Friday, February 5, 2016

Clay Taylor's banded Common Tern

Clay Taylor digiscoping. He and my good friend Sharon Stiteler produced an excellent (and fun!) series about birding and digiscoping that you can watch on YouTune. Photo by Bruce Webb

Whenever I go to birding festivals, I look forward to running into  Clay Taylor. As a representative for Swarovski Optik, he takes photos and videos of birds by digiscoping them, using Swarovski equipment, and then displays his work on a high definition screen at the Swarovski booth. Birders are drawn to various optics company booths both to enjoy the great looks at wonderful birds and to check out the equipment that produced them, and Clay’s are always top notch.

I particularly appreciate Clay's promotion of digiscoping—that is, photographing through a spotting scope, which allows us to get close-up photos from a safe distance to avoid disturbing the bird. It is a great way to promote ethical nature photography.

Banded Common Terns, digiscoped by Clayton Taylor using a Swarovski Optik STX 95 spotting scope with a Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera and the Swarovski TLS APO adapter

Back in September, when Clay was at Cape May Point in New Jersey, he came upon a Common Tern resting on the beach, and noticed that it was wearing a leg band. He walked around it from about 50 feet away, shooting images of the band in order to get all sides of it.





Above photos all digiscoped by Clayton Taylor using a Swarovski Optik STX 95 spotting scope with a Panasonic LUMIX GH4 camera and the Swarovski TLS APO adapter

Clay took about a hundred photos, and it took 5 to determine the band sequence: 9822-05514. He sent that number to the Bird Banding Laboratory and waited to find out more about this individual bird.

The Common Tern, which breeds over Europe and Asia as well as North America, is doing fairly well overall, though for a while it was in steep decline everywhere. Egg collecting and then the millinery trade both took a huge toll, and numbers were barely recovering before pesticides caused another decline. As specialists on fish, Common Terns bioaccumulate quite a load, leading especially to reproductive problems.

Terns have been declining on many of their historical breeding areas. When Russ and I brought our children to Machias Seal Island off the coast of Maine in 1993, everyone had to carry a tall pole to be safe from nesting Common and Arctic Terns--they divebombed people, going straight for the highest part, which was the pole unless you put it down for a moment. Sure enough, when Russ put his pole down momentarily to photograph the kids, a tern bonked him on the head hard enough to draw blood.

The kids on Machias Seal Island
Russ took this photo of the kids with their poles on Machias Seal Island in 1993. Terns were everywhere!

I returned to Machias Seal Island exactly 20 years later, for my Conservation Big Year in 2013, and the tern nesting colony had completely collapsed. We spotted one Arctic Tern carrying a fish, but I'm not sure where it was headed--it didn't alight on the island, and we didn't see a single Common Tern.

On the Great Lakes, Common Tern numbers dropped especially precipitously when Ring-billed Gull populations here burgeoned, and they haven’t recovered. The species is listed as Threatened in Minnesota and Endangered in Wisconsin. If Common Terns no longer live up to the first part of their name, they're not in critical danger--the International Union for the Conservation of Nature ranks it as a species of least concern worldwide.

It's hard to approach close to terns here on the Great Lakes, where they are shy and skittish, so my only photos are from a distance. Terns along the coasts are a bit more acclimated to humans on beaches than those here, which is why Clay’s bird didn’t take off as Clay circled it. That wonderful digiscoping technique allowed him to keep a comfortable distance while still getting good pictures. What he learned from the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Bird Banding Laboratory is this: it was originally captured and banded as an adult on Great Gull Island, NY, on August 16, 1994, which would put the bird's hatching year at 1992 or earlier. This means the bird was at least 23 years old when Clay captured the photos.

Twenty-three years old isn't quite the record, but it's close. The Bird Banding Lab's Longevity page provides longevity records for various species based on banding return records when banded birds are recaught or found later. Most longevity data used to come from banding stations recapturing banded birds, from hunters harvesting banded birds, and from anybody finding a dead bird with a band. Now more and more records are coming from people like Clay who photograph a living banded bird and report the number. This is trickier than it sounds, because the number wraps around the band; that's why Clay had to take photos from all angles to work out the complete number.

The oldest Common Tern based on Bird Banding Lab records was originally banded in New York and recaptured, alive, when it was 25 years 1 month old. I don't know why, but the webpage doesn't give the dates for that one. A second one banded in New York in July 1970 was recovered, alive, in Massachusetts, in June 1995, making it 25 years old.

The closely related Arctic Tern has a significantly older record holder: one  banded in Maine in July 1936 was recaptured, alive, in Maine in June 1970, making it a minimum of 34 years old. But the oldest Forster's Tern was found dead when only 15 years 10 months—I'm not sure why that one doesn't seem to survive as long as the other two species.

Recaptures and getting band numbers from living or dead birds is not easy--only a tiny fraction of banded birds are ever reported again. This is one of the reasons I strongly support bird banding stations--the information they gather gives us a far greater understanding of all kinds of challenges birds face. Now, with DNA and radio isotope information from feathers and cloacal swabs, we can gather even more detailed information during the banding process, often using just a small feather or two that fell off the bird anyway. And the more we know, the better our chances of helping declining bird populations.

Even if Clay's tern was not a record-breaker, it’s wonderful to know that plucky little bird has survived on this planet for at least 23 years, and counting. As Clay asked on Facebook, “How cool is that?”

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Winter warbler

Yellow-rumped Warbler
This Yellow-rumped Warbler in Port Wing, Wisconsin, wasn't visiting a feeder in October 2014--I was smacking cluster flies in the window and tossing them out for her. 

On January 16, the day I flew to San Diego for a week of birding and relatively balmy temperatures in Southern California, I got an email from Maxene Linehan of Hovland, just north of Grand Marais. She wrote:
For the past weeks we have had consistent daily sightings of a yellow-rumped
warbler at our suet feeders, so I have been offering a variety of suet and
was able to obtain dried mealworms, putting them in our platform feeder.

With our LOOOONG autumn lasting into the end of November I wondered if  warblers would have a second late brood under those conditions, and maybe this one got left behind.

She has been extra feisty, guarding "her" platform feeder from the chickadees, and trying to engage them in aerial combat, much to their chagrin. Each day she is still with us, as it gets colder, it amazes me and I wonder where she sleeps in the cold. I do have some small-bird houses out that I altered for winter (hole at bottom, upper perch inside, Styrofoam added atop roof and sides) but haven't been able to track her. She is very shy and flies to the woods when we come out.

So, if you can believe this, any info you can give, food wise or for shelter would be MUCH appreciated. She seems to favor the suet cakes home-made by the proprietor  of our local store and I shred them into smaller insect size pieces with a spoon instead of putting the cake out in solid form that gets frozen hard.

I was out of range to check my email much on my trip, so I didn’t have time to respond before she wrote back telling me she'd found information that indicated Yellow-rumped Warblers are pretty hardy:

I learned that they are found as far north as Labrador in winter (granted, we may have harsher winters, don't know for sure), and that they turn to berries and such when insects aren't available.  The source said they will accept sunflower seeds (we put out hearts in mid winter) and even peanut butter. So I put out raisins and dried blueberries with the seeds, suet and dried mealworms. Quite the buffet... the chickadees like it too.

She soon wrote back adding:

I think she must have hatched late in the season. As she eats the shredded suet cake I put in "her" tray feeder, she flutters her wings like a begging nestling! (Maybe, too, that keeps her warm when perched?)

Maxene ended with, “Each day I see her is closer to spring.”

It's possible but highly unlikely that the warbler represented a late hatching. There's no way that a pair of adults could have brought off a nest in August or September—there's barely any anecdotal evidence that this species ever nests twice in the same season. I'm intrigued with the behaviors she described. The bird was assertive enough to take over one feeder from the chickadees, and so my guess is that it was opening its wings aggressively, possibly towards those chickadees or other birds. I've seen chickadees during their first fall holding their wings out to claim dominance over young flock mates.


Preening Black-capped Chickadee
This young chickadee, in September 2014, was fluffed out and spreading its wings to assert itself over the chickadees in its new fall flock. (The adults just seemed to roll their eyes.)
This behavior of Maxene's warbler would have been a fascinating behavior to observe, photograph, and even make a video of. If I hadn't been in California, it would have been worth the drive to Hovland just for that. 

I'm not surprised it found her feeder. In the first 20 years we lived here, we had none ever at the feeder until one showed up on a cold, drizzly day in April 2001.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
My feeder April 2001

I went more than a decade without seeing another at the feeders, though they have always been common migrants in my trees. But they do seem to pay attention to chickadees and other feeder birds, and in Spring 2013, one showed up at one of my feeders again.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
My yard, April 2013
In 2014, fairly large flocks turned up in both spring and fall. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Taken in my yard May 2014

Yellow-rumped Warbler
My yard May 2014

Yellow-rumped Warblers at my suet and peanut butter feeders.
October 2014
Yellow-rumped Warblers at my suet and peanut butter feeders.
October 2014


I thought I was seeing a sea change in Yellow-rumped Warbler behavior, but didn't have them at my feeders at all in 2015, though in the spring I did have Cape May Warblers visiting them for a few days--the last time that happened was in 2004. They put on quite a show this year, when I had the camera equipment to take advantage.

Cape May Warbler out my window


We can't help but be curious about whether climate change was involved in Maxene's bird remaining so very late, but Yellow-rumped Warblers have been considered rare winter visitors in Minnesota for many decades. Even so, Maxene's bird was obviously quite exceptional. 

She said the warbler was most active in the low light of dawn and dusk and was skittish, making photography difficult at best, but she did get distant photos on January 22. 

Maxene's warbler wasn't as cooperative as mine--under harsh winter conditions, who could blame it?
Sadly, that ended up being the last day she saw the little thing. It had survived that week of nights with double-digits below zero, and the 22nd happened to be right when the temperatures were rising again, so there’s a good chance that after getting through the worst of it, it decided to take advantage of the milder conditions to head south. 

But we’ll never know for sure. The little Indigo Bunting in my own neighborhood disappeared weeks ago, but like the warbler, there was no particular indication that the bird was in distress, so nowhere near the certainty that it had succumbed like our Duluth Ivory Gull did. Fruit-eating birds such as robins and waxwings, and yellow-rumps, which specialize on wax myrtle berries, tend to be more flexible in their winter movement patterns than most birds, so it’s quite likely that this little mite wandered south, and may right now be basking with other yellow-rumps in Texas or Florida. Without evidence either way, that’s the picture I’m keeping in my mind’s eye. After all, hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul.



Yellow-rumped Warbler

John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon

Photo by Lisa Johnson, Pupparazzi Companion Animal Photography
At some point tomorrow, the racers in the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon will reach the finish line. The Beargrease, the longest running sled-dog race in the Lower 48, started in 1980, the year before Russ and I moved to Duluth. It’s one of the qualifying races for mushers who want to enter Alaska’s famous Iditarod. The route used to be fairly standard, from Duluth pretty much to the Canadian Border and back again. Thanks to unpredictable weather and poor snow conditions due to the increasing number of winter thaws in recent years, sometimes the route has been shortened, and occasionally the race has been cancelled, which is why although the marathon started 36 years ago, this is only the 32nd running of it.

Considering how long the Beargrease has been a tradition up here, and how it runs its course entirely outdoors where great winter birds can be seen, it’s a little odd that I’ve never done a For the Birds program about the race or about dogsledding in general, except a parody program for April Fools Day, 1988, called “The John Chickenfat Bird Race. My friend Sparky Stensaas, one of the best birders I know, provided the expertise and even served as stunt double for the main character of the Disney film about a dogsled race, Iron Will. And I myself got to taste dog sledding a bit during a weekend with my friend Kathleen Anderson in Brimson. I first met Kathleen when she was producing radio segments about the Beargrease for KUMD back in the 80s. So again, you’d think I’d have mentioned the race here and there.

The problem is, there’s not a whole lot of bird action in the Beargrease—indeed, birds would never get the point of such a thing. Most songbirds could easily fly the 400 miles in a day and a half at most, even while taking time out to sleep from dusk to dawn. Being subservient enough to lug a musher and sled is simply not within the scope of any bird’s imagination.

But like sled dogs, birds that are fully acclimated to winter can get overheated when winter conditions get too mild. 

Common Redpoll detail
Common Redpoll
Birds of course set their own pace, unlike sled dogs who have to obey the musher, so bird problems during winter thaws have nothing to do with getting overheated. But the same bad snow conditions that make running in snow difficult for sled dogs also can be hard on birds. Grouse and even many songbirds such as redpolls burrow into soft deep snow on subzero nights—the temperature in these burrows can be as much as 36 Fahrenheit degrees warmer than the air temperature, with no wind. When repeated daytime thaws make the snow icier, it becomes increasingly difficult for even birds as large as grouse to make these tunnels, and tiny redpolls don’t have a chance.

It’s been our warming winters that have caused delays, rerouting, and even cancellations of some past Beargrease marathons. These same situations have been hard on Gray Jays, which start nesting in February. 
Gray Jay
Gray Jay
You'd think milder conditions when they have eggs and nestlings would be good, but Gray Jays depend on the stores of meat they cached through the fall and early winter for insuring a steady supply of food for the nesting female and the nestlings once they hatch. Unfortunately, those thaws do to the food stores exactly what a power outage do to food in our freezer. If you can imagine coming back from a trip and everything seems fine until you thaw out a chicken and it’s rancid because the electricity had gone out for several days—that’s what these poor birds deal with at nesting time after a few winter thaws.

But who wants to think about those hardships when you’re watching a Gray Jay, or teams of dogs and mushers running through the snow? The one time I was on a dog sled, I was struck with how quiet it was, and how magical. I could see ravens and Blue Jays, and a flock of finches. When I flock of Bohemian Waxwings flew by, I could even hear their chattering. I’m sure the mushers in the marathon are more focused on their dogs and the terrain, if they actually want to win. But that lovely hour on a dog sled stuck in my memory as a joyful experience, and for me that joy included the birds I could notice.

Photo by Lisa Johnson, Pupparazzi Companion Animal Photography



I’m glad our wonderful sled dog tradition, with its rich history based on the original John Beargrease, is honored with this wonderful event. Beargrease, the son of an Anishinabe chief, was an avid hunter and trapper in the late 1800s who on his regular runs between Two Harbors and Grand Marais started carrying mail as well.  I don’t know how much he paid attention to birds, and I don’t know how much the mushers do today, but somehow there is a bond between all of us who love the natural wonders of the northwoods in winter, however we enjoy them.

Bohemian Waxwing
Bohemian Waxwing

Monday, February 1, 2016

My little girl

Katie and me

What do you say about the most wonderful daughter in the known universe?

  • The pre-schooler  who helped me care for a cat-injured baby Pine Siskin. It stayed indoors for a couple of months, then went out with Katie every morning, sat on her finger when she played on the swing set or rode her tricycle, and learned to socialize with the neighborhood siskins while still under our protection. Every night it came in to sleep in Katie’s room until one sad day the little siskin moved on with the neighborhood flock.  The piano song Katie was learning that week just happened to be titled “Little Bird,” and she was supposed to sing the words as she played to develop her sense of the rhythm of the music. I remember coming in on her, her tiny legs dangling at the piano bench as she played each note, singing, “Little bird, little bird, please don’t fly away. Little bird, little bird, stay and sing all day,” tears flowing from her eyes. The following spring when Katie was riding her tricycle, in flew an adult Pine Siskin, wild and free, who alighted on her finger and looked into her eyes as if to thank her or tell her it was fine or to make sure its little girl was doing okay. We never saw it again, but that sublime moment gave us everything we needed.
  • The first grader who wrote about her mommy when she was supposed to write about her biggest hero.
Katie did this in first grade

  • The little girl who was there at my side whenever an injured bird came in, who happened to be the only one home with me when a nighthawk with a badly mangled wing arrived. She held it in her tiny hands, just firmly enough, while I taped its wing in place. Blood poured from the wound onto her pink “My Little Pony” shirt and pants but she didn’t flinch. She was holding her head awkwardly to the side and I asked if something was wrong, but she just said she wanted to make sure her tears wouldn’t drip on him.
Katie and Orange-crowned Warbler

Katie and Esmerelda

Katie and Gepetto


  • The teenager who recorded a bunch of songs on the piano simply because I needed background music for some of my silly “California Ravens” songs for my radio program. If she found the odd assortment of songs I needed peculiar, or was mortified by her mom singing "Bohemian Rhapsojay" on the radio where people could hear it, she never mentioned it.
Portrait of the Pianist as a Young Toddler

  • The high school student who spent a week with me in Costa Rica. When we crossed a long suspension bridge in Monteverde, her natural inclination was to run across, but she moved slowly and deliberately to keep the bridge from swaying, knowing my fear of heights. We explored several places, enjoying butterflies, sea turtles laying eggs, lizards, monkeys, and of course birds. A handsome young waiter named Juan Carlos at the hotel where we stayed at the beginning and end of our trip was utterly smitten with my pretty daughter—he would sit at our table with us and practice English every evening, and he gave us each a little souvenir—I still keep that Pale-billed Toucan on my desk.
Katie and Laura at waterfall

  • The sweet young woman who remembered how much I loved the Michigan State basketball team of my college days and managed to find an autographed trading card of my all-time favorite player, Gary Ganakas, for my birthday.

  • The cool and clever daughter who brought home in her checked luggage from New York City nine bottles of beer with birds on the labels as another birthday gift. She created “The Bird Beer Game” by drawing a map of the world with nine places labeled, and photocopied the birds from the labels. I had to match a bird with its place on the map to win the bottle of beer. That was the start of my bird beer bottle collection, to which she has furnished the majority of bottles.
Super birthday present


And now—as if all those rewards all along the way haven’t been more than any mother could even dream up, Katie has developed an amazing website for me. 



It’s not just a simple page—she’s set up the database so anyone searching any species can find a link to all my photos of it on flickr, any articles I’ve written about it, any sounds I may have recorded, and any past radio programs I’ve done about it. She currently has the entire system integrated with the American Ornithologists’ Union Checklist of North AmericanBirds, but will soon have it integrated with eBird instead, so it can tie into my photos and recordings of birds on other continents as well. And it’s so functionally designed that now after I produce a new program, it will be several steps shorter for me to put it on my webpage and podcast it. I have a ways to go to digitize and upload programs from past years, but as I do, it’ll be quick and easy to get them integrated into the database.

If the database is extraordinarily well built, the design of the page is just as wonderful—Katie chose a color palette based on chickadees, and asked her partner Michael to design some chickadees for the background using some of my chickadee photos that she selected. Now they’re both tweaking the page so it shows up as well as possible on tablets, phones, and all browsers.


It’s astonishingly cool to realize how much this dear baby, little girl, and now woman loves me and respects my work, to have invested so much thought, time, expertise, and painstaking work into creating something this extraordinary, just because I’m her mom.

Muxy!!

Mother and Child

The first time I held her in my arms, I felt so strongly what a gift this tiny person was. Day after day, year after year, she's been the gift that keeps on giving.