Saturday’s CBC and the Winter Storm Watch

Saturday’s Christmas Bird Count was Cold, Cloudy and Convivial. Shortly after we met at 7:15 AM in the parking lot of Mooseheart, a Bald Eagle flew overhead, but it was too quick and too cloudy for me to capture. We traipsed around trails in various locations alongside the Fox River and I wish I kept track of them all with my cell phone but suffice it to say there is not much to report anyway. Many of the species we expected to see were not present in our spots. Another group along different spots of the Fox River saw all the waterfowl we missed.

But we had just enough birds to keep us going and good conversation, a chance to warm up inside at lunch and again at our last stop where there was a nature center.

So here’s a brief recap of the few birds I managed to capture, and for the fun of it, all I have barely seen the last couple days.

Fox River

Our biggest contribution to the count was documenting over 1100 European Starlings. They began to fly over in groups of 300-400 in the afternoon, and then we found them settling in the trees and on top of structures. My best guess is that they were responding to the change in temperature and getting ready to fly south. The lack of good light made the phenomenon difficult to capture en masse.

Just a few of several hundred European Starlings

My best photo op of the day was following one of two Red-tailed Hawks that were together.

Then around the Nature Center I managed a few photos.

I visited Riverside on Monday morning and saw more Canada Geese by the Hofmann Tower than I did on Saturday.

At least it was a sunny day. But these Mallards looked cold.

And cold it was.

The trail obstructions didn’t provide any interest for me or any birds.

On Tuesday morning, I went to the Chicago Portage, and did not fare much better in the bird department.

But the sunshine was lovely for a while.

There was some water flowing out from the ice at the bridge by Harlem, as usual.

The view of the Des Plaines from the break in the fence was of frozen bottomland and blue sky reflection.

And there were only a few birds available on the inside trail when I managed to get there. They were enjoying the sun before it dipped back behind the clouds.

The sun was gone by the time I left.

Yesterday I did not go for a walk before swimming, because it seemed better to do my grocery shopping before the storm which is big enough to have earned the name “Elliott”. Fear of the storm was making everyone else prepare for the worst. Traffic was thick and parking lots filled. I went swimming first and then ran my errands. Still holding on to as much of my routine as possible, I celebrated Egg Wednesday for brunch around 2:30 (I make scrambled eggs and onions, usually adding a chile and some cheese, on Wednesdays to tide me over through the evening choir rehearsal) and then started playing a little piano and feeding the birds inside and outside before moving on to choir. Twenty-four of us are singing for the Candlelight Service on Christmas Eve. It will be quite early this year, but since it’s dark by 4:30, a 6:00 pm service will seem close enough to midnight.

I miss my walks, but my main goal through all this is to save my parking spot which will be more critical when the snow hits and the plow comes through. The forecast is for 3 to 6 inches which is less than predicted a couple days ago, but adding the expected windchill and blizzard conditions it will be just enough to impede travel. Our high tomorrow is -1 degrees Fahrenheit with -10 the low – and however many more degrees below for the windchill. Christmas Eve, flipping those numbers to 10 above and -1 below, will not be much better except that I am hoping the wind has died down by the time I have to drive to Unity Temple.

The bright side to this sequestration is hanging out with the indoor birds, warming up the kitchen baking Cinnamon-Oatmeal-Raisin bread and making a French Onion Panade, and catching up on other indoor pursuits. I will likely be tempted to document what’s going on outside as well and with any luck I will get some photographs of the yard birds over the next few days. I hope your holidays are filled with warmth and good cheer and not too much stress. Stay warm and sleep well!

Cloudy Days and the Christmas Bird Count

I participated in the Christmas Bird Count on December 19th. It was a cloudy, cool day. Not great for photographs, or for a lot of birds either, at least where I was, but it was good to see more people participating. I took both cameras with me, not knowing what I expected to do with either one of them.

If I start thinking about how long it has taken me to get back to finishing this post I won’t do it, so strike that thought and keep going. Below is a look at how the Fox River looked that morning.

I started out with the mirrorless and managed to get a rather nice view of this Red-bellied Woodpecker. Actually all the bird pictures in this post were taken with the little camera. I didn’t have to fuss around with adjusting for no light as much.

At some point we had stopped to listen for birds and saw this amazing honeycomb hanging from a tree.

We had Downy Woodpeckers (below) and a Hairy as well.

Hairy Woodpecker

It was almost not worth taking these photos of flying geese but you can appreciate just how dark and gloomy it was.

Learning more tree bark – this is a cherry tree, which the person who identified it said it looks like “potato chips.” I guess.

The fungus on this tree looks like a staircase to me.

The Cedar Waxwings were the most cheerful sight.

It’s hard to motivate myself to do anything beyond the have-to’s, these days. In particular, after the coup attempt – which is hard not to take personally – as much as I want to continue hoping I can exude a positive vibe that will land somewhere it’s needed, it’s hard to fight sheer exhaustion. But this comes and goes in waves. It’s been cold and gloomy too, which does not help. Time to get up and do something! I need to play some piano every day for the birds. Music is life.

I’m adding this White-Breasted Nuthatch that somehow didn’t make it into a Portage post of October pictures. Another mirrorless capture.

I’m not making any promises about when I’ll be back, but sooner or later I’m sure I will. It’s been confusing to be anywhere lately. Everything has a veneer of unreality to it. Maybe it’s just time to start asking the old questions again, even if we still can’t answer them.

Christmas Bird Count Tidings from Fermilab

AMTR Fermilab 12-19-2015 -8229

American Tree Sparrow

It wasn’t raining. It wasn’t snowing. It was predictably very cold and I had harbored second thoughts about taking the camera with me. But after all, the Christmas Bird Count happens only once a year. And even if I am ever-so-slightly wondering if I’m still doing things the old-fashioned way when there is probably new cutting-edge equipment that is easier to use in inclement weather, I persevered.  Resigned to the fact that if there was anything worthwhile to shoot I’d probably have to remove the gloves and deal with the frostbite later.

Fermilab 12-19-2015 -8171

So here are a few photos from my morning with one of the three teams assigned to various areas for the count.

There are always more Canada Geese and Mallards than one can count individually so you wind up doing estimates. And scanning through the crowd to see if there are any different species. Somewhere in this group were three Greater White-Fronted Geese, a couple Common Mergansers and I forget what else at this point. Not allowed to count the geese when they’re in the air.

Geese Fermilab 12-19-2015 -8193

It took awhile before we found the inevitable American Tree Sparrow flocks. This flock had an American Goldfinch with it.

And at one point we had a coyote who was easy to see if hard to get a decent picture.

Coyote Fermilab 12-19-2015 -8260

There is a wood lot not far from the Red Barn where we always go traipsing through quietly looking for owls. There is a lot of undergrowth between the pines that presents a challenge just to find a way to walk through it. I never find anything. I was looking down at a lot of frozen mushrooms underfoot that unfortunately were not captured by my ginormous lens. Then I stopped and looked up. And there it was. A Long-Eared Owl, staring at me.

Although the owl was very cooperative, it was backlit, it was dark in there, and a lot of twigs blocked my view (the owl knew all this, of course). After I took enough pictures that would at least prove what I saw, I tried to find someone in my group to tell about it. By the time I did, I had no idea exactly where I saw it. The guys went in to find it and flushed it. I felt as if I had betrayed the owl, but the owls we saw in other spots, mainly Great Horned, were also flushed, so I guess we get one day a year to disturb them for science.

Tree Sp Fermilab 12-19-2015 -8201

Not much else to report at the moment. Singing tonight with the Unity Temple Choir for a Christmas Eve service. Looking forward to a nice, quiet Christmas Day at home with the birds. Thanks for visiting, and have a very merry holiday!

Not Much

Downy on Suet Feeder in my Yard 8-30-15-0301Not much to report, except that I am finally almost over whatever virus attacked me and just in time to get up at 3:00 AM tomorrow morning so I can participate in the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count. Until now we have had a mild winter…but it’s cold and windy today, and as luck would have it, tomorrow’s forecast is for the coldest day yet. Add (or subtract, really) another 10 degrees for the wide-open windyness of Fermilab and it will be a frigid undertaking. I am almost having second thoughts about schlepping the camera but I probably will. Perhaps it will be worth it.

HOFI and HOSP Yard 12-5-2015 -8043

House Finch, House Sparrow and an almost empty feeder

I didn’t do last year’s count because I was having trouble walking, so I am thankful that seems such a distant memory. I’m looking forward to being outside, actually, as I have been stuck in the office most of the last two weeks. And I haven’t been swimming lately either so I can use some exercise. Even trying to stay warm can be energizing!

Wanted to get out and see the crows this week but didn’t make it.

Crow Hot Dog Fest Millennium 12-3-2015 -7976Crow Millennium 12-3-2015 -7997The frigid weather is mentally pushing me over the edge. I can envision sitting under a warm comforter and going back through the pictures from Colombia from this past spring. Nicaragua is only 2 months away.

Yellow Green Vireo 04-3-15-5935Sword-Billed Hummingbird 04-1-15-4424Well all these photos were conveniently unattached to other posts, so they gave me a little inspiration to hang a few words on.

I must put in a word for Stewart Goodyear, the exemplary Canadian pianist and composer. This is the time of year when I usually find myself thinking “If I hear the Nutcracker one more time on the radio…!” But a couple days ago, I heard an excerpt from Stewart Goodyear’s new recording of his wonderful piano transcription/interpretation and I am smitten. I have been listening to it in installments and enjoying it tremendously. I think I prefer his version to an entire orchestra, that’s how good it is! According to this blog post, he recorded the entire thing on his birthday with breaks for birthday cake in between. Whatever motivated him, if anything could motivate me not to be a grinch, this is it.

Safe Passage @ The Portage

American Tree Sparrow

American Tree Sparrow

I got out for a walk this morning, encouraged by the promise of sunshine and also beginning to feel more like I was walking instead of thinking about every step to the exclusion of everything else. It’s been bothering me that I missed the Christmas Bird Count at Fermilab last weekend, so when I passed by Cermak Woods on the way home yesterday from grocery shopping, I noticed a lot of Canada Geese were gathered there, and decided to go back and count them this morning. It’s not an official count, of course, but the data all goes into ebird anyway.

Canada Geese at Cermak Woods

Canada Geese at Cermak Woods

Canada Geese at Cermak Woods 12-28-14-9096

Likely a family group the way they were swimming

The sunshine was late in coming but so was I, yet it didn’t seem to matter. There were roughly 100 Canada Geese at Cermak Woods. No Greater White-Fronted Geese, no Cackling Geese, not even a Mallard or two. But I was encouraged by the fact that I managed to operate the camera and the huge lens, having fallen out of practice. So I continued on to the Chicago Portage.

American Tree Sparrows at the Portage

American Tree Sparrows at the Portage

Am Tree Sparrows Portage Woods 12-28-14-9422

All was quiet at the Portage until I started to walk slowly in from the south entrance which is my usual approach. I heard Black-Capped Chickadees and then began seeing lots of American Tree Sparrows, Dark-Eyed Juncos, a few American Goldfinches, and I had some White-Throated Sparrows in there too.

The last time I went to the Portage there were a lot of Tree Sparrows. I cannot ever remember seeing them at the Portage in previous years, so this must definitely have to do with the removal of trees changing the habitat to suit them.

Canada Geese at Portage Woods

Canada Geese at Portage Woods

Geese started arriving at the Portage in groups shortly after I did. Since they were flying in from a direction opposite where I’d come from at Cermak Woods and they were landing in the water, I started counting them as they came in. If it were not for the BirdLog Application, I could never do this, but it’s very handy. The only thing hampering my efficacy at this point was the fact that it was cold. I had on long underwear but my hands were pretty chilly, especially every time I removed my gloves to enter more birds to the count. There were a total of five Mallards mixed in with about 100 geese.

Mallards with Canada Geese at the Portage

Mallards with Canada Geese at the Portage

I thought I heard Fox Sparrows, and then was lucky enough to get a recital from the bird below. I didn’t have my handheld recorder with me but I managed a quick video on the smartphone which basically has no picture worth looking at but it recorded the song this bird was singing, along with a comment or two from a Canada Goose.

Fox Sparrow, singing

Fox Sparrow, singing

As it turns out the Fox Sparrow was the “rare” bird of the day. I wondered why ebird was asking me to verify the sighting and then checked the distribution on Sibley’s app, and the northernmost part of Fox Sparrows’ winter range in Illinois is somewhere around Springfield or the middle of the state. But with climate creep, I’m not all that surprised. Besides which we have so far had a pretty mild winter.

Downy Woodpecker

Downy Woodpecker

The two birds I see regularly all year around at the Portage are Downy Woodpeckers and Northern Cardinals, and neither one of them wanted to cooperate for a photo today. But I did find this one male Northern Cardinal trying to keep warm in the top of a sunlit tree.

Northern Cardinal at Portage Woods

Northern Cardinal at Portage Woods

I’m actually looking forward to walking to the train tomorrow morning. I feel like my life has started over again. I still have a little pain and expect I will have more so I’m not going to overdo anything, but I am on the mend and that’s all I can ask for. Happy New Year!


Trying to Wake from a Long Winter’s Nap

Fermilab Christmas Count 12-14-13

Fermilab Christmas Count 12-14-13

Yesterday I participated in the Fermilab annual Christmas Bird Count, as I have for the past however many years now. I admit to being a bit wary about doing it, as it has only been a week since my trip, but I decided it was one way to make sure I got out to see a few birds and I reminded myself that it is always a fun, if sometimes grueling, experience.

The weather was everywhere. It had been snowing steadily overnight and kept on snowing, making the driving conditions at 5:30 a.m. practically prohibitive. I almost turned around two or three times, the first when I encountered a roadblock set up by police, but I decided to continue.

Fermilab IMG_1408

If I was beginning to get over the culture shock accompanying my return from Africa, hiking around in deep snow tipped it right in for me. Our team slogged on for at least an hour or two before we saw hardly any birds at all, and then it was suddenly something like over 100 American Tree Sparrows.

Our last discovery before meeting the other teams for a lunch break was a yellow-headed woodpecker which got us excited for a while; it looked like a possible Golden-Fronted, which would have been pretty rare. I had only my point-and-shoot with me which hardly did the bird justice but even one of the team leader’s better camera was unable to find enough white in the tail to confirm a vagrant species. It turns out that juvenile Red-Bellied Woodpeckers can resemble Golden-Fronted in this way, except that they lack a large white area of the tail. Still it was fun to see something unusual and I am now reminded that no matter what, the Christmas Count always yields a surprise of one kind or another. In the same location we also had a Brown Creeper which is pretty uncommon this time of year.

"Yellow" Red-Bellied Woodpecker

“Yellow” Red-Bellied Woodpecker

So unlike last year when we had rain and balmy temperatures, this has been definitely winter weather. During the work week I managed to get out to see my crows one or two times. Below are a few pictures.

Crow with Peanuts IMG_2138_1

Rock Pigeon Flight Drills

Rock Pigeon Flight Drills

Returning to the Christmas Count, I had lunch with everyone and then decided to return home while I was still able. Still exhausted from getting over jet lag and going back to work, I barely made it home after a few grocery store stops. I took a nap, got up to feed the birds their evening snack, and went back to crash on the futon. Every time I got up my legs complained about the strain of climbing around in the snowpack. I gave up and went to bed, sleeping at least 10 hours, refusing to get up before daylight. When I finally woke up this morning it took a while before I felt like I could ever do anything but sleep. But by the time I went out to fill the feeders and had breakfast, I felt a sudden burst of energy. It occurred to me later that I got caught up on all my dreams last night, sort of like getting caught up on all my movies on those long transatlantic flights.

I probably would not have gotten all that much-needed sleep if I had not exhausted myself doing the count. Funny how that works.

This is my first post from the new laptop, but the pictures were processed on my old desktop. I am waiting for the delivery of a DVD drive so I can install Lightroom and then start learning all over again how to process my pictures. It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve what with the new OS and all but I am motivated and so very happy to have a new computer.

I leave you for the moment with a slightly blood-stained Cooper’s Hawk I found resting in a tree in Millennium Park last Tuesday or Wednesday. I’m certain the blood was from its devoured prey.

Cooper's Hawk, Millennium Park

Cooper’s Hawk, Millennium Park

Christmas Bird Count

I participated in my fourth or fifth Fermilab Christmas Bird Count today (of that, I’ve lost count) from 7:00 a.m. until 3:15 p.m. or so. It was probably the warmest and wettest CBC the area has ever had (although even at 45 degrees Fahrenheit the winds blow gustier through Fermilab’s wide open spaces and do not exactly feel “warm”). I was in one of three groups of birders attempting to cover the 6,800 acre space that provides a variety of habitats to wintering and migrant species.

So even though we are more used to dealing with snow and ice instead of rain this time of year, we still had a good time and there were some interesting birds, even if I suspect the numbers of species and the counts were down considerably from a “normal” year.

Pheasant IMG_1150

Ring-Necked Pheasant

Birds just aren’t out and about as much in constant rain. Nonetheless I managed to see my lifer Ring-Necked Pheasant when we were driving from one location to another. This pheasant was busy wading in a puddle by the side of the road. I had my point-and-shoot camera on me in case we needed to document something, so I was able to document my first encounter with this bird.

Tundra Swans IMG_1153

Tundra Swans with Canada Geese

The other nice surprise was to visit four Tundra Swans that another group had found in their designated area. I have seen Trumpeter Swans and Mute Swans but Tundra may also be a new species for my life list. Sigh. If I ever get around to figuring out exactly what’s on it. My List, that is.

Point-and-shoot, indeed. How easy it is to forget that the term of “shooting” a picture came from gettting the image of a bird without having to kill it first.

Even with the cold and rain, and getting up around 3 a.m. this morning so I could leave the house by 5:30, driving and walking through a lot of territory searching for birds in good company was perhaps the best diversion anyone could ask for on a day when the nation’s consciouness is blurred and blighted by the senseless slaughter in the grammar school in Newtown, Connecticut. I don’t intend to use this blog space as a soap box for anything other than the importance of the music, intelligence, beauty and fascination of birds, but it could seem almost frivolous to be writing about a Christmas Bird Count. So I want to expound a bit on a connecting thought that occurred to me, if I may.

The Christmas Bird Count was started by the National Audubon Society at the beginning of the conservation movement in this country, in response to what had up until then been a national pastime called the Christmas “Side” Hunt where people went out to see how many creatures they could bag with their shotguns; obviously a lot of the victims were birds. The idea of counting birds instead of shooting them was a first, quiet step toward preserving bird species because it was feared their numbers were declining. The count has gone nationwide, participation increasing yearly, and the data collected by participants is used to monitor trends in bird populations. People still hunt waterfowl but it’s regulated during hunting season, there’s a quota, and the fees go toward preserving habitat.

I don’t know anything more about hunting, it’s not something I understand any need for whatsoever, but it seems people don’t shoot birds with semiautomatic rifles. Unfortunately sometimes ignorant people shoot birds they’re not supposed to, like endangered Whooping Cranes, but don’t get me started.

It’s too bad a national holiday for saving the lives of innocent people won’t work the same way as a CBC. Obviously setting aside one day to not shoot people but instead count as many as you can is not going to deter any desperately angry soul from murdering as many as he can on some other day. Setting up a quota of how many people you can take on the other days won’t cut it either. I am not trying to make light of this. I am as horrified, sickened and saddened as the next person. And maybe doing a Christmas Bird Count isn’t going to be enough to help birds survive, in the long run. But it still makes sense to do it. And it doesn’t hurt anybody. In fact, I think finding and counting birds helps the people who do the count as much if not more than it helps the birds.