Warmup to a Merry Christmas

noca-12-9-16-5033In the mad rush to the end of the year there hasn’t been much time for birding or posting but I am here to wish you all happy, good-cheer holidays, whatever you are celebrating. Last night I sang with the Unity Temple Choir for their Christmas Eve service and today I am catching up on bread gifts to distribute around the neighborhood. So while the house smells of cinnamon and yeast, Handel’s Messiah playing on the radio, and snow still on the ground even though we’ve warmed up quite a bit, I will try to compile a brief photographic history of the last few weeks.

Most of the wild birds I have seen lately have been downtown on infrequent visits to the parks. The light hasn’t been anything to celebrate but the Black-Capped Chickadees, White-Throated Sparrows, House Sparrows and Northern Cardinals are all happy to partake of the treats I bring them.

wtsp-12-9-16-5091

White-Throated Sparrow

And although I haven’t had many crows, I am usually able to find at least two, sometimes four. I don’t know where they’ve gone this year. Maybe the polar vortex has caused them to congregate elsewhere. Too bad, because I’m baking Birdz Cookies now, and I’ve perfected the recipe.

Sometimes there are a few American Robins about, although not as much now that the trees and bushes are running out of fruit.

There was that one horribly cold week and I managed to document the temperature and the steam on the river, if nothing else. I didn’t go out that day.

Two days later it had warmed up a bit, for which I was grateful, as I participated in the Fermilab Christmas Bird Count, but it was a brutal experience slogging through packed snow and seeing not many birds at all. Not surprisingly, overall, the number of species and individuals were down from previous years.

The Canada Geese flying overhead seemed to be the only ones having a good time.

I couldn’t even get the pair of Northern Cardinals below to come out from the thicket long enough to photograph them.

northern-cardinals-fermilab-12-17-16-5561

What’s been really shocking to me is the lack of birds in my yard. While I don’t see them most of the time because I’m at work anyway, at least I have an idea that they’re showing up by the emptiness of the feeders. Oddly enough, just as we started the warmup this past week, my feeders remained full. You would think just the opposite would occur. I began to wonder if the sub-zero temperatures had taken more casualties than a more normal winter. I hope this isn’t a warning for the future.

crows-12-16-16-5362wtsp-12-12-16-5180I have seen birds in the yard today now that I’m home, and I’m starting to think that a good deal of the absences probably have to do with the local raptors’ hunger more than the weather. We shall see. The birds come, but they don’t stay long. I’ll try to do a census tomorrow in the yard since I would like to see my favorites beyond the inevitable House Sparrows. I may even go out to the Portage for a walk-around early in the morning. We’re supposed to have relatively balmy temperatures tomorrow morning before we go back to normal. A seesaw December. And only one week left of it.

Wishing you all love and peace!

Down by the River

Herring Gull

Herring Gull

It’s been a busy week, so I haven’t gotten out too much and, in spite of that, it’s taken me days to carve out a post.

Two American Coots on 1-29-15: this was the view without binoculars

Two American Coots on 1-29-15: this was the view without binoculars

Freer souls have been out in the cold finding the rarities, some of which have been seen on the Chicago River. As a matter of course, since last winter’s freeze of the Great Lakes, I make a habit of peering into the Chicago River every morning when I get off the train and look into that section of the River to see if there’s any bird life in it. Seeing as how last year at this time I was counting White-Winged Scoters…that species and even less likely birds have been showing up in other sections of the river, but downtown there isn’t much going on.

AMCO Chi River 2-10-15-2213

Confirmed Coots on 2-10-15 when they were a little bit closer

AMCO Chi River 2-10-15-2236

The Coots are long gone and nothing else has taken their place outside the train station. Ah, the frustrations of sitting inside an office all day…

So late in the cloudy, snowy afternoons of Tuesday and Wednesday this past week I walked north to where the river joins Lake Michigan to see if there were any waterfowl at all. I was delighted to see Red-Breasted Mergansers as I am accustomed to seeing them on the lakefront but had not yet seen any this year.

Red-Breasted Mergansers

Red-Breasted Mergansers

The lake is frozen close to shore, and ice flows into the river where it joins the lake.

Ice from the Lake2-25-15-5222

Tuesday it was snowing, Wednesday just cloudy. Tuesday there were also a couple Mallards and one pair of Common Mergansers, along with a dozen or so Red-Breasted Mergansers and primarily Herring Gulls.

RB Merg Fem Chicago River 2-24-15-5050

Female Red-Breasted Merganser

Mallard Chicago River 2-24-15-5070

Mallard

Common Mergansers

Common Mergansers

Since, the Gull Frolic, I now pay more attention to gulls and find most of them to be Herrings (we’ll see how long that lasts when the Ringed Bills return by the thousands).

Herring Gull flying past an office building near Union Station

Herring Gull flying past an office building near Union Station

3rd Cycle Herring Gull Chicago River 2-25-15-5184

Third Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River

Adult Herring Gull Chicago River 2-24-15-5198

Adult Herring Gull Chicago River

But there are still Ring-Billed Gulls around, like the one below. I think maybe if I’m not seeing much else yet this year I’ll get better at identifying these guys at a distance…

Adult Ring-Billed Gull

Adult Ring-Billed Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River

Second Cycle Herring Gull, Chicago River

Red-Breasted Merg Chicago River 2-25-15-5246

Common Merganser

Winter continues, we just can’t seem to get enough of it.

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

Gulls at The Frolic

Gull Frolic 2-14-15-3226Last weekend, on Valentine’s Day, I attended the 14th Annual Gull Frolic, convening at the Winthrop Harbor Yacht Club. The last time I went was something like five years ago, my excuse either being that I was not in town or I didn’t want to drive the distance in my old car, but the still new Prius and I need to get out more, and I decided it was time to attend, if for no other reason than to see people in the Chicago area birding community that I have not seen for a while.

Gull identification is a fine art practiced by a select few. I do not count myself in that number, and yet by virtue of taking as many pictures as I could while freezing on the lakefront last weekend, I feel obliged to try to identify these enigmatic and entertaining birds. I should mention that one could go inside and be warm at any time, and there was plenty of food and hot beverages to keep us going, but the action was all outside.

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gulls

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls

Herring Gulls

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

First Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Iceland Gull and First Cycle Herring Gull

Second Cycle Iceland Gull and First Cycle Herring Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Herring Gull

Since the majority of the birds were Herring Gulls, the first order of business was to identify them all in the pictures until I came across something that didn’t fit the m.o. The most reliable field mark in most cases is the amount or lack of black on the wing.

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer's Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull – compare with the Herring Gull behind it

Possible Glaucous-Winged Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Glaucous Gull

Without the pictures I would be at a loss, as the gulls fly by so quickly if I didn’t stop them in time I would not have managed to study them as well. Although it was challenging enough just to hang on to the camera, and I often photographed the nearest subject which left me with a lot of Herring Gull pictures I probably do not need, at times it was fun. I think the gulls’ enthusiasm becomes infectious. Even with the pictures I am still often stymied by identification. It helps to know what gulls were identified that day, because it narrowed the possibilities down to seven species, six of which appear here (Herring, Glaucous, Iceland, Thayer’s, Lesser Black-Backed, Greater Black-Backed). Oddly enough, I have not one picture of a Ring-Billed Gull. I don’t recall seeing them either. This is one case when they were outnumbered by all the larger species.

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Iceland Gull

Herring, Thayer's and Iceland Gulls

Herring, Thayer’s and Iceland Gulls

As if to reassure us that we were not crazy, or if we were, we were in good company, gathering to watch gulls dive for bread in 45-degree below wind chill on Valentine’s Day – Ted Floyd of the American Birding Association and a million other affiliations gave a great talk on the phenomenon of crazy, or as he put it, “interesting” people who gather to identify gulls which, given their various plumages and tendency to hybridize, not to mention individual variation, unlike a male Northern Cardinal, for instance, that always looks red – making the challenge seem even more worthwhile, and now I’m thinking maybe I won’t wait another five years or so before I do this again.

Glaucous Gull on the Ice

Glaucous Gull on the Ice

Glaucous Gull 2-14-15-3597

Glaucous Gull

Glaucous Gull 2-14-15-3559

Glaucous Gull with friends

Glaucous Gull 2-14-15-3555

Glaucous Gull

One thing is certain: I know more about Herring Gulls now, after studying 1,000 pictures, than I did before, and this is the first time I have paid attention to cycles. This is no doubt the first symptom of Gullmania.

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer's Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull

Second Cycle Thayer's Gull

Second Cycle Thayer’s Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer's Gull

Adult Non-Breeding Thayer’s Gull

Second Cycle Lesser Black-Backed Gull

Second Cycle Lesser Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

First Cycle Great Black-Backed Gull

Unfortunately I did not get pictures of a few individuals that would have been easier to identify, such as an adult Great Black-Backed Gull, which is a bird that I have been able to recognize for years, but it has been nice to study the Glaucous and Iceland Gulls and to finally track down the nuances that distinguish Thayer’s from the Herring Gulls. I referred to the Peterson Field Guide, Gulls of the Americas by Steve N.G. Howell and Jon Dunn, and also Sibley Birds iPhone app.

Peterson Reference Guides: Gulls of the Americas

Normally there are plenty of ducks to look at too, but it was so cold and there was so much ice, the ducks that were there were pretty far away. I only managed to capture a few Common Mergansers in flight and one Greater Scaup who was definitely “iced.” Click on the pictures to get a better view.

Common Mergansers

Common Mergansers

Greater Scaup with ice 2-14-15-3581

Greater Scaup with ice on its face

Greater Scaup with ice 2-14-15-3592It’s hard not to wonder if the gulls mark their calendars every year for this event.

Gulls flying in sync

Gulls flying in sync

Herring Gull w Bread 2-14-15-2730

Calm Before the Storm

Female Goldeneye Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1701The day before the blizzard warnings began, last Friday, was a calm, if cloudy day.  I managed to get down to the lakefront and even though it was overcast, a few ducks swam obligingly close enough for photographs.

Redhead Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1575

Redhead

Fem Common Merg Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1536

Common Merganser Female

Redhead Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1607

Redheads

Greater Scaup Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1572

Greater Scaup

Now it’s pretty hard to go anywhere without encountering mounds of snow to traverse, or icy and sloshy paths forged by foot traffic. It was hard to imagine being enveloped by snow until we were. I haven’t been out to see birds the past few days, only to shovel snow or trudge on in to work.

Common Goldeneye Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1632

Common Goldeneye

I wonder where these birds went during the storm. Maybe they were thinking of taking off like these Common Mergansers.

Common Mergs Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1668

Common Mergansers

In all, there were not a lot of birds, not even many Ring-Billed Gulls.

RBGU Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1694I hope to get back down to the lakefront sometime this week to see what it looks like and what birds are in the water, if any.

Common Goldeneye Monroe Harbor 1-29-15-1561In the meantime, this page needs some color.

NOCA Millennium 1-28-15-1285