Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Drunken Birds: Final Recap

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Over 30 years ago, on January 20, 1988, in a program I did about waxwings, I said,
A couple of the calls I’ve had recently have been about waxwings that don’t seem quite sick, but act strange and allow people to pick them up–they seem, well, somehow they seem drunk. And that’s exactly what some of them are. If cold weather stops the flow of fresh sap to mountain ash berries and then there’s a thaw, the sugars in the berries may ferment. If a waxwing eats too many, it gets roaring drunk, staggering about on the ground or in the air, vulnerable to predators and accidents. If you find a drunk waxwing, it’s often a good idea to give it food and shelter until it dries out. Just remember that like all native American songbirds, waxwings are protected by law. As tempting as it is, they cannot legally be kept as pets.  
That may be the first time I ever talked about intoxicated birds on the air. I’ve mentioned the problem of fermenting berries and other fruits many times in the three decades since then, but apparently most people were still completely unaware of the problem until the police chief in Gilbert, Minnesota, wrote a press release last week stating that people throughout town are finding intoxicated birds everywhere, and in their drunken state, the birds are colliding with cars and windows.

That story went viral. The Duluth News-Tribune interviewed me about it, and soon I was fielding calls and doing interviews for CNN, KARE-11 TV in the Twin Cities, and even the New York Times. A local Fox News station in the Twin Cities called me. They needed a live interview, so I gave them Sharon Stiteler’s name—she’s the famous “Birdchick” and a park ranger down there, and she gave them a great interview. Some of the articles and TV spots used my photos of robins and Yellow-rumped Warblers, but some just did internet searches, which is probably why some were illustrated with European Robins, which aren’t even thrushes, and a Fieldfare, a Eurasian species which was found exactly once in Minnesota, in Grand Marais, back in 1991.

The problem is, there’s no evidence that berries fermented early this year, and it’s usually not until late winter and spring that the sugars in old fruits reach that stage of fermentation. We’re having a huge songbird migration right now—I’ve had at least 60 Yellow-rumped Warblers in my yard at a single time much of the past two weeks, sometimes counting over 25 in my feeders simultaneously.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Except during these migration fall-outs, people seldom see these tiny little flutterers on the ground, and the way they hop and fly could appear weak and even drunken for those more accustomed to seeing the faster, more direct movements of heavier birds such as sparrows and juncos.

But even the writers who tried hardest to clear things up couldn’t resist putting a fun, drunken spin on the issue, except Matt Mendenhall, editor of BirdWatching magazine. On Tuesday he put up a summary of the story, “BirdWatching experts help explain ‘drunk birds’ phenomena to America.” The nationwide headlines were much heavier on humor than accuracy:

“Drunk birds are causing havoc in a Minnesota town. Police say they’ll sober up soon.” — Washington Post.
“Drunk Birds Are Currently Terrorizing a Town in Minnesota” — Vice.
“Drunk Birds Can’t Handle Their Alcohol, Are Flying Under the Influence Around Town” — Time.
“Birds are getting ‘drunk’ off of berries and flying into windows, police say” — USA Today.
“Drunk Birds? How a Small Minnesota City Stumbled Into the Spotlight” — New York Times

The Twin Cities Fox News story got picked up nationally. Soon Sharon Stiteler was being featured on Ellen DeGeneris and Jimmy Fallon's monologue—the one silver lining to the whole story.

People forget all about major news headlines now within days as everyone moves on to the next viral story. But meanwhile, I’m sad that people took the wrong lesson from this. I’m with Kenn Kaufman, who told The New York Times that he finds it “difficult to laugh at the plight of these potentially drunken creatures. He compared this widespread glee to the reaction to YouTube videos of loopy children after oral surgery.”

Right now, there is too much scary and even horrifying national news for people to wrap their heads around, so I’m not surprised that the country reveled in a story about drunken birds in such a lighthearted, if inaccurate, way. If a national story about migratory birds was going to lead to any kind of understanding of them and how to help them, I’d be thrilled. As it is, this all turned out to be yet another news item I’d like to forget.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

How Lisa Found Childlike Delight through Photography

Lisa Johnson — Wednesday Morning, 7 a.m.

Yesterday KUMD played a repeat For the Birds from 2014, in which I talked about how thrilling it was, as a new birder, to be seeing in real life birds I’d seen as a very little girl in my Little Golden Book: Bird Stamps. In it, I said: “I wish that everyone could experience at least one season filled with the joy of discovery that I had in 1975, when I saw so many of my first birds through eyes filled with a child’s elation and wonder.”

Something about that inspired Lisa Johnson to write this splendid essay (as a text message!!):
My eyesight has been crummy ever since third grade, when I got my first pair of glasses. First it was nearsightedness, then nearsightedness with astigmatism… now it’s both of those with old eyes. I’m lucky that (so far) it’s correctable, because I’m legally blind otherwise, but I’m accustomed to not seeing real specifics at a distance.  
So imagine my delight when, through the magic of a camera lens, I’m learning that the black specks and brown blobs I’ve been seeing all my life resolve themselves into birds with the most amazing and undreamed of colors!  

Great Blue Heron by Lisa Johnson
Photography, for me, is almost like Christmas morning when I was a kid: “What did I get? What did I get?” And frequently: “Oh, this is even better than I thought it would be!” Birds almost never disappoint: even a photo that’s not crystal clear or beautifully composed can show the bright black twinkle of a sparrow’s eye or the huge yellow eyes of an owl. Although the subject of the photo is long gone, I can pore over the image to my heart’s content, looking at cormorants’ funny feet or the slate blue in a sparrow’s wing. 
Who knew that bird was really green? Who knew that bird had a bright yellow head? Who knew that those “ducks” floating on the slough were wood ducks and blue-winged teal and scaup and redhead? Is that silhouette in a tree an eagle or a hawk? 
Photography has opened up a whole new world for me in a lot of ways, but it’s really made birds something special. If we’re not racing through our days being “busy,” we’re racing down the road at 70 miles an hour. I’m tired of busy. I still drive faster than I should, but now I’m scanning the roadsides and trees and fences and power lines for birds. My camera with the big zoom lens sits in the passenger seat so I can slam on the brakes and pull over at a moment’s notice to photograph a turkey vulture or a red tailed hawk or a bald eagle.
Yellow-headed Blackbird by Lisa Johnson 
I know every slough and body of water between Lake Brophy in Douglas County to Kenney Lake in Grant County, Minnesota, where I spend most of my vacation time. I know where the yellow-headed blackbirds will be in the spring, the little creek where I can almost always photograph a great blue heron or a great egret, where I’m likely to find coot or bufflehead and where I’ve gotten good photos of white pelicans and cormorants. And in the lake where my dad’s ashes are scattered, I got my best-yet photo of a loon this summer.  
Then after I’ve doodled my way home after as many stops as it took to get photos, I can make a cup of coffee and carry it over to the computer and sit down. I can take my time browsing through my pictures, finally able to see clearly the birds I photographed. I can take my time inspecting their colors and patterns, marveling over the personalities they show the camera, get a good close look at their wings and beaks and feet. I can mark with a star the good photos, but even the crummy ones can usually show me a detail I could never have seen with my unaided eyes. I have all the time in the world to enjoy examining the birds in the images, to look them up, learn their names, and plan for the photos I’ll get “next time.” 
So when Laura talks about that joy of discovery … I’m having that experience right now. That driver in front of you who just hit the brakes and veered over onto the shoulder? Who’s snapping away with a big lens at who-knows-what out the window? That’s just a 57 year old child, experiencing elation and wonder. She’s got her hazard flashers on, at least, so just give her a smile and drive on by.


Friday, October 5, 2018

Sober Up

St. James student with Cedar Waxwing

Back in the 1970s when I was an elementary and junior high science teacher, one of my students brought to our classroom a Cedar Waxwing that had become intoxicated on berries. During its drunken reverie, it must have flown into something, because it had a sprained wing. So for several days we kept it in my classroom, which we dubbed the Ms. Erickson Detox Center. My students helped me feed it mealworms and berries, and when it was ready to be released, we took a field trip to my favorite spot in Madison, Picnic Point, where we let it go.

I did a little research about intoxication in birds at that point, though I didn’t think I’d encounter another tipsy bird in my lifetime—it seemed too bizarre and random. But not too many years later, after we’d moved to Duluth, when I was a licensed rehabber, I was brought an intoxicated Bohemian Waxwing found by the Miller Hill Mall. 

Bohemian Waxwing

This happens more often than you’d think, and we’ve been learning in recent years that some ornamental berry trees can be toxic, leading to “drunken” behavior, even without fermenting. But that is not what is happening in Duluth right now, and I suspect it’s not happening in very big numbers in Gilbert, either, despite the national news.

When birds collide with windows, they act very disoriented, usually because they have head injuries from the impact. We’ve long known in Duluth that birds hit windows in exceptional numbers during migration, because as a migration hotspot, so many birds are here in the first place. For decades I’ve been helping people find ways to make their own windows safer for birds—my book 101 Ways to Help Birds and now my webpages devoted to that include lots of strategies, and I’ve written and spoken extensively on the topic since the 80s. Glass is a killer—Daniel Klem of Muhlenberg College has spent his career studying the problem. He discovered that fully 50 percent of birds that hit glass and seem to come to eventually die from hematomas and other brain injuries. So it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Migrating birds suffer another huge problem as they pass through northland towns and cities—they get hit by cars. Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers spend a lot of time on the ground and in low shrubs during migration, especially when temperatures are low, because more insects are active lower down than at treetop level in the cold.

Palm Warbler
This year, these warblers and a host of sparrows have flooded through northern Minnesota in the past week, making it pretty much impossible for people to miss noticing them. I’ve seen lots of roadkill on Arrowhead Road and London Road. These birds came from much further north, and haven’t developed strategies for dealing with objects moving at high speed. It’s not too hard to avoid hitting them when driving 25, but as soon as we get over 30 miles per hour, we can’t avoid hitting these little birds.

Informing people about issues of fermenting berries is a good thing—knowledge is power. And a funny story about drunken birds may be more welcome right now than stories about sexual assaults by drunken college students. But the story of drunken birds in Gilbert has become completely overblown, leading to misinformation. Yesterday, one of my friends photographed five dead birds under a window at Essentia, a big medical establishment here in Duluth.



The birds were a variety of warblers—insectivores, not fruit-eaters. This happens every year—I bet this year huge numbers are dying at the Vikings Stadium. My friend took the photo because Essentia is planning a new building project, and she is trying to persuade them to use more visible glass in it. But while she was taking the picture, someone told her the birds had been drunk—she’d read about it in the paper. NO! The birds died because they were passing through and hit the glass. If the news about drunken birds leads people to take less seriously the serious issue of bird collisions with glass, that misinformation campaign will have done a grave disservice. It's time for us to sober up. 

Yellow-rumped Warbler


Thursday, October 4, 2018

Not so very drunk

Yellow-rumped Warbler

First thing Monday morning, I looked out at the birds in the back of my yard. With my very first peek, I had four sparrows in my binoculars—and they were four different species: White-throated, White-crowned, and Harris’s Sparrows, and junco. While I was still looking at them, another species flitted through—a Yellow-rumped Warbler. I was hearing lots of Blue Jays, and when I scanned, counted 23 jays in a single tray feeder just barely big enough to accommodate the crowd. There were plenty of other jays throughout the yard—more than 60 total—feeding in other feeders and on the ground, drinking from the birdbaths, and squawking from the trees. The total number of sparrows in the collection in the back of the yard was over 50. At least a dozen Yellow-rumps were about—some in my suet feeders but most on the ground and in the shrubs making their dry chips. Lovely calls drew my eyes skyward to a line of 9 Sandhill Cranes flying overhead. A Yellow-bellied Sapsucker worked my apple tree while robins and Swainson’s Thrushes fed in several berry shrubs in back. I could also hear my backyard Downy, Hairy, and Red-bellied Woodpeckers and a flicker, to say nothing of my chickadees.

Right now, at the peak of songbird migration, my backyard is a happenin’ place, but what we call a migration fallout is way more widespread than just on Peabody Street. People have been calling and messaging me for days about all the birds hitting windows and getting hit by cars.

On Tuesday, Police Chief Ty Techar of the Gilbert Minnesota police department issued a press release saying that the department had received calls about "birds that appear to be under the influence, flying into windows, cars and acting confused." I got a call from Peter Passi of the Duluth News Tribune asking about it. The Gilbert police were attributing the situation to intoxicated birds eating fermented berries, but they didn’t specify what species were involved in these problems. Robins, other thrushes, and waxwings are usually the birds found intoxicated. But that’s definitely not the issue with birds people have been calling me about, as I told Peter Passi. Yellow-rumped Warbler migration always peaks right at the end of September into early October, and this year they’re unusually abundant. I picked one up at a Subway restaurant in Duluth this weekend—it was stunned, and at first in no condition to walk or fly in a straight line, but it would have been perfectly capable of passing a breathalyzer test.

The Duluth News Tribune article took one quote from me but ignored everything else I said:
Laura Erickson, a Duluth birding expert, said waxwings, robins and thrushes often are some of the most prone to become tipsy, as they commonly feed on such berries. 
"Birds actually do get literally intoxicated when they eat berries that have started fermenting, and that does lead to drunken behavior," she said.
The article focused entirely on the drunken birds angle, starting with a funny color cartoon of a drunken bird with a sign, “Welcome to Gilbert,” and ending with Police Chief Techar joking that people didn’t need to report intoxicated birds to the police, but should call if they saw Heckle and Jeckle walking around being boisterous or playing practical jokes, Woodstock pushing Snoopy off the doghouse for no apparent reason, or a string of other funny situations.

I had a sinking feeling that drunken birds was going to be the only takeaway message even though I’ve yet to hear any actual evidence that fermented berries are even involved in this situation. Sure enough, I got a call from a Twin Cities TV news station reporter, and all he wanted to hear about was birds getting drunk. He wanted someone on the air to talk about it, and he asked her where he could get some footage of waxwings getting drunk. Then Minnesota Public Radio picked up the News Tribune’s story. On their Facebook article, they showed a dead hummingbird with a quote from me about birds eating fermented berries, implying that I was saying that’s what happened to the hummingbird. It absolutely is not!

I guess with all the talk on the news about high school and college drinking parties, it’s to be expected that birds acting a little out of the ordinary would be accused of being drunk. But even though the birds in Gilbert may indeed be intoxicated by fermented berries, I’m doubtful unless someone can confirm their species. And even then, when berry trees are close to windows or roads, birds feeding in them can be startled by a hawk and crash without even being intoxicated. But the first step in knowing for certain what’s going on isn’t to test their blood-alcohol levels, just check their ID.

Meanwhile, birds hit windows in unacceptable numbers every year during migration. But I’m afraid that important message is being lost in the fun people are having suddenly talking about drunken birds. It’s a diversion from national news, and people seem to have already forgotten one important news story. I expect there have been hundreds of birds killed at the Vikings Stadium this week. Even those of us who haven’t blacked out from too much beer since the stadium was in the news have forgotten what a hazard it is and will continue to be every single spring and fall. Migrating birds deserve safe passage through our state, but for a while now, the ones dying due to the hazards we put out there will be the butt of jokes.

You can help your backyard birds by making your windows safe. Here are some suggestions.

Vikings Poster

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

Laura Hears from the Charles M. Schulz Museum about Woodstock!



Yesterday, I received a letter from Rachel Fellman, an archivist at the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. She writes: 
Dear Laura: …We’re tidying up a collection of his fan mail from the late ‘90s, and in the process came across your witty and informative letter … speculating on Woodstock’s species. It’s particularly apropos because we are planning a[n] exhibit about Woodstock for next year.   
At this point in his career, Schulz was overwhelmed with mail and rarely answered letters – however, I wanted to ask if he did reply to you? You ask such interesting questions, and as a lover of obscure facts, I’m sure he enjoyed your ideas about Woodstock’s plumage and his distinctive flight pattern.  

Ms. Fellman included a copy of my letter, which I’d written on February 2, 1996, when I was writing my book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids.



I’d written:
Dear Mr. Schulz:   
I am writing a book for parents, grandparents, Scout leaders, naturalists, and teachers, about how to teach children about birds. My publisher … plans a September release. I emphasize the vast array of birds in the world around us, some outdoors and some closer to home, like on the comic page. Since one of my favorite birds is Woodstock, I would love to include information about him. I would deeply appreciate it if you would answer one or two of the following questions that I could quote in the book.   
What inspired you to create Woodstock? Might it have been, in part, to provide Snoopy with an outdoorsy friend to highlight Snoopy’s more urbane interests? To show how Snoopy, as America’s most genuine individualist, doesn’t interact with birds in ways that other beagles do?...   
Did Snoopy ever figure out what kind of bird Woodstock is? Last I recall, he was “thumbing” through a field guide and speculating that he might be a Ruby-crowned Kinglet, though I can’t find that strip and don’t have a clue where it might be indexed. As an ornithologist and avid birder, I’ve noted that Woodstock’s flight pattern is exactly like that of a Cedar Waxwing after eating fermented berries, his plumage rather like a Yellow Warbler’s, and his crest like a Great Curassow or a Resplendant Quetzal. I might have guessed that he was a unique hybrid of these species except that his friends look just like him. So my conclusion is that they belong to a rare and unique species thus far undescribed in the ornithological literature.   
Ornithologists classify birds primarily by analyzing mitochondrial DNA and other cellular samples from blood and other tissue, and a thorough examination of the skeleton, but I assume Woodstock doesn’t want to donate tissue samples and his skeleton is obviously still in use. There have been rare cases where a newly discovered species was named based on drawings or photographs. Since you are the only person who has actually seen Woodstock and drawn him from life, you are the only one qualified to assign him common and scientific names. Have you considered doing this?   
Woodstock (and his unique relationship with Snoopy) appeals to the child in everyone. I would deeply enjoy the opportunity to provide information of substance about him. Thank you for your help.   
Charles Schulz indeed responded to my letter. Less than two weeks later, I received this charming letter from him:
Dear Ms. Erickson: 
Your questions concerning Woodstock are difficult, especially the question “what inspired you to create Woodstock?” Comic strip inspiration happens so gradually that it’s virtually impossible to explain. One thing leads to another and something finally happens Drawing is also very important and it took me 20 years to learn to draw Woodstock so that he was a good character.    
He and Snoopy have never been able to figure out what kind of a bird he is and a lot of people forget that he was originally a girl bird – for she was Snoopy’s secretary.    
Kind regards,    
Charles Schulz. 
My letter from Charles Schulz!

Next year’s planned exhibit about Woodstock at the Charles M. Schulz Museum sounds right up my alley. I hope I can get to Santa Rosa to see it! 

** (added as a postscript) **

By the way, I did use this information in my book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids. On Page 3, in Chapter 1, "The Magic of Birds," I wrote about birds children see in everyday life.
If there's no way to determine the answer to a question, encourage kids to guess. How do you think the Nintendo company came up with the design for Mario's "Koopa-Troopas," which look like turtles but sometimes have bird wings? How might Charles Schulz have come up with the idea for Woodstock? I wondered about that, so I wrote him a letter. He responded, "Comic strip inspiration happens so gradually that it's virtually impossible to explain. One thing leads to another and something finally happens. It took me twenty years to learn to draw Woodstock so he was a good character." If not even the creator of a cartoon character understands how he got his ideas, kids obviously can use their imaginations to guess.
 In a sidebar on Page 58, in Chapter 4, "Bird Identification Starters," I wrote:
Is Woodstock a warbler? When I asked Charles Schulz what species Woodstock is, he wrote, "He and Snoopy have never been able to figure out what kind of a bird he is." Schulz reminded me that Woodstock "was originally a girl bird, for she was Snoopy's secretary."

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Susan's Favorite Bird: Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Last week I got an email from one of my closest friends, Susan Eaton, who lives in St. Louis. She and I met when we were roommates on a birding tour to Ecuador back in 2006. Since then, I’ve spent time with her in Missouri a couple of times at birding events, and in her backyard a few times looking at Eurasian Tree Sparrows, and we went to Costa Rica together this past summer.

Susan and Laura at Selva Bananita

Susan has become a world birder of the highest order, having traveled all over the place. She writes:
Laura, I've been working in my garden the last three days, today while binge-listening to For The Birds Podcasts. I am enjoying the stories about others' favorite birds.   
In the back corner of my yard where I was working a few days ago, I noticed a quiet high-pitched little whistle. I saw a Carolina Wren flirting about in some tall bushes. As I watched her, one by one, three little babies popped into view! They followed her from branch to branch. It must be a safe place for her babies because I have seen them in the same area for three days now.   
Several years ago, a friend wanted to thank me for something. As we were leaving a rehearsal, she asked me what my favorite bird was. The first one that came to mind was Carolina Wren. She painted a beautiful picture of a Wren for me! She had never seen one before so she had to do some research. I think she did an amazing job!   
My eBird list says I've recorded birds in 42 different countries (only part of those were dedicated bird trips), so I've seen many spectacular birds. But that feisty little Wren with the LOUD voice has to be a favorite. I know from my experience with my bird banding team that they are the species most likely to escape before we finish our processing, so they are loud, squirmy, beautiful little creatures with lovely markings. Carolina Wren....my best bird ever!  
Carolina Wren painting by Carol Hassler 
I can certainly attest to the fact that Susan’s backyard is primeCarolina Wren habitat—I took some nice photos of them there last summer.

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

Carolina Wren

These splendid birds sing their loud song a lot. One captive male Carolina Wren sang nearly 3,000 times in a single day. Birds pair off at any time of the year, and once bonded, the pair stays together for life, usually remaining on their territory year-round, and foraging and moving around the territory together.

Paired tropical wrens in the same genus as the Carolina Wren tend to sing duets, with the male and female both active singers. Unlike them, only male Carolina Wrens sing. Carolina Wrens are bigger than House Wrens, but their tea-kettle tea-kettle song has an extraordinary ringing quality and carries really far, belying the size of the bird.

Climate change seems to have expanded the Carolina Wren range northward. Once they become independent, Carolina Wren young scatter in any direction. Those that head north can thrive, even north of the species’ range, until a severe winter knocks them out.

Although wrens are almost exclusively insectivores, Carolina Wrens survive on suet, too. This kind of adaptability helps them make it through winters if they aren’t too severe. As Susan’s yard attests, they are superbly adapted to St. Louis County, Missouri. Although we have several records of individuals wandering into St. Louis County, Minnesota, it takes two to tango, so I suspect Carolina Wrens won’t be breeding up here regularly for quite some time. So I’ll just have to keep visiting Susan in her neck of the woods to see this excellent favorite bird.

Monday, September 3, 2018

How are this year's fires affecting nighthawks?

Common Nighthawk

As August melts into September, or sloshes, as it did this year, the late afternoon migration of Common Nighthawks over my neighborhood ebbs away. When we first moved to Duluth in 1981, nighthawk migration along the North Shore of Lake Superior, flowing right over my neighborhood, was a magically impressive and predictable annual event. Walking with my boys the few blocks from our house to Lakeside Presbyterian Church for Cub Scout meetings, we’d count hundreds or even thousands of nighthawks in the sky above us, even as houses and neighborhood trees obstructed our view in most directions. Counting more systematically, on August 26, 1990, Mike Hendrickson counted 43,690 nighthawks in just 2 ½ hours from the Lakewood Pumping Station. 

Laura at Hawk Ridge in early 90s
Here I am counting raptors at Hawk Ridge in the 1990. I don't remember if nighthawks were flying that day, but I was assisted by Fred, my education bird (standing at front of open carrier) and Annie, a young bird I was rehabbing. Fred would call rit rit rit and retreat to the back of the carrier whenever a Peregrine or Red-tail flew over.
We still get days with counts of well over a thousand, sometimes into five figures, but those big days are far fewer, and the maximum counts much smaller, than decades ago. Nighthawks used to nest on flat rooftops, but urban populations have dwindled and disappeared just about everywhere because of changes in rooftop construction and increasing urban populations of gulls and crows. But nighthawks are declining outside of towns and cities, too. As with Purple Martins and Chimney Swifts, declining numbers of flying insects are the root cause.

Sad as declining numbers are, we still do get to enjoy nighthawk flights from mid-August through the first week in September. On days when dragonflies float in the air everywhere, nighthawks about to embark on a flight start hunting voraciously by mid-afternoon. When my kids were little, I always brought binoculars to their soccer games to watch the nighthawks darting in the sky. The year Tommy and his best friend Max were five and started playing soccer, it was funny watching all the little kids on the field with no clue what to do—more than once a kid scored a goal for the other team. I remember thinking the kids on the field moved about with the same apparent randomness as the nighthawks above them, darting this way and that, only the birds were chasing flying insects rather than soccer balls.

As afternoon proceeds into early evening, those feeding flocks start rising in the sky, still feeding, but now starting to take on a more directional flight. By the time they can’t see well enough to catch many insects in the night sky, they’re up high enough to cover greater distances in a night flight. 

On August 21, I received an email from a listener named Will Bomier, who wrote: 

Over the weekend my wife and were sitting on the patio at our house in Mahtowa, watching/enjoying the Common Nighthawk Migration.  It's an event we certainly enjoy and use it to mark the passing of another summer.  This year we noticed that it was difficult to see many of the birds that were flying higher in the sky, because the smoke from the Canadian Wildfires seemed to reflect the sunlight and make it too bright for good viewing.  We also noticed that many of the birds were flying lower than what we've observed in the past.   
That got us to thinking....how do these historic fires impact migrants?  Surely when the sky is obscured by smoke and habitat is on fire, this must have some impact and seems like another way in which we humans are creating additional struggles for already struggling populations of wild birds.  Even fires that are burning 1,000's of miles away can have an impact on birds passing in our backyard.   
Anyway, I wanted to pass my thoughts along....as it seemed like they should be shared.  Enjoy the end of the summer and the passing of our friends of flight!   

Thanks to Will, I started researching this interesting question. Obviously, summer fires kill any nestlings or chicks that can’t fly out of harm’s way. Most conservation biologists, looking at populations rather than individuals, minimize the importance of this, because fire has always been important in habitat cycles and species living in fire-prone areas have evolved to deal with fire, but as fire seasons start earlier and earlier in summer with climate change, the implications for bird reproduction need to be taken more into account. And as fires cover more and more areas year after year, again due to climate change, habitat losses do become important. Nighthawks often nest in tracts that had been burned over the previous year, but repeated fires make this increasingly difficult.

The flames themselves aren’t the only danger to birds. On several days in August here in Duluth, the sky was hazy and we could actually smell smoke from fires a couple of thousand miles away in British Columbia, and smoke from California fires made it all the way to the East Coast this summer, compromising our air quality. At such a distance, this smoke was detectable but not nearly as dangerous as closer to the fire. Air quality in Seattle on some days this summer was worse than the most polluted cities in China. That air quality obviously impacted wild birds with no escape into the more filtered atmosphere of air-conditioned buildings. 

Olivia Sanderfoot, a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow at the University of Washington Seattle, is studying how air pollution affects birds. She was quoted in an article for Audubon last year, “We do know that exposure to particulate matter, which of course is of great concern for human health, can affect birds as well.” She noted that veterinarians and poultry scientists who study captive birds have found that smoke can damage lung tissue and leave the animals susceptible to potentially lethal respiratory infections, but how that plays out in the wild is largely unknown. 

Sanderfoot’s current research aims to track changes in bird populations and diversity after exposure to smoke from large wildfires. Thick smoke may have contributed to the deaths of 50 adult White Ibises during a 1999 fire in the Everglades, as she reported in a recent paper. And some low-flying species might succumb to smoke inhalation or exhaustion before they can escape forest fires, according to the Alberta Institute for Wildlife Conservation.

Tracking nighthawks is way trickier than flocks of larger, colonial species—it’ll be many, many years, if ever, before we can accurately tease out the ways fire specifically affects them. But this splendid bird, already facing so many problems thanks to us humans, now is almost certainly facing ever worse problems thanks to climate change. Attention must be paid.

Common Nighthawk

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Fiftieth Anniversary

Canada Goose

Today is the 50th anniversary of Russ’s and my first date. Our courtship was rather Canada Goose-like, in that we were still dependent young in high school when we started dating. Every fall, Canada Goose families join other families in large flocks of related and unrelated birds, and rather like high school, the young start noticing one another and little by little pair off, sometimes hanging out for a bit before breaking that relationship off and starting a new one. When they do finally make a permanent selection, they stick together through thick and thin, year-round. Goose marriages virtually always last as long as both birds survive, though considering that the oldest Canada Goose known to science lived only 33 years and 3 months, the chance of two birds selecting each other when young and each one living over half a century to make it to their golden anniversary is pretty remote. 



The one wild bird known to be even older than me, Wisdom the Laysan Albatross, has had at least two different mates just since 2011 or so, when a curious Chandler Robbins started going back through the non-computerized banding data, painstakingly tracing back the band numbers to her original banding in 1956. Her mate wasn’t banded in 1956, nor at any other point until she got so much international attention as the world’s oldest known wild bird, so we can’t know whether any of her relationships have lasted as long as Russ’s and mine. 

I wasn’t a birder in 1968 when Russ and I first went out. I didn’t become one until almost three years after we got married—Russ told his mom to give me binoculars and a field guide for Christmas in 1974. We went up to Port Wing, Wisconsin, for a few days before classes started in 1975—my first time ever birding up here—and I added lots of lifers and spent lots of time studying fall warblers for the first time. So I always associate the end of August and Labor Day weekend with big warbler migrations. And yesterday was one of those days. I was busy and had to spend most of the day indoors, but when I did get out for a few minutes with my new camera lens, I had a field day. The warblers were so thick, and so close, that I actually had to step back several times to be able to focus and to get a whole bird in the frame. 

The most abundant species was the American Redstart.

American Redstart

American Redstart

The most cooperative for photos was the Chestnut-sided Warbler.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Chestnut-sided Warbler

One Magnolia Warbler spent an inordinate amount of time in my neighbor’s tamarack tree, peeking out for several photos.

Magnolia Warbler

Magnolia Warbler

And a Cape May Warbler in my own front yard spruce tree gave me lots of photos from my porch—that one was probably a young female, very beautiful in a subtle, quiet way, missing all the gaudy field marks that so distinguish spring males. 

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Today, to celebrate our anniversary, Russ and I will be driving up the shore for a few hikes. I’ll be more focused on him than on migration, but I’ll certainly have my binoculars and probably my camera, just in case. I don’t know if the warblers will be as thick as yesterday—migration is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet, just like two high school kids sharing their very first good-night kiss. 

Laura and Russ, 1974

Monday, August 27, 2018

Book Review: The Feather Thief


Back on November 30 last year, I received an email from the publicity department at Viking Books, asking if I might be interested in reviewing an upcoming book. The book sounded amazing: titled The Feather Thief, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. I quickly said yes—the book was about a horrible theft of rare specimens from one of the largest, most important bird collections in the world, the British Museum of Natural History’s Tring Museum. I expected the book to be fascinating to me, mainly because I love natural history museums. I am not a museum collector except in having sent window-killed birds and one poor mangled Ivory Gull to museums, but I have often found myself fretting and fuming about the careless way people without a background in collections dismiss the importance and priceless value of the specimens. So the book sounded right up my alley, but I figured it would be of rather narrow interest to people not so enamored of museums and study skins. 

I devoured the book, which I loved, and even almost snagged an interview with the author, but the people at Viking wanted to hold off until closer to the April release date. By then, I was swamped with my spring speaking gigs, my mother-in-law broke her hip, and I got busy with my daughter's wedding, and I completely dropped the ball. Meanwhile, I was scooped by lots of other news media, because the book is truly remarkable. Indeed, This American Life did not just a segment but an entire program about it, which is how I suddenly remembered I was supposed to review it. I bought a published copy and read the book again. And it was even better than I remembered.

But the moment I had opened that advance copy last year, I realized I was in the hands of a master. And Kirk Wallace Johnson is, indeed, a master—a master writer, a master reporter, and a master human being. His previous book, To Be a Friend Is Fatal: The Fight to Save the Iraqis America Left Behind, was about his desperate work trying to save the lives of Iraqis who’d provided the US with translating and other services during our invasion. Johnson had been a coordinator of the reconstruction of the Iraqi city of Fallujah for the US Agency for International Development. He was almost killed in a horrifying PTSD nightmare when he sleepwalked out of a window; after his recovery he became the founder of the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Allies. That was heartbreaking, grueling work, seldom getting anywhere. When Johnson needed respite, he took up fly-fishing. And that is how in 2011 he learned about the break-in at the Tring Museum. His fishing guide mentioned the story of Edwin Rist, a 20-year-old American flautist and music student at London’s Royal Academy of Music who had recently been convicted of breaking into the Tring Museum and stealing 299 of the world’s rarest bird specimens for tying flies for salmon. Johnson was transfixed by the story, and became obsessed with finding out what happened to the unrecovered plunder. 

What makes The Feather Thief remarkable isn’t simply the author’s quest to learn more about Rist’s theft. He also probes in dramatic and well-researched detail just why a suitcase full of dead birds was so valuable, both in terms of the fly fishing black market and, in a more important though less tangible way, because of the great lengths collectors went to gather the birds from around the world and protect their stuffed remains, and the extraordinary scientific value of those dead birds. Indeed, the birds at the Tring Museum had been moved there in the first place from the British Museum of Natural History’s main London building, at great risk to the curators’ very lives, during World War II to protect them from Hitler’s bombings. Johnson is not a birder, but he developed the same visceral sense of the value of the birds from his research that I feel. 

But perhaps the main thing that makes this book remarkable and uniquely wonderful is how Johnson goes above and beyond reporting about a theft and how the police found the thief to becoming an actual crime investigator himself, because he so wanted to see some form of justice done to the perpetrator and the fly-fishermen who made the theft so lucrative. He became particularly obsessed after learning that a great many of the stolen birds had disappeared, and no one else was looking for them. It was Johnson himself who shamed some fly-fishermen into returning stolen goods to the Tring, and also Johnson who tracked down some of the stolen specimens years after the case was closed. Normally I don’t like an author to inject himself into a news story except in very small doses at most, but Johnson is an essential part of this story, and he’s such an engaging writer that the book held me riveted from start to finish. In ranking The Feather Thief on a scale of one to ten, I’m cranking this one up to eleven.

P.S. Back on December 15, I mentioned to the publicity department that the book had a tiny error—an anachronism that the author, about the age of my own kids, wouldn't have picked up on but a 66-year-old woman was exactly the kind who would notice. I wrote: 
If there's time to make corrections, on page 53 he makes reference to "'parrot sausages,' in which live birds had their beaks taped shut before being stuffed into women's pantyhose..."  
The time being referenced in the paragraphs around this are the 1920s and 30s, well before pantyhose made their debut. He'd be wiser to reference "women's hosiery."
When I read the published version, they'd made that change!

P.P.S. I'm not supposed to get political on the version of my podcast that is aired on radio stations, especially if it's not specific to birds. But Johnson's memoir about his experiences in Iraq and then trying to help those refugees who were targeted in their own country specifically for helping our country is essential reading for anyone who wants an accurate look at this shameful and on-going chapter of our nation's recent and current history.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Bird Photography

Laura's new binoculars!

When I started birding in 1975, my only optical equipment was a pair of Bushnell 7x50 binoculars. The next year, I got a Bushnell Spacemaster spotting scope. Russ and I were college students and there was no way we could afford film and developing, much less a long lens, for me to photograph birds. I was entirely satisfied watching birds without capturing them on film.

Me looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler
Here I am in 1976, looking at my lifer Kirtland's Warbler, perfectly happy to not get a photo of the bird. Russ took this photo of me--our camera had too short of a lens to get a picture of the bird itself. 
Kirtland's Warbler
Here is a Kirtland's Warbler I photographed in 2011. By this time I was more likely to be carrying a camera than binoculars!

I got my first digital camera in 2000. It had two or three megapixels and a bit of a zoom. I took a few photos of close birds in Costa Rica and when visiting my aunt in Florida, but used the camera mainly for people and scenery, and more often than not, left it home when I was birding.

Katie
I took this photo in Costa Rica in 2001. Very few photos of birds, but quite a few of my daughter Katie!
In 2005, when I first started writing a blog, I figured out how to take photos with a small digital camera through a good spotting scope. That is called digiscoping, and suddenly I was getting some pretty good photos of some of my favorite birds.

Le Conte's Sparrow
I digiscoped this Le Conte's Sparrow in June 2005, using a Canon PowerShot SD 500 and my Zeiss spotting scope. It's still one of my favorite photos ever. 
As the cameras in smart phones improved and point-and-shoot digital cameras got better, suddenly a whole generation of birders was learning to identify the birds in their photos rather than scrutinizing them in the field. Soon even us old-school birders were documenting rare sightings with photos, and with Facebook, Twitter, and especially eBird, other birders started hearing about rare sightings while the person who discovered the bird was still right there, watching it. Now documentation almost always requires a photo and sometimes a sound recording rather than painstakingly written descriptions.

Ivory Gull
Birders looking at this Ivory Gull in Duluth in 2016 spent more time photographing it than looking at it with binoculars. 

I’ve adapted with the times. In January 2009, when I was working at the Cornell Lab, I bought a good DSLR camera and a 100-400 mm lens. Now if I have to leave some of my optical equipment at home, it’s more often my binoculars than my camera, which I take everywhere.

I consider myself a birdwatcher who takes pictures rather than a nature photographer. It’s not that I don’t take myself seriously enough because I’m a woman, though I do think most people, male and female alike, take ourselves way too seriously. In this case, though, it’s that I invest my time and effort into learning more about birds rather than the principles of photography. Many of my photos have been published in magazines, and National Geographic even included one in my Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
I photographed this Yellow-rumped Warbler with a small Canon point-and-shoot camera in 2006. This is the photo National Geographic used in my Pocket Guide to the Birds of North America.
My friends who consider themselves “real” photographers publish so many more images of such enormously high quality, and are so much more consistently skilled than I, that I leave the real photographic expertise to them, and take my own identity from my own area of expertise.

Ironically, sometimes people ask me to teach photography workshops, though I honestly have only one piece of advice for people who want to take bird photos: No matter how cheap or expensive your equipment may be, get out there and take as many bird photos as you can. Little by little, you’ll improve, and from the very start will get a few splendid photos.

I pretty quickly figured out that when a bird is backlit, it’s important to overexpose it.

Common Nighthawk
I over-exposed this flying nighthawk by 1 1/3 stops.

It took way longer for me to figure out that when a bird is lurking in dark shadows, it’s important to underexpose it.

Andean Cock-of the-rock
This Andean Cock-of-the-Rock was deep in a dark ravine. I underexposed the photo by 2/3 stop. 

After years of using Photoshop and Lightroom, I’ve also grown better at tweaking my photos without over-tweaking them. But I’ve never learned photography systematically, so wouldn’t have a clue how to teach it the way I do it, by trial and error and just taking a whole lot of photos so I’ll have a little wheat here and there in the chaff.

Over the years, I’m finding that my percentage of good photos is improving, but I have the right kind of personality for my lackadaisical approach, in that I don’t get frustrated or upset when my photos turn out awful. People who put in the time and effort to learn how to take consistently good photos are the “real” photographers. I’m still just a birder who takes pictures. Real photographers get frustrated when their pictures don’t turn out, and when they take what looks like a genuinely perfect shot, they pay closest attention to what they could have done even better. Me—when I take even a marginally good shot, I’m overwhelmed with delight.

I’ll never be able to make a living as a photographer, but I probably derive at least as much fun and joy from my photos as most professional photographers do. My approach to bird photography is clearly not better on any objective scale, but it’s exactly the right way for me.

Russ and Laura
Russ doesn't consider himself a birder, but he's the one with the binoculars!