Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski

This is my last day of the long weekend before I go back to work tomorrow. However, going back might be more of a challenge than usual. There is purportedly a blizzard approaching. The radar confirms this, I’m afraid. And although it will start out as rain this morning, apparently overnight it will turn into a raging onslaught of wind and snow, and the thought of waking up to that, trying to shovel myself out and walking to the train which, given the failing infrastructure, may or may not be running – I’m putting off reality as long as I can.

So-called Black Friday, the day we went to see the Sandhill Cranes, was perfect, if cloudy weather. By perfect, it was not cold. Usually this is a more-than-frigid outing. And the wind is always present as nothing stops it for miles out in the middle of flat fields. But I left my long underwear at home and never regretted it.

Red-Tailed Hawk

On our way, not far from Jasper-Pulaski Fish & Wildlife Area, which is where Lesa and I were to find the Sandhill Crane viewing platform, we made a wrong turn, and sure enough, there was a hawk sitting on a power line, so we got out and took a look. Facing us he looked extremely light-colored with a dark head, so we weren’t sure what he was. Of course he flew, but when he did, his red tail gave him away. He then landed in a tree, moved again and we got some good looks. 

We got back in the car and headed toward our destination. When we arrived, a few people were already on the platform or wandering around. The cranes had not started coming in yet. We had seen some fairly close in the farm fields as we drove but the farm roads had no shoulder to pull off on, and we might have startled the birds anyway. The huge area at Jasper-Pulaski was empty except for a herd of grazing deer. The cranes were due to approach at sundown. We waited. And waited. On a cloudy day it’s even harder to tell when sundown occurs. But then, the birds started streaming in. And so did the people coming to watch them.

It was difficult to get a close shot of any of them, compared to visits from previous years, and the lack of light was a challenge, but I really can’t complain. Seeing these birds in such great numbers and hearing their calls gives me a measure of hope for their future and ours.

There was a distant Whooping Crane that I could barely capture with the camera, and enlarging the photograph doesn’t help much but you can use your imagination. If nothing else, this is a very small segment of the crowd on the ground. Someone posted on ebird a count of 24,000 for the flock that day.

This is my first attempt at writing a post in the new editor format of WordPress. I was quite comfortable with the old format. I don’t know why software designers feel like they have to keep “improving” things but maybe it’s just as well…I suppose the ability to go with the flow and respond productively to change is all that matters lately. Whatever it is, it seems like I can’t go back to the old format, so I better get used to this now.

Here are a few more shots. And a scan with my point-and-shoot and a very short video at the end, just trying to get a sense of the immensity of it all.

Here’s the video, such as it is. More amazing is that I figured out how to get it into this post.

Here They Come

Sandhill Cranes over the Chicago Portage 3-15-15

Sandhill Cranes over the Chicago Portage 3-15-15

I was pretty sure the migrating Sandhill Cranes were on their usual schedule: flying over Monday-Friday, during banker’s hours, while I was stuck sitting in the office. Of course I read about them constantly on the IBET which added to my frustration. But the warm southerly winds that have been prevailing all week were going strong yesterday and I decided to visit McGinnis Slough, even though no one has submitting any ebird sightings since November, and then check back again at the Chicago Portage (I may do a post later, in my backward fashion, about last week’s visit which I never managed to publish).

Things are heating up almost everywhere, actually. At work, we’re busy. I’m getting ready mentally for my trip to Colombia which is only 12 days away. I’m meeting with my new bird care person who I suspect is falling in love with the birds, which is probably a requirement if you’re going to fuss over them as much as I do. And it seems to be taking more energy this year to get over winter, but I think that’s about to change.

McGinnis Slouth

McGinnis Slough

Ice at McGinnis

Ice at McGinnis

McGinnis is still under ice. I took the scope with me just in case but ended up leaving it in the car. Nevertheless I had enough gear. I’ve been testing out my wide angle lens which was repaired last week (over a year since I dropped it in the steel-bottomed vehicle in Africa) because I figure it’s small enough to take with me to the Andes and it might be very nice indeed to have handy for a breathtaking vista or two. And I’m also using the extender on the Canon 100-400mm lens, to see just what it’s capable of. I’ll have plenty of time to return to playing around with the monster Tamron lens when I get back.

Red-Winged Blackbird

Red-Winged Blackbird

But crunching around on the frozen tundra produced a few of the most predictable early birds. I had already seen Red-Winged Blackbirds downtown in Lurie Garden so I knew they would be returning to their territories everywhere else. Song Sparrows may have even slightly preceded them. And Dark-Eyed Juncos? Did they ever leave? They have been here all winter, and predictably they disappear in the spring, but I wonder if some may hang out all year long.

Song Sparrow, McGinnis Slough

Song Sparrow, McGinnis Slough

Dark-Eyed Junco, McGinnis

Dark-Eyed Junco, McGinnis

There were no Sandhill Cranes flying over McGinnis, probably because I expected them. Instead, flocks of Canada Geese, in their usual noisy fashion.

Canada Geese over McGinnis

Canada Geese over McGinnis

CAGO McGinnis 3-15-15-1144CAGO McGinnis 3-15-15-1141As I mentioned earlier, I was at the Chicago Portage briefly last weekend. The dominant pair of Canada Geese was there at the time, laying claim to the ice. I suspect it’s the same pair I have seen there for years. In any event, I was a little surprised to see two tagged geese that I am sure I reported last fall – C011 and C016.

C011 and C016 at the Portage

C011 and C016 at the Portage

I am not sure the pair pictured below is the dominant pair, as there were two unbanded pairs yesterday.

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I was about done counting geese when the first flock of Sandhill Cranes flew over. I heard them coming first, but overhead they were silent.

Sandbill Cranes, Chicago Portage 3-15-15

Sandbill Cranes, Chicago Portage 3-15-15

But before I left, a fight ensued, with the dominant gander attacking C016, and the two banded geese left.

Goose Fight Portage 3-15-15-1406 Goose Fight Portage 3-15-15-1404

Canada Geese again later on the ice, looking triumphant and vigilant

Canada Geese again later on the ice, looking triumphant and vigilant

As luck would have it, while all this was going on, a lone Sandhill Crane flew over quite low, and I think it might have landed if all the fracas wasn’t going on. It kept flying, I suspect to the low-lying parts of the adjacent preserve, Ottawa Trail Woods, where I haven’t been yet this year.

Sandhille Crane Portage 3-15-15-1421

Sandhill Crane, Chicago Portage, 3-15-15

Sandhille Crane Portage 3-15-15-1428

Other species at the Portage yesterday were also predictable and I didn’t get pictures of all of them, but I was a little surprised to see a beautiful Fox Sparrow. I’ve been seeing them more here the last year or so. They don’t breed here, though.

Fox Sparrow, Chicago Portage

Fox Sparrow, Chicago Portage

White-Throated Sparrow. Chicago Portage 3-15-15

White-Throated Sparrow. Chicago Portage 3-15-15

The White-Throated Sparrows likely won’t be sticking around either, but I wish I had more time to observe them. It seems to me their ranges have been expanding; I’m sure some were breeding on the Chicago Lakefront over the past few years.

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Black-Capped Chickadee

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American Robin – with a lot of unusual white on its wing

The year-round birds are getting ready, too. I saw some definite chases going on among the Black-Capped Chickadees.

Fungus Portage 3-15-15-1498

Maybe the most interesting thing was this fungus that covered an entire downed tree trunk.

Today we are having one of those rare, sudden warm days, before the winds shift and the temperature plummets again – but I think we are through with the freezing temperatures. I hope!

Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski

Sandhills-11-29-14-8152We got a break in the cold weather this weekend, so it was imperative to spend some time outdoors, as it could be our last chance for warmth for awhile.

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Yesterday I gladly joined my friends Linda and Eddie and Linda’s brother Dave, on an excursion to see the Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area near Medaryville, Indiana. I have been to this location perhaps three or four times before, to watch the cranes come in at night to this staging area as they prepare to migrate farther south.

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It’s an hour later in Indiana so we left around noon to get there around 3:00, which is about when the cranes were just starting to come in. Along with the cranes came clouds which made it harder to see any color on them. But the spectacle soon negated any complaints. Within twenty minutes or so, groups of cranes began to arrive from everywhere. There seemed to be more coming from the southeast than from where we stood on the northwest corner of the observation platform. The near field looked as if it had been tilled and puddles had formed where ice had melted. In previous years, they have gathered in the nearer field which is right below the platform. Unfortunately this year the cranes were in a distant field to the southwest, which explains the gray mass in the pictures above and below.

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It was cloudy and windy but I managed to get some pictures anyway, and a little Sandhill Crane soundtrack to go with them.

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Earlier last week, over 20,000 cranes had been counted. That was right about the time people were reporting seeing them flying in vast numbers over the Chicago area. A few days before we went to see them the number was just over 12,000, with a Whooping Crane sighted among them. I kept scanning for a Whooper but did not find one. I think the first or second time I went to Jasper-Pulaski years ago, there was a Whooping Crane, which was easy to spot, being at least twice as large as the Sandhills and all white.

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When they come in from different directions and jockey for a place to land it looks chaotic to us on the ground but the cranes somehow have this all choreographed to perfection.

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Saved by the Birds – Again

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Costa Rica, much warmer than Chicago

The pain of losing my housemates upon returning from Costa Rica hits like a heavy weight as I prepare the birds’ breakfast every morning. I am still plenty angry too, but there is no gain in holding that inside of me. I had hoped to manage some photographs more related to this post before publishing but it didn’t happen, so I’ve mixed in a few photos prescient of the Costa Rica posts to come.

Blue and Dudley, with my cell phone last night

Blue and Dudley, with my cell phone last night

Not having much time yet to observe the new charges but very interested in their individual abilities to adapt to the new environment, the survivors and each other, I am pleased to report that so far, so good. I was most worried about the Diamond Dove making an adjustment – to be sure I have never had one of these birds before and am not exactly sure why I brought him home, except that I have a soft spot for doves, it’s a beautiful bird, and, well, maybe I even wondered if my last remaining budgie wouldn’t feel so put out if he was not the only single. The dove is more settled in every day, and even might have said something as early as Tuesday morning while I was putting food in the second large cage.  It was such a strange, loud sound and I wasn’t sure where it came from, but I could not connect it to anything going on outside.By Tuesday night he was cooing along with the music on the radio. I named him Dudley last night after Dudley Do-Right, one of my favorite cartoon characters. He follows Blue, the budgie, around, and may even have a crush on him (her? – too old to tell anymore). I can hardly wait to play music this weekend and see what transpires. And I hope Dudley gets more used to my real camera so I can take better pictures of him because he’s quite lovely.

Stuck in the office all day Tuesday while the reports of Sandhill Cranes flying over by the hundreds and thousands crammed the email–and I don’t even have a window to look out of–I was dispatched to Walgreen’s to buy some air freshener, so I chose the store that was on the corner of Randolph and State. Waiting at the light to cross State Street, almost before the light changed, I looked up and saw perhaps 250 Sandhill Cranes flying overhead – very high, and in a beautiful extended V formation, floating on the air currents, and felt redeemed.

Gray Catbird, Thompson Center

Gray Catbird, Thompson Center

Wednesday morning I packed my camera and lens in the camera backpack, because my regular backpack has ceased to fasten around my waist after the trip to Costa Rica. Even though I was absolutely sure I would have no opportunity to use the camera, it seemed silly to be using a camera backpack without a camera in it. I got off the train and walked 6 blocks before a woman stopped me to tell me the back of my pack was open! Not thinking (again), I slung the pack off my shoulder to check on it (I should have asked her to zip it up, I suppose) and the camera fell out onto the sidewalk. What More Could Go Wrong? was my sentiment at the time. But I thanked her, put the camera back in the pack, started going through the mental exercise of replacement/repair…and then, as I approached the Thompson Center, I decided to do the sensible thing and take the camera out, attach the lens, and see if it was still working. After readjusting the function wheel, it seemed to be fine (maybe that’s why those Canons are so heavy, they are encased in armor). I shot a couple sidewalk scenes, and then started walking along the planted berm which is full of scrubby little yews, cigarette butts, garbage, and birds – invariably a Rock Pigeon and House Sparrow hangout. Except a Gray Catbird jumped out in front of me and let me take its picture before darting back into the yews. I found my cell phone and reported it to ebird. I am glad I got a picture because the sighting is unusual for this time of year, as I suspected. I have checked every morning since and cannot find the bird, so this was its farewell photo.

A little more poking around produced one or two White-Throated Sparrows–a bit less unusual–and plenty of the predictable pigeons and House Sparrows. But then it occurred to me that if my pack had not been open, and I had not dropped the camera, I would most likely have walked right by the berm without noticing the Catbird. So the birds have triumphed again in making sense under even the most ridiculous circumstances.

CR Rufous-Tailed 11-9-14-4763

All of this chaos has caused me to sit back and take stock of where I am and where I really want to be. Instead of plunging ahead into the day-to-day-never-ending-existence that I inhabit. I am reminded of the more important work that I really want to get done–my work–and I am trying to find new resolve to make the time off from trips and some inclement weather birding count for something, for a while, and see if I can at least write the book that has been on my mind the past few years – if not the opera. It’s the least I can do in memory of all my dearly departed bird friends. I tried to take pictures of the temperature this morning with the cell phone so I could include them in this post, but it was apparently too cold for the phone to take the picture. As of 8:00 AM it was 22 degrees Fahrenheit or -6 Centigrade.

Two New Zebra Finch Guys

Two New Zebra Finch Guys (again with the cell last night) – awaiting Zebra Finch Girls

I will be back soon with pictures from Costa Rica, progress reports on the evolving indoor crowd, and eventually some winter birding in Chicago area too.

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Here’s looking at you, from a Grayish Saltator

Thanks to all my followers and commenters and dear friends who are a great comfort and also more inspiration to carry on. 🙂

In Search of Shorebirds

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Shorebirds are not confined to the shore. Indeed, any place where water accumulates and then recedes creates an instant migratory shorebird feeding ground. But the birds are often very far away from wherever you have stopped to observe them. Unless you are lucky enough to find a deserted beach where you can hide behind something, chances are you will be looking at shorebirds either on a remote sandbar or, inland, across quite a distance.

Lesser Yellowlegs

Lesser Yellowlegs

On Sunday morning, I joined a joint-sponsored Chicago Ornithological Society/Evanston North Shore Bird Club event led by the venerable local birder par excellence Walter Marcisz. The destination was the sludge ponds at the Calumet branch of the Greater Chicago Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The field trip was prearranged months ago and required background checks of all participants, since this is government property, not a designated birding hotspot.There was a decent variety of birds, although nothing out of the ordinary except for three beautiful Black-Bellied Plovers. But due to the nature of the location, cameras were not allowed. So the two shorebird pictures you see here were taken last weekend at Chautauqua or Emiquon. At least I got a good picture of the Emiquon sign.

Sign 1I2A1230

If I was ever unsure about Pectoral Sandpipers I have made up for it this year already; everywhere I have been there have been several.

Pectoral Sandpipers

Pectoral Sandpipers

There were other birds too last weekend, like this Northern Rough-Winged Swallow.

Northern Rough-winged Swallow

Northern Rough-Winged Swallow

And an Indigo Bunting who would have qualified for my previous post about blending in.

Indigo Bunting

Indigo Bunting

In any event, the sludge pond trip left me far south enough to cut west over to McGinnis Slough. Even though it was by then mid-day, it seemed prudent to check it out. The Swamp Rose Mallow is in full bloom now.

Rose Mallow

Swamp Rose Mallow 

Periodically, flocks of blackbirds would rise up from the marsh where they were no doubt feeding alongside shorebirds I could not see. There were also huge flocks of Chimney Swifts but I was at a loss to photograph them adequately.

Red-Winged Blackbirds

Red-Winged Blackbirds

Chimney Swifts

Chimney Swifts

Further south I was delighted to find the Sandhill Cranes, possibly the same birds from a couple weeks ago. There were again three, but only two fit in one picture frame. All that brown stuff on the ground is dried up pond lilies, which completely camouflaged smaller birds feeding in it.

Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill Cranes

So our weather has changed from cool, cloudy and rainy to hot and dry in little more than a week. Much of my time for blogging has instead been spent watering my front yard. More about that eventually (assuming watering and praying for rain works).

McGinnis in the Rain

Rain, rain...

Rain, rain…

Let me get the disclaimer over with. I planned on posting last night but my laptop apparently decided I had been taking it for granted, perhaps after hearing the washing machine had decided Saturday morning that it had had enough too. But it hasn’t been all bad. I took off from work on Friday because I had a ticket to Steely Dan at Ravinia and there was really no way I could envision driving that far after working half a day. I was also rationalizing I could make up for not birding last weekend after the water heater staged its own rebellion.

Stormy Sky

Stormy Sky

Friday, the forecast was for scattered thunderstorms, but you can never tell where they’re going to scatter, so I got up as early as I my body would allow, and I managed to get to McGinnis Slough at 7:10 AM, whereupon a little rumble of thunder turned into a downpour. I sat in the car and waited for it to stop. Which it did, and then it started again. I must have gotten in and out of the car five times before I finally managed to take off for more than a few feet. And even then I had to stop and open up the umbrella. McGinnis got a good soak.

Rain starts again...

Rain starts again…

I think she might have stayed for the photo if the rain hadn’t suddenly picked up again…

Blackbirds drying off

Blackbirds drying off

When it seemed like I might yet be able to see a few birds, I took the shortest route to the south end of the preserve, stopping to admire the first Rose Mallow blossoms.

Marsh Mallow - not "Rose" - I'm hearing "Rose Darling" by Steely Dan...

Rose Mallow. But I’m still hearing “Rose Darling” by Steely Dan…

I wasn’t seeing as many birds as I heard, Marsh Wrens and Song Sparrows singing in between cloudbursts, Blue Jays calling from everywhere. But then I heard something different yet quite familiar. Sandhill Cranes. I followed the sound and found a pair of Sandhills and two young Great Blue Herons. Only one heron fit in the frame with the cranes.

Sandhill Cranes with a Great Blue Heron

Sandhill Cranes with a Great Blue Heron

A closer view of the cranes.

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There was a break in the clouds, finally, so I ventured to the farther, northernmost side, where there were predictably a lot of Great Egrets. This group constitutes perhaps a third of the total I counted.

Great Egrets

Great Egrets

And one managed to fly by ever so slightly closer.

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I left shortly after the sun was finally starting to shine, almost three hours later. When I got home I was a bit dismayed to find it had not rained at all on my garden while I was gone. But the quiet of McGinnis with the rain stayed with me and served as the perfect meditation to take a slow day off, nap, do a few chores and then go to Ravinia. Fagan, Becker and the excellent musicians that share the stage with them delivered another memorable concert. I have been singing their songs ever since.

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Sandhill Crane Migration

Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski IMG_7735_1

Taking a break from the Brazil photo project, I went with friends yesterday to Jasper-Pulaski Fish and Wildlife Area in Indiana to witness the annual fall Sandhill Crane migration/gathering at their staging area. Reports were of 28,000 birds present yesterday. I don’t know how you count 28,000 birds, but there were an awful lot.

Sandhill Cranes IMG_7717_1

The weather was an additional perk this year: unlike previous visits, I could stand outside and watch the entire dusk display without feeling any pressure to run back to a warm vehicle. Memories of this event in previous years always conjures up visions of dealing with extreme cold. But yesterday it was almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit. It seemed almost sacrilege to be so comfortable.

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It was cloudy but hard to complain. I think the cranes were enjoying the mild temperatures too.

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