Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Rats!

Christmas Bird Count Rat

I love rodents. I take lots of squirrel and chipmunk photos and have rescued several deer mice from houses and cottages. As a child and even as a young adult, I’ve had my share of rodent pets—white mice, hamsters, gerbils, and even one thirteen-lined ground squirrel named Sammy. My kids had gerbils, guinea pigs, a white-footed deer mouse, and one lovely white rat that we all loved. 

Of all the rodents in the world, rats are the only one that I have a visceral dislike of—a rat is the main villain in the movie Lady and the Tramp, which originally came out in theaters in 1955, before I was old enough to go to the movies, but was re-released in 1962 when I was an impressionable 10 year old. My father was a Chicago firefighter who often told us gruesome stories about rats attacking people and eating dead bodies. When my son Joey came home with that white rat in fifth grade, the little thing’s intelligent eyes and sweet disposition instantly quelled my antipathy. When I visit my daughter in New York City, we compete to see who can spot the most rats skulking around the subway tracks and in Katie’s neighborhood—that counts as wildlife watching in the Big Apple. But still...

Rats have been associated with people for so long, and are intelligent enough to thrive even where we have spent billions trying to eradicate them, that it’s hard to imagine a large city without them. In natural habitat, particularly on islands, non-native rats and mice exact a huge toll on endangered species. Eradicating them can be done where people maintain sanitation standards and aren’t constantly augmenting their numbers via transporting grains and other foods, but virtually every rat control project involves collateral damage to humans, pets, and other wildlife, and despite our best efforts, in big cities, it’s impossible to entirely eliminate them. Katie has a dog, so we have to be extra vigilant to spot rat poison set along our walking routes before Muxy does. 

Widespread as rats are, Russ and I have not had to deal with them often during our lives. Neither of us ever saw them in our blue-collar Chicago suburb as children, nor did we see them in our college towns of Urbana, Illinois; East Lansing, Michigan; or Madison, Wisconsin. I spotted one, once, in our own backyard in Duluth in the 1980s, but that was a fluke. We set out a live trap, but just caught chipmunks and never saw another rat in our neighborhood for decades. Duluth is far enough north that our cold winters have historically kept rats in check except where they can be well protected from sub-zero temperatures. Downtown Duluth has had longstanding rat problems that I learned about when I was working there back in 2005—apparently rats have a huge subterranean population living in the tunnels beneath the streets and buildings, where they can stay plenty warm. I never saw a rat downtown, but did occasionally find droppings, once even on my desk.

With climate change and an increase in composting, Duluth’s rats seem to be more able to survive outside of their sheltered downtown environment, and are spreading. A few years ago I spotted one at a friend’s feeder further east in my neighborhood. There had been a large construction project just a couple of blocks from her place, so I was hoping that was a temporary problem. 

But this year, Congdon Park School, just a couple of miles west of my neighborhood, was so badly infested with rats that they had to close down the building and grounds for the entire summer. And suddenly rats started appearing right in my own neighborhood—my neighbors started seeing them fairly frequently on the other side of Peabody Street. I didn’t see any myself until just last month, when a large rat and a smaller one appeared in the back of my yard where I feed my juncos and native sparrows on the ground. The two rats scurried off to a tunnel under our neighbor’s shed. When I told my neighbors about it, they mentioned that they’d seen rats during the summer and had already trapped a couple.
I’ve always felt so lucky to live in a ratless area where I never had to worry about spreading seed on the ground during migration—that is now officially a thing of the past. And now Russ and I can’t compost until we have a chance to entirely cage in our compost bins to exclude all rodents. 

With rats on the scene, I can only feed birds from elevated bird feeders, and am going to have to buy or create seed catchers too high for rats to jump into on all the poles that support my feeders, to entirely eliminate spillage.

One of my friends brought Russ and me some live traps. So far we haven’t caught a rat, which is a good thing because I’m not at all sure how we’d deal with it if we caught one. My visceral antipathy for them would be offset the moment I made eye contact. The fact that we haven’t seen or trapped any so far shows that the measures we’ve taken have at least helped. But a rat infestation on Peabody Street marks the end of my personal Age of Innocence. Too many people and a warming climate are wreaking havoc on this little planet, and attention must be paid.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Helen Erickson

My mother-in-law and me
Helen and me at the Port Wing Fall Festival in 2014, when she was 95.
Helen Erickson, my mother-in-law, who I’ve known since I was 16 years old and who gave me my very first pair of binoculars and field guide, died in the early morning on Saturday, December 8. She was 99.

I’ve long talked about how I got my start in birding when Russ and I were in college and he told his mom to give me my original birding equipment for Christmas. She had a small bird feeder in her suburban Chicago backyard, where I saw my very first junco and grew more familiar with some other common birds as I was starting birding. 

Laura's new binoculars!

On college breaks when Russ and I would visit Chicago, she often took me to various birding spots like the Morton Arboretum and the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. One time when her car got stuck in a slurry of snow and ice on a wet, muddy road, she calmly turned the engine off, jumped out of the car, opened the trunk and took out first a small shovel, digging out some of the snow in front of the stuck tires, then took out some rag rugs and wedged them into position in front of the stuck tires, started the car again, and voila! Without saying a word, she was modeling how independent, self-sufficient women are prepared to deal with emergencies as they come, without losing their cool.

Thanks to that field guide and binoculars, I quickly became obsessed with birding. My skills and experience eventually surpassed hers in that one area, though neither of us felt any kind of competitiveness. Indeed, she took a great deal of pride in my birding and then in my radio program. One time when I was visiting her in Port Wing, she was helping a neighbor prepare for a luncheon. When we went to her house to bring over what Helen had prepared, she had me carry in the cookies while she carried another armload. Her friend exclaimed when she saw the cookies, “Oh, these look wonderful! Did you bake them, Laura?” Before I could even begin a response, Helen jumped in with, “Laura doesn’t have time to sit around baking cookies! She has much more important things to do with her life.” She must have talked about my birding to her many friends, because they would send her clippings from all over of news stories related to birds, writing on them, “For Laura.”

She took enormous pride in “For the Birds,” and was my most loyal radio listener—if KUMD was even a minute late airing it, she’d call the station asking “Where’s Laura today?”

In January 2009, we held a 90th birthday party for Helen in Port Wing. The whole town was there, and we heard lovely stories about her. She was still going along on local nature hikes, easily keeping up with people half a century younger, noticing and identifying all kinds of things that would otherwise have gone unobserved. It was lovely to hear all the stories.

But she was growing more forgetful, our first intimation that dementia was setting in. She was also getting a bit frailer. She was still quite independent and capable of living on her own, more than half a mile from her nearest neighbor in rural Port Wing, until 2012, when she was 93 and developed a crippling case of bursitis. I spent much of that year living 24/7 with her.

That’s when I was writing the National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America, and she got a huge kick out of it whenever Jonathan Alderfer, who edited all of National Geographic's bird books for decades, called so we could hammer out various issues, from selecting the species to be covered to choosing the artwork. The sad thing was that every time I took one of these calls, Helen had forgotten that I was working on a National Geographic book—but each time she found out, it made her excited and happy all over again.

While I was staying with her that year in May, Ryan Brady, Dick Verch, and I did a Big Day, starting out at Ryan's place in Washburn. I headed there the night before after Helen and I had dinner, so we could start birding around 3 am. I’d arranged with some of Helen’s friends to come by with Helen’s mail and to check on her—I didn’t get back until 10 pm. I thought she’d be getting ready for bed, but she had waited up for me, and immediately started to fix me dinner while asking me all about the day’s birding.

She was still so competent in so many ways, and the bursitis cleared up, but her dementia was making driving dangerous and her general confusion was leading to other serious problems, so by December 2012, we were all growing to realize that she couldn’t manage on her own anymore. It was also becoming increasingly difficult for Russ and me to go back and forth so often, so we finally decided that the best thing would be for her to move in with us.

That changed our home routine quite a bit, but was easy to adapt to, and it was lovely having her with us. She was always self-sufficient, and kept herself busy by day, but I started spending my evenings watching movies or TV shows with her. She was receiving eldercare at our health care provider, and they gave us a set of exercises that would help maintain her strength and preserve her ability to balance for as long as possible. I did those with her every afternoon.

Katherine, Mom, Russ, and Katie
I took this photo in 2013, using my iPhone's panorama function. Helen got a huge kick out of how it turned out--Katie had jumped up after the camera passed her on one side and ran behind me to get back in by the time the camera panned to the end. 
For the first three and a half years, I drove her to and from Port Wing every two weeks for card club, one of her most treasured routines. It was win-win for me—not only was I being a dutiful daughter-in-law, but I got to spend a couple of hours every two weeks birding in my beloved Port Wing. For the first couple of years, we had lovely chats on our drive—I’d point out birds, we’d both spot deer and an occasional raccoon or even bear along the road, and we’d reminisce or chat about random things. I made up a playlist of songs I knew she liked for our drives, and every now and then one would trigger a memory for her; the stories she told made this shared time even more precious for me.

But as her dementia progressed, she was also growing increasingly detached from friends, family, and everything else, and was also having more trouble keeping track of the cards and scoring. And the long drive had been becoming more uncomfortable for her, too. So finally her visits to Port Wing came to an end. The last time we brought her to the Port Wing Fall Festival was in 2015, when she was 96.

Russ, Mom, and Pip at the Port Wing Fall Festival
Helen, Russ, and Pip at the Port Wing Fall Festival in 2015.
When Joey or Katie were in town, we’d pull out our Uno cards and all play, and Helen was still winning as often as anyone else.

1989-Mom, Joey, and Katie play cards
Helen playing cards with Joey and Katie long, long ago, when Tommy was still too little. 
She and I were still enjoying movies and TV shows in the evening, too. But little by little, she was losing pleasure in the things she’d once loved. When she was standing in the kitchen or near the dining room window and I pointed out a Pileated Woodpecker at the feeder, now she wouldn’t even look up.

Helen collapsed while standing in the kitchen this past May, and broke her leg at the hip. Surgery went well, but she developed edema, and the pain in her leg didn’t go away. Russ patiently did exercises with her every day trying to rebuild strength in her legs, because the hallways and doors in our very old house are just too narrow to accommodate anything wider than a narrow walker—the nice wheeled walker we’d gotten for her couldn’t negotiate turns here, and no way would a wheelchair work here. So when Medicare rules cut her off from rehab when she didn’t improve quick enough, she had to stay in the nursing home.

A couple of months ago, I could tell she no longer recognized me most of the time, but she’d still brighten up when I brought my little dog Pip in. I got Pip groomed last Monday, and she was at her most adorable, wearing a Christmas neckerchief and bow—the kind of adornments Helen always loved.

Pip!

But when I brought her to the nursing home, Helen didn’t smile or seem the least bit interested. Little by little she’d been slipping the surly bonds of earth. On Friday, my sister-in-law Jean came in from Chicago.

Dinner at Bellisio's
Helen, her daughter Jeanie, and her son-in-law Mike
Helen did recognize her, and was still recognizing Russ, her two children. They kissed her goodnight and left at Helen’s regular bedtime. And after such a very long farewell to all of us who loved her, and after making her final goodnight to her beloved children, Helen went to sleep for good.

Helen turns 99
Helen receiving birthday greetings on her 99th birthday this January 24.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Value of One Individual

My female Pileated Woodpecker

Last Wednesday, I witnessed a Sharp-shinned Hawk repeatedly attacking the female Pileated Woodpecker who hangs out in my neighborhood. The hawk attacked her over and over as the two of them worked their way west, finally out of sight and earshot, a case of “Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk.”

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

I didn’t see my female Pileated Woodpecker for the rest of the day. She usually doesn’t come around as often as her mate—he visits my trees and feeders at least three or four times most days, while I sometimes don’t see her for a few days running. Thursday I kept watch and she didn’t show up, but I tried not to worry.

Soon after the birds flew away on Wednesday, I posted about it on Facebook with one of the photos I’d taken of the attack. Most of the comments were sympathetic to both birds, but because I post so many photos of my two Pileateds, people were more worried about the woodpecker than the hungry hawk, just as I was.

Many comments were like this one, “ I hope she’s ok and that the sharpie has decided she’s too much work.” Only one person articulated a hope that the Pileated had pecked the Sharpie to death, and only a couple of people took a completely detached “nature red in tooth and claw” view. Somehow when you personally recognize one of the actors on either side of the predator-prey seesaw, this kind of story takes on a larger, more personal meaning, for better and for worse. Predation is natural and important, and it’s important not to trivialize it or to develop a hatred for hawks after this kind of encounter, but it’s hard to dismiss the fundamental value of a Pileated Woodpecker, too.

I wrote a blog post and produced a “For the Birds” program/podcast about the whole episode on Thursday, and linked to the blog on Facebook, getting even more comments.

That's when people started emailing and private messaging me to ask if I’d seen the female Pileated Woodpecker in my yard since the encounter. The male came in several times on Thursday, and each time I’d check out his mustache and forehead hoping they’d be black rather than red, but no such luck. And no sign of the female on Friday. That’s the day the program aired on KUMD, which triggered even more people asking if I’d seen her again yet. I was starting to get really worried, myself.

The male showed up first thing on Saturday morning—he sometimes sleeps in the box elder right by my window, and when he does, he appears at the feeder while it’s still fairly dark before dawn. Then right around 9, suddenly there she was.

One female Pileated Woodpecker looks pretty much exactly like any other, but she went to the suet feeders she usually frequents and went to the back box elder where the two birds have been working on what may end up being a nest cavity. So I’m as certain as possible that this was MY female. I posted on Facebook at 9:20, “SHE'S BACK!!! In all her favorite spots! I am sooooooooo relieved!”

143 people “liked” that, and a great many people commented. Most of the people posted happy dancing Snoopys or other cute gifs, or said how relieved they were, and several people said this was the best news of the morning, or the week. One of my Duluth friends said, “It's wonderful news! I'll now have John Sebastian's 'Welcome Back' in my head for the rest of the day: 'What could ever lead ya, back here where we need ya?!'” That got a few people commenting about John Sebastian, too.

When I had my babies, I discovered firsthand that loving a whole new person made my capacity for love grow. Rather than dividing a finite pie of love, my heart was baking more pies. And I can see that specifically loving particular individual chickadees, Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers—all the individual birds I come to recognize and start feeling personally attached to—expands my capacity for loving nature.

We humans have a tendency to see nature as separate from our human world. Nevertheless, our lives are intertwined with the natural world—as Robinson Jeffers said, we’re “Not man apart.” The life of one single woodpecker may be pretty insignificant in the overall scheme of the cosmos, yet it does seem significant that so many people could be so very interested and concerned about one particular woodpecker whose life suddenly became enmeshed with ours. As we grow in compassion for one individual creature, our capacity for love enlarges. And what we love, we protect.

Our planet is at a turning point with regard to climate change. The loss of forests exacerbates the carbon load in the atmosphere even more than every form of fossil-fuel-burning transportation. We have to start making serious changes to save our world. Desperation is one great motivator. Maybe we could and should be cultivating another powerful motivator as well—love.

Female Pileated Woodpecker

Saturday, December 1, 2018

She's Back!!

The last time I saw my female Pileated Woodpecker was on Wednesday, when she was attacked repeatedly by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The hawk pursued her until they were out of sight. (You can read the blog post and see the photos here.) I've been a nervous wreck ever since, though really, she doesn't normally come every single day as the male does. Finally, this morning, she came in to visit my feeders and trees.

My female Pileated Woodpecker

Friday, November 30, 2018

Laura's Best Bird EVER: Raven with a Gift from Above

Common Raven

Back in 1981, right after I moved to Duluth when I was pregnant with my first baby, Russ refinished some floors in our apartment. Being pregnant, I simply couldn’t deal with the smells, so I stayed in Port Wing, Wisconsin, with his parents for a couple of weeks, taking long, long walks along country roads every morning. My favorite walk was about 10 miles, but if I wasn’t quite up to that or the weather grew unpleasant, I could keep it at 6. I could also add extensions to make the full hike more like 12 miles. That spring was when I grew especially bonded to Port Wing, developing a feel for the various habitats and which birds were where.

One day when I returned to the house, I noticed that my wristwatch, a gift from Russ that I treasured, was missing. It was on a leather strap, and the buckle had occasionally worked its way open. I thought it was lost forever.

Gift from a raven

The next day when I was three or four miles from Russ’s parents place, a raven flew over making some interesting squawks I’d never heard before. A few minutes later, that one or another flew over with something hanging out of its beak. I pulled up my binoculars, and there was my wristwatch! The raven flew in, closer and closer, right over my head. And voila! It dropped my wristwatch at my feet.

I don’t have words to describe my disbelief, surprise, and a joy that far, far surpassed my pleasure in having my good old watch back, oddly enough still in working order. What was going on in that raven’s mind? I’d not focused on the ravens on my morning walk except to notice them, and occasionally to call up a “good morning”—when I’m birding alone, I sometimes do carry on conversations with birds. I’ll never know if this raven thought that was interesting, endearing, or what, or whether it noticed me dropping the watch and associated me with it. Ravens often pick up shiny objects, and maybe when this one saw the person it associated with that object again, it decided to match us out of a sense of order rather than generosity. Maybe it wanted to give some random item it found to a random person.

I’ll never know. But it’s fun to speculate about the mystery. I’d read about how smart ravens are even before I started birding or ever saw a real one, but it had never occurred to me that raven intelligence and a kind of raven benevolence could possibly have an impact on my personal life.

When I think about that raven now, more than 37 years later, I’m still gobsmacked. I’ve spent the intervening years studying everything I could about avian intelligence, but the more I learn, the more I realize that I haven’t even scratched the surface.

We human beings have been smart enough to raze whole swaths of forest and prairie, blow Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Baghdad to smithereens, and enslave, torture, and kill millions of our very own species. Now we send probes to Mars and beyond, yearning to find more intelligent life out there that I think, based on the movies we create, we assume will be just as menacing as our own species.

Meanwhile, we still lack the basic intelligence to even notice, much less understand or communicate with, the intelligent life forms right here on our home planet—life forms intelligent enough to muster together satisfying lives without blowing anyone up or taking too much more than they need for their own security and happiness. They may be pretty much defenseless against us, but that says more about our own deadly sins of greed and wrath than anything about their intelligence.

My wristwatch stopped working a year or two after it dropped from the skies at my feet, but I’ve never been able to throw it away. Somehow that raven had transformed my inexpensive but beloved trinket into a priceless treasure. That raven was my best bird EVER!

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Drama on Peabody Street

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

I love raptors. I’ve written an entire book on owls, two about hawks, taken thousands of photos of them, rehabbed several hawks and owls for days or weeks, and lived with an Eastern Screech-Owl for 17 years. There is a hawk or owl on the cover of seven of the books I’ve written or co-authored. I also appreciate the role of predation in the natural world, and fully realize that prey species are much more numerous than top predators, able to withstand predation.

But this week I found myself very angry at one particular female Sharp-shinned Hawk who was hunting in my backyard. First she made a pass at a male Hairy Woodpecker in my back box elder tree. The woodpecker yelled out a few obscenities and hightailed it out of there. Then she made a pass at one of my stupider pigeons, who hadn’t even bothered to fly off the power line until the hawk was less than a foot away, after everyone else in the yard had disappeared. Even my squirrels were sitting tight by then.

Gray Squirrel hiding out
This little guy didn't move a muscle for at least five minutes.
The hawk must have missed the pigeon—not more than two minutes later, she was back. So far I was interested, but hardly angry. I took a few photos of her and got back to my work.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

A few minutes later, I heard one of my Pileated Woodpeckers squawking. I ran to the window and there was the hawk, chasing my female Pileated Woodpecker, who’d been in one of my neighbor’s trees. From some angles the hawk looked bigger than the Pileated, and feisty as they are, I tend to associate Sharp-shinned Hawks with medium- to small-sized songbirds, so I started doubting my original identification. It seemed the right size for a Cooper’s Hawk, but looked wrong—the tail feathers were all the same length rather than tapered, the head seemed small, and the neck too short—Cooper’s Hawks have a weird, “bull-headed” appearance to my eyes.

Cooper's Hawk
I took this photo of a Cooper's Hawk in Indiana in 2011.

The Pileated would alight on a tree, and rather than freeze, she’d peck restlessly and then look around to see where the hawk had landed. In a few of my photos, the two birds look about the same size, but it was pretty clear to my eyes at the time and in my photos after the fact that the Pileated was a little bigger, but not much.

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s All About Birds website calls the Sharpie a “tiny hawk,” but it looked pretty darned big to me. I was starting to doubt my original identification. I was certain it was not a Cooper’s, but could it be a Northern Goshawk? It did have a fairly conspicuous white eyebrow line, a normal feature of goshawks, and it did seem pretty huge, and was attacking a Pileated Woodpecker! Would a Sharp-shinned Hawk really do that? I decided to consult with a real expert.

Frank Nicoletti, the Banding Director at Hawk Ridge in Duluth, has held thousands of goshawks over his long career and a couple of orders of magnitude more Sharp-shinned Hawks. He was nice enough to look at my photos to help me with the identification. He confirmed that the bird was a Sharpie, but understood my confusion about how huge it looked attacking the Pileated, and it also had that white line above the eye, as immature goshawks typically do.

Sharp-shinned Hawk

The wingspan of a Pileated Woodpecker averages 29 inches, while that of a large female Sharpie is only about 22 inches. But the wingspan of the smallest male goshawk is over 40 inches—in my photos of the chases, the hawk is definitely at least a little smaller than the Pileated.

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk wingspans run between 24 and 35 inches, so using size alone, I’d have bet good money on my hawk being a Coop, but it just didn’t look like one—when perched, the tail seemed too short, and the head and neck not big enough. Frank told me that it’s weird but of the three accipiters, the Cooper’s Hawk is the outlier, and that a lot of people just don’t realize that it’s easier to confuse immature sharpies and goshawks than either one with Cooper’s.

I’ve not spent much time studying and identifying hawks in the field—I’m supposed to be sort of an expert, but really, you need to spend day after day, week after week, watching them and holding them in the hand as Frank does to be a genuine expert at hawk ID. Frank is one of the world’s nicest guys, so he wouldn’t have made me feel foolish about not being certain whether my bird was a sharpie or a goshawk, but I was still relieved when he said young sharpies and goshawks can be oddly easy to mix up. The one in my yard was clearly a female to be as large relative to the Pileated as she was.

Anyway, the hawk dive-bombed the Pileated ten or twelve times while I watched—I lost count after I got to eight. The Pileated kept alighting on a tree trunk or the power pole, tapping restlessly.

Alarmed female Pileated Woodpecker

Alarmed female Pileated Woodpecker

Then she'd fly off to another perch, the hawk in hot pursuit as the woodpecker cursed the way the Hairy Woodpecker had, only in Pileated Speak. I don’t think a Pileated would act that way with a Goshawk, and if it did, it probably wouldn’t have survived more than two or three of those flights. This whole drama started in my neighbor’s yard to the east, then in my own yard for several attacks, and then moved on to my neighbor to the west, and beyond. I lost track of them when they were three houses down and moving west.

For the rest of the afternoon until dark, I kept scanning the trees to see whether my Pileated would come back, but neither she nor my male appeared again until the male came in and ate bedtime snacks at three feeders before flying off toward one of his night roost trees. I’m going to be a nervous wreck for the next day or two, until I see the female again. Yes, I like hawks in general. But not when one goes for MY Pileated Woodpeckers.

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Laura's Best Bird EVER: Yesterday's Pileated Woodpecker

Backyard Pileated Woodpecker

The Pileated Woodpecker is one of my favorite of all birds—it’s so striking, both in appearance and more literally, in how it makes its living, striking its powerful beak into trees and suet cakes. The first time I saw pictures of it in my field guides, I became obsessed. I saw my first in June 1976. Russ got a distant but identifiable picture, which may be why I’m so uniquely thrilled when I get photos of this species.

Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker
The bird is pretty much dead center, just to the right and above the bridge railing.
Every time I’ve seen one ever since I’ve been thrilled—it’s a bird you just can’t take for granted.

Raising a young pileated for several weeks in 1997 while I was rehabbing was an extraordinary experience. That was in the days of film, before I was taking many photographs, but I did get a few of Gepetto with Katie and Tommy.

Katie and Gepetto

Tom and Gepetto

In November 2004, when I had my first digital camera, a Pileated was coming regularly to the little suet feeder stuck with suction cups to the window of my upstairs home office—I got a photo of him through the window, which made me happy despite how he’d gooped up the glass with his sloppy suet-eating habits.

Pileated Woodpecker

I nicknamed him Jeepers, and saw him a lot that winter because that was when a Rufous Hummingbird was also coming to my feeders.

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

On December 2, we had a fierce blizzard, and I was in such a panic about my poor little hummer that I opened that window so she could feed inside my office. I had to wear my winter coat, snow pants, and gloves to work at my computer that day. In early afternoon, I looked out the open window to see Jeepers in the box elder tree right there. He stayed put long enough to give me the best photo of a Pileated that I was to take for years, as if thanking me for opening my house to the cold, hungry refugee. 

Pileated Woodpecker

I’ve had a few opportunities in the past couple of years to take even better Pileated Woodpecker close-ups in my yard, because a pair has been hanging out in my neighborhood. This spring the male was working a big rotten natural cavity in the box elder in the side yard by the house—the same tree I’d photographed Jeepers in 14 years ago. I think he and the female were taking turns roosting in that cavity at night sometimes, because one or the other would appear in the tree at dawn, way earlier than I usually see them.

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree

Pileated Woodpecker finding grubs in my box elder tree
(click this photo to see video)
Last month, right after we had a new window put in in our dining room, I got some nice photos of both birds at some of the feeders in the side yard. I thought this was as good as it gets—how could I possibly get better photos than those?

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Then last week when the male was in the suet feeder in my backyard, I took a bunch of photos of him on rapid burst, and one caught him in mid-blink, revealing both his eyelid and his nictitating membrane. Unlike in most birds, which close their eyes with the larger lid below the eye, or as owls and we humans do, with the larger eyelid above the eye, most woodpeckers have the eyelid sweeping closed from the front of the eye, which protects the bird's eye from flying wood chips. Surely that photo would be the best I could do as far as photographing a Pileated Woodpecker. 

Pileated Woodpecker

Then yesterday, the male spent a big chunk of the day in my yard, giving me three superb photo ops. First he was working on a cavity in my backyard box elder—not the one right next to the house but one I can see out the back windows. I cranked open the window and got both photos and videos of him working on that.

Backyard Pileated Woodpecker

Backyard Pileated Woodpecker
(Click this photo to see video)
I thought that was going to be the best of the day. But when I went downstairs, he was in the peanut butter feeder in the side yard. I grabbed my camera and fired away through the new window glass, my camera on rapid burst. And WHOA! For the first time ever I got a shot of a pileated tongue—not just the tip but the whole long wormy thing—and the photo turned out really well.

Pileated Woodpecker

I’ve written a lot about bird tongues, especially the long, extruding tongues of woodpeckers and hummingbirds (such as this blog entry: More about Bird Tongues than a Normal Person Would Want to Know), but I’d taken only a couple of decent photos of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds sticking out their tongues before yesterday. I’ve been trying to capture the moment a Pileated Woodpecker sticks out its tongue for years, but the best I could manage was a couple of pictures barely showing the tip. This one turned out better than I ever dreamed—the bird is in perfect profile, the tongue sticking out at full length.

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

I got one last set of shots of him in the afternoon. Now he was at the suet feeder in my back office window. My 300 mm lens was at hand, and I had to step back to focus, but it was at such close range that I got a close-up of his face. That photo isn't cropped at all.

Pileated Woodpecker close-up

I’ve never had a day offering such a variety of pileated poses, and to have finally managed to get one of a pileated tongue! I have no idea why this one male Pileated Woodpecker decided to give me such an extraordinary day, but I sure enjoyed it, both in the taking pictures and in the enjoying them afterward. I never named this particular Pileated Woodpecker, but surely he’s my best bird EVER!

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Our Far-Flung Correspondents: Brita, Odin, and Their Mom Sarah

Brita and Odin
I love hearing from listeners, and this summer I got an unexpected treat when I received an email from Sarah Carlson. She wrote:
My sisters and I were avid listeners of your program growing up in the Duluth area in the 1980's and 90's. I remember sending you little illustrations of birds along with a letter or two. My sister, Kate, even asked you about a robin she saw in winter; you reassured her that it was indeed likely a robin, which brought immense comfort to her within our questioning family.   
Now I'm 40 years old and raising my two children in Duluth to love the birds and nature. We homeschool, and therefore spend a ton of time outdoors. … Now my daughter, Brita, 8, is learning to identify birds. Other than a distrust of pigeons and our squawking laying hens, she realizes the importance of all birds in the circle of life. She just finished reading the entire Little House series of books, and absorbed a lot of Laura's bird observations in the 1880's.   
My son, Odin, 5, fills up the feeders and gathers the chicken's eggs. He can identify some bird songs and says his favorites are the chickadee, ostrich, and ruffed grouse. We have gotten several of your books and thank you for educating us.  
Brita is drawing the little mystery bird in Laura Ingalls Wilder's The Long Winter.

A few weeks ago, I heard back from Sarah:
I wanted to send you one more message letting you know we've subscribed to your blog, and loved looking at all the photos and information of all your bird species.   
What a life list and adventures you've had, rehabbing birds and traveling!    
Today while she had her binoculars out, spotting a male cardinal and several chickadees, Brita remarked, "I wish I could fly!  I'd soar with the hawks in the sky".   
She is drawing birds looking at photos from your books. We also got a book about Roger Tory Peterson and are learning about Charles Darwin's documentation of evolution studying the finch's beaks. All very interesting.  
Thanks again, for all your work and teachings.  
Brita and Odin dissect owl pellets
Sarah told me that Brita, her “bird girl,” has two favorite birds, the chickadee and Pileated Woodpecker. She likes chickadees because: 
They're such cute little birds, and I like their little black cap. They should be the Minnesota state bird because they are so common and live here all winter long. And, I've almost had one land on my hand.  
Black-capped Chickadee

I’m inordinately pleased that both Brita and Odin name the chickadee among their favorite birds. Like Brita, I place the Pileated Woodpecker among my top birds, too. Brita said she "likes the call of the pileated woodpeckers best". She thinks "they are the most beautiful birds in the northern forest." 

Pileated Woodpecker

I also like Odin’s choice of Ruffed Grouse—that’s a pretty cool bird, too.

Ruffed Grouse

And I like his broad world view, including the Ostrich among his favorites. I’ve been to Uganda once, but not to Kidepo National Park, the one spot in the whole country where Ostriches live. I hope I can go back to Africa—I still yearn to see wild Ostriches, Secretarybirds, and Zebras. 

Like me, Brita thinks about both species of birds and individuals. She named the male pileated woodpecker at her place "Pili". She calls the chickadee she sees in their yard "Chee-Chee" and the others are "Chee-Chee's friends!"

It is ever so rewarding to realize that people who started listening to For the Birds as children became more aware, and more fond, of birds in part because of me, and that now, as grownups, they’re sharing this love for birds with their own children. My tombstone will probably read, “She blathered about birds.” It’s lovely to know that some people appreciate those blatherings.