Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Eastern Towhee's Got a Name

Eastern Towhee

Back sometime in the late 1980s, one morning when my toddler son Tommy had just stopped playing in the sandbox, in flew an Eastern Towhee who landed on the sand, perhaps to pick up some grit, and then jumped atop one of Tommy’s big yellow Tonka trucks and perched a while. That was the first towhee I ever saw in my yard.

My little boy Tommy grew into the only other person in my family who took college level ornithology, and he’s become better at identifying Minnesota bird songs than me, at least since my hearing has gone south. In my own college ornithology classes, I learned the towhee song as “Drink your tea,” which made no sense whatsoever to me. Tom hears it as “Eastern Towhee!” which both fits the rhythm and makes a lot of sense. In my defense, and the defense of everyone who studied towhees before their name change in 1998, “Rufous-sided Towhee” just doesn’t fit the meter. 

Towhee’s have always been few and far between here in my established neighborhood, appearing only rarely, and only during migration. There wasn’t a single sighting of them in St. Louis, Lake, or Cook Counties during the Minnesota Breeding Bird Atlas. The open habitat with trees, shrubs, and a nice understory in the area behind our house and along the fence line on the next block seems like a decent place for towhees, but they prefer to live further from so many humans, and Duluth is north of the species’ normal breeding range. While I worked at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I used to see and hear them every spring and summer day when I’d walk my dog Photon in the little wooded area outside my apartment complex in Ithaca, but that was the only time in my life I’ve lived so close to where towhees nest.

On Tuesday of this week, my son Tom and I started noticing an Eastern Towhee singing in our yard. The sandbox is long gone, but he was singing in back of both our yard and our neighbor’s. And he was still singing here Wednesday morning. I was reading online reports about warblers in Illinois, so migration was far from over, and I’m sure this little guy was simply taking a breather along his journey. But this is when Tom told me how he hears the song— “Eastern Towhee!”—and it made me inordinately happy to finally have a mnemonic that fits the song the way my ears hear it.

When Russ and I were in the Everglades last month, we came upon a gorgeous Eastern Towhee by one of the campground bathrooms. On the outside of the building was a deep sink with a slowly dripping faucet, and he jumped right in to get a drink and take a quick shower bath. Birds are extremely vulnerable if they lose their focus while bathing, so he was extremely skittish, and I didn’t manage to get a photo, but it was a wonderful moment. Towhees really don’t like coming out in the open, so they’ve given me quite a few photographic challenges over the years. That bathing beauty belonged to the South Florida race, but Edward Howe Forbush wrote in his Birds of Massachusetts of what he called the Red-eyed Towhee, “No other sparrow in the East seems to be so wedded to life in thicket and tangle.”

Eastern Towhees may be secretive, but now, thanks to my son Tom, I know that like chickadees, bobwhite, killdeer, whip-poor-wills, phoebes, and Jim Croce, they got a name, and they’ll carry it with them like their daddies did.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

T.W.'s favorites: Red-winged Blackbirds and Black-winged Redbirds

Red-winged Blackbird

This week I received a lovely letter from a woman from Connecticut named Ann. She writes:
My son and I anxiously await For the Birds to appear on my iTunes podcast feed every week so we can listen to you after I pick him up from preschool. We are brand new birdwatchers —  my son T.W. has recently fallen in love with birds of all kinds. He especially loves Tanagers, and was so delighted by your piece on the Summer Tanager earlier this week, he asked me to write you for him.   
He tells me his best bird ever is a red-winged blackbird, because on Mother's Day we went for a walk in a field, got our feet all wet, and watched red-winged blackbirds fly over our heads.   
Thank you so much for your wonderful show.  
Well, thank YOU, Ann, and you, too, T.W., for your wonderful letter! It’s especially fun that four-year-old T.W. loves tanagers AND Red-winged Blackbirds, because the Scarlet Tanager could easily be named the Black-winged Redbird.

Scarlet Tanager

The Summer Tanager in Duluth that I talked about last week is very rare this far north, but I was down in Iowa over the weekend, where I saw several.

Summer Tanager

And I saw Scarlet Tanagers in Ohio a couple of weeks ago. I can sure understand why TW loves them!

But yes, there’s something about walking in a wet field where Red-winged Blackbirds are found, getting our feet soaked as Red-wings fly over our head, that makes encounters with them exciting and memorable.

Red-winged Blackbird - detail

Females don’t live up to the name, not being black and not having red wings, but they’re beautiful in a quieter way, and they make identification more fun and challenging because they look more like gigantic sparrows than blackbirds.

Red-winged Blackbird

When I was a teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, I used to take my bicycle to work, which involved riding through some prime Red-winged Blackbird habitat. One morning I heard an odd, arrhythmic clicking sound. I couldn’t figure out what it was until I looked in my rearview mirror to see a Red-winged Blackbird attacking my trusty old Bell bicycle helmet, which was white with red stripes. The helmet absorbed all the shock of each impact so I couldn’t feel a thing!



Red-wings notice the color red and try to chase anything with red off their territories. When I took a field ornithology class in college, one of our assignments was to map out Red-winged Blackbird territories in a small marsh by setting out study specimens—that is, dead birds stuffed in an unnatural pose with wings folded—and dead birds that had been stuffed by taxidermists to look more natural, in various places to note where they were and weren’t attacked by live redwings, and whether the natural poses made a difference. They did, but study specimens with more red exposed got attacked way more than study specimens in which the red was more hidden.

When I wrote for the website Journey North, I came up with a field study for children to try, making Red-winged Blackbird action figures to see how red-wings react. I cautioned children, parents, and teachers to only do this BEFORE redwings actually start nesting, pointing out that once they are feeding babies, it's best to leave them alone to take care of their young. Redwings are so abundant in the areas where they breed, and they live in habitat where food is so abundant, that adding a temporary new competitor in the form of an action figure won’t stress them out much if at all, as long as it doesn’t distract males from more important activities.

Some children went to great lengths to make their action figures look realistic, but kids learned that ones that hardly looked birdlike at all could still elicit attacks with the right color combination. Learning how to do field work at a young age, with important caveats about doing it ethically, is a great way to help budding young scientists and naturalists see how it’s done.

The oldest recorded Red-winged Blackbird was banded in New Jersey in 1967, and found, injured, in Michigan in 1983 when it was 15 years, 9 months old. It was released after recovering from its injuries; we have no idea how long it survived after that.

Different populations of red-wings differ widely in size and body proportions. But when young from one population are moved to the nests of another population, the babies grow up to look like the redwings in their adopted population. So size and body proportion in red-wings are apparently not genetic qualities but, rather, result from the environment where one grows up.

But the color of Red-winged Blackbirds results from their genetic makeup. One California subspecies is called the “bicolored blackbird” because it lacks the yellowish border on the red epaulets.

By ADJ82 - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=65840016
This may help the birds to recognize one another better in the limited area where their range overlaps with the Tricolored Blackbird.

By Tsuru8 - Own work http://www.tsuru-bird.net/image.htm, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Tricolored Blackbird could also be called the Red-winged Blackbird, but it’s an entirely different species with a whitish rather than yellowish border on the red epaulets and a different call and song. This species with the extremely limited range, found only in California’s Central Valley, is declining dangerously. Fortunately, TW’s good old Red-winged Blackbird is thriving, so he’s likely to enjoy them for many, many years to come.

Red-winged Blackbird - detail

Birdwatching: The Creepiness Factor

These binoculars have seen a LOT of birds!

When I was a little girl, I read an article in our encyclopedia titled “bird-watching.” In it, it said, “A bird-watcher should have binoculars, so that he can see the birds clearly without being so close that he might frighten them away.” Naturally, that prompted me to ask my mother how I could get binoculars. But she said regular people were not allowed to own binoculars. The only people who usually could have them were spies, soldiers like Lt. Rip Masters on my favorite TV show, Rin Tin Tin, and peeping toms. I’d noticed that Nancy Kulp’s character, Pamela Livingston, on The Bob Cummings Show (a.k.a. Love That Bob), was a birdwatcher, and she had binoculars, but my mother said that Love That Bob was fiction.


My mother was a child during World War II, when people were paranoid about spies. Now, people are ostensibly smarter, which is why when I told this story at the Iowa Ornithologists’ Union this weekend, the audience laughed. So many decades later, my mother’s naivete and ignorance are amusing, even if they kept me from finding out that I really could have had binoculars long before my in-laws gave me a pair for Christmas in 1974.

But after my Iowa weekend, I came home to a posting on Facebook about a news story I missed from 2016, which was itself based on a government study from 2013, based on a questionnaire sent mostly to American women, in which they were asked to list two hobbies that seem creepy to them. Insect and reptile collecting took top honors, but high on the list was also bird watching. The Washington Post story said, “it seems to be rooted in a key birding tool: Binoculars.” Indeed, in 2014, a blog titled “Becca Birdy Bird” included a post, “The Creepy Side of Birdwatching,” which noted, “For backyard birding, one runs the risk of neighbors thinking you are a pervert of some type trying to look in their windows with your binoculars.”

I don’t know if my neighbors think I’m creepy or have not liked when a rare bird has turned up in my feeders and birders have flocked to Peabody Street—I can’t remember anyone complaining about it, anyway. I’ve personally never thought of birding or binoculars as the least bit creepy, perhaps because long before I ever saw Hitchcock's Rear Window, I really liked Nancy Kulp on Love that Bob and thought Lieutenant Rip Masters was the most wonderful man in the world for rescuing and taking care of Rusty and Rinny.


Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was a birdwatcher, and so I had plenty of reason to believe Agatha Christie saw birdwatching as innocuous and even a good thing, even though as it turns out, snoopy Miss Marple more than once saw some interesting human activity through her binoculars, too. Christie also made Hercule Poirot’s greatest and final opponent a birdwatcher. At the time I saw that as coincidental, not part and parcel of his being an evil and underhanded man.

Whenever I spot a stranger with binoculars, it seems clear and obvious that I’m encountering another birder, and that instantly opens me up to saying hi and asking what birds he or she has been seeing. I’ve never yet encountered someone with binocs who wasn’t a birder, but then, I don’t go to sporting matches. I can’t imagine ever thinking a stranger might be creepy just because he or she is wearing binoculars. It’s of course important for us to have some radar to notice when a person poses a danger to us, but really, binoculars just aren’t threatening.

When I was in college, we learned about how increasing population above a comfortable level for a given species causes animal and human societies to break down, increasing violent interactions. Fear and suspiciousness have a role in self-preservation, but when we are fearful and suspicious of people who don’t pose a danger, everyone loses. I’m not worried about myself—if  people find a binocular-wielding 66-year-old white woman suspicious or creepy, at least they probably won’t call 911 on me. But that’s not true for black male birders, and possibly black female birders, too. My treasured friend J. Drew Lanham has written and spoken about birding while black.

Pip and her Uncle Drew

In his Nine Rules for the Black Birdwatcher, Number Two is “Carry your binoculars—and three forms of identification—at all times.” He says “You’ll need the binoculars to pick that tufted duck out of the flock of scaup and ring-necks. You’ll need the photo ID to convince the cops, FBI, Homeland Security, and the flashlight-toting security guard that you’re not a terrorist or escaped convict.”

So the creepiness factor of wielding binoculars is apparently trumped by skin color. I find it even more horrifying that in my America, the country that touts “liberty and justice for all,” and the concept that “all men are created equal,” people of my own skin color so quickly call 911 or just plain shoot when they see people with darker skin. It puts the creepiness factor of carrying binoculars into perspective, and makes me yearn for my own American Dream, that we’d live up to the ideals and words crafted by our Founding Fathers.

If only we could live like chickadees, who blend black and white and brown in each bird, and not only don’t discriminate against chickadees with different pigments—they also include in their friendly flocks birds of a great many different species, including immigrants from Central and South America. Here we are, just one species, and ostensibly an intelligent one at that, living in just one nation, and yet we’re allowing distrust and fear to destroy the quality of life for all of us. And THAT is the creepiest factor of them all.


****
In this Love That Bob episode, the people who are truly creepy are the two men who aren't the least bit interested in birdwatching. 


In this Funny or Die skit, Blair Underwood doesn't need binoculars to attract attention. But here, at least people aren't shooting at him. 



Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Summer Tanager in Duluth!

Summer Tanager

On Sunday, May 13, 2018, my friend Alison Clarke called me about an unusual bird at her feeder—a Summer Tanager. He’s what’s called a “first spring” bird, meaning he hatched last year. I couldn’t get away right away, but the bird was still visiting her birdbath and feeders a few hours later. I took plenty of pictures. He kept his distance, but the photos are diagnostic.

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanager

It’s easy to tell male from female tanagers by the males’ brilliant colors. And it’s easy to tell "first spring male" Summer Tanagers from adults, too. Instead of being bright rosy red all over, they’re red on the head, upper back, and breast, with the wings yellowish-olive and the rest of the body covered with patches of yellowish-olive. In this and some other species, males don’t get into full adult plumage until they're almost two years old—that first spring plumage may make older adult males a little more tolerant of adolescents, and may serve as a warning to females that these birds are probably too inexperienced to make ideal mates.

I don’t know why, but I always find it intriguing fun to research how birds get their names. Europeans first arriving in America didn’t study the words people living here for ages had already given the plants and animals—they had to come up with their own. The first white man to describe a great many plants and animals in the southeastern part of the continent, Mark Catesby, published his Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands in 1731-43. This was far and away the most important work about America’s bird life for a century until Audubon’s Birds of America appeared in 1827-38. Catesby named this the Summer Red-bird, distinguishing it from the Red-bird, which we call the cardinal, because the Summer Red-birds are, “birds of passage, leaving Virginia and Carolina in winter.”



Catesby’s book was published before Linnaeus named it Piranga rubra in 1758. Audubon also called it the Summer Red Bird, but he applied the scientific name Tanagra aestiva when he painted it in 1821, ignoring Linnaeus’s scientific name for it.



When the American Ornithologists’ Union created their first Checklist in 1886, they kept Linnaeus’s scientific name, and kept the word Summer in their official English name. But the AOU ignored the other part of both Catesby and Audubon’s name, red bird, naming this one the Summer Tanager and the other red bird the Cardinal. Ironically, although both species are still genuine red birds, the Summer Tanager is no longer considered a tanager. The AOU took it, along with the Scarlet and Western Tanager and a few other species, out of the true tanager family, which is a large family of Neotropical birds now placed at the very end of the checklist. The Summer Tanager now belongs to Cardinalidae, the cardinal family. I guess what goes around comes around.

I had to memorize all the avian orders and families back when I took ornithology, and I studied how the birds were organized in my first field guides even before that; since then, all kinds of changes have taken place. Sometimes now I have to think it through to find a bird on a checklist. That frustrates a lot of birders, but I find all the new discoveries researchers are making thrilling.

The Summer Tanager’s breeding range extends from the Gulf of Mexico into the southern half of Iowa and into northwestern Illinois, but not at all into Wisconsin or Minnesota. It winters from central Mexico to Bolivia and Brazil. Some male Summer Tanagers wander significantly north of their breeding grounds during spring migration, and both sexes wander during fall migration, though no one understands why; even more mystifying is the fact that individuals sometimes appear as far north as Canada during winter.

In 1975, during my first spring birding, I spotted a stunning adult male Summer Tanager along the Red Cedar River on the Michigan State University campus. The range maps of both my field guides showed it did not belong there, and so I never added it to my lifelist, though I can still picture the solid rosy-red bird perfectly. I had to wait until Russ and I went to Savannah, Georgia, a year later to add it to my list.

Even though I never counted that first one, from the moment I read about Summer Tanagers, I was intrigued. Their bill is noticeably longer than other tanagers, and apparently for a good reason—they specialize on eating bees and wasps. Their bee-eating habits are well-known—Audubon’s painting of this bird, from 1821, shows one bird with a bee in its beak.



Alexander Wilson wrote in 1828, “In several instances I have found the stomach entirely filled with the broken remains of bumble bees.”

It’s a bit early up here for bees, and Summer Tanagers are perfectly fine eating fruits, some seeds, other insects, and even suet, but bees and wasps consider Summer Tanagers to be vicious serial killers with good reason. They snap big, juicy wasps in that bill, which is just long enough to keep any stinger safely away from their face. Then they bash the hapless insect against a branch to kill it, and then rub it against the branch to remove the stinger. After they’ve eliminated menacing adults, they raid colonies to eat the grubs. It’s labor-intensive and dangerous until each bird gets the knack, but a single large bee or wasp provides a lot more nourishment than most of the tinier insects other tanagers eat.

Summer Tanagers put on enough fat from their unique diet that when they were captured captured and weighed just arriving in Panama in one study, they still had more than enough fat to go over 500 additional miles! Most birds arriving there are depleted and need to pig out for at least a day or two before continuing. During spring, an out-of-the-way little wanderer may stick around a feeding station for days or even a week or two. Alison's little bird stuck around for a couple of days. It was last seen at noon Tuesday (May 15). He'll be missed, but with luck he's exploring this big wide world and will find his way back to where he belongs to figure out the lay of the land and where to stop next spring so he'll be successfully breeding when the time is ripe.

Summer Tanager

** UPDATE: This or possibly a different first spring male Summer Tanager appeared today (Wednesday, May 16) at Hartley Nature Center. 

Friday, May 11, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Every year as Mother’s and Father’s Day roll around, my friends tell stories about the wonderful relationships they have or had with their parents, and about the deep-rooted values one or both of their parents instilled in them. They use these holidays to remember and share the best that they got from their parents.

My values came almost entirely from my Catholic school education rather than from my parents, and I can’t even credit my parents with giving me that Catholic school education, because it was my Grandpa who insisted on and paid for it. I loved my parents, but I have few heartwarming stories that involve them. 

Complicated familial relationships make grief more complicated, too. My sister Mary and I were very close, and I was heartbroken when she died after dealing with cancer for 14 years. But that was simple grief—I still think about her almost every day, still miss her, still wear some special things she gave me. For several months after she died, I’d call her house when I knew no one was home just to hear her voice on the answering machine. I think of her every time I see Monk Parakeets, because I often heard them calling when I was visiting her. That was simple, uncomplicated grief.
It was different when my parents died. Both times, my grief was stirred into a complex stew of guilt, anger, regret, and relief rather than simple sorrow.

My father died on Labor Day in 1980, which was the day before school started where I was teaching. It was sudden and very unexpected—he was fifty years old, and he collapsed with a heart attack at the Chicago firehouse where he worked, so first responders were right there.

At the time, whenever Irish Catholic Chicago firemen died, their families held a wake lasting two nights so that firemen on duty one night could show up the next. My dad’s wake would start Wednesday afternoon. I wanted my students to have a normal first day of school, and needed time to get everything ready for a substitute for the rest of the week. So I worked all day Tuesday and Russ and I left for Chicago on Wednesday morning. 

The wake and funeral were very intense. It was lovely but disconcerting and distressing to hear my cousins telling stories about their beloved Uncle Jim—he spent more time with them, including on holidays, than he ever spent with us, and with them he was fun, funny, and generous—qualities I'd never associated with him. His wife at the time, who had married him less than two years before, told me that the fire department money she’d be receiving would go to her daughter’s college education, and went on and on about how proud my dad was about his step daughter going to college.

I tried to maintain my composure—I got to go to college only because my high school teachers got me a scholarship that didn’t require any of the parental income verification paperwork required for normal college scholarships, because my dad had refused to fill out any of those for us. I’d graduated first in my high school class, but my parents went to my graduation only because my grandpa showed up at our house—they had to scramble to get dressed so he wouldn’t realize they hadn’t planned on going at all. My grandpa died the next year, and so there was no one to shame my dad into showing up for my college graduation.

I was the only one of the five of us who managed to get to college at all. My sister Mary dearly wanted to go, but without some sort of financial aid, she thought it was out of reach. To hear about his pride in a girl we’d never met was hurtful, but I couldn’t betray that, nor could I resent the girl for things as much out of her control as out of mine. I got through the three-day ordeal without betraying any anger or bitterness. But neither could I cry. Throughout that week, I didn’t shed a single tear.

Bitterness doesn't change nothing and I knew it would cast a shadow over my future as well as my past. As we drove home to Madison after everything was over late Friday, it was impossible for me to tease out how I felt—I was lost in a hurricane of emotion. First thing in the morning I headed out to my beloved Picnic Point. Somehow spending time with birds always clears my head and helps me deal with the problems I’m facing.

I started out at what’s called the 1918 Marsh. Dense morning fog made it impossible to see all but the closest birds, somehow fitting my black Dickensian orphan mood perfectly. I could hear a few Mallards quacking and blackbirds sputtering, but being September, most birds were as silent as the grave. I walked around the pond with my hands in my pockets, my binoculars rendered useless until the fog lifted. At the far end of the pond, in the clipped grass of the student playing fields, I saw four birdlike shapes, ghosts rising from the earth—Marley and the ghosts of past, present, and to come arriving on the scene together. 

I walked toward them, my gait slow as much from my dark mood as because I didn’t want to scare them—at this point, they really did seem more like ghosts than real birds. They stayed put, standing still or gently probing the grave-like earth below, heedless of the lost wanderer approaching them. The morning was brightening, the fog gently lifting, and little by little, my ghosts seemed to take on a more corporeal form, as sandpipers. But they weren’t quite like any sandpipers I’d ever seen before, appearing almost dove-like with their soft brownish buff plumage and large, innocent eyes. 

The fog was lifting in my brain at the same time, as the specters materialized into Buff-breasted Sandpipers—the first I’d ever seen, these lifers arising from the ashes of my messy grief. They allowed me to approach strangely close as they remained silent and unwary. When I dared walk no closer, I sat down in the wet grass and watched them, these birds that just days earlier had been up on the open tundra in the Arctic Circle and were taking momentary respite on their long journey to the pampas of Argentina. Something about their quiet, calm stillness reassured me. Faith in a benevolent universe had carried these birds this far, and they didn’t seem worried about tomorrow or bitter about the storms they’d weathered. 

Suddenly, I realized I was sobbing—the first tears I’d shed all week. These were tears of release, washing from my soul all the resentment, anger, and frustration. For the first time, I was feeling simple grief for my dad.

Those Buff-breasted Sandpipers showed up exactly when I needed them. I don’t know how long they stayed in that grassy place, right near me, but it was exactly long enough. I didn’t move or stand up until they finally took their leave, winging toward the rising sun, leaving me with a peaceful acceptance for the first time in my life. Those four Buff-breasted Sandpipers were the Best Birds EVER!

Buff-breasted Sandpiper

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Visiting Florida

Roseate Spoonbill

Russ and I don’t get to travel together very often anymore—we’re living with his 99-year-old mother, and except when his sister can drive 500 miles and stay at our house for the duration to cover for us, one of us needs to be here all night every night and on and off every day. So it was a big thing for us to break away for 10 days to visit our son Joey in Florida last month. We spent most of the time in Orlando where he lives, or taking day trips from there, but we spent three nights down in Florida City near the entrance to Everglades National Park, where we had a magnificent time.

Hurricane damage there is still tragically obvious. A lot of the Visitor Center in Flamingo was demolished, and though they’re making repairs and some of it is in use, a lot is still damaged. Worse from an ecological standpoint though was the loss of mangroves, most of which are now completely bare—no one knows if the plants will heal over time or whether they’ll die out.

Right after I turned 62 during my Conservation Big Year, I bought a Senior Pass that, for the rest of my life, will let me and any passengers in my car in to any federally-operated recreation site in America, including national parks and national wildlife refuges, and so when I bought it for only $10 in 2014, it was a great deal. Now the price has gone up to $80, though seniors are allowed to get an annual one for $20, and after four years of buying them, can turn them in for a lifetime Senior Pass for free. Even though I don’t have to pay the entrance fees anymore, I still usually do. The Senior Pass money supports our national wild lands in general, but entrance fees help support each specific site, and to fully recover from the hurricane devastation would seem to require as much of my help as possible.

I also made a purchase at the Flamingo Visitor Center gift shop. I’ve been looking for a small backpack in which to keep my sound recording equipment, and they had one on display that seemed pretty much perfect. Perhaps the best thing about it is that it sports a “Junior Ranger” patch, and the woman waiting on us threw in a Junior Park Ranger badge. I chose the pack for the nice drab green color and the three pockets—I can keep my microphones in the large one, the recorder itself in the middle one, and extra batteries and other supplies in the small one. But it turns out that the design is even more useful, because the bungee cord webbing in front is perfect for holding my actual recorder, with or without being plugged into my various external microphones, and the two water bottle pockets are ideal for holding my shotgun microphone and my omnidirectional microphone. Now when I have something to record, all I have to do is put the backpack down, turn on the recorder in place, aim the microphones, and I’m in business!


We were in the Everglades before spring migration of Neotropical migrants started, so we didn’t see many new arrivals, but we were in perfect listening distance of a nest colony of waders, including Roseate Spoonbills and Wood Storks, on an island not far from a roadside stop at Paurotis Pond. I set up my shotgun microphone a few times, ending up with some nice recordings of the sound of hundreds of hungry nestlings begging constantly as a stream of spoonbills, storks, egrets, herons, and ibises flew back and forth. I could stand at a distance photographing flying birds even as my recorder captured the raucous colony. It was a thrilling experience for both Russ and me.

I took a lot of photos, and made a lot of recordings, on our trip, but with spring migration kicking in now, I’m not going to have too much time to process it all for a while. My recording of the nest colony that is playing in the background right now is the only one I’ve posted online so far. If you want to hear 18 minutes of that sound, here's the link. You can hear a lot of my ambient sound recordings, some a half hour or longer, if you click on Miscellany in the top menu of lauraerickson.com.  Over the course of this spring and summer, I hope to be adding a lot more.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ First Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Sometimes when we wait a long time for something to happen, it’s the waiting itself that makes the actual event so wonderful, when it finally happens. There are a handful of birds that I yearned to see for years, or even decades, before I finally saw them, and yes, they were every bit as wonderful as I’d hoped. The two that come to mind are the Resplendent Quetzal, which I first saw in Costa Rica in 2001, and the Cuban Tody, which I saw in Cuba in 2016.

Resplendent Quetzal

I got fixated on the quetzal before I even started first grade—I saw its picture somewhere and fell in love, with the bird and with its name. For years, I managed to fit the word “resplendent” into all kinds of situations, some more appropriate than others, just because the word itself seemed so resplendent.

Cuban Tody!!

I didn’t become aware of the tody until the early aughts, but the moment I saw a picture, I was smitten. When I started writing a blog in 2005, I wrote about it so often, always calling it the “most adorable bird in the universe,” that even today if you Google “most adorable bird in the universe,” the top one or two sites are mine about the Cuban Tody, and the top images always include it.



The first bird I became fixated on as a birder—I fell in love with its image in my first field guide the very morning I received it as a Christmas gift—was the Pileated Woodpecker. I didn’t see any my first year of birding, and got almost halfway through my second year before I got close. I’d taken two college ornithology classes and went on several Michigan Audubon field trips to all kinds of habitat but never saw a Pileated. Then on June 5, 1976, Russ and I visited Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan on an Audubon field trip. Our leaders said that was a place where the pileated was fairly likely.

Our group arrived late that morning after driving up from Lansing, and we covered a few trails as a group all afternoon, but none of us saw any pileateds. At dinner, Joan Brigham, one of the field trip leaders, suggested a particular path in the park where she had had luck on many previous occasions, and so Russ and I headed there for an after-dinner walk on our own.

Me, Joan Brigham, and Russ
Forty-two years later, here are Russ, me, and Joan Brigham!! We just happened to have reconnected in Florida last month.
It was lovely spending a little alone time together—birding in a group is more fun for the real birder in a couple than for the one who is just tagging along—so I tried to make this walk pleasant for him. The problem was that early in the morning we’d be heading on to Grayling to see Kirtland’s Warbler, so this was my last chance to see a Pileated in what could well be, from my perspective as such a beginner, my entire life. It wasn’t near dark yet, but I was very antsy to move on to the right trail to see that bird.

Unfortunately, a whole lot of spring wildflowers were still in bloom, and Russ hadn’t had a chance all day to stop and photograph them. He got fixated on a little stand of nodding trilliums, parked himself on the ground, and started taking photos. This was back in the days before digital photography, and we were poor students without money to waste on a lot of film, so he had to be judicious in setting up each shot. I felt SO impatient—there could be a magnificent Pileated Woodpecker right around the corner, and here we were wasting time with stupid little white flowers in the leaf litter! I was begrudging Russ’s fun even though I’d been having a splendid time all day, and this was the first time he’d been having a genuinely good time. I tried not to voice my impatience but was getting antsier and antsier.

And suddenly, there it was! A Pileated Woodpecker, flying past my face so close that I could feel the air rushing from its wings! He alighted on a nearby pine, close enough that Russ could get an identifiable photo with our 50mm macro lens!

Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker
Well, it's not THAT identifiable. You have to zoom all the way in and search the exact  center of the photo, slightly above and to the right of the bridge railing. 
If we’d rushed on to the other path, we may well have missed seeing it altogether! And without Russ’s photography, we’d never have had a photograph to memorialize this incredible moment. The bird stayed in the tree for an eternity—a few minutes at least—while I drank in every detail through my 7x50 Bushnells.

The thrill of the living bird, just as huge and spectacular as the field guide promised, in the magic of this deep woods, Russ there to savor it with me—every element of this beautiful moment was perfect. This was the experience that taught me patience—that I might as well enjoy where I am while I’m there rather than being ever impatient to move on to the next place.

This was one case where the anticipation did not exceed the actual event—indeed, a full 42 years later, I still smile whenever I see a nodding trillium, still able to conjure the delicate wind on my face from a Pileated Woodpecker’s wingbeats, the startling vividness of that very first one’s plumage, and the special joy of this shared experience with my husband. That Pileated Woodpecker was the Best Bird EVER!!

Backyard Pileated Woodpecker

Basal Cell Carcinomas: an Occupational Hazard of Birding

Northern Cardinal

Every now and then I wish I were a bird. Not so I could fly high in the sky, above the clouds, or look down upon the world from an aerie—I’m scared of heights. Of course, being a bird might put an end to that, but flight is not why I envy birds. 

I envy them for their feathers, especially the skin protection feathers afford. Those of us poor, bare forked animals out on Lear’s heath can get too cold or too hot without the insulation feathers afford; we can get soaking wet without the rain resistance of well maintained plumage; and we can get skin damage without a covering of feathers to protect us from the sun. Once baby birds feather out, they are usually well protected except for those poor unfortunate Blue Jays and cardinals that molt all their head feathers simultaneously. 

I’ve just about always been careful about using sunscreens and sunblock, and almost always wear a hat. Even if sometimes it’s just my Cubs baseball cap, it still has a nice shading brim, and more often I wear my Tilley wide-brim hat. Protecting myself from sun isn’t a recent habit—I burn easily, never enjoyed sunbathing, and you can count the number of times I’ve worn a swimsuit on a beach in my entire lifetime with the fingers on one hand. But for any birder, sun exposure is an occupational hazard, and that’s even more true for a bird photographer. No matter how much sun block I put on my nose, and no matter how often I put it on, it smears off on my camera. That’s one reason I like my Canon 80D rather than one of their more professional lines—it has a swivel LCD screen, which I can keep closed while shooting so I don’t damage it. But that protects my camera, not my nose. When I had breast cancer, a genetics-screening showed I have what’s called the ATM mutation, which is associated with several cancers. It seems to make it harder for cells to repair themselves after minor damage, such as radiation, so I may just be genetically more vulnerable. 

So far, ironically, my nose hasn’t developed skin cancer. I had two basal cell carcinomas removed in December 2014, one along the hairline on my forehead, in an area that has always been covered by my thick Irish hair as well as a hat, and one next to, but not on, my nose. Then last month during my routine annual checkup, my dermatologist found another one, this one in the narrow area between my nose and my lip. These were all easily and safely removed via what’s called Mohs surgery. The procedure, which is rather like mining for cancer cells, removes a layer where the cancer was detected, and based on what shows up in a microscopic examination, a second layer may be removed, and another, until the margins are cancer free. I had the procedure done on Monday morning, and my dermatologist had to go in a second time but only in one quadrant, and that was that. Even with stitching my face up, the whole thing was done by noon. 

I’ll have to be careful this spring and summer to protect the surgical site—I’ll probably wear a small bandage over the wound whenever I’m outside until I’m completely healed. We who love nature have to find our own ways of dealing with the sun. Hats and sunblock are of course vital. Birds do their best to help us, maximizing their singing around dawn rather than when the sun is highest and most deadly. Indeed, the worst time for watching and photographing birds is when the sun is highest, both in terms of how cooperative the birds are and in terms of how much glare the sun produces in our photos. I’ll keep on keeping on as long as my body lets me, and I’ll keep trying to take care of it on general principle—after all, it’s gotten me this far. Watching birds may increase my risks of skin cancer, but it’s also a major part of what gives my life joy and meaning. And any time of day at any point in our lives, that’s what really matters.

Listener Favorite: Steve Dahlberg's Great Blue Heron

"Dad" the Cornell Great Blue Heron

In 2009, when I was armed with my very first good camera and was working full time at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, I took daily walks through Sapsucker Woods, photographing whatever I could. One particular Great Blue Heron was exceedingly calm around people, giving me lots of opportunities to take his photo, so I took hundreds. I loved parking myself on a bench or tree stump and just watching him, with his calm, Zen-like manner and patience. In every photo that showed his feet, I could see that he was missing his right hind toe and the claw from his left middle toe.

Great Blue Heron

That same spring, someone sent out an email to tell us all that he’d just seen a pair of Great Blue Herons carrying sticks up to a big dead white oak tree in the middle of the pond right outside the Lab. We watched the male carrying up a LOT of sticks, one by one, delivering them to the female who simply could not wedge the sticks into the tree to stay—the oak was so old and had been worn so smooth that there were no little crevices to make it easier to wedge a stick in place. No one kept count, but the male brought in dozens of sticks, each falling into the pond. One time in apparent frustration he tried to show the female how it was done, but the issue wasn’t her skill, it was the tree itself. She gave him sort of an “I told you so” look—she'd have rolled her eyes if Great Blue Herons could do that—and off he went to find yet another stick. Finally, a stick stuck. Only a few more sticks dropped before a second stayed in place, and then they were in business.

Great Blue Heron family

I was fascinated, and spent the entire season photographing the pair and their four nestlings, all of which successfully fledged. Then in 2012 when I was back at home, the Lab installed a nest cam and I could watch the birds up close and personal. I have no idea whether the female was the same bird as in 2009, but I know the male was the same, because of that missing toe and claw.

Great Blue Heron brood patch

He nested another few years before the nest came crashing into the pond along with the main weight-bearing branch, fortunately before any eggs were laid that year. Months later, he got into a fight with another Great Blue Heron, seemed injured, and never returned the next spring. I believe the final tally of young he successfully fledged on that pond during the time he was under our observation was at least 21. We have no idea whether he nested somewhere else before 2009, and also don’t know if he nested somewhere else after the nest blew down in 2015.

I’ve always liked Great Blue Herons well enough, but never grew fascinated with the species until I got to know this one individual—to see up close and personal how patient he was with his nestlings, and how he always dropped his fishy meals closest to the tiniest nestling to give the little guy a fighting chance; to see how he stayed on the eggs during a snow storm, not budging from sunset one night until late afternoon the next day, when he finally flew off, apparently to give a piece of his mind to the female, and then returned to the nest until she finally appeared. To know any kind of bird really well, learning how it negotiates life on this beautiful but fraught planet, is to love that bird. Last week I heard from Steve Dahlberg, who hears me on KAXE. What he wrote captures beautifully what makes this bird uniquely special:
Like many other listeners, it’s hard for me to pick a single favorite bird and there are lots of stereotypical ones I could pick.  The one I chose is the Great Blue Heron. There’s something about its majestic stillness when it hunts and its calm solo flights that has a profound effect on me whenever I see one.  I think they are the monks of the bird world, living always in the quiet eternity of the present moment.
Great Blue Heron

“The quiet eternity of the present moment.” That is so perfect, so apt for this particular bird, and something to aspire to in our own lives, at least occasionally. As I watch for my first Great Blue Herons of spring to fly in on deep, steady, patient wingbeats, knowing they’ll get here soon enough, I’ll practice being patient myself.

Great Blue Heron

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Spring Update

Fox Sparrow detail

Every year, with rhythmic if not quite clocklike predictably, my Facebook friends complain about the spring weather—there’s still too much snow, ice-out is taking too long, where are all the migrating birds? On the very same days that I read those posts, my Facebook friends post about how the snow is gone, the temps are reaching the 80s, and how they’ve got Carolina Wrens nesting on their porch again. Photos just yesterday ran the gamut from pock-marked snow and ice-covered lakes and a late Snowy Owl to blooming flowers, orioles, and hummingbirds. Of course, that’s because I have Facebook friends from all over. I smile not only at the predictable nature of spring migration but also at the predictable nature of our own reactions to the predictable unpredictability of spring.

It’s hardly news when a robin sings, or a chickadee carries nesting materials, or a White-throated Sparrow arrives in April, but there’s such a feeling of joy when we see it again for the first time each year, as if we harbored a deep-rooted fear that maybe this year no robins would sing, and no chickadees would nest, and White-throated Sparrows would actually disappear. Rachel Carson understood this deeply-rooted need for annual predictability and repetition when she wrote:
There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; responding to sun and moon as they have done for millions of years; in the repose of the folded bud in winter, ready within its sheath for spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter. 
Spring to a nature-lover is like Christmas to a Santa-believing child—there’s such intense impatience during the waiting, then such intense magic, and suddenly it’s all over for another year. Up here we’re still a bit in the waiting stages, but when the floodgates open to hummingbirds, orioles, warblers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, we can’t possibly take it all in before things settle back down as migration eases into the breeding season.

American White Pelican

My friend Lisa has been impatient for American White Pelicans; a listener named Richard Wright called her to report them arriving in Fond du Lac on April 22. We each have a few things we especially savor. I particularly relish hearing Fox Sparrows and Juncos singing. I’ve only had 3 Fox Sparrows and 30 juncos at most this spring, and very few songs, but to fill the void I’ve pulled out a recording I made in my backyard on April 21, 2011. That’s what I played in the background of today's podcast—just hearing it makes me very happy.

I try to savor each day as it unfolds. I am trying to be a more consistent eBird user. I kept track of every bird when Russ and I were in Florida last week, but I’ve been sloppier about it at home, even though keeping my backyard sightings on eBird can be lovely to look back on. Most of the spring migrant sparrows I love haven’t returned yet, but the number of juncos changes from day to day, from none all winter to a couple last week that I neglected to post on eBird, to 6 on Thursday, 15 on Friday, 30 on Saturday, and 10 on Sunday. On many years my junco numbers peak at a much higher number than just 30, but I don’t know how many are still south of here, so won’t know for at least a week if Saturday was the peak. Trying to stay in the habit of eBirding when my daily lists number less than 20 species is good discipline and practice for when migrants start rushing through. It won’t be long now.