Finally, Pine Siskins

After reading about the irruption of Pine Siskins for weeks, I kept wondering how I could have possibly missed seeing them. The species showed up in my yard for the first time in January of this year and I fondly remembered their cheery presence. I thought I might have seen one or two last week but I couldn’t be sure, and had to discount it as wishful thinking. Then last Sunday morning as I stood on the back porch, there they were. Only two of them, but they were all I needed to restore my faith in something. They didn’t stay long. Maybe they were playing hooky from some large flock somewhere.

The House Sparrows outnumber everybody else, of course.

Last Saturday was the first time I dared go out with my usual camera setup. The camera weighs two pounds and the lens is another three and a half. It doesn’t sound like a lot of weight but it’s dense and massive. Then there’s the issue of adjusting the focus with my left hand. My fingers are still slightly swollen and stiff, and I can’t maneuver entirely without pain. But I am in the painful stage of physical therapy now so I may as well enjoy my suffering and take pictures.

I had come to see if there were Sandhill Cranes – and there were, a few – but the skies were dominated by Canada Geese. Unfortunately the owners of the surrounding farms were hunting them. I didn’t see any fall from the sky but I wasn’t looking either, it was bad enough to hear the gunshots. Something else to think about when I visit this place in the fall.

Canada Geese

Some flora caught my eye.

The first two birds I saw on the trail going in were Cedar Waxwings.

A burning bush?

It was nice to see this young White-crowned Sparrow.

So there were some Sandhills. I won’t be able to get back up there this year to see hundreds or thousands that sometimes come through, but I did have a good time talking with a crane enthusiast who visits there a lot and knows their habits. He said he was waiting for a big push of cold weather from Wisconsin and that would bring down a lot of cranes. He is hoping to see a Whooping Crane this year.

Not a lot of land birds but it was a beautiful morning. I was surprised to see the Blue Jay arrive and announce himself, and pose for a couple pictures.

I always see Crows here and that makes me happy.

Below are the last pictures I took the previous Saturday morning at the Portage, with the mirrorless camera. It takes nice photographs, but I haven’t figured out how to get it to focus all the time.

So I was frustrated when I saw the Blue-headed Vireo below so well, but I couldn’t get the camera to see it as clearly as I did.

My closest shot of one of the Sandhills from Goose Lake Natural Area…

Between work, physical therapy, waking up to this, that, or the other pain, trying not to let the news cycle interrupt a deeper thought process, there have been moments of peace and flashes of contentment, even a little creativity. I have missed seeing more birds and autumn color. This is usually my favorite time of year. I am looking forward to setting the clocks back so there will be more light in the morning. My indoor birds are good sports. They are helping me write a song about looking for an answer to a question I haven’t figured out yet.

Return to Goose Lake Natural Area

After the Portage weekend it felt like time to revisit the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds and maybe get to see a Black Tern, so I got up early on the 30th — a month ago already! — and went to Goose Lake Natural Area near Hebron. I am beginning to absolutely love this place, except for the hour-and-a-half it takes to get there, but of course that’s why it’s so special. I hope to go back sometime this coming weekend – after I visit the other Goose Lake, which is less of a drive in the opposite direction.

The Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were on their territories and the one closest to the trail was easier to see than last time. I think I caught an obscure photo of a female in the top center of the photos below.

The Yellow Warbler below stayed partially hidden, but I caught up with its cousin later.

Yellow Warbler

There were plenty of Red-Winged Blackbirds, but the males didn’t offer themselves up for photos. They probably know they are not the main attraction at this place. Below are couple females.

On the walk back to the car I spotted the Wild Turkey below. It was flushed by people approaching from the other direction.

I left thinking I had missed the Black Terns but found this photograph of a fleeting glimpse of one leaving the area.

A family of Pied-Billed Grebes below – I think mom was trying to show the kids how to find food.

I managed to capture the female Belted Kingfisher below flying across the water and then the marsh, looking for a place to perch with her catch.

Willow Flycatchers like this place too.

A couple Great Egrets flew over.

A Common Yellowthroat was bold enough to look me in the lens.

I heard the Great-Crested Flycatcher below before I managed to barely see him when I first hit the trail.

An American Crow…

A bit puzzled by the nest in the reeds below until it proved to be an American Robin sitting on it. So they do nest in places other than trees and the fascia of suburban houses.

A male Mallard flew by, reminding me that he’s a beautiful bird too.

A small flock of Double-Crested Cormorants flying over – of all the flock names, I will choose a “swim” of cormorants. You might prefer “flight,” “gulp”, “rookery” or “sunning”.
The Hebron Trail…
An unusually cooperative Gray Catbird
One more of the Yellow Warbler

I’ve been busy at work, so goes the bulk of my laptop time. Hoping for a bit of a respite this coming weekend, and not too many deafening firework explosions. Summer is definitely upon us. Take a deep breath.

Late April Goose Lake

With the forecast of only one nice day this past weekend, I planned to go to Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail, which has become one of my favorite, if distant, destinations. One doesn’t know what to expect when venturing out these days. I knew I could count on the absence of crowds, even if there were some people walking, riding bikes, running, birding. Luckily this is a vast expanse and I could still feel quite alone most of the time, however I now take that sentiment in current context.

Starting down the Hebron Trail…

The walk is long to the Goose Lake part – at least it seems to take forever. There were not a lot of birds along the way this early in the season to distract me, but there was certainly a lot of up-and-coming moss.

The main attraction to me, then, was the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds. The females haven’t started arriving yet as far as I can tell, but I wanted to be there when the males were setting up territories so I could hear them sing. With all the Red-Winged Blackbirds singing, they didn’t seem to vocalize in long phrases, but I did manage to get a recording, albeit with a lot of wind noise, of their characteristic rusty-crank-sounding song. The short song clip is below these photographs.

I might add that the Yellow-Headeds were far away and rather secretive. I want to go back in a few weeks to see if I can get a better look.

There were several Song Sparrows and I managed to get a few photographs of them. They had some lovely songs too. I almost wish I could have left the camera and recorded vocalizations, but it was windy that day anyway.

Another likely breeding sparrow in this habitat is the Swamp Sparrow. I was lucky to encounter the beauty below.

I miss Crows a lot. It’s been a chronic ache that started with my job location three years ago, made worse by the current situation banning visits to lakefront parks. So another thing I like about this location is that I always get to see Crows.

I confess I wasn’t paying an awful lot of attention to Red-Winged Blackbirds, but I did find this guy attractive. There’s a female in three photos below him.

I had to look hard to see the Goose on her nest below.

There were still a few Ruby-Crowned Kinglets here and there.

As I turned to go back, three crows were harassing a Red-Tailed Hawk.

I got distracted by a little more plant life and my first ladybug of the year.

There was an elusive Red-Bellied Woodpecker off the side of the wooded trail as I walked back.

I have been working harder than ever from home which was not at all what I expected when this whole pandemic thing began. As long as it’s raining I don’t mind so much. Oh well. Tomorrow is May 1.

October’s End

A goal for the last two years has been to get up to Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail in October to see Sandhill Cranes. October weekends were flying by with other commitments and I kept hoping for decent weather, should I attempt the trip on the last Sunday of the month. I was rewarded with available sunshine and went to investigate. I saw only 18 Cranes eventually, when there had been a few hundred reported earlier in the week, but I was lucky to have three calling raucously and flying right overhead.

My start down the eastward Hebron Trail, which is a gravel trail built on an old railroad bed, yielded a flurry of Cedar Waxwings, Robins and Starlings at the start.

Hebron Trail
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling

The more often I visit this place, the more I fall in love with it. But it takes me an hour and a half to drive up there, no matter which way I go. The first time or two I wasn’t sure I was ever going to find it, but now I know the route and the landmarks and it’s easy – just a long haul.

Not long after I reached the end of the tree-lined part of the trail, I saw this male Northern Harrier fly across the field and then maybe twenty minutes later it flew by right in front of me.

Sparrow migration is in full force and I saw plenty of sparrows to prove it. It was especially nice to see the Vesper and Savannah Sparrows. Also this was my first American Tree Sparrow of the season. Since I’m already over seeing Juncos come back, I see no problem welcoming the Tree Sparrows, as both species herald the return of colder months.

Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

There weren’t a lot of birds in the water, mainly American Coots. There were some Pied-Billed Grebes, but they were too far away to capture adequately.

American Coots

As I went through my photographs last Sunday, I realized I still had photos from my last visit back at the end of July, when I wondered if there were any Yellow-Headed Blackbirds left. I’m including some of those photos below.

Yellow-Headed Blackbird (female)
Song Sparrow
American Goldfinch
This Halloween Pennant would have been much more appropriate if I’d managed to post this last week!
Another reason why I like this place – I always see Crows!
Widow Skimmers look even better in retrospect.

A couple more of the Sandhills… My resolution for next year is to visit this place more often, maybe even closer to the peak times for certain species. Either way, it’s a beautiful place and I am happy to share it with you.

The Other Goose Lake

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Yellow-Headed Blackbird

Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail, in McHenry County up by the Wisconsin border, was on my list of places to revisit this year and I was so happy to be accompanied by my friend Susan who had a Yellow-Headed Blackbird in her sights as a species to add to her life list. I checked with ebird and confirmed the blackbirds had been seen in late July last year, so there was a good chance of seeing them still. These photos are from last Sunday.

On the way up, Susan spotted two Sandhill Cranes walking near a fence by the road.

It was cloudy and threatening rain, although we managed to avoid downpours. The sun did peek out a little bit later. Greeted by a Cedar Waxwing…

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Cedar Waxwing

And a bedraggled-looking Yellow Warbler on the trail to the marsh…

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Yellow Warbler

And a juvenile Song Sparrow.

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Song Sparrow

The Yellow-Headed Blackbirds were suddenly in view in numbers and they dominated the landscape. Susan definitely added this bird to her life list. We did not see an Black Terns, a species that also breeds here. Perhaps we were too late in the day or the season.

At some point a flock of Canada Geese flew over.

Below, flying Yellow-Headed and Red-Winged Blackbirds.

One particular Tree Swallow kept flying around a distinctive dead tree, tempting me to try to capture it. The tree it perched on is a favorite stopping place.

Below, a Common Yellowthroat and a confusing young sparrow. It’s likely a Song Sparrow but this time of year is tricky with identifying the youngsters. I’d like to say Grasshopper but the head isn’t “flat.”

Not at all confusing were the distinctive sounds of singing Marsh Wrens, but it was getting hard to find one sitting up until we encountered this one close to a platform overlooking the marsh. Some of its song is at the link below (you will also hear Common Yellowthroat singing first).

The water level was exceptionally high, but the area was not flooded as were other parts of the county. We saw many Pied-Billed Grebes with young, although they were at quite a distance.

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Pied-Billed Grebes

Nice to see a Monarch Butterfly. Would have been nicer to see several. I’m intrigued by the yellow flowering plant on the upper right, which I do not recognize, and the Purple Prairie Clover below it, which I later realized is also blooming in my front yard. Imagine that.

It was nice to see a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird, even in lousy lighting, and a robin with food for young.

We met a very nice man who lives nearby and checks out the marsh regularly. He used to teach environmental science so he was full of good information and stories. He’s holding the crayfish below which he rescued from the gravel path. He encouraged us to come back at different times of the year. I think we should take him up on it.

More Yellow-Headed Blackbird photos. Missing are the distinctive white patches on the wings of adult males, which makes me think these are all juveniles.

YHBL 07-16-17-6279The little trio below leaves me stumped as to who the sparrow is, again. Since all juvenile sparrows tend to be on the streaky side no matter how they wind up as adults, I think this one has the look of a juvenile Field Sparrow but I’m not going to bet on it.

RWBL ET AL 07-16-17-6330Summer simmers on. I’ll be back soon.

Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail

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Yellow-Headed Blackbird

I saw a couple birds at the Portage a few weeks ago that reminded me of Yellow-Headed Blackbirds although they were most likely not, but the light was so bad I couldn’t determine what they were, even after enhancing bad pictures. They were definitely large blackbirds but not Grackles.

(For clarification – the pictures above are all Yellow-Headed Blackbirds and were taken at Goose Lake Natural Area in McHenry County.)

I then thought that by the time I get back from Ecuador next month, it could be too late to see the Yellow-Headed Blackbirds that nest in McHenry County close to the Wisconsin border. I went to this area last year for the first time and vowed to go back. So Sunday morning I picked up my friend Lesa and we headed up north into ensuing thunderstorms. By the time we got all the way up there about an hour and a half later, the rain was nearly over, so it was perfectly timed.

On our way out to the marsh through the wooded trail, we saw a distant Ring-Necked Pheasant and light at the end of the tunnel.

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There were other things happening on the gravel trail. Like feeding time for a fledgling Common Grackle.

And birds drying off after the rain.

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Common Grackle on the left, Brown Thrasher on the right.

And Empidonax flycatchers, likely Alder or Willow, but unless they say something we can never be really sure.

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