to nest here…this one looks like he’s thinking about it.

Tree Swallow

Warbling Vireos…I always hear several of them, but they are normally very hard to see. However this one was singing and perched at a comfortable height for me to capture him.

This is the time of year when dandelions get a bad rap, but I found it interesting to see a Song Sparrow eating the seeds before they had a chance to disburse. So there, I have proof that dandelions aren’t just attractive to pollinators but they are also a source of food for birds, and of course humans. We may need them some day!

One of the two Green Herons was hunting. At one point it took off across the water and caused a sunning turtle to slide off its stump. There were a lot of turtles out. Click on the images below and you can see what I mean.

A few more pictures of Portage breeders… I’m leading one more walk tomorrow morning as an auction donation to Unity Temple and the forecast is for thunderstorms. But the weather changes every few minutes. We had the same forecast for this morning and except for a few thunderclaps around 6:15 a.m. and a little rain, now it is cloudy but clear. I am hoping for the same sort of cooperation tomorrow, it will make dealing with the muddy spots a lot easier.

Red-winged Blackbird (female)
American Goldfinch (female)

It’s been a great year so far for robins taking advantage of all the earthworms the rain has stirred up.

Even with all the rain it’s still better to be outside!

Embracing Zero

NOCA 12-25-17-3476Well, maybe more like Enduring Zero. Sitting inside reliving Ecuador did not seem to be the best way to spend Christmas Day, so I went out for a walk through the Portage and later visited with the yard birds. We had snow on Christmas Eve so the setting was perfect, and if a little cold, at least the sun was shining in the morning. Little did I know at the time that Christmas Day’s weather would be considered balmy by the next day’s standard. And this morning I walked to the train in -4 degrees Fahrenheit, before the wind chill.

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Deer tracks in the snow at the Chicago Portage

I drove around for 40 minutes to various Cook County Forest Preserves beyond the Portage, all with closed parking lots. I am not fond of driving but it was pleasant enough listening and singing along with a Peter Mayer (from Minnesota) CD, and there were hardly any cars and the sun was shining brightly. When I did returned to find the Portage parking lot open, I was the only visitor. The trails were covered the deer tracks.

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White-Throated Sparrow

When I did find a few birds, for the most part they were half hidden.

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The most commanding presence was snow covering everything. Beyond that, I found a few geese and ducks on the Des Plaines River.

Just as I was leaving, an adult Bald Eagle flew over. I didn’t get a picture, but below is a juvenile from last week’s Christmas Count on the Fox River.

BAEA 12-16-17-3400I decided to go home, fill the feeders and hang out with whoever showed up in the yard.

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House Sparrows have learned to hang upside down if necessary…

There were a number of House Finches, and although the light was waning, I was surprised to see the males looking as red as they did.

 

HOFI 12-25-17-3667I am always happy to see Mrs. Cardinal and any hardy little Dark-Eyed Junco.

NOCA 12-25-17-3632DEJU 12-25-17-3562My male cardinal swooped in for a remaining hawthorn berry and posed with it. As if to verify his supreme redness.

NOCA 12-25-17-3657I still have the weather for Quito on my phone. The temperature seems to stay around 58-60 degrees. I think it’s time to go back to the pictures from Ecuador. If you made it this far, your reward is three pictures of Long-Tailed Sylphs. More to come in the next post.

Long-tailed Sylph 11-25-17-0813Long-tailed Sylph 11-25-17-0817Long-tailed Sylph 11-25-17-0801I find some satisfaction in knowing the days are already getting longer.

March On

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Great Horned Owl on nest, Salt Creek Forest Preserve, Cook County

I started writing this post on March 1. WFMT’s Carl Grapentine kicked off March 1’s morning program by playing, what else? Various marches. I was just getting over February.

The end of February was sufficiently balmy to lock  it into the record books with January as being the first time both months went without snow in Chicago.

I birded with my friend Susan last Sunday. We went to Bemis Woods South and the Salt Creek Forest Preserve. It was so quiet I didn’t bother to do a list. We were about to give up on the Salt Creek portion when a man walking in the opposite direction told us to look for an owl, so we continued. The Great Horned Owl at the top of this post made the day. Its nest was easily seen from the trail, and it sat and watched as people went by.

Two more birds from Bemis below, a White-Breasted Nuthatch and Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

March came in like the proverbial lion, returning to chilly, windy temperatures. My reward for venturing out of the office last week was to see my first Yellow-Rumped Warbler in Millennium Park. Nothing rare, but an earliest first for me.

It’s a busy time of year for the birds, as they prepare for spring. Today I visited the Chicago Portage, and although by the time I got there the sunny start was disappearing, and the number of Canada Geese and Mallards was increasing, and there were some more unusual visitors in the air, like the Bald Eagle below with nesting material and a small flock of Sandhill Cranes. The Sandhills were oddly quiet.

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The Bald Eagle was flying east, but I have no idea where the nest might be. That direction was industrial, with the Sanitary and Ship Canal.

Saw and heard my first male Red-Winged Blackbirds today at the Portage, where they have come to establish territories.

There were maybe 40 Mallards spread out wherever there was water, and 5 pair of Canada Geese were checking out nesting spots. I haven’t seen any banded geese this year.

Other than the Red-Winged Blackbirds there were very few passerines, with the exception of a few American Robins and European Starlings. I heard a Song Sparrow, Chickadees, Killdeer, and a couple Downy Woodpeckers were flitting about.

The last Downy Woodpecker I photographed was last week in Millennium Park.

Also present that day, a couple Northern Cardinals and the White-Throated Sparrows who literally yelled their calls from the bushes when they saw me approach our favorite spot.

More Portage views…

cago-and-mallards-portage-2-26-17-9953I hope to be back once more if possible, with an update on my indoor crowd – before I leave for a quick trip to Panama. I’ve been planning this trip for months and unbelievably, all of a sudden it’s here.

noca-millennium-3-2-17-0390Thanks to you all for checking in. Until next time… Peace and Think Spring.

Spring Bird Count

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Eastern Towhee

Here are some pictures from last Saturday’s Spring Bird Count. I did the morning half at McKee Marsh. I have yet to manage lasting long enough to do the afternoon half at Blackwell. It’s hard to get up at 3:00 AM on Saturday after working all week. Maybe next year I can take some vacation days to coincide with migration.

There was still not much going on with warblers, although the storms we have had since have caused considerable fallout along the lakefront and likely this area too.

It was a pleasant surprise to get to the observation deck over the largest portion of water and see a contented looking Bald Eagle, who later reappeared in flight.

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Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher

Another Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher on yet another gray day. And there were more gray birds in and around the water…most everything was too far away to focus.

Tree Swallows were abundant.