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!

Back to the Portage

It’s all I can do to keep up with migration this spring, let alone the pictures I have taken…So I’m attempting to do this in chronological order but it won’t be easy. This past Saturday started out cool but sunny. I decided to start my walk in the opposite direction of what I normally do. Then I realized that I had forgotten to put my little portable stool in my backpack so I decided to walk back to the car to get it. As I walked, I heard the Great-Crested Flycatcher, and then saw him in one of the Redbud trees bordering the lawn behind the statue. The morning had promise.

Great-Crested Flycatcher
I have decided to photograph the statue every time I go to the Portage now to gauge the light conditions.

Last Saturday was a riot of colorful birds. I counted a dozen male Indigo Buntings. They were everywhere and they were not particularly shy, so I took advantage of their fearlessness. You can see how the light affects the hue of the blueness, when actually their feathers are all black.

I ventured out to the gravel road that runs along the MWRD property and found two male Scarlet Tanagers. They were trading songs.

But I discovered a glimpse at a Summer Tanager later in my pictures.

For all the male Baltimore Orioles singing and displaying these last few weeks, I have seen only one or two females so far. But that’s because they’re busy tending the nest.

Yellow Warblers may stay and breed at the Portage. Invariably I hear them but don’t always see them. So I was glad to capture this one.

White-Breasted Nuthatches are present all year, but are not seen or even heard frequently now.

The female Rose-Breasted Grosbeak below is the last one I have seen. I am not aware of any starting families at the Portage, but it could happen.

We have had a lot of rain, and even more after these pictures were taken. There were two Canada Geese trying out the newly flooded waters.

So this time of year of course I’m looking for warblers wherever I can find them. I just calculated that over the last couple of weeks I have seen 21 species total. I haven’t been able to photograph them all, but most, sometimes discovering them in my photographs. I will try to post as many as possible. They won’t always be textbook-looking photos. For example, the Golden-Winged below I barely captured but it was the details from the photographs that I was able to identify it as a likely female.

One more Magnolia Warbler

Then there are the flycatchers. They can be confusing. I have since seen the Eastern Wood-Pewee again in the same location looking more like himself so I am guessing he was having an off day (typically he would look more pointy-headed).

Eastern Wood-Pewee
I think this is a Willow Flycatcher…passing through.

On this day I saw this Turkey Vulture being escorted away by a Red-Winged Blackbird.

Song Sparrows are present, singing, and likely staying to raise families.

i keep hearing and sometimes seeing Chestnut-Sided Warblers every time I have been to the Portage since my first intimate encounter with one last Tuesday.

Chestnut-Sided Warbler

There’s a little rapids under the first bridge where the water runs out of the Portage. No water ever runs into the Portage, as far as I can tell, but It’s still nice to see the flow over the rocks.

More often heard than seen, Blue Jays are out and about but rarely available for photos, so it was nice to see this one.

I found this female Common Grackle to be attractive in her own way.

I had noticed this nest before but wasn’t sure anyone was using it until I managed to capture these two Goldfinches. You will probably have to click on the first photo to see the female poking her head out of it. I have since not been able to find the nest, which was not far from the trail, but it could still be there and hidden in all the plant growth that has occurred since.

Sadly, Black-Capped Chickadees are getting harder and harder to find. Long taken for granted, I am convinced they are in decline, at least locally. I caught this one in a hurry.

Here’s my Robin photo of the post.

As the leaves are finally coming out, it’s interesting to see how the spaces change.

Below is one of my favorite birds, a Blue-Headed Vireo. I have seen them a couple times this spring which is surprising to me, as I don’t think I have seen one for years.

Woodpeckers are busy everywhere.

Red-Bellied Woodpecker

And last for the moment, I finally was able to catch the male Eastern Bluebird in focus. He has a habit of posing in difficult places, but he sat long enough this time. And although I think I heard him this past week, I haven’t seen him since. I hope the pair is still nesting and I will be looking for baby bluebirds this summer.

I have been to the Portage four times since last Saturday! I am beginning to feel like I live there. Every time I have gone, there has been a different species or a special encounter with one I’ve seen so far this spring. As many people have remarked, the cool start has been difficult for the birds migrating to their breeding grounds. I can only hope those who have visited the Portage are finding what they need in this little hotspot and will survive and flourish on the rest of their journey.

I will be back with lots more. Thanks for checking in, and I hope you are safe, well, and able to get out and enjoy this spring.

Half a Well Day Off for Migration

Chestnut-sided Warbler

After last Sunday’s chilly, gloomy rain, I had my eye on Tuesday morning and notified the work team that I was taking it off. Tuesday came, starting out cool but sunny, and I went to the Portage to see if any warblers I barely glimpsed at on Sunday were there for a better view.

The green-up is in progress and the treetops are full of tiny bugs and worms we can’t see, but the birds know where to look for them.

After hearing and then eventually seeing a couple Chestnut-sided Warblers, I was lucky enough to have an intimate moment with this individual. We exchanged thoughts about spring and sunshine.

I always hear five or more House Wrens, but rarely see them. Tuesday morning was a special day, though, because it seemed like all these guys were out and showing off. The very last photograph below shows one going into his nest.

Another very vocal group rarely seen are the Warbling Vireos. I followed this one around with the camera.

There were still a couple Ruby-Crowned Kinglets here and there. Only now, like the Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, when you’re looking for warblers, these birds become “distractors,” to quote one of my favorite guides, Mitch Lysinger.

Even Blue Jays seem to be more visible. I’ve had one in my yard all week, too, although he leaves the minute he sees me.

On this beautiful morning I was delighted to find one of my favorite sparrows, Lincoln’s.

There were still a few Blue-Winged Warblers. It’s been a good year to see them.

Female Goldfinches never get much press so I thought I’d share these two photos.

I always hear White-Throated Sparrows’ little chip notes before I see them. It was nice to have one posing.

In the Big Bird Flyover Department, it’s been quite a while since I’ve seen an Osprey. I used to see one flying over the Des Plaines River when I visited Ottawa Trail, but that location is no longer available. I haven’t been back since they built a levy. It will be interesting to see what happens with the river, with all the rain we are getting this week.

Osprey

A rare glimpse of Mrs. Bluebird Tuesday morning.

Eastern Bluebird

Early on I saw this Least Flycatcher from the bridge, at quite a distance.

Most of the warblers were distant and high in the trees, so much so that I didn’t always know what I was looking at until I processed the photos.

Black-and-White Warblers have been a bit evasive this year.

Something about the cool, slow start to spring has made the moss look happier.