Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Gus Keri’s Depressing Cat Video

Feral Cat

I belong to a private Facebook group that shares information for those of us fighting to keep cats indoors. Many of the posts link to studies about cat transmission of diseases to humans and wildlife, or to new research about the effects of outdoor cats on wildlife. One of the posts this week started with a stern warning.
Warning: If you have a soft heart, don't watch this video.

I took that to heart and didn’t watch the video. But I did read Gus Keri’s words. He lives in Brooklyn, New York, and writes:
I went to Calvert Vaux Park this afternoon in search of the Vesper Sparrow that was reported there. I arrived within 30 minutes of the tweet but the bird had magically disappeared. There were a few kinglets and sparrows in the area including a White-crowned Sparrow, but no Vesper. I saw a cat roaming the area, so I assumed the worst for the Vesper. 
After searching for an hour, I gave up and went on birding in other parts of the park. Before the sunset, I decided to go back and see if I could find it. There were the same sparrows and kinglets but no Vesper. 
Before leaving I noticed two cats sitting quietly, watching something. It was this Golden-crowned Kinglet feeding on the ground.  
I suspected the cat was going to catch the bird, so I decided to record a video and see if I could capture the moment. A few seconds after I started recoding, the cat caught the bird and ate it and I recoded it all on this video. 
And then, it hit me. A sinking feeling overwhelmed me. It was supposed to be a triumphant moment for me. But strangely, I felt very sad. I felt like the cat had violated me personally. Why? I don't know.
I watch nature documentaries all the time and I enjoy when predators capture prey and eat them. It is all part of nature, I would think. Then, why did I feel sad here? Is it possible that since I started birding, my relation to birds became a personal one?  
Now, I don't see birds as just other creatures. I care for them. I want them to thrive and do well. I care for them like I care for humans. I probably see them as family members. Nothing against cats. They are also creatures and do what comes natural to them. But I care about birds more now.  
While walking toward my car, I turned back and saw the two cats still in the area where 3 or 4 more kinglets and a few sparrows had been foraging on the ground. Some of these birds will not be lucky enough tonight, and will not reach their wintering ground at all.
When I was a licensed wildlife rehabber, people brought me cat-injured birds far too often. The damage caused by even a brief bite could be horrific. One woman brought me a White-breasted Nuthatch, still barely clinging to life after her cat had ripped out its entire tail—not just feathers but skin, muscle, and the pygostyle—the lower end of the spine. Birds don’t usually bleed out, and feathers are designed to cover a lot of skin, so she had no idea that the bird was mortally wounded. I remember her leaving with a smile—I’m sure she felt virtuous for bringing it to me to save.

White-breasted Nuthatch fatally wounded by cat

Gus’s video is not like one of those nature documentary videos he mentioned in one important way. Unlike natural predators in a natural ecosystem, domestic cats, especially outdoor pets and those in trap-neuter-release programs, are subsidized killers, supported by artificial feedings and even veterinary care. They don't move on or starve when they've depleted their prey base as natural predators must. Cats that even just toy with birds and rodents, much less consume them, are the ones most likely to carry deadly toxoplasmosis, which infects people when those cats use a garden bed or children's sandbox as a litter box. Cats are also the domestic animal most likely to carry rabies.

I can’t bring myself to look at Gus's video, but I hope every person who subsidizes cats lurking on the natural scene watches it good and hard. Thanks, Gus, for making it available.

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Me, my birding friend Delia Unson, and our dogs, Pip and Spree
When I go birding, I invariably wear khaki cargo pants—a cotton blend most of the time, but in the tropics I wear extremely lightweight pants embedded with a strong insect repellant. In winter, I add a pair of snow pants. I always wear long-sleeves—usually a long-sleeved shirt with pockets but sometimes a long-sleeved t-shirt or a jacket over something short-sleeved. I always wear some kind of hiking shoes. If it’s sunny or rainy, I usually wear my trusty Tilley hat, but if the clouds are thick but rain isn’t likely, I may wear either my Chicago Cubs baseball cap or one that says: "Life is simple. Eat, Sleep, Bird." The moment I put on the final touch, my binoculars, I am as clearly labeled a birder as I’d be with a neon sign over my head.

I’ve heard people refer to this kind of field clothing as a “uniform,” usually to ridicule it. Even some birders make fun of those of us wearing such traditional garb, which is even associated with ridiculous birding stereotypes like Miss Jane Hathaway. But the truth is, my birding clothes are practical. My cargo pockets hold an extra camera and hearing aid batteries, a backup memory card, a lens cleaning cloth, sunglasses, and tissues in case something triggers my allergies. I’ve always worn hats and used a lot of sunscreen, but nevertheless have had some basal cell carcinomas. Most people stop laughing at Tilley hats after their own doctors start mentioning skin cancer.

I may feel prickly when people ridicule my birding clothes, but no one has ever called my birding attire a “costume.” In normal usage in modern America, we don’t refer to anyone’s day-to-day attire or their professional garb as a costume. The only people who wear to work what would be called costumes are actors, people wearing period attire in historical reenactments, and clowns. Generations of children dressing up in Halloween costumes have given the word a strong connotation such that its use both trivializes the clothing and implies that the wearer is play acting—pretending to be something he or she is not. No one with command of English would ever say that a doctor wearing a white coat and stethoscope, a nurse in scrubs, an astronaut in a space suit, a uniformed police or military officer was wearing a costume.

So I was very distressed to receive this thoughtful email from Justin Helmer, who DJs at KVSC in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He writes:
I thought you would want to know, that your use of the word 'costumes' when referring to First Nations' clothing is a bit disrespectful. The word regalia or garb would really be more appropriate especially as we head into Halloween season & the word 'costume' can tend to normalize the wearing of traditional dress in culturally insensitive ways.
I'm not sharing this with you to shame you, but because you seem to be the kind of person who would want to know.  Thanks so much for the show!  
As a professional writer, I’m mortified that I could be so thoughtless. As I said, I’d be irritated, and even offended, if someone referred to my birding clothes as a costume, and they’re a lot more trivial than the regalia central to traditional ceremonies. Many people are dismissive of birders or don’t take us very seriously, but it’s not as if we’ve ever been persecuted, or any of our parents or grandparents shunted off to special schools to obliterate our language and cultural inheritance, or our ancestors massacred or rounded into reservations. I grew up a Roman Catholic, and would never ever have referred to the sacred vestments priests wear to say Mass, or the habits worn by nuns, as costumes. I’m glad someone called out my egregiously disrespectful word for important ceremonial and traditional garb.

I learned long ago in an ecology class that diversity equals stability. That simple principle holds for human communities as well. Respect is the glue essential for holding our American community together. I apologize from the bottom of my heart for my disrespectful carelessness.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Of Baseball and Birding in the Postseason

Laura and the Cubs' World Series trophy

The baseball postseason is upon us—only the second postseason in history (the previous one being in 2003) to include both the Chicago Cubs and the Minnesota Twins, albeit much too briefly for the Twins and their fans. Baseball is the best sport of all if you are good at multitasking and happen to enjoy birding. Of course, sports with indoor stadiums, including baseball, aren’t conducive to birding at all, and those with bird-killing stadiums are the worst of the worst. I’ve never been a football fan, and have especially turned sour on the Minnesota Vikings thanks to their new bird-killing stadium.

Vikings Poster
When games are played outdoors, you can see at least some birds while watching just about any sport, but balancing your observations between the game and the birds doesn’t always work out the way it should. I almost missed my son Tom’s first goal in soccer when he was little because nighthawks happened to be flying over. If Russ hadn’t been right next to me to jab me in the ribs, I’d have missed the goal entirely. Baseball games move slowly enough that you don’t miss a lot if you’re mostly keeping your eyes on the skies. Even if you do miss the pitch and swing of a home run, the thwack when the bat hits the ball brings your eyes down instantly to at least enjoy the ball’s long trajectory.

Being a Cubs fan in particular is surprisingly compatible with birding. Even so long after they installed lights at Wrigley Field, the Cubs still play far more daytime games than any major league baseball team, and due to the ballpark’s proximity to Lake Michigan, a good variety of birds will be winging over just about any time during spring and fall migration. I’ve even seen a Peregrine Falcon cruise over Wrigley Field once, back when seeing a Peregrine was even rarer than seeing the Cubs win. Of course, back in the olden days, you could watch the sky throughout the game and hardly ever miss the Cubs' winning run.

Despite their long track record of loss, I like to think that even Mother Nature smiles down on the Cubs. Not long after midnight last November 3, an hour or so after the Cubs won the World Series, I took my dog out before I went to bed. From my backyard Pip and I heard a Boreal Owl calling. That was the first time in the 35 years we’d lived in our house that I’d ever heard one calling. Something truly magical had happened that night, that even the birds seemed to celebrate.

Pip loves her Cubbies!

Having lived just shy of 65 years without the Cubs ever winning the National League Pennant, almost two-thirds of those years as a birder, I can attest that birding and being a Cubs fan are surprisingly alike. In his wonderful new book, The Chicago Cubs: Story of a Curse, Rich Cohen writes:
What you want is always out of reach. Sometimes it’s miles out of reach, sometimes you can almost touch it. If you do touch it, you will realize, after a week or two, that it’s not really what you want, that what you really want is still out of reach.
That is true of virtually every material object. And it’s true for Cubs fans. Less than a year after the Cubs finally won the World Series, we already find ourselves yearning for an encore.

That truth also holds in birding. For years my most-yearned-for species was the Cuban Tody. I finally got to see one last October, during the only week of the entire baseball season when I couldn’t keep track of every single Cubs game, because we had no access to Internet or American news in Cuba.

Cuban Tody!!

I was thrilled to have finally seen this gorgeous tiny bird, and just as elated to come home and see that my photos of it had turned out well. But little by little, my thoughts started turning to birds I still hadn’t seen. Suddenly I was hungry to see a Pink-footed Goose—my new "most wanted bird." I managed to see one of those in New York City in January.

Pink-footed Goose

And now? Now I find myself yearning to see an Andean Condor, an Ostrich, a Shoebill, a Jabiru… Some of the birds I’ve already seen, I yearn to get an even better look at. I want to see a Marvelous Spatuletail with its marvelous tail fully grown; an Ivory Gull in pristine adult plumage; an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock and a Cuban Trogon at close range. I want to park myself where some Orange-collared Manakins are displaying, and watch a pair of Cuban Todies excavate their nest and raise young. I even want to get more and better photos of Black-capped Chickadees nesting, and some of them roosting at night. We humans are never really satisfied, are we?

But in a larger sense, even as I continue to yearn for new things, the truth is that I DID see real, warm-alive Cuban Todies, and my Cubbies DID win the World Series. Thinking about either will always have the power to make me smile, whether or not I ever see another tody and whether or not the Cubs ever repeat their 2016 miracle. Everyday birding jaunts and Cubs games will always bring me pleasure, win or lose, no matter what birds I see or miss. If one powerful element of the human condition is to yearn for what we don’t have, birders and Cubs fans will always be able to look back and appreciate the intangible riches we have enjoyed. Just as Rick and Ilsa will always have Paris, I'll always have that Cubs World Series Victory and my Cuban Tody. Who could ask for anything more?

Cuban Tody!!

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Smith's Longspur

Smith's Longspur at the Stuttgart Municipal Airport in 2006.
On September 28, Jim Lind reported a Smith’s Longspur in Two Harbors, in the grassy area near the historical trains, hanging out with a small flock of Lapland Longspurs. Smith’s Longspur is considered a regular species in Minnesota, because it’s reported virtually every year by at least a few birders, but it can only be reasonably expected at all in mid-October in grasslands in the western part of the state, especially at Rothsay Wildlife Management Area in Wilkin County or the Russell Sewage Ponds in Lyon County. It’s been seen more sporadically during spring and fall in Duluth and along the North Shore. 

I’ve only seen Smith’s Longspur once before, in Arkansas in 2006, when I was spending a month there with my friend Paula Lozano during the Ivory-billed Woodpecker craze. We knew that Smith’s Longspur was a regular winter resident at the Stuttgart Municipal Airport, so we took a little drive there. It took two tries to find it, but I couldn’t believe how friendly the airport staff was. We went into the office, they took one look at our binoculars, and told us where to go to look for the bird. One guy mentioned that we should get off the runway if we saw any airplanes. I can’t think of any advice that holds up more universally than that. 

Other than that useful tip and a lifer, I’ve not had anything to show for my visit to the Stuttgart Airport except an extremely pixilated distant photo of a distant Smith’s Longspur. I badly wanted to add one to my Minnesota list and maybe even get a better picture. So last weekend Russ and I drove up to Two Harbors, but although we got great looks at all the birds in two small flocks of Lapland Longspurs, we could not find the Smith’s. 

Then on October 3, Clinton Nienhaus reported a Smith’s Longspur at the old Stella Jones Pier in west Duluth. Like the one reported in Two Harbors, this one was hanging out with Lapland Longspurs. According to The Sibley Guide to Birds, Smith’s Longspur “does not mix with other longspurs,” but the Sibley guide weighs about 3 pounds—much too big for almost any birder to lug around, so it makes sense that a 1-ounce bird wouldn’t be consulting it for lifestyle guidance. 

I headed out there as soon as I got the word, but I’d never before gone to the old Stella Jones pier, which now is nothing but an abandoned, fallow field with no signs to identify it, and I didn't see any birders anywhere. I found myself bewildered, not knowing where to go, and gave up. I got a message on Friday that Kim Eckert had seen it at the same place that morning. Russ happened to be home for lunch, so I showed him where it was supposed to be on the map, and he knew exactly where that was, because he’s collected water samples in the slips there. So we jumped in the car to try again, bringing my little birding dog Pip along.

There were at least 150 Lapland Longspurs, 45 Horned Larks, and 2 American Pipits hanging around in the large area, so searching for one buffy outlier was a little tricky, made even more so by one unusually buffy Lapland Longspur.

Lapland Longspur

I got two excellent but quick looks at the Smith’s. The first time it flew just as I was grabbing my camera; the second time I kept it in view through my binoculars in flight and got a great look at but no photos of the wider amount of white edging the tail compared to the other birds—Smith's Longspur has two white outer tail feathers while the Lapland Longspur has only one. 

I'm sure Pip has been with me at least once before when I've seen Lapland Longspurs, but I somehow neglected to add that fairly common species to her life list until now. Her total is now up to 270! She was happy when I told her that, in the same way that she's happy when I tell her the Cubs won, or I say, “Look, Pip! It's stopped raining!” or “Look, Pip! It's raining!” I took a photo of her out there. Unfortunately, I only brought my long lens, so you can’t see the little birds flying about to explain why I’m now calling her my very own Pippy Longspur. 

Pippy Longspur

I wrote about Paula and my trip to the Stuttgart Airport to see Smith's Longspur in 2006, going into some depth about the extraordinary mating habits of this unique species. You can read the transcript and/or listen to the program here.  

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Of Chimpanzees and Chickadees

Black-capped Chickadee

This week, my friend James Backus wrote on Facebook:
Just began reading E.O. Wilson's THE SOCIAL CONQUEST OF EARTH. On the first page he states… "We have created a Star Wars civilization with Stone Age emotions and Medieval institutions." Another "scary" point he makes is that human consciousness occupies only a small portion of our brain activity. We have no perception of most of what our brains do! 
E.O. Wilson also came up this week on an online forum, where another friend said that a couple of books back, "Wilson posited that human beings are by evolution caught between two primate branches, the chimpanzee (aggressive in working out problems) and the bonobo (erotic/affectionate in working out problems). He thought this an insoluble duality in our genetic/cultural nature."


Personally, I like to think that we humans, as the only species on the planet whose numbers include actual rocket scientists, should be harnessing that intelligence to figure out how to live together peacefully, and how we could actually press our government to live up to the aims outlined in the Preamble to the Constitution:
to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

We had the brains and the heart to articulate that vision of government 240 years ago, but seem further from achieving it now than ever before.

I believe E.O. Wilson’s view of human evolution is too limiting. I see as many similarities between humans and corvids or chickadees as I do between humans and chimpanzees or bonobos. I doubt if there is any single animal species that encompasses all the many quirks of human variation. Crows and ravens are xenophobic toward strangers, quite likely to attack and even kill an injured conspecific if they don't know it, yet they're also tender and even altruistic. There are documented cases of jays and crows providing food and guarding an injured member of their flock. I don't think these are essentially related to "keeping their genes alive," not when the bird they're spending time on is an old bird no longer breeding. They're just nice to each other because that's how jays and crows are—for genuinely social species, it does take a village.

A lot of what I read about evolution with regard to human social systems emphasizes the "territorial imperative" and "nature red in tooth and claw.” But concepts about aggression work better to explain the evolution of fierce predators than social species. And most corvids and my favorite birds, chickadees, are territorial only in defending their nest and an essential area around the nest during the breeding season. Even during the nesting season these birds can be surprisingly tolerant of neighbors, and spend most of the year in large communities, or flocks, without defending any territory at all.

The most territorial and aggressive species, the hawks and owls at the top of the food chain, survive only in relatively small numbers. They do kill one another, including at times their own young, when they get too crowded and stressed. We've gone beyond the point in human overpopulation where emulating them would be a workable model.

It's the omnivorous species that are less territorial and more cooperative, like chickadees and corvids, that thrive in the widest array of habitats over the biggest ranges in the largest numbers. These social species are also considered more intelligent than avian predators. Maybe we should start paying attention to them. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Chickadees do rarely get taken by hawks, but defend themselves and elude hawks pretty darned well. In at least 90 percent of the pursuits I've witnessed between a raptor and chickadees, the chickadees all got away. They're careful but fearless, sensible in their judgments of other birds and tolerating pretty much every species that isn't a predator. Warblers, vireos, and other migrants passing through an area gravitate to the friendly little guys. That sociability rewards the chickadees, adding more eyes to notice predators and unexpected food resources.

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

I've fed hundreds of friendly little chickadees from my hands over the years, but they can pack a wallop when someone holds them against their will, biting, pecking, and hurting in a way even Blue Jays don't. Pull a Blue Jay out of a bird bander's net and it just sort of collapses with an "Oh, she got me!," allowing the bander to get a weight and measurements and put on the band quickly and easily.

Blue Jay

Try that with a chickadee and the bander often ends up with bloody fingers. Despite being tiny and agreeable, chickadees have excellent self defense skills as well as a warning system to provide for the common defense.

Taking revenge

I hope E.O. Wilson is wrong about our ability to escape our great ape ancestors. It may be a pipe dream, but if we could only put our keen intelligence to the task of observing chickadees and adopting some of their ways, we could enjoy some of that justice, general welfare, and domestic tranquility our Founding Fathers envisioned so very long ago.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017


Black-capped Chickadee

I just finished reading an astonishingly and beautifully heartbreaking book, Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. The book has absolutely nothing to do with birds, but in the climax, we start thinking about the most important moments of each person’s life and how we hold onto these moments, for a lifetime and maybe even beyond.

That made me think about moments in my own lifetime that I can conjure up and viscerally feel, even years later. Some are sad—the moment I heard the phone ringing in the middle of the night when my Grandpa died, the moment my brother told me my dad had died, the moment I saw on TV an airplane crashing into a tower, and then the moment that whole massive tower collapsed.

Most of the lifetime moments my brain clings to are happy ones—some lovely ones with Russ, my kids, my favorite teacher. And then there are the moments with birds. When I look over my lifelist, I can sometimes remember the first time I saw a particular species, but not usually in a visceral moment kind of way. Yet there have been some moments with birds so powerful that I can feel myself back in the exact time and place.

Black-capped Chickadee

The morning at winter’s end in 1975 when I set out to be a birder, I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing to actually find my first bird. I wandered rather aimlessly through Baker Woodlot for what felt like quite a long time before I noticed anything alive at all. But suddenly, there was a bird—on my left, sitting in a very fine twig, just about exactly at eye level, no more than four feet away. I say sitting, but it wasn’t resting—it looked wild alive, like it would take off at any moment. It was close to begin with, and when I pulled up my binoculars, the sparkle in its black eye was so vivid, and its black eye so moist and shiny compared to the equally black feathers surrounding it! And it was looking directly into my eyes—well, into the enormous lenses of my 7x50 porroprism binoculars. When it did take off, it flew right, alighting in another shrub just a little further away, and then into another shrub to the right, closer again. I can remember the facts of those perches, but not the visceral feel beyond the moment I first saw it and caught it in my binoculars.

I remember the moment a Ruby-crowned Kinglet alighted on my finger. This, too, was in early spring, at dawn, and the pinkish sunlight dazzled on the frosted twigs where the bird, even tinier than a chickadee, was flitting. I have no idea what impulse made me pull off my glove and reach out in the first place, but suddenly my hand was there and the suddenly the bird was on it. The feeling of those two tiny, cold feet grasping my finger—the bird felt utterly weightless and yet so vivid and real—it was magic!

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Considering how viscerally I can still feel that moment, it's sort of surprising that I’d have to search through my field notebooks to work out exactly when it happened. I can remember exactly how the spot at Picnic Point in Madison  looked, but don't know if I could find it again, and I can’t remember what month—whether it was March or April—or even what year. But I don’t just know it happened as an intellectual memory. I can still sense it—how the bird looked, the tiny sounds it made, the feel of it on my finger are as real right this moment as they were in that moment, whenever it happened.

That makes me wonder about our whole concept of a moment. At the time I started writing this, I googled a website that told me that I’d lived exactly 34,656,480 minutes since my birth, or exactly 2,079,388,800 seconds. Of course, that sounds much more accurate that it could possibly be, because no one wrote down the exact second of my birth—just the minute and date. And the second one reports how long it's been since anything happened, more seconds start passing.

None of our brains could possibly hold the memory of each of the minutes, much less seconds, we've been alive, so we have no word for any kind of unique importance of one second or minute. Yet we do have a word for the unique importance of a moment. It may be a moment of tragedy or even terror, or a moment of such grace and beauty that it makes our heart beat a little stronger, our eyes blink with more moisture, but whatever gives a moment its importance, that is what makes it not just any old second or a minute, but truly momentous.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Hurricane Update

Almost a month ago I talked about the horrible impact on birds of Hurricane Harvey. The toxic floodwaters and badly damaged habitat are affecting a lot of our Midwestern birds during their arduous fall migration right now. I’m especially worried about Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, but also our warblers and shorebirds that so desperately need to fuel up before crossing the Gulf of Mexico and are now facing toxic waters and destroyed vegetation. It appears that the storm killed a lot of the remaining wild Attwater’s Prairie-Chickens, which are critically endangered.

After Harvey, Hurricane Irma devastated a lot of Caribbean islands on its way to Florida and Georgia, where the damage was extraordinarily widespread. Conservationists have been terrified that Irma’s impact could devastate the Barbuda Warbler, which is endemic to Barbuda, meaning it’s found nowhere else on the planet.

Barbuda Warbler, photo by Justin Dutcher
BirdsCaribbean reports that on September 22, a team of surveyors discovered 8 Barbuda Warblers on the island. That is clearly not enough to sustain a wild population, but the hope is that there are more out there.  Ornithologists and other skilled birders in the region and beyond will assist with an intensive survey effort in the coming weeks and months. The team will also devise a plan to help the Barbuda Warbler and other wildlife on the island recover, such as replanting native trees and mangroves that were destroyed in the hurricane.

Hurricane Katia hit Mexico right as our poor neighbor was dealing with the aftermath of the first of 3 devastating earthquakes. With people in crisis there, I haven’t heard anything about effects on wildlife.

Hurricane Maria pretty much leveled Puerto Rico. Being a much larger island than Barbuda, Puerto Rico is home to many more endemic animals and plants, including 17 endemic bird species. Because conditions are so horrible on the ground there, we can’t get accurate news yet about what is happening with the 3 million United States citizens there, and until we can get help to them and repair infrastructure, we obviously won’t be getting any news about how birds fared.

Russ and I were planning on visiting our son in Florida last week, but cancelled our trip for now, because there really was no way we could be of service, and the wildlife refuges and parks we wanted to visit are still closed.

Wildlife in Florida did take a huge hit. Some individual birds dispersed to places where they don’t belong. Among the displaced birds were a Masked Booby, retrieved in grave condition and sent to a wildlife rehabber, from Cape Cod in Massachusetts; a Sooty Tern found in Ohio, and one Magnificent Frigatebird spotted in Massachusetts, another in Wausau, Wisconsin. I don’t chase storm-tossed birds—it’s too depressing. When I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York, a hurricane-blown frigatebird turned up on Cayuga Lake—that poor bird was later found dead.

Magnificent Frigatebird
Magnificent Frigatebird that appeared in Ithaca, NY, after Hurricane Ike in 2008 

This hurricane season’s effects will be felt for decades. Every one of the 44 active nests of the endangered Everglade Snail Kite on Lake Okeechobee was lost due to Hurricane Irma’s high winds and high rainfall.

Snail Kite

As we tease out the effects of the storms on more secretive and less conspicuous species, the news will continue to be bad. The best we can do is help our fellow citizens and human beings, and try to restore the island habitat as we can.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Hawk Ridge Update

Hawk Ridge totals today
Hawk Ridge totals at 2 pm. When I left the numbers were higher.

I found my way to Hawk Ridge for a little while Wednesday afternoon. We’ve been having a good migration there, and September is the peak of migration. I wasn’t expecting to see much, but like I always say, birding is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

And as it turned out, the day was wonderfully sweet. Broad-winged Hawks were kettling and streaming by at 3 pm, so high up that they looked like tiny pepper specks, but there were a few lovely kettles so high up that they cut over the lake rather than clearing it first. Hawks are reluctant to fly over open bodies of water, but when they see the other side and are up so high they know they can get across even if they lose their thermals or encounter a sudden downdraft, they can take advantage of the shortcut.

Broad-winged Hawks "kettling"
A "kettle" of Broad-wings. The birds are circling on a thermal or updraft,
so appear to be going every which way. 
Broad-winged Hawks "streaming"
A "stream" of Broad-winged Hawks. Once they "top out" where the thermal
or updraft dies out, they set their wings back and head forward, all going
in the same direction, slowly losing altitude until they find the next thermal. 
It was fun listening to Hawk Ridge’s naturalist, Clint Nienhaus, trying to get people’s eyes on the birds—when birds are that high up, they sort of disappear into the sky and clouds, so usually the best strategy for finding them is to scan the sky in the right area. This grows easier and easier as you get older and have seen so many more hawks, but harder and harder as you get older and have more and more floaters in your eyes to confuse the issue. I’ve discovered that as I get older, it gets increasingly important to keep my binocular lenses pristine to find very distant birds in the sky. Clint did a great job of getting people focused on the right patch of blue or dark gray cloud or band of bright white clouds, so most of them saw the birds. 

Somehow it’s not so satisfying to see raptors from such a great distance as it is up close and personal, when you can see the gleam of their eyes, but for me there’s something magical in witnessing the birds having ideal conditions for their needs, not ours. Broad-wings need to cover a lot of ground between here and South America, and that’s exactly what is happening when they’re so high up. 

The official counters ended the day with 6,128 Broad-wings—a splendid total for so late in the month, bringing the season’s total to 36,739. The biggest day of the season, September 17, which happened to be the Sunday of Hawk Ridge Weekend, counters tallied 26,279 Broad-wings.

I saw three Sharp-shinned Hawks during my brief time at the Ridge. This has been a big year for them—this past Sunday, September 24, fully 2,515 Sharp-shinned Hawks were counted, setting a new all-time high for a single day by a big margin—nearly 500 birds more than the previous record set on October 8, 2003. This week’s hugest day came the day after they’d counted 1,753.

Double-crested Cormorants
Double-crested Cormorants migrate in a line or "V" formation. 
A nice wedge of cormorants flew over while I was at Hawk Ridge, and a smattering of Turkey Vultures, but I cut away from the crowds for a little while, finding a cozy corner where I spent time with a young White-crowned Sparrow and a chickadee flock.
White-crowned Sparrow
White-crowned Sparrow
Black-capped Chickadee

This week people have been spotting Yellow-headed Blackbirds here and there. According to the Duluth Birding Report compiled by Jim Lind, “John Richardson saw three YELLOW-HEADED BLACKBIRDS on the 26th at Agate Bay in Two Harbors, and he saw one on the 25th at Hawk Ridge.  Peg Robertson saw one in Tofte on the 25th at the Holiday gas station.” That one particularly intrigues me, because the gas station owner in my neighborhood told me a Yellow-headed Blackbird had spent the entire next day feeding on bugs on the windows at our gas station.

Parked on the side of the road, I saw definite proof that people gravitate to Hawk Ridge from all over, north to south and west to east.

Cars from all over come to Hawk Ridge
Cars from all over come to Hawk Ridge

Migration for most species is peaking or even beyond the peak now, but some northern species are just revving up, and October’s migration of goshawks, eagles, and other northern specialties promises to be a good one. Head on up to Hawk Ridge to enjoy the spectacle.
Black-capped Chickadee

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Woodson Art Museum's Birds in Art, 2017

In 1976, Russ’s and my first year living in Madison, Wisconsin, the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum in Wausau started putting together an annual exhibit every fall titled “Birds in Art." This is a juried art exhibit with extremely high standards. Each year, one “Master Wildlife Artist” is invited to display a body of work showing birds in art. Owen Gromme was the first Master Wildlife Artist; in subsequent years he was followed by such luminaries as George Miksch Sutton, Roger Tory Peterson, Don Eckelberry, Arthur Singer, Robert Bateman, Andrea Rich, and J. Fenwick Lansdowne. After selection as a master artist, these artists receive an ongoing invitation to submit new work to subsequent Birds in Art shows, but the vast majority of pieces shown at the exhibit are selected by the jury.  

Two artists, Guy Coheleach and Maynard Reese, have had a painting in every single Birds in Art exhibition from 1976 on. This year, Reese, who is now 97 years old, submitted a new painting of Mallards flying into a lake; Coheleach’s striking work shows the massive roaring Yellowstone Upper Falls, with a Black-billed Magpie in the foreground. 

I fell in love with one painting of Guy Coheleach’s a long time ago—perhaps when he was the Master Wildlife Artist in 1983. The painting showed six baby Black-capped Chickadees, just fledged, clinging to a branch just outside their nest cavity. Five were huddled together in that clueless, sweet way new fledglings have, their wide gapes giving their mouths a downturned, confused look as they waited for a parent to zip in for a feeding; the sixth was scrambling up toward them, having a harder time hanging on than the others. 

Guy Coheleach's Black-capped Chickadees!
Frances Walinsky and her mother gave it to me just last week!
The moment I saw that painting, it became my favorite piece of wildlife art of my entire lifetime. When we discovered it, we were paying 15% interest on our mortgage, I was pregnant, and Joey was a toddler, so no way could we have afforded a print, but I never forgot it. Unexpectedly, last week, out of the clear blue sky, what should arrive in my mailbox but a 4x5-inch print of that very painting—a kind gift from Frances Walinsky and her mother. Fran had been corresponding with me since August with some bird questions, and knew of my love for chickadees and that very art print; her mother gave her blessing to give her own copy to me. It’s just the right size for my desk, and every time I look at it I smile. 

The thrill of getting that lovely print may have been part of the reason I suddenly had a strong hankering to get to the Birds in Art exhibit this year, but another big reason is that one of my own friends had a work accepted for the show this year. Kenn Kaufman, famous for his conservation and education work and several books, including one of my favorite field guides, painted a stunning Bateleur Eagle after a recent trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa with his wife Kimberly, and I knew this painting had been selected for the exhibit. 

Laura standing next to Kenn Kaufman's painting.

So this past weekend Russ and I decided to make a day trip to Wausau—the first time I’ve been there since 2013. We have trouble getting away together now that his 98-year-old mom lives with us. We couldn’t leave until 9:30, after she’d finished her breakfast and we’d set out her lunch, and we had to be back to make dinner. Wausau is more than a 4 hour trip each way from here, so that didn’t leave much time for walking around the museum, but we had a lovely time, fully justifying the long drive time.

This also gave me a chance to catch up on my collection of Birds in Art Catalogues—my set goes back to 1992, missing only 1993. The catalogues are splendid, showing every work in that year’s exhibit. 

My new catalogue acquisitions

This year’s Master Wildlife Artist, Don Rambadt, is a metalworker, and his sculptures were simply stunning. 
Wisconsin sculptor Don Rambadt is the 2017 “Birds in Art” Master Artist. His work has been featured 16 times since 1998 in the Woodson Art Museum’s annual exhibition in Wausau, Wisconsin.

This year's Birds in Art catalogue cover shows Don Rambadt's
Magnificent Bird of Paradise sculpture.
Kenn Kaufman’s painting was even more magical in person than in the small digital pictures I’d seen online. And besides the juried exhibit, there was a room displaying some of the museum’s permanent pieces depicting birds in flight—that included some stunning works going back to Louis Agassiz Fuertes. 

Russ hasn’t been to the exhibit for quite a few years now, and thoroughly enjoyed it. We both love how different artists see birds, many in the context of people: Michael Budden's oil on canvas of urban pigeons and sparrows at the feet of people sitting on a bench eating lunch; Robert Caldwell's oil painting of a Mourning Dove perched on heavy farm machinery; Janis Mattson's haunting graphite work depicting an American Crow sitting on a decrepit barn under an ominous sky as other crows fly in; John C. Pitcher's sad acrylic titled "A Murder of Crows," showing a pile of murdered birds—crows, a Blue Jay, and a Barred Owl—a shotgun shell telling the story; Suzie Seerey-Lester's gorgeous acrylic of a Barn Owl "Asleep in the Saddle"; Rose Tanner's oil on linen depicting birders in Queensland, Australia, looking out at a rare bird as a fairy wren perches atop one of their hats.

I love when artists play with pure white birds; Laurence Saunois's White Peacock Pigeon oil on canvas took my breath away. Some of the carvings are shockingly realistic—Larry Barth's American Bittern, Patrick Godin's pair of Barrow's Goldeneyes, and Thomas Jay Horn's Violet Sabrewing, all done with acrylics on tupelo, could have been mistaken for living birds. And the realistic works contrast so beautifully with some of the more whimsical pieces. Some metal carvings are exquisitely minimal, and Mark Eberhard's wonderful, blocky Hooded Merganser pair seemed a three-dimensional version of the best of Charlie Harper.  There was too much extraordinary art to describe in mere words, so the best I can do is encourage you to head out to Wausau.

The Birds in Art exhibit will be on display through November 26, when it will go on tour in five cities from New York to New Mexico.  I can’t recommend this unique exhibit highly enough.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Adopt-a-Barn-Cat Followup

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Every spring and fall during migration fallouts, a great many warblers end up grounded for a few days.
Last week I talked about an Adopt a Barn Cat program from Animal Allies, the humane society here in Duluth. I’ve long been a supporter of Animal Allies, which works tirelessly to find homes for dogs and cats in Duluth. I was floored to discover that they've been adopting out feral cats that cannot be socialized to people with a protected barn or shed. Apparently the program has been going on for years, though I wasn’t aware of it until several people called my attention to a local Fox TV station’s news report about it last week.  The news report said nothing about the program being illegal in Duluth because of our cat leash ordinance, but after raising the issue in calls to Animal Allies, I’ve been assured by the organization that they do not, in fact, adopt out feral cats within city limits. I’ve also been assured that only a few cats per year are adopted out through this program.

To anyone who cares about birds and the natural environment, that is still too many. One Animal Allies worker commented on my blog, “You are making the argument that I see more value in the life of cats over the birds, yet your suggestion is that we euthanize these cats - so clearly you see more value in the life of the birds than the cats.”

But that doesn't compute. Each cat allowed to run free kills far more than one animal. A recent study found that every single free-roaming cat kills 23 to 46 birds and 129 to 338 small mammals every year. And these are just national averages. During migration fallouts, something our area has virtually every spring and fall, there can be thousands of grounded warblers flitting about all along the North Shore and several miles inland, so our unique location as an internationally recognized migration magnet exacerbates the potential bird kill for every single outdoor cat. And most of the barns I'm aware of in the outskirts of Duluth are in habitat where meadowlarks and bobolinks breed. These declining ground nesters and their young are especially vulnerable to cat predation.

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlarks and other ground-nesting birds found in pastures are especially vulnerable to barn cats.
If we’re going to look at cats as unique and valuable individuals, we have the same obligation to look at each prey animal as a unique and valuable individual, too. If we prefer to look at populations rather than individuals, it’s certainly true that mouse numbers usually stay high even with outdoor cats, because mice, at the very bottom of food chains that include many predators, have exceptionally high reproduction rates. That said, several studies have found that in fields where barn cats prowl, the rodent prey base is often reduced enough to have a harmful effect on native predators such as American Kestrels.

Songbirds are not at the very bottom of food chains, and because they have far fewer types of predators than mice do, their reproduction rate is much lower. Many of the warblers that breed up here nest only once per season, producing only four young per pair each year; the annual mortality for their populations is caused by all the dangers they face on their arduous migration as well as by predation. And thanks to so many human-caused disruptions, including domestic cats, many of our Neotropical migrants are declining. Those of us concerned about balanced ecosystems and declining species of course have a far greater obligation to protect rare and declining native wildlife than overpopulated domestic cats that are not part of the natural landscape of North America.

Right now there is a huge and well-funded national movement promoting what is called TNR, for “trap, neuter, and release,” setting neutered feral cats loose where they can get food and shelter. The Humane Society of the United States supports TNR, as well as Alley Cat Allies and other national groups with deep pockets. Voices speaking out against these programs are far fewer and far less well funded. This blog and my radio program are entirely paid for out of my own pocket with absolutely no funding from anyone anywhere. But someone has to speak for the birds, to remind people that birds too have intrinsic value and as much right to exist as cats do, and that we have a moral obligation to protect our native wildlife in its native habitat from the depredations of domestic animals.

Pepper Green, an employee with Animal Allies who happens to be one of my daughter's close friends reminded me:
The combination of your work towards introducing leash laws for cats within city limits and Animal Allies' work to reduce the feral cat population and educate pet owners has made Duluth a safer place for cats and for wild birds. I, for one, am very proud to be a part of this accomplishment.
I'm proud of that too. Animal Allies promised to clear up misinformation about their Barn Cat project on their website, and will be reevaluating the whole project soon. I hope that they can find a better solution for the feral cat situation that doesn't make birds pay with their very lives for what is fundamentally a human-caused problem.  

Yellow-rumped Warbler