Back to the Portage

But first, a Song Sparrow that somehow didn’t make it into the last post. I have heard Song Sparrows on occasion at the Portage but have not seen many this year.

This is my birthday weekend and if my memory serves me correctly, also the anniversary of this blog although I don’t remember how many years it has been and am too lazy to look it up. I did manage to visit the Portage on Saturday morning and will be back with that report later, but since I started this post two (?) weeks ago I feel obligated to finish it. I just checked. The photos below are from June 13. We were hot and dry. We have since had a lot of rain and flooding, but not quite enough to take us out of the “abnormally dry” category on the Illinois Drought Monitor.

Yellow Warblers nest here and were pretty elusive but I did finally manage to capture this one.

I am always intrigued by the sight of a Red-winged Blackbird chasing a Red-tailed Hawk…

Insects are sparse, which is not news, but makes the few individuals one sees that much more precious. I think I may have identified the two below. I haven’t had to resort to bug spray yet this year, although I do have a few bites I occasionally scratch to remind me it’s not over yet. The effect of insects being sparse, however, is bad news for the dragonflies and birds that eat them.

Hobomok Skipper
Likely a female Variable Dancer.

Cabbage White butterflies have been the most prevalent, and even they seem sparse. They are an introduced species.

For what it’s worth, the volunteers at the Portage have been busy reducing invasive plant species, and it is gratifying to see the natives return. Last time I saw them at work they were cutting away massive swaths of hemlock. Unfortunately it was in flower so it will likely return. But a lot of the burdock from years ago is gone. It’s a slow process.

Hemlock

More often heard than seen – a Blue Jay.

The male Brown-headed Cowbird below intrigued me by the light-colored throat feathers. It might just be a trick of the light.

Below is what I believe is a young Northern Flicker peering out of a nest hole.

The Indigo Buntings are still going strong with their songs and territories and it’s hard to resist them. I have to quit taking them for granted. They weren’t here in these numbers ten years ago.

The Baltimore Orioles have been harder to spot as they tend to their broods, but I got lucky and watched this one as he visited the nest.

Baltimore Oriole nest

So I hope to be back later today with a little yard report. If I could have one thing on my birthday (while it’s still quiet and getting too hot to be outside for very long), it would be to have time to write another blog post.

My best friend from junior high is in town from California for her mother’s 100th birthday and has chosen to stay with me and the birds. Luckily there is a relatively comfortable finished attic – I call it my people space. I bought a new room air conditioner which seems to be keeping it cool enough up there. So I am foregoing my traditional visit to Goose Lake Prairie this year. Maybe I can take off for that grassland later in the month. Today I will enjoy hanging out with my friend and trying to be lazy.

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.

Spring Slowly Unfolds

The weekend before last was warm – but very windy. I went up to the Hebron Trail/Goose Lake Natural Area anyway to see if I could find any Yellow-Headed Blackbirds. I did eventually see them as tiny little yellow-headed black dots far away. It was almost too windy to see any birds well at all.

Farm buildings adjacent to the trail…
The view going…

Where there was a break in the trees, I was surprised to see this one Eastern Kingbird sitting quietly for me to take its picture. I had to think a bit about its identification at such close range!

There were several Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers but they were hard to see.

I don’t know why I make a fuss about Brown-Headed Cowbirds but I still think the males are beautiful.

I had heard Indigo Buntings the day before at the Portage but this was the first one I saw. The closer photographs below are from last year. I will likely get more opportunities this year after the birds establish their territories and start defending them.

Red-winged Blackbirds are easy to see at this location, even on a windy day.

Although it was a hard day for warblers, it was still warm enough for bugs and worms, and I managed to see this Nashville Warbler.

On the trail, coming and going, I saw a Brown Thrasher.

After I had exhausted my patience with the Yellow-headed Blackbirds heard but not seen from the observation deck, I walked a few feet past and stood – only to see a Sandhill Crane take to the air a few yards away. There is nothing quite like seeing a bird with a 77″ wingspan coming toward you.

A few more views…

I was surprised to see a Gray Catbird sitting and calmly looking at me. They are usually quite secretive.

Playing the hiding game was a Yellow Warbler.

Even Song Sparrows were laying low…

A little more Sandhill Crane action…

One more warbler – a Palm Warbler…

Canada Geese are easily dismissed, but they are still striking looking birds.

We are not on the Brood X Cicada a/k/a 17-year locust map this year, but here is a cooperative Cicada from last summer. It hitched a ride into my post with the Indigo Bunting photos.

I have as many more photographs to share as I have other obligations preventing me from doing so. I hope the space between posts will narrow a bit in the not-too-distant future. Hope for the promise of spring.

Looking Back to Spring Forward

I started writing this post to coincide with setting the clocks forward, and now it’s taken me over another week to get back to it. But when considering all the photographs were taken a year and a month ago – on April 19th, 2020, to be exact – and I never got a chance to finish processing them until now, it’s taken even longer! I hope it’s kind of a sneak preview of what to expect in the coming days and weeks as spring unfolds at the Portage.

One of my first encounters was a pair of Downy Woodpeckers exhibiting their exuberant version of courtship behavior. At first I thought they were arguing! I have never witnessed this before so I’m glad I was able to capture it. If you click on the right panel and keep going you can see the sequence.

It appears I had way too many photographs from this excursion which might explain why I never managed to post them. Still it’s nice to revisit them, like the female Northern Cardinal below.

Below, often the first warbler to visit, a Myrtle Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Surprised to find this photograph in the mix – likely my first sighting of an Eastern Bluebird last year.

An Eastern Phoebe, dreaming of flying insects, perhaps.

Another Downy Woodpecker.

Song Sparrows…

Red-winged Blackbirds…

I don’t think there’s enough water on site anymore to attract herons, but there is plenty nearby so I should still see them flying over on occasion.

A Northern Flicker showing just a little of its golden shafts.

There were two Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers on this tree and one flew away.

A Black-capped Chickadee showing off.

A singular turtle…

An assortment of early fungus, moss and flora.

A singing American Robin

Here’s a Golden-Crowned Kinglet – unfortunately the lighting didn’t do its colors justice.

This Brown-headed Cowbird was foraging on the ground.

Canada Geese and the clouds…

Robins often seem like they want to engage in a conversation.

A Wood Duck drake in a tree. I remember trying to get this shot after I saw him land, with a lot of branches between us.

Mallards…

Blue-winged Teal…

So the Portage will still be slowly coming to life, but we’re warming up, the days are getting longer and migration has begun. Springing forward with hope.

Back to Mid-April

In my typical fashion, I have been trying to write this post for the last week and a half. So while we are all wondering how to get through the holidays this year-like-no-other, I feel a sense of loss too, even though I likely would not have had any plans to go anywhere myself. But there’s also a sense of opportunity in any day I really don’t have to think about work.

Even though it was a cool, late spring and in the middle of the pandemic, there’s something oddly comforting these days about looking back.The Portage looks about like this now – no leaves on the trees, everything muted in browns and grays – but the birds are different in appearance, and most of these species have left for the winter. I took way too many photographs on this day, which might explain why it’s taken me seven months to process them. I won’t be doing a lot of explanation…that might take me another seven months. just hope you enjoy the images.

It will be a while before male American Goldfinches look like the one below.

Out over the Des Plaines River that day, there were three Belted Kingfishers flying around. I didn’t do a very good job of capturing them, they were quite far away. But at least one flew close enough to be recognizable.

A returning Song Sparrow
A Blue Jay, blending in with the sky and the barren tree
Waiting to come back to life.

I keep trying to get a decent photograph of the golden shafts on a Flicker and usually fail, but this time I got close.

There were a couple Blue-Winged Teal hanging out with the Mallards.

One Ring-Billed Gull flew over low enough to be identifiable.

Robins started coming back to their territories. The one in the second photograph is barely discernible from the tree it’s in.

Of course nothing says spring like the return of Red-Winged Blackbirds.

It was early enough in the morning to encounter a couple deer.

Please forgive me, I took way too many pictures of Golden-Crowned Kinglets. They are all gone now, but it was a joy to see them return in April.

Downy Woodpecker – the Portage’s most numerous resident woodpecker

Here’s a thrush I don’t see often – a Veery.

I took a few too many pictures of this Ruby-crowned Kinglet too, but at least I did get somewhat of a shot at the ruby crown.

A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker…

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

I am always happy to see a White-Breasted Nuthatch, even though they are with us all year long. I never tire of them.

The light was nice on this Red-Bellied Woodpecker.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Brown-headed Cowbirds are…what they are.