Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, September 20, 2019

A Child Shall Lead Us

This afternoon, September 20, 2019, Russ and I will be headed to our old high school to have a tour of the school and attend the homecoming football game. Ironically, if we were students there today, we’d both be skipping school—today is the day students all over the country are on strike, boycotting school to make a powerful statement about climate change, inspired by one sixteen-year-old Swedish girl named Greta Thunberg, who has been traveling the world to get people finally stirred up enough to do something. She sailed to the United States rather than squander fossil fuels for the journey. 

Russ and I never skipped school in high school, but by the time we were in college, that form of protest was suddenly what students did. I don’t recall skipping classes for the environment except on Earth Day 1970, but there were several straightforward strikes protesting the Vietnam War. Adults told us in 1970 that skipping school was not the way to accomplish anything, but by 1974, the war was over and Nixon was no longer president—that was at least partly due to a sea change in public opinion, and we students had been a genuine factor in that. 

I’m mystified why some living, breathing Americans still think the jury is out on climate change. The vast scientific consensus has been settled for decades, and all along, most climate scientists have agreed that burning fossil fuels, for transportation and electricity production, and burning forests for agriculture and development, are driving it. The major energy corporations, US Defense Department, and insurance industry have long accepted the truth of this, and spent billions of dollars preparing for and responding to worst case scenarios, energy companies still wanting to capitalize on the opening of now frozen Arctic waters, the Defense Department recognizing that rising water levels are creating more and more desperation in countries hit worst, making our country less secure, and the insurance industry responding to and calculating new risks as the number of storms, floods, and fires rises. The strategy for energy corporations to keep giving those quarterly profits high has been to deny climate change to the public, pulling politicians into this denial so they can keep extracting and squandering more and more fossil fuels even as the situation grows more dire. Our focus on short-term economic gains has made us not merely short-sighted but actually blind. 

Gray Jay

Climate change isn’t just a problem for the future that people my age and older won’t have to face. For the fifth year in a row, huge numbers of seabirds have washed up dead here and there—the warming seas causing massive crashes of their food supplies. Gray Jay populations are declining wherever winter thaws rot the food they cache away—these late winter nesters use stored meat to feed their young. Damage by hurricanes threatens to entirely wipe out those endemic species like the Bahama Nuthatch, whose populations are already threatened by overdevelopment and habitat destruction. More and more baby puffins starve each year when their parents can’t find the right sized fish to feed them. These are all happening right now. 

Yet we Americans—the only one of all technologically and economically advanced nations in the world—continue to play Alfred E. Neuman—“What, me worry?” After Sharpie-gate, wherein the actual president of the United States altered an actual weather map to defend his completely erroneous prediction that Alabama was in the line of Hurricane Dorian, I asked an actual weather man what he thought about a politician altering actual scientific facts to somehow save face, and that weather man instantly started talking about Al Gore, suggesting his discussing climate change is just as bad! Americans no longer look at information objectively—they pick teams and stick with them no matter what. If their team includes corporations that profit from polluting and from squandering energy, they’re happy to ignore the vast body of scientific information to tout the findings of a handful of charlatans. I, along with hundreds of scientists and prominent people, from Al Gore to Jane Goodall, have been talking about the issue for the past three decades. If people had listened to us from the start, we might not be seeing quite so many devastating storms and floods and wildfires, and our air and water would be cleaner to boot. 

Whenever I talk about these important issues, people call their radio station to complain. They don’t present facts to show that I’m wrong—they just don’t think I should be given a forum to discuss the problem. Maybe a little girl from Sweden can do what so many scientists and environmentalists could not, igniting millions of children here to get the adults to face reality. I hope for my own children’s sake that Greta Thunberg succeeds. A little child shall lead us.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Too Old for This

This week, Russ and I are headed to our 50-year high school reunion. A couple of times recently people used the phrase “a woman of a certain age” when talking about me, though I prefer being straightforward and specific. I turned 67 ½ years old on May 11, the day that mathematically I was exactly three-quarters finished with my seventh decade of life. I’m still younger than the oldest known bird, a Laysan Albatross nicknamed Wisdom, who is at least 68 years old right now. But birds hang onto their youth way more successfully than we humans do—Wisdom produced a healthy egg and chick this year while I haven’t done anything remotely productive like that in over three decades. 

So based on all this data, I’m getting old. I may not be so old that I’m reminiscing about Corn Pop and pomade on men’s hair and record players, but I am old enough to remember the first time I flew to Los Angeles, in 1994. There were no clouds, but smog enshrouded the city in an ugly yellowish brown haze that made it hard to distinguish any buildings. My publisher, Nancy Tubesing, and I took a cab from the airport to our hotel, and the cab driver said yeah, the smog was bad, but nowhere near as bad as it had been in the decades before.

I grew up in Chicago, which was itself plenty polluted back then. Within hours after every snowfall, the snow along even low-traffic residential streets was coated with an ugly black crust from the emissions coming out of automobile tailpipes. But the worst city air pollution I can remember as a child was nothing like what I witnessed in Los Angeles in 1994, more than three decades after California passed their first auto emissions laws.

Why does California have stricter emissions standards than the rest of the country? It started long before the Clean Air Act was passed. The Los Angeles basin’s unique combination of enclosed topography, rapidly growing population, and warm climate was causing uniquely persistent, dangerous smog. In 1952, the year after I was born, a Dutch chemist named Arie Jan Haagen-Smit discovered that worsening Los Angeles smog episodes were caused by photochemical reactions between California’s sunshine and motor vehicle exhaust. People were dying, and birds and other wildlife were also in trouble. Something had to be done.

So in 1961, California’s Motor Vehicle Pollution Control Board mandated using the nation’s first vehicle emissions control technology in cars, and in 1966 they developed the nation’s first vehicle emissions standards. The pollution didn’t miraculously dissipate, but it did stop increasing at such an out-of-control rate, and so two years later, the EPA mandated standards identical to California’s for all model year 1968 cars sold in the United States. Ever since, California has led the nation, setting standards that little by little cleaned up their air so noticeably. Congress and most administrations, under pressure by the automakers, no longer even give lip service to trying to keep pace with California’s improving standards despite the fact that, according to the EPA, more than 110 million Americans still live in counties with unhealthy levels of pollution, and Los Angeles and California’s Central Valley still deal with ground-level ozone, which forms when other pollutants react in the presence of sunlight and heat. This smog damages lungs and causes other serious health problems and death for humans and most assuredly for birds. Currently 13 states and Washington, D.C. have stricter emissions standards than the EPA requires. 

Auto manufacturers have dealt just fine with California’s strict emissions standards, which after all have been stricter than federal standards for almost six decades. But now the president has announced his intention to strip California of its right to set those critical air quality standards, despite the unique conditions that make pollution so uniquely severe there. 

This 67-year-old woman, who saw so many horrifying environmental disasters in my own lifetime, is mystified about why a man 6 years older than me, who would have witnessed even more, is so eager to jettison state regulations so important for the health and welfare of so many millions of Americans. Our nation has never been anywhere close to perfect, but now we’re making a cataclysmic turn away from the one value that really did make America great—the willingness of so many diverse people to make sacrifices in the present in order to make the future better for our children and our children’s children. 

Right now, an estimated 100,000 Americans die prematurely each year of illnesses caused or exacerbated by polluted air. That’s human Americans—we have no way of assessing the effects of air pollution on living creatures who can’t come indoors during smog alerts. The laws that people worked so hard to implement to clean up the environmental horrors of the 1960s and 70s are being thrown to the wayside by people who either can't remember how bad it was back then or simply don't care about the world we're bequeathing our children and grandchildren. I’m getting too old for this.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Where are the birds?

Black-capped Chickadee

Last week, I got a troubling email from Kate Salus, who lives about 7 miles north of Solon Springs Wi. She writes:
We have had chickadees forever here but they stopped coming for the summer totally. Usually we would see some during the summer but have not. It is September now and we still haven’t had any come to our feeders. I tried to search this problem but nothing. Are you experiencing a lack of chickadees????
Unfortunately, Kate, I’m not the right person to ask, because we’ve let most of our feeders go dry until our neighborhood rat problem gets solved. We do have a couple of hanging feeders which chickadees visit a few times a day, so they definitely haven’t disappeared from my neighborhood, but I can’t really comment about whether their numbers are above or below normal. I haven’t seen as many migrants as I usually do, but again, I’ve been busy with a book and so haven’t been focused out the window as much as normal, either.

But in the past week we’ve also had a string of emails on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union listserv about a dearth of birds that people seem to be noticing here and there. These accounts are about birds in general, not specifying chickadees one way or the other. And what’s happening in a given spot in a single year doesn’t give us any trends, but that doesn’t mean we should ignore the data points.

Chickadees disappeared suddenly and dramatically throughout a big swath of their range around 2002 when West Nile Virus hit. Some Christmas Bird Counts in Great Lakes areas back then found ZERO chickadees, or just one or two. Like crows and Blue Jays, chickadees are extremely vulnerable to the virus, with exceptionally high mortality. Little by little, they’ve “returned”—meaning the survivors have reproduced and chickadees from other areas have moved in to fill the void. 


In my own neighborhood, mosquitoes, which transmit West Nile Virus to birds and mammals, haven’t been much of an issue this year, but when I suggested the possibility of West Nile to Kate, she responded that where she is, “mosquitoes are always aplenty.” So that is one possible explanation. Now that most people have been exposed to West Nile Virus and have immunity, it isn’t the human health hazard that it was 15-20 years ago, and funding to get birds tested isn’t as easy as it was, but regardless, even when the disease was being thoroughly investigated and thousands of birds tested, chickadees were virtually never found dead anyway—they tend to retreat to their roosting cavities when they’re sick, so die entirely out of sight. If West Nile is the culprit, there should be some evidence in the form of disappearing Blue Jays, too, though that can be hard to assess in mid-September when they’re migrating, and jays from unaffected areas may suddenly appear en masse anywhere.

But as I noted, Minnesota birders are noticing a big decline in other species as well. And this is growing troubling in other places as well. Meanwhile, just this week a major study out of Canada, published in Science, reveals that birds are declining because of the same pesticide killing off bees. National Geographic reports:
The world's most widely used insecticide has been linked to the dramatic decline in songbirds in North America. A first ever study of birds in the wild found that a migrating songbird that ate the equivalent of one or two seeds treated with a neonicotinoid insecticide suffered immediate weight loss, forcing it to delay its journey. 
Although the birds recovered, the delay could severely harm their chances of surviving and reproducing, say the Canadian researchers whose study is published today in Science.  
“We show a clear link between neonicotinoid exposure at real-world levels and an impact on birds,” says lead author Margaret Eng, a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Saskatchewan Toxicology Center.   
Spring bird migration occurs when farmers are planting, and most crops in the United States and Canada are grown with neonicotinoid-treated seeds. Birds may suffer repeated exposure at successive stopover sites where they rest and feed. That may extend migration delays and their consequences, the study concludes.   
Neonicotinoids, introduced in the late 1980s, were supposed to be a safer alternative to previous insecticides. But study after study has found that they play a key role in insect decline, especially bees. 
Right around the time Neonicotinoids were introduced, the Reagan and Bush administrations were engaging in an active assault on environmental laws. One of the things I talked about on For the Birds way back then was how the Bush administration discontinued all field testing of pesticides before they could be registered. In retrospect, I wonder how much that was influenced by pesticide manufacturers knowing how dangerous neonicotinoids were? The EU banned the use of Neonicotinoids in 2018 because they were killing pollinators. 

Declining numbers of bees has horrible implications for both the natural environment and for agriculture here in the US and Canada, too. Now that we know these pesticides are also taking a big toll on birds, will we finally follow Europe’s lead? I won’t hold my breath. Meanwhile, I sure hope Kate’s chickadees return.

Black-capped Chickadee fledgling

Monday, September 9, 2019

Of Blue Jay, Squirrel, and Human Intelligence

Blue Jay

On Sunday, September 8, I was writing away at my desk treadmill when I noticed a Blue Jay sitting in the box elder right outside my office window, staring straight at me. It’s been at least one full year since I set out peanuts for jays. A couple of squirrels often approach me when I’m in the yard and I usually toss them a peanut, but I haven’t been leaving extras out for birds because of my neighborhood’s rat problem. 

On the off-chance that this Blue Jay remembered me from a year or two ago, I went outside with a handful of peanuts and left them on the usual stump. I whistled the way I used to whistle when I fed jays and started back for the house. Before I reached the door, the jay was already on the stump sorting through the peanuts—it grabbed the biggest one and flew off. Within 5 minutes, that jay and some others had taken them all, so I didn’t have to worry about any rats getting a free meal. I went back to work, and twice more, the jay showed up, gave me a long, hard stare until it caught my eye, and got rewarded with peanuts. The fourth time, another Blue Jay came with it—I think the first jay had told it, “Watch this—I trained a human to hand out peanuts!” Some Blue Jays may doubt that humans are intelligent, but they have to concede that some of us are trainable. 

Gray Squirrel

That same day, I read a New York Times story about a study done at Oberlin College that showed that squirrels not only notice when birds make alarm calls; they also seem to relax when birds are making relaxed calls.

People continue to be surprised that animals notice and respond appropriately to obvious signals within their environments. The more animals are discovered to be able to make and use tools, like Green Herons using bits of bread to bait fish, or New Caledonian crows fashioning hooks to pull food from otherwise inaccessible crevices, the more desperately members of our own species try to affirm our superior intelligence. Of course no bird or squirrel has ever invented a bomb, nuclear weapon, or even just an assault rifle, nor has one ever been able to learn to read in any language, invent a vaccination that could save millions of lives, or write or read ridiculous, easily disprovable studies saying vaccinations cause autism or that there is no such thing as climate change.

It feeds my ego to believe I’m smarter than the Blue Jays and squirrels in my backyard, but I’m not entirely sure that it makes sense to believe my species is. Birds and squirrels take note of potential dangers and figure out what to do to protect themselves, their families, and their whole neighborhood—squirrels may be noticing bird calls to tell them about local conditions, but they also alert those birds with their own calls when they discover something dangerous. Blue Jays are credited with planting the eastern oak forests following glaciation, ultimately providing food for thousands of generations of Blue Jays. Their eagerness to plant acorns may have been based more on instinct than genuine forward thinking, but I wish we humans could cultivate that kind of instinct to give our children and grandchildren a better future.

Squirrels are smart enough to know that paying attention to how well birds are faring directly affects their own well-being. When, by a huge, bipartisan majority, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Richard Nixon signed it into law, I truly believed that our species was now enlightened enough to have set in stone permanent protection of every one of our fellow creatures, for their own sake and for ours. After all, even rodents are smart enough to know that when birds are safe, so are they.

But since the 1980s, corporate America and wealthy developers have been lobbying to eviscerate the Act, pressing to make it almost impossible for new species to be listed for protection no matter how devastatingly their numbers are declining, and to chip away at enforcement. 

Now suddenly science itself—the discipline that, more than anything else, is cited to prove our so-called superiority to animals—is in jeopardy.  Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a memo cautioning scientists that even if people in their area were preparing for a hurricane that had no chance of hitting them, meteorologists must *not* correct totally inaccurate weather predictions made by an angry old man shaking his fists at clouds and drawing his own weather maps with a sharpie.

Are we humans as intelligent as Blue Jays and squirrels? The jury is still out, but it’s not looking good. 

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Nighthawk Migration

Common Nighthawk

Friday, August 30, was Russ’s and my anniversary, so we went out for an early dinner at a restaurant in downtown Duluth, and then went to an ice cream shop in West Duluth while it was still light. I’ve been out of town way too much lately, and that means I’ve been stuck indoors most of the time when I am home, trying to meet a big deadline for a new book. And my focus on Friday was not supposed to be birds but my husband, who I've been ignoring even worse than I've been ignoring birds, but as we drove downtown, I couldn’t help but see dozens, and then hundreds, of Common Nighthawks winging through the sky. They were mostly paralleling the shoreline, sometimes darting this way or that chasing down a flying insect, but the birds were making steady progress toward the tip of Lake Superior. When they got there, they’d head more directly south. 

We got a parking space right in front of the restaurant so weren’t outside for even 30 seconds, but at least half a dozen nighthawks flew overhead, and when we came out, nighthawks were still flying. Russ was driving so I could keep watching nighthawks course over as we went for ice cream, and there were still some flying not far above treetop height as we drove home before sunset, but at that point most were no longer visible. I think they fly lowest when starting out, feeding while afternoon insects are still numerous, and then rise to higher altitudes for their more serious overnight flights—they’re headed all the way to South America. 

Common Nighthawk

I associate nighthawk migration with family events, perhaps because the first huge migration of them I ever saw was on an August 14, 1983—it was Russ’s dad’s birthday and we were driving home to Duluth from Port Wing. On good migration days—those still, quiet days in mid- and late August when green darner dragonflies are aloft—nighthawks could once be seen any time in the afternoon, often swirling above open fields. When my kids were little, there were often nighthawks flying over during their soccer games, distracting me. One time I was so transfixed by them that it was only Russ jabbing his elbow into my ribs that grabbed my attention in time so I didn’t miss Tommy scoring his first goal. Back in the 80s we saw lots more nighthawks than we do now, with many, many more counted on the best days, and more good days each season. As flying insects disappear, the birds that depend on them are disappearing, too. We’d had a couple of decent days this season, but I’d been out of town or too busy to enjoy them until August 30.

Cedar Waxwing devouring a dragonfly.
Nighthawks and many other birds depend on dragonflies and other insects for food. Dragonflies eat insects, too--their disappearance is due both to pesticide use killing them and their food directly, and to problems with water quality—dragonflies spend a year or longer as aquatic nymphs before emerging as adults. I include several ways we can help protect water quality and insects at my Ways to Help
Every summer I give a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and this year it happened this weekend. I headed there on Saturday, and in early afternoon saw a small group of nighthawks hawking for insects above Highway 2 and some surrounding fields near Iron River. On Sunday when I drove back into Duluth in late afternoon, nighthawks were back on the move, cruising along the lake shore between the harbor and my neighborhood. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Seeing them always thrills me—nighthawks have long been one of my favorite birds for many reasons. I started specializing on their care when I was a rehabber, studied their digestion during my ill-fated Ph.D. research, and had a dear nighthawk named Fred as my licensed education bird for several years—how could I not deeply love these gentle-spirited birds? Watching them this year made me sad, knowing that a great many of them are headed straight for Brazil with its massive fires, mostly set to grow soybeans and beef by destroying the rainforest. 

My favorite cow
Eating less meat, especially beef, helps birds as well as reduces our impact on climate change. See my Ways to Help #2: Eat lower on the food chain, and especially eat less beef. 

This world is growing less and less recognizable to me, and certainly less and less recognizable to a great many creatures. Lovely evenings with nighthawks aloft in the sunset sky are a precious reminder of something genuinely worth fighting for. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hummingbird Update

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Now that most adult male hummingbirds are gone, we’re left mostly with adult females and young of both sexes, and the only Ruby-throats with brilliant red throats still remaining are stragglers. But it’ll be tricky to notice exactly when the adult females disappear—young males as well as females have white on the outer tips of the tail and lack red throats. A handful of brilliant iridescent gorget feathers may have already grown in on some young males, but older adult females may have a few ruby throat feathers, too. Young birds have tiny little marks called corrugations on the bill, lost as the bill reaches full size and hardens, but this is extremely difficult to see except by bird banders holding the bird in hand, and these have already been lost by some of the first-hatched birds this year. 

Every now and then an outlier hummingbird turns up—in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the most likely vagrant is the Rufous Hummingbird.

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

Selasphorus sp.-- probably a Rufous Hummingbird

Both states have also had isolated cases where an Anna’s Hummingbird and a Mexican Violet-ear were found. Wisconsin has had at least one Green-breasted Mango and one Broad-billed and Buff-bellied Hummingbird show up, while Costa’s and Calliope Hummingbirds have been seen in Minnesota. The 3 records of Magnificent Hummingbird in Minnesota, all from the month of June, were from before the species was split—I’m not sure if there is enough data for the Minnesota Ornithological Records Committee to make a decision whether those were Rivoli’s or Talamanca, and the species was never reported to eBird. 

Because the Ruby-throat really is the only hummingbird that nests in the Midwest, it’s easy to assume that every hummingbird at our feeders is a Ruby-throat, and that’s a fair assumption. Chances are that every time you carefully scrutinize every single hummingbird in your yard, you’re only going to come up with Ruby-throats. But the only absolute guarantee is that if you never scrutinize every single hummingbird, you’re never going to see a rare one. The one year that I left my hummingbird feeders out until November, a Rufous Hummingbird actually did show up and spent two weeks in my yard before heading on. 

Many people notice in mid-summer that hummingbird numbers dwindle in much of our area, as natural food is at its most abundant and nesting females focus on tiny insects to feed their growing young. Now that migration is in full swing, feeders are getting plenty of action again. But now that summer’s end is near, people are growing a bit more lackadaisical about hummingbird feeder maintenance. It’s important to keep the water fresh. Changing it and giving the feeder a thorough rinsing every 2 or 3 days is ideal—it can be good to change it even more often during hot weather, when sugar water ferments quite quickly. In cool areas it’s fine to leave feeders unattended for a week or so, but people who visit their cabins only on weekends really should make sure they keep their feeders in the shade. 

Thanks to the Internet, more and more unqualified people are expounding on the best, or the only, proper mixtures to offer hummingbirds. Some people say hummingbirds won’t touch anything but cane sugar, others swear by beet sugar—the banders I’ve talked to say the birds really don’t care, and I’ve never noticed a difference in my own yard. An excellent rule is to use one cup of sugar to four cups of water. That’s about the average concentration of flower nectar, but natural flowers vary, from about a 1:5 ratio up to about a 1:3 ratio. If you’re mindful and keeping track of weather conditions, upping your sugar water strength to one cup of sugar to three cups of water is a good thing during cool or rainy conditions, especially when birds need a boost as natural food sources dwindle. During hot, dry conditions when hummingbirds may get dehydrated without enough water to metabolize the sugar, it’s a good idea to lower the concentration to one cup of sugar per five cups of water, but the 1:4 average is fine any time. 

Virtually every hummingbird will be gone from up here by the second week of September or so. Individuals never, ever linger simply because a feeder is there—their urge to migrate is far, far stronger than the appeal of even the Midwest’s finest feeding stations. When a Ruby-throat does stick around late, it’s virtually always a young bird from a late hatching, still getting its body in shape. As we start experiencing killing frosts and sources of natural nectar disappear, our feeders really can help keep these birds alive—I’ve a couple of times had young Ruby-throats show up as late as early October. But if you do leave the feeders out there just in case of a straggler, make sure you keep changing the sugar water. And check those stragglers, because by October, the probability rises that a hummingbird up here is of those outlier species. Autumn hummingbird watching is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Finding Amazing Birds with Laurens Halsey

Laurens Halsey and me

Did you ever find yourself enjoying your favorite thing in the world—say, getting out into some wonderful wild habitats to listen to and look for birds—in the company of a genuine kindred spirit? I found myself in that happy situation at the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival when I got to spend an evening and then an afternoon with Laurens Halsey, a fantastic local birder and independent guide. Laurens specializes in taking out small groups—just one or two people is his preference—and he especially focuses on night birds. His hearing is amazing—I think he pulls out birds better than I could at my best when I was younger.

On Friday evening, I was assigned to co-lead a field trip for night birds with Tim Helentjaris. Tim had arranged to meet with Laurens, who happens to keep close tabs on owls in Madera Canyon, including two different screech owls, which live at two different elevations, in two different sets of habitats.

We started out at mid-level, where we heard well and got an excellent but brief look at one of what sounded like a family unit of Whiskered Screech-Owls.  I didn’t get photos. Even better as far as my personal lifelist goes, in the same spot we heard a Mexican Whip-poor-will. That bird started out far enough away that when I focused incredibly hard, with my hearing aids cranked up to 11, I could barely hear it. But then it came in close enough for me to get a short recording with my cell phone. A distant Elf Owl was not so cooperative, but I heard two of its calls.

At the lower, more desert-like stop, a family of Great Horned Owls was about, at least two chicks making constant begging calls. The obvious presence of the big predators kept smaller birds pretty quiet, but we managed to hear a distant Common Poorwill—again, I would never, ever have heard it without Laurens pointing it out—and then, finally, the evening’s pièce de résistance, a calling Western Screech-Owl who not only let me get a few recordings but also some photos.

Western Screech-Owl

The little screech owl had to be on red alert for Great Horned Owls, though the big bruiser near us was an inexperienced fledgling who squawked persistently, telegraphing its whereabouts every several seconds. Our group stayed in one mass, easy for the tiny owl to keep track of, too. 

Laurens shone a flashlight on the screech owl—not a powerful spotlight but a good flashlight—as it hunted large insects, looking every which way. When the bird faced directly toward us, the pupils constricted, but when it looked to the sides, the pupils immediately dilated, so we didn’t seem to be disturbing it much—it continued quietly calling throughout.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Several people commented about how softly this owl and the Whiskered Screech-Owls called. That quietness is something people often notice when they see a nearby Eastern Screech-Owl calling, too. The word screech suggests loudness, and we’re so used to turning up the volume on bird recordings to suit our own preferences that we expect the living creatures to call at a higher volume too. I’ve been out with guides and field trip leaders who carry little speakers to boost the sound on their recordings, as if they don’t realize that real birds don’t yell. Male birds can be intimidated by such loud sounds by what they perceive as competitors, and in at least some cases, females seem to grow disenchanted with their own mate after hearing an electronic male demonstrating such prowess.

In my experience, when playback is used to attract birds, less is more in terms of both ethics and effectiveness. Indeed, the only reason the Mexican Whip-poor-will came in so close to our group was because Laurens played a recording on his cell phone, softly and just a few times. Birds are curious, but also busy with their real lives, so it may take them a few minutes to fly in to check out the new bird in town. Patience is way more important than annoyingly loud persistence.

I was thrilled going out with Laurens for both his deep knowledge of the local avifauna and his ability to use playback respectfully and minimally. And when we were getting ready to move on after our supremely satisfying experience with the Western Screech-Owl, something else struck home when Laurens gave it a nod and said "Thank you." I very often thank birds for wonderful experiences, too, but never ran across a professional guide who does this, at least not out loud. That was splendid.

I ran into Laurens and met his wife Awshee on Saturday, and it felt like we were old friends. Then on Sunday, I ran into him at festival headquarters after my last field trip. One bird I’d talked about in my keynote the night before was the Five-striped Sparrow. None of my field trips had visited the right spots for it, but out of the clear blue sky, Laurens offered to drive me over to the easiest spot for them, Box Canyon.

Five-striped Sparrow habitat

Five-striped Sparrows have a soft, delicate song. With my hearing aids set at their highest volume, I managed to hear the three individuals that Laurens could easily pick out, one close enough for me to hear quite well. I got a quick glimpse of that one flying past, too, but no photos. I wasn't disappointed. Even as my hearing goes south, hearing birds sing strikes as deep in my soul as seeing them does. I don't know if it's my background in music, or my childhood adventures with imitating my Grandpa's canaries and our neighborhood cardinal, but hearing birds has always been plenty good enough for me.

Laurens picked out a new mammal for me—a Harris's ground squirrel—and a reptile—a whiptail lizard. 

Harris's Ground Squirrel


That final afternoon of the birding festival was magic thanks to the sparrows, a little flock of Common Bushtits and Verdins, distant Cactus, Rock, and Canyon Wrens, and more—such splendid avian company along with other cool wildlife and a top-notch birder who seems like a genuine kindred spirit. All in all, my last birding stop in Arizona was about as perfect as it could possibly be—a story-book ending to a perfect adventure.

Laurens Halsey in the Five-striped Sparrow area

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Southeast Arizona Birding Festival

Elegant Trogon

In October 2018, I received an email from Luke Safford asking me to be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. I was thrilled beyond compare, and for the past ten months I've been floating on high with anticipation. Last week was the actual event, and it was even more wonderful than I'd anticipated.

Jonathan  Lutz (Executive Director of Tucson Audubon), Luke Safford (Festival Coordinator), me, and Kevin Karlson
Jonathan Lutz (Tucson Audubon's Executive Director), Luke Safford (the festival director who made every detail of my visit so wonderful), me, and Kevin Karlson, the Friday evening featured speaker.
I arrived in Tucson on Wednesday, August 7, about noon. A birder named Jennie MacFarland picked me up at the airport, and during our drive, she told me a bit about her work with the southwestern population of Yellow-billed Cuckoos—when I ran into a group of three loud cuckoos on our first field trip, I of course sought out Jennie to tell her all about it. Wednesday evening I got to meet lots more people from Tucson and beyond at the social hour, and then went to bed early so I could be up for my morning field trip to Walker Canyon, an infrequently birded area very close to Nogales and the Mexican border.  

I was ostensibly a field trip co-leader, but since I live in Minnesota and have birded this area of Arizona only four times before, I was actually just along for color commentary. Our real leader was Tim Helentjaris, who loves birding in out-of-the-way places few other birders check out. We were hoping for a lot of Mexican specialties, and the trip didn’t disappoint. I got my first photos of an Elegant Trogon ever when a female posed from not too terribly far away.

Elegant Trogon

I also got a great look at a Varied Bunting flying by too quickly for me to photograph, and took a few photos of a young Gray Hawk.

Gray Hawk

Right now Montezuma Quail are busy raising their chicks, making this secretive species even more focused on staying out of sight than they usually are, so we didn’t see any.

The next day, Friday, my group headed for the famous Madera Canyon, one of the most popular birding canyons in the state. This time my co-leaders were Robert Mesta and Mollee Brown. We started out trying to get some lowland desert sparrows like Rufous-winged, Black-throated, Cassin’s, and Botteri's Sparrows.

Looking for Botteri's and Cassin's Sparrows

My ears are not what they used to be, but I did manage to hear the Cassin’s and Botteri’s both. Tragically, my photos were at such a distance and the two birds look so similar that I can’t be sure which photos were which. But the four sparrows did all end up listable, and while none came in close, I did get a distant recording of Cassin's.

A Varied Bunting was more cooperative, singing persistently from an exposed perch. We weren’t very close, but I did get some marginal recordings and photos, which was thrilling because I’ve only seen this gorgeous desert species once before in my life.

Varied Bunting

When we got up to a picnic ground, we had good views and photo ops of a male trogon.

Elegant Trogon

I got photos of a second male trogon in the trees behind the Santa Rita Lodge feeding station.

Elegant Trogon

That’s also where I got lots of photos of Broad-billed Hummingbirds ...

Broad-billed Hummingbird

... and a few photos of one Rivoli’s Hummingbird, which was up until recently called the Magnificent Hummingbird. That species was split into the Talamanca Hummingbird of Central America, which I’ve seen and photographed in Costa Rica, and the Rivoli’s, which I’d seen before but never photographed in Arizona.

Rivoli's Hummingbird

While we were birding there, I got a wonderful sighting of another Minnesota birder, my friend John Richardson.

Laura and John Richardson

That night we took a field trip back to Madera for some owling, a trip special enough to warrant its own blog post and podcast.

Western Screech-Owl

I didn’t get out birding at all on Saturday, which sounds strange for what is supposed to be a birding festival, but on Saturday I had to give both a morning talk and then the evening keynote at the banquet. The evening's "Fiesta de Aves" featured a mariachi band during the reception, and I got to meet a wonderful young man named Dorian Escalante. I was thrilled later when he was given Tucson Audubon's brand new youth award, named in honor of Bill Thompson III. Dorian's is the first name on the beautiful new plaque.

The birding festival's Saturday night Fiesta de Aves featured a mariachi band!

Dorian Escalante and me

Dorian Escalante after being awarded the first youth award named for Bill Thompson III at the festival banquet.

Sunday was my final field trip, this time led with Gordon Karre, up Mt. Lemmon to the town called Summerhaven, at such an elevation that it’s cool up there even when Tucson is over 100 degrees. We had some excellent warblers—I got photos of Virginia’s, Hermit, and Olive Warblers and Painted Redstarts, and also got quick looks at Red-faced Warbler.

Virginia's Warbler

Hermit Warbler  

Olive Warbler

Painted Redstart

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds dominated at the feeding station we visited.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

We also had some very quick looks at what is now called the Blue-throated Mountain-Gem, but I didn't get photos.

My total for the four days of birding was 90 species of birds along with some really cool other animals, such as Coues’ deer, which happens to be America’s second smallest deer after the Key deer, which I saw this very year in Florida. (Both are subspecies of our good old white-tailed deer.)

Coues' White-tailed Deer

I also saw a desert cottontail, Harris’s ground squirrel, and Abert’s squirrel, along with a coachwhip lizard.

Desert Cottontail

Harris's Ground Squirrel

Abert's Squirrel


I always see birds at birding festival field trips that I would miss on my own. The main reason is the leaders are intimately familiar with their local areas and know exactly what to look and listen for. Festivals are a great initiation into a new area for learning the ins and outs of some of the best birding spots.

But the point of birding with groups is to get on each bird well enough for everyone to see, meaning you can’t get close before everyone has seen it, and at that point people are ready to move on to the next bird. Birding alone allows me to spend lots of time with a single warbler flock or other aggregation, giving me time to pick out and verify more species.

As with everything in life, it’s a trade-off. Meeting great people, spending time in the field with experienced leaders, and spending time at festival headquarters learning about important conservation efforts to ensure that all the wonderful wildlife of that region will continue to thrive well into the future are the kinds of advantages a good birding festival provides.

The Southeast Arizona Birding Festival is at the forefront of the birding festival world. It was so inspirational that now I’m planning a road trip back there with Russ for next April. Then I can do the kind of low-key independent birding I also love, spending the kind of quality time watching, recording, and photographing individual birds that the logistics of festival field trips simply don't allow. Attending birding festivals and getting out on my own are both wonderful in their own ways. I love living in the best of both worlds. 

Five-striped Sparrow habitat