Inertia (aka Summer Doldrums)

Female Tiger Swallowtail Yard 7-19-15-1137Spoiled by earlier dramatic fluctuations in temperature which at times were chilly, I find myself now wiped out by the heat and humidity, albeit expected weather but nonetheless daunting. The only way to avoid overheating is to remain motionless. I did as much of that as possible on Saturday.

However Sunday morning was sunny, so I felt compelled to see how things are going at the Chicago Portage. Construction persists. Access to the trail entrance that heads west is still blocked, but both bridges are open again, which made it easier to take the loop on the other side of the creek back to where I started. On the way out, my eye caught a sign that referred to construction of a “new” shelter being among the improvements. I am unaware of there ever having been an old shelter, so this will be interesting. Maybe I’m reading too much into the word “new.”

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Going in from the west makes it difficult to photograph anything early in the morning. But I could not resist a cooperative Indigo Bunting.

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After that for a while it was simply making a record of what I was seeing, even if the picture wasn’t perfect. The distant Great Blue Heron below took off about ten minutes after I took this picture.

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There were two Killdeer skittering about in the duckweedy mud.KILL Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7706

KILL Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7731Also on the other side where I would eventually wind up, a young deer had come down to drink. I have seen deer before but never one so young, alone. I seemed to be catching the last gasp of the early morning activity, which was heartening considering I took my time getting out the door.

Deer Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7678Just about when I started wondering what had happened to all the Baltimore Orioles I saw this young or female bird.

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The Red-Winged Blackbird below appeared to have had enough of the heat and humidity.

RWBL Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7793Of course just when I think I’ve seen everything I’m going to see or have been unable to get pictures of something ephemeral like the glimpse of a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, a surprise occurs. Walking by a large tree at the edge of the water, I saw something huge move in it, determined it couldn’t have been a giant squirrel but had no idea. Then the tree exploded with three large birds scattering in all directions. This turned out to be the Green Heron roosting tree. And one of their offspring flew to a perch in the middle of the water where it sat in surprise for several moments.

GRHE Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7853GRHE Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7870The other great surprise was to run into a human being. Specifically a young man on his bicycle who asked me if there were many birds at the Portage. It then turned out that he was interested in finding out more about birds. What an absolute delight to have been present for him to quiz me on what direction he could take. I sincerely hope he follows his interest. I restrained myself and did not warn him of the addictive nature to this activity. Probably understood anyway if he at all sensed my passion. This is the magic of the Portage for me. I literally never know what to expect.

I should also know better than to expect anything. I was hoping to see butterflies, so I carried around the second camera and lens in my backpack and never took it out. Virtually no butterflies Sunday morning. There were a few dragonflies, but I was unmoved.

But Sunday afternoon seemed to bring butterflies into my garden. The Red Admirals outnumber all the others but at least there were a few more species.

Red Admiral Yard 7-18-15-1111

Red Admiral

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Monarch Butterfly in swamp milkweed. I can’t believe I managed this shot with a 100mm closeup lens from quite far away.

The swamp milkweed has taken over two areas of the yard. I keep hoping, as in Plant It And They Will Come.

Swamp Milkweed Yard 7-18-15-1085One more picture from the Portage below: an Eastern Kingbird. The background looks like another planet to me.

EAKI Chicago Portage 7-19-15-7746

Eastern Kingbird Fantastical Portage  7-19-15-7748The weather is improving, and I will slowly pull out of inertia into the sunshine.


CP300 Piano IMG_1061Life takes its twists and turns and I never know whether I’m going to wake up dreading the inevitable or embracing the challenge – or stuck somewhere in between.

Over the Thanksgiving Day holiday I had time to play piano for the birds…and to again ponder the sad state of my Yamaha P150 which I purchased perhaps 15 years ago, as a dealer’s floor model, and in the past half year or so was no longer inspiring to play. Sometimes it seemed to take forever to warm up to volume. And now a key was sticking, or stuttering loudly. Servicing would probably fix all this, but I would have trouble moving the keyboard into the car, let alone finding someone to service it – not to mention however long that would take, and I would be without an instrument to play.

So as I was looking about for some help with the existing instrument I ran across testimonials about the Yamaha CP300, which apparently has been out for years (but so have I) – and when I read a review from one concert pianist who said he prefers practicing on this instrument, it was all over. Why not get one? About the cost of another trip to Costa Rica, which I am not doing right now: and it would last me a lot longer than a one-week trip.

Knowing the quality of Yamaha’s keyboard instruments, I had absolutely no hesitation to simply press the button and order the new piano keyboard from The biggest obstacle was figuring out how to be home for the delivery, because if nothing else I am no longer capable of handling a 94-pound dead weight myself. And UPS, which gives me warning a day in advance when it will be delivering something as unimportant as a calendar, gave me no warning what time the delivery was going to be attempted. I left work early after tracking the package but missed the driver by half an hour.

Luckily my friends Linda and Ed Rios came to my rescue and we picked up the piano from UPS the night of its missed delivery.

I made the recording above of Eric Satie’s Trois Gymnopedies yesterday afternoon. I have never learned it well enough to memorize it, so there are page turns, but the birds are singing along here and there.

I am in love with the new instrument and I feel like playing again. So much so that I have decided to alter my work schedule a bit in January so I can come in half an hour later a couple days a week and play in the morning before I leave for work. It is a shame to have only the weekends to play and then if I am doing something else in the morning being too tired or busy to play later.

I’ve been able to play more this weekend because my mobility has been compromised by some issues with my right knee. So except for the pain it’s been a relaxing weekend with lots of naps and hanging out with the indoor crowd as I get to know them better. I will see a doctor tomorrow and ask for a shot and an opinion, so I can get back to walking at my usual clip.

Now for a word about Dudley the Diamond Dove. Dudley started laying eggs a couple weeks ago…so she is now Dudlee. I know of two additional eggs that have broken because of where she has dropped them.

Dudlee's egg collection

Dudlee’s egg collection

I have a lot to learn about doves. Apparently with Diamond Doves, both sexes sing. And Dudlee has two sounds. One vocalization is akin to blowing on an empty bottle. But the other is a lovely coo, and it’s always two notes. You can hear her sing it in the video below.

Dudlee hiding behind the broccoli

Dudlee hiding behind the broccoli

I also managed to record the two male Zebra Finches tonight, whose songs are still developing. Thus I have not yet named them. They seem to spend a lot of time fighting over territory, which involves chasing and cursing each other, but they have not come to blows so I guess it’s just a guy thing.

The first one’s song has a refrain, the cadence of which first reminded me of a Black Rail, but he is adding notes to the beginning of it, so I am hoping for a name to reveal itself soon.

The second one gave a little concert tonight as he foraged for nesting material.

So far, the new finch hens have been laying but nothing has hatched. Could be the time of year or simply the time it is taking for everyone to get settled in. Of course Dudlee’s eggs will never hatch, but maybe her gender explains part of the special relationship she has with Blue the lone budgie. She and Blue now share a perch at night and they sit feather-to-feather.

Dudlee in the Kitchen Window

Dudlee in the Kitchen Window

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Blue and Dudlee hanging out above a Society Finch nest

Things are getting back to normal on the most important level: I am playing music for birds again.

Close Encounters of the Bird Kind


Crows, Grant Park, 4-13-2011

I started feeding birds so that I could observe them, get to know them, even try to imagine what it is like to be a bird, I suppose. Birds that possess the phenomenon of flight are wondrous for that alone. Their ability to fly symbolizes freedom, just as the horses I loved in my youth accomplished a land-based form of flight, enabled by power and speed.

Entrance to the bird world with food is common, of course. It’s about the only way you can get a bird’s attention long enough to bother with you. Who can blame birds for not being too curious about us? If anything, we have been creatures to fear. So when I have been feeding birds long enough that they come to trust me, I feel blessed that I am welcome to cross the barrier temporarily that must remain between us, however fleeting the moment. There is nothing more remarkable to me than the velvet sound of a crow’s wings passing close over my head.

Or the direct eye contact with a Robin who stands his ground as I acknowledge his presence.

As I was writing part of this, my zebra finch Pietro landed on my head to check out my hair. Was he only looking for nesting material, or does he sometimes entertain the thought of preening me?

I was wandering about the park on my lunch hour last week, looking for migrants even though it’s too early to expect them, almost having to remind myself to take photographs anyway, even if they were of the same birds I’ve been seeing all year. As I walked up the hill on my way back to work, a woman stopped to ask me if I was a birdwatcher or a photographer and I said a bit of both. That one sort of drives the other. We had a short conversation about my engagement and her lack thereof, I suppose, as I had inadvertently distracted her from her tennis game with my pursuit of birds. I apologized, only to have her thank me. Perhaps tennis was not her calling that day, but she was definitely aware following birds around was mine.

It doesn’t happen too often, but I have affected people before. Years ago when I used to feed the pigeons that followed me around like a train, it was when I was sitting hanging out with them as they clambered over each other to get at the bird seed or landed on my hand or my head (I never, ever got pooped on!) – from time to time a student from the Art Institute would come to draw me or take a picture. Pigeons were my easy entry into the bird world; they have accompanied human settlement for millennia. But they also taught me how to read expression that went beyond that pale orange eye. And I learned to recognize some of them by their distinctive coloring or behavior.

I have to say most of the people I work with who know I am interested in birds usually come to tell me about birds they have seen, and in this I feel as if I have made a contribution. If I have managed to get one more person to pay attention to something in nature that they otherwise would not have bothered, then I have done my job. This week, however, a superior ran into me leaving one afternoon in my usual garb: Chicago Audubon baseball cap, binoculars around my neck, camera slung on my shoulder. She said, “I suppose it’s a nice hobby.” I am sure she was trying to be nice or more like trying to find a way to deal with my get-up, but I took silent offense to the word “hobby” and her lack of curiosity. My obsession with birds, if you will, is more a way of life than a “hobby.” Being in nature is not a hobby. A hobby connotes something someone has taken up because they decide to do it, not necessarily because it picks them. Here’s the dictionary definition: “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation and not as a main occupation.”

It’s true, I am not “paid” to pay attention to birds but I think of it as more of a main occupation than my paying job, so I guess it’s a matter of interpretation.

With birds, it has been more of a calling. At the start of my association with the avians, when the birds came to hear the music, they chose me to tell a part of their story no one else had told before. If it meant telling people they sang in key with the music, maybe that would let people know that birds had something in common with us. As I attempt to do justice to the birds’ story, I am always in discovery, never knowing where the next sentence is coming from.

White-Wing 4/4/12

Gregorio’s Mishap and Recovery

When I got home last Sunday night, after unpacking just enough, the birds were all chattering busily as usual, welcoming me, I guess. At some point doing my chores, I stopped for a moment and remembered Gregorio, but before I could say his name he started singing an extra long version of his song, repeating and repeating, “Gregorio, Gregorio, Gregorio…” I could have had no better welcome.

I haven’t dared write about Gregorio’s trials until I was sure of a happy ending.

Backtrack a few weeks before I went to Ohio: on a beautiful Saturday I was out working in the yard. After a couple hours I went back in the house. There, in the kitchen sink, was a fallen moth trap with a bird stuck in it. A zebra finch male, to be exact. I was horrified, and I felt terrible, because I should have known better than to put moth traps in the kitchen. But I had been getting so tired of the Indian flour moths, I stuck a couple traps on top of the crowded little shelves that jut out over the sink, thinking the birds were too busy elsewhere to get into it, or just relaxed with the thought that the birds have lived in the house for so long with few mishaps, I stopped paying attention to the fact that just in the past few days the zebra finches were starting to explore regions they had ignored for ages.

Zebra Finches on top of the kitchen cupboard

I was just too distracted, lackadaisical, thoughtless to make the connection.

and checking out the inside...

So there he was, my little finch, alive but very still, stuck in the trap, having lost a lot of feathers due to struggling with the adhesive. I reached in and pulled him out as gently as possible. A few of his remaining secondary feathers were stuck together so I washed him gently under warm running water and dried him in a towel. What to do with him? I couldn’t release him, because he wouldn’t be able to fly around high enough to reach the middle door of any one of the finch cages, which is essential if a bird is going to eat in this house. The only solution was to incarcerate him temporarily. And he would have to grow some feathers before my trip, because I didn’t want to add yet another cage to the burden for my bird care person. I had no idea how long it would take for him to grow back his feathers. Right now all I could be concerned about was his survival. (By the way, I could not bring myself to take pictures of him in his worst state.)

I put him inside one of the finch cages temporarily and closed the door while I went down to the basement to find the infirmary. It’s a dumb little cage that I picked up years ago for not a lot of money, and whenever I have a bird to isolate from the rest, I use it. I started thinking about preparing an extra little breakfast tray every morning. I found a water dish and a few accoutrements to make the cage as homey as possible. I knew he would hate being confined, but there was no other option.

When I had the cage ready, I stuck my little bald creature inside and started to look for a place to put the cage, out of the way, perhaps, in the dining room. No, no, no! was the reaction I got from my little prisoner. He vehemently objected to being away from the action, hopping up and down and throwing himself against the sides of the cage, so I set him on top of the coffee table in the middle of the living room, where he could see and hear all the other birds and vice versa. Looking back, I realize that was already a good indicator that he was going to fight his predicament and overcome it.

It wasn’t until maybe the middle of the next day that I figured out it was Gregorio, when I had taken inventory of the other male zebra finch’s songs and he was the only one not singing. Poor little Gregorio. I felt even worse: the past week almost every tape I listened to, Gregorio was singing on it, and I thought I had grown tired of hearing him. Now I didn’t know if I’d ever hear him sing again.

The first few days were extremely awkward. A couple times he hopped out of the cage past my hand when the door was open while I was changing this or that other dish, only to flop down to the floor, where I’d catch him easily. Once he was a little harder to catch, underneath the butcher block island in the kitchen, but I scooted him out and picked him up. He finally got the idea that he couldn’t fly and became somewhat resigned to his fate. I was afraid he wasn’t eating well either, seeming to eat only spray millet, and I lectured him about eating better if he wanted to grow back his feathers. Eat your vegetables! I have a feeling spray millet is like dessert for birds, but even if that was all he was eating I didn’t have the resolve to remove it from the cage to force him to eat something else. It must have been comfort food too.

I don’t think it was quite a week when I heard him vocalize for the first time. He wasn’t singing yet but he was calling. That was encouraging. He was growing little fluffy feathers around his head. I couldn’t tell what was happening with his other feathers; he had lost most of his primaries and secondaries on one wing, and I knew he had a lot of contour feathers to grow back as well. Then one afternoon when I was sitting writing on the futon, his cage right next to me on the coffee table, he sang a little. “Gregorio, Gregorio.” I knew he was on the mend!

A few days before I wanted to release him, calculating his release date was going be five days before I left for Ohio, I had his cage perched on the kitchen counter where I took him every morning and evening to clean and refill things, and I explained I wanted to make sure he could fly high enough to get into a finch cage to eat and that was why he was still locked up. As if to challenge my protective caution, he flung himself all the way up to the top of his little cage. Look at me, I can fly this high, I can reach the cage door. Patience, my little man, patience. It’s only a few days, and we’ll let you out.

Gregorio was eating more of his food, and the fuzz on his head was filling in. Saturday came, and I set him up with his breakfast just in case he had to return to the cage. I put the cage on the coffee table and opened the door. Within seconds he was out. He first tried flying all the way up to a curtain rod and fell down to the floor, disgusted he didn’t make it. But as soon as I thought he might be able to break up his flight into stages, he did exactly that, landing on top of a cage, and then eventually making his way to the curtain rod. You know what they say about great minds thinking alike…

Gregorio upon release

It wasn’t until then that I took a few pictures of him.

bald but brave

When I saw him eating spray millet inside a cage, I knew he was going to be all right.

Gregorio inside a regular finch cage

One time I looked up and he was snuggling with a Society Finch. Another time I saw him paired up with another male zebra finch, which is how it’s gotten to be in this house with only one female zebra finch left, so the guys choose partners, not for sex but for companionship, and it’s really a nice thing to see. I hadn’t been worried about the other birds picking on him, but it was yet another reason to incarcerate him until he got back on his wings.

Well here we are now and I barely recognize him. He still looks a little flat-headed and his tail feathers are a little stiff, but he’s zipping around with all the other birds, up to his old mischievous ways, and needless to say I don’t have any moth traps anywhere the birds can get to.

All the while as I was writing this Gregorio was singing his song. He knows I’m writing about him, and I’m sure he’s trying to add his two cents. He just started up again. Gregorio, Gregor, Gregorio, Gregor…


Day off

Tennessee Warbler

9/11/2011 was a beautiful day, as was the same date 10 years ago. I went looking for migrants in the morning, with the realization that I will be in Lakeside, Ohio attending the Midwest Birding Symposium this coming weekend, where I expect I will continue to see migrants. I may not be able to do much blog posting between now and my return but we shall see.

For what it’s worth, the birds were singing in C minor this morning.

Bird love and interspecies communication, Part 1

The birds were always there but I never noticed them before music brought us together. In those early days when I was trying so hard to figure out who was in the chorus it seemed impossible to ever know them. When they started coming to the window every morning for a snack and to hear me practice–I referred to this later as “The Breakfast Club”–I was astounded to see them flying toward me. There was one Disney/Snow White moment when several House Sparrows all came to greet me as I stood by the open window. I had never noticed before how beautiful their variegated shades of brown could be.

When the doves landed on the window and I made eye contact with them I wondered how one relates to a creature that has flat button-like eyes that have an almost pasted-on appearance. Rock Pigeons in the park downtown were even worse, they had bright orange eyes. And they were always staring at me with one eye or the other. And they grumbled.

As I started to get used to birds flying around me, I began to realize that flight in itself could be a form of communication. I was feeding birds in the city for a while because I wanted to see what they were like in a more natural setting than landing on my window sill. I’ll never forget the first House Sparrow who whisked by my ear after the birds started to recognize me and looked forward to my visits. I realized this was a greeting, a bird hello. The pigeons would all wait for me in the cold weather and when I showed up, they would fly to the ground around me and form a procession, as we all walked slowly up the hill to the bench where I would sit, sometimes one pigeon riding on my shoulder and another on my hat. The human-pigeon relationship has gone on for so long, making pigeons easy to observe. I learned a lot about flock behavior from those birds, and I began to look forward to seeing certain individuals as they revealed their personalities.

Meanwhile back at the ranch I started making friends with Elvis the American Crow, but the first time he made a beeline toward the open window I almost bolted from the room. I held my ground and marveled at the velvet whisper of his wings as he hovered by the window sill to snatch a peanut off the ledge, thinking to myself “crows don’t hover, do they?” In any event I was cured thereafter of infrequent but strange nightmares where foreign creatures were buzzing around my head. I began to welcome flying beings.

It was never enough for me to simply observe birds; I wanted to get to know them. I wanted intimacy, but on their own terms. I would sit back and wait to see what they did, never forcing them to be tame. But with the pigeons, I finally decided to see what would happen if I put something in my hand. It was funny to watch the dominant bird walk over timidly and then bat like hell at my hand with his wing, as if to fight it, although I think he was just trying to get me to drop the loot. Weeks or months later, it may have been the same bird who was sitting on my hand shoeing away the competition, or starting a panic flight and coming back down to feed while the others were still fleeing an imaginary predator.

Years later, Red-Winged Blackbirds fly toward me, red epaulets flashing, whistling, displaying at my feet, begging me for a peanut.


Recording of Mourning Dove and Mozart C Major

Recording of Elvis the Crow from 2001

I was going to write about Music: The Great Communicator, or The Universal Language, but then it started pouring over into What Is It Anyway? Where does music come from? Why is it something we all understand? And of course if I slip into the birds’ perspective, they’ve been doing it longer than we have. But should “music” be the word for only the man-made variety, or does it encompass everything else living and breathing? I tend to think music is everywhere and it exists in places and in forms we don’t yet recognize. Since we’ve created our own brand, or our own way of making music, of course this is what the word “music” describes for us, but I suspect the basis for our musics preceded us all. The creators of the movie, “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” perhaps acknowledged this when they had the alien spaceship land playing a musical or “universal” greeting.

My very unscientific theory is this: after the Big Bang there was a Big Chord. Whether it was a chorus of vibrations accompanied by Hollywood visuals (something akin to the aurora borealis) or a series of emanations from the vibrations produced by the Bang that descended into a chord structure and made the first music, I have no idea.

The sounds birds make, the “songbirds,” at least or the passerines, were perhaps the first creatures whose vocalizations we recognized as “songs.” Now we know insects and whales sing, and at the same time we are still perplexed because our closest relatives, the apes, don’t. Maybe that has more to do with our definition of what a “song” is. I accept the idea that birds sing, and that they’ve been communicating with their songs and calls far longer than we have been on the planet.

Right about the time I became interested in all this, I discovered a book which was compiled from presentations at the first international workshop produced by the Institute for Biomusicology in Venice, Italy, May of 1997: The Origins of Music I will return to this in later posts, but I guess I have a chicken-or-egg question: what came first, the flute or the drum? I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to make a connection between the discovery by archeologists of a most ancient flute and a desire to imitate the sounds of birds. But you can’t have music without rhythm, and maybe from the simplest act of tapping on a rock with a stick to producing more complex rhythm instruments with different tonalities that convey messages, percussion instruments evolved.

As I sit here listening to my birds carry on with WFMT in the background, I am reminded of the ceiling fan that used to be in this room which I finally removed, because it was getting to be too hard to clean and I could never turn it on with the birds flying around. There was a pull chain that made a musical sound when it struck against one of the glass light fixtures on the fan. My budgies used to enjoy playing it along with the music. I recall their playing was always in key. 

Attached are a couple excerpts from my past of wild birds singing along with the music. Elvis the crow was accompanied by my first two budgies, to whom I was talking briefly, it’s the Bach E major prelude, first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier. And the mourning dove has come in at the end of the first movement of a Mozart C Major sonata (I presently forget which one) and sings off and on through the adagio: note how he waits to come in with his song.