Miller Meadows Hawk Fest

Way back on September 7 when I had just begun my new retirement protocol of birding every morning there was good weather, I decided to visit Miller Meadows which is directly across from the health club where I swim, with the idea that I could then go swimming afterwards. I had seen hawks flying on occasion from the health club parking lot, so I should not have been surprised by the number of hawks I saw that morning. It started off with an American Kestrel backlit in poor light. I don’t get to see Kestrels too often so I was happy to take some far-away pictures anyway.

Perhaps what I wasn’t prepared for was the degraded landscape. Invasive teasel has overtaken much of the meadow.

There were a few Palm Warblers trying to make something out of nothing. They were also the first I had seen this fall.

Hawks apparently found the landscape attractive for hunting. I saw several Red-tailed Hawks kiting over the open field, and was fascinated to observe this behavior. There was a Northern Harrier as well. The harrier photos are directly below, and all the rest are various Red-tailed Hawks. How I managed to capture enough detail at considerable distance still surprises me, but also encourages me to continue what otherwise sometimes seems a fruitless endeavor. These are all closely cropped, but if you click on the photos it’s kind of nice to see how the Red-tailed Hawks navigate the air.

The Northern Harrier is below.

i did see an Eastern Kingbird…closer to the ground!

A view of the paved path with phragmites, another invasive species, on the left.

I always try to appreciate at least one American Robin.

Back down on the ground in early September there were still butterflies.

And some interesting beetles… I found my Beetles book but I got even more confused trying to identify them so they will remain nameless – unless you can tell me who they are.

I will continue poring through the last two or three months’ outings for photographs as we are having some more of the rain we didn’t get in the spring. Cloudy, drizzly weather has its advantages, I guess. The disadvantage is lots of mud in the backyard…

Return to The Other Goose Lake

The 4th of July always reminds me to make my annual visit to Goose Lake National Prairie. I am not exactly sure why I don’t visit at other times of the year, and maybe I will decide to visit more often if I ever retire, but I like to go at this time because it’s not crowded, the prairie is beautiful and in bloom, and I can usually count on seeing Dickcissels and Henslow’s Sparrows.

As it turns out, this year it was particularly “not crowded” – I was the only human the entire length of my visit. I went on July 3rd instead of the 4th. It was already hot and sunny at 7:40 a.m. when I got out of my car and saw Killdeer in the parking lot.

As I started to walk the trail that goes out from the back of the Visitor’s Center, I was welcomed by a few Barn Swallows, one of which was having fun swooping close to my head. Perhaps it was trying to startle me, because it was pretty persistent, but I am quite used to birds flying around my head! My challenge was to try to capture the bird in flight. When I used to go down to the lakefront in the summertime on my lunch hour, there were swallows swooping around constantly close to people, but people were everywhere and pretty unavoidable. On this occasion, the handful of Barn Swallows outnumbered me.

As for “target” birds, I saw only one Dickcissel and it was quite far away. I didn’t hear any more of them, either. I neither heard nor saw any Henslow’s Sparrows. I heard a lot of Marsh Wrens but could not see one.

But you can’t go birding on expectations and then be disappointed when they don’t pan out. There’s always a surprise or something interesting. I was delighted to see an Eastern Meadowlark.

Common Yellowthroats seem particularly abundant this year. I think that is making them less skulky.

The prairie wasn’t in full bloom, but the Monarda and Prairie Spiderwort were attractive. At least I think it’s Prairie Spiderwort and not Ohio, although the leaves looked thicker than the variety I have in my backyard. Either one is native to Illinois.

It is always nice to see Orchard Orioles. I found a female perched and one male in flight.

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrows were abundant.

A distant male Northern Harrier was harassed by a few Red-Winged Blackbirds.

I think this was the same Great Egret I saw perched at the pond by Cragg’s Cabin later.

One tern flew by. It didn’t stay long enough to fish. There is a big man-made lake nearby, Heidecke Lake, which was formerly a cooling reservoir. That could be where the tern hangs out more often.

A Caspian Tern

Two Great Blue Herons flew by. Likely one of them was the individual below who was fishing from the partially submerged boardwalk that is no longer functional for human use but served this bird’s purpose.

Mallards in flight

Red-winged Blackbirds typically outnumber everything else. But it seems like every place I go, I hear a new vocalization from them. Listen to this little trilly sound below.

Another Song Sparrow…because.

Eastern Kingbirds were the prevalent flycatcher species.

There were a few Field Sparrows, not very close but still delightful to see and hear.

More birds…

American Goldfinch

On my way out, a Kildeer flew by.

The last bird I saw was a House Sparrow by the Visitor’s Center.

Another Song Sparrow
A look across the prairie from the observation deck.

This was only my first outing of last weekend. I came home to do some work later in the afternoon. But I got up and went to the Portage on Saturday morning and back to Goose Lake Natural Area on Sunday. I’ll try to get caught up before summer’s over!

Eastern Kingbird

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!

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.

A Kinglet-Sized Rescue

Portage with Mallards - 10-28-18-3924I had no plans to go out yesterday. I slept in and so did my birds, even after one or two Zebra Finches announced theoretical sunrise around 6:28 a.m., because it was dark and cloudy. But then the sun broke out during breakfast and after I checked the radar it looked like we had a two-hour rainless window so I decided to see what was happening at the Portage. No sooner did I leave than the sun went behind the clouds.

Photography in next-to-no light was almost not an option, but I couldn’t imagine going out without the camera. I hadn’t gotten too far beyond the Mallards and Canada Geese before I encountered a Golden-Crowned Kinglet in distress.

GCKI Rescue - 10-28-18-3997The bird had a long, skinny twig caught in its primaries. I put my camera down to help, but when I reached for the bird it flitted a few inches to avoid me. I managed to grab the offending plant matter and the Kinglet immediately wrested itself free. Glad I could help this little bird continue, and it gave some purpose beyond my need to escape the “other reality” for a while. After the encounter, it seemed I was seeing more Golden-Crowned Kinglets than anything else. Unfortunately they move so quickly they were hard to capture in low light.

GCKI - 10-28-18-4023

It just so happened that I had to replace my cell phone on Friday. It was a case of new software meets old hardware: the latest update wreaked havoc on the old phone. So I put the new cell phone camera to use to capture some stirrings of autumn color at the Portage.

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Hawk migration continues. Below, some aerial dynamics of a Northern Harrier.