A Visit to Goose Lake Prairie – Part I

Last Tuesday morning I got up very early and went to Goose Lake Prairie State Natural Area. This is a place I traditionally visit around the 4th of July, but my July was full of too many other things this year.

It was quite cloudy, but that made it cooler, and it was a treat anyway to be able to see uninterrupted sky. It was also much quieter than my usual suburban haunts.

Early on there were few birds visible. Some American Robins.

There were a lot of House Wrens chattering about the lookout ramp attached to the back of the Visitor’s Center.

The clouds kept parting here and there for a bit of sunshine.

There were a considerable number of American Goldfinches. This one caught my attention.

The native wildflowers that dominate this prairie are beautiful. Below, a little Blazing Star.

I saw my first juvenile Eastern Bluebird.

The sun kept making its case.

A Barn Swallow

Below, two Song Sparrows. The second bird appears to be a juvenile.

Young Field Sparrows were everywhere but hard to capture in iffy light.

Common Yellowthroats were abundant.

The Cragg Cabin represents the earliest settlement.

The body of water outside the cabin was at a low level, attracting just a couple shorebirds. I barely got photos of a Solitary Sandpiper…

and a Killdeer.

Rattlesnake Master, one of my favorite plants I am again trying to grow at home, is in bloom here and there.

There were Tree Swallows..

Another male Common Yellowthroat.

American Goldfinch males started accumulating in one tree as if they all wanted to be in the picture.

I saw one juvenile Eastern Meadowlark.

Barn Swallows on break…

A view behind the cabin of the windmill and a conestoga wagon.

I saw a couple more juvenile Eastern Bluebirds.

And more House Wrens. I kept hearing Sedge Wrens but was unable to capture any.

Below, a couple young Field Sparrows.

Red-winged Blackbirds made a brief appearance.

Another House Wren…

The photos below were taken at quite a distance but they’re interesting to me because there’s an adult male Common Yellowthroat and then below him, to the right, is what appears to be a juvenile.

More American Goldfinches showing off.

Well, basically I got through dropping half of the photos into this post and it became too exhausting for me to go on, let alone expect you to wade through any more of it, so I will be back with Part 2 fairly quickly. That’s a Dickcissel at the top of the post, by the way. Many more images of that bird to come in Part 2.

Bees, Butterflies and Birds in the Backyard

Bee on Wild Senna 07-15-17-1468Have I ever said I adore bumblebees? If not, now I am proclaiming it, and they are some of the friendliest creatures in my yard. Last weekend the one in these pictures was definitely enjoying the Wild Senna, making me take extra notice of the brown spots on the blooms which make the flowers almost look like bees themselves.

I’ve managed to spend some time the last two weekends in the yard, which is more an exercise in discovery and meditation than it is management of what decides to grow there. With all the rain we have had this year everything seems determined to grow tall and abundant.

At first the most common butterflies were the Red Admirals above. Below, a Milkweed Beetle on its namesake plant and what I suspect is a Soldier Beetle on the Rattlesnake Master. I was just happy to see somebody else enjoying my first season for Rattlesnake Master in the yard.

Saturday I was graced with the first Tiger Swallowtail that spent some time in the yard while I was out there. For whatever reason, the butterflies seem to be attracted to my field of Echinacea more than anything else.

Tiger Swallowtail 07-15-17-1688And just as I had had enough and was about to go inside, this lovely Black Swallowtail showed up. I had seen one in the yard before but leaving, not hanging around.

Black Swallowtail 07-15-17-1746Black Swallowtail 07-15-17-1747I had a staring match with the Fox Squirrel. The sunflowers growing from spilled seed are too numerous to photograph, so here’s a close-up of one.

Not sure if I have more female House Finches or if half of them are immatures. It was nice to see a Black-Capped Chickadee too. In general, when I’m in the yard, the birds aren’t.

The moon was still visible.

Moon 07-15-17-1514I’ve discovered one or two Snow on the Mountain flowers in the yard, not where it was coming up for years, but now scattered, after it disappeared entirely. Glad to have it back.

Snow on the Mountain 07-15-17-1539And if you made it this far you might recognize the flower below as the invasive monster I was trying to eradicate earlier. I discovered the name of this nefarious plant yesterday while scrolling through the Audubon Wildflower App on my cell phone. The app isn’t new, but my use of it now is a new diversion. I’ve decided to scroll all the way through everything from A to Z to find things that I can’t remember, can’t identify otherwise, or discover new. So far, this was a fortuitous decision because I was close to the beginning of the alphabet with this one. And it is every bit as terrible as I suspected. Well, maybe not where it belongs, but it’s from Europe, and here’s part of the description from the app: “spreads by underground stems and forms sizable colonies. The plant contains poisonous sapnonins (soap-like substances) that inspired the genus name (from the Latin sapo, meaning ‘soap’) and the alternate common name Soapwort. Lather can be made from its crushed foliage. The common name Bouncing Bet is an old fashioned nickname for a washerwoman.”

I think maybe I’ll start calling it Soapwort.

Bouncing Bet 6-24-17-0419

Bouncing Bet, or Saponaria officinalis

So with those roots running under the soil I’m never going to get rid of this stuff, I’ll just look upon it as a nasty plant on which to take out all my frustrations every spring. And I’ll be sure never to eat it. I wonder if it’s as poisonous to wildlife. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the bees attracted to it. They’re pretty smart.

Bumblebee and Wild Senna 07-15-17-1751Still wishing for a Monarch Butterfly and/or a Ruby-Throated Hummingbird or Sphinx Moth to show up on a weekend when I’m in the yard…with the camera. 🙂

Thoughts on Songs for Birds

Painted Lady

Painted Lady

(All the photographs in this post were taken at Lurie Garden, Millennium Park, Chicago on a couple afternoons last week…and have nothing to do with the content.)

It was a somewhat quiet weekend, with plenty of time to sleep and reflect. I had only one mission, and that was to drive into the city on Saturday morning to take my guitars in to Chicago Fretworks for repair. I have been thinking about doing this for years, only to somehow talk myself out of it with that inner voice that asked, “When are you going to find the time to play?” and knowing full well that after not having played for more years than I care to admit, it would be worse than riding a bicycle after a long absence, for the frustration of trying to build up calluses on my left fingertips alone.

Clouded Sulphur Lurie 8-5-15-8464

Clouded Sulphur

But a number of forces have converged to light the fire under me to start playing my guitars again. Perhaps the most significant force is a need to respond to all the insanity. It has been and will always be wonderful to play piano, but I miss the guitar for the intimacy of cradling an instrument on my lap, with the vibrations of the strings going right through me. This is how I will write songs again. Only this time, they will be songs for birds.

Common Green Darner

Common Green Darner

I trust the indoor crowd will bear with me while I regain enough facility to sound not too bad. I have fewer expectations of any prowess than I did when I went back to playing piano, so it shouldn’t be too humiliating. Then there lurks in the back of my mind the thought that eventually, weather permitting, I could play music for wild birds again. Even if it means coming downtown on a weekend, I would love to play music for my crows. And by that time have something else to sing for them besides “There is Nothing Like a Crow” to the Rodgers and Hammerstein tune for “There is Nothing Like a Dame.”

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

Twelve-Spotted Skimmer

The forces that have converged? I am giving credit at this point only to the positive ones. Falling in love with David Wax Museum. Not wishing I was young and on the road again, just finding so much in their music to explore and connect with. The music is infectious, and David Wax’s lyrics are often priceless. Personal Anthems.

Hearing Mavis Staples interviewed twice on NPR: she talked about singing protest songs for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The sense that music had a purpose beyond music. I don’t necessarily aim to inspire anyone, but I feel the need to protest the insanity. To make noise. And this is the only true way I know how.

American Lady

American Lady

If there can be any silver lining in the disappointing fact that Operation Rubythroat’s excursion to Guatemala in November–which I was looking forward to–has been canceled due to lack of participation, I will have more time to play the guitars and the cost of rebuilding my Guild 12-string will be less painful!

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Monarch on Swamp Milkweed

Making music is good for an old body, too. All the pains and inconvenient stiffnesses that were making my life miserable, no doubt in a negative response to the insanity, seem to be floating outward, released, wafting in the air, or in the case of swimming, lost to the water in the pool… I can almost fly. If nothing else, my heart will soar. With the birds.

P.S. The pictures in this post are not related to the topic but I suspect they’re not totally unrelated either?

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

Wasps in the Rattlesnake Master

A Change in the Weather

Fog 6-25-14-2013

The weather in Chicago is nothing if not interesting. We seem to be repeating some of the pattern established last summer: extremely hot weather followed by a cool spell, usually following some thunderstorm activity. Last week the effect of all this was one spectacularly foggy morning in the Loop.

Fog 6-25-14-2018-2On the Way In 6-25-14-2015

By the time I got to the Thompson Center, the pigeons were hanging out on the Jean Dubuffet sculpture which looks like it was made out of paper mache. It’s big enough you can walk inside it, between its “legs.”

Pigeons on the Dubuffet sculpture at the Thompson Center

Pigeons on the Dubuffet sculpture at the Thompson Center

Pigeon on the Dubuffet 6-25-14-2026The lack of green space takes its toll on me and the birds down here. I’m also not fond of crowds and so I tend to stay away from Millennium Park during the summer. But after spending a couple days working through lunch, it’s definitely better to go out and look at anything that doesn’t have to do with staring at a computer monitor. So I visited Lurie Garden one day with the macro lens.

Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake Master

Bug on Flowers 6-19-14-1810

Probable Margined Soldier Beetle

I’ve just purchased the Audubon app to help identify bugs but I am hopeless when it comes to flowers. I get overwhelmed surfing through pictures. I’ll take any help I can get if you know what these are. The red one on the bottom completely stumps me. Is it some sort of Monarda? (Those of you who are flower experts are allowed to laugh at me.)

Flower 6-19-14-1798

Spiderwort – I think

Flower 6-19-14-1812

almost looks like a Blazing Star but I don’t think it is

Flower 6-17-14-1764

A female Northern Cardinal found me that day and she got lucky, I had peanuts just for her.

Cardinal 6-13-14-1676

Sometimes it seems appropriate to pay attention to a Rock Pigeon. They are beautiful, we just take them for granted. But I look at it this way: they confirm our existence. This is one species that would not be here (as much) without us.

Pigeon 6-24-14-2007


More from Middlefork

Red-Winged Blackbird, Middlefork Savanna

Red-Winged Blackbird, Middlefork Savanna

The pictures are from last week at Middlefork Savanna.

I had planned to get up early this morning and go back to McGinnis Slough to pick up where I left off two weeks ago, prepared this time in case of deer flies while doubting seriously I would have any issues with insects at all due to the present cool weather. However, my water heater had a different agenda. Yesterday when I went down to the basement water was pooled in the middle of it to the sound of a trickle coming from somewhere. It wasn’t until I had mopped up four buckets full (and since the water was clean and we’ve had no rain lately, I was dousing the yard with it) that I could get closer to the source and determine it was the water heater. Luckily, I have fantastic neighbors and one of them has great expertise with this sort of thing. I purchased the new water heater this morning and he was done installing it before noon.

Barn Swallows by the bridge

Barn Swallows by the bridge

While my neighbor was working in the basement I was removing lava rock from the side of the house where I am going to plant some Blazing Star in the gaps between the hostas and sedum planted there, and then putting it down next to the chain-link fence where there is just enough soil to grow weeds and grass, which I cleared as I went along. This is a project I have envisioned for years. So in a way, it was good I had to deal with the water heater because it forced me to take advantage of great weather for yard work: cloudy and cool most of the morning.

Caspian Tern

Caspian Tern

When we got back from buying the new appliance, there was a sick House Finch that had planted itself at the bottom of the stairwell to the basement. It was probably the same one I saw on the feeder last night, just sitting there. I think normally the cat that visits my yard would have found it. But I put it all too easily in a cage and called Willowbrook Wildlife Center to see if they would take him. Unfortunately, by the time I could leave the house in the afternoon, the bird was dead. I was not surprised, but I felt bad. Then I thought I would have felt even worse if he had died on the way.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

I had also planned to go to Evanston to see Jason’s open garden but I could not muster the energy by this point. Suffice it to say I don’t take hour-long drives anywhere if I think I’m going to fall asleep in one direction or the other. I am so sorry I missed the opportunity to meet the master gardener. The bucketfuls of lava rock and water must have done me in (and now I am quite sore). After sitting down to write I wound up taking a nap, then woke up to play a bit of piano, and then potted some sage from my yard for my friend Linda.

Goldfinch, Middlefork Savanna

Goldfinch, Middlefork Savanna

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

I recorded this Indigo Bunting singing but the wind noise at Middlefork was so bad I didn’t get a good recording, so I have substituted another bunting from the Portage a week earlier. Maybe it’s sort of like lip-syncing.

Queen Anne's Lace

Queen Anne’s Lace

Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake Master

Hedge Bindweed

Hedge Bindweed

For some reason the white flowers were catching my eye.

Double-Crested Cormorants

Double-Crested Cormorants

Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow

Some of the usual suspects, the Cormorants and the Song Sparrow, but it’s still lovely to see them.

Goldfinch 1I2A0707

Goldfinches enjoy thistle so much I am almost tempted to let it grow in my yard. Almost.

Barn Swallow

Barn Swallow

The Barn Swallow above was stretching on one of the Elawa Farm buildings when I first got there.

However much later, after I decided it was time to go, on the way back to my car I suddenly heard a very strange sound, which was so unexpected I might have thought it was somebody’s cell phone or an odd recording coming from wherever. Shortly thereafter I came upon the cages at the back of Elawa Farm and realized I had indeed heard a Kookaburra (think Australia). I didn’t manage to get his song, but I have included a recording that seems to be the standard one on the Internet, with many birds – try to imagine only one calling instead of several.



There were informative signs about all the captive birds but none divulged the individuals’ origins. Two Kookaburras shared the cage, I believe a pair. I could tell this was the male by his more engaged behavior. At first he shied away but then got curious and came down to pose on his perch. I would have liked to have known what he was doing there. I’ll have to go back when the visitor’s center is open so I can inquire. As far as I know, Kookaburras do not migrate. Even if they did, they certainly would not cross the Pacific ocean to Illinois.

Barn Swallows 7-21-13 Middlefork 1I2A0629A barn swallow and its reflection.

I myself have grown reflective after the water heater’s weekend. 🙂

Bees are Musicians Too

Bee on Cone Flower, Lurie Garden

Bee on Coneflower, Lurie Garden

Okay, this is slightly off-topic, but I found it pretty interesting. I read an article in The New York Times science section about how bees get certain flowers to release their pollen by buzzing at a certain frequency which releases the pollen. It’s a fascinating article. At one point the researcher compares bees to “little tuning forks.” All that buzzing has a reason. Music to my ears.

Bee in Cone Flower IMG_5115_1

Of course I have been bemoaning the lack of bees in my yard. Somebody else must be pollinating my tomato plants because they are bearing fruit, but I am not seeing the hoards of bees I used to have on my flowers. And my coneflowers don’t look as lush as usual. Now I know it must be because there are no bees to turn them on.

Another Bee

Another Bee

These pictures were taken yesterday afternoon at the Lurie Garden in Millennium Park. I confess I have been avoiding the parks since The Taste of Chicago began on Wednesday, but the weather was beautiful and I wanted to try out my new Canon 70-300mm lens. I sent the old one away to be fixed because it had stopped focusing after balking and acting up for about a year, but now I’m wondering if I’ll ever want to use it again. Never hurts to have a spare, but this new lens has spoiled me already.

The Taste IMG_5079_1

I had to check and see how the new park is coming along…

Daley IMG_5082_1

Lurie was full of flowers, and here are some of my favorites. I also took pictures of the identification boards they update regularly, depending on the season. But the Compass Plant, one of which I photographed, doesn’t appear on either side of the board. Maybe there wasn’t room for everything and they had to leave the Compass Plants out, but they are big and blooming all over Lurie and on the restored prairies too.

Queen of the Prairie

Queen of the Prairie

Rusty Foxglove

Rusty Foxglove

Rattlesnake Master

Rattlesnake Master

Blazing Star

Blazing Star

Pale Coneflower

Pale Coneflower

Compass Plant

Compass Plant

Lurie Flowers 1 IMG_5126_1

Lurie Flowers 2IMG_5128_1

Not many breeding birds were available for photographs, but I did catch this female Red-Winged Blackbird running an errand, and when she flew away the camera caught her reddish epaulets which don’t show very often.

Female RWBB Lurie IMG_5086_1

Female RwBB Lurie IMG_5087_1

Female RWBB Lurie Garden IMG_5088_1

Maybe the subtitle of this post should be “Prairie in the City.”

Prairie in the City IMG_5084_1

At the south end of the park, the sculpture garden still blooms.

Sculptures IMG_5061_1

And as I waited for the light to change on Michigan Avenue on my way back to the office, a saxophonist I have never heard was playing very well with a band recording.

Summer in the City IMG_5138_1

Summer in the City

There are no crows in this post, and that is no accident. They are keeping a very low profile with the summer crowds. But I bet they know where the Waste From The Taste is.

Goose Lake Prairie

Compass Plant

I finally managed to go through the rest of my photographs from my visit to Goose Lake Prairie last weekend. I’d had no particular target species or agenda in mind. I had hoped to maybe see a Grasshopper Sparrow, but I can’t say I even heard one, that was my only disappointment. A bit ironically, I first heard about Goose Lake Prairie on Cornell’s “More Birding By Ear” CDs, for the recorded songs of birds found there.

The most common species last weekend was probably Eastern Meadowlark.They were no longer singing, but they were chattering everywhere.

This parched version of the prairie is different from the last time I visited maybe three years ago. Rattlesnake Master, one of my favorite native prairie plants, seemed to be the only thing that thrived on the hot, dry weather.

The Wild Bergamot was almost spindly.

Wild Bergamot

Song Sparrows were predictably common. And still singing.

Song Sparrow

I heard a few Field Sparrows before I finally saw one.

Field Sparrow

I walked a long way before I finally started hearing Henslow’s Sparrows and then it seemed like they were everywhere. But they were singing hidden in the tall grass, until finally I managed to see and hear one sitting up. They were more cooperative a few weeks ago at Springbrook Prairie, but I don’t think I have ever heard so many of them as I did at Goose Lake Prairie. I simply adore Henslow’s Sparrows. Once gravely endangered, they have been making a real comeback in Illinois, due in large part to prairie restoration.

Henslow’s Sparrow

There were not too many butterflies or dragonflies, maybe just a few of the more common species.

Monarch Butterfly

Common Whitetail

And of course my photographic nemesis, Indigo Bunting, made a brief appearance.

Indigo Bunting

Sometime after hanging out with the Northern Harrier that dominated a previous post, a Turkey Vulture came to take up the slack…

Turkey Vulture

proving that even vultures can be beautiful.