Nature and civilization

Michigan Avenue from the North Garden of the Art Institute, Chicago © 2013 Celia Her City

Why, you may wonder, is Celia angry about the city’s decision to fell a few old trees?  Here, in the north garden of the Art Institute, we may find an answer.

For, on one side of the garden—just steps from Michigan Avenue—, are two improbably aged, enormous, gnarly, overreaching trees.  They are not decorous, they are not over-managed; they are awesome, merely.

In a town incessantly straining against its nature to be great, these trees are possibly the most cultured things around, because they are dignified, and because their stewards have accorded them the respect and even reverence necessary for them to survive.  Though the garden they’re situated in has been remade several times, they have been left alone to achieve the majesty and character that is the work of time.

Next time you are at the museum, be sure to take a moment out for these glorious trees.

Clear-cutting for Maggie

Clear-cutting for Maggie

Though strapped for cash and indeed wallowing in red ink, the City of Chicago has found the money to clear-cut an existing park and create a new one that will be named after a member of the Daley family.

The project involved cutting down 877 trees that had lived on the site, including mature ash, locust, and ornamentals, a process off-camera to most Chicagoans because of a perimeter fence screening the view.  A new park with all new trees will be erected at a cost of $55 million.

The late Maggie Daley, for whom the park will be named, has been privately memorialized with a building at De Paul University and a women’s cancer center at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

The press coverage of this expensive project has been circumspect and minimal.  And check out the webpages the Chicago Park District supposedly devoted to the public hearings: they contain not a single sentence indicating what public sentiment was.  The “hearing” is documented solely with still images devoid of words!

The park is happening.  So there, Chicago!  It will subsume the Daley Memorial Plaza that was previously an inconspicuous feature of the site.  The new landscape design was by a Brooklyn, NY, firm.

North Pond birding

North Pond birding

Because of its location on Lake Michigan’s shore, Chicago lies along a major bird flyway.  As unlikely as it seems, the city’s parks are lousy with unusual birds in the fall and spring.  In recent years, the city has done more to develop bird sanctuaries, creating new sites and improving others (like the Magic Hedge) that exist already.

I don’t have the time or eyesight for serious birding, but I find myself making a bee-line to the North Pond (and the neighboring Lily Pond) at this time of year.  There are many tiny finches and wrens flying around, as well as the waterfowl, which are easier to see.  Many of the ducks and geese will be around all season (and the Canadian geese, great nasty nuisances, are here year-round).

Here are a few of the birds I’ve seen this week, in addition to the juvenile heron and the American black duck, which I’ve written about already.

Northern shovelers

Northern shoveler (male), © 2013 Celia Her City

Northern shoveler (male).

Northern shoveler in profile (Chicago's North Pond) © 2013 Celia Her City

The male shoveler, in profile, showing off its bill.

Shovelers, North Pond, Chicago © 2013 Celia Her City

The female shoveler has dull plumage and an orange or brown bill.

The northern shoveler is a bird I’d never even heard of before this week.  It is a small duck with an enormously long spatula-bill.  The male has a black bill and dramatic plumage.  This week, a pair of them has been hanging out around the North Pond.

Red-breasted mergansers

Red-breasted merganser (female), North Pond, Chicago © 2013 Celia Her City

Red-breasted merganser (female)

Red-breasted merganser, North Pond, Chicago, © 2013 Celia Her City

Red-breasted merganser (male)

The merganser is another bird entirely new to me.  It’s smaller and slighter than a Mallard and tough to see clearly when it’s swimming.  Its distinguishing mark is a scruffy crest, which these pictures show.  Their red eyes and long, thin beaks also make them stand out. There were a fairly large number of these birds on the pond but they will be flying farther north to breed.

Wood ducks.

Wood duck, Caldwell Lily Pond, Chicago © 2013 Celia Her City

The wood duck is one of the pond’s most prevalent summer inhabitants, along with Mallards.  The wood duck is slightly smaller than the Mallard and has the most astonishing markings.  It doesn’t look real.  This photograph is from last year (taken around the same time—which shows you how late our spring is) and was taken at the Caldwell Lily Pond.


A gull on the evening water of the North Pond © 2013 Celia Her City

This beautiful gull stood out on the pond.

I see a gull, and I think, “Oh, it’s only a gull.”  But I’m learning that there are many different types of gulls and that they can be hard to identify.  This particular gull, which looked bluish in the early evening light, stood out from the others as different, but whether it really was, I couldn’t say.  I loved its grey wings and longish black tail.  The antics of the gulls greatly enliven the pond in summer.

Gadwall ducks.

A pair of Gadwall ducks.

Gadwall ducks have finely variegated coloring and are small, plump dabblers.

These small, quiet brown ducks are easy to overlook, especially because they are likely to be mingling with the Mallards and other common birds.

Domestic geese.

Domestic geese

This pair of geese lives on the pond each summer.  As with the white ducks I often write about, these are likely domesticated animals that now live in the wild.  They are large plump birds, with bright orange feet and bright orange bills.  They are not as aggressive as the Canadian geese, thank goodness.


American coot, © 2013 Celia Her City

I’ve seen a lot of American coots on the pond this week.  I think they pass through, since I don’t remember seeing even one last season.  The coot is black with a white bill that has a maroon spot at the top and at the end.  It’s a small duck with an egg-shaped body and disproportionately thin legs and enormous feet.   This picture is not very good as it was taken during a heavy rain.  But check out the coots if you can—they are numerous and easy to observe.

One mystery—lovely!

Mystery bird--a shoveler? © 2013 Celia Her City

This duck was a mystery to me because of its big white chest-patch and small size.  It doesn’t look like the Mallards, and its body- and tail-feathers (and its bill) differ from the shoveler’s.  I think this is some sort of hybrid duck, but it sure was pretty, making its way across the pond.

Top image: Canadian goose, unidentified bird resting, and a pair of mergansers.

Click on images to enlarge.

If you’re interested in birding, this Flickr photostream, Illinois Birds, is worth checking out.

They’re back

They’re back

I’m guilty of sentimentality when it comes to wildlife—a syndrome Russell Baker has amusingly described.  In the case of the domestic ducks that hang out at North Pond, my enthusiasm is pragmatic: I appreciate how photogenic they are, how well they stand out against the surrounding scene.  It helps that they are just a single pair, returning to the spot perennially.

They look lovely against the blue-black surface of the pond, or when its surface is glowing with the reflected colors of autumn.  The pair also look pretty darn cute against the fresh carpet of spring.

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