Summer on the Prairie

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Summer at last. Booming thunder in the distance. Heat and humidity have arrived. Bites that beg to be scratched. It seems inevitable that I will put on the wrong pair of shoes and rub my heels raw to blisters after walking the two miles to work, and finish them off on the way home.

Bunker - remains of the former military installation

Bunker – remains of the former military installation

The primary source of my bites most likely was a trip to Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie on Saturday afternoon. Midewin was established on the former site of the Joliet Arsenal. It was a beat-the-heat strategy to meet at 4:00 p.m. in the diminishing intensity of the sun. There were perhaps 25 of us, a large group by birding standards. Possibly the large group kept the birds at a mostly non-photographable distance, but the beauty of the vast landscape prevailed. We managed to see most of our target species, namely Blue Grosbeak, Northern Mockingbird and Loggerhead Shrike.

Dickcissel

Dickcissel

Midewin (pronounced “Mid-DAY-win”) was by all accounts Dickcissel and Field Sparrow Heaven on Saturday. I didn’t get a Field Sparrow image this time but this Dickcissel was happy to show us the boundaries of his territory, quite near the road we walked on.

Loggerhead Shrike at Midewin IMG_4872_1

In the picture above, the second bump from the left on the fence is a Loggerhead Shrike. Not that you can tell. Too far away, but the rolling fence posts and endless grass give you an idea of the shrike’s preferred habitat.

Northern Mockingbird

Northern Mockingbird

This was as close as I could get to one Mockingbird, who then took off and clinched his identity with the trademark white patches in his wings.

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The Blue Grosbeaks were even farther away… flying below…

Blue Grosbeak

Blue Grosbeak

And landing, to sing a little.

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Later we got a much better look at the female version.

Female Blue Grosbeak and Dickcissel

Female Blue Grosbeak and Female Dickcissel

Eastern Meadowlarks were also abundant that day.

Eastern Meadowlark

Eastern Meadowlark

But the Dickcissel had the last word.

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Filling in the Blanks

Green Heron

Green Heron

Somehow I managed to talk myself into getting up early both Saturday and Sunday this past weekend. Both days began on the cloudy side, with Saturday turning into rain by 10 a.m. But I finally saw some birds I had missed so far this season. Both Green Herons were at the Portage, for instance.

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Last weekend the woodpeckers eluded me, but this time I had the Northern Flicker above, in addition to Red-Bellied Woodpeckers, Downies and a Hairy.

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Juvenile Robin

Some juvenile Robins are starting to forage on their own. And there were at least four Gray Catbirds on territories. Below is one of them.

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This juvenile Red-Winged Blackbird sitting on one of the foot bridges was scolded furiously by her dad as I approached.

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Wood Ducklings revealed…

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Wood Duck ducklings

Finally, the mirage I saw last weekend emerged. It was indeed a scurrying flotilla of Wood Ducklings. There are seven of them, and when they dart around en masse they look like a strange 7-headed creature.

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Above, mama Wood Duck.

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Song Sparrow

Again, the same silent Song Sparrow. Maybe it’s a she.

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Still plenty of water on both sides of this path, when I caught the Snapping Turtle crossing.

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And a beaver going about his business.

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And Southwest Airlines flying over…

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Sunday it was grassland birds at Plum Creek Forest Preserve, way down at the southern tip of Cook County, organized by Chicago Ornithological Society. The birds were often too far away to photograph, but we were surrounded by Dickcissels and Henslow’s Sparrows.

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The Indigo Bunting below was interesting from the standpoint of his plumage. I don’t know if he was a juvenile or more likely somewhat leucistic, since his song sounded adult.

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Always a delight to see a Great Crested Flycatcher.

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Great Crested Flycatcher

And the only Henslow’s Sparrow of the seven or eight we heard who dared show himself was still buried in the grasses, for all practical purposes. Others ventured closer to him but I chose to hang back; Henslows nest on the ground, and I didn’t want to disturb anybody.

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I leave you with a shrug from one of the Green Herons who had just about had enough of sitting still for so long.

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I’ll try to shorten the space between posts. If I can stay awake long enough. 🙂

Another elusive warbler joins my life list

Yellow-throated Warbler

Breeding season is upon us, and the chance to see warblers, those beautiful brightly-colored gems that winter in Central and South America, are slimmer now that migration is over. That is, of course, unless you go far enough out of your way to where they nest. Lowden-Miller State Forest is one such place in Illinois, but it’s not right around the corner. I got up at three a.m. on Sunday to meet my friend and join a small contingency from the DuPage Birding Club for this trip. The group was initially larger, but the heat most likely made some people change their minds. I also think it kept some birds from being active. But I am not complaining. We may not have had a lot of species, but we had some great looks at one bird I’ve been trying to see better for a long time: the Yellow-throated Warbler.

This bird was nice enough to come down and check us out.  And he gave me a lot of pictures. Like this one that emphasizes why he got first dibs on his name.

Another bird I haven’t seen well for a few years is the Blue-Winged Warbler. I got my wish.

Blue-Winged Warbler

By the time the sun was directly overhead the forest grew quiet, so we went into town for lunch and then briefly to visit nearby Nachusa Grasslands. We missed seeing a Lark Sparrow, but there were Dickcissels galore, which seems to be the story in every grassland habitat this year. While they like to perch on telephone lines and fence posts, this bird was kind enough to pose on a penstemon. Although I wasn’t close enough to get a perfect picture, the surroundings seem to make up for the lack of clarity.

Dickcissel

We had butterflies too, and when I figure them out I’ll be back with their images.

My Cerulean Warbler Quest

I rode with three friends to Hastings, Michigan last Thursday for Michigan Audubon’s  Cerulean Warbler Weekend. The goal was to get good looks at Cerulean Warblers, and we did after several tries.

“Rainstart”

However, Friday’s weather was miserable. The rain was constant and temperature below normal. This shot of an American Redstart leaving was a typical view.

Cerulean Warbler

And here is a typical look at a Cerulean Warbler high up in the canopy. About all you can tell is that Ceruleans are white underneath. Fortunately, the looks would improve the next day when the weather did.

Red-Eyed Vireo

The rain never stopped the Red-eyed Vireos from singing. I stood under this bird’s tree and listened to him sing for a long time. In the background, my brain was playing the Bach I’m learning, and the Vireo’s song fit perfectly over it. I wished I could have played for him, we could have had a great jam session.

“Drowny” Woodpecker

This Downy Woodpecker was pretty well-soaked.

Saturday started out cloudy but when the sun came out around 11:00 a.m., the birds woke up and we started to get our first really good looks at Cerulean Warblers. Unfortunately I had few photo opportunities. The birds like to stay up high in the canopy, and just when you think you’re on them, they fly. Rather than stay in one area, they  move from limb to limb or tree to tree. So my best shots turned out to be extremely backlit.

Cerulean Warbler

But now that I have had great looks, I plan to concentrate more on the photography next time.

This Chestnut-Sided Warbler was backlit too, but he had a bit more color to show.

Sunday morning we got up very early to take a bus tour of some birding hot spots of Barry County. I finally managed to get a few pictures.

Acadian on Nest

This Acadian Flycatcher was on her nest right by the road. Still pretty dark in the woods.

Turkey Vultures

Out in a field later, there were six Turkey Vultures in the sky at one point. Here’s two of them.

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebes win my award for This Spring’s Most Cooperative Bird.

Indigo Bunting

This Indigo Bunting was so busy singing, he sat still.

There were a lot more birds than pictures, but that’s okay. We had a good time.

You know you’re on a birding trip when everyone in the bus yells “Dickcissel!” simultaneously.

Dickcissel

We got great looks.