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.

Mid-July

I haven’t been able to go forward too far so I am going backward in time. These photographs are from one lovely day in the middle of July at the Portage. A highlight was a pair of Orchard Orioles. The male is at the top of this post.

Even though the Green Herons did not have enough water to make a go of it this summer, they still came to visit.

Pollinators were busy.

Below are some more images of the male Orchard Oriole, and one of the female in the same frame as a Red-Winged Blackbird female. They were foraging in the vegetation that sprung up in the absence of water this summer.

A female Red-Winged Blackbird is showing off below.

Male Northern Cardinals aren’t typically willing subjects, so it was a rare treat to capture this one.

Robins were present in all stages of plumage.

Not sure but this might have been my last opportunity to photograph and record a singing male Indigo Bunting.

It was a good year all around for seeing Eastern Wood-Pewees. I usually always hear them but rarely see them. Something about the change in habitat, I suspect.

The Goldfinches spent a lot of time foraging in the duck weed. I didn’t realize that the Portage has a storyboard describing duck weed as the smallest flowering plant until I led a bird walk recently.

Not a very good photograph, but I this was the last time I saw a Great-crested Flycatcher.

The Gray Catbird below epitomizes the attitude of these loquacious birds.

The days are dramatically shorter and the heat has been on in the house for over a week. But now it looks like we are due for a spell of pleasant temperatures before the cold takes over. I am healing from my fall and always seem to feel better in the evenings. Thanks for stopping by!

Grateful

Not always sure where I’m coming from with one-handed typing, but the slowness with which I have had to express myself has given berth to more measured thoughts, perhaps, and, like bird-watching, there is something almost meditative in it.

Before I stray further, I want to dedicate this post to my dear friend Linda Rios and her husband Ed who got me through my awful post-injury and surgery situation with loving aplomb. It occurred to me after I struggled to finish the last post that I was bereft in my focus and needed to at least acknowledge how much my friends have meant to me during this blotch on my existence.

These photos are from August 29th, mostly taken at the Portage. After I was done there I checked out what the Army Corps of Engineers has done to the part of Ottawa Trail that runs along the Des Plaines River, expecting there wasn’t much to photograph there except for the habitat destruction.

Below, a very cooperative White-breasted Nuthatch.

The Chestnut-sided Warbler below was pretty well-hidden but now that I can’t take any photographs for a while I am glad I managed to get these when I did.

The bird below is a Nashville Warbler.

Red-winged Blackbird

The last of the Baltimore Orioles. I had one visit my feeder later that afternoon…

A juvenile American Robin

There were a few Indigo Buntings still around as late as September 19, which was the first bird walk I led after my surgery. Most of them looked like the two below.

On my way out of the Portage on August 29, I spotted this Cooper’s Hawk who just sat, and sat, and I took way too many pictures expecting that it would do something interesting. I was too exhausted by the time it finally took off.

A little Portage flora – I am always amazed at the height of the trees so maybe the cell phone conveys them somewhat. Then there are parts of the trail that are lined with blooming flowers now – a vast improvement over the burdock from years past.

Juvenile Northern Flicker

So this is what Ottawa Trail is looking like now that the levee has been finished on one side of the Des Plaines. It was relatively devoid of birds but I expected that. Others have told me, though, that the levee affords great looks at the Des Plaines River when there are water birds present, so I shall have to check that out another time.

I was able to capture a few signs of life.

On my way out of Ottawa Trail, over the parking area, a Red-Tailed Hawk flew overhead.

Elbow-wise, the cast is gone, stitches removed, and I have 12 weeks of physical therapy ahead. I actually had one physical therapy session on Friday and was reassured I had chosen the right location when I heard a crow calling as I went back to my car. As I mentioned, I managed to lead bird walks these past two Saturdays and I am so grateful to the participants who showed up and helped me feel alive again. I didn’t master the one-handed binocular skill, but now that I am cast-free, I am able to raise my left arm enough so maybe I can go looking for a few more birds this fall even if I cannot commemorate the sightings in photos. In these uncertain times it’s all the more grounding to continue one’s connection with the natural world.

Three Days at the Portage – Day 2

There were still some warblers on May 24, but the Bird of the Day for me was Red-Eyed Vireo. I had been wondering where these birds were, and then they all seemed to show up at once. Usually you hear them singing and don’t see them very well as they move through the trees chasing insects. But this time they were more often seen than heard. In some of these photographs you might actually be able to see the red eye for which they are named.

Red-eyed Vireo

Many of the warblers I saw that day were females. The females tend to migrate later than the males who are in a hurry to set up their territories. Spring migration this year seemed strange for many reasons – the pandemic affecting where you could go to find birds, the weather which is always a factor, and I guess the knowledge in the back of your mind that birds are in decline and you wonder just how many you’re going to see anyway.