Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Boreal Owl

If there is a month during which we should not be seeing owls all over the place, it’s National Blue Jay Awareness Month. Blue Jays do not approve of owls in any way, shape, or form, with good reason. Owls as small as Eastern Screech-Owls eat Blue Jays, so when a Blue Jay discovers any owl, it voices its disapproval loud enough to alert jays and other critters, far and wide.

Since the start of National Blue Jay Awareness Month, I’ve seen only a single Blue Jay on two occasions—one visiting my feeder briefly on January 3, and then that one or another on January 22. I’m glad they’ve been few and far between this year, because we’ve been seeing lot of owls. I’ve seen Snowy Owls a few times in Canal Park, and one magnificent adult male along the Western Waterfront Trail—three crows, close Blue Jay relatives, were chasing that one.

Great Gray Owl

Northern Hawk Owls and Great Gray Owls are being seen at the Sax-Zim Bog and here and there up the shore a ways. They are easiest to find on cloudy days, but birding is like a box of chocolates—even on a sunny day you never know what you’re going to get.

The most sought-after owl in northern Minnesota, and also the one most likely to eat Blue Jays, is the Boreal Owl. A few have been seen in and near Duluth this winter. One hung around Hartley Nature Center on and off for a couple of weeks. I was lucky enough to see that one late one cloudy afternoon when she was actively hunting,

Boreal Owl

and earlier one sunny afternoon when she was roosting.

Boreal Owl

A Boreal Owl may appear almost anywhere—they’re most often seen roosting along the North Shore but you never know when one is going to turn up in someone’s backyard. They’re most often noticed by tracking down swearing chickadees or Blue Jays. It’s important not to disturb them when they’re roosting: if chickadees notice their open eyes, they start piping out tiny obscenities that alert larger, more dangerous birds to attack. So the owls are safest when allowed to sit tight with their eyes barely open.

Last week I went to Hartley with a small group in hopes of spotting the Boreal Owl. That day it was supposed to be near the bird feeders by the building, and there was a sign on the gate entrance to that area asking people to keep their distance if they saw it. We stepped in and walked pretty close to one feeder—that’s when I got my best photos of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches for the day.

Black-capped Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

We scanned the trees all around, and then started back to the gate. That’s when Erik Bruhnke spotted the Boreal Owl—not only had it been in view all along, if only we’d looked on the right branch, but it was sitting directly above where we’d walked in! Of course, we weren’t the only ones who had missed it—the chickadees and nuthatches were zipping right past it, some just inches away, without missing a beat.

To leave the feeding area, we had to get closer to the owl than I like, but there was no other way out. We took photos with each step as we worked our way out. Too many birders can’t help but make squeaking sounds or get even closer in hopes of eyes-open photos, but making them open their eyes for our entertainment is the height of rudeness.

Boreal Owl
This photo is cropped—we weren't THAT close! Notice that she's watching us.
Barred and Great Horned Owls are presumably around in normal numbers, but I haven’t lucked into seeing either one yet. There could be a Northern Saw-whet Owl somewhere, too, but I’ll wait to start searching seriously for them in April when they’ll be calling. Meanwhile, even during National Blue Jay Awareness Month, there are plenty of other owls out there. And despite them, maybe even a Blue Jay or two.

Blue Jay

Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Long and Short of It

Yesterday, Erik Bruhnke and I stood side by side photographing a nearby Great Gray Owl. Erik is 6'0"; I am 5'4". His photo, on the right, is the better one: He doesn't have the magnification set quite as high as mine (we were both using the new Canon 100-400 mm lens), and with just a little less magnification, he had both a better view of the owl and more depth of field. But the funny thing is that from his higher vantage point, the owl's head is seen against the background trees. I was much more looking up at it, putting the sky behind the owl's head.

Savoring Birds Together

Great Gray Owl

From June 1976 to March 1981, Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin. I’d spend a morning or sometimes a whole day, usually two or three times a month, on a field trip with Madison Audubon. At first I was a participant, learning lots of great birding spots and tips on finding and identifying the expected and unexpected local birds. But as I grew more experienced and confident, I started leading some of the field trips, sharing all that information with others. Whether serving as the follower or the leader, those field trips were fun and rewarding.

As I got to know other birders in Madison, a few of us started going out on our own two or three times a month, too. Our group included a high schooler, Tom, who had no driver’s license; me, a most reluctant driver; and three men who had cars and didn’t mind taking turns driving. I chipped in for gas, sat in the back seat, and deferred to the others in terms of where we went, due to my own concept of fairness because I never drove. When all five of us went, I’d sit in the middle of the backseat. I was young, spry, and skinny, but oddly enough, was still often enough the first to spot good birds as we drove along. Tom had fantastic eyes and ears, and even if his acquisitive optimism made him the most likely to jump to a quick conclusion that some ordinary bird was a rarity, that also kept us all on our toes and made us all more likely to tease out the real rarities out there, too.

I don’t think any of us felt like the leader or teacher, and none of us felt like the follower or student, either. We were just a band of birding comrades having fun together. The conversations in the car between birding stops were as fun as the birding, whether someone was recounting interesting experiences or we were engaging in silly banter and repartee. It was lovely knowing that if a rare bird was in driving range or you had a hankering to get out and see what was around, you could count on a group of good friends to get out with.

I’ve never found such an intimate band of birding buddies since we left Madison. But yesterday I found myself in a rental truck with three other birders having exactly the kind of silly banter, eager focus on seeing and enjoying birds, and extraordinary birding experiences that I’d had back in Madison almost four decades ago.

My friend Erik Bruhnke is the fall raptor counter at Cape May Observatory and travels around the country, and increasingly around the world, as a guide for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours. Erik also has his own personal guiding service, called Naturally Avian. During winter and early summer, he does a lot of guiding in northern Minnesota. He’s such a good friend and pleasant person that he’s got a standing invitation to use our house as home base between his out-of-town guiding gigs. This week he was guiding two men, Steve and Tom, from South Carolina. Usually clients want a guide all to themselves, but on Thursday, for some unfathomable reason the three of them invited me to tag along. As a professional guide, Erik was serving as the leader, but both out-of-towners were excellent birders in their own right. Something about the mix clicked, and it felt as if I’d been transported back in space and time to Madison in the 70s.

We wanted to be up in the Sax-Zim Bog by sunrise in hopes of seeing early-morning specialties. Our first bird of the day, except a distant raven, was a Black-backed Woodpecker along Lake Nichols Road.

Black-backed Woodpecker

We also quickly came upon several Sharp-tailed Grouse visiting a bird feeder. One was spending a lot of time near a tiny redpoll.

Sharp-tailed Grouse and his little buddy Common Redpoll

At the Friends of Sax Zim Welcome Center, I got some wonderful chickadee photos.

Black-capped Chickadee

We all enjoyed all the redpolls and Gray Jays, and then went indoors to warm up and say hello to old friends. I bought a lovely green fleece vest and hat, and an amazing handcrafted necklace featuring one of Heidi Pinkerton’s exquisite photos of the northern lights—a beautiful way to make at least a small contribution to the Friends of Sax Zim.

Vest, hat, and necklace for the fashionable birder

We cruised around, seeing a wonderful mix of birds, and most of our views were spectacular,

Black-capped Chickadee

Hairy Woodpecker

Northern Shrike

Black-capped Chickadee

Red-breasted Nuthatch

Boreal Owl

Pileated Woodpecker

... especially the last Great Gray Owl we saw as the sun was turning golden not long before sunset.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

We ended the day with 30 species; Tom and Steve got their best photo ops of their trip of a snoozing Boreal Owl and hunting Great Gray Owls and a couple of lifers as well.

Today, Steve and Tom went out on their own, heading north of Two Harbors on the way toward Isabella, and then at a few spots along and not far from the North Shore. They got wonderful looks at four Spruce Grouse, a flock of Red Crossbills, and a flock of Bohemian Waxwings. They were texting and calling Erik to keep us apprised of their progress, and I was as thrilled by the new species they added as if we were old friends. I always say birding is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet. And like the finest chocolates, birding somehow tastes even better when that sweetness is shared with good friends.

Erik, Tom, Laura, and Steve after a day of birding

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Of Shitholes and Shriveled Souls

Gray Crowned-Crane

A little more than a year ago, I spent two weeks in the Pearl of Africa—what the President of the United States has proclaimed a “shithole.” Uganda may be poor in terms of economics, which for the past few centuries have been measured in how successfully some countries and their corporations can exploit other countries and natural resources. The Americans in power right now consider economics in terms of short-term gains for themselves and the wealthiest people and corporations in the world, never in terms of long-term sustainability, how clean the air and water are, how robust and sustainable wildlife populations are, or how happy and healthy the poorest people are.

While I was in Uganda, I got to see firsthand that although most of the people in Uganda are tragically poor, they are hardworking and generous spirited, and the country has a wealth of natural resources. We spent part of the time in meetings, and could only briefly sample the wildlife in most of the places we stopped at so we could cover more ground. But wow! The golden crown atop Uganda’s national bird sparkles with a warmth and delicate beauty that mere metallic gold could never achieve. These crowned cranes are often kept in captivity—I saw my first at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin—but only in eastern and southern Africa do they live free in the spectacular natural environment they evolved in.

Gray Crowned-Crane

I saw hundreds of new birds I could never have seen wild in the United States nor anywhere else in the world except the place that our President thinks is a shithole—I gloried in a rainbow of bee-eaters and sunbirds,

Red-throated Bee-eater

Swallow-tailed Bee-eater

Northern Carmine Bee-eater

Northern Double-collared Sunbird

Scarlet-chested Sunbird

stunning turacos and hornbills,

Great Blue Turaco

Black-and-white-casqued Hornbill

Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill

storks and kingfishers,

Saddle-billed Stork

Marabou Stork

Malachite Kingfisher

Woodland Kingfisher

Striped Kingfisher

Pied Kingfisher


Village Weaver

and starlings.

Rueppell's Starling

Greater Blue-eared Starling

We saw well over 400 species of birds. And mammals! I never dreamed that I would ever be able to see giraffes,

Rothschild Giraffe

Rothschild Giraffe


African Elephant


Mother and baby hippopotamus


or warthogs in the wild.

Common Warthog

Just the variety of ungulates—hartebeests,

Lelwel Hartbeest


Uganda Kob

and oribis


amazed me. And what was more thrilling: seeing oxpeckers riding on the backs of African buffaloes,

African Buffalo and Yellow-billed Oxpecker, and a Cattle Egret too.

coming upon a glorious adult chimpanzee,


seeing a pair of lions mating,

African Lion

or watching a mother elephant tenderly care for her week-old baby?

African Elephant

I even spent my 65th birthday at Bwindi National Park’s Impenetrable Forest with a group of Mountain Gorillas!

Mountain Gorilla

Me and a Mountain Gorilla

Beyond the amazing wildlife, the best gift of that trip was the time I spent with Ugandan people. The two guides I spent the most time with and got to know the best were two lovely young people, Nanyombi Proscovia and Denis Arineitwe. Their brilliance and generosity, sharing their knowledge with warmth and kindness, marked them as truly rich in ways that a president with a shriveled, impoverished soul could never be.

Prossy, our absolutely superb bird guide.

Denis Arineitwe, Crammy Uganda Wanyama (I didn't spend much time with him), and Nanyombi Proscovia.
This amazing trip was a gift, literally as well as figuratively. My career choices normally keep this level of world travel completely beyond my means. I went to Uganda as an invited guest, courtesy of their government, in hopes that those invited on the tour would love the country and let the rest of the world know how splendid it is. A tragedy of the world’s current obsession with exploitation and wealth hoarding is that poor countries depend on ecotourism to justify preserving natural resources.

Laura at the Equator in Uganda

The same president who called Haiti and Africa shitholes keeps talking about making America great again. But what time is he talking about? I went to a conservative Catholic elementary school starting in 1957, at the peak of that mythical post-war era when many Americans think America was supposedly at its greatest. What we were taught throughout my education, and what was reinforced over and over in our Faith and Freedom reading series, was that wealth is measured not by what we have but by how much we freely give to others. In first grade, one story that stuck with me through my entire life was about a little girl named Ann. For Christmas, her only present was a beautiful doll wearing a fancy white dress trimmed with red ribbons.

Her teacher told the children they could bring their new toys to school for a day, and Ann of course brought her doll. One little girl hadn’t received any toys and Ann let her play with the doll. That night, both her father and her mother suggested that she give her doll to the other little girl. Ann said she’d be happy to give her one of her old dolls, but she couldn’t bear to part with her precious new one. But she was unhappy about this, and the next day, she gave the doll to the other little girl. Now Ann felt a joy that owning the doll had not given her. She felt wealthier without her new doll than she had when she had it. Her sacrifice was difficult—kindness and generosity are measured in part by how much we sacrifice to do the kind, generous thing.

As a first grader, I worried a lot about whether I could ever be that generous with my own possessions, but what Ann did was clearly the way we were supposed to be. Materialism was frowned on in a school where most of the teachers were nuns who had taken a vow of poverty and even our lay teachers were paid at barely above the poverty level. We were taught that the value in work had nothing to do with the pay.

We had a few nuns who were on the cruel side, and one of the priests who arrived at my school when I was in sixth grade turned out to be one of the Chicago Archdiocese’s worst sexual predators on boys, but overall, the teachers I got to know well were some of the happiest, most fulfilled adults I ever knew. At that time, one of the greatest American heroes we knew of was Jonas Salk, who developed one of the polio vaccines that saved millions of lives. He used his brilliance in service to this seminal research, not to enrich himself—he gave away the patent for his vaccination to the American people. Nowadays, the mindset with medical research corporations isn’t to save lives—it’s to command the highest prices for drugs, and to encourage people to buy them even when they don't need them. In this way, since the 80s, shareholders and CEOs have been hoarding increasing amounts of America’s financial wealth. They may think they’re rich, but not one of them will ever amass the wealth of Jonas Salk, who understood that wealth is measured in what you can afford to freely give away.

Many of our heroes in the 50s and 60s were government workers, from astronauts and NASA engineers to public health researchers trying to end polio, smallpox, and other horrifying diseases. My husband, one of the most brilliant people I’ve ever known, is a career scientist for the Environmental Protection Agency. He would have amassed far more money over his career had he gone with one of the companies that were recruiting back when he got his Ph.D.—the companies that profit by cutting corners when it comes to cleaning up their environmental messes and try to minimize public awareness of the dangers of the chemicals they produce. Russ and I both believed that job satisfaction comes from making the world better for everyone. He attended a Methodist church and went to a public school, so he wasn’t influenced by anyone who had taken a vow of poverty. But that conservative America of the 50s and 60s—the America of Jonas Salk and astronauts and Rachel Carson and Martin Luther King, Jr,—taught us that real wealth cannot be measured in dollars. We memorized the Declaration of Independence that declared that all men are created equal, and we both said the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag every morning, affirming that America stands for liberty and justice for all. America may not have been living up to those beautiful principles then, but President Kennedy, in creating the Peace Corps, promoting civil rights, and talking about getting us to the moon, taught us how to dream in ways that did not encompass financial riches. Imagine Kennedy referring to any country on this planet as a shithole!

I’m reading Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, right now. In it, he quotes Donald Trump talking about Sally Yates, a career Justice Department lawyer who temporarily served as Acting Attorney General. Trump asked why she, or anyone, would want to be a permanent government employee. Wolff quoted him: “’They max out at what? Two hundred grand? Tops,’ he said, expressing something like wonder.” How much wonder did he feel as a boy learning about Jonas Salk giving away a patent that could have been worth many millions?

Money may be the measure by which shady New York real estate giants, casino owners with mob connections, and scurvy politicians appraise themselves and their holdings, but it isn't the way good people measure our fellow human beings or the beloved creatures with whom we share this planet. For Donald Trump to call Haiti and Africa—the homelands of so many worthy human beings and wildlife treasures—to call these places "shitholes" took more than his everyday ignorance and meanspiritedness. This filthy word diminished our entire nation. We Americans, each and every one of us, are responsible for the words and actions of our elected leader, this hollow man with his shriveled, impoverished soul.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

African Elephant