Sunday, October 4, 2015

Snail Kites: The good news and the bad news

My original Golden Guide showing the Everglade Kite

When I started scrutinizing my field guides as a brand new birder, one of the birds I quickly became obsessed with trying to find was the Everglade Kite. I was intrigued with the very idea of calling any raptor a “kite,” so obviously had to look up the etymology: “kite” comes from Middle English, from Old English cȳta; akin to Middle High German kūze for owl. That struck me as especially odd, because owls are rather sedentary or, when they do fly, direct, while as a verb, one definition of “kite” is, “ to go in a rapid, carefree, or flighty manner.”

That intrigued me, but even so, I doubt if I’d have become obsessed with the Everglade Kite if I hadn’t read the species entries about it. The Golden Guide said that it was very rare but tame—that sounded like a cool combination—and “Feeds solely on a freshwater snail (Pomacea), which it removes from shell with its long hooked beak.” Imagine a beautiful hawk that eats just one thing—a big snail—and has an amazingly curved, sharp bill pretty much worthless for anything except pulling out the snail innards from the shell. Of course I wanted to see one.

Snail Kite face

The description left me puzzled, too, because it also said of the Everglade Kite, “Flight is floppy, not kite-like.” Since it was a kite, wouldn’t its flight be the very definition of kite-like flight? But I quickly learned that some of the birds called kites, such as the Swallow-tailed Kite, belong to entirely different genera than the Everglade Kite—some authorities even put them in different subfamilies.

I never did see an Everglade Kite before the American Ornithologists’ Union changed its name, in 1983, to the Snail Kite—the name already used for the same species where it lives in the Caribbean and Central and South America.

Tommy in the Everglades
My son Tommy at the Anhinga Trail in the Everglades in 1988
In November 1988, Russ and I took our children on a wonderful family vacation to Florida. We camped in Everglades National Park, and my whole family was patient and tolerant while I stood in the parking lot of the Miccosukee Restaurant along the Tamiami Trail, scanning along the canal where Snail Kites were supposed to hunt. It didn’t take too many minutes, although I’m sure it felt much longer to my kids, before I got a glimpse of an adult male way off in the distance—too far away to see the hooked bill or get any kind of a clear look at field marks except the dark plumage and white base of the tail. I didn’t wait for it to get closer because it seemed too much of an imposition on my kids. I got an equally unsatisfying look in the same area in May 1997, when Russ and I went back.

Snail Kite (but you'll have to search!)
Snail Kite (near the center of the photo) in Mexico
I had more luck watching them in Costa Rica on an estuary boat tour with my daughter Katie—that was before I had a camera that could photograph such a thing—and in Mexico in 2006, but figured I’d never in my life get a great view—I felt lucky enough to have seen them at all. I didn’t get further south than Titusville and Sarasota in 2013, so Snail Kite was a species I missed on my Big Year.

Brinson Park

Then last month Russ and I went down to Florida for a few days. Part of our plan was to get down to the Everglades. I knew that Snail Kites are supposed to be easier to find now, but I intended to take a swing along the Tamiami Trail again for old times sake. Unfortunately, our trip was cut short and we never got out of the Orlando area. We spend the last morning at a little urban park just outside downtown Kissimmee—Brinson Park on Lake Tohopekaliga—to see what we could. Even before the sun had risen, a stunning adult male Snail Kite flew right past us and landed in a nearby tree, close enough that even my little dog Pip took notice.

Snail Kite

Like my trusty old Golden Guide said but I’d never before experienced, it really was tame. The low light made for low quality photos, but the close distance almost made up for that. I got to enjoy him for several minutes before he finally took off. Twenty minutes or so later, I spotted one way out in the shallow lake, sitting on a sign.

Snail Kite and Anhinga
Anhinga on the pole and Snail Kite on the sign

I spent a lot of time watching Limpkins searching for and eating apple snails—that relative of cranes happens to be another snail specialist.

Limpkin devouring apple snail
Limpkin eating apple snail

And suddenly I noticed an adult male Snail Kite, possibly the same one as earlier, on a nearby power line over a sidewalk, with people running and walking along right below it. By now the sun was high enough to provide perfect lighting, and the bird tame enough to let us get close for full frame photos.

Snail Kite face

Snail Kite

Snail Kite

I got to see that amazingly sharp, curved bill—the perfect snail extraction tool—up close and personal. I got pictures from every angle, and then the bird got restless, pooped, and took off, allowing me to get a few flight shots showing the white band at the base of the tail.

Snail Kite pooping!

Snail Kite

Snail Kite

I was surprised to see Snail Kites at such an urban park, but I shouldn’t have been—it’s been my go-to place to see Limpkins since I saw a bunch there back in 2005, when I was testing digiscoping equipment. I got a bazillion photos of them, including some of them eating apple snails. If there are enough snails to support a whole population of Limpkins, it makes sense that Snail Kites would eventually join in, too.

Limpkin and apple snail
My original digiscoped Limpkin photo from 2005
I was thrilled at everything about this, thinking it was a great conservation success story. But when I looked into it, I discovered that the reason so many Limpkins have been living in the park for the past decade isn’t that Florida’s declining native apple snail population is burgeoning again. Florida’s native apple snail feeds on a variety of algae, cyanobacteria, microbes, and detritus that forms a complex mixture called periphyton—a scum that grows on rocks, larger plant leaves, and canal walls. But these native apple snails have declined precipitously in recent years, as years of droughts and hurricanes destroyed habitat and, even worse, they were suddenly being out-competed by much larger, exotic species of apple snails from South America.

South American apple snails entered the ecosystem mainly via the aquarium trade. As with Burmese pythons and other snakes that have become a scourge in the Everglades, some exotic apple snails are released by pet owners who can’t take care of them anymore, but also, as with those snakes, large numbers were flooded out of containers and warehouses at large-scale dealers during Hurricane Andrew and other massive storms.

By 2010, as one South American species of apple snail started appearing in huge numbers in the Everglades, birders and bird conservationists were thrilled that it could serve as an additional source of food for the Snail Kite, which is a federally listed endangered species. After all, Snail Kites of South America, belonging to the same species as ours, feed primarily on those south American apple snails. That's a good thing, right? And sure enough, the kites devoured these snails and their population is now surging. This seemed absolutely wonderful, and has been giving many birders the same delightful encounters I enjoyed last month at Brinson Park. What could possibly be bad about that?

Emptied out apple snail
Emptied out South American apple snail shell
Back in 1988 when I lucked into seeing my first Snail Kite, my family took a tram ride tour of the Everglades with a superb National Parks guide. We got to touch sawgrass—the basis of much of the unique and vulnerable ecosystem of the Everglades—and we learned how all the nutrient discharge—from agriculture, golf courses, lawn fertilizers, and sewage from swelling cities and theme parks—flowed directly into the Everglades, fostering algal blooms and excessive growth of certain plants, like cattails, at the expense of the native sawgrass and the species specially adapted to the unique Everglades habitat. It all sounded very depressing—Florida's ever-growing human population seemed to mean certain death to the Everglades, sooner rather than later.

There have been lots of news stories in the past decade about finally finding a strategy to reduce the discharge of all that sewage and fertilizer into the Everglades. The new plan has been to develop special marshes with plants chosen to absorb the nutrients before they can flow into the Everglades.

Now suddenly all that hopeful work is in jeopardy, and all because of those South American apple snails. One might think that all the apple snails belonging to Pomacea would be pretty much alike, and that seems to be the opinion of the Snail Kite and Limpkin.

But it turns out that the South American apple snails devour rooted plants rather than loose material and scum. Even as their presence has dramatically boosted numbers of Florida’s Snail Kites and Limpkins, they’ve exacted a huge toll on the overall health of the ecosystem. In 2014, hordes of them devoured much of the vegetation in a 750-acre man-made marsh designed to filter phosphorous out of the Everglades. At this pace, they pose a serious threat to the rest of the 57,000 acres of marshes built at a cost of $2 billion to rid the fragile wetland of agricultural and sewage runoff. Because of those exotic apple snails, the Everglades are in as much jeopardy as ever.

In 2010, Florida Audubon successfully lobbied the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to hold off reducing the exotic snails in order to help the Snail Kite. The Everglade Snail Kite is still listed as endangered in the U.S. even as it’s doing just fine in the rest of its range.

The apple snails native to South and Central America are in balance with the natural vegetation there, and snails and kites are thriving. But that’s an entirely different ecosystem than our unique and precious Everglades, which are so dependent on our native sawgrass. It’s quite possible that our natural population of Snail Kites was always limited in our system. Now that we know the horrible impact exotic snails are having on the Everglades ecosystem, we need to work together, not pitting bird lovers against ecosystem conservationists. We must find long-term solutions that can protect our unique River of Grass and keep our precious Snail Kite at healthy, even if once-again smaller, numbers.

Meanwhile, as we try to find effective but safe ways of curbing the snail numbers, Limpkins and Snail Kites are doing their part by pigging out on the South American snails. If we solve the problem, their numbers will inevitably shrink as they return to their more limited food supply.

I only hope we birders can keep the long view, understanding the natural systems at play here and how very much is at stake. It was so thrilling for me to spend such quality time with two of my favorite birds—the two species that relish apple snails. I very much want other birders to get to enjoy that, too. But I hope and pray that this kind of pleasure for us doesn’t get in the way of protecting the very habitat that brought Snail Kites to Florida in the first place.

Limpkin devouring apple snail

Snail Kite

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

The Zen Driver

It’s a beautiful day for a drive
When you think about it.

Oh, big truck. Why do you go so slow?
Ten miles under the speed limit for the last twenty miles.
I guess I should pass you.
Well, maybe in a little while.
Okay. I'll give you ten more miles.
Twelve more miles. Maybe now?
There. I'm in the left lane. 
Oh dear—now you’re speeding up.
Now you’ve cut me off.
You must be having a bad day.

Another accident.
Slowing down again.
I hope no one’s hurt.

The Google Maps Lady
Can be so helpful.
But she always sounds a bit frantic.

So much traffic at rush hour.
I feel harried.
Oh, look! A Pileated Woodpecker flying by!
That makes me happy.

Six lanes!
I wonder which one I should be in.

"Bump ahead."
A good reminder
About life. 

Borden Milk Company truck
Elsie the Cow’s shining face, sticking out of a big daisy.
That’s something you don’t see every day
Any more.

So many people
In such a hurry.
They must be doing important things.

Truck ahead brakes hard.
Uh oh. Must be danger ahead.
Nope. He turns off at exit.
His signal must be broken.

More construction.
Even more construction.
The road will be perfect
Some day.

Seven hundred miles to go.
Will we make it today?
No big deal.

I wonder how many birds
We've passed so far.

So many drivers.
Some too fast.
Some too slow.
That Conway double-truck weaving wildly.
Pickup truck passing on the right shoulder.
Yelling won’t help
At all.

The roads through the mountains
Go every which way,
Like a plate of spaghetti.

Most people
Are good drivers.
That's why we're all still here.

When you think about
Building roads through mountains,
It's pretty cool. 

So many signs
In every direction.
Should I read them all?
“Don’t Drive Distracted."
“Be Safe."
“TOOT Cares.”
Oh, wait.
That’s TDOT.
Tennessee Department of Transportation,
Driving me to distraction.
I wonder if they appreciate
The irony.

1,056 miles so far.
598 to go.
We're making progress.

Mountains are prettier
When you're the passenger.

The steering wheel
Sticking out of the dashboard
Is attached to hidden stuff
Attached to other stuff
Attached to other stuff
That makes the wheels turn.
I like how complicated it is.
And all I have to do is drive.

We just went through
A teenie tiny piece of Georgia,
And we're back in Tennessee.
Are we still making progress?

Sometimes it feels frustrating
That we can't stop to bird.

So much traffic
Going through Chattanooga.
But no choo choo.

What a big, beautiful country.
It must have been thrilling
To explore it on foot.

Georgia is so beautiful.
I feel sad,
Thinking about Sherman.
Grant was a better human being.
But thinking about Grant
Makes me happy.
Until I think about his tragic death.

I wish the Google Maps Lady could speak Jane Austen.
If I miss an exit, she could say, "I am most seriously displeased."
If there is an accident and she needs to reroute me, she could say,
"I am all astonishment."
That would be fun.

 Black Vultures and Turkey Vultures
Hundreds circling over the highway.
I wonder if they know something.

I trust we'll be happy
To get where we're going.
But the getting there is fun, too.

Driver whizzing past
Pointing his middle finger at the sky.
Yes! That is a pretty cloud.
I give him a thumbs up.

It's a beautiful day for a drive
When you think about it.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Fall Migration Update

Red-eyed Vireo

This fall is shaping up to be one of the best I can remember, as far as bird migration through Duluth goes. I’m not surprised—it was a great year for breeding birds, so the raw numbers of birds in our neck of the northern hemisphere are probably as much as we could have hoped for.

Looks like somebody's about to fledge!

We had a decent May, with no horrible deep freezes or heavy snow events to kill migrating warblers. Robins started nesting on the early side. I spent a lot of time in my backyard during the somewhat time-intensive weeks of housebreaking my new puppy Pip, and there were more singing robins in the neighborhood than we’ve had in decades. At times in early morning and evening I could pick out five different males singing simultaneously. Robins re-nest when conditions are good, and the pair that nested nearest my yard in April nested in my yard in June, and nested a third time in my neighbor’s yard—the three in that brood stayed in the nest until their tails were almost entirely grown, fledging on July 31.

Young Red-bellied Woodpecker

Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers both nested in my yard. I had one male Red-bellied Woodpecker visiting my feeders throughout winter and every spring day until May 23; just on Labor Day weekend I heard and got a quick glimpse of a red-belly, and then saw three—at least two were fledglings!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Every single day this June I heard a Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing. He had to be on territory, and to stick with it that long, he had to have attracted a mate. There are some old spruce trees in the alley kitty corner from me. I never did find the nest—it can be way high up, and is deeply nestled into thick branches—but I did finally spot one kinglet carrying food, which is considered confirmation of nesting. No one’s ever reported kinglets nesting in the city before.

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

Chickadees had a great year, too. Most joyful for me was learning where my chickadee—the one who’d had the deformed beak and is missing all the front toes on one food—was nesting, at my friend Jeanne Tonkin’s house, kitty corner from mine. It was sublimely joyful witnessing that particular bird feeding babies in the little tree cavity on June 10. If I’d known where the nest was while the babies were still tiny, I could have held a dentist’s mirror in and counted them, but now the babies’ eyes were open and they were well feathered—coming too close could have caused them to fledge prematurely.

Chickadees sometimes fledge at as early as 12 days, when their tails are tiny stubs, if something frightens them out of the nest or the parents are struggling to find enough food and one or two babies leap out of the nest to follow the parents out of desperation—then the other chicks must follow or they will likely end up starving, with the more demanding chicks getting all the food.

Black-capped Chickadee

 The very next morning after I first saw the nest, I went back to discover that some of the brood had already fledged. I got to witness the last three leave the nest one by one. They had almost fully grown tails already, which means they’d been in the nest close to the maximum 16 days. The brood’s survival rate is higher the longer they can all stay together developing in the nest. Calculating backward, knowing it must have been 15 or 16 days since they’d hatched, after 12 to 13 days of incubation, and after at least 5 days of egg laying (and quite likely more—I only saw 5 fledglings, but most broods have 6–9 young), I knew that the first egg had been laid, at the very latest, around May 10, and quite likely several days earlier. The fact that the weather was mild enough that early, and we didn’t get any bad snowstorms after that, were critical factors in the survival of this nest. And the early fledging meant that these babies had a whole summer to gain skills before separating from their parents and joining fall flocks.

With such great nesting success this year, it’s small wonder that now we’re seeing so many migrating songbirds.  In her long-term study of Song Sparrows, Margaret Morse Nice found that the amount of precipitation each summer is directly related to the number of Song Sparrow young produced, because rainfall is directly related to how many insects are about, and insects are the main food most songbirds feed their young. We’ve had plenty of rain this year, so well spaced that for the first time in decades my yard has a good supply of slugs. Not that I particularly enjoy them, but their success was due to the same factors that kept baby bird numbers high.

Tennessee and Blackburnian Warbler at the bird bath

I have a regular birdbath in my yard, and in August got one with a tiny recirculating waterfall. Early in the month, I started seeing families of Nashville and Blackburnian warblers coming in to the birdbaths, the recently fledged young still following and occasionally being fed by their parents. Warblers are always on the move by early August, but seeing whole families early in the month was confirmation that they’d had a good year.

Red-breaasted Nuthatch, Nashville Warbler, and Purple Finch at birdbath 

So it’s not at all surprising that we’re seeing plenty of flycatchers, vireos, warblers, and tanagers visiting people’s birdbaths and fruit trees now. My friend Tom, who lives in Madison, has a female Ruby-throated Hummingbird whose first nestling just fledged on September 8. This is almost certainly a second or third nest, and it’s late enough that she probably successfully reared at least one brood already. The number of hummingbirds in my own yard has been astonishing right now. They’re doing a little squabbling at the feeders, but most of the action has been up in the trees, where I can watch them zipping about erratically, chasing tiny insects or, I think, sipping tiny droplets of sap oozing from branches. I haven’t seen an adult male since August 30, but there are so many young birds and adult females that I feel pretty confident that they had good breeding success, too. If I were only looking at my feeders, though, I’d suspect their numbers were down. Natural food is too abundant.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird female

This year’s nighthawk migration was cause for celebration. Back in the 80s we often had nights of over a thousand birds being counted here and there along the shore and at points south of here, but none of those counts were systematic. On August 26, 1990, Mike Hendrickson counted over 43,000 in 2 ½ hours up the shore from Duluth. He started counting because he could see what a phenomenal night it was. But that kind of effort wasn’t a daily thing, so there was no way of quantifying the migration over entire seasons, and since then numbers have definitely dwindled. Jerry Niemi from the NRRI has been organizing late afternoon/early evening counts from East Superior Street in Duluth for several years—there have been many nights that numbered in the hundreds or thousands, but no year’s count has totaled what Mike Hendrickson counted in just 2 ½ hours since these more systematic counts started. But this year the coordinated counts between Hawk Ridge and the nighthawk research are producing large numbers of birds.

Common Nighthawk

On Saturday, August 29, my neighbor Jeanne Tonkin called to tell me nighthawks were flying over, so I stood on the corner with her and in one hour counted 2,165 nighthawks. That same day they tallied 13,723 nighthawks from Hawk Ridge. It was easy to assume that was this year’s “big day,” but then on September 1, they more than doubled that, counting 28,054 at the Ridge—the third highest count in Minnesota ever! And that flight was counted in the morning, not late afternoon when most nighthawk flights occur.

That hardly means that the nighthawk population in North America doubled or tripled or quadrupled its actual numbers in a single year. I’m sure production was excellent, but that was combined with favorable weather conditions to push birds from central and maybe even western Canada and the Plains States toward Lake Superior so we could see them. Even in that context, it was heartening and wonderful to see.

The other factor involved in this year’s unprecedented numbers has nothing to do with birds at all. Karl Bardon, the head hawk counter at Hawk Ridge, is the first counter we’ve had who has been totally committed to counting every migrant over the Ridge, and his skill at identifying even distant tiny specks down to species is astonishing. Back in the 80s and early 90s, a handful of us were counting non-raptors from the Lakewood Pumping Station. We did a really good job for that era, but both optics and birder knowledge and skills have improved since then, and Karl and the team he works with are at the top of this era’s world class birders who can tease out identities of way more birds than I could 20 years ago.

On August 29, from Hawk Ridge and the East Superior Street vantage point, where Steve Kolbe has been conducting this year’s nighthawk counts, the amassed data (which takes the biggest number per hour from whichever station it happened, not adding the numbers to avoid double counting the same birds) he and his team counted 91,667 non-raptors, including 12,842 Cedar Waxwings, 33,758 warblers of 19 species, 1,085 Blue Jays, 198 Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and 21 Scarlet Tanagers.

On many days the number of non-raptors at the Ridge has exceeded a thousand, sometimes many times that. So what do all these numbers mean? Some people on Facebook have been fretting that our early, large migration is a sign of an impending severe winter, but that’s ridiculous. We’ve clearly had a great summer for baby bird production, with enough first nests doing well that many birds were able to head out early. This is great news for them, allowing them to capitalize on the abundant food right now. And favorable weather is pushing a large percentage of the birds out there our way to be seen, enjoyed, and counted. Our hawk migration is also going well, with the first days over 1,000 just starting, and the huge push is yet to come. If you want to see what the fuss is all about, come on up to Hawk Ridge. You’ll be glad you did.  

Monday, September 7, 2015

Savoring and saving my treasures

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken

I get through most of my days like pretty much everybody, thinking about and doing what needs to be done, accomplishing what I can in dribs and drabs, procrastinating now and then, having sudden bursts of creativity and energy, having some fun and dealing with some frustrations, and hardly thinking about the big questions of life. But perhaps because I started out the year with a heart attack, I’ve been having more days when I appreciate how happy I am to be alive right now, in this lovely place on this lovely planet; how grateful I am for my family and friends and my little dog Pip; and how profoundly lucky I am.

I'm the third person in my family to have had a heart attack, but only the first to survive one. That’s profoundly unfair. For that matter, all my good fortune is not fair, nor are the bad things that happen to me.

Fairness is a human construct, while the nature of life on this planet is far too random for fairness to have any meaning. It's up to us humans, who so cherish the ideal of fairness, to make life fairer for those humans and creatures less fortunate than we, in the way that Pope Francis is asking every European parish to take in a refugee family right now.

It's sad that so many Americans consider justice to be limited to punishing wrongdoers, while casting a blind eye to the bigger parts of the equation: rewarding the finest among us and helping those in need. As human beings, our first priority is obviously other humans, but the creatures with whom we share this planet are also our responsibility.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Just last week, a Texas judge overturned the US Fish and Wildlife Service's decision to list the Lesser Prairie-Chicken as Threatened, denying this critically endangered species any protection under the Endangered Species Act. District Judge Robert Junell accepted whole cloth the arguments by the Permian Basin Petroleum Association, which had stated that protecting the prairie-chicken would impede operations and cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars in oil and gas development in one of the country's most prolific basins, the Permian Basin in the Texas Panhandle and eastern New Mexico. In our system, justice has come to mean the rich get richer even as entire species disappear. Legal justice can be completely removed from the concept of fairness.

When the idea of protecting endangered species was new, before corporations had bought up judges and congressmen and geared up to fight every legal protection tooth and nail, Attwater's Prairie-Chicken was listed as Endangered. This wondrous bird had once numbered in the millions in the coastal plains of Texas and Louisiana, but by 1919, every single one had disappeared from Louisiana, and by 1967, when it was listed, only 1,070 remained in Texas. Even with the new protections, including a vigorous captive breeding program and painstaking efforts to protect young chicks in the wild, the numbers kept dropping. By 2002, the population had plummeted to 40. This year’s total was 104--a number I've heard touted by conservatives as a huge success, as if they somehow get credit for this "greater than 150 percent increase." As with all grassland species, natural disasters can decimate populations. Storms as violent as that King Lear faced on the heath cause huge swings in prairie chicken numbers from year to year, so the US Fish and Wildlife Service won't downgrade the Attwater's Prairie-Chicken status from Endangered until a minimum of 6,000 have been breeding for at least 10 years. (Link to New York Times story from last week.)

King Lear on the heath, his poor old body being pelted by the storm after his heart had been pierced by the unfairness of two of his daughters' cruelty to him and his own cruelty to his third daughter, didn't whine about unfairness—he raged at it even as he took off his own cloak to comfort and warm someone in worst straits than he, Tom o' Bedlam. The unfairness he faced made him recognize the ways he should have imposed fairness himself when he had the riches and power to do so.
Poor naked wretches, whereso'er you are,
That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,
How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,
Your looped and windowed raggedness, defend you
From seasons such as these? Oh, I have ta'en
Too little care of this! Take physic, pomp.
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.
In the final analysis, this may be the one way that we humans are different from animals. We have both the capacity to "shake the superflux" to those less fortunate than we and the concept of fairness that demands we do so. In a random universe, we who have the concept of fairness embedded in our very souls have the obligation to bestow mercy and kindness on those who deserve it—an obligation that is every bit as sacred and every bit as just as meting out punishment to wrongdoers.

I guess the thought that stays with me after my heart attack is that to have a happy life, we need to recognize and savor what we have, whether we deserve more or less; to share our riches with others; and to protect those who need it in order to "show the heavens more just," exactly as Pope Francis asked European Catholics to do.

Black-capped Chickadee
My chickadee missing three toes--he raised at least 5 babies this year!

And since my heart attack, I’ve had way more to savor than I’ve deserved. My neighborhood bustled with bird nesting activities all summer, including Ruby-crowned Kinglets, robins, and my favorite chickadee raising his chicks successfully. Now, since August, migration has been rich and beautiful to see and hear. I have a new birdbath with a tiny recirculating waterfall; it attracted several kinds of warblers and other little birds. I have a wonderful friend who gave me brand new binoculars through which to enjoy the spectacle. And I have new hearing aids that are allowing me to hear them with the vibrance I savored when I was in my 20s. I still can’t wrap my head around these riches.

Ah! Binoculars are in the box!
Pip helps me open my new binoculars!
Pip and Tom Kuenzli

My puppy gives me endless moments of joy. Whether Pip is chasing lightning bugs like a bunny in a marijuana patch or cuddled up next to me on a long drive; whether she's taking a long birding hike in Port Wing, Wisconsin or sitting at my feet in the backyard waiting as I photograph a bird, she brings me endless happiness.

Gray Catbird
That catbird in the dogwood
She and I were out in the backyard on Saturday, when my yard was teeming with birds. I spotted a catbird in the dogwood in the back of the yard. It was behind some leaves in the shadows, and I waited for it to come out toward a patch of sunlight. The catbird had been eating berries but now was staring at something low and to my right. I didn’t want to break my own gaze or take my camera off it when it was so close to a perfect perch, so I didn't look to see what it was looking at—for all I knew, it could have been gazing off into space in a contemplative mood. But suddenly, quick as a flash, it darted out and alighted on Pip’s back—she’d been sitting next to me with her back to the dogwood. For a hilarious second, Pip’s ears flew straight up like the dog in My Little Rascals, but by the time she could turn her head around to see what was happening, the catbird had vanished back into the dogwood, leaving Pip with the funniest look of puzzlement I’ve ever seen and filling me with bliss just to have witnessed such a delightful thing.

Little dog looking for a catbird
Pip looking for that catbird.

When I'm inside at night, Pip snuggled against me, I can savor photos I've taken, wonderful past events making my present even brighter. In 2013, I spent several hours at a Lesser Prairie-Chicken lek, in a photography blind, just a few feet from these glorious birds. The photographer with me had rented an 800-millimeter lens, so huge it looked like a bazooka, which he set up on a heavy-duty tripod. Whenever he used another lens, he let me hook up my own camera to the amazingly wonderful lens!

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Inside the Lesser Prairie-Chicken blind

When I look at these photos, I get to savor the beauty of this wondrous bird, get to remember the exceptional generosity of that kind photographer, and feel myself grow more committed to supporting every effort to save this splendid species that means nothing more than a minor speed bump to the oil and gas industries.

“The best is yet to come” is an empty promise when someone is dealing with a debilitating condition, has come to the realization that no kind of future is guaranteed to anyone, or who is focused on declining species. But to keep fighting to ensure that people and birds in trouble can pull through, we need to keep our own spirits up. Edward Abbey closed Desert Solitaire with this:
One final paragraph of advice: do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am - a reluctant enthusiast....a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here. So get out there and hunt and fish and mess around with your friends, ramble out yonder and explore the forests, climb the mountains, bag the peaks, run the rivers, breathe deep of that yet sweet and lucid air, sit quietly for a while and contemplate the precious stillness, the lovely, mysterious, and awesome space. Enjoy yourselves, keep your brain in your head and your head firmly attached to the body, the body active and alive, and I promise you this much; I promise you this one sweet victory over our enemies, over those desk-bound men and women with their hearts in a safe deposit box, and their eyes hypnotized by desk calculators. I promise you this; You will outlive the bastards.
Of course, Abbey's promise is as empty as "the best is yet to come"—he's dead and the forces demolishing our natural world are stronger than ever. But as Abraham Lincoln put it, "It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced."  With what time we each are given, to the best of our abilities, we should honor the better angels of our nature by saving and savoring that which we love.

I’m planning to go on one of Kim Eckert’s birding trips to California in January, and am saving up for a trip to see my most wanted bird on the planet, the Cuban Tody, so in my case the best may still be yet to come. It is lovely to have things to look forward to, but even lovelier being able to savor the here and now even as I focus on ways to protect it. And as long as birds are on the planet, and as long as I can still see or hear them with my lovable little dog beside me, I have more than my share of loveliness to savor.

Russ, Mom, and Pip at the Port Wing Fall Festival

Friday, September 4, 2015

Book Review: Feeding Wild Birds in America

Book Review: Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation by Paul J. Baicich, Margaret A. Barker, and Carrol L. Henderson, published by Texas A&M University Press, College Station, Texas, 2015.

This spring, I was sent a copy of a new book about bird feeding, written by two authors I know personally and respect deeply—Minnesota’s own Carrol Henderson, who has directed our DNR’s Non-Game Wildlife Program from its inception and is the author of the most comprehensive book about bird feeding I’ve ever seen, Wild About Birds: The DNR Bird Feeding Guide; and Paul Baicich, one of the most respected conservationists of our time. The third author, Margaret Barker, was a coordinator for Project FeederWatch at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology before my time at the Lab as Science Editor, so I’ve never personally met her. All three authors have written multiple books and are well regarded by many. 

There are lots of books out about bird feeding, and Carrol Henderson’s Wild about Birds in particular is so excellent that my first thought was we don’t really need any more books about it. My second thought was that Wild about Birds is now 20 years old, and we do have more information about some issues than we did in 1995, perhaps most importantly regarding hummingbird feeding. And my third thought was that I knew this book was going to cover the history of bird feeding, about which Henderson and Baicich are genuine authorities. So I was excited when I learned about it. 

The book does a simply superb job of covering the history of bird feeding through the 20th century, even if it leaves out my favorite nineteenth century indirect reference to it, in Emily Dickinson's poem, Hope Is the Thing with Feathers:
“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet - never - in Extremity,
It asked a crumb - of me. 
They did make several references to Thoreau and provided a wonderfully comprehensive history that explains how bird feeding evolved from such a quiet, simple little activity into what is now a multibillion-dollar industry, with wonderful discussions of such cool things as Field and Stream magazine focusing on backyard bird conservation. The historical information in the book is invaluable. I wish the authors had done as thorough a job with their coverage of some important commerce and conservation issues for the current millennium. 

What the book leaves out

The nature of any lucrative industry is to maximize profits and minimize expenses. With many products, consumers are savvy enough, and government regulations strong enough, that bad products are quickly driven off the market. In the wild bird industry, there is no governmental oversight whatsoever, and few consumers are aware of many issues involved in attracting backyard birds. The industry is under no legal obligation to ensure in any way that the products they sell are good for birds--they're not even required to ensure that their products won't out-and-out harm them. The book's chapter, "Bird Feeding in the Twenty-First Century" says that in 2012, "the amount spent for bird feeders, birdbaths, and nest boxes had increased to $969.7 million" without one word about how crappy some of these products are. Metal bird houses ostensibly designed for wrens and chickadees, but which would cook or freeze eggs or nestlings if the birds actually used them, are sold because many consumers don't know any better and there is no one to develop "building codes" based on the kinds of safety regulations that keep houses and baby cribs safe. (I quit a job working for an optics company when they sold out to a corporation that was selling exactly this kind of dangerous bird houses.) A great many of these products are manufactured in China. Prices are kept down and profits up in part because of China's lax environmental regulations, and in part because the container ships that carry them here are fueled by cheap but highly toxic bunker fuel. No matter how you look at it, getting products from China is harming the air and water that wild birds depend on. 

Of course, the book isn't so much concerned with those kinds of products as they are with wild bird food, which took in $4 billion in 2012. Even as they tout that figure, the authors skip important issues about how that money is generated. 

Aflatoxins in corn and peanuts

For example, federal law requires corn and peanuts sold for human, pet, or livestock consumption to be tested for dangerous aflatoxins produced by mold, but have absolutely no requirements that corn or peanuts sold for wildlife consumption be tested. When corn or peanuts are found to be contaminated, there is not even anything prohibiting companies from simply repackaging it and selling it as bird food! Most people aren't aware of how dangerous aflatoxins are, or how the molds that cause them flourish in corn and peanuts,  because this is one of those fundamental issues that federal safety regulations have long protected us from. According to the Wild Bird Feeding Institute's own website,
Research conducted by Dr. Scott Henke of Texas A&M University Kingsville found that 17% of the birdseed samples tested in Texas contained relatively large amounts of the toxin. His research further suggests that feeding wild birds foods contaminated with aflatoxin can be harmful.
The Institute doesn't question the accuracy of Henke's finding, but all their recommendations for dealing with the problem put the onus on the consumer: their aflatoxins information page includes a relatively lame "consider avoiding seed mixes containing corn and peanuts, as the Aspergillus fungi are most likely to grow on these food items," after obfuscating the issue by first listing eight other recommendations, including keeping cats indoors and making windows safe for birds! Those are important points to be sure, but utterly unrelated to aflatoxins. The institute does make good points about seed storage, but those are only useful if the seed isn't contaminated to begin with. And despite their awareness of the issue, the industry continues produce, package, and distribute corn and peanut products without testing them or guaranteeing to consumers that they are safe for birds. 

Feeding Wild Birds in America quotes the Wild Bird Feeding Institute a lot, but almost always favorably, and never once mentions this issue. The Red-bellied Woodpecker on the cover, feeding on an ear of corn, seems a clear endorsement of offering corn without mentioning its particular vulnerability to aflatoxins. Of course, most corn really is perfectly safe. But we can’t know how safe the corn we're buying is as long as corn isn't tested at all for wildlife feeding. I caution people to purchase peanuts in bulk from grocery stores and corn from livestock feed stores until the bird feeding industry starts testing products for aflatoxins. 

Hummingbird feeding

Since Wild about Birds came out in 1995, we've learned a lot about how harmful red food coloring is, even as red dyes are still used in commercial hummingbird nectar mixtures. The industry still keeps claiming that no studies conclusively prove that red dye causes cancer or death in hummers. The trick is, even if the corporations that sell the dyes and commercial nectars were willing to fund such studies, permits to conduct the laboratory work would be virtually impossible to obtain because that kind of research would necessarily kill hummingbirds, and so is prohibited by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Human food and drug testing isn't done on humans, either--it is lab studies on rats and mice that lead to guidelines about what is safe to consume. And based on this kind of research, we know darned well that red dyes absolutely do not belong in hummingbird nectar. But despite a long section about the popularity of hummingbird feeding, the book makes no mention of this important issue.

When I was a licensed bird rehabber, I noticed that when someone brought me a hummingbird that had been feeding on sugar water with red dye, it took 36 hours or more for the dye to disappear from their droppings. Julie Zickefoose, a well-known bird rehabber as well as writer, has written about the same phenomenon, and done a lot of research into the issue. A 2001 study on laboratory mice by Tsuda in Japan published in Toxicological Sciences found that relatively low doses of Red #40, the world's most popular food coloring, caused pre-cancerous DNA damage in the colons of mice. Hummingbird bander David Patton tracked one banded, color-marked hummingbird to learn that that individual took about 10 grams of sugar water from one feeder each day, along with the other, natural food sources in his diet. Had that feeder been filled with a popular commercial hummingbird nectar mix, properly mixed with water according to the instructions, the tiny bird would have ingested more than 15 times the amount, for its size, that the World Health Organization recommends as a daily limit for humans. And the nectar taken from a single feeder would give the hummingbird 12 times the amount of red dye shown in that 2011 study to cause DNA damage in mice. 

Julie compiled all this information and has been doing her best to publicize the dangers of red dye in commercial hummingbird mixtures--dangers that are not offset by any good whatsoever. The index of Feeding Wild Birds lists her on three pages specifically regarding hummingbirds, but I can’t find anything mentioning her on those pages. 

Sheri Williamson is an acknowledged authority on hummingbirds; among other things, she bands them and is the author of A Field Guide to Hummingbirds of North America in the Peterson guide series. Sheri is quoted extensively regarding some great work she's done with the hummingbird feeding industry, but not at all about how hard she's tried to persuade that very industry to get rid of the red dyes in commercial hummingbird food. Any book touting both commerce and conservation in its title has some obligation to put the profits of the multibillion dollar industry they’re celebrating into some context, don't they?

Another timely issue that might have been addressed in a brand new book about bird feeding is the work on late fall and winter hummingbirds, and the value but also the caveats of keeping feeders going for them. That is rapidly becoming part of the culture of bird feeding (the first word in the subtitle), but no mention was made, nor is Scott Weidensaul, a hummingbird bander who has led quite a bit of the public education regarding vagrants in the Eastern US in winter, even mentioned in the book.

Scotts Miracle-Gro disaster

The book discusses Global Harvest Foods's acquisition of Scotts Miracle-Gro Company’s US wild bird food business in March 2014, I think to emphasize what a big business bird feeding has become. But as long as they were mentioning these specific giant corporations by name, shouldn't they have also mentioned that in 2012, Scotts was fined $12.5 million dollars after birdseed they sold was discovered to be laced with a pesticide to prevent insect damage—a pesticide specifically labeled as unsafe for birds? Someone within the corporation had noticed the labeling and warned that they needed to stop this, but was ignored—that was part of the reason the penalty was so stiff. They might also have mentioned the recall of the birdseed, and how poorly it was conducted by retailers so that a great deal of the toxic seed ended up being sold.

One more dark issue

Nowhere is the book can I find any mention the millions of Red-winged Blackbirds poisoned every year in western Minnesota and the Dakotas, with permitting from the US Department of Agriculture, to appease farmers growing sunflower seeds. 

The one mention of the dark side of the Wild Bird Feeding Institute

The book does cover one negative about the Wild Bird Feeding Institute, mentioning that it fought against the Teaming with Wildlife effort of the 1990s that was trying to create a system comparable to the Pittman-Robertson Federal Aid in Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937. That act imposes an 11 percent excise tax on all firearms and ammunition, earmarked for game species conservation. The Teaming with Wildlife project, which was fought for by Paul Baicich--that's how I learned about him in the first place--was hoping for much less. They were asking for a similar fee on birding optics, birdseed, bird feeders, etc. that would never be allowed to exceed 5 percent--less than half of what Pittman-Robertson collects--to go for non-game wildlife protection. Unfortunately, the birding community was no more cooperative than the bird feeding industry, and without a united front by our own community, it was impossible to persuade a Congress that, at the time, was obsessed with the "no new taxes" mantra. Some people complained that binoculars are used for a lot more than birding, but guns and ammo are used for a lot more than hunting. In a real sense, muggers and terrorists contribute more to conservation than birders are obliged to. I was one of the conservationists sorely disappointed to see the Teaming with Wildlife effort fail.

In sum

If you want to focus on the history of bird feeding through the 20th century, Feeding Wild Birds in America: Culture, Commerce & Conservation covers that beautifully. If you’re interested in a comprehensive book about how to feed birds, Carrol Henderson’s Wild about Birds is still the best we have, and all the earnings directly benefit the Minnesota Non-Game Wildlife Program. If you want to learn about the culture of bird feeding today, check out the many magazines focused on that, or blogs by people like Julie Zickefoose, and Sharon Stiteler (Birdchick). Go to Lanny Chambers's site to get up-to-date information about hummingbird feeding. 

I hate writing negative reviews about bird books—there are too many good books out there that get short shrift, so why focus on ones I didn't like? And it’s of course possible when I dislike a book that I’m missing some excellent quality that makes it much better than I realize. And I didn't dislike this book--it did a wonderful job of covering the history of bird feeding. If they'd titled it Feeding Wild Birds in America: a History, I'd have given it a glowing review. But when such an authoritative, respected group of people write a book focusing specifically on the commerce of the bird feeding industry, I expect it to be more than a corporate fluff piece. The only way we can force bird food producers, distributors, and retailers to guarantee their products are safe for birds will be for consumers and the government to press them--otherwise, the multibillion dollar industry holds all the cards. 

I know I'm too much of a socialist to be fair about some of the issues. These three authors aren't plagued by my Irish temper and my unwillingness to temper my words when bird lives are at stake. I am a devoted bird feeder myself, and know how valuable bird feeding is, for people's enjoyment and because it is the only connection millions of people have with the natural world nowadays. It should be equally valuable for birds. If this book had presented a balanced and clear-eyed look at the problems as well as the wonderful elements of bird feeding, it could have done a world of good in helping to alleviate those very problems by educating consumers and pressuring the industry both. 

Bill Thompson Jr. wrote that we've reached saturation in the genre of bird feeding books. I think we could have used one more book on the subject--one that thoroughly covers the issues involved with bird feeding in America--the culture, commerce, and conservation. Sadly, I'm still waiting.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

August Flickers

Common Flicker
Northern Flicker

Every couple of weeks, I drive my mother-in-law to her afternoon card club in Port Wing, Wisconsin. While she plays 500, my dog Pip and I go birding. Right now I have brand new binoculars and my goal is to see a bunch of cool species through them, so I was especially happy for an opportunity to augment my new list, even though we’re always in Port Wing in early afternoon—the worst time of day for birding.

August 24 was particularly lousy for finding birds as far as weather goes. The temperature never veered from 57 degrees, and the wind was fierce—20-30 miles per hour, gusting to 40.

A wee bit windy in Port Wing

Belying the coldness of the water, Lake Superior was the color of espresso, churned up iron sediment making the water rich brown with foamy whitecaps. At the breakwater at the beach, giant waves splashed at least ten feet over the rocks, so the usual crowd of hundreds of Herring and Ring-billed Gulls and at least a few Caspian and Common Terns were gone. A few Herring Gulls flew overhead, but apparently the bulk of them were hiding out somewhere less exposed.

Despite the poor conditions, I added 14 species to my binoculars list, including those Herring Gulls. Except for a big flock of starlings on a wire and a bunch of crows gathered on a recently mowed field, most of my birds were seen one by one.

European Starlings

The one bird that I saw the most times throughout the day was the flicker.

My first year of birding, 1975, Russ and I visited his parents in Port Wing for the last week of summer break, heading back to Lansing, Michigan on Labor Day. I got lots of lifers, breaking 100 on my life list, but one of the strongest memories I have of that week was of flickers—they were here, there, and everywhere. Some were perched on telephone poles, but most were flying up from every little dirt road, always from ahead before we got there, so always flying away, their large white rump patch exposed.

Northern Flicker
The Northern Flicker's white rump

I’d seen flickers early on that spring, and many other times that summer, so I thought I really knew them, but that week in August was when I experienced them so very frequently that when one flew up, I stopped pulling up my binoculars and just watched. At first I confused their silhouette on the ground with that of robins, but that week is when I got that straight, too.

Northern Flicker

The longer we bird, the more birds we truly know to the extent that just a tiny glimpse is all we need to recognize them. Of course, that happens with some species more quickly than others, and at first we don’t always realize that the birds we’re seeing a lot may not be the only ones with the features we’re starting to recognize. I was pretty sure I knew robins completely until that week. That's when I started paying closer attention to the shape to be sure the bird I was seeing was a robin rather than a flicker, but when I started being sure of that robin silhouette, I started noticing that Veeries and Swainson’s Thrushes also have that shape. They’re smaller, but the proportions are identical, so size isn’t useful. Once I figured that out, I started paying attention to other features that made it clear which thrush was which even in awful light when colors weren’t visible through my inexpensive binoculars.

Even after I could be certain of robins on the ground, for a couple of years, robins flying overhead blended in with all the other unidentifiable flying objects. I had to start paying attention to specific features: their distinctive flight call, the way they whip their wings back, and the spot of white from the lower belly to the tail, visible even when no colors can be discerned, before I grew confident of them in flight. By then I could also pick out Blue Jays in flight, by their rounded wings that beat steadily up and down, their straight flight, and the white on their tails. Flickers were SO easy because of their swoopy flight, the yellow under the wings and tail, and of course that white rump, as identifiable as a flag in battle. There’s a comfort and quiet joy in recognizing our favorite familiar birds no matter what they’re doing.

There is so much anger and random violence in the world right now, but somehow, watching flickers flying up from the same dirt roads they’re always flying up from in late August, I had a lovely feeling that the world is exactly as it should be. Of course, it isn’t, at least not for us human beings, but as long as flickers fly up from roadsides in late August, we can be assured that despite everything else, a tiny bit of sanity and normalcy remain here on this little planet we call home.

Northern Flicker

Friday, August 21, 2015

A Grosbeak Tragedy, and Marianne Boruch's poem, Crushed Birds

Photo © 2015 by Becca Mulenburg.
This week, while I was still in the happy afterglow of having helped rescue a baby squirrel and restore her to her mother, I got an email from Becca Mulenburg, who had made a grotesque discovery in her own backyard. She wrote, “On the ground, about twenty feet outside of my window in the vicinity of my bird feeders and water bowl, there was a gray squirrel eating an Evening Grosbeak.”

To spot a squirrel eating any bird is hard—it’s one thing when they pig out on birdseed, but we just don’t expect to see them devouring actual birds. And to see one eating such a special, rare bird made it even more heartbreaking. Evening Grosbeaks used to be abundant up here, but have declined dramatically.

Becca had first spotted what appears to be a small family group on August 8. From her photos, the dead one seems to be an young male. I’m presuming the squirrel didn’t kill the bird outright, but it’s mystifying how it died—Becca’s windows are well protected from collisions. So it’s a heartbreaking mystery.

Last fall, during our warbler fallout, everyone seemed to be finding dead Yellow-rumped Warblers in their yards, and Highway 61 was littered with carcasses. In terms of numbers, the enormity of that disaster dwarfs Becca’s situation, but somehow we get a stronger visceral feeling when the victim of a tragedy is someone we know personally. Becca had been observing this little family for more than a week before watching one being ripped apart before her eyes.

My friend Marianne Boruch, an acclaimed poet who teaches in the MFA program at Purdue, often writes poems about birds. I think her poem Crushed Birds makes a lovely requiem for Becca’s poor Evening Grosbeak, as well as those Highway 61 birds from last fall. 

Crushed Birds 
So many crushed birds in the street.
I don’t know why it rains so,
taking the small bodies
down to their bones, just a few
but they are silver. 
Day by day, more fall—
a sparrow, a young cardinal
not yet
his true color. Sometimes the head
is perfect, the eye
glossy, no failure in its depths.
It’s the wings
that are shattered, as if
in flight, gravity gave way, the sky itself
throwing down this thing
passing through it. 
There was one I couldn’t
recognize; bits of muscle
tied to bone, a few
feathers awry. Even a cat
would complain. In rain, it looked
washed by every human sadness,
not a heart or a thought, more
what aches and aches—those times
I stood there
and could not speak, didn’t say…

That was Marianne Boruch’s poem, Crushed Birds, in her book, Poems New &Selected, published in 2004 by the Oberlin College Press.

Photo © 2015 by Becca Mulenburg.