Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, June 15, 2018

A Week on Hog Island in Maine

Hog Island

I spent last week in Maine, mostly on Hog Island, a small coastal island owned by National Audubon. I was one of the instructors for Audubon’s Joy of Birding camp. I’d been at the same event two years ago, so it was both fun and interesting to see how things stayed the same and how they’ve changed. The apple trees weren’t blooming this year, but the Northern Parulas were still feeding on caterpillars in the trees, as well as singing up a storm.

Northern Parula

The sounds of Hog Island are quite a bit like those you’d hear in northern Wisconsin and Minnesota—warblers, thrushes, chickadees, and other birds of the North Woods. And the Maine countryside looks a lot like the north woods, too. Hog island’s latitude is at 43.9° N while Duluth’s is 46.7° N.

Hog Island

The island looks pretty much like any of the little islands within the Boundary Waters, but when you look out on the water, instead of Mallards you see Common Eiders, and instead of loons you see tiny relatives of puffins called Black Guillemots.

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

Black Guillemot

The water doesn’t look any different from Lake Superior, but if you look down into it from the dock at Hog Island, you very well may see jellyfish, and unlike docks on Lake Superior, the water end of the dock at Hog Island keeps shifting up and down with the tide. At high tide I could walk to my cabin thinking how much like Lake Superior the shore looked; a few hours later the edge of the water would be way out, the shoreline covered with mats of kelp and other salty plant life. 

I’ve not seen a single puffin from Hog Island, but each year the class takes a boat ride out to Eastern Egg Rock, barely further north at 43.8° N, to see the Atlantic Puffins that now nest there. Puffins once nested on several of these islands until people wiped them out in the 1800s. They’d entirely disappeared from Eastern Egg Rock by 1880. In 1973, biologists took young puffins, about 10-14 days old, from Newfoundland, and set them in artificial sod burrows on Eastern Egg Rock. They placed handfuls of vitamin-fortified fish in these burrows each day. When the birds reached the age of fledging, they took off for the sea, and the biologists kept hope that when they reached adulthood, they’d return to this island.

 To encourage them, graduate student Steve Kress devised a plan to set up wooden puffin decoys so the island would look like a good spot to stay and nest. Puffins started returning to Eastern Egg Rock in 1977, and four pairs nested there in 1981. Now 150 pairs nest there. We got to see quite a few of them on our boat ride around the island, along with countless Black Guillemots.

Atlantic Puffin

My group also saw single members each of the other two alcids possible to see in June in Maine—a Razorbill and a Common Murre.

The furthest south that puffins have nested continuously without human intervention is on Machias Seal Island, a border island with a Canadian Coast Guard station whose ownership the US disputes. Razorbills and murres nest on Machias Seal Island along with 1500 pairs of puffins. That island is at 44.3° N—still not as far north as Duluth’s 46.7° N. I love visiting Machias Seal Island—if water conditions allow a landing, we can get right into blinds to observe them up close and personal—but that isn't part of the Joy of Birding Class and wasn't in the cards for my Maine trip this year.

Atlantic Puffin

My time at this Joy of Birding class was an amazing blend of feeling right at home and feeling like I was in an exotic paradise. Boat noises made recording puffins impossible, but I did make a sound recording of the dawn chorus on Hog Island on a perfect day—no wind whatsoever, just the gentle lapping of the Atlantic a constant in the background. That’s a lovely sound, which will transport me back whenever I listen. You can listen to it here.

Harbor Seal mother and pup

Monday, June 11, 2018

Koni Sundquist

Black-capped Chickadee

When Russ and I moved to Duluth in 1981, I didn’t know anyone in the birding community here. I was pregnant with our first baby and had just left a teaching job and students that I loved. I’d been an active member of Madison Audubon, providing regular beginning birding classes for Madison Audubon for a few years, and I wrote regular features about birds and birding for the morning newspaper, The Wisconsin State Journal. But neither of those niches was available in Duluth. The newspaper wasn’t at all interested in me, and the idea of providing free bird walks for beginners and the general public was rejected out of hand by Duluth Audubon, because someone else was providing birding field trips for a small fee and no one wanted me to compete with him. I’d pretty much set my life goal as being an advocate for the love, understanding, and protection of birds, but suddenly didn’t know how to do that anymore. 

I quickly became editor of Duluth Audubon’s newsletter and then president of Duluth Audubon—two jobs no one else wanted—even though both required a level of administrative skills I am utterly lacking in. The Duluth birding community was fairly insular, and my shyness didn’t make it any easier for me to break in. And no matter what I did, I felt like I was stepping on someone’s toes. When I started producing “For the Birds” in 1986, some of the local birders were very resentful, even as the program brought in more interest and membership at Hawk Ridge and greater participation in the local birding classes. I felt as much an outsider as ever. 

But one woman in the birding community was outgoing and extremely friendly from the very start. Not only did Koni Sundquist help me adjust and make me feel valued—she cheered me on as I developed my own niche so I wouldn’t be competing with anyone else. 

Koni was a bird bander and had become the one person in town who knew how to rehab birds. She never had state or federal licenses for that, yet it was people in the DNR and the US Fish and Wildlife Service who most often referred people with injured birds to her. When I started doing my radio show, people started thinking of my name when confronted with a hurt or orphaned bird, and suddenly I was coming home from the pediatrician or wherever I’d been to find a box with a bird on the front porch and a message like, “Take care of this bird. God bless you.” Koni took them at first, but not only encouraged me to learn how to take care of them myself—she also talked me through the challenges. She had endless compassion for birds (well, except for her neighborhood crows), and was the most generous person I’ve ever known in her willingness to share every bit of her own knowledge, never seeing anyone else as a competitor but as a teammate. 

I called Koni a lot, not only for advice about hurt birds but also just to talk. I’ve never known anyone so relentlessly cheerful and upbeat, even as she faced widowhood, losing her son, and serious health setbacks of her own, including the loss of much of her eyesight. Her laugh was infectious and unfailingly filled with a chickadee’s joie de vivre. When I took my job at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Koni sent me several letters. Opening them was just like talking to her in person, her handwriting as large and ebullient as her laugh. She was like a one-person cheering squad. 

I almost certainly would not have found my own path without Koni’s encouragement and help. She was the kind of generous human being who rolls up her sleeves and does what needs to be done, never for any kind of reward except knowing she was doing what was right. I simply and absolutely would never have become a licensed bird rehabber without her encouragement and help. 

Over time, as I’ve become busier and away from home so much, it’s become harder to keep up with friends. I’d occasionally read a letter to the editor by Koni and think, “I need to call her up!” In March, the Duluth News-Tribune ran a story about a bear hanging out in her neighborhood, sometimes going under her porch, so she hit it with a broom. At 88, Koni was still never afraid for herself, but as always thinking about others. She was quoted saying, “I worry because five days a week I have Meals on Wheels delivered, and they're all senior citizens, both ladies and gentlemen. What if the bear stood up and scared the liver out of 'em?”

Reading that was solid evidence that Koni was herself, and all was right with the world. I thought to myself how I need to call her up, but I had a hectic spring, out of town a lot. It could wait until things settled down in June. 

On May 30, I left for Maine, for a speaking engagement at the Acadia Birding Festival and to teach a birding class at National Audubon's Hog Island. On May 31, Koni died, at home just as she would have wanted. My flight home didn’t leave Maine until afternoon on June 9, the day of her memorial, so I missed even that. To the very end, Koni was a far greater friend to me than I was to her. How I will miss her, and the reassuring feeling that while Koni was here, this planet was a bright and jolly place. I’m filled with sorrow that I never gave her anything close to the riches she gave me.

If you could do a family tree and individual life history for every chickadee in Duluth, I bet most of them have, somewhere in their ancestry, a bird that was saved by Koni or by someone like me who was only able to help it thanks to Koni. I love thinking about that, because like her beloved chickadees, Koni loved and accepted everyone who wasn’t out to harm little birds, and like chickadees, Koni withstood the worst that life could throw at her without becoming jaded or sour. When I hear my neighborhood chickadees warning about a hawk or cat, I’ll think of Koni Sundquist, yelling at crows and swatting at bears even as she was ever cheerful and laughing—a chickadee to the very end.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Good News: Declining Birth Rate

Joey, Tommy, and Katie modeling their "I'm for the Birds" t-shirts in 1988.

In the past couple of weeks, a lot of news stories have centered around the announcement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that America’s birth rate has fallen to a 30-year low. Teen births in particular are down 70 percent since the peak in 1991, but the overall trend was for women across the board.

Not many reporters related this to another news story, that people born in the 1980s are the brokest generation, their median net worth 34 percent lower than what past trends would predict for their age group. When people are working 50 or 60 hours a week at two part-time minimum wage jobs to barely get by, paying for their own health care coverage and trying to repay their student loans, they can hardly afford to quit or get child care to start a family, and except at the highest management levels, most corporate jobs pay pretty poorly when employees have so little leverage. But it isn’t only millennials who are having fewer children—the only age group having an increase in the birth rate is women in their 40s.

The slant of every story I’ve heard or read was that the falling birth rate is a bad thing—that we need more young people to join the work force as older workers retire. Not one news story looked at the issue from the standpoint of world and national over-population and our dangerously imperiled natural resources. Instead of bemoaning this, economists who have a clue about how life on this inter-connected planet actually works should be considering strategies that would allow us to thrive, not just despite a declining population but because of it. 

The population problem seems to be at the lowest level of people’s awareness right now. I suppose it’s understandable with so many other urgent problems right in our face, from the serious repercussions of climate change, the huge amount of plastic garbage taking over the world’s oceans, major corporations selling public utilities water resources at a huge profit even as water supplies dwindle, and so much else. Yet at a fundamental level, human population is at the very root of every one of these issues.

When I’ve talked about population in the past, the only responses I’ve heard from listeners have been at opposite ends of the spectrum—either I should shut up about it because Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb, was debunked decades ago (which is of course untrue) and thanks to GMOs and pesticides, we can feed many times what the world’s human population is now (which of course is also untrue); or that I should shut up about it because I have three children and so have permanently squandered any standing to speak on the issue at all. Ironically, Russ’s parents have only three grandchildren, and at this late date, Russ and I have zero grandchildren, so in the long view, our contribution to overpopulation has been smaller than it may seem. 

I suspect that most of us realize overpopulation is indeed a problem but don’t know what to do about it. The way first world countries have reduced their birthrates has always involved educating women and giving them healthcare and legal agency over their lives. Now that we’re finally reducing our birthrate here in America, we should be celebrating even as we look to the future to find ways our society can thrive, economically and in more fundamentally important ways, as we lower the birthrate.

Scolding a 66-year-old woman about how many children she had in the 1980s and telling her that she has no right to speak out about overpopulation is just as much an effort to squelch information about the issue as denying that a problem exists in the first place. Isn’t it time we looked to the future, not thirty-odd years in the past, and worked together to solve these problems?

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Listener Favorite: Robyn's Saw-whet Owl

Northern Saw-whet Owl

Last week, I got an email from Robyn Schroeder, who writes:

Hello Laura,   
It was probably almost two months ago that I heard the request for submissions of our favorite birds and I am finally getting this email off to you.  It may be too late for your show, but I still wanted to share my favorite bird.   
It has taken me several weeks to decide on my favorite bird.  There are so many great experiences that have accompanied our birding adventures, but I decided that my favorite bird was one I experienced in my own back yard. It was my husband, Rick, that introduced me to birding.  We took a walk along the Mississippi River in St. Cloud when we were first dating in the spring of 1979, and he called a chickadee in within a foot of my head.  I was amazed!  I had the best viewing of a chickadee ever.  Later I came to understand that chickadees are generally “friendly” birds and very cooperative in responding to calls; I even repeated this experience for a bunch of scouts on a camping trip.   
However, it was the calling in of a Northern Saw-whet owl that really wowed me! We had been living in the Saginaw area for only a couple years when Rick heard the distinctive too-too-too song of the Saw-whet owl on an early spring evening.  I did not recognize the call since this was my first Saw-whet.  Rick suggested we take a walk into the woods behind our house and he started answering to the Saw-whet.    
It was a calm, cool evening and this Saw-whet was interested in having a conversation.   It was after sunset and the forest was dark.   At first we could tell the owl was moving around us as his response to Rick’s too-too-too song would come from different places.  There was excitement in the anticipation to hear from what direction the owl would call next.  Finally one call was very close, so we shone a flashlight toward the sound and there was the cutest little owl I had ever seen.  I didn’t know that owls even came in that size!    
I had grown up hearing and seeing Barred owls on trips to the Boundary waters and then was introduced to the Great Gray Owl and Northern Hawk Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog.  Seeing this delightful little owl, who was willing to have a conversation with us in our own back-yard, really made it special and qualifies for my favorite bird.  We realized we didn’t have to travel anywhere to have a great birding experience, just be listening and looking for the birds that surround us.   

It was lovely reading Robyn’s recollections, which stirred up my own memories of Saw-whets calling in the north woods. Some people have called or written me in the past about waking up in the middle of the night in their tent while camping and thinking they were hearing a truck backing up. When they realized what it really was, they were of course charmed—who wouldn’t be charmed by a predator so tiny it barely balances a quarter-ounce hamburger patty and looks fluffy and adorable but feels fierce and powerful, as it is to the insects and rodents that make up its prey.

Thanks to flickers and Pileated Woodpeckers, saw-whets have an excellent choice of real estate in Minnesota and Wisconsin forests for both roosting and nesting. The banding station at Hawk Ridge, just above my house, traps, bands, and releases well over a thousand Saw-whets every fall during migration. Some visit my own backyard, too. A few saw-whets overwinter up here—more than once I’ve seen one on Superb Owl Sunday in February, when other people are watching flying pigskins.

Northern Saw-whet Owl

But the best time of all to enjoy a Saw-whet is when you can hear it as well as see it, during early spring when they’re courting. Robyn’s favorite is pretty darned special by any measure.

By the way, there is no deadline to share your favorite bird. You can send me a sound file telling me about it, call the phone number on the sidebar of my blog any day after 2 pm to record it as a message, or send me a note.

Northern Saw-whet Owl with mouse

Monday, June 4, 2018

The Giving Tree

Evening Grosbeak in box elder tree

Back in 1981 when we moved into our house on Peabody Street, the very first songbirds I noticed were several Evening Grosbeaks sitting in a box elder tree right next to our house. One of the Evening Grosbeak’s favorite foods is box elder seeds, and our two box elders, and then a third that sprouted up in the middle of our yard, gave us a huge advantage in attracting these beautiful birds during all the years they were common or even abundant in Duluth.

But the moment she saw it, my mother-in-law told me the box elder next to the house should come down as soon as possible—it was a dangerous hazard. Russ told me not to worry—the tree was TOO close to the house to pose a danger, because it would fall gently against it if it fell in the wrong direction. Now, 37 years later, it’s still standing. What has changed is how much more devoted I am to it now than I was then, even as Evening Grosbeaks have disappeared.

Over the years, this tree has provided nesting quarters for a few birds that I’ve been aware of, and probably of plenty I didn’t notice. At least one pair of chickadees fledged young from it, and I was very bonded to that pair. At the start of the courting season, one was missing its tail feathers and the other had some weird scar tissue on the face that led to some of the feathers next to the eye growing in backward. The two were probably at the bottom of the flock’s social hierarchy for what were really temporary defects, and oddly enough, those defects were exactly why I keyed in on them and made sure of all my backyard chickadees that these two got the best helpings of nutritious mealworms. It was thrilling when they paired off and nested in that box elder, especially because that was a year when we were using what is now my office as our bedroom (and before I was photographing birds). I could see and hear them each morning from bed. Chickadees often excavate their own nest holes or use those of Downy Woodpeckers, and in either case, both species prefer rotten wood—a healthier tree would just not have been the right choice. A pair of Red-breasted Nuthatches nested in the tree, too, and several gray squirrel families got their start in it.

Black-capped Chickadee

I’ve taken thousands of photos of birds, including warblers and hummingbirds,  perched on old, lichen-covered branches very close to the window. That lichen was evidence that the tree is growing increasingly rotten, and indeed, those nearby branches were attached to a limb that crashed to the ground in a storm last year. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Red-eyed Vireo

Black-and-white Warbler

American Redstart

The center of the tree has developed a huge hollowed-out area where one large rotten limb fell years ago.

My grand old box elder next to my upstairs office window

I’m pretty sure one or the other of a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers spent nights roosting in that rotted area—for a while last year, the male or female would be calling from the tree at first light. This neighborhood pair spends a lot of time in my yard, and last week when I heard one of them working in a tree, not with loud hammering but more quiet chiseling, I looked out my office window and discovered the male was inside that hollowed-out space digging out grubs. I could only see the back of his head occasionally, so I went into the yard to photograph and take videos of him. He kept at it a good five minutes, paying no attention to me or my camera, and then flew south, possibly to a nest tree a block or two away. 

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

The tree is beautifully leafed out right now, and heavy with seeds. Even I can see it will not live forever. None of us do. But I’m sure glad we didn’t sentence it to an early death so many years, and experiences, ago. And that Pileated Woodpecker is glad about that, too.

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Friday, June 1, 2018

Individuals vs Populations


Last time I talked about the death of one particular Great Gray Owl and how it impacted one listener. Sometimes wildlife managers and other people tell me that individual animals don’t matter—to protect species, we need to focus on populations, not individuals. But it’s quite possible for a person to focus on both, and the silly statistical argument that individuals aren’t the basis of populations grows increasingly ridiculous when a population dwindles to just a few individuals.

Even in a robust population, individual lives have meaning. Back in the 1990s, one fall day my kids and I noticed a squirrel in the backyard whose tail had been ripped off—at least, all the fur and skin. The bones and muscle remained, kinked in a couple of places and clearly infected. By the second day the outer third or so had fallen off, but the rest of the tail looked horrible for at least a week before it finally fell off. Meanwhile, the squirrel looked weak and dazed. She would have been stressed if I’d tried to capture her—nature would have to take its course, but I could hardly let the poor thing die of starvation when she was too weak to search hard for food. The least I could do was to buy a bag of peanuts and another of mixed nuts. When I’d see her near our dining room window, I’d crank it open to drop half-opened nuts and a few peanuts on the ground. I also set out a dish of water for her, and kept it fresh. She had trouble climbing trees—I don’t know if it was simply getting used to balancing without a tail or her being weak while dealing with a massive infection.

After the infected tail fell off, she was left with a short stump, so I started calling her Stumpytail. As she recovered from the infection, I didn’t want her to generalize about people being nice when she couldn’t get away from danger as fast as our other squirrels, so my kids and I never fed her out of our hands, but I got into the habit of keeping some nuts or peanuts in my pocket when I was in our backyard. I might be looking at an interesting warbler or finch up in my tree when suddenly I’d feel something tugging on my shoelace, and sure enough, there would be Stumpy looking up at me expectantly, so I’d drop a few nuts down to her.

I treasured this one squirrel beyond anything I’d expected. There’s a saying, “Love is an active verb.” Maybe my specific actions of looking out for Stumpy when she was in trouble were what made me love her. Or maybe it was just that she stood out from all the other squirrels, giving her a particularity that mattered. Joseph Stalin once said that the death of one person is a tragedy; the death of one million is a statistic. And Mother Teresa said, "If I look at the mass I will never act." I had a genuinely special feeling for Stumpytail greatly beyond what I felt for the squirrel population on Peabody Street.

We saw Stumpy just about daily for several years, and then suddenly, she stopped coming. I figured she had died and was broken hearted. Several months later, I was driving home and when I turned down Peabody Street two blocks from home, there was a stumpy-tailed squirrel in someone’s front yard. I cranked down my window and said, “Stumpy! Why don’t you write?” I kept going, and suddenly noticed out my car’s outside mirror a little stumpy-tailed squirrel running along the sidewalk. By the time I’d parked the car in the garage and come into the house, there she was on my front porch, waiting expectantly.

Life went back to normal with Stumpytail for the next couple of years. Then we had a snowy winter. One morning when I was out of town, Russ was shoveling the front walk and discovered Stumpy’s frozen little body—she’d apparently been sitting on the snowbank waiting for the plow to go by, misjudged, and got plowed under.

Over the years, the individual animals—birds as well as squirrels—that I’ve helped, like my chickadee with the overgrown bill and missing toes, and all the baby birds I’ve raised, have elicited love or something awfully darned close to love. When my special chickadee raised a whole brood of chicks who fledged successfully, I was elated. When a baby flicker we’d raised went off in autumn, but alighted on my son the following spring, our whole family was overjoyed. One baby Pine Siskin was on death’s door from a cat attack. It recovered and flew off with Pine Siskins that fall. I was thrilled that it had fully recovered, and even more joyful when it returned the next spring and alighted on my little daughter Katie’s finger as she was riding her tricycle.

Does caring so very much about these individuals detract from my work as a conservationist? Of course not. Having such a clear commitment to specific individuals whose paths cross mine makes me more fully aware of the challenges of life in this modern world for all kinds of creatures. When I can tell the story of an individual bird that was hurt in a preventable way, that makes my listeners more viscerally aware of the preventable dangers we humans pose to wildlife.

Our human capacity for love and mercy is perhaps our greatest quality as a species. We may carry loving the particular to excess when we are mindless about the needs of the many, but the quality of mercy is not strained; It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath, and if that place underneath has a Great Gray Owl or a hurt squirrel, that’s quite alright with me.


Tuesday, May 29, 2018

The Life and Death of a Great Gray Owl

Copyright 2018 by Mike Farmer; used with permission
Last Thursday, I got an email from a listener named Mike. He writes:  
For the past several months I've been watching a Great Grey on 133 just west of Canyon.  I've stopped countless times to watch and photograph this guy and had established quite a fondness for this particular critter.  On my way to the bog this morning I found him on the side of the road, victim of a likely collision with a car.  Needless to say, I was completely gutted.  As I continued into the bog, I remembered something from a recent program of yours.  Something to do with the quiet eternity of the moment.  As I reflected on this, I remembered all of the moments I shared with this guy and the joy he brought into my life.  
As I read Mike’s letter, my heart started hurting, anticipating how it was going to turn out, especially because I’m pretty sure I saw and photographed that very same Great Gray a couple of months ago. It can be hard to explain to people who don’t spend a lot of time outdoors just how precious it is to be able to count on seeing a particular individual animal in a particular place as time goes by. Simply from a naturalist’s viewpoint, knowing that a particular habitat continues to provide what is necessary for a magnificent predator is very comforting, but that sense isn’t as visceral as the sense of connection we make when we spend time over weeks or months with one individual animal. And of all North American wildlife, making eye contact with an owl touches us to our very souls in a way that no other species can, because of all North American wildlife, only owls have a flattened face with large, forward-facing eyes and a beak placed right where our nose would be. Every human culture has mythology and folklore about these most human-looking of birds. 

But the visceral connection we feel when we come close to an owl, its eyes meeting ours, is more than fanciful anthropomorphism and myth-making. Look into an owl’s eyes and you know you’re dealing with someone to be reckoned with. If owls in general have a soulful quality, Great Gray Owls have it at the highest order. To get to know an individual Great Gray Owl, over many months, is something beyond words, and then to come upon that animal, the beating heart and spark of life extinguished—that is genuine tragedy of the kind Robert Frost reckoned with in his poem, Reluctance:
Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?
Mike quoted a recent program of mine, and specifically the words “the quiet eternity of the moment.” I wish I could lay claim to those words, but they were from another listener, Steve Dahlberg, who sent me a letter about the Great Blue Heron saying: 
There’s something about its majestic stillness when it hunts and its calm solo flights that has a profound effect on me whenever I see one.  I think they are the monks of the bird world, living always in the quiet eternity of the present moment.
Steve Dahlberg will be pleased to learn that his resonant words gave comfort in the face of Mike’s grievous loss. I don’t know if animals think much about their past or their future—they probably have a deeper connection with the eternity of the present moment than we mere humans can imagine. As perfect as Steve’s wonderful words were as a description of the Great Blue Heron, they’re wonderfully apt in the context of the soft, silent ways of the Great Gray Owl as well. 

I’m very grateful to have my own connections with my listeners, genuine human beings like Mike and Steve.

Monday, May 28, 2018

From Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Google Supporting Feral Cats

Burrowing Owl

This week I got an email from KUMD listener Will Bomier from Mahtowa linking to an article in Saturday’s New York Times: “Owl Lovers Cry Foul: In a Silicon Valley park, burrowing owls are dying and disappearing. Public records and a bit of snooping uncovered a path that led to Google and its feline-loving employees."

The article, by Pulitzer-Prize-winning David Streitfeld, begins:
A handful of burrowing owls live in [Shoreline Park, a] 750-acre wildlife and recreation area, deep in the grass. As the breeding season begins, they are among perhaps 50 left in Silicon Valley. A California species of “special concern,” burrowing owls nest in the ground. That makes them especially vulnerable.
Death strikes hard at Shoreline. The remains of an owl — a leg, a wing, a few scattered feathers — were found here in 2015, shortly after a feral cat was seen stalking it. Another owl was discovered dead near its burrow, and a third disappeared that year and was presumed killed. That was fully half the owls nesting in the park.
The article discusses the large number of cats in the area and gets into the issue of why Google, which has actively supported the Burrowing Owls at a leased property a few miles south of the Googleplex, has been so singularly unhelpful with regard to problem cats. A handful of Google employees started what they call a Cat Colony with feeding stations, at least one dangerously close to a designated Burrowing Owl nesting area. Various groups, including the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society, have been pleading with Google to remove the cat feeding stations since 2012, but the corporation refuses to interfere with this employee project. According to the article:

The number of cat sightings [at Shoreline Park] last year was 318, according to the City of Mountain View’s official count. And 2017 was the first time in 20 years of record-keeping that no owl fledglings were observed in the park. As recently as 2011, there were 10. 
“We lose the owls, we lose something else next, and then something else,” Ms. McLaughlin said. “We need biodiversity” … 
 “It’s a problem,” said Shani Kleinhaus, an environmental advocate with the Santa Clara Valley Audubon Society. “Many of the avian species around the Bay breed on or close to the ground, and the cats prey on them at their most vulnerable moments — sitting on their eggs or caring for their young.”
Although some other companies support feral cat colonies, a few have become more responsible environmental stewards. Facebook stopped allowing cat feeding several years ago at a marsh with endangered species that abuts their campus. Intuit, which like Google borders Shoreline Park, doesn’t have any employee cat programs.

Will Bomier, who sent me the article, writes:
I was so disturbed to learn that a big company like Google (and its employees) would sponsor such irresponsible behavior.  For a company to be presented with such facts/evidence and to not take action?  I had no idea that anyone would have such a thing as a “Cat Feeding Station.” 
And I’ll double Will’s sigh.

Burrowing Owl

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The Biggest Week in American Birding

Magee Marsh Boardwalk Entrance

I spent several days this month in Ohio, in the area around the Magee Marsh, attending the Black Swamp Bird Observatory’s “Biggest Week in American Birding” festival. The Magee Marsh is world famous for concentrating migrating warblers. I was there at the beginning of migration, when Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers were everywhere, but other warblers were surprisingly abundant, too—I’d never seen so many Bay-breasted Warblers before—they even let me take a few photos!

Bay-breasted Warbler

Bay-breasted Warbler

Prothonotary Warblers nest right near the Boardwalk that cuts through the marsh, and they gave me lovely photo ops.

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

Prothonotary Warbler

I had excellent luck with a Black-throated Blue Warbler.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

And one roosting Common Nighthawk was extraordinarily cooperative.

Common Nighthawk

But my best photo op of all, in terms of the quality of the photos, was of an American Woodcock that was feeding and resting in the mucky wet forest floor just a few feet from the Boardwalk as dozens of people watched and photographed the little guy. The birds living near the Boardwalk get used to the concentration of people and are surprisingly complacent about the hubbub, so I had a grand opportunity to test out a brand new camera lens.

American Woodcock

American Woodcock

American Woodcock
It was hard to hold the camera steady for this video when I was so excited!
My favorite photo op of all was of an uncooperative male Cerulean Warbler, who did exactly what Cerulean Warblers do—he stayed almost entirely in the canopy, allowing mostly shots from beneath. I got several marginal photos of him where you can at least tell he’s got a face.

Cerulean Warbler

But my favorite shot of all shows him pooping. I guess my days as a junior high teacher affected me more profoundly than I’d suspected. This is the only photo I've ever taken of an unrestrained adult male songbird showing his cloacal protuberance. Obviously, the bird must move the feathers hiding its private parts before pooping, and my photo actually caught this.

Cerulean Warbler Poop Shot! (Perhaps my finest moment as a photorapher!)

Oddly enough, one of my friends, Curt Rawn, just happened to be standing in exactly the right place at the right moment to get splatted by that very poop! My camera EXIF shows the photo was taken at 13:00:58. (Well, it shows 12:00:58, but I had it set on CDT.) My iPhone photos were taken a minute and a half later when Curt got my attention and I got my iPhone set up.

Cerulean Warbler Poop! On Curt Rawn's hand!

Cerulean Warbler Poop! On Curt Rawn's hand!

(You can find all my photos of any given species [and their poop if I happen to have a photo] by entering the species name in the Search Birds link at the top of any of my website pages, including this blog.)

Poop shots or no, Magee Marsh is a national treasure of the highest order. It’s a critical stopover spot for many thousands of Neotropical migrants, giving them a safe place to rest and feed during their arduous journey. It’s also a superb place for some species to nest—as I said, a few pairs of Prothonotaries nest there, and it’s the only place I’ve ever found and photographed a Yellow Warbler on her nest at eye level without disturbing her.  

Yellow Warbler and chicks

The Biggest Week festival is sponsored by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory, a small non-profit member organization that fights tirelessly to protect migratory birds along Lake Erie. For such a small group, they have been surprisingly effective, mainly because of a winning combination of passion, authoritative knowledge, and focus.

One of their challenges has been to deal with cynical representatives of the oil and gas industries, who try to enlist environmentalists to fight against wind power by focusing on the bird kills.  Yes, the bird kills, and especially the bat kills, at some wind turbines are unacceptable, but so are the direct bird kills and habitat destruction due to oil, gas, and coal extraction, transport, and refining, to say nothing of the fossil fuel industry's contribution to climate change. Turbines placed along major migration routes, which include most major coastlines and some mountain ranges, and turbines placed in prairie areas where prairie chickens and sage grouse nest, pose a very serious danger for birds. The shores of Lake Erie have long been known to serve as a migratory magnet and stopover, and so Black Swamp Bird Observatory Director Kimberly Kaufman has led the fight against wind farms along that specific shoreline, while carefully keeping the focus not on wind power itself but where it belongs, on turbine design and siting. There are places where wind farms kill very few birds, where they can be justified even as we work to develop turbine designs that don't kill our precious wildlife anywhere.

Indiana wind farm
Clean energy produced in Indiana farm country, at least minimizing potential bird kills.

Solar panels on a Staples store
Clean energy produced where it is used, in cities.
I can’t possibly afford to belong to every worthy bird conservation organization—I have to be far more selective than I’d like. But I’m proud to support the Black Swamp Bird Observatory because of the important work that small organization does to protect many of my favorite birds, to promote young birders, to make birding more inclusive among adults, and to provide such important educational opportunities. I’m already looking forward to next year’s Biggest Week festival.

Kenn and Kimberly Kaufman
Kimberly Kaufman and her husband Kenn, both working tirelessly to promote birds and their conservation.