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!
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.
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. 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!!!
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: 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
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.
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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.