Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

My North Star: Chandler Robbins (1918–2017)

Chandler Robbins in Guatemala

On Christmas 1974, my mother- and father-in-law gave me two wonderful gifts: my first pair of binoculars, and a copy of Peterson’s A Field Guide to the Birds. I devoured the book, reading every page while thumbing back and forth between the written species accounts and the illustrations, which were on separate plates. Then I discovered another bird field guide out there, even more beautiful and useful, the “Golden Guide.”

This is actually my second copy of the Golden Guide: I found it in hardcover
in a local bookstore right when the pages started falling out of my first.  

This second field guide was the book I fell in love with, the one I brought with me on every birding expedition that spring, when I saw my first chickadee and 39 other species, and for the rest of the year, as I saw 80 more new species. It's the field guide that carried me through two ornithology classes and helped me identify more than 400 of the first birds on my lifelist.


Yet unlike the Peterson guide, no author name was listed on the Golden Guide cover, much less embedded into the title. An author credit was given to three men on the title page, and it wasn’t for a couple of years that I learned that the primary author of the book—the one who wrote the text for each species and most of the other parts—was the first one listed, Chandler Robbins. This modest and unassuming man wasn’t the least bit interested in self-promotion or taking more credit than the people he worked with.

I met Robbins soon after learning his part in creating the Golden Guide. I was teaching at St. James Elementary School in Madison, Wisconsin, when the American Ornithologists’ Union met there in 1978. I volunteered to help the curator of the university zoology museum by setting out bird specimens and guiding the visiting ornithologists through the open house. I also wrote a poem for the AOU’s parody journal, The Auklet (“Happy Traill’s to You, or Ornithologists Take Their Lumps and Split”), and led a field trip to my favorite local birding spot—Picnic Point.

The meeting was held in mid-August, after birds have pretty much stopped singing for the season but before much migration has kicked in. So it felt dreadfully presumptuous for me, an elementary school teacher who’d only been birding for 3 years, to be leading professional ornithologists on a field trip at all, much less in August when there were so few birds to show them. Fortunately, two of my American Redstarts were still singing, allowing me to explain how to tell them apart by slight differences in their songs. I also happened to know where a mother Virginia Rail was still hanging out with two or three chicks. I was shocked that she was a lifer for some of them—I presumed that professional ornithologists would have seen far more species than I had.

We saw about as good a list as was possible at Picnic Point in mid-August, the redstarts and rails like icing on the cake. But this shy teacher was so intimidated by professional ornithologists that my hands holding binoculars were visibly shaking. Fortunately, one older, quiet-spoken man with a crew cut started asking me leading questions right off, and kept that up as we walked along, helping me focus my commentary throughout the field trip, making it a wonderful success.

As our group was breaking up, he told me how pleased he was to have come, mentioning that his brother had told him that if I was leading a field trip at Picnic Point, he should go. I was floored, never imagining that anyone would even think of me as a field trip leader, much less specifically recommend me. And then he then told me who his brother was: Sam Robbins, perhaps the premier birder in the entire state, who was working on his magnum opus, Wisconsin Birdlife. Sam was kind and gentlemanly just like this warm stranger, so I asked him what his name was, and he said “Chandler.”

Miraculously, I didn’t faint. And fortunately, expressions like “Holy crap!” weren’t in my lexicon at the time, since he was such a proper gentleman. But that left me dumbfounded—utterly tongue-tied meeting the man who had written my birding Bible. I can’t remember what exactly I stammered in response.

I had a free ticket to the banquet because I'd helped with so many events, but going to any social event with strangers was hard for me. When I walked into the huge banquet hall, the tables near the front were all filled, but I didn’t care—I was headed for a dark corner in back where I could sit by myself during the meal and program and then quietly disappear into the night. But I’d only taken a few steps in before Chandler Robbins walked straight up to me and asked if I already had a table—he’d saved a seat for me! On the short walk there, we were stopped by several ornithologists and graduate students, all telling him how much they loved his work and plying him with questions or asking him to review a paper or book for them.

I still wonder what it was about that shy 26-year-old teacher, improbably still wearing braces on her teeth, that made Chandler Robbins single me out as a dining companion when he had so very many better choices. It was one of the most thrilling evenings of my life—he was so fun to talk to, and so interested in my work teaching fourth, fifth, and sixth grade science and music. He asked questions about how I incorporated nature study into the classroom, and how I had started paying such close attention to the songs of individual birds. I of course found him far more interesting than me, and kept trying to work the conversation back to him—his field guide and especially the brilliant decision to include sonograms for each species in it, his field work, and anything else I could tease out of him. Looking back, that lovely dinner was wasted on a woman who was cosmically ignorant of this man’s many accomplishments, especially because he was too modest to call my attention to some of the most amazing things about him.

It was only later that I learned that during the 1950s, he led the effort to save the albatrosses on Midway Island. He did seminal research about forest fragmentation and other habitat issues that helped provide the underpinnings for the conservation work protecting the Chesapeake Bay. He wrote some of the seminal papers about pesticides that inspired and provided the essential information for Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring—indeed, he was the one who designed important DDT studies at Patuxent, with biologist Rachel Carson serving as his technical editor. And in 1966, to ensure that we’d have a consistent body of data to track breeding bird numbers over years and then decades, he started the incredibly important Breeding Bird Survey. Any one of these accomplishments would have made him a hero—I had no clue whatsoever that the man who invited me to sit at his side during the AOU banquet had done all of them. The closest we got to discussing any of this was when he asked if I had a Breeding Bird Survey route, and I confessed that I didn’t think I had enough experience to do one yet. He told me not to sell myself short, but I figured he was just being nice.

Five or six years later, after Russ and I had moved to Duluth, Russ found out that Chandler Robbins was giving a seminar at the NRRI that very afternoon. Russ took personal leave to come home and stay with the kids so I could attend. I walked into the seminar room with just a few minutes to spare. Instantly Chandler Robbins charged over and said, “Laura, I don’t know if you remember me, but my name is Chandler Robbins.”

Over the years, I ran into him only a few more times. He stayed the same quiet, unassuming gentleman. I spent the most time with him in Guatemala in 2007—the only time I’ve ever had the courage to ask if I could get a photo with him.

Laura and Chandler Robbins in Guatemala, 2007

We had lunch together one day, and while he was getting his food, I took a picture of his binoculars on the table. I still marvel at those beat-up Bushnells—the same pair he was photographed with back in the 60s. He told me he had been given a better pair, but he usually kept them on a shelf. Why risk them getting lost or stolen when his trusty old pair was still working fine? He had better things to spend money on.

These binoculars have seen a LOT of birds!

He told me that he could live perfectly comfortably on his government salary, and had donated every penny he’d earned from that huge-selling Golden Guide to support research and, especially, young researchers there in Guatemala and other Latin American countries, to ensure the future of conservation of the birds he loved. Most of us had coffee after lunch, but not Chandler Robbins. He told me he loved coffee but tried never to drink more than a cup a day because the natural habitat where coffee could be grown was so precious.

I mentioned to him that my hearing wasn’t as good as it used to be, and he told me to get hearing aids. He said even his younger brother Sam, considered to have the best ears in all of Wisconsin back when I met him in the 70s, had finally swallowed his pride and bought a pair, thanks to five Winter Wrens that Chandler could hear wearing his hearing aids that Sam couldn’t hear at all.  Now when I hear Winter Wrens as clear as tinkling bells through my own hearing aids, I think of Chandler Robbins.

Cuban Tody!!

I think it was in Guatemala that I told Chandler Robbins how fixated I’d become on the Cuban Tody, and how badly I yearned to see one. That was of course back when travel to Cuba was highly restricted. This straight-laced, life-long federal employee laughed and said, “Well, Laura, all you have to do is drive up to Thunder Bay and fly from there. You don’t have to worry—they won’t stamp your passport.” Someone who had done all the research throughout Latin America that Chandler Robbins had apparently knew just how to deal with bureaucracy and red tape, at least when it came to birds.

In one of our meetings, I learned that he grew up in Boston and majored in physics at Harvard, where he actually knew John Kennedy, a year or so ahead of him. After college, he became a high school science teacher until the war. Chandler grew up in a religious family—his brother Sam was a minister, and he himself was a conscientious objector. Because he couldn’t serve in the military, he was assigned to clear debris from blocked roadways in national forest land in New England. Then in 1943, he got an opportunity to start banding birds at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, where he soon became a junior biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, setting the course for his life's work.

In the early 1950s, Chandler Robbins learned that the Naval Air Station Midway, out on the Pacific on Midway Island, which had been decommissioned in 1950, was re-commissioned in the face of the Korean War. At that point, with planned jet aircraft take-offs and landings for the first time on the island, the military thought it best to exterminate the nesting albatrosses to avoid collisions. Robbins and some of his colleagues thought if scientists could figure out what vegetation the albatrosses preferred, what substrates they avoided, and their patterns for takeoffs and landings, they could perhaps set the runways where the birds wouldn’t affect safety. That was back in the olden days when different government agencies actually worked together to find the wisest long-term solutions for everyone concerned.

So on December 10, 1956, Robbins caught and banded 99 adult albatrosses as they were incubating eggs—they’re quite clumsy on land, so they weren’t all that hard to catch. He put band number 587-51945 on one bird. Those leg bands are sturdy, but affixed to the leg of a bird flying about 50,000 miles low over salt water every single year, they get corroded and wear out. Some birds probably lost their bands altogether, but this particular one was re-trapped five times while her leg band was still legible. Each time the worn out band was removed and a new one put on. Each time, the old number was recorded along with information about the bird’s condition and the new band number. All this data was recorded on cards—banding data wouldn't be computerized for decades.

Bird-banding recaptures happen infrequently, bands are replaced even more infrequently, and replaced bands are virtually never replaced again, so when banding data started being computerized, the system wasn’t programmed to track backwards through such a long line of replacement bands. It was Chandler Robbins himself who started wondering about how far back any birds with replacement bands could be tracked. He’s the one who in 2011 looked at an albatross with a bright red plastic band, number Z333, and dug into the data to find out what her previous band was numbered, and the one before that, and the one before that, to realize this particular albatross was one of the ones he had banded on his first trip to Midway Island! I don’t know if anyone has dug into the data to see if others from that cohort are still alive. As I said, worn bands grow illegible or even wear off entirely, and birds in that situation would be impossible to recognize now.

That particular albatross, who made international news in 2011 as the world's oldest known wild bird, was given the name "Wisdom." This year, she is still alive, and still nesting. Her egg hatched last month. This bird, once condemned to die an anonymous victim of progress, was a mother once again, thanks to the soft-spoken hero who helped find a way for birds and jet aircraft to peacefully coexist.

Of all the wonderful people I’ve known during my six and a half decades of life, Chandler Robbins has been my North Star: the person I’ve tried hardest to emulate in every way, for his generosity of spirit and his gentle, unassuming manner belying the brilliance of his work. He lived his life in service to others, including the birds he loved. He was like a chickadee—working hard, staying near and dear to his family as he also served quietly as a leader of his flock. If he knew he was the one doing the most work, and the most important work, he never let on even as he kept on doing that work long after he officially retired in 2005. In 2015, at the age of 97, he was still going to work at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center a few times a week. He explained his long career and continued dedication to his work: "When a lot is expected of you, you do as much as you can to squeeze it all in."

Yesterday I learned that the man whose book guided me every step of the way through my first years of birding, the man whose conservation work ensured that there would still be a wealth of birds for me to enjoy today, the man who has been my North Star since I first met him almost 40 years ago and who I most deeply associate with bird song because he dedicated his life to ensuring that springs would never be silent—this beloved man had passed away on the first day of spring. I picture him and Rachel Carson looking down and praying that someone here on earth has the humility and courage to keep their legacy alive.

Chandler Robbins in Guatemala

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A question of balance

Laura producing For the Birds at KUMD in the 80s.
Laura producing "For the Birds" in the KUMD studios sometime in the late 80s.

My hearing has been going south for quite a while—apparently even longer than I’ve realized. For a while, Russ and I have been joking how we each mis-hear words the other one is saying, sometimes with funny results but usually just making us confused. My daughter and I have driven between Duluth and New York City on a few occasions, and, until I finally got hearing aids, it was getting increasingly frustrating for her when I’d constantly ask “What?” Somehow the car noise, even from a relatively quiet Prius, made understanding her very difficult unless I could stare at her mouth, which never works when you're driving.

As it turns out, there have been more people dealing with the problems of my hearing loss than I imagined. I never hear what my radio and podcast listeners say about me, but by definition, those listeners can hear me, and have been putting up with poor sound mixing between my voice and the bird songs I use, apparently for years. I now realize I've been making the bird recordings too loud, relative to my voice. I’m sure some of the on-air people at radio stations adjust the sound levels as they play "For the Birds" on air, or maybe even tweak the digital sound files, but no one has ever mentioned any of this to me until intrepid and kind podcast listener Janna Pauser sent me this email on March 16:
I enjoy your podcasts and use earbuds to listen to them one after the other. I treasure my good hearing and keep the volume as low as possible to hear your voice. However the volume of the bird song at the beginning and end of each episode is so much louder than your voice its uncomfortable. I fell asleep while listening For the Birds last night and woke up from the bird song portion even though I was sleeping on the earbud. Could you please balance the volume?  
When I started producing "For the Birds" in 1986, I recorded my voice on an open-reel tape and then mixed in the bird sounds, originally from my old vinyl records and later from CDs. I’d use the needle on the KUMD studio board to get the balance right for both. Around 2000, I started producing digitally, using a program called Cool Edit, which became Adobe Soundbooth and then Adobe Audition. I’d process my original voice recording to “normalize” the volume to a particular level, and then I’d mix in the bird sounds to make them sound right to me. But now two unfortunate issues came into play. First, I like hearing bird sounds a lot, so don't mind them being loud relative to other sounds, especially my voice. But second, I’m not hearing those bird sounds as well as I used to, which means I’ve had an even stronger tendency to put them in at a louder volume than my voice. Yet for lo these many years, not one person has mentioned this to me, but when I asked Lisa Johnson, who plays the program on KUMD most mornings, she said yep—I do that.

I think the reason the stations never told me about this problem is they know I can’t afford to consult with or hire a professional audio engineer, or take a class in sound mixing. I’ve been producing For the Birds for almost 31 years, all but one of those years as an unpaid volunteer. I cover all my own costs for production, distribution, and my radio website on what is usually a very meager annual income—the stations carrying the program may have not wanted to criticize me without providing me with a simple fix. But I do need to find that fix. If I’m going to put the program out there for radio stations to air and podcast listeners to download, I have no right to play Star Trek’s McCoy whining, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a birdwatcher, not an audio engineer!”

So in the coming weeks, I’m going to tweak my production methods to try to achieve a better balance between the bird songs and my voice. The trick is, my ears have a poor track record in recognizing if I’m doing it right—only listeners can do that. Janna has graciously agreed to let me know how new programs sound to her, but I’d also love to hear from other listeners if you notice an improvement in the audio, or if you don't. Janna’s helpful email has prodded me to prove once and for all that an old dog, even one who’s losing her hearing, can learn at least one new trick.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

15,354 Days and Counting

Black-capped Chickadee

As of today, the Ides of March 2017, I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee 15,354 days ago. I’ve seen more than one chickadee on most of those days and over 200 in a single day on a few Christmas Bird Counts.

I'm sure I haven’t seen an average of 65 chickadees a day over that time, and that's the number I’d need to have averaged to have amassed a million chickadees in my lifetime so far. I would guess I’ve averaged somewhere between 5 and 20 a day over that time, giving me a total of anywhere between 76,770 and 307,080 chickadees seen in my lifetime so far. I’m nowhere near being a chickadee millionaire—a distinction that would be harder to achieve in even a long lifetime of birding than becoming a millionaire in the monetary sense. In terms of chickadee sightings, I’m pretty sure I'm wealthier than Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, but really, the riches we gain from knowing and loving birds, even just our backyard birds, transcend such a silly comparison. When bird experiences make you wealthy beyond measure, there's no measure for comparison with anyone else.

I use Adobe Lightroom for organizing and processing my photos. So far I've tagged 12,142 photos of Black-capped Chickadees, and uploaded 557 of them onto my Flickr photostream. Black-capped Chickadees weigh about 1/3 of an ounce, so there are roughly 96,000 chickadees in a ton. I can legitimately say that I’ve seen close to a ton of chickadees in my lifetime, and possibly as many as three tons, but I've photographed a mere eighth of a ton of them. But who's counting?

Seeing my first chickadee on March 2, 1975, was a life-shifting experience far beyond simple quantification. Ever since then, I’ve thought of my life in two eras: Before Birding and After Birding. When I consider the 8,512 days that I lived before seeing my first chickadee, I wonder what the heck I was paying attention to. I walked to and from school every day from first grade through high school, somehow never once noticing a lovely “Hey, sweetie” song ringing in the trees, or a tiny bird with a relatively long, spiked tail zipping past me as I moseyed on long walks, or an adorably plump white-cheeked black-and-gray bird as I gazed out my bedroom window through the branches of our maple tree.

Black-capped Chickadee

I did notice some birds. When I was very little, I often looked out our Chicago two-flat window watching pigeons trudging on the gravel-edged street and flying about. When I was four, we moved to Northlake, the working class suburb where we lived until I was in college. My Grandpa pointed out the cardinal's easy-to-learn songs, and so I specifically listened for it.

Northern Cardinal

I didn’t recognize any other bird songs except House Sparrows cheep cheep cheep-ing away in our shrubbery or at McDonalds, where I tossed French fries to them, I recognized them from the Little Golden Activity Book, Bird Stamps, that my Grandpa gave me. That’s also how I recognized a magnificent Blue Jay when my family went to Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, when I was 5 or 6. It may have been that book that helped me recognize the robins running on my lawn, too, but I didn’t learn their song until I started birding.

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

The birds I now know as grackles occasionally hung out in gangs on our lawn—at the time, we called them crows or crow blackbirds. They weren't in the book.

I spent two years on the University of Illinois campus and four years in and near the Michigan State Campus in that era Before Birding. I used to save tidbits of my breakfast and lunch to set on the windowsill of my U. of I. dorm room—plump birds with bright yellow beaks and pretty flecks on their shiny black plumage would fly in at the sound of my window opening to feast on my offerings. By that time, my Bird Stamps book was long gone, and it wasn’t until I started poring over my field guide as a new birder a few years later that I retroactively figured out that they were starlings. At Michigan State, Russ and I took at least a dozen walks in Baker Woodlot—the very place I saw my first chickadee—without my paying much attention at all. I’m sure generic birdsong filled the background soundtrack of many of my spring and summer mornings, but except when a cardinal song infiltrated my consciousness, I was unaware of it.

And then on March 2, 1975, I set out to be a birdwatcher and a miracle happened. I focused—started paying attention—and as it turned out, birds and their sounds were everywhere. Of course, it was still wintry enough that day in East Lansing that it took close to an hour for me to find that first chickadee—the only bird I saw on that walk. I can’t remember how helpful its chickadee-dee-dee calls might have been in drawing my eyes to it, but by April I was finding a great many of my birds by sound, painstakingly figuring out the voices of each species one by one by tracking them all down. And even when they weren't calling, wherever I went, I was suddenly seeing birds.

Ever since that spring, my life has been a rich tapestry of encounters with individual birds. Instead of a generic background soundtrack, I hear a chorus of individual voices. I both notice and recognize birds as I go about my daily life. Wherever I am, I find dear and familiar avian friends and make new ones. Since becoming a birder, my world is richer visually and aurally, and a whole lot friendlier.

In the movie Pleasantville, the characters live in a dull black-and-white world until, one by one, they experience a moment of transformation, and their eyes open to all the colors of what had been dull shades of gray. I’ve always seen a colorful world, but somehow missed noticing, both with my eyes and my ears, a major component of that world for 8,512 days. After living in this whole new world for more than 15,000 days, I still look back at that child—that teen—that young woman. She was blind and deaf to a huge part of the world around her, so I can't help but wonder, what was catching her attention?

Black-capped Chickadee

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The decline, East to West, of the Golden-winged Warbler

Golden-winged Warbler

The once common Golden-winged Warbler now has one of the smallest populations of any songbird not on the Endangered Species List. An estimated 400,000 breeding adults remained in 2013—a drop of 66 percent since the 1960s, based on Breeding Bird Survey numbers. This survey, which focuses on males singing on territories, began in 1966; we have no comparable data to fill in what happened with populations before that year.
Golden-winged Warbler, Survey-wide
In the Appalachian Mountains, where the number of individuals counted on each Breeding Bird Survey Route was very high when the Survey began in the 1960s (almost 3 counted on average per survey route), the situation is beyond critical: the regional population there has fallen by 98 percent. If the species had a "surplus population" with any uncounted "floaters," (males not singing because they didn't hold a territory), they'd already disappeared before the dramatic declines shown on Breeding Bird Surveys.
Golden-winged Warbler, Appalachians
In 1966, New Hampshire numbers of Golden-winged Warblers were quite low--whether they had been in previous decades can't be determined. Their numbers were relatively high in 3 individual years of the Survey, but each of those was a genuine outlier. The Breeding Bird Survey Summary and Analysis webpage does not list the species at all for either Maine or Vermont, New Hampshire's two neighboring states.
Golden-winged Warblers have been spotty at best as far north as New Hampshire.
Pennsylvania reaches fairly far west for an Eastern Seaboard state. Golden-winged Warbler numbers were more robust at the start of the Breeding Bird Survey, but have declined dramatically.
Golden-winged Warblers declined rapidly since the start of the 70s in Pennsylvania
New York State's numbers started lower than those of Pennsylvania, and the decline has been quite steady.
New York started with a smaller population than Pennsylvania in the 60s.
Michigan's Golden-winged Warbler population was comparable to Pennsylvania's in 1966, and the downward trend was very similar.
Michigan started with a population comparable to Pennsylvania's. The decline was slower.
In 1966, Wisconsin's population was about at the level of that in the Appalachian Mountains. The decline was less noticeable in the early 70s, but since then the decline has been quite noticeable.
Wisconsin's population of Golden-winged Warblers declined slowly at first, but now is growing dire. 
Minnesota, the state at the western end of the Golden-winged Warbler's range, has the most robust population of them right now, with no show yet of a decline.
The furthest West state with breeding Golden-winged Warblers, the decline is not yet being noticed here, with current numbers comparable to Wisconsin's in the 1970s.
In Ontario, at the northern end of their range, numbers have been fairly steady.

Golden-winged Warbler population in Ontario.
Manitoba used to be further north than Golden-winged Warblers reached. Might they be extending their range north with climate change? Or might it be changes in forestry practices?

Golden-winged Warbler population in Manitoba.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Thomas Spence's beautifully pale Pine Siskin

"Dilute" "leucistic" abnormally pale Pine Siskin
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Spence; used with permission.
Last week I received an email from WTIP listener Thomas Spence, asking about a beautiful, extraordinarily pale finch, which he correctly identified as a “leucistic Pine Siskin,” with some help from David Brislance. Tom sent me photos of the bird, alone and with other siskins.
"Dilute" "leucistic" abnormally pale Pine Siskin
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Spence; used with permission.
Tom is a carpenter and was doing work with some guys at a house just west of Grand Marais. He writes, “The saws were set up on the deck, outside, while we worked inside. The huge flock of siskins would hit the deck feeders when we went inside from making a cut, then all fly off when we opened the door to go back out. At one point, I noticed a single, starkly contrasting bird on the feeder. I quickly ran to the truck for the camera, returned and it was still there. It fed and sat in nearby trees for 15-20 minutes.”
"Dilute" "leucistic" abnormally pale Pine Siskin
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Spence; used with permission.
Finches often gather in mixed flocks, making identification of one in weird plumage a bit trickier—you can’t just assume that a single pale finch within a flock composed entirely of goldfinches or siskins or redpolls will belong to that same species. But Tom’s excellent photos clearly establish the identification. His outlier bird had a longer, more slender bill than a goldfinch or redpoll. It wasn’t pure white—there was the tiniest hint of streaking beneath that also confirmed that it was a siskin. And to top it off, it had pale yellow on the wing and base of the tail, exactly where siskins usually show some yellow—though usually a more bright and intense hue.
"Dilute" "leucistic" abnormally pale Pine Siskin
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Spence; used with permission.
Pine Siskins normally have a dark bill and feet, but they were pink in Tom’s bird. Fortunately, the bird had a dark eye, indicating that it has better prospects for longevity than an albino—the lack of pigment in albino eyes, which makes them appear pink, allows more sunlight to reach the retina, leading eventually to blindness in creatures that don’t have the option of wearing sunglasses. When I took ornithology, we learned to describe this plumage type as “dilute,” and would have called the bird leucistic. If the bird had patches of pure white, making it piebald in a pattern or piecemeal, we learned to call it a “partial albino.” Now it’s gone out of vogue to refer to partial albinism, because being an albino results from a specific genetic condition that an animal either has or does not have.

When we threw "partial albino" out the window as a description for patchy white birds, “leucistic” became a catchall term referring to any plumage abnormality of a bird being whiter or paler than normal, in either a piebald, black-and-white sort of pattern, in being solid white with any color at all in the eyes, bill, or feet, or in overall dilute colors. Use of that term now seems worthless to me, because the word "leucistic" now refers to so many completely different kinds of plumage abnormalities. Ironically, many biologists consider leucism a genetic trait like albinism, so without a DNA test, if we shouldn't refer to an animal as a partial albino, we shouldn’t refer to one as leucistic, either.

In 2011, David Sibley wrote and illustrated a masterful blog post about these plumage abnormalities. Meanwhile, Tom’s pale Pine Siskin has continued to visit the feeder—on March 7, he sent an email saying he was watching it now. He gave permission to share his wonderful photos here on my blog.

"Dilute" "leucistic" abnormally pale Pine Siskin
Copyright 2017 by Thomas Spence; used with permission.

Friday, March 3, 2017

Heartbreaking news about lead use in our National Wildlife Refuges

Bald Eagle

I hate political, or personal, drama—it’s rather an odd thing for a Chicago woman of Irish descent, born-and-raised as a Cubs fan, but that’s just the way I am. I got all three of those traits, along with my normally low blood pressure, from my Grandpa.

But today I can feel that blood pressure rising, and not at a good time. I had a heart attack two years ago, and breast cancer surgery just yesterday, and then BAM! Today I get a news alert that the Trump Administration just rescinded the ban on lead ammunition and fishing tackle in our National Wildlife Refuges!

It took the Obama Administration almost 8 years to enact that ban, in large part because special interest groups fought so hard to prevent it, led of course by the NRA, which fights against any and every regulation that could in any way protect human beings, Bald Eagles, and other living things from being at the wrong end of the firearms the NRA so fetishizes. Even as its membership declines, the NRA’s actual power seems ever growing, thanks to its main contributors—gun and ammo manufacturers, who have long stirred public paranoia to keep sales high. After every mass shooting, ads stirring fears of gun confiscation surge, with gun sales to match. Even optics retailers see a surge in business after these mass shootings, due to the surge in sales of rifle scopes to put on many of those new rifles. This seems ironic because one would think guns sold for self protection would be expected to be used at closer range, but in our society, profit trumps reason.

The NRA and gun manufacturers invest a huge amount of money each year for lobbying and running expensive, vicious commercials against politicians who don’t toe their line. In one of the first votes in the new Administration, Congress rescinded Obama’s order to prohibit gun sales to social security recipients who are on disability for mental illness, and Trump signed it, even though the prohibition clearly provided a mechanism for those on disability for mental illness to appeal if their mental illness did not make them dangerous.

Every time a shooting is publicized, gun and ammo manufacturers get more money, because they’ve been so effective at hammering in their message that guns make us safer. They certainly do make some people safer, especially those living in isolated, rural areas who grew up with responsible parents teaching them how to operate and store guns safely. But in most areas, and for most people, guns absolutely do not make people safer. In 2015, toddlers three years old and younger, killed more Americans than terrorists did. And in both 2015 and 2016, at least one person a week has been shot by a toddler in the United States.

The dangers of lead ammo and tackle to wildlife have long been established. Hunters who were genuine conservationists fought long and hard to require non-toxic shot for waterfowl hunting, even as less conscientious hunters and of course the NRA fought strenuously against it. By 1971, mountains of data and scientific studies proved that lead shot was a leading cause of mortality in ducks, geese, and swans, some of which dabble for food in the muck, and all of which pick up “grit,” including much of the lead shot that rains over wetlands during hunting season, to help them digest their food.

One or two pellets of ingested lead, ground up in the gizzard, shoot toxic levels of lead into a bird's blood, killing many outright, and weakening others to make them less resistant to avian cholera and other diseases. Yet it wasn’t until 1991, two full decades after all that data started piling up, that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service finally banned lead shot for waterfowl hunting. We also have abundant data that lead shot and bullets poison upland birds and other wildlife. Some pick it up on the ground, and others, especially Bald Eagles and other scavengers, in the carcasses of game animals that eluded the hunters or in the gut piles left behind.

The number of Bald Eagles that are dead or severely weakened by lead poisoning spikes at rehab facilities every year during hunting season. There is also abundant evidence that the families of hunters who use lead ammo, especially lead bullets for deer, are exposed to dangerous levels of lead when they eat that game. Bullets fragment into tinier pieces in what's called a "snowstorm" when they hit a deer at high impact, and some tiny fragments are virtually impossible to detect and remove. Most food banks have stopped taking venison for this reason. So human beings are also at risk, and not just random people, either—the very spouses and children of the hunters who use it. Yet even today, many hunters as well as the NRA fight strenuously against any regulations to prevent this clear and present danger to wildlife and people.

Gun and ammo manufacturers don’t care about that kind of collateral damage—their focus is on selling guns and ammo—the more, the better. They're not the ones publicizing the dangers to people or wildlife. Instead, they focus on that sacrosanct Second Amendment—the one that starts with the words, “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,” and do their best to stir paranoia that any regulation at all means that the government is coming for your guns.

It’s so frustrating when an obvious solution to any serious problem is held hostage by one gigantic special interest group. And in what alternate universe is it not a problem when hundreds of Bald Eagles, along with other wildlife and human beings, are poisoned by lead every year?

I was dismayed about the election of a man who has in his own real estate career fought strenuously against important environmental regulations, and last year promised in his presidential campaign to dismantle our only safeguard protecting clean air and water, the EPA. I had no idea he was going to set us back so dangerously with regard to lead poisoning on our National Wildlife Refuges as well. If my blood pressure is rising, I can’t even imagine how this feels for the rehabbers who have held magnificent Bald Eagles in their arms as their lives ebbed away.

Two years ago, an aneurism in a coronary artery caused my heart attack. It’ll take a lot more than baby aspirin and continued exercise at cardiac rehab to deal with the long-term results of this genuinely heartbreaking development.

Back in the Saddle Again

Ruffed Grouse

Last month I was diagnosed with something birds never get—breast cancer. We call the chest area of most birds the breast, but that just refers to the dense muscles in front of their sternum (the keel bone). Those muscles power the wings.

Muscles are composed of two types of fibers: white, or “fast twitch,” and dark, or “slow twitch.” In turkeys, chickens, grouse, and pheasants, the breast muscles are made up of mostly white muscle fibers, giving the wings extraordinary power to take off in a hurry when a predator approaches. Human sprinters have a higher white-muscle-fiber ratio in their leg muscles than long-distance runners.

White muscle fibers may be superior for power and speed, but fall short in endurance. Turkeys and pheasants can’t fly very far normally. Hunters quickly learn that a grouse is easily flushed once, a bit less easily a second time, and it’s hard to get it to flush more than that. When Ruffed Grouse drum, their beating wings reach a wondrous speed, but that completely wears them out. White muscle fibers have fewer mitochondria, and the muscles themselves have a much smaller blood supply, so lactic acid building up in them during activity isn’t flushed away very fast. You can tell how long it takes to replenish that blood supply by how long a drumming grouse rests between performances.

Lesser Scaup

Most songbirds, and ducks and geese, power their wings with a preponderance of red muscle fibers. The rich and steady blood supply allows them to sustain flight for long distances. For as rapid as their wing beats are, hummingbird wings are powered entirely with red muscle fibers, belying their “slow twitch” reputation. Human marathoners and mile runners have a higher ratio of red muscle fibers. Birds that use their legs for long-distance swimming, walking, or running have a preponderance of red muscle fibers to power them without tiring. When people eat a bird, they call the muscle types "dark meat" and "white meat."

But for all that, birds are lacking one thing that we humans have--mammary glands. So our vernacular use of the word breasts for birds is quite different from that for humans. Most mammals have their mammary glands lower than the breast area. Dogs occasionally get breast cancer, but not up on their chests.

Anyway, my own form of breast cancer is a relatively rare one—a papillary carcinoma. And it was further to the side and above where many breast cancers are. I had surgery yesterday, and even though my wonderful surgeon, Dr. Kathleen Monaghan, removed both the cancerous mass and one or two sentinel lymph nodes, she did it with just one incision—I have no more discomfort today, the day after surgery, than I did after the needle biopsy. And the lymph nodes were negative, so there was no need for axillary node dissection.

The anesthetist and nurse anesthetist (I spaced on their names) also did a superior job—I woke up from the anesthesia with the song "Go Cubs Go" running in my head, and chickadees and Cuban Todies on my mind, so I seem to be pretty much back to normal.

Cuban Tody!!

I’m not going to push it with using my arm—my son Joey bought me a monopod so I can take pictures without bearing the weight of my heavy camera on my left arm. My surprise in opening that package and realizing the extraordinary thoughtfulness behind it was the only moment I’ve cried through this whole situation—and I’m a person who cries embarrassingly easily when watching movies and even TV commercials.

I won’t know until I get the pathology report next week what will be next, but so far everything is about as good as it could possibly be. I wasn’t expecting to be able to produce my radio program and blog for a week or two, but I’ve apparently been proven wrong about that.

Black-capped Chickadee

Thursday, March 2, 2017


Deep in the bowels of the New York City Subway lies the answer to life, the universe, and everything.

On March 2, 1975, exactly 42 years ago, I set out in Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State University campus, armed with binoculars, a field guide, and a blank field notebook, on my first attempt at bird watching. That’s when I found and identified the first bird on my life list, a Black-capped Chickadee.

Normally on this anniversary I talk a lot about chickadees. But on the 42nd anniversary of my becoming a birder, I can’t help but think about how life changing, in every way, that one morning jaunt was.

I’d strolled through Baker Woodlot many times before with my husband.  Plenty of birds must have crossed my path there and everywhere else, but I wasn't paying attention until that morning. I hiked for quite a while before I found that first bird, and it took many minutes for me to figure out that it was a chickadee. But in that moment, I knew I would be able to seek out, find, and identify other birds, too.

From that moment through the following spring, I took many walks through Baker Woodlot, seeing more and more birds as my skills developed. Soon I was finding 25 or 30 species in no more time than it had taken to find that first chickadee. My ears slowly progressed from pulling out bird songs from generic background noise to recognizing various species, and that got me more attuned to sounds.

So many years later, even with cataracts and the loss of some high-frequency hearing, my aging eyes and ears pick out far, far more of the sights and sounds of my environment than they ever did at their prime, when I was in my teens and 20s but before March 2, 1975.

Learning about birds informed and enriched my sense of place, too. On the local scale, I started appreciating different habitat types, but also started realizing that even within what I thought were single types—say, woodlots—each had a different assortment of vegetation, and of birds. I started appreciating those nuances.

We spent most of our college breaks in Chicago visiting family, and I could clearly see how different Chicago was compared to Lansing. We took a trip to Savannah, Georgia, and WHOA! That was completely different. Within the first five years of my starting birding, I managed to travel to Estes Park, Colorado; took a road trip with my sister-in-law all the way to Newport, Oregon, and then up the Pacific Coast to Washington; and went with Russ on trips to south Texas and the Smoky Mountains. I was focused on building my lifelist, but beyond that, I was seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling firsthand how rich our country is in natural resources. I learned ever so much thanks to birds. Long before I even got to travel to other parts of the world, I was learning about the world through my understanding of birds.

My understanding of history also grew deeper and more nuanced as I learned about birds, from why the Founding Fathers designed the national emblem with an eagle to how Whittaker Chambers tried to prove he had a connection to Alger Hiss by his so-called insider knowledge that Hiss had seen a Prothonotary Warbler along the Potomac. The Lewis and Clark expedition became far more vivid as I learned about the birds they observed and collected along the way.

Thanks to birds, I learned new names for colors, such as cerulean, indigo, and vermilion. I learned one word, blackburnian, for what I believed was the combination of black and burning orange on the Blackburnian Warbler. That turned out to be a mistake—the bird was named for an Englishwoman, Anna Blackburn, who funded expeditions to America to collect birds. I taught myself enough math and statistics to put together a scientific paper about our migrating warblers along Lake Superior.  I finally grokked some principles about physics I should have learned in high school by studying how birds fly. Learning about bird morphology and physiology taught me more about how my own body works.

In every way and every subject, learning about birds has broadened and deepened my understanding of the world. Douglas Adams said that 42 was the answer to life, the universe, and everything. Sure enough, my 42 years of birding have brought me satisfying answers to many of my own questions about life, the universe, and everything.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Pathological Moseyers Visit the Bog

Gray Jay
Gray Jay
I was in Colorado this month during the annual Sax-Zim Bog Birding Festival. It’s sad when even a lovely conflict makes me miss the wonderful local event, so on Saturday I headed to the bog with my little birding dog Pip and my friend Lisa.

Electric Puppy (photo by Lisa Johnson)
Earlier in the week, the forecast had called for snow on Friday, but that didn’t pan out. The 7-degree temperature and high winds made it a little unpleasant putting gas in my car first thing in the morning, but clear roads and glorious sunny skies in the bog made up for that.

If I had a rock band, I'd call us the Pathological Moseyers. I don't like rushing from place to place, or bird to bird. Even when covering a lot of ground, as we did on Saturday, I like to take my time, driving slowly and staying at birdy spots longer than more acquisitive birders enjoy.


We saw a few crows and ravens on our way into the bog, but our first exciting sighting of the morning wasn’t a bird at all but two coyotes, crossing the road together and then splitting up. They weren’t close, but were curious enough about us to stop and look—Lisa and I both got photos. There’s genuine magic in seeing coyotes or wolves. We of course stayed in the car—my little dog Pip didn’t pay much attention.


As we approached Correction Line Road, we watched for and found 8 displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse way in from the road on their lek, too far for photos. We didn’t see the pheasant that’s been reported in the same area, nor did we see any of the Wild Turkeys hanging out in the bog recently, nor any Ruffed Grouse which are ostensibly there all the time, and which Lisa was specifically hungry to see. But I was happy with the Sharp-tails, even from so very far away.

This year, owls have been few and far between—not one Northern Hawk Owl has been reported from the bog all season. We watched for owls as we worked our way to the Sax-Zim Bog Visitors Center to check out the feeders. We got skunked on owls for the day, but did see some spectacular Rough-legged Hawks. We didn’t spot any magpies this time, and saw more Bald Eagles on our way back to Duluth than we found in the bog.

Common Redpoll
Common Redpoll
A couple of distant Gray Jays were hanging out near the Visitor Center feeders, and Pine Siskins were wonderfully abundant, making their exuberant chattering sounds, punctuated with their zippy rising song—I’ve been hearing that a lot in my own yard, too. In my own yard I’ve been seeing a handful of American Goldfinches, which I didn’t find in the bog, but did find some Common Redpolls hanging out with the siskins at the Visitors Center feeders.
Gray Jay
Gray Jay
At the feeding station on Admiral Road, two Gray Jays posed for lots of close-up photos. Boreal Chickadees have been exceptionally hard to find this season, and sure enough, we didn’t see any. But I got some wonderful Black-capped Chickadee photos at the Admiral Road feeders.

Black-capped Chickadee

Lisa was positioned in the car perfectly to get nice Red-breasted Nuthatch pictures out her window—I missed that opportunity, but was fine focusing on Red Squirrels instead.

Red Squirrel

My total of 15 species for the morning seems rather paltry, but the quality of the experiences more than made up for the low number. We birders try to set up situations to maximize the variety and the number of birds we see, but the joy comes from individual encounters, which no abstract number can truly summarize. Even if it were the only thing I saw all day, the sparkle in a Black-capped Chickadee’s eye fills me with joy that lasts.

Robert Frost took that same deep pleasure in simple bird encounters.

Dust of Snow  
The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree   
Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

High Plains Snow Goose Festival, Lamar, Colorado

I spent this past weekend in southeastern Colorado in and near a tiny town called Lamar, at the 15th annual High Plains Snow Goose Festival. This festival celebrates the huge Snow Goose migration through what can be bone-dry short-grass prairie. The ponds scattered here and there are waterfowl magnets, and the lesser Snow Geese are considered to be the most abundant geese in the world. In recent decades their population has been exploding, and they currently have a breeding population approaching 6 million. A sizable chunk of them migrate right through southeastern Colorado.

The Snow Goose festival has been set for mid-February since it began. Intriguingly, even as the number of geese has risen, the timing of their migration has been changing. We saw tens of thousands of geese from a distance, but one wildlife manager told us he’d had a gigantic flock flying en masse from his pond just the week before.

Snow Geese

Snow Geese

Of course, Snow Geese are far from the only reason to visit southeastern Colorado in February. The festival’s web page banner says the festival is “Celebrating Birding and the Heritage of Southeast Colorado.” Sure enough, on field trips the people from the area pointed out a lot of fascinating local features, such as the nearby Sand Creek Massacre National Historical Site. All the local people I met were proud of their lovely town and the historical and wildlife treasures of the area. I stayed at a lovely B&B—cozy and comfortable, with wonderful food—called the Third Street Nest Bed and Breakfast.

Third Street Nest B&B
Lamar is within the range of one of my Top Ten favorite birds, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken. Indeed, Lamar is the very town I went to in 2013 to get them on my Big Year list.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken from Lamar, 2013
Right now, the Lesser Prairie-Chicken population is so low due to the extended drought that birds are essentially impossible to find when they’re not on breeding display leks in spring, and even display leks have declined dramatically in both number and size. Sure enough, we didn’t see any prairie-chickens at the Snow Goose festival—I’ll have to go back in April next year to see them there again, assuming Colorado still has any at all. This is one of the few species endemic to the United States, so we have an important mandate to do what we can to protect them when their entire population is in a tailspin.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken, Texas 2014

I was along on two trips to a splendid little park right in town—Willow Creek Nature Trail, on the grounds of the Lamar Community College. Robins and Cedar Waxwings gathered in the trees in huge numbers, feeding and chattering, and the robins broke into an occasional early song as well. The area around the park is known for being one of the best spots in Colorado to see eastern species, and sure enough, Blue Jays, Carolina Wrens, and Northern Cardinals were both seen and heard. I also saw and heard my only Lesser Goldfinch of the trip among the more abundant American Goldfinches.

In the open country around Lamar, the birding was equally splendid. Sunday was the first time in my 42 years of birding that I have ever seen both a Loggerhead and Northern Shrike in the same day, much less in the exact same area. That was a thrill for me, even if the birds were too far away for good photos.

As usual in open country in winter, there were a bazillion Horned Larks, and as usual, not one of them cooperated for a close-up photo.

Horned Lark
Well, not too uncooperative

We had a wonderful assortment of waterfowl—15 species of ducks and geese—and the raptors were spectacular: both Bald and Golden Eagles; Northern Harriers; Cooper’s, Rough-legged, and Ferruginous Hawks; and Red-tails everywhere, many in interesting plumages. In addition to the bazillions of American Kestrels, we had a Prairie Falcon flying along right next to the bus. And we had several Great Horned Owls along with one Short-eared Owl. We also had an odd piece of bark dangling in some branches that looked exactly like a Long-eared Owl.

Not a Long-eared Owl
Long-eared Owl?
Andrew holding what isn't a Long-eared Owl
Nah--just bark.

Mammals were few and far between, but we did see several Eastern Fox Squirrels, a few Eastern Cottontails, and a couple of coyotes.

Eastern Cottontail


I was shocked at how many Eurasian Collared-Doves there were—everywhere we went, they were prominent, including one on a nest already.

Eurasian Collared Dove on nest

On the last day, we came upon the biggest flock of Great-tailed Grackles I’ve ever seen—that was spectacular.

Great-tailed Grackle

Great-tailed Grackle

And there were plenty of other wonderful things about birding in this part of the country. I ended the weekend with a total of 67 species. My absolute favorites were the abundant Western Meadowlarks, in full song. Saturday was utterly windless, and even with my aging ears I could easily pick out as many as 7 individuals singing at once. The reason the Western Meadowlark is the state bird of six states while the Eastern Meadowlark is the state bird of zero is quite simple—that magnificent song. My only regret of the weekend was not bringing my good microphone and recorder to capture it. That is yet one more reason to return.

That’s one of the miracles of birding. Every place a birder goes, she finds unique and special features of the local avifauna that give that place a wonderful particularity that is a joy to discover, and a joy to come back to. Every corner of the world is a friendlier, more welcoming place when you’re a watcher of birds.

Harlan's Red-tailed Hawk