Archives For Birding

Coming of Age for the Garden’s Cygnets

Two juvenile trumpeter swans transported to Iowa last week to join wild populations

Bob Kirschner —  September 16, 2013 — Leave a comment

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!

Many species we don't normally see are moving through our area

Carol Freeman —  September 14, 2013 — 1 Comment

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

Jewels of the Air

Carol Freeman —  June 17, 2013 — 4 Comments

Hummingbirds zip here and there so quickly that I’m not always sure if I see what I think I see. Often, I hear the low buzz of their wings before I actually see them. Zip, zip, zip, there they go. Can I focus in time? Is my shutter speed fast enough? These are just a few of the challenges of photographing these beautiful “jewels of the air.”

PHOTO: Hummingbird hovering near red salvia.

I found this hummingbird in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden, visiting a red salvia.
©Carol Freeman

If you see one of these gems, it is virtually guaranteed to be the ruby-throated hummingbird, the sole breeding hummingbird of the eastern United States. They winter in Central America, and spend the summers in North America. There are often breeding pairs here at the Chicago Botanic Garden. You can see them feeding if you know where to look.

PHOTO: Hummingbird on a branch.

This guy was zipping around McDonald Woods, but stopped for a few seconds so I could get this shot.
©Carol Freeman

I always check their favorite flowers: any color of trumpet-shaped flowers, red and orange flowers, and even flowering trees. I’ve seen them regularly in three places in the Garden.

One area is in and around the English Walled Garden. You can stand on the main sidewalk and watch them as they visit the flowers and then rest on one of the small trees. They will often visit the same patch of flowers over and over again and then go back to the same perch, giving you a perfect chance to snap a few photos. I use at least a 200mm lens and prefer my 300mm lens for best results. I set my camera to f8, 1/1000 of a second, for sharp shots with just a touch of wing blur. I use manual focus and take lots of photos. I’d say I get one good photo for every 15 or 20 I take! So keep at it! These are tricky birds to get in the air.

Another good place to find hummingbirds is around the Sensory and Enabling Gardens. It’s a large area, but walk around and look for the colorful flowers. There is a good chance a hummingbird will be nearby.

PHOTO: Hummingbird gathering nectar.

This hummingbird was busy sipping nectar from the flowers outside of the Bulb Garden.
©Carol Freeman

The third place where I often see them in late summer is in the Grunsfeld Children’s Growing Garden. There is a nice patch of bright red salvia near the little pond, which seems to be a favorite hangout for hummingbirds. You can just park yourself a few feet away from the flowers, wait 15 minutes or so, and most likely a hummingbird will stop by!

But be ready, as you just might have a close encounter with a hummingbird almost anywhere in the Garden. I’ve seen them by the Bulb Garden, the Fruit & Vegetable Garden, McDonald Woods, the Native Plant Garden, and even out in the Prairie! It’s always a thrill and a joy to see these amazing birds any day, and if I happen to get a photo, well that’s just the icing on the cake.

PHOTO: Hummingbird on salvia.

This gal was taking a short rest in the Enabling Garden.
©Carol Freeman


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Make a Bird-Nesting Bag

Kathy J. —  March 16, 2013 — 1 Comment

Spring is here and the birds are returning from their winter homes. Some birds fly through the Chicago area to their nesting habitats up north, while others return and stay in the area.

Spring is the season for laying eggs, because it gives the juvenile birds all summer to mature and become strong before they need to migrate in the fall. Also, as spring turns to summer, the growing chicks require more food. The trees grow leaves, insects hatch, fruits ripen, and other food sources become more plentiful. The birds’ habits are perfectly synchronized with the seasons. 

At this time of year, recently returned birds will be looking for material to build a nest and lay eggs. You can provide some bling for a lucky bird family with a few things you have around your home.

You will need items including these:

  • A plastic netting or mesh bag, like the kind oranges and apples are sold in
  • Scraps of yarn or strips of fabric cut 1/4 inch wide and at least 6 inches long (longer is fine)
  • Optional — dryer lint, metallic thread, any other attractive loose materials
PHOTO: supplies to build a nesting bag

Let’s put this empty apple bag and some leftover fabric scraps to good use!

Put all of the scrap materials into the mesh bag. Tease out the ends of the material through the holes in the netting all around the bag so it looks like a bundle of loose stuff. Tie the top of the bag. Hang the bag securely on a tree branch where a bird can perch and pluck pieces of material from the bag.

PHOTO: The finished nesting bag

Wall art or condo furnishings? Hang your bag outside and watch for birds!

Now you will be ready for International Migratory Bird Day, which is Saturday, May 11, this year. Watch the bag for signs that a bird is using the material. Look around your neighborhood for nests to see if any bird used the materials to build its nest. And have a happy bird day!

PHOTO: our bird nesting bag in situ

Let’s see where our fabric scraps end up this spring…

©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

The One That Got Away

In Search of the Hoary Redpoll

Carol Freeman —  January 28, 2013 — Leave a comment
PHOTO: Common Redpoll ©Carol Freeman

The common redpoll is a cute finch that visits the Garden in winter. ©Carol Freeman

For several months now I’ve heard about a hoary redpoll that has been visiting the Garden. This is an uncommon, very pale, “frosty” version of the common redpoll that often visits the Chicago area in winter. Some say it’s a color variation, and some say it’s a separate species altogether. Either way, I want to see it for myself. This would be a “lifer” bird for me, one I have never seen in my life.

All I had to do was find and photograph the bird. Easy, right? I had done this before with other birds, and I knew that this one likes to hang out near the Regenstein Center and on Evening Island. It also likes to eat the seeds of birch trees, and I know that this is a very pale bird compared to the common redpoll. Piece of cake. Well, that was two months ago…

Many other birders have seen this bird, and some of their comments to me have been…

“Oh, you just missed it. It was feeding here and it just flew off a few minutes ago.”

“There are 100 common redpolls flying around. You just have to check each one to see if it’s the hoary.”

“Take a look at the great shots I got of the hoary. It practically flew right in front of me.”

ARRRRGGGGH! Lately, I am lucky to find any birds at all, maybe a few ducks, geese, or juncos. The Garden seems to have gone quiet. A few times, during my many visits, I spotted some small flocks of the common redpolls, which the hoary redpoll likes to hang out with — each time I hoped to find the “silvery” bird in the flock, and each time I walked away empty handed. Every time I read about a sighting at the Garden, I rushed over in the hopes of seeing this bird for myself. “No luck. Well, maybe next time,” I told myself. And the weeks went by without a sighting. Sigh…what am I going to write about now?

PHOTO: Common Redpoll enjoying the birch tree seeds outside Regenstein Center. ©Carol Freeman

Enjoying the birch tree seeds near the Regenstein Center. ©Carol Freeman

O.K., I thought, I’ll try one more time, maybe I’ll get lucky. Surely today I will see the bird. After a little searching, I do find a small flock of common redpolls. I carefully check each one to see if the hoary is mixed in. No luck. But hey, these guys are really cute: hanging from the trees, swinging in the breeze, feeding on the seeds. As I admire their beauty, they slowly make their way toward me. They seem to know that I pose no threat, and I feel accepted by these tiny birds. What a gift to be able to stand so close to them and to have them behave naturally. They show no signs of stress, and I feel totally connected to nature in this moment. I forget all about the hoary, and instead remember why I do what I do. It is for this feeling — this feeling of connectedness and appreciation of all of nature. Thank you, common redpolls, for this reminder. I am forever grateful for your beauty and for your trust.

All of nature is there for our enjoyment and appreciation, from the commonplace to the exotic. We just need to get out there to see it.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org