Snow: Before and After

Hairy Woodpecker at the Portage

Yesterday morning I got up and went to see how the birds were doing at the Portage. It was a cold, windy, bleary morning, and as far as I could tell, nobody was having a good time.

When the large black blob in the distance turned out to be a windblown Bald Eagle, I was encouraged to investigate. I couldn’t get very close to where it was perched high above the railroad tracks.

The Red-Winged Blackbirds weren’t singing much. This one appeared to look as if he was reconsidering his early arrival.

I did finally manage to see one of perhaps four Song Sparrows who were carrying on vocally as if spring had sprung. But he wasn’t flaunting his presence.

Perhaps the nicest surprise was an Eastern Phoebe. I felt for him, though, as there were no bugs to eat and it made me wonder what else he could get by on a couple days before the scheduled warmup.

Even the Robins weren’t having a good time.

The cardinals have been singing for weeks. They started earlier than the Robins. There was one singing along with the piano a few days ago. I was surprised, since the windows aren’t open. He must have heard the keyboard through the front door and I assume he was perched on the little apple tree outside of it. Below is a recording of Bach’s Prelude No. 1 in C Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and just at the end where I start playing some other chords you can hear the cardinal singing along.

Northern Cardinal at the Portage
Cardinal singing with us toward the end of this clip

This Downy Woodpecker was foraging low with the sparrows.

I never did see if there was a hen sitting on a presumably well-hidden nest who belonged to this Mallard but he was definitely taking it easy.

I really hoped we were done with this snow stuff, although it was less than a minor inconvenience considering I didn’t have to go anywhere and it has now melted away. These few photos are from yesterday afternoon through the porch windows. The wet snow was falling and I didn’t feel like joining the birds in it, but I wanted to commemorate its arrival since I banished all my snow-in-the-yard photos from this “past” winter to external storage to make room for spring.

I’ve gone back to the photos from my August trip to New Brunswick and Grand Manan and hope to follow with a post or two featuring bright sunshiny blue skies shortly.

I hope you are in good health, and pray you are making some sense out of all the chaos. We will get through this.

Quick Portage Check-up

I have been trying to take advantage of any better weekend weather since I got back from Mexico, specifically just to wander the Portage and see what’s going on. Last weekend, Sunday was beautiful and warm, but I had to spend the morning indoors singing in the choir, but even though I didn’t have high expectations for an afternoon walk, I thought anything might be interesting. As it turned out, I heard only a few birds and saw absolutely nothing save some Canada Geese and a Red-Tailed Hawk. I went out again yesterday morning, to take advantage of the only sunshine this weekend, and after walking for nearly half an hour to only hear a few birds, I finally caught up with a flock of foraging sparrows and the woodpeckers and Blue Jays I had been hearing.

Canada Geese – when there was open water

Yesterday’s stars were a couple Red-Bellied Woodpeckers.

The Downies were busy too.

When the flock first appeared it seemed to be mostly Dark-Eyed Juncos and White-Throated Sparrows. They weren’t particularly interested in coming any closer to me. But it was a delight to just stand still and watch the flock forage and move through. And when the sun was shining, it was nearly warm on my back. It was otherwise seasonably cold yesterday, with hardly any open water.

White-Throated Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
American Tree Sparrow – found in my photographs later

There were likely a few more cardinals around than the two I saw briefly. Below is one of them.

Northern Cardinal

One of a few storyboards along the trail…dressed in snow and ice.

And right behind the storyboard location appeared something I wasn’t expecting so late in the morning – a foraging White-Tailed Deer. I didn’t want to disturb her so after we connected with a few photographs I turned back and made my way out of the preserve.

I was surprised to turn around and see a Brown Creeper busy poking up this tree.

Throughout the morning the Blue Jays were noisily carrying on but they were quite distant when they finally appeared.

In all maybe there were four robins yesterday morning. I’m sure there’s a larger flock somewhere.

Grey Squirrel…
Song Sparrow – as at the very top of this post

I will be back soon with warmer memories from Mexico. As of this moment, it has just started snowing. In the interim, I would like to leave with a quote from Bill Penzey which I read this morning:

“When they do their best to get us to abandon all hope is when we must embrace it more tightly than ever.”

October’s End

A goal for the last two years has been to get up to Goose Lake Natural Area and the Hebron Trail in October to see Sandhill Cranes. October weekends were flying by with other commitments and I kept hoping for decent weather, should I attempt the trip on the last Sunday of the month. I was rewarded with available sunshine and went to investigate. I saw only 18 Cranes eventually, when there had been a few hundred reported earlier in the week, but I was lucky to have three calling raucously and flying right overhead.

My start down the eastward Hebron Trail, which is a gravel trail built on an old railroad bed, yielded a flurry of Cedar Waxwings, Robins and Starlings at the start.

Hebron Trail
Cedar Waxwing
European Starling

The more often I visit this place, the more I fall in love with it. But it takes me an hour and a half to drive up there, no matter which way I go. The first time or two I wasn’t sure I was ever going to find it, but now I know the route and the landmarks and it’s easy – just a long haul.

Not long after I reached the end of the tree-lined part of the trail, I saw this male Northern Harrier fly across the field and then maybe twenty minutes later it flew by right in front of me.

Sparrow migration is in full force and I saw plenty of sparrows to prove it. It was especially nice to see the Vesper and Savannah Sparrows. Also this was my first American Tree Sparrow of the season. Since I’m already over seeing Juncos come back, I see no problem welcoming the Tree Sparrows, as both species herald the return of colder months.

Vesper Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow
American Tree Sparrow

There weren’t a lot of birds in the water, mainly American Coots. There were some Pied-Billed Grebes, but they were too far away to capture adequately.

American Coots

As I went through my photographs last Sunday, I realized I still had photos from my last visit back at the end of July, when I wondered if there were any Yellow-Headed Blackbirds left. I’m including some of those photos below.

Yellow-Headed Blackbird (female)
Song Sparrow
American Goldfinch
This Halloween Pennant would have been much more appropriate if I’d managed to post this last week!
Another reason why I like this place – I always see Crows!
Widow Skimmers look even better in retrospect.

A couple more of the Sandhills… My resolution for next year is to visit this place more often, maybe even closer to the peak times for certain species. Either way, it’s a beautiful place and I am happy to share it with you.

Goose Lake Prairie: Happy Fourth

Field Sparrow

The forecast was for rain not starting until maybe 11:30 or so this morning, so it seemed like a good day to restart my lapsed tradition of visiting Goose Lake Prairie on the Fourth of July. It turned out to be a beautiful morning and the threat of rain never occurred. Even though I arrived later than I had planned, for quite a while I was the only human, which suited me just fine.

Song Sparrow, the first of many

Dragonflies were everywhere. I guess the one I’ll be seeing a lot of this year is the Blue Dasher. Last year it was the Halloween Pennant. Nice to see all of these this morning.

Blue Dasher (female)
Blue Dasher
Widow Skimmer Female
Common Whitetail (female)
Halloween Pennant
Dickcissel
Dickcissel

So I’m trying to write this blog post tonight with the explosions going off all around the neighborhood, frequently sounding like a bomb exploding next to my house. I hate this holiday. I don’t understand why I have to be miserable and endure this every year. Maybe it’s why I decided not to be born until after midnight 71 years ago – it was too scary to start living with all this going on.

Luckily it never seems to bother my birds, they just endure it, likely chalking it up to more stupid human noise. We have pretty music playing on the radio. What’s one or two or fifty explosions?

But I can’t imagine the outdoor birds are too fond of this. Oh well. Back to the blog post. This morning I got to see some nice birds. There are a lot of pictures in this post. Let’s just leave it at that.

Eastern Kingbird

There was one Brown Thrasher who barely showed its face and then hid from me as I tried to see the rest of it.

I hoped for a Henslow’s Sparrow and one complied. Their return to Illinois grasslands is one of the few success stories over recent years. If you provide habitat, they will come.

Henslow’s Sparrow

The Red-Winged Blackbirds weren’t bothering to sing, so the guys looked a little bored with their guard duty.

There were a lot of Common Yellowthroats and as secretive as they sometimes are, I managed to see a few.

I’m still on the verge of tears from the explosions. I guess tomorrow morning I can go around and see how many fireworks shells are in the yard. Something to look forward to. My indoor birds are ready to fall asleep. I keep praying for rain.

Portage Promise

Never knowing what to expect but full of expectation is how I approach the Portage on a regular basis. So arriving late last Saturday morning was bound to be a mixed bag. I stopped on the bridge to talk with another birder I’ve run into lately there, and snapped the photograph of the female Baltimore Oriole below. And then as I started to walk, an adult Bald Eagle flew over. I didn’t have time to capture it the first time but it came back and so the image above.

Baltimore Oriole (female)

As usual there were more birds heard than seen at this hour but I was content to see what I did. Indigo Buntings are still evading the lens, but I will have many more opportunities to endure their frustrating behavior.

Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers are abundant and usually hard to spot, but I found this busy nesting pair.

Tree Swallows used to nest here…this one looks like he’s thinking about it.

Tree Swallow

Warbling Vireos…I always hear several of them, but they are normally very hard to see. However this one was singing and perched at a comfortable height for me to capture him.

This is the time of year when dandelions get a bad rap, but I found it interesting to see a Song Sparrow eating the seeds before they had a chance to disburse. So there, I have proof that dandelions aren’t just attractive to pollinators but they are also a source of food for birds, and of course humans. We may need them some day!

One of the two Green Herons was hunting. At one point it took off across the water and caused a sunning turtle to slide off its stump. There were a lot of turtles out. Click on the images below and you can see what I mean.

A few more pictures of Portage breeders… I’m leading one more walk tomorrow morning as an auction donation to Unity Temple and the forecast is for thunderstorms. But the weather changes every few minutes. We had the same forecast for this morning and except for a few thunderclaps around 6:15 a.m. and a little rain, now it is cloudy but clear. I am hoping for the same sort of cooperation tomorrow, it will make dealing with the muddy spots a lot easier.

Red-winged Blackbird (female)
American Goldfinch (female)

It’s been a great year so far for robins taking advantage of all the earthworms the rain has stirred up.

Even with all the rain it’s still better to be outside!

Sunshine at the Portage

Wood Duck (Male)

The sunshine yesterday made all the difference, even if it was still quite chilly in the morning. The birds were enjoying it: I didn’t have to walk in for half an hour before I started seeing birds. Indeed, the sparrows from last weekend were all feeding just past the first bridge over the creek, and several Red-Winged Blackbirds were busy proclaiming their territories. There were not a lot of waterfowl, but mixed in with the regulars were a couple nice surprises, like the Wood Duck above.

My view over the first bridge – nothing in the water, but at least it’s not frozen.

Actually the first ducks I saw were Northern Shovelers. There were two males and one female. I think they’re quite striking.

This pair of Mallards might be staying. I caught the three below flying over the river.

Red-Winged Blackbirds on display.

The first fight of the day over territory was between two Downy Woodpeckers.

American Tree Sparrows were everywhere. This is another result of the tree removal, I’m sure.

Some Song Sparrows will be staying. I kept hearing one singing, but could not find his perch. The one on the ground below will have to do for now.

There was only one pair of geese, and I’m thinking it’s the same pair I saw last week.

Cardinals were abundant, if hard to capture.

I walked down to the Des Plaines to see if there were any more ducks or maybe a heron. The sunshine illuminated the graffiti under the bridge. There were about a dozen Common Goldeneye from my vantage point, but no herons. I liked the sunlit reflection of the trees in the water.

I never take pictures of people on the trail but it was nice to see this guy out early with his son and two dogs. It’s too bad they flushed the Wood Duck, it would have been nice to show it to them. Oddly enough for the beauty of the day, they were only humans I encountered. The accompanying landscape shots are just more bare branches and water waiting to wake up.

For as many cardinals and blackbirds that have been singing, I haven’t heard a robin until this one yesterday. Soon the neighborhood robins wlll be singing at four in the morning…

I left the Portage around 10:30 and drove to McGinnis Slough where I found enough surprises to fill their own blog post, so I will be back to report in a few days… I hope you are enjoying your own version of the anticipation of spring.

Putzing Around the Portage

Too far away for a sharp image but still lovely to see.

The signs of spring are evident. Birds are moving, the days are getting longer even if we artificially shortened the morning hours, but I still needed to be reminded by the official first day of spring on the 20th. The last two weekends I have visited the Portage just to see what signs of life are emerging, however slowly. Robins are back and setting up territories in the woods as well as in my neighborhood. Red-Winged Blackbirds were audible on both visits to the Portage, if not displaying yet. Perhaps most exciting last Saturday was seeing my first Eastern Bluebird of the year, even if it was clear across the creek.

I started imagining what it must have been like before all the House Sparrows and accompanying civilization…when I envision Bluebirds ruled. Then I started reading about how Bluebirds have made a come back of sorts, thanks to people putting up nest boxes, and they prefer open fields for habitat, so as the Portage loses more trees maybe I’ll see them a bit more often there. But for the most part I don’t live near Bluebird territory.

Juncos have been photographically elusive for me this winter and last Saturday was no exception. I probably was looking at the last ones I’d see for a while. On the other hand I was surprised to see a Pine Siskin (below) but likely their occurrence in my yard this winter is part of a trend.

There were more American Tree Sparrows and Song Sparrows hanging out by the thawed pond than anything else.

There was open water last weekend, as opposed to the weekend before, but only one pair of Canada Geese and a Mallard or two.

Otherwise, a White-Tailed Deer, and below her, what the frozen raging Des Plaines looked like two weekends ago, from a distance.

I have only heard/seen one Red-Bellied Woodpecker so far…

My plan is to go back out tomorrow morning, when we are promised sunshine, to see if there are any more changes occurring. On my way to the train this morning, I noticed the Silver Maples are budding on the neighborhood streets. We are still flirting with a few overnight temperatures below freezing, but it looks like March will go out like a lamb.