Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, November 12, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Pine Grosbeak: My “Once Upon a Dream” Bird

Pip's favorite story

Part I: A relevant but tortuous history of my love affair with the Disney version of Sleeping Beauty.

In 1959, when I was seven years old, Walt Disney’s animated film Sleeping Beauty came out. My mother took us to see it at the Mercury Theater in Chicago. This was the first movie I ever saw in a theater, and everything about the experience filled me with joy.

I was familiar with the storyline of Sleeping Beauty before this. When I was very small, a family friend had read it to me from a big, ornate fairytale book, but that story seemed horrifying in every way. As in the Disney version, the evil fairy cursed the baby on her christening day: on her sixteenth birthday, the child would prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die. But in that other version, the last good fairy didn’t make things better, at least not as far as I could see. She made it so Sleeping Beauty would sleep for a hundred years only to wake up when some strange prince came along and kissed her. What could possibly be good about that? Every single person she knew and loved would be long dead, including her dog. (Of course she’d have a dog!) And now she’d be stuck forever married to a creepy guy who had climbed into her bed to kiss her when she didn’t even know him, and he didn’t know her! To me, this seemed like a fate worse than death, and that was more than half a century before the #metoo movement. Even as a small child, years before Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem spoke up about feminism, I hated that story. 

But then the Disney version came along. Before we went to see the movie, my Grandpa gave me the Little Golden Book version, and it was beautiful! Two of the fairies were named Flora and Fauna, words that I knew meant plants and animals (even though I thought the one named for plants should have been the one wearing the green dress). Sleeping Beauty’s real name was Aurora which, as the movie narrator said, means the dawn. In the woodcutter’s cottage in the forest, the fairies called her Briar Rose, which was equally lovely.

And that forest was so beautiful! As an adult, I realize how unnatural it was, but sixty years ago, the generic trees and flowers thrilled this urban child’s eyes. The book showed a blue bird alighting on Aurora’s hand and lots of animal friends, but didn’t show the charming way the rabbits, squirrel, owl, and songbirds worked together to give her a dream dance partner wearing the prince’s hat, cloak, and boots. That scene in the movies defies physics, biology, and natural history, but seemed wondrous to a seven-year-old; even today it’s impossible for me to see it without smiling. That woodland scene with the animals remains among my top ten scenes in any movie.

Aurora was no generic babe to Prince Philip—he fell in love with her beautiful, warm soprano voice and her charming interactions with the animals, whose love for her made it clear she was a kind and good person. And Philip was no generic Prince—Aurora didn’t even know he was a prince, just as he didn’t know she was a princess. He loved being out in the forest as much as she did, and he clearly loved his horse as much as she loved her forest animals. And Sampson the horse clearly loved Philip right back.

Sleeping Beauty is often touted as the epitome of a sexist fairy tale, the main female character asleep and powerless, needing a man to rescue her. That is definitely true of the original fairy tale, but Disney’s rendering rises far, far above that even while keeping the plot line that gives it the title. Sleeping Beauty may have been powerless to affect Maleficent’s curse, but the prince was equally powerless. The characters who controlled the outcome from start to finish were women—the three good fairies and Maleficent. The fairies rescued Philip from Maleficent’s dungeon, armed him, and ran interference every step of the way, magically turning the boulders dropped on Philip into bubbles, the arrows shot at him into flowers, the boiling oil poured on him into a rainbow, and Maleficent’s raven into a statue. The fairies untangled him when the forest of thorns snagged him, and at last enchanted and directed his sword straight into Maleficent’s dragon-heart. No, it wasn’t Prince Philip who rescued Aurora—it was the fairies. And the Prince did not kiss her because she was a pretty, generic woman in a bed, but because he and she already genuinely loved each other.

The movie ended, as Disney fairy tales are wont to, at a ball with the prince and princess dancing away, her wearing an insipid pastel Disney princess dress. But it was pretty clear they’d spend the days, months, and years of their future together in the forest. Maybe they’d even become birdwatchers!

Anyway, that was my perfect fantasy fairy tale as a child, not because of the ending but because of that glorious scene with the forest creatures. Disney never replayed the entire feature Sleeping Beauty on television during my childhood, though they did play a long excerpt on The Wonderful World of Color around when the movie was new. Disney didn’t re-release it in theaters until the summer of 1970, after my first year of college.

I talked Russ, now my husband but then my boyfriend, into going to see it at a Saturday afternoon matinee. That was when multiplexes were new, and the theater we went to was also showing Airport, the first big disaster blockbuster, starting at the same time, so there was a long line to get tickets. There were plenty of adults in line, but also lots of parents with small children—it was pretty clear which movie different people were headed for.

We got into line at the same moment that Wayne and Gloria, two of our good friends from high school, did. We hadn’t seen them in a year and were happy to catch up as we stood in line. But of course we knew that they were there to see Airport. As we got closer and closer to the ticket booth, Russ grew increasingly uncomfortable, clearly mortified about them finding out he was going to see Sleeping Beauty. I was so focused on his discomfort that I didn’t notice that Wayne was acting the same way. When we made it to the front of the line, Wayne said, “You first,” to Russ, and Russ said, “No—YOU first.” Sure enough, Wayne and Gloria had also come to see Sleeping Beauty—it apparently was the quintessential "chick flick." And it was just as wonderful as Gloria and I remembered. The next summer, a few months before we got married, Russ bought a 1971 Ford Pinto, which we named Sammy, for Sampson, Prince Philip’s horse.

Sammy our Ford Pinto bearing wedding sign

Part II: Cut to the chase  

As lovely as Disney’s Sleeping Beauty was for me, it was a treasure of childhood, not adulthood. Seeing the movie again may have been a momentary revisiting of that glorious childhood experience, but college and work experiences were filling me with new visions and dreams. I became a birder in 1975, and the real birds I could look at in my field guides and see in the flesh whenever I was outside easily and entirely displaced those generic Disney birds.

The only identifiable bird in Sleeping Beauty was the Great Horned Owl. I’ll never forget seeing my first real one, on January 15, 1976, in Baker Woodlot, the exact same forest where I’d seen my first chickadee less than a year before. It was the morning after a blizzard, some branches still topped with fresh snow, the frozen air not just bracing but biting. That was the winter when I discovered that trees moan and creak with cold—wonderful sounds I’d never paid attention to, or maybe even heard, before I started spending so much time outside searching for birds. Until I became a birder, as much as I loved being outdoors, my joy was diffuse and misty, like a baby cooing at colors and patterns before they resolve into specific objects.

It wasn’t until I started paying close attention to birds that I started noticing different habitats. Generic trees became birches, maples, aspen, spruce and pine. I’d never noticed how oaks cling to their leaves long after beech branches are stripped bare. These features and so much more, sharpening the generic into the specific, enhanced my appreciation of forests, giving them a richness I’d never even suspected, much less appreciated when Disney forests were all I knew.

Great Horned Owl

On this morning, I was in my element, all my senses reveling in this real-life forest, and then there it was, that honest-to-goodness owl, looking down at me from a tall snag, so unspeakably beautiful, so unmistakable, so specific—not just a lifer, but a warm alive individual looking directly into my eyes—that I started to cry. I didn’t even think of Sleeping Beauty. Reality was too perfect and too consuming to conjure fantasy. That owl was magnificent, but it was no "Once Upon a Dream" bird.

But almost two years later, on December 3, 1977, a new lifer brought that wondrous fantasy of the Sleeping Beauty forest scene to life with a genuine once upon a dream experience.

By then, Russ and I were living in Madison, Wisconsin, in an apartment on University Avenue near Walnut Street. To get to my favorite birding spot, I had to walk down Walnut a few blocks, passing some university buildings and a huge commuter parking lot to reach the tree-lined walking path along University Bay Drive, which curved along the shoreline of Lake Mendota.

On this morning, as I was still passing the commuter lot, I started hearing an unfamiliar but pretty, whistled call note. Reflexively, I whistled back, continuing to walk toward the lake. The song had been coming from the northwest, meaning once I cleared the parking lot I’d have to turn left on the walking path to find the bird, but as I walked and whistled, the sound grew louder more quickly than I was walking—apparently, the bird was drawing closer to me as I drew closer to it. When I reached University Bay Drive, the sound seemed very close.

I whistled again, and suddenly, in flew my bird—robin-sized; soft gray back, breast, and sides; shiny black wings with white wing bars and flight-feather edging; the head a shade of russet I’d never seen except in my field guide. And picturing that, I knew this bird was a Pine Grosbeak—a lifer, Number 263 on my lifelist. I drank in the vision. Oddly enough, the bird seemed to be gazing at me in return.

Pine Grosbeak

I don’t know what compelled me to whistle again as I watched him, but I did, and the bird flitted a few branches closer and called back. I whistled again, and the bird drew even closer. Then for some inexplicable reason, I took off my left glove and reached out, whistled, and suddenly, just like that, the miracle happened. The bird alighted on my finger.  Yep—exactly the way the little animated bird alighted on Sleeping Beauty’s extended hand, here I was, for one brief, shining moment, magically drawn into the most magical scene of the most magical Disney movie of my childhood. In my mind I could hear Mary Costa singing “I know you—I walked with you once upon a dream” even as I stood there, wide-awake, my heart so full I could hardly breathe much less break into song myself. The bird’s toes were icy cold with sharp little claws, his belly soft and warm against my finger.

Twice since then, kinglets have alighted on my hand momentarily, but not while looking into my face—I think they simply mistook my fingers for branches. Chickadees, nuthatches, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler have come to my hand for mealworms, a couple of Blue Jays have landed on me for peanuts, and when I was rehabbing, lots of baby birds I was taking care of have flown to me when I was teaching them to become wild. But never before or since has a truly wild bird alighted on me like this, neither for food nor as a mistake but simply because it wanted to be closer to me. I still don’t understand it.

Pine Grosbeaks are flocking birds that I seldom see alone. Usually when no other Pine Grosbeaks are about, lone individuals join robin or waxwing flocks, as if they'll come to any port in a storm. I wonder if this bird had been searching for other birds to associate with, so yearning for any connection at all that my whistling forged a temporary, magical bond.

However it happened, here I stood, this beautiful bird perched on my finger. I don’t know how long the moment lasted—it was one of those events when time really does seem to stand still, but it couldn’t have been too long because my fingers weren’t stiff, much less frostbitten, when at last the bird turned and flitted to a nearby shrub. He turned to face me one last time and I gave him one last whistle. He didn’t hurry away—just moseyed on, giving me time to come to my senses.

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around that experience. But that Pine Grosbeak, my real-life once-upon-a-dream bird, was surely my best bird EVER.

Pine Grosbeak

Sunday, November 11, 2018

In My Prime

Laura producing For the Birds at KUMD in the 80s.

Today, I turned 67 years old. That’s not quite double the age I was when I started producing “For the Birds.” I was 34 and a half on May 12, 1986, so on November 10, 2020, the day before I turn 69, I’ll have been doing “For the Birds” for exactly half my life.

Wisdom, her mate, and their egg and chick in 2018

Meanwhile, even as I get older, I’m still younger than the oldest known wild bird, a Laysan Albatross named Wisdom, who was originally banded on Midway Island back in 1956. At the time, she was incubating an egg, so she had to be a minimum of 5 years old, making her at least 67 right now.

Wisdom is way way spryer than I am—she laid an egg again this year and raised another chick, more than three decades after I stopped reproducing and more than two decades after it became impossible for me to reproduce. If she has any wrinkles, they’re well hidden under her feathers, which are exactly the same color they’ve been since she was a year old. I guess I’m just as glad my own plumage is different from when I was one—I was a bald baby, with just a bit of peach fuzz on my own first birthday.

Wisdom and her chick survived the tsunami in 2011 when she was at least 60. Her age and experience almost certainly contributed to her having a higher, safer nesting territory than more than a hundred thousand albatross pairs who lost their young in that single horrible event.

This year, a new hazard for albatrosses was publicized. The introduced mice on Midway Island have learned how helpless incubating albatrosses are. They jump up and start eating the live birds in the back of their head, where the birds can’t reach them. I first heard about this last year, and have been nervous about Wisdom, but so far so good. Matt Brown, superintendent for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, the protected marine area encompassing Midway Atoll NWR said, “We’re fortunate that she nests in town next to residential buildings where we’ve regularly done mouse suppression for human safety. It’s not a guarantee of her safety, but Wisdom does benefit.” 

As long as Wisdom is out there raising babies, I can’t feel too old yet. I like finding the Top Eleven things about my age every year, but there isn’t all that much to say about the number 67. There was never a TV show about Route 67, Paul McCartney didn’t write a song about when he was 67, Simon and Garfunkel didn’t speculate about how terribly strange it would be to be 67, and 67 is not the jersey number for any of my favorite Chicago Cubs. So my Top Eleven list runs a little short this year:
  1. 67 is the minimum age of Wisdom.
  2. 67 is a prime number, so for a full year I can honestly say I’m in my prime.
  3. 67 is a “lucky number.” Not “lucky” in the way that 11 is my lucky number, but lucky as defined in a 1956 paper in Mathematics Magazine by Gardiner, Lazarus, Metropolis, and Ulam, who defined a lucky number as any natural number in a set generated by the sieve of Josephus Flavius. That is, after listing all the natural numbers starting with 1, you look at the next number, 2, and remove every second number, including 2. Now 3 is the second number and the next remaining number, so you remove every third number. Then 5 is the next remaining number, so you remove every fifth number. You end up with a string of numbers starting 1,3, 7, 9 13, 15, 21, 25, 31, 33, 37, 43, 49, 51, 64, 67, 69, 73,75, 79, 87, 93, 99, 105, 111… Wikipedia has a great article on lucky numbers
  4. The Number 67 species on my lifelist is the American Redstart
American Redstart


So my being 67 promises to be a prime and lucky year filled with American Redstarts. I wish I could figure out a way of getting to see Wisdom—I can no longer meet all the physical requirements required to spend a season with the albatrosses, and it’s pretty difficult otherwise to get to Midway. But just knowing she’s out there makes me happy, today and every day.

Friday, November 9, 2018

Blue Jays: What We Know, and What We Don't

(From a For the Birds program originally recorded for December 2, 2009.)

Blue Jay

Blue Jays are one of the most conspicuous North American birds. They’re abundant in many habitats throughout the East, and increasingly in the West. And they’re big and brightly colored with a distinctive silhouette thanks to their perky little crest, and they’re noisy as well, so they draw the attention of both eyes and ears. Their omnivorous diet makes them easy to maintain in captivity, so caged Blue Jays have been subjected to many scientific studies over the past two centuries.

It’s fairly easy to trap and band Blue Jays, so scientists have done a lot of field studies on them, too. Bird banders, who hate dealing with cardinals and grosbeaks because of their terrible bite, and chickadees, who pack a wallop, are often surprised to learn that despite their feisty reputation, Blue Jays are shockingly docile in the hand. They surrender the moment they realize they can’t get away.

Taking revenge

Blue Jay

But it’s extremely hard to capture more than a handful of Blue Jays at one locality—they’re just too smart, and too communicative. So despite their abundance and conspicuousness, our understanding of their breeding biology, demography, and sociality remains poor. But we do know a lot about their basic natural history.

The most in-depth, long-term study of them is probably one conducted at the Archbold Biological Station in Florida. Blue Jays there were color-marked when captured at nets set out to study Florida Scrub-Jays, so records kept on those Blue Jays were serendipity, not focused research. But the scientists learned that among that sedentary group, the basic social unit is a monogamous pair, which remains in the same small area year-round. Pairs do not defend their territory in any classical sense, but they do defend the nest from other jays that come too close. And unlike Florida Scrub-Jays, Blue Jays do not breed cooperatively, but mob predators and intruders, and make social displays as members of a loosely organized neighborhood flock.

Blue Jay

Unlike the Florida population, Blue Jays in the Midwest and Northeast are migratory, with thousands counted on single spring and fall days from many good migration vantage points like Hawk Ridge in Duluth. But scientists have never been able to make sense of Blue Jay migration. They know that some individuals are present year-round throughout their range, including the northernmost and southernmost reaches. In autumn, Blue Jays migrating from farther north may replace some jays leaving an area. The distance traveled by migrants is extremely variable, and the proportion that migrates is probably less than 20 percent of the population even in the northernmost parts of their range. Jay movements may be related to acorns and other mast crops but no one has been able to prove this. In other words, Blue Jay migration is one big mystery.

People expend so much brain power wondering about intelligent life on other planets when one of the most intelligent creatures right here on earth continues to baffle us. Blue Jays are excellent mimics, but I bet that if we played musical tones as they did at the end of Close Encounters of the Third Kind, not a single jay would waste its time imitating the tones. They’d be too busy stealing everyone’s lunches.

Blue Jay

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Transitions

Northern Goshawk

Three weeks ago, fall colors were at a peak, my backyard trees and suet feeders were filled with Yellow-rumped Warblers, and my lawn was crawling with White-throated, White-crowned, and Fox Sparrows. My mountain ashes and fruiting shrubs were filled with robins and even a few bluebirds.

Now in short order, fallen leaves and juncos have replaced the sparrows on the ground. My warblers have vanished. The hundreds of jays squawking throughout the neighborhood and lining up in my tray feeders like revelers at a banquet have moved on. My fruit trees are stripped, the robins gone. Instead of half a dozen or more text messages every day from birders spotting rare migrants turning up here and there, I’ll get one or two about redpolls, Boreal Chickadees, and Gray Jays turning up. And right this moment, it’s snowing. Winter is a’ comin’ in. 

Northern Goshawk

Since late August, I’d been seeing Sharp-shinned Hawks cruising through the neighborhood most days. Now they’re mostly gone, but if I look up, I’m likely to see a Red-tailed or Rough-legged Hawk circling high overhead, and maybe an eagle or two. Late yesterday afternoon, at twilight, I went out in the yard to get my little dog. Usually there are a few birds out there—a couple of woodpeckers, some juncos, and chickadees and nuthatches, along with two or three pigeons, but this time there wasn’t a bird or a squirrel in sight. Suddenly a first-year Northern Goshawk cruised in from one of my big trees on the south side of the yard into my neighbor’s yard, studying my little Pip, who seemed completely oblivious. She loves being outside, and when I call her, she zigzags her way toward me in a circuitous path, sniffing here and there. This time, I hurried over and scooped her up to bring her safely indoors. 

Laura and Pip

The goshawk, subject of Helen Macdonald’s award-winning book, H Is for Hawk, is justly considered the fiercest hawk of all. It’s also the only accipiter found in both Eurasia and North America. The word goshawk is an old one, with its first known use before the 12th century. According to Merriam-Webster, it’s derived from Middle English goshawke, goshauk, from Old English gōshafoc, from gōs goose + hafoc hawk.

Greylag Goose

Here in America, goshawks usually hunt grouse, snowshoe hares, and other woodland fare—animals that typically weigh only about 3 or 4 pounds, or half of what my little dog weighs. But goshawks are big and fierce, perfectly capable of killing and eating a goose. The Graylag Goose, a common species in the U.K. where the goshawk was originally named, weighs about 7 or 7 ½ pounds, a little less than Pip, but is bigger than Pip thanks to hollow bones, internal air sacs, and thick feathers. So Pip would be pretty enticing to a hungry goshawk. Goshawks would have trouble lifting prey weighing more than 4 pounds, maybe even less, but no trouble at all killing a goose or little dog to eat in place.

My neighborhood usually has a Great Horned Owl or two hanging around. I heard two calling back in August, and now and then I hear a "cacawphony" of crows telling me a Great Horned Owl is somewhere near. We have a fenced in yard, but Russ and I have never let Pip out alone after dark—we always accompany her on leash at night. Now at least for a few days, I’ll be accompanying her in the daytime, too. There are quite a few cottontail rabbits in my neighborhood right now, so the goshawk may stick around for a bit.

But neighborhoods are not ideal for this wild raptor, so eventually it will move on. I’ll be glad. It was thrilling this past winter seeing a goshawk fairly regularly in the Sax-Zim Bog. That’s when I added it to Pip’s lifelist. But I’m just as happy limiting my own sightings of this splendid wild raptor to splendid wild places. I’d be heartbroken if this goshawk were to take MY Pileated Woodpeckers, much less my little dog. I’m thrilled whenever I see one and want to keep that joy untinged with sorrow.

But in this season of transition right as snow starts to fall and the winds grow bitter, I’ll be spending more time out there in my backyard. Winter is a’ comin’  in, but for now, I’ll have to be a’ goin’  out whenever Pip does. This year birds and other wildlife will not be the only ones transitioning their habits for the duration.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ruffed Grouse

(This blogpost is from a radio program from October 29, 2008)

Ruffed Grouse

Every now and then when I’m walking through the north woods, deep in thought, I’m suddenly startled by a burst of wings in a thunderous explosion, often just inches from my feet. Within a second I’m over the surprise, but it takes longer to get over the thrill of my close encounter with a Ruffed Grouse. Every single feather of these exquisite birds is a work of art, and together the feathers provide the bearer with perfect camouflage, rugged insulation, and matchless beauty.

Ruffed Grouse have a few quiet vocalizations, but the sounds they’re most famous for aren’t vocal. That characteristic thunder of wings that startles anyone who gets too close affords them a moment or two of protection against predators. The roaring explosiveness results from the powerful white muscle fibers that compose the birds’ breast muscles. The mighty burst when a grouse flushes is short-lived, the wings quickly exhausted. It will be several minutes before the grouse is again capable of such an effort, until the relatively small blood supply to the muscles washes away the lactic acid that built up in flight. Meanwhile, the grouse lurks on the ground, protected by cryptic coloration.

The other sound grouse are famous for is their distinctive drumming sound, which almost sounds as if someone had dropped a bowling ball in the woods–it bounces slowly at first but speeds up into a whir. People once believed this sound was produced by the grouse’s wingtips beating the drumming log, or that the bird thumped its wings against its breast, Tarzan-like. But early one May morning in 1932 in Ithaca, New York, Arthur A. Allen established once and for all how the sound is made. Long before dawn he hid out near a grouse’s drumming log armed with a slow-motion movie camera and sound-recording equipment, and caught a drumming grouse on film. But the stopped frames of the film showed that the grouse stood crosswise on the log, braced on his tail, and cupped his wings, bringing them forward and upward with such force that he compressed a parcel of air between his chest and wings, creating the sound wave without the wings and chest or the wings and log ever touching. The sound is deep—about 40 Hertz, which is at the low range of human hearing and slightly below the hearing range of Great Horned Owls.

In spring, Ruffed Grouse males grow territorial and announce their presence to females via this drumming. In fall, some young males spend a few weeks practicing their drumming skills. Until a bird masters the trick of cupping the air properly, he may simply produce a dull flapping sound, but as with many skills, practice makes perfect. By spring young males may produce as fine a sound as much older males. Females find the drumming sounds irresistible, but don’t bond with or maintain any interest in the males after mating. Females do all the nest-building, incubating, and raising the dozen-or-so chicks. Chicks hatch in synchrony and all leave the nest within 24 hours of the first egg hatching. They quickly imprint on their mother, following her everywhere. Once in a while a bird gets separated from the rest, but its calls and those of its mother usually quickly help them find each other. In very rare cases it joins another female with a brood. Chicks can be independent after about 12 weeks.

Ruffed Grouse

The largest cause of mortality for Ruffed Grouse is predation. Among 563 radio-marked grouse with known fates in Wisconsin, 30 percent were killed by hunters, 46 percent were taken by hawks and owls, and 20 percent were killed by small mammals. Their lifespan is less than that of chickadees, which have lived to be over 12 years old—the oldest Ruffed Grouse on record lived to be 8 years old. Fortunately they do produce lots of babies every year, so as long as we protect plenty of quality habitat and are careful about hunting levels, grouse should endure for the foreseeable future.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “Everyone knows…that the autumn landscape in the north woods is the land, plus a red maple, plus a Ruffed Grouse. In terms of conventional physics, the grouse represents only a millionth of either the mass or the energy of an acre yet subtract the grouse and the whole thing is dead.”

Ruffed Grouse

Snow Buntings!

(This is the transcript of a radio program I produced November 13, 2007. It has interesting information about Snow Buntings. Tragically, I don't have any photos of Snow Buntings in spring, or in flight.)

Snow Bunting

One of the loveliest visitors from the far north is the Snow Bunting. The large white patches on its wings and body give it a sparkly, twinkling effect when it flies, and gave it the nickname “snowflake.” If one Snow Bunting in flight is pretty, a whole flock is breathtaking. Snow Buntings at the back of a flock have an interesting habit of advancing quickly to the head of the flock as the birds move along, giving the whole group’s movements a rolling effect, enhanced in beauty by the sparkling individual snowflake birds.

Snow Buntings weigh in at about two ounces, but are way, way hardier than we mere humans are. They’re the first migrants to return north each spring. Males return to the Low Arctic in mid-March, and to the High Arctic in early April, when temperatures can still plunge to 30 below zero. This species doesn’t nest in the open, but rather in rock cavities. Although this protects the female and her young from predators and shelters them from high winds, it actually affords a very cold microclimate, with no sun to warm them and exceedingly cold temperatures from the rocks. So females stay on the nest virtually all the time, meaning their mates must find enough food for both of them. They eat mostly weed and grass seeds in winter and spring, but as insects become available in later spring through summer and into autumn, they voraciously gobble them up for animal protein, which their growing babies especially need in abundance.

With limited and very specific nesting spots to compete over, successful males must arrive early each year, and so this species often suffers devastating losses during spring storms. Females don’t return for four or even six weeks after males. They’re equally competitive with other females for territories that hold a good male and nest spot, but can't afford to migrate as early, because females lose too much in the trade-offs involved in early migration. Unlike males, female bodies must be in prime condition to produce five or six eggs and share their body heat with them for 10 to 15 days, and then keep the babies warm for several days more.

Snow Buntings can survive air temperatures down to 50 below zero, which is extremely hardy, but not quite as extreme as redpolls, which can survive down to 60 below. I don’t even want to think about the laboratory experiments that established this.

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings molt their feathers in mid-summer. The molt takes place in a short time, and so many flight feathers are replaced at once, rather than one by one, that many birds undergo a flightless period, fortunately during the time of year when food is most abundant. Many of the new feathers have brownish or rusty tips. In spring, they spend a great deal of time taking snow baths, scraping their feathers against icy crystals, which breaks off those dull feather tips, revealing the males’ spectacular black and white plumage. Molting is dangerous for a species that spends much of its time in a harsh environment. This way they only need to do it once a year, giving them their thickest, warmest feathers in winter and not revealing their beautiful breeding plumage until it’s getting warm enough to shed the feather tips.

Snow Buntings are still captured and killed for food in some places in Quebec, but overall these birds, surprisingly tame around their nesting grounds, are enjoyed and not harassed by people. Their habitat and future are as secure as the northern climate will allow.

Snow Bunting

Monday, November 5, 2018

Mandarin Duck in the Big Apple

Mandarin Duck
I took all these photos at Almansor Park in California in 2013, at first light, which is why the lighting is so gold. 
In 2013, I did a birding Big Year, trying to see as many species as I could in the Lower 48 during that calendar year. When December came around, I still had several species I badly wanted to see, so I spent a couple of weeks in California, staying with a good friend, Ali Sheehey for much of it. While we were in the greater Los Angeles area, we went to a little city park in Alhambra called Almansor Park. It was a lovely spot to start the day, and though it didn’t have any new species I’d been looking for, it did have two “uncountable” ones—species that are introduced and not yet considered established by the ornithological society of record in that state.

Both the Egyptian Goose and Mandarin Duck are not found naturally anywhere near the Americas. The Egyptian Goose ranges naturally in Africa south of the Sahara and in the Nile Valley. It was considered sacred by ancient Egyptians and appears in much of their artwork. It’s raised as an ornamental bird and has escaped captivity to become established in western Europe; the eBird range map indicates that birders have spotted it in many areas in America.


I reported mine on eBird, which tries to keep track of these sightings, in part to provide data for researchers studying how and why various escaped birds do or don’t ultimately become established.

I ended up with two different final totals for my Big Year—604 species reported on eBird, but only 595 “countable” species  reported to the American Birding Association’s Listing Central, partly because of introduced or feral species like this, and partly because of rules of countability of species like my California Condor and Aplomado Falcon, which were reintroduced and still require extensive human intervention—in 2013 they weren’t considered countable, although the ABA has now changed their rules for reintroduced endangered species such as these when sighted where they once naturally ranged.

The Mandarin Duck is a spectacular duck—the only other species belonging to the same genus, Aix, as our Wood Duck. Female mandarins look very much like Wood Ducks.

Mandarin Duck

The males bear bright red bills and are crested, the overall plumage flamboyant and gaudy, like woodies, but unlike Wood Ducks, male Mandarins have two strangely enlarged orange feathers called “sails” that stick up above the lower back like sails.

Mandarin Duck

The Mandarin Duck’s natural range is limited to East Asia, but like the Egyptian Goose, it’s raised in captivity by many breeders throughout the world. A large feral population is established in Great Britain. And more recently small numbers are breeding in Ireland, especially around parks in Dublin. Black Mountain, North Carolina, has a small population, several hundred are fairly established in Sonoma County, California, and according to Wikipedia, a single individual was found in Central Park. 

Did I say Wikipedia!? That Central Park individual, a stunning male in Central Park, made the news just last week, so the Wikipedia crew is apparently very on top of international birding news. But the sighting is so far not turning up on the eBird map.


When I searched on sightings of the species in New York, eBird says there are 0 observations but 9 observations with photos—that must mean that at least 9 people have reported the bird seen in Central Park, but so far the New York eBird reviewers are not accepting the sighting. This seems short-sighted—it’s extremely unlikely that Mandarin Ducks will ever become established in New York, but this is still important data, especially considering that eBird has accepted a single sighting from Maryland.

On October 10, the Manhattan Bird Alert posted a video of the bird on Twitter. That led to a rush of people to see it. But then the bird disappeared. People assumed it had been taken by a predator, but almost two weeks later, it reappeared and has been seen here and there, in the Central Park Pond and other nearby spots. People tweeted sightings of it yesterday from the Pond, but warned that the area might not be accessible during the New York City Marathon. 

Experienced birders knew from the start that this bird would never be "countable," but who could resist such a gorgeous thing, and why would they want to miss seeing it? What drew me to birding wasn’t at all the thought that I could build up a competitive lifelist of "countable" species. It was to enjoy seeing birds in nature. I completely understand that introduced species usually wreak havoc on natural systems, competing with native birds that are themselves often declining. But one gorgeous Mandarin drake in Central Park is hardly harming anything and is an absolutely stunning bird. If I were visiting my daughter in Brooklyn, I’d have certainly taken the subway to see it at least one or two times, and probably more. 

It was great fun perusing the Manhattan Bird Alert Twitter feed, seeing all the photos thrilled people had posted. One person posted a photo of a Mallard, the Mandarin Duck, and a Wood Duck, labeled, “Getting all my ducks in a row.” Last week’s news included horrifying news of white supremacist massacres and attempted bombings, along with inescapable campaign ads and stunts and seeing our own army and a bunch of unregulated militia headed toward the Rio Grande Valley to head off hungry, exhausted refugees a thousand miles away. No wonder so many sought a moment’s respite watching and photographing a lovely duck swimming in Central Park.

The New York Times took notice, and on Halloween, published a great story about it. The BBC News followed suit on Friday. On Facebook, a handful of birders sniffed at the ridiculousness of anyone searching out an “uncountable” bird. That made me sad— how can we as a society agree on anything at all if the birding community can’t even agree that people should be able to enjoy seeing a beautiful bird in a park without condescending snark? At the very least, this gorgeous bird is bringing happiness to human beings at a time when happiness is in short supply. And that is something to celebrate.

Mandarin Duck