A Rare Visitor and a Lifer

Harris's Sparrow, Lurie Garden, Millennium Park

Harris’s Sparrow, Lurie Garden, Millennium Park

Wednesday afternoon I caught Joan Norek’s post on IBET (Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts) in my email about a Harris’s Sparrow at Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. David Johnson had posted the initial sighting but I was so late checking my email I was unaware of it until I saw Joan’s follow-up. Wednesday was the third day in a row I was not carrying the camera with me because of rain and clouds. But I was also going stir crazy, and I had enough peanuts for the crows, so I decided to walk over to Lurie Garden to see if I could find this bird. I have perhaps been within striking distance of seeing a Harris’s Sparrow over the years but have never managed to see one. It was worth checking out and if nothing else it was good to go for a walk.

Cloud Gate sculpture, Millennium Park

Cloud Gate sculpture, Millennium Park

As it turned out it wasn’t raining, just misty/drizzly and yes, overcast. But I had my new cell phone with me and it was probably time to see how much of a picture I could get with it. So I took pictures of various things along the way to Lurie Garden at the southeast end of the park. It seemed hopeless to try to get a picture of anything so small as a sparrow. Even a large sparrow, Harris’s being our largest species.

Harris's Sparrow with iPhone

Harris’s Sparrow with iPhone

HASP Lurie 10-15-14-0393

Again with the iPhone – you really have to dig to find the bird in this cropped photo

I did find the Harris’s feeding in the beds that have all gloriously gone to seed and are left that way to feed the birds over the winter. There were also very many White-Throated Sparrows, some White-Crowned Sparrows, and a few Swamp and Lincoln’s Sparrows. But when I found the Harris’s I stayed with him and talked with him and made him promise he would be available for photos the next day when I brought the real camera.

Harris's Sparrow

Harris’s Sparrow

Sure enough I returned Thursday with my fall migration getup, which basically now consists of a Canon EOS 70D and a 100-300mm L lens, and that’s only thanks to acquiring an inexpensive but practical camera backpack from amazon. The light was again nonexistent but this is a less critical event in an open space such as Lurie Garden. And even though I could not get pictures of the Harris’s without him being obstructed somewhere by grasses or the wild quinine he was eating, I like the way he blends in and contrasts at the same time (“you are what you eat”!). This also reminds me of something I learned from Bill Hilton Jr. on the Belize trip, about birds (and other creatures) getting their feather colors from the plants they consume.

As David Johnson described in a later post, the bird was very tame. But “tame” is not a favorite word of mine when it comes to birds, so I would rather describe the bird, at least when I saw him and took more photographs, as very hungry and nonplussed by my presence. “Go ahead, take all the photos you want, I’m fattening up for my trip to Texas” or wherever he’s going to wind up.

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I looked up the distribution range for this bird and the map explains perfectly to me why I am not likely to see this bird in Illinois, even in migration, so I am really thrilled to have gotten such long, loving looks at him and I will remember this bird next time I see it.

Harris's Sparrow Range Map - Cornell

Harris’s Sparrow Range Map – Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Also at Lurie Garden on Thursday, many more White-Crowned Sparrows than White-Throated, and this time I did not see any Lincoln’s although they could still be about.

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

Juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow

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Adult White-Crowned Sparrow

Adult White-Crowned Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

White-Throated Sparrow

The goldfinches are still having a great time at Lurie, even if the one below looks less enthusiastic about it.

American Goldfinch

American Goldfinch

On the Great Lawn close to the entrance to Lurie Garden there were perhaps 100 House Sparrows, and I took photographs of this one whose coloration looked quite different to me. Maybe he was just wet?

House Sparrow, Great Lawn, Millennium Park

House Sparrow, Great Lawn, Millennium Park

I decided not to bother the Harris’s again yesterday. Instead I went to Lake Shore East Park to see what was up there. I’ll (try to) be back with a report about yesterday’s discoveries later on. I would not be surprised if the Harris’s Sparrow hangs out a bit longer at Lurie, given the current weather patterns, in which case I might drop in on him again next week. This is a first-year bird, which means I have yet to see an adult Harris’s Sparrow, but it’s still so nice to get such a good, solid lifer in one’s proverbial own backyard.

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Palm Warbler Readings

Palm Warbler

Palm Warbler – Chicago Portage

This past Sunday I met my friend Lesa at Miller Meadow, which is yet another stretch of Cook County Forest Preserve bordering the Des Plaines River. Miller Meadow has a little wooded area interspersed with marshy habitat. There are also planted lawns and picnic tables, a model airplane field and the like. The trails are not suitable for bike-riding or jogging, but we did have a few dog walkers.

Eastern Bluebird

Eastern Bluebird, Miller Meadow

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Palm Warbler, Miller Meadow

We hoped we would see some sparrows, but instead of sparrows all over the ground and in the low vegetation, there were Palm Warblers. Everywhere. By the time we were done we estimated at least 100, but I backed down to 80 and still had to justify the number to ebird.PAWA Miller Meadow 10-5-14-0484

The remainder of the Palm Warbler photographs here and the one at the very top of the post were taken later, though, at the Chicago Portage. All the photographs were taken with a new camera and lens. I’ve been reading about this outfit for months on Bob Zeller’s blog and I finally decided it was time to make the move.

Last week at work I succumbed to the temptation and invested in the new gear to take to Costa Rica. I usually wind up buying new camera equipment either right after a trip, as in “gosh I wish I’d had that,” or before a trip, which is where I am now. The Canon EOS 70D seemed like less of a priority until I decided that it’s time for my 7D to go to Canon for repairs, so I have been taking the 70D with me to work the last few days. On Sunday I broke in a new Tamron 150-600mm lens, using the 70D body because it’s lighter in weight, and I’m not getting any stronger. At first, getting used to swinging around a 600mm lens is almost daunting. But I remember feeling much the same way after I got my 100-400mm Canon L lens years ago, and I got used to it, so I’m sure this is just a matter of practice, practice, practice. I also feel safer. No one had better mess with me when I’m packing this gear.

Northern Flicker

Northern Flicker

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Not terribly sharp, but the golden shafts still show.

But it is Fall Migration season and you never know what to expect with birds on the move. We saw a Broad-Winged Hawk, which was rare enough to be a write-in on the ebird list and it later appeared on the alert system. I don’t know why a hawk would be rare anywhere this time of year but maybe it’s a little early for Broad-Wingeds to move. Just guessing. I am not an accomplished hawk watcher.

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Broad-Winged Hawk, Miller Meadow

It’s hard for me to remember how far away the birds were, I was so busy just trying to focus on them. I seemed to get a better hang of it with the little birds.

Palm Warbler, Miller Meadow

Palm Warbler, Miller Meadow

Just as we were leaving Miller Meadow around 10:30 or so, the sun was finally coming out and warming up the place, encouraging the birds to come out as well, so I decided to check out the Portage and practice more with the new lens. Of course the light became a challenge with all the deep shadows, but I am encouraged with what I was able to manage with the new setup.

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Canada Geese, Chicago Portage

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Hanging off the foot bridge on the south side of the creek, I was able to get close to American Goldfinches and Yellow-Rumped Warblers indulging in the duck weed.

American Goldfinch, Portage

American Goldfinch, Portage

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Chicago Portage

Yellow-Rumped Warbler, Chicago Portage

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The interesting thing about this photo to me is the yellow on the crown, which I rarely see on a Yellow-Rumped Warbler.

Of course the Palm Warblers could not resist the Portage either, and I counted about 50 individuals there.

Palm Warbler, Portage

Palm Warbler, Portage

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I was surprised to see a Great Egret in the creek. I might not have attempted these photographs at all with the 100-400mm lens, but I managed at least usable images from a distance. However unforgiving the direct sunlight with an all-white bird as a subject…

Great Egret, Chicago Portage

Great Egret, Chicago Portage

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So the Palm Warblers picked up the slack this week at the Portage, where last weekend every other bird was an American Robin. I counted no more than 10 Robins this weekend. The large flock has moved on.

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Okay, by now you should recognize this bird.

I was a bit surprised to see a Scarlet Tanager. I had one a few weeks ago at the Portage. I wonder if this is another response to the change in habitat the tree-cutting and clearing has created.

Scarlet Tanager, Portage

Scarlet Tanager, Portage

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American Goldfinch, Chicago Portage

I hope to be back soon with photos from the Loop where there has been some interesting bird activity over the past couple weeks. And my crows are begging for some attention too so I should probably try to get you caught up with them.