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.

Once More with Sunshine

I went back to the Portage Sunday to see if abundant sunshine would allow me to see more birds. As it turned out, it was harder to capture most of the birds – except for the Indigo Buntings who were readily available – but in going through my photographs later I discovered the camera saw more birds than I did and I found some unexpected species. Nothing rare – it’s spring migration, so just about anybody can show up.

Vesper Sparrow

Not only was the Vesper Sparrow unexpected, but I was also surprised to see a Black-Billed Cuckoo, although I have seen them at the Portage on occasion before.

There were swallows like the day before, although not as many. I have concluded that the Northern Rough-winged Swallows fly in a more deliberate fashion which makes them easier to capture. Still I managed to snap one photo of a Barn Swallow in the lower right-hand corner.

So the Indigo Buntings were busy singing in the sunshine. I am convinced they have an artistic sense of the best places to perch for photos. I love the way this one was initially framed by the split of the tree trunk.

Male American Goldfinches are in full bloom too.

The Red-winged Blackbirds are looking a little tired of it all already.

Gray Catbird

I thought I was hearing the tail end of an Eastern Towhee’s song – and then I spotted one way up high (used to seeing them closer to the ground). Below the shots of the male is a partially visible female Eastern Towhee.

I was also hearing an Eastern Wood-Pewee for the first time this spring. I barely captured a picture of one below.

Red bird of the day turned out to be a male House Finch.

The Baltimore Orioles are busy gathering nesting material. Both female and male birds are below.

This is a really unfortunate place for a Lincoln’s Sparrow to show up but I’m glad one was on site anyway.

I walked around back by the water reclamation district and saw three Killdeer. Below is one of them.

There were quite a few Brown-headed Cowbirds. I got closer shots of the female in the grassy area by the parking lot on my way out.

So we really, really need some rain. This is how the Des Plaines looked on Saturday. You can walk down to it easily because the bottomlands are all dried out. Unfortunately because of the lack of water, there were no birds by the river.

So it wasn’t a great day for warblers, but I did manage a few pictures of a female Bay-breasted Warbler.

Can’t leave without a Robin. It’s got to be getting harder and harder to find those worms. The Robin below has a not-so-tasty-looking worm in its bill.

With a little luck I will be back with the prelude to all this before the weekend when I will likely be outside again. There is rain in the forecast but I have learned to become skeptical of the outcome. At least it is still fairly cool, but that will change too. This is all affecting my mood, to say the least. I am looking forward to swimming tonight – a sure antidote to depression.

Migrant Morning at the Portage

I had a lot of other photographs I was going to post from previous visits but they will have to wait. In spite of the rainy forecast Saturday morning, I went to the Portage and even though it was overcast, it was magical. Within a minute or two I had heard 10 bird species. I saw most of them and many more.

Perhaps the first bird I saw and heard was a Baltimore Oriole. There were easily half a dozen males staking out territories. This was the only one sitting out in the open.

I encountered a small flock of warblers fairly early. I was lucky to be able to sit on a big fallen log that has become permanent enough to attract graffiti. The opportunity to sit and look up into the trees was welcome. Below, couple Yellow-rumped Warblers.

I encountered small groups of White-Crowned Sparrows. They were delightful to see, but they weren’t singing. I have had them in my yard for a couple weeks and they have always started singing the minute I open the door. It was nice enough of these guys to pose for pictures.

I’ve been hearing Yellow Warblers for a couple weeks but hadn’t seen one yet at the Portage. But I found this one in my photos.

Yellow Warbler

And then, of course, the Indigo Buntings. I underestimated their ability to look gorgeous even in poor light.

Below is a series of Black-and-White Warblers. There have been times I haven’t been able to capture these guys and girls, so this was a real treat for me.

I think I’ve decided Hackberries are my favorite trees. The birds like them a lot, and the Portage now seems to be full of them. They are in the elm family and I suspect were planted to fill the gaps left by all the elms we lost over the years to Dutch Elm Disease.

Here’s a Black-capped Chickadee demonstrating why he likes Hackberries. They seem to attract good worms.

A few birds I would expect to see all summer…

This female American Robin looks a bit exhausted. She also appears disheveled with her brood patch.
A male American Goldfinch
Gray Catbird
Great Blue Heron flyover

There were at least 30 swallows over the water. I had three species – Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows and Northern Rough-winged Swallows. They are all represented in the slide show below.

I looked up and saw this Scarlet Tanager. I’m going back to see if I can find another.

I always hear at least one White-Breasted Nuthatch but I haven’t seen any for quite a while. This one made up for all the ones I missed.

Song Sparrow

Here’s what a Magnolia Warbler might look like straight above you. Below I have grouped several views of the “Maggies” who always seem to engage with the camera.

There were some barely-there birds…

Blue Jay
Female Cape May Warbler
Female Downy Woodpecker

With one more Magnolia Warbler photo, I am done with this post. We are going to get warm over the next few days. I wish I didn’t have to work, it would be ideal weather to see more birds. But the somewhat crummy weather this morning created conditions for some nice encounters with beautiful birds. I really can’t complain.

Grateful

Not always sure where I’m coming from with one-handed typing, but the slowness with which I have had to express myself has given berth to more measured thoughts, perhaps, and, like bird-watching, there is something almost meditative in it.

Before I stray further, I want to dedicate this post to my dear friend Linda Rios and her husband Ed who got me through my awful post-injury and surgery situation with loving aplomb. It occurred to me after I struggled to finish the last post that I was bereft in my focus and needed to at least acknowledge how much my friends have meant to me during this blotch on my existence.

These photos are from August 29th, mostly taken at the Portage. After I was done there I checked out what the Army Corps of Engineers has done to the part of Ottawa Trail that runs along the Des Plaines River, expecting there wasn’t much to photograph there except for the habitat destruction.

Below, a very cooperative White-breasted Nuthatch.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler below was pretty well-hidden but now that I can’t take any photographs for a while I am glad I managed to get these when I did.

The bird below is a Nashville Warbler.

Red-winged Blackbird

The last of the Baltimore Orioles. I had one visit my feeder later that afternoon…

A juvenile American Robin

There were a few Indigo Buntings still around as late as September 19, which was the first bird walk I led after my surgery. Most of them looked like the two below.

On my way out of the Portage on August 29, I spotted this Cooper’s Hawk who just sat, and sat, and I took way too many pictures expecting that it would do something interesting. I was too exhausted by the time it finally took off.

A little Portage flora – I am always amazed at the height of the trees so maybe the cell phone conveys them somewhat. Then there are parts of the trail that are lined with blooming flowers now – a vast improvement over the burdock from years past.