Monday, September 24, 2012

New Hampshire Coastal Birding

I’m giving a talk at the annual meeting of New Hampshire Audubon this weekend, and so I flew over to spend a week birding in the state ahead of time. Today (Monday, September 24) I birded with Lauren Kras, one of the top birders in the state. Although she’s only 25, she holds the record for not just one but the two top Big Years ever recorded in New Hampshire. In 2009, she not only broke the all time record for the number of species seen in a single year within the state but was the first and remains the only birder to break the 300-species barrier—she saw an amazing 308 birds in New Hampshire that year. 

It’s always great to go out with a truly knowledgeable expert, especially when exploring an unfamiliar area, but what made the day exceptional was that she’s so fun to be with. I was interested in photographing as many birds as possible, as well as seeing them, so when we came upon good opportunities, we took them. Lauren said if we were focused on racking up all the birds we could get, we would easily have broken 100—quite possibly as many as 120. But early on during high tide we came upon a large group of shorebirds that were feeding on flies along the top of a long rock sea wall. 

Sandpipers on the rock wall

Semipamated Sandpiper

We walked along, sun at our backs, taking photo after photo of a great variety of sandpipers in perfect light, framed by blue sky, all at eye level or above—I’ve never before had a chance to see the undersides of so many shorebirds. I also don’t think I’ve said the word “wow” so many times in a fifteen-minute period in my life.

Semipalmated Plover


Ruddy Turnstone

White-rumped Sandpiper

I have a great love for Common Eiders because we saw some females caring for large masses of ducklings when we took a family vacation to Maine years ago. Right now few males are in good plumage—I’ll have to make a return trip some year between February and April to get them in full breeding splendor. We saw quite a few groups of eiders today, but none at close range. I got close-ups of some just a couple of weeks ago at the Central Park Zoo in New York City. But seeing wild ones in the ocean, even at a distance, was far more satisfying.

Central Park Zoo Common Eider

There were lots of songbirds today, though the early migration is dwindling and the late migration hasn’t kicked in yet. I think my favorites were the several Blackpoll Warblers moving through. I see a few Blackpolls every fall at home in Minnesota, but these so close to the Atlantic seemed more special. Blackpolls breed far up in Canada, migrating mostly east to the coast, where they take off along an over-water route, with no landing or resting stops all the way down to Puerto Rico, the Lesser Antilles, and South America. I found it thrilling to see them so close to their jump-off point, pigging out in preparation for the grueling adventure.

Blackpoll Warbler

We moseyed along in several of Lauren’s favorite spots. It’s fun to be with someone so experienced at coastal birding and in tune with the tides. She knew exactly where our one Lesser Black-backed Gull of the day would be and where to find our one Ruddy Duck. I’m ending the day in a happy stupor. In the days to come, I’ll be covering more of the state, and will post lots of photos of my wonderful adventures birding in New Hampshire.

Mute Swan

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Big Migration Day: September 22,2012

Saturday, September 22, 2012, was an amazing day for watching migrating birds. We’d had measurable snow at the Duluth airport the night before, and strong northwest winds made perfect migration conditions for all kinds of birds. My yard was hopping with Swainson’s, Gray-cheeked, and Hermit Thrushes, thanks especially to a bumper crop of berries on the Virginia creepers growing along my back fence. Those grew in all by themselves, presumably via bird poop. It’s fun to see how birds plant seeds for their favorite berries wherever they stop for a while. Or is it that the plants entice hungry birds to their berries with the expectation that when the birds take off they’ll plant their seeds via the birds’ droppings? Whether the cleverness belongs to the birds or the plants, or is a magical combination of both, depends on one’s point of view. Me, I can’t help but give all the credit to the birds.

My Virginia creeper and several dogwood plants in the back of my yard provide an abundance of berries and insects, and I spread sunflower and white millet on the ground near my raspberries and under some feeders, and so in addition to the thrushes my yard has been hopping with over 200 White-throated Sparrows and a smattering of Fox and Harris’s Sparrows and juncos. 

Harris's Sparrow

For better and for worse, I’m right under Hawk Ridge. As thrilling as it is to see all those hawks passing through, it’s tricky making our windows safe so when an approaching hawk sends the little birds off in a panic, they don’t crash into windows. So far this fall we’ve only had one window strike—a Gray-cheeked Thrush flew into our living room window Saturday morning while Russ was right there to witness it. He went out and got the poor thing, who was lying upside down, a position that makes recovery from a concussion very difficult. Russ put it into a dark box. When I arrived on the scene, the thrush was still dazed, but both eyes were working and neither pupil was dilated or fixed, and within ten minutes it was perky and ready to fly off again, after giving me a brief photo op. 

Gray-cheeked Thrush

Migration is risky business for these birds of true northern wilderness. My thrush was a first year bird who hatched, in June or early July, up in northernmost Canada. From here on out until it reaches its destination in South America, it’s going to be running a collision course, with major urban centers all the way down. Even flying over the ocean isn’t safe. I’ve talked to many people who were on Caribbean cruises during horrible migration events when dozens or hundreds of birds crashed into the lights and cabin windows of these boats—these usually take place during foggy weather when the birds can’t navigate properly.

But enough of the birds survive the journey down and back that we still have plenty of Gray-cheeked Thrushes. And vulnerable as all these birds are, we can’t help but be thrilled when we see the sheer quantity of migrants. Karl Bardon and other official counters at Hawk Ridge and a spot on the Lester River counted 730 White-throated Sparrows on Friday, and in just an hour and a half on Saturday morning, Peder Svingen counted an amazing 1,035 White-throats along a 2.5 mile stretch of East Superior Street between highway 61 and McQuade Road. The sparrows and thrushes milling about in my yard were eye-catching, but what seemed to catch the attention of a lot of people walking on the path along my backyard were the Blue Jay flocks I had all day. So much activity is such a thrilling way to end a season. We’ll have at least a few more great days in the weeks ahead, before migration dwindles and winter sets in. But I gave no thoughts to the cold days ahead—how could I think of anything other than the amazing spectacle of migration on a day such as this?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Last Hummingbird of Fall

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
This Ruby-throated Hummingbird photographed at my feeder last September is probably a first-year male, based on his "five o'clock shadow."

Every September, I get inundated with questions about when we should take down hummingbird feeders. The vast majority of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds light out for the territory in August, and most of us in northern states notice our last ones on or before Labor Day. If you’re putting out hummingbird feeders for your own enjoyment of these tiny dynamos, take in your feeders when you stop seeing them. But unless you’re watching your feeder every minute of every daylight hour, you are almost certainly getting occasional visits from hummingbirds migrating through. Keeping feeders available can give these last ones, mostly young of the year, a quick supply of calories. A hummingbird feeder provides far more carbs per visit than individual flowers do, so a feeder allows migrants to spend more time traveling and less searching for food.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

If you keep feeders up in fall, keep the sugar water fresh. It’s easy to forget to change the water every few days, but essential if you want to do more good than harm. Even before sugar water gets cloudy, it’s fermenting, which can cause liver damage. Fermentation goes faster in warmer temperatures, so we can change the water less frequently during cool fall weather than in summer heat, but need to keep the task on our radar.

In spring and summer, several feeders can accommodate these aggressively territorial birds with a minimum of squabbles. Because so few hummingbirds are present this late, it is less expensive and far easier to maintain just one or two feeders. It’s also wise to set fall feeders in the windows you spend the most time near. 

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

The likelihood of seeing any hummingbird in late fall is small, but you have a reasonable chance of seeing a real rarity. I’m only aware of four or five hummingbirds visiting my feeders over the years after September 15, but one of them was a rare visitor from the West who turned up on November 16, 2004 and remained until December 3. Her identity was under some dispute—she was most likely a Rufous Hummingbird, but without collecting a feather for DNA it was impossible to be certain. If a qualified hummingbird bander had been available to trap her in a standard hummingbird trap, I’d have been fine with taking measurements and macro photographs of her. 

Unfortunately, the only banders available used mist nets, which are very stressful and dangerous for hummingbirds even when the banders specialize in handling them. To verify her species, they wanted to remove one tail feather, but birds immediately shunt resources to replacing plucked feathers, and that time of year when a minimum of protein was available, I just couldn’t justify putting her through any of that. So although I have plenty of photos of her and think of her as a Rufous Hummingbird, she’s listed as “Selasphorus sp.” in the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union record books.

Selasphorus sp.-- probably a Rufous Hummingbird
Rufous hummingbird in northern Wisconsin in August, 2007

Wisconsin and Minnesota have both had amazing visits by out-of-range hummingbirds in fall, including such shocking species as a Green Violetear visiting a La Crosse feeder one October, an Anna’s Hummingbird in Grand Marais one November, and a Calliope Hummingbird in the Twin Cities one December. 

Feeders did not lure these birds out of their normal ranges. It’s impossible to know how many out-of-range hummingbirds just quietly die with no one to notice. When my backyard Rufous Hummingbird took off at mid-morning on December 3rd, I was petrified that she wouldn’t encounter another friendly feeding station no matter what direction she took. Ever since she showed up, I’ve tried to keep at least one feeder available and fresh throughout October and November. Even if I never look at the window, and never know if any hummingbirds came, I feel good knowing if one does pass through, it won’t leave my yard hungry. 

Scrub-Jay Funerals and Blue Jay Irish Wakes

Western Scrub-Jay

I celebrate National Blue Jay Awareness Month every time there’s a Blue Moon, so this year marked it in August. And no sooner than the month was over than BBC Nature reported on a jay study just published in the journal Animal Behaviour. Scientists at the University of California, Davis, conducted experiments showing that Western Scrub-Jays hold an avian form of a funeral when they discover a dead jay. When the researchers, led by Teresa Iglesias, set out a dead jay or a mounted specimen of a jay in a residential neighborhood, the first jay to encounter it called out to other jays. The whole group stopped foraging, often flying down to the dead body in a group. They made alarm calls and an array of other calls that apparently drew in other jays. They didn’t resume foraging for food sometimes for more than a day. (Discovery News also posted about this research.)

Western Scrub-Jay

The researchers placed other objects in the same kinds of areas, and found that the birds ignored colored pieces of wood, so the birds weren’t simply surprised to find something novel. When the researchers set out a stuffed Great Horned Owl, the jays gathered and made alarm calls, swooping at it as they do to live predators, until they figured out that it wasn’t a threat. They didn’t swoop at dead jays that looked dead, though they sometimes did swoop at dead jays stuffed to appear alive, the way their species sometimes attacks strange jays invading their territory. With an actual dead bird, the scrub-jays held what the researchers concluded was a form of funeral, the function of which might be to warn others of nearby danger.

On the BBC Nature page with this story, they linked to a story about a mother giraffe who would not leave the body of her dead calf, considering this, as well as similar stories about elephants and chimpanzees, evidence that some mammals may feel grief. Whether birds feel grief is a question the Western Scrub-Jay study didn’t even attempt to address, since the dead jays that they set out weren’t individuals known to the jays being studied. Really, if there was a human connection to be made, it seems to me less comparable to a funeral than to the ritual some people have of reading the obituary page, noticing what ages various people are who have died, what they died from, and silently or not so silently wondering abut their own chances for longevity.

Blue Jay near my window

I’ve personally witnessed Blue Jays at Hawk Ridge after one of their flock members was plucked off by a Sharp-shinned Hawk or Merlin. In those cases, the killed jays weren’t around for a proper funeral, but I’ve often compared the surviving jays’ behavior to what I’ve seen at various Irish wakes in Chicago. My father, an Irish Chicago firefighter, died in 1980 of a sudden heart attack right after a fire—he was only 50. At the funeral home on the two nights of the wake, his brother, also a Chicago firefighter, met every new firefighter at the door. They’d walk up to the casket, my uncle sobbing, them talking about how good he looked except for being dead, sometimes also talking about how they should spend more time in the gym or going on a diet or something—the subtext being that they wanted to avoid the same fate. Then they’d head to the bar next door, getting back in time for my uncle to greet the next firefighter to arrive.

Blue Jay

Hawk Ridge isn’t conveniently situated next to a bar as Chicago funeral homes all seem to be, but otherwise the jays’ behavior after one was killed always made me think of my dad’s wake. Those jay gatherings often lasted for over an hour, and if other jays were coming through while the first flock was still squawking, the new jays would join in. It’s impossible for a species with our limitations to know what their widely varied chatter and squawking meant. Were the birds feeling sorrow, anxiety, fear, or outrage? If they could calm their nerves with a good stiff drink at an Irish bar, would they? Until Rosetta Stone software starts including lessons to teach us Blue Jay language, we just can’t know. We may not understand bird language yet, but I can’t imagine that jays of all kinds don’t share a lot more in common with us humans than most people think.

Christmas 1951
(I'm the baby in this photo, taken in 1951 at my grandparents' house.)

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Mr. Borkowski: Great Teacher or The Greatest Teacher?

Fifth Grade with Mr. Borkowski

Roger Tory Peterson often spoke of his seventh grade teacher, crediting Blanche Hornbeck with sparking his lifelong fascination with birds.

I can’t say that anyone sparked my interest in and love for birds—I seem to have been born with that. And I was lucky enough to have had several wonderful teachers in elementary and high school. But one teacher made such a huge difference in my life, at such a critical juncture, that I honestly don’t know where I’d be today, or who I’d be, if not for him: my fifth grade teacher, Arthur Borkowski.

A lot of people believe that our parents are the most important influences on who and what we become as adults, whether due to their genetic contribution or the environment they place us in. This is such a truism that we don’t often think about the exceptions, but Mr. Borkowski was the exceptional teacher I needed to break free from the influence of the chaotic, abusive home I came from. He was 24 years old and this was his first year of teaching. He’d only had two years of college—the minimum requirement to teach in a Catholic elementary school in 1961—and was attending Northwestern University at night to complete his degree, yet despite his inexperience and the demands of teaching 55 student all day and then going to his own demanding college classes, he infused every subject with joy and energy. He was over 6’3” tall, but when he talked one on one to any of us, he’d drop down on one knee to look us straight in the eye. I don’t think any of us ever thought he had favorites—he just magically made every one of us feel special and valued.

One day Mr. Borkowski announced that we were going to dissect earthworms in class. I was thrilled about the prospect: I had raised earthworms from the time I was a preschooler, and found them fascinating. After every rainstorm I’d go out and rescue ones off the sidewalk. If they were fine, I’d set them in the grass, but if they’d been partly squished but were still squirming, I’d tenderly place them in a leaky old dishpan filled with loose soil with my other earthworm pets. I knew that some survived, but never knew how to predict this, and didn’t know how to help the ones that ended up dying. I thought dissecting might reveal the “inside story” of worms—the secrets that would help me save more.

Mr. Borkowski told us that we’d each need to find a worm—the bigger, the better—for dissecting. I knew I couldn’t bring in any of my own personal earthworms, but figured I could dig one up somewhere. Yet every time I picked up a worm in my hand and felt it wriggle, I knew it wanted to stay alive. I didn’t know how to pick out one that wouldn’t mind being cut up. Finally, I went to Mr. Borkowski and poured out the whole story. He looked at me with his gentle, serious look, and said, “You know what I’ll do, Laura? I’ll find you a worm that’s already dead.” Imagine the level of empathy and warmth required to respond like that on the spur of the moment, without even a trace of laughter in his eyes!

The play, The Sound of Music had been produced on Broadway the year before. Mr. Borkowski brought in the Broadway soundtrack with Mary Martin and Theodore Bikel and we learned several of the songs. Every year on my birthday my Grandpa sent me $5. Usually my mother kept it, but that year I persuaded her to let me keep $3.50 to buy the record, pointing out with more than a little sassiness that the record cost no more than one of her bottles of Southern Comfort. (I got a beating for that, but won the point.) I listened to the record so often that even when the record player was off, I could still hear the songs in my head, overpowering the family strife. 

When The Sound of Music was produced at the Shubert Theater with Florence Henderson playing Maria, Mr. Borkowski arranged an optional evening field trip. My mother said we just couldn’t afford it. I did my best to hide my disappointment in the weeks before the big event. I was very shy and scared of being noticed anyway, and it was easy to hide in a class of 55. But a few days before the field trip, Mr. Borkowski asked me to stay after school for a moment. After everyone left, he told me that the tickets had arrived and there was an “extra” one. Would I like to go?

He was the only teacher I can remember, in elementary or high school, who actually discussed racism, telling us how evil it was, and how he envisioned a world in which people judged each other by the content of their character and not the color of their skin, though he wasn’t prescient enough to use Martin Luther King’s words to say it, this being 1961–62. And he had no tolerance for bullying, period. I can’t remember him raising his voice, but he exuded such warmth and fun that no one wanted to disappoint him.

He taught us songs and poems and put such a creative spin on everything that bright colors seeped into my dull gray world. That was the year that I skipped to school every day. I was still on such a high after a day in Mr. Borkowski’s room that I’d skip all the way home, too. No matter how much yelling and crying went on in the background once I got there, my head was still filled with songs and interesting thoughts.

People say it’s a gift to be able to change the lemons life gives us to lemonade. But it’s impossible to make lemonade without sugar, and for a whole year, Mr. Borkowski brought enough genuine sweetness into my life to affect my outlook from then on. I’m sure I’d have discovered chickadees eventually, but I don’t know if I’d have appreciated their joie de vivre without that year in Mr. Borkowski’s class. Roger Tory Peterson’s teacher helped him discover birds. Mr. Borkowski helped me discover joy.

My elementary school, St. John Vianney School in Northlake, Illinois, had an all-class reunion this past summer. I was gratified to see several teachers I had fond memories of as well as twenty or so of my fellow students from the class of 1965, but I knew I wouldn’t be seeing the one teacher I most yearned to see. I’d tried to track down Mr. Borkowski back in the 70s when I was a teacher myself, and then in the 90s when I wrote my book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids. That book opens with the words:
This book is dedicated to Arthur Borkowski, my fifth grade teacher, who taught me how to open my eyes without closing my heart. 
I’d never been able to find him, and felt sad that I’d never had a chance to tell him how very much he’d changed my life.

But at the reunion, one of the organizers said that Mr. B was very much alive and well in Florida, though he had sent his regrets that he couldn’t attend. She promised to send me the contact information, but I got impatient and googled him, got his snail mail address, and wrote him a letter. And a few days later, there it was—an email from my dear Mr. Borkowski, a full 50 years after he was my teacher. We’ve corresponded back and forth a bit, and talked on the phone once. 

He spent his entire 40-year career teaching, mostly high school drama, television, and advanced English. He also wrote and directed plays in Chicago and then, after he retired, down in Florida.

I’m headed to Florida in January to be a speaker and field trip leader for the Space Coast Birding and Nature Festival, and after making this connection I decided I’ll leave a couple of days early so Mr. Borkowski and I can spend some time together—we decided to make a day of it at Disney World. I’m as excited about this as I’d be anticipating seeing my most wanted bird in the world, the Cuban Tody.

Mr. Borkowski isn’t a birder, but he notices the birds at his place, including eagles, ospreys, herons, ibises, Mourning Doves, and mockingbirds. And he notices and reacts to the same kinds of things I do. In 2010 he wrote a lovely poem titled, “The Seagull,” which he kindly gave me permission to read on the air: It is available on my radio program calendar, and via my podcast.