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.

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

Fermilab Shorebirds

Coyote, Dusaf Pond, Fermilab

Coyote, Dusaf Pond, Fermilab

I met my friend Leslie at Fermilab’s Dusaf Pond Saturday morning on another shorebird quest. A variety of birds had been seen in the last week or so and we were hopeful. The moment I got out of my car I saw a coyote, who seemed to be virtually ignored by the herons. As soon as I started taking his picture, though, he moved on.

Pectoral Sandpipers

Pectoral Sandpipers

I hadn’t been to Fermilab since the Christmas Count and felt like I owed it at least one visit this year. Click on the pictures for larger images, but for the most part, the birds were too far away to get much detail. And again, we did not see anything unusual. The only thing predictable was the lack of rain would likely produce good shorebird habitat. The rest was up to the birds. Other than the species depicted here, we saw Semipalmated Sandpiper, Semipalmated Plover, Solitary Sandpiper, Spotted Sandpiper and Greater Yellowlegs, and one Black-Bellied Plover.

Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper

Lesser Yellowlegs and Least Sandpiper

The lack of water has done something else, too. There has been a large fish kill. We drove down to one end to walk through plowed stubble where the smell of rotting fish was not welcoming.

Fish Skeleton

Fish Skeleton

Here’s a Great Egret with a fish and a Lesser Yellowlegs maybe waiting for the egret to drop a piece of it. This picture was taken on the other side of the A&E Sea, another Fermilab body of water.

Great Egret and Friends2 1I2A1451

Great Egret & Lesser Yellowlegs 1I2A1471

Invariably there were Killdeer and maybe since we don’t pay inordinate attention to them they don’t seem to mind the occasional photograph.

Killdeer 1I2A1481


Great Egret 1I2A1514

Great Egret

Summer is winding down. It’s hard to believe all these birds will be gone soon.

And the butterflies too…

Orange Suplhur  Butterfly

Orange Suplhur Butterfly

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.

Counting Birds for Christmas

My entire focus this week was figuring out how to make it to the Christmas Count at Fermilab in Batavia, Illinois with enough energy to spare. It turned out to be well worth it. I had the time of my life with great companions and some pretty special birds.

You never know what to expect on a Christmas Count. Weather is perhaps the deciding factor, both for the birds and the humans. For instance, if it’s too cold and all the water is frozen, you won’t see any waterfowl, save for a few geese in fields. Yesterday it was snowing in the morning but there was still open water. We had over a thousand Canada Geese, although no more than three or four hundred at any given spot, five Great Blue Herons, several Ring-Billed Gulls, American Black Ducks, a Ruddy Duck, and of course Mallards. Our group was not assigned to all the open water areas so I think this was all we saw, but I’m sure more species were seen by the other two groups.

In one field close to where we flushed a couple Common Snipe, there were a couple hundred Canada Geese and also four Greater White-Fronted Geese, and that’s when I took out my point-and-shoot camera. Next year I think I’ll take it out sooner, because I could have gotten a few more pictures without being too distracted from looking for or the counting the birds (I’m kicking myself now for not getting a picture of three unidentified flying swans, spectacular in their whiteness against the grey sky).

Greater White-Fronted Goose

After lunch it wasn’t snowing anymore and although the sun never made it through the cloud cover, we began to see a few more passerines, finding mixed flocks of Northern Cardinals, American Tree Sparrows and Dark-Eyed Juncos. Groups of Horned Larks foraged in the fields and on the road. Traveling by car, we got out here and there to see if we could scare up some birds. Wandering about in stubbly fields or evergreen stands where pockets of water were starting to freeze was noisy and exhausting. Climbing over one fallen log must have done something to my right thigh muscle. When I got up this morning, that ache was gone but replaced by several others. Run over by the proverbial truck.

On one of those walks out in an open field we found a cooperative Northern Shrike. Encouraged that I was able to get some kind of image of him, I took a few shots. The shrike became intrigued, perhaps, by the attention and flew in closer.

Northern Shrike

Northern Shrike, closer...

Wandering about in such a vast open space takes one away from congestion, traffic noise, cell phones; it’s just you, your companions and the landscape. And in my case, parts of Bach A Major and A minor English suites. Whatever my brain decided I should have been practicing it did so, providing me a little traveling music.

Toward the end of the day we were trying to find owls in places other than the non-productive ones we’d been checking in the morning. We saw two Great Horned Owls fly into the trees. See if you can pick out the owl in this mess of branches.

The highlight, the perfect ending to a cold, cloudy, but fun day, was to see a Short-Eared Owl hunting in a field. It was too dark to take any pictures, but I will never forget the image of the owl dipping, rising, floating over the ground, disappearing when it blended in with the background.

I hadn’t done the count for a couple years and although I was familiar with the routine (form groups and take off for your first area at 7:00 a.m., wearing as much clothing as possible and don’t forget rubber boots), I noticed about an hour after lunch that instead of feeling tired and wanting to leave early as I had in previous years, I relished staying for the whole day. I had no other obligations dragging me away, so my focus on the day paid off. I was able to give in to the general giddiness and somewhat slap-happy all-for-one/one-for-all dedication of the group to finding more birds. I’ll never forget the supportive, funny, crazy group of birders I did the count with. The camaraderie was irreplaceable and will fortify me through a hellish year-end at the office.