Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bird Beer!

My daughter gave me both nine wonderful birthday presents (belated because she just got home from NYC for the holidays) and a game which I had to play in order to get each of them. Match each bird with the city where the brewery is.

Last night she and I drank the Moa. It was exceptional!!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Fences and Owls

(Today's For the Birds transcript)
Last week I got a sad email from Mary-Ellen Holmes, who wrote from her farm south of Superior, Wisconsin, “This morning about 5:30, I went to check my horses. Unfortunately what I found was an owl attached to my electric fence. My fence is hot wire, cold wire, hot wire—all about a foot apart. It looks as if he was coming in for a mouse. His talons are outstretched and his wings are up and forward as if about to pounce. He made a direct hit with his feet on the bottom wire and grounded himself on the middle wire with his wings. It looks as if it was instantaneous as he appears to be in mid-flight. It was -21F at my house this morning so he is frozen solid…beautiful and perfect. This is such a freak accident. I have never seen anything even remotely like this. I feel terrible. But I have no idea how I could have foreseen this.” Mary-Ellen added, “I feel this death is a real loss. I try to live as closely and respectfully with the natural world as possible.”
Mary-Ellen’s fence was necessary, so this tragic loss couldn’t be helped. Fences kill millions of birds a year. The very most vulnerable species include owls and prairie grouse such as Sharp-tailed Grouse and Greater and Lesser Prairie-Chickens, because these birds fly low across open spaces. Owls have trouble seeing fences in the darkness. Prairie grouse probably do see but ignore fences. In their world, anything the width of grasses is soft and simply bends out of the way when they walk or fly through it, so they never suspect that anything so unyielding as wire exists until it’s too late.

In the early 90s, some Minnesota birders and I were headed to Arizona’s famous Madera Canyon for some early morning birding when we came upon a Barn Owl that was ensnared by a barbed wire fence. It had apparently been carrying a packrat to its nest when its dangling leg hit a barb, which ripped a three-inch tear in the skin and hooked firmly into it. The bird dangled upside down, both legs bloody and slashed up by the time we arrived on the scene. The temperature was already above 80, and the owl was starting to go into shock. Had we not discovered it until we were headed back for breakfast, it would almost certainly have been dead. Fortunately, I had enough experience as a rehabber to help it until the nearest veterinary clinic opened that morning. We left a message on their answering machine, and by the time we got there, a wildlife rehabber was on the scene. The bird needed quite a few stitches on both legs, and steroids and antibiotics. The rehabber kept it for four or five days, until it made a complete recovery. They released it exactly where we’d found it. In all likelihood, it immediately returned to its family.

This weekend, the Duluth News-Tribune reported that Kathy Paquette of West Duluth had found a Northern Saw-whet Owl ensnared in the mesh fence surrounding her garden. Fortunately, she found it while it was still doing well, so she untangled it and brought it to an area rehabber. This bird was held for observation overnight, and released at Paquette’s place the next day. The paper quoted her, “Oh, my god,” she said. “That was a dream come true for me. I love animals. I like to save animals… I was in tears, I was so happy I found him before he was dead.” I’m sure Mary-Ellen Holmes dearly wishes she could have saved the beautiful Great Horned Owl that had been electrocuted. Sad as its death was, at least this poor bird died instantly. Its body will be donated to a nature center for education, and Mary-Ellen said I could use photos of it in my own programs. There’s not much we can do about necessary fencing. But after fences have served their purpose and land use changes, old fencing should be removed. If photos of Mary-Ellen’s bird jolt even a few people take down unnecessary fences, the bird will not have died in vain.

Good fences do not make good neighbors, at least not for birds. Fortunately, good people do.

(Fence wire is still partly attached to this poor Barn Owl. I took this photo on August 6 at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Alabama. The bird was en route to a rehab clinic.)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Tapeworm Makes the Big Time

(Today's For the Birds script)

Back when I was rehabbing injured birds, I specialized in the care of Common Nighthawks. They were far more abundant in the 1980s and early 90s than they are now, and frequently were struck by cars or collided with transmission lines and guy wires. Of the dozens of nighthawks I cared for, a few had tapeworms. These intestinal parasites didn’t seem to weaken the birds—successful parasites often cause no ill effects—but I was fascinated. The perfectly rectangular, pearly cestode fragments glistened in a bird’s droppings. And in 1994, when humor columnist Dave Barry mentioned a factoid about duck tapeworms in a blurb he wrote for my first book, I was so grateful that I sent him a tapeworm in a tiny vial of alcohol, inside a velvet jewelry box. He sent me a postcard saying “Thanks. It was delicious,” and signed, Dave “Nighthawk” Barry.
Months later, when I was working on the computer, my son tapped me on the shoulder. I took off my headphones and he said, “Mom, there’s a man on the phone and he says he’s Dave Barry.”
Sure enough, Dave Barry was on the phone, wanting to know more about this particular tapeworm and the bird it came from, for his 1994 Holiday Gift Guide. And the following November, there was a photograph of the little tapeworm in its vial in newspapers all over the world. Dave Barry wrote:
Bird Tapeworm
This is the perfect gift for the person--such as your immediate supervisor--to whom you would really like to give an intestinal parasite.
This is an actual tapeworm. It came from a bird, and it was sent in for reasons that we still do not totally comprehend by Laura Erickson, who wrote a book entitled For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide (published by Pfeifer-Hamilton). This book contains a lot of amazing information about birds, including the fact that they get tapeworms. In fact, according to Erickson's book, a single duck can contain as many as 1,600 tapeworms, which explains why ducks always seem so cranky.
Erickson told us that the tapeworm she sent us came from a nighthawk named Bullwinkle. She didn't tell us the tapeworm's name, so we've been calling it Roger. Roger is only about the size of a grain of rice, but he has a lot of personality considering that he's dead and floating around in some kind of chemical solution. We talk to him a lot about things that are on our mind.
"Roger," we say, "Can you believe some guy wants $100 million a year just to play basketball?"
Roger doesn't say much--he's not a big sports fan--but he's a good listener, which is more than you can say for a lot of people. Plus you can put Roger in your pocket and carry him anywhere, which means that not only do you always have company, but you also have protection against assault by violent criminals. ("Get back! I have a tapeworm!")
Unfortunately, nighthawk tapeworms are not available in stores. If you want one for yourself or that special someone on your holiday gift list, you'll have to use the technique that Erickson used to obtain Roger: "You sit around and wait for the nighthawk to go to the bathroom."
You will do this if you really care.”

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Another Dave Barry story, about tapeworms.

During my 25-week countdown to the 25th anniversary of For the Birds, I’m reminiscing. Last time I talked about writing to humor writer Dave Barry after a Barred Owl dropped down someone’s chimney and caused a lot of damage that was not covered by the people’s homeowner’s insurance policy. That happened sometime in the late 1980s, and the postcard I got back from Dave Barry was one of my most prized possessions.
Then, in 1993 my first book, “For the Birds,” came out. The publisher, Pfeifer-Hamilton, was extremely good at marketing, and though marketing is not part of my own skill set, I was pretty cooperative, and quite a few top ornithologists wrote really nice blurbs for it. But Pfeifer-Hamilton’s marketing department wanted someone famous outside the birding world, not Chandler Robbins, Frank Gill, or Joe Grzybowski. They kept pressing me, insisting that I must know someone famous, and finally I blurted out that I’d once gotten a postcard from Dave Barry. They seized on that, and were going to ask him for a blurb for my book as one of my quote “correspondents.” I already knew that he had a policy of not writing blurbs for books, much less bird books, so I told them I’d write to him myself. The whole thing felt awkward and weird, but I finally composed a letter explaining what had happened and how I knew he didn’t write blurbs and asked him to just donate the book to his son’s school library. I thought that would be the end of it.
But less than a week later, what should appear in my mailbox but a blurb about my book, from Dave Barry! He wrote, “This book is invaluable. For example, it states that as many as 1,600 tapeworms have been found in a single duck. This is the kind of information I use every day.—Dave Barry.”
My publishers were elated, and I was in heaven. I needed to think about some way to thank him—something more than just a simple letter seemed in order. I was rehabbing birds at the time, and just happened to have a nighthawk who had tapeworms, so I cleaned one off, put it in a tiny vial of alcohol, placed it in a velvet jewelry box, and sent it to him. He quickly sent me back another postcard saying, “Thanks. It was delicious. —Dave ‘Nighthawk’ Barry.”

I was thrilled beyond measure.
Not long after that, my publishers called and asked me to go to the ABA convention in Los Angeles. This was thrilling—I felt like a jet-setting author—and even after I discovered that for them, ABA did not stand for American Birding Association but, rather, the American Booksellers Association, it was still exciting. All the authors were expected to do book signings. Dave Barry was so popular that they gave out tickets for his, setting the limit at 500 people. The first thing I did the moment I registered was to get one of those tickets.
The line at my own book signing never had more than 10 people, but Dave Barry’s stretched down the hall almost to the doors of the convention center. It moved fast. He just signed a book and handed it to the next person in a robotic rhythm. My heart was beating fast when I got to the head of the line. I’d wanted to say something pithy when it was my turn, but he was too busy for that, so I just smiled at him. But as he handed me the book, he noticed my nametag and stood up saying, “You’re the lady who sent me the tapeworm!” Of course, the next moment he was back in his chair signing “Dave Barry” and handing the next person a book, but to have one moment of recognition by Dave Barry was one of the coolest things that had ever happened to me. And the best tapeworm story was yet to come.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Homeowners Insurance


Barred Owl
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
In another program recounting 25 years of "For the Birds," I talked about my first encounter with humor writer Dave Barry today on For the Birds. Here's the script:

In the late 1980s, I got a call from friends of mine who lived north of Duluth in a big house in the woods. The biggest room was built as a sort of dormitory for a logging crew, and was prohibitively expensive to heat, so they’d close it off for most of the winter. That winter they started noticing that their two dogs were spending a lot of time at the door of the closed off room, so they finally went into it to investigate, and what to their wondering eyes should appear but a Barred Owl who had dropped down the chimney and been trapped in the room for apparently several days, pooping all over their walls, furniture, and rugs. The bird had perched atop several of their expensive art prints, leaving long streaks of slimy, acidic whitewash along the frames and glass, ruining the finish on the frames and in a couple of cases seeping between the frame and glass, wicking up onto the matting and actual prints. The bird had knocked expensive bric-a-brac off their fireplace mantel and shelves, messed all over their sofa and chairs, and even slashed through some of the upholstery with its talons. All in all, it had done an impressive amount of damage for a bird that weighs barely 2 pounds.
My friends, being civilized people not bent on revenge, captured the bird and safely released it outdoors, and then attended to the mess. They got estimates from professional cleaners for things they didn’t know how to begin to deal with, searched out their receipts for items damaged beyond repair, and brought all the documentation of their losses to their insurance agent. That’s when they got an even more distressing surprise—he told them that their homeowner’s policy doesn’t cover wildlife damage.
I looked at our own policy and, sure enough, wildlife damage is indeed excluded. So I called a few insurance salesmen asking about this, and they confirmed that standard homeowner’s policies do indeed exclude wildlife damage. I asked about the cases, particularly common in the 1800s before good building codes, when House Sparrows often picked up smoldering cigarette and cigar butts to incorporate into their nests, setting houses afire. The agents assured me that fire damage is always covered. Then I asked about a situation that happens fairly frequently up here, when Ruffed Grouse collide with a window, breaking the glass and sometimes causing damage indoors. Nope, that’s not covered by standard policies unless glass breakage is specifically added. I asked what happens when a kid throws a rock into a window, causing almost identical damage. That is covered, as vandalism. So what would happen, I asked, if a kid threw a Ruffed Grouse through the window? Every one of the agents laughed at the question, but none knew the answer, so they referred me to a couple of insurance adjustors. I asked them the same series of questions, and neither of them laughed—they both instantly asked, “Why do you want to know?”
So I wrote to Dave Barry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning humor writer, asking him to investigate the situation. He sent me back a postcard saying that his question was, “Is it covered if you shoot an insurance adjustor and he bleeds on your furniture?”
That postcard started a fairly long and always funny correspondence with Dave Barry; even now the National Outdoor Book Award website calls me “Dave Barry’s tapeworm advisor.” Next time I’ll share more stories about how that came about.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

What if they gave an airport screening and nobody came?

One of my friends recently set off the metal detector alarm at an airport, subjecting her to TSA’s new pat down procedures. The TSA agent handled my friend’s breasts, buttocks, and genitals through her clothing, and put her fingers into my friend’s trousers. This new regime does not involve a hand-held metal detector, so after the pat down, the agent sent her on without looking for or finding the metal that triggered the alarm in the first place—her artificial knees.

The hands of TSA screeners do not belong on parts of our bodies that would be off-limits to anyone but a doctor or someone with whom we’d at least enjoyed dinner and a movie. We empower our children to say no to “bad touches.” What lesson do we give them when we make exceptions for TSA employees so unprofessional and immature that they've been known to ridicule one another’s body scans?

New full-body x-ray scanners probe us with radiation to produce detailed photos of our naked bodies. I’ve lost too many family members to cancer to submit myself to unnecessary radiation. Yes, flying itself subjects us to radiation, and when I assent to medical or dental x-rays I’m also subjected to radiation. But radiation’s effects are cumulative, like buying lottery tickets. I will accept the risk when it provides offsetting health benefits or a lovely trip in the sky. Flying is no longer a lovely experience, and I will not submit to either pat down assaults or “porno scans” for nothing more than security theater. I’m done with air travel.

We Americans are subjecting ourselves to governmental invasions of personal privacy and freedom comparable to what Soviet citizens endured in the 1950s. Totalitarianism by any other name still stinks.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Hooray! The one plot element I hated in the book was MUCH improved in the movie. Do not go to this link unless you don't mind a major movie spoiler. But they fixed this part much the way I suggested here. I feel SO vindicated!!!

Thursday, November 18, 2010

For the Birds Retrospective Part I

Today I start a 25-week countdown until May 12, 2012, the 25th anniversary of the first “For the Birds” program. Over the past quarter century, For the Birds has had quite a few brushes with great people. In 1986, Garry Trudeau killed off Doonesbury’s one bird-watching character, Richard Davenport, husband of Lacey Davenport. Dick was in Yosemite when he saw a Bachman’s Warbler—a bird so rare that most ornithologists believe it’s been extinct since the 1960s or so. The Doonesbury character was photographing his thrilling sighting when he suffered a heart attack and died on the spot. His last word as he clicked the camera shutter was “immortality.”

I wrote to Garry Trudeau a few weeks later to ask when Lacey was going to take the film out of his camera and get it developed—even a cartoon photo of a possibly extinct bird would be a cool thing. I also asked him for an interview. I got a nice letter back, but Mr. Trudeau didn’t have time for an interview. None of his cartoon strip characters ever did get that film developed, and I hardly ever talk to anyone who even remembers Richard Davenport, so the character’s dying wish for immortality turned out to be sad and ironic. See the "Dick Davenport, R.I.P."  entire series here.

I wrote to Charles Schulz in the late 80s, asking what species Woodstock was. In one series of strips, Snoopy and Woodstock were leafing through a field guide trying to figure it out—I just remember the one where they were guessing he was a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Schulz said he never settled on a particular species for Woodstock, but reminded me that when the little yellow bird was first introduced, she was a female serving as Snoopy’s secretary. I found this cosmically depressing—that in order for the poor bird to rise from being Snoopy’s secretary to being his friend, she had to disappear from the strip for a while and, hidden from view, undergo a sex-change operation.

My letter from Charles Schulz!

During the 1980s, Duluth’s Ring-billed Gull population exploded. Suddenly they were everywhere, and people started panicking. One Duluth city councilor even proposed (and I am not making this up) introducing wild pigs to the Duluth harbor to control the gulls by eating their eggs—too bad Alfred Hitchcock hadn’t made a movie about a town being terrorized by wild pigs, a much more plausible menace than birds. Anyway, I wrote to Roger Tory Peterson to ask about his world experiences with birds that had adapted to the urban environment and mooched for food from people. He sent back a charming letter telling me how easy it is to get Ring-billed Gulls and Laughing Gulls to eat from your hand, but that he’d also coaxed one Herring Gull to take food from his hand. He also mentioned a Brown Pelican in Venice, Florida, that would saunter into a bait shop and demand fish.

Letter from Roger Tory Peterson

For the Birds has had a long-term relationship with humor writer Dave Barry. Next week I’ll tell the story of how I became known as his tapeworm advisor.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

California Condors and DDT—in 2010!



Today's radio script drew from this report in yesterday's New York Times. The script:

When I started producing “For the Birds” in May 1986, California Condors were on the brink of extinction, with fewer than two dozen still in existence on the planet, and scientists and wildlife managers, working under authority of the Endangered Species Act, were working tirelessly to save them. It had already been five years since the last condor chick had fledged in 1981. So the US Fish and Wildlife Service approved a plan to capture every last one of them from the wild and start a captive breeding program. The last wild condor was caught on Easter Sunday in 1987. All 22 still in existence were in captivity.

Condors don’t start reproducing until they’re six years old, and females lay just one egg every two years. The birds captured in the wild had both to be restored to good health and to adjust to captive conditions in order to breed at all. Many people, including me, thought the captive breeding program was doomed from the start, but the hard work of the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo finally paid off. Condors have been being released in California since 1991, and in the Grand Canyon area of Arizona since 1996. Lead continues to be a serious danger for them in California, so in 2008, the Ridley-Tree Condor Preservation Act went into effect, requiring hunters within the condor’s range in California to use non-lead bullets.

People were more hopeful about condors along the California coast. These birds feed mostly on carcasses of marine mammals that wash ashore, so scientists expected these condors to recover more quickly than the inland birds. But although the adult birds appear to be doing well, when they nest, their eggs have exceptionally thin shells, exactly like eggs of eagles and other fish-eating birds when DDT was abundant in the environment. Condor eggs in inland areas have normal shells. The Ventana Wildlife Society discovered a large DDT hot spot in sediments off the Southern California coast, near a breeding ground for California sea lions. The DDT polluting this area originated with the Montrose Chemical Corporation, which 50 years ago was the world’s largest producer of DDT. During the 1950s and ’60s, Montrose discharged its untreated DDT waste directly into the Los Angeles County Sanitation District’s sewer system. An estimated 1,700 tons of DDT settled onto the seabed, where it continues to contaminate Pacific Coast waters. The E.P.A. has declared the area a Superfund site and developed a plan to cover the most contaminated parts with a cap of sand and silt in 2012.

In recent years, a large number of scientifically challenged politicians and corporate mouthpieces have been whining about the banning of DDT so long ago. People who have analyzed blood samples stored in medical research facilities during the 50s and 60s recently learned that DDT levels in the blood of pregnant women were directly correlated with premature births and miscarriages. And even back in the 60s, scientists were discovering DDT passing through to babies through both cows and mother’s milk. Almost 40 years after this dangerous pesticide was banned, it’s still in the environment, still causing egregious harm to wildlife and possibly to humans eating coastal fish. When I started producing For the Birds in 1986, I thought that within a decade or so, DDT would be nothing more than a distant memory and we’d stay on top of other environmental assaults. I was wrong in my pessimism about the condor reintroduction project, but I was also wrong in my optimism about sensible environmental legislation. I guess some people will still be lusting for a quick buck at the expense of wildlife and other human beings long after condors have disappeared into the mists of time.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Great birthday, or the greatest birthday?

Several months ago, Russ bought us tickets to see Jeff Daniels in concert tonight. He is great--warm and funny. Everyone in the crowd was laughing hysterically at some of his songs, and you could have heard a pin drop during the tender and sweet numbers.

After the concert, I talked to him! First off, no, he's not a birder, doesn't have a favorite bird at all, and really doesn't notice birds except geese who "shit everywhere." Oh, well.

I keep track of my favorite Great Movie Moments"--single moments, less than 2 seconds, that have so much resonance that they stay with me. The Jeff Daniels Great Movie Moment is in Speed just before he's blown to smithereens. He has this perfect expression when he realizes the place is booby-trapped--he manages to capture a lifetime of regrets and joys with an unmouthed "Oh, shit!"—all in a split second. So I told him how much I loved that moment, and he told me the story behind it!. Turns out, Roy Sheider had such a moment in Jaws when he first sees the shark. Jeff Daniels asked him how he did it, and Roy Sheider said he just had his face tense, and suddenly let it all go slack. Now I'll have to watch Speed again! (And maybe Jaws, too.) Neither movie is known for scenes with birds, but I'm sure there are a few to watch for in Jaws. But first I'm going to listen to my new Jeff Daniels CD—"Grandfather's Hat." It includes the song with the same title, which he sang tonight--one of the genuinely touching ones that had me close to sobbing. I'll pull out my old CD as well. And I'm putting his other two CDs on my "wanted" list.

Being 59 is so far pretty darned wonderful! (Even if I'm not at the Rio Grande Valley Birding Festival.)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: ONE day to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number ONE: Thanks to Simon and Garfunkel's wonderful 59th Street Bridge Song, this entire year I will be feelin' groovy.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 2 days to go!


Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 2: The Number 59 bird on my lifelist is the Yellow-billed Cuckoo. I saw my very first one of these splendid birds on June 23, 1975, The snow-white underside; the big spots on the long, long tail; the pretty, slightly decurved yellow bill. Everything about this bird was cool and funky. And then it began to call. Took my breath away!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 3 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 3: Many of my favorite actors were producing some of their best work when they were 59. Charade came out when Cary Grant was 59. Tootsie was released when Charles Durning was 59. Meet the Parents came out when Robert de Niro was 59. Alan Rickman was 59 when Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy came out. Meryl Streep was 59 while filming both It’s Complicated and Julie & Julia.

My favorite novelist, Anne Tyler, was 59 while she was writing Back When We Were Grownups. Fred Rogers was doing some of his best work in 1987, when he was 59. And my hero of all time, ornithologist Chandler Robbins, was 59 over thirty years ago--he's still going strong.

And my Grandpa had just turned 59 when he and I posed for this photo, when I was the flower girl for my Aunt Pat's wedding.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 4 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 4: I could even still be playing professional baseball, if I were Satchel Paige.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 5 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 5: 59 is just a really cool number. My car sometimes gets 59 mpg when I'm driving at 42 mph (42 of course being the answer to life, the universe, and everything).

'59 was a great year for movies: Sleeping Beauty, Some Like It Hot, North by Northwest, and The Diary of Anne Frank. I think Sleeping Beauty was the first movie I ever saw in a theater, and I was enthralled from start to finish. I'd hated the fairy tale. But Disney changed all the yucky parts--in the original story, she sleeps for 100 years, so everyone she knew and loved was dead when she wakes up, and the prince is some stranger who walks in, sees her in the bed, and just walks up and kisses her--I mean, how creepy is that??

Disney sensibly made Sleeping Beauty and the prince fall genuinely in love before she pricks her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel. And the fairies put everyone into a magical sleep so when she woke up, everything was the same as before she fell asleep. Disney also added a cool dimension to the main character, who in their version sang like a lark from sheer joy from being in the woods with all the birds and squirrels and rabbits. I was entranced. The prince fell in love with her singing before he ever saw her, and he also fell in love with her for her charming relationship with the animals. I've been graced three times in my life with perfectly wild birds alighting on my hand, making me feel like Sleeping Beauty. On two different mornings, a kinglet (one time Ruby-crowned and one time Golden-crowned) alighted for a brief, shining moment on my finger while I was birding at Picnic Point in Madison, Wisconsin. I don't think either of them noticed me--I think my finger was just another branch to alight on momentarily while searching for bugs--but it was thrilling nonetheless.

My most amazingly thrilling experience with a wild bird alighting on me was again at Picnic Point on December 3, 1977. I heard my lifer Pine Grosbeak calling from a distance that cold winter day. I whistled to him as I walked toward him, and he seemed to be coming toward me--the sound grew louder more quickly than it would have if he were staying in place as I walked. When I saw him, he stayed at the top of a tree, looking straight at me while I whistled and he continued to call back to me. I have no idea why I pulled off my glove, but I did, and held up my hand, and--I am not making this up--he alighted on my finger, looked into my eyes, and warbled a bit more. He may have stayed there for 5 seconds or 5 minutes--probably closer to the former, since I don't think I breathed at all. Then he leisurely flitted to a nearby branch and continued to whistle right at me. One of the most magical moments of my entire life. I felt just like Sleeping Beauty, only in real life.

I also loved the fairies, and their names. Flora and Fauna! Merryweather! I also loved how successfully the fairies negotiated their entire lives without knowing how to clean house or cook. Magic wands!!! The prince could never have defeated Maleficent (another GREAT name!) without these strong female characters.

Sleeping Beauty was re-released in theaters in 1970, while Russ and I were dating. He was man enough to brave ridicule by taking me to see it--we uncomfortably found ourselves standing in line with two of our older, more sophisticated friends, at one of the first multiplexes, right when Airport came out. Naturally we assumed they were there to see Airport, but at the ticket booth, where Russ and Wayne kept insisting that the other go first, it turned out they were there to see Sleeping Beauty too. Whew!

One of the finest moments in any movie ever is right after Maleficent in dragon form goes down in flames. The prince is kneeling on the cliff, staring down at the abyss, the sky still glowing orange and red. His horse Sampson softly walks up to him and makes a gentle whinny. An inspired, quiet moment of grace. We named our first car (a 1971 Pinto, so naturally he needed a horse's name) Sammy after Prince Philip's horse.

1959 was a great year for baseball, for a Cubs fan. Ernie Banks was at his peak in '59, winning (for the second year in a row) the National League's Most Valuable Player award, becoming the first shortstop in the history of the National League to win the MVP award in back to back seasons. Ernie Banks may be the only MVP player ever to win for a team that never won a pennant during his entire career.

Of course, every year and every number has its dark side. 1959 was also the year I started third grade--the year I had the meanest teacher ever. She made me write 500 times, "I will not talk in line on the way to the bathroom on the day before my birthday." (Even then I was always excited before my birthday.) My poor hand still remembers every word. And I bet I'm not the only one who remembers Mrs. B. But, on the good side, she did teach me what kind of a teacher NOT to be.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 6 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 6: I’ll have been a mother for exactly half of my life on September 8 during the year that I’m 59, because I produced this young man on October 10, 1981. Seems like a lifetime ago! Oh--because it was!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 7 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 7: I'll be in my prime. And 59 isn't just any prime number. With 61, it's a twin prime. It's also an irregular prime, a safe prime, and (in the mathematical branch of moonshine theory) a supersingular prime. It's also an Eisenstein prime and a Pillai prime. It's also a highly cototient number.

Yep--not only will I be in my prime the whole year I'm 59. I'll also be having a year of sublime numerical geekiness.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 8 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:


Number 8: 1. In the 1970s, women earned only 59 cents for every dollar men earned. Things are looking up.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 9 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 9. 59 is the highest number on a digital clock. That means I'm reaching a peak!

Monday, November 1, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 10 days to go!

Top 11 reasons to look forward to turning 59 years old:

Number 10. 59 is a the lowest golf score ever earned in a single round on the PGA Tour. This score has been achieved by Al Geiberger, Chip Beck, David Duval, Paul Goydos, and Stuart Appleby. It's also been achieved on the LPGA Tour by Annika Sörenstam. So 59 is definitely a benchmark one should shoot for.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Countdown to 11/11: 11 days to go!

I'm starting a countdown to 11/11—the day I turn 59—with 11 things to look forward to about being 59 years old.

Number 11: A regular icosahedron has 59 stellations, which makes it very pretty.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Chance Encounter


Snow Bunting
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
(For the Birds transcript--October 14)

This fall, I’ve been watching flocks of all kinds of birds, from huge groups of sparrows and juncos to this year’s unusually abundant Blue Jays. I tend to focus on groups of birds in autumn, and I think of migratory movements in terms of populations or species, not individuals. But this week I took notice of the particularity of one bird I came upon at the Port Wing marina. This Snow Bunting had made a journey spanning a couple thousand miles to reach northern Wisconsin from his high arctic breeding grounds. His flickering white wing patches caught my eye as he picked off bugs clinging to the side of a bridge—a narrow but vertical structure far enough above the rocks that the bunting had to hover to snap them up. Most songbirds cannot hover for more than a few seconds, and by the time I got my camera focused, the little guy had dropped back down to the rocks.

Snow Buntings usually associate in flocks with other Snow Buntings and occasionally longspurs or Horned Larks. I see them most often on the stubble of farm fields long after harvest, the birds eking out their existence on waste seed and bugs. They’re especially drawn to fields after a farmer spreads manure, a veritable cornucopia of insects and semi-digested grass seeds, often steaming with warmth. Of course, the steam also carries a certain level of odor, but songbirds aren’t gifted in the olfactory department and their sensibilities not so rarified as ours, so they don’t seem to mind at all. The landscape would seem barren and desolate if not for these beautiful “snow flake” birds. When a flock of Snow Buntings feeds on the ground, those at the back fly forward to the front, making the flock appear to be rolling along. This would be beautiful enough if done by any other species, but reaches ethereal heights thanks to their flickering white wing patches. Snow Buntings are usually very gregarious, but their flocks are like families of squabbling children. Even during the times of year when they’re not defending a territory, Snow Buntings almost continuously bicker with one another. Many flocking birds establish a hierarchy to reduce the conflicts, but Snow Buntings are too independent to submit to the rules a hierarchical society requires. Those of us who witness their skirmishes are treated to a lot of beautiful wing flashing. If we’re not paying attention, we may not catch on that the birds are fighting. So being in the presence of bickering buntings is far more pleasant than being stuck in a car with bickering children.

Snow Buntings breed in one of the harshest environments on the planet—the high Arctic. They nest under boulders in boulder fields, in cracks in large rock surfaces, or cliff faces. Temperatures in these nests can be very cold, so the buntings line their nests with thick insulating layers of feathers, mosses, and grasses. I wanted to tease out the entire history of the Snow Bunting I was watching—he moseyed about, allowing me to take 122 photographs at close range over the course of an hour—but he wasn’t talking. He didn’t open his wings again for me, either—Snow Buntings spend most of their lives on foot. So I couldn’t verify by the size of his white wing patches that he was a male, though that is definitely the impression I got when I first saw him feeding. His cap didn’t seem quite dark enough for an adult male, but even that wasn’t definite in fresh fall plumage. I was in Port Wing without my bird books, so I emailed my photos to my good friend Mike McDowell to see if he could figure out the bird’s age and sex. He wasn’t sure either, so he forwarded them to two top Wisconsin birders, Tom Schultz and Ryan Brady. Even though the photos show the bird very clearly, at high resolution and large size, none of us could be 100 percent certain without the bird in hand, though Ryan and Tom both had the impression of a young male, too. This added a mysterious flair to my encounter. I’ll never know if this was his first migration or whether he’s a seasoned traveler, whether he got separated from others by accident or by choice, how he chanced to be at the Port Wing Marina exactly when I was there, or even if he was a “he” at all. And I’ll never recognize him again if I see him, alone or in a flock. It was one of those lovely brief encounters we make as we pass through this lovely little planet. I’ll always remember him—those photos turned out well enough that I’ll be referencing them for decades—but I found him far more interesting than he found me, so I’m sure the moment I moved on, he breathed a sigh of relief to have that intruder out of his face and simply moved on to the rest of his life.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Evolution

(For the Birds script for 10-12-10)
Every now and then, I read something that twists the theory of evolution to conclude that we humans have evolved to dominate and exploit our fellow human beings, our neighbor species, and our environment. People who believe this seem to think that altruism exists only as a rather sneaky strategy for individual profit rather than a broad approach to ensuring that an entire community remains strong and sustainable.

Darwin developed his theory based on his study of songbirds, which are more evolved than humans in a great many ways. They’ve been on the planet longer, both in terms of years and generations, yet their lines continue to radiate and thrive, while we primates as an order are declining, and our species seems to be digging itself into some serious dead end tunnels. Songbird bodies are far more evolved than ours, including their vision, hearing, ability to physically discern changes in air pressure, and cardiovascular and respiratory systems. Chickadees, which have been here longer and may very well outlast us, have social hierarchies much like ours, though chickadees, in a more sensible and arguably more evolved manner, maintain their hierarchies not with fighting but with songs and other vocalizations. Every chickadee society includes members of all social strata. If the lowest chickadees on the hierarchy have to wait the longest to get food resources, the flock still remains in an area until all the birds have fed. Over generations, their society couldn’t support the disparities in income that our own society seems to think are sustainable.

In every case I can think of, when a single species increases and multiplies by dominating and altering its environment and unsustainably consuming necessary resources, it eventually hits a peak and declines rapidly, often to the point of extirpation or even extinction. Chickadee social flocks allow for much longer-term stability and success. Chickadees join with a wide variety of other bird species in cooperative feeding flocks to insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to themselves and their posterity in a manner that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution of the United States. Our Constitution has lasted us for roughly 12 human generations, but now our civil system seems to be crumbling. We are fighting within our own population and against other populations over limited resources, often while squandering or destroying the exact resources we are fighting over--a strategy that seems, in the long run, neither an evolved nor an intelligent approach. The chickadee system has allowed them to not just survive but to thrive over tens of thousands of generations—something no human civilization has ever managed to do.

If we're going to look to Darwin, especially for those of us who think it was our species' intelligence that brought us as far as we've gotten and who believe in the concept of free will rather than predestination, we’d be wise to consider what evolution really is about and how populations and species collapse. The militaristic strategies we're using right now worked beautifully for Tyrannosaurus Rex, right up until the time that they didn't. If we're going to call on Darwin for the answers to human destiny, let’s look to those songbirds that inspired his theory in the first place rather than to dinosaurs, especially because we all know how that turned out.

10/10/10

(Today's radio program script)

Ever since, at some point early on in elementary school, I discovered that my birthday was 11/11, I’ve been looking forward to 11/11/11. In fifth grade I calculated that this was the day I’d turn 60, and so although normally a 60th birthday isn’t a milestone elementary school children anticipate with excitement, it has for the past 48 years or so been something I’ve genuinely looked forward to.

10/10 is a similarly exciting date. I turned into a mother and my older son, Joe, was born on October 10 in 1981. And people all over celebrated 10/10/10 with parties and with rallies for various causes. Douglas Adams fans got a special thrill, because 101010 is binary for the number 42, which is his answer to life, the universe, and everything.

I didn’t think birds paid much attention to this sort of thing. A bird’s internal calendar is based on day length and changing seasons, much as our calendar is, but birds don’t seem to have codified it as we did with the human-centered Gregorian, Julian, Islamic, or Hebrew calendars. At least, I didn’t think birds paid attention to things like 10/10/10, until yesterday.

Every October I see the same patterns of bird occurrences. Juncoes get more abundant as White-throated Sparrow numbers start to ebb. The smattering of Harris’s and White-crowned Sparrows can stick around well into the month, but most of them eventually disappear, the Fox Sparrows dwindling soon after. I see migrating kinglets every September, but they start passing through in earnest in October. This year has been no different.

But my backyard chickadees apparently decided to celebrate 10/10/10 by hosting a huge kinglet gathering. My backyard, already rich in autumnal color and teeming with sparrows and juncoes, suddenly came alive to my ears as well as my eyes. From seemingly every branch of every tree, I heard lovely triplet call-notes of Golden-crowned Kinglets. Usually Ruby-crowned Kinglets limit their fall vocalizations to their rather strident call notes, but this year I’ve heard several of them make a feeble attempt at their spring song. The sound is a mere shadow of what it is in spring, lacking both the full richness of the tonal quality and the full quantity of notes, but on 10/10/10, I heard a few of them make a rather serious if comical attempt at singing. The chickadees, who serve as the neighborhood welcome wagon for all the passing little songbirds, were also in top form. They always look a little bedraggled in August as their newly emerging feathers encased in sheaths push out their old feathers. But through September, as the new outer feathers finish growing, chickadees are also plumping up their down underwear. At their 10/10/10 party, they were at their most handsome. Their acrobatic antics added both beauty and levity to the backyard festivities.

No one fired up the grill—the kinglets were content to picnic on little bugs stirring on the unseasonably warm day, and the chickadees enjoyed both that and the vegetarian fare they found in my feeders. Whether the gathering was simply a coincident passage of significant numbers of kinglets migrating through the area or a jolly 10/10/10 celebration, it brightened my day and made me consider that even in a sour and scary election cycle, there really is a lot to celebrate on this lovely little planet.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

They're off!


Operation Migration!
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
This year's young Whooping Cranes following the Operation Migration ultralight aircraft to Florida took off this morning! Let's hope their start on 10-10-10 is an auspicious one, foretelling a simple, straightforward flight!

Follow their progress at the Operation Migration Field Journal: http://www.operationmigration.org/Field_Journal.html

Monday, September 27, 2010

My radio program's underwriter

I found out this weekend that most people think I get paid for my radio show, or that at least my expenses are paid by someone. I've been doing "For the Birds" since May 6, 1987, as an unpaid volunteer, except in 1988 or 1989, when KUMD, KAXE, WOJB, and WXPR got a one-year grant from a local hospital to cover some of my expenses, and from 2005-2007 when I was working for a company that let me use some of my work time to produce it in exchange for an underwriting credit (I still had to pay all my expenses out of pocket). I'm not careful to censor myself when something or someone is harming birds, so companies don't normally want to be too closely associated with For the Birds. I was doing my production work in the KUMD studios until the 90s, when I started doing it digitally on my home computer. Since then, ALL my production costs have been coming out of pocket.

That means that for over 22 years, the only financial support For the Birds has ever gotten has been from my husband, who probably could have thought of other ways of using his limited income but has never once complained or begrudged helping me cover my expenses. He also fully supported my quitting that particular job, when the company was sold to an unscrupulous corporation.

(I took the photo of him when we were in Alaska in 2001--the trip was his 50th birthday present from me.)

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Gulf Coast update: hiding a big mess

Oil on "natural beach" at Grand Isle State Park, July 29, 2010
(For the Birds script, 22 September, 2010. Listen to audio here if you want, but it's just me reading this text.)

Now that BP’s exploded well has been closed off permanently, people are justifiably breathing a sigh of relief. And in some important ways, the damage in the Gulf hasn’t been nearly as bad as we expected—huge masses of black oil haven’t enshrouded all the beaches and islands along the Gulf in the way that Prince William Sound was so befouled after the Exxon Valdez. But just because the situation hasn’t proved to be as horrific as we feared doesn’t mean it isn’t plenty horrible, and doesn’t mean that it may not prove to be even worse than the Valdez for many components of the ecosystem. There are just too many unknowns here. What I find most frustrating is that many of these unknowns should be known, but BP, with the help of our own government agencies, has prevented scientists from gathering data and citizens from getting accurate information.
Ever since the Deepwater Horizon well exploded in the Gulf in April, there’s been a chasm between what is happening and what is being reported. Scientists were questioning BP’s estimates of how much oil was gushing even as the Coast Guard and government agencies at first affirmed their ludicrous underestimates. The official number of oiled birds released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continues to be a gross underrepresentation of actual oiled birds, including only birds that have been collected. The US Fish and Wildlife Service refused to allow people to collect oiled birds on their breeding colonies, even when photographs by scientists proved that over 80 percent of the birds were oiled. The agency claimed that some of the birds might be better off if no one disturbed them, even though they allow banding operations on breeding colonies, and even though expert rehabbers, experienced in safely capturing oiled birds, were turned away when they volunteered. The huge numbers of birds that were oiled on these islands are not included in the official counts. Fish and Wildlife issued a report last week saying that their [quote] “new detailed reports will give us a better initial picture of the effects to migratory bird populations from the Deepwater Horizon spill, help guide our efforts to restore these populations and help ensure that those responsible will be held accountable for the full impacts of the spill.” Yet these new reports continue to ignore the oiled birds on breeding islands, exactly as previous reports did. Months after breeding ended, people are finally starting to get onto these islands, but scavengers beat them to the carcasses.
I’d love to be able to buy the official line, that most of the oil was consumed by microbes, but that seems like magical thinking, or like believing in the Rapture. Where is the oil? A lot of it most certainly has evaporated, and a lot of it most certainly has been consumed. But we’re talking about more than 200 million gallons. Teams of researchers have found a large amount of it covering the bottom sediment, and more is being found here and there in the water. A mile-long, thick oil slick suddenly floated up and washed anew onto islands in Louisiana’s Barataria Bay just last week. And a lot of it has worked its way deep into the sand along many beaches. Last week, government workers stopped ABC news reporters from digging in the sand on Pensacola Beach with a small purple plastic shovel. BP workers aren’t allowed to dig more than 6 inches into the sand, which is pretty much what I observed and filmed when I was down in the Gulf—I’ve posted one video of that cleanup on my blog. So far we’re doing an astonishingly shallow, low-tech job of cleaning up a massive, high-tech oil spill. It’s time we focused on a thorough cleanup, and stopped sweeping the mess under the rug.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Beach Cleanup at Grand Isle State Park: July 29, 2010


Beach Cleanup
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
There are an awful lot of miles of oiled beach, and the oil goes down really deep, yet this is the way they're cleaning them. It's not like it's low impact--the front-end loader kept going back and forth between the clean-up crews and the enormous dumpster.

I was allowed to go back to another stretch of beach at Grand Isle State Park for a while that afternoon. I felt woozy and faint after 20 minutes or so, though I didn't smell anything. I can't imagine how these workers could get through an 8-hour day without respirators. But BP's contractors were working with convict labor--people who aren't in a position to complain.

This is the 21st century, yet this is the best technology we have for beach cleanup?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

All-time Minnesota high number of Blue Jays!


Blue Jay
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Yesterday, September 14, 2010, a total of 7,612 Blue Jays flew over Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory--the largest single-day count in Minnesota ever! It was a great day for hawks, too, though they barely outnumbered the jays with a total of 7,646. After today's rains, the rest of this week and this weekend promise to be great. I'll not be there--I have to go out of town--but head on over to Hawk Ridge for lots of great migrating birds!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Audubon's special report takes aim at the wrong target


Oiled Great Egret
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Ted Williams, who writes the “Incite” column in Audubon, has finally managed to incite me, this time not in his column but in the September–October issue's “Special Report: The BP Oil Disaster.”

Mr. Williams has had a long and respected career as a conservationist, and also a long history as a curmudgeon, his columns often written in an angry Lewis Black style. Just recently he wrote one of the best pieces ever put together about “trap, neuter, release” feral cat colonies. And he usually sees the big picture in an insightful as well as “inciteful” way. He wrote in his December, 2004, column (quoted here):
I envy young environmentalists of the 21st century, but I feel bad for them, too. They don’t know what it feels like to win big against seemingly impossible odds. When I started out, America and the world were environmentally lawless. There was no Endangered Species Act, no Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, no Clean Water Act, no Clean Air Act, no National Environmental Policy Act, no National Forest Management Act. In 1970 I remember standing on the steps of the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife field headquarters and arguing with a colleague, Joe, about the banning of DDT. “It will never happen,” he told me. When DDT was banned two years later, he said, “It won’t make any difference.”
Ted Williams may both envy and feel bad for young environmentalists, but he’s not above attacking one for looking critically at Audubon’s response to the BP oil spill. Mr. Williams writes, “Until I got to coastal Louisiana in mid-June, covering BP’s oil gusher was an assignment I’d have loved to pass up.” Two months after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, like most of the American public, he still wasn’t galvanized to get personally involved, not until his job required him to do so. And when he did get there, he took BP and the government’s word about a great deal, focusing his ire on this:
What I found is another toxic gusher, one of misinformation spewing from politicians puffing and preening for voters, alleged experts with questionable credentials vying for the limelight, and talking heads reporting or concocting news depending on availability.
Certainly there was a lot of misinformation floating about for Mr. Williams to focus on, but rather than clearing it up, his article actually repeats scientifically discredited information as fact. He writes, comparing this to the Exxon Valdez spill:
Deepwater Horizon oil is different. It is highly volatile, and nearly half evaporates immediately. In the intense heat, bacteria consume other fractions. Also, the leak is almost 50 miles at sea, giving dispersion and natural breakdown processes more time to kick in.
His deadline was apparently before a great many studies confirmed that most of the oil still remains in the water, and he apparently never considered that water temperatures at the depth of the blown-out oil well are quite cold.

He also says, “Finally, much has been learned about boom laying and skimming, and operations are massive and intense.”

Massive and intense they may be, but neither massive nor intense enough—I personally saw many islands, several with important nesting colonies, onto which heavily oiled boom had washed ashore weeks before, yet nothing had or was being done. I was there the last week of July and first week of August, weeks after the first tropical storms washed them there. Mr. Williams doesn’t say how long he was in the Gulf, nor whether he visited any places except with spokespeople for major players in the cleanup, so it’s hard to be sure he was even aware of how badly the booms were maintained.

Audubon was contracted by BP to take charge of coordinating volunteers for assisting with wildlife issues [NOTE: I've been asked to clarify that Audubon was not contracted by BP. But BP and US F&W were using Audubon to coordinate volunteers, as Williams noted:

Audubon is seeking volunteers experienced in handling seabirds and asking them to sign up with response leaders. But at this writing there aren’t so many oiled birds that state and federal recovery personnel can’t handle the job. Therefore, qualified volunteers are being told to stand by in case they’re needed. The very last thing Gulf Coast birds need are well-meaning amateurs crashing through nesting habitat.]

Immediately after the spill, thousands of people volunteered, calling by phone or filling out their information on various websites, and thousands of people got back form responses telling them to wait. Even one of my friends, an authority on bird rehabilitation who has been part of many oil spill responses in the past, a woman who led the Bald Eagle recovery program after the Exxon Valdez, was turned away. Audubon was criticized widely for not galvanizing these volunteers. Mr. Williams defends this:
It’s hard to do nothing when the world is yammering at you to do something—anything, even the wrong thing. This was a lesson I relearned on the humid, 100-degree morning of June 15 when I visited bay islands with Reid and his Audubon colleagues Melanie Driscoll, director of bird conservation for Audubon’s Louisiana Coastal Initiative, and Karen Westphal, Atchafalaya River Basin program manager.
The saddest scene we encountered—up close, from Wolkart’s 24-foot Ranger Bay boat—was the royal tern colony on Queen Bess Island. Ringing the oil-stained mangroves was red hard boom and, just inside, white sorbent boom. Such barricades offer partial protection at best. Only about 10 of some 300 adults had been oiled, but virtually all the estimated 150 chicks were covered. “If we do nothing, they could die,” said Driscoll. “They’re at risk of overheating and sunburn, hypothermia if they get wet. But if we evacuate them, they won’t be taught to fend for themselves, and they’ll probably die, too. The thought is that now that they’re close to molting they’ll drop their oiled feathers and a few will make it. I don’t know if that’s a good theory, but we’re in a situation where there’s no good decision. The best decision is not to have an oil spill.”
There were MANY islands with the same problems Mr. Williams saw here. Putting aside issues of compassion for suffering birds, and simply considering how many unknowns are indeed involved in these situations, why wasn’t there intervention on at least one or two of these islands to learn, based on actual data, which approach is wiser? That is what science is about.

There were many different ways that volunteers could have been used without compromising cleanup or responsible, legal wildlife rehab protocols. For example, teams could have been sent out on prescribed routes to check, at a safe distance, the boom around vulnerable islands to alert cleanup response teams where boom needed to be replaced in a timely manner. When I was in the Gulf at the end of July, over three months after the BP explosion, a large crew was working at one still-unoiled island, putting in vertical structures to better hold the boom in place—the kind of task that requires hard work but would be well within the abilities of volunteers (after all, many of the people that I saw doing this were prisoners on work-release programs). This was, unfortunately, a task that should have been done in the first place, months earlier. Sadly, the boom around virtually every other island had been laid without this low-tech insurance to keep it from washing ashore in storms, which just happened to be when the oil washed up with it.

Mr. Williams minimized the effects of the spill:
Due to the nature of the oil and the monumental cleanup effort, visible damage was not as bad as the public imagines or the media have depicted. Occasionally we smelled oil, but although goop and tar had washed up elsewhere, we saw only light sheens.
He was either there before the tropical storms arrived or he closed his eyes to a lot of visible damage. By late July, I saw personally that there were plenty of oiled islands out there. I agree that at least by then there wasn’t much to smell in most areas, but after standing on one oiled beach for 20 minutes or so, I felt woozy and faint, even without smelling a thing. By his own account, Mr. Williams was not exposed to any oiled beaches.

Mr. Williams wrote specifically about Drew Wheelan:
In an interview with CNN’s Gary Tuchman, the American Birding Association’s Drew Wheelan declared: “I cannot see any reason why they would not want as many people here as possible.” And in a later CNN broadcast he and Anderson Cooper spoke of “experts” who supposedly possess the power to pluck birds from the firmament, a feat impossible for any human save Harry Potter.
(I’ll interject here that one of these experts they turned away may not be Harry Potter, but is, as I noted, a licensed and active rehabber with decades of oil spill experience. And I find it hard to believe that Mr. Williams has never in his long career witnessed a bird banding operation--banders as well as some rehabbers do in fact have the skills and equipment to catch flying birds. It wouldn't have taken much investigating for him to learn what the St. Petersburg Times reported just this week: Bird Rescue Experts Kept on Sidelines after Gulf Oil Spill. )
Cooper, goosing Wheelan along: “Right now they don’t have the expertise to go after birds that are in flight, which people can do who are experts. . . . Basically, you’re saying they’re just going after the birds who are completely covered in oil and unable to move, and these are the birds that are likeliest basically to die. . . . So birds that maybe have less oil on them and can fly, they’re not going after those birds because it’s too much effort and too difficult.”
Wheelan: “Yeah, they just don’t have any expertise in that area. . . . There’s no reason why there shouldn’t be 50 people down in Grand Isle . . . going out at dawn, trying to capture these birds.”
Cooper: “It seems there are a lot of volunteers and a lot of bird experts who would love to be down here and love to be helping.”
Wheelan: “Absolutely. . . . I know the Audubon Society has over 17,000 people that have signed up to volunteer on this effort, and so far they’ve not received a single phone call. . . . They just don’t want to allow any help.” (Wheelan issued a retraction on his blog after Audubon explained to him that the best way volunteers can help is to wait patiently until they’re contacted.)
Drew Wheelan wrote on Facebook on September 2:
I did not retract anything I wrote about the Audubon Society and their volunteers. They had many opportunities that could have helped down here that they let slip through their fingers. The blame is really on Incident Command for not identifying areas of need and allowing qualified people to help...
USFWS and LDWF have stated time and again that they will not disturb the colony to rescue a few birds as a reason for not saving any of those Royal Terns, hundreds of which died, BTW, And in the next sentence [Ted Williams] commends Mike Carloss for doing exactly that, rescuing a Gull on Queen Bess on the very same day. That bird was filmed by CNN as it was captured and was horribly mis-treated by Carloss and eventually died. Audubon has had every opportunity to work as stewards to protect beach nesting colonies in Louisiana, and I was specifically told by Melanie Driscoll to lay off the issue, as she had it covered. They did nothing, Colonies from the Chandeleur Islands to the Timbaliers have all been impacted negatively by clean up response, and LDWF and Audubon never did a thing to help. In fact in their most recent Gulf Spill news letter they praised their own efforts to work as stewards to protect a Least tern Colony that I found and brought to the attention of the world, and they did NOTHING to help protect, except for about 8 hours during the Leanne Rimes concert, and when they praised themselves for that herculean effort they never mentioned the thousands of dollars spent by BTNEP to protect the colony, nor the man hours put in, nor the logistical support given to them, housing and transportation all by BTNEP. Not one word. Clean up effort: I am working on my calculations, but I can account for hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil left on Louisiana's shores never once attempted to be cleaned by BP and still remains there, even here on Grand Isle.
To research this article, Mr. Williams not only did not visit many oiled places in the Gulf—he didn’t even try to contact Drew, not for information about his experiences and what he witnessed over the long, hot months since the explosion, nor to ask for a response to his charges. Mr. Williams focused on one TV interview and then misrepresented Drew’s blog response after the National Audubon Society took him to task.
Since May, Drew has been working tirelessly in Grand Isle virtually every day except when he developed pneumonia. He’s operating on a shoestring, even mostly sleeping in his truck. This young environmentalist is doing what Ted Williams once did so well—speaking truth to power. Not one word that Drew Wheelan has written or spoken been in service of any agenda except to present the truth about what is happening to birds as a result of the oil spill. He has seen a lot of things that were being done badly, and a lot of things that badly needed being done, and has written about them with charmingly unfiltered forthrightness.

It’s ironic that forty years after his own environmental activism set him on a life course of speaking out, Ted Williams set as his target not the corporation that caused the biggest oil spill in peacetime or maritime history, nor the weak federal agencies that endlessly repeated BP’s lies and exaggerations, from the amount of oil gushing in the first place to the amount of oil that had magically disappeared. No, Mr. Williams set his aim on the one young environmentalist of the 21st century who most exemplifies the standards Mr. Williams usually stands for. I hope that Mr. Williams' injudicious trashing doesn't harm Drew's chances to learn “what it feels like to win big against seemingly impossible odds.”

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Make sure you're keeping up with Drew Wheelan's blog. He's finding a lot of shorebirds right now. Gulf Coast Oil Spill

Friday, August 20, 2010

When numbers get serious

This was my For the Birds script for the program that aired August 4, 2010:

As of August 3, 2010, a total of 5154 oiled birds have been collected and reported on the official Deepwater Horizon Response Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report. Of these, 1699 were collected alive and 3455 were collected dead. So far, 594 of the treated birds have been released back into the wild, far away from the oiled areas where the birds were retrieved.

The data released each day in the Consolidated Report is accurate and extremely valuable. But it is not in any way a complete accounting of the numbers of birds affected by the spill. I find it troubling that because this is the only official number out there, the media and many organizations are using it as the definitive number of birds oiled. Defenders of Wildlife even cites the figure on their website as the “Total Impacted.” But this figure leaves out all the birds people are reporting to BP or the Fish and Wildlife Service that have not actually been collected. Many birds are seen and reported while still capable of flying away and so no attempt is made by officials to collect them—this includes the badly oiled night-heron and Great Egret that I saw on Cat Island in Barataria Bay, and the lightly oiled Great Egret I saw at Grand Isle State Park, all in Louisiana. Because of rules regarding disturbing nesting colonies, hundreds of badly oiled birds that were carefully documented and reported have not been collected.
It makes sense that BP and Fish and Wildlife are maintaining official, verifiable numbers of the birds collected in the spill. And keeping track of oiled birds that haven’t been collected would be a difficult task: someone might count and even photograph a large number of oiled birds on one island, and then on another island, with no way of knowing whether a few or a great many had island hopped and were counted twice. So it’s understandable that such an amorphous number isn’t part of the consolidated report. But it’s troubling that on BP’s website with the consolidated number, the text makes it sound like the total number of birds collected is greater than rather than less than the total number of birds oiled. The report emphasizes, “Some fish and wildlife reported here have likely died or been injured by natural causes, not due to the oil spill. Due to the increased number of trained people evaluating the spill impacted areas, it is also likely that we will recover more naturally injured or dead fish and wildlife than normal.”

Although this is true, the large numbers of badly oiled dead and dying birds seen and photographed on breeding colonies that were never officially collected may very well outnumber the entire total number of birds collected. Raccoon Island alone, which was very heavily oiled, is known to harbor 10,000 nesting birds—and eyewitnesses estimated the number showing signs of oil at 50 to 80 percent. Fish and Wildlife disputes this figure, but if they’ve sent any of their own biologists to do an accurate and verifiable count, that information has not been released. Meanwhile, a couple of members of Massachusetts Audubon and I did a flyover of Raccoon Island two full weeks after oil reached its shores. We were very high up, but some of the photos Shawn Carey took show pelicans lying flat on the ground with their wings spread—something they just don’t do when healthy. From so far above, we saw plenty of oil along the shore and washed into parts of the island interior, and could see that the badly oiled booms that had washed ashore had still not been removed and replaced with boom that could protect the island from additional oiling.

All this is to say that although the official number of oiled birds is a useful index, it’s far from the total number of birds oiled in this disaster.

A more accurate figure would be difficult or even impossible for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, or anyone else, to produce. But it’s still important to recognize that the official figures being given out for oiled birds are far smaller than the actual numbers of birds that have so far been harmed by this disaster.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Covering up the damage

Rick Outzen documents in his blog how fishermen were instructed to ignore large tar balls and the Coast Guard's use of dispersants. It's valuable information, and I know it's true because I talked at length with a boat captain in the Vessels of Opportunity program who was sent out with a BP team to collect water samples. They collected some where he could clearly see a lot of oil--and then BP threw out those samples because they had been "collected improperly." But he observed the whole process, and knew they were collected in exactly the right way.

Read Rick Outzen's blog post here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Huge fish die-off in Louisiana


The American Birding Association's Drew Wheelan reports a huge die-off of fish in Port Fourchon, Louisiana, yesterday.

When I get home, I'm calculating how much I spent on gas on this trip and donating it to a few worthy causes--the American Birding Association being Number One. Drew's reports have been consistently accurate, and he's doing a far, far better job of reporting the news than any news professionals. To stretch his finances farther so he can continue to report as long as possible, he's even been sleeping in his truck. I'm proud to know someone with his commitment, integrity, and courage.

Monday, August 2, 2010

To disperse or not to disperse. That was the question.

Now that well over a million gallons of COREXIT have been released into the Gulf, both from the site of the ruptured well and sprayed from above, we can expect years of debate about whether using dispersants was a wise decision or not. When many of the facts are unknown and we're dealing with probabilities, sometimes reasonable minds can reach different conclusions. But over time as we collect more data in the Gulf, we should be able to learn whether it is easier to clean up oil on the water's surface and on the beaches than it is when it's been dispersed. We want to know at what point dispersed oil droplets become too diluted to cause problems. Think about it. If you have 200 million gallons of pure oil, it's a big toxic mess. If dispersants dilute it to half strength by spreading it over double the volume, it's still extremely toxic, and now its toxicity has spread. At what point does the dilution make it weak enough to offset the vastly increased amount of water it's contaminating?

EPA research indicates that oil is far more toxic than dispersants, including COREXIT, and that for the most part, dispersants plus oil are no more toxic than oil alone. But in my mind, the debate is only tangentially about the toxicity of the dispersant, and more fundamentally about what the dispersant does to the oil and where dispersed oil goes. My focus of course is on birds, and it's virtually certain that many more birds would have been conspicuously oiled at this point in time if no dispersants had been used. But because the level of use of dispersants in this spill is unprecedented, we have no idea what the long term effects will be, on either the Gulf ecosystem or on the birds that depend on it.

Had the oil all surfaced at the point of the blowout, booms would have been more effective at containing it and skimmers more effective at pulling a lot of it out. But without dispersants, more thick crude oil would have contaminated beaches. With dispersants, the oil is breaking up into tinier droplets which can stay within the water column much longer before floating to the top in slicks or sinking into the bottom muck. We don't know how masses of oil are acting beneath the surface, nor whether the bulk of it will slowly float to the top to evaporate, will sink to the bottom to contaminate bottom feeding animals, or will float within the water column indefinitely. We don't know how tiny dispersed droplets in the water column might affect a loon or pelican diving through a plume. We don't know how long dispersed oil will be washing onto beaches, nor at what concentrations this dispersed oil will be, nor whether it's likely to reduce numbers of the tiny creatures that sandpipers and other birds eat. There is far more that we don't know than what we do know. The Gulf of Mexico promises to be a rich source of research projects for decades to come.

Meanwhile, it's too late to retract the decision to use dispersants to deal with this crisis. If substantial evidence proves that it was a big mistake, there will be no magic wand to get the dispersants out of the water. But now that it's happened, it's essential that we carefully and objectively evaluate all the evidence we can gather to figure out whether using dispersants really was the lesser of two evils or not. Bird deaths from starvation may not be as conspicuous and gruesome as bird deaths from heavy oiling, but the birds' suffering may well be as great. And depending on how plumes of dispersed oil act, we may be seeing oiled diving birds for weeks, months, years, or even decades to come.

The final decision on whether dispersants are an appropriate way to respond to an oil spill in the future should be made based on doing the greatest good for the entire ecosystem, from plankton and shrimp to birds and dolphins. The Coast Guard, the EPA, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Centers for Disease Control should be making these decisions together, uninfluenced by the desires of the corporation that caused the disaster in the first place, especially when that company has a vested interest in minimizing the appearance of the disaster.

Exxon and a team of other companies are right now working together to develop a sounder response for dealing with future oil spills in the Gulf. Experimenting with dispersants in such a precious body of water when the stakes are so very high may or may not prove to have been justifiable. Either way, a sound, long-term investigation of the results will help us make future decisions based on knowledge rather than guesses.

Some reassuring news

Today I talked to someone who works on vessels on cleanup here in Alabama. He told me that when they find any wildlife in distress or any dead wildlife, they call a number--he thinks for US Fish and Wildlife--and are required to stay nearby until the response arrives. He said the response is always pretty quick, and added that he and his co-workers would be scared to try and rescue the birds themselves for fear of either getting hurt (and as a former rehabber, I can attest that it would be very dangerous for someone without training to grab a Great Blue Heron!) or causing the bird more distress by chasing it when they don't have proper equipment or knowledge of how to handle them or house them. So it sounds like what is happening in the waters off Alabama, and the protocol when cleanup workers find oiled wildlife, are genuinely about as good as we could hope for.

Great discussion of Winter Wren split


Winter Wren
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
The AOU recently split the Winter Wren into eastern and western species. (Yay! Yet another lifer I got just by reading the morning ornithological news!) Here's a great in-depth discussion on "Biological Ramblings."