Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, March 24, 2023

Final Blogger Post: Moving to Substack!

Laura and Pip

When I started "Laura’s Birding Blog" in 2007, Blogger (owned by Google) took care of sending emails to subscribers. They discontinued that part of the service in 2021, so I started using MailChimp for that. But this month MailChimp significantly raised their rates exactly when I was working on my taxes and realizing that I'd spent way more in 2022 than my work brought in. We tried a different email service, but it had too many glitches. My work is primarily a labor of love, but there’s a limit to how much I should be asking my husband to subsidize it, and how much time and effort I can put into logistical and bureaucratic tasks rather than writing about birds and sharing my photos and experiences.  

So I’m switching both my blog and its email distribution to Substack, which seems both stable and trustworthy. I’ll be keeping this site as a blog archive because most of my podcasts for the past 15 years have a link to the corresponding post here, but all new posts will be at

Substack allows both paid and free subscriptions. Although I will greatly appreciate every paid subscription, I do not want anyone excluded from any of my content because they can’t or don’t choose to pay. I’ve set up my account so all subscribers, paid or not, will have access to *all* of my posts. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Flaco the Eagle Owl: To Count or Not to Count?

Flaco (86944)
Flaco, the escaped Eurasian Eagle-Owl in Central Park, NY.
Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I recently received an email from podcast listener David McArthur from New York, who writes: 

As you may have heard, a Eurasian Owl named Flaco has escaped into Central Park. He is now living wild in the woods across from my house. I saw him yesterday and I am wondering whether it would be legitimate to include him on my life list. Thank you in advance for your expert adjudication.

I guess I AM sort of an expert in what is “countable” or not, because in 2013 I did a Big Year for the Lower 48, trying to see as many birds as possible during that calendar year. The American Birding Association sets the official rules for Big Year totals so any birder’s Big Year numbers can be fairly compared to anyone else’s. The final total of species I saw in the wild was 604, but only 593 of them were “countable” by ABA rules at the time. I'm perfectly happy telling people I saw over 600 species that year, but always with the explanation that that was my personal total, and that my ABA total—the one that counts for any fair comparison with anyone else's total—is just 593.  

California Condor

Nine of the "uncountable" species I saw in 2013 were introduced species that hadn't yet established a naturalized population as defined by various state ornithological societies. Two were native endangered species that had been reintroduced but still required active intervention. Even now people are monitoring California Condors, providing safe food sources, and occasionally recapturing birds who show signs of lead poisoning. In 2013, people were still providing nest platforms for Aplomado Falcons in south Texas.  

But that rule was changed a year or two later to this:  

An individual of a reintroduced indigenous species may be counted if it is part of a population that has successfully hatched young in the wild or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individual from a wild-born individual.

That rule was retroactive as far as state and life lists go, and since both condors and Aplomado Falcons were breeding successfully in the wild in 2013, they're on my official ABA life list, but rule changes are not retroactive as far as Big Year totals go. Those numbers only have meaning if everyone doing a Big Year follows the same rules. I made a special effort to see condors and Aplomado Falcons because of my personal focus on conservation. From a competitive birding standpoint, it wouldn’t be fair if my total for the year jumped with the rule change when other people doing Big Years in 2013 had no reason to look for what were uncountable birds.  

ABA rules allow us to count birds only if they're on the official checklist where we saw the bird. Vagrants, such as the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail I saw at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge during that Big Year, may not be on an official list yet when birders flock to see it, but as soon as that state’s records committee makes the determination that the bird almost certainly got there on its own, that bird does become countable retroactively. So those of us who did a Big Year in 2013 and went to Bosque at the right time listed the wood-rail “provisionally” until it became official when the New Mexico records committee voted in favor of it the following year.   

Rufous-necked Wood-Rail

Rules for Big Year and ABA lists are strict, but there are no rules for counting whatever we want on our personal lists, including our life list. eBird reports of the Central Park Eurasian Eagle-Owl are flagged “exotic escapee." If I lived near New York, I’d still do my best to see and photograph it and report it on eBird in the same way I put Chukar on my eBird list after seeing a group in my own neighborhood. Like the eagle owl, the Chukars apparently escaped from a game farm and are not countable on any official Minnesota list, but it's still worth keeping track of escaped birds just in case some eventually do end up breeding in the Upper Midwest, as they already do in the West. 


A few years ago, David McArthur saw a little flock of Helmeted Guineafowl on a country road in Upstate New York. Like my Chukars, those had clearly escaped from captivity. I’ve got Helmeted Guineafowl on my own life list because I saw them in the wild in Uganda in 2016. 

Helmeted Guineafowl

They’re native to Africa, but they’ve also been introduced in the West Indies, Brazil, Australia and southern France. They’ve never been introduced in America, though many aviculturists keep them in aviaries and on game farms. I saw and photographed a small flock in Port Wing, Wisconsin, in 2021, but did not list them on eBird—even though they weren't in any enclosure, they belonged to people who have a lot of exotic animals, and seeing them didn't feel all that exciting. If I see them again, especially if they wander to another property, I'll list them on eBird, not that they'd be “countable,” but like my Chukars, reports could provide valuable datapoints if escaped birds ever do start breeding in the U.S.  

Helmeted Guineafowl

The likelihood of David’s Eurasian Eagle-Owl starting a naturalized population is not just remote—it's impossible without any eagle owls in the wild to mate with. But if the species ever did become established anywhere in North America, or if the New York City owl mated with a Great Horned Owl and produced hybrid young, it would be valuable to know when the first individuals appeared. More important in the here and now, keeping track of this individual is essential for all kinds of conservation reasons in a city where rat poison and many other urban dangers are so prevalent. 

Beyond that, I'd relish a chance to see the species that delivered all those sweets to Draco Malfoy his first year at Hogwarts. If I saw Flaco, the memory would be more vivid and exciting than the memory of a lot of my countable lifers. He may not be a legitimate twitch on anyone's "official" lists, but based on the number of people thrilled to be seeing him right now, Flaco has earned an honored place on a lot of people's life lists of avian treasures. And isn't that what a life list is all about?

Our Birth Announcement Drawing: Baby and Wood Stork

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

On Saturday morning, in advance of a big snowstorm, my friend Erik Bruhnke and I drove to Superior, Wisconsin, to see a small group of Eurasian Tree Sparrows that have been hanging out in one neighborhood since December. Four birds were originally reported by DeAnna Leino on Dec 20, 2022, and since then, many birders have found up to three. I badly wanted to see them—the birds are winsome and cute, belong to a fascinating species, and are over 600 miles from the species’ established range in America, to say nothing of the fact that they’d be new for my Wisconsin list.  

Like their close relative the House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrows were introduced to North America long ago, but unlike their bigger, more aggressive cousin, the only place a breeding population became established was in the vicinity of St. Louis, Missouri. By the 1970s, they were also being found regularly around Cahokia Mounds State Park in Illinois—one of my dear birding friends, Randy Korotev, was one of the people studying their range expansion there. Once in a while, one would stray up to Iowa or southernmost Wisconsin, too, but that was pretty much that until around the turn of the century. Now the birds seem to be expanding in all directions, with eBird reports from as far west as British Columbia, north up to central Alberta, and east to Nova Scotia.  

In my neck of the woods people have seen strays in Two Harbors and Duluth, but so far, the birds appearing so far out of their typical range seem to be wanderers who stick around for just days, weeks, or a single season, so most birders still add them to their life list in St. Louis, where I saw my lifer in 2004.   

My lifer Eurasian Tree Sparrow, in St. Louis

I’ve seen them there multiple times since, especially at my friend Susan Eaton’s place.

Eurasian Tree Sparrows

In 2014, I saw them within their natural range in Austria and Hungary.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

2015, I saw some at a distance in southern Illinois during an unsuccessful attempt to see an Ivory Gull. Not too bad of a consolation prize! 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

In winter 2017, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow was found hanging out by the Do North Pizza Parlor in Two Harbors.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Last spring, one visited Scott Wolff’s place on Park Point. I got to see both of those Minnesota birds.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Erik Bruhnke is a professional bird guide for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours who has taken birders to many destinations in North, Central, and South America and Hawaii, but he’s never visited the St. Louis area. And because he spends so much time in far-flung places, he wasn’t in town when the Two Harbors or Duluth birds showed up. This Superior bird would be a lifer for him.   

And so Saturday morning, armed with our binoculars, cameras, and cups of Bird Friendly coffee, we set out at 7:30 knowing the snow was supposed to start at 9. When we arrived near the two backyards and alley where the tree sparrows were supposed to be hanging out, we didn't see anything except pigeons, but en route, I’d noticed a large flock of House Sparrows at a feeder a couple of blocks away, so we strolled around the neighborhood, checking out that feeder and all the juniper and cedar-type trees where sparrows like to roost. After an hour and a half or so, we warmed up with a donut break at a cool shop called A Dozen Excuses, where I got a cherry-filled turnover and Erik got a raspberry-filled donut. Yum!    

When we got back to our birding spot, someone else was pulling up—one of northern Wisconsin’s top birders, Robbye Johnson. We spent several minutes chatting as we scanned, but again no luck. When Robbye went on her way, Erik and I moseyed around the neighborhood one last time. I listened to a clock tower chime 11 times as the wind picked up and tiny snowflakes started to fall—excellent reminders that we'd lucked out so far, at least weather-wise, but didn’t have much time. This time, when we worked our way back to where the birds were supposed to be, voila! Erik got a great photo of one pretty much out in the open.

Photo by Erik Bruhnke, Copyright 2023 by Erik Bruhnke. 

I saw but couldn’t get my camera on that one, so my own best shots were from an entirely different vantage point, of one of the birds tucked in a white-cedar. 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

We quickly spotted a second bird deeper in the tree, and as we watched for 5 or 10 minutes, we finally got glimpses of the third, staying even deeper in the tree. Two of the birds moved lower and flitted out a couple of times to grab morsels at a feeder close to an owl decoy.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Now it was clearly time to head home. We made it back just before the serious snow started falling.   

Seeing these birds was ever so satisfying, far beyond being additions to our birding lists and photo collections. I’ll treasure my photos, but even more the picture in my mind’s eye of these plucky little outliers, so lovely, fluffed out against the wind, dealing so beautifully with this exceptionally long winter. I don’t know how long they’ll remain in Superior, or whether a breeding pair might form and stick around, but spending a little time with them just before the oncoming blizzard was the perfect way to warm our hearts.  

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Enhance Your Nest Box with Bark!

Russ Shoveling on March 12

At this very moment, people in my neck of the woods are digging out from a foot of new snow, with even more predicted later this week. Nevertheless, it is March and birds are on the move. In my dotage, I’m not as eager to get out birding when it involves winter driving as I used to be, but my good friend Erik Bruhnke, young and peppy, drove me to Superior, Wisconsin, yesterday in advance of the storm, to see three Eurasian Tree Sparrows that have been hanging around since December. En route, we spotted a small group of Trumpeter Swans in the St. Louis River. Many days this winter, I was seeing one or two Mourning Doves in my feeder, and at the beginning of the month I saw three together. But yesterday, I had four all feeding together in my platform feeder, staying there until dusk, pigging out before the storm.  

Mourning Doves before March snowstorm

Even as we humans are getting most of our cardio-exercise wielding snow shovels, we’re getting into spring mode, too. Some people have already started planting seedlings indoors to get an early start on their gardens, and some are getting their bird houses cleaned out in anticipation of move-in day for bluebirds, swallows, chickadees, wrens, and more. So I was thrilled when my Arkansas friend, certified wildlife biologist Jerry Wayne Davis, posted a wonderful and timely suggestion for improving next boxes: we should cover the front with natural bark except around the hole itself. He included splendid photos to show what it should look like, including inspirational shots of a male Eastern Bluebird and a pair of bluebirds perched on the bark on a couple of his nest boxes, and generously gave me permission to use them on this very blog post.  

Copyright 2023 by Jerry Wayne Davis, all rights reserved

How can a piece of bark enhance a nest box? Before many birds enter their nest hole, be it a natural cavity or a bird house, they often sit at the entrance for a moment, checking for predators or waiting for their mate to come out before they go in. The rough surface of bark makes this much easier. The bark he uses extends to the bottom of the next box—I suspect that a nice thick chunk of bark may provide some insulation as well as comfortable perching opportunities, providing eggs and nestlings at least a little extra protection from excessive heat and cold.   

Copyright 2023 by Jerry Wayne Davis, all rights reserved

Eighty-five American bird species nest in cavities in snags and hollow trees and Jerry also reminds us how important it is to these vulnerable birds to provide predator guards to keep cats, raccoons, and rat snakes out. He notes that we can find bark of appropriate sizes on fallen logs, snags, firewood, and at wood compost recycling centers. 

Jerry Wayne Davis helped me a lot when I was researching my 101 Ways to Help Birds. I particularly love what he wrote regarding nest boxes:

Research and surveys have shown that only one percent of [our human] population is willing to do anything to make a difference. Many labels on medication tubes state one percent active ingredients and 99% inert filler. Our birds need you to be that one percent of active ingredients and not just filler living a life of doing nothing more than taking care of your biological needs. Habitat problems were created one person at a time and will have to be solved the same way. If you are not doing your part the job is not getting done. If you are not going to do more for birds in this lifetime, what lifetime do you plan to start?

Copyright 2023 by Jerry Wayne Davis, all rights reserved

Friday, March 10, 2023

Chickadee Day and Life Lists

Every year I celebrate March 2 as “Chickadee Day," the anniversary of my seeing my first chickadee in 1975. This year, several people expressed surprise that I still remember the exact date I saw that first chickadee, but that’s the day I started my life list, and I'd honestly never noticed a single chickadee in the 23 years before then.  

Most birders, including those who are most diligent about keeping lists of the birds they’ve seen, saw chickadees and other common birds long before they started keeping a bird list. Before the eBird app, a lot of people checked off the birds they’d seen on some form of checklist card or in a favorite field guide, not bothering to enter dates for the everyday species they'd already seen before they became serious about listing.   

When I started, I’d never identified any wild birds except pigeons, House Sparrows, robins, cardinals, a single Blue Jay I’d seen when I was seven, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes who flew over our class on a field trip at Rose Lake Wildlife Management Area near the Michigan State Campus sometime around 1973. I’d never have had a clue what those extraordinary birds were except that our professor called them out. They were stunningly beautiful and memorable, but I never thought to write the date down.

Sandhill Crane

Something about birds seemed so wonderful and amazing that when my mother-in-law gave me a field guide and binoculars for Christmas when I was 23, I decided that unlike my usual haphazard way of doing things, I was going to be extremely diligent with bird watching. Before I ever took my new binoculars outside, I read that Peterson guide cover to cover, then read both the Golden Guide and Joseph Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching. Two and a half months later, the day I set out to be a bird watcher, the only species I saw was the chickadee, which remained alone on my life list for three days, when I saw Mallards on the Red Cedar River. Four days after that, I saw both starlings and House Sparrows. I’d seen cardinals throughout my childhood but didn’t count one on my life list until that March 17. I saw my first pigeons on the 19th, robins on the 20th, and Blue Jays on the 23rd. The only remaining bird I’d already seen but did not have on my life list was the Sandhill Crane. It took over two years, until April 30, 1977, for me to add that species, at Stevens Point in Wisconsin, after we’d left Michigan. It would be well over a decade before I finally saw cranes again in Michigan.

My daughter started a life list in 1988 when she was four, but she kept it up only until she reached 50 species—the benchmark at which I’d promised her I’d give her a brand new copy of the National Geographic Society Field Guide to Birds of North America. My older son Joe was never the least bit interested in keeping a life list, and Tom wasn’t until, when he was six, I dragged Russ and the kids to Grand Marais to see an extremely rare Fork-tailed Flycatcher on May 6, 1992. 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher
I photographed this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Mexico in 2006, but it looks like the one we saw in Grand Marais in 1992.

When we got to where the flycatcher had most recently been seen, two Canadian birders were already searching. When we found it, their triumphant exuberance, along with the fact that the bird really was spectacular, inspired Tom to start a life list, too. But unlike his mother, Tom didn’t start with this amazing rarity as his Number One bird and go from there. I’d dragged him to a local wetland that very morning after we saw some birds at the feeder, so he started his life list with those, putting the flycatcher at around #25. It had taken me over 2 months to get my own life list that long.

But that’s the point. There is no right, or wrong, way to keep a life list. Now most birders, including me, put their sightings into Cornell’s eBird app and let the software keep track, providing invaluable data for ornithologists and other scientists as well as personal pleasure for the individual birder. But even using eBird isn’t a requirement to be a bird watcher. As long as you enjoy watching birds, as my birding friend Erik Bruhnke says, it’s all good.  

Grandma showing Walter a chickadee
Will Walter keep a life list? Only time will tell.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Spring Update

Black-capped Chickadee

There may be a couple of feet of snow on the ground and more in the forecast, but ornithological spring has sprung. As of March 1, the birds we’ve been seeing are considered spring rather than winter birds, even though the species mix in my own yard is exactly what it’s been through January and February.   

The species may be the same, but their behaviors aren’t. When I hear crows yelling in winter, or see several at the same time, it usually means there’s an owl in the neighborhood. But now crows are getting into courtship and nesting mode, family groups and neighbors of mated pairs all making comments, suggestions, and complaints. These most human of all birds know that it takes a village to raise healthy young.   

American Crow

I heard a couple of chickadees singing their Hey, sweetie! song back in December, during the Christmas Bird Count. Every year, chickadees sing a lot during January and February, but this year I didn’t hear many up until March 3. Now I’m hearing those clear, whistled songs every morning. My male White-breasted Nuthatch is also doing what passes for song in that species.   

White-breasted Nuthatch

Most years I don’t have Mourning Doves in the winter, but this year I saw one or two, not every day but fairly regularly. I thought I had a pair, with just one showing up sometimes. Then, on March 2, I had three at once. I’m wondering if all three were in the neighborhood all winter long, but there is no way of knowing. At this very moment as I write this, on March 9 at 6:13 am, exactly 20 minutes before sunrise, I can pick out all three rising out of the dusky shadows in my platform feeder.   

Mourning Doves
Many days I saw two doves together, like these on January 10.

Meanwhile, Kelli Alseth of Proctor saw one individual dove, who came to the exact same areas of Kelli’s yard to feed and roost, every single morning and afternoon from early January all the way up to March 1, when the sweet little bird didn’t show up for breakfast. It did come by that afternoon and again in the morning on March 2, but that was the last Kelli saw it. She wrote that they miss her “in our hearts. Her daily visits sure made January and February much more bearable.”   

Evening Grosbeak
In winter, Evening Grosbeaks have drab yellowish-cream bills.
Evening Grosbeak
As Evening Grosbeaks get into breeding mode right now, their bills are turning green.

I haven’t had a single Evening Grosbeak in my yard this entire winter, but many people here and there were seeing them in good numbers all season. A flock of about 50 showed up at Julie Miedtke’s place in Grand Rapids in mid-December, appearing every morning a bit after sunrise, and more would be there during this winter’s many snow events. Julie said she was going through 60 pounds of seed every week! But on March 7, she wrote that “Something has changed, a sign of spring, and now we just have a few coming by.” I’ve got my own fingers crossed that as flocks disperse, a few of these beloved birds will make at least a brief stop on Peabody Street.   

Pileated Woodpecker

My woodpeckers are behaving in a very spring-like way. Pileateds are not coming every day now. My banded boy BB has been visiting only once or twice a week, and when he does show up, a female seems to be with him every time—otherwise I’m not seeing them at all. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a red nape but grayish on the crown.

For several weeks, both a male and a female Red-bellied Woodpecker have been visiting, and they seem to hang out near each other—when I see one, I can usually pick out the other as well. Two female Downy Woodpeckers seem to be in hot competition, bickering and displaying on and off every day.   

Two female Downies bickering--the one on the lower right stayed "hidden" like this for at least 20 minutes.
The Downy on the upper left seems to have the upper hand. The one on the lower right stayed hiding behind that narrow branch for at least 20 minutes!

I’m seeing small groups of ducks and gulls flying about whenever I'm driving anywhere near Lake Superior, and people are reporting new arrivals just about every day, including Trumpeter Swans and Peregrine Falcons. It may not look like it yet, but spring has sprung.

Trumpeter Swan

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Together and Apart

Our Birth Announcement Drawing: Baby and Wood Stork

One of my favorite poems is Robert Frost’s The Tuft of Flowers, especially the lines: 

‘Men work together,’ I told him from the heart.
‘Whether they work together or apart.’ 

We all love stories about families who enjoy doing the same things together, but really, how often are all the members of any family of five, or even just four or three, equally contented doing the exact same thing? That’s why many of my birding friends put aside birding during the years their children were little.

I was too addicted. Most of the time that was fine—even though I always had my binoculars around my neck when I took my kids for a walk, I was usually good at diverting my eyes from birds to whatever dandelion or spider or dragonfly or colorful rock or shovel truck they wanted me to look at. 

Katie, Laura, and Joey at Hawk Ridge

In 1988, when they were 3, almost 5, and 7, we took a three-week family road trip to Washington, D.C., where Russ had a meeting, and then to Florida, where we stayed in the campground at Fort Wilderness at Disney World for a few nights and then Everglades National Park for a more genuine camping experience. I was mostly on my own with the kids in DC while Russ was focused on work, but every day we all told him about our adventures. 

At the Natural History Museum, I tried to be as patient looking at the dinosaurs as the kids were looking at the bird displays. And we spent a lot of time, both coming and going, right outside the museum entrance in the Washington Mall, where the kids could play with Uncle Beazley, a fiberglass statue of the Triceratops in Oliver Butterworth's children’s book The Enormous Egg. (At that time, children were allowed to climb all over Uncle Beazley, but in 1994, the statue was moved to the National Zoo, and children are no longer allowed to climb on it.)

Our visit to the National Zoo was fun for all of us even if our eyes weren’t always focused on the same things. The kids were thrilled with the animals in the enclosures as I paid more attention to wild mockingbirds and Black-crowned Night-Herons living on the zoo grounds. 

From DC, we stopped overnight at Titusville. I got up early in the morning to bird along the wildlife drive at Merritt Island while Russ and the kids slept in—I got several lifers before breakfast! (Sadly, that motel is where we forgot our copy of The Enormous Egg, but fortunately, it's also where we'd finished reading it.) Then we headed to the Kennedy Space Center. I spent a bit of time birding near the parking lot but didn’t see anything I hadn’t seen in the morning, so I checked out the museum too. We all got to touch a moon rock, which was most assuredly worth taking some time out from birding to do.  

We had a picnic lunch at Cocoa Beach, and then Russ and the kids waded, skipped rocks, and built sand structures while I stayed rooted at my spotting scope reveling in my lifer Northern Gannets. My attention was divided enough to be aware of all the giggles coming from them, keeping a smile on my face even as they exulted in my pleasure in seeing my long longed-for gannets.

Then we went to Orlando. As usual, I got up before Russ and the kids each morning to walk around the pseudo-wild grounds of Fort Wilderness. Feral Muscovy Ducks were everywhere, but there were also lots of White Ibises, mockingbirds, Carolina Wrens, cardinals, and Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers. At the theme park, Russ and I had to split up for many of the rides—Tommy rode on Dumbo three times, though it seemed to have the longest lines of all, and Joey was the only one who reached the minimum height for Space Mountain. I of course had my binoculars on, and couldn't help but notice the many vultures circling optimistically above that long, long line to Dumbo, but I mostly focused on the kids. 

On the drive down to the Everglades, we took a detour on the Tamiami Trail for me to look for my lifer Snail Kite and Limpkin from a restaurant parking lot while the kids and Russ ate lunch. Waiting for me to spot one was boring for them and not all that fun for me—I didn’t see a Limpkin at all and my Snail Kite was just barely within the distance of conjecture. Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, the kids seemed more sad about me missing a lifer than distressed about their own boredom even as I felt more sympathetic about their boredom than disappointed about the Limpkin. 

Tommy in the Everglades

The Everglades were wonderful for everyone, especially the Anhinga Trail, where alligators and ginormous, colorful grasshoppers and orb-weaving spiders competed with the large, colorful wading birds for everyone’s attention. 

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

Katie was badly allergic to mosquito bites, so while I hiked the Snake Bight Trail, Russ took the kids down to Flamingo. They had fun adventures, and were thrilled to hear about my own slightly scary encounter with a huge alligator blocking the path and my wonderful lifer—a Mangrove Cuckoo I’d never have even noticed except for some excitable Blue-gray Gnatcatchers swearing at it. 

By our last day, I’d still not seen a Limpkin. They are often active and vocal after dark, so we went back to the Anhinga Trail after our last dinner in our tent. Mosquitoes were thick so Russ stayed in the car with the kids listening to Raffi songs while I walked to the boardwalk and quick success. Russ and the kids seemed almost as thrilled about the lifer as I was, perhaps especially because I was so expeditious in seeing it. 

When we got home, the very first thing the kids told their grandparents about—the highlight of the entire trip to Washington, Disney World, and the Everglades for them—was the women’s bathroom in the Everglades campground. Throughout each day, colorful tree frogs gathered in the sink drains and toilets, and one large toad spent each day hunkered down in the corner nearest the door. We’d of course shepherd the frogs out of the toilet before using it, and were very careful to run the water in the sink slowly to not disturb the frogs in the drain. We wrote a song about them with many verses, but I can only remember one:

There's a tree frog in the toilet, in the toilet. 
There's a tree frog in the toilet, in the toilet. 
Please don't flush or you could spoil it
For the tree frog in the toilet.
There's a tree frog in the toilet, in the toilet. 

 I still wish the park had posted an identification poster—there were several species there—but one of the naturalists told me that for most visitors, those frogs were not a feature but a bug. 

In 1990, we went to the Black Hills and Badlands of South Dakota. The kids were especially looking forward to visiting Rapid City’s Dinosaur Park and Storybook Island. I managed to stay engaged with paleontology at the one, but as we were piling out of the car in the parking lot for Storybook Island, I heard a Black-throated Grosbeak—a lifer! I figured I’d catch up in just a few minutes, but there were so many birds along a stream running alongside the parking area that I ended up not getting into the park until they were almost ready to leave. The funny thing is, I had a wonderful time listening to their stories about what they saw, and they thoroughly enjoyed hearing about the cool birds I saw, especially my lifer. 

The next year, I took a Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union birding trip to Texas without my family—I badly wanted to get my life list up to 500 before I turned 40. I got 20 lifers, but the biggest thrill of all was when I came down the jetway after the flight home. There were Russ and the kids holding up a big banner they’d made, saying “Welcome Home, Mommy” with a huge, colorful "517!"—my new life list total. 

In 1993, we took another road trip to visit some of Russ's family in New York City and Long Island. We told everyone to pick one or two places they most wanted to visit en route or in New England. Joey, who had just memorized Longfellow's incredibly long "Paul Revere's Ride," wanted to visit some of the places mentioned in the poem. Katie wanted to see Niagara Falls. Tommy wanted to go to the top of what he called the Stachuke of Liberty. I wanted to visit three places—Grayling, Michigan, to go on a Kirtland's Warbler tour; Walden Pond; and Machias Seal Island to see my lifer Atlantic Puffins. Russ wanted to visit a close friend in Concord. 

Kirtland's Warbler
What I promised

Somehow, everyone's choices were fun for everyone except my Kirtland's Warbler tour. I'd overhyped the "Bird of Fire" and how easy it would be to see it, based on the trip there Russ and I had made in early June 1976. Now, at the very end of a different June, it was hot and muggy, and most males were too busy feeding young to sing much. None of us, including our guide, saw any until near the very end of the two-hour hike, when I saw a male singing at treetop height not too far away. Unfortunately, at that very moment he finished singing and flew off. The kids got a quick, unsatisfying glimpse of him darting away, and poor Russ didn't see him at all. And for all that, the bird wasn't even a lifer for me. 

Kirtland's Warbler habitat
What everyone saw

After that, the kids kind of rolled their eyes when I waxed euphoric about puffins. But in Maine, the actual event far, far exceeded even my own expectations. Family time in the observation blind at Machias Seal Island turned out to be one of the biggest highlights of the trip for everyone, the puffins just a few feet away, some even padding on the plywood roof. 

Piggy and Tommy looking out the blind at the puffins and razorbills on Machias Seal Island

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin and Razorbill

In 1995, we traveled to Yellowstone National Park. Russ and the kids did a lot of serious hiking while I moseyed about looking for birds. On two loop trails, they lapped me, on one going around three times before I made it around once. We spent a lot of time waiting for Old Faithful to erupt, but it was fun for all because adorable little marmots—chunky rodents—swarmed about the boardwalk. Visitors were prohibited from feeding them, but the hopeful little guys came bizarrely close for petting, and one took a particular liking to Tommy. I spent my time watching Violet-green Swallows flying about. We visited Old Faithful twice because Russ wanted to make sure his camera settings were right for the geyser, and both times, a Mountain Bluebird alighted near the geyser a few minutes before it erupted and then, right before the water started gushing, it flew right toward us and hovered, an adorable little park guide making sure we were all looking in the right direction just before the gush. After the eruptions, it disappeared, apparently going on break until the next eruption. 

Yellow-billed Magpie

In 1996 we took our longest road trip of all, to California. We did all kinds of fun things for everyone, from the San Diego Zoo all the way up to Alcatraz. My only hard-and-fast birding goal was to see a Yellow-billed Magpie. We'd planned to spend a couple of days near Santa Barbara, and one of my friends told me it would be impossible to miss these splendid birds at Nojoqui Falls County Park. Unfortunately, the falls, and the birds, are apparently seasonal. We hiked through the park three times but didn't see the waterfall, the magpies, or much of anything else. I did finally add that lifer when we were headed to San Francisco—the only lifer I've ever seen without binoculars while going close to 70 miles per hour. 

In 2000, over winter break during Joey's senior year of high school, we took our biggest family trip of all, to Hawaii. There were so many wonderful adventures for all of us, but no matter what else they were doing, the kids were hellbent on finding a Hawaiian Goose for me—a most yearned-for lifer. Russ was the one who spotted it first, and they all felt triumphant.  

Hawaiian Goose 

Even since that "final" family vacation, the five of us have gathered together in Florida a few times. Lake Kissimmee State Park was a favorite destination for everyone when Florida Scrub-Jays still greeted visitors at the entrance. This wonderfully friendly and charismatic bird is declining dangerously, but Florida developers have done their best to keep the species off the Endangered Species List.

Florida Scrub-Jays and Joe

I’ve been thinking about all this because Katie and Michael invited Russ and me along on a family trip to the Gunflint Lodge this Presidents Day weekend. I spent hours watching and photographing the many birds at the nature center while the rest of them visited a playground and a wonderful sledding hill. Back at our cabin, I parked myself on a chair by a window where I could sneak peeks at the birds at the feeder even as I played with Walter. 

Pine Grosbeak

After the trip was over, when we asked him what his favorite part was, I naturally wanted him to say the birds—he really had been taken with the big, pink Pine Grosbeaks and the teeny tiny yellow American Goldfinches right outside our window. Katie, Michael, and Russ of course hoped he’d say the sledding, or at least the slide in the playground. But nope. The biggest highlight of all for Walter was watching some men fixing the engine on a snowmobile. 

Families have fun together, I told them from the heart. Whether we play together or apart. 

Heading out for sledding and skiing!