Weekends at the Portage

I spent the mornings of July 4th and Sunday, June 28th, at the Chicago Portage, mainly to see how the birds that spend their breeding season there are doing. Fledglings are starting to show themselves. Sometimes they look so different from the adults it takes a moment or two to figure out exactly who they are.

American Goldfinch

A Green Heron occasionally stops by to see what’s happening, perhaps to see if the water it used to fish in has returned. I suspect the herons miss the water even more than I do. A frequent dog-walker I have exchanged conversation with for years told me that he heard the amount of water flowing into the Portage was being controlled to discourage beavers. That’s extremely disappointing to me, if true. I had read somewhere that efforts were being made to restore the habitat to its original state but I really don’t know how that could happen. I will keep trying to find out the true story. In the meantime the habitat change attracts other species that were absent before, but I miss the old “regulars.”

All that vegetation in the middle used to be water…

Something else: just as I was beginning to explore farther afield, the fence gate has been closed and locked. I am not surprised, with all the extra foot and bicycle traffic – I am sure it is a matter of liability between the water reclamation district and the railroad. Of course I would be able to crawl through the opening on the righthand side of the gate but I don’t think it’s worth doing now. It might be hard to resist during fall migration though. I guess it will depend on how many people are still using the trails.

So the stars of both visits were the male Indigo Buntings. There were plenty of them everywhere and quite a few volunteered for photographs. Since I always take too many pictures and have a hard time deciding which ones to use I have just piled them up here.

There seems to be a good number of Northern Flickers this year.

I am always happy to see a Monarch Butterfly. But sadly I haven’t seen more than two at a time.

Starting to see more dragonflies too.

European Starlings always look more interesting to me in their juvenile plumage.

I never know when I’m going to run into a deer.

Red-winged Blackbirds are less visible now that they’ve accomplished their mission of setting up territories and making babies. This may be the last time I will have seen a male singing.

I found the photos below confusing until I realized, upon closer inspection, that the breast is yellow and the tail has rufous coloration to it. Voila, this is a juvenile Great-crested Flycatcher. I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a juvenile before, so I am really happy I managed to capture it.

Another Indigo Bunting…

Here’s a Baltimore Oriole feeding his fledgling.

These are juvenile Red-winged Blackbirds checking out their surroundings.

This is the time of year when robins take on all kinds of plumage variations, particularly among the juveniles.

Downy Woodpecker (juvenile)

Below are photos of an adult Red-bellied Woodpecker and a juvenile, for comparison.

I was intrigued by the House Wren below who disappeared into the cavity in the tree…

The Blue-gray Gnatcatcher below seems to have a strange sort of tumorous growth on its back.

My lucky one-shot of a juvenile Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I haven’t seen any of this species otherwise for quite a while so it’s nice to know they are here.

Well it’s taken me almost two weeks to write this post… I will try to keep up with posting. Today was a gift in that there were clouds and thunderstorms to keep me inside and less tempted to go out. If it were up to me, I would have as many mornings as I wanted each week to do everything I like to do.

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.