Bernie's Birdship

Monday, May 23, 2005


This weekend, Brain and I went down to Jackson Park and Wooded Island . Also, Brain ate two SILKWORM PUPAE, but more on that later.


After birding, we went to the Chinese food supermarket. Even though it smells like old kimchee and very slowly rotting fish in there, when you are standing in one of the aisles, closely examining a flattened plastic bag of 92895967544589589 tiny little dried fish, each with a bright blue dot for an eye, the smells kind of fall away and you just wish you were on something. Quail eggs, giant colorful tubs of soy bean paste, 25 pound sacks of rice, a million different kinds of gyoza, blue crabs in a bowl of soy sauce, dried fish on a stick, giant bags of some kind of red powder, sacks of mung beans and tapioca pearls (bubble tea!), stacks of crinkly cellophane bags of seaweed, some kind of deer antler extract jam, fish sausages, jello-like yam flour cakes, vacu-sealed bags of baby octopus, lotus root slices, liverwort in juice, frozen squid caps (which make excellent calamari for cheap!), seaweed bar, and cans of SILKWORM PUPAE in special sauce. We couldn’t resist.

I think Brian’s best bet for a get rich quick scheme is getting on Fear Factor. If you recall from an earlier post, he ate a LIVE WAXWORM a few weeks ago. These dead silkworm pupae were no big woop for him. He just whipped out some chopsticks and after coolly regarding the floating brown beetle-looking things, he popped one in his mouth and chewed. Then he ate another one. It was amazing! I took a picture. He said the sauce wasn’t thick enough. We also got some Korean rice wine which looked really refreshing, but tasted and smelled like rotten vegetables. I think Brian liked it.

Anyway, we also went kayaking on Sunday, but it wasn’t too birdy- we had a possible YELLOW CROWNED NIGHT HERON and a few other warblers. We also saw two soft-shelled turtles, which always remind me of chocolate chip pancakes. Next weekend, we’re going to Michigan for warblering.

I wonder what Brian will eat next? E-mail your suggestions to . If he accepts your challenge, I’ll send you an e-mail photo of him eating whatever it is. Think hard because I bet he’s already tried what you’re thinking of suggesting.

Monday, May 09, 2005


Brian pretty much covered our excellent birding weekend running around Saturday for the Spring Bird Count, and then Sunday we just went out to LaBagh Woods and it was stuffed with warblers. I had three or four life birds in there, plus I saw a giant SPINY ALIGATOR TURTLE- it looked like a gnarly half-deflated black basketball with claws and a tail. Brain says the only way to hold one where it can’t bite your fingers off is by the tail. Apparently, he slew one as a youngster with one of his bamboo swords or with one thousand bamboo skewers or something. He really digs bamboo.

This morning, I had PALM, YELLOW RUMP, BLACK & WHITE and the resident FLICKER calling and drumming on the river behind my house. Also, yesterday I had a dead INDIGO BUNTING at the base of my building- I think he must have flown into a window or something. I should have bagged him for the freezer so that Brain could get a look right then, but instead, I just picked him up by the tail and moved him out of the way.

Today, when I changed my mind and decided it would be worth it for Brain to see the bird, I went down with my plastic bag, but the bird was coated in a moving brown cloak of tiny ants, which seemed to be mainly crawling in and out of the bird’s eye holes. Instead of trusting the freezer to kill the ants, I thought about how my home has become kind of a moth breeding grounds. These moths live in suspended animation inside the tattered cushions of my 100+ year old Morris chair and come out to multiply in the spring, taking up residence in my hall closet, blankets, towels, everywhere. I looked at the ants crawling all over the bunting and decided to just leave it there.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

have you seen any good birds lately?

One of the best parts about birding, and hanging out with other birders, like at informational bird lectures and bird award presentations and whatnot, is the popular social query, “have you seen any good birds lately?” It’s a sort of greeting - a secret handshake if you will - sort of like knowing somebody has kids and asking them how the kids are, or knowing that a person is a writer and asking them if they’ve gotten anything published recently. You know a birder’s always looking for birds, so you ask: “have you seen any good birds lately?” And as a conversation starter among birders it NEVER FAILS. Seeing birds and not seeing birds, it’s all important to talk about. After all, high-yield birding requires a constant stream of information about weather conditions, sightings, and research. But the thing I like best about the question is that it pulls the person questioned back to the experience where he or she saw his or her last good bird. Reliving and remembering, and appreciating fully, bird-seeing experiences - the fleeting, wilderness moments - seems to be really what birding is all about sometimes. A few nights ago on a weekday evening Detta asked me if I had seen any good birds lately over the phone. Both of us had been working and neither of us had been out birding at all that day. The only birds I had seen were two grackles, so I told her about the grackles; how I caught a momentary glimpse of them out the window of a brown line El as it turned the Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride curves south of Sedgwick, and how the two grackles on that rainy day in the leaf-bare upper branches of a tree next to the track were silhouetted against a grey sky in a noble, defiant sort of pose. Normally, I find grackles a little disturbing. And normally I would have just forgotten about seeing those two ever-so-common in the spring, summer, and fall grackles. But now after recounting the experience to Detta I think I’ll remember those grackles, and the way the sky looked grey that rainy day, and the way it felt going home after an exhausting day of work in my rumpled suit, and what the planet earth was like at that particular moment – I think I’ll remember that moment for a long time now.

This last weekend, however, there was no need to dwell on the ever-common Grackles. This last weekend Detta and I had close to fifty species both Saturday and on Sunday. Saturday was the Annual Spring Bird Census. On bikes and kayaks (no fossil fuels) Detta and I covered North Pond, Olive Park, and the North Canal. Detta’s got our raw data from our census participation; she’ll be the one filling out the forms involved, but highlights from the bird census (for me) were a male and female EASTERN TOWHEE in the crabapple blossoms outside the gate at Olive Park, 3 ROSE BREASTED GROSBEAKs on the river a few bridges North of where the Evanston Canal meets the Chicago River, and what I think was a SAVANNHA SPARROW hopping along the sidewalk in front of Detta in the field by the sewage treatment / crop circle looking fountains inside Olive Park (to be fair, Detta is wary of this identification).

On Sunday, first Detta and I hit Labagh (Lablah) woods. I wouldn’t be surprised if this weekend turns out to be the peak of the spring migration. After a winter subsisting on ducks when we could get them and seagull watching, looking from bird to bird at Montrose harbor for something a bit different from the usual ring-bill and herring gulls, LaBlah was a mystical fairy paradise, filled with colorful, bug-eating wonderment in warbler form. We had: PALM WARBLERS, BLACKBURIAN WARBLERS, BAY BREASTED WARBLERS, RUBY CROWNED KINGLETS, MAGNOLIA WARBLERS, YELLOW THROAT WARBLER, BLACK & WHITE WARBLER, BLUE GRAY GNAT CATCHER, NORTHERN WATERTHRUSH, HERMIT THRUSH, BROWNHEADED COWBIRD, YELLOW WARBLER, NASHVILLE WARBLER, BLUE WING WARBLER, ORANGE CROWNED WARBLER, YELLOW RUMP WARBLER, GOLDFINCH, a RED BELLIED WOODPECKER we didn’t see but we identified by its churs, a WHITE BREASTED NUTHATCH, and a PEEWEE. After a delicious tofu-based lunch, we hit the Magic Hedge at Montrose. There, we had (and I’m omitting the more common birds you’d expect to see there this time of year) a HOUSE WREN, OVENBIRD, BALTIMORE ORIOLE (like half a dozen hanging out in the top of a catalpa tree in the hedge where all the fresh woodchips are – this is probably the best tree in the Hedge for orioles and warblers if you can see them through the leaves) making their shy, tender quiet gurgling noises, COMMON YELLOWTHROAT, CATBIRD, WOOD THRUSH, BOBOLINK, WHITE CROWNED SPARROWS (all weekend, this sparrow’s almost even outnumbered the house sparrows around), FEMALE REDWINGED BLACKBIRDS, SONG SPARROW, BARN SWALLOW, ROUGH WINGED SWALLOW, CASPIAN TERNS, COMMON TERNS, NORTHER (dorito) FLICKER. Earlier that day around Detta’s house we saw a HOUSE FINCH and a BLACK CRESTED NIGHT HERON.

Saturday, May 07, 2005


Yesterday was some excellent birding- and the best part is, I didn’t even think I’d be birding much, let alone getting a perfect look at my first, and probably last for a really long time, WHIP-POOR-WILL.

It started out like this: I was at work, minding my own business and reading my IBET (Illinois bird message board) while alternately drinking a delicious ice cold Diet Mountain Dew and a luke warm mug of green tea, a combination I find particularly invigorating, when I noticed a post about a WHIP-POOR-WILL in someone’s backyard located just a few blocks from where I work. The post was an invitation to view and listed a phone number. Knowing how rare these birds are, and figuring that I’ll probably never just randomly see one, I called the number. I felt pretty nirdy shouting into my cell phone in the open-cubes environment of my work, “Is the bird still there? Excellent.”

I arranged to be at this dude’s house at around 5:15, and proceeded to get really excited. I looked up a photo of a WHIP-POOR-WILL on the web and got my co-worker C to come over and look at it. “I just made an appointment to see one of these after work,” I told her. “You live a completely whacky life that none of us know about, don’t you,” she said, examining the cryptic bird on my computer screen. I don’t agree with that assessment, I just dig birds, OK?

Anyway, after work, I practically sprinted to the designated location on my bike, cruising through Evanston’s lame excuse for rush hour traffic- kids form Northwestern strolling about, all well-dressed and intellectual. Spring leaves giving off spring smells, mini-mansions with their owners tending the immaculate flower gardens in front.

I arrived at a white house with red shutters, slightly run down in comparison to the surrounding homes. Feeling a bit queer-balls, I ring the doorbell, and out comes this kid that appears to be a teenager, which is pretty rare in the birding community. Obviously trying to be cool, the kid lets me into his house and nervously explains about the bird, which he flushed from some hedges that morning and followed it as it flew to a pine tree at the back of his yard, where it’d been all day. On the way through the house, he grabs his scope and I follow him out the kitchen sliding glass doors to the yard. He set up the scope, peers through it and makes some adjustments and stepped aside. “Good, he’s still here,” he says.

I look through the scope, and there’s the bird- a good bird for Halloween, perched sleeping on a pine bough, giant eyelids squeezed closed, tiny bill tip sticking out past a fluff of feathers, which may or may not serve as sonic receivers, according to what I’ve been reading. He’s beautiful -a camouflage-covered, frog-mouthed, goat-sucking nightjar.

Later I discover the kid is a recent college grad (environmental sciences) and that he’s traveled all over the world birding and is looking for a job. How cool is that? He knows all the main birding dudes in Chicago, and has apparently been birding since he was a kid- but his parents aren't really into it. He got into it all by himself, and is now a super-nird. That's pretty good. I ask him about birding in Evanston, and he describes a few parks I should check out. I decide to check Gillson Park on my way home, since its on my bike route home along the north channel.

Gillson doesn’t disappoint, in addition to about 12 DOWNIES and HAIRIES and a RED BREASTED WOODPECKER, I have my first EASTERN KINGBIRD since last August, sitting there in an open vignette surrounded by tiny spring leaves. One of my favorites, and easy to identify from the white tail tip.

When I get home, I decide to keep it up, and hit my trail. There, I watch a BLUE GREY GNAT CATCHER flit around for about 20 minutes. At one point, he zips out, hovers right in front of me, and give off his little tweet. It was touching. Further down I get some nice NASHVILLE WARBERS, and on my way back, a KINGFISHER lands strangely close to me on an open branch. I notice he has a perfect, kingfisher-sized minnow in his bill. As I watch, he gives the still-wriggling minnow a few sharp bashes against the branch before swallowing it whole.

Thursday, May 05, 2005


SWALLOWS are building up their numbers- soon there will be acrobatic squadrons of orange and sapphire toy planes dive-bombing invisible bugs everywhere you look. I love how impertinent they are- zipping and arching right in front of your face, showing off their speed and coming within inches of you.

This morning, not much to report, except one behavioral observation regarding a GRACKLE. I’m riding my bike, minding my business on the north channel bike trail, shoving myself up to Evanston and looking for anything that’s not a ROBIN, GRACKLE, STARLING or other usual. Loyola kids are rowing their crew ships on the river to my right, and cars are rushing by on McCormick Blvd. to my left.

As I come around this corner in the trail, I see this crazy GRACKLE doing a rather refreshing-looking yoga move. The bird is on the ground in some nice springy grass, ass thrust back, tail feathers cocked up, and asshole (or whatever they have down there) exposed to the gentle breeze which ruffled the GRACKLE’s undercarriage feathers as it stood there brazenly. “That must feel good,” I thought to myself. Then I noticed the other end of the bird- the GRACKLE had his mouth agape, revealing a thin yellow palate, and his little bird tongue was sticking out! He was effectively airing out both holes. I’d never seen a bird in such a pose before, but I figured it was part of his early morning routine. I whipped by on my bike, and the bird kind of turned to watch me as I passed, never breaking his configuration or giving any sign of embarrassment.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Special Birds

If you read Detta’s May 2 post, you’ll recall that we saw either some sort of thrush or a brown thrasher at the Montrose Magic Hedge. Here’s why we don’t know what it is. We spotted the bird running, roadrunner style, along the ground in a row of hedges to the West of the nature area – (these perhaps are the row of original “magic” hedges?) – the bird was colored that eye-catching kind of rufous orange, like a fox sparrow. Detta and I plunged into the shrubs, the bird ran off. I wanted to pursue, but Detta saw this creepy guy in the hedge. He had a blue track suit jacket or something on, and he had his hand up holding branches open in front of him and was …like, I don’t know… a tiny little flea in a dense forest of pubes. I don’t know. But I’ll agree with Detta that he was creepy. We left the hedge, but shortly afterward that creepy dude in the blue track suit came out of it also. “Hey Detta! That creepy dude is out of the hedge!” I explained that now that he was outside the hedge, we had to go back in and find that special bird.

Detta wasn’t buying my binary system-style argument. But she compromised by sitting in her car with me by the crab-apple trees across the street by Montrose harbor where taxi cab drivers throw out bread. She said we could sit there and watch until we saw another special bird. We didn’t see another special bird that day. But we will!

Monday, May 02, 2005

Weekend of May 1

Went out kayaking with Brian last Saturday- the stank of the river was periodically and briefly overpowered by the gentle blasts of spring flowers emitting their pollen- throwing their spores into the air and hoping they land on the proper receptacles. Will they or won’t they? Either way, it was a novelty to actually inhale deeply on the river and not be slightly nauseated.

The big bird of the day was the BLUE GREY GNAT CATCHER- a tiny slate blue warbler we found catching bugs and picking nits off a few spring branches overhanging the river, I think near the Howard Avenue bridge. A truly beautiful bird- its soft shading of grey to blue and its beady little eyes with barely perceivable white eye ring – it was a life bird for both of us. We watched it hop around for a long time- still kind of shocked at how approaching birds in the kayaks is so much less disturbing to them (seemingly) than approaching on foot. Binoculars weren’t really even necessary most of the time on the river. We had about three BG GNAT CATCHERS, always allied with a RUBY CROWNED KINGLET. Another highlight for me was the KESTREL that zipped by as we passed behind that smartypants school at Kedzie and Bryn Mawr- especially because I heard its little scream.

Additionally, we had about 25 BLACK CROWNED NIGHT HERONS- I’m used to just seeing these at the waterfall- and never more than 10 individuals. I think they’re making a good comeback- no juveniles yet.

We paddled pretty much non-stop from north of Howard Ave all the way back to just south of Foster- that was the farthest we’ve ever gone. Somehow, it felt as though I was being sucked forward in a vortex- the paddling was strangely effortless- maybe I’m getting stronger, or maybe something was queer-balls on the river that day.

On Sunday at Magic Hedge, we had a female RED WINGED BLACKBIRD, which Brian pointed out to me (I’d never seen one before) and possible THRUSH of some sort or possible BROWN THRASHER.

I had another dream about FLAMINGOS floating underwater last night as I peered at them from a dock at night.

P.S. Brian ate a waxworm that he bought from a bait-vending machine at the fishing store where we got our Illinois fishing licenses. He says he chewed it too. He is amazing.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

By way of introduction (by Bernadetta)

Bernie’s Birdship is all Brian’s idea- a spot for us to document our birdwatching and other nature adventures together. Having nature adventures in the city is crucial for a good inner life. Its also enlightening in that as the realization that nature thrives in the city dawns on you, and you nurture it, you begin to feel better. We live in Chicago, a good city that grows on me daily. I have lived here for about six or seven years- Brain for three or four.

We have been birding together for just a few short months. However wonderful its been for me to have a companion in this activity, which I had previously enjoyed mostly on my own, it has been bittersweet in that I wish Brian was there with me earlier in learning about birding and freezing his ass off with me on cold winter mornings looking at a HOODED MERGANSER on the river. Those times would have been so much more enjoyable with him there. But, now that I think about it, Brian was kind of there with me - just not in the physical realm. Perhaps he astral traveled to my shoulder one morning as I walked my trail yelling at squirrels or whispering to a RED TAILED HAWK to “land you mother fucker!”

Anyway, I think its important to understand some of the territory the Birdship makes frequent landings in. One such spot is my neighborhood and surroundings. I live very close to where the Chicago River and the North Channel of the river system converge at Chicago’s only waterfall, located about a block east of my home (The Fortress of Pointless Noises). Brian is going to go over the waterfall in his kayak at the end of this summer- so there's some really good incentive to keep reading Bernie's Birdship!

One of the reasons I moved into the Fortress about two years ago, was that a HARLEQUIN DUCK had been spotted at the waterfall that winter- swimming ceaselessly against the turbulence from the falls, she was there for about two weeks. Anyhow, the natural part of the river flows directly behind the Fortress, and is visible from my kitchen and porch. There is a short trail that goes along the river downstream of the waterfall, which I’d consider my ancestral birding grounds. I walk this trail whenever possible, which isn’t as often as I’d like. Nearby, there’s Gompers Park (first EASTERN KINGBIRD, MEADOWLARK), Rosehill Cemetery (first RED HEADED WOODPECKER), and North Park Nature Center (first TOWHEE, BROWN THRASHER).

Recently, Brian and I have begun to explore the river itself- we bought two used Old Town kayaks about a month or two ago and have been out on the river almost every weekend since. So far we’ve explored from the waterfall north to a few bridges north of Howard Avenue (penetrating Evanston) and south to about Belmont. If I had to say, I’d say that Montrose and Magic Hedge are Brian’s ancestral birding grounds. Hopefully, we’ll incorporate outlying parks and other areas into our normal birding routine. Unfortunately, we both work. Work is a major problem. I don’t recommend it to anybody.