Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Disapproving rabbit not quite so disapproving

The ever-effervescent Bird Chick (Sharon Stiteler) writes, "Even the most disapproving of rabbits approve of your book!"

Happy readers

I love that there are some kids who love my book! Well, Jane Hatzinger, in this photo, isn't my sixth grade student anymore, but she once was, and even without my power to grade her tests and papers hanging over her, she still was willing to pose with my book! And nowadays she's introducing birds to her own sixth grade students.I think of all the nice reviews and kind words a select but lovely cadre of people have sent about my book, my most treasured are from this young man, Blaize, who introduced me to his fellow fourth graders at a school assembly this year as "the author of the BEST book ever written." He was written about in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, archived here.
I'm collecting photos of people willing to hold my book up and smile or give it a thumbs up. There's no advertising budget whatsoever for trying to get the word out, so I'm scrambling for ideas. It would be sort of cool to actually make a little income from the book, but my real interest, as it was in writing the book in the first place, is making people aware of all the ways that human activities harm birds so we can be more mindful, and take the little actions that aren't too big of a hardship for each of us but can cumulatively make a huge difference for the chickadees, falcons, prairie chickens, warblers, eagles (including Stephen Jr), and other avian friends among us.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Hawk Ridge Sparrows

I love Lincoln's Sparrows! And there were so many adult white-striped White-throated Sparrows at Hawk Ridge yesterday that we heard a surprising number of songs. It was too busy with people for me to get really close to the feeding station, so I didn't get any great photos, but considering how few Lincoln's Sparrow photos I had before yesterday, I'm very satisfied with the day.

Just another day at Hawk Ridge

I got to serve as "emergency auxiliary backup hawk count interpreter" yesterday at Hawk Ridge, and it was a splendid day. The hawks were flying high, probably wanting to get the heck out of here before today's rain started falling, so few dropped down to the banding station, but of the six birds that did get trapped, one was a Northern Goshawk and one a Peregrine Falcon of the northern tundrius subspecies.

Julie O'Connor was adorable showing that bird off! She spends her summers showing thousands of Duluthians and visitors the downtown Peregrine family for the "Peregrine Watch!" program. When you spend as much time as Julie does watching tiny nestlings day after day, seeing them looking up and down at the big world when they first toddle to the edge of the nest box, then start flapping their wings and sometimes running along the ledge in a most ungainly manner, you can't help but get emotionally invested. It's heart-stopping when they make their first awkward flights--not so much the being in the air as the landing. And then voila! They're hunting downtown, then disappearing for long stretches--and suddenly it's hawk migration time and one baby who grew up way far north on the tundra comes down to Hawk Ridge and who but Julie gets to hold it and show it off for the crowd? Her joy was contagious.

I got to stand next to the counters, Karl and Nick. I was in mid-sentence talking to the crowd when Karl called out a Boreal Chickadee! It was calling, and what a thrill to hear--they sound like a Black-capped Chickadee with a terminal disease, with a wheezy "chickadee" that sounds like it's their last gasp.

Karl also pointed out a flock of geese winging by which I would have just ticked off as mostly Canadas with one lone Snow Goose. But noooooooooo-- Karl's sharp, experienced eyes caught the short necks and tiny stub bills on the darker geese. These were Cackling Geese and one Ross's Goose!

A family of Sandhill Cranes flew by, too, along with lots of Yellow-rumped Warblers tsking like annoyed math teachers and a couple of Palm Warblers tsking like annoyed music teachers.

We didn't notice any hummingbirds. The seed on the rocks attracted LOTS of White-throated Sparrows, with many more adults than have been there recently, and also at least one White-crowned Sparrow and one Lincoln's Sparrow. I took photos with my digiscoping camera which I'll post later.
Julie shows off the goshawk and then it's released.

In the blink of an eye

Photon had a jolly time, but stayed in the shade.

Nick (who graciously let me take over his responsibilities for the day as he counted)

The pièce de résistance

Cubbies make the playoffs!

The Cubs made the playoffs!!!!!

I had a dream that the Cubs made the series, playing the Red Sox. The Cubs won even as the Red Sox made a splendid showing. I could feel my grandpa's joy somewhere out there. And the earth continued to revolve in its orbit and the sun did not fall from the sky.

Then I woke up.

My Cubbies

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Tickbirds make The Onion

Rhino, Tickbird Stuck In Dead-End Symbiotic Relationship

The Onion

Rhino, Tickbird Stuck In Dead-End Symbiotic Relationship

POLOKWANE, SOUTH AFRICA—"We just go through the motions and there's hardly any communication. I get on top and take the parasites off while he just lays there," the tickbird said.

C'mon over to Hawk Ridge!

I get to play emergency auxiliary backup count interpreter at Hawk Ridge tomorrow. There are still plenty of Broad-wings passing through (today the count was nearly 3500!) and tomorrow's winds are going to be perfect--light from the west. So come on over and enjoy the spectacle! And say hi!

Of mangos and Iraq

I took this photo in Costa Rica with a group of Wisconsin birders in 2002. I bet a lot of those same birders have gone to Beloit in the past week or so, to see that same species. There's a real thrill when a bird turns up in an unexpected out-of-range place. It's partly the delight of surprise--a mango in Wisconsin?! And it's a mystery. What prompts a tropical bird to suddenly wander so far from home? How could it suddenly appear in Wisconsin when it hadn't been reported once anywhere else after it left the tropics? Such an unexpected vagrant gives us a feeling of a genuine miracle, right there in Beloit.

The news passes like electricity through the birding community. Everyone naturally wants to see it--by definition, birders want to experience birds first hand, and to see such a rarity so easily--well, who wouldn't want to go?! Of course, there's a much greater feeling of accomplishment for a birder to be the one who discovers a rarity himself or herself, but chasing someone else's discovery provides the exact same boost to one's state checklist and for many in this case, lifelist. And there's a genuinely sad feeling of being left behind when everyone else rushes off to see a rare bird when we can't join in the fun.

So for a birder to bring up the subject of squandering natural resources in the face of so much joy and fun is...well, what kind of person would do that? A spoilsport? A crank? A supercilious preacher? The boring grownup squelching the fun of the partying kids? Al Gore vs. George W. Bush? Holier-than-thou? One comment on a previous blog entry said people like this, "like to stereotype listers as insensitive people who do not care about habitat or other concerns with birds. I prefer to not to judge listers and its not any of my business what they do with their hard earn money or how they should spend it." Of course, that same post stereotyped ardent conservationists. We've developed an "us vs. them" mentality within our own small ranks as birders.

I've been watching Ken Burns's series The War this week. During that war, Americans were all making major sacrifices--giving up many kinds of food, limiting their driving, saving cans and fat and other products to recycle for the war effort. At that time of privation, if people chased a rare bird they would be shunned by their community, especially if they made a huge, exultant thing of it. America was emerging from the Great Depression when the war started, so maybe it didn't feel like people were giving up very much when so recently they hadn't had many of those things anyway. And there certainly was an atmosphere of giving up things for a noble purpose, as they were being bombarded with news every day that friends and neighbors and brothers and sons had been wounded or killed. And because everyone sacrificed and felt that unified purpose, we decisively won that war, defeating both the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, in less than five years. Imagine that.

Right now most of us Americans and virtually all of us American birders are no longer used to privation. Even as we hear news of friends and neighbors and, for some of us, brothers and sisters and sons and daughters dying in the current war, we are so accustomed to the high levels of consumption that have become a hallmark of America that there is a genuine and heartfelt cry of outrage when people suggest that we stop and think about how much we are consuming. It's especially ironic because as even prominent supporters of the war have now admitted, we are only engaged in this war because of the limited supplies of the very natural resource that we're squandering.

Imagining the natural resources being burned up in every flight taking our men and women to Iraq makes the travels of a few dozen birders to Beloit, Wisconsin, seem pretty paltry. But I wonder--during World War II, the almost universal national will was to support our soldiers in every way possible. Saving bacon grease. Rationing fabric and food items. And saving gas.

We are at war right this moment. We aren't quite doing the math in this war the way we did in that war or in Korea or Vietnam. After a battle, the military once reported to the news the number of casualties. Now we hear the numbers of the soldiers who died but not unless we search hard can we unearth the numbers of the soldiers who have lost limbs, eyes, chunks of brain. We have a dangerously reduced perception of the sacrifices our soldiers are making. And instead of sacrificing together to win a noble cause, indeed, as if to underline the fact that at root, this war is for no noble cause at all, we're being encouraged to keep shopping, keep consuming, keep burning up the natural resources that our men and women's blood is being spilled for.

I'm not going to go into the issues of environmental degradation that directly affect birds as well as humans when we extract oil, when we transport it (sign up for a Google News Alert for oil spills if you don't think they're happening almost every day), when we refine it, and finally when we burn it, contributing to pollution and global warming. We feel we are entitled to burn as much as we can afford. Burn, baby, burn. Our consumption of oil is somehow so rooted to our national identity that, ironically, for the most part the people who most support this war are the ones who most conspicuously squander oil. The very people who most stridently want to dictate what individual Americans can do in our own bedrooms whine about being preached to when it comes to conserving the one natural resource at the heart of this ugly, ever-lasting war and at the root of the global warming that will, unchecked, destroy our coastal cities, wipe out species that we treasure, and change the course of world history.

I don't care if you chase the mango. It's a lovely bird, and as out-of-place in Wisconsin as an environmentalist is at a Hummer dealership. But the America I'm seeing in The War was not a place where people got shouted down for even mentioning the idea of sacrifice for a larger purpose and the greater good. If we want this war to end the way that one did with the good guys triumphing, maybe we should start acting like the good guys again.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Stephen Colbert, A loon is not a duck!

Oh, dear. Tonight Stephen Colbert was expressing concern about the fact that the Canadian dollar is worth more than the American dollar right now, and he pulled out a Canadian dollar coin, criticizing the "duck" on the face. He apparently needs more bird information than simply instructions on how to explain about the birds and the bees to that young eagle who is his adopted son. Stephen may be gutly, eneagled, good, and not just a true American hero--he IS America. But he's no ornithologist.

By the way, his book, which isn't even out yet, I Am America (and So Can You) is #85 on Amazon, a full FOUR orders of magnitude better selling than mine. I sure wish he'd mention my book on his show and give it the famous "Colbert bump."

And Stephen, if you're reading this, loons are even funnier than ducks. You should know that.

And, (posted on Thursday,) I now see that Stephen's book is up to #55 on Amazon. Apparently it's enjoying the not-so-famous "Erickson bump." So come on, Stephen--reciprocate!

Raging Hormones

I just came across this piece that I wrote in March, 2001.

As I write this, two hormonally-charged Pileated Woodpeckers are chiseling away at the box elder outside my window. They work in a frenzy, hacking away as woodchips fly like welders' sparks. A few weeks ago, these birds were spending their entire days feeding, far apart, but raging hormones have turned their lives completely upside down.

When I was in high school, some congressman or senator said women would never make suitable presidents because of "raging hormones." We feminists pooh-poohed him, believing firmly that both sexes were equally qualified to be president, little realizing just how much impact raging hormones could have on a presidency, and that perhaps one sex really was at a disadvantage hormonally. How could we have predicted that the last president of the 20th century would be impeached because of "raging hormones"? At the time I didn't have a clue what raging hormones even were. As a teenager, my mood swings were not hormonal--when I was gloomy or angry or euphoric, I knew it was because the situation called for gloom or anger or euphoria. When I was in love, the boy was absolutely perfect and deserving--hormones were certainly not involved. I never appreciated that component of teenage emotions until I became a junior high teacher, and hard evidence of biochemically-induced emotional upheavals was everywhere.

Like my end-of-winter Pileated Woodpeckers, my life was turned completely around in my late 20s when suddenly I needed a baby to make my life complete. The urge was so powerful I could feel my pupils dilate when I gazed at any infant. And I use the word gazed advisedly--I couldn't simply look at a baby. Thanks to those pesky hormones, inarticulate cry babies with poopy diapers who literally didn't know a hawk from a handsaw suddenly held a fascination nothing but short of a Pileated Woodpecker could have distracted me from. Hormones even performed a miracle on my body that not even the most hormonal pileated mother experiences--suddenly this domestically-impaired woman was producing nutritious milk without even a recipe! Even after I stopped doing that, hormones sustained my interest in the babies long enough for them to grow into hormonally-charged teenagers themselves, interesting and nice enough to maintain my affection even as my own hormones ebb.

Pileated Woodpeckers don't share our single, life-long hormonal cycle. Their hormones surge and ebb annually. During winter when hormones are at low tide, a Pileated confronted with a nestling would feel nothing more than detached curiosity. As hormones build during late winter and spring, suddenly it focuses all its attention on mate, nest, eggs, and nestlings. But mere weeks after it was consumed with baby care, the tide goes out and it forgets all about children for another year.

Up until recently, my hormones have done an admirable job of preparing me for the natural stages of my life, but now that I'm in my 40s, those hormones are mutinying. Rather than simply petering out, they're suddenly bursting into hair production. Not into useful hair--say, helping me to grow thick and luscious eyelashes, or giving me a mane like Andie McDowell's. No, the hairs my hormones have decided to cultivate are on my chin. Never more than two or three, and I can't see them without a magnifying mirror, but heavens! At no point in any human's life is there ever a need for chin hairs, and certainly not for a middle-aged woman! This is one matter in which birds are way ahead of us humans. You'll never see an aging pileated or chickadee, or any other bird, staring into a magnifying mirror through bifocals, tweezers in hand, uprooting tiny hairs before they become noticeable. But even in the matter of chin hairs, that senator I so despised in the 60s had it backwards. We women may get hairs growing out of our chins, but men have it even worse. When they reach their forties, their unwanted hairs start sprouting from their noses and ears! Why couldn't humans get the same annual hormonal surges pileateds do, throwing ourselves into woodworking projects for a few weeks, dealing full time with children for a couple of months, and then taking off for parts unknown the rest of the year, never draining our physical and emotional energy on nose or chin hairs? With all these raging hormones floating about sprouting hairs and destroying presidencies, maybe Americans really did make the right choice in the last election when they gave their final vote… to nobody.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Don't flush prescription medicines!

Help make sure the fish herons eat aren't contaminated with hormones or other drugs!

Here's something I should have included in my 101 Ways to Help Birds: Dispose of unused prescription meds properly. When we flush them down the toilet or wash them down the drain, they don't break down via the normal sewage treatment processes, so they work their way into natural (or increasingly unnatural)waters. Here in Duluth, our Western Lake Superior Sanitary District is hosting a free drop off, and providing information about the proper ways to dispose of old medicines. Today's Duluth News Tribune has the story. It notes:

Studies have shown surprisingly high levels of some drugs pass through sewage treatment plants and into waterways, where they also have been found in fish...

To dispose of medications at other times [than the free drop-off time], officials suggest rendering the drugs unusable, such as mixing them with a small amount of water, then wrapping them tightly and throwing them in the trash.

For more information, go to www.pca. maceuticals.cfm.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Runoff blamed for deformed frogs

Associated Press article from today:

Runoff Blamed for Jump in Deformed Frogs

WASHINGTON (AP) — The growing number of deformed frogs in recent years is caused at least partly by runoff from farming and ranching, new research indicates.

Nitrogen and phosphorous in the runoff fuel a cycle that results in a parasitic infection of tadpoles, resulting in loss of legs, extra legs or other deformities, according to researchers led by Pieter Johnson of the University of Colorado, Boulder.

Their findings are being published in this week's online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences...

Oh, my gosh! Mike McDowell holding my book!

Seek and ye shall find! Mike McDowell, world class digiscoper and a man who cares deeply about the birds he photographs is holding my book!

This photo isn't real, but boy do I wish it were:

Wanted: Photos of YOU holding my book!

When I wrote 101 Ways to Help Birds, I envisioned it as my "Rachel Carson book." I was the exact same age when it came out as she was when Silent Spring came out, and I hoped it would be an excellent resource for everyone who cares about birds to see the myriad ways our human activities are currently hurting birds and what we each can do about it. So far the book hasn't been mentioned or reviewed in many birding magazines (Birding Business, Birder's World, and Cornell's BirdScope are important exceptions), and it's doing no better than the marketing departments of two big publishers who turned it down predicted. They thought birders just aren't interested in books about conservation.

But SOME people are! Please--if you have read my book and liked it, send me a photo of you holding it. And if you possibly can, send me photos of any "top guns" holding it. And if anyone can possibly get a photo of Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert or Dave Barry or Ewan McGregor or George Clooney or Bob Balaban or Oprah Winfrey or Chandler Robbins holding it, well, I'll die a happy woman.

Also, if you can get a photo of it in an out-of-the-way, independent bookstore, I'd love that. Like if it turned up in Garrison Keillor's bookstore in the Twin Cities, or in The Tattered Cover in Denver, for instance.

(Disclaimer: Scott Weidensaul has not read my book yet, though he was kind enough to pose holding it. I sure hope he won't regret it!)


(Read the story in Salon: Condors Vs. the N.R.A.)

I attended the American Ornithologists' Union meeting in Santa Barbara in 2005, when an all-day symposium about California Condors was held. Researchers presented their studies finding conclusively that the precise chemical forms of lead found in lead-poisoned condor blood samples were the forms in bullets. There were an enormous number of papers and studies establishing that lead is the number one cause of mortality for condors, and that the situation is a genuine crisis for the species. The research was compelling.

Hunters have a long and honorable track record as conservationists. But they also have a long track record as obstructionists when their personal sport might be modified slightly to protect species. Lead shot for waterfowl hunting was banned in the US only after a long and bitter battle, even though that shot was not just poisoning Bald Eagles and other scavengers feeding on crippled ducks--it was poisoning the waterfowl resource itself when spent shot rained down on wetlands for ducks, geese and swans to pick up as grit. Hunter paranoia was at the forefront then (they kept claiming that banning lead shot for waterfowl hunting was the first step to banning hunting altogether), and it's at the forefront now.

I hope Arnold Schwartzenegger lives up to the reputation he's earned as a conservationist. I also wish more hunters would rise to the challenge of living up to their own reputation as conservationists. As the number of hunters steadily decreases, based on declining numbers of Duck Stamps sold each year, sportsmen will become an increasingly beleaguered minority. It will be increasingly difficult for them to defend their sport if they squander so much of their resources and reputation on fighting this kind of battle, in which ALL the scientific evidence is against them.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Two late hummingbirds!

They may not be Green-breasted Mangoes or even Rufous Hummingbirds, but right now I have TWO Ruby-throated Hummingbirds coming to my feeders! Keeping up feeders through September, October, and November does NOT entice hummingbirds to remain when they should migrate. But it does help baby Ruby-throats that fledged late or didn't have a chance to bulk up by the time they were supposed to leave, and it helps western hummingbirds that seem to be evolving to use a new wintering range in the southeastern US. I'll keep mine out (freshening the water every week, and more often when it's warm outside) until December.

Splendid day for Hawk Ridge Weekend

What a splendid day for Hawk Ridge Weekend! There were thousands of hawks seen at the Ridge, and during my early morning Park Point field trip, thousands of warblers. Most of the warblers were, of course, Yellow-rumps and Palms, but there were a smattering of others. We saw Magnolia, Nashville, Black-and-white, Orange-crowned, Bay-breasted/Blackpoll, and American Redstarts. I'll be leading another field trip there tomorrow at 7 am.

Mike Hendrickson's Lake Superior boat trip

Mike Hendrickson writes:

What a day! Nice warm temps with southwest winds. Our route was to head directly to Wisconsin Pt and bird around the Superior Entry. We then decided to head over to Gull Bluff and then head over to Lester River and then back to the dock.


- Juv. Parasitic Jaeger
- Adult Parasitic Jaeger
- Lesser Black-backed Gull in 2nd cycle Plumage
- Greater Black-backed Gull

All the Jaegers were in Wisconsin waters and we have to thank Tom Schultz of Wisconsin for calling me on my cell phone in getting me on the jaegers. We had terrific looks of the juv jaeger as it chased gulls and also had both of the jaegers resting on the lake.

Other birds:

-Peregrine Falcon
-Ruddy Turnstones
-Golden Plover
-Common Tern
-several Bonaparte's Gulls

Odd Sighting:

A medium size bat over Lake Superior when the closest land area was 4 miles away !!

Terrific day and 2-2 on finding jaegers on these Lake Superior Boat Trips. Next Trip is October 6th and I have 9 spots for those interested on going. The cost for the boat trip is $30 per birder.

If you're interested in going on the next boat trip, email Mike.

Friday, September 21, 2007

"Could have been seen" list

Mike McDowell, the world-class digiscoper, has started a new kind of list, his "could have seen, but travel dollars went to conservation instead" list.

I don't know if the sport of birding is ever going to reach a point where the majority of birders stop chasing. If it does, something will have been lost. I have many fond memories of going places searching out hotline birds--the joys of connecting with birding friends and seeing a new bird are pretty satisfying. But chasing rarities for our lists is energy intensive, and the loss of birds by automobiles is significant--something we as a group should not be contributing to. Four or five different birders called me the winter of 2004-05 after hitting a Great Gray Owl or Northern Hawk-Owl while driving around the Sax-Zim Bog. Ironically they'd killed one of the very birds they'd come north to see!

What is the correct answer to the chasing dilemma? There is none--we each have to examine our own heart and soul and figure out just how much our list means to us and just how much we want to see a Mango. No matter what, though, we need to be mindful of the costs of our hobby. Carpooling at least cuts in half or a third or fourth the energy-consumption-per-lifer costs. And whenever anyone starts a personal "could have seen, but travel dollars went to conservation instead" list, something surely will have been gained. I know I skipped chasing the Long-tailed Jaeger in western Minnesota a few weeks ago specifically because I didn't want to waste energy going out there without at least one other birder along. So now I'll take the gas money I saved and make a contribution to the American Bird Conservancy and I can start my own personal "could have seen, but travel dollars went to conservation instead list" with the Long-tailed Jaeger. I can't count the Mango on that list because right now I have too many obligations in Duluth to be able to chase it anyway.

In 101 Ways to Help Birds, I write:

63. Be mindful of your automobile use when birding

Birding is an automobile-intensive hobby. One of the greatest joys in birding is adding a new species to one’s lifelist. When a rare bird is found, birders share the word on internet listserves, telephone hotlines, and cellular phone text messages, and within minutes or hours of a discovery, other birders descend upon the site. When a rare hummingbird turned up in my own backyard in November, 2004, dozens of birders arrived within the first few days to add it to their city, county, state, and even life lists. Many of them came from the Twin Cities, over 150 miles away, and some came from even farther. And well over a thousand birders from all over the continent, and many from abroad, descended upon northern Minnesota during the owl invasion of 2004-05.

Chasing rarities does use valuable natural resources and contributes to declining air and water quality, increased traffic, and highway deaths of birds, but chasing is part of the essence of birding for many of us. Rather than casting blame on those who jump in their car at the first news of a rarity, or feeling guilty about our own chasing, it’s more productive to be mindful of the resources we use and the harms associated with those uses, and to thoughtfully reduce our negative impacts whenever possible.

Because some of the best birding locations in the country happen to be along rutted, rocky dirt roads, some birders prefer to drive in heavy duty SUVs rather than smaller vehicles that get better gas mileage. My car’s hybrid engine not only saves a lot of gas but shuts off the gas engine when I stop, making it wonderfully quiet for hearing birds. The car’s low clearance does make it a poor choice in a few circumstances, but considering how much money I save on fuel and how much I saved on car costs in the first place, I don’t mind renting when I truly need something bigger. In most cases, it’s more economical to buy a small car for day-to-day use, and rent an SUV for those occasions when its size and ruggedness would be genuinely useful.

For day-to-day birding, choosing a nearby place and exploring its nooks and crannies on foot can be even more satisfying than combing country roads and birding from the car. I “adopted” a park within walking distance of our apartment when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and tried to bird there every morning before work during spring migration and at least weekly throughout the rest of the year. By exploring a single place like this, I was able to discover a few rarities to share with my fellow birders, learned many subtle things about the behavior and habitat needs of various birds, and was even able to start recognizing individual birds by song and appearance. When we moved from Madison, I left with my “Picnic Point” list at 200 species.

While we lived in Madison, I rode the bus to work in winter and during bad weather. One bus stop was near a part of Lake Monona where the local power company’s warm water discharge kept the lake open all winter. I liked to catch an early bus to work, get a transfer and hop off at that spot, check out the ducks (and sometimes a Snowy Owl) in the area, and then take the next bus the rest of the way to work. Of course, many of the best birding areas aren’t serviced by public transportation, but when one is, why not take advantage of it?

On fine days in the warmer seasons, I rode my bicycle to work. Madison had a wonderful bike path system, and by giving myself enough time, I could enjoy lots of birds to and from work.

But on weekends, I loved going birding farther afield. Some birders treasure being alone to enjoy their field time. But if you don’t mind birding with others, and especially if you enjoy it, you improve your birding-miles-per-gallon factor by carpooling. And having at least one extra set of eyes significantly raises the number of species you see, especially on the road between stops. When a rare bird is found some distance from your town or city, carpooling will both save gas and make the excursion more enjoyable.

Other tips for reducing fuel needs while birding:

• Keep your car in tune, your oil and air filters clean, and your tires properly inflated. If your car has a faulty oxygen sensor, your gas mileage may improve as much as 40 percent when you get it repaired according to EPA figures. Using oil other than your auto manufacturer’s recommended grade can lower your fuel efficiency.
• Never carry unneeded items, especially heavy ones, in your trunk or backseat. According to EPA figures, an extra 100 pounds of cargo in the trunk reduces a typical car's fuel economy by 1-2 percent.
• Use cruise control and overdrive when appropriate.
• Aggressive driving (speeding, rapid acceleration and braking) can lower your gas mileage by 33 percent at highway speeds and 5 percent around town, according to EPA figures. After stopping for a good bird on a roadside, take off gently unless you need to merge in traffic.
• According to the EPA, a roof rack or carrier provides additional cargo space and may allow you to meet your needs with a smaller car. However, a loaded roof rack can decrease your fuel economy by 5 percent or more. Reduce aerodynamic drag and improve your fuel economy by placing items inside the trunk whenever possible.

By conscientiously doing what you can to minimize your driving and maximize your fuel economy, you can enjoy chasing rarities without squandering more natural resources than necessary.

Interesting birds-in-the-movies commentary

Probably every single birding blogger is linking to Graham Chisholm's review of 3:10 to Yuma in the Washington Post. Chisholm, Audubon California's director of conservation, knows his bird sounds from around the world, and justifiably criticizes movie makers for their sloppiness in putting impossible birds or bird sounds in movies.

Hollywood's general neglect of birds can be downright jarring. We birders are enjoying the movie as much as everyone else in the theater, and then something happens.

Take the movie "Ever After." While reveling in Drew Barrymore's alfresco lunch with the queen of France, we suddenly hear the cry of a . . . North American alder flycatcher? Brad Pitt might as well have flashed his Hanes boxers beneath a Trojan tunic.

But he does note an important exception:
Sound editors for "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" asked Cornell's Macaulay Library at the Lab of Ornithology to help track down authentic sounds of the chiffchaff, burrowing owl, European robin, song thrush, common nightingale and rook.

Tragically, Chisholm himself doesn't realize, or the Harry Potter producers didn't realize, that Burrowing Owls are not found outside the Americas. Their close relative, the Little Owl, may sound like them, but I haven't spent time in Europe to know. For a while the Nature Conservancy's Harry Potter webpage was saying that Ron's owl Pigwidgeon was a Little Owl, but the drawing in the Scholastic version of the books clearly shows an owl with feather tufts on its head, so I'm presuming Pig is a Scops Owl. (My Owls of Harry Potter page is here.)

White-crowned Sparrows

The top White-crowned Sparrow hatched this year. The one with white stripes is an adult. They both look like they're wearing lipstick.

Sharp-shinned Hawk eye color

When I was at Hawk Ridge on Wednesday, the banding station sent four Sharpies to the main overlook at once so we could compare immature and adult plumages and see how eye color changes over time. First, here's an immature. Notice how yellow his eyes are, and the vertical streaking on the breast.
The next birds are all adults, with horizontal, rustier streaking. Over time, the eyes get orange and then red. The progression isn't a precise year-by-year evolution, but as birds mature, the eyes get redder.

This bird appears to be the oldest and so the most attractive to the opposite sex.
Quite a few species show changes in plumage and/or eye color as birds age. Mockingbirds and Brown Thrashers acquire new songs throughout their lives, and the more songs a male sings, the older and more experienced he appears, making him increasingly desirable for females. These clues about age give birds of the opposite sex a better picture of just how old, and thus experienced, an individual is. In nature, the more mature a bird is, the more attractive it is to the opposite sex, because maturity = experience = greater likelihood of successfully nesting and rearing young.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Fire ants killing Black-capped Vireos in Texas

Read this from Science Daily.

Wow! Scott Weidensaul holding my book!!!

Oh, wow. I've now heard Scott Weidensaul three times--and every time he's been fabulous. I bought his new book, and started it last night. So far it's been a great overview of the very early history of birding.

The ever-effervescent Bird Chick took this photo. Don't take it as an endorsement of my book by Scott--he hasn't had a chance to check out the book yet, and who knows if he'll actually like it? But what a thrill to see him holding it!

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Hawk Ridge Day

I'm going to be up at Hawk Ridge with an Elderhostel group much of today. It'll be raining this morning a bit, but is supposed to be clearing out. Winds today are W and WNW--best case scenario! If you're up at the Ridge today, say hi!

I'll be up there until about 2 or 2:30. Then I'm cutting out and heading down to the Twin Cities for the Audubon Minnesota event to hear Scott Weidensaul. I can't wait!