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!

Three Days at the Portage – Day 2

There were still some warblers on May 24, but the Bird of the Day for me was Red-Eyed Vireo. I had been wondering where these birds were, and then they all seemed to show up at once. Usually you hear them singing and don’t see them very well as they move through the trees chasing insects. But this time they were more often seen than heard. In some of these photographs you might actually be able to see the red eye for which they are named.

Red-eyed Vireo

Many of the warblers I saw that day were females. The females tend to migrate later than the males who are in a hurry to set up their territories. Spring migration this year seemed strange for many reasons – the pandemic affecting where you could go to find birds, the weather which is always a factor, and I guess the knowledge in the back of your mind that birds are in decline and you wonder just how many you’re going to see anyway.

Below is a Yellow Warbler who likely is on territory for the summer. I recorded him singing, and you can hear him three times in the little clip below his picture. Some people find the mnemonic “sweet sweet sweet I’m so sweet” helpful in distinguishing this song from others they might be hearing.

Yellow Warbler

I feel fortunate to have seen a Canada Warbler more than once this spring. Unfortunately they prefer somewhat shady spots which I guess they blend into better than bright sunlight. I love the steel-gray blue color of their backs. I would support a Pantone color called Canada Warbler Blue.

Northern Cardinals are all around but not seen too often. This one was far away but distinct.

A Blue Jay on the fly.

Baltimore Orioles are getting harder to see now that they are busy rearing families.

Indigo Buntings are busy too but there are so many of them, they are easier to see.

Indigo Bunting (female)

This might have been the last time I saw a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher. Actually I’m surprised I got to see more than its tail. I still hear them, but only on occasion, certainly not constantly like a few weeks ago when they first arrived.

Even Red-Winged Blackbirds are assuming a lower profile.
Two Mallards navigating the flood waters adjacent to the Des Plaines River which were still quite high that day.
Double-Crested Cormorant – an occasional flyover
The back of a Chipmunk

A couple more warblers – there seemed to be fewer American Redstarts this year, at least where I was. And I just learned something I never bothered to look up before about distinguishing the female Chestnut-sided Warbler from the male – the bright chestnut sides don’t extend as far down the side on the female. So the pictures below are of a female. And since I continue to hear a male singing at the Portage I can only wonder if there might be an actual breeding pair.

I still hear the Eastern Wood-Pewee but this might have been the last time I got photo ops.

The big surprise walking back in the opposite direction across the first bridge was to see this Robin’s nest right off the side of the bridge, in plain sight – and I had never noticed it before. Mom was in a nearby tree, waiting to revisit her brood.

A bird more often heard than seen..Gray Catbird.

Red-eyed Vireo

I love this last picture of the Red-eyed Vireo. Having said that, I realized a few days ago that I need to bring more control to my blog posts when I take so many pictures and can’t decide what to do with them and invariably end up with too many – believe it or not, this is a pared-down selection. I really need to use my flickr page more often, so I stuck some other photographs there and if you’re really curious, follow the link to them. I will try to be back sooner with the final installment of the Memorial Day weekend excursions and reports from other destinations since. Hope you are staying safe and well and rising to the daily challenges.

Three Days at the Portage – Day 1

Scarlet Tanager

The Memorial Day weekend this year offered three beautiful days of birding at the Portage. I had no desire to go anywhere else; rather, I was interested to see what different birds I might discover each day, enhanced by the fact that a lot of birds were finally on the move to their summer homes. Here are photographs from Saturday, May 23rd.

While I think this was the last day I saw the male Scarlet Tanagers, there were plenty of Indigo Buntings. I am not aware of Scarlet Tanagers breeding at the Portage, but the Indigo Buntings certainly are a presence now every year. I suspect some of them that return may have hatched at the Portage.

Indigo Bunting

I don’t know where the Green Herons are hanging out – likely on the Des Plaines River or perhaps across the railroad tracks in the low-lying water-collecting areas of Ottawa Trail – but I still see them fly over nearly every visit. I was fortunate enough to capture this one in flight.

This Scarlet Tanager looks orange compared to the other one. I imagine it is a function of the intensity and angle of the light.

Not too many warblers left…

Goldfinches are everywhere but not as easy to see.

There were plenty of Baltimore Orioles and they looked like they were busy tending to their nesting sites.

I finally managed to capture a singing Song Sparrow.

The turtles never miss a sunny day.

Daisy Fleabane opening up now – I had some in my yard last year, hope it returns

I love this Common Grackle posing, capturing the epitome of grackleness.

I fear for Black-capped Chickadees. Lately I have seen only one at a time.

One of many House Wrens.

A slow-motion Blue-gray Gnatcatcher.

Gray Catbirds are more often heard than seen but I was fortunate enough to enjoy both with this one.

A questioning look from the Great-crested Flycatcher below.

Perhaps this European Starling had just taken a bath in the last photo.

I have seen more Eastern Wood-Pewee’s this year. There’s even one in my neighborhood.

Subsequent visits gave me much better views than the Red-Eyed Vireo below.

Another Indigo Bunting

Then, most exciting of all, as I was sitting down and contemplating leaving, I heard and then saw the Red-Headed Woodpecker below. I have been waiting to see this species for an entire year. I wonder if this is the same one that I have seen on rare occasions only.

I have no idea what kind of caterpillar this is but it was my last subject as I left for the day.

i will be back with Days 2 and 3 which were also quite birdy. My next visit to the Portage will likely be more challenging but I will continue visiting to keep track of the emerging families. I hope we humans find some peaceful solutions. The days are getting so very long now.

May Migration Memories

Canada Warbler (female)

It’s hard to believe but spring passerine migration has come and gone again. I never made it to the lakefront, where I’m sure most of the migrants coming through the city were. The trees in the park near my office were late in leafing out, and I was beginning to wonder if I would ever see any warblers, and then, the last two days of May, there were a few pretty birds in that last push.

I took all these photographs trying out my new mirrorless camera. The purchase was inspired by the fact that one guide and one participant were using the Sony RX10 on the Texas trip, so I took that fact alone as a recommendation. I really haven’t had time to investigate all the features, but it’s more compact and easier to carry than my Canon 70D with the 300mm lens attached, so I have this now for situations when I don’t want to carry quite as much gear.

Eastern Towhee

After all the Hermit Thrushes that were in the park weeks before (not as many as last year, but I think I got pictures with the other camera…), I was surprised to see this Wood Thrush on May 30, after I had gone back to try to get a picture of the Eastern Towhee above who showed up on May 29 but eluded my efforts.

White-throated Sparrows were more prevalent in April – they seem to be all gone now

More shots of the Canada Warbler. She was in the park for two days. I often think that someone should name shades of yellow after particular warblers, but the steel-blue gray back of a Canada Warbler always stands out for me.

I adore Wilson’s Warblers – because they tend to move more slowly and deliberately in the trees! And I recognize Wilson’s Yellow, which is a good thing because I don’t always get to see that trademark skullcap.

It was especially challenging to get a photograph of this male Mourning Warbler. Usually they are closer to the ground, but this guy was up in the trees after their burst of foliage attracted just the bugs or worms he was looking for.

Mourning Warbler

Was surprised to see this flycatcher on May 30. Even more surprised to get a picture of it.

One of the last Ovenbirds – they were on the ground in the park for at least two weeks before the end of May

I don’t expect to see much along the Chicago River in the next month or two, save a Ring-Billed Gull or Herring Gull, or the occasional Mallard. Every once in a while there is a Black-Crowned Night-Heron making its way slowly along the river. But birds move and there’s always the possibility of a surprise somewhere.

I have many pictures I want to share from several Portage visits, and of course I will get back to the Texas adventure as soon as possible. Looking for more space in my non-blogging life. Survived the annual choir appreciation dinner and talent show Wednesday — the offerings from the choir members were outstanding and seem to get better and more varied every year. The “survival” part was debuting a flute-and-piano piece with my flutist extraordinaire friend Linda Rios, based on a melody I had written 50 (?) years ago to the lyrics of a Robert Frost poem, “The Vindictives.” Which has led me back to Frost and poetry in general. Looking for my next melody to show up sooner than another 50 years …And I hope to be back to this page soon!

Spring Returns

Black-throated Green Warbler

When I came back from Texas two weeks ago, the weather in Chicago was fairly pleasant and I mused I could have two springs! No matter that the Saturday before I got home there was snow on the ground. But just as we slipped into May, when it seemed reasonable to expect things would start warming up a bit, northeast winds picked up and although we weren’t freezing, the windchills were in the 30’s. It’s an understatement to say there has been a lot of rain. The downpours have brought most of the trees into leaf and encouraging emerging plant life everywhere. Then, this past Thursday morning, a lot of migrant birds were down from the skies from the previous evening’s rainstorm.

I’m too far away from the lakefront now to go off searching for rarities on my lunch hour, but I took Friday off so that I could scope out the Portage before my bird walk on Saturday. It turned out to be the nicest day of my three-day weekend. Although it started off chilly and windy, when the sun emerged a little before 10:00 AM all was forgiven.

Magnolia Warbler

I just finished getting through Friday’s pictures last night – it seemed there were way too many, but I discovered three more species in them to add to the list with a grand total of 54 species, 13 of them warblers. Which isn’t super fantastic but it’s credible for the Portage.

As for the Texas pictures, I managed to send some to Field Guides Saturday night and now with that off my plate I can go back through all of them and start developing for my own purposes. Time, technology and energy being available in inconsistent quantities, this will take me a while.

So in the meantime, here are some of the spring migrants from my walk on Friday, and there will likely be some more from this visit and Saturday’s outing as I try to keep up with everything that seems to be happening this month.

American Redstart
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Wilson’s Warbler
Palm Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) (robber baron pose)

This is all I can manage for now. I hope to report back soon with lots more!

Black-throated Green Warbler

Fall Warbler Fall-Out

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Connecticut Warbler

Last Friday after some rain and wind, I was called down to the front of our office building by a coworker who had gone down for a cigarette. She said there was a little bird in distress. As it turned out there were two birds in distress, the one she saw flopping around almost as if it was having seizures being a first-year Cape May Warbler, and another, the stunned Chestnut-Sided Warbler you can see below on the left. I called the Bird Collision Monitors hotline and got their voicemail. After waiting to hear back for about twenty minutes, I thought I could not leave the two birds alone on the sidewalk surrounded by foot traffic, glass and steel, so I took them both to the park-like setting about a block away at 311 South Wacker Drive. You can see them both on the grass below. I sat with them and observed the Cape May was dead, but when I reached for the Chestnut-Sided, it chirped and flew away, so I felt better for having rescued it. When the Bird Collision Monitors did finally call me, they said they had picked up over 200 birds that day. The little bird you see below on the building ledge wasn’t stunned but it was lost, as it flew up from the sidewalk looking for a way out of the buildings. I believe it’s a Least Flycatcher.

There were a lot of birds in the park Friday, so I went back on Monday afternoon with the camera. But not before checking the potted trees in the front of my building, where I found among other more common species, the Connecticut Warbler at the top of this post.

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Blackpoll Warbler

There were a lot of Blackpolls but it was difficult to get a decent picture. Although I am thankful for the landscape architects planting lots of locust trees which are great for migrants, the trees are quite tall and I only carry my 300mm lens around with me during the week, so it was a challenge.

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Wilson’s Warbler

The Wilson’s Warbler never got low enough for me to capture his trademark skullcap but there’s something so Wilson’s about the shade of yellow. I really think whoever names colors could come up with an entire Warbler Collection. For as many field marks as my brain has memorized, I think I sometimes recognize these birds by the shade of yellow, if there’s good light.

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Magnolia Warbler

There’s a familiar phrase, “warbler neck,” which is what you get looking up at these birds in the tall trees.

How nice of this Chestnut-Sided to almost come down to my level.

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Chestnut-Sided Warbler

Then there are the birds that prefer ground level, like the Common Yellowthroat below.

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Common Yellowthroat

On the other hand I was surprised to find this Pine Warbler in the grass when I later went through my photographs.

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Pine Warbler

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Pine Warbler

It’s been a long time since I’ve gotten close enough to get a good picture of a Black-and-White Warbler and Monday was no exception. This was the best I could do.

American Redstarts come in several color combinations this time of year. The second-year or more adult males are black and orangey-red. The young males are yellow where the red would be, but it’s a warmer yellow than the females. I seem to have captured a bird that is somewhere in between the first and second-year males below the pictures of the older bird, judging from the darker gray on its head and back.