Eared Grebe and March Soil

I planned to have this blog be about my back yard, and there are a few pictures at the bottom of this post about that.  But when I hear that a bird that is not common for Illinois is in the neighborhood I sometimes decide to go birding instead of focusing on the garden.


Eared Grebe at Saganashkee Slough.  I get frequent emails from IBET – Illinois Birders Exchanging Thoughts.  They inform the birding community of what interesting birds have been seen that day.  I particularly pay attention when the birds are seen in the Palos area. So I headed out to the slough to see if I could find this bird.  After taking quite a few pictures I noticed some birders and approach them and they said it looked like my picture was of the eared grebe they were looking for.  Yay!  This is a bird that is migrating through Illinois.


Saganashkee Slough.  I understand that the water is only about 6 feet deep and that may make it a good fishing place for waterfowl.


Horned grebes.


A horned grebe that caught a fish.


Red-breasted mergansers diving for fish.


As I was watching through my binoculars it looked like mating season, as a group of male red-breasted mergansers were following a female.


Two male common mergansers with a female.


I kept hearing the sandhill cranes flying overhead during the afternoon.  Sorry the photo is not more zoomed in!


Dormant trees at Long John Slough.  We are still having freezing temperatures at night, but today the weather was warm and beautiful.


I noticed insects flying around today.  A moth landed on the Hicksii yew shrub.


Daffodils were pushing up along the east fence.  I guess the soil is kind of heaving now due to the ice freezing and thawing in the soil.  I think this is good for the soil and the soil is damaged when we walk on this soft soil this time of year.


Another view of soft, thawing, spring soil that is pushed up here and there.


Earlier this week it was snowing hard, though we only got about an inch.  It snowed and sleeted Friday night, too.  I think we can use the moisture, so no complaints.  Spring is coming, but winter has not quite left us.

Snow Crocus and Vernal Witch Hazel

I can’t resist taking pictures of the first signs of spring.


Yellow snow crocus opens on a sunny afternoon.


I love the lines and design on the outside of the snow crocus.  These flowers get a lot of afternoon sun.  I don’t think it will be too long before the other crocuses start to form flowers.


The vernal witch hazel flowers have been blooming for a while.  I had a lot of trouble getting a picture that focused on the flowers and not the background, but I think that just shows that I need to learn more about my camera.


What crazy looking flowers.  I really like the leaves on this shrub, but looking back through my pictures it does not look like I took many pictures of the leaves.  My witch hazel shrub is often hidden behind the lilac or the ornamental grass.  I will have to make a point to take pictures of the leaves this year.


We pruned the American plum tree to get rid of branches that hung down when trying to mow the lawn.  I think we did the final pruning to get  rid of lower branches on the chinquapin oak tree.  We try to prune when the temperature is above freezing, but it freezes at night.


I bought six different kinds of sedum plants a few years ago and the dragon’s bloom sedum is mixing with this other variety now.


Among the dead Alchemilla mollis lady’s mantle leaves a new fan-shaped green leaf appeared.


I thought the curly parsley finally died at the end of January, but it does not look quite dead yet.  During the fall and winter I tried to chew a little piece of parsley whenever I went into the garden, just because the green seemed like winter vitamins.


Hardy strawberries look like they need some thinning and straw around them in order to have good fruit this spring and summer.  It is not quite time to do that yet.


Dan went out and completely turned the compost leaf pile.  There were some wet spots from kitchen scraps and quite a few dry spots where it had burned to ash, and it really needed a good mix to speed it up again.


The mini daffodils have a sunny spot and we should have tiny, yellow flowers blooming before long.

Florida Birds and More

I saw the first yellow flowers on our snow crocuses today and the green daffodil shoots are starting to come up.  But while we are waiting for spring to come to Chicagoland, Dan and I took a short trip to Florida and enjoyed the sunny weather!  I did my best to identify some of the birds we saw on this trip.


Reddish egret on Sanibel Island.  One day we visited the J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge.  Looking at the bird guide they gave us this picture looks like a reddish egret.


Nearby were several groups of white pelicans.


I believe this is a willet resting on a stump near the shore.


This shot shows that many of the birds were on sand bars or in shallow waters, where they were resting or fishing.  These lakes or bays were surrounded by tall mangroves.


We walked on an observation boardwalk into one of the red mangrove areas.  I love the reflections on this picture.


We observed a tiny snake on one of the mangrove branches.


Looking closely we noticed little mangrove tree crabs crawling on the branches.


We almost missed the yellow-crowned night heron in the shade of the mangroves.  They like to eat the mangrove tree crabs!


Can you see the tail on the male horseshoe crab?  We saw a larger female horseshoe crab near the mangrove boardwalk, but could not get a picture.


Dan saw this hawk fly into the trees and was trying to get a picture.  We thought it was a red-shouldered hawk, which would be a first for me.


Dragonfly resting in stream.


We spent some time visiting beaches and the shorebirds seemed to be visiting some of the beaches, too.  Besides the herring and ring-billed gulls, this shot includes a black skimmer and some royal terns.


We saw osprey nesting wherever we went.


This great blue heron had found a nice perch in a pond at the Lemon Bay Park in Englewood, where we visited one afternoon.


Also seen at the pond was this bird, which I think is an eastern phoebe.

We saw some really fun birds when we visited the Six Mile Cypress Slough on our last full day in Florida.


Starting at Gator Pond we saw many sunning double-crested cormorants, along with egrets, herons, and osprey.


It was a cool, but beautiful morning in the cypress woods and the ferns were wonderfully verdant.  We saw a downy woodpecker and heard that someone had seen a pileated woodpecker.  I had never seen one, so was on the look out.


Pileated woodpecker at Six Mile Cypress Slough near Fort Myers, Florida.


A barred owl was sleeping away the morning.


At Otter Pond a green heron was looking for breakfast.


From this angle you can see the minnows swimming in the water.  The heron was intently watching for just the right fish to swim by.


Nearby a white ibis had something in its bill it was working on as we watched.


Apparently these are apple snail eggs, that are an introduced species.


Nesting near Otter Pond was a limpkin, another first ever bird for me.  Limpkins eat apple snails, so help to keep a check on this species, and that is why they are nesting here.


An alligator found a sunny place to digest its breakfast.


A turtle was warming up on a log.  I like the way the back feet are stretched out.


One of the magnificent, old cypress trees was putting on fresh green leaves.


We practiced trying to get shots of warblers, but missed more than we were successful.  Once we got a picture we were not sure what kind of warbler it was.  Maybe this is a palm warbler, but not sure.

We decided to fit in one last visit to the Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary, which we visited a few years ago.


A female anhinga was drying its wings in the sun at the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary.


A great egret was fishing as it stalked between giant old cypress trees.  We saw a number of giant trees blown down due to hurricane Irma.  One part of the boardwalk was broken and closed down, but there were wood storks nesting there, so that was a good reason to keep visitors out.


I zoomed way out to catch a little blue heron hunting on lettuce lake.


At that point I was distracted by an alligator swimming up near to the boardwalk.  The little kids near us were thrilled.


We looked into a scope on the side of the boardwalk and saw this snake.


One of the posted signs explained that first people were afraid of the swamp, then greed made them exploit it for feathers and lumber, and to drain it for land.  But now there is a greater understanding of the function the swamp plays in our ecosystem, as water purification, flood control and habitat.


I am thankful for those who have preserved places like this for us to enjoy and for the trees and swamp to provide habitat for so many species that have decreased rapidly.  I see that there is a need for the millions (billions?) of domesticated cows, chickens, dogs, and cats, but surely these other wild species are valuable as well.


On February 9th the snowstorm brought approximately 13 inches of snow.  The pictures below will show how gray the days have been.


The snow keeps falling on the birdbath and last fall’s flowers.


A downy woodpecker works at the spicy suet on a snowy day.


The white-breasted nuthatch pauses in the snow before checking out the suet.


Pulling back on the picture you can see on the left that the sedum stalks are almost completely covered with snow.  On the right the yew shrubs are leaning way over with the weight of the snow.  I knocked the snow off most of the yew shrubs, but did not go far enough to reach these branches.


Hicksii yew branches and snow after an earlier snowfall.


Snow on goldenrod, Solidago rugosa ‘Fireworks.’  I left the goldenrod up for winter interest and the insects that might be in the stems.


I went out three times during the day for spurts of shoveling and my husband and son took their turns.  On the left you can see a few spikes of yucca poking out of the snow.  On the right, notice how high the snow is on our little bitternut hickory tree.


This morning we walked at Lake Katherine.  It was a slog through the high snow, but great exercise and quiet beauty.  The lake was frozen except for this area where the fountain was bubbling.


The Canadian geese were hunkered down on the lake ice.


Snow scene at Lake Katherine.  After taking this picture my camera battery died.  It was probably best, as then I kept my cold hand in my mitten.

Earlier this morning our older neighbor was complaining because the snow plough had covered his car with snow and blocked him in.  Dan, my son, and I went over and shoveled him out so he would not have a heart attack!  We may need him to help us one day, and snowstorms can make us more neighborly or the opposite.

Woodpeckers and White-Breasted Nuthatches

The Downy woodpeckers have become frequent visitors, and I am coming to recognize their little calls from the chinquapin oak tree as I sit in my office.


The suet tempted in this male downy woodpecker, who is being observed by the female downy and a white-breasted nuthatch.

IMG_1518The red-bellied woodpecker is higher in the bird feeder dominance hierarchy and the downy waits its turn.


The red-bellied woodpecker is fluffed up in the cold weather with a little suet on her beak.  I think this is a female.


The male red-bellied woodpecker has an eye on the downy woodpecker, who is waiting him out further up the tree.


The downy woodpeckers were pecking on the ice and getting a drink in the frozen birdbath.


Male and female downy woodpeckers.


A close up of the male downy woodpecker.


White-breasted nuthatches are cute and fun to watch as they scamper down the tree.


Another shot of the nuthatch, who is lower than the downy in the bird feeder dominance hierarchy, so watches and waits for its turn.  I love the beautiful color combinations of black, gray and white on these birds with their long, pointy beaks.


When the snow melted the squirrels found nuts in the ground to munch on, but soon discovered the suet.


The squirrel managed to get the suet feeder open and run away with a chunk of suet a few times, so right now we have the feeder empty.


Dan decided to throw a few snowballs at the squirrel!


White snow covers the branches and contrasts with the red cyclamen.  Today there is no snow on the ground, but the weather predicts snow for tomorrow morning.


If you are longing for spring, here is a blurry shot of the snow crocuses from two weeks ago, around January 21st.


I just finished reading and really enjoyed 438 Days: An extraordinary true story of survival at sea, by Jonathan Franklin.  Winter evenings are nice for cozy reading!

Other fascinating current reading:  The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt.


Suet Visitors

I have never used bird feeders before.  On the spur of the moment I bought a suet feeder and put some suet in it, to see if I could interest some woodpeckers.  There have been no woodpecker visitors yet, that I am aware of.


The weather has been so cold that for quite a few days there were no bird visitors.  Then one day I noticed black-capped chickadees exploring the suet feeder.


It was a bit of a puzzle to get at the frozen suet.


A male northern cardinal was among a group of birds checking it out on Friday.


I love the bright red bird’s contrast to the winter scene.


Sparrows and starlings came by to try their luck.


A house sparrow looks for a snack.


I noticed a hawk fly into one of the large trees in the neighborhood.  I suppose this is a good time to find a bird meal at a bird feeder.


The dark-eyed juncos looked at the suet briefly, but then went off to look for seeds on the garden plants.


The dark-eyed juncos are winter residents that are always fun to watch as they hop around on the ground looking for seeds


We have had snow on the ground for 2 weeks and temperatures have remainder below 20 degrees Fahrenheit since December 26th, which is apparently a temperature record in Chicago.


Last Saturday morning, with a wind chill well below zero, we took a walk at the Little Red Schoolhouse forest preserve.  There were lots of animal tracks, especially deer tracks.  We were okay with the weather, except for our feet, which seemed like ice blocks.  This morning we had a good walk inside the mall instead, so we were a little wimpy!

Food: Our son is on a two-week 1500 calorie meal plan suggested by his doctor, before he gets his annual blood test.  You can find the meal plan on the Eating Well website.  I have been cooking all kinds of interesting and delicious meals and though it is a bit of work it has been generally tasty and enjoyable.  It is one way to stay cozy in the cold weather.

Current Reading:  I am in the middle of reading several books at once – Being Mortal by Atul Gawande; Jungle of Stone: The True Story of Two Men, Their Extraordinary Journey, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya by William Carlsen; Disunity in Christ by Christina Cleveland.

December Morning in the Woods

We got lost in the forest preserve woods yesterday morning.  We walked about 90 minutes before we got back to our car.  But it was a mild morning and the woods were beautiful!


When the sun finally came out yesterday morning I made a long shadow.


It was impossible to capture in a photograph the view of all the ravines and hills we walked through.  Everything was covered with a layer of leaves and was very quiet.


I noticed this mossy area at the top of a stream bed.  The little red speck in the back of the picture is from 3 mountain bike riders we met on the trail.


We passed three guys on mountain bikes as we were trying to figure out which way would take us out of the forest.


Dan pointed to six deer in the distance.


We and the deer looked at each other.


I came across a pile of nut shells.  It was under a shagbark hickory tree, so I am guessing they are from hickory nuts.

IMG_1193I saw this little cavity in a tree that looked like a nice place for a squirrel to sit and have a nut meal.


This tree cavity looked like a warm place to get out of a storm.  It reminds me of the little bunny children’s book I love.  Notice the spray paint on this trunk?


A lot of the trees in this forest had been decorated with spray paint…


Last weekend we visited the Turtlehead forest preserve in Orland Park.  We decided we want to come again and view it in the other three seasons, too.


Back at home I put fresh water in the bird bath when the weather was above freezing.  Then I noticed a flurry of starling and house sparrow visitors.  The northern cardinals and dark-eyed juncos looked on from nearby, but did not want to get mixed up with the crazy sparrows and starlings.


This morning, Christmas Eve, we are getting 1 -3 inches of snow for a beautiful white Christmas.


In our cozy kitchen, where the roast is in the oven, I noticed a ladybug in the greenhouse window.  It is hiding somewhere in the cyclamen plant….