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Warblers: Rock Star Migrators

Sat, 05/12/2018 - 11:11am

Today is National Migratory Bird Day, set smack dab in the middle of May—the month to look for warblers, vireos, thrushes, sparrows, and some shorebirds, as they migrate through the Chicago area.

Most birders might agree that the highlight this time of year is warblers. It is for me—they are tiny jewels with wings. I feel totally blessed if I can see a few during migration.

Since these birds are so small, they usually wait for favorable winds to help them travel. Any night with southerly winds will have the birds moving; new birds arrive while others depart. Every year is different, so it pays to watch the weather report if you want to see these beauties while they are passing through. The good news is that there are a few warblers that actually nest in our area, so if you miss them during migration you can often find the nesting birds later in the summer.

Palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum)

A great place to look for warblers, like this palm warbler (Setophaga palmarum), is in all the willow trees around the Garden.

Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina)

A less common warbler is this beautiful Cape May warbler (Setophaga tigrina).

Pine warbler (Setophaga pinus)

I found this guy, you guessed it, in a pine tree. (He’s a pine warbler, Setophaga pinus.)

Yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia)

A yellow warbler (Setophaga petechia) looks for insects. These golden birds actually nest at the Garden.

Knowing when they arrive is only half the challenge. Where they will land is the second part. I’ve been surprised on many occasions to find warblers in very public places. If there is a tree, some green, or water, you have a chance at spotting a warbler. If you see a tiny bird, quickly darting in and out of a tree, there is a good chance you have found a warbler. Oaks and willow trees are particular favorites.

The birds need a food supply along the way to fuel their journey. Most of them are insect eaters, and some supplement their diet with seeds and nectar from flowers. While the cold spring delayed the plants a bit, the insects come out as soon as it is above freezing and you can see the birds darting around eating as many as they can. If you want to attract warblers to your yard, plant native trees and shrubs in your yard and be sure to add a shallow water dish.

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Here you can see how this warbler got its name. The yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata) is one of the most common warblers you will see here.

Orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata)

A very understated orange-crowned warbler (Vermivora celata) keeps an eye on me.

Black-and-white warbler (Mniotilta varia)

Black-and-white warblers (Mniotilta varia) can be found hopping up and down the bark of trees looking for insects.

Migrating birds are one of nature’s greatest wonders. Different birds migrate at different times of the year, but all told, millions of birds make the trip north and south each year, navigating all sorts of hazards along the way. I am in awe of these tiny birds that travel so many miles. They are the elite athletes of the avian world.

The cooler than average spring did allow a few loons to stay longer than usual around the Garden. It was really fun seeing them stealthily appear from seemingly out of nowhere. A major rarity showed up for just one day, a white-faced ibis. I was lucky to be around to see it; a first for me, and I believe the Garden as well.

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi)

Wow, what a treat! I’ve never seen this bird before. White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) is a very rare visitor to the area.

The first wave of warblers arrived early in May and many from that group have moved on, although you can still see palm, yellow-rumped, black-and-white, and Nashville warblers at the Garden now. There should be several more waves before the month is over, as well as a few interesting sparrows and vireos. Warblers migrate at slightly different times. There are those that show up at the end of April and early May, those that you will see mid-month, and a few late ones that show up at the very end of the month. I like to go out every day in May, just in case a new wave of warblers has shown up, I hope you will too!

Warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus)

The warbling vireo (Vireo gilvus)—not a warbler, but its song sounds like one.

Join me and #birdthepreserves this month. My top five migration places to visit in the spring are the Chicago Botanic Garden, Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary (the magic hedge) in Chicago, The Grove in Glenview, LaBagh Woods in Chicago, and Ryerson Woods in Deerfield.

Photos ©2018 Carol Freeman Photography
©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Food for Thought—and for Birds

Fri, 01/05/2018 - 9:34am

To feed, or not to feed, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of empty bird feeders,
Or to take arms against a sea of winter cold
And by opposing it, feed them.

I hope William Shakespeare doesn’t mind me modifying his famous lines a little, but you get the idea. When winter arrives, we see the birds all fluffed-up out in the cold and wind and snow and feel the need to “save them,” or at least make their lives easier. For the most part, birds are perfectly capable of dealing with the weather and finding food. Most of the birds that are not able to cope have long since migrated south for the winter. Therefore, we mainly feed birds for our own benefit. It provides an opportunity to view birds up close, watch their behavior, and have a sense of doing our part for nature. 

Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

Common redpoll (Acanthis flammea)

There are positive and negative things about feeding birds.

On the negative side, there is the way feeders concentrate many birds in a small area, making it easier for diseases to spread among the population. The concentration also might make them more susceptible to predation. Drawing birds closer to your home can make them susceptible to window collisions. Feeding birds can also attract unwanted animals like rats, pigeons, English sparrows, European starlings, raccoons, and house cats allowed to run outdoors.

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

Yellow-rumped warbler (Setophaga coronata)

On the positive side, some studies have shown that access to feeding stations increases winter populations of some species. More chickadees may survive a severe winter if food is provided than if they are totally on their own. (There is the question of whether it is truly a benefit to the population to have more individuals survive if some of those individuals are weak, genetically compromised, or carrying disease, but that is another matter.) 

I think the greatest benefit to feeding birds is the connection it provides between people and nature.

In a society when people have become much more distanced from nature, feeding birds is perhaps the simplest and easiest way to make that connection. This important link to nature far outweighs any negative impacts of bird feeding. For instance, one additional benefit is the opportunity to get involved in citizen science projects. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology in New York has a Feeder Watch Program that allows members of the public to collect important population data on birds visiting their yards. It is also possible to reduce negative impacts by following a few general rules. 

Pine siskin (Spinus pinus)

Pine siskin (Spinus pinus)

Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Downy woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)

Generally, feeding birds above ground in some type of feeder is better than placing food on the ground. This will limit the number of mammals that are attracted to the feeding station. The type of feeder can limit the size and types of birds you want to feed. Tubular feeders with small (or no) perches tend to prevent large birds from accessing the food. Tubular thistle feeders have very small holes designed to provide access to the small thistle seed, limiting use to species like goldfinches, siskins, and redpolls. Applying any of a number of guards to the pole or line that supports the feeder can prevent mammals like squirrels and raccoons from getting to the feeder. If you do want to place food on the ground for ground-feeding birds like juncos and tree sparrows, place only small quantities of seed on the ground so it gets used up before the end of the day.

Robins (Turdus americanus) warming themselves on sun-heated pavement.

Robins (Turdus americanus) warm themselves on sun-heated pavement.

It is also important to think about cover for the birds. It is better to place a feeder where birds have access to some type of cover, like shrubs or evergreens. This gives them an escape route if predators—like hawks—show up. Trees and shrubs can also moderate climatic conditions around the feeder.

Keeping feeders reasonably clean is also important when it comes to reducing any disease problems that might occurs as you draw more birds to your yard. This is particularly important for tubular feeders, where birds are in much closer contact with the feeder. Washing with a weak bleach solution periodically is recommended.

What kind of food should you provide to the birds? Almost every study I have ever seen has found that the small black-oil sunflower seed is the seed preferred by the greatest variety of birds. When a seed is preferred by more species, there is less seed that gets wasted or scattered on the ground to attract unwanted birds and mammals. Although woodpeckers will also use the small sunflower seeds, they much prefer suet feeders. When shopping for suet, try to find brands that are primarily animal fat with few other ingredients like corn, millet, or milo seed.

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) in winter plumage

American goldfinches (Spinus tristis) in winter plumage

Slate-colored dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

Slate-colored dark-eyed junco (Junco hyemalis)

Some ingredients that are beneficial are peanut pieces, hulled sunflower seed, and pieces of fruit. Generally, suet feeders do not have perches, so this limits the birds that can access the food. (One exception is the European starling that can be a problem on suet feeders. I have found that placing suet on the underside of a board allows access to woodpeckers and nuthatches, but makes it much more difficult for starlings to hang on.) Another benefit of suet is that it provides food for migrating birds that may have remained behind for various reasons. We have a yellow-rumped warbler visiting our suet feeder on a daily basis. Thistle seed is especially attractive to a variety of winter finch species. Because of its small size, it generally requires using specially designed feeders that cater to small finch species. In most cases, the cheaper brands of mixed seed often contain unpreferred seeds that serve as fillers in the mixes. It is better to avoid these, as they can produce increased waste grain that can attract unwanted guests.

Water is another good thing to provide for birds in winter. Obviously, most water sources are frozen, so it is necessary to use a bird bath heater to keep water open and available in the cold. Another nice thing about water is that it will attract birds that might not normally visit a feeding station, especially as temperatures warm up. Some people who have kept a species list for birds visiting their yards have found that their list more than doubles once water is provided.

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

Northern cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)

One last point to keep in mind is that the appearance of birds at your feeder can change due to fluctuating weather patterns. If we experience a period of mild weather, the birds may be off finding naturally available food and not find it necessary to come to you feeder. You may experience a week or more when almost no birds show up at your feeder. This is a normal occurrence and should not be considered an indication of some environmental problem affecting the health of the local bird population.

So if you have a desire to get more involved with the birds in your yard, follow these few simple guidelines and let the enjoyment begin.

©2018 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Eastern screech-owl: Tiny hunter of the night

Tue, 11/01/2016 - 8:52am

In the middle of the night, an 8-inch bundle of feathers and hollow bones projects a haunting, mysterious sound. It sounds like the rising and falling whinny of a horse, followed by a piercing tremolo. Though it sounds far away, the bird—an eastern screech-owl—could likely be right above your head (that is, if you are out in the middle of the woods at night).

Young eastern screech-owl. Photo by Carol Freeman.

Young eastern screech-owl Photo © Carol Freeman

A year-round, common resident of northern Illinois, the eastern screech-owl, (Megascops asio) is primarily found in woodlands; it prefers trees with natural cavities near a field with a stream or shallow river. But it can also be found in wooded residential neighborhoods, possibly even in your backyard. It could be lurking in a small tree cavity during the day, snoozing while waiting for its evening foray to your back porch light to catch a moth.

The eastern screech-owl comes in two color morphs—red (rufous) and gray. Ornithologists aren’t sure why, but they do know parent morphs of the same or different colors can producer young of either color. Those who get a look at this owl under moonlight or in its daytime roosting hole will see a dark streaking on the owl’s breast that blends well with the tree’s bark. It has a 20-inch wingspan, piercing yellow eyes, and tiny ear tufts. (Actually, these are not ears, but rather feather tufts it can move to communicate or use for camouflage.) As with most owls, the ears of the eastern screech-owl are situated asymmetrically on either side of its head—one is higher than the other. This arrangement enables it to zero in on its prey through triangulation, by turning its head to the left and right and moving it up and down a few times.

The Chicago Botanic Garden regularly holds programs offering visitors a chance to learn about the habits of Illinois owls as well as hear and see the diminutive eastern screech-owl. Join us November 11 and January 20 for our next Owl Prowl sessions.

These owls will nest in a natural cavity or man-made nest box, adding no material of their own. The female lays four to five white, round eggs and incubates them for about 26 days. The male brings her food when she’s on the eggs and also after they hatch. She breaks up the prey into morsels to feed her young. In another 26 to 30 days, the young fledge, but they remain dependent on the parents for food for a few months longer before heading out on their own to hunt.

 An eastern screech-owl snuggles in to its nest in winter. Photo by Carol Freeman.

An eastern screech-owl snuggles into its nest in winter. Photo © Carol Freeman

What do they hunt? An eclectic diet: eastern screech-owls eat moles, mice, shrews, and flying squirrels year-round, but also prey on cicadas, crickets, moths, and worms during warmer months. Like other owls, the screech-owl regurgitates pellets that contain undigestible fur and bones. Finding pellets beneath a tree is one clue to its presence. 

You can purchase screech-owl boxes and hang them in a tree in your wooded backyard with hopes of attracting them to nest. At night, listen for the mysterious whinny of the screech-owl near a woodland. You never know how close one may be. Or on a sunny day, especially in winter, look at natural cavities and trees—you might see a screech-owl snoozing at the entrance.

The eastern screech-owl is the October bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Red-Bellied Woodpecker: Colorful Year-Round Woodland Denizen

Mon, 10/03/2016 - 8:39am

When someone first hears the name of the red-bellied woodpecker, it doesn’t make sense. The bird has a bright red crown and nape, but where’s the red belly? Actually, there is a small pinkish tinge on the bird’s stomach, but it’s difficult to see unless you look for it with binoculars (and if it’s not covered with gray feathers).

 A red-bellied woodpecker looking for food. Photo by Carol Freeman.

A red-bellied woodpecker looking for food. Its eclectic diet consists of nuts, berries, seeds, insects, and suet from feeders. Photo © Carol Freeman

Unfortunately, the name “red-headed woodpecker” was already taken by another bird—incidentally, much rarer in northern Illinois—so ornithologists named this common, year-round bird the red-bellied woodpecker.

The red-bellied woodpecker (Melanerpes carolinus) has creamy-to-white underparts, and a black-and-white, zebra-patterned back. The male’s forehead is red; the female’s is creamy white. (By contrast, the red-headed woodpecker’s entire head is blood red, and its back is solid black with white patches on the wings.) The red-bellied woodpecker’s preferred year-round habitat is woodlands, and the oak, pine hardwood, and maple forests of the eastern United States. Occasionally, it can be found in wooded suburban neighborhoods.

Woodpeckers have long, barbed tongues. A woodpecker’s tongue is so long that when it is not extending it to grab a meal deep within a crevice, it pulls it in, and wraps it around the inside back wall of its skull, almost to its nostril holes. Because they can get food from deep within a tree instead of relying on what is readily available, they are well-suited to spend winter in northern Illinois, when other insect-eating birds need to move south.  

 Female red-bellied woodpecker.

Female red-bellied woodpecker by www.birdphotos.com [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

If a red-bellied woodpecker visits your yard, you may be able to observe some interesting behavior: the woodpecker puts a nut into the crevice of tree bark, then hits the nut with its beak to get to the yummy morsel inside. It also may store the food there to eat later.

The woodpecker makes its presence known in woodlands and yards or at feeders by calling “querr” or “cherr-cherr” several times, or giving various chattering sounds. Its boisterous noises and colorful plumage add cheer to a cold winter’s day.

In February or March, the male red-bellied woodpecker begins seeking places to excavate cylindrical cavities—in dead trees or dead limbs of trees—and enticing a female to mate and lay eggs, which happens in late March and early April.

As with many birds, red-bellied woodpeckers will nest in the same location year after year. The male typically builds a new cavity—often in the same tree, near the old one—each season. The nest cavity is from 10 to 14 inches deep and usually built on a limb (as opposed to the trunk). The female lays four to five white eggs each season, and both parents incubate the eggs for about 12 days and take care of the nestlings, which fledge in another 24 to 27 days.

Numbers of this beautiful, common bird have grown across most of its range over the past 50 years, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Once most common and found mostly in central and southern Illinois, it has expanded its range northward in the state in the past century, including into northern Illinois, where it had been decidedly rare in the early twentieth century.

The red-bellied woodpecker is the November bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org. Additional photos by Ken Thomas and Tom Friedel.

Black-Capped Chickadees Are Preparing for Winter

Wed, 09/14/2016 - 10:08am

Chick-a-dee-dee-dee.

Most people recognize that familiar call of the black-capped chickadee. It’s often heard in late summer and fall as chickadees gather in family groups and small feeding flocks to prepare for the winter.

The chickadee’s song—translated as “Hey, sweetie,” (though you can’t often hear the third syllable)—is reserved for late winter, spring, and summer, when the bird is courting and nesting. Nothing brightens a mid-February day more than when a chickadee sings because to those who hear it, the song signals spring’s arrival.

 Black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus). Photo © Carol Freeman.

Because of its curiosity and propensity to visit feeders, the black-capped chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) can often introduce youngsters and adults to bird-watching. Its telltale black cap and throat with white cheeks makes it easy to identify. Photo © Carol Freeman

The black-capped chickadee is the September bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; there is a free walk at the Garden on September 17, 7:30 to 9 a.m.

The black-capped chickadee is considered a non-migratory species—it can survive the harsh winters of northern Illinois. These birds can lower their body temperature when sleeping at night, which protects them from freezing.

While some birds need to leave the region in fall because insects and other food will soon become difficult to find, chickadees know how to find insect larvae overwintering in tree bark (although flocks of chickadees do make small geographic movements, depending on food availability in colder months).

They also stash seeds to eat later, and unlike squirrels, they remember where they put them. Chickadees eat berries and animal fat in winter, and they readily come to feeders feasting on seeds and suet. Supplemental food, especially sunflower seed from feeders has been shown to help these little balls of feather and hollow bones survive when it gets really cold and wet outside. Those who feed birds can observe an interesting behavior in chickadees—they form a hierarchy, meaning the top chickadee gets to eat at the feeder first—it snatches a seed and leaves, then the second in command gets its turn.

 berries.

A black-capped chickadee enjoys a plentiful and tasty treat in early February: berries.

In February, chickadees begin singing and looking for a cavity hole in which to nest—and there’s a wide variety of homes they’ll find suitable. They’ll choose abandoned woodpecker cavities and man-made nest boxes, or excavate their own small, natural cavities. Chickadees will nest in rotted, old wooden fence posts and abandoned mailboxes, and a pair once built a nest in an old shoe hanging from a line.

The female builds a cup-shaped nest with moss for the foundation, lining it with rabbit fur or other soft material. She has one brood each year, laying an average of seven to eight eggs. After 12 days of incubation, the young hatch, then remain in the nest for another 16 days. When they fledge, they continue to follow their parents, calling and begging for food. Come winter, they travel in small feeding groups, often with nuthatches, titmice, and other small songbirds.

West Nile, which came to the U.S. about 17 years ago, likely may not have affected black-capped chickadees as much as some thought, according to a recent study.

Though people were seeing fewer chickadees in their backyards and in woodlands when the virus came to the region, a 2015 study showed that overall black-capped chickadee numbers have not been affected by the mosquito-borne disease, especially compared with other species. Studies will continue on how the virus is affecting bird populations—but one thing is for certain—when the virus struck, it reminded humans not to take for granted the common birds they enjoy. And the black-capped chickadee is certainly a species that humans enjoy watching and hearing.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Ruby-throated hummingbird migration begins

Mon, 08/01/2016 - 9:11am

In August, when the jewelweed and cardinal flowers bloom, the ruby-throated hummingbird is migrating. It’s perfect timing, because the hummingbirds get energy for their journey southward by sipping nectar from the blossoms of these plants native to northern Illinois.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird photo © Carol Freeman

Ruby-throated hummingbird © Carol Freeman


The ruby-throated hummingbird is the August bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; there are two free upcoming walks at the Garden.

 A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in the Circle Garden in summer.

The ruby-throat is the only hummingbird to breed in eastern North America, and these tiny jewels are somewhat common nesters in Cook County woodlands. They become more numerous in late summer and fall, as those that nested farther north pass through on their way to their winter homes in Mexico and Central America.

The ruby-throated hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) wears emerald green on its back and crown, and in good light, the male reveals an iridescent red throat. (During fall migration, you’ll see males as well as females and young, both of which lack the ruby throat.)

They return to Illinois in April and May, seeking nectar from early blooming trees and shrubs as well as insects and spiders.

It’s at this time you might get lucky enough to observe the courting male as he flies in a U-shape and also buzzes in front of a perched female. Buzzes? Yes! Hummingbirds aren’t silent—you can hear their wings buzz and vocalizations from their throats when they’re defending feeding territory or seeking a mate.

The female builds a thimble-sized cup nest on a horizontal branch, adding grasses and spider webs, lining it with plant down and then covering the outside with lichens and dead leaves. The young hatch in about 15 days, and remain in the nest for another 20 days or so as the female brings them insects.

An aerial wonder, the ruby-throated hummingbird, can beat its wings 53 times per second, and can fly backward and upside down.

You can attract ruby-throated hummingbirds to your yard by planting the flowers they love—tubular and brightly colored in red hues—and by putting up feeders. Hummingbirds are fun to watch at feeders as they have spats in flight trying to hoard the food to themselves. 

To make hummingbird food, add ¼ cup white sugar to 1 cup boiled distilled water. Stir to dissolve, then cool before you put it into the feeder. It’s not necessary to put red food coloring in the water. Use a red feeder to attract the hummers. Hang out of direct sunlight, and clean and refill often.

Most ruby-throated hummingbirds are gone by the end of October in this area. You can put your feeders back up in April when they return.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Osprey: Fish-eater returns as breeder in Cook County

Thu, 07/07/2016 - 11:38am

Several decades ago, an osprey would be a rare—if not impossible—sight in Cook County in the summer. But now, thanks to the ban on certain pesticides (including DDT), and the creation of osprey nesting platforms, the fish-eating bird is breeding again in local forest preserves.

The osprey looks somewhat like an adult bald eagle, but doesn’t have the eagle’s full white head or tail. Instead, it has a broad brown band through the eye, a brown back, and white belly. An osprey flies with a crook in its wings. Immature bald eagles, with their mottled black and white plumage, can easily be mistaken for ospreys. In summer, visitors can watch an osprey (Pandion haliaetus)—with its 6-foot wingspan—soar above a lake, then plunge in to snatch a meal with its talons to bring to its young. 

 Osprey in flight.

Osprey in flight
Photo © Carol Freeman

Once endangered in Illinois, the osprey disappeared as a breeding bird from Illinois about 60 years ago. Scientists think, as with the bald eagle, that when the osprey ingested certain pesticides, the chemicals caused its eggs to thin and crumble during brooding. After DDT was banned, state biologists hoped the osprey would return to breed in Illinois. But the bird needed some help, including cleaning up local waterways and providing nesting areas.

In the 1990s, Cook County Forest Preserves officials, following the lead of biologists in other states, began erecting osprey nesting platforms—40-inch-wide platforms atop 50-foot-tall posts—in the preserves, hoping the ospreys would use them to nest.

It worked. The tall structures gave the ospreys a 360-degree view of their surroundings, something scientists say the birds need when choosing a nesting spot. Today, at least a dozen osprey pairs breed in Cook County, with several more in other nearby counties.

This year, the Chicago Botanic Garden installed an osprey nesting platform, and is waiting to see if a pair will find it to their liking.

According to officials of the Cook County Forest Preserves, 12 osprey pairs bred on man-made platforms in the county in 2014, including at Long John Slough at the Little Red Schoolhouse in Willow Springs. A pair of osprey tending to their nest atop a platform was photographed at Saganashkee Slough in the Palos Preserves this year by Wes Serafin, a long-time proponent of helping ospreys return as a breeding species to Cook County.

 An osprey keeps a tight grip on lunch.

An osprey keeps a tight grip on lunch.
Photo © Carol Freeman

The ospreys return in April, often to the same platform they used the previous year. They build a nest of sticks atop the platform, adding new ones each year. The female lays three to four eggs, which hatch in about 38 days. While she broods, the male fiercely defends their territory and brings food to his mate. The young remain in the nest for about two months, begging constantly for food. Then they take their first flights off the platform.

Watching an osprey grab a meal can be fascinating. The bird appears as if it is going to plunge head-first into the water, but then it straightens its head and grasps the fish with its talons. Two forward-facing and two backward-facing toes have sharp spines that enable the bird to clutch the fish. Occasionally an osprey will grab a fish too heavy for it to carry, in which case the osprey might drop it, and try for another meal.

The osprey that nest in northern Illinois in summer spend winters in Florida, Mexico, and South America.

The Illinois Department of Natural Resources is now in the fourth year of their program designed to bring more osprey to the state to increase the number of breeding pairs.

The osprey is the July bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Great Egret: Graceful White Wader

Mon, 06/06/2016 - 8:48am

The elegant flight and bright white plumage of the great egret (Ardea alba) belie its harsh croak when it takes off from a marsh. It was this bird’s beauty that nearly led to its demise at the turn of the twentieth century, when these and other waders were hunted for their feathery plumes that women wore in their hats.

Since then, the great egret, standing more than 3 feet tall with a nearly 5-foot wing span, has become the symbol for the National Audubon Society, founded in part to stop these birds from being killed to extinction.

Great egrets spend winter as far south as the West Indies, Central America, and South America. In spring, they migrate in small flocks during the day, eventually choosing a place farther north to raise young in nests close to trees and shrubs called colonies, often with other large waders including the great blue heron.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret (Ardea alba) fishes; in the background is a great blue heron. Photo © Carol Freeman

During breeding season, a patch of skin on the bird’s face turns green, contrasting with the bright yellow bill. Males perform fancy courtship displays, opening up and fluffing their white plumes that grow to extend beyond their backs.

Both male and female build a platform-style nest of sticks in a tree or shrub often toward the top and above or near water. The female lays three to four greenish-blue eggs and gets help from her mate during incubation. 

When the young hatch in about 24 days, the nestlings begin their incessant croaking—getting louder as they grow older—and beg for regurgitated food from their parents.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret in flight over the lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

The great egret mostly eats fish, but it also dines on frogs, snakes, and aquatic insects such as dragonflies, and even grasshoppers and rodents in fields near their nesting territories.

The egret wades slowly through the water up to its belly looking for prey. Suddenly, it will stop and stand still, its motionless legs likely looking like branches to a fish, which will come closer, and then get snatched up by the hungry wader. The bird swallows the prey head first, sometimes having to flip it up in the air and catch it so it will be in the right direction to go down smoothly.

Come late summer and autumn, great egrets gather in loose feeding flocks, sometimes creating a sea of white in a wetland and a stunning spectacle for observers.

 Great egret (Ardea alba).

A great egret wades in the Skokie Lagoons. Photo © Carol Freeman

Once on the state endangered species list, the great egret is doing well in Illinois; however, habitat loss and water pollution may threaten its future. Visit Baker’s Lake in Barrington to watch the great egret during breeding season and McGinnis Slough in Palos Park late summer to watch large feeding flocks as they head south for the winter.

The great egret is the June bird species highlighted by the Forest Preserves of Cook County. Come #birdthepreserves with the FPDCC; view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Spring is for the Birds at the Garden

Sat, 05/14/2016 - 8:08am

“Baltimore oriole,” my husband Chuck called out—and there it was, its orange coloring glowing so brightly in the morning sun that it seemed lit from within. The bird almost seemed to be posing for us, perching in full view on a nearby tree branch and bobbing its black head as it sang.

Al Stokie, our expert birding companion, recorded it in his notebook; it would become part of the weekly bird survey he supplies to the Chicago Botanic Garden.

We continued on our walk through a wonder of the natural world that anyone in the Chicago area can see for the price of a pair of binoculars: spring bird migration.

Every spring, small, colorful warblers fly through the Chicago area on their way from their winter homes in Central and South America to their nesting grounds in the northern United States, Canada, and as far north as the Arctic Circle. And every year, birders at the Garden and beyond delight in the sight.

“In May, you always go crazy,” said Stokie, who has become the official compiler of the Garden’s bird statistics.

Cape may warbler.

Cape May warbler

Blackburnian warbler.

Blackburnian warbler

But May isn’t just for experienced birders; the birds are so numerous and their breeding plumage so gorgeous that it’s a perfect time for anyone to explore bird-watching. The 385 acres of the Garden are an excellent place to start. “The Garden is a pretty well-known spot for birding,” said Jim Steffen, the senior ecologist who oversees the Garden’s bird-friendly practices and its cumulative bird list, which currently numbers 255 species.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

FPDCC Bird of the Month chart.

Learn about the bird of the month at birding events at your local forest preserves.

And this year, the Garden is partnering with the Forest Preserves of Cook County’s #birdthepreserves initiative. There are events at the preserves, and a different bird is featured each month. (In May, it’s the Baltimore oriole.) There’s even a good-natured competition to see which site can record the most bird species. 

Where to look for birds at the Garden? It depends.

“You bird the Garden at different times of the year in different places,” Stokie said. “May is warbler month, and warblers are found in the woods.” So he started us off in the McDonald Woods, in the Garden’s northeast corner. We walked along the wood-chipped path, and on boardwalks and bridges over streams and ephemeral ponds, watching for movement in the trees. It was a blustery morning. “Our problem today is going to be the wind,” Stokie said, and he was right. We saw blue-gray gnatcatchers, catbirds, ovenbirds, and that beautiful oriole. And when we got to a small forest pond, we saw a solitary sandpiper scurrying through the water on its stick-like legs.

Stokie saw far more than I did—he recorded 48 species—but we didn’t get the full-on spring migration blast of birds.

You might, though.

The peak of spring migration is typically May 10 – 20, and International Migratory Bird Day is May 14. Most of the warblers will still be moving through in the next few weeks, Steffen said, and there should be flycatchers, goldfinches, woodpeckers, and orioles. Around the Garden Lakes, he said, people can see wood ducks, mallards, night herons, green herons, and great blue herons.

Great blue heron.

Great blue heron

Ruby-crowned kinglet.

Ruby-crowned kinglet

It’s a grand sight. But along with the beauty, Steffen sees cause for concern due to climate change. Trees are leafing out earlier, before the warblers—cued by the lengthening of days—arrive. “The buds are already open, and the insects associated with them are gone,” Steffen said. “It’s messing up the synchronization.”

The best places to see birds at the Garden in spring, Stokie says, depend on the bird. Warblers and vireos will be in woodlands like the McDonald Woods and the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the Garden’s southeast corner. Sparrows will be in open areas like the Dixon Prairie; and shorebirds and late migrating ducks will be found in the wet areas just north of Dundee Road.

Hairy woodpecker.

Hairy woodpecker

Sign up for a bird walk with an expert. The Garden will have a spring migration walk on May 21. 

Or go to any forest preserve or park. Look for people with binoculars, and ask what they’re seeing. You’ll be off and birding.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Baltimore Oriole: Suburban Garden Songster

Sat, 05/07/2016 - 8:32am

In early May, when the leaves of maples are unfolding into a soft green, the Baltimore oriole (Icterus galbula) returns, giving his liquid “tea-dear-dear” song in suburban yards and forest preserve edges.

Homeowners who put oranges and grape jelly in feeders are often rewarded with a look at the male with his black head and back contrasting with his brilliant orange breast as he eats a spring meal.

 A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines.

A male Baltimore oriole sits amid the grapevines. Photo © Carol Freeman

Later, the female, with a dusky-colored head and yellowish-orange breast, will come. If she sees some 12-inch-long soft strings of light-colored yarn put out by humans, she may snatch them to make her nest. A common breeding bird of open woodlands, natural spaces, gardens, and parklands, the oriole has returned from its winter in the South: Florida, the Caribbean islands, southern Mexico, Central America, and northern South America.

 A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring.

A female Baltimore oriole enjoys nectar from an apple blossom in the spring. Photo © Carol Freeman

By May, Baltimore orioles have arrived in the eastern United States to set up breeding territories. To get her attention, the male hops around the female, spreads his wings, and bows forward. The female responds by fanning her tail, fluttering her wings, and chattering. The female weaves plant fibers including grapevine bark, grass, and other materials such as yarn (and even horsehair) to build a hanging, pendulous, pouch-like nest. Typically, orioles nest about 20 to 40 feet high at the end of a branch. Their preferred locations are on cottonwoods, American elms, and maples.

 Baltimore oriole nest.

The Baltimore oriole nest is a labor of love. Photo © Carol Freeman

In his Life Histories of North American Birds series, Arthur Cleveland Bent noted that the oriole is “perhaps the most skillful artisan of any North American bird.” Those lucky enough to see an oriole nest will most likely agree. It can take a week to ten days for the female to complete her nest. She’ll then lay three to seven pale eggs blotched with brown, which hatch in 11 to 14 days. The young remain in the nest for another 11 to 14 days, getting fed constantly by their parents, until they’re able to hop out onto a branch, exercise their wings, and then fledge.

These colorful birds eat insects, fruit, and nectar, (and grape jelly!), and can help keep populations of pests such as gypsy moth caterpillars in check. Agile members of the blackbird family, orioles can hang upside down and walk across twigs, or fly directly from perches to grab flying insects. Besides the “tea-dear-dear” song, orioles also give a series of chatters and scolding notes, which can alert you to their presence.

As summer goes on, the orioles seem to disappear, spending most of their time feeding young and less time singing and chattering. But come mid-August to early September, the orioles start singing again—often shorter songs—before they leave for winter vacation.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County, view the list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

For Some Birds, Constructing a Nest Could Be a Stretch

Mon, 04/18/2016 - 8:32am

While working out in the woods this winter, a small lump on the branch of a young elm tree caught my attention. At first I thought it might be a gall, or an injury that had healed-over. On closer inspection, the lump turned out to be a ruby-throated hummingbird nest from last summer. 

Although I see hummingbirds regularly at the Chicago Botanic Garden, I rarely encounter one of their nests. Hummingbirds themselves are amazing, but their nests are truly a marvel of avian architecture. Not much larger in diameter than a quarter, they are just large enough to hold the one to three navy bean-sized eggs of the hummer. For the pint-sized bird to be able to keep the tiny eggs warm during incubation requires that the nest be not much larger than her body. 

 Hummingbird nest and quarter (for scale).

Not much larger than a quarter, the ruby-throated hummingbird nest is an engineering marvel.

This is all well and good until the eggs hatch. Growing young hummingbirds can double or triple the amount of room necessary to hold the family. One of the ways the hummingbirds get around this need for flexibility is that they construct the nest of soft plant fibers and then wrap the whole thing with spiderweb silk. This creates an elastic nest that has the ability to expand as the contents of the nest increases. Can you imagine yourself going out and plucking a strand of sticky silk from a spider web with your fingers and then trying to use it to build something out of lightweight fuzzy plant fibers? I imagine you might find yourself wrapped up in a ball like some sort of oversized grotesque moth cocoon. The silk also helps to anchor the nest to the top surface of a horizontal branch.

 Spiderweb silk is used by hummingbirds as a nest liner.

Spiderweb silk: the expandable nest liner preferred by hummingbirds.

Keeping the nest just the right size as the need arises helps to keep the growing youngsters warm and secure. In the western states where several species of hummingbirds nest, often at higher elevations, it is not only important to keep the nestlings warm, but also the incubating female, especially at night. Therefore, it is often the case that hummingbirds in these colder situations will locate their nests on a limb with an overhanging branch acting as a sort of roof to help block the nest from the night sky. 

Although this measure helps reduce heat loss, it is often the case that nesting females will go into a state of torpor (reduced physiological activity to lower body temperature) in order to conserve energy on particularly cold nights. This is a principle of physics in which the larger the difference in temperature between objects, the faster the heat flows from the warmer one to the cooler one. Therefore, a hummingbird with a lower body temperature will lose heat more slowly than the one with a warmer body. As I stated earlier, hummingbirds are amazing!

 Parmelia sulcata, a common lichen, is used to help disguise the hummingbird's nest.

Parmelia sulcata, a common lichen, is used to help disguise the hummingbird’s nest.

Part of the reason—besides size—I had not noticed the nest earlier is that the birds do a fantastic job of camouflaging it. This also relates to the spiderweb silk. Some or all of the silk used is sticky. Upon completion of nest construction, the birds collect bits of lichen and attach them to the sticky strands on the outside of the nest. Interestingly, the birds seem to always use the same species of lichen, one that goes by the name of Parmelia sulcata. 

Parmelia sulcata is a light greenish-gray lichen with a leafy (foliose) appearance. One of our more common lichens, it is often seen on the upper branches of trees, and was particularly abundant on the ash trees that died from emerald ash borer. I don’t know if the birds chose this species of lichen in particular or, being common, it is just found most often. It is also interesting that the birds seem to apply the lichens to the nest in an upright position, with the top facing outward, so they look like they could be growing on the nest.

Come birding at the Garden! Take a birding class; join a group, and check your finds against our bird list.

Although this process is fascinating, it is not restricted to hummingbirds. One of the other breeding birds at the Garden utilizes a very similar nest construction technique to hold its three to five small eggs. The blue-gray gnatcatcher, another tiny bird (that somewhat resembles a miniature catbird in appearance and sound), also constructs a nest out of soft plant fibers, including spiderwebs, and applies lichen to the outside of its nest. A nest of this species, a little larger than that of a hummingbird, was found on a branch of one of the locust trees growing in a Garden parking lot.

 A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

A female ruby-throated hummingbird (males have the ruby coloring) enjoys a sip of salvia nectar in Circle Garden in summer.

 A blue-gray gnatcatcher at the Garden; females look similar, but are less blue.

A blue-gray gnatcatcher at the Garden; females look similar, but are less blue.

If you’re lucky, you might find the nest of one of these birds during the nesting season, but if not, keep an eye out for little bumps, lumps, and knobs on bare branches in winter. You might get lucky.

Come #birdthepreserves with the Forest Preserves of Cook County. View our list of upcoming events for free events near you.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Osprey Nesting Platform Installed at the Garden

Sat, 01/30/2016 - 8:48am

Look up! In partnership with Friends of the Chicago River (FOCR) and the Forest Preserves of Cook County (FPCC), an osprey nesting platform was installed on Friday, January 29, along the North Branch Trail at the south end of the Chicago Botanic Garden near Dundee Road.

MAP

The Garden’s new osprey nesting platform is located near Dundee Road and is viewable from the North Branch Trail.

The osprey is listed as an endangered species in Illinois, which means it’s at risk of disappearing as a breeding species. Fish-eating raptors that migrate south and winter from the southern United States to South America, osprey are often seen during their migrations—yet few remain in Illinois to nest. The lack of suitable nesting structures has been identified as a limiting factor to their breeding success here.

Males attract their mates to their strategically chosen nesting location in the spring. In order for a nest to be successful, it must be located near water (their diet consists exclusively of fish, with largemouth bass and perch among their favorites), the nest must be higher than any other nearby structure, and it must be resistant to predators (think raccoons) climbing the nest pole and attacking the young.

FOCR and the FPCC sought out the Garden as a partner for an installation site, in large part owing to the Garden’s strong conservation messaging and proximity to other nearby nesting platforms that have been recently installed (two are located alongside the FPCC’s Skokie Lagoons just to the south).

The Garden’s nesting platform was installed atop an 80-foot “telephone pole,” set 10 feet into the ground and extending upwards by 70 feet. The 40-inch hexagonal nest platform atop the pole has a wire mesh on the bottom so that water can pass through the sticks and stems that the osprey will bring to construct the nest.

 Installing and osprey nesting pole.

A truck-mounted auger and crane set the nesting pole and platform into place.

 Installing an osprey nesting pole.

The nesting platform sits atop the pole and is ideally sized for a future osprey nest; notice that we even “staged” the new osprey home with a few sticks of our own!

 Installing an osprey nesting pole.

A metal band was wrapped near the bottom of the pole to prevent predators from being able to climb it.

 Installing an osprey nesting pole.

The nesting pole and platform is fully installed and is visible from the North Branch Trail that runs through the Garden.

With the osprey nesting platform now in place, our hope is that within the next few years, a migrating male will select the site and pair with a female. Osprey generally mate for life, though they’re together only during the breeding and rearing seasons.

You can learn more about the how and why of the osprey nesting platform project at the FOCR website. Follow the links on that webpage for images, video, and a press release relating to the installation of an identical osprey platform at the Skokie Lagoons last spring.

Read more about the long-term effort, and about ospreys making a comeback in Cook County. Discover birding at the Garden and find our full bird list online at chicagobotanic.org/birds.

©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Winter Birds Are Here!

Tue, 12/29/2015 - 8:23am

The flowers are gone, the trees are bare, now what to photograph? Birds, of course! Winter is a great time to get some fabulous shots of winter birds. One huge bonus is that there are no leaves on the trees and the birds are much easier to see!

There are the “regular” local birds, like robins (yes, some robins do stay around all winter), goldfinches, cardinals, chickadees, mallards, Canada geese, red-tailed hawks, and cedar waxwings, to name a few. Plus, winter has the bonus of birds that actually migrate to our area just for the winter. Some migrants you will see every year are juncos, tree sparrows, and a variety of ducks. Other birds are occasional, or eruptive, and only show up once every few years, like pine siskins, red-breasted nuthatches, and redpolls. Then there are the, “wow! I’m really lucky to find this species!” birds, like crossbills, snowy owls, bald eagles, and bohemian waxwings. That is the fun part—you never know what you will find on any given day. That is why I go out every chance I get!

You can check the list of birds that you can expect to see at the Garden here.

Goldfinch in toned-down winter plumage, enjoying seeds on Dixon Prairie.

A goldfinch in toned-down winter plumage enjoys seeds on the Dixon Prairie. ©Carol Freeman

Male cardinal surveying the bounty on the prairie.

A male cardinal surveys the bounty on the prairie. ©Carol Freeman

Common redpoll feasting on birch tree seeds around the Regenstein building. It was a nice find to see this occasional visitor at the garden.

This common redpoll was feasting on birch tree seeds around the Regenstein Center. It was a nice find to see this occasional visitor at the Garden. ©Carol Freeman

Tap, tap, tap, I heard the Downy woodpecker before I saw him.

Tap, tap, tap…I heard the downy woodpecker before I saw him. ©Carol Freeman

When you get to the Garden, some places to look are all the trees with berries! Yes, the birds love them. Another good place to look is the Dixon Prairie, where all those seeds attract a lot of birds. Be sure to check out the bird feeders at the Buehler Enabling Garden too. You can also find a variety of birds—especially woodpeckers—in the McDonald Woods. If there is open water, check there for ducks and geese. You might be surprised at just how many birds you can find in winter.

What a surprise to find this adult bald eagle sitting in a tree just next to the Plant Science building!

What a surprise to find this adult bald eagle sitting in a tree just next to the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center! ©Carol Freeman

The local Robins are taking advantage of the abundant food supply at the garden.

The local robins take advantage of the abundant food supply at the Garden. ©Carol Freeman

The pine siskins were enjoying the bounty at the Enabling Garden bird feeders.

The pine siskins enjoy the thistle seeds at the Enabling Garden bird feeders. ©Carol Freeman


©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Warbler Heaven

Mon, 05/18/2015 - 8:30am

A lot of birds migrate through the area this time of year, but I have to say warblers are my favorites. The other day, when the rain cleared and the sun came out, I found myself in warbler heaven!

 Yellow-rumped warbler.

Yellow-rumped warblers (Setophaga coronata) are some of the most common warblers to be seen at the Garden. You can spot them almost anywhere! Photo © Carol Freeman

As soon as I walked out of the Visitor Center, I saw movement in the trees next to the bridge: my first warbler of the day—a prothonotary! (Protonotaria citrea)—an uncommon warbler, and the first time I’ve ever seen one at the Chicago Botanic Garden! Next stop: the top of the Waterfall Garden. The birds were hopping! Here I added eight more warbler species, including yellow-rumped, palm, black-and-white, Cape May, American redstart, Wilson’s, magnolia, and yellow warblers! Wow! So much fun! I also saw red-eyed and warbling vireos, a scarlet tanager, and a ruby-crowned kinglet, to name a few.

 Red-eyed vireo.

Another lovely migrant: the red-eyed vireo ( Vireo olivaceus) Photo © Carol Freeman

 Black-and-white warbler.

The black-and-white warblers (Mniotilta varia) can be seen hopping along branches looking for insects. Photo © Carol Freeman

After delighting in the abundance of birds for a few hours, I slowly made my way back to my car, choosing to walk under the amazing flowering crabapple trees. Just at the end of the line of trees I heard what I thought was another warbler. I couldn’t quite see what it was. I tried calling it out, and to my delight, out popped the most beautiful male northern parula warbler (Setophaga americana). He hopped right onto a flower-filled branch and seemed to pose while I got some photos. I’ve only seen a parula a couple of times before, and never this close, and never on such a pretty perch. A perfect way to end my journey in warbler heaven.

 Northern parula warbler.

I could hardly believe my eyes when this beauty popped up in the flowering crabapple tree! Northern parula warbler (Setophaga americana) photo © Carol Freeman

While I can’t promise you will see this many warblers in a day, there is always something to see, and the fun part for me is never knowing just what might show up. Last week it was a white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus). This week, warblers. Next week, who knows? All I do know is I’ll be out there to see what wonders there are to discover and then I’ll be in heaven again.

 Palm warbler.

Palm warblers (Setophaga palmarum) can easily be identified by their tail pumping and rusty crown. Photo © Carol Freeman

 White-eyed vireo.

An uncommon visitor! I was surprised to find this white-eyed vireo (Vireo griseus) in a tree in a parking lot. Photo © Carol Freeman

©2015 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Adriana’s Bird of the Day is the Kingfisher

Mon, 10/13/2014 - 4:20pm

A partial transcript of my first official bird walk:

Me: What was that call?

Expert birder: A chipmunk.

Me: What’s that big brown thing in the branches? It’s shaped kinda like a hawk.

Expert: Dead leaves. We call that a fake-out.

Me: Right.

Expert: Do you hear that rattle? I hear a kingfisher!

I really do not hear the rattle, but I feel a rush of excitement as I chase my guide along the trail of the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the southeast corner of the Chicago Botanic Garden. The tree-lined pond is one of many different habitats that make the Garden an excellent place for birders experienced and otherwise. Adding to my great fortune are golden sunshine—lighting the first red, orange, and yellow leaves of autumn—and the presence of Al Stokie, who comes to the Garden every week to report on shorebirds and other avian visitors. I’m tagging along on one of his early morning surveys and gleaning basic principles of birding.

Several area bird clubs—including the Lake County Audubon Society (an Illinois Chapter of the National Audubon Society) and the Evanston North Shore Bird Club—welcome beginning birders to their regular meetings and field trips.

 Al the birder.

Al Stokie comes to the Garden weekly to monitor bird populations. He files his counts on the IBET website.

It’s seasonal

Our first stop was the expansive deck of the Kleinman Family Cove, one of Al’s favorite spots for viewing the North Lake. In just a few weeks the surface would be filling with ducks stopping to rest on their way south for the winter. They’ll be followed in November by grebes and red-breasted mergansers. Native plants surrounding the cove attract a variety of birds, but most of the tiny warblers left for warmer climes weeks ago. McDonald Woods, a restored native oak woodland, is the place to go in the spring to catch the warblers’ return and, if you’ve got really good eyes, a place to spot owls in the winter.

“It’s all seasonal,” says Stokie. “Every month of the year you can go out and see different things.” I like that idea: The Garden as an ever-changing landscape of birds.

It’s all about the food

We continue along the North Lake road and find two more potential hot spots for birds. A peninsula of land supports a grove of evergreens loaded with cones—a big draw for wintering pine siskins and—if you’re lucky—crossbills. Down the road a bit, you come to an Emergency Call Box. Look past it and you’ll see large junipers growing along the exterior wall near the Garden’s northwest corner. That’s where a very rare Bohemian waxwing, feasting on the juniper berries, was last seen in the Garden.

 

 Egret in flight.

An egret in flight at the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve at the Garden

Walk early, and walk often

We are heading south now, along the Garden’s West Road, past a restored streambed, lush with native plants—a habitat that provides lots of seeds and insects. The best time for birding tends to be the four hours or so following sunrise, so getting up early can have its rewards. Persistence also pays off, Al explains: “It’s a matter of odds. If you look in one spot ten times, you’ll probably see something.” Just then we catch sight of movement in the shrubs. Al first identifies the little bird by the way it waves its tail up and down—an (ahem) telltale sign of the palm warbler, one of the last warblers to head south for the winter.

The Joseph Regenstein, Jr. School of the Chicago Botanic Garden also offers guided bird walks. Learn more about bird walks taking place at the Garden this fall.

 Bird enjoying seeds from dried seedheads.

Seedheads from native plantings along the restored Skokie River corridor provide ample food for birds.

It ain’t easy—even for the experts

Flocks of goldfinches—displaying olive drab winter plumage—are diving in and out of the tall forbs and grasses of the Dixon Prairie. Niche ecosystems within the prairie provide food and shelter for many different types of birds at different times of the year. Hummingbirds are drawn to the red blooms of royal catchfly (Silene regia) that flower on the dry gravel hills in the summer, while the prairie wetlands attract swamp and other types of sparrows. Turns out sparrows can be tricky to identify, unless—as it happened—one stops to feed on the path in front of you. Al identifies it as a white-crowned sparrow. “For every bird you identify, there are probably five or six you do not get a look at—or you get a lousy look and don’t know what it is,” Al Stokie.

Watch the weather

Shorebirds are drawn to the southwest corner of the Garden, an overflow area for the Skokie River with plenty of muddy shores. “Old Faithful,” a white egret nicknamed by Stokie, comes in for a landing, joining a well-camouflaged green heron and a killdeer, the hardiest of the shorebirds and a late migrator. Most of the sandpipers—Al’s particular interest—have left already. In a flash of movement, the heron fishes a frog out of the water. We witness its slow death through our binoculars, though I have to admit I am still struggling to focus and aim mine. Standing on the sunny, breezy path it’s hard to believe a cold front will be moving through in a few days. That’s likely to bring in a new wave of migratory birds, in this case, sparrows.

Find a mentor

A beginning birder who comes out on his own with a bird book and a pair of binoculars is likely to be overwhelmed, Stokie said. This makes perfect sense to me. Without Al at my side, so much of the experience would have…er…flown right over my head. Take that belted kingfisher back at the Barbara Brown Nature Reserve. While I was still craning around, listening for the rattle, Al had sighted the bird perched in dead branches across the pond. Handing me his binoculars, he asked, “Do you see something, blue?” I saw flashes of blue and white, and the shape of a stocky bird, with a big head.” Okay, it was still slightly blurry, and I had to close one eye to make it out, but I saw it! The moment was recorded for posterity when Al filed his count online. I felt a ridiculous burst of pride when I read the mention, “Adriana’s bird of the day is the kingfisher.”

Join us from 7 to 9 p.m. Friday, November 14, for an Owl Prowl at Ryerson Woods. Click here to register online.

 Another great birding location.

Al looks across the North Lake toward the Fruit & Vegetable Garden for signs of bird activity.

For more information:

Experienced birders David Johnson, Jeffrey Sanders, and Alan Anderson, as well as Jim Steffen, the Garden’s senior ecologist, also helped me gather information for this report. To follow sightings by Al and other local birders, you can go to several websites, including eBird (ebird.org/ebird/places), which designates the Garden as a hot spot, and IBET (groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/ILbirds/info).

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Migration

Thu, 10/02/2014 - 11:34am

Fall migration is happening right now. Stop what you’re doing, grab a camera or binoculars, and go outside! You never know what you might see. It could be a fall warbler (but what kind?), a beautiful grebe, or a rusty blackbird—it may not even be a bird at all!

 Monarch butterfly.

This monarch was fueling up on the asters to prepare for his epic migration to Mexico. ©Carol Freeman

Spring and fall are times of great opportunity and diversity. With hundreds of species moving through, you get a chance to see and photograph some that would be impossible to find at any other time. Since they may be here only a few days before moving on, I like to get out any chance I get. 

Migration is not just for birds. Most know the mighty migration of the monarch butterfly, but did you know that some dragonflies migrate, too? You can often find large numbers of dragonflies hunting other insects almost anywhere in the Chicago Botanic Garden. The most common ones to find migrating are the darners (Anax sp.) and saddlebags (Tramea sp.). 

One of the migrating dragonflies. ©Carol Freeman

One of the migrating dragonflies, a shadow darner. ©Carol Freeman

One of the large Darner dragonflies that migrates in the fall. ©Carol Freeman

A common green darner—one of the large darner dragonflies that migrates in the fall. ©Carol Freeman

When you spot a warbler, take a close look and listen closely to its song—birds within the species are notoriously difficult to identify. Also, keep your eyes open for warblers, kinglets, blackbirds, hawks, ducks, shorebirds, sandhill cranes, and more. There will be a steady stream of birds migrating through this area through November. Any place in the Garden can have birds. Listen for the sounds, watch for movement in the trees, and you may be lucky to see one of these beauties. Check the logbook at the Information Desk in the Visitor Center to see what other birders have seen and add your finds as well. 

There are many young hummingbirds zipping around, taking advantage of all the wonder nectar sources. You can find them almost anywhere in the garden where there are flowers. ©Carol Freeman

There are many young hummingbirds zipping around, taking advantage of all the wonderful nectar sources. You can find them almost anywhere in the Garden. ©Carol Freeman

This is a young Magnolia Warbler, another tricky to ID warbler in the fall. I found this beauty in the English Walled Garden. ©Carol Freeman

This is a young magnolia warbler, another tricky-to-ID warbler in the fall. I found this beauty in the English Walled Garden. ©Carol Freeman

 Blackpoll warbler.

This blackpoll warbler is one of several confusing fall warblers. Photographed near the Dixon Prairie. ©Carol Freeman

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Bird Report

Fri, 05/09/2014 - 9:31am

There was a nice assortment of birds at the Garden this morning!

White-crowned sparrows were the most abundant, and could be seen in almost every location. I saw a few warblers scattered about, but none in any large numbers. My best spot for finding birds was along the water in the woodland walk area of the Sensory Garden. I saw black-and-white warblers, Nashville warblers, ruby-crowned kinglets, gray catbirds, warbling vireos, palm warblers, flycatchers, and an ovenbird.

Southerly winds are expected for the next two days, which should bring in a LOT more birds. Now is the time to get out your binoculars and cameras and see some of these amazing birds for yourself! In a few short weeks they will be gone.

 Nashville warbler.

I saw a few Nashville warblers in the newly budding flowering trees. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Black-and-white warbler.

Black-and-white warblers can often be seen hopping up and down tree branches, looking for insects. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Gray catbird.

Gray catbird calls really do sound like cats! These robin-sized birds are fairly easy to find. ©Carol Freeman

 

 White-crowned sparrow.

I saw white-crowned sparrows in almost every location of the Garden. They like to forage in the leaf litter. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Least flycatcher.

This is most likely a least flycatcher. These guys can be hard to identify. They dart out, grab an insect, then land. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Ovenbird.

The ovenbird is a thrush-like warbler. They like to forage on the ground. I find them to be shy birds, often flying off as soon as they see me. ©Carol Freeman

 

 Warbling vireo.

These guys love to sing! You can often find warbling vireos by following their sweet song. ©Carol Freeman

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The miracle that is migration

Tue, 04/22/2014 - 9:38am

After such a long, cold winter, I am especially looking forward to the gifts that migration brings.

Each day is a present just waiting to be opened. Here in Illinois, we can see more than 400 different bird species. Some are local residents, but most are just passing through. Starting in March and lasting through June, millions of birds will be heading north through Illinois to their breeding grounds.

 American Coot.

These guys (American coot) are fun to watch. Photo ©Carol Freeman

First to move through are the ducks, then blackbirds, kinglets, shorebirds, herons, egrets, and finally the big show, warblers! If you don’t know what warblers are, I suggest you look them up; after you see your first one in the wild, you will be hooked. These tiny gems are a wonder to behold. I saw my first warbler of the year yesterday, a yellow-rumped warbler (one of the most common of the species). I’ve seen them hundreds of times, yet I was just as thrilled yesterday as I was the first time I saw one. I guess I’m hooked.

 Yellow-rumped warbler.

The first warbler of the year—always a thrill. Photo ©Carol Freeman

 Goldfinches cover a set of 3 feeders at the Garden.

The feeders were a blur of activity, with a goldfinch at every spot. Photo ©Carol Freeman

The Chicago Botanic Garden is a hot spot for migrant activity. With the advantage of water, woods, and prairie, it is an attractive spot for a large variety of birds. I’ve seen more than 200 species of birds at the Garden, and just this past week I was treated to migrating red-breasted mergansers, coots, and grebes. Plus, it was fun to see the resident birds returning from their winter in warmer climates, like grackles, red-winged blackbirds, and great blue herons. The goldfinches were also getting their breeding colors back after dulling down for the winter. Spring may be slow to get going this year, but the garden is full of colorful birds!

A fun way to spend the day is to grab a field guide, a pair of binoculars, or a camera, and see how many different species you can find and identify. There is even a ledger at the front desk to record your finds. If you need help, you can sign up for a bird walk and learn from an expert.

 The iridescent feathers of a common grackle bathing in a puddle.

Wow, just look at the colors of this common grackle in the sun! Photo ©Carol Freeman


 A ruffled, adolescent pied-billed grebe floats on the water.

There were lots of these cute little grebes all around the garden. Photo @Carol Freeman

Migration is one of the greatest miracles on Earth, and is here for all of us to enjoy.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Coming of Age for the Garden’s Cygnets

Mon, 09/16/2013 - 2:11pm

In early June, the Garden’s resident pair of adult trumpeter swans (Cygnus buccinator) gave birth to two offspring, called cygnets, in their nest near the Visitor Center. Much to the delight of Garden visitors, over the ensuing months the proud parents have enjoyed showing off their family as they paddle about the Garden Lakes.

Trumpeter swans on their nest near the Garden's Visitor Center in spring 2013

Trumpeter swans on their nest near the Garden’s Visitor Center in spring 2013

A little background on trumpeter swans: the trumpeter swan is North America’s largest waterfowl, with a wingspan of more than 7 feet.  Famed for their French-horn call and immortalized by author E.B. White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, by the late 1800s the swans were nearly hunted to extinction in much of the United States and Canada for their meat, feathers, down, and quills. By the 1930s, just 69 trumpeter swans were known to exist in the continental United States. But thanks to the ambitious conservation efforts in our region and beyond that began in the 1980s, trumpeter swan populations are making an incredible recovery.

The Garden’s two adult trumpeters are flightless, so cygnets born here at the Garden aren’t able to learn important skills. For quite a few years, the Garden has been a partner with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources’ Trumpeter Swan Restoration Program. More than a dozen cygnets born at the Garden have been brought to Iowa, where they’re assimilated with wild populations of trumpeters.

Just last week, our two cygnets (together with five born at the Lincoln Park Zoo this spring) were transported to Iowa, where they’ll be kept in a safe area over the winter. Come next spring, they’ll be able to interact with wild populations and begin the journey of becoming proud parents themselves one day.

Mom, dad, and the kids going for a paddle around the Garden Lakes

Mom, dad, and the kids going for a paddle around the Garden Lakes

While it may be with some sadness that we bade farewell to our cygnets, we can take comfort knowing that they are helping to bring renewed hope for a species that, until recently, seemed headed for extinction.

Interested in learning more about trumpeter swans?  Check out The Trumpeter Swan Society, and read more about the successful restoration programs in Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Fall Migration is Here!

Sat, 09/14/2013 - 8:24am

Twice a year we are blessed with the migration of birds, butterflies, moths, and dragonflies. Many species that we don’t normally see (or don’t see in large numbers) are now moving through the Chicago area. Each day is a mystery as to what I might come across.

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries. ©Carol Freeman

These guys were moving through the woods, stopping to eat berries.
©Carol Freeman

Today I chose to head over to McDonald Woods. Before I could even get to the path, I was greeted by red-eyed vireos. I stayed there and watched them for some time. One thing I have learned is to photograph birds wherever I see them, and to avoid the impulse to assume I’ll find more birds, or better birds, elsewhere. Just because the birds are hopping here doesn’t mean they will be hopping everywhere: best to take advantage of the birds wherever they are, even if it’s just the parking lot.

Only when the activity slowed did I head into the woods to see what else might be there. Right away, I saw some movement up high. Yep, warblers. I could tell by the flash of the tail feathers that these were redstarts. My instinct is to try to focus on any bird that moves. However, another thing I have learned is to resist the urge to photograph birds up high and backlit. The best photos are taken at eye-level. I look for movement and listen for bird calls to help me find a likely place to get some good photos. When I do, I relax and wait. Yes, wait. It might take 15 or 20 minutes for the birds to filter down. It is tempting to try to find the birds, or to follow them, but all that tends to do is send the birds higher up.

I was ready when this little one came back to it's favorite perch. ©Carol Freeman

I was ready when this little one came back to its favorite perch.
©Carol Freeman

After just a few minutes, I see a young warbler hopping in the lower branches. I get a few shots before it takes off. Then, in zooms a hummingbird. The nice thing about hummingbirds is that they will often come back to the same perch over and over again. So I slowly move toward where this little one is sitting. Just as I get close, it takes off. So I position myself with a good view of the perch, and wait. Yes, there is that word again. Trust me, the “wait” will be worth it! Soon the hummingbird is back, and yes, it lands right on the same perch, and I’m able to get some really nice shots. Learning about the habits of birds comes in handy. If I did not know that the hummingbird would be back, I would not have been ready to take the photo when it got there. One way to learn about the habits of birds is to hang out and chat with birders. I like to go on bird walks with them and read bird books when I can.

When I’m waiting for warblers and other migrants, I like to practice my photography skills on the more common and perhaps slower-moving birds. It’s a way to make sure that my camera is set properly, and it helps me get comfortable with my equipment choices for the day. If I can’t take an amazing photo of a common bird, it is unlikely that I will take an amazing shot of a tiny, quick-moving rarity. Practice is key! For bird photography, I like to use my 80-400mm lens, but anything over 200mm will work. I keep my shutter speed at 1/400 of a second or faster. Sometimes that means upping my ISO to get the faster shutter speed. Otherwise these little birds will be big blurs.

What a treat to see so many of these buzzing around the garden today.  ©Carol Freeman

What a treat to see so many hawk moths (also called sphinx moths) buzzing around the garden today.
©Carol Freeman

I have to keep an open mind. Even though I might really want to photograph a yellow-winged warbler, what I might get instead is a blue jay, or not even a bird at all. Sometimes my best “bird” shot of the day is a butterfly. Or like today, I was treated to dozens of hawk moths! I’ve never seen so many in one spot, and what amazed me most was how many people walked right past them! They were so focused on something else, they missed what I thought was the coolest migrant of the day. I can’t tell you how many times I went out with one intention and came back with shots of something I could have never predicted—all because I kept an open mind to all the wonders that are out there to discover. There will be a stream of migrants visiting Chicago through November, and I hope you can get out and enjoy the amazing wonders that the autumn migration will bring right to you.

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org