Little Brown Jobs

I started writing this post so long ago I almost forgot what it was. But these pictures are from last month, when I visited McGinnis Slough. I never know what to expect as the species change with the water level. The water level was low, so there were primarily land birds to look for. And most of them were sparrows, often referred to fondly as “LBJs” or “little brown jobs” in birder jargon.

At the top of the post is a Swamp Sparrow and there are more photographs below. Swamp Sparrows are distinctly reddish-brown on their wings.

Next, a couple lovely Song Sparrows. Always streaky, but they can often look quite different. The strong, bold malar is their giveaway.

I will never forget how frustrated I felt when I first discovered birds and found out that House Sparrows are not a native species but indeed, there were some thirty-odd native species to worry about. With luck I will see a third of them here. It took years of classes and practice to get them straight. Actually when I first got interested in birds, House Sparrows were still considered weaver finches by some. They are now included in the sparrow family. I’ve never seen a House Sparrow at McGinnis, so they are not featured in this post. But considering they were among the first birds to interact with me, I probably owe them a tribute someday in a future post. Until then, I believe they are all in my backyard…

One of my favorite sparrows is below, the Fox Sparrow. There are four subspecies. The one we see is the “Red”.

Fox Sparrow

The handsome sparrow below is a juvenile White-Crowned Sparrow. I have not seen an adult this fall.

Dark-eyed Juncos are part of the sparrow family too. I am always intrigued by the nuances of color in these birds, I don’t find them drab at all. After a while one starts to recognize them by their flash of white tail feathers in flight or their ratchety calls.

To jazz things up a bit, there were a couple of Northern Cardinals handy. I never turn down an opportunity to capture them.

There were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers too. It was the last time I saw them this year.

It was still warm enough for Dandelions to consider blooming. Seeds are scattering from milkweed pods. I was attracted to the red-leafed plant but I don’t know what it is.

Last, here are a few scenes from the slough. All the way at the bottom is the overturned picnic table that used to sit right by the overlook onto the slough at the south end. It was a nice place to sit. I am not letting my imagination run too wild with what caused anyone to throw it into the creek upside-down.

I will try to be back sooner. Work has been busy and all-consuming. But now it seems silly and superfluous to complain about anything. I have started swimming again. Swimming Fixes Everything. I was surprised that I had forgotten how absolutely, sinfully wonderful it feels to get out of the pool with all my cells “woke”. I feel almost guilty admitting it in the midst of such a miserable, suffering year. If I could bottle and sell the feeling I have after swimming, I would be a trillionaire, but of course I can’t because the best things in life, truly, are free.

I hope you have a go-to place that refreshes your spirit and gives you energy to continue. We’re not done yet.

Two Visits to McGinnis Slough

Even though I never go to McGinnis Slough these days prepared to see a lot of birds – which would require bringing my scope – I invariably see something interesting. It used to be a great place for hundreds of Great Egrets and multiple Great Blue Herons, but for the past several years the numbers have dwindled to a few individuals. During waterfowl migration it’s still a place to see good numbers of several species. My last two visits were sort of before and after spring migration. But I like the fact that it’s not crowded. You can’t your bike through it, so that likely keeps people away. And you could miss it driving by at 50 mph on LaGrange Road, even though the entrance is newly paved and there’s a lovely wrought-iron fence, maybe to keep the deer from crossing the highway.

So these photographs are from April 4 and June 7 of this year. From grays and browns in early April to greens and blues in June. April 4 was a good day for Tree Swallows, even if they look washed-out on a cloudy day.

Tree Swallow and a Northern Shoveler
Blue-winged Teal

The gray and brown was enhanced by a little low-lying fog on the April visit.

I haven’t seen an awful lot of Eastern Phoebes this year. I think flycatchers in general have been scarcer, which I can only assume speaks to the lack of insects. I hope they can recover somehow.

Eastern Kingbird, another flycatcher

In the tail end of waterfowl migration, some Lesser Scaup were close enough to photograph.

Those white blobs are actually American White Pelicans on the far shore.
The slough was quite marshy in June.

The June visit featured Warbling Vireos chasing around at eye-level, and then one sang for me. I managed to record a bit of his song below after having him pose for all these pictures.These guys are hard to spot normally so I indulged.

I often see Wood Ducks lined up on this fallen log. The June visit was no exception.

Wood Ducks

Baltimore Orioles aren’t advertising for mates anymore so they’re a little harder to spot.

Going down the path to the north, I encountered a couple does.

There were a few Cedar Waxwings in the same general area as the Warbling Vireos.

This White-breasted Nuthatch would have been even better if he had turned around.

Red-winged Blackbirds abound.

And in the flying-by department…

Herring Gull
Double-crested Cormorants

I’m used to seeing rose mallow, and maybe it will appear later in the summer, but I think this wild iris is new.

Thanks for making it to the end of this long post! We are in for a long, hot, sunny weekend around here. With luck, I will find more birds to share with you.

Going the Distance

It’s a slow, steady drip as the bucket of What Next is filling rapidly and seems about to overflow. I keep falling back into the grounding exercises that keep me going. Bake a loaf of bread. Go for a walk in the woods. Chocolate-covered almonds.

I voted yesterday morning. I wonder now if it was worth the effort. After cutting my little voter ID card out of the flyer I received in the mail weeks ago, I walked around the block to the elementary school entrance where the polls were open. The voter ID was identical to the two older ones that were still living in my wallet, but I wanted to make everything as easy as possible for the over-taxed election officials. I have voted in every election since I moved here 19 years ago. But yesterday, I could not be found in the system. I had to re-register. When I did finally get my paper ballot, which was what I preferred anyway over the new voting machines that weren’t working, my ballot could not be scanned until some future time when the scanner would be operating. I hope things improved after I left and went into the office for the last time until further notice. I worked a full day and came home to my birds and to ponder my newly-enforced remote existence.

These photographs are from Sunday. The morning was cloudy so I spent some time in the yard trying to get pictures of my most frequent visitors. The Goldfinches are still dominating the action. I estimated there were perhaps forty or more of them, outnumbering the House Sparrows. That’s a thing.

The afternoon promised sunshine so I decided to check McGinnis Slough. As usual, most of the birds were waterfowl way beyond my ability to distinguish them, and I had not felt like taking my scope. There were pitifully few passerines. In fact, I did not see or hear one Red-Winged Blackbird, which seems very odd, especially after having them at the Portage last week.

There were a lot of Northern Shovelers, and I managed to get one in flight early on. Beyond that, the only “near” bird that stood out was a Blue-Winged Teal.

Rain is in the forecast for today, tomorrow and Friday. So I will definitely have to go out this weekend. The gym was officially closed for business yesterday, so I can’t swim. I am going to try to work from home, which is something I never did very often to begin with. But all connection now will be over the Internet entirely, save for the very few times I may have to go out and buy something. I have enough food for myself to likely last a year. (As for toilet paper, I ordered a case of bamboo toilet paper from Who Gives a Crap months ago and just opened it recently. I am not in the habit of giving plugs to anybody but they seem to be a worthwhile organization, donating a portion of their profits to providing sanitation facilities in underdeveloped areas of the world. Unfortunately if you are so tempted, they are out of stock as well, I just checked.) If I need to buy anything, it will be food for the birds that will dictate my immediate spending habits.

The weekend provided a little entertainment indoors. My Zebra Finches found interest in my socks, and I started to build a little musical interlude with Dudlee’s cooing for inspiration.

Here are a few more pictures from Sunday’s yard. I’m getting restless to start cleaning it up but we still have the possibility of frost. However, I suspect projects will develop with the enduring isolation. Beyond music and other indoor diversions, I need exercise and I need to go outside. Plain and simple. I’ll likely visit the Portage a lot more these next few weeks, to monitor the beginnings of Spring Migration.

Scruffy-looking male American Goldfinches are molting away into their breeding plumage.

I hope you are all safe and well and finding some solace in the extra peace and quiet that is inevitable with sequestration. I also hope your connections with loved ones are substantial and enduring. We can all discover a lot more about ourselves when we’re tested like this. Let’s look for a silver lining somewhere in all of this and the world comes together for the common good.

Sandhills at McGinnis

Two weekends ago I went to McGinnis Slough. A bit later than I’d planned… weekends seem to be getting away from me, and I just can’t seem to get up and out very early. I arrived at the slough around 8:30 AM, so it was still cool. The moment I got out of the car everything else became irrelevant when I saw two Sandhill Cranes standing in the overlook area that juts out toward the slough from the parking lot. I didn’t want to disturb them, so as I started to walk toward the south end, I took pictures at a considerable distance. But later after they had left, I found the two feathers in the grass, above. I arranged the feathers a bit to photograph them and left them there. Once upon a time I collected a feather or two, but I have never done anything purposeful with them and it’s frustrating to inadvertently find them later collecting dust or stuck inside a book or…

Below is what the slough looked like. Overgrown and marshy. Very different from the flooded trails of my last visit.

Walking away from the Sandhills, there were some Wood Ducks at the south end.

I’m always happy to see a Monarch Butterfly, but then am saddened by the fact that I hardly ever see more than one anymore, anywhere.

There were plenty of dragonflies. Blue Dashers are still plentiful and posing this summer.

Below is an Eastern Pondhawk. I don’t think I’ve photographed one before.

Red-Winged Blackbirds are still a presence everywhere.

And it was nice to see Baltimore Orioles.

Some more Red-Wingeds. Those red epaulets really stand out in flight.

Red-Tailed Hawks. Flying together…chased by blackbirds…soaring.

And there were a few Blue Jays who were not camera-shy for a change. This one seemed to think the picnic table might have some promise.

American Goldfinches, so plentiful earlier in the year, are a bit scarce, but I attribute that to the fact that they are late breeders and likely consumed by nesting duties.

American Goldfinch (female)

I was unable to capture a dragonfly on these roses but they turned out to be attractive by themselves.

A glimpse of a Green Heron…

and a Great Egret. There were a few Great Blue Herons but they were too far away.

So that’s my little report from McGinnis. I’ll try to go back there before I leave for my trip to New Brunswick and Grand Manan in just a few weeks. But I’m still not done with the Texas trip! And I have to find a new bird care person for the indoor crowd, which is not so easy these days. Sigh.

McGinnis Magic

Trumpeter Swans

After reading one birder’s report of McGinnis Slough being nearly under water, I decided to go see for myself. It was after 11:00 when I got there, so I didn’t expect to see many land birds, but you don’t necessarily go to McGinnis for land birds anyway.

Part of the flooded trail last Saturday.

The parking lot wasn’t flooded, in fact there were more cars there than usual. I got out of my car and started walking toward the water, and I saw the two Trumpeter Swans swimming slowly by – right in front of me. Normally these birds are way far away on the other side of the slough, visible only with binoculars if not a scope. I suppose they were checking out the other side of the pond now that the water had deepened it.

No sooner did I start taking pictures of the swans than I heard a commotion from behind where I was standing. Thus began several hundred if not eventually a couple thousand Sandhill Cranes passing overhead. This was the magical part. I am invariably stuck in the office when cranes are flying over, and now I had them practically all to myself.

Sandhill Cranes
As the groups of cranes began swirling above and around each other, there were what looked like some near collisions.

There were a few ducks close to the western edge, too, that I normally would not see.

Lesser Scaup female with a male Bufflehead in the background
Blue-Winged Teal
Greater Scaup
My only land bird photograph – a Black-Capped Chickadee

I walked as far as I could around the flooding and made it to the usual overlook where there were several young women who appeared to be part of a class outing. That explained the extra cars in the parking lot. They were absorbed in their conversation and I did not interrupt them. After my feast of birds I was not interested in trying to make out the usual dots on the water.

I have to start going back to McGinnis more often. It just occurred to me that on my last visit, there was hardly any water!

Sandhill Cranes

McGinnis Slough and A Weekend of Prayer

SWSP - 11-3-18-4358

Swamp Sparrow

I gave in to the prospect of the only nice weekend weather Saturday morning before my dentist appointment and went to McGinnis Slough. Reports of waterfowl seen a day or two before reminded me it was time to renew my relationship with this favorite destination, and the prospect of fall colors made it even more enticing. So now it will be a month or longer, looking back on fall from winter soon, by the time I get around to the last organized bird walk weekend.

The moment I got out of the car I felt restored. I was the only human and could temporarily forget about the whir of traffic noise nearby.

McGinnis - 11-3-18-4099There were still a few Red-Winged Blackbirds hanging out, singing.

RWBL - 11-3-18-4107In addition to a lot of Swamp Sparrows, there was my first American Tree Sparrow of the season, the arrival of which always reminds me of winter coming…

I was not expecting to see Yellow-Rumped Warblers…or orange conifers…but apparently both exist together. I think the tree is an American Larch or something like that, which turns yellow or orange in the fall.

YRWA - 11-3-18-4291And of course the waterfowl. Below, a view of only a couple hundred of 850 American Coots. Or so I calculated…

Hundreds of Coots - 11-3-18-4332And here are two cute Coots up closer.

AMCO - 11-3-18-4423There was a nice little group of Green-Winged Teal…

and quite a few Northern Shovelers, although I could not seem to get a good photo of the flashier male

NOSH - 11-3-18-4231At one point two Mute Swans flew overhead. The second time they weren’t entirely mute and I thought they sounded a bit like Snow Geese so they had me fooled for a minute, but my photographs later said Swans.

The Coot below was enjoying the early sunshine, and so was I, but the clouds started to move in quickly after that.

AMCO - 11-3-18-4114

Plant life taking on fall form…

A Wood Duck was close enough for a photo but by then the sun was hiding.

WODU - 11-3-18-4417A few more of the Yellow-Rumpeds and the tree they were in.

Another Shoveler…

NOSH - 11-3-18-4128The trees looking windswept and leafless…

Trees at McGinnis - 11-3-18-4122Sunday morning the choir sang two services, singing “Somebody Prayed for Peace” and “Sweet Freedom” which is based on the national anthem. Afterward I went to city hall for early voting, deciding that it might not be such a bad thing to try, even though I live half a block from my polling place. As I sat in the gallery section of council chambers waiting my turn at the voting machine, I was reminded of sitting in a church pew and struck by the metaphor of voting as a form of prayer.

Random contributions from my new cell phone…the leaves are from one of the towering Sycamore trees I passed this morning on my way to the train, the salad consumed yesterday features the last of my cherry tomatoes, and beneath all that, one experiment in my new Saturday tradition which is to have one midday meal of scrambled eggs and onions and whatever else I’m looking to use up…in this instance, even some stale pita chips. Food as a form of prayer.

One more landscape from McGinnis and a Red-Winged Blackbird looking thoughtful.

This coming weekend will be very busy with the choir tour. I hope to return to this page soon afterward.

Winding down…

Mallow McGinnis 8-19-18-8037

Rose Mallow at McGinnis

As the days get ever-so-slightly shorter, commitments increase. I’m not sure why that is. But suddenly it seems there is less time for more things to do. A visit to McGinnis Slough had been on my mind for weeks ever since the last time I drove by the entrance was closed for paving the driveway, and there was no access. I got up as early as I could Sunday morning to visit the Slough and then the Portage.

McGinnis 8-19-18-7939

A Slough in name only…

I think the last time I posted from the Slough, I was commenting on the low water levels following perhaps a flooding situation. But the summer weather since has not been kind to the Slough. Indeed it is all overgrown and there is barely any water, so all the birds I would normally see have gone somewhere else.

There were Mallards and Wood Ducks. I saw two distant Great Egrets, but no Great Blue Herons. Normally the slough would be hosting scores of these herons. No such luck this year.WODu w MALL McGinnis 8-19-18-8024Perhaps indicative of the situation was the first bird I saw, the bedraggled-looking Northern Cardinal below.

NOCA McGinnis 8-19-18-7914There were a few blackbirds around too, but the breeders are gone.

RWBL McGinnis 8-19-18-8000

Red-Winged Blackbird, hiding the red

When not distracted by birds, the vegetation grabs my attention. Could this be a new grass taking over? I think it is Bristly Sedge.

It was then I went to the Chicago Portage. I got there just in time to encounter all the dog-walkers, runners and cyclists, but it is always worth checking out. I have to remind myself sometimes that seeing fewer birds than I might want is still worthwhile from a reporting standpoint…

Portage 8-19-18-8147There were more Cedar Waxwings (below) than any other species. I can only assume they were cleaning up whatever mulberries the robins, who were absent, had left behind. That’s right, the robins that virtually take over the landscape have all gone somewhere else. I’m envisioning large fruit-eating flocks already in mini-migrations.

There was one distant but distinct Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I hope to see more, asĀ  there is plenty of Jewelweed in bloom, but the window is narrowing for this species. Maybe I’ll have another week or two…

RTHU Portage 8-19-18-8072The theme for the day, perhaps, was shaping up. These were young birds starting to find their way in the big wide world, like the Eastern Kingbird below.

And the scraggly youngster below appears to be a young Great Crested Flycatcher.

GCFL 8-19-18-8173I expect to see a lot of juvenile Indigo Buntings in the next few weeks, but Sunday just about the only bunting I encountered I could barely see.

INBU 8-19-18-8121

Indigo Bunting

I was happy to see a Turkey Vulture (adult) in the neighborhood. I think seeing so many different vulture species in East Africa years ago instilled a love and respect for them. Lately I have seen groups of these hanging out by the highways, where I’m sure they make a decent living off of roadkill.

TUVU 8-19-18-8184The most accommodating bird at the Portage was the cardinal below who was singing with his back toward me but I guess that feeling of somebody looking at you caught his attention and he turned his face toward me.

NOCA 8-19-18-8106

Northern Cardinal

Starting this Saturday, I will be leading weekly bird walks in two alternating locations. I was recruited for this position by a fellow bird-watching choir member. We’ll see how it goes. I plan on taking the camera with me, but the leading and listing responsibilities will make photography challenging. If nothing else, I will become more familiar with the two destinations which up until now I have rarely visited. The whole purpose of this is to catch the fall migration wave. I promise to report back as often as possible.

I almost forgot my little insect sampler from the Portage. Worth mention, perhaps, is the fact that there were at least 20 Monarch Butterflies. But it’s still hard for me to believe that is a larger number than I have seen all summer.

So as we experience the changes in the weather, the environment, the species we see… the changes are unsettling, but that’s still another glass is half-empty/half-full quandary.

My last thought is a little summertime-feeling music – Trois Gymnopedies by Eric Satie. The recording is from almost 4 years ago when I had fewer birds, it was the start of the second flock, and most of the Zebra Finch solos are the beginnings of my star singer, Arturo Toscanini, whose songs have progressed far beyond this and they continue to grow. One of these days I’ll have to see if I can trace the evolution of his song cycle.

Birding the 3-day Weekend

AMGO 5-26-18-4657

American Goldfinch (female)

I’m finally getting around to these pictures from the Memorial Day weekend. On Saturday morning I led the second walk at the Portage and the weather could not have been more different, shall we say – weather is becoming more than an idle topic for conversation lately as we keep having these 40 degree temperature swings in either direction – than the first walk which was rainy and chilly: this time we had plenty of sunshine and it was getting downright warm. We saw fewer species than the first group, as migration had progressed substantially in the two weeks between walks, but we had a good time.

GREG 5-26-18-4606It was nice to get good looks at the Great Egret that seems to be back in the area. The Green Herons were absent this visit but I suspect all the herons go back and forth between the Portage, Ottawa Trail and the Des Plaines River, so I am sure they are still around.

Red-Bellied Woodpeckers were a presence. We didn’t even hear a Downy Woodpecker which is really unusual as I always expect to see or hear at least four any time of year but they must have been very busy being quiet.

It’s occurred to me that Song Sparrows are likely the only breeding sparrows at the Portage. Habitat requirements being what they are, I never thought this was odd but at the same time it seems there are a couple Chipping Sparrows that come back to my neighborhood every year so I wonder even about that. I guess it’s location, location, location.