McGinnis Magic

Trumpeter Swans

After reading one birder’s report of McGinnis Slough being nearly under water, I decided to go see for myself. It was after 11:00 when I got there, so I didn’t expect to see many land birds, but you don’t necessarily go to McGinnis for land birds anyway.

Part of the flooded trail last Saturday.

The parking lot wasn’t flooded, in fact there were more cars there than usual. I got out of my car and started walking toward the water, and I saw the two Trumpeter Swans swimming slowly by – right in front of me. Normally these birds are way far away on the other side of the slough, visible only with binoculars if not a scope. I suppose they were checking out the other side of the pond now that the water had deepened it.

No sooner did I start taking pictures of the swans than I heard a commotion from behind where I was standing. Thus began several hundred if not eventually a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes passing overhead. This was the magical part. I am invariably stuck in the office when cranes are flying over, and now I had them practically all to myself.

Sandhill Cranes
As the groups of cranes began swirling above and around each other, there were what looked like some near collisions.

There were a few ducks close to the western edge, too, that I normally would not see.

Lesser Scaup female with a male Bufflehead in the background
Blue-Winged Teal
Greater Scaup
My only land bird photograph – a Black-Capped Chickadee

I walked as far as I could around the flooding and made it to the usual overlook where there were several young women who appeared to be part of a class outing. That explained the extra cars in the parking lot. They were absorbed in their conversation and I did not interrupt them. After my feast of birds I was not interested in trying to make out the usual dots on the water.

I have to start going back to McGinnis more often. It just occurred to me that on my last visit, there was hardly any water!

Sandhill Cranes

Owls at the Portage

GHOW 04-08-18-9007Last year two fellows I run into occasionally at the Chicago Portage, Steve and Mike, told me they had seen a Great Horned Owl. I believe it was Mike who showed me his stunning photo of the owl sitting on a stump over the water. But I never saw the owl until two weeks ago making my return trip on the trail that runs along the south side of the stream, when I flushed it and watched it fly to perch in a tree on the other side.

Then last weekend I saw two owls perched on the same branch, looking down at me. The first owl decided to take off when I lifted the camera, but the second owl sat there and stared sleepily at me.

GHOW 04-22-18-0989So are they a pair? Most likely. I suspect the first owl is the female as it is larger. Then I wonder if they have a nest somewhere or if they’re shopping for one. Will I see baby owls? It’s more excitement than I can handle at the moment. But I do suspect that the owls’ presence will keep the other raptors I normally expect to see at the Portage away.

The Portage keeps changing. More trees coming down. I was saddened to see one of my two favorite birch trees in smaller pieces. I can’t imagine what was wrong with it.

I have seen Blue-Winged Teal the last two visits as well. I suspect they’re just visiting though and will go elsewhere to breed.

And a Canada Goose seems to have found her nesting spot in tree trunk.

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Two weekends ago, it was Golden-Crowned Kinglets…

Last weekend there were a few Yellow-Rumped Warblers, although only one captured by the camera.

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I was very happy to see a Tree Swallow last weekend.

Not so many sparrow species. Song and Fox Sparrows, still a few Juncos, and American Tree Sparrows still hanging on through the cold not-quite-spring-weather-yet.

Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow above, Dark-Eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow below…

Woodpeckers: Downy, Red-Bellied, Northern Flicker…

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker

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Northern Flicker

A few more captures before I go… White-Breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, preening Mallard, American Goldfinch.

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Brown-headed Cowbird

These pictures were all taken on April 8 and April 22. Unfortunately I don’t expect I’ll be getting near the Portage again until May 12 when I’m leading a small group on a bird walk as my donation to the fundraising member auction for Unity Temple. Until then, I will be traveling at a slower pace. Yesterday I had stem cell replacement therapy on my right knee. The procedure itself was not too awful, indeed I told the physician that his description of what he was about to do to me was far worse than the actual operation and I am hopeful recovery goes smoothly. I’m feeling better than last night: I woke up with very little pain, so now it’s more a matter of keeping stable using crutches for a couple more days to keep weight off the joint whenever I can. I’m looking forward to the final portion of the therapy on Tuesday which involves a simple plasma injection. If the weather is nice, which it is predicted to be, I will be spending the time in between blood draw and later injection birding North Pond and the Peggy Notebaert Museum grounds, a local birding hotspot right across the street from the medical building. I couldn’t have picked a better location to have this done!

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Secrets of the Chicago Portage

Portage 5-1-2016-8019The fact that this place always looks like it may have started on another planet never escapes me, and now I may have some insight into why.

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Baltimore Oriole

But first I’d like to share a few photos from last Sunday, just as the rain was stopping. I managed to count 40 species, some of which I never saw but recognized by their vocalizations. So spring migration, in spite of whatever weather challenges the birds face, goes on regardless.

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Spotted Sandpiper

My first bird willing to pose was this Spotted Sandpiper. I can’t recall ever seeing one so true to its name. Later I encountered two other common shorebird species, the Killdeer and Solitary Sandpipers below.

Waterfowl was present but not much worthy of a photo except for a solitary Blue-Winged Teal.

Blue-Winged Teal Portage 5-1-2016-7661The only warblers willing to engage with the camera were Yellow-Rumped and Black-Throated Green Warblers. All the warblers I saw were in the same tree. I had a Blackburnian Warbler which is always a treat, but the poor light just wouldn’t do him justice.

Still here’s the Blackburnian on the left and a Palm Warbler on the right.

And for a blue-gray day, a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher.

Below is a Brown Thrasher who was singing enthusiastically. I neglected to take my recorder with me but shot the video beneath his picture which recorded some of his song. This is a mimid species, which means he imitates other calls and recites them, singing each call twice. Toward the end of the video a Red-Winged Blackbird sings.

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So I have to hand it to the woodpeckers for keeping things lively.

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I was a bit surprised to see a male Belted Kingfisher land and sit still.

BEKIPortage 5-1-2016-8052And this Red-Tailed Hawk became a bit annoyed with me when I noticed him sitting very still and trying to blend in with the tree.

Close to the end of my outing I found the female Scarlet Tanager below.

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But now for the surprise. As I was almost leaving, a cyclist stopped on the bridge where I stood to talk about the Portage. He said he had been visiting this place for 40 years. He didn’t look a day over 52 so I guess he’s been visiting since he was a youngster. Anyway, he told me years ago companies were dumping chemicals here and the water turned numerous bright colors. He also said he had talked to some of the Cook County foresters who were removing trees and they told him they had never seen such strange decay in some of the trunks.

I tried to find some documentation about what he told me but so far I have been unable to find anything specific to the Chicago Portage. I suspect the Environmental Protection Agency postdates the dumping, of course. This explains a lot to me about this strange little oasis in development. It’s sad, but then it’s also encouraging to see how nature rebounds, I guess.

It remains to be seen what the county’s plans are for this place. The cyclist also mentioned something about a commuter train going all the way to Joliet running along I-55 and a transportation hub at Harlem. Just a stone’s throw from the Portage. I can wait.

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Spring, Summer, Fall – Which is it?

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Blue-Winged Teal

It seems we have been through all the seasons in the course of one week. But in spite of the weather, the days are getting longer and although my efforts to observe spring migration have been limited, I still have a post within me struggling to get written.

I went to McGinnis Slough on Saturday. It was overcast but warmer than the past couple days, and not yet the predicted 80 degrees for Sunday. Sunday birding was out of the question anyway as I was singing with the Unity Temple Choir. More about that below.

The surprise right off the parking lot was to see several Great Egrets fishing and a couple Great Blue Herons as well. I expect to see these birds this time of year, but to have so many on the viewer’s side of the slough was what surprised me, although I did not get close enough for great shots because I didn’t want to risk disturbing them anymore than I already was…

Passerines were few and far between.

There were distant American White Pelicans although a couple came in for a second or two.

Among American Coots, Ring-Necked Ducks, a couple Buffleheads and a Scaup or two there were several Northern Shovelers.

Above, a surprise visit from a Muskrat, and a Double-Crested Cormorant drying off.

Maybe my best captures were the Caspian Terns.

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Caspian Tern McGinnis 4-23-2016-6861At opposite ends of the slough, I ran into two other individual birders and we exchanged information. The second one suggested I go to the newest section of Orland Grasslands to look for Lapland and Smith’s Longspurs. I find it a bit funny that I exchanged names with neither of these people, but it’s probably all any of us can do to talk to each other with the distraction of looking for birds first and foremost in our minds.

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A section of Orland Grasslands

By the time I got to Orland there were no Longspurs that I could see, but I did have a couple Horned Larks. Next time I’ll go there first and maybe get luckier.

A well-camouflaged Killdeer was present also…

Killdeer Orland 4-23-2016-7096And more Caspian Terns.

Caspian Terns Orland 4-23-2016-7108As for Sunday’s choir performance, below is the poster that tells it all.

Beatitude Mass for the HomelessThis beautiful and moving experience will be part of me for a long time to come. And in a moment of reflection later, about the unifying experience while we were singing, I realized maybe I gained an insight into something the birds do all the time…

So I wrote a little poem about it:

 A choir takes flight.
Sopranos, altos, tenors, baritones, basses all come together
As one organism, on the wave of a vibration
One sound with many voices.
Imperceptibly, a slight hesitation explodes rapid-fire through the entirety,
The entrance dangling in the balance,
Just as imperceptibly, swept back into the fold of the music
Like a murmuration of starlings
Carried far above the trappings of gravity
Weightless,
Wait-less,
Into the rafters

Chicago Portage Surprise

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Blue-Winged Teal

I went to the Portage last Sunday and meant to report back earlier but the work week got the better of me. So while I am sitting here sharing the sunshine with the indoor crowd and not feeling too bad about it since there’s about a quarter of an inch of snow on the ground from last night…

The Blue-Winged Teal at the top of the post were swimming around when I first saw them but as I tried to get unobstructed views to photograph, they flushed, and sadly the best picture I got was of two in flight. I hate flushing birds but as I progressed along the path I think all 8 of them would have left anyway.

It’s still surprising to me to see people working on Sunday, but there these guys were, working on the new shelter right off the parking lot.

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With the unseasonal weather confusion, still seeing some winter species like the American Tree Sparrow below.

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American Tree Sparrow

I took the photos of these two female ducks before identifying them. The one on the left appears to be a female American Black Duck. The one on the right, however, appears to be a hybrid American Black Duck-Mallard female. It took me a while to figure out the second one. My reasoning for the ID on the second one is the plumage.

There was also one Canada Goose sitting in the water but so still she appeared to be sitting on a nest.

An Eastern Phoebe was my first of the year at the Portage. Even though I saw this bird in two locations I suspect it’s the same one.

Such was the grayness of the day that even pieces of wood appeared to be possibly alive.

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Below, two Mallards dabbling in their bottoms-up fashion and a male Mallard.

There were a few American Goldfinches present, none showing any more color than the one below.

And there are always Downy Woodpeckers.

American Robins are always here too, only now beginning to look fancy.

An average day at the Portage, perhaps. But then The Big Surprise occurred as I approached the parking lot and this Bald Eagle flew over my head. It appears to be an immature bird, Bald Eagles attaining their adult plumage after about five years, so the head, for instance, is not completely white.

But to see a Bald Eagle in my neighborhood – well, it is around the Des Plaines River, but still, barely a mile and a half from where I live – this is really amazing to me. Apparently not unusual, though, because when I reported it to ebird my sighting was not questioned.

BAEA  04-03-2016-5337Below is another shot of the Eastern Phoebe. I love these birds, they’re so cooperative.

EAPH 04-03-2016-5231I owe you one more post from Nicaragua and then maybe the snow will melt for good and we can get started with spring!

Fall Frustrations

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Nashville Warbler, Columbus Park

The days are getting shorter, there are still fall migrants coming through, the weather has been beautiful the last day or two and I feel like I’m running around in circles just trying to get normal things accomplished, and then I’m out of time for everything. Everything being the moment to sit still, observe, reflect, be…

Magnolia Warbler, Columbus Park

Magnolia Warbler, Columbus Park

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler

Northern Waterthrush

Northern Waterthrush

Black-and-White Warbler

Black-and-White Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Tennessee Warbler

Truth be told I did not stay in last Sunday because the rain was threatening but not really materializing, so I managed to visit the Portage and almost envisioned doing a post about what surprises were there, but I keep succumbing to that temptation (“What’s your favorite photograph?” “The one I just took”) and then I never get back to documenting previous outings. So while I have been recalcitrant catching up with other bloggers I am going to try at least to catch up a bit with myself.

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American Redstart

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Whatever my obsession to try to hold on to the last experience, these pictures are more from the 13th trip to Columbus Park, which is a park on the west side of Chicago, making it barely a stone’s throw away. There’s a nice water feature going on at the park, and perhaps the star was a juvenile Black Crowned Night Heron contemplating how to make a living.

Black-Crowned Night Heron

Black-Crowned Night Heron

Columbus Park

Columbus Park

Also present, a Pied-Billed Grebe and a Great Blue Heron. I don’t recall if I realized the Blue-Winged Teal was eating a crabapple when I took the picture but it seems a little odd.

Pied-Billed Grebe

Pied-Billed Grebe

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron

Blue-Winged Teal eating crabapple

Blue-Winged Teal eating crabapple

There were two young Cooper’s Hawks present.

Cooper's Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

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A fellow participant pointed out the caterpillar to me. I did not have my macro lens handy so it’s not a great picture, but I think it looks like a sphinx moth. I confess to being very lazy and I have not tried to look it up.

Caterpillar

Caterpillar

I must leave this page, it’s getting late and I have to get up and go to work. I hope to return in a better mood. Tomorrow night is the first rehearsal for the choir I have signed up for. I have received the first email from Bill Hilton about November’s Costa Rica trip. There’s room for more participants: he didn’t say how many we were but the optimum number is 12. Time for me to start thinking about this trip. I’m looking forward to contributing to Bill’s research for a week.

Juv BCNH Columbus Park 9-13-14-5547

Invasion of the Nesters

Tree Swallow Nest, Chicago Portage

Tree Swallow Nest, Chicago Portage

Yesterday, whatever holiday you may have been celebrating, was also a beautiful day in the Chicago area. For that matter, Saturday was quite wonderful as well: I had a visceral perception of my depression lifting and concluded it must have been directly related to abundant sunshine. Although having a new car to drive to the pool and grocery shopping didn’t hurt either.

Ottawa Trail Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois

Ottawa Trail Forest Preserve, Cook County, Illinois

Sunshine aside, it was warm yesterday as well. I started out at Ottawa Trail around 8:00 a.m. wearing a t-shirt, sweat shirt and windbreaker. I shed the sweatshirt before I left and by the time I got to the Portage at 10:00 I was minus the windbreaker too.

Robin with nesting material, Ottawa Trail

Robin with nesting material, Ottawa Trail

For all the warm weather, there weren’t an awful lot of birds at Ottawa Trail, but improvements have been made and it’s easier to walk all the way now, it doesn’t stop abruptly anymore and insist that you be in good enough shape to climb down and back up a 3-foot cement retaining wall, while still leaving enough of the former demolished structure to stop and rest, lay down your optics and take off your sweatshirt to stuff in a backpack.

Turkey Vulture

Turkey Vulture

It’s always nice to see a Turkey Vulture flying overhead. Another raptor seen here was a Cooper’s Hawk but the photographs were good only for later verification of its ID.

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The designated Black-Capped Chickadee greeted me.

Blending in at the Ottawa Trail

Blending in at the Ottawa Trail

The image of a Canada Goose above explains to me how even if you have black and white markings on your body you can still blend in with the scenery.

Blending in at Ottawa Trail

Blending in at Ottawa Trail

Walking back along the Des Plaines, I saw something black and white across the river but had no idea what it was until I got it in the camera view. The nesting spot above looks like a fort.

Tree Swallow Nest

Tree Swallow Nest

I stopped at the Jewel-Osco and then went on to the Chicago Portage to see what, if anything, had changed over the week. The ground is a lot drier, leaving the bottomlands almost drained. But I was quickly awakened by chirps of dueling Tree Swallows. The one I photographed most was protecting his prime nesting spot in a dead stump right by the south foot bridge.

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It occurred to me that a lot of male birds were strutting their stuff yesterday, and with good reason. “It’s my job to be beautiful – go ahead, look at me! Just don’t look at my nest!!”

Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

The Canada Geese were defending their territories too, sometimes quite vigorously.

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I must have startled this Mallard, but he gave me some interesting shots.

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Blue-Winged Teal have decided they like the Portage. I wonder if they will stay. I counted four pairs yesterday!

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

Blue-Winged Teal, Chicago Portage

The first picture below illustrates how well they can blend in too. The second shows a flash of that blue wing.

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There was another warbler I have yet to identify from many crummy pictures, but below is the only Yellow-Rumped I could find.

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There were two Blue-Gray Gnatcacthers chasing each other, probably over that nesting thing.

Blue-Gray Gnatcactcher, Portage

Blue-Gray Gnatcactcher, Portage

Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers won’t nest here, they travel much farther north. But it sure was nice to see this guy in his breeding plumage.

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker

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I am sparing you a lot of Painted Turtle Pictures this time, although they were out in great force soaking up the sun. Below is my cooperative Tree Swallow once more.

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I will try very hard to come back one more time before leaving for the Edwards Plateau in Texas on Friday.