Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

What makes a real conservationist?

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
You know you're a REAL conservationist when you:

1) support habitat acquisition. Buying a Duck Stamp; being a member of The Nature Conservancy; paying admission fees into parks, refuges, and other areas managed for wildlife; becoming a member of "friends" organizations supporting your favorite refuges and parks--all these count. The more you contribute, the more land conservation you're supporting.

2) never ever use lead shot, bullets, or fishing tackle anywhere in the outdoors where any wildlife lives. That includes outdoor target and skeet shooting.

3) do your level best to retrieve every inch of monofilament fishing line, and cut it up into tiny lengths before properly disposing of it.

4) drive at the slowest speed that is safe, courteous, and convenient. Collisions with cars kill a lot of birds. And oil exploration, drilling, transporting, and refining exact a heavy toll on the environment that wildlife shares with us.

5) conserve electricity. Mining for coal, gas extraction, hydroelectric dams, and wind turbines each kill a lot of birds directly and/or indirectly. The more energy we conserve, the less we need to produce.

6) if you're a landowner, delay mowing pastures and fields until August, or mid-July at the earliest, if humanly possible.

7) you support Cats Indoors.

8) let candidates for office know that conservation is a very important political issue to you.

9) let your religious leaders know that protection of wildlife and the environment is a moral and ethical imperative.

(I'll add to this as time permits. A lot of information about these and other issues is in 101 Ways to Help Birds.)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

New Spring Arrivals!

Lincoln's Sparrow
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

Thirty-six years ago yesterday, I saw my first warblers ever, in East Lansing, Michigan. On the anniversary of this auspicious event, I didn’t see a single warbler, and heard only one Yellow-rump. You’d think I’d have been disappointed, but somehow the day turned out to be a great one, bird-wise, even though I was stuck at home. My feeders have been pretty devoid of birds ever since the Fox Sparrows cleared out a couple of weeks ago, but yesterday a dozen or so Chipping Sparrows turned up with half a dozen White-throated Sparrows and one Lincoln’s Sparrow. I rushed out and set up my photography blind, but then the sky got murky. I snapped a few photos—the best ones I’ve ever taken of Lincoln’s Sparrow—but I’m sure I’ll be out there frequently in the next few weeks trying to get even better close-up photos.

While I was snapping away in the blind, I heard a Red-bellied Woodpecker in my neighbor’s trees. I saw it just before it took off so didn’t get a photo, but heard it again later in the afternoon. While I was in the blind, I also heard a House Wren singing—he’d turned up a few days ago so even though it was cool, it wasn’t surprising. But the catbird that chimed in was surprising—I hadn’t seen nor heard one yet this year up here.

All this was good news indeed, and then I glanced at my hummingbird feeder to see a gorgeous male Ruby-throated Hummingbird. An hour or two later I saw a hummingbird at the feeder again—I didn’t know whether there had been one individual or two, but then saw two chasing each other at the feeder. I set up my new camera with the remote control to try to get photos, but these guys apparently disapprove of paparazzi, so they didn’t stick around long enough for the camera to focus. Through the spring, I’m going to be trying to get some good shots freezing the wings. My new 55-mm lens has a 2.8 aperture, allowing it to shoot photos really fast, which is the only way I’ll succeed in stopping the wings. If I succeed in getting good photos, I’ll post them on, along with information about what I did to get them.

A lot of birders are thrilled when warblers return before trees are leafed out, so they can see them more easily up in the tall trees. Me—I love warblers too much to want to see them too easily. Warblers depend on the tiny caterpillars that hatch right as leaves open up. Two days ago only about half the trees in my neighborhood had discernable buds, and those weren’t very opened up. Today just about all the trees have opened up their buds, and I can even discern tiny leaves in the box elder out my window. Now when the warblers return in good numbers, they’ll have a dependable source of food.

Today is the 25th anniversary of my first For the Birds program. Back in 1986, we didn’t expect to see more than a handful of warblers in Duluth this early in May—usually the ice on Lake Superior didn’t disappear until well into May, and spring seemed to take forever to arrive. Climate change has dramatically changed this in the past decade or so, but this year follows what was the normal spring pattern in 1986. I must admit that after a long winter, I get impatient for warm weather. But once it finally appears, the flood of migrants hits us with a glorious surge all the more splendid because we waited for it.

Producing a radio show for 25 years is nothing compared to the eons songbirds have had to develop their migration systems. I hope they continue to thrive long after I’ve put my microphone down for the last time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011


Magnolia Warbler
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)
Today, May 11, 2011, is the 36th anniversary of the day I saw my first warblers. On May 11, 1975, when I was birding in the Red Cedar Woodlot at Michigan State University, a wave of warblers flitted through the woods. I was bewildered by their varied plumage, and they were so active that it seemed impossible to keep one in view long enough to pick it out in my field guide. It was a grand migration day, but trying to figure warblers out was exhausting work. At one point, I found a warbler with a brilliant yellow underside marked with black streaks that started at the throat like a necklace, and a plain bluish-blackish back without wingbars. I searched through the guide and came to the Canada Warbler, but when I looked up at the exact spot, now there perched a warbler with a brilliant yellow underside with black streaks that started at the throat like a necklace, but this time the bluish-blackish back was streaked and the wings bore very wide, white wingbars. By the time I found the picture of the Magnolia Warbler, the living version had disappeared. I’d vowed that I wouldn’t count a warbler until I saw all the field marks in the same view. Over the next two or three hours I finally managed to identify with certainty a Black-and-white Warbler, a Nashville Warbler, a Magnolia Warbler, and a Black-throated Green Warbler. On May 13, I clearly identified a brilliant Blackburnian Warbler. Although I was out virtually every day that spring, those five warblers were the only ones I managed to add to my lifelist. But the skills I built up teasing out identifications one by one grew quickly—probably also aided by the fact that I became so cosmically addicted. I spent every moment when I was outdoors watching or listening to birds, and as many moments as possible when I was indoors studying my field guides and Joseph Hickey’s book, A Guide to Bird Watching, listening to bird recordings, and poring over my field notebooks and lists. Nothing in my life had ever given me so much satisfaction as the discovery of birds. The joy of learning about them has increased over the years, with my growing skills and the growing number of species I’ve seen. But the joy and sense of accomplishment I felt for triumphing over those first five warblers still warms my soul.
Spring is arriving slowly this year. People in the Twin Cities and Madison, Wisconsin, have been enjoying days when they’ve seen over 20 warbler species, while they’re still few and far between up here. Right now my feeders have fewer birds than they’ve ever had in any May since I moved to Duluth in 1981. But at some point this week, the floodgates will open and birds will be everywhere. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Indigo Buntings and Baltimore Orioles will all be filling our trees and our feeding stations with color. And warblers will be decorating our trees like animated Christmas ornaments. I’ll be searching for at least one warbler today to mark my warbler anniversary. Then tomorrow I celebrate another anniversary. On May 12, 1986, the very first For the Birds program aired on KUMD. (MARILYN MONROE—THAT’S A QUARTER OF A CENTURY…MAKES A GIRL THINK. TONY CURTIS—ABOUT WHAT? MM—THE FUTURE!) The future of birds in the northland depends on our awareness of them and their needs. That’s why I started producing the program in the first place, and why I hope to be producing it for the next 25 years. Sometimes people have asked me why I do something that takes so much time and energy for no pay. All I need to do is remember that magical day when I saw my first warblers and the answer glows in my heart. I do it For the Birds.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A wrinkle in the space-time continuum

Red-headed Woodpecker
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

I woke up on May 1, 2011, in Chicago, where Russ and I had gone to attend our niece’s wedding. Before we drove back to Duluth, we decided to visit Harold Washington Park in the Hyde Park neighborhood in hopes of seeing Chicago’s Monk Parakeets—now that I have a really good camera, I was hoping for some really good photos, and the morning was so sunny and bright that they’d have turned out great. But the parrots don’t start nesting this early in the year, and so were somewhere else. I’ve seen them in winter near the Museum of Science and Industry, so we drove over there, too, but again no luck. Monk Parakeets are so very noisy that we’d have heard them if they were around.

Despite not being able to see the birds we’d driven all the way to the south side to see, it was a great morning. May first is always an auspicious day, filled with the promise of warblers and other migrants, and in Chicago, four hundred miles south of Duluth, this promise was warmly fulfilled. The temperature was already reaching 60, the sky was clear, and the trees were filled with opening buds or tiny leaves and plenty of warblers. Most, as expected, were Yellow-rumps, but several Yellow Warblers were in full song, and we also saw Palm and Black-and-white Warblers and a Common Yellowthroat. I got great photos of a Warbling Vireo, and a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher kept calling.

The last time Russ and I visited Millennium Park on a May morning, there were a few Red-headed Woodpeckers. I was thinking they were caught in a migrant trap along Lake Michigan, but on Sunday I saw several along the lake by the museum, and started wondering if the Chicago Lakefront doesn’t have its very own population of these splendid birds. They were calling, flying back and forth with those spectacular white wing patches glistening in the morning sun, and alighting in trees higher up than I wanted but still close enough for some pretty photographs. I saw Red-headed Woodpeckers a lot back in the 1970s when I started birding, but this species is declining over much of its former range. It’s particularly vulnerable to automobile collisions and to nest losses due to European Starlings, so it’s doubly unexpected to find a whole group of them in an area with so very many starlings and heavy traffic. But if I were to miss seeing Monk Parakeets, a group of Red-headed Woodpeckers more than made up for it.

We finally said goodbye to the woodpeckers and warblers and headed north. The wind was picking up, and by the time we made it to Goose Pond in Columbia County, where I always stop when driving this route, the wind from the northwest was fierce. Goose Pond isn’t all that big, but the water was choppy and the waterfowl few. Not only was the wind picking up, but the temperature was dropping back into the 40s By the time we reached Eau Claire, it was back down to the 30s and the landscape was brown and wintry again. They say all good things come to an end, but somehow I wasn’t expecting an entire month to disappear before it even got started. For the first time in my life, I was witnessing a wrinkle in the space-time continuum. We left Chicago on May first, but we got home to Duluth in mid-March.