Tuesday, May 3, 2016
One year ago today, on May 3, 2015, I went birding in Sapsucker Woods in Ithaca, NY, hoping to reconnect with someone very dear to me. He’d never once sent me an email or text, and I didn’t know if he’d show up while I was there, but hope springs eternal. Cornell University has a lot of prominent, world-famous professors and researchers, but the guy I so yearned to see wasn’t among them. He was an unemployed yet self-sufficient, hard-working recluse—the quintessential outdoors guy, into fishing and woodworking and building, yet surprisingly tender and patient with young ones. He was a true blue, all-American Great Blue Heron.
Sapsucker Woods has almost certainly been home to Great Blue Herons since the ponds formed. My personal experience with them there began with the first time I ever visited the Cornell Lab, in April 2006. During the time I was living in Ithaca while I worked at the Lab, from January 2008 through April 2010, Great Blue Herons could be seen every time I took a walk around the pond. My first spring in Ithaca, I thought one heron seemed unusually calm and tolerant of my presence, but figured that was just Cornell karma.
In 2009, I got my first DSLR camera, and that’s when I started taking hundreds, and then thousands, of heron photos. That was also the spring that a pair of Great Blue Herons constructed a nest in the pond. Every day I took photos of the growing family—they successfully raised 4 babies that year.
I was at the Lab during a major thunderstorm when the chicks were still little (but didn't bring my camera that day—it was raining). The female hunkered down on the nest. The male stood up at the edge of the nest, facing the full brunt of the storm with his wings slightly opened to umbrella his mate and young, and held fast, buffeted by powerful winds, pelted by rain and some hail, for the duration.
I left Cornell in April 2010, but not before a pair of herons arrived at the nest again.
That was the spring Kevin McGowan noticed something unusual about the male at the nest: he was missing the hind toe on his right foot. I started scrutinizing my photos and, sure enough, the male who built the nest the previous year was missing his hind toe. And that unusually tame Great Blue Heron I’d taken so many photos of in 2009? He was the exact same individual bird! I started thinking of him as “Dad.”
I was gone through the nesting season in 2010 and 2011, but people at the Lab watched Dad and his mate—there was no way of knowing whether she was the same one or not—successfully fledge four chicks both years. Then in the winter in 2012, long before any herons returned, Cornell put a couple of cameras in the nest—nest cams that would stream live on the internet so we could watch the birds raise their family up close and personal. I was asked to be a monitor in the chat room. And though I was 1200 miles away, this was one of the most thrilling experiences I’ve ever had watching individual birds.
That year they produced five eggs, and despite a few attacks by a Great Horned Owl leading to one egg getting cracked, a late winter storm, and other tricky situations, all five hatched, and all five successfully fledged.
In 2013, the female appeared to be a new one, but Dad, missing that right hind toe, was back and the pair again produced four eggs and raised the four chicks to fledging. The nest fell out of the tree in 2014 before egg-laying began.
Then last year late in the season, Dad got into a fight with another heron, and his foot got hurt—one front toe was badly broken. He hobbled about at first, but the toe seemed to be healing.
Banded Great Blue Herons in Texas have survived 23 and 24 years. I don’t know if Dad's being attacked and injured was evidence of advancing age—we have no idea how old he actually was. But this year, for the first year since at least 2009, Dad has not returned to Sapsucker Woods. We don't know for certain that he's dead, and unless his death had been witnessed or his body retrieved, we could never be sure about the date or time of his demise. Few wild birds get obituaries.
It’s hard to tell individual birds apart—that’s the whole reason scientists mark them with leg bands, wing tags, and electronic trackers—and it’s hard to place a value on an individual bird. Dad produced at least 21 fledgling herons over his lifetime, making a genetic mark on his species. He also inspired a lot of human beings, who will never forget how he stayed on that nest through a snow storm; how he tenderly nurtured his chicks, always making sure to deposit the food in the nest nearest to the littlest chick; how when he regurgitated a still-alive goldfish in the nest to the utter shock of the babies, he patiently showed them that even though it moved—something no regurgitated fish had ever done in their experience—it was still food; how he was a constant presence in Sapsucker Woods, not shying away from people but always certain of himself and his absolute right to a love, his nest and territory, and good food.
I learned to love Great Blue Herons more as I came to know this one individual better. The last few years, the moment there was even a slight break in wintry weather in February I started impatiently awaiting news that Dad had reappeared, each year breathing a sign of relief as soon as someone reported seeing him. I treasure my memories of the time I spent with him last May 3, all the time I spent with him in person during my years at Cornell, and all the time I spent watching him via Cornell's nest cam, not in person but somehow even more intimately. Now there is a gaping hole in my universe—a dark and empty void that, like Rachel's children, cannot be restored.
The world will go on without Dad, as it will one day go on without me. But I’m grateful that his and my paths intersected during our finite stays on this little planet. For the rest of my life, whenever I see any Great Blue Heron, I’ll think of one in particular, and smile.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 9:12 AM
Friday, April 29, 2016
The first time I ever noticed my aspen tree in full bud, back in early May in 1982, at least one Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and Yellow-rumped Warbler could be seen in its branches just about every time I looked. That has been one absolute constant I can count on no matter how spring unfolds and on what timeline—the first open aspen buds draw those three species to my yard, every single year.
This year, April stayed rather cold here in Duluth, and spring migration has begun rather slowly, April days seem even crueler when robins are hunkered down against the biting wind and juncos are fluffed out against the cold. Even with the cold and wind, I appreciate April’s slow progression up here. I like savoring each new arrival without the distractions of dozens of other new arrivals. And each new arrival in April serves double duty as a promise of the warmth that will eventually come our way. Last Saturday the aspen buds were open and sure enough, there were my three reliable species—Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Ruby-crowned Kinglet and Yellow-rumped Warbler. It may be another week or more before I spy my first hummingbird or oriole, but what is here is plenty enough for right now.
For over a week now, two territorial male Song Sparrows have been singing on and off every day. Usually I have just one nearby pair, and without nearby competitors, the male doesn’t need to sing all that often—having two has far more than doubled the number of songs I hear. Even with the windows closed the song pierces my consciousness. Ruby-crowned Kinglets and Brown Creepers catch my eye out the window several times each day, almost always in the company of a chickadee or two, and a pair of crows appears to be nesting near, though I haven’t found the nest yet—crows are sneaky. A Merlin hunts around here every few days. That is plenty often enough for me to see and enjoy him without worrying too often about which of my birds will serve as the next meal.
So I’m having a lovely spring, and biding my time before the big onrush. But a lot of birders are voicing frustration and even annoyance that they’re not seeing more by now. So I was happy to read something my friend Kenn Kaufman, author of several important books, wrote this week from Ohio near Lake Erie, where migration is much further along. Kenn wrote:
An aspect of birding that seems sad to me: The kind of birder who has to prove how expert they are by declaring every day to be a “slow day.” The intended message seems to be, “Hey, I’m so experienced that I’ve seen much better days than this. A seasoned expert like me couldn’t possibly get excited about this day.”
Well… I was out there today, on the Magee boardwalk… and I didn’t think it was “slow.” I mean, sure, it’s still April, it’s not peak season yet. There were only 10 or 12 kinds of warblers, not 25 or 30. Migrants were in single and double digit numbers, not triple digits, not yet. But they were there, and among the bare twigs, among the pale green of leaf buds just beginning to open, birds were easy to see. Kinglets and gnatcatchers jittering and fidgeting in the trees, hermit thrushes bouncing over the ground, gaudy rose-breasted grosbeaks posing at eye level, white-throated sparrows perching up in the thickets to sing about Oh Sweet Kimberly, these were all welcome arrivals. And then of course the warblers: black-throated greens with their glowing yellow faces, black-and-whites traipsing up and down trunks, Nashvilles showing off their tricolored pattern, the shocking flame-yellow of a Prothonotary, all these warblers freshly arrived from the tropics… It was cool and overcast, and all the colors looked rich and deep in the muted light. Slow day? I guess I’ll never make it as a seasoned expert, because I thought it was magical, I thought it was an extraordinary blessing to be out there in this beautiful place on the edge of spring, surrounded by miracles.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 6:51 AM
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
Today is the day I celebrate a shy, unassuming man—Lincoln's most trusted general—who saved the nation from the traitorous Confederacy.
Ulysses S. Grant opposed and personally hated slavery, but was too shy, reticent, and uncertain to say no when his wife's parents gave him a personal slave, William Jones, for a wedding gift. Grant treated Jones always as an employee, working side by side with him when building the little house he made for his wife. (Julia hated the house and refused to live in it because it lived up to the name "Hardscrabble." Don't get me started about her.)
Grant had gone to West Point, but was horribly sad in the military after the Mexican War, when he was stationed in the West, far from his wife and small children. After he left the military, his shy, reticent manner and scrupulous honesty made him a poor businessman. By 1859, Grant was destitute, unable to feed his family or to pay his slave, whom he always called a servant. Grant could have sold him for at least a thousand dollars--money he needed desperately--but he didn't even consider that. He took him to the city and signed the manumission papers to free him.
Accepting a slave in the first place could be looked at as an act of moral cowardice. But one must also consider that if Grant refused the "gift," Jones would have continued in slavery. Life for a shy, uncertain person can be complicated when he falls head over heels for a high-strung, selfish woman, especially when he was raised by a judgmental mother who disliked him so much that she never once visited him in the White House. (Many people don't realize that Grant was the youngest president in history at the time he was elected.)
I fell in love with Ulysses S. Grant in first grade because he looked so kind, but had such cosmically sad eyes. At some point when I was still little, someone laughed at me for liking a "drunken butcher." It wasn't until a few years ago that I had the courage to read his memoirs and several histories about him to get that straightened out.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 8:36 PM
What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet—at least until someone trademarked the word and outsourced production to maximize return on investment.
I’ve been thinking a lot about branding and trademarks since March 1, when the National Park Service changed the names of several historic designations within Yosemite National Park to avoid a trademark infringement claim. Delaware North, the corporation that had been the park’s concessionaire since 1993, now claims to own intellectual property rights to the names of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, Wawona Hotel, Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, Badger Pass Ski Area, and several other beloved and iconic features of the park, all of which were named long before Delaware North was even in the picture.
I visited Yosemite for the first time in 2013, and like anyone who hikes in our treasured national parks, I felt a pride of ownership in this magnificent place that belongs to you and me—to everyone and so, essentially, to no one. I found the news about Yosemite’s trademark woes depressing evidence of the continuing corporatization of modern life.
That corporatization isn’t restricted to America, either. Last week, as we approached the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death, I knew there would be lots of media coverage about him. But I didn't expect that the very first story I'd hear, on American Public Media’s Marketplace, would be a report about how much money the Shakespeare “brand” is worth today, specifically to people in Stratford-upon-Avon, in England.
There’s absolutely no evidence that Shakespeare disapproved of capitalism, and I suspect he’d be proud of how his legacy endures. But something deep in my soul resists referring to either Shakespeare the man or his body of work as a “brand.” His plays and sonnets make him the best-selling author of all time, at least in English—over 2 billion copies of his works have been sold worldwide. He took many of his plots from existing stories, but added nuance and depth to his characters and imbued the dialog with a richness of language that made his versions of those stories the ones that endure.
People have been profiting off Shakespeare's work since two of his friends published the First Folio after his death. I myself have two Shakespeare posters, a bronze statue, lots of souvenirs from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., two volumes of his complete works, most of the paperback copies of his plays that I read in college, several biographies and books of criticism, and a Shakespeare action figure. But when it comes right down to it, the play’s the thing—neither Shakespeare nor his creations that made his name so revered are manufactured products. Shakespeare is not a brand.
The word brand originally referred to the process of literally searing proof of ownership into a living animal’s flesh. Now we establish and defend property rights over our animals with the higher tech but equally invasive process of embedding a microchip into their flesh or a tag into their ear.
My dog Pip and I may think of ourselves as family, but legally she is property, and I have the microchip registration that proves my ownership.
I have a license to keep an education owl, Archimedes, but he is not property, and I am not allowed to refer to him as a pet. My license to possess him is limited, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has the legal authority to confiscate him at any time for any reason.
It’s not that the federal government holds with any belief that wild birds have an intrinsic quality that transcends possession, ownership, trademarks, or branding. It’s just that the federal government itself claims ownership of America’s wildlife. Governmental agencies can grant permits to individuals to permanently mark wildlife, including embedding microchips in their flesh, for research purposes, but again, the bird banders and other wildlife researchers doing this don’t “own” those animals—the same federal government that does not own the trademark on Yosemite National Park’s named features does own every animal within the park and beyond.
Specific images of wild animals can be trademarked: Coca Cola uses both accurate and stylized depictions of their trademark polar bears in their ads, and the Minnesota State Lottery uses images and sounds of real wild loons on their commercials and official logo, but neither they nor anyone else can trademark or claim ownership over an actual species. People often say chickadees are my “trademark” bird or my “brand.” They mean well, but I find myself growing increasingly impatient with the whole concept of trademarks and brands, except on manufactured products belonging to corporations. Just because I love chickadees and many people associate them with me, or just because I refer to the chickadees living in my neighborhood as mine, doesn’t mean they belong to me or anybody else. No one can possibly own loons or chickadees, Yosemite National Park, or William Shakespeare. The best things in life are free, in both senses of the word.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 7:26 PM
Monday, April 18, 2016
Drew just put together a gorgeous book titled Sparrow Envy, published this month by Holocene Press. I’d have been delighted enough had he given me permission to read a few of his poems. Imagine my elation when he agreed to read them himself, in his rich voice! (I didn't transcribe his poems to prevent unauthorized copying. If you can't easily read them from the images, click on them to hear the poems read by J. Drew Lanham himself.)
I’ve been overwhelmed with writing assignments lately, drawing me to his “Wild Wishes beyond Widgets.”
I’m directionally impaired, but always thinking about where I want to be, both geographically and metaphorically, so I find “Compassing” especially evocative.
Anyone whose eyes are drawn skyward as migrating birds pass over can be drawn into “A Dream of Swans.”
As night passes into morning and reality intrudes on our R.E.M., or “rapid eye movement” dreaming sleep, we may find a deeper purpose to our day if we open our hearts and minds to what J. Drew Lanham calls “Wren R.E.M.”
If you want to get an autographed copy of this splendid book of poetry, send $16 to:
J. Drew Lanham
112 Kirk Drive
Seneca, SC 29678
|J. Drew Lanham|
Posted by Laura Erickson at 8:26 PM
Sunday, April 17, 2016
One of my friends recently moved to Duluth from Bemidji. He seemed utterly distraught on April 14, when the high here was 43 degrees but 78 in Bemidji. I don’t know if T.S. Eliot was thinking specifically about Duluth when he wrote that April is the cruelest month. Other places may have it as bad, but I don’t know how anyone can have it worse than those of us on the north shore of the largest, coldest lake in the U.S., at least as far as frigid temperatures so close to where people are getting ready to plant tomatoes.
The problem is our location on the north shore. We relish Lake Superior’s influence in summer when we’re enjoying temps in the 60s or 70s while it’s pushing three digits in Bemidji, or in winter when the lake modifies the sub-zero temps of whatever large system is driving record lows away from the lake. Balmy weather conditions in spring ride in on south winds—and everywhere west of Duluth, those south winds carry the warmth from warmer places further south. But Lake Superior chills those south winds significantly.
This year April was colder than average in a much wider swath of the country than just Duluth, so sudden balmy conditions sent a huge migration our way. Even as redpoll and Bohemian Waxwing numbers were at the peak, a whole bunch of new migrants from the south were carried up on that south wind. On Friday the 15th, Ryan Brady experienced an enormous migration event in Herbster, Wisconsin, when he counted 8,979 birds of 64 species in just 5 hours. He posted his results on the Wisconsin Birding Facebook page. His top ten species numbers were:
- 4,925 American Robins
- 1,232 Northern Flickers \
- 794 Rusty Blackbirds
- 769 Common Redpolls
- 212 Yellow-rumped Warblers
- 140 Common Grackles
- 72 Purple Finches
- 59 European Starlings (which Ryan noted were actually migrating)
- 58 Pine Siskins
- 44 Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers.
Ryan also listed a bunch of other cool birds that were actively migrating: Belted Kingfishers, Wilson's Snipe, Brown-headed Cowbirds, Fox Sparrows, Bohemian Waxwings, Evening Grosbeaks, White-breasted Nuthatches, Lapland Longspurs, and a Trumpeter Swan. He counted 91 Long-tailed Ducks on the lake and a dark-morph Red-tail among a decent raptor flight inland, too.
|Russ took this photo of me in my Bruce Pomeroy Photo Blind a few years ago.|
For a couple of hours that day, I sat out in what I call my Bruce Pomeroy Photo Blind: a cool camouflage tent given to me by a friend, testing out my new camera on juncos and a briefly cooperative Pileated Woodpecker.
Migration through Duluth was more pronounced closer to the tip of the lake, at Park Point, and our hawk count at West Skyline has been producing hundreds of raptors—mostly Bald Eagles and Red-tailed Hawks—but once birds clear the lake, migration trends north, not east, so I don’t see actual migration events from my own backyard in spring very often. All weekend I kept seeing good birds—redpolls and Bohemian Waxwings lingering as robins and Song Sparrows sang their hearts out. Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Fox Sparrows were among the typical April migrants. And the neighborhood’s squawking Merlins were a noisy reminder that birders aren’t the only ones enjoying the abundance of new birds.
April may be the cruelest month weather-wise, and that cruelty can extend to birds that get slammed by nasty weather after arriving on a false promise of spring or get gobbled up by a hawk or falcon. But April is also a rich month, full of promise and filled with birds. And week by week, April gets better and better, but unlike May, when April is over, the very best of spring migration is yet to come.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 7:25 PM
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
|Male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker|
|Jodie Cregier Nettelhorst's male Yellow-bellied Sapsucker as seen through her window.|
From All About Birds. Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers
breed in the dark red, winter in the blue, and
simply pass through in the yellow.
Many woodpeckers move at least a bit from place to place between seasons, and a few species, such as Black-backed and Three-toed Woodpeckers, travel long distances in search of tree stands harboring the insects that attack diseased or burned trees.
|Black-backed Woodpeckers like this one flake bark off diseased trees to get to the insects beneath.|
But very few woodpeckers undergo what we traditionally think of as standard bird migration, with annual movements between a northern breeding range and a non-overlapping southern winter range. Why so few? It takes time and work to dig out wood-boring beetle larvae and other prey insects deep in trees. By staying within the same area year-round, each woodpecker can keep track of the health of and insect-populations within lots of individual trees. Some woodpeckers, including Red-headed and Red-bellied, use acorns as an important food resource, storing a great many for future use. Acorn Woodpeckers are especially adapted for this. Sticking around in the same place allows them to protect and utilize those food stores.
|Flickers feed on ants and other insects in the soil.|
|Sapsuckers are functionally illiterate, and this one hasn't read that it's supposed to stay in trees.|
The sapsucker makes two kinds of holes for harvesting sap. Round holes extend deep in the tree and are not enlarged. Rectangular holes are shallower, and must be maintained continually for the sap to flow. New holes of either type are often made in line with old holes to encircle the trunk, and then the woodpecker starts a new row of holes above the old.The sapsucker licks the sap from these holes, and also eats the cambium of the tree and insects drawn to the sap.
|If you look carefully, you can see tiny holes on this large limb.|
|These shallow, rectangular holes must be maintained or the sap will stop running to them.|
Woodpecker species that show sexual dimorphism, meaning the males look different from females, virtually always show those plumage differences on their heads, which allows them to recognize each other's sex when one is inside a cavity with just the head sticking out.
|This Red-bellied Woodpecker can be recognized as a male by its|
red forehead, easy to see even when it's within a cavity.
|If facing the right way on a narrow branch, you might get a peek at the yellow belly, like on this female.|
Any day now, I’m going to find my first backyard sapsucker feeding quietly in my aspen tree, where I’ve seen my first every year since 1981. During cold snaps, I might spot a Ruby-crowned Kinglet or Yellow-rumped Warbler at the drill holes. Crows carrying sticks; robins, grackles, and Killdeer are my first reliable signs that spring is really coming. But my first backyard Yellow-bellied Sapsucker is my official sign that spring has actually arrived, and all is right in my world.
Posted by Laura Erickson at 9:45 PM