Owls at the Portage

GHOW 04-08-18-9007Last year two fellows I run into occasionally at the Chicago Portage, Steve and Mike, told me they had seen a Great Horned Owl. I believe it was Mike who showed me his stunning photo of the owl sitting on a stump over the water. But I never saw the owl until two weeks ago making my return trip on the trail that runs along the south side of the stream, when I flushed it and watched it fly to perch in a tree on the other side.

Then last weekend I saw two owls perched on the same branch, looking down at me. The first owl decided to take off when I lifted the camera, but the second owl sat there and stared sleepily at me.

GHOW 04-22-18-0989So are they a pair? Most likely. I suspect the first owl is the female as it is larger. Then I wonder if they have a nest somewhere or if they’re shopping for one. Will I see baby owls? It’s more excitement than I can handle at the moment. But I do suspect that the owls’ presence will keep the other raptors I normally expect to see at the Portage away.

The Portage keeps changing. More trees coming down. I was saddened to see one of my two favorite birch trees in smaller pieces. I can’t imagine what was wrong with it.

I have seen Blue-Winged Teal the last two visits as well. I suspect they’re just visiting though and will go elsewhere to breed.

And a Canada Goose seems to have found her nesting spot in tree trunk.

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Two weekends ago, it was Golden-Crowned Kinglets…

Last weekend there were a few Yellow-Rumped Warblers, although only one captured by the camera.

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I was very happy to see a Tree Swallow last weekend.

Not so many sparrow species. Song and Fox Sparrows, still a few Juncos, and American Tree Sparrows still hanging on through the cold not-quite-spring-weather-yet.

Song Sparrow and Fox Sparrow above, Dark-Eyed Junco and American Tree Sparrow below…

Woodpeckers: Downy, Red-Bellied, Northern Flicker…

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Red-Bellied Woodpecker

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Northern Flicker

A few more captures before I go… White-Breasted Nuthatch, American Robin, preening Mallard, American Goldfinch.

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Brown-headed Cowbird

These pictures were all taken on April 8 and April 22. Unfortunately I don’t expect I’ll be getting near the Portage again until May 12 when I’m leading a small group on a bird walk as my donation to the fundraising member auction for Unity Temple. Until then, I will be traveling at a slower pace. Yesterday I had stem cell replacement therapy on my right knee. The procedure itself was not too awful, indeed I told the physician that his description of what he was about to do to me was far worse than the actual operation and I am hopeful recovery goes smoothly. I’m feeling better than last night: I woke up with very little pain, so now it’s more a matter of keeping stable using crutches for a couple more days to keep weight off the joint whenever I can. I’m looking forward to the final portion of the therapy on Tuesday which involves a simple plasma injection. If the weather is nice, which it is predicted to be, I will be spending the time in between blood draw and later injection birding North Pond and the Peggy Notebaert Museum grounds, a local birding hotspot right across the street from the medical building. I couldn’t have picked a better location to have this done!

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Owls on an Afternoon

Great Horned Owl

Great Horned Owl

I’ll spare you some really bad puns I had for the title of this post.

Sunday afternoon, three of us Elles went on a DuPage Birding Club field trip led by intrepid Jeff Smith. The purpose of the trip was to see owls that Jeff had located previously. Owl etiquette also dictates that owl locations not be widely publicized.

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Our first stop was at Isle a La Cache in Will County, a new spot for me. I can only imagine what it looks like in warmer weather; it was beautiful and a bit mysterious under snow and ice. There were times we were walking on the ice, retreating when we heard  creaking beneath our feet.

We might have found the Great Horned Owl eventually on our own, but five or six crows noisily called our attention to it, and they kept at it for a long time – I estimate five to eight minutes. And here I had been musing about crows finding owls the previous weekend; it’s as if I got my wish. Crows are expert owl spotters, and they also make real nuisances of themselves. Every time this owl perched, the crows harassed it until it moved again. Eventually, it flew close enough into an open space where I got the photograph below, much to my surprise.

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Some other birds of the day, a Black-Capped Chickadee…

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One of a few Red-Bellied Woodpeckers…

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One of two Bald Eagles…

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One of many American Tree Sparrows…

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but no more owls. We moved on to a location where we might have at least heard a Barred Owl, but no luck there.

We wound up at Goose Lake Prairie, if a bit early, expecting to see a Short-Eared Owl hunting at dusk. Before dusk we had several Northern Harriers hunting over the grassland.

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Much of the field trip had been akin to a forced march, and now we stood shivering in the cold on a platform that overlooks the preserve. Our patience did finally pay off. We saw a Short-Eared Owl floating mothlike over the grass just as it began to hunt. It was way too dark by then to take pictures, the light disappearing quickly.

Goose Lake Prairie

Goose Lake Prairie

Owling…and Anthills

This morning I scratched away the last remains of a scab from the last itchy spot produced from the insect bites I accumulated as part of the rite of passage to birding Southeast Brazil. The bites were of the usual kind to be expected: chiggers, mosquitoes, and whatever other unseen parasites. For the most part the itching had stopped by the time I got home and I had completely forgotten about that particular aspect of the trip.

Tawny-Browed Owl

But as I go through my digital mountain of photographs, I am reminded of the one night we went looking for owls in the Linhares Natural Reserve. I had my flashlight with me, but wasn’t thinking about where I might have stopped to freeze motionless while we awaited the appearance of this Tawny-Browed Owl. Within a moment of standing still, I was ready to squirm and gasp, while tiny ants started to crawl up my legs and bite.

Anthill Warning: Don’t Tread Here!!

Thanks to Dave, a more seasoned and knowledgeable tour participant, I was on my way to being debugged by the time we climbed back onto the bus, and I was able to eradicate the invaders. From then on, I gave those anthills–nature’s land mines–my full respect.

Solitary Tinamou

In addition to the Tawny-Browed Owl we saw a Solitary Tinamou and I was able to get this sort of half-picture. One impression this trip began to make on me from the outset was to quit worrying and invest in a flash unit… I will have time to practice using the new gadget, as least-invasively as possible, in dark places, before my next trip.

Just for fun – here’s a Least Pygmy Owl we found sitting out in plain daylight, earlier the same day. No ants encountered.

Least Pygmy Owl

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.