Home is Where the Birds…Are!

I thought I’d be returning to this page with pictures from my travels but my plans have been derailed by local distractions. It seems I cannot stand at the kitchen sink and look out the window for more than a minute before a Downy Woodpecker is on the suet feeder that hangs from the sumac tree.

I planned to go to the Portage yesterday, but the weather kept me home with 35 mph winds and gusts of up to 50 miles per hour and also flood warnings along the Des Plaines. I decided not to take the chance of being blown around the trail with the possibility of trees falling on me. The Portage is likely high enough above the Des Plaines River basin not to be affected too much by its flooding but I wasn’t all that curious either. Not sure if fear of catching or spreading a virus is making me more timid to take any chances at all. Combining the weather warnings with cloudy skies and birds predictably hunkered down, I decided it was advisable to stay home. But I would go out for a walk a little later, just to experience the wind at a safe distance.

As it turned out, soon after I was out the front door, three, possibly four, Turkey Vultures appeared, coasting about on the wind. They were sallying around the neighborhood for half an hour at least. Then when I returned to my front door, I heard a nearby Dark-Eyed Junco, and got lucky with one and then another perching in the little apple tree where they posed for a minute or two. I have been trying to take pictures of Juncos for months to no avail, but have managed the past couple days to photograph the ones that visit my yard. I wonder if the birds are more curious about me, now that they are relatively free of constant human activity.

Dark-Eyed Junco

Most of the photographs below are from one sunny day last week, March 25. I went out and sat in the back of the yard soaking up the sunshine. It was midday, not the optimum for light conditions, but outside was the place to be, relatively warm, hanging out with the feeder crowd.

Even the local songster Northern Cardinal made a guest appearance…!

On Saturday afternoon late, when there were no birds in the yard, I saw the reason why. I couldn’t get very good images between the lack of light and the window screens on the porch, but here is a very hungry looking Cooper’s Hawk.

Of course as I tried to sneak out the back door for a better photo, it left.

Below is a little expression inspired by the indoor crowd yesterday. I’ve titled it “Minimalist Zebra Finches” and, of course, they participated enthusiastically.

Minimalist Zebra Finches

The Mourning Doves below: I love how the male is “politely” chasing the female. I tried to capture how his neck was lit up in the second photograph.

It must have been the lighting – I was pretty far away – but this is an interesting-looking House Sparrow.

And there are worms to be had for the Robin…

Spring is coming. The days are getting longer. It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed.

The Road to San Blas

Streak-backed Oriole

We had beautiful weather for the entire trip, which made the drive from Puerto Vallarta to San Blas, Mexico, along the Pacific coast in the state of Nayarit, that much better. It’s a long drive, and we made several stops along the way to look for birds. Some were familiar, like Yellow Warbler, Nashville Warbler, and Summer Tanager which visit my habitat during spring and summer.

Nashville Warbler
Summer Tanager (in a too-shady spot!)

We had San Blas Jays and Golden-Fronted Woodpeckers in abundance. The Golden-Fronted are common in Texas, but the San Blas Jays are endemic to Mexico.

We encountered some doves and Painted Buntings foraging along a dirt road…

Inca Doves, Ruddy Ground-Dove, Common Ground-Doves
White-Winged Dove – in a non-characteristic view

I don’t know where I saw this heron, but the camera doesn’t lie, so we must have encountered it on that day. I don’t see Yellow-Crowned Night-Herons very often, especially juveniles.

Juvenile Yellow-Crowned Night-Heron

At some point it was temporarily cloudy along the way. So you may wonder why I am including these very dark pictures. The Cinnamon-Rumped Seedeater is of some significance in that it has been split from the White-Collared Seedeater, which makes it an endemic species. And such a close encounter with some Black Vultures seemed friendly enough.

One of many Grayish Saltators on the trip.

Grayish Saltator

We would see Sinaloa Wrens again. Which didn’t stop us from searching for a species called “Happy Wren” which we heard quite often, but hardly saw it once.

This could have been our only Gila Woodpecker. I had thought it was already on my life list but it turns out I haven’t seen it before, except in a field guide, so I am glad I have proof.

Gila Woodpecker

We would see Rufous-bellied Chachalacas again, but for a large bird they are amazing difficult to capture.

Our first Citreoline Trogon. I was surprised to find I actually got a fairly decent picture.

Citreoline Trogon

Later in the day, we were on the beach, and this lone Willet gave us good, if distant, views as it expertly navigated the shore.

Great-tailed Grackle Tree
a perched Magnificent Frigatebird

An assortment of beach bums were gathered – Brown Pelicans, Black Vultures, Magnificent Frigatebirds, various Herons – I think a man had left them some food.

Not to be forgotten, a proud Turkey Vulture

We were assured all cormorants would be Neo-tropical…and most of the terns were Royal.

Before we checked into our hotel, we stopped at a historical site, El fuerte de la Contaduria, when we arrived in San Blas. It’s situated on a cliff overlooking the ocean. I wish I had paid more attention to the historic significance which our guide, Steve, was trying to impart to us, but I was pretty tired from traveling by then. I believe the statue is of Don Jose Maria Mercado.

One thing I do remember is Steve reading the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem, The Bells of San Blas.

A version of what happened at the fort is nicely summarized here.

I hope to make some progress over the weekend. I am fading into the sunset to process more pictures.

Southwest Texas: Building the List

Vermilion Flycatcher

It was challenging for many reasons to get photographs on this day. The birds were far away. They were backlit. They were hiding behind branches of trees or leaves of cactus. It was somewhat cloudy. And yet I was surprised to finally go through all the pictures more thoroughly and find some images I didn’t know I had. Most of all, it is great to get a feel for the landscape where the birds and other creatures were.

Saving the big hike for the following day, we explored the low-lying areas along the Rio Grande.

White-winged Dove

Most of these birds we continued to see throughout the trip, like the Say’s Phoebe below. I like the cactus cover this bird was using.

Say’s Phoebe

Mexican Jays are stunning. I don’t think we ever saw more than two at one time. They were somewhat elusive.

Mexican Jay

We saw Roadrunners on occasion but not close enough or long enough to get really good pictures. Maybe we were too distracted by our search for less common species.

It must be West Texas – there’s a Greater Roadrunner!

Hearing and barely seeing a Bell’s Vireo is a big event where I come from, so witnessing their incessant chatter and then getting such great views was heaven for me.

I adore Ravens and tried to get photographs whenever I could.

Common Raven

We spent some time locating and then looking at this Tropical Parula. It was so far away I wasn’t at all sure I got a photograph so I was surprised to find a few that were in focus. So I guess it was good I was carrying around my monster lens most of the time, although by the end of the trip it was starting to fall apart…

This Turkey Vulture is actually kind of cute. Snazzy pink legs and face to match.

Turkey Vulture, posing

Vermillion Flycatchers were almost everywhere. I like the female’s subdued plumage.

I think Western Wood Pewee was a new bird for me.

Western Wood Pewee

I got only one distant fuzzy shot of the male Varied Bunting, bottom right.

We were privileged to have good, long looks at a perched Zone-Tailed Hawk. You can just barely see the trademark tail band tucked underneath the tips of its folded wings.

Zone-tailed Hawk

Swainson’s Hawks are beautiful. Without the monster lens I would not have captured this detail.

Swainson’s Hawk

The Gray Hawk is…well…very gray.

There were more Scott’s Orioles to be seen, but even though this one was quite far away, I love the vegetation it has decided to perch on.

Scott’s Oriole
The Rio Grande
Inca Dove
House Finch
Golden-fronted Woodpecker

The Cordilleran Flycatcher was a new bird for me. I wish I’d gotten a better photograph, but this at least gives me an idea in case I am lucky enough to see one again.

Cordilleran Flycatcher

The gray day didn’t do this Acorn Woodpecker justice, but I still think of The Joker.

Acorn Woodpecker
Some of the dramatic landscape surrounding the Zone-Tailed Hawk’s perch.

It will take me some time to process the rest of this trip’s pictures, but I get to savor my memories a little bit longer. In the meantime, we keep wondering when summer will arrive in the Chicago area. While I am glad it’s not hot, it’s been colder and wetter than I ever remember for mid-June. I hope your summer solstice is going well.

Hodgepodge

My bird observation life has been peripatetic at best. Last Saturday was probably the best recent weekend day to go out, but I was at our annual choir retreat for three hours in the morning to prepare for this coming Choir Sunday. The weather was predictably cloudy and more miserable last Sunday so I stayed at home and took some pictures of the yard crowd.

I did manage to get out on March 31st to the Portage. Even though it was chilly and cloudy, I wanted to see if there were any new arrivals. For the most part I saw regular visitors. One White-Breasted Nuthatch was particularly cooperative. Perhaps he is related to the one who visits my yard on occasion.

The locals were all busy.

Perhaps the most evident Sign of Spring was seeing the return of a Turkey Vulture.

March 31st at the Portage still sleepy.

In the yard, I am happy to still have two Pine Siskins hanging out. I hope this means they have become regular visitors.

The Goldfinches are looking a little in-betweenish these days.

Not too clear pictures through the porch windows and screens but the House Finches are bonding. There’s a Pine Siskin mixed in the group shots too.

When I managed to stand in the backyard and wait for the birds to come back for photos, a male Downy Woodpecker made sure he checked out everything.

I still have a Dark-Eyed Junco or two, as of Sunday. And even though we had a nice warmup on Monday and Tuesday, the winds have shifted and we are back into chilly, windy gloom.

In a way I am glad I have not had time to start cleaning up my yard because there are undoubtedly a lot of overwintering insects I don’t want to disturb.

This Saturday I’m “leading” a walk at Columbus Park. So far the weather looks promising. I expect we will have a few migrants and with any luck I’ll get some pictures of them.

I’m looking forward to Choir Sunday. Our last rehearsal is tonight. We are singing a wonderful work by John Kramer entitled “The Immigrant Experience.” If you are anywhere within striking distance of Oak Park, Illinois, I urge you to attend either one of the two Sunday services at Unity Temple. Yes, this is a plug, but for a good cause. The music will be breathtaking.

With any luck I’ll be back to this page before next Saturday. Then I will be gone for a birding trip to Big Bend and the Hill Country in Texas. It’s been on my list of places to visit for a long time, and I wanted to see it before any habitat is destroyed by the border fiasco.

A Kinglet-Sized Rescue

Portage with Mallards - 10-28-18-3924I had no plans to go out yesterday. I slept in and so did my birds, even after one or two Zebra Finches announced theoretical sunrise around 6:28 a.m., because it was dark and cloudy. But then the sun broke out during breakfast and after I checked the radar it looked like we had a two-hour rainless window so I decided to see what was happening at the Portage. No sooner did I leave than the sun went behind the clouds.

Photography in next-to-no light was almost not an option, but I couldn’t imagine going out without the camera. I hadn’t gotten too far beyond the Mallards and Canada Geese before I encountered a Golden-Crowned Kinglet in distress.

GCKI Rescue - 10-28-18-3997The bird had a long, skinny twig caught in its primaries. I put my camera down to help, but when I reached for the bird it flitted a few inches to avoid me. I managed to grab the offending plant matter and the Kinglet immediately wrested itself free. Glad I could help this little bird continue, and it gave some purpose beyond my need to escape the “other reality” for a while. After the encounter, it seemed I was seeing more Golden-Crowned Kinglets than anything else. Unfortunately they move so quickly they were hard to capture in low light.

GCKI - 10-28-18-4023

It just so happened that I had to replace my cell phone on Friday. It was a case of new software meets old hardware: the latest update wreaked havoc on the old phone. So I put the new cell phone camera to use to capture some stirrings of autumn color at the Portage.

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Hawk migration continues. Below, some aerial dynamics of a Northern Harrier.

I was going to visit the dirt road that runs along the railroad tracks and faces the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District property but when I encountered the buck below staring at me, I changed my mind.

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Common Milkweed was everywhere this past summer and I have a feeling it will be even more prevalent next year.

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Two Turkey Vultures flew over in the grey sky…

The only birds that stood up to the lack of light were Mallards and Canada Geese, and then just barely.

Not much else to report, really. I’m surprised the Mourning Doves showed up as well as they did.

MODO - 10-28-18-3990I still have images from the previous weekend’s last organized walk…and then I’d better be focused on preparation for the choir’s three-day tour to St. Louis. I may not be seeing many wild birds for a few weeks. Maybe I can recruit the indoor crowd.

img_0020Tree Fungus - 10-28-18-4047

Winding down…

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Rose Mallow at McGinnis

As the days get ever-so-slightly shorter, commitments increase. I’m not sure why that is. But suddenly it seems there is less time for more things to do. A visit to McGinnis Slough had been on my mind for weeks ever since the last time I drove by the entrance was closed for paving the driveway, and there was no access. I got up as early as I could Sunday morning to visit the Slough and then the Portage.

McGinnis 8-19-18-7939

A Slough in name only…

I think the last time I posted from the Slough, I was commenting on the low water levels following perhaps a flooding situation. But the summer weather since has not been kind to the Slough. Indeed it is all overgrown and there is barely any water, so all the birds I would normally see have gone somewhere else.

There were Mallards and Wood Ducks. I saw two distant Great Egrets, but no Great Blue Herons. Normally the slough would be hosting scores of these herons. No such luck this year.WODu w MALL McGinnis 8-19-18-8024Perhaps indicative of the situation was the first bird I saw, the bedraggled-looking Northern Cardinal below.

NOCA McGinnis 8-19-18-7914There were a few blackbirds around too, but the breeders are gone.

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Red-Winged Blackbird, hiding the red

When not distracted by birds, the vegetation grabs my attention. Could this be a new grass taking over? I think it is Bristly Sedge.

It was then I went to the Chicago Portage. I got there just in time to encounter all the dog-walkers, runners and cyclists, but it is always worth checking out. I have to remind myself sometimes that seeing fewer birds than I might want is still worthwhile from a reporting standpoint…

Portage 8-19-18-8147There were more Cedar Waxwings (below) than any other species. I can only assume they were cleaning up whatever mulberries the robins, who were absent, had left behind. That’s right, the robins that virtually take over the landscape have all gone somewhere else. I’m envisioning large fruit-eating flocks already in mini-migrations.

There was one distant but distinct Ruby-Throated Hummingbird. I hope to see more, asĀ  there is plenty of Jewelweed in bloom, but the window is narrowing for this species. Maybe I’ll have another week or two…

RTHU Portage 8-19-18-8072The theme for the day, perhaps, was shaping up. These were young birds starting to find their way in the big wide world, like the Eastern Kingbird below.

And the scraggly youngster below appears to be a young Great Crested Flycatcher.

GCFL 8-19-18-8173I expect to see a lot of juvenile Indigo Buntings in the next few weeks, but Sunday just about the only bunting I encountered I could barely see.

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Indigo Bunting

I was happy to see a Turkey Vulture (adult) in the neighborhood. I think seeing so many different vulture species in East Africa years ago instilled a love and respect for them. Lately I have seen groups of these hanging out by the highways, where I’m sure they make a decent living off of roadkill.

TUVU 8-19-18-8184The most accommodating bird at the Portage was the cardinal below who was singing with his back toward me but I guess that feeling of somebody looking at you caught his attention and he turned his face toward me.

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Northern Cardinal

Starting this Saturday, I will be leading weekly bird walks in two alternating locations. I was recruited for this position by a fellow bird-watching choir member. We’ll see how it goes. I plan on taking the camera with me, but the leading and listing responsibilities will make photography challenging. If nothing else, I will become more familiar with the two destinations which up until now I have rarely visited. The whole purpose of this is to catch the fall migration wave. I promise to report back as often as possible.

I almost forgot my little insect sampler from the Portage. Worth mention, perhaps, is the fact that there were at least 20 Monarch Butterflies. But it’s still hard for me to believe that is a larger number than I have seen all summer.

So as we experience the changes in the weather, the environment, the species we see… the changes are unsettling, but that’s still another glass is half-empty/half-full quandary.

My last thought is a little summertime-feeling music – Trois Gymnopedies by Eric Satie. The recording is from almost 4 years ago when I had fewer birds, it was the start of the second flock, and most of the Zebra Finch solos are the beginnings of my star singer, Arturo Toscanini, whose songs have progressed far beyond this and they continue to grow. One of these days I’ll have to see if I can trace the evolution of his song cycle.

Three Days in Michigan, Part I

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Broad-Winged Hawk, Hartwick Pines 7-17-18

I had the good fortune to meet up with my roommate from previous trips to Ecuador and Panama, and join her for a family reunion a couple weekends ago. The lodging was a remote location near a sprawling golf resort in Michigan. I could have been out of the country because my GPS quit working right before I arrived, and I did not always have cell phone coverage, so it felt like a real getaway. Four of us were birders, so we spent the better part of the three full days we had together exploring various locations. These pictures are from the Manistee National Forest.

My car was too small to be comfortable enough for the day trips, so I was a lucky passenger. I tend not to pay close attention to where I am being taken, and I don’t keep a journal when I’m on a trip, so if it were not for my friend’s son keeping an ebird list I wouldn’t be able to recall where we went. My contribution was to bring a book on birding locations in Michigan, which I gladly handed over to Oliver and his wife, and they decided where to go. I was happy to be away and would have gone anywhere. Even though my drive up was only about 4 hours, the ecosystem and even the time zone were sufficiently different, so the feeling was equivalent to going much farther away.

I had planned to do only one blog post for the whole trip because I felt like I didn’t get very many pictures, the birds were far away and when the birds were closer the lighting was difficult, but now that I’ve processed everything it seems a better idea to break it up into a couple posts. Birds were not all that easy to find. We heard the swamp sparrow, above right, singing like crazy but until we found him and he moved around on his perch a little bit, he was half-hidden behind a leaf. The bird on the left is a Cedar Waxwing.

It was wonderful to see multiple Turkey Vultures. Not that they aren’t in Illinois but I have missed seeing one in the neighborhood this year. And we were out in the middle of some kind of nowhere, so it was possible to see groups of them soaring high in the sky. It was also nice to see a Yellow-Bellied Sapsucker (with all the sap holes in the tree). They breed in Michigan. At home I get to see them only in migration. That’s a Wood Duck below left-hand corner.

I think I have seen Cliff Swallows before only in Ohio and perhaps Michigan so it was hard for me to recognize the youngsters below.

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Cliff Swallows

The last pictures I took in Illinois of Dickcissels were all of their backs to me, so even though the bird below is hidden in the foliage you can at least see its pretty yellow throat. It looks like a young bird, as does the Bobolink below it.

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Dickcissel

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Boblink

I found the dragonflies more cooperative than the birds. And, in the presence of a dragonfly expert, I learned I have been misidentifying some of them. Below left is a Ruby Meadowhawk. The upper righthand ID is a female Little Blue Dragonlet, and below it is a Halloween Pennant – which I think we saw every day. More dragonfly pictures to come.

Here’s one of the Swamp Sparrow singing.

SWSP 7-15-18-6616I intend to be back soon with more from Michigan. It’s been busy at work and all of a sudden, even though the entire month of August is ahead, it seems like summer is already on the wane. I do appreciate the cooler temperatures we have had lately but I know better than to expect them to stay. However it’s heavenly to open the windows overnight.

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