Saturday, November 29, 2014
Quite a few years ago, I was scheduled to give a talk at the historical museum on Madeline Island. In line for the ferry ride, I was charmed watching a young couple and their daughter, who was 3 or 4 years old—she was jumping up and down and clapping with excitement. Finally the line started moving, and soon it was their turn to board. Her parents smiled and told her to come on, it was time to get on the boat. She looked up in shock and alarm and said, “NO! You said we were going to ride on a fairy!”
I thought of her on Saturday, November 8, when Russ and I took a ferry ride to Vancouver Island. I took more photos, by far, that day than any other on our trip, even though I knew the vast majority of them wouldn’t turn out well. Birding from a huge ferry has a lot of difficulties, but I knew that oceanic birds called alcids would be seen, and because I’ve had so very few opportunities to see them in the wild, I wanted to have photos to study, both to verify the species I’d seen and to enjoy after it was over. Most of the photos I took were of Common Murres and Surf Scoters, both which I already had better pictures of, but I also got a few distant shots at Ancient Murrelet, a species I’ve not seen since 1979. The pictures were far from great—they don’t even qualify as fair—but they worked for proving I’d seen this wonderful little saltwater bird.
I also got to photograph lots of Glaucous-winged Gulls floating above the ferry. No one was feeding them, but they accompanied the boat on the entire crossing.
Once we got to the island, we didn’t have to say goodbye to the oceanic birds. We took a taxi to the town of Sydney where we ate lunch at a tiny café on a pier. I had the best cup of hot chocolate I’ve ever had plus got to see a Common Murre swimming and posing for photos as close as I’ve ever seen one.
And dozens of Pelagic Cormorants loafed on the piles, along with a single Brandt’s Cormorant.
I’m amassing lots of photos of the cormorant found in the Midwest, the Double-crested Cormorant, including some on this trip, but before now, my only photos of these two West Coast species have been distant shots. And it was while shooting them that the sun came out for the only time all day, allowing me to capture the glossy greens and blues of their somewhat iridescent black feathers.
I also got a few shots of a Mew Gull—a delicate, tiny species that otherwise resembles the Ring-billed Gull.
I even took a few pigeon photos. Feral pigeons are a people problem where they are abundant, but their only impact on wild birds seems to be in providing abundant food for migrating and newly established urban Peregrine Falcons, and their natural history and behavior are more interesting than most people realize. Even so, being on Vancouver Island with so many birds I don’t get to see in Minnesota, I didn’t spend too much time photographing ordinary pigeons.
We only had a few hours on the island before we had to take the ferry back to the mainland, so we birded along the hike back to the ferry. Away from the shoreline, the cloudy skies and forested habitat made photography trickier—most of my photos were taken at a very high ISO, but I didn’t even care. I got lots of photos of Golden-crowned Sparrows.
I also got a few of a Chestnut-backed Chickadee subduing some kind of wasp—even the grainy ones I got of that bird were the best I'd ever taken of a splendid species.
I wasn’t feeling very well at day’s end, so instead of riding on the top level of the ferry, where it was rather easy to go from one side to the other, we went down a couple of levels. Although we could see birds from only one side of the ferry on that level, we were significantly closer to them, and since I picked the side with the sun shining from behind me onto the birds, rather than the side where the birds were backlit, I got better photos than in the morning. It was on the return that I got those thrilling glimpses and photos of Ancient Murrelets.
I keep thinking about that little girl, who wanted a magical fairy to carry her across Lake Superior. I sure hope that by now she’s come to learn about the real magic we can experience in riding the other kind of ferry.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 1:15 PM
Back in 1987 and 1988, when I was fighting a battle to keep US West from constructing a tall, guyed, lighted cell phone tower on our bird migration pathway, I made a disturbing discovery about how powerful interests influence and skew news coverage. US West claimed that the tower was essential, not only for starting up cell phone coverage in the area, but also in order for people in Lakewood Township to get 911-service. (This was over a year after Duluth had implemented 911, but many rural areas in the state still did not have that essential service.)
So I called up the woman in charge of implementing 911 services for St. Louis County. She told me that the antenna that would link Lakewood Township to the 911 system was already operational, on an existing tower in Duluth. The reason people in the township didn’t yet have the service was because they were still in the process of switching from rural route numbers to street addresses—that had to be done throughout the entire serviced area first.
I immediately notified the News-Tribune reporter who was covering the issue. He double-checked and confirmed my information. US West refused to be interviewed, but the reporter included the accurate information about 911 in his next story about the tower; somebody over his head deleted that part before publication. And in every story, the News-Tribune continued to include a paragraph straight out of US West's PR package about how cell phone towers are used to provide space for 911 antennas, irrelevant to this situation as this was, along with the line that cell phone service “is used by police and fire departments where conventional radio channels aren’t private enough or don’t have enough capacity,” although that, too, was not an issue in this situation.
I was tired of being painted as someone who cared more about birds than human beings, so I wrote a letter to the editor at the News Tribune affirming the likelihood that the tower would kill significant numbers of birds and explaining, with solid facts from the county, that construction of the tower was in no way linked to 911 service in Lakewood Township. My letter was printed in the paper, but with the entire paragraph about 911 cut out. Fortunately, I’d sent the identical letter to the Duluth Budgeteer, which printed it in full.
The Duluth News Tribune never acknowledged their role in deceiving the public about how this tower had never been intended to be part of the 911 system. They did make one significant policy change, though. After that, they started requiring anyone who sent them a letter for publication to affirm that they had not sent the same letter anywhere else.
I’ve been thinking about how easy it is for the media to skew reporting while appearing, on the outside, “fair and balanced,” as I see coverage of the Vikings Stadium glass issue. The issue has been boiled down to one of “aesthetics,” and the media keep making it sound like the fritted glass is “cloudy” and keeps light out.
Audubon Minnesota and other bird advocates have given the press abundant evidence that fritted glass is mostly transparent and very brilliant, and also that it is much more energy efficient than the glass currently on order, but the media completely leave those facts out of the discussion. The Javits Center, a major glass structure in New York, was constructed with the exact fritted glass proposed as the bird-safe alternative for the Vikings Stadium. The Dallas Cowboys’ stadium also uses this glass. But the media keep talking as if the only alternatives are the beautiful plans or something dingy and ugly.
|These are photos of New York's Javits Center, constructed with the same fritted, bird-safe glass we're proposing to be used for the Vikings Stadium.|
The public has been bamboozled into thinking this issue pits a beautiful stadium against saving a few birds, when it’s simply an issue of modifying one element of the beautiful design. The wiser glass choice will also save money and energy for both heating and cooling. But for some reason, the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority dug in their heels long ago, even though the exact same company manufacturing the glass for this building manufactures the bird-safe alternative. And the Vikings—a huge income generator for news media in Minnesota—will not force the change, either.
Sadly, the concept of conflict of interest doesn’t keep the media from covering a story that benefits their advertisers, and they’re limiting access to some of the most important information. So not much has changed since 1987, has it?
(Ultimately, US West backed down and built a 99-foot, wooden pole cemented in the ground at the Lakewood Township site. Lacking lights and guy wires, this tower is safe for migrating birds, and still provides cell phone coverage for the area. I hope in the case of the Vikings Stadium, the truth will out, and we'll end up with an equally satisfactory solution for people and birds both.)
Posted by Laura Erickson at 10:13 AM
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
I thought the name Black Friday was to acknowledge the deaths of people killed in these big sale events, but it’s a name originally given by retailers to mark the day each year that they expect their sales to finally exceed their expenses, putting them in the black.
As a Bernie Sanders-type Socialist, I’m not a very good American consumer, and it gets even harder for me to think about shopping when the internet slows down and my email box gets so clogged with junk about buying, buying, and more buying. None of the enticements stands out, and with so many, they all meld into one amorphous mass that I wish would disappear.
But instead of griping, I’ve decided to mark Black Friday as the day I think about all the wonderful things on this planet that belong to everyone, are absolutely free, and you don’t have to stand in line or trample anyone to enjoy.
The main thing I’m grateful for, of course, is the chickadee. Right now I have over a dozen visiting my yard every day. They take sunflower seeds, suet, peanut butter, shelled peanuts, and mealworms. I offer the mealworms strictly by hand, and so the moment I appear at the window, they crowd in. Of course the mealworms themselves cost good money, as do the food items I put in my feeders, and the feeders themselves, though Russ built a few of them from scrap wood.
The digital camera, telephoto lens, camera accessories, and computer equipment I use to photograph and disseminate information about those chickadees were extremely expensive. Russ and I use the fruits of our labor to pay for our necessities and for some pretty cool luxuries. But the chickadees themselves—the one thing more than anything that enhances my quality of life—are absolutely free, in both the monetary sense and the sense of what real freedom is all about.
Each individual chickadee is resourceful and hardy. Chickadee flocks share their good experiences, keep one another safe by calling out important warnings, work hard to build up their own personal food stores but allow others to raid them if something bad happens to the other’s own food stores, and are reasonably trusting while being reasonably prudent and cautious. I don’t know if chickadees are as cheerful as they make me feel, but they get up at first light every morning and deal with the worst that Mother Nature can dish out with equanimity.
I used to say that chickadees don’t ask anything of us, but since I started handing out mealworms, I can clearly see that they do know how to alight on my window frame and tap at the glass to get my attention when they feel like eating a mealworm or two. I don’t know if they’re actually asking me for it or have simply figured out how to get that alien species to come over to the window and hand them their due. Whether they have me trained, or I have them trained, or we’ve both learned how to enjoy the best of what the other can offer doesn’t matter. Feeling those scratchy little toes in my hand every day fills me with real joy and reminds me that the best things in life really are free.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 8:05 PM
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
The specimen from November 1966, 48 years ago this month, was the last Common Eider ever documented in the state until just this month. On November 10, while I was across the continent in Vancouver, Karl Bardon discovered two Common Eiders at Brighton Beach at the east end of Duluth. And on November 13, while the two were still being seen in Duluth, Bob Myers found another one in the Silver Bay marina.
All week while I was in British Columbia, I was reading posts from people who had seen and photographed the Duluth birds, which were seen from a variety of easily accessible vantage points, often near shore and sometimes even loafing on the rocks at the edge of the water. Russ and I got home on Friday night and we tried to see them the next morning but missed. That happened to be the last day the two were seen together. I’d like to think that the missing one flew off and found its way back to the Atlantic Ocean where it belongs, but it almost certainly ended up dying somewhere.
I tried to see the remaining bird again later in the week, running into a birding acquaintance, Dave Bartkey. We thoroughly checked the shoreline from the main places where it had been seen, arriving less than a half hour after the latest report, but didn’t see it. Fortunately, as some sort of consolation prize, a gorgeous red fox turned up and allowed me to take several photos from my car.
This time the eider was right there, not too far from shore directly in from where I first looked. A couple in the condominiums asked what it was—they’d been puzzling over it all morning. He thought it was a weird duck, but neither of them were familiar with diving ducks and couldn’t understand how a duck could spend so much time under water, so she thought it might be a fish. The lighting was poor, and though the bird wasn’t very far out, it was far enough to make my photographs only marginally good. But a new state bird is a new state bird.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 6:52 PM
Sunday, November 23, 2014
I was walking to Stanley Park from my hotel in downtown Vancouver on November 10 when I came upon a boat named Velleity. What a perfect name for a boat sitting in a harbor! Of course, the word velleity has always seemed singularly descriptive of me, ever since I discovered it in an Ogden Nash poetry book. He died in 1971, when he was just 68, but his daughters compiled a collection of their favorite poems, I Wouldn't Have Missed It, that came out in 1975. I read about it in a newspaper and when my father gave me some birthday money that year, I headed straight to a bookstore to buy it. Now that I think about it, that may be one of the very few instances in my life when I did not suffer from velleity.
Ogden Nash is one of my favorite poets for many, many reasons. He wrote a great many cool poems about birds and a long one I often recite from memory titled Up from the Egg: The Confessions of a Nuthatch Avoider. His poem about velleity may have nothing to do with birds, but it has a lot to do with me.
Where There's a Will, There's Velleity
Seated one day at the dictionary I was pretty weary and also pretty ill at ease,
Because a word I had always liked turned out not to be a word at all, and suddenly I found myself among the v's.
And suddenly among the v's I came across a new word which was a word called velleity,
So the new word I found was better than the old word I lost, for which I thank my tutelary deity,
Because velleity is a word which gives me great satisfaction,
Because do you know what it means, it means low degree of volition not prompting to action,
And I always knew I had something holding me back but I didn't know what,
And it's quite a relief to know it isn't a conspiracy, it's only velleity that I've got,
Because to be wonderful at everything has always been my ambition,
Yes indeed, I am simply teeming with volition,
So why I never was wonderful at anything was something I couldn't see
While all the time, of course, my volition was merely volition of a low degree,
Which is the kind of volition that you are better off without it,
Because it puts an idea in your head but doesn't prompt you to do anything about it.
So you think it would be nice to be a great pianist but why bother with practicing for hours at the keyboard,
Or you would like to be the romantic captain of a romantic ship but can't find time to study navigation or charts of the ocean or the seaboard;
You want a lot of money but you are not prepared to work for it,
Or a book to read in bed but you do not care to go into the nocturnal cold and murk for it;
And now if you have any such symptoms you can identify your malady with accurate spontaneity:
So don't forget to remember that you're velleitous, and if anybody says you're just lazy,
Why, they're crazy.
By Ogden Nash from I'm a Stranger Here Myself, 1938, and also in I Wouldn't Have Missed It: Selected Poems of Ogden Nash, 1975 (Simply the best collection of Nash poems until someone puts together a Complete Works, which I really hope happens someday.)
Posted by Laura Erickson at 12:07 AM
Friday, November 21, 2014
Twas the month before Christmas, when all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring—not dog, cat, or mouse.
Or maybe there was—I sure couldn’t tell.
My ears are so old that my hearing’s gone to hell.
So up to Essentia in my Prius I flew
To the audiology office up on Floor 2.
A hearing test taken, and a graph in bright red
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread—
Well, if sixty-two hundred in cash could be paid.
I can solve all my woes with a new hearing aid.
My life will be better, the audiologist said,
With bionic assistance stuck into my head.
Well, into my ears, where the problem began.
By spring, again kinglets could be heard in the land.
Her eyes how they twinkled. Her dimples how merry.
She made the bad news sound cheerful, not scary.
And I heard her exclaim ere I drove out of sight,
"Happy hearing to all, and to all a good night!"
Or did I hear that? You just never can tell
What a person can hear when her ears go to hell.
So I’ll scrape up the money—I hope I succeed—
Because hearing those birdies is something I need.
I taught an Elderhostel with a wonderful young guy named Troy Walters at Trees for Tomorrow for several years. For the first year or two, Troy was still learning a lot of bird songs, and I usually picked up on birds before he did. But by the third year, we were hearing things simultaneously, or took turns picking out things first. But in the past four years or so, he was consistently hearing birds before me, and sometimes I never did pick up on some songs. In 2012, for the first time ever, I watched a Golden-crowned Kinglet in full song, beak open, breast heaving, but I never heard a note. I was suddenly struggling to hear Golden-winged and Blackburnian Warblers, and had also been noticing that some songs well within my hearing range are sounding different—losing the high frequencies means I’m missing out on some of the harmonics of those songs, changing the overall tonal quality.
This fall, I used a Cedar Waxwing recording in a “For the Birds” program I was producing. That’s a song I was still picking up on in the field, and thought was still within my hearing range, but when I played the recording, even at top volume, I couldn’t hear a whole section. That’s when I knew I’d waited too long already. I made an appointment with an audiologist.
Although the very thought of needing hearing aids is sobering, I’m in excellent company. My birding hero of the universe, Chandler Robbins, told me that he got hearing aids long, long ago. His younger brother, the late Sam Robbins, was Wisconsin’s foremost birder, with legendary ears. As Sam reached his 50s or 60s, he was starting to lose some of his high frequencies, but refused to think about hearing aids until he and Chandler were birding in Wisconsin one spring morning. Standing in one spot, Chandler could pick out four Winter Wrens singing simultaneously, while Sam couldn’t hear any at all—that's when he got his own hearing aids. I use a Winter Wren song as my phone’s ringtone, so if I lost that one, I’d be in trouble in more ways than simply losing a splendid and favorite bird song.
I’m lucky that my excellent hearing lasted as long as it has, and even now my 63-year-old ears still pick up on some sounds that others miss, probably because I’ve been so focused for so long on noticing bird songs. But my ears do need help now, at least if I’m going to keep mixing my own radio programs and leading field trips and recording and listening to birds on my own. Unfortunately, the kind of hearing aids that can help pick up the sounds I need to hear are extremely expensive—a pair will cost $6,200. It would be much less expensive to go with a cool new invention that simply lowers the frequencies of high-pitched sounds so we can hear them within our hearing range, but to use that, I’d need to relearn all my bird songs, and they wouldn’t sound the same. So I’ll have to squirrel away all my earnings for a while to cover the hearing aids, which I'll get in early April so my test period extends through warbler migration. I will commit when I know I can hear those warblers again. It's a heck of a lot of money, but it’ll be worth it for me to hold on a little longer to the bird songs that have so enriched my life.
(This is not as bad as it sounds. Our insurance will cover some of the expense, and we'll put enough money in that "health savings account" thing so we won't have to pay taxes on the money for this. So don't worry about this!)
(This is not as bad as it sounds. Our insurance will cover some of the expense, and we'll put enough money in that "health savings account" thing so we won't have to pay taxes on the money for this. So don't worry about this!)
Posted by Laura Erickson at 10:53 AM
Thursday, November 20, 2014
|The only photo of Russ and me from the entire trip, from the ferry to Vancouver Island.|
I didn’t have as much time as I usually do to plan for the birding—usually I’ve done a complete study of what birds I might find, and where the best places would be for me to go to find each one—but this time I was heading there pretty much cold. I’ve wanted to visit Vancouver Island since I started birding, and so Russ and I decided to take the ferry there on Saturday because Russ had the day off. That turned out to be fortuitous because we ended up chatting with a birder named Ken Kennedy, who gave us lots of suggestions and information.
|Laura and Ken Kennedy|
Thanks in part to him, we spent Sunday at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary—an unforgettable day.
|People are allowed to purchase bags of nutritious food to handfeed the ducks and chickadees, so a great many birds are wonderfully approachable at Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary.|
Stanley Park is well known for birding and was less than a mile from our hotel, so when I arrived on Friday, we spent the afternoon there together, and I hiked to Stanley Park on my own on Monday.
|I love the western Fox Sparrows!|
Russ took Tuesday morning off from his meeting so we could bird in Queen Elizabeth Park.
|One of Michael Conway Baker's Steller's Jays|
I spent Thursday, the last day of the trip, at Jericho Park.
|Pacific Wren on the icy, rocky beach at Jericho Park|
Russ and I rented a car to get to the ferry and to get to Reifel Sanctuary, and did all the rest of our travel on foot or using public transportation. As it turned out, we could have managed without the rental car entirely without changing the birding itinerary. That would have been both cheaper and less fraught—driving through Vancouver early on weekend mornings was a piece of cake, but getting back in late afternoon or early evening, even on weekends, was pretty awful. But Vancouver’s public transportation system was wonderfully easy to negotiate. The transit website gave perfect directions telling me where to catch the bus or train, which one I’d use, and where and how to transfer. All in all, I took the Sea Bus, trolley buses, regular buses, and Sky Train.
My Vancouver birding books are both over 13 years old, and Vancouver has seen a lot of development over the past decade, but the parks I visited hadn’t changed much, so the out-of-print guide books were still quite helpful. Just as useful was eBird—the bird-reporting website operated by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon.
I didn’t get any lifers on this trip—I’ve birded too long to have many opportunities for those over most of North America anymore—but did see plenty of one species I entirely missed last year on my Big Year. Northwestern Crows are all over the place in the Vancouver area, but I never got far enough north along the Pacific last year to see them.
I also got to see a few Ancient Murrelets on the ferry ride to Vancouver Island—that’s another that I missed last year.
But even though I seldom see new birds anymore, I did get some of the best photos I’ve ever taken for some species, and my first photos ever for Ancient Murrelet and White-winged Scoter.
The best thing about this or any trip is getting to experience birds in a whole new place. We lucked into a long stretch of amazingly clear weather, and even if most of the species were familiar, I got to see them in new places doing new things. I got a series of photos of a common, everyday Double-crested Cormorant swallowing a surprisingly large fish.
|Looks like a snuff film for a poor striped bass|
I haven’t spent nearly enough time birding in the West, so every day was a treasure. It’ll take a long time to get through the thousands of photos I took, and to write about the most exciting things that happened, but for me, much of the joy of travel comes from savoring the wonderful experiences after I get home. Birding trips are like a gift that keeps on giving, long after the trip is over.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 8:11 AM
Tuesday, November 18, 2014
1. The number 63 is ASCII for the question mark—the perfect symbol for how I go through life.
2. It's also the number of chromosomes found in the offspring of a donkey and a horse (both hinnies and mules).
4. It's also the sum of the powers of 2 from 0 to 5 (1+2+4+8+16+32).
5. I saw my first Common Yellowthroat on June 26, 1975—it was #63 on my lifelist.
6. Sixty-three is the minimum age for drinking plus the answer to life, the universe, and everything! Of course, when I've been drinking I always think I know the answers to life, the universe, and everything, but this year it's official.
7. Sixty-three is the number of years Ulysses S. Grant was on the planet.
9. The 63rd species on the official Checklist of the American Ornithologists' Union is the extinct Labrador Duck—sobering and sad, but a bit of trivia that gives me renewed energy to work to prevent more extinctions of wonderful birds.
|Labrador Duck in Philadelphia at the Museum of Natural History|
10. Sixty-three is my daughter Katie's favorite number, backwards.
|My daughter Katie in the late 90s|
11. Sixty-three is 111111 in binary. Pretty cool for someone born on 11/11!
Posted by Laura Erickson at 9:51 AM