Summer won’t be over for a while in my book—not as long as there are dragonflies around. I think I’ve seen more dragonflies this year at the Chicago Botanic Garden than I have in the past ten years combined. The quick, strong fliers seem to be everywhere.
Some of the dragonflies migrate south toward the Gulf Coast through September and maybe beyond. With the help of citizen observers, scientists are studying the migration patterns of this fascinating insect, which has a near 360-degree field of vision that helps it avoid predators.
The most abundant dragonfly I’ve seen this year is the Eastern pondhawk, with blue dasher dragonflies coming in a close second. I’m also seeing quite a few damselflies, which are generally smaller and more thin-bodied than dragonflies and tend to hold their wings above their bodies. (See my blogpost Damselflies 101 for more information.)
Dragonflies and damselflies, both in the order Odonata, can spend several years as aquatic nymphs before they emerge into the beautiful winged insects we see on land, which is why you will often see them around water. They are fierce hunters in both stages. They don’t bite or sting humans, though.
Dragonflies can be found here from March through the first hard freeze in the fall. Right now, you might even be lucky to find yourself in the middle of a migrating swarm of green darners, black saddlebags, or wandering gliders as they head south. About 90 different odonates can be found in the Chicago area. Each one is a delight to behold.
Dragonflies are territorial and will often chase off other dragonflies, only to return to their favorite perch. A favorite place to find them at the Garden is around the waterlilies and lotus blossoms, but you can spot them throughout the 385-acre grounds. Drop by and keep an eye out for the dragonflies near the late-summer blooms.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spring is here, although it might not feel that way. The days are getting longer and the ducks are migrating through Chicago on their way to the breeding grounds in the north. A few will stay around all summer, but most are here only for a short visit. Now is a great time to see a delightful variety of waterfowl.
The Chicago Botanic Garden is a perfect place for the ducks to stop during their migration. They look for any open water they can find. The south end of the Garden near the prairie is one of the best places to look for them. I take the paths that are closest to the open water, and walk very slowly so as not to alarm them. If I’m careful, the ducks will only swim to the far side, but not fly away. Patience is key. I like to sit down, get very still, and wait for the ducks to get used to me being there. This might take 20 to 30 minutes…did I mention, patience is key! Sometimes I sit for 30 minutes and the ducks never get any closer. Occasionally new ducks will fly in and I can get a few shots before they realize I’m there and swim off. This is what makes duck photography so challenging.
On a recent visit to the garden, I had one of those magical moments that you always wish for as a photographer. I was sitting still, hoping the ducks on the far side of the pond would make their way a bit closer for some photos. As I was waiting, a single resident swan swam straight toward me. So I took a few shots. Then, I noticed one of the ducks starting to follow the swan. Cool! So I took some shots of the duck. Then I noticed that ALL the ducks were swimming in my direction. Wow! I must have had 15 ducks all around me. They apparently deemed me to be okay once their swan friend showed confidence in being around me. They kept a watchful eye, and every time I moved my camera for a shot, the ducks backed off a bit.
Then, just as mysteriously as it came, the swan swam away, taking all the ducks with it, and I was left basking in their trust and in the glow of that moment, realizing just how rare it is and how lucky I was.
Since the ducks are migrating through, I never know what I’m going to see from one day to the next. That is really the fun part for me. In the past couple of weeks I’ve seen hooded merganser, red-breasted merganser, common merganser, lesser scaup, ring-necked duck, redhead duck, coot, northern shoveler, common goldeneye, canvasback, and gadwall.
There will be a stream of ducks from now through April. So get out and see what you can find. And if you are patient and lucky, you might be graced with a magical moment of your own!
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
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.
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!