Adventure Log - First Month

Concept/Design Jennifer Hoffman. Copyright 2017.

Concept/Design Jennifer Hoffman. Copyright 2017.

Top L-R: Humboldt Park, Winnemac Park, McKinley Park, Humboldt Park Middle L-R:: West Ridge Nature Preserve, Canal Origins Park, Canal Origins Park, Studio Gang Eleanor Boathouse. Bottom: L-R: West Ridge Park, Palmisano Park, Washington Park, Washington Park. Photographs: Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

Top L-R: Humboldt Park, Winnemac Park, McKinley Park, Humboldt Park Middle L-R:: West Ridge Nature Preserve, Canal Origins Park, Canal Origins Park, Studio Gang Eleanor Boathouse. Bottom: L-R: West Ridge Park, Palmisano Park, Washington Park, Washington Park. Photographs: Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

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 out has been so amazing!  I've never been to most of the places we've visited.  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 eroded since the days of my grandparents. My Nana and Pop Pop knew the names of all the animals and plants/trees surrounding them. It also adds another level of understanding to be able to read an animal's behavior.  Geoffrey Williamson is teaching me to notice the cycles of things. It helps to learn how to predict what is going to come through and when.  That's something that we don't understand is important until we realize that we're connected to it. It's also pretty cool to consider this wild behavior is happening in a city as large as Chicago. We tend to pair our adventures with a unique place to have coffee, food or beer in the neighborhood we’re exploring.  It makes the birding adventure last longer because we celebrate it. We discuss (and debate) everything we saw and experienced.  It’s a whole other part that I hope we can capture - because we always learn a lot from each others viewpoints.  Its been such a wonderful first month out and we hope you enjoy our first The Nerd and The Bird: Urban Birding Adventures! Cheers!
 

Top L-R: Eastern Phoebe/Winnemac Park, Cat/Washington Park, Bullfrog/Washington Park, Ring-billed Gull/Washington Park. Middle L-R: American Kestrels/West Ridge Park, American Robin/Winnemac Park, Mallard/Winnemac Park, Eastern Phoebe/Winnemac Park. Bottom L-R: Yellow-rumped Warbler/Washington Park, Virginia Rail/Big Marsh, Sora/Big Marsh, Virginia Rail/Big Marsh. Photographs: Geoffrey Williamson 2017.

Top L-R: Eastern Phoebe/Winnemac Park, Cat/Washington Park, Bullfrog/Washington Park, Ring-billed Gull/Washington Park. Middle L-R: American Kestrels/West Ridge Park, American Robin/Winnemac Park, Mallard/Winnemac Park, Eastern Phoebe/Winnemac Park. Bottom L-R: Yellow-rumped Warbler/Washington Park, Virginia Rail/Big Marsh, Sora/Big Marsh, Virginia Rail/Big Marsh. Photographs: Geoffrey Williamson 2017.

Adventure Log: 31 March 2017

Humboldt Park

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. 

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35556885 

Smith Park: 

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. However, we ended up seeing a rare Rusty Blackbird among many starlings and Ring-billed Gulls. As we were marveling over our view of the bird, suddenly all the birds started flying erratically.  Just then, a Peregrine Falcon stealthily glided in over us - which explained the birds' frantic behavior.  

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35558819

Palmer Square/Logan Square:  

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.  

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35559192

Adventure pairs well with: We each had Orange Brioche French Toast, shared a side of bacon. Sweet and Savory at Milk + Honey!!!

Top L-R: American Kestrel, Brown Creeper, Eastern Phoebe, Fox Sparrow. Middle L-R: Brown Thrasher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Flicker. 3rd L-R: Downy Woodpecker, Blue-winged Teal, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Towhee. Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

Top L-R: American Kestrel, Brown Creeper, Eastern Phoebe, Fox Sparrow. Middle L-R: Brown Thrasher, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Eastern Bluebird, Northern Flicker. 3rd L-R: Downy Woodpecker, Blue-winged Teal, Hermit Thrush, Eastern Towhee. Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

Adventure Log: 06 April 2017

Palmisano Park/Bridgeport:  

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: I love that Palmisano's design includes a large bioswale that feeds into a quarry pond. The 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. 

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35735777 

McKinley Park: 

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!  I loved the fact that that part of the park is surrounded by housing - so you can literally walk outside of your house and see these amazing birds. They're coming from as far away as South America and they're just passing through, but they're also across from your house or in your backyard!  

eBird list of birds we saw:  http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35737810 

Canal Origins Park + Canalport Riverwalk/Pilsen: 

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.  It was surprising 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. 

eBird list of birds we saw:
Canal Origins Park: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35738399
Canalport Riverwalk: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35738901

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!). Excellent beer selection! Cheers!

Top L-R: Peregrine Falcon, Rusty Blackbird, Vesper Sparrow, Red-bellied Woodpecker. Middle L-R: Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow. Bottom L-R: White-breasted Nuthatch Virginia Rail, Sora, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

Top L-R: Peregrine Falcon, Rusty Blackbird, Vesper Sparrow, Red-bellied Woodpecker. Middle L-R: Great Blue Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Yellow-rumped Warbler, White-throated Sparrow. Bottom L-R: White-breasted Nuthatch Virginia Rail, Sora, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

Adventure Log: 12 April 2017

St. Boniface Cemetery: 

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.

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35896509 

Winnemac Park: 

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.  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 - even unexpected birds like a Turkey Vulture and Vesper Sparrow. It's right next to Amundsen High School.  There were children in the park and also students from the high school out practicing baseball.  I love that this is very much 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.  

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35898158

Eastern Phoebe/Winnemac Park. Photograph Geoffrey Williamson 2017.

Eastern Phoebe/Winnemac Park. Photograph Geoffrey Williamson 2017.

Warren Park: 

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. 

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S35899527

Adventure pairs well with: Tiffin on Devon. The Nerd: Chicken Vindaloo.The Bird: Paneer Makhani.  Both had mango lassi + shared garlic naan.

 

Adventure Log: 17 April 2017

West Ridge Nature Preserve:  

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. 

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36037321

Tree Swallow/West Ridge Nature Preserve. Photograph: Geoffrey Williamson 2017.

Tree Swallow/West Ridge Nature Preserve. Photograph: Geoffrey Williamson 2017.

Rosehill Cemetery:  

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.

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36041629

Adventure pairs well with: Pannenkoeken Cafe.  We’ve both never had Dutch pancakes before. Wow! Wauw! 

 

Adventure Log: 24 April 2017

Big Marsh:  

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 me to Geoffrey Williamson 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.  Geoffrey Williamson, Big Marsh and the birds did not disappoint!  Yay for Sora and Virginia Rail lifers! This might be one of my favorite birding moments ever - I can still "hear" there calls!   Thank you Geoffrey Williamson!  High-five!  

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36226416

Washington Park:

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 so its been 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.  The early migrants have pretty much made their way through.  It's still exciting to see a Brown Creeper because by this time, most of them have made their way through the city.  Then you have other birds like the Warbling Vireo and Yellow-rumped Warblers that have just started to come through.  

eBird list of birds we saw: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist/S36229682

Adventure pairs well with: Plein Air Cafe: Proper coffee and yummy shared pastries: apple danish and almond croissant. 

The Nerd, Geoffrey Williamson and The Bird, Jennifer Hoffman.

The Nerd, Geoffrey Williamson and The Bird, Jennifer Hoffman.

What's the Big Bird(ing) Idea?

Concept/Design. Jennifer Hoffman. Copyright 2017.

Concept/Design. Jennifer Hoffman. Copyright 2017.

Word from the Bird:

I don't own a car, so when I wanted to start “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 “birder” asked if I was “going to the opera”…there were many exchanges with “birders,” as I was trying to learn how to bird.  There were also weird and scary interactions with 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, he 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. 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...but I still wanted (and needed) to find a mentor that I could connect to. 

Common Loon. Jennifer Hoffman. 2014. haad studio

Common Loon. Jennifer Hoffman. 2014.

haad studio

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 “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 of the opportunity to experience so many amazing birds.  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!  

Mural at Loyola Beach Park. 

Mural at Loyola Beach Park. 

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!  The lesson here is that your greatest teachers and friends aren’t necessarily the same as you.

Krebs Cycle of Creativity.

Krebs Cycle of Creativity.

As a Bird Who Loves Birds, I wanted to see what would happen if we collaborated from our different points of view 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.  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.  I hope that together, Geoffrey Williamson and I can inspire you to be more curious and want to explore and experience the joy of these birds and Chicago with an approach that is open, unique and FUN.  

Yes Please. Jennifer Hoffman 2017. Bird Who Loves Birds

Yes Please. Jennifer Hoffman 2017.

Bird Who Loves Birds

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, Geoffrey Williamson and The Bird, Jennifer Hoffman.

The Nerd, Geoffrey Williamson and The Bird, Jennifer Hoffman.


The Nerd and the Bird’s mission:
 
Through our collaboration in art and science - we hope to encourage curiosity, exploration, understanding, joy and connection to the birds and neighborhoods of Chicago.

Guidelines/Considerations:

Neighborhood birding is the priority.
Close to transit or in walking/biking distance. Urban!
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 and hopefully inspire you to do the same in your own neighborhood. We’re the Lewis and Clark (or rather Louise and Clark)...Daniel and Danielle Boone of urban birding in Chicago!  High-five, let’s go! 
 

The Nerd and The Bird: Our Stories

Concept/Design Jennifer Hoffman. Copyright 2017.

Concept/Design Jennifer Hoffman. Copyright 2017.

About the Nerd:

This is a photo from 1965 of the house where I grew up.  That's me sitting on the front porch. 

This is a photo from 1965 of the house where I grew up.  That's me sitting on the front porch. 

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.

Photo of "The Pond" and our house from 1964.  

Photo of "The Pond" and our house from 1964.  

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.

Birding in Illinois in the 1990's.

Birding in Illinois in the 1990's.

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!

Working my standard survey route at Montrose Point.

Working my standard survey route at Montrose Point.

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.

Fishhook Pier at Montrose Point, preparing to do a dawn lake watch.  Photograph by Rob Curtis.

Fishhook Pier at Montrose Point, preparing to do a dawn lake watch.  Photograph by Rob Curtis.

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.”  

 

About the Bird:

Me in deep discussion with my grandparents' chocolate Dalmation, Nipper (I wear pants now - but still talk to dogs).

Me in deep discussion with my grandparents' chocolate Dalmation, Nipper (I wear pants now - but still talk to dogs).

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.  

Visiting Easter male peacock in the courtyard.

Visiting Easter male peacock in the courtyard.

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!  

Crow. Aaron Arendt.

Crow. Aaron Arendt.

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 Nature 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.

Bowerbird House. 2007. Jennifer Hoffman. 

Bowerbird House. 2007. Jennifer Hoffman. 

I’m someone who got interested in actual “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 coming 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 that these small creatures and their details are all part of this bigger picture.

Collision: Smurfit-Stone Building | Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Jennifer Hoffman. 2015.

Collision: Smurfit-Stone Building | Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Jennifer Hoffman. 2015.

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.

Immature male Northern Parula 

Immature male Northern Parula 

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. Trauma. 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 hope you enjoy The Nerd and The Bird as we celebrate these birds and Chicago.

Scarlet Tanager and Northern Parula. Jennifer Hoffman. 2017.

Scarlet Tanager and Northern Parula. Jennifer Hoffman. 2017.