Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 28, 2011

Bird Kill at West Virginia Wind Farm

(Transcript of Today's For the Birds program)

In 1970, when I was in college, we celebrated the first Earth Day. Our conservative Republican president coined the term “environmental wacko,” but during his Administration, the nation banned DDT and passed the Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Environmental Policy Act, and Endangered Species Act. This was also when OPEC, the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Companies, initiated the 1973 oil crisis. To conserve energy, Nixon lowered the speed limit to 55. We environmentalists felt optimistic, thinking the government was finally realizing how dire our dependence on oil was, and that they’d press industry to develop alternative, cleaner energy sources and to press auto and appliance manufacturers to make products more energy efficient. In 1975, the Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards, nicknamed the CAFE standards, took effect. Auto manufacturers suddenly had to consider the fuel efficiency of their fleet. But when Chrysler released its minivan, Lee Iacocca managed to persuade Congress to define the minivan as a light truck rather than a passenger vehicle. SUVs were also defined as light trucks, giving these vehicles a much higher gas consumption allowance. Hummers weren’t even required to meet the light truck standards because of their extraordinary weight, so they got away with getting only 9 to 14 miles per gallon.

The 70s was when we should have been researching alternatives for producing electricity, too. Instead, we waited until things got dire, and then started building wind farms willy nilly, without having done the necessary research to create designs that would not kill large numbers of birds or bats. We do know that tall, lighted structures attract nocturnal migrants in large numbers, and the people operating wind farms have a mandate by the Migratory Bird Act to prevent fatalities as much as possible. Yet two weeks ago, at the Laurel Mountain wind farm near Elkins, West Virginia, there was a kill of hundreds of migrating birds by the wind turbines. I learned about this on a birding listserv on October 27, and contacted the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources. I directed my call to the scientist who had confirmed the kill, and left a message, but my call was returned by someone else in the department who instructed me to contact their public relations specialist. He said although he could confirm the kill, he wasn’t at liberty to disclose how many birds were killed or what species were involved until the federal investigation was closed. A couple of birding sources gave the number as either 484 or between 500 and 600, and indicated that the kill was due to a bank of bright lights used to provide illumination at a substation—apparently these lights are supposed to be turned off at night, but were left on in exactly the cloudy, low-visibility conditions associated with most bird kills.

I’m not sure why two weeks after the incident, details are still so sketchy. The optimism I felt as a college kid seeing the government respond to critical environmental issues, and the sense that government was requiring more openness and honesty, seem to have dissipated.

Sadly, reports indicate that most of the warblers killed were Blackpolls, an endangered species in nearby Pennsylvania. The Migratory Bird Act calls for a maximum $5000 fine and a six-month jail term for each violation. This act is vigorously enforced when it comes to individuals possessing feathers or individual birds, even when the people are trying to rescue a hurt bird. I know that corporations are legally considered people now, but my prediction is that Fish and Wildlife will not issue any fines or jail sentences in this case. I’d love to be proven wrong.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Conservation Big Year: 2013?

Kirtland's Warbler
(Transcript of For the Birds for October 27, 2011)

Ever since the movie The Big Year came out, people seem more interested in the hobby of birding. I’ve been getting questions from people who went out to try and identify birds after seeing the film, and The Atlantic had a great story about a guy doing a Big Year this year. As of October 26, 2011, John Vanderpoel has seen 729 species, and is in third place in the American Birding Association’s record book. As of last year, second place is owned by Bob Ake, with 731, and it looks like Vanderpoel will for sure reach that mark. With luck, he may even reach Sandy Komito’s all-time record of 745.

I’ve never considered doing a Big Year—I just don’t have that competitive fire in my belly to want to chase birds just to see more than anyone else even if I did have the kind of money necessary. I’m a proud member of the American Birding Association even though I never submit my lists. It’s not at all that I disapprove of competitive listing. Just because I enjoy shooting baskets with my kids but never aspired to play basketball competitively doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate NBA level basketball.

I’ve been mulling over the idea of doing a different kind of Big Year that isn’t competitive at all—a Conservation Big Year. What I’d like to do is spend a year trying to see all the North American species that are endangered, threatened, or of special concern. I’d try to get photos and video of each species on its breeding, staging, and/or wintering range, and write about each species and how it’s doing and what kind of help it’s getting from federal and state agencies and conservation organizations. I’m already too booked for 2012, so this would have to happen in 2013. This would of course involve a lot of travel, which would ironically squander a lot of energy, but I’d at least try to minimize the energy used in travel. I think the ticket one needs to do a Conservation Big Year is a Duck Stamp, because so many birds, from Whooping Cranes to Black-capped Vireos, live in National Wildlife Refuges funded by Duck Stamps. The trickiest part of course would be funding, so I’d try to get speaking gigs here and there along the way.

Whooping Crane

A year-long project like this could be a thrilling adventure, getting me into a lot of important habitats all over the country. I’d try to get to as many National Wildlife Refuges as possible, because they’re such an essential part of bird conservation. I wouldn’t need to go to Attu like the guys in the movie The Big Year—the rarities that turn up there are off-course migrants from Asia, most of which are doing well in their normal ranges. But it would bring me up to Alaska, some north Atlantic islands, and the Pacific coast. I’d get to spend time with Kirtland’s Warblers in Michigan, Lesser Prairie Chickens in Oklahoma, Sage Grouse in Colorado, puffins off the coast of Maine, and California Gnatcatchers on the Pacific slope. And of course I’d be seeing plenty of other birds wherever I was, so would almost definitely see over 600 species during the year.

My Conservation Big Year wouldn’t present the same difficulties as a competitive Big Year—I wouldn’t have to race off whenever a rare bird blows in on a spring storm. I’d have 14 months to plan it out so I could be at the best places at the best times to see each species when its singing or displaying was peaking. In the coming weeks I’m going to plot out a rough itinerary and see if this kind of thing would be at all feasible. I don’t know if my plans will firm up so I can really do this, but the more I think about it, the more excited I get.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Economizing on Optics

These binoculars have seen a LOT of birds!
Chandler Robbins's binoculars. I took this photo in Guatemala in 2007. He's been using the same inexpensive binoculars for decades, putting his money toward conservation rather than optics. Excellent optics are wonderful—don't get me wrong. But prioritizing how we spend our money is getting more and more critical for the 90 percent of Americans who aren't wealthy.

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

This week people got into a testy exchange of ideas on the national birding listserv regarding what kind of binoculars to recommend to people. Most serious birders tell people to buy the very best binoculars they can afford, and in this discussion, one person said it was reasonable to spend about what you pay for a month’s rent or mortgage payment. I went to bed hungry as a little girl enough that I’m very aware that a hundred dollars is a lot of money for a lot of people. I’ve been lucky enough to have used some of the best binoculars in the world, and high-end binoculars costing over a thousand dollars really are the best, but it feels rude and presumptuous for me to tell someone that they need high-end binoculars when they can’t afford health care. Now that I haven’t worked for an optics company for four years, I’m completely out of touch with current binocular models. One that I recommended for years as the best binoculars for less than $100, the Leupold Yosemites, has new specifications and according to people I’ve talked to who have checked them out, the quality has plummeted dramatically. So I don’t even know what brands or models to recommend anymore.

But a few guidelines can help people on a serious budget to make a wise purchase. First, inexpensive pocket binoculars are virtually always a waste of money. Any objective lenses smaller than 30 or 32 millimeters, which is the second number in the normal description of binoculars, like 10x20, is not going to be able to gather enough light to give you a clear image—I’ve tested a lot of them, and they really show birds worse than using two toilet paper tubes, and I am not making this up. I was very disturbed several years ago when Audubon started sending particularly cheap binoculars out as a premium for joining—they were plastic with plastic lenses, you couldn’t adjust them for how far apart your eyes were, and looking through them actually hurt my eyes. It seemed ironic for a conservation organization to manufacture such worthless items and ship them to America from China in a container ship burning toxic bunker fuel.

Especially as more and more products, even from higher end companies, are being manufactured in China, you really can’t count on quality when you purchase anything but the most expensive binoculars. For a given amount of money, you’ll get a much better view with lower power glasses. I strongly recommend that if you’re spending less than $300 or so that you get seven power, not 10 x—for the same size binoculars, you’ll always get a brighter image and virtually always get a clearer image. And any compromises in glass grinding, alignment, or coatings will be less noticeable in lower power glasses. I usually leave my binoculars home now that I bring my camera birding, but the binoculars I do use are 6x32—they’re small, focus incredibly close for butterflies or birds at the window feeder, and have a great field of view.

Laura's new binoculars!

My first pair of binoculars was a reasonably inexpensive pair of 7x50 Bushnell Instafocuses. They were huge, but I was young and didn’t mind lugging them around—those glasses gave me the first 357 species I saw on my lifelist. I’d recommend saving up to get binoculars in the $300 range or higher if you really want the added magnification of 10-power glasses. Also, make sure the eyecups push or twist in rather than being made of cheap rubber that rolls down. I don’t make commercial endorsements, but I know several people who work at Eagle Optics outside Madison, Wisconsin, and know they are birders who really understand optics and the best choices at each price point. If you’re on a serious budget, they’re going to be very helpful in steering you toward the best affordable pair. As I learned when I began, even a fairly inexpensive pair of binoculars can bring you years of satisfaction. After you open the box and make sure they’re aligned and working, forget about second guessing yourself and get out and start using them.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Big Year: The Second Viewing

(Transcript of today's For the Birds program)

This week Russ and I went to see The Big Year for the second time, after I re-read the book. We both still thoroughly enjoyed the movie, partly because of and partly despite the differences between the movie and the real story of the 1998 Big Year that the movie was based on.

I’ve never met any of the three real birders who tried to break the all-time record of birds seen in a single calendar year, though I once did a phone interview with Greg Miller, the birder played in the movie by Jack Black. Greg told me about his using police radar to clock a Peregrine Falcon in downtown Cleveland going over 240 miles per hour. Greg served as the bird consultant during filming The Big Year. Based on accounts by birders who know them personally and from the book, Greg Miller’s father was actually a birder himself who supported Greg’s Big Year from the start, unlike Brian Dennehy’s character in the movie. In the movie there was a beautiful scene with Jack Black and Brian Dennehy looking at a Great Gray Owl. This actually happened in real life much the way the movie portrayed, except the bird was actually a Long-eared Owl. The one distressing thing about that scene was that they used an animatronic owl, especially because it would have been very easy to get high definition video of a real Great Gray Owl. One thing that Duluth audiences picked up is that in the movie, Owen Wilson searches for a Snowy Owl in the Sax-Zim Bog, when serious birders would just about always search in the Duluth Harbor for the Snowy. That real life character’s nemesis bird was a Great Gray Owl, which he never saw that year.

The boggy area around Meadowlands known as the Sax-Zim Bog is mentioned a couple of times in the movie, and Owen Wilson’s character spends Christmas Eve in Duluth, having dinner in a Chinese restaurant. Although the scene wasn’t filmed in Duluth, the man the character is based on really did spend that Christmas Eve in Duluth, eating dinner at a Chinese restaurant, the only place he could find open that night.

In the movie, Angelica Huston plays Annie Auklet, who leads tours in Monterey Bay to help birders get oceanic birds. Her character is based on a pelagic trip leader whose name is Debi Shearwater. I know Debi—she’s a wonderful woman who really did have a feud with the man the Owen Wilson character is based on. She really did change her name to Shearwater because of her love for the birds, and except for her being a blonde, Angelica Huston seems to channel her in every way. Although the man Owen Wilson’s character is based on is actually a year older than the man Steve Martin’s character is based on, the movie did an excellent job of casting, in finding actors who bring out a lot of the characters of and dynamics between the real men that year.

The real Big Year took place in 1998, and many experts think Sandy Komito’s record 745 birds will never be broken. The El Nino that year brought amazing species to Attu, the farthest Aleutian Island, which is increasingly difficult to reach. And since 9/11, increased airline security has meant that people just can’t hop a jet whenever a rare bird turns up somewhere.

Although just about every birder I’ve talked to or seen online discussing the movie gave The Big Year a thumbs up, the movie hasn’t done very well nationally. Critics are giving it only a 40% on Rotten Tomatoes, and even audiences give it only a 55%. People at Zinema2, Duluth’s wonderful downtown theater, told me that although the film took in only $700 per theater nationally this past weekend, it brought in $2200 at Zinema, so they’re keeping it at least another week. On opening night, the theater was filled—that included a lot of people from Duluth Audubon and Hawk Ridge. At this Monday night’s showing there were still 20 people in the theater—pretty respectable for a weeknight. So oddly enough, Duluth may end up not just the place to go to see rare birds, but also to see movies about going to Duluth to see rare birds.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Chance Encounter (repeated from last year)

Snow Bunting
(This is repeated from last year's For the Birds)

[I'm headed to Philadelphia for this weekend's conference, Focus on Diversity: Changing the Face of American Birding, so pulled up a rerun for today's and tomorrow's programs]

This fall [that is, fall 2010], I’ve been watching flocks of all kinds of birds, from huge groups of sparrows and juncos to this year’s unusually abundant Blue Jays. I tend to focus on groups of birds in autumn, and I think of migratory movements in terms of populations or species, not individuals. But this week I took notice of the particularity of one bird I came upon at the Port Wing marina.

Snow Bunting

This Snow Bunting had made a journey spanning a couple thousand miles to reach northern Wisconsin from his high arctic breeding grounds. His flickering white wing patches caught my eye as he picked off bugs clinging to the side of a bridge—a narrow but vertical structure far enough above the rocks that the bunting had to hover to snap them up. Most songbirds cannot hover for more than a few seconds, and by the time I got my camera focused, the little guy had dropped back down to the rocks.

Snow Bunting

Snow Buntings usually associate in flocks with other Snow Buntings and occasionally longspurs or Horned Larks. I see them most often on the stubble of farm fields long after harvest, the birds eking out their existence on waste seed and bugs. They’re especially drawn to fields after a farmer spreads manure, a veritable cornucopia of insects and semi-digested grass seeds, often steaming with warmth. Of course, the steam also carries a certain level of odor, but songbirds aren’t gifted in the olfactory department and their sensibilities not so rarified as ours, so they don’t seem to mind at all. The landscape would seem barren and desolate if not for these beautiful “snow flake” birds. When a flock of Snow Buntings feeds on the ground, those at the back fly forward to the front, making the flock appear to be rolling along. This would be beautiful enough if done by any other species, but reaches ethereal heights thanks to their flickering white wing patches.

Snow Buntings are usually very gregarious, but their flocks are like families of squabbling children. Even during the times of year when they’re not defending a territory, Snow Buntings almost continuously bicker with one another. Many flocking birds establish a hierarchy to reduce the conflicts, but Snow Buntings are too independent to submit to the rules a hierarchical society requires. Those of us who witness their skirmishes are treated to a lot of beautiful wing flashing. If we’re not paying attention, we may not catch on that the birds are fighting. So being in the presence of bickering buntings is far more pleasant than being stuck in a car with bickering children.

Snow Buntings breed in one of the harshest environments on the planet—the high Arctic. They nest under boulders in boulder fields, in cracks in large rock surfaces, or cliff faces. Temperatures in these nests can be very cold, so the buntings line their nests with thick insulating layers of feathers, mosses, and grasses.

Snow Bunting

I wanted to tease out the entire history of the Snow Bunting I was watching—he moseyed about, allowing me to take 122 photographs at close range over the course of an hour—but he wasn’t talking. He didn’t open his wings again for me, either—Snow Buntings spend most of their lives on foot. So I couldn’t verify by the size of his white wing patches that he was a male, though that is definitely the impression I got when I first saw him feeding. His cap didn’t seem quite dark enough for an adult male, but even that wasn’t definite in fresh fall plumage.

Snow Bunting

I was in Port Wing without my bird books, so I emailed my photos to my good friend Mike McDowell to see if he could figure out the bird’s age and sex. He wasn’t sure either, so he forwarded them to two top Wisconsin birders, Tom Schultz and Ryan Brady. Even though the photos show the bird very clearly, at high resolution and large size, none of us could be 100 percent certain without the bird in hand, though Ryan and Tom both had the impression of a young male, too.

Snow Bunting

This added a mysterious flair to my encounter. I’ll never know if this was his first migration or whether he’s a seasoned traveler, whether he got separated from others by accident or by choice, how he chanced to be at the Port Wing Marina exactly when I was there, or even if he was a “he” at all. And I’ll never recognize him again if I see him, alone or in a flock. It was one of those lovely brief encounters we make as we pass through this lovely little planet. I’ll always remember him—those photos turned out well enough that I’ll be referencing them for decades—but I found him far more interesting than he found me, so I’m sure the moment I moved on, he breathed a sigh of relief to have that intruder out of his face and simply moved on to the rest of his life.

Snow Bunting

Bird Feeding Primer

Pileated Woodpecker
(This is repeated from last year, podcast here.)

In autumn, a lot of people set up their old bird feeders and a lot of other people buy or build new feeders. Ever since Emily Dickinson tossed out crumbs to her sparrows, Americans have taken pleasure in feeding backyard birds. And like Emily Dickinson, the protective feelings we have toward birds are especially aroused by wintry weather.

Except for sick or injured birds that cannot leave our feeding stations, or out-of-range visitors that find themselves in habitat offering no sustenance for them, virtually every bird that visits our feeders gets most of its calories from more natural sources. People as a group are unpredictable and fickle, and even the most steadfast soul with a bird feeder might get sick or have to spend time somewhere else during winter, so birds unable to find enough natural food to survive usually migrate to where they can.

Birds really can survive perfectly well without our feeders, but they do get through the winter in better condition when they get some easy and nutritious calories every day. In one University of Wisconsin study, Black-capped Chickadees took about 21 percent of their daily calories from feeders and the rest from wild sources. That’s barely a fifth of their food, and the researchers found that when they removed feeders from a woodland where birds had been fed for the previous 25 years, chickadees quickly switched to natural food sources and survived the winter as well as chickadees that lived where no feeders had ever been placed. The researchers learned that during mild winters, survival rates between chickadees in areas with bird feeders are no higher than for chickadees living entirely without feeders, but during extremely harsh conditions, feeders did raise their survival rates.

Black-capped Chickadee closeup

A single bird feeder seldom attracts many birds, and it can take weeks or even months for birds to discover it, especially where habitat is poor. Overall, the most successful feeding stations provide a variety of feeders in different spots. Some species, such as native sparrows and doves, prefer feeding on the ground.

Mourning Doves

Some, such as Evening Grosbeaks, prefer platform feeders without roofs.

Evening Grosbeak

Some, such as chickadees and finches, don’t mind hanging feeders

Red-breasted Nuthatch

while others prefer feeders to be firmly attached to something solid.

Pine Grosbeak

People often buy bird seed mixes, reasoning that the wider variety of seed choices will lure in a wider variety of species. But the bulk of inexpensive mixes is “filler” seed that few if any birds eat. These mixes cost far less per pound than sunflower, but so much is wasted that in the long run, they’re more expensive. And wasted seed decays, fostering bacteria and fungi. Normally the best seed choices are black oil sunflower and, if you have a lot of ground-feeding sparrows and doves, white millet.

White-throated Sparrow

Finches are especially fond of nyjer seed.

American Goldfinch at nyjer seed feeder

Woodpeckers, titmice, and jays also feed on suet.

Downy Woodpecker

I never buy suet cakes that have corn or peanuts. I only buy corn or peanuts graded for human, livestock, or pet consumption—those sold for wildlife feeding don’t need to pass inspection for aflatoxins—extremely dangerous byproducts of bacteria that thrive on corn and peanuts. Corn and peanuts sold for bird feeding never carry any kind of certification guaranteeing that they are free of aflatoxins, so I don’t feed corn and buy peanuts for feeding chickadees, jays, and squirrels from the grocery store so I know they’re safe. It would be ironic indeed to imagine myself helping my backyard birds while feeding them toxic food. Bird feeding can be wonderful for the birds and for those of us who watch them, but only if we're sure we're doing it right.

Black-capped Chickadee

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

New Research on White-throated Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos

White-throated Sparrow
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

One of the abundant backyard birds in north country in October is our little White-throated Sparrow. Juncos are starting to outnumber them at feeders now, and by the time the first snow flies most of them will be further south, but these little stripe-headed guys are right now packing away almost as many seeds as their stripe-backed counterparts in the mammal world, the chipmunks.

White-throated Sparrows come in two color forms, one with bright white stripes on their heads,

and one with tan stripes.

White-throated Sparrow

Each color form makes up about 50 percent of the population, and each sex is represented by about 50 percent of each color form. Virtually 100 percent of all mated pairs include birds of opposite color as well as opposite sex—a system called negative assortative mating. Researchers find that the white-striped forms are very aggressive and territorial while the tan-striped birds are more nurturing and not particularly territorial. The human counterpart would be if Scarlett O’Hara always ended up with Ashley Wilkes while Melanie Hamilton always ended up with Rhett Butler.

All this has been known for a long time. But researchers are now finding an intriguing anomaly in White-throated Sparrow chromosomes. In mammals, the sex chromosomes X and Y match up when producing a male, and two X’s match up to produce a female; while in birds, the W and Z chromosomes match up when producing a female and two Z’s produce a male. Although our X and Y chromosomes or the W and Z chromosome counterparts in birds have very few genes in common, they match up during meiosis because they do have a small but critical area in common. In the exceptional case of White-throated Sparrows, another chromosome, Chromosome 2, acts like these sex chromosomes because of a weird phenomenon called a chromosomal inversion. The showy white-striped form birds have the heterozygous form, comparable to our male XY pairing, while the plainer tan-striped birds have the homozygous form like our female XX chromosome pairing. Scientists published a paper last week likening the Chromosome 2 situation to the sparrows having a second set of sex chromosomes, a fascinating possibility for a species with its unique assortative mating system. I think the media made it sound weirder and more sex-charged than it is, but it’s still interesting.

In another recent study, scientists found that male juncos have two spring songs. Birds in an area apparently sort out whose land is whose via their loud territorial song, and then they pretty much ignore each other when singing that tune. But each male also has a softer, more melodic song used to attract a mate. And juncos are very suspicious of every male singing that song and get far more aggressive when they hear it. Apparently they’re more concerned about defending their mate than their property.

Dark-eyed Junco

When the October wind is rattling my windows and the leaves are piling up, my juncoes are not singing at all, and sparrow genes and chromosomes don’t interest me. These sturdy little beings scratching out their meals under my feeders are a warm and gentle reminder that winter is headed our way. Even as the thought makes me shiver, these warm little birds remind me that even tiny little bodies can survive just about anything Mother Nature can dish out. Thoreau described juncos as “Leaden skies above, snow beneath,” and when a flock takes off, their delicate white tail streamers moving in a flurry like so many snowflakes, I can’t help but remember just how beautiful snow can be.

Dark-eyed Junco

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Movie Review: The Big Year

I wrote two For the Birds scripts about this movie, the first (For the Birds, October 18) to explain what a "Big Year" is, and the second (For the Birds, October 19) to review the movie. Following are both scripts: insert linkEver since Christopher Guest made Best in Show, I’ve longed for his troupe to make a movie about competitive birding. I thought the perfect vehicle would be a movie about a Big Day—probably the World Series of Birding, which takes place in New Jersey every year. The movie would show the teams preparing and then getting through the day. I cringe at the thought of Eugene Levy using his broad physical humor to make fun of a particularly nerdy type of birder, mainly because I know one nerdy birder that he could do a spot-on imitation of. There’d be the cutthroat competitors who keep every sighting close to their vest and are invariably among the winners, and the teams who share tips about every rarity with anyone they encounter and invariably never win. There’d be the teams who hear a single note or sight a bird for barely a second and race on—one of these teams is invariably the winner—and teams who stop and admire too many beautiful birds for too long—invariably not among the winners. It would have been so fun to see what kinds of birders Guest, Levy, Bob Balaban, Parker Posey, Michael Hitchcock, Catherine O’Hara, Michael McKean, John Michael Higgens, and the rest came up with.   

My fantasy movie was never realized, but something even better is in theaters right now, in the form of The Big Year. Based on the book by Mark Obmascik, this movie captures the essence of three birders roughly based on three real men who, when they each independently realized that El Nino was likely to produce conditions for an amazing array of rarities to turn up in 1998, set out to see the most species ever recorded in a single year in North America.   

I’ll talk specifically about the movie tomorrow, but first want to provide listeners with a bit of history about what Big Years are all about. Big Years are said to have originated in a roundabout way by Roger Tory Peterson and British ornithologist James Fisher. Peterson wanted to show off America’s fabulous birdlife to his friend, and so in April 1953, the two men embarked on a 100-day, 30,000-mile road trip around the continent recounted in the book Wild America. Thanks to that stupendous experience, Peterson tallied a total of 572 species for 1953. But he had not been the first to set a record for the number of species seen in North America in a single year. Guy Emerson, a businessman, timed his business trips to coincide with ideal times for birding in various areas of the U.S. In 1939, he set a personal record of 497. This was the number Peterson set out to beat in 1953 and kept track of throughout his adventure with Fisher, apparently not realizing that in 1952, Bob Smart had already set a new record of 510 species [according to Wikipedia. According to The Pettingell Book of Birding Records, Smart saw 515.]   

Peterson beat that record substantially, but his 572 only stood for three years. In 1956, a 25-year-old Englishman named Stuart Keith followed Peterson and Fisher’s route and tallied 598. This record stood for 15 years. In 1969, the American Birding Association was born. Its inaugural edition of Birding magazine set ground rules for competitive birding in North America, defining the official ABA area as the 49 continental states and Canada, excluding Baja California, which Peterson and Fisher had spent time in.  

In 1971, 18-year-old Ted Parker, in his last year of high school, managed to get 626 species all within the ABA area, which he announced in the 1972 issue of Birding. That was like throwing down the gauntlet. In 1973, two different birders broke his record. Floyd Murdoch got 669 in the ABA area. Kenn Kaufman got a total of 671, but his number included 5 species seen only in Baja California—his ABA list was 666. Kaufman recounted the adventure in an extraordinary book, Kingbird Highway, which is as much a coming-of-age memoir as a birding adventure book.   

Murdoch’s ABA area record was broken by James Vardaman, who saw 699 in 1979. That record was toppled four years later by former Duluth doctor Benton Basham, who tallied 710 in 1983, including a Boreal Owl along the Gunflint Trail. Basham had asked Kim Eckert to take him to see one, and Kim invited me and a couple of other lucky birders along. I’ll never forget that night—northern lights were streaming, an American Woodcock was alighting on the road right near us during interludes in his skydance, and Boreal Owl calls rang out, a thrilling sound for all of us, and filling me with the kind of joy Basham must have felt when he topped 700.   

In 1987, Sandy Komito broke that record with 721. He broke his own record with 745 in 1998—a record that still stands, and the feat recounted in Obmascik’s book, The Big Year. Tomorrow I’ll talk about the movie.  
A couple of years ago, news came out that Peter Frankel, who directed The Devil Wears Prada and Marley and Me, was going to direct a movie about Mark Obmascik’s book, The Big Year. Birders were immediately intrigued yet scared, many assuming that of course the movie would ridicule birdwatching. When the actors who would play the lead characters were announced, many birders got more scared—with Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson starring, the movie was clearly intended to be a comedy. The film crew hired Greg Miller as a birding consultant—he’s the birder Jack Black’s character was loosely based on—but many birders were increasingly certain the movie would poke fun at birding.  

They needn’t have worried. There are certainly secondary characters in The Big Year who think birding is stupid, and you can’t blame them when these competing birders toss aside important business meetings and even one marriage when a rare bird is at stake. But the birders in The Big Year are unapologetic about their passion. To them, the joy of birding and the urge to break the record for the most birds seen in North America in a single year is as fundamental as is James Lovell’s yearning to reach the moon in Apollo 13 or the passion for fine wine by the characters in the movie Sideways.   

Birds and birding are integral to the movie, but the themes of the movie are more about passion and competition, the weird kinds of bonds that draw even heated contenders together, and what things are or are not worth sacrificing to reach a goal.  

From the moment The Big Year starts, on New Year’s Day with Owen Wilson’s character in a remote park in Arizona to see a hard-to-get rarity, a Nutting’s Flycatcher, I was totally engaged in the movie. Steve Martin’s character celebrates a more family-oriented New Years, with toasts at midnight and then a family skiing outing, though he does stop a few times to add some birds to his year list. Jack Black’s character was stuck at work, and he only got a single bird out the window of his downtown office.   

As with the real men who inspired the movie characters, Steve Martin’s and Owen Wilson’s characters were very wealthy, and Jack Black’s had very little money and was just getting over a painful divorce. You quickly discern that it takes a lot of money to do a Big Year, and that some birders are as cutthroat as some contenders in sports. When a very rare tropical hummingbird turns up at a backyard feeder, Steve Martin gets there first and dutifully rings the doorbell and patiently waits for the homeowner to give him a key to her gate, politely submitting to a minute of chit chat, while Owen Wilson simply jumps over her fence and is in and out while Martin is still stuck at the door. A great many birders in the film are deeply resentful of Wilson’s character for how cutthroat he is in competition. But he is rather like the New York Yankees—he has way more money than most birders, makes the most of it, and can make life hell for some birders, yet despite their resentment, they can’t help but be regaled by his amazing experiences and give him plenty of begrudging respect along with resentment and even hatred.  

The movie has some beautiful and touching moments. All three contenders stop, spellbound, gazing as courting Bald Eagles clasp talons in their aerial dance. And the movie has the sweetest scene involving a Great Gray Owl that I could imagine, though the owl moves more like an animatronic rather than a real flesh-and-blood owl.  

The movie ends with photos of birds in rapid fire to the accompaniment of the song “This Could All Be Yours”—as lovely an invitation to start birding as I could imagine. The Big Year is a splendid movie for birders, and based on comments of non-birders I’ve talked to who saw it, plenty fun for regular people, too.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Robin Spectacle

American Robin at mountain ash
Transcript of today's For the Birds

A lot of people have been talking about lower numbers of a lot of species of songbirds, but one species no one is particularly worried about is the American Robin. Providing manicured lawns and ornamental fruit trees help robins to thrive. Their numbers are often the highest of any bird species wintering in the U.S. based on the Great Backyard Bird Count, which occurs in February.

American Robin closeup

A week or so ago, robins were so thick in my neighborhood that in a single day they devoured every single berry out of my neighbors’ yard—and they had at least three heavily-bearing trees. Hawks were also thick that day—while I was working at my desk, a Cooper’s Hawk chased one gorgeous adult male robin directly into my window at high speed. The poor bird hit so hard it crashed to the ground, but the hawk just moved on, leaving it in its death throes. After it died, I moved it to the back of the yard where something ate it within an hour, leaving nothing but a pile of feathers. Not once all day was there a single moment that I couldn’t hear robins everywhere. The next day they were gone, and I thought the biggest wave of them had passed through. It was close to the anniversary of October 1, 1988, when I was counting birds at the Lakewood Pumping Station up the shore a bit from Duluth and counted over 60,000 robins in five hours, along with 30,000 warblers and various other birds. I was in such a numerical daze when I got home that I walked smack into a bag of sunflower seeds and was up to something like 738 before I realized I was counting them as I swept them up.

But the big flight a week ago wasn’t the end of this year’s robin migration—this week another huge flood rushed though. On the first hour of counting at Hawk Ridge on October 9, the counters tallied over 12,000 robins migrating over the ridge and down in my neighborhood, which is between the main overlook and the lake. Robins rushed through all morning, and by noon, the counters simply put 30,000+ on the count board. They had plenty of other things to be paying attention to: on October 9, they also counted 478 raptors.

Bald Eagle

Meanwhile, down in my neighborhood, robins and Cedar Waxwings stripped the berries from my own mountain ash trees, dogwoods, and grapevine.

Cedar Waxwing in mountain ash

And the flight on October 9 had another witness. I got an email from Patty Mayer who wrote:

I live just above Skyline on the Duluth/ Proctor/ Hermantown border. At dusk I happened to glance out the window in the eastern sky and noticed a bunch of birds flying over. Not an uncommon sight this time of year, but they just kept coming. I ran outside to see them better: robins, and maybe some of their cousins. I watched what had to be THOUSANDS of birds fly over (heading SW). Too many to count as they flew, (1/2 block wide distribution) but there was a constant barrage flying overhead for literally five minutes or more. It was just so cool to see SO MANY flying right at dusk I wanted to share.

American Robin at mountain ash

American Robins are abundant enough that a lot of us take them for granted. But this kind of breathtaking spectacle right in Duluth is one of the things that makes this city uniquely special. People grow ever more removed from nature with so many other things drawing our attention to the technological and economic. But anyone who didn’t stop and look up this week missed a thrilling experience.

American Robin

Monday, October 10, 2011

Where are the birds?

Evening Grosbeak
(Transcript of today's and tomorrow's For the Birds.)

People have been asking me for years why they seem to see fewer birds than they used to. This year I’ve heard from more people, from more places, asking this question than ever before.

To non-birders, birds seem plenty common—often too abundant. Canada Geese, Ring-billed Gulls, and American Robins have undergone something of a population explosion in recent decades. City pigeons, starlings, and House Sparrows are plenty common enough, at least in North America. Wild Turkeys are now found in areas where they never had been found in past decades or centuries, though many local populations aren’t truly established but continually augmented by hunting groups. I’m afraid in the future, Wild Turkeys may become every bit as much of an ecological hazard as white-tailed deer are now.

Wild Turkey

But meanwhile, a great many other birds are declining, some so significantly that we may face extinctions and dramatic extirpations in coming decades unless something is done. Sadly, the birds declining are species never mentioned in school science programs, and many educated adults have never heard of them, so Midwestern children have a more visceral reaction when they hear about impending extinctions of polar bears or penguins or the rainforest than they do about the plight of prairie-chickens or Upland Sandpipers.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

But those of us who have been watching birds for a few decades can’t help but have noticed that before the 80s, we’d see spring warbler waves just about anytime we went out in May, while now even in major migration areas we just don’t see them as often as we used to. Evening Grosbeaks were abundant in the northland during the 70s and 80s—I used to get hundreds every day in late summer every year. This year I had a flock of about 16 stay in my area for almost 6 weeks. This was the first time in over a decade that I had more than one at my feeder at a time, and the first time in at least 15 years that grosbeaks remained here for longer than a few minutes. It was so exceptional that it literally made the newspaper.

Evening Grosbeak

With many declines, we have no idea what’s going on. In the case of Evening Grosbeaks, there is no hard and fast data about their abundance before the 70s, so we don’t know if populations may undergo long term cyclic declines and surges, or if the widespread decline since the 90s, documented over the entire eastern half of the continent, has been truly cataclysmic.

Species by species, we have to tease out the real losses from the apparent losses, to ensure that birds that are missing from one area haven’t simply moved on to another area. There have always been hurricanes, fires, and other catastrophes, and during human history, most species have rebounded after declines. Is it possible that some birds will reach the tipping point due to some combination of the changes in climate, pesticide loads and levels of other toxins, loss of habitat, outright mortality to windows, lighted communications towers, domesticated cats, and all the other changes people have wrought? And will we have enough warning to be able to prevent species losses?

Tower farm in Duluth

That’s all impossible to say. But tomorrow I’ll be talking about how difficult it is for scientists to quantify how many birds have already disappeared.


Yesterday I talked about declines in birds that used to be common in the upper Midwest. Our best tool for quantifying breeding birds is the Breeding Bird Survey, which was started in 1966 by one of my heroes, Chandler Robbins of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

Chandler Robbins in Guatemala

There are 3700 roadside survey routes in the United States and Canada. Each one is 24.5 miles long, with 50 stops, each exactly one half mile apart. Participants run their route beginning at a set time before dawn on a reasonably calm, non-rainy day in June, pulling over at each stop to count every bird they see or hear in a three-minute period. Usually the participant has an assistant who writes down all the data. Obviously, some of the birds seen or heard are simply passing through, and many birds aren’t detected at all, but over time, because each route is run in the same sequence by the same experienced counters, these routes provide an excellent index of the number of birds holding territories along each route.

Breeding Bird Survey

But the Breeding Bird Survey has some serious drawbacks. First, these roadside surveys are rerouted when necessary as various roads become more heavily used and thus more dangerous. My own route was rerouted as the dirt road it originally ran along was paved and got too busy. As necessary as this was, little by little rerouting compromises the data, because the routes were originally selected randomly, but now are skewing toward less developed areas and bird species less likely to associate with people.

Equally troublesome, the Breeding Bird Survey protocol is to count every singing bird, so a very high percentage of all the birds counted are breeding males on territory. This is exactly what the survey is designed to do, but there is no way of assessing how many floaters—that is, “extra” birds that don’t have available territories so aren’t singing—are out there. Of course, those birds quietly waiting in the wings are pretty much impossible to detect no matter what we do. But there is really good evidence that there used to be a lot of these floaters out there, and there probably aren’t nearly as many anymore. In his 1945 text, Modern Bird Study, Ludlow Griscom wrote:

An acquaintance of mine made a very interesting but somewhat cruel experiment some years ago with the Indigo Bunting. Finding a nesting pair near his house, he proceeded to shoot the male. The next day, the female had secured another male that sang in the same territory claimed by the first mate. He proceeded to shoot the second male. This kept on until he had shot nine different male Indigo Buntings, and he left the tenth male to help the female raise her family.
Griscom’s report predates the modern study of floaters—he was simply using this as an example of female songbirds being fickle. But it is an excellent example of a small study area in which at least nine males were present who were not detected until the male on the territory was removed.

Indigo Bunting

Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing how old these males were. Current studies of Indigo Buntings indicate that virtually all males more than a year old have mates. Did there used to be a lot more males in the 1940s than there are now? There is no way of knowing for sure.

But Sydney Gauthreaux of Clemson University learned to analyze NEXRAD radar data to detect bird movements. He found that between the mid 1960s and the mid 1980s, the number of significant spring migration flights detected from his study area along the Gulf of Mexico had declined by almost 50 percent. He found a similar loss between the 80s and the new millennium. Although these are astounding numbers, and some scientists have questioned his techniques because the numbers don’t jibe with Breeding Bird Survey results, the truth is that his is the only objective data we have quantifying raw numbers of trans-Gulf migrants, including both floaters and breeding birds. Floaters provide an essential backup reserve population. I’m afraid we may be losing far more than people want to face. I hate doomsday reports, but unless we face bird declines square on, how can we possibly avert doomsday?

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Beautiful cat needs a home


Russ and I brought this beautiful cat home from Port Wing, where he had been hunting for birds and mice at my mother-in-law's, not very effectively judging from the fact that he's been declawed and is very emaciated. He's being treated for worms, got a rabies shot, and is overall healthy, except for one thing--he tested positive for FIV. That's the feline version of HIV, an immuno-response thing that can kill him, and is very transmissible to other cats (but not humans or dogs). So at our house he must be kept entirely separate from Kitty and Kasey. I have him in my office with me when I'm home, but it seems to stress Archimedes, so he can't be left in here when I'm not in the room.

What he desperately needs is a quiet loving home with no other cats (or only FIV+ cats) and probably no dogs, because even Photon frightens him--who knows what foxes, coyotes, bears, and even wolves he may have encountered before we found him. I've paid for his rabies shot, and will pay for distemper when he's up to it (he wasn't very cooperative at the vet yesterday), and will throw in a kitty gym that he likes if you have room for it. I sure hope I can find him a good home soon.


Better Angels

Blue Jay

(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

Over the years, a lot of people have asked me what I consider to be the fundamental difference between birds or other animals and human beings. Some religious philosophers have said we’re the only animals with souls. I’m not sure about that—some birds I’ve rehabbed, lived with, or watched in the wild have seemed genuinely soulful, and some sociopathic humans seem genuinely soulless, but either way, who am I to judge what a soul is? Some scientists have said birds have no emotions, but ironically, that is a profoundly unscientific belief. Animals share our biochemistry and the vast majority of our genome. To claim that every one of these non-human beings lacks emotions without experimental proof is not scientific. When we define love or fear or frustration or anger as uniquely human emotions, that’s linguistics, not science.

Some people say we differ from animals in our intelligence. On every measure of every form of intelligence, humans vary wildly. Our species includes rocket scientists, and we take pride in that although in my entire life I’ve only personally known one rocket scientist. As a species, we’ve certainly developed tools to a far more complex level than any other species on this planet has ever done, but I for one could never design and build a helicopter, and don’t have a clue how to use a lot of the tools my kids mastered in junior high school shop class. As far as technology goes, a lot of the things we’ve developed have in the long run done more to foul our nests or while away our hours in games that focus our intelligence on pointless exercises than to serve a useful end.

Some people say we’re the only species capable of altruism. They pooh-pooh cases of birds feeding nestlings that aren’t their own. The cardinal who lost his mate and young and spent a week or so stuffing food into the mouths of goldfish was simply making an innate hormonal response to the color and size of their mouths, which are similar to that of baby cardinals. The screech-owl who incubated flicker eggs, brooded the nestlings, and tried to feed them chunks of mouse was just making the same kind of innate hormonal response. I’m a human, whose behavior is supposedly not dictated by biology but by something unique to us, yet I remember just how gentle and nurturing and altruistic I was when I was pumped up with maternal hormones. I think a lot of our altruism is directly connected to how dependent our species’ young are for well over a decade, requiring a more consistent long-term uninterrupted nurturing impulse than species need when their young are dependent for just days, weeks, or months. Groups of Blue Jays and crows have both been known to help take care of injured or sick members of their flocks, even when not related to them. They aren’t so merciful when encountering an unfamiliar injured or sick bird, but our own empathy and altruism extend more powerfully toward family and friends than strangers, too. My golden retriever Bunter would find me and anxiously lead me to whatever room baby Blue Jays were if they happened to be hungry.

I used to agree with those who say the difference between animals and humans is that we have a conscience. But what is a conscience? If we must be taught right from wrong, by parents, a religion, or other outside source, then conscience isn’t intrinsic. Whether conscience is a gut feeling about what we should and should not be doing or an internal reminder of external rules, the difference between us and other animals isn’t that we’re the only ones with a conscience—it’s that we’re the only animals who can defy our conscience. We’re far from the only animals who can do right, but we are the only animals who can do wrong. When we appeal to our better angels to help us do the right thing, it might help us to remember that those angels are virtually always depicted with bird wings.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Birds killed at greatest frequency at towers

This is from an American Bird Conservancy report, COMMUNICATION TOWERS: A DEADLY HAZARD TO BIRDS

List of Species Killed at Towers Documented by 47 Studies.
The first 60 species listed by number killed, in descending order:

Ovenbird 22619

Red-eyed Vireo
Red-eyed Vireo 19707

Tennessee Warbler
Tennessee Warbler 17689

Common Yellowthroat
Common Yellowthroat 10397

Bay-breasted Warbler
Bay-breasted Warbler 10396

American Redstart
American Redstart 8392

Blackpoll Warbler
Blackpoll Warbler 6304

Black-and-white Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler 6099

Philadelphia Vireo
Philadelphia Vireo 4317

Swainson's Thrush
Swainson's Thrush 3943

Palm Warbler
Palm Warbler 3441

Gray Catbird
Gray Catbird 3238

Northern Waterthrush
Northern Waterthrush 3148

Northern Parula
Northern Parula 2662

Magnolia Warbler
Magnolia Warbler 2630

Golden Guide Warblers
Connecticut Warbler 2624

Blackburnian Warbler
Blackburnian Warbler 2538

Ruby-crowned Kinglet
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 2336

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler 2287

White-eyed Vireo
White-eyed Vireo 2222

Cape May Warbler
Cape May Warbler 2199

Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Blue Warbler 2061

Indigo Bunting
Indigo Bunting 1892

Unidentified Birds 1833

Gray-cheeked Thrush
Gray-cheeked Thrush 1793

Rose-breasted Grosbeak
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 1580

Veery 1511

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler 1426

Savannah Sparrow
Savannah Sparrow 1335

Black-throated Green Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler 1330

Hooded Warbler
Hooded Warbler 1245

Blue-headed Vireo
Solitary Vireo 1220

Bobolink 1201

Nashville Warbler
Nashville Warbler 1098

Golden-crowned Kinglet
Golden-crowned Kinglet 1071

Prairie Warbler
Prairie Warbler 1018

Katie and Orange-crowned Warbler
Orange-crowned Warbler 959

Marsh Wren
Marsh Wren 888

Swamp Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow 850

Mourning Warbler
Mourning Warbler 814

House Wren
House Wren 804

Yellow-throated Vireo
Yellow-throated Vireo 801

White-throated Sparrow detail
White-throated Sparrow 797

Chipping Sparrow
Chipping Sparrow 733

Canada Warbler
Canada Warbler 689

Wood Thrush
Wood Thrush 684

Sora Rail 657

Scarlet Tanager
Scarlet Tanager 615

Grasshopper Sparrow
Grasshopper Sparrow 582

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo 568

Kentucky Warbler
Kentucky Warbler 568

Alder Flycatcher
Traill's Flycatcher 545

Golden-winged Warbler
Golden-winged Warbler 542

Prothonotary Warbler
Prothonotary Warbler 476

Wilson's Warbler
Wilson's Warbler 466

Lincoln's Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow463

Song Sparrow
Song Sparrow 422

Yellow Warbler
Yellow Warbler 419

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbird 410

Brown Thrasher
Brown Thrasher 376

Baltimore Oriole
Northern Oriole 362