Three Days at the Portage – Day 1

Scarlet Tanager

The Memorial Day weekend this year offered three beautiful days of birding at the Portage. I had no desire to go anywhere else; rather, I was interested to see what different birds I might discover each day, enhanced by the fact that a lot of birds were finally on the move to their summer homes. Here are photographs from Saturday, May 23rd.

While I think this was the last day I saw the male Scarlet Tanagers, there were plenty of Indigo Buntings. I am not aware of Scarlet Tanagers breeding at the Portage, but the Indigo Buntings certainly are a presence now every year. I suspect some of them that return may have hatched at the Portage.

Indigo Bunting

I don’t know where the Green Herons are hanging out – likely on the Des Plaines River or perhaps across the railroad tracks in the low-lying water-collecting areas of Ottawa Trail – but I still see them fly over nearly every visit. I was fortunate enough to capture this one in flight.

This Scarlet Tanager looks orange compared to the other one. I imagine it is a function of the intensity and angle of the light.

Not too many warblers left…

Goldfinches are everywhere but not as easy to see.

There were plenty of Baltimore Orioles and they looked like they were busy tending to their nesting sites.

I finally managed to capture a singing Song Sparrow.

The turtles never miss a sunny day.

Daisy Fleabane opening up now – I had some in my yard last year, hope it returns

I love this Common Grackle posing, capturing the epitome of grackleness.

I fear for Black-capped Chickadees. Lately I have seen only one at a time.

One of many House Wrens.

A slow-motion Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Gray Catbirds are more often heard than seen but I was fortunate enough to enjoy both with this one.

A questioning look from the Great-crested Flycatcher below.

Perhaps this European Starling had just taken a bath in the last photo.

I have seen more Eastern Wood-Pewee’s this year. There’s even one in my neighborhood.

Subsequent visits gave me much better views than the Red-Eyed Vireo below.

Another Indigo Bunting

Then, most exciting of all, as I was sitting down and contemplating leaving, I heard and then saw the Red-Headed Woodpecker below. I have been waiting to see this species for an entire year. I wonder if this is the same one that I have seen on rare occasions only.

I have no idea what kind of caterpillar this is but it was my last subject as I left for the day.

i will be back with Days 2 and 3 which were also quite birdy. My next visit to the Portage will likely be more challenging but I will continue visiting to keep track of the emerging families. I hope we humans find some peaceful solutions. The days are getting so very long now.

Cloudy Afternoon

I never intend to go birding in the afternoon, but on Friday I jumped at the chance when we were encouraged to take the afternoon off. It was cloudy, and you can never count on what birds will be up to after lunch. Sometimes I like the cloudiness, though, because it reminds me of birding in South America.

Cloudy at the Portage

Maybe cloudy was okay for capturing this Cape May Warbler.

Then there was a very active, backlit Warbling Vireo. This is likely the only Warbling Vireo I will photograph this year. There’s always one. But they are all very busy singing now and protecting their territories.

Sometimes I hardly ever see goldfinches, and at other times they seem to be everywhere. All I know is they’re not in my yard too much anymore so I suspect many of them are at the Portage or other nearby forest preserves.

With all the rain and now warmer temperatures, the green-up is happening rapidly.

I often hear Killdeer but don’t always see them. I managed to capture this one flying across the compost piles on the MWRD property.

Starlings have been entertaining. I have seen one doing happy dances a couple times, although unfortunately it was hard to get him in focus on this trip. But I did capture him flying.

And now how about paying some attention to the ladies? It seemed to be a good day to capture pictures of the girls. Maybe they thought they were less noticeable on a cloudy day.

Mallard female
Brown-headed Cowbird (male)

I found the female Indigo Bunting below quite fascinating, in that she was preening or otherwise trying to get a grip on her feathers and the photos reveal her black and bluish feathers underneath. Who knew? (Forgive me for thinking “only her hairdresser knows for sure.”)

As a comparison to the above, here’s the male in all his glory and various feather colors.

Song Sparrows are more often heard than seen so it was nice to catch this one foraging for something.

And it’s not often I see a pair of Downy Woodpeckers. Maybe afternoons are lazier for the birds.

Pair of Downy Woodpeckers

I had a wonderful encounter with a Philadelphia Vireo a couple years ago. I hope to see more of this species. And this was the first day I saw the Eastern Kingbird. By Memorial Day there were two Kingbirds hunting for bugs from their perches over the water.

Early on there was a small flock of Cedar Waxwings but they were hard to distinguish in the shadows and blended in perfectly with the tree colors.

Cedar Waxwing

Another elusive Black-and-White Warbler. These warblers are relatively easy to see, but so far had been defying my lens. However stay tuned because I have had some more productive encounters.

Part of a Black-and-White Warbler

Even the Baltimore Orioles looked a bit washed out. But I noticed a nest, and that was a welcome sign. The female builds the nest, so I can only imagine she was inside of it.

Baltimore Oriole Nest

It has been hard to go back to work after a long weekend, even though I have not yet returned to the office. Most amazing to me has been the time spent in the field, so to speak. I never feel like I have this luxury to fully absorb my surroundings except when I am on vacation. But something about the pandemic has slowed down everything after eliminated many social commitments. I can embrace birding religiously three days straight as a spiritual exercise. Even though I am encountering several more people on the trails, there is still enough space and quiet, with many moments left to witness how life continues beyond our immediate concerns.

Saturday’s Spring Bird Count and Mother’s Day Rain

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to participate in the Spring Bird Count in DuPage County. I have done this count for a number of years, but this time, with social distancing, it was different. We split up so we each covered one area. I was assigned the Silver Lake part of Blackwell Forest Preserve, a location I was not familiar with, but was easy to navigate with the map Jody gave me, and I can get lost anywhere. Since I could only do the morning and there was no time limit, I had a wonderful experience listening for and spotting all the birds I could identify at a leisurely pace.

One of several Yellow-Rumped Warblers

I felt especially privileged because under the current New Normal, I would not have been allowed to visit DuPage County preserves because I am not a resident. The county decided last month to limit parking to its residents. We speculated there was an overflow of people from Cook County, where I live, due to the closing of the lakefront. So I don’t know when I’ll be able to revisit this lovely place, but now that I am more familiar with it, I plan to do so when restrictions end.

Eastern Bluebird (male)

I was beginning to feel like I am the only person on earth who hadn’t seen a Rose-Breasted Grosbeak yet so I was happy to find one singing high up in a tall tree.

Love was definitely in the air, albeit chilly after freezing temperatures overnight, for local breeders. I usually can’t get a glimpse of a Blue Jay long enough to photograph, but this pair united for some courtship behavior, exchanging some tiny seeds you might be able to see if you click on the images below.

And when it was all over I somehow managed to catch this Blue Jay in flight.

Yellow-Rumped Warblers are usually quite common, however brief the period of spring migration, so it’s easy to overlook how truly beautiful they are. This one was happy to display all his yellow parts except for his namesake.

I have no idea what was going on with this European Starling but I could swear he was dancing and singing.

This Tree Swallow was saving his energy for later when the sun would start warming up the ground and the air and there would be bugs to catch.

At some point Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are going to become impossible to find, let alone photograph, but that hasn’t quite happened yet.

Here’s two more of the goldfinch pair featured at the top of this post.

This distant Northern Flicker would have been impossible to capture were it not for the bright, clear sunshine.

I kept hearing this Common Yellowthroat and he was confusing me by not singing his “witchety-wichety” song, only a slow trill, if you will. So finally he came and sat right in front of me and continued singing. I have never had a Common Yellowthroat volunteer to be photographed. He must be a novice. Anyway, you can see in the third photo how windy it was.

Another warbler, only this one was harder to capture. Black-throated Green Warbler.

Robins are predictably everywhere but they get short shrift. I try not to take them all for granted and capture at least one.

A less-frequently-seen bird, also in the thrush family – a handsome Veery.

Song Sparrow taking a break.

This Canada Goose flew right in front of me so I couldn’t resist.

I heard the Orchard Oriole before I saw him. What a lovely tune.

Palm Warblers become commonplace too, but they are still pretty birds.

I miss seeing spectacles like 150 White-Crowned Sparrows or more on the lakefront, but am glad I was able to report the only White-Crowned Sparrow seen in our area on Saturday.

There were at least four Baltimore Oriole males. These two got into a little bit of a stand-off.

The victor for this spot.

Downy Woodpeckers are busy this time of year and not quite so visible.

Here’s another one of the Bluebird.

So this morning I wasn’t planning on going out at all because of the forecast for all-day rain, but the rain stopped, so I went to the Portage to see if I could find anything. The cloudy sky was a more dramatic backdrop than usual.

I took a snapshot of Pere Marquete from the parking lot sculpture to see what kind of exposure settings I might be able to use.

Just my luck – the male Bluebird who has been at the Portage now for weeks happened to be hanging out. The exciting news which I meant to report a couple weeks ago is that we have a breeding pair. I saw his mate with nesting material a couple weeks ago. As long as I have been going to the Portage, Bluebirds have never nested there. Apparently they found a log or a tree stump with a suitable cavity for a nest. So I will be watching for their offspring in the coming weeks.

It started to rain, and I had to decide what to do – go back to the car, or keep walking? I put my camera in my backpack, kept walking, and then ran into a flock of warblers high up in the trees. Oh great – no light, it’s raining, and the tiny warblers are nearly impossible to see. These few images are what I could capture.

Palm Warbler

Tuesday morning I am going to try to go to the Portage early in the morning – when there is sunshine and warmer temperatures – and come home to work in the afternoon. I hope I get permission to do this because the forecast from Wednesday through the weekend is for rain and thunderstorms. My hope is to see more warblers. You’ll hear about it if I do!

House Finch

Spring Fever on Hold

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see Red-Winged Blackbirds arrive at the Portage and start singing. It’s likely an intense desire to embrace any sense of Normal.

All these photos are from a quick trip to the Chicago Portage last Sunday morning, after the clocks were set ahead. There were not a lot of birds, but I managed to capture a few.

I’m happy to see the Robins returning too. The anticipation of spring is palpable. Now, if I can just get over the time change. It’s hard to get up in the morning, in the dark. Even harder perhaps knowing that nearly everything has been put on hold for voluntary, and increasingly involuntary, “self-distancing.”

After a fairly well-attended choir rehearsal on Wednesday, we received notice yesterday that the temple will be closed for the next four weeks, which totally puts on hold our entire schedule. We were to sing on Sunday and prepare for our special Choir Sunday on the 29th, but that’s not going to happen. No rehearsal, no services. We will stay tuned, but I know without rehearsal, it will be harder to hold those notes when we resume.

I managed to capture this Rusty Blackbird flying in with the Red-Wingeds, likely on his way north.

Even European Starlings are returning. They used to be present year-round but in the last few years I’ve missed their presence in the dead of winter.

There are always Downy Woodpeckers, though I might not always see them.

Same goes for the Black-capped Chickadees. It was chilly and windy but the days are getting longer and the birds have their work ahead of them.

Flyovers included a singular Ring-Billed Gull and One American Crow. I suppose Crows are a reminder of what happens if you don’t “self-distance”, as in the spread of West Nile Virus.

On the trail that runs behind the opening in the fence and runs parallel to the Des Plaines River, I witnessed a flurry of White-Breasted Nuthatch activity with what appeared to be one male and two females.

I missed any opportunity to snatch the last Super Moon because it was pouring rain on Monday night, but here’s a glimpse of what it looked like back home after swimming on Tuesday.

One more of this buff blackbird.

The extra time to lay low has given me an absurd sense of precarious calm, in that, I suppose, it takes a little pressure off the time crunch that normally accompanies my daily routine, even if it adds a new, rapidly-changing stress. Suddenly all the solo activities that I squeeze into tiny time fragments are clamoring for attention. Among them are playing more music, processing more pictures and writing more blog posts… There’s a desire to commence spring cleanup too. The challenge will be to stay awake. If I’m at home and sitting on the futon with my laptop, naptime is a real threat.

I hope for your wellness and safety, wherever you are. As much as we must distance ourselves physically, we need to come together in spirit all the more.

New Year’s Day

What a gorgeous day, to start the new year. The sun was shining brightly in a cloudless sky. It was quite cold and windy this morning, but who cares? I have something in common with the birds. We worship the sun.

It was nice to see the White-Breasted Nuthatch in the yard this morning. Also present were a multitude of House Sparrows, House Finches and American Goldfinches, with a female Northern Cardinal as a bonus.

So this is a brief post with some pictures from this morning and a couple from Christmas Eve. I have an embarrassing confession to make. I have been shooting with manual focus for so long, due in large part to trying to take pictures of warblers in trees, that I realized on my last trip I had no idea how to set up the camera for autofocus. Here I have all this fancy equipment with no idea how to use it. Duh. So it’s been on my list for the last several months to get on board with autofocus, to the point where it was really becoming a Big Deal in my mind. I needed peace and some uninterrupted time to sit down and figure this thing out.

Luckily there are enough videos and whatnot on the Internet. I finally sat down this morning at the dining room table with both cameras I’ve been using and realized that I was not that far off from using autofocus in the first place, it was just a matter of getting used to the buttons on the camera and what I was trying to do. Then I went out into the backyard with both cameras and started shooting. It took a bit of getting used to, but I really needed to do this! It fought me once when I tried to focus on a squirrel behind some branches, but that wasn’t worth worrying about. So now I can go to San Blas confident that I will get many more pictures in focus!

House Finch

Here’s a Hairy Woodpecker that’s been coming to the yard the past week. Or at least I’ve been around enough to see him. There’s a female too, so I can only assume they are a pair. This picture was taken through the window last week.

White-Breasted Nuthatch

I am getting mentally and physically ready for my next trip, trying to lessen the last-minute panic that always seems to accompany final preparations. Having the extra days off has been a big help.

Another one of Hairy
American Goldfinch

This is probably my last post until after I come back. It’s still hard for me to believe I’m going but Sunday morning isn’t that far away. Best wishes to all for the New Year. We need something to look forward to!

Brief Winter Doldrums in the Yard

DOWP Yard 2-4-2018-5249

Female Downy Woodpecker

The snow was quite beautiful this morning, adding to the first four inches or so we received since Sunday. It was very fluffy and soft, which made me sorry I had no time to take pictures, let alone play in it, but word has it there is much more to come. I managed to hang out with the birds in the yard for a few moments on Sunday morning, when these pictures were taken.Feeders 2-4-2018-5380

 

NOCA Yard 2-4-2018-5294

A male cardinal remained distant.

The sheer number of House Sparrows is sometimes daunting.HOSP 2-4-2018-5392HOSP 2-4-2018-5415

 

The Goldfinches show no signs of disappearing.

After I was back in the house, I looked out the kitchen window a while later and a Cooper’s Hawk was sitting right in the Sumac. But the kitchen window between us was the only way it was going to let me photograph it.COHA Yard 2-4-2018-5438We are in for a foot or more of snow starting tomorrow night, which will present challenges for everyone, including the birds. Maybe I’ll get a chance to take pictures this time.

The Goldfinches Have Spoken

AMGO 01-13-2017-4824It took a while to capture the goldfinches on the thistle socks but I was determined since I never know when they might disappear again. But they seem to be happy for the moment. This was the scene in the yard on Saturday. Try counting how many goldfinches are in the picture above. I get 17, but there could be a couple more on the other side of the socks that were not visible.

At first I took several pictures through the back porch windows, but even if they were clean, the screens would make the image fuzzy, so I decided to try going outside, knowing fully well that I would flush the birds and they might take their time coming back.

When nobody came back to the feeders after a few chilly minutes, I decided to walk out to the front yard when I heard crows calling from that direction. As far as I could tell they were not harassing a raptor. I was happy to see them hanging out in the vicinity. They were a bit too far away for the 300mm lens and I couldn’t get all six of them to line up at any one time but I managed to commemorate a crow presence.

AMCR 01-20-2017-4787There was a starling.

EUST 01-20-2017-4742And a nice male House Finch.

HOFI 01-20-2017-4780

A female house finch offered an even better pose.

HOFI 01-20-2017-4725But I really wanted to see how many goldfinches I could capture on the thistle socks before they dispersed, so I walked back slowly toward the yard and snuck up on them, hanging by the gate.

The goldfinches have shown their preference for fresh niger in three large socks. I have noticed from previous experience that the more socks I hang, the more will come. And I really think they like this situation because they don’t have to compete with the other birds for position, only each other.

Not much else to report locally at the moment, I’ll be back to pictures from Ecuador shortly.

 

Turn of the Year in the Yard

DOWP 1-1-18-4058

Downy Woodpecker

Unwilling to venture out any farther than my yard this past weekend, I was rewarded somewhat when it proved to be interesting. I think if I were home more, the outdoor crowd would become used to me and then I wouldn’t have to wait ten minutes for them to start coming back to the yard after I have planted myself at a sufficient distance from the feeders. This past weekend the cold weather might have tipped my hand a bit.

AMGO 1-1-18-4028I am grateful to have goldfinches back in the yard. Years ago I had dozens, and then they dwindled down to a few. It finally occurred to me that part of the problem was likely niger seed that had gone stale after I bought too much anticipating their return. Fancy thistle feeders did not seem to be appreciated either. I would get one or two goldfinches, but I knew there had to be more out there. So this year, I bought a small amount of fresh seed with the Audubon sale, and got a couple new thistle socks. At one point this past weekend I counted 20 goldfinches on two socks when they were full. The socks are even harder to fill with frozen fingers. But the goldfinches really like these socks, so I just bought some more, and filled up three of them last night in the warmth of the kitchen before hanging them outside. Maybe after another week or two of coddling, the goldfinches will make themselves more available for photographs. The only one I managed to get, above, was taken through the porch window and screen.

The heated bird bath is a big hit with the House Sparrows and everybody else, and probably the best thing I can provide. I have seen a couple birds actually take baths in this frigid weather and I don’t know how they manage to dry off quickly enough when the wind chill is 20 below. Must be a dinosaur thing.

EUST 12-31-17-3951

European Starlings

I thought the starlings were gone for the winter but there seems to be a hardy bunch hanging out in the yard for the daily offering of peanut pieces.NOCA 1-1-18-3970I couldn’t quite figure out what the cardinal was up to in the snow, and he was at a fuzzy distance, but I couldn’t resist his red.

 

At one point I went back out later New Year’s Day, I heard a lot of cawing and found four crows in a tree a block away across the alley. I suspected they were harassing a raptor but I didn’t see their target.

Crows 1-1-18-4012

I went back inside after walking around the block. A bit later, I looked out the kitchen door window to see the raptor below sitting in the same tree the crows had been in. I managed to get my large lens out for a better look.

RSHA 1-1-18-4069

Red-Shouldered Hawk

I had seen the Red-Shouldered a couple times in the neighborhood around the end of November. The first time I was on my way to work and it was calling from its perch on a different tree, so I was able to identify it as much by sound as sight. Now it seems it’s taken up residence for the winter. This is exciting to me because it’s not a bird I have seen very often anywhere, so maybe I’ll get more familiar with this species thanks to this individual.

But just as I was done taking that picture, the Cooper’s Hawk below flew into my yard and then quickly perched on a fence in my neighbor’s yard. Needless to say everybody else assumed hiding mode. I only wish the Cooper’s had found a more attractive perch.

COHA 1-1-18-4111Two of my Diamond Doves were sitting soaking up the sun that poured into the kitchen window. I wonder what they thought of all the strange yard activity.

Doves in window 1-1-18-4090

Diamond Doves

I will be back soon with another post from Ecuador and a visual break from winter.

Post in search of a title

Monarch McGinnis 09-17-17-8326

A last Monarch…

As I sat here last night trying to make sense of this random conglomeration of images before I went to bed, I wondered if we would indeed finally get some rain. It seems even our impending drought cannot ignore the possible impact of Nate, the current tropical storm. We have had some constant drizzly rain and it looks like we should eventually get some cloudbursts. But appearances on the radar can be deceiving. I will keep my hopes up.CEWA Portage 09-09-17-8040RWBL Ottawa Trail Portage 09-17-17-8112Continuing with last month’s visits to nearby Cook County Forest Preserves, young birds like the Cedar Waxwing and Red-Winged Blackbird above were getting ready to leave. It’s become evident to me over the past few years that European Starlings like the one below are not necessarily winter residents either. But the young Mourning Dove blending in with the dead stump below the it will likely stay.EUST Portage 09-09-17-7747MODO Portage 09-09-17-7734Hidden in the leaves about waist-length from the ground at Ottawa Trail was the Ovenbird below.OVEN Ottawa Trail 09-09-17-8061And there just seemed to be too many ways to capture Northern Flickers. They have likely pretty much disappeared by now too. For a last look you can click on the pictures below for larger images.

 

American Robins don’t disappear completely in the winter but they will be traveling in flocks soon searching for any fruit left on trees.

Another hardy winter resident is the Black-Capped Chickadee.BCCH McGinnis 09-17-17-8303A few more Red-Winged Blackbirds.RWBL Portage 09-09-17-7794

Iconic Tree Ottawa Trail 09-09-17-5262

Ottawa Trail’s landmark tree

Last year following my cataract surgery I got all turned around and could not find the trail that runs along the Des Plaines River at Ottawa Trail, but now I am finding it easily, and one reason why is because I have always located the landmark tree above.NOCA Ottawa Trail Portage 09-17-17-8074I am grateful for Northern Cardinals. They will be here all winter to brighten up the landscape.

 

I’ll be back soon with the last warblers… Still trying to find that work/bird-and-choir-life balance. I will bow deeply at the first thunder clap.

 

 

Fall Migration Begins

TEWA Portage 09-03-17-4449

Tennessee Warbler

There was no time for birding last weekend. So I decided to visit the Chicago Portage two days in a row this weekend. It’s not a difficult decision to make this time of year. I took my chances that the rain Saturday night might cause a little warbler fallout and I was not disappointed. Not many species but it was still nice to see some activity.

Apart from birds, I saw more Monarch Butterflies the last two days than I have all summer, when I have occasionally seen only one or two. Yesterday I am sure I saw at least 15, which is still nothing compared to previous years.

The other late summer pleasure is spider webs like the huge one on the left below. On the right, the flowers are still laden with the last night’s raindrops.

Cedar Waxwings were everywhere both days, but in particular yesterday. I estimated there could have been a hundred but I reported a conservative 76.

The two robins below seemed to be arguing over the lower bird’s perch.

On the Des Plaines River, one Great Blue Heron and one Great Egret were still present on Saturday, but Sunday morning they were gone.

GBHE and GREG Portage 09-02-17-3862Indigo Buntings were still a presence but getting a bit harder to find. They are likely getting ready to leave.

INBU Portage 09-03-17-4235INBU Portage 09-02-17-3666Likely INBU Portage 09-02-17-3973INBU Portage 09-02-17-3901Also nearly absent are Red-Winged Blackbirds.

RWBL Portage 09-03-17-4318

Red-Winged Blackbird

For excitement, on Saturday I focused on the Red-Tailed Hawk below when it landed in a tree across the water, and then got lucky enough to capture its takeoff when it left.