Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Brrrrrrrr! But a Marbled Godwit!

Marbled Godwith

What a frigid morning! But if we were cold, the birds seemed even colder. We had something of a fall-out at Park Point—I'm sure our numbers for most of the songbirds are way lower than the actual numbers.

Lesser Yellowlegs

We had a couple of Lesser Yellowlegs (the most we saw as a group was one, but I saw two when I was trying to get a few photos after we broke up). Our most impressive shorebird of the day (since there were only two species, this wasn't a high bar) was the Marbled Godwit that flew past us, showing its gorgeous cinnamon wing linings, and then sat on the ball field for quite a while. Soon after, someone started running his dog right there, which of course chased the bird off. I wish people understood how exhausted migrating birds are in conditions like today's. They should not be wasting essential calories trying to elude dogs.

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrushes were everywhere, and flickers. Still lots of juncoes but quite a few White-throated Sparrows and Fox Sparrows were singing. We came upon one lovely flock of 12 American Tree Sparrows at the far end of the ball field. I'm assuming that was the same flock of 12 that we later found by the parking lot.

American Tree Sparrow

We were lucky enough to run into John Richardson, the wonderful bird guide. We told him about our Marbled Godwit and he refound it. After our group disbanded, John chanced upon a dead Northern Fulmar (imagine that!) by the Beach House. It ended up getting eaten by a Peregrine. I can't help but wonder if that was the weird gull-like bird that flew over fairly high right after a Bald Eagle did—if we did see it, I'm not all that surprised that we didn't guess it was a Northern Fulmar!

33 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  6
American Wigeon (Anas americana)  6
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  8
Northern Shoveler (Anas clypeata)  1
Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)  1
Greater/Lesser Scaup (Aythya marila/affinis)  50
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)  12
Common Loon (Gavia immer)  1
Red-necked Grebe (Podiceps grisegena)  8
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)  4
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa)  1     We first saw the bird, being chased by two gulls, at close range--the cinnamon wing linings were very clearly visible. It alighted further away. After we had moved on, when we looked back someone was running a dog there and we couldn't find it. A while later, John Richardson relocated it. It disappeared again when a Merlin flew past.
Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes)  2
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  130
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)  1
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  1
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  1
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  2
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  30
Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  2
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  4
Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)  5
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)  70
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  5
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  2
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)  4
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)  12
Fox Sparrow (Passerella iliaca)  5
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  15
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  30
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  2
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  25

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Worst-Case Scenarios

Great Blue Heron

Back in 2009, a pair of Great Blue Herons built a nest on a dead oak in Sapsucker Woods right outside the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and I spent an inordinate amount of time photographing the growing family. Our best views of the nest from the building couldn’t show what was happening inside the nest, though we were pretty sure the parents were incubating eggs, and then they were spending time away from the nest and standing over the nest, possibly feeding young. Finally, one day we spotted a tiny chick whom I impulsively started calling Mario. 

Great Blue Heron

We had no idea whether there might be any other chicks hunkered down as one was visible, but within a couple of days, we started seeing two at once—Mario and Luigi, of course.
Great Blue Heron

When we started seeing three, they became Mario, Luigi, and Princess, even though we couldn’t tell them apart.

Great Blue Heron

Over a week later, suddenly there was a fourth chick, noticeably smaller than the others. I called that one Yoshi. And immediately, scientists at the lab started telling me that there was virtually no chance that little one would survive, because of starvation or siblicide. I should not get too attached.

Great Blue Heron family

But of course I did. Day after day, week after week, I kept watching and photographing the growing nestlings.

Great Blue Heron

Great Blue Heron family

Yoshi stayed smaller than the others, and remained in the nest over a week after the others fledged. But after they left the nest, Yoshi got the lion’s share of feedings and soon caught up in size. Yep—all four young made it to fledging just fine.

Great Blue Heron

As it turns out, siblicide is a common event for Great Egrets, but not Great Blue Herons. And the pond provided plenty of food to sustain four growing chicks and their parents.

Three years later, when the Lab put a nest cam on that heron nest, the female produced five eggs.

FIVE eggs! Great Blue Heron

Now we had tens of thousands of online viewers, and our extremely close views of parents and eggs, and then chicks, vastly increased how emotionally invested we all became. A snowstorm and then a dented egg put people in panic mode.

Great Blue Heron nest in snow

Pips in Great Blue Heron eggs
The lower right egg is the one with the dent (on the underside). The hole on the upper side
is where the second chick is pipping. So yes, a dented egg could and did hatch. 

Some of the cam monitors thought they should prepare people for worst case scenarios, because of course it was unlikely that all five eggs would hatch and produce chicks that survived to fledgling. I tried to keep my approach strictly scientific: let’s see what happens. Together, the cam viewers were the first people ever to have 24-7 views this close of any Great Blue Heron nest. Everything we saw was new and fascinating as we witnessed all five eggs hatching into five healthy babies, the last to hatch, days later, much smaller than its older siblings, but again all five successfully fledged.

I thought a lot about these herons, and how easy it was to envision worst-case scenarios and to panic, or to at least try to maintain a resigned, unemotional detachment knowing that something bad was looming, after I got my suspicious mammogram results in January. I got through the follow-up mammogram, the biopsy, all kinds of tests, and surgery. I learned that I have the ATM mutation that had quadrupled my chances of getting breast cancer in the first place—that news made me actually feel lucky, though: breast cancer held off until I was 65, and when it did appear, it was nothing more than a Stage 0, with no cancer in the margins or lymph nodes.

I’d cancelled all my out-of-town spring speaking gigs before surgery, knowing the probabilities of problems using my left arm for a while. And even Stage 0 breast cancer patients are often treated with radiation and hormone therapy, and so even with the best-case scenario I couldn't be sure how well I’d handle travel and public speaking. As it turned out, after reviewing my particular case and all the statistical probabilities, my oncologists and I decided those follow-up treatments wouldn't be wise. So I'd made the practical preparations for worst-case scenarios that turned out to be unnecessary.  At least this time.

I thought about those baby herons. We got to see the moment each one made its first leap from the nest. It was such a long way down—would its wings support it? Might it crash into a branch and break a bone? Would it know to fly back when it needed food, and would it be able to return to such a high nest? What predators might be lurking?

Dangers are everywhere, and those baby herons knew it. We'd all seen how they crouched when airplanes taking off or landing at the nearby Ithaca Airport passed right overhead. That was when they were tiny—after the first few times, they started tracking the planes with interest rather than fear, and then started ignoring them. We watched how all five of them, close to fledging, reacted when their father brought in one particular pile of fish. After the chicks had taken all the top fish, one of them started to grab the last one, a large goldfish. When it touched it, the fish started thrashing—it was still alive!

The chicks had never seen food move before, and they all lurched up, staring with what looked to us like shock and surprise. When one of them tentatively touched it again, the fish thrashed again. The father picked it up and dropped it, as if reassuring his young that yes, this is food. Finally, very tentatively, the bravest of the bunch grabbed the fish and swallowed.

Yes, baby herons understand danger, and know fear. But there was a big, exciting world out there, just waiting to be explored. So when the time came, one by one, the little guys opened their wings, crouched low, and leaped.

Great Blue Heron

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

SO worth going out in the rain!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
I got up at 4:50 this morning, ten minutes before my alarm was set to go off, still basking in the glow of the Cubs' 14-3 win last night. It was silent outside—the roaring wind of yesterday had calmed down—and at 4:59 my robin started singing. I was excited about the prospects for today's warbler walk until Debbie Downer my husband Russ told me it was raining, and turned on The Weather Channel. The radar map didn't look too bad—it looked like the rain might last for an hour or two at most, and the forecast was for drizzle, not actual rain. And any day in spring is probably going to reveal at least something new, so I figured what the heck and headed out. Driving to the Western Waterfront Trail in a steady drizzle, I wondered if anyone else would show up, and if a bird walk on such a crappy day would be worth it. But like the last game in last year's World Series, a bit of rain turned out to be a good thing. In both cases, having faith was justified.

It was still drizzling very lightly in the parking lot as our group assembled. Even a bit of water can be horrible for digital optics, and I cannot find my rain cover anywhere, so I had to leave Chandler, my trusty camera, in the car. It turned out to be a wise decision. We didn't have much rain at all, but enough that he could have been damaged. Unfortunately, that meant I lost opportunities for some really good shots, but oh, well. What is our mind's eye for but to remember lovely things we couldn't photograph? But that does mean we didn't get a single photo of any of the birds seen on our walk.

When we first started out, we heard chickadees and Song Sparrows. A robin was singing when I first arrived, but he'd shut up by the time others joined me. Our first exciting bird of the morning was a female Rusty Blackbird calling from a perch high in a tree near the footbridge. And when we got to the first point close to the marsh, a pair of Rusty Blackbirds were slowly working through the muck and wet leaves. I wish I'd had my camera right then, but at that point it was actually drizzling. As I always say, it's better to see Rusty Blackbirds without a camera than to not see them with a camera. We had one Swamp Sparrow in that first section of marsh, and a couple more further down the path. A few American Tree Sparrows are still lingering with lots of juncoes, but now White-throated Sparrows are jumping into the mix.

Ducks were few and far between. Greg Garmer brought his scope and picked out some distant ducks and grebes that I missed. (Too many close-range songbirds for me to focus on!) Numbers were low but we had pretty good diversity.

A wonderfully cooperative Hermit Thrush gave us all a thrill, as did a persistently singing Brown Thrasher. A Great Blue Heron who grabbed and gobbled down a big fish delighted us all.

As we worked our way beyond the marshes, we saw a Merlin lugging someone. He or she alighted a couple of times in tall trees, and then a crow flew in and chased the Merlin away. Neither of them vocalized at all as we watched this little drama.

We also saw another interpersonal drama: two Ring-billed Gulls going through cool courting behaviors and actually spending some time with the male atop the female, though if they actually copulated, we missed it. They probably waited for a moment when all those binoculars were trained on something in another direction.

Tree Swallows, Yellow-rumped Warblers, both kinglets (mostly Ruby-crowned), a Brown Creeper, and a pair of Eastern Phoebes gave the morning a wonderfully spring-like aura, and by 8:30 or so, the clouds were breaking up to give us moments of sunshine that may help sustain us as we face the ice storm forecast for tonight and tomorrow. By next week, things will be even better. That's spring.

45 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  25
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)  1     Female--aberrant plumage with a lot of white.
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  4
Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors)  6
Green-winged Teal (Anas crecca)  1
Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)  4
Greater/Lesser Scaup (Aythya marila/affinis)  40     Greg Garmer saw. (He had his scope along)
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)  10
Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)  1
Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)  2
Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus)  6     Greg Garmer saw with his scope
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)  11
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)  1
Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)  1
Sharp-shinned Hawk (Accipiter striatus)  1    
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  8    
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  12
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)  2
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)  1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  12
Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1    
Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  2
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  1
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  8
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)  4
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  15
White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  2
Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)  1
Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  40
Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)  1
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  12
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)  1    
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)  10
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)  3
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  8
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  8
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  15
Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)  3
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  50
Rusty Blackbird (Euphagus carolinus)  3    
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  40
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  10
Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus)  8
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  2

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Life Giving Experiences



I decided to spend my spring doing very low-key birding activities and decompressing after all the medical drama of the past few months. I’m leading informal warbler walks every Tuesday and Thursday, unless it’s raining, but otherwise my time is my own for the first spring in many years. I decided to spend Earth Day at Crex Meadows Wildlife Area, in Grantsburg, Wisconsin. I’ve birded there several times over the years on my own, but never had the leisure to explore it. So when I received an email about their spring events, I signed up for two birding field trips so I could go out with experienced birders who know the place way better than I do. The first of these was on Earth Day. It was lovely being outdoors on a beautiful morning, and I relished being a participant rather than a leader for a birding event.

The eleven of us drove around Phantom Lake and to some other spots in our 2-hour field trip. I love early migration, when we’re seeing late winter stragglers and the very first of the spring arrivals. And Saturday fit the bill. We saw a surprising number of lingering American Tree Sparrows even as I saw and heard my first Chipping Sparrows of the year. We were in that weird middle-area as far as water birds go: many of the ducks people had seen in the past week had moved on, but our only shorebirds were a single fly-by Killdeer and two Lesser Yellowlegs. Yellow-rumps and Ruby-crowned Kinglets abounded, but no other warblers had arrived yet.

Many of the early nesting birds were wonderfully cooperative, especially Trumpeter Swans, Bald Eagles, Red-necked Grebes, and Sandhill Cranes.

Sandhill Crane

Sandhill Crane

After the field trip, I went by myself back to Phantom Lake to get more photos. I had an especially lovely time watching a Red-necked Grebe pair that was fairly close to the road. They seem to be working on a nest. Unfortunately, the brilliant sun that felt so very good was pretty strong on the birds. I got my best photos ever of Red-necked Grebes, but they were hardly great. I’ll have to go back there in mid- to late-afternoon when the sun is lower and behind me to get better ones.

Red-necked Grebe

Red-necked Grebe

I did get some nice shots and video of Trumpeter Swans feeding. It’s gratifying beyond measure to see such tangible, beautiful proof that the Endangered Species Act really works—Trumpeter Swans had been wiped out of their entire former range except a tiny pocket in Montana and Canada until research and reintroduction projects under the Endangered Species Act brought this splendid bird back.

Trumpeter Swan


I came home pretty exhausted—it’s interesting how even though I feel great, I’m get tired more easily nowadays. But it was a lovely exhaustion.

One of my treasured friends, who I met at a very high-key birding event, the festival that lives up to its name, The Biggest Week in American Birding, is Pastor at the Second Missionary Baptist Church in Franklin, Indiana. Douglas Wayne Gray had an enlightening experience this week. He writes:
I had … a few bird hikes at work this past work week. These hikes were associated with “Earth Day.”  
I had told one of the groups that we were going to make it to a certain wood line, and when we reached it we would turn around and come back. There was a director in that group who let me know that she wouldn’t be able to make it all the way to the wood line because of a meeting she had.  
At one point during the hike I glanced down at my watch and told the director, who was still with us, that she was going to be late for her meeting. She said to me, “I’ve decided to skip the meeting. I’m making it all the way to the wood line, because this hike is giving me life.”   
She discovered what many of us have discovered. Spending time in nature is very much…life giving.  
According to my calendar, what we call Earth Day is over for the year. But on this planet, every day is earth day. Appreciating all the life giving elements of this beautiful gift we live on sustains and enriches our lives far more that just about any meeting could. As Doug concluded:
Watching a Bald Eagle feed young is...life giving. 
Watching a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher build a nest is...life giving. 
Those things will help you put life in perspective. 
"Behold the birds of the air..."
Sandhill Crane

Thursday, April 20, 2017

National Poetry Month: Event tonight, and P.A. Pashibin Reads "Waiting for Fox"


April is National Poetry Month, and this year I’m celebrating with a lovely new book I just received, Birdsong: poems in celebration of birds, edited by Eric Rounds and Bart White, and published by FootHills Publishing, Kanona, New York.

For an ornithologist, bird poetry can be a mixed bag of misidentifications, anthropomorphism, and subtle or obvious misinterpretations of bird behavior. Walt Whitman addressed that issue long ago, writing:
You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things, and of the sentiment of feather’d, wooded, river, or marine Nature generally. I repeat it—don’t want to know too exactly, or the reasons why.
No human: neither scientist nor artist nor hunter nor animal rights activist—no one living in the heart of the city nor the depths of the wilderness—not one of us with our meager human brain can possibly grok the full meaning of any individual bird, much less a whole species, much less the whole class, much less the long, long reaches of avian evolution through time back beyond therapod dinosaurs. It’s the honest attempts at understanding that break into the innate darkness of our minds with tiny shards where light may pierce our consciousness.

The editors of Birdsong wrote lyrical prefaces to prepare us for the wide interpretations to be found in 104 original works by 79 different poets. I received my copy from Paulette Warren, who lives in Cotton, right within the Sax-Zim Bog, and listens to "For the Birds" on KUMD. She writes as P. A. Pashibin, and her poem in the book Birdsong, “Waiting for Fox,” was so powerful and evocative that I wanted to use it on the air, in her own voice. So she and I met at the station and Lisa Johnson recorded her.

Listen to P.A. Pashibin reading "Waiting for Fox." 

I’d first corresponded with her back in December. She wrote:
One of your programs inspired a poem that was locally published by Cecilia Lieder’s Calyx Press:  “The murderous crows of London Road” was based on one of your programs — not a precisely factual account, but definitely a program that left it’s impression on me! 
That program, about crows in my neighborhood learning how to convert living squirrels into roadkill by chasing them into the road right when a car was approaching, originally aired on June 9, 2006. P. A. Pashibin read that poem and a few others that I'll be linking on another blog post.

On the third Thursday of every month, Duluth’s coffee shop, Beaner's Central, has a Spoken Word Open Mic for area writers to share their work. In honor of National Poetry Week, tonight’s event will highlight a local group, Darn Good Readers, a newly forming group of writers and readers. The Darn Good Readers will be reading selections from Birdsong, as well as other selections celebrating birds, including more of P.A. Pashibin’s splendid work.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Wimping Out

Two faithful Warbler Walk participants, Barbara and Jeff, showed up at the Western Waterfront Trail this morning, but none of us really wanted to walk about in the rain, and my radar showed another band of rain approaching us (the one to the right of the place marker--that was at 7 am and I got this screen cap of the system for the earliest time I could go back to, 8:05 am). I wouldn't have been able to wear my hearing aids (they're not waterproof), forgot to bring along my rain pants, didn't think to wear waterproof boots, and I'm getting wimpy in my dotage. So we'll never know what spectacular birds we might have seen today.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Letters from Listeners: Odd Things Birds Eat

Evening Grosbeak

In the past few weeks, I’ve received a couple of letters from listeners about their backyard birds eating unusual items.

Craig Magnuson of Forks, Washington, wrote that he’s seen Evening Grosbeaks, during several different summers, eating cold campfire charcoal shortly after dawn at the Lake Kachess campground in the Wenatchee National Forest. He noted that someone else posted photos of Evening Grosbeaks eating campfire charcoal at a different location about 20 miles east of where he’s seen it.

True finches, such as Evening and Pine Grosbeak, crossbills, siskins, goldfinches, and Purple Finch, eat mostly seeds. This diet has two problems: birds don’t have teeth, so can’t chew seeds to mash them up, and seeds are missing many minerals and other nutrients that birds need. By eating various forms of grit, birds solve both problems. The grit remains in the first chamber of their stomach—the gizzard—for a while, helping the muscular walls to pulverize the food. And little by little, the grit itself gets pulverized, and the minerals within are picked up by the body, too.

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of North America, Evening Grosbeaks are known to eat snow, salt, and mineral-rich soil, and are drawn to areas where salt or calcium carbonate are artificially added to soil. A few studies have shown that they eat coal and coke ashes, and a scientist named Orr, in a 1951 paper titled “Observations on the birds of northeastern Idaho” in The Proceedings of the California Academy of Science, wrote that they regularly take charcoal from campfires.

Back in the 1980s and early 90s, when Evening Grosbeaks were abundant in my own neighborhood and my children were small, Evening Grosbeaks and other finches often alighted in my children’s sandbox to eat bits of sand. I wish I’d had a camera in those days to capture crossbills perched atop Tonka trucks and grosbeaks sitting on little plastic pails and shovels. Sometimes a toddler would be digging as a couple of Evening Grosbeaks munched on sand just three feet away. It was profoundly charming for a young mother with an interest in birds. But I’ve never witnessed them eating charcoal, so appreciate Craig’s eyewitness account.

American Robin closeup

Another listener, Daniel Dawson, in Fort Smith, Arkansas, writes, “I've got a pair of Robins who just built a nest and sometimes they sneak a piece of dog food when my dog doesn't eat her food right away (and isn't looking).” Daniel fleshed out a bit of the dog-robin interactions, writing, “Typically he will be pecking for worms them sort of sneak up on the bowl, grab a piece and them fly a few feet away to enjoy it. What is really funny is when she is sleeping in her house, also right in front of the food bowl, and he will sneak a piece and fly away without her noticing. It is a bit like a looney tunes cartoon.”

Dog food provides complete and well-balanced nutrition for dogs. It doesn’t constitute a complete diet for an American Robin, but does provide plenty of nutrition, with protein, vitamins, and minerals, so grabbing some now and then isn’t at all a problem for the robin. The most fascinating element of the story is trying to figure out how the robin decided that dog food is a suitable thing to eat. In the past decade, some people have been offering mealworms and fruits in feeders for robins, but it’s tricky to attract robins to even wonderful food. Robins do occasionally learn to associate a gardener with earthworm handouts, and one summer I had a male robin taking mealworms through the season. This is the first time I’ve heard of a robin taking dog food. Daniel’s wife Amanda even got a photo of it.

American Robin eating dog food.
Photo copyright 2017 by Amanda Dawson. 

It’s always fun to hear people’s observations, especially of interesting and odd behaviors. No matter how much we think we know about birds, we’re always learning more thanks to people sharing what they see.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Beautiful Morning on Park Point

Golden-crowned Kinglet

The ball field at Park Point was frost-covered as our group was arriving at 7 for Duluth Audubon's fourth Spring Warbler Walk, but the sun was shining, there was no wind, and by the end of our walk, I was starting to feel uncomfortably warm in my long johns and knitted Chicago Cubs scarf and hat. We had a lot of ducks, way way out, most beyond the distance of conjecture, at least for me. But we had pretty looks at Bufflehead and Common and Red-breasted Mergansers, and were feeling a little certain that a bunch of the distant scaups were Greater before a boat conveniently (for us) scared up all the ducks—solid looks at the wing patterns made me certain of a bunch of Greaters and some Lessers as well. A nice, if distant, group of Horned Grebes out in the water gave us some pleasant looks when they banked just right—all that glare was a little tricky to deal with.

The Ring-billed Gulls gathered on the ball field were all adults, and some were proving the truth that gulls just wanna have fun. Just about every time we scrutinized the flock, one pair would be copulating. We were too far away and the light too glaring for graphic photos, but you can sort of tell what's happening, with the male on top. The other gulls are trying to act all nonchalant, as if it isn't some horrifying faux pas for birds to be mating right there in public at breakfast. But it really wasn't a faux pas in the world of Ring-billed Gulls, unlike some other species I could name.

Ring-billed Gull

Flickers seemed to be everywhere except close enough perches for nice photos. We didn't see any feeding on the ground—it was probably too frozen still for ant activity, at least in the morning. They did lots of calling and some flying past. We got skunked on other woodpeckers.

Our walks are nice and informal, so people join us as they can, and leave as they want or need. People still with us as we worked our way back to the parking lot at the end got at least glimpses of our "best" species (in terms of rareness) of the morning, a Brown Thrasher. He did not approve of paparazzi or of birders in general, but gave just about everyone a glimpse of his long, rusty tail as he hightailed it out of view. People near the front of our group saw more rust on his back and wings (Hermit Thrushes are a duller brown except on the tail; Fox Sparrows are smaller and chunkier), and one of the experienced birders of our group heard him singing softly for a bit.

I think everyone in the group would agree that the Birds of the Day were the Golden-crowned Kinglets we saw at the far end of the ball fields near the paths that go through the dunes. The kinglets flitted about at close range, giving everyone pleasing views of their crowns, bright yellow in the females, yellow and golden red in the males. Their quick movements in and out of the tangles of vegetation made photography tricky, but with bird photography, trying is half the fun.

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Golden-crowned Kinglet

The 29 species we saw in the area around the ball fields and behind the recreation center almost doubled the number of species we saw here last week (15). 
  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  10
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  8
  • Greater Scaup (Aythya marila)  80
  • Lesser Scaup (Aythya affinis)  8
  • Aythya sp. (Aythya sp.)  100     Large raft of ducks, backlit and in glare--when a boat disturbed and they flew, I could be sure of many, but not sure about at least half.
  • Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)  20
  • Common Merganser (Mergus merganser)  6
  • Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)  12
  • duck sp. (Anatinae sp.)  300     large rafts in the bay and on the lake that we couldn't get a clear look at with the sun's glare.
  • Horned Grebe (Podiceps auritus)  20
  • Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)  1
  • Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)  1
  • Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  200
  • Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)  5
  • Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  4
  • Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)  1
  • Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  12
  • Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  2
  • American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  15
  • Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  15
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  2
  • Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)  1
  • Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa)  12
  • American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  5
  • Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)  1    
  • European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  8
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  3
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  15
  • Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  2
  • Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  20
  • Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  1
A few of us made a little extra stop on the way out, turning at the stop sign where the old Bayside Market was to check out the public access to the Bay. This little stop added three more species, bringing our grand total to 32!
  • Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1
  • Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis)  1
  • House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  2
On my way to Park Point, I FINALLY saw the Eurasian Collared-Dove that is being seen most days somewhere between 11th and 30th Avenue. Several of us looked for it after our bird walk, but no luck. I didn't count it in our total because no one but me saw it. We'll keep our fingers crossed that bird walk participants get to see it eventually. (It took me 7 passes in the past few weeks to finally see it--I don't have good karma with invasive European species.)

Ring-billed Gull

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Tuesday at the Western Waterfront Trail

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

It was plenty cold this morning, but the sun was shining, there was virtually no wind, and despite the continued ice in the marsh, the number of bird species we saw on Duluth Audubon's Warbler Walk was two more than last Tuesday. I so love this time of year!

Some geese are working on nests now, and one appeared to be sitting on eggs already, but we also saw pairs swimming together and a flock of apparently unmated birds.  It seems shocking to people that geese, ducks, and most other birds don't start incubating eggs until the female has finished or almost finished laying eggs. Ducks with 13 eggs in a clutch won't start sitting on eggs until two weeks or more after the first egg was laid.

Canada Goose

More of the open water was open, but the water in the cattail marsh was all ice. We saw very few ducks, and the bright sun compromised our viewing of those with both backlighting and glare, but we were pleased with what we found.

Mallard

Wood Duck

The main singing birds were again Song Sparrows.

Song Sparrow

The main robins we counted were again singing males—no flocks or females so far. Some goldfinches were singing and fluttering about, and at the very end we spotted a few Pine Siskins feeding in catkins, but neither was spending much time singing. Today we saw lots of chickadees, but only a couple were singing. Red-winged Blackbirds were still acting territorial, but I don't think all the males are back yet, and no females are present yet.

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

A Belted Kingfisher flew in and stopped momentarily on a post, but not long enough for most of the participants to see. Several minutes later it flew over and circled so everyone could see the shape and white patches on the wing, and hear the rattle call.

One of the participants, Jeanne, arrived later than the rest of us and took a quick stop at a little bridge before joining us—she got a splendid photo of an Eastern Phoebe there, at the very spot I usually find my first phoebe of the year. On the way back, the people still hanging out with us detoured to that bridge where we did see the phoebe briefly (but I didn't get a photo) and also a delightful little Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This isn't the nesting season for kinglets yet, this little guy wasn't on territory, and it was mid-morning so he'd had plenty of time to feed, so I played a recording of his song and he flitted around us for several minutes, displaying his crest. I was particularly excited about my photos of him because several show not just his ruby crest but the other bright bit of color on him—the yellow underside of his toes!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Our total was 29 bird species today, not counting the unidentified buteo we saw flying in the distance.  Also some gray and red squirrels and a muskrat.
  • Canada Goose (Branta canadensis) 45
  • Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)  4
  • Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  8
  • Ring-necked Duck (Aythya collaris)  2
  • Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)  3
  • Common Goldeneye (Bucephala clangula)  2
  • Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps)  3
  • Turkey Vulture (Cathartes aura)  1
  • Buteo sp. (Buteo sp.)  1
  • Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  4
  • Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  3
  • Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)  1
  • Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
  • Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)  2
  • Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
  • Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  3
  • American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  4
  • Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)  2
  • Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  20
  • White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  1
  • Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
  • American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  5
  • European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  3
  • American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)  2
  • Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  10
  • Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  15
  • Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  20
  • Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  15
  • Pine Siskin (Spinus pinus)  4
  • American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  8

Friday, April 7, 2017

Chickadees nesting on Peabody Street again!

Black-capped Chickadees building nest

My friend and neighbor Jeanne Tonkin called me yesterday to tell me she had just noticed a pair of chickadees excavating a hole in a dead birch in her backyard.

Today I headed over to take some photos and video. The nest is in a perfect location for me to see what's happening, at least from the outside. The pair were busy excavating the inner chamber, taking turns flying into the hole, pecking around a bit, and flying out with a beakful of wood chips to spit out at a distance. They mostly ignored us, but I didn't want to disturb them for too long, so I stuck around for 10 minutes or so and headed home.



I'll stop by every day or two to record their progress. I'll know that they've finished digging out the inner cavity when instead of seeing them carrying out wood chips, I'll see them carrying in nesting materials, such as moss, lichens, and soft animal fur. As nest-building progresses, the parents will be engaging in plenty of courting behaviors, and will be mating several times a day in the week or so before the female lays her first egg.

Her body will start ovulating about once a day as the nest reaches completion. Inside her body, her single functional ovary looks like a microscopic cluster of grapes. The next ovum to be ovulated will look relatively enormous, and when she's in full egg production, the following two ova will be pretty oversized as well. Each ripe ovum is an entire yolk, the single cell that, when fertilized, becomes a baby chickadee.

Sperm from the male must swim up to near the top of the female's oviduct, or egg tract, before she ovulates, because as the ovum descends, the oviduct starts secreting the proteins that will surround it as the albumen, or egg white—sperm can't work their way through that. Further down, the oviduct will secrete the calcium complex that will form the shell. The egg will reach the terminal end of the oviduct, a chamber called the cloaca, in the morning, and when the female senses pressure there, she hightails it to the nest to lay it.

Black-capped Chickadee nest with 5 eggs
A completed chickadee nest with eggs. This was taken in 2011, and I don't know if the
female was still laying or if this was a complete clutch.


The female lays one egg most mornings for a week or two. During that time, she and the male will mate a few times a day. She won't start incubating the eggs until she's laid the full clutch—the eggs will stay at air temperature so the chicks won't start developing until they are warmed by their mother. She sleeps in the nest with the eggs, but until she starts incubating, she'll sit above them, not trying to keep them warm.

It's going to be impossible for me to tell even momentarily which chickadee is the male or female. If I could hold them in my hand and blow on their tummy feathers, I'd be able to tell them apart. The down feathers on the female's belly start falling out so when she parts her outer belly feathers, she can expose her huge brood patch. During incubation, this skin is the hottest part of her body—108 degrees or so. Her brood patch is large enough to cover even the largest chickadee clutch.

Black-capped Chickadee
This female's brood patch was photographed while she was being banded at Hunt Hill
Audubon Camp in Wisconsin in 2008. 
Black-capped Chickadee nest with nine eggs
This chickadee nest photo was taken in Sapsucker Woods at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology,
in one of their nest tubes, in 2008. The nine eggs can all be incubated together thanks to the
female's large brood patch.

The testes of male birds are internal; avian sperm can remain viable at their high body temperature, both when the male produces it and while it's stored in the female's oviduct. Pairs mate frequently during egg production—as each egg descends down the oviduct, it can push out some of the stored sperm, so the more often birds mate, the more likely some sperm will be present at the top of the oviduct each time the female ovulates.

Male chickadees don't have a penis. Both sexes have a cloaca—the chamber where the urinary, digestive, and reproductive systems all empty. To mate, the male and female bring together their cloacas in what ornithologists romantically call the cloacal kiss. The male does have what's called a "cloacal protuberance" that, when engaged in the act of mating, opens and widens to seal the passage between his and her cloacas. 

Black-capped Chickadee cloacal protuberance (detail)
This male chickadee's cloacal protuberance was photographed as the bird was banded at
the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio in 2011. 
Taking revenge
Chickadees disapprove of people checking out their private parts.
This one is most seriously displeased. 

If everything works the way it should, sometime in May I'll start seeing the chickadee parents carrying food into the nest. They'll be feeding anywhere from 1 to 13 tiny little chickadees--most clutches seem to have 8 or 9 eggs, but there won't be a safe way for us to count these. At each feeding the babies will need to poop almost as soon as they swallow food, conveniently while the parent who brought the food is still present. So the parent can grab the poop, encased in a sturdy membrane called a fecal sac, and carry it away to keep the nest clean.

Black-capped Chickadee
In with the food.

Black-capped Chickadee
Out with the poop.

When a nest is safe and not disturbed, the nestlings will remain securely inside it for about 16 days. It's important for people to leave nests alone after the chicks start to feather out; if they are frightened by anything, they sometimes fledge prematurely—when they're as young as 12 days old. They can survive out of the nest at that age, but their chances are much better the later they fledge. Because we won't know exactly what day the eggs hatch, we'll have to guess when the babies should fledge.

In 2015, Jeanne found a chickadee nest in a cherry tree. I didn't know about it until the day before the babies fledged. I'm presuming they'd stayed in the nest the full 16 days, because only a few baby down feathers were evident through their plumage.
Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!
This fledgling from 2015 still has a bit of baby down sticking through its plumage.
Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!
Fledglings have perfect plumage.


After the babies fledge, they are impossible for a mere human to keep track of. They follow their parents endlessly, constantly begging for food as they develop life skills that will help them survive independence. By now the young chickadees, in perfect new plumage, look gorgeous; their poor parents, who have been run ragged for months, look terribly bedraggled. They'll molt into new feathers not long after the young are on their own. 

Bedraggled Black-capped Chickadee
This adult male chickadee looks like he's at death's door, but he's perfectly healthy, and actually
singing as this photo was taken in early July 2011. 

When the baby chickadees have figured out how to negotiate the big world, they go their separate ways, each joining a different social/winter flock. The adults won't nest a second time. Over the winter, the young ones will each select a mate within their new flock; by joining different flocks, they don't have to worry about accidentally selecting a sibling or parent as a mate. Come next spring, some of those eggs I'm just speculating about will have produced adults starting nests of their own. It'll be thrilling for me to keep track of Jeanne's chickadees through the entire wondrous adventure. 

Black-capped Chickadees building nest