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 3

Well here it is, the long-anticipated last act to the Memorial Day weekend of birding at the Chicago Portage. Compared to the previous two days, I didn’t have a lot of photographs. I reported as many species as the previous day (41), but between extremely bright light conditions and my inability to focus, perhaps in part due to the light shining in my eyes, the day had a different feel to it.

But it was a great day for discovery and observation. The bird of the day was a Prothonotary Warbler. I have been looking for this species to appear at the Portage for years every spring or fall when the Des Plaines River floods the lowlands because then the habitat reminds me of the Cache River Basin in southern Illinois where I saw my first of many Prothonotary Warblers.

Flooding on the Des Plaines River

As it turns out, I didn’t see it in the flooded area but directly across the trail from it. Although I got great views with the naked eye, I was not able to capture the bird well with the camera, so going back through these photographs I had my doubts. But the photograph above with the head cut off confirms the ID for me because of the white undertail coverts showing. I confess I still have my doubts about the other photos, but I know I saw the bird, so maybe there will be a next time.

Just so you can appreciate how frustrating this can be and why I sometimes spend entire days thinking about identification challenges, below is a Wilson’s Warbler I photographed on the same day, if not in the exact same spot. I do know the gizz of a Wilson’s since I have seen them frequently enough for years. When I saw the Prothonotary, it appeared larger and moved more slowly and deliberately than the Wilson’s.

And now for another sort-of warbler challenge, the American Redstart below. I have seen this coloration a few times before so I was not confused, only fascinated. The tail immediately gives this bird away as an American Redstart, but it is showing yellow and white with black coming in on the body. What you are seeing is a soon-to-be second-year male American Redstart. When the summer is over he may be entirely black and orange in place of the gray and yellow, and will be considered an adult.

And below is a female American Redstart. She will always be gray, yellow and white. Not the best photograph but you might be able to see just a little of the yellow peeking out on her breast.

That was about it for the warblers that day. I just took a tally for the season and I have seen 24 warbler species this spring. That’s 2/3 of the possible number I might have seen. But given the fact that I was basically birding in only one area I feel pretty fortunate to have seen all these warblers, sometimes even seeing them very well.

On to the rest of the birds I managed to photograph on Memorial Day. Below are some male Brown-headed Cowbirds who don’t seem to have much to do except hang out on bare branches.

I don’t remember how I managed to get the photos below of a flying Red-Bellied Woodpecker but I don’t get this lucky very often! I was probably trying to focus on it perched somewhere and it took off.

Red-winged Blackbirds…are a given. The bird in the second photograph knocked the Northern Flicker in the photos below off its perch, which enabled me to get pictures of some of those elusive but brilliant golden shafts underwing.

There were a couple Eastern Kingbirds for a day or two, and I haven’t seen them since. Maybe they were shopping for nesting spots and decided to go elsewhere.

Below is a trail at the Portage I have only walked recently. For years I stayed away from the gravel road that ran between the official forest preserve and the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District property because it used to be patrolled by police and photographers were not welcome. The past couple years now, I think, restrictions to access have been lifted, but it took this year along with the impression of having extra time to decide to walk the extra mile as it were. The road itself runs along some woods that border the Des Plaines River, and then splits in two, with the one fork below wooded on both sides. This might have been a very good place to look for the earlier warblers back in April. I will definitely keep it on my agenda of places to visit in the fall. Recently, although it’s getting very buggy there were not very many birds available.

Birds that fly over on occasion and if I’m lucky, I can capture them. This time it was more as a record of their presence than anything else.

Great Blue Heron
Northern Harrier – considered rare at this location but I don’t know why, as I have seen them every so often

Indigo Buntings and House Wrens will be available all summer.

The Downy Woodpecker below was challenging to capture.

If you click on the photos below, you will be able to see a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher that looks more like a Blue-Green Gnatcatcher. This was another ID I struggled with a bit when going through the pictures, but the eye ring in the first photo and the cocked tail in the next give the bird away. It’s a testament to how lighting can change everything. I have never seen this bird look green before.

American Goldfinches foraging in the duckweed
American Robin of the Day (there are always at least 20-30 of them about)
Baltimore Oriole – too busy now to pose for pictures

I’ve been to the Portage a few times since the big weekend and I will likely be visiting regularly to check up on summertime birds, and I anticipate a return of dragonflies and butterflies. I have been a couple other places too and plan to publish those posts when possible. Lately it’s easier to sit inside on a hot day, slaving over a laptop in air conditioning. Thanks again for stopping by, and congratulations making it to the end of another long post!

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

Last Weekend at the Portage: Coming Back to Life

I can’t believe another week has gone by already. While it seems like time should be moving slowly, I am finding it to be the opposite as my days at home fill up with work and chores. It’s as if I never left my schedule. And yet because I am home, it sometimes seems like I don’t have a schedule.

Winter returned twice this week and I was going to post a few pictures of birds in the snow but time got away from me and I’m not feeling too nostalgic for snow at the moment. It’s still chilly overnight but I think we are finally going to start warming up. And of course the question lurking right behind that is, Then What?

I went to the Portage last Saturday and Sunday mornings, because both days turned out fairly decent weather-wise. The variety of species differed somewhat between the two days, in that the Yellow-Rumped Warblers who posed for pictures and the one Ruby-Crowned Kinglet were present on Saturday but not detectable on Sunday. That sort of thing. On the other hand, I had the Bluebird on Sunday. So it goes.

Yellow-Rumped Warbler
American Robin

I’ve been seeing Yellow-Bellied Sapsuckers (I call them “Sappies”) in the neighborhood all week, and had one in my yard last weekend, but this is the only one I’ve been able to sort of capture so far.

There were a lot of White-Throated Sparrows, or at least more of them than the other species. Below this grouping is a short recording of one of them singing. He had a really nice version of their song, which has always been one of my favorites.

I had no idea what was going on with these Red-Winged Blackbirds on the trail as I approached them on Saturday, but on Sunday I noticed that someone has been leaving a little pile of birdseed, so that explains the gathering and likely the behavior. Feeding the animals is a no-no. But I imagine there are more people walking the trails these days than normally do, and I think that’s a good thing. Maybe we will all treasure being outside more after our quarantine subsides.

The Tree Sparrow was seen on Saturday and not on Sunday. I don’t expect to see one again until late fall.

The female Red-Wingeds have now joined the males and everybody’s ready to start working on the next generation. On Saturday I must have had more than 50 Red-Winged Blackbirds at the Portage. I don’t think I ever saw that many last year. It could be some were passing through. It will be interesting to see how many remain to nest.

There was one male Blue-Winged Teal hanging out with a couple of Mallards.

I only got a glimpse of the crown on this Ruby-Crowned Kinglet.

Woodpeckers – there were a lot of Northern Flickers. And Downy Woodpeckers are always present. I always hear a Red-Bellied Woodpecker, but don’t always see one. It was also nice to see a Hairy Woodpecker. I keep hoping I will see a Red-Headed Woodpecker here again.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

This looks like a young male Red-Winged Blackbird. He must be a late-bloomer.

Robins are everywhere.

As things are just starting to turn green, mosses were attractive.

People have been reporting Hermit Thrushes so I was happy to see one. I miss seeing half a dozen of them at once downtown in the city, but maybe it’s better to see one in the woods than a lot of them on turf grass.

Hermit Thrush

There were two Turkey Vultures flying around, at then at one point they landed in the trees.

A lovely Mrs. Cowbird. What more can I say?

The trees are starting to bud and this will all burst into green soon.

If you click on the dove pictures you can see nesting material in its bill easier.

There are a lot of Cardinals at the Portage but they’re not always easy to capture, especially this time of year when they’re busy setting up territories.

So here is the Bluebird of Happiness. I don’t get to see Bluebirds too often, so this was a special treat.

I plan to go out this weekend and with any luck, there will be even more birds to see. Migration continues, and I suspect the birds are having a better time of it without so much human interruption.

Spring Preview: Columbus Park

I had planned to write a post before my departure for Big Bend but it didn’t happen. Now I am back from an amazing trip, but even though I have started processing my pictures, it will probably take me a couple of weeks given the busy schedule I am returning to, so I will see if I can manage this post for the moment.

I did a Columbus Park walk on the Saturday before I left, and it was to witness the first hint of migrating birds, but our spring has been anything but spring-like, with snow occurring the next day and from what I hear, another wet, fluffy snowfall the Saturday before my return. Yet I’m planning on putting out the hummingbird feeders tomorrow morning. C’mon, it’s May!

The big wading and diving birds were easiest to spot… It was particularly entertaining to watch the Double-Crested Cormorants drying off in the sun. Maybe the Canada Goose thought I was trying to take its picture.