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! Many of the places we explored were completely new to me and it was fun to try and capture their unique character. Most places 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, thanks to Geoffrey Williamson, which helps with learning how to predict what is going to come through and when. Please 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 looking 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 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.
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 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. The Chipping Sparrow has a bright rusty crown that looks like a "toupee"…I love birds with “toupees” - especially the Wilson’s Warbler!
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
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 seen 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. 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 were 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