Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Another Sign of Spring… January 30, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds — saltthesandbox @ 11:45 am
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On this morning’s walk through south Oak Park, I heard male Cardinals singing in four different back yards. That’s the first time I’ve heard Cardinal songs this year!

In case you’re not familiar with its song, this link should take you to an All About Birds multimedia page: Songs and calls of the Northern Cardinal.

(To hear the songs, you need Quicktime installed on your computer.)


Nature Note added 1:15 p.m. on Monday, February 2:

I heard more Cardinals singing this morning! One was in our neighbor’s yard at 6:30 a.m. The other was at Columbus Park, near Austin, at 11:30 a.m.

It will be interesting to see how many Cardinals visit our feeders now that males are singing. During January we often had 6 or 7 Cardinals in our yard near sunset (our highest total was 9). Are singing Cardinals setting up territories to defend? If so, will the local male allow other Cardinals to enter his territory and visit our feeders?


Searching for Spring, but Hoping for More Winter January 29, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Plants,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 5:41 pm
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On some January days, we really need to search for signs of spring.

This week, we’ve heard House Finches singing, the Cardinals are more aggressive and harder to count, and some male Goldfinches look a bit more yellow. And the buds on neighborhood trees seem to be swelling, like these maple buds from down the street:

These maple buds are getting bigger week by week -- a sign that spring is coming!

These maple buds are getting bigger week by week -- a sign that spring is coming!

But, I’m glad we still have some winter left. Our year lists still lack some winter visitors, like Black Scoter and Long-eared Owl.

And we’re still searching for White-winged Crossbills in our neighborhood. We gained some hope this morning when a birder reported Crossbills in a Westchester yard, a few miles to the southwest. But our hopes were dampened by an IBET discussion about what Crossbills eat. They have a tough time opening cones of Norway and Blue Spruce — and guess which spruce are common in our neighborhood?

By the way, I saw a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker in Columbus Park today. It wasn’t a sign of spring — just a winter visitor that lingered further north than its kin. But the sapsucker got me thinking about what’s going on inside all those barren trees. The tree sap must moving — otherwise, why would the buds be swelling? And what would the sapsucker sip?


Revised Format for Our Birding Lists January 27, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests — saltthesandbox @ 4:36 pm
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We updated the format for two of our list pages to include some longer term data. The page for our block now includes a list of all the birds we saw on our block during 2008 — a total of 78 species. The page for Columbus Park now includes a list of all the birds we’ve seen in almost 2 years of collecting data in the Park — a total of 144 species.

We are really pleased to have so many different kinds of birds in our urbanized neighborhood! Each each name on our lists represents a memory, or often many memories, about when and where we saw that species, what it was doing, who we were with, and how we felt about the experience.

The revised pages can be found here:

Those lists represent a lot of time spent birding in our neighborhood. I can make the time because walking is what I do for exercise, and my doctor recommended I get more of it Birding slows me down a bit — OK, sometimes it slows me down a lot! But, I’ve been doing my exercise bird walks since September, averaging 14 miles a week, and my blood pressure really did fall to acceptable levels.

Now we’ll see what happens during spring migration, when there can be lots of warblers in the trees. I might have trouble covering more than a few blocks an hour. If my blood pressure rises in early May, we’ll know why.


Nature Note added 1:30 p.m. on Tuesday, February 3:

I just posted an additional list: Dad’s Walking Bigby: Big Green Big Year (2009). This list includes only those birds I see at home or on walks that originate at home.


More Birding on the Road

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests — saltthesandbox @ 9:56 am
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My family’s young birders have pretty much outgrown our neighborhood. It’s not that they don’t appreciate the uncommon birds that sometimes visit close to home — it’s just that uncommon birds are, well, uncommon, at least in our neighborhood.

So, Aaron scans the Midwest birding lists several times a day, trying to decide where he wants to go on our next day off. He makes ambitious plans, which sometimes change at the last minute. That’s what happened on Monday, an Institute Day (when the teachers went to meetings, and the kids stayed home). The Gray-crowned Rosy Finch that was being seen at a feeder in southwest Wisconsin had not been seen in a week. So, we abandoned our plans to try for that unlikely lifer and worked on our year lists instead. That meant a trip to the Lake Michigan shoreline in Lake County, Illinois, in search of uncommon ducks and gulls. (It was just Aaron and me this time, since Ethan was feeling ill.)

Aaron looking for uncommon ducks and gulls at Waukegan Harbor on the Lake Michigan shore. He found a Long-tailed Duck at this site.

Aaron looks for uncommon ducks and gulls at Waukegan Harbor on the Lake Michigan shore. He found a Long-tailed Duck at this site.

We made several stops, visiting Waukegan Harbor, Lyons Woods, Illinois Beach State Park, Hosah Park, and North Point Marina. Year birds for both of us included a Long-tailed Duck at Waukegan Harbor and several Lesser Black-backed Gulls at North Point Marina. Aaron also saw a Thayer’s Gull in flight at the Marina while I was trying not to slip on the ice. We also saw a Glaucous Gull, lots of Common Goldeneye and Common Mergansers, and a few Bufflehead, plus we heard some White-winged Crossbills at Lyon’s Woods. Those are all beautiful birds, but not as exciting as they might have been, since we had seen them earlier this year. We ended the day with my 2009 list at 73 species and Aaron’s at 78.

We saw Common Mergansers at Columbus Park lagoon last spring, and we are still hoping to see Crossbills in our neighborhood this winter. But the other species from this trip just aren’t neighborhood birds. We are long past the days when Aaron would watch our back-yard feeders for an hour, saying, “This is better than television!” I should be grateful that the boys watch from our front porch during spring migration, when we can get 10 or more warbler species in our elms.

When Aaron and Ethan were in elementary school, I could make our urbanized neighborhood into an interesting place. I could “salt the sandbox” with small fossils and polished stones, install flat rocks in the front garden as hiding places for bugs, put a sandbox with running water on the back deck, and dig holes in the back garden for them to play in. Now it takes a rare bird or a spectacular natural event to get their attention focused locally.

However, I’m still fascinated by the nature in our neighborhood. It seems unlikely that there is so much of it and that it’s still so new and mysterious to me, even after living here for 17 years. While Aaron and I were exploring the shores of Lake Michigan, my thoughts kept drifting back to what I might be missing in our yard or local parks. Did the Blue Jays visit our feeders while we were gone? Was I missing a flock of Crossbills in a neighborhood spruce? And where does the Columbus Park Merlin hang out when it’s not in Columbus Park?

That’s why I started this blog.


Finches and Trees January 25, 2009

We spent Saturday looking at the nature in other people’s neighborhoods.

We had a goal: We wanted to find more winter finches for our year lists. Last week, we had a Common Redpoll visit our feeders. That was great, but we still needed a Hoary Redpoll for this year. One visited our feeders last year, but that no longer counts. We also saw Pine Siskins and Purple Finches at our feeders back in November, but we needed them for this year, too. Our prime targets, though, were the Crossbills, White-winged and Red. Since the boys and I read the Birdmail lists several times a day, we knew that White-winged Crossbills have invaded the lower Great Lakes states in huge numbers this year. A recent Illinois report from Morton Arboretum mentioned a possible Red Crossbill along with many White-wings and Siskins. The Arboretum is a 25 minute drive on a Saturday morning, so that’s where we went.

I shouldn’t even tell what happened next, since the events took place in someone else’s neighborhood. But we did find Pine Siskins in large numbers, especially at the Thornhill Education Center feeders. We also found Red-breasted Nuthatches in the trees, another year bird. And at Hemlock Hill we found a birder staring at treetops through his binoculars. With his help, we spent the next 15 minutes watching a pair of White-winged Crossbills tear hemlock seeds out of tiny cones.

In the parking lot we met another birder, who told us a Hoary Redpoll had just been sighted at Chicago Botanic Garden feeders. So guess where Aaron and I went next? Ethan had a birthday party at noon, so he missed our first Hoary Redpoll on the year. Aaron ended the day with his 75th year bird, and my year list stands at 71.

But, those were other people’s neighborhoods. What’s important for this blog is what happens in our neighborhood. We’ll be watching our feeders for Siskins, Purple Finches, and Hoary Redpolls, so we can add them to our yard list for 2009. And we’ll be watching the neighborhood trees for Crossbills and the other finches, too. Most blocks in south Oak Park have at least a few big spruce trees — this year the spruces are loaded with cones, which White-winged Crossbills like to eat. By following a discussion on the Indiana Birding list, we learned that Crossbills also feed on neighborhood trees like sweetgum and alder. The Hoary Redpoll we saw at the Botanic Garden was feeding on birch catkins, and birch trees are also found on most blocks in our neighborhood.

But the Crossbills we saw loved those hemlock cones. We have not seen hemlock trees in our neighborhood, so we checked the Village of Oak Park website, where there’s a pdf file with a 374 page inventory of the village’s parkway trees. A search revealed only two hemlocks along village streets, and they were both pretty small.

On Sunday afternoon, Aaron and I will search Columbus Park for a Merlin, a small falcon I’ve seen several times in the Park and nearby neighborhoods. We’ll also watch for winter finches in our neighborhood trees.

Added 4:40 p.m. the same day (Sunday, January 25):

Aaron and I drove around Columbus Park and nearby neighborhoods for about 45 minutes this afternoon. We had no luck finding the Merlin, but we will try again another day. Merlins are beautiful, and Aaron needs one for his year list!


Our Family’s Birding Lists January 24, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests — saltthesandbox @ 4:10 am
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As I mentioned in an earlier post, the boys and I do love our lists! We decided to post some of our birding lists online, where they will be easy to find for us and anyone else who might be interested.

To start with I’ve posted some of our most recent lists of neighborhood birds — the lists we generate on a daily, monthly, or seasonal basis. These include:

The permanent links to the pages are on the right column of the Neighborhood Nature blog home page. These data pages will change often as we collect more observations. We will also post some examples of our year lists and life lists within the next week or so.

Why make lists?

When the kids were younger they collected stuff: Plastic turtles, toy cars, bugs, wooden trains, rocks and fossils, and more. (Here’s a link to an article in which I described the earliest stages of the boys collecting days, entitled Aaron’s Treasures.) Now we collect names of birds, which are much easier to store and sort through, but harder to play with or display in attractive ways. But, for us, these lists record interesting stories and good memories about the birds we’ve encountered.

Also, the lists that I posted today are organized and stored online using the FeederWatch and eBird websites, so they are data available for scientists and land managers to study. Maybe somebody gets play with these lists after all.


A Year Bird at Our Feeders January 21, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Children's Interests — saltthesandbox @ 3:43 pm
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Most mornings I practically have to drag Ethan and Aaron out of bed. However, this morning a male Common Redpoll arrived at our feeders right at wake-up time. Both boys were out of bed and at the back window in less than 60 seconds.

Common Redpolls are winter visitors from Canada. Last winter they were pretty common, visiting our feeders on at least a half dozen days through the winter. So far this season, we had seen them once in in a birch tree in Columbus Park (in November) and once in the large ash tree across the alley (during the Christmas Bird Count). This is the first time we’ve seen one at our feeders this season. It was exciting enough that we decided to post our sighting on IBET, the birding e-mail list for Illinois. (The boys really love it when we find a report-worthy bird!)

Also, this is the first time we’ve seen a Common Redpoll during this calendar year — that makes it a “year bird” for us. Both Aaron and I are keeping lists of all the birds we see this year. The Common Redpoll was year bird number 72 for Aaron and year bird 69 for me. (I’m usually the driver on our birding adventures, and I sometimes don’t see birds that the boys spot along the roadside, like Snow Buntings and Horned Larks.)

Ethan does not keep a formal year list. He’s more interested in adding birds to his life list, which is well over 400 species. So, on a typical evening, Aaron is on the upstairs computer searching for potential year birds on the Birdmail lists for Illinois and surrounding states. Then he approaches me with his well-reasoned arguments about where we need to go on our weekend trips around the Chicago area and Midwest. Meanwhile, Ethan is on the basement computer planning our summer vacation in California. (He also planned last summer’s driving trip to Colorado, when the boys found more than 50 life birds.)

And so it goes here in Oak Park. I’m the one most interested in the local birds and neighborhood nature — that’s why I started this blog. Aaron was thrilled to see the Redpoll this morning, because he could check off another winter target bird. Ethan’s sights are on farther horizons. He enjoyed seeing the Common Redpoll, but he mostly talked about the Hoary Redpolls he added to his year list last winter.

I set up the spotting scope by the back window. I’ll try to digiscope a close up of the Redpoll if he returns.


Added 10:15 p.m. the same day (Wednesday, January 21):

The Common Redpoll never did return, so I have no photos to show at this time. However, Aaron has been tracking Birdmail reports for Illinois and surrounding states. Folks in other parts of Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio saw Common Redpolls today, often in places they have not seen them before this winter. So, we seem to have a Redpoll invasion in the works. It’s kind of wonderful that our tiny backyard is part of this much larger pattern of bird behavior.

Overall it was a good day at our feeders. We had 12 species total, which is above average for south Oak Park in January. (For comparison, today I only saw 5 species of birds on a 2.5 mile walk through nearby Columbus Park.) Here’s our yard list for January 21, as tallied on eBird, which we use to keep track of yard birds on non-FeederWatch days. If you want to learn more about a species, each name is linked to more information on the All About Birds website, one of our favorite sources for online bird information:

Cooper’s Hawk – 1

Rock Pigeon13

Mourning Dove2

Downy Woodpecker 2

Blue Jay1

Black-capped Chickadee1

Dark-eyed Junco – 17

Northern Cardinal – 5

House Finch – 21

Common Redpoll – 1

American Goldfinch8

House Sparrow – 50

Today the Cooper’s Hawk just flew low over our yard but didn’t catch anything, at least that I could see. One female House Finch showed symptoms of eye disease. I’ll be writing about our other yard birds over the next few weeks.

By the way, if you want to see our FeederWatch results for this season so far, go to this page.

Are you getting the idea that we’re a bit obsessive about identifying, counting, and making lists of what we see? Well, there’s a lot of history behind that in our family, and I’ll be writing about that as well.

However, I promise I won’t devote all my blogging to birds. For instance, I have some upcoming posts about the things we see in trees and on the ground when we are looking for birds. But, that’s for another day.