Warmup to a Merry Christmas

noca-12-9-16-5033In the mad rush to the end of the year there hasn’t been much time for birding or posting but I am here to wish you all happy, good-cheer holidays, whatever you are celebrating. Last night I sang with the Unity Temple Choir for their Christmas Eve service and today I am catching up on bread gifts to distribute around the neighborhood. So while the house smells of cinnamon and yeast, Handel’s Messiah playing on the radio, and snow still on the ground even though we’ve warmed up quite a bit, I will try to compile a brief photographic history of the last few weeks.

Most of the wild birds I have seen lately have been downtown on infrequent visits to the parks. The light hasn’t been anything to celebrate but the Black-Capped Chickadees, White-Throated Sparrows, House Sparrows and Northern Cardinals are all happy to partake of the treats I bring them.

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White-Throated Sparrow

And although I haven’t had many crows, I am usually able to find at least two, sometimes four. I don’t know where they’ve gone this year. Maybe the polar vortex has caused them to congregate elsewhere. Too bad, because I’m baking Birdz Cookies now, and I’ve perfected the recipe.

Sometimes there are a few American Robins about, although not as much now that the trees and bushes are running out of fruit.

There was that one horribly cold week and I managed to document the temperature and the steam on the river, if nothing else. I didn’t go out that day.

Two days later it had warmed up a bit, for which I was grateful, as I participated in the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count, but it was a brutal experience slogging through packed snow and seeing not many birds at all. Not surprisingly, overall, the number of species and individuals were down from previous years.

The Canada Geese flying overhead seemed to be the only ones having a good time.

I couldn’t even get the pair of Northern Cardinals below to come out from the thicket long enough to photograph them.

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What’s been really shocking to me is the lack of birds in my yard. While I don’t see them most of the time because I’m at work anyway, at least I have an idea that they’re showing up by the emptiness of the feeders. Oddly enough, just as we started the warmup this past week, my feeders remained full. You would think just the opposite would occur. I began to wonder if the sub-zero temperatures had taken more casualties than a more normal winter. I hope this isn’t a warning for the future.

crows-12-16-16-5362wtsp-12-12-16-5180I have seen birds in the yard today now that I’m home, and I’m starting to think that a good deal of the absences probably have to do with the local raptors’ hunger more than the weather. We shall see. The birds come, but they don’t stay long. I’ll try to do a census tomorrow in the yard since I would like to see my favorites beyond the inevitable House Sparrows. I may even go out to the Portage for a walk-around early in the morning. We’re supposed to have relatively balmy temperatures tomorrow morning before we go back to normal. A seesaw December. And only one week left of it.

Wishing you all love and peace!

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.