Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Visit to the Sharp-tailed Grouse blind

Sharp-tailed Grouse
(Transcript of today's For the Birds program)

This week I went to the Sharp-tailed Grouse blind south of Solon Springs managed by the Friends of the Bird Sanctuary organization. It’s been four years since I’ve been there—I had to miss during the three years I was in Ithaca—and it was splendid seeing these exuberant birds with their testosterone-fueled displays again. There were over 25, more than I’d ever seen there before.

It’s still early enough in the spring season this year that the landscape appeared fairly barren—new green growth wasn’t yet evident, so the dominant color of the landscape was brown, making the orange and purplish-pink air sacs of the grouse stand out brilliantly. But those sacs are often deflated—the things that stand out in the brown grassland are the birds’ big white undertail coverts, standing out like oversized diamonds. Even during twilight we could see as many as nine of these big white fluffy flags at once.

I arrived later than I wanted this time, getting there at 5:30. I park on the road and walked the half mile or so to the blind, joyfully listening to the pitter patter of their dancing feet, with that weird lawnmower-like sound, and the sounds of the various gabbling calls they were making. I crept in slowly and quietly, but my shape was unmistakable in the twilight, and suddenly the birds flushed in a thundering roar. I felt bad about disturbing them, but got settled into the blind knowing they’d be back.

Sharp-tails are large, tasty birds without a lot of defenses. They must be eternally vigilant or become dinner for predators. I was judged to be a stealthy stalker who suddenly vanished from sight into the blind. Birds at ground level can’t see ground predators at any distance, and so the grouse couldn’t trust their eyes to be certain that I was really gone. But they have other ways of knowing where predators might be. Vesper Sparrows, each with a small territory throughout the entire lekking area, make excellent sentinels for prairie grouse—each one shuts up when disturbed, and only resumes singing when the coast is clear. These little sparrows perch atop weeds or shrubs, giving each one a broader view than the grouse get from their more limited vantage points on the ground. Sure enough, one by one the little sentinels resumed singing, and when Vesper Sparrows were singing from all directions around the display area, the grouse returned.

At 6:23, a Northern Harrier flew over the display area, and again the grouse flushed and disappeared in a thundering roar. Aerial predators are far easier for them to keep track of, and once the harrier moved on, the grouse instantly returned.

One of the grouse appeared to be lame, unable to properly stomp his feet in the enthusiastic dance that sets female grouse’s hearts aflutter. He still faced off against other males, still inflated his neck and eyebrow air sacs, and still lifted his white, fluffy tail, but this year would probably not win the hearts of any females, who consider only the most perfect, capable males as potential fathers for their children. That means most males never get to mate. They don’t seem to mind—it seems like the display and dance gives them all a lot of satisfaction whether or not they actually win the competition. Grouse seldom survive long with an injury, but I’m glad that whatever hurt this one, it still managed to partake in this spring ritual. I don’t know if heaven exists for Sharp-tailed Grouse, but if it does, I bet it’s a perfect and eternal lekking ground on a sunny April morning, filled with the exuberant sights and sounds of dancing grouse and their helpful little Vesper Sparrow buddies. Really, that could be heaven for a lot of us.

For your listening pleasure: Greater Prairie-Chickens

In 2005 I went to Crookston, Minnesota to a blind managed by The Nature Conservancy to view Northern Prairie-Chickens.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chickens: 1 minute 57 seconds A lot of funky calls as well as their booming sound.

Greater Prairie-Chickens: 34 seconds
Calls and booming

Greater Prairie-Chickens 1:43
Lots of alarm calls before the birds flush. (The people in the blind next to me were making noise and left before we were supposed to.)

Greater Prairie-Chickens 2:49 Booming and calling.

For your listening pleasure: Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse
In 2005, I got some really nice recordings of Sharp-tailed Grouse displaying in Solon Springs, Wisconsin, at the lekking area managed by Friends of the Bird Sanctuary. I posted some of my recordings:

Sharp-tailed Grouse: about one minute
First you hear their calls, and then they start dancing.

Sharp-tailed Grouse: 26 seconds
Lots of dancing, but short.

Sharp-tailed Grouse: 5 minutes 48 seconds You can hear a distant train as well as over five minutes of unadulterated Sharp-tailed Grouse displays.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Bird hike to Wisconsin Point

Bohemian Waxwing
Here's the list of our Earth Day hike from eBird:

Location: Wisconsin Point--First parking lot
Observation date: 4/24/11
Notes: It was surprisingly quiet for a gorgeous day this time of year. Not that many ducks and hardly any sparrows or warblers and no thrushes that we detected.
Number of species: 34
Yellow-rumped Warbler

Canada Goose - Branta canadensis 10
American Wigeon - Anas americana 4
Mallard - Anas platyrhynchos 8
Green-winged Teal - Anas crecca 6
Ring-necked Duck - Aythya collaris 4
Greater Scaup - Aythya marila 20
Bufflehead - Bucephala albeola 2
Common Goldeneye - Bucephala clangula 8
Common Merganser - Mergus merganser 6
Red-breasted Merganser - Mergus serrator 8
Common Loon - Gavia immer 1
Double-crested Cormorant - Phalacrocorax auritus 8
American White Pelican - Pelecanus erythrorhynchos 12
Turkey Vulture - Cathartes aura 4
Osprey - Pandion haliaetus 1
Bald Eagle - Haliaeetus leucocephalus 6
Sharp-shinned Hawk - Accipiter striatus 2
Ring-billed Gull - Larus delawarensis 100
Herring Gull - Larus argentatus 200
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker - Sphyrapicus varius 1
Downy Woodpecker - Picoides pubescens 1
Hairy Woodpecker - Picoides villosus 1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) - Colaptes auratus [auratus Group] 25
American Crow - Corvus brachyrhynchos 4
Tree Swallow - Tachycineta bicolor 2
Black-capped Chickadee - Poecile atricapillus 10
American Robin - Turdus migratorius 6
Bohemian Waxwing - Bombycilla garrulus 2
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) - Dendroica coronata coronata 6
Song Sparrow - Melospiza melodia 8
Dark-eyed Junco - Junco hyemalis 2
Red-winged Blackbird - Agelaius phoeniceus 20
Common Grackle - Quiscalus quiscula 6
Brown-headed Cowbird - Molothrus ater 1
Double-crested Corrmorant

Song Sparrow

Ring-billed Gull

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Fox Sparrow

Fox Sparrow detail(Today's radio program: listen here.)
Every day for about a week, I’ve been getting emails from people asking me to identify an unfamiliar bird that looks like a huge sparrow but doesn’t seem to be a Red-winged Blackbird. Nowadays, most of these requests don’t end with a description—they actually contain a digital photograph, making my job much easier, and this time everyone supplied photos. And in every case, the bird they were asking about was a Fox Sparrow.

I get dozens to hundreds of Fox Sparrows in my backyard every April. Some of my most vivid memories of April blizzards are of the Fox Sparrows filling my yard with song after the wind dies down. Fox Sparrows are shy birds, staying in or close to thick ground cover, and are usually among the first birds to fly away on our approach or if we rustle a curtain while gawking at them out the window. At that point, some are misidentified as Hermit Thrushes because the two species share a very distinctive rusty tail, especially conspicuous as they fly away. But if you have any look at all, you’ll notice the streaked back on the sparrow, different from the soft grayish brown back of the thrush.

There are four distinctive races of Fox Sparrows. The ones we think of as Eastern Fox Sparrows nest in the northern boreal zone up at Hudson Bay and in Labrador all the way across northern Canada into northern Alaska. These are the prettiest, combining rich rusty with soft gray plumage, and a pure white underside heavily streaked with a large central spot. One western race breeds throughout the Pacific coastal region from Alaska down to southern California, another breeds in the Rocky Mountains from Canada into Montana and Idaho, and another mostly in the Sierra Nevadas. They migrate through the Midwest every spring. As I noted, they visit my yard every year, but this year’s weather has brought an exceptional number to even feeding stations that don’t specifically cater to sparrows, so a large number of people are noticing them for the first time.

Fox Sparrows are huge compared to most of their relatives, especially the juncos that arrive at the same time in late March or April. Many sparrows scratch the ground to expose seeds and insects—Fox Sparrows do this with exceptional vigor. They seem sociable on migration, and often we can see four or five within our binoculars at the same time, but they seem to keep their backs to one another as much as possible. When I’ve been watching and observed two who suddenly end up facing each other, they often break into a squabble, with one chasing the other away.

Much as I love watching Fox Sparrows, I even more love hearing them sing. William Brewster felt the way I do. He wrote in 1883, “To my ear the prominent characteristic of its voice is richness. It expresses careless joy and exultant masculine vigor, rather than delicate shades of sentiment, and . . . is such a fervent, sensuous, and withal perfectly rounded carol that it affects the ear much as sweetmeats do the palate, and for the moment renders all other bird music dull and uninteresting by comparison.” It’s not particularly loud and certainly not irritating, but does carry well, even through many closed windows, so when Fox Sparrows are singing, I’m always at least a little aware of their presence. I spent a day in my backyard shooting photos of them from inside a wonderful camouflaged portable blind that my friend Bruce Pomeroy gave me. I have some really nice closeups on my flickr page—just go to

I spent a little time recording my Fox Sparrows today. Listen to a couple of them here.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

A real first!

American Woodcock by Laura Erickson
American Woodcock, a photo by Laura Erickson on Flickr.

For the first time in my life, I called in several woodcocks tonight! Really! And I wasn't trying to disturb them.

I was walking down my mother-in-law's driveway a little bit after sunset. It was too light for woodcock to start calling—or so I thought. But I was telling my dog Photon how we were going to hear them again tonight (we do this every year) and reminded her what they sound like. "Beep.....Beep.....Beep." And suddenly one started peenting maybe six feet away, and then another, and another. One flew right past my face, and then another did. Holy crap! I quieted right down. I mean really—woodcock respond to my saying "beep"? Who knew?!

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Soon Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids and For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide will be available through Google eBooks and Amazon Kindle!