Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The World I Choose to Live In


I woke up this morning to the sound of my backyard robin, House Wren, Song Sparrows, and Baltimore Orioles singing away. My yard was hopping with warblers last night, and first bird I heard when I took Pip out this morning was a Blackburnian Warbler—and I could hear the high notes at the end of each song thanks to my hearing aids.

Pip had to get groomed, and while she was there, I went to the Western Waterfront Trail. As I walked along the path at the beginning, a woman walking her dog said I looked like a birder, and asked if I knew what birds she’d been seeing—they were quite tiny, like chickadees, but colored sort of like Red-winged Blackbirds. I showed her the pictures of American Redstarts on my cell phone’s Sibley app. She was happy to have her question answered, and I was happy to be living in the kind of world where people notice little black-and-orange birds, want to know what they are, and feel comfortable asking someone with binoculars.

American Redstart

I’d led a warbler walk here yesterday, and there were only a few new birds today—a couple of Swainson’s Thrushes and a Gray-cheeked Thrush. Orioles were noisier than yesterday, but Red-winged Blackbirds were quieter. I saw several Veeries—we seem to be at peak migration for them. And I also came upon a very welcome sight—a family of Canada Geese. I’m a sucker for baby ducks and geese, and these guys were still pretty tiny. I took a lot of photos since the parents didn’t seem too worried about me.

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Canada Goose

Pip’s grooming takes about an hour, so I didn’t stay too long. On my way back, I came upon the coolest sight of the morning—a Veery on the trail right in front of me. I pretty much stayed rooted where I stood, clicking away photo after photo, and the bird didn’t seem concerned at all—he or she actually came closer rather than moving further away. My photos show every feather, and I even got some of the little thing extracting a worm from some kind of dried reed and gobbling it down. I wasn’t in a hurry, so I waited for him or her to move on before I did. It felt so warm and lovely to spend a few minutes with this normally secretive little sprite.




A man was coming from the parking area as I was leaving, right as another Veery flew across the trail in front of him, so I made a friendly comment about the weather and the good birds. He pulled a pair of binoculars out of his pocket, so I naturally gave him a couple of tips about where the warblers were. Suddenly he asked, “Are you Laura?!” And that felt pretty lovely and friendly, too.

Pip was thrilled to see me again. It’s such a weirdly gratifying thing to have a little dog, and be the sun and the moon and the stars to her.

On our way home, we stopped at Park Point, where a few school buses in the parking lot and throngs of children in the picnic area and playground gave intimations that the school year is just about over. About 300 Ring-billed Gulls were loafing in the ball field. I couldn’t pick out any outliers among them—just one Greater Yellowlegs—but in one fairly small puddle right next to the parking lot, a pair of Northern Shovelers let me take lots of photos.

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

Northern Shoveler

It’s been very discouraging lately keeping up with the news—the efforts to privatize more and more federal lands that were set aside for all of us and for wildlife; the reversal of the ban on lead ammo in national wildlife refuges; the serious efforts to dismantle the Endangered Species Act and cut back funding for the agencies that protect not just wildlife but the air we breathe and the water we drink. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth fighting anymore—we seem to be returning to the days before that first Earth Day, as if all the things I’ve fought for my entire adult life have been for naught.

A morning like today does two things—reminds me of the beauty and value of the things I’m fighting for, and restores my spirit. I was filled with gratitude for baby geese, a friendly Veery, beautiful Northern Shovelers, a good little dog, and people who care about these things, too. This is the world I choose to live in.


Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Migration, slow but sure

Our Veery on the same post we saw a Hermit Thrush a few weeks ago.
Migration is progressing way more slowly than I'm used to, but we're seeing more warblers and other migrants, and a few new birds seem to be establishing territories now. Orioles were everywhere, though they weren't as cooperative at showing themselves for the first hour or two, so some of the people who had to leave early didn't get as nice looks as those of us who stuck around. I didn't get any photos, though.

Even before we left the parking area we heard our first Veery of the day. One perched on the same post as a Hermit Thrush did a few weeks ago—disappointingly, I'd neglected to photograph that one. But I did get today's Veery.

Warbling Vireos are back—they'll most likely be nesting in the trees along the river. We had a nice sampling of warblers, but not many individuals of any one species. The only one I got a photo of was one of our last additions to our list, a Blackpoll.

Blackpoll Warbler
Here's how the Blackpoll Warbler usually looked. 

Blackpoll Warbler
Here's when he came out for maybe 2 seconds. 
Red-winged Blackbirds were exceptionally active, males chasing females, females gathering nesting materials, males displaying and making a wide spectrum of their vocalizations. 

Red-winged Blackbird

Red-winged Blackbird

During the time we were birding, I was getting a few messages about cool birds showing up on Park Point, like a Little Gull and two Red Knots. I do hope that people who left early to head there got them! I couldn't find them when I was done with the walk.

46 species

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  22
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  7
Red-breasted Merganser (Mergus serrator)  1
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)  1
Sora (Porzana carolina)  1
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  4
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  6
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  2
Chimney Swift (Chaetura pelagica)  1
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)  2
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  2
Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)  2
Warbling Vireo (Vireo gilvus)  3
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  2
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  4
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)  4
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  6
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)  3
Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris)  1
Veery (Catharus fuscescens)  6
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  8
Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  2
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  2
Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)  1
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)  2
Tennessee Warbler (Oreothlypis peregrina)  1
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)  2
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)  6
Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)  5
Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)  2
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)  8
Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)  1
Blackpoll Warbler (Setophaga striata)  3
Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)  2
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)  5
Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)  4
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  6
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  1
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  6
Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)  1
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  25
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  10
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  12
Baltimore Oriole (Icterus galbula)  8
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  12

Monday, May 22, 2017

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Don't throw coins in the Grand Canyon!

I’ve been entering all the content of my book, 101 Ways to Help Birds, on my website, to make it easier for people to access this information that I spent 2 ½ years researching and putting together. Surprisingly, 11 years after publication the book still stands up remarkably well. In one section I mention some old technologies and software, but also strongly recommended eBird, which turns out to be perhaps even greater than the Cornell Lab originally envisioned. Where things are outdated or we have new and better information, I’m adding links and updates. It’s been a lot of work, but I’m very pleased with how it’s turning out—all you have to do to find it is click on “Ways to Help” in the top menu of my blog or webpage.

Over the years since I researched and wrote the book, I’ve felt increasing dismay that no one seems to pay attention to even pretty obvious things we can do to protect nature. When I went to the Grand Canyon in 2011, I learned that two California Condors released there had died after swallowing pennies, which are highly toxic. I’d written about how dangerous pennies are that were minted since 1982, when the zinc content rose to 96 percent.

Bald Eagle

I wrote about lead poisoning in Bald Eagles during hunting season, when they pick up carcasses and gut piles with lead bullet fragments. It’s been illegal to use lead shot in waterfowl hunting since 1991, and last year President Obama banned the use of all lead ammunition on national wildlife refuges, but the very first act of Donald Trump’s interior secretary Ryan Zinke was to reverse that ban! Ironically, the lead ban was just as protective of human beings, including the children of hunters, as it was for wildlife—there are increased lead levels in hunters’ families’ blood when they eat venison shot with lead ammunition, too. Many food shelves now ban venison contributions for that very reason.

This weekend I added the comments I made in closing my book. They are truer today than when I wrote them, so I’m going to quote them in full:

When I started writing this book in 2003, I knew that I faced a daunting task. I’d been working on conservation issues for many years and knew how many perils birds face in the world today. But as I researched, I learned more about the sheer magnitude of problems that I was already aware of—50 million birds a year at TV towers? A billion birds a year at windows? And I discovered perils that I’d never even imagined, large and small, from the dangers of fences for prairie chickens to the toxicity of pennies in ponds. How could I not feel discouraged? Like the children in Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat, birds face a mess that is “so big and so deep and so tall” that there seems no realistic way to solve it. No way at all. 
Before we were even a nation, we worked together in a concerted effort to defeat the most powerful empire on earth and win our independence. Remembering that the only thing we had to fear was fear itself, we made enormous personal and collective sacrifices and survived the Depression, destroyed Nazism, and defeated the nation that had attacked Pearl Harbor. When we set our collective minds and hearts to it, we traveled to the moon, walked on it, and even hit a couple of golf balls up there. Now, if we continue to take steps backward, rather than toward clean air and water and energy, if we slide away from protecting the resources that belong to every single one of us, and if we abandon the natural habitat that sustains us and that is our rightful heritage, it will not be because we can’t make things better; it will be because we choose not to.  
In the real world, there is no magical Cat who will ride in and clean up our messes for us. I have a few friends who deeply and truly believe that God will step in and save the day, but I grew up hearing that “the Lord helps those who help themselves.” And I can’t forget that God charged Noah with saving every species. This mess is our responsibility, individually and collectively. What is the solution? You and I are.
Black-capped Vireo gathering nest materials

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Slow down, dammit!

Baby Canada Goose

We began our Duluth Audubon Society spring warbler walks the first week of April this year, and ever since the very first walks on the Western Waterfront Trail and Park Point we’ve been watching Canada Goose pairs. First they were romancing, and then we started seeing females on nests, the male always nearby; when a female took a bit of a break to feed and stretch, the male was always right there with her. Geese are inspiring in how each pair works as a perfect team to raise their young.

By May I was growing more and more impatient to see baby geese. I know we have way too many Canada Geese, but their babies are extremely adorable, and I love photographing them. Some people on our warbler walks saw their first last week on Park Point, but I didn’t see any until yesterday. It was very cold, and one mother was hunkered down in the grass with babies sitting on her back, covered a bit by her feathers and wings. The mate got restless as I slowed down, so as much as I wanted a photo, I didn’t pull over—it seemed rude and selfish to risk disturbing the birds when they looked so cozy. When I was driving the other way leaving the point, I saw two families by the edge of the water, but from that side of the road I would have had to get out of the car, risking disturbing the parents—again, it didn’t seem worth it.

Baby Canada Goose

Then today, on the way to my Park Point warbler walk, the geese were close enough to the road for me to get several photos. I was thrilled—no matter what they do, baby geese do it in an adorable way.

Baby Canada Goose

Baby geese are too innocent to understand danger even as they stay extremely close to their parents. The security the parents give them allows the baby geese to explore in as safe a way as possible this amazing world. Just imagine—less than a week ago, each one of these little birds was scrunched up inside a dark egg, warm and safe but hardly able to move. Did they have any inkling what the big wide world would be like?

Baby Canada Goose

It was hard to break away from them, but I had to get to my warbler walk. We had so many birds, including 17 different kinds of warblers, that I pretty much stopped thinking about adorable baby geese. But as I started out of the parking lot, I was suddenly filled with anticipation, looking forward to getting more shots of the adorable little guys.

As I approached the area where I’d first seen the geese, I saw the adults in the middle of the road, with the goslings milling close to them. The parents were looking down, and I didn’t want to risk startling them, so I pulled over well before I got to them. But even from that distance, the parents started walking off the road, their babies sticking close. Well, all but two babies. Apparently the parents had led the young birds across a bit earlier, and someone ran them down—two babies were dead in the road. I think the parents must have returned to them, not ready to accept the finality of this horrible loss.

Dead baby Canada Goose

The speed limit on Lake Avenue all along Park Point is 30 miles per hour. With all the vulnerable wildlife on what is one of the most important stretches of any migration pathway on the continent, I’d prefer the speed limit to be no more than 25. But most of the cars that are out whenever I happen to be there are going faster than I am. I can’t imagine how anyone could have approached a goose family—the babies stick close to their parents—without noticing them on the road. But I also can’t imagine anyone killing baby geese intentionally.

I took my first ornithology class at the Kellogg Biological Station, about 65 miles from our apartment in East Lansing, Michigan, in 1975. On one of our drives on a very foggy morning, birds were everywhere. Russ drove very slow so he wouldn’t kill any of them. The distress of hitting a bird would have been worse for us—to say nothing of for the bird—than missing 15 minutes of even the greatest class.

Memories of that foggy morning and of several incidents in Duluth when people hit lots of grounded warblers or owls near roadsides inspired me to include in my book 101 Ways to Help Birds Number 60: “Drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient.” Driving too slow in traffic is not safe or courteous, and if you’re late for an engagement, it’s not convenient. But slowing down saves energy, human lives, and wildlife. I explained this and gave statistics about the magnitude of the problem in the book. All the text for this "way" is available for free online. But today when I came upon those tragic little baby geese, hardly out in the big world at all before someone driving too fast mowed them down, I wasn’t thinking in terms of the polite words in my book. Dammit, people—slow down!

Dead baby Canada Goose

The floodgates open!

Lesser Yellowlegs

I had a feeling today would be good, even as I left home in a steady drizzle at 6:15. The rain was supposed to stop by 8, but it decided to give us a break and quit early. By the time I made it to Park Point at 6:45, it was just dark and murky.

We found 17 species of warblers in the pine trees near the parking lot, and they were there throughout the four hours I stuck around. Most were Palms and Yellow-rumps, and the light was so dull that the colors even on older male redstarts and Chestnut-sideds seemed pretty drab.

Chestnut-sided Warbler on a murky day

Once in a while one would alight in the perfect position to show some eye-popping color, but just momentarily. We tried moving to the dunes and onto the airport to get them in better light, or at least not backlit, but all the warblers seemed concentrated in those pine trees. When we scanned for them, we also saw amazing clouds of insects—cool for us to see, but even cooler for the birds to feed on. Even the Chipping Sparrows were flitting about pigging out on them.

Overhead, swallows were flying every which way. In the bad light, they were tricky to identify. Most were Tree Swallows, but there were quite a few Barn Swallows, and most of us managed to pick out at least some Cliff, Northern Rough-winged, and Bank Swallows among them, and early on I picked out a single Purple Martin.

The ball fields were hopping with birds—about three hundred Ring-billed Gulls with three Herring Gulls seemed to provide the nucleus—a clear sign to any birds flying over that all was clear. During our time there most of the people in our group had good looks at quite a few Dunlins, a Short-billed Dowitcher, and a Black-bellied Plover.


Some people spotted a Ruddy Turnstone with the Dunlins on the beach, and some of us saw one with Dunlins on the ball fields at the very end. Those of us who stuck around long after I first started saying I had to get home were rewarded with two American White Pelicans, a Whimbrel, and a Marbled Godwit flying over, and a Caspian Tern who sat among the gulls trying to blend in. After we left, John Richardson reported even more cool birds on the ball field, including a Lesser Black-backed Gull.

Spring migration is such an ephemeral phenomenon that people can’t help but panic when there’s a great day—will this be the last one? But on May 18, of course it isn’t. So many Yellow-rumps and Palms among the warblers means were still at the start of the peak—nowhere near the top of it yet. One lone Eastern Kingbird hunkered down in a small tree near the recreation building, spotting by Tim Larson alone, was a reminder that we have a lot more flycatchers due to arrive, along with a host of other birds. Birding next week will be intense! And after the migrants have all passed through, we’ll still be able to see 15 or so warblers a day, on territory, for weeks longer. This really is the most wonderful time of the year.

Northern Flicker

63 species (+1 other taxa)

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  5
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  4
Blue-winged Teal (Anas discors)  3
Double-crested Cormorant (Phalacrocorax auritus)  8
American White Pelican (Pelecanus erythrorhynchos)  2
Bald Eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus)  1
Black-bellied Plover (Pluvialis squatarola)  1
Whimbrel (Numenius phaeopus)  1
Marbled Godwit (Limosa fedoa)  1
Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres)  1
Dunlin (Calidris alpina)  30
Short-billed Dowitcher (Limnodromus griseus)  1
Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria)  1
Lesser Yellowlegs (Tringa flavipes)  2
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  300
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)  3
Caspian Tern (Hydroprogne caspia)  1
Common Tern (Sterna hirundo)  12
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  1
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)  1
Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus)  5
Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1
Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)  1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  8
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  4
Northern Rough-winged Swallow (Stelgidopteryx serripennis)  3
Purple Martin (Progne subis)  1
Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)  100
Bank Swallow (Riparia riparia)  3
Barn Swallow (Hirundo rustica)  5
Cliff Swallow (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota)  8
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  4
Brown Creeper (Certhia americana)  2
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
Veery (Catharus fuscescens)  2
Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus)  3
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  4
Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum)  1
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  4
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)  1
Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata)  1
Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla)  4
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)  1
American Redstart (Setophaga ruticilla)  4
Cape May Warbler (Setophaga tigrina)  4
Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)  2
Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)  6
Bay-breasted Warbler (Setophaga castanea)  1
Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)  1
Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)  5
Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)  15
Pine Warbler (Setophaga pinus)  1
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)  15
Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens)  7
Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis)  1
Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)  2
warbler sp. (Parulidae sp.) (Parulidae sp.)  400     We estimated about 15 warblers per pine at the edge of the parking lot. Numbers for each species were minimums.
Chipping Sparrow (Spizella passerina)  20
White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys)  2
Savannah Sparrow (Passerculus sandwichensis)  1
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  5
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  4
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  5
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  2

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Concentrated fun

Blue-headed Vireo

This morning started exactly the way the forecast said it would, with thick fog. So despite the fact that the forecast was also calling for rain around 8 am, I set out for my Tuesday Warbler Walk at the Western Waterfront Trail with high hopes.

Ever since Russ's and my first spring in Duluth in 1981, I’ve noticed that there are two kinds of days up here. Russ likes the MMMMMMMMs: the Magnificent Minnesota Mornings. Unfortunately, on those days Migration seems Mediocre. The days I love are the DDDDDDDs: the Dull, Dark, Dreary, Drizzly, Depressing, Damp Duluth Days that birders Delight in. In mid- to late-May, these weather patterns always seem to coincide with the best days, when a wonderful variety of warblers, vireos, thrushes, and flycatchers abound, with eye-popping hummingbirds, tanagers, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and orioles to provide bursts of color even through the fog. Today was definitely one of those DDDDDDDs.

With the wind, we didn’t hear many songs except the House Wrens who were pretty much singing non-stop from the parking lot (one close, one barely at the edge of my hearing range (thanks to Jeff for hearing that one!) when we arrived.

When we started walking, we almost immediately came upon a Veery giving its veer call—it flew out very briefly, and some of us got good looks. The dull, dim lighting didn’t help with tricky warblers—one backlit Orange-crowned Warbler didn’t want to show its undertail coverts and while we were puzzling over that, a Yellow Warbler suddenly took its place, making some of us doubt our own eyes until we cleared up that we were looking at two different birds.

The forecast kept our participant list down—there were only 11 of us—and the wind and cold seemed to keep the birds down, too. The dim light made photography tricky, and the only bird I even tried to get photos of was not cooperative, but I did manage a couple of terribly grainy, dull pictures of our Blue-headed Vireo. That’s usually the first vireo to turn up during migration, and sure enough, it was my first vireo of the year.  

Blue-headed Vireo

We saw a few warblers at the very start, but didn’t come onto our best little flock until right as the rain started—and it quickly showed that it meant business. Still, our six warbler species make this morning's warbler total the best we’ve done so far. The rain started right on schedule, so our walk lasted barely an hour. Our species list was only 28, but of them, 6 were new for our walks. We’d have had a good 20 additional species—maybe more—had the rain not sent us packing.

But the rain and fog, which lasted through the day, maintained the quality of the birding, even though temps in the 40s were a little lower than is pleasant in mid-May. When I got home to  my own yard, I had as many as 6 orioles at a time, a Brown Thrasher, and my first Least Flycatchers, Red-eyed Vireos, and Harris’s Sparrow of the year. Even my local birds were fun to watch—my pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers and Pileateds have been spending time in the yard, and even in the dull light, I got a pretty nice closeup of the Pileated.

Pileated Woodpecker

Meanwhile, John Richardson and several other local birders had great birds on Park Point today, including Whimbrels and both a Marbled and a Hudsonian Godwit. We’re going to be seeing more of the DDDDDDDs in coming days. May is a great month to be alive, and as far as birding goes, the worse the weather, the better.

28 species

Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  12
Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)  1
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  3
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  2
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)  2
Merlin (Falco columbarius)  1
Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)  1
Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  1
American Crow (Corvus brachyrhynchos)  2
Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus)  4
House Wren (Troglodytes aedon)  2
Veery (Catharus fuscescens)  1
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  4
Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)  1
Orange-crowned Warbler (Oreothlypis celata)  1
Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)  1
Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)  2
Palm Warbler (Setophaga palmarum)  1
Wilson's Warbler (Cardellina pusilla)  1
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  2
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  4
Swamp Sparrow (Melospiza georgiana)  1
Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)  1
Red-winged Blackbird (Agelaius phoeniceus)  16
Common Grackle (Quiscalus quiscula)  2
Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  2
American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  6

Monday, May 15, 2017

Unexpected delight!

Lewis's Woodpecker

On Monday, I was working on the computer, not very productively because I kept getting distracted by the bird activity in my yard, when out of the blue I got an email from Leann Hess in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Leann was at the center of the effort to get Port Wing designated an official Bird City in Wisconsin, so it was altogether fitting that she was rewarded yesterday with a really cool bird at her feeder—the first ever Lewis's Woodpecker to be reported in Bayfield County! The moment I read her email I sent a message to Wisconsin birding guru Ryan Brady, grabbed Pip the birding dog, and hopped in the car.

I don't chase birds that often, but Lewis's Woodpecker is uniquely beautiful—our only green and pink woodpecker. It's also uniquely historical—the only bird named for Meriwether Lewis. I've seen the species before in Nevada, California, and Colorado, but to see one in Wisconsin, in my favorite town in Wisconsin to boot, was uniquely special.

It had been thundering and raining most of the morning, but the rain stopped on my drive. I made it to Port Wing just a few minutes before Ryan Brady and Nick Anich got there. The Lewis’s Woodpecker was on a telephone pole pretty far off but easy to see. And after a few minutes it flew right in to a feeder just a few feet from the window.  I took lots of photos through the glass, which Leann and Mary keep pristine.

Lewis's Woodpecker

I've never had such superb looks before, and never got to see so much of the pink belly. Meriwether Lewis was also taken with that feature. He wrote, "The belly and breast is a curious mixture of white and blood red which has much the appearance of having been artificially painted or stained of that colour. The red reather predominates.” Some of my photos show the red and white individual feathers blending into pink.

It's easy to romanticize such a gorgeous bird, but not quite so easy to romanticize Lewis and Clark. I looked up Lewis's Woodpecker on the Discovering Lewis and Clark webpage and National Geographic’s Lewis’s Woodpecker page to learn that Lewis first observed the species on July 20, 1805, north of Helena in what is now Lewis and Clark County, Montana. And on May 17, 1806, he wrote, "The Black woodpecker which I have frequently mentioned and which is found in most parts of the roky Mountains as well as the Western and S. W. Mountains, I had never an opportunity of examining untill a few days since when we killed and preserved several of them."

Lewis realized this bird was "new to science." He brought the specimens home and gave one to Charles Willson Peale for the Peale Museum, where Alexander Wilson made a drawing from it and assigned it a scientific name, Picus torquatus.

Lewis noted that the woodpecker resembled the Red-headed Woodpecker in behavior and flight. In 1831, William Swainson, the British ornithologist, apparently picked up on some similar points and reclassified it, putting it in Melanerpes, the same genus as both the Red-headed and Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and made lewis the specific epithet in honor of the man who collected the specimen he was writing about.

Lewis's Woodpecker

I stuck around Leann and Mary's place for almost two hours, which was at least an hour and a half longer than the total time in my life I’ve spent with Lewis’s Woodpeckers before this, and the woodpecker stayed in view the entire time. It would fly to the feeder and pick up a single sunflower seed, then carry it off to the telephone pole to store it. 

During a spell of rain, the woodpecker perched, exposed, on the pole but didn't fly in. I finally left around 4:45, thinking if we get a brighter, non-rainy day while the bird is still there, I just might go back. Even if I don’t, my time with this Lewis’s Woodpecker was good enough to last a lifetime. 
Lewis's Woodpecker

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Unusually pale Song Sparrow

Song Sparrow Leucistic (dilute)

Spring is proceeding nice and deliberately this year. The first orioles and hummingbirds have shown up in my neighborhood, but not in big numbers yet. A good assortment of warblers have been arriving, but the vast majority are still Yellow-rumps. The lack of rain lately has dried up the ball field at Park Point, so shorebirds have been few and far between, but I’ve lucked into leading Duluth Audubon’s spring warbler walks at Park Point on two days when Blue Jay migration has been exceptional, with big flocks of jays twinkling past against the blue sky.

I haven’t had many Fox or White-throated Sparrows this year, and not a single White-crowned or Harris’s Sparrow yet. Last week Chipping Sparrows finally supplanted the lingering American Tree Sparrows. I’ve also had a couple of Swamp Sparrows and one Clay-colored Sparrow, even though Peabody Street is the wrong habitat for both. During migration, it really is true that just about anything can show up just about anywhere.
The sparrow I’ve had in the biggest numbers from day to day this spring has been the Song Sparrow. For a while, I’d have as many as four in my sparrow feeding area at the same time, and I’ve been hearing three males singing from different directions a lot. I’ve always had at least one pair nesting nearby, but this year’s three is the best ever.

Song Sparrow Leucistic (dilute)

Last week I had one particular Song Sparrow in my yard that I’d not seen before all spring, and so far I haven’t seen it since. I’d recognize it, because this one is uniquely colored, its plumage extremely pale but not pure white. In ornithology class in the ‘70s, I learned to describe this plumage condition as leucistic; when I started talking to hawk watchers in the ‘80s, I learned it was more properly described as dilute. Meanwhile, in ornithology in the 70s, I learned that birds with patches or almost entirely all-white plumage were partial albinos. Now some scientists say the only proper term for any pale or white bird is also leucistic unless you have solid proof that it produces no melanin at all. They claim the only proper use of the word albino must refer to the genetic condition, and that no genetic condition can be called "partial." That makes leucistic a catchall term for any bird with any low amount of melanin.

I’m not an authority on many ornithological issues—I just try to translate what scientists have agreed on—but in this case, they haven’t really settled on proper terminology even as some have become extremely prescriptive. In my opinion, the words people use, especially words that had a longstanding history of usage since long before anyone had a clue about genetic underpinnings, shouldn’t be retroactively redefined. New information should lead to a more precise but new word, not appropriation of a word that was already perfectly useful with a well-known meaning.

David Sibley was dealing with these same nomenclature rules when he wrote a 2011 entry in his blog. He wrote:

The term leucistic has a confused history. In the introductions of the Sibley Guides I said the term leucistic is synonymous with dilute plumage. That usage was fairly common among birders at the time, and I was unaware that it contradicted several scholarly publications … which define leucistic as the total lack of melanin from some or all feathers (what I called partial albino in the guides). It does make sense to distinguish birds that are unable to deposit melanin (my partial albino, their leucistic) from birds that are able to deposit melanin but only in low concentrations (my leucistic, their dilute). Below I’ve used the term leucistic (not partial albino) for birds which cannot deposit melanin, which helps to distinguish these birds from the narrowly-defined true albino, and allows use of the term “partial albino” as a general category for any bird showing any form of reduced melanin. These terms should be corrected in the introduction of the Sibley Guides.  

Unfortunately for me, David Sibley’s use of “partial albino” as the catchall for pale OR patchy-white birds seems just as confusing as “leucistic” is. So I’m giving up on both terms altogether. From now on, I’m calling the condition my Song Sparrow has “unusually pale plumage.” I’ll call what I originally learned as partial albinism “patchy white plumage.” And oddly enough, even though both terms sound less scientific, they’ll have a more obvious and precise meaning than “leucistic" or "partial albino" as they're currently used. Regardless, a rose is a rose is a rose, and any bird with unusual plumage still looks as sweet.

Song Sparrow Leucistic (dilute)

Saturday, May 13, 2017

101 Ways to Help Birds

Of the baker’s dozen books I’ve written in the past quarter century, I think the most important is my 101 Ways to Help Birds, which was published by Stackpole in 2006. It took over two years to write it—I started it right after the Midwest Birding Symposium in September 2003, after spending the weekend energized and inspired by a host of prominent conservationists I’d been meeting with, such as Alicia Craig, Kenn Kaufman, Don and Lillian Stokes, Ron Windingstad, and Ric Zarwell. On the drive home, I was suddenly struck by the fact that I didn’t know of any book that thoroughly covered the broad span of threats birds face from every direction, and what we individually can do to help.

My daughter Katie and I came up with my working title, Resounding Spring: 101 Ways to Help Birds and Prevent a Real Silent Spring, and I dedicated the book to Rachel Carson, “who understood that the future of humans and birds is inextricably intertwined. We’re all in this together.”

I organized the ways we can help birds into five broad categories: Helping Birds at Home, Enhancing the Natural Habitat of Your Backyard, Supplementing Backyard Habitat, Helping Birds Away from Home, and Helping Birds on a Larger Scale. And I did my best to explain why each “way” was important, from Number 1, “Wake up with bird-friendly coffee,” to Number 101, “Think about the many ways that birds have enriched your life, and share them with others.

I included all kinds of issues that even today few bird conservationists are focused on, such as Number 2, “Eat lower on the food chain, and especially eat less beef,” Number 8, “Build or choose a home with the least impact on the natural world,” Number 10, “Buy lumber or furniture with a Sustainable Forestry Initiative or Forest Stewardship Council logo, or buy used,” and Number 27, “Cut hay and alfalfa as late in the breeding season as possible.”

As I researched how these issues—from conserving water and energy to removing unnecessary fencing—affect bird populations, I felt increasingly depressed and hopeless. It didn’t help that the book was rejected by a few major publishers that have long specialized in titles important for birders, including Houghton Mifflin, the original publisher of Silent Spring. I didn’t get any negative feedback about the content or my approach—indeed, the bird book acquisitions editor at one major publisher wrote me a personal letter about how much he loved the book and how much he wanted them to publish it, but he said the publishers decided there was no market for books about bird conservation. And every publisher said the implied reference to Rachel Carson in my title would have to go: as we were approaching the 2007 centennial of her birth, a groundswell of negative publicity against her and for a return to the widespread use of DDT made publishers nervous.

Ironically, Rodale, the publisher of Al Gore’s book about climate change, rejected the book out-of-hand not because it was about conservation but because it didn’t go far enough, at least with regard to pesticides. I thoroughly explain how dangerous insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and rodenticides are for birds and why it’s best to avoid them entirely, but I tried to be flexible to reach as many people as possible, noting that if someone were absolutely committed to a pristine lawn, it would be better to spot spray dandelions than to hire a lawn care company to apply herbicides over every square inch of lawn, even where no dandelions could be found.

If Rodale thought I was not preachy enough, a couple of prominent conservationists thought I was too preachy and negative. All I could do was follow my own lights and make my work as good as I could. It would be lovely if other conservationists would write better books that cover these issues—I’d welcome seeing my stuff replaced by better work. I also wish conservation books sold as well as field guides, and that we had as broad a selection of them.

Whooping Crane

I’d have loved to have this book put out by a major publisher with a budget to produce it as I originally envisioned it, filled with colorful photos and other useful illustrations. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially in a how-to book—it was frustrating to be limited to written explanations. And beautiful pictures of birds can provide visceral evidence of what is at stake. As it turned out, the 284-page book has fewer than 50 black-and-white line drawings—not many people nowadays would consider buying such a text-heavy bird book. But Stackpole did a great job of editing and keeping my message intact, and based on what the other publishers said, Stackpole took a huge financial risk to publish the book at all, for which I’m very grateful.

101 Ways to Help Birds is still in print and easily purchased online. A handful of bookstores, especially associated with national wildlife refuge associations and other conservation organizations, make a point of keeping it in stock. I usually have copies of this and my other books along when I do presentations, but I’m not very likely to tell people about that—I’m a horrible salesperson.

But I wrote the book to help birds, and want the information “out there” however I can do it. All 101 ways are listed on my webpage (and this blog) at the top under “Ways to Help.” Last week I transcribed the entire entry about making windows safe for birds to my webpage in conjunction with my blog post I wrote about windows. Then Environment for the Americas, which sponsors International Migratory Bird Day, linked to it on facebook. That made me realize that I should do that for all 101 ways, so now I’m transcribing the rest of the book’s text there, too.

The “ways” are listed in separate boxes. Any of those boxes that have a photo background can be clicked now to see the entire text from the book and also photos. Unfortunately, I can’t find any digital copies of the book, so I’m typing out the entire text entry by entry, which is time-consuming. But I’m noticing that even though the book is over 10 years old now, most of the information is still accurate. After I’ve finished adding all the entries, I’ll start adding updated information and resources. If you know of any sources you’d like me to include, please let me know.