Neighborhood Nature

Our Family's Nature Blog

Big Break Birding March 31, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Other People's Neighborhoods — saltthesandbox @ 2:21 pm
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It’s spring break — time for the Gyllenhaal boys to hit the road in search of birds for their year lists! Ethan and Aaron (ages 13 and 12) have declared this a week of Big Break Birding. On a Big Day, birders count all the birds they can find in one day. A Big Year is all the birds found in year. (We want our year lists to be as long as possible, but we don’t consider them serious enough to be Big Years.) I googled “Big Break Birding,” but only one result came close — a Big Day at a place called Big Break. So I guess the boys invented a new piece of birding terminology.

Go here to read about Saturday, when we went to Lake County, Illinois, to see a California Gull. Sunday it snowed — snowed!?! — and we spent the morning at home, looking at scenes like this:

A hungry Robin sits on our feeder, with a Junco and Goldfinch in the background.

A hungry Robin sits on our feeder, waiting for more raisins. A Junco and Goldfinch are at the thistle feeders in the background. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal

We made sure the birds all had things to eat while we waited for the snow to stop. When it did stop, we got back in the car and spent the afternoon exploring birding hotspots fairly close to home, in southwest Cook and southern DuPage Counties. The first year bird of the day was a Savannah Sparrow at Lemont Quarries, also know as the Heritage Quarries Recreation Area (large pdf brochure and map here). The second was a pair of Wilson’s Snipe at Whalon Lakes Forest Preserve. (Yes, when we go on a snipe hunt, we find a real bird!)

Monday was our biggest trip so far. We built our itinerary around reports of a Red-necked Grebe on Morse Reservoir in Indiana. We also made several other stops along the way and after, but we’ll cut to the chase — we found our target bird off Morse Park at the south end of the lake:

The Red-necked Grebe was newly transformed from its drab winter plummage to its summer breeding plummage.

The Red-necked Grebe was newly transformed from its drab winter plumage to its summer breeding plumage. Head turned slightly towards the camera. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Note the long bill on the Red-necked Grebe -- compare it to the shorter, thinner bill on its smaller kin, the Horned Grebe, below. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Same Red-necked Grebe, head in full profile view. Note the long bill -- compare it to the shorter, thinner bill on its smaller kin, the Horned Grebe, below. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We only saw one Red-necked Grebe on the lake, but we saw many smaller Horned Grebes before we found our target. Each time we saw a new Horned Grebe, we hoped for the best, but each time the bill was too small and the head and neck pattern wrong:

Horned Grebe, still in winter plummage. Note how much smaller the bill is than on the Red-necked Grebe. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Horned Grebe, still in winter plumage. Note how much smaller its bill is compared to the Red-necked Grebe, above. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Since we found our target, we would have been happy even if we went nowhere else on Monday. However, we made several other stops that turned our trip into a wonderful birding adventure.

On the way south from Oak Park to Morse Reservoir, we drove the roads around Kankakee Sands Nature Preserve in Newton County, Indiana, where we saw many birds that like open fields, including this Rough-legged Hawk:

The Rough-legged Hawk rested atop a pole between hunting flights over the open fields of Kankakee Sands Preserve. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The Rough-legged Hawk resting atop a pole between hunting flights over the open fields of Kankakee Sands Preserve. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Our year bird for this area was Brewer’s Blackbird, seen in a large flock of Common Grackles on a grassy lawn near the Preserve. (Sorry, no photos.)

Next we headed southwest a few miles to Willow Slough Fish and Wildlife Area, near Morocco, Indiana. Our first year bird there was a huge flock of White Pelicans, seen from the Patrol Road:

White Pelicans resting on an island in the lake at Willow Slough. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

White Pelicans resting on shallow spot in the lake at Willow Slough. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

When I lived in Indiana more than 20 years ago, White Pelicans were rare sights in the state. Now you can count more than 130 in a day (as one birder reported on the Indiana birding e-mail list). Wild Turkeys have also become much more common over the past 20 years, so we weren’t surprised to see two flocks walking the Patrol Road ahead of us:

The Wild Turkeys let us get close enough for this photo -- I guess they aren't all that wild anymore! Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

The Wild Turkeys let us get close enough for this photo -- I guess they aren't all that wild anymore! Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We had seen Wild Turkeys elsewhere this year, but we still enjoyed watching these birds. Elsewhere at Willow Slough, Ethan and Aaron walked ahead of me on a dike and saw another year bird, a Great Egret in flight. It was gone before I got there.

After leaving Willow Slough we headed towards Morse Reservoir, but made one stop along the way. There was a flooded field just north of the Newton County landfill that held another year bird, a sandpiper relative called the Greater Yellowlegs:

We called this a Greater Yellowlegs because it had yellowish legs and a long, slightly up-curved bill. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

We called this a Greater Yellowlegs because it had yellowish legs and a long, slightly up-curved bill. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Our next stop after that was Morse Reservoir, where we found our trip target, as described above.

After Morse Reservoir we drove to Eagle Creek Park, a great place for birding on the northwest side of Indianapolis. It was getting late — 6:00 p.m. local time — so we got no usable photos. But we did get three more year birds: Carolina Chickadee, Bonaparte’s Gull, and Lesser Yellowlegs (a shorter-billed relative of the bird pictured just above). After sunset, we finally headed for home.

Overall, it was a 15 hour, 450 mile trip. It’s what I call Big Footprint Birding (because leaves a big carbon footprint). I feel much better about my Big Green Birding close to home, but I’m glad our big-footprint trips help keep the boys interested in birds.

By the end of the day I had 7 new year birds, and the boys had 8 to add to their year lists. Aaron’s year list had reached 136, and mine had 129 birds. (Go here to see my growing year list for 2009.)

Today we’re sticking close to home, with the last day of FeederWatch in our yard (11 species so far) and a short trip to Columbus Park (27 species in 50 minutes). Tomorrow we hit the road again, this time with Gail along to help with driving.

At the end of the day on March 31, our Big Break Bird total was 92.

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All the photos were taken with Ethan’s Sony DSC-H50 camera using its 15x optical zoom lens. All photos were enlarged through cropping. Most photos also were enhanced for clarity using Photoshop (but not the grebe photos).

 

Good News and Bad News: Tree Flowers March 29, 2009

Filed under: Plants,Trees — saltthesandbox @ 10:16 am
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Tree flowers are blooming in our neighborhood, which is good news and bad news.

The good news is that — even without colorful petals — tree flowers are beautiful in their own ways. Some tree flowers, like newly opened Weeping Willow, are beautiful in a cute and fuzzy way:

Fuzzy Weeping Willow flowers peek out through protective bud scales.

Fuzzy Weeping Willow flowers peek out from under protective bud scales. Photo by Ethan Gyllenhaal.

Common Alder flowers are beautiful in a more formal, stately way:

Drooping catkins of of Common Alder have a different sort of beauty, plus pollen to spare.

Drooping catkins of Common Alder have a different sort of beauty, plus pollen to spare.

Some Red Maple flowers explode, like fireworks:

Red Maple flowers can be spectacular, if you catch them at the right time, in the right light.

Red Maple flowers can be spectacular, if you catch them at the right time, in the right light.

Looking closer, we see these Maple flowers have only pollen-bearing parts:

Red Maple flowers have yellow pollen-bearing parts at the ends of pale stalks.

Red Maple flowers have pink and yellow pollen-bearing parts at the ends of pale stalks.

The seed-making flowers must bloom elsewhere, maybe on the same tree, maybe on others of its kind. (I’m not sure which it is with this specific tree, so I’ll keep visiting it until I find out.)

To appreciate tree flowers’ beauty, getting closer almost always helps. American Elm flowers look a little messy, but the play of yellow-greens and purples has a certain charm:

American Elm flowers display an interesting mix of greens and purples.

American Elm flowers display a subtle mix of yellow-greens and purples.

Of course, when a windy rainstorm knocks tree flowers to the ground, they can make mess for folks like us to clean:

Wind-blown Elm flowers litter the surface of our backyard pool.

Wind-blown Elm flowers litter the surface of our backyard pool.

If you stop and look closely, tree flowers can spread a bit of spring-time joy across your neighborhood. But the bad news is they also spread a lot of pollen. So, late last week we broke out my son Ethan’s allergy medications. We know we can manage the mess of fallen flowers and the seeds that follow. Now we’ll see if we can manage Ethan’s seasonal allergies, which may get worse as he enters his high school years.

But first, one more piece of good news about tree flowers and other opening buds: They bring tiny bugs to tree tops, which in turn bring tiny birds, like Kinglets, Warblers, and Tanagers. Tree flowers mark the beginning of another stage in spring migration.

Notes added April 2, 2009: This post was our entry in the Festival of the Trees #34, a “carnival” of blog posts about trees. Go here to see a list of the other entries. If you liked my post about tree flowers, then you should also check out Treeblog’s post on tree flowers, buds, and catkins.

Yesterday we received our first Pollen and Mold Alert email from the National Allergy Board. We weren’t surprised to see maple and elm pollen on the list. Our pollen counts come from a station in nearby Melrose Park, Illinois. If you live in the United States, you can go here to find the station closest to you.

 

California Gull! March 28, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Other People's Neighborhoods,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 10:28 pm
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On Saturday we left our neighborhood and headed north to Lake County, Illinois, in search of first-of-year birds for our burgeoning year lists. Our best find of the day was a California Gull at North Point Marina in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois (That’s on Lake Michigan, just south of the Wisconsin border.)

California Gulls are western birds that sometimes wander into Illinois. This was a rare and wonderful find for us, although we have seen them a couple of times before. We only found it because our birder friends reported it on IBET, the Illinois birders’ email list. With their help we knew that the gull was there and exactly how to recognize it.

Below are photos of what we saw, taken with our old Kodak C533 through our Vortex Skyline 80 spotting scope. In the first photo note the yellowish legs, dark eye, and irregular dark band on the bill. These features help distinguish California Gulls from the much more common Herring Gulls, which are about the same size:

California Gull. Note the yellowish legs, dark eye, and dark mark on the bill.

California Gull. Note the yellowish legs, dark eye, and irregular dark band on the bill.

Herring Gulls of the same age almost always have pinkish legs, yellow eyes, and just a red dot on the lower bill. The following close-up view of the California Gull’s head shows a reddish mark on the lower bill, behind the dark band — another diagnostic feature for California Gulls:

California Gull. Note the reddish mark behind the dark band on the bill.

California Gull. Note the reddish mark behind the dark band on the bill.

Many birders spent hours on a cold and wind-swept beach searching for this bird, and they sometimes came up empty handed. With good luck and the boys’ sharp eyes, we found the California Gull on the relatively protected Marina docks. Actually, Ethan found the Gull three separate times — it flew twice to different docks, yet still he picked it out by looking for the California Gull’s yellowish legs among the sea of pink-legged Herring Gulls.

As we left the Marina and headed home, we also found two other year birds for me and Ethan: Green-winged Teal in a pool along the Marina’s entrance road, and Blue-winged Teal at Almond Marsh. At the end of the day, I had 120 year birds on my list, and Aaron had 126. Go here to see my 2009 year list.

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And one more thing: We spent Saturday morning on a field trip with the Lake-Cook Chapter of the Illinois Audubon Society. With about 40 other people, we watched loons and other migrating waterfowl on the inland lakes of Lake County. We learned some new places to go birding, and we got to hang out and talk birds with some great birders. Trips like this are a wonderful way for beginning birders to learn more about the birds in our area. Go here for a list of upcoming Lake-Cook Chapter field trips.

Our thanks to the trip leaders, Fred and Cheri Thompson, and to everyone else who helped organize the Loons of Lake County field trip!

 

Columbus Park: Bigby Birds and Reproducing Raptors March 27, 2009

Filed under: Animals,Birds,Seasons,Spring — saltthesandbox @ 4:49 pm
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There was lots of excitement during my morning walk to nearby Columbus Park!

For me, the big excitement was the 50th addition to my Big Green Big Year (“Bigby”) birding list for 2009. It was a Hermit Thrush, which I saw in the woods just west of the lagoon. My Bigby list includes only birds I’ve seen or heard while walking from my home. Go here to read more about Bigby and see my updated list.

However, I wasn’t the only one who got excited this morning. I also watched two kinds of raptors mating in the Park. (The birds called “raptors” include hawks, eagles, falcons, and owls. Like all birds, they are the living descendants of the original raptors, the dinosaurs.) Today I saw a pair of Sharp-shinned Hawks mating in the woods southwest of the golf course, and a pair of Kestrels mating in a tall tree behind the Refectory.

Sharp-shinned Hawks spend the winter in our neighborhood, then head north to nest. We find Kestrels year ’round in our neighborhood, although it’s been awhile since we saw them in the Park. (A few months ago we saw one in a McDonald’s drive through — it was there for the House Sparrows, not the burgers.)

For those who like details, here’s a more complete description of what I saw, which I posted on the Illinois birders list this afternoon:

I saw two pairs of raptors mating, or at least trying to mate (until I interrupted). The first was a pair of SHARP-SHINNED HAWKS, seen in the narrow band of woods just southwest of the golf course. I heard a high-pitched squawking noise and then found the pair on a tree branch, 40-50 feet away and about 15 feet off the ground. The male (I presume) was already on the female’s back. He fluttered off her, and then they sat side-by-side for about 15 seconds and watched me, giving me good looks at the tail (spread and closed), head size, overall shape, coloration, etc.

The second mating pair of raptors were KESTRELS. I first saw the male sitting alone on a bare upper branch of a tree near the Refectory. About 2 minutes later the female flew up and landed on a nearby bare branch. The male immediately flew to her, landed on her back, and they twisted so their hind ends met. After a few seconds they separated and sat silently on adjacent branches.

Go here to read our updated eBird lists for Columbus Park.

 

Nature News: Bursting Buds and Tame Wildflowers March 26, 2009

Filed under: Cultivated Flowers,People,Plants,Seasons,Spring,Wildflowers — saltthesandbox @ 4:07 pm
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In our neighborhood, the last few days have been cool, often cloudy, and sometimes rainy. Searching the streets of south Oak Park turned up a few spring bulbs about to burst into bloom. As usual, the flowers on the sunnier south sides of homes were further along:

This patch of Hyacinth has several stages of buds, from tightly closed green ones to colorful buds beginning to burst.

This patch of Hyacinth has several stages of buds, from tightly closed green ones to colorful buds beginning to burst.

At several other homes, larger Daffodil plants were beginning to catch up to the Miniature Daffodils we photographed last week for Gail’s birthday — they weren’t blooming yet, but they were getting close:

These Daffodil buds were also almost ready to bloom.

These Daffodil buds were almost ready to bloom.

Go here to see what Daffodil buds looked like a week ago, when they first emerged from the soil (see the bottom of the post).

I was inspired by the almost-opened buds, so this morning I checked a secluded corner of our back yard, against a south-facing wooden fence. Guess what I found? The Miniature Daffodils we bought last year for Gail’s birthday also were beginning to open. As the day progressed with intermittent sun, four buds finally bloomed:

Gail's 2008 potted Daffodils bloomed in our garden in 2009!

Gail's 2008 potted Daffodils bloomed in our back garden in 2009!

We bought these flowers as part of the American Cancer Society’s 2008 Daffodil Days. (The 2009 Daffodil Days just ended.)

I guess birthday flowers that support a good cause should be my favorite flowers of the spring so far, but they’re not. My favorites are some spring wildflowers living the tame life in a street-side garden near Maple Park. They’re Bloodroot, a common woodland wildflower that I was surprised to find in this residential neighborhood:

The Bloodroots flower stalks are wrapped in leaves when they first emerge from the soil.

Bloodroot flower stalks are wrapped in leaves when they first emerge from the soil.

Like many North American wildflowers, Bloodroot was used as medicine and more by Native Americans. For me, it’s a reminder that I need to get to an old-growth woodland soon!

For tomorrow I’ll have good news and bad news to share. Tree flowers are back, some for better, and some for worse.

 

Nature News from Columbus Park: New Bird, New Flower, New Burns March 23, 2009

On my first day back from Circle Pines, I took an exercise walk to Columbus Park to monitor birds and other forms of nature.

The new bird of the day was a Belted Kingfisher patrolling the lagoon, flying back and forth and making its rattling call. Last year Kingfishers visited Columbus Park in early spring and later in the summer, but went elsewhere to nest. Some Kingfishers stick around Illinois all winter if there’s open water to dive and catch their fish, but last year they left the Park in late October. (Our other bird sightings from the Park are summarized on this page.)

The new flower is a cultivated plant in the shaded garden by Refectory pool. The flowers lent a bluish cast to the green carpet of leaves:

The deep green leaves and blue flowers carpeted the garden near the Refectory pool.

The deep green leaves and blue flowers carpeted a garden near the Refectory pool.

A closer look revealed droopy flowers that looked a bit like a Snowdrops but were intensely blue. Also the leaves were broader and darker green than Snowdrops:

Up close, the flowers where shaped a bit like Snowdrops, but were intensely blue in color.

Up close the flowers were shaped a bit like Snowdrops, but were intensely blue.

I’m no expert on cultivated plants, so I Googled a preliminary identification. My best guess is Siberian Squill — not as poetic as “Snowdrops,” but that seems to be its name. (If you know your flowers, please comment below to correct or confirm my identification.)

Two areas of the Park had prescribed burns this year. The burns were intentionally set fires designed to improve habitats for native plants and animals. The fires must have been set after my visit to the Park on Friday morning and were closely monitored so they didn’t spread too far. One burn was in the restored prairie on the large peninsula, between the arms of the lagoon. The other burn was in the woodland just west of the lagoon. Here’s what the burned prairie looked like:

The blackened area in "peninsula prairie" was burned by land managers to maintain the native grasses and wildflowers.

The blackened area was burned by land managers to protect native grasses and wildflowers from invading shrubs and trees.

Looking closer, patches of prairie grass and dried wildflowers remained:

Some patches of unburned grass remain. The box on a pole is a shelter for bats, recently installed.

The prescribed burn on the "peninsula prairie" left some patches of unburned grass. (The box on a pole is a shelter for bats, recently installed.)

This field, which we call “peninsula prairie,” grows native grasses, sedges, and summer wildflowers. It attracts migrating birds rare elsewhere in our neighborhood, like Lincoln’s and Clay-colored Sparrows. (Obscure sparrows like these both delight and frustrate beginning birders.) Without periodic burning, willows and other woody plants might overwhelm the prairie, and we’d lose the native plants and birds. So far, so good with this round of burning. I heard a male Song Sparrow singing, claiming the blackened ground. An Eastern Phoebe searched for flying insects above the burn, and Dark-eyed Juncos foraged on the edges. We’ll watch the prairie through spring and summer to see how plants and other birds respond.

The second burn was something new. The “lagoon woodland,” as we call it, has lots of oaks and other trees, an understory of shrubs, but few native wildflowers. Without plants covering the ground, fallen leaves blow away, leaving bare soil to erode. The burn seems designed to “open up” the woods, so sun-loving native grass and flowers can flourish:

In the woodland west of the lagoon, the groundcover and shrubs were burned, but the trees were not.

In the woodland west of the lagoon, the ground cover and bases of the shrubs were burned, but the trees were not harmed.

Again, so far so good. Today I saw and heard Cardinals, Juncos, and Phoebes in the woods, and a Swamp Sparrow at the water’s edge. I’m excited to see what happens to the plants — we’ll watch this growing season and next to see how things change. Ethan will record the changing plants, birds, butterflies, and bugs with his new camera.

So, that’s the news from Columbus Park. Tomorrow we’ll update you on spring in south Oak Park.

 

Back in the Neighborhood

Our family spent the weekend at a work bee at Circle Pines Center near Delton, Michigan. I suppose it was an escape to nature, since we made maple sugar, pruned apple trees, raked up last fall’s leaves, and found birds we won’t be seeing soon around here (like Wild Turkey and Ruffed Grouse).

But we also left a lot of nature behind. As we prepared to leave on Friday afternoon, the buds were opening on an American Elm one house north, attracting tiny bugs and four Golden-crowned Kinglets to eat them. Friday also saw the year’s first Song Sparrow and Brown-headed Cowbird in our yard. (The Cowbird was not good news — our closest Cardinal pair were tricked into raising one last summer.) While we were gone, a fellow Oak Park birder saw a Bald Eagle soaring high above our village, as reported on the Illinois birding list.

As sunrise approaches, I hear the songs and calls of Robins, Cardinals, and House Sparrows through our barely open back window. I just heard a Song Sparrow sing from the small Ash tree in our backyard. I also heard a song I don’t recognize — today’s birding challenge. Looking at my laptop screen, I see the echoes of bird migration on the Chicago Tribune weather radar, flocks riding southeast winds between the storms (image below). So, today I’ll keep track of backyard birds for Project FeederWatch and walk the neighborhood during dry spells to see what’s new

I’ll report the neighborhood nature news later today. Later this week I’ll post Ethan’s photos of life at Circle Pines.

The green around Springfield, Illinois, is migrating birds, coming in for a landing as sunrise approaches. The yellower areas are today's storms.

Chicago Tribune's Midwest weather radar from this morning. The green area around Springfield, Illinois, is flocks of migrating birds, coming in for a landing as sunrise approaches. The larger yellow/orange/green areas are today's storms.

Update added same morning at 7:50 a.m.:  A Cooper’s Hawk just landed on our back fence. As I edged closer to the window to see its age and gender, it took off and landed in a front yard tree. I stepped outside to get another look just in time to see a Common Grackle dive at the hawk, then take off before the hawk could retaliate. For a birder, that’s a pretty good start to a rainy day!