Concept/Design Jennifer Hoffman 2017
The Nerd: Back of the Yards. This neighborhood is part of the Stockyards District of Chicago, consisting of McKinley Park, Bridgeport, Back of the Yards, and Canaryville. They’re all close to Illinois Tech, where I work, but prior to The Nerd and the Bird’s Urban Birding Adventures, I hadn’t ever spent time in the area, at least not consciously. Our previous adventures in the McKinley Park and Bridgeport neighborhoods whetted my appetite for further exploration. I had a growing feeling that this area would connect me more strongly to Chicago, would help me feel the history of the city where I live and work, and would demonstrate that yes, birdlife and nature is embedded throughout the city. I was excited for this adventure! Sherman Park and Whiner Brewery were already on our list of places we wanted to visit, and having learned about the artist Roland Kulla living Back of the Yards and cultivating birds and nature in his yard there added to the area’s attraction to us. And with the region being so important to the history of Chicago, the whole picture seemed perfect for an Urban Birding Adventure. What I didn’t expect was that our experiences would be so rich. Looking back on our time there brings back the feeling of well-being that was with me during the whole time exploring this neighborhood.
The Bird: Our Back of the Yards adventures have ended up being my favorite so far on many levels. My only experience with the Stockyards District area before this was very specific to Bridgeport Arts Center, Maria’s Packaged Goods and the original Pleasant House Bakery (I also really wanted to visit Whiner Beer Company as part of an adventure). The Nerd and I experienced the synchronicity and serendipity that happens when you’re on the right path of an adventure, an idea, a project - anything. I was personally made aware of Roland Kulla’s backyard at a lecture the Nerd and I attended ("Bird Sounds Decoded” presented by Nathan Pieplow). Based on what I was told, Roland’s backyard seemed like the perfect adventure for us to try and explore! The Chicago Ornithological Society then kindly forwarded us information and the Nerd contacted Roland Kulla who was amazing to us on every level. In addition to Roland’s incredible backyard (that is right next to Whiner!), our visit to Sherman Park was yet another secret oasis that we both had never been to - thanks to The Nerd for finding this treasure! We both became smitten with The Back of the Yards neighborhood as it kept revealing itself...full of history and surprises. These adventures were truly in the spirit of exploration. All along we could see our old friend, Sears Tower (forever) - in the background - the ongoing symbol of the city and our birding adventures. This project has made me see and love Chicago in a way that I never thought possible, in addition to the birds - and I’m so grateful for all of it. I also love how the birds that breed here, and that I see all the time, became an exploration within themselves with their distinct colors and patterns. A Common Grackle is not just a Common Grackle. The ordinary becomes extraordinary when we take the time to look and connect. This is absolutely the intention behind The Nerd and the Bird Urban Birding Adventures. After meeting with Roland and visiting Sherman Park - it became clear that we needed a post dedicated solely to Back of the Yards. We ❤ Back of the Yards!
Total Species Count: 34
The Center of the City
The Nerd: I knew about the stockyards figuring so centrally in Chicago history and contributing significantly to the city’s rise to world prominence. What I didn’t know was that the geographic center of Chicago (as it was in 1956) is also right there in the McKinley Park neighborhood. By making just the slightest detour en route to Roland Kulla’s place, we could visit the geographic heart of Chicago! This was a must-see destination, which was said to host a commemorative sign. What was funny was that though the GPS unfailingly steered us right to where we wanted to go, it couldn’t help us see it when we got there. It took a thorough exploration of everything at the intersection of 37th and Honore, coupled with questions for several passers-by, for us finally to see the obvious: an enormous sign proclaiming the site as Chicago’s center.
It seems fitting that the geographic center is quite close to the site of The Union Stock Yards. Constructed in 1865, the stockyards combined with Chicago’s position at the time as THE major hub in the new and growing rail transportation network to provide the city with a huge economic engine with a far and powerful reach. Engineering innovation in the stock yard infrastructure, its mechanization, and the development of the refrigerated rail car created efficiencies on a scale that positioned Chicago as home to industry with global impact. Economic innovation via Chicago’s commodity exchanges and futures markets, developed in part in response to the meatpacking industry’s growth, also fueled Chicago’s birth as a global city. There were dark sides to all this, though. For instance, with railroads connecting the short grass prairies of the western United States to the economic machinery of Chicago’s slaughterhouses, the demise of the bison and their replacement with cattle was accelerated, with negative consequences for a broad segment of the continent’s ecosystems. But somehow I had the sense that this area was tangibly evidencing a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
The Bird: Beginning our Back of the Yards adventure, I had absolutely no idea that it was the original geographic center of Chicago, thank you Nerd! Off to W 37th Street and Honore we went! The unofficial soundtrack became Shadowplay by Joy Division! “To the center of the city where all roads meet…” However, it became hilarious once we got there. We both separately started looking for a plaque on a building or on the sidewalk...not a big-ass sign that some locals sitting on their front yard pointed out, when The Nerd asked if there was a sign...yes, a huge, green sign that I was practically standing under. Belly laughs are always a good beginning to any adventure!
Back of the Yards Yard: Roland Kulla
The Nerd: Roland Kulla lives on McDowell Avenue. The street is named after Mary McDowell, known as the “Angel of the Stockyards.” McDowell’s activity as a social reformer had tremendous impact. Among many other accomplishments, she worked tirelessly in the early 20th century to stop the accumulation of garbage dumps and the pollution of nearby Bubbly Creek. (I like also how Roland Kulla’s prior time as a social worker echoes the contributions of the woman whose name his street honors!). I liked that McDowell Avenue was the “diagonal street” of Roland’s neighborhood, the different street that contrasted with the east-west grid.
What really impressed me during the incredibly pleasant couple of hours that The Nerd and The Bird spent as guests of Roland Kulla was the sensation that life was just bursting from Roland, from his yard and environment, and from the neighborhood and its people. Here at the center of what I think of as Chicago’s industrial past we enjoyed good living and great company in a pastoral setting. We were sipping shandies, munching on strawberries plucked just then from bushes in Roland’s yard, and sampling the honey from beehives that were on site. Thank you Roland! The birds were there too. Baby grackles were already off the nest. Catbirds singing from the bushes probably nested in this Back of the Yards yard, too. Roland showed us the selection of plants in the prairie he established and talked about the migrants he has seen there. He is interested to figure out how to attract hummingbirds.
Jen and I have an interest in connecting people to the natural elements in our home city. We have a hope that with such a connection, Chicagoans will care more about the nature that thrives here, either as full-time or seasonal residents, or as migrants merely passing through. Maybe then they’ll help take better care of the nature in the city, which in turn will improve life for themselves. Roland is doing this right now, in the Back of the Yards, helping the land be reborn with nature and human endeavor in concert. I certainly felt myself amazingly connected spending time with him at his home and yard. I kept thinking, “Wow! This is Chicago!” His garden and hives and orchard were providing food, good food, and the environment was peaceful. I was reminded of life on my grandparents’ property in upstate New York (where I saw my first Scarlet Tanager) where we would pluck apples from the trees as snacks. But this was here at the center of Chicago. Amazing!
The Bird: I was excited to meet Roland Kulla, not only because of his wonderful backyard, but because he’s an artist. He’s a painter. We were greeted with a warm hello and smile as we entered his incredible studio space. It’s a dream studio - complete with an always coveted skylight to work by. There were many large scale paintings of his photorealistic bridges and industrial scenes that are the vernacular of Back of the Yards. His work is representative of a fascination with urban landscapes and the human connection to this built environment. I was reminded of my love for modernism and the Precisionist artist Charles Sheeler. Kullas work is technical and beautiful. There is an intimacy to his work that I find intriguing, familiar. It quickly felt like we were visiting a dear friend as Roland’s personal story unfolded. He spent 10 years in the seminary before moving into social work, where he spent 30 years as a caseworker, administrator, researcher, teacher and consultant. Roland began painting in the late 80’s, and began actively pursuing an artistic career in the early 2000’s. He moved to Back of the Yards for the reasons most artists live in a neighborhood: an AFFORDABLE studio space that is ideally a live/work space. He converted a bar into his studio and home, pointing out where the bar used to stand, below his paintings that hung elegantly on the wall above.
I was curious to see if his connection to birds and nature was associated with his creativity. As we sat underneath his charming German crafted gazebo in his peaceful backyard, it became clear how seamless his life was, because he lives what he loves and puts love and mindfulness into all things. Everything is intentional, as is his artwork. His yard was well planned: all of the plants are indigenous (they require far less water, in addition to providing vital habitat for birds and many other species of wildlife). Roland’s created a prairie habitat, along with vines to grow grapes to make wine, an herb and vegetable garden, a solar powered water feature for the birds, orchard trees, beehives tended by Bike a Bee - which features “Roland's Late Summer honey” (available at the farmers market at The Plant, which can be seen from his backyard!). Roland has a deep connection to his surroundings and community, along with a self sufficiency (not unlike a farmer) that you don’t think of having in the city. I asked him if he would allow us to come back during peak fall migration, with the hope of seeing Ruby-throated hummingbirds. I'd like to make him a Bird cocktail inspired by him and his backyard: "The Ruby-throated Hummingbird" using strawberries and his honey (perhaps another way to "attract" them to his yard!) We need a lot more backyards like Roland's because urban habitat is becoming more and more vital to the migration and survival of birds coming through and breeding. Thank you again to Roland for his warmth, kindness and hospitality!
Adventure pairs well with: La Internacional Supermercado! Their steak tacos are consistently ranked as some of the best in the city - and are indeed fantástico! We got some to take to Whiner Beer Company! Whiner is located in The Plant, which is a vertical farm and business incubator. The Plant is home to numerous businesses rooted in sustainable food production. Check out their website and list of awesome tenants! Innovation meets amazing! We could see the tubes of water recycling spent grain from the brewery as a source of fish food for the onsite aquaponics farm! All as we were enjoying our delicious Rubrique-a-brac (The Bird) and Fur Coat (The Nerd)! Cheers to big picture thinking!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37476429
The Nerd: Wow. Though we were feeling so good from Kulla’s and tacos and beers, it was time for the adventure to wind down. But the time was also right to add one more element: we could cruise the neighborhood to find a Common Nighthawk coming out at dusk to lay claim to his territory. It wasn’t too long before we heard one calling. We weren’t able to get over to him fast enough to get a visual, but it was comforting to hear it call. This a species undergoing steady decline. In Chicago, numbers have gone down in part because of changes in roofing technology. Nighthawks like to nest on flat, gravel rooftops. These days, you are more likely to see vulcanized rubber or PVC roofing, which is not good habitat.
The Bird: Of course this was a heart attack moment because it was at night and suddenly we’re circling a city block in the car trying to find the bird...in the dark. Who says birding isn't filled with drama and excitement?! I just had my first Common Nighthawk life bird at Jarvis last month during a “May Madness” adventure. That bird wasn't vocalizing during the day, when we saw it. However, it’s funny to me now to realize how many times I’d heard one over the years and not known that it was a Common Nighthawk...now I know.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37480726
The Nerd: What a gem this park is! The Nerd and The Bird had done a “drive by” on the way to Kulla’s a couple weeks prior, and it gave off such an inviting vibe, with lots of mature trees and with only bits and pieces of the lagoon visible because the ground around the perimeter was raised up, giving the interior some privacy. Getting on the ground inside the park only enhanced the vibe. The sightlines and vistas within the park were incredible. This park is laid out with athletic fields on a big island inside of a tree-lined lagoon. But this description seems hardly to fit the actual feel. While on the athletic fields you feel surrounded by nature, like you’ve found a nice open area in the wilderness where you might stop to play ball. The fieldhouse and neighboring buildings fit seamlessly with their surroundings. Thank you Daniel Burnham and the Olmsted brothers! The birds seemed attracted to the park, too. We found lots of breeding activity, from geese and ducks to gnatcatchers and orioles. Lots of orioles! There was a phoebe in fresh dress, showing off crisp buffy wing bars. At one point we encountered a family troupe of Black-capped Chickadees, with the kids insistently begging from their parents. It was nice too how the park was nestled in the surrounding residential neighborhood. The residential character and the raised ground around the perimeter really made this a quiet haven of nature in the Back of the Yards.
The Bird: When we scoped out the park before visiting with Roland, The Nerd commented on how lush Sherman Park was. We knew we needed to come back. At my request, we planned to see only this park. Which is how I like it, because we got to spend almost 3 ½ hours there. We took our time and truly explored this beautiful park. The whole time I kept saying how different this park felt. That the details of the landscape design and fieldhouse were special. A raised mound around the perimeter of the whole park made it so quiet despite the surrounding houses and streets. Bridges over the large lagoon took us to a magnificent green space that was completely surrounded by water and beautiful trees. It wasn’t until the end of our exploration that I asked a young man that worked in the field-house what year it was constructed. Yes, we have smartphones, but that’s not the best way to find things out on an adventure. We got to meet people this way...but the Nerd Googled away and we were then astonished to learn that nationally renowned landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers and architects Daniel H. Burnham and Co designed Sherman Park!
The best part was how Sherman Park supported the birds - it was a vibrant nursery! I’ve never seen so many babies and nests! Baby Canada Geese, Mallards, Baltimore Orioles, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers and Black-capped Chickadees! Thanks to Geoffrey “Magic Ears” Williamson (seriously, there needs to be a set of bronzed ears and a plaque at Peggy Notebaert honoring those ears and the North Pond Bird Walk)! It was another time when it felt like the birds were trusting us - especially the Canada Geese...until The Nerd started to do acrobatic National Geographic wildlife photography moves. The look-out geese were like "Come along kids, back into the water!" We saw the most Baltimore Oriole nests/sacks I’ve ever seen. The pictures The Nerd captured of the interaction between the parents and young are pretty amazing. Just your average parents raising their kids in the big city! We also saw/heard four crows “cawing” and going bananas in a tree. A fight - no, raiding a nest - no, enjoying a bounty of red berries - yes! All was right in Chicago and Sherman Park - as we were leaving the Nerd pointed out Sears Tower (forever) above the tree line of the lagoon.
Adventure pairs well with: Bridgeport Bakery. Roland Kulla said the chocolate doughnuts from here were the best! They are!
Back of the Yards Coffeehouse. Their mission is to have a direct social and economic impact on the communities of Nueva Independencia, Chiapas and Back of the Yards, Chicago. Their coffee is delicious! The Nerd confirmed that Baltimore Orioles, Gray Catbirds and Blue-Gray Gnatcatchers all winter in Chiapas - yet breed here Chicago. A wonderful example of how we are all connected to each other and these birds. We enjoyed coffee and doughnuts with a large group of Canada Geese tending to their young, as we greeted a new day next to the beautiful lagoon at Sherman Park.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37721795
The Nerd: I don’t remember the last time I pulled into a White Castle parking lot. It was a long, long time ago. But here we were, desperately steering into one. Why? I’d heard a loud “Squawk!” outside the car, instantly recognizable as the call of a Monk Parakeet. There had to be some nearby! Jen convinced me that it was NOT a good idea to be backing the car up in the drive-thru lane of this fast food restaurant. After a some maneuvering around plus going around the block, we settled in the parking lot of a closed down Currency Exchange, and from there we had front and center views of a couple of large stick nests. These parakeets nest colonially in big structures made of sticks. Oftentimes the nests are built in cell phone towers, but these were in a large honey locust tree. Monk Parakeets have a long, storied history in Chicago; they’ve been here since the 1960s.
The Bird: And yet another heart attack moment, because we were all of a sudden in a White Castle/Chateau Blanc parking lot and I quickly found myself being the voice of reason that it wasn't a good idea to go through the drive-thru or in the wrong direction of the arrows. I heard the Monk Parakeets once The Nerd pointed them out (tropical sounds in Chicago!)...then we were in hot pursuit circling the busy daytime traffic of the Boulevards trying to find green birds in green trees...then Geoffrey Williamson located a huge nest in a tree. We had an awesome view from the The Currency Exchange parking lot...with the car thankfully stopped! We watched them fly in and out of their large stick nest-condo and then drove around to get a closer look - only to find a second nest! It was one of the unexpected surprises that we always hope for! High-five!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37722194
The Green Mill: Sam Burckhardt
The Nerd: With Jen being on the Art & Design side of the Krebs Cycle of Creativity, I thought it very appropriate that she should meet Sam Burckhardt. Not only does Sam, as a musician, have a presence like Jen on the Art side of the Cycle, but I felt that the two of them would share common interests and a number of basic sensibilities, including about birding. One day early in our friendship, Sam and I were birding together at Montrose Point, and Sam was talking to me about a young pianist, Dan Nimmer, who was a rising star with whom he’d played. He said how impressed he was that Nimmer was focused more on exploring music rather than indulging in flashy playing merely to showcase his talents. “He plays whole notes!” Sam said to me. Quality, not quantity, just as The Bird always tells me. Sam’s approach to birding (and everything!) also pursues depth, understanding, and appreciation. Sam’s gig at The Green Mill with Oscar Wilson and the Joel Paterson Band seemed a great place to get together.
Well, it was an amazing show at The Green Mill, and I learned all over again how much I really love the blues, but Sam wisely suggested that we also arrange to meet another day for a bite to eat where it would be much easier to talk. Great idea! In the process of arranging to get together both at The Green Mill and later The Smoke Daddy, back and forth messages about the logistics also contained questions and observations about plumage details of sapsuckers and some odd individuals of this type of woodpecker that he’d recently seen. Sam can seamlessly shift between detail and big picture. Maybe too he has a footprint on the Science side of the Krebs wheel!
Big Picture. Sam commented that his father was a complete naturalist, interested in and knowledgeable about all aspects of the natural world. Sam said it was a shame that this holistic approach to connecting with the environment had become so scarce today, and perhaps had disappeared. This reminded me of how The Bird spoke of her grandparents and how they knew the names of the plants and animals in the world around them. How they were connected. Sam too certainly finds connection back to the natural world, and joy in experiencing it, in all aspects and all ways. He expresses appreciation for the different ways that people react to nature, telling us for instance how his musical mother and scientific father process bird song in different ways. To me he seems a complete naturalist just like his father. He is curious, always asking questions, always seeking answers. As we ended our time together at The Smoke Daddy, Sam was off to the Field Museum to examine study skins of sapsuckers to try to understand better the unusual individual he had seen in the field. As Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.”
The Bird: When The Nerd invited me to go to the CD release of Oscar Wilson's new album, One Room Blues at The Green Mill, I said “Yes Please!” His friend and fellow birder, Sam Burckhardt plays saxophone on the album. I went to my first jazz club as a sophomore in high school - the Blue Wisp in Cincinnati when it was still in O'bryonville (RIP Blue Wisp). I’m by no means a jazz expert, but I love it (I just love music)! Big Band Night at The Blue Wisp and then eventually The Green Mill (in addition to Fat Babies and The Uptown Poetry Slam!) are some of my favorite things. I was excited to meet Sam because he’s a musician and a birder. I was wondering if he also connected his creativity with birding, like I do. I was also happy to have a discussion with him that included Mies van der Rohe and Philip Johnson (I grew up across the street from Johnson’s “underground” Geier House)! The night was fantastic, but not conducive to a Nerd and Bird interrogation, and rightly so (also, perhaps too many tiny bottles of La Marca!). What a fantastic show! Instead, Sam suggested we all meet for lunch - “Yes Please!!!”.
Smoke Daddy’s BBQ was the perfect place for our lunch. It was wonderful to get to know Sam: the man, musician and birder. I noticed a beautiful green stone in a statement ring Sam was wearing. He said it was a gift to him from his music mentor, Sunnyland Slim, that was given to him shortly before he passed away. He said that hand represented his love of music and his other ring hand represented the love of his partner of 35 years, Richard. Beautiful. Sam is originally from Switzerland, and had been birding with his father since he was young. I could relate with the fact that his dad did not drive and went birding via public transportation or when the birds came to him. Sam also told us a story about the pioneering ornithologist Margaret Morse Nice who documented vocalizations in female Song Sparrows. I said that I had heard on an organized bird walk, that ONLY male birds vocalized - which totally broke my heart at the time! I also learned recently at "Bird Sounds Decoded” presented by Nathan Pieplow that male blackbirds will start a song and then the female will start singing midway through and then he’ll trail off...she finishes their duet. Sam further discussed his primary residence in Northern Michigan where he and his partner have 170 acres - which includes jack pines - breeding habitat for Kirtland's Warblers! I’ve never seen a Kirtland's Warbler and missed the most recent sighting at Montrose, but I learned about them. They winter in the Bahamas and only breed in the jack pines of Northern Michigan! This is why they’re so rare! He told us about a male Kirtland's Warbler that has an extra note in his song, and seems to be quite the ladies’ man! How cool is it that Sam to be able to get to know individual birds at this point! I absolutely loved all of our discussion - Thank you!!! I think most things exist on a spectrum, and are connected - not unlike the Krebs Cycle of Creativity; openness and curiosity is the only way to hear the music in everything and everyone.
The Bird Cocktail: The Redstart
Joel Oppenheimer Gallery Opening
Joel Oppenheimer Gallery Opening:
The Nerd: Thinking back on this evening brings so many pleasant memories it is difficult to focus on just a few. I had not previously spent much time in the Oppenheimer Gallery, so that when Jen invited me to go to the opening in its new location, I of course said Yes Yes Yes and was very excited about the opportunity. I am so grateful to The Bird for this experience! Shortly after entering the gallery, I caught sight of Audubon’s depiction of the extinct Carolina Parakeet, which brought a mixture of pleasure and sadness when viewing the work. Armed with glasses of prosecco, we made our way through the cozy, art-filled rooms. We made several circuits of the gallery; I felt increasingly familiar with Audubon’s American Crow each time we passed the watercolor print in one stairway (which stairway by the way also provided a good view of the bar, reminding us to refresh the prosecco). One thing I learned this evening was that the soles of Whooping Crane feet are yellow! The same is true of Blackpoll Warblers, a bird on the other end of the size scale, and knowing this made me fonder of Whooping Cranes and added to the pleasure of the evening. Jen suggested champagne to cap off the gallery opening plus too the public launch of The Nerd and the Bird. Yes to that!
The Bird: I had asked The Nerd if he would like go to the opening of Joel Oppenheimers' new gallery space, and then promptly RSVP'd. I'd bought an original Audubon Black-and-white Creeping Warbler print I fell in love with there and had met Joel at that time. He does amazing restorations. I thought that this event would would be the perfect way to celebrate our introduction of The Nerd and The Bird to "the world". This was definitely a magical night that included unexpected procecco wishes and hors d'oeuvre dreams as we celebrated the launch of our birding adventures. So far, the image below is the only way I've ever seen a Whooping Crane. It was heartbreaking to realize how many birds had already gone extinct or were heading there. All of that life and beauty never to be seen or experienced again except as we were. As with most art openings, most people had their backs to all of the beautiful artwork. However, we were going from image to image, room to room, and then back again discussing basically everything we saw...because The Nerd and the Bird.
The Nerd: The month of May is busier than any other month by far, whether in either the spring or the fall migration. Birds are eager to get onto their breeding grounds and will head there even if weather conditions are not favorable. But when a southerly wind blows behind them, they move en masse. Still, during the whole first half of this year’s May, the weather seemed to impede rather than to aid the migration. Regardless, as the month progressed we did see more and more and more. In May I feel compelled to get out birding as much as possible, and when out looking I want to keep going and look some more. So many places to check for birds! So many to see! I would get into what Jen refers to as a “bird fog.” Slowly, though, The Bird was able to rein in The Nerd. Quality, not quantity, she’d say. I slowed down. (Or did I only imagine this?) Learned to savor the experience. To enjoy the neighborhood, and our celebrations. And to find anew why I love Chicago so much. Thank you, Bird!
The Bird: “May Madness”: peak spring migration - it’s deep and it’s real. The idea of this project was to explore and celebrate the birds and neighborhoods of Chicago in a way that could expand the idea of birding…to someone WAY on the other end of the elite birding spectrum (but still a Bird Who Loves Birds). Along our explorations, we’ve seen many amazing birds - which included 18 birds I’d never seen before in my life! Thank you Geoffrey Williamson!!! I look at birding as a platform for inspiring creativity. It opens up space for curiosity, awareness, connection and joy. I love how much more colorful May’s bird images were compared to April's (…because warblers!). Capturing these beautiful, living patterns as the birds made their way through Chicago was very meaningful to me. Celebrating them and the experience further with The Nerd while exploring new neighborhoods – are memories I’ll always hold dear. Yes please, thank you and cheers!
Total Species Count: 103
Adventure Log: 1 May 2017
The Nerd: Intermittent showers made planning a May Day outing problematic. We snuck out to Wicker Park during what we thought was a break in the precipitation, but we still got sprinkled on. The migration was in slow motion, with only a couple of actual migrants present: a kinglet and a White-crowned Sparrow. Still, it felt good to be in the greenery of the park, hunting (with binoculars!), with the energy of the neighborhood surrounding us. I’m hoping to be back here again sometime; the park is small, but it would be fun to find birds here (and to visit some of the neighborhood establishments that the Bird pointed out to me!).
The Bird: The weather was cold and wet – it reminded me of spitty English rain, so we were still able to bird (fueled by happy and warm taco bellies). A Ruby-crowned Kinglet was forced to look for bugs on the ground – perhaps the only perk of the colder weather. This park is solidly in the heart of the neighborhood...adjacent to all that is Wicker Park awesome, art/food/drink/music-wise. In the fog and mist, we noticed our old friend, Sears Tower (forever) – a welcome vignette framed by the surrounding tree lined streets.
Adventure pairs well with: Big Star. The Nerd: Taco el Pastor and Taco Alambre de Res. The Bird: Taco de Pescado and Taco Alambre de Res. Delicioso!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36460638
The Nerd: Being one quarter Polish, I was pleased that we were going to this park named after the Revolutionary War hero from Poland that Chicago loves to honor. The beautiful and grand fieldhouse captured most of our attention, since the day’s weather and the park’s sparse vegetation limited the number of birds. This changed when suddenly we saw in flight a medium sized bird with big white patches on the wings and lower back. Red-headed Woodpecker! It landed in a tree, and we watched it there and also as it flew to a utility pole just outside the park. This woodpecker species is a short distance migrant that clears out of the Chicago area during hard winters. Recently, winters have been more mild, and perhaps as a consequence of this, we are seeing more individuals in Chicago during the migratory periods.
The Bird: The renowned landscape designer, Jens Jensen, finished construction of this field house in 1914. Inspired by the polish neighborhood, he initiated a competition for art students at The Art Institute of Chicago to paint a mural on the semicircular facade above the stage in the field house. It was beautiful! Besides that, we weren’t sure that there was going to be much to talk about bird-wise…until I heard The Nerd exclaim Red-headed Woodpecker!!! Dear god I almost had a heart attack (which becomes an ongoing theme for May). So we were off to the “chases”. At one point I found myself jumping and squealing with delight because we were finally able to find it! The Nerd had also captured this striking bird with fantastic pictures! It was high-five-o-rama and an excellent start to our May adventures!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36461744
Adventure Log - Birding Patch: 3, 8, 11, 22 & 23 May 2017
The Nerd: Jen lives right next to Lincoln Park. Just a very short walk from her door and you are into the Margate Park section, Jen’s home birding patch. How lucky is she! “Steps from the park” in realtor parlance, and what an incredible urban park it is. Frequent visits to the same area reward you with a growing, cumulative list of birds. Overall during May we tallied a total of 40 species! The visit on the 8th netted an Orange-crowned Warbler. The orange crown on this species is seen only rarely; in fact, sometimes it is referred to as “the warbler with no field marks.” Warbler numbers were into double digits on the 11th, and we saw four Rose-breasted Grosbeaks - males and females - all in the same tree. The surprise of the month came on the 22nd when we spotted a Eurasian Tree Sparrow on the lawn. This Old World species is established in areas near St. Louis and north from there along the Illinois and Mississippi River valleys, but finding one in Chicago is an exceedingly rare event! This was The Nerd’s 299th species observed in Lincoln Park, and it would have been missed without regular visits to The Bird’s patch!
The Bird: I had no idea that there was such a thing as a “patch” of one's own (initially it made me giggle). It was awesome to bird “my room/park of one's own” with The Nerd on multiple occasions. My usual birding companion is our 70 pound pit bull, Scout…and why I joke that I’m “The Incidental” eBirder for my “patch”. Birding is not my primary activity because I’m walking Scout, but I still take “note”. Scout is like taking a mini Clydesdale for a walk, or being walked by one – so binoculars do not happen…I tried once. He knows birds, squirrels (we’re still working on "night" rabbits) are “LEAVE ITS!” to the point where we can get really close to them because he’s so calm and gentle. Scout always joined The Nerd and The Bird in Margate Park. It was so wonderful each time we were able to add a new species. I also love the fact that we’ve gone all over the city hoping to find something really special and rare…and it ended up being in MY “patch”, across from my building!!! It was probably the MOST heart attack moment of May. Scout was definitely puzzled and concerned by the “frenzy” of Geoffrey Williamson. The Nerd made The Bird very happy to get to add Eurasian Tree Sparrow to Margate's’ species list…and my life list! Thank you and high-five!!!
eBird list of birds we saw:
3 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36516449
8 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36661898
11 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36741314
22 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37072122
23 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37094381
Adventure Log: 8 May 2017
The Nerd: Winds from the north once again! As a consequence I was expecting a limited volume of migrants, but still a quick tour around this westside park netted 31 species without much effort. Had we put in a more thorough canvassing of all the trees and vegetation that the park supports, I bet we’d have found a few more. Garfield, like all the large Chicago parks, is a beckoning beacon of green space to birds migrating over the city. We did work the shrubs near the field house pretty well, turning up an Orange-crowned Warbler and Hermit Thrush and also some sparrows. Canada Geese and Mallards were already nesting around the lagoons, and a pair of Caspian Terns were displaying and squawking amorously to each other as they flew over the park. Favorite sighting: a big four foot tall Great Blue Heron standing inconspicuously at the edge of the lagoon, blending into near invisibility despite her size.
The Bird: Our first stop was the grand bandstand where The Nerd had been lured by the calls of warblers. It was absolutely stunning despite obvious neglect. The gilded field house is also magnificent. The park was wilder than some of the others we’ve visited so far, which is unfortunate for the neighborhood because it should be maintained to the standards of other city parks. However, this less manicured landscape seemed better for the birds. The Great Blue Heron we saw was so close…in her motionless “nothing to see here” heron way. It was another one of those precious “Please stay. Please don’t go away moments”…that seemingly last forever…because they do stay. We also saw a feisty Red-winged Blackbird chase a Belted Kingfisher.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36654236
Garfield Park Conservatory:
The Nerd: After our visit to Garfield Park, the Garfield Park Conservatory beckoned seductively. Inside the main greenhouse we found a male Northern Cardinal singing loudly away! We were worried about him being trapped inside, but we did conclude that he - and his female partner whom we also eventually found - could move from inside to outside and back again. Outside on the conservatory grounds, we totaled 27 species, nearly as many as we’d seen in the park as a whole. The plantings provided plenty of food and cover for the birds. Best sighting? A Dickcissel, whose fart-like call note alerted us to its presence. A close second was a Clay-colored Sparrow that we watched forage near some sidewalks next to a cluster of shrubs. It took a little while to get good looks at it because people walking by would flush the birds (without really noticing that they were there!). We also found an active Common Grackle nest, already with young, in some arborvitae. We’ve noticed that this species seems drawn to arborvitae for nest sites.
The Bird: The Nerd had never been here before and I was excited to explore the outside with him. It was full of surprises…and the source of another heart attack when Geoffrey Williamson heard a “fart” call…then went bird-shit crazy! I never knew Dickcissels made a “fart” sound. Which of course made me laugh. Now they’re “Fart-cissels”. It was also so cool to experience a Common Grackle “nursery” in a row of tall tree shrubs. There were many screaming “kids” as the parents flew back and forth to feed them. I’m also so glad that ultimately there was both a male and female Northern Cardinal seemingly “trapped” inside the greenhouse. We only saw the male when we first arrived and I said it was awful that his bright red breeding plumage was in a glass cage with his song going silent...like some tragic bird version of a Jane Austen novel! Thankfully though, on the way back in we saw the pair…that hopefully...can escape.
Adventure pairs well with: Little Goat Diner. We split my favorite Kimchi Reuben and The Nerds choice of the Blue Plate Special: The Cuban. Those pickles: The Nerd's sandwich won. Mic drop. We both had the house brew: 18th Street The Fox and the Goat!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36657185
Adventure Log: 18 May 2017
Jarvis Bird Sanctuary:
The Nerd: A visit to Jarvis is not complete without spending some quality time on the observation deck on the sanctuary’s east side, where you stand and wait for the birds to come to you. The Nerd and The Bird were joined on the platform during this visit by Lincoln Park birder Luis Muñoz. Lou told us he’d seen a Yellow-billed Cuckoo earlier that morning, a target species for us. Then presto, the bird appeared, showing well. From the platform we also had nice views of many flycatchers - six species of them! The winds were blowing hard from the west southwest, which made the northeast corner the most sheltered spot. Consequently, that’s where we found the most warblers. Most of the sanctuary lies inside of a chain link fence without any human access possible. I think it’s nice that there is a patch of park land just for plants and animals: their refuge. In recent years, a community group has put a lot of energy into caring for the sanctuary, and the quality of the habitat both within and outside the fence has improved as a consequence. Several years ago, Mayor Richard M. Daley led the dedication ceremony for the observation deck after it was constructed. The birds put on a little bit of a show for him and the others, with a Great Horned Owl roosting in view and a Cooper’s Hawk sitting on a log just inside the fence, devouring a European Starling it had caught. I set up a spotting scope for Mayor Daley to get close-up views of the hawk. He looked through the scope and said, “Oh! I like hawks!”
The Bird: This was one of the best birding moments EVER! Probably the two biggest lifers to elude me (almost ridiculously so) were seen within minutes of each other!!! Super High-five!!! I had NEVER seen a Common Nighthawk before (which was probably considered pretty lame in the “bird world”). The bonus is that I got to see the Common Nighthawk in flight! Seeing those magnificent white wing patches was awesome!!! Also, I had only ever seen a dead Yellow-billed Cuckoo when I was doing migratory bird rescue and salvage – which doesn’t “count”. It was my first day doing rescue and salvage out on my own: 5 June 2013. A doorman pointed out a lifeless bird on the sidewalk from a building strike. I marveled at this beautiful slender, long-tailed bird with a yellow bill. Holding the bird in my hands I noticed bold white spots on the tail’s underside. I was watching life leave his eyes and it broke my heart. I asked a volunteer during drop off if she could text me what species the bird was. I will never forget that day or that beautifully patterned tail. Two other lifers included an Alder Flycatcher and a Connecticut Warbler!!! High-five!!!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36958023
The Nerd: Clear skies and a bright sun made the colors vivid on the Baltimore Orioles we saw. Near the bridge over the lagoon we watched one female oriole working to build a nest. Repeatedly she would bring a thin stick to a low hanging branch and carefully weave it amongst the small twigs there. I find it incredible that somehow these birds are able to weave their nests using just their mouth. (No hands!) Watching this bird maneuvering what seemed like almost the first twig for the nest, it was difficult to imagine how she was going to get the construction started. Nearby to where she was working were two oriole nests from the year before. As we were leaving the park I heard a familiar sound: the begging call of a juvenile European Starling. We found the youngster sitting midway up a tree, loudly proclaiming its hunger. For me, the first begging starling I hear marks the official start of the summer season. Summer seems to have come early this year.
The Bird: This was my first time seeing a Baltimore Oriole actually building its nest. The Nerd laughed at my description of what the “sack” is reminiscent of…but hey, that kind of humor/thinking helps to remember what things are. Humor is a very important component to birding and our adventures! We’ve had a lot of fun! Also, I love it when we get to meet people on our adventures. A man came up to us and said that there was a Bald Eagle that caught a duck in the lagoon a week before and we were happy to listen to his story. (Privately, the Nerd was a bit skeptical, thought perhaps it might’ve been a Red-tailed Hawk). Either way – that man was watching birds (knew he saw a raptor), he was noticing, and sharing it with us (how is not something?). Love that! There was an excellent view of Sears Tower (forever) along with a beautiful field house and lagoons...a new golf course was in construction too...but do they know that birding is the new golf???
Adventure pairs well with: Bridgeport Coffee. AM: Two large coffees to go, no room for cream please! PM: Lagunitas. Too close to Douglas Park not to go! The Nerd: ? The Bird: Dogtown Pale. Cheers to a better memory!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36961718
The Nerd House:
The Nerd: Many birders keep a “yard list” of all the birds they’ve seen from their house. Though the townhouse where I live doesn’t have much of a yard, it is across the street from a sizable cemetery, and in part because of that I’ve seen more than 50 different kinds of birds there. Many of these were seen from the roof deck, which is also a nice spot to enjoy a margarita with The Bird on a sunny day. Most common among the birds we saw this day were Chimney Swifts. During the warm months they are omnipresent at The Nerd House; they live in chimneys in the neighborhood (and during fall they gather in large groups to funnel into a roost chimney at dusk!) and are constantly feeding and chittering as long as it is light out. Not as expected were two American Kestrels that flew by. Their territories are larger and so they aren’t seen as often around the house.
The Bird: I hope to someday see a flock of swifts circle and swirl into a roost at sunset! I’d especially love to see the Vaux's Swifts entering the Chapman chimney in Portland, Oregon! The possibility of seeing 15,000 swifts funnel into their roost is definitely on my birding bucket list. There is also nothing better than the chatter of swifts (or Purple Martins). The Nerd’s rooftop is pretty fantastic. His five-storied “tree house” has mostly unobstructed views – including a nice view of Graceland Cemetery across the street (where my favorite architect, Mies van der Rohe is buried). I love that Graceland has coyotes too, which I used to see in the evening coming home on the Redline. We also saw a pair kestrels, that weren’t copulating, unlike in April! Also, Geoffrey Williamson knows how to sling a cocktail...he makes a fabulous Nerd-garita! Cheers to cocktails and birding!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36970090
Adventure Log: 19 May 2017
The Nerd: Why on earth would you want to stand with 25+ mph winds blowing hard in your face? Shorebirds on the beach is why, and not just any shorebirds, but two species that would be new to Jennifer’s life list. The Dunlin were pretty cooperative, and we found them first among a large group of sandpipers (mostly Sanderlings), their black bellies distinctive among the several species in the flock. Dunlin were once called “Red-backed Sandpipers,” an appropriate name for them. The Black-bellied Plover on the other hand had moved all the way over to the west end of the beach. We walked down there to get closer and found a large cottonwood tree behind whose trunk we could take shelter from the wind as we looked at the bird.
The Bird: This was an unexpected surprise…that was also one of my favorite birding moments EVER! The weather was crap: cold, wet, complete with gale force winds, but we had scheduled an adventure day. Geoffrey Williamson said that two of my life birds were at Montrose Beach. Ground zero for being in said crap weather. Sand, hills, steps and sitting are my nemeses due to ongoing spinal/pelvis issues. It was a nightmare to navigate the sand compounded with the wind, and trying to stay upright…but it was totally worth it! Very accommodating Dunlins in fresh breeding plumage were our first sighting and lifer #1! Awesome! Then The Nerd scoped out the location of the Black-bellied Plover!!! We made our way to the perimeter wall to get away from the sand. Then Geoffrey Williamson said to stand behind a huge cottonwood. He made the gale winds go away in his birding-magic-juju way! Then he told me where to look…”by the red and green trash bins”. Check. Then I focused on a motionless shorebird shaped thing…for a while. Geoffrey Williamson: “Oh, it’s moving closer to us”. Me: Thinking…hmm…this motionless shorebird shaped thing is not the bird. Then I found it! So close!!! We were in this magnificent bubble where there was no wind and time lasted forever because the bird stayed put for really good looks of its striking plumage! Amazing! High-five and thank you!!!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36979791
Adventure Log - Birding Patch: 22 & 30 May 2017
Foster Avenue Beach:
The Nerd: Foster Beach represents the close-to-the-lake birding patch in the vicinity of The Bird’s house, where the habitats of the big lake, beach, low plantings around the beach house, and scattered trees on the park lawns all come together. I gravitate to lakefront spots because there is always potential for something interesting bird-wise to be happening over or just off the lake, and because Lake Michigan is beautiful. (After all, it IS a Great Lake!) On arrival for the first of these two visits, Jennifer pointed out the sycamore trees where we had seen nesting Eastern Kingbirds the year before. Sure enough there was a pair of kingbirds flying about together in the general vicinity. These birds were still there on the second visit, and they seemed to be in very close association. We didn’t detect any actual breeding activity, but I am quite sure that it will happen and that we’ll be seeing a lot of this pair. The Bird dubbed them George and Gracie. Both George and Gracie will be involved in building the nest, but only Gracie will incubate the eggs. George is expected to stick around, though, to help feed the young after they hatch.
The Bird: I love that Foster Beach is just on the other side of my “patch”, Margate Park, on the other side of Lake Shore Drive. It’s a whole other distinct habitat next to the lake. I never knew what sycamore trees were until The Nerd had pointed them out last July. They’re probably my favorite tree…in addition to cottonwoods and honey locusts. Last year we saw (we think) the same pair of Eastern Kingbirds, George and Gracie, feeding their young in a sycamore tree. Seeing them again this year made my heart swell with joy. It was like visiting old friends. I couldn’t believe how close they would let us get…especially The Nerd, with his giant camera lens! On some level it felt like they trusted us. I hope so. I look forward to visiting them throughout the summer as they hopefully raise a successful brood and come back again next year. Much love to George and Gracie!
eBird list of birds we saw:
22 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37060204
30 May 2017 - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37260681
The Nerd: This park borders the section of the North Branch of the Chicago River where the North Shore Channel flows in. Having water nearby enhances the bird diversity of any site. As it was mid-May, warblers were a focus of our attention. Honey Locust trees attract warblers, and in one particular such tree we had killer looks at a Chestnut-sided Warbler, a Blackpoll Warbler, and a Blackburnian Warbler feeding in the low branches. Blackburnians are one of my all-time favorite warbler species. The flaming orange throat set off against the black and white remainder of its plumage is incredibly beautiful. This bird was methodically picking through the bundles of little flowers on the tree, singing occasionally. We were entranced.
The Bird: I never knew that cottonwood trees made a sound in the wind until The Nerd pointed it out. There were cottonwoods all along the Chicago River and they make the most wonderful sound. As we explored, I noticed similar tree shrubs to the ones we saw at Garfield Conservatory and wondered if there’d be Common Grackles. It was indeed another Grackle nursery! The Blackburnian Warbler sighting was an event. The Nerd must’ve taken 300 pictures. I’d never had a look at a Blackburnian like that before – set off by contrasting black and white feathers, the morning light lit up his orange and yellow plumage like he was his own source of the sun. He stayed on the edge of a honey locust limb for what seemed like an eternity. Stunning!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37063293
The Nerd: Right alongside the river in this park is a chipped path through the strip of woods bordering the water. What's cool about this path is that it's lower than street level, so you're immersed in the river habitat. What a pleasant walk along this path on a particularly pleasant day! (This thought was echoed at lunch when The Bird pointed out Lou Reed serenading us through the sound system: “Just a perfect day.”) We were able to spend some quality time with a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher that was working the understory of the riverside trees. These are strictly passage migrants that will summer no further south than northern Wisconsin. They're one of five different types within the genus Empidonax that can be seen in Chicago. These “empies” are notoriously difficult to tell apart. One clue to help us determine that this one was a Yellow-bellied was that it liked to feed just under the low canopy of the trees, which is typical of the species. In this zone of the foliage, the sunlight filtering down through the leaves reflects in greenish hues on the bird, giving it a warm look.
The Bird: Ronan (wonder if there's any relation to one of my favorite Chicago architects?) started across from Argyle Street along the river, just south of River Park. The pathway along the river brought us down to the river's edge where we were just below the cottonwoods. The leaves rustling in the wind sound like flowing water, so being next to the river made them even more wonderful to experience because there was a constant and lovely breeze. This was also where The Nerd helped me see another life bird! Yellow-bellied Flycatcher! It stayed with us for wonderful looks as The Nerd explained the nuances of flycatcher identification. Flycatchers are complicated…just like shorebirds…but The Nerd has a way of simplifying these things (in terms of birds). High-five!!!
Adventure pairs well with: Tre Kronor. It was a “Perfect Day”. We shared the salmon and dill quiche and a spinach salad…in “Sweden”! Skål!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37067009
*This song is technically about heroin...Birding is clearly the wiser choice!
Adventure Log: 29 May 2017
The Nerd: Today was another gorgeous spring day on the Chicago lakefront. Sometimes in Chicago it seems that temperatures change from bone-chilling cold to sweaty-hot over a “spring” that lasts just four or five days, but this year most of May was filled with glorious springtime weather. The sun was shining, there was a cool breeze, and I was doing some solo birding at Montrose Point. Lo and behold there was a Ruddy Turnstone hanging out at the east end of Montrose Beach! This was a new one for The Bird, so after a couple of texts we were walking together out on the fish hook pier to have a look at it. What a crazy looking bird! This species nests way up north, mostly above the Arctic Circle, but all across North America, Europe, and Asia at those latitudes. Its wintering range is also quite global, spanning coastal areas, both tropical and temperate, on all continents except Antarctica. For the moment, this one had chosen Chicago as a waystation on its northward travels, and as is typical of the species, it exhibited Midwestern friendliness and wasn’t at all shy about meeting with The Nerd and The Bird.
The Bird: I usually wouldn’t be up at 6:30 in the morning, on a Sunday – unless I was going birding. I wasn’t, but by chance I was just up early writing. Then Geoffrey Williamson sent me a Birdsignal/Nerdsignal/text saying there was a Ruddy Turnstone at Montrose…and would I like to see it? YES PLEASE!!! I missed the last one that came through. The Nerdmobile arrived and we were off. It had moved from where Geoffrey Williamson had seen it earlier…it was closer! And just kept moving closer!!! Around us, and then back! It was one of the most accommodating lifer birds ever! Seeing those white wingbar patterns in flight was maybe one of the best things ever! Thank you Ruddy Turnstone!!! High-five Geoffrey Williamson!!! Thank you for my 18th lifer of May!!!
Adventure pairs well with: Dollop Coffee (Uptown). Two coffees to go - no room for cream please!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S37230568
The Nerd: Chicago is a fantastic place to experience birds. But it is not the only place: near to the city are a variety of destinations that make for good birding day trips. When The Nerd and The Bird had several opportunities to get out of town, I was happy that we could together visit a few of my favorite spots for birding within a couple hours’ drive from Chicago. No matter where we ventured, Jen always steered us to great spots along the way for a bite or a brew.
The Bird: I’m always so excited when given the opportunity to leave Cook County! If the CTA doesn’t go there, then basically neither do I – so these trips made me very happy! Yes, these “Other Birding Adventures” are ultimately out-of-step with our Urban Birding Adventures concept of birding Chicago neighborhoods. BUT we decided to share them as their own unique adventures! May is peak spring migration and was A-MAY-zing everywhere we explored birds. All of the colors, patterns and landscapes of our adventures were beautiful in their own unique way. Enjoy!
Total Species Count: 122
Adventure Log: 5 May 2017
The Nerd: A workshop on shorebird identification that I was to present at the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival was a good excuse to have a birding adventure away from Chicago. I’d borrowed study skins -- what’s left of a (dead) bird once everything inside the skin is removed -- from the Field Museum for the gig, so there was a mothball odor in the car on the drive down. But this soon gave way to the scent of industrial northwest Indiana. Humans beings have used the wetlands of the area for industrial purposes because you can’t farm them and living there is not attractive because of the mosquitos. However, mixed in with all the industry are remnants of high quality, very productive ecosystems.
Since my presentation didn’t start till mid-morning, Jen and I had time to explore a couple of birding sites. We first visited the Grant Street Marsh in Gary, Indiana. The vegetation in this expansive cattail marsh was just starting to grow in for the season. The strong north wind also reminded us that spring wasn’t quite in full swing; we couldn’t stay long on the exposed dike around the marsh because both of us were rather underdressed for the morning’s cold temperatures. But before we froze we managed to spot a Bald Eagle perched in a dead tree and a half dozen Sandhill Cranes flying over the marsh. Great Blue Herons and a lot of American Coots made up the majority of the other visible birds, but also there was a Trumpeter Swan that eBird flagged as a rarity. Trumpeter Swans were nearly extinct in the early part of the 1900s. Since then, conservation and introduction efforts have brought populations back to sustainable levels, and just in the last couple of decades they’ve gone from non-existent in the Midwest to being a regular part of the region’s bird life.
A second stop at the woods along a branch of the Little Calumet River in the Heron Rookery unit of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore let us sample a prime example of the area’s quality habitat. The Heron Rookery is spectacular for wildflowers, and it supports a nice assortment of nesting warblers. Here we watched a Louisiana Waterthrush sing his heart out to establish a breeding territory by the river. Among the wildflowers we saw were Mayapples and both Red and White Trillium. The Red Trillium is a favorite of mine, and I’m always excited to see it in bloom.
The Bird: Going to Indiana ended up being an unexpected surprise and opportunity. Geoffrey Williamson was telling me about how he was giving the shorebird presentation at the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival and I said it sounded cool. Then he invited me and I said, “Yes, please!” I was so happy that we were able to go birding before the presentation…despite the super cold weather and crazy gale winds! I saw my first ADULT Bald Eagle at Grant Street Marsh (high-five)! I’d seen plenty of juveniles (it was becoming a joke), but never the majestic “My country ‘tis of thee” adult. Stunning!
The Heron Rookery was like visiting an enchanted forest from a fairytale (completely free of the impending insect form of hypodermic needles). “Magic Ears” was deciphering and naming the calls of birds in the canopies high above as I was trying to navigate the swampy terrain below. As we made our way to the East Arm Little Calumet River, we heard a loud birdsong. Louisiana Waterthrush! Lifer #1 of a total of 18 for the month of May! In The Nerds masterful Jedi-bird-whisperer-juju way, he got the bird to come to us - where on a tree very close to us, it began to belt its tiny little heart out! It was just the three of us next to a ledge overlooking a sleepy Little Calumet while he sang us his song! How can something so tiny, become THE song of the forest?!
I ended up helping out with the presentation, so that was good…gotta earn that lifer! The lecture was 3 hours long…because The Nerd. As I was helping him set up I had no bloody clue what a “peep” was, other than a friend or a disgusting marshmallow candy to avoid during Easter. I sure knew what a “peep” was after this lecture…and yes there was a quiz! My favorite part was learning about long fliers like the Bairds’ and White-rumped Sandpipers – how long wings are essential for such long-distance fliers. Wow.
Adventure Pairs Well With: The Nerd had never been to this 18th Street Brewery location before. We had been to the newer and WAY larger 18th Street Brewery location in Hammond to celebrate seeing thousands Sandhill Cranes at Jasper-Pulaski back in November. Both locations are a perfect way to celebrate an awesome birding day!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Grant Street Marsh - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36558384
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Heron Rookery - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36560838
Adventure Log: 7 May 2017
Pembroke Township, Momence, and nearby areas:
The Nerd: One of my favorite places to bird near Chicago is the area south and east of Momence in Kankakee County. The roads are little traveled, so that you can readily pull your car to the roadside and hop out without worrying about getting hit or being in anyone’s way. And the ambient noise is minimal making listening to the bird songs and calls easier and more pleasurable.
The majority of our day was spent in two very different but both very picturesque habitats: the black oak sandy-soiled savannas of Pembroke Township and the riparian forest of the Momence Wetlands. The savannas are a habitat formed by the melt water of retreating glaciers at the end of the last ice age. There hasn’t been much human development in the area since, so that it has high environmental quality. And the birding is fantastic, with lots of Red-headed Woodpeckers, calling Northern Bobwhites (which sometimes you do see, though we didn’t this day), gaudily dressed Lark Sparrows, orioles and many other species. Less showy than the Lark Sparrow but not less beautiful was an accommodating Grasshopper Sparrow that sang his heart out only 10 feet from us.
Entering the riparian forest is like going into a completely different universe. Here we walked along a road that traversed backwaters and old oxbows of the Kankakee River, with tall trees sprouting out of the water and birds singing all around. Among the warblers that live here are American Redstart, Yellow Warbler, Northern Parula, and the golden sun drop otherwise known as the Prothonotary Warbler. The mix of birds in the river bottomlands is so different from that of the oak savannas.
Along the way we visited some other “habitats”: grain elevators along the railroad tracks in town where you find Eurasian Collared-Doves, and sod fields that attract their own mix of species. The non-native Eurasian Collared-Dove got a foothold in Florida in the early 1980s and since expanded its range across the continent, with much of that happening quite rapidly during the 21st century’s first decade. The sod fields provided the day’s biggest avian surprise: a pair of Brewer’s Blackbirds! Brewer’s are arguably the hardest to find of the blackbird species that occur regularly in northeast Illinois.
The Bird: Most people don’t want to get up at 3:30 in the morning to look for things that don’t particularly want to be seen…except for “birders”. With a 4:30 a.m. pick-up time to get to Pembroke Township by 5:30 a.m. – we were about to embark on a hardcore (for me) birding adventure. This is where you have to have the bladder of a camel and the stamina of marathon runner (I aspire to).
The landscape of this area has a simple, honest beauty. I had only "seen" it once before, back in February, in the pitch black of night, when we went owling…which was also a COMPLETELY different and AMAZING experience. Pembroke Township is decidedly rural. I love its unique character. Geoffrey Williamson’s knowledge of this area is pretty unbelievable. He knew exactly where to go for whatever birds we needed or wanted to see. This goes back to his deep well of kindness as a teacher, mentor and friend. The Kankakee is such a spiritual body of water. I’ve noticed that a feeling always stays with me as we explore the banks of the river. There were so many wonderful moments. I’ll never forget finally seeing the Blue Grosbeak lifer! The Grasshopper Sparrow that kept coming back to greet us, the insane amount of Red-headed Woodpeckers we kept seeing, a very cooperative Prothonotary Warbler and Carolina Wren, and the rare Brewer’s Blackbird pair. I recognize the fragility of it all, which makes me even more grateful for these kinds of experiences…adventures.
Ultimately this trip yielded 7 LIFERS for me! Eurasian Collared-Dove, Brewer’s Blackbird, Blue Grosbeak, Lark Sparrow, Wild Turkey, Carolina Wren and a Forster’s Tern (as well as uncooperative “heard only” Bobwhites and a Pileated Woodpecker that did not reveal themselves. I’ve seen both before, but because of the timing/circumstances they don’t “count” for my “life-list”…bastards!) However, a big thank you and high-five to Geoffrey Williamson!!! Birding 13 places in one day begins to feel like a birdfog/bird-trance/bird-binge due the mass “consumption” of birds…BUT ultimately it was an amazing blur. There was no “afterparty”, but it worked out. My husband, Geoff, and I went and celebrated my lifers along with his “Half Century”/ 50 mile bike ride. Cheers to that!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Momence Grain Elevators - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36613052
Momence sod farms near CR 11270E/1000S - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36613501
Pembroke, CR 11000E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36615274
Pembroke, CR 4000S - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36615539
Pembroke, Manor/Colonial/Hill/Cypress - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36616780
Pembroke, CR 15000E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36617629
Pembroke, CR 13750E/14000E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36618626
H&E Sod Farm, Momence - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36618941
Momence town - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36621042
Momence Wetlands, 13350E - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36624358
Momence Wetlands, Stateline Road - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36625227
LaSalle Fish & Wildlife Area - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36627555
Fluddle along IL-1, Beecher - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36630113
Adventure Log: 14 May 2017
The Nerd: Another of my favorite excursions away from Chicago is a run up the Wisconsin lakefront. Lake Michigan looks so beautiful up there, there are rolling hills, and the air has a freshness to it that makes it feel so good to breathe.
We started our adventure at Wind Point Lighthouse a little bit north of Racine, where flocks and flocks of migrating Blue Jays lumbered northward. The jays repeatedly landed in trees and circled the lighthouse in a lazy way that seemingly made little progress. Split oranges put at a feeding station by the lighthouse keeper attracted orioles sporting a range of plumages. Adult males, younger males, and females were all there, no two of them sharing the same amount of black feathering about the head. A female and young male Orchard Oriole favored flowers in a tree over the oranges.
At Port Washington, we were treated to a spectacle of terns. I love to watch terns. They’re so incredibly graceful and buoyant. Many of them are also a real bitch to identify to species; to do so you have to worry about age and feather wear and molt sequences and how the light and your viewing angle affect what you see. I guess I love terns for those reasons, too, because it makes their identification a challenge (I do like ID challenges!). But this day it was enough just to watch the terns. White and gray and black with sweeping and graceful body contours, so maneuverable in the air as they wheel and twist and hover and dive. The big ones of course were Caspian Terns, the largest terns in the whole world. But the smaller Common Terns were the ones that held my gaze. They pivot in tighter circles and beat their wings faster when hovering.
A walk through the woods at Harrington Beach State Park after lunch was peaceful. Jen had been here before, but I hadn’t. It was nice to be introduced to it by her. Warblers serenaded us here and there, and one of the Black-capped Chickadees took to Jen.
For one last birding stop on the way back, we went to Virmond Park on the southern Ozaukee County lakefront. Here you are up high on a lake side bluff, with expansive views out over big Lake Michigan. In mid-winter, you will find rafts of goldeneye ducks on the lake at this location. On this late spring day, there were still hundreds of Red-breasted Mergansers, and hundreds of Herring Gulls trying to steal fish from them, all in groups stretching nearly as far as you could see.
Favorite moment on this adventure: seeing Jen’s excitement at scoring her targets of proper kringles and Colectivo coffee all in one stop.
The Bird: The Lake Michigan shoreline in Wisconsin is more natural and wild than the Lake Michigan I live across Lake Shore Drive from in Chicago. Wind Point Lighthouse felt like we were in Europe. It was so lovely with its idyllic lighthouse, adjacent caretaker’s home and beautiful land, next to the water's edge. Seeing hundreds of hovering Blue Jays with their bright white bellies twinkling in the early morning sunlight gave me goosebumps. I had to remind myself to breathe because they so were mesmerizing. There were so many birds greeting the day - it was a brilliant start to our adventures.
Next, we went to Port Washington and that was all about terns diving, hunting and fighting. It was so cool to see the physical difference between Caspian Terns and Common Terns, sitting on the break wall side by side, where it’s so much easier to see the size difference compared to when they’re flying. Common Terns almost look like baby Caspian Terns when they’re sitting next to each other. Hundreds were all around us along with gulls and swallows. Also, hello Lesser Black Backed Gull Lifer! How about we celebrate?!?!?!*
Then we went to Harrington Beach where I had a moment with a Black-capped Chickadee. I saw it and thought, I’ll just put my hand out and see if it lands, even though I had no seeds. It did. Twice! Chickadee nibbles are pretty great. There was also a White-breasted Nuthatch that seemed interested, in an angry bird kind of way. I looked it up later that chickadees, nuthatches and titmice will hand feed. This was an awesome experience that I’m so glad The Nerd captured!
The bluff at Virmond Park overlooking Lake Michigan was yet another magnificent view of this Great Lake; our ever-changing muse. The only thing we had to do next was celebrate our wonderful Wisconsin adventures!
Adventure Pairs Well With: *My search for an O&H Danish Bakery of Racine Wisconsin brought us to the new mecca location that was the one that I had hoped for…plus they also had Colectivo coffee!!! One stop shop!
Brenner Brewing Co.: The location of this brewery is in the very cool Walker’s Point area. It looked like most of the buildings were from the 1880’s. We were so happy to meet the owner and Brewmaster, Mike Brenner. Mike was a super nice guy and shared some great stories. We both enjoyed The Brenner Stout (perhaps The Bird had a bit more than The Nerd who had to Drive Miss Daisybird).
Honeypie: PORK FRIES = shredded BBQ pork, fries, cheese sauce, pickled jalapenos, green onions, bacon! It just kept tasting better! Their PIE!!! The Lemon-ginger. Wow. We shared everything and it was a delicious way to end a fantastic birding adventure!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Wind Point Lighthouse - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36831988
Port Washington - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36844396
Harrington Beach State Park - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36847329
Virmond Park - http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36850997
Hello Wisconsin (band)!
Adventure Log: 19 May 2017
The Nerd: It was cold and rainy in Chicago. Jen and I had just braved the fierce northeast winds blowing over Montrose Beach in our (successful!) efforts to see a Black-bellied Plover and a few Dunlin. Rather than subject ourselves further to the elements on a day when migration was halted by the weather, we opted instead to try to see a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron that had been seen a few days before at a place called Foley’s Pond in Highland Park. Fueled by hot cups of coffee we made our way there to look for it.
Though our GPS system got us where we wanted to go, it was Jen’s noticing a sign at the end of a discreet chipped path that actually enabled us to find Foley’s Pond. Our walk to and around the pond didn’t end with us finding a night-heron, but we did enjoy a pleasant selection of spring migrants feeding in the vegetative understory. Cold, wet weather keeps birds low, and more confiding, and you get the impression that they’re inviting you into their personal space. We had nice views of Gray-cheeked Thrush along the path, and I really enjoyed watching a close Magnolia Warbler. I love how bright the yellow is on this warbler’s underparts.
The Bird: After a bit of confusion, somehow I saw the entrance to the pond peripherally. There was a light mist of cold rain that was on the edge of bearable...but because everything was so green it became enchanting. We ended up arriving to this hidden pond that had steam rising from it. It was just us and all kinds of different birds (alas no Yellow-crowned Night-Heron lifer). We were able to hike along the perimeter of the heavily tree-lined pond and that’s where we started to feel like we were in the trees with the birds. There was an instance with a male American Redstart that was so wonderful that time stopped. I was right next to him, looking through my binoculars, about 4 feet away as he danced up and down in the tree limbs. I could feel myself anticipating his moves, like a dance partner. I love that birding requires such a deep presence, awareness and connection. Moments like these are everything.
Adventure Pairs Well With:
Heritage Outpost (on Wilson): 2 large black coffees to go with no room for cream please!
Madame ZuZu’s Teahouse: (which inspired The Bird Cocktail: The Redstart Cocktail. Cheers to Billy Corgan/Smasing Pumpkins.) The Nerd: Cider Spice Noir. The Bird: Madam Zuzu’s 2010 Vintage Sicilian Blood Orange Pu-erh
Farmhouse: The local farms are listed in chalk as you enter. We shared a Ham and Gruyere sandwich and the Beets and Greens salad - which was arguably one of the best salads we both had ever had. We also got the last of the Half Acre Chocolate Camero on draft! All was right in the world!
eBird list of birds we saw:
Cheers to Billy Corgan/Smashing Pumpkins and Madame ZuZu’s Teahouse!
The Nerd: Wow - a month has gone by already. We’ve seen a lot, but we’ve only scratched the surface. Also apparent is that we not only have the spatial dimension of birding in Chicago to explore -- investigating what each neighborhood has to offer -- but also the temporal dimension. When you know your home turf, you know how it changes over the course of the year. So even though we’ve now seen a variety of spots in the city, most being places that I had little or no prior exposure to, our new-found familiarity is only with what is happening in April. Still, when you look at the annual cycle of birds, the fundamental pattern within one part of Chicago will be similar to that in other parts, and to the pattern within the broader area of Cook County and even Illinois. So having birded here for nearly 30 years, I have a basic understanding of what to expect, bird wise at least. Given this, the most exciting thing that I’ve learned is that there is still so much that is new and so much to surprise me. Each new site is an adventure. You have to figure out the micro-habitats of a place, not only for looking to find what’s there the day of your visit, but also to think ahead to when, and why, you might want to come back for a second go-around. Plus, there’s Jen’s added perspective, constantly challenging me to think in different ways. We are still developing our approach to working a neighborhood. How to combine parks, natural features, and the human centered landscape. The gustatory celebrations really enhance things, so that we leave with a feeling for how nature and civilization connect.
The Bird: Our first month of birding adventures has been awesome! I've never been to a lot of the places we explored and it was fun to try and capture their unique character. Most were easily accessible by transit...which is important for a non-car owner (like me). While we were birding throughout the city, I was noticing that Sears Tower (forever) was usually within view. It’s such an iconic building and distinctively Chicago. Our adventures have brought us many surprises. There’s a connection to understanding our surroundings that has been eroded since the days of my grandparents. They knew the names of all the animals and plants/trees surrounding them. Beyond having that knowledge, it adds another level of understanding to be able to read an animal's behavior. I'm learning to notice the cycles of migration - it helps with learning how to predict what is going to come through and when. Creating work that expresses the beautiful colors, shapes and patterns of these magnificent birds (in a surprising way) is always my intention. Also, I wanted to share some of my favorite places to eat with The Nerd in the neighborhoods we were visiting to celebrate our adventures. Enjoy our first The Nerd and The Bird: Adventure Log! Cheers!
Total Species Count: 78
Adventure Log: 31 March 2017
The Nerd: In the springtime once the ground has thawed, open lawns in Chicago host throngs of gulls searching for things to eat that have emerged into the grass from the warming earth. Despite the chill weather this morning, Humboldt Park’s fields were carpeted with hundreds of Ring-billed Gulls doing their thing: strutting methodically across athletic fields, their gaze focused on the ground in front of them. We counted 665 of this species, plus two of their larger cousin, the Herring Gull. A walk through a larger park like Humboldt offers opportunities to sample different habitat types. Anything involving water is worth paying attention to. The big lagoons are an obvious example; we found there a small flotilla of a dozen Bufflehead ducks. All males, with their gaudy black and white plumage. Where were the girls?? Also, while we stood on a bridge over one of the streams connecting the two lagoons, we watched a Horned Grebe, still transitioning from its more subdued winter dress into fancier summer garb, swim steadily toward us. It came close enough for us to see its red eye and under the water its paddling webbed feet, stuck right on the very back end of its body to make underwater swimming more efficient.
The Bird: Being the cold and rainy morning it was - most people wouldn't want/need to be out in that kind of weather...except for the joggers and dog walkers we saw. BUT being out that early, despite freezing your birds off, usually pays off. And the birds were definitely there - especially the early migrants. I remember having the thought "Eastern Towhee" and then The Nerd said "Eastern Towhee". It was my first of this year. I love those little serendipitous birding moments. The Horned Grebe we saw was fascinating. How it kept cruising right towards us. I've never seen the red eye like that before. Very cool. I love male Buffleheads! There are some lucky ladies in their future (unless they breed like other ducks. I saw that on Nature. Poor female ducks). Anyway, I love their black and white plumage patterning (because that glossy purple/green on the head appears black from a distance and in indirect or overcast lighting - which is usually the only way I've ever seen them). There was also a point where I thought I saw a weird bird in a tree. Me: "Wtf is that? A breadstick?" Geoffrey Williamson: "It looks like a churro". So tree churro happened. Geoffrey Williamson's identification abilities never cease to amaze me.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35556885
The Nerd: Our visit to Smith Park was amazing! We weren’t sure what to expect, or rather, we had no expectations. But we took in the environment: grass turf ringed by some smaller but also a number of more mature trees. Across the field was a little cluster of shrubs and we could see sparrows there foraging in the leaf litter below the plants. There were more than 150 individual birds in this small park, most of them gulls, robins, and starlings, all making use of food supplies in the grass. When we spotted a Rusty Blackbird, my pulse quickened. This species is in severe population decline, with an estimated 90% population loss in the last half of the 20th century. Habitat loss from development by humans on the wintering grounds south of us and from climate change on the breeding grounds north of us are thought to contribute significantly to the steep decline, but factors involving migratory ecology may also be at play. Smith Park was helping this one on its northward journey. We were reminded of what a dangerous journey it is when a Peregrine Falcon bombed through. All the birds exploded off the ground when the marauding falcon appeared suddenly and powered over the field. Though the peregrine has to eat too, I was happy that today its meal wasn’t a Rusty Blackbird.
The Bird: Smith Park was one of my favorite moments of our adventures so far. From the map it looked like a baseball diamond with some grass. Seeing that rare Rusty Blackbird among the many starlings and Ring-billed Gulls was such a surprise! Marveling over our view of the bird, then suddenly seeing all the birds starting to fly erratically; The Nerd pointing out the Peregrine Falcon as it stealthily glided/"bombed through" over us - which explained the birds' frantic behavior. It's pretty cool to consider that this wild behavior is always happening in a city as large as Chicago. Also, next to all of this was a guy walking a tiny dog wearing a tiny coat that was presumably Pomeranian in the front and baboon in the back...a Pom-boon.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35558819
The Nerd: Every little bit of habitat in the city matters for the birds. The City of Chicago notes that the boulevard system was intended “to help create healthful, accessible and livable neighborhoods” and though perhaps it was people’s health in the minds of the boulevards’ founders, the health of nature and the opportunity for people to connect to it is what gets the job done. We saw a lot of mature trees and shaded lawns, unfortunately with a lesser amount of vegetative structure of a lower height, so that there were limited resources for this month’s migrants, but as the trees leaf out the boulevards should attract arboreal birds like warblers, vireos, and orioles.
The Bird: “Birding the Boulevard” seems like an interesting way to go birding. It's possible to walk all of the boulevards and bird. That area around Logan Square is pretty car-centric, but it seems like it would also be fun to bird and bike the boulevard.
Adventure pairs well with: Sweet and Savory at Milk + Honey!!! We each had their Orange Brioche French Toast, shared a side of bacon and enjoyed giant Intelligentsia coffees.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35559192
Adventure Log: 06 April 2017
The Nerd: I was excited to visit this park because the pond that is the unfilled part of the old quarry offered possibilities for unusual water birds like Eared Grebes, and this was the time of year to find them. We were not so lucky, though a female Hooded Merganser gave some substance to the pond’s promise. This site affords some nice habitat diversity, with larger trees on its northern border, the open portion that is the former landfill, the pond, and especially the cascading wetlands that form the bioswales. This was yet another outing with chill temperatures coupled with strong northerly winds, so that so far we have not been treated to weather that is really conducive to a pulse of migrants. But there’s one thing that happens with the cold windy weather: many of the insectivores that typically are over your head in the trees are instead foraging on or near the ground. For this visit that meant getting to look down on Golden-crowned Kinglets, with excellent views of the golden stripe (females) or golden and red stripe (males) down the middle of these birds’ heads. The hormonal excitement of the impending breeding season encourages kinglets to put on nice displays by spreading and exposing these colored crown feathers.
The Bird: This is such a dynamic park landscape in part, I think, because it was a landfill. It has an excellent view of Sear's Tower (forever) and the city. I love that the parks design includes the large bioswale that feeds into the quarry pond. The wetland landscape design is filled with vegetation that helps remove silt and pollution from the runoff water. The pond collects the cleaned water and the vegetation encourages a lot of species diversity. This is where design, sustainability and the environment holistically come together. I love these kinds of solutions. The Golden-crowned Kinglets almost seemed tame they were so close...beautiful, adorable and wonderful.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35735777
The Nerd: Despite the chilly weather, McKinley Park’s habitat diversity gave us a good diversity of birds: 25 species in 18 different families. What was the most diverse bird family that was represented? Sparrows. This makes sense given the time of year (lots of different sparrows pass through Chicago in April) and also the available brushy growth spread about the park, especially bordering the lagoon. We tracked down a Fox Sparrow, one of the largest of the sparrows that visit Chicago, because we heard its distinctive call note. That’s also how we found a Brown Thrasher, which makes a loud “chack!” as its call. April is a good time to find migrating Brown Thrashers in the city.
The Bird: We saw my first ever pair of copulating kestrels! This is where The Nerd has birding-magic-juju. He sees and hears (hence my "Magic Ears" nickname for him) everything while also explaining everything we're seeing in real time. He's the "Jim Brockmire" of birding...sort of.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35737810
The Nerd: I have a fascination with this area and was excited to look for birds here. Part of this comes from its role in Chicago’s history. We were at the point where Bubbly Creek, a.k.a. the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River (say that three times fast) flows into the South Branch. The south end of Bubbly Creek, where Jennifer and I also made a brief (and birdless) stop, is where the sprawling Union Stock Yards were, site of Chicago’s immense meatpacking industry in the late 1800s and well into the 20th century. The meatpacking operation was a major economic engine to Chicago’s growth, illustrating the dark side of industrialization and worker exploitation as exposed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and also generated the fortune that enabled the founding by Philip Danforth Armour of the university where I’ve worked for the past three decades, the Illinois Institute of Technology. The slaughterhouse refuse dumped into the river by the industry gave Bubbly Creek its name and contributed to the impetus to reverse the flow of the Chicago River at the beginning of the 20th century so that it emptied into the Sanitary and Ship Canal that was just created, sending Chicago’s river sewage downstream to New Orleans instead of festering in Lake Michigan just off Chicago. The Chicago River basically becomes the sanitary canal as it heads southwest from the confluence of Bubbly Creek and the river.
The newly created parks here, both on the west side of Bubbly Creek where we visited and also across the way on the east side, have promise to aid in the planned but long-stalled rehabilitation of the ecological quality of this stretch of the river. The are still a bit off the beaten path, however. Gulls and herons were using the waterway, and the clusters of plantings in the riverside parks harbored some sparrows.
The Bird: Canal Origins Park is across the river from the stunning Eleanor Boathouse design by Studio Gang. I was surprised to see a Great Blue Heron, coot and a Black-crowned Night-Heron along with gulls all right next to each other, considering we were in a very industrial part of the river.
Adventure pairs well with: Pleasant House Pub: The Royal Pies here are a revelation. The Nerd: Chicken Balti. The Bird: Kale and Mushroom. We shared the Deluxe Gravy Chips (so. good). They also have an excellent beer selection! Plus we added a Peregrine Falcon we saw as an "incidental" to eBird (http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35740272as) were enjoying our beers (Three Floyds Yum Yum). Cheers!
Adventure Log: 12 April 2017
The Nerd: I’m not sure what the attraction is, exactly, but Chipping Sparrows sure do seem to like cemeteries. We were serenaded by the trilling song of this species immediately upon entering. When birding a cemetery, be respectful of its purpose. Cemeteries offer an expanse of green that does attract birds, as well as a quiet and solitude that helps expose the bird life by isolating it from the busy streets. As is usual with the cemetery environment, St. Boniface has trees scattered throughout the property. The more mature ones usually harbor more birds; we found three species of woodpeckers among them, and a Cooper’s Hawk was hunting the property.
The Bird: When my husband, Geoff, and I lived on Argyle Street - St. Boniface Cemetery was behind our apartment building. Best neighbors ever. I had only been inside it once because every other time I was walking our dog. The Chipping Sparrow became a whole Geoffrey Williamson/Jennifer teachable moment. He's so thorough with his knowledge of a bird and I love it when the birds themselves cooperate like that. I also love the Chipping Sparrows bright rusty crown that looks like a "toupee". I think it would be funny to do series of all the birds with "toupees" (Wilson's Warbler, Chestnut-sided Warbler...maybe a Bobolink).
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35896509
The Nerd: When we visited Winnemac Park in early April, the first thing that caught our eyes was the familiar sign on a two foot tall post proclaiming a "Natural Area." The natural zone didn't span acres and acres. It amounted pretty much to a 10 foot wide swath meandering down the middle of the park. But though it wasn't large, it was the focus of a lot of avian activity. As we walked down the path through the strip of Natural Area, we found Eastern Phoebes set up every 30 yards or so. They were busy eating the insects that were attracted to the plant life. One of them had grabbed a big beetle, almost too big for it to hold in its beak, and was pounding the beetle on a fence post, subduing it for the inevitable ingestion. A mother and daughter walking through the park saw us watching the phoebe with its beetle. “Look! They’re bird watchers!” the mother said. The girl saw a pair of Mallard ducks that were attracted to the water that had accumulated in a low area of the nature zone, and she got excited. “You’re a bird watcher, too,” her mom commented. We were happy to see the phoebes working the vegetation and catching insects. They are the first of the flycatchers to arrive back in the city in spring, because they don’t stray too far south, remaining mostly in the southeastern United States and northern Mexico during winter. Like the beautiful display of the reawakening Red Bud tree in which one of them perched, they are emblematic of the developing spring season.
The Bird: I've heard that there are coyotes living here, but they had recently performed a controlled burn of the vegetation. We probably did not see as many birds because of that. However, we still saw quite a variety - including an unexpected Turkey Vulture and Vesper Sparrow. The park is right next to Amundsen High School, so there were children in the park and also students from the high school out practicing baseball. I love that this is a neighborhood park next to a school. Everybody was doing their own thing and so were all of these migratory birds that were coming through. This is where the mundane becomes magical. I wish we would've tried to show that little girl the Eastern Phoebe through our binoculars. She had so much joy, wonder and curiosity to her - she was a fellow explorer, and hopefully will continue to watch the birds.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35898158
Definitely saw a Vesper Sparrow!
The Nerd: The weather was pleasant and sunny, making for a nice walk through the park. This was a mixed use area with a sledding hill and athletic fields being quite prominent. Yet also there was a bit of terrain (including the sledding hill) and some nice groves of mature trees that made for some spots that got a little less foot traffic. These spots held the most birds, which were a typical assortment of mid-April migrants: woodpeckers, creepers, kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and sparrows. There were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers, but the time for lots of warblers was yet to come. The border fence between the park and the neighboring golf course providing another focal area for the birds, with a bit more diversity in vegetative structure and again a reduction in human presence. The bugling of a Sandhill Crane was something of a surprise to us. It’s a sound you experience in Chicago pretty much only during their spring migration, which I thought was already done with this year (early March is the peak, and this year’s peak was even earlier in late February given that month’s unusually warm temperatures). We jogged toward the sound of the crane to try to see it, but had no success.
The Bird: This park was a welcomed surprise because we got to see 11 Northern Flickers! They're woodpeckers, but I've never see them/heard them pecking. I've seen them perched or flying overhead exposing the beautiful yellow gilded undersides of their wings and tail feathers. I love it when there are a bunch of them on the ground together - like a little herd of bird-cows eating ants in the grass.
Adventure pairs well with: Tiffin on Devon. This was a Geoffrey Williamson suggestion. The Nerd: Chicken Vindaloo. The Bird: Paneer Makhani. Both had mango lassi + shared garlic naan.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35899527
Adventure Log: 17 April 2017
The Nerd: They’re coming! This was my first morning out where the number of warblers got into double digits, even if there were all Yellow-rumped Warblers (the first to return and quite numerous as a passage migrant). We heard the gurgling call of Tree Swallows that possibly would be setting up nesting territories on site; they like to be around water and the pond provides the proper habitat. We also studied differences between Pied-billed and Horned Grebes: pretty much the same size, but each with its own shape and way to sit in the water.
The Bird: West Ridge Nature Preserve is where we saw our second pair of copulating kestrel’s right from the get-go (FYI - birding is sexy)! We also had excellent views of two Blue-winged Teals. I'd seen a piece on Chicago Tonight about this place a while ago. The controversy about it being made into a nature preserve - about all of the trees that were cut down. I didn't know what it looked like before we visited it. However, I really enjoyed being able to interact with the birds the way we did while making our way around the pond. The vegetation was growing in and there were a lot of birds. I'll always remember those kestrels and teals! This was also another place I noticed Sears Tower (forever).
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36037321
The Nerd: We drove slowly through parts of the cemetery to get a feel for what portions might be the most productive for birds. I hadn’t birded this cemetery very much in the past, and at those times my attention was generally focused on the pond in the southeast corner and the pond on the west side that is now separated off as West Ridge Nature Preserve. The presence of water always helps generate diversity of bird species! In between these bodies of water is a big expanse of green, with lots of trees in a mixture of sizes and types. We had the windows down, and with the car running on electric power I thought we’d be able to hear bird activity. But it seemed quiet. For sure, we’d spot Chipping Sparrows and robins and flickers on the ground, yet we thought there ought to be more birds present than we we detecting. When I heard a song that I thought was probably a Chipping Sparrow but might be a Pine Warbler, we got out of the car to track it down. This taught us a lesson: you do really hear much more bird activity outside of rather than inside of a motor vehicle. Though the bird that got us out of the car was “only” a Chipper, it did lead us to spot some two dozen species we might have otherwise overlooked.
The Bird: This place is HUGE and "Yes" getting out of the car made all of the difference; almost like black and white being turned into color. Everything came to life (almost). The tombstones were alive with the sound of birds...and also hid the birds. There was always a bird surprise around the "corner".
Adventure pairs well with: Baker Miller was closed, but we found this gem instead: Pannenkoeken Cafe. We’ve both never had Dutch pancakes before. Wow! Wauw! xxx (Dutch)
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36041629
Adventure Log: 24 April 2017
The Nerd: Our plan for the day was to bird in Chicago’s South Side, and well, the Lake Calumet region is as southeast as you can get in the city. And it is home to what remains of the marshes and wetlands associated with the Calumet River system. In any event, a day trip to the Calumet region provides a sense of the ecological splendor that once existed there and that still does coexist with the industrial landscape. Degradation of the area from human development has slowed, and some efforts are now underway to enhance the natural components of the area, though citizen oversight of the governmental activity remains critical to keep this on course. “Park No. 564,” or the Big Marsh, is a piece of this natural redevelopment. We stood on the south edge of the marsh, which was coming out of its winter sleep. The Virginia Rails and Soras that we hoped to see were there in numbers. We could hear their vocalizations all along the marsh edge. Herons were in smaller numbers but are sure to become more present as the season progresses. It was nice, too, to see a couple of the young Bald Eagles that are hanging out in the area.
The Bird: Big Marsh was a specific special request from The Bird to The Nerd to score some lifers (birds I had never seen before). It’s way down south from the city and pretty much impossible for me to get to on my own. We arrived at the crack of dawn and had the whole marsh to ourselves. It was a riot of bird sounds and activity. Yay for Sora and Virginia Rail lifers! This might be one of my favorite birding moments ever - I can still "hear" their calls! Thank you and high-five Geoffrey Williamson!!!
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36226416
The Nerd: We had hardly entered the park before we spotted both male and female Eastern Bluebirds. These small, blue thrushes in characteristic fashion perched on low branches of trees in a semi-open area, and both dropped to the ground and hawked out in the air to catch insects. Though resident in summer in greater Chicagoland, within the city they are pretty much passage migrants, tending to arrive ahead of the mad May rush. While walking further into the park, we spotted a splash of red in the grass and my curiosity about it got the better of me. I picked it up, which enabled us to figure out it was either a barrette or part of some child’s toy. Jennifer admonished me for my tactile investigations. I told her that next time I’d remember to bring some Dude Wipes. You never know what you might find in Chicago’s parks! Shortly after you cross the bridge onto the island in Washington Park’s lagoon, you reach a locked gate blocking further passage to the island. It always seems here that you are just out of reach of avian treasures in the wooded area beyond (and who knows, maybe some other treasures, too??). Fortunately, if you “pish” (make squeaking noises that birds are compelled to investigate), you can bring some of the birds to you. Here we heard and saw our first vireo of the season, a Warbling Vireo. True to its name it sang in warbling phrases. I wonder if we visit the park in the summer if we’ll find Herring Gulls or Double-crested Cormorants nesting on the island. There were several of both species that looked as though they might have interest in doing so. We did note a feral house cat stretched on a tree limb at the entrance to the island.
The Bird: Washington Park was our last stop for this Adventure Log. It's a month later, a bit warmer, and a lot more of everything is starting to bloom. Our birding is becoming more thrilling with the increased diversity of birds. Those Eastern Bluebirds - wow!!! Spectacular views - the best I've ever had!!! The early migrants have pretty much made their way through, so it's exciting to see a Brown Creeper. Then there are other birds like the Warbling Vireo and Yellow-rumped Warblers that have just started to come through. About those "tactile investigations": Geoffrey Williamson: "What's that?"...as he's picking it up. Me: "Don't pick that up!" Geoffrey Williamson: "It looks like (I'll let you use your imagination). I should remember to bring Dude Wipes next time." Me: "Gross! That looks like a hair barrette to me. Also, stop picking up weird shit - ESPECIALLY if you think it's THAT!!! Dude Wipes?! What?! Those are a thing?!" Definitely a funny memory.
Adventure pairs well with: Plein Air Cafe: Proper coffee and yummy shared pastries: apple danish and almond croissant.
eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36229682
Word from the Bird:
It took me 2 years before I finally got up enough nerve to go on a proper bird walk sponsored by a local ornithological organization. Geoffrey Williamson is an expert birder that leads the walk. I was told he was “the man”, in terms of birds and learning how to bird – he is. Geoffrey “Magic Ears” Williamson is a wonderful teacher when it comes to anything and everything bird (his other life is the Associate Dean for Analytics for Armour College of Engineering and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at IIT). I joke that Geoffrey Williamson was “a reluctant mentor” to me (oh yes, he was), BUT now I am also happy to call him my friend (and yes, I do refer to him as “Geoffrey Williamson" most of the time because I’m also married to a Geoff).
Geoffrey Williamson opened up the “serious birding world” to me in a way that I had limited access to. I’ve made images of birding landscapes and written poetry that expresses the pure joy and gratitude from so many amazing birding moments. He has also added another level of meaning to the birds scientifically beyond identification – in terms of their vocalizations, their behaviors, context, history and has also taught me about insects and trees – their habitat. Which is our habitat. Life has become more meaningful because I’ve gained a deeper understanding of what is surrounding me. This has also led to many powerful creative light-bulb moments. We are two unlikely cohorts - as seen in this picture I took while we were birding Loyola Park: The Corgi and the T-Rex are very different, yet they share the “tiny arms” of birds in common – high-five to that!
Below is the Krebs Cycle of Creativity. I love the idea that through collaboration, we represent the whole cycle. I’m the left side: Art/Design and he is the right side: Science/Engineering, yet somehow we are able to connect our creative sensibilities…usually through a lot of debate and discussion…and more debate…and a lot more discussion. We are constantly learning from each other because we are so completely different. It is exhausting at times (there is a The Nerd and The Bird Navigation Guide to Not Killing Each Other - seriously), BUT it is absolutely worth the rewards of being opened up to new ways of seeing and understanding!
As a Bird Who Loves Birds, I wanted to see what would happen if we collaborated from our very different viewpoints about birds. When I first approached Geoffrey Williamson about my concept for The Nerd and the Bird – he wasn’t really sure what to think. My husband first suggested that Geoffrey Williamson and I do a Podcast together based on a serious yet funny debate-filled-dinner at our house. All I knew was that we were meant to collaborate in some way and that this was a good idea. To me, birding is an exploration and adventure - a platform for creativity, curiosity and connection to the extraordinary birds that migrate to and through Chicago. Geoffrey Williamson embodies what is wonderful and magical about these birds through his openness, patience and being an amazing teacher. The other essential component to our adventures is visiting coffee shops, restaurants, cheap eats, breweries and bars in the neighborhoods that we're exploring. I can't tell you how many times I would advocate for an "after-party" after birding. I always thought there needed to be more discussion about the awesome birds we just experienced! Geoffrey Williamson FINALLY "gets it" - how it makes the adventure even better because we feast/drink to/savor the experience on another level - be it in a place we've never been to before or a haunt (like Hopleaf). As a bona-fide food/drink lover - I revel in figuring out where we should go. From our adventures, through my "lens", my intention is to create work that celebrates the patterns and colors of these beautiful birds and landscapes of Chicago. Please enjoy The Nerd and the Bird as we explore these amazing birds and Chicago with an approach that is open, unique and FUN!
Word from the Nerd:
It was on a North Pond Bird Walk that I met Jennifer Hoffman. Over 15 years ago I had started the North Pond Bird Walks as something of a break from my constant visits to Montrose Point. I figured that these walks would both let me explore a different part of Lincoln Park’s birdlife and also let me share what I had learned about Chicago’s birds with other people who were interested. The idea was reminiscent of what Mr. Cantor was doing all those years ago at my brother’s high school, and I thought I could do for others what he’d done for me. The North Pond Bird Walks became known as a way for people to get access to experiencing birds in Chicago. Jennifer was one such person, and that is how she and I came to know each other.
I am somewhat ashamed to admit how long it took me to realize that Jennifer was reshaping how I experienced birds in Chicago at the same time that I was facilitating her experiences. I was very caught up in the world of bird identification, the world of status and distribution of birds, the world of applying a knowledge of the natural history of birds to the task of figuring out what is happening bird-wise around you, and to figuring out where and when to find particular kinds of birds. I still am caught up in that. It’s a lot of fun, it makes me happy, and sharing it with others spreads that fun and happiness. But birding with Jen has me taking more time to enjoy the unfolding moment of observation and to notice a bigger picture surrounding the birds, in a sense returning to the wonder that birding evoked in my inquisitive youth. My sense of what it means to bird Chicago has also expanded because of her. It’s not just the seeing the birds. It’s being in a story with them, in Chicago, and sharing and revisiting that story not only at the moment of the birding but also as you settle back into the city. During our adventures, Jennifer and I react to these experiences in different ways, which adds an element to my time birding that wasn’t present before. Perhaps most illustrative of this is that the birding experiences inspire Jen to create art. Her bird-related work captivates me. I think at first I was in conflict with it. I was placed in unfamiliar territory, trying to look at birds in her art the way I look at birds in the wild. But when I let go of that tendency, and just LOOK, patterns emerge in fascinating ways. I now enjoy her work as beauty and bird combined.
As our urban birding adventures progress, my scope of hometown birding expands. Jen’s and my birding together has me spending more time in her birding patch, Margate Park, a section of my beloved Lincoln Park that I’d not visited much before. From there we began exploring further afield within the city, finding birds everywhere we went, and sharing and re-experiencing the joy of discovery over a bite or a beer in a nearby neighborhood establishment. The birding element in each adventure has an individual character and unique qualities. Those aspects are enhanced when coupled with a restaurant or a bar that itself has character and quality. Jen for me is the catalyst making it all happen. What I love about it is that my love for nature, and my love for the city, come together in a way that is really exhilarating. I look back to that time when I was worried that city life would keep me from nature. Looking ahead to the birding adventures to come here in Chicago, I just know that they will show how wrong that thought was. And that makes me so happy!
The Nerd and the Bird’s mission:
Through our art and science collaboration - we hope to encourage curiosity, exploration, understanding, joy and connection to the birds and neighborhoods of Chicago.
Neighborhood birding is the priority.
Close to transit or in walking/biking distance.
An easy way to connect with nature.
The birding adventure begins! It’s time to explore neighborhoods, be curious, share our experiences, learn a lot together and from each other. We’re the Lewis and Clark (or rather Louise and Clark)...Daniel and Danielle Boone of birding in Chicago! High-five, let’s go!
"We ain't going to the town...We're going to the city."
My early childhood years were spent in very northeast New Jersey. My father’s work was in New York City, and rather than living in the city, he situated himself and his family in the growing suburbs on the Jersey side of New York. I wasn’t quite two years old when we moved there. Our house was in a new development on a cul-de-sac street. I don’t know what the place looked like before the houses were all built, but it must have been pretty wild. Bordering the backyard of our property was a pond that figured tremendously in much of my first explorations of nature, along with the woods on the other side of the pond. Its presence there was even something of a surprise to the developers in that it almost magically appeared when they leveled a couple of hills to do the development. The wild area that was exposed had bobcats living in it, which of course moved out when the people moved in. And my brothers and I were cautioned by our parents to avoid going past the woods because there were a lot of bats seen there. In the pond itself were lots of fish that we boys of course had to catch. Along the pond edge, if we found nooks and crannies and crevices among the rocks there, we could jam our arms deep into them and feel around to see if there were crayfish that we could grab and pull out. Plus there were lots of frogs. The bullfrogs were a loud vocal presence on warm summer nights, and there were lots of green and leopard frogs. My brothers and I were fascinated by the tadpoles. We would find them in all stages of development, from swarms of little wriggly things just hatched from masses of eggs, to nearly adult frogs that still had the tadpole tail extending back between the hind legs. And there were turtles too, mostly painted turtles but occasionally a snapping turtle. Some of the snappers were really big and so were terrifying to me as a small boy. We’d bring lots of these creatures – fish, frogs, turtles, crayfish – into the house and keep them as long as we were permitted. Based on a fascinating book about invertebrate pond life that I checked out of the school library, we even put together an aquarium with strange creatures like water boatmen, whirligig beetles, damselfly larvae, and other arthropods. We built devices to drag the pond bottom to harvest these critters for the aquarium.
Birds were another thing. We couldn’t catch them, of course, but one year my older brother Joel and I were each given Chan Robbins’s Birds of North America as a present. Thus began my journey into trying to decipher what birds lived near where I lived. I remember so well the challenge of puzzling out the identities of the Green Heron and Belted Kingfisher that frequented the pond. When not out playing by the pond or in the woods, I would spend hours paging through the field guide, gazing at all the fabulous birds that were depicted in it. We also had a set of flash cards of what were supposed to be the common birds (I couldn’t imagine these being near my house), and I had a big coloring book of birds that had cool things like flickers and Wood Ducks in it. Though I could catch and hold turtles and frogs and fish, birds were more elusive, more mysterious.
I was just nine years old when I saw my first Scarlet Tanager. It happened at a place my grandparents owned in rural upstate New York where my older brothers and I were sent by my parents for a couple of weeks every summer. When I saw the bird, I was by myself, away from but still in sight of the house. I remember it like it happened just yesterday. All of a sudden, this flurry of motion that catapulted past the edge of my vision was now a bird that had landed on the sandy, sparsely vegetated ground right in front of me, right smack in the open less than 10 feet away. “Scarlet Tanager!” Those two words were in my mind immediately. This bundle of red and black and beauty and grace was unmistakable! And unimaginable, too. I knew what this bird was, even though I never thought I’d actually see one. This was a bird of my dreams, one of those incredible birds that to me existed only in my copy of Birds of North America. I had a hard time imagining a Scarlet Tanager actually existing in the real world that I moved through, because at that time I thought it inconceivable for something that gorgeous to be anywhere near I place where a kid like me lived. Scarlet Tanagers and all those other crazily colorful birds depicted in my field guide seemed more like creatures you’d find in a fairy tale world of the imagination. Their “real” existence was just as paintings in my field guide. And yet there he was, in the open, right in front of me, seemingly close enough, almost, to touch. And he was looking at me! He cocked his head just slightly and looked up with that prominent black eye in the middle of his bright red head. He looked at me. I looked at him. Time froze. And then in a flash the moment was over as the tanager exploded into a red and black blur and flew away.
My relationship with birds grew from there. It was a slow, steady, almost inexorable growth. Certainly not rushed. My first real tutelage was from my oldest brother’s high school biology teacher, Mr. Cantor, who led regularly scheduled bird walks around the school on spring mornings and who had a trunk full of old binoculars that someone like me could borrow. Eventually, I got my own first pair of binoculars. And then with a driver's license, my birding haunts expanded beyond where I could walk or bike to from my house. Forays to the Great Swamp National Wildlife Refuge in New Jersey introduced me to the exhilaration that comes from seeing warblers dripping from the trees in spring migration. And though in my late college years and during graduate school I discovered a bird watching club and the accelerated learning that comes from having a birding mentor, most of my birding remained a solitary venture. Being out in nature and among the birds was soul soothing, restorative, peaceful. It was where I felt connected.
When I moved to Chicago nearly 30 years ago, I was both excited and nervous. Excited because I was going to be living in a fabulous and dynamic city filled with world class cultural institutions, great music, and the full set of professional sports teams. Over time I had developed lots of interests aside from birds, and Chicago promised to be a great place to indulge these. In the suburbs where I grew up, New York was nearby and amazing and stimulating, but always felt to me to be out of reach because it was a day trip to get there. As I grew older and visited friends who lived in cities, I loved how it felt to get up and walk out the door and be right in the middle of urban activity with no effort or travel necessary. But I was very nervous to be living in a city myself because connecting to nature had always been so critical to my happiness. I wondered how it was going to be possible to feed that core part of my being. In my childhood it was the pond and woods behind the house that fed this. In the several other places I lived after that, I always had birds in the backyard and paths through woods that I could walk to from my front door. During graduate school in the years before my arrival in Chicago, I maintained sanity while writing my thesis by getting outside and looking at birds. But all these places were suburbs or small towns with nature close by. Not cities. Was I giving up nature by moving to Chicago?
Little did I know that the apartment I moved into was only about a mile from one of best places in the Midwest to witness the spectacle of our continent's bird migration: Montrose Point in Chicago's Lincoln Park. This site of only about a hundred acres in size has hosted more than 340 different kinds of birds, and during the spring and fall it can be just dynamite for birding. At the same time, out on the Point there are places where visually it doesn't feel like you are in the nation's third largest city. (It is true, though, that day or night, if you listen at Montrose Point, you'll always hear the hum of nearby Lake Shore Drive!) Moving to Chicago didn’t end my relationship with birds, it enhanced it!
Montrose Point, and more broadly Lincoln Park, makes an excellent local birding patch - a spot to visit regularly where the annual cycles and seasonal rhythms of birds unfold. Chicago is well positioned for witnessing bird migration. It’s situated in the Mississippi Flyway, one of the major pathways for birds moving north and south on the continent. The presence of Lake Michigan - which influences so much about Chicago - concentrates migrant land birds that don’t want to be over water. And the urban landscape makes the available green space that much more sought out by the birds.
The phenomenon of migration is so tangible in the city’s parks. As I documented my sightings in the city over the years, keeping track of where and when I saw how many of each species, I became something of a "status and distribution" junkie. In spring time you look for those first-to-arrive individuals for each kind of bird. Are they early compared to recent years? late? More and more we see them arrive earlier in spring and depart later in fall, consistent with what you'd expect from global warming. The volume of birds that show up in the city parks is so big that the city birder gets more than his or her fair share of early arriving and late departing birds, and also rare birds that show up unexpectedly. Montrose Point became my main birding haunt for this reason.
For me, The Nerd and the Bird takes me beyond just Montrose Point and into an exploration of birding throughout Chicago, continuing my growth as a city birder. Our adventures keep me in the immediate present, and I feel connection to something special and fantastic - us, the city, the birds. It’s that same feeling you have as a little boy when one of the most beautiful creatures on the whole planet lands on the ground in front of you, looks up in your eye, and says, “Yes, you and me, in this moment, we share this place.”
Being the non-linear thinker I am, I tend to look at everything as being connected. My work in the realm of creativity is driven by concepts, process and storytelling. This comes from an essential need for me to understand and to connect emotionally, as well as intellectually, to everything as much as I can, through experience or research. My childhood is most certainly the foundation for this desire. The first five years of my life growing up in Cincinnati felt like pure survival. Most of my time was spent at my Dad’s body shop in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, but there were tons of kids. He was a master restorer of rare and classic European “Motorcars”, with an added specialty in Corvettes. I remember learning the names on the large shields hanging over each car bay with the emblems my Mom hand painted: BMW, Porsche, Jaguar, Rolls Royce, Lotus, Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Maserati and Corvette. I realize now that it was unavoidable to know from a very young age what beauty of form was. I also knew the daily terror and unpredictability that comes with domestic violence, abuse, neglect and transient housing because we moved all of the time - until we just lived in the office above the shop. The smells of my childhood were Bondo, fiberglass and mechanic's hand cleaner goop. The only “wildlife” I can remember were the puppies our black German Shepherd, Lipshin, kept having - thanks to the neighbor's prolific Labrador, Thor. The only nature I remember was the huge oak tree my friends and I would climb next to a utility company. I loved that tree.
My Mom and I went to live on her friend's houseboat the summer before Kindergarten started (bare feet + wooden docks = epic summer of splinters). She had to figure out what the next move was for us. As my parents divorced, we moved into my grandparents' house a few weeks before the school year started (and where I lived up until college). To say I experienced a kind shell-shock would be an understatement. They lived on 5 acres of nothing but green space and greenbelt, close to numerous hiking and horseback riding trails. The pasture next to us was filled with Black Angus cattle; there were also horses and eventually sheep (guarded by a big, sweet Great Pyrenees). There were also all kinds of wildlife - like deer, fox, snakes and squirrel-sized wolf spiders (that to my teachers’ horror, I would take to show and tell). But there were no kids, so my friends instead became all of the animals. My first bird memory was sitting on the back terrace with my Pop Pop. He had a pair of binoculars and his Birds of Ohio book. Pop Pop said, “Hear that? That’s a bobwhite, it says its name.” That memory always gives me a wonderful warm oatmeal in the belly feeling. My Nana was always making sure the hummingbird feeders were filled with sugar water and Pop Pop made sure that all the feeders in the courtyard were full. There was even one Easter morning when my grandfather woke me to tell me we had “special visitors”...a male and two female peacocks! They escaped from a nearby farm...thankfully it took 2 days to figure out where they came from! Best. Easter. Ever!
I attended The Art Academy of Cincinnati, which at the time was connected to the Cincinnati Art Museum in Mt. Adams. I also eventually lived on Ida Street, which was also next to the art museum. On the neighboring hillside there was a communal crow roost of about 20,000 crows. After college, I moved into a 500 sq.ft. studio on Ida Street that had a 9’ x 9’ window which overlooked the city as well as the neighborhood of Over-the-Rhine. I definitely had company...in the form of thousands of tiny eyeballs. It was one of the most incredible experiences because I would for years prior see them, while in school or coming home from work, flying in flocks from all directions of the “seven hills” - making their way to their roost...which I now shared with them. They are so intelligent, mysterious and beautiful - it was an honor to share the hillside with them.
Since graduating from art school, it was always my dream to live in Chicago. In 2006 my husband Geoff (who’s an architect) and I moved to this great city of architecture by the great lake, where I went back to school to study interior design. In school, we were given an assignment to design a Flatpak house. I had recently seen a documentary on PBS about Bowerbirds, the (slightly OCD) artist and architect of the bird world. It absolutely blew my mind how they would collect different types of objects in the same hue of a color, then arrange them in a very particularly way! They would also build beautifully complex structures to display their creations - all for attracting a mate! I decided to base my concept for a lake house design on these fascinating birds; designing interior structural core elements out of reclaimed ash-wood while defining adjacent spaces with color. This was my first bird inspired project.
I’m someone who got interested in “birding” in a very backwards way – via a sick squirrel that I called a wildlife rehabilitation center about. Unfortunately, it took a day to hear back from them and the squirrel had already died of suspected rat poisoning. I followed their instructions of “body removal” to ensure that no coyotes or crows were then poisoned to death by eating its carcass. They were understaffed and needed volunteers - especially in the Migratory Bird Rescue and Salvage program. I said, “Yes.”
That first morning out on rescue changed my life forever. There were mostly different species of warblers lying dead at the base of buildings (which are thankfully salvaged and taken to the Field Museum to be studied by their esteemed bird department). Black-and-white, Magnolia, Tennessee, Blackpoll, Cape May, Nashville...so many colors I’d never before seen on wild birds! With my background in art and design, I have a bit of an obsession with pattern, ironically, initially with capturing building facades - the very thing these beautiful birds were striking. There were so many people walking like zombies staring into their phones. One woman, looking at her phone, was about to walk on top of a dead Magnolia Warbler. I got her attention and told her that I needed to collect it to be studied (preferably not squished). She had no idea that she was about to crush it. With a sad face, she said “What a beautiful little bird.” There was also a man looking at his phone that almost stepped on a living, but stunned, Nashville Warbler in need of treatment. All I could think was that this is how disconnected and distracted we’ve become.
I was seeing so many vibrantly colored living patterns going lifeless, for nothing more than what equated to, essentially, a massive design problem. This kind of death toll made no sense/makes no sense. Viewing these motionless birds in my hand made me appreciate them as colorful, abstract, (living) works of art – weighing as little as a piece of paper, yet traveling thousands of miles to survive. Amazing. I learned why these beautiful little warblers are considered “the butterflies of the bird world.” However, it’s not just warblers, but hundreds of other incredible species of birds that were migrating through…ultimately thousands of birds twice a year. I never knew what remarkable varieties of birds were traveling through Chicago. That’s why I think it’s so important that we realize and value how we are connected to this extraordinary journey – especially in the city of Chicago. We’re one of largest cities in the country, but we are a wild city – we have coyotes! These birds don’t discriminate – they migrate through every neighborhood. They just want to live and thrive – don’t we all? I began to understand, in a visable way, that these small creatures and their details are all part of this bigger picture...that we are all connected to.
Chicago is one of the top bird strike cities in the U.S., but not without the efforts of bird rescue and salvage programs in addition to a “Lights Out” program of the city’s skyscrapers during peak spring and fall migration. The numbers of deaths are less than they were, but still annually – according to the National Audubon Society – hundreds of millions of birds are killed from building strikes each year. That doesn’t include deaths from invasive species like cats, wind turbines, pesticides, global warming or natural disasters like storms and droughts. These birds come from as far away as South America to breed in North America, primarily the boreal forests of Canada. Some of these birds also breed in Chicago. They endure this long treacherous journey each spring and fall to breed, to ensure the survival of their species.
As an artist I’m intrigued by the idea of interruption. If only we could all be “who” or “what” we are meant to “do” and “be” – without interruptions. Those events that change or end things. On that first day out, my trainer and I rescued a immature male Northern Parula. The wildlife rehabilitation director texted me the picture of the same bird before he was released, after receiving treatment. He was hopefully going to be able to continue to survive. To breed. All because of a different kind of interruption – in the form of intervention. We are all a part of this amazing web of life. The more we realize that, the more connected we are to ourselves, our lives, to each other and to all living things. My artwork has always given me a voice. I hope to produce work that honors their beauty, perhaps even gives them a voice, in a way that makes you look at them as their own world. I’m guided by Mies van der Rohe’s “God is in the details” approach to looking at them (with the mindset that “More is Better” – when it comes to them). I love it when I show someone (usually a “non-birder”) the color and patterns in a bird and then “Google” the actual bird. There is always a look of surprise. I love that. They all have a story. I’m always curious to know where they’ve been and where they're going and am so grateful to be a part of their journey.
I don't own a car, so when I wanted to start actually “birding,” I began going to Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary. At the time, I had no idea how lucky I was to be in walking distance to one of the best places to bird in the city, let alone in Illinois. I began looking at eBird to figure out what birds were what, based on what others were documenting earlier that day. I got a birding monocular…which was all wrong. A “serious birder” asked if I was “going to the opera”…there were many exchanges with “serious birders,” as I was trying to learn how to bird. There were also weird and scary interactions with non-birding creeps and freaks - just being a woman “going alone into the wilderness” of Chicago. It was not only extremely isolating being a lone birder, but also incredibly frustrating not knowing what I was seeing. On page 7 of Sibley’s Birding Basics, Sibley acknowledges this and discusses how important birding with experienced birders is...but not how difficult it is for women to find mentors...let alone a married, middle-aged, impatient and “colorful” one that feels like time is running out. (I also did a search of "Birding and Sexism"...so there's that...among other things. My experiences have taught me that I'm definitely not a "birder", but that I love to go birding!) One morning in Montrose Harbor, I saw a large waterbird with a striking black head, stunning white-streaked “necklace,” dagger-like beak and beautiful white feather patterning that had me stalking it for an hour trying to figure out what it was. It was a Common Loon in breeding plumage. It was so exhilarating to see this bird I’d never seen before in the wild - a “lifer”. This is the piece inspired from that day - that would motivate future work. I hope The Nerd and the Bird collaboration expands the idea of what "birding" is and can be. The more people that care about birds, their habitat and our environment - the better it is for the birds, everyone!