Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Fall is here! A walk on the Western Waterfront Trail


A lot of people seem to think it’s still summer—yesterday’s sweltering 88 degrees contributes to that misapprehension. 

Birds know better. Days are noticeably getting shorter, most baby birds of the year are on their own now, and adults are recovering from the rigors of raising those young birds—many have finished molting into new feathers and are ready to head south. NEXRAD has been showing some migratory events already, and even though birds are quiet, we can’t help but notice that a lot of them are starting to pass through. 

Red-eyed Vireo showing off eye

I went out to the Western Waterfront Trail yesterday for a short walk. I’d hardly stepped onto the path from the parking lot before I was seeing lots of birds. A Red-eyed Vireo family. Five Ovenbirds that I assumed were a family unit. A couple of Veeries hanging out together. Two adult Cedar Waxwings with a growing fledgling. Lots of goldfinches flying this way and that. A noisy Blue Jay family. A few Nashville Warblers and two immature Magnolia Warblers—those two species don’t nest anywhere near the Western Waterfront Trail, so I’m assuming they were migrants. Berries abound, and tasty insects were everywhere, as my many mosquito bites attest. One female Ruby-throated Hummingbird snatched insects from a spider web.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird snatching insects from spider web

It’s interesting to consider how some of the mosquitoes that bit me would in turn be eaten by birds, so my blood is providing at least a few of the calories fueling migration. We really all are in this together. It takes a village.

One American Redstart, two Song Sparrows, and a Swamp Sparrow were still belting out a song now and then, but most of the birds I saw were pigging out in small family units or mixed flocks moving with the local chickadees.  

I have a new field recorder that I’m trying to get the hang of before heading out on three major work-related trips this fall, and I was also trying to photograph some birds. I missed pictures of the Ovenbirds because it took too long to put away my microphone to switch over to my camera—Ovenbirds don’t approve of paparazzi in the first place, and are certainly not going to sit around waiting while a photographer gets organized. I got dozens of photos of Red-eyed Vireos, but the lighting was awful. Most of the birds I saw were high up and not interested in posing. I got a couple of photos of an immature Magnolia Warbler—the photos are poor quality and most of the bird was obscured by leaves, but you can still see the one field mark that distinguishes it from any other warbler—the large white area at the base of the tail with the thick black tail tip.

Immature Magnolia Warbler

Fortunately, one female Black-and-white Warbler took pity on me and spent an inordinate amount of time posing this way and that on a nearby branch in perfect light.

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler

If only a few birds are singing, the rest are not exactly silent. They gravitate to chickadees, which make several little calls even when not chickadee-dee-deeing, and the warblers occasionally let out a call note themselves. I miss most of that if I’m not wearing my hearing aids, but I’ve been quite good at remembering to pop them in. It was windy, but the best thing about good digital hearing aids is that they selectively boost the sounds you want to hear, making them clearer against background noise. It wasn’t a big day for auditory or visual pleasures, but that made the birds I did find all the more precious.


Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Birding at the Bog with Pip and Lisa


This weekend I headed to the Sax-Zim Bog with my little dog Pip and my good friend Lisa. We’re in the silent part of summer now, when parent birds are busy chasing their little ones around more than singing, but we got to hear a surprising number of birds on Nichols Lake Road when we first arrived at 6:30. It was extra fun because Lisa had never been to the bog before, and is pretty new to birding.

Most thrilling for me were the two Winter Wrens who sang several of their long, silver-threaded songs. I simply cannot hear them without smiling. A few Alder Flycatchers sang pretty persistently, as did a few Red-eyed Vireos. The only warblers singing were Common Yellowthroats. To provide visual beauty to enhance the soundtrack, dew-clad spider webs dotted the landscape. My photos were taken too far away to capture the beaded pearl effect of dew along each strand when viewed from close range, though the best of my photos show at least a hint of that. The birds quieted down and the spider webs dried off as the sun moved higher in the sky.

Spider web

And that was about it for the day as far as bird song. Not that the birds disappeared. While we were still on Nichols Lake Road, a large loose flock of robins gathered along the gravel road looking for exposed bugs and worms, and a few flickers flew up from the roadside, too—this time of year, they are seen more often than not on the ground pigging out on ants to fuel their migration.

Next, Lisa and I moseyed along to Arkola Road, where we quickly came upon a deer and her twin fawns grazing in a lush meadow. Unfortunately, we saw them just as they saw us, and the mother was not interested in photo ops—I managed to get one shot before they took off.

White-tailed Deer with twin fawns

Along the roadside, we spotted several tent caterpillar webs, but I didn’t see any cuckoos on them, even though tent caterpillars are their preferred food. One cuckoo did fly across the road, giving me a split-second look, but Lisa and Pip didn’t get to see the exquisitely lithe, long-tailed beauty before it retreated deep into the trees. We all did get to see an active Eastern Kingbird family—they didn’t cooperate for photos, but I got to lecture Lisa and Pip about how this species has the coolest scientific name of all, Tyrannus tyrannus.

Atlantis Fritillary

Next we traveled down Owl Avenue, where we didn’t spot any owls, and turned off at the Sax-Zim Bog Visitor Center, where we didn’t spot any visitors—at least not human ones. An Atlantis Fritillary, several little skippers, and a host of bees sipped nectar at the flowers, a Chestnut-sided Warbler ate a few caterpillars, a Great Crested Flycatcher lurked in the foliage, and a hummingbird zipped by. It was one of those lovely end-of-summer days when you can savor every little thing without other little things interrupting. 


We continued down Owl Avenue to Correction Line Road, and took what I call the “Tree Loop” off Highway 133, spending a few minutes on Blue Spruce Road watching a pair of adult Broad-winged Hawks flying with a young bird. 

On the drive home we stopped briefly by the old Twig Bakery off Highway 53 to check on the two baby Osprey. They looked at us a bit but mostly squawked for their parents—they’re getting close to fledging. All these baby birds testing their wings gave us hope, and on that note, we headed home laden with memories and lots of photos of our lovely morning in the bog.

Twig's nesting Osprey

Thursday, July 28, 2016

I'm with her!

It occurs to me that the first person ever to sense the inevitability of a Hillary Clinton presidency was Charles Koch. The danger of a brilliant, hardworking, popular woman standing up to him and his empire is why he started an ugly smear campaign directed as much at the First Lady as at the President himself--something unheard of since Andrew Jackson.

The Koch-created think tanks and other right-wing groups started with ugly rumors of murder (!!!) when one of her close friends committed suicide, and have thrown more and more mud at her when any ugly little mind could conjure it.

I will never, ever forget when Rush Limbaugh got away with calling Chelsea--a LITTLE GIRL--the "White House dog." Seriously--imagine that. Imagine that he said it in the first place, but then realize that no one fired his ass for saying it on the air, and that his listening audience didn't shrink but grew! That proved there really was a "vast right-wing conspiracy," and they could get away with anything at all for lo these many years.

My children, in their 30s, are too young to have been able to see Hillary Clinton without all those mud spatters hurled at her by people so scared of her for so long. They'll never see the optimistic, hard-working young woman who tirelessly worked in so many places in so many capacities to make life better for people. How can people who grew up since the 90s not buy into the "no smoke without fire" narrative after so many people have been manufacturing that smoke for lo these many years?

Now, to see people my age--people who lived through all that but have somehow forgotten it--maligning her for conjured up shit, or whining that she sounds too "scolding" or "bitchy" or "nagging" or "too ambitious." I never hear those words attached to male politicians; to hear people saying how much they've looked forward to a woman as president but how disappointed they are that this tainted, scandal-ridden woman of all people could be the first—that makes me want to cry. I am so proud of a woman who kept on getting up and kept on fighting, against all odds. I can't think of anyone else on the planet who has fought so hard for so long, who has worked so hard for so many, against so very many odds. There is no one who more deserves my vote.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Don't bicker about how animals got here. Just take care of them!

Portrait of the Pianist as a Young Toddler

As a child, my daughter had a rare sensitivity to mosquito bites. After a bite, she didn’t get the welt most of us do, and it didn’t itch. But hours later, the entire surrounding area was swollen and hot to the touch, and a histamine-filled blister started forming. By the next day, the blister could be an inch and a half in diameter and rise an inch above the surrounding, swollen tissue. When she was a baby, she reacted like this to every single mosquito bite. Over time, she grew less sensitive to many species, and now it’s overall quite manageable.

But while she was a baby, I once saw a mosquito on her baby finger. I instantly swatted it away, but too late. Over the following hours, the skin on her tiny finger swelled and swelled until it looked like a sausage, so stretched that the skin looked about to burst. We rushed her to the emergency room. 

When I explained what had happened, the doctor on duty argued that this could not possibly be a mosquito bite—it HAD to be a bee sting. He lectured me about the difference between bee stings and mosquito bites in a most patronizing and condescending way. That got my Irish up, which was counterproductive—I held my ground for far too many minutes while the skin on my baby’s finger continued to swell and she cried and cried. Finally, I asked if the treatment would be different if this were a bee sting rather than a mosquito bite, and he said it wouldn’t—no matter what, he had to drain the fluid to help my baby. So I told him to just do it. 

I’ve been thinking about this lately when I hear people arguing about creation vs. evolution. I was raised Catholic, and as a child born in 1951, never perceived any contradictions between the two. In science classes taught by nuns, we learned that Charles Darwin had brilliantly figured out that species evolved in a wondrously complex system. One of our teachers said it would have been a cruel God indeed who could have specifically created every individual disease organism that caused so much pain and death to innocent little babies—I think that was the first time I ever heard the expression "with malice aforethought." No, God created a magnificent, complicated system. She said the Bible’s six days of creation were not meant to be literal—a “day” in Genesis was simply shorthand for an unspecified period of time that could have been moments or billions of years. She told us that our Catholic belief was that God started it all, and when human beings came about, God breathed a soul into us. It hardly mattered whether His starting material was a clod of mud or an ape. I figured the human mind is big enough to question how the world works and search for provable answers using the scientific method, and great enough to wrap around science and faith both.

Many people’s minds, for one reason or another, do not wrap around science and faith both. Modern civilization has a scientific underpinning, but even as religious people of all stripes take advantage of medical and technological advances, some of them remain skeptical of the very science that ended the scourges of polio and smallpox, figured out how to make water consistently safe to drink, and helps them recover from many illnesses.

In the same way that science deniers still take advantage of scientific advances, it seems like those of us who understand and accept the evolutionary underpinnings of biology might more wisely use our energy not to argue about it but to simply accept that many people’s faith will not be budged. Arguing is counterproductive when no matter what we think or believe, we can all see biodiversity as a wondrous and valuable thing. Whether Spotted Owls or Whooping Cranes or Black-capped Vireos are a gift that God specifically created or a species that evolved over eons, we should be working together, liberal and conservative, religious and non-religious, partisan and non-partisan, to protect it. Does it matter whether the motivation is that every species is an irreplaceable component of an ecosystem, or that God commanded Noah to save every single species? Either way, just do it.

Whooping Crane

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers: Final Update

Hello, world!

The Red-bellied Woodpecker nest in my yard is no longer in use, and I’m not sure what exactly happened. The first and only day I saw a nestling peeking out the entrance hole was July 8. The chick looked strong and robust, and seemed about ready to fledge. After the parents fed it, they climbed into the hole and I could hear at least one additional baby being fed, and quite possibly more.

Red-bellied Woodpecker feeding nestling

The next morning, I heard all kinds of unusual sounds in my yard, and when I ran out, the parents were dive-bombing crows in the nest tree and the tree next to it. I couldn’t hear any nestlings. I saw three Red-bellieds fly out of the tree. I’m certain two were adults, but didn’t get a good look at the one that followed an adult to the backyard behind mine. I’m hoping against hope that it was the nestling I got photos and video of the day before, having fledged successfully. But I had no idea what was going on with the crows.

Several times that day I saw a parent—sometimes the male and sometimes the female—come to the nest hole with food, and go all the way into the cavity, but each time I heard no baby sounds and the parent ended up flying off with the food. That happened once or twice the next day, too. And then I stopped seeing any Red-bellied Woodpeckers for over a week. Finally, on July 19, I saw an adult male and female and a third bird—I’m not 100 percent certain of its age, but am hopeful I was seeing the family unit. The adults were feeding in Russ’s cherry tree, and a couple of times one flew off with a cherry, which I’m hoping they were bringing to the young one—dense foliage in my other trees made it impossible to know what was going on.

Red-bellied Woodpecker in Russ's cherry tree

So what happened to the other nestlings? It’s impossible to be certain. The squawking I heard first thing in the morning on the 8th may have been related to the crows—they obviously can’t squeeze into a woodpecker cavity, but could possibly have pulled out a nestling sticking its head out to beg, and possibly could have grabbed a fledgling sitting on a branch. I didn’t hear the noisy sounds a baby crow makes when eating, so I’m at least a little hopeful that the worst-case scenario—one of the babies being ripped apart by a crow—didn’t happen. But I’m pretty sure that not more than one young chick successfully fledged, and I’m afraid something bad happened to the other chicks in the nest. In just about all my photos and videos of the nest, at least one fly is wandering about near the entrance—it’s quite possible most of the babies were harboring botfly larvae—a horrible way for a tiny bird to die.

The box elder tree with the nest lost a limb on one side of the cavity a few weeks ago. On July 21, another storm hit, knocking down a big spruce tree in the yard and ripping off the limb on the other side of the woodpecker cavity in the box elder, but oddly enough, the actual nest cavity may still be intact. When we hire a tree service to deal with a few damaged trees from the big storm, we’ll be removing that section of the box elder’s trunk, and will slice it open to see what the inside looks like. It’s a sad ending to my Red-bellied Woodpecker nesting saga, but even one little baby successfully fledging is a pretty thrilling outcome. It drives home an essential truth—so many things can go wrong when a pair of birds sets out to build a nest, produce and care for eggs, and tend to the chicks, yet every bird on the planet survived that entire process. Each living bird really is a miracle.

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Requiem for a Beloved Tree

In 1918 or so, a young soldier was killed in World War I. His little brother, living in my neighborhood, planted several spruce trees as a living memorial. In 1981, when I was walking down Peabody Street hoping to find a house for sale, I fell in love with one of those trees. I had no idea of its history or anything—I simply fell in love with its magnificence, towering over the neighborhood. It was in the backyard of a little house with a for sale sign, so 35 years later, here we are. 

That tree’s sheltering branches have held all manner of birds, from owls to crossbills. My children ran around the trunk. I gazed at it from my home office window. It’s been a solid presence in my daily life for 35 years.

And then in a heartbeat, or, rather, a 90-mile-per-hour gust of wind, the tree crashed to the ground, uprooted. The storm at 3:30 am Thursday caused a huge swath of damage throughout much of Duluth, leaving over a third of the city without power. I’m writing this on Sunday, Day Four of the disaster, and we’re still without electricity. Minnesota Power said power might not be back in my neighborhood, part of the “epicenter,” until late Thursday, over a week after the storm. They’ve brought in crews from as far as Missouri, but the disaster is more widespread than anything they’ve dealt with before.

The spruce fell from northwest to southeast, diagonally, filling much of the backyard. It fell directly on the power line—there was no way it could have missed that—yet missed the house and even my bird feeders. I like to think that in a final act of courage, the tree fell that way on purpose.

We’re going to use the bottommost section of trunk to make a solid little table for me, and I want to keep the very top branches. I’m not surprised at how bereaved I feel—when we were little girls, my sister and I used to skip around the two elm trees in our yard outside Chicago. One “belonged” to her, one to me. Hers developed Dutch elm disease and had to be removed, and then mine was struck by lightning the same summer. Our front yard was never the same again.

The sixth grade boy next door was devastated that a tree across the street crashed down in the storm. He remembers putting his arms around the tree when he was little, and it’s provided an important hiding place for him when playing Nerf Wars with his best friend. He told me that a lot of people think trees are just trees, but “people like us know better.” That’s the thing about storms—they take us out of ourselves and bring people together, whether to help each other or to grieve together.

This power outage is helping me notice which energy uses I don’t miss and which are vital. Temps reached 93 here on Thursday and 96 on Friday. It wasn’t as horrible as it could have been—we’ve never had air conditioning, and have always been good at cooling down the place at night and closing it up tight in the morning. But our stove is electric and our on-demand gas water heater works with an electric operating system. We’ve been buying a couple of large blocks of ice every day, but this has gone on too long and most of the food in our fridge and freezer is no longer salvageable. 

I’m doing just fine without TV and am using my phone for an internet hotspot, but no TV is such a loss for my 97-year-old mother-in-law who has short-term memory problems, so keeps forgetting why she can’t watch Jeopardy, Wheel of Fortune, or our evening lineup. One morning she prepared her coffee with cold water—the poor thing couldn’t understand why the coffee was cold and tasted horrible and was shocked all over again when I told her we were having a power outage so the kettle doesn’t work. I’m grateful she’s not on a c-pap or other electrically run support system, but many people are.

A few of my friends who live in the country boast about how they’re “off the grid” even as they depend on backup generators and wood burning stoves that are far, far less energy efficient and more polluting per kilowatt produced than electricity produced by the power company, and contribute to climate change just as badly. Somehow we need to face these problems together, as a community, all of us recognizing our dependence on some kind of energy and how we personally contribute to the problems and must be part of the solution. But right now I’m yearning for an ice cold drink and mourning my tree. I’ll think about solving the world’s problems tomorrow.