Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, November 23, 2009

Northern Hawk Owl map

View 2009/2010 Northern Hawk Owl Map in a larger map
Mike Hendrickson is maintaining a map of all northern Hawk Owl sightings in northern Minnesota! To find it as it's updated, check out Mike's Colder by the Lake blog.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shorebird Report

Semipalmated Plover
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
The ever-wonderful Bob Russell of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service made an important post today to the MOU listserv. He writes:

I recently attended the national shorebird council meeting and Waterbird Society meeting at Cape May, New Jersey. Canadian and American shorebird biologists and land managers attended the meeting. Some findings applicable to Midwestern shorebirders are:

Piping Plover conservation in the Great Lakes is finally paying off as several pairs bred in northern Wisconsin (Apostle Islands) and in Ontario and a pair bred in northern Illinois. Red flags though continue for this population (70+ pairs) with birds lost to botulism and some killed by Merlins which are moving south as a breeding bird in the Sleeping Bear Dunes region of Michigan. Some avian and mammalian predators along the Atlantic coast now are keying in on the cages used to protect the nesting plovers, causing some rethinking on how to avoid attracting predators. Several U of MN folks (current and former students and faculty) are leading the effort in understanding this species in the Northern Great Plains and Great Lakes.

Several papers highlighted Semipalmated Sandpipers (SESA) which have severely decreased in the Bay of Fundy staging area (likely due to a dike across the upper bay that destroyed tidal flow and their chief food source) and northern South American wintering areas with heavy hunting pressure in Guyana and Surinam where the local version of "birding" is to go out with long wires on Sunday and whip them up and down into a flock of shorebirds, killing many in the process. This is not done by impoverished folks for subsistence but by teenagers and families that often arrive at the site in rather well-off SUVs, making a day of it at the beach (mudflat). Several hundred thousand shorebirds may be harvested in this manner. Aerial surveys conducted in Feb, 1982 revealed 1,957,163 shorebirds in coastal northern South America and only 403,959 in Dec, 2008 over the same area. Eastern arctic Semi Sands are longer billed than western arctic birds, substantially so in many cases, and these are the ones showing the greatest population decline. Intense surveys of western arctic Semi Sands (short-billed birds) showed steady or increasing populations. Most Midwestern migrant SESA are of the short-billed populations with
long-billed birds primarily migrating south along the Atlantic coasts.

Several Marbled Godwits (MAGO) that breed on Akimiski Island, James Bay, were fitted with satellite collars and to the surprise of everyone headed southwest (some over Duluth!) and ended up wintering on the Sea of Cortez in Sonora or Baja California, Mexico. MAGOs were also banded last winter in Georgia and most of them flew to the northern Great Plains. I don't believe those results have been published yet so I'll wait on reporting the details.

Researchers at the The Center for Conservation Biology (Virginia) have been banding whimbrels at Virginia coastal staging areas. Many of these birds were recorded flying by Toronto in late May with several flying to breeding areas in the western Hudson Bay lowlands and a couple continuing on NW to the MacKenzie delta. Give pause for reflection on these superb flyers when you see one on the rocks of Grand Marais next May. Several birds returned back to Virginia in the fall, then on to Antilles and northern South America for wintering.

There was also discussion on the effects of climate change upon shorebirds. Many breeding birds in the vicinity of Hudson Bay were thought to have failed due to the cold early summer. No Little Gulls at all were known to have fledged near Churchill. Productivity in other parts of Alaska and the western Arctic was thought to be normal. Some folks noted increased shrub production and areal coverage in the Arctic which might be affecting tundra species like American Golden-plover.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Operation Migration!

Operation Migration!
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
I've been keeping track of this year's Whooping Crane migration every morning on the Operation Migration website. But now that I'm a member, I also get their In Formation magazine. And this issue happens to have an article I wrote, about the differences (including but far beyond identification) between cranes and herons.

When people are in so much trouble economically, it's ever so essential to spend our limited charity dollars most carefully. In the past few years, OM has had increasing difficulties with weather--both during the fall migration when the birds follow the Ultralight and then in the breeding season, when the breeding pairs of these birds have been beset with problems from black flies. As far as I can tell, this ambitious project really is this amazing endangered species' best hope of establishing a wild population outside the Canada/Texas group, which lost a record number of birds this year because of bad conditions on the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge last winter. But Operation Migration is really working--after their first flight behind the Ultralight, these birds make the return journey to Wisconsin and all subsequent migrations entirely on their own, pair up, and breed as if they were wild--exactly the way it was hoped they would. A few "normal" summers again and they should be producing young regularly.

Supporting Operation Migration to ensure there will be enough birds to make a second population sustainable is a really good use of $50. You get In Formation magazine and the satisfaction of knowing you're supporting an extremely worthwhile non-profit organization.

Even if you can't afford a membership right now, check out the Operation Migration Field Journal every day to see where the cranes are and how the migration is going.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sax-Zim BIrding Festival!

Northern Hawk Owl
Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
Hey--don't forget the Sax-Zim Birding Festival in Meadowlands, MN, from February 12-14, 2010. There's no better way to celebrate Valentine's Day than taking the person you love to see the birds that you love. February is when Great Horned Owls in this neck of the woods are feeling romantic, too.

This year a lot of Northern Hawk-Owls are already being seen in northern Minnesota, so the festival is probably going to be VERY successful!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Newly arrived!

Laura's new book
Originally uploaded by jjg976
One of my friends posted this on her flickr site! Hey--I'd love it if anyone who has it would take a photo of themselves holding it!!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hunting Essay

Originally uploaded by Laura Erickson
I wrote this in 1999, when my local grocery store, Loop SuperValu, still existed and Mourning Doves weren't yet legal game birds in Minnesota. It's somehow been "found" and picked up on a couple of hunting websites this fall. My favorite said, "I clicked the link thinking, oh great, so pansy, liberal, diatribe about protecting her poor, precious, defenseless birds... but was pleasantly surprised by her candid, forthright thoughts on our beloved passion." I still don't know what I really think about hunting.

About Hunting - Laura Erickson

I hate death. I hate that people I love have died. I hate that animals I love have died. I hate that everyone I know will one day be dead. I hate that animal life takes its energy from death. The extinguished lives that sustain animals are sometimes plant, sometimes animal, and sometimes both, but the bottom line is always death. On this planet, even the most exquisite orchids take root in the foul putrescence of decay. The only animals that don't sap energy from dead bodies are parasites who sap energy from living ones, often killing them in the process.

The reason I hate death so much is that I love life so much. And herein lies the contradiction. I love the gentle goldfinch who lives almost entirely on seeds. From the perspective of the animal kingdom, this vegan lifestyle seems blameless. But from the perspective of the plant kingdom, the goldfinch is a ruthless abortionist untimely ripping tiny embryos from their flowery womb, denying them their birthright, ensuring that they will never feel the sun's life-sustaining rays. I love the soft-spoken nighthawk and bluebird, though tiny insects consider both to be vicious serial killers.

Every creature on this planet exists at the expense of others. Turkey vultures and carrion beetles and many maggots politely wait for animals to die of other causes before they partake of their bodies, but most animals are too vulnerable to disease organisms to risk scavenging except on fresh roadkills. Most meat-eaters do their own killing. A few steal fresh carcasses, or chunks of them, from predators, and many humans and ants appoint farmers and butchers from within our ranks to do our dirty work, but no matter what our station in life, from aphids to peregrine falcons, earthworms to human beings, the price of sustaining a body on this lovely planet is to leach the energy from other bodies, be they cauliflower or cattle.

I'm a scavenger. I limit my killing to mosquitoes and wood ticks--every other unwelcome visitor to my house or my skin, from spiders to deer mice, gets shooed away or tenderly taken outdoors and released. I understand the fact of death and derive my physical being from it, but it's too sad for me to look directly at it.

For me, predators are the most magnificently tragic heroes in earth's living drama. Of all the creatures on earth, they are the ones who face death with eyes wide open, killing with claw and teeth or talon and beak to maintain their life force. They don't celebrate death, they thrive on it until they succumb to it. They didn't choose their fate, and they don't shrink from it. Hawks and owls grab their vital vittles at high velocity, plunging talons into a still-beating heart and tasting blood before it even slows its course through veins and arteries, risking the probability that their quarry will fight back. They grab life with grace and gusto and guts, and seemingly take pleasure from outwitting, out-lasting, and out-fighting their prey. During migration, merlins and sharp-shinned hawks even dive-bomb enormous eagles and red-tails, playfully reducing grim life-and-death struggles into a game.

We humans can't remove ourselves from death, but we do our best to harness the risks of life. I pick up my chicken carcasses at Loop SuperValu, where they are fresh and guaranteed not to fight back. My brother hunts waterfowl, pheasants, and big game. But he isn't much more at risk in the vast Dakota back country where he spends weeks each autumn than I am in a busy Superior Street parking lot. Ironically, the two greatest dangers my brother faces while hunting are from his own heart seizing up or from other human hunters. He has a comfortable truck with a topper that shelters him from the elements, and he stands a safe distance from his quarry when he fires his shotgun. No way would, or indeed could, he bring down a deer with his teeth and nails, risking a kick in the spleen or to the skull. If he were quick enough and smart enough to grab a wild wood duck with his bare hands, I'm not sure he'd have the heart to break its neck. That gun holds him at a safe distance emotionally as well as physically.

At the end of the day, whether he's bagged his limit or come up dry, my brother stops at a grocery store or restaurant for dinner. He's hardly hunting to sustain his own life. Dead ducks are too messy to deal with at a campsite so he pops them in a cooler to deal with later, and he wouldn't dream of eating a deer until a butcher converted it into tasty sausages and parasite-free steaks. Since he doesn't particularly like venison, he gives most away, sometimes keeping the head to hang up as a wall ornament. His house is decorated with stuffed duck carcasses, too--a nuisance for his wife to dust, but beautiful in a Norman Bates kind of way. Unlike Norman Bates, my brother is not psychotic, nor is he fascinated with death and decay. He's simply a hunter--hardly a natural predator with his state-of-the-art weapons and clothing, but somehow responding to an urge as natural and as deep in his bones as the hunting urge of a hawk or owl. Can I claim moral superiority as a scavenger and quasi-vegetarian? Nope. We're simply two different kinds of creatures with different approaches to the life-and-death struggle that is demanded of every life on earth. We're all in this together.

Federal and state governments regulate hunting both to ensure that vulnerable wildlife populations will thrive for future generations and to protect species that hold unique and special places in our collective hearts and imaginations. That is the compelling reason why Minnesota and Wisconsin currently prohibit hunting of birds of prey, sandhill cranes, mourning doves, hummingbirds, songbirds, etc. Even with these safeguards I will never hunt, just as I'll never chop off a chicken's head. It's not in my nature. But I don't begrudge my brother the thrill and joy he takes from pretending he's a natural predator, as long as he limits his hunting to legal game species, treats their bodies with respect, and consumes or uses their bodies to support his own well-being. His desire to hunt is based on emotions as powerful and deeply-felt as my desire to avoid hunting, and I can hardly deny him the same thrills and pleasures I accept and even affirm in a peregrine falcon.

Are hunters capable of compassion? When food is scarce, a mother hawk or owl will sit by placidly as her bigger young kill and eat the smallest. Life or death are the alternatives, and the tiniest body may well provide the nourishment her larger ones need to stave off their own deaths. Yet that same mother, in the face of her own hunger, feeds and preens her tiniest, weakest babies with a tenderness that mirrors the gentlest, most nurturing human mother's.

In a well-documented case in 1922, a screech owl who twice lost her own brood in a single season adopted a nestful of baby flickers, and even tried to feed them pieces of a bird. She frequently incubated them, gently sharing her vital warmth with creatures that would normally be her prey. This ruthless predator allowed their real parents to care for them too, unmolested and without harassment. What, if anything, passed through her mind? Perhaps the same thing that would pass through my brother's mind if he suddenly found himself eye-to-eye with an orphaned fawn. I know my brother. I know that this SWAT-trained former Vietnam soldier, who has probably killed more deer than I've seen in my life, would bottle-feed a fawn with the same tenderness that I would, nurturing it until it was capable of living on its own, and then he would release it in a refuge where it could live out its days safe from hunting. A contradiction? Of course. That's life.