Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, December 31, 2012

New Binoculars!

Laura's new binoculars!
In 1974, I got perhaps the best Christmas present ever when my mother- and father-in-law gave me my very first pair of binoculars. They were Bushnell Insta-focus 7x50s. I’d never had binoculars before, and these were pretty much perfect for a first pair. The 7x magnification made finding birds in the binoculars easy for a rank beginner. The 50-mm objective lens made them heavy, but I was 23 and didn’t mind at all, and that large size made the image nice and bright when I was out searching for my first woodcocks and owls in twilight or even at night. These were the only binoculars I used for the first 4 ½ years of my birding, and I took them everywhere. I saw my first 357 species through them, and passed them among my students on bird walks. They were plenty good enough, but little by little, time and heavy use took their toll.

It was hard to give them up—as a matter of fact, I still have them. But by late 1979 I needed a new pair, so I scraped up the money to get a pair of Minolta 8x pocket binoculars—they were not nearly as bright as my Bushnells, and a little harder to hold steady because they were so tiny, but they lasted for 8 years. By then I was helping as an emergency auxiliary backup counter at Hawk Ridge, and counting birds from the Lakewood Pumping Station. I was also getting headaches after a day of counting. So I blew my family’s entire discretionary income for 1987 on a pair of amazing Zeiss 10x40s. They were brilliant and powerful. They should have lasted a lifetime, but when I was working at an optics company, I made the mistake of loaning them out while I was testing other models. The first person I loaned them to not-too-helpfully took them to a non-authorized camera store for cleaning, but they glued in the eyecups. I should have learned my lesson then and there, but I made the mistake of lending them to another person who never returned them. Meanwhile I’d bought a pair of 6x30 Leupold Katmais, from when Leupold was still making their products in the United States. These don’t quite cut it when I’m trying to spot distant jaegers out on Lake Superior or getting a great look at a hawk way up in the blue, but their wide field of view and brightness make them great for watching feeder birds out my window, and reasonably good for everyday use.

Now that I’ve been taking so many photos while I’m birding, I’ve been getting into the habit of bringing my cameras along and leaving the binoculars behind altogether. But this fall I did quite a bit of traveling and birding in unfamiliar places and missed having top-quality binoculars. Binocular optics have advanced since I worked for an optics company, and one current pair seemed absolutely perfect—exquisite 8x optics and so light I'd hardly notice the weight even when lugging my camera and telephoto lens: the Zeiss 8x32 Victory binoculars. I’m not earning anywhere near enough right now to afford anything new, much less something this wonderful, so when I’ve been to birding festivals I’ve shied away from even touching these dream binoculars. But out of the blue, a few days before Christmas one of my dearest birding buddies, who works at Eagle Optics, gave me his own pair of this exact model on a very long-term loan. I feel like a little kid again—I started a list of all the birds I’ve seen through them, and call them my Mikey Zs, after my friend Mike and Zeiss.


My Conservation Big Year starts tomorrow. I’m going to be trying to see as many birds of conservation concern as I can in 2013, while writing about their plight and what individuals and groups are doing to help. My splendid new binoculars will surely help me on my quest. 

Laura's new binoculars!

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Standing Up to Fear

Black-capped Chickadee

I was born in 1951, and as far back as I can remember, the news was scary. My first encounters with the words “rape,” “murder,” and “torture” were in the Chicago Tribune. Richard Speck murdered 8 student nurses in Chicago when I was 14 years old. This horror was the top story for weeks after the murder, and was mentioned almost daily throughout the months up to his trial and through his appeals.

And I knew the world was even scarier than what made the news. My father was a Chicago firefighter who brought home stories of death and violence not seen in the news. My high school had a shooting in 1967—a boy killed his ex-girlfriend and wounded some teachers—but that didn’t make the front page. My brother dealt with day-to-day terrors in Vietnam but none of his experiences made the news except as reflected in casualty numbers. One of my elementary school friends, Jimmy Califf, died there, but his death didn’t make the news—his is just one of the 58,195 names on the Vietnam Memorial.  

Vietnam Memorial

My own home seemed even more dangerous than the outside world. I was assaulted more than once and threatened at gunpoint by someone in my family’s inner circle. In college I was mugged in my own yard.  Yes, I’ve known all along that this is a dangerous planet.

But I’ve known all along, with equal certainty, that this is a lovely, friendly planet. Long before I knew of the existence of chickadees, I was lucky to have something of their outlook. Some of my family were filled with paralyzing fears that kept them from doing things they yearned to do. I wasn’t less wary than they. Like a chickadee, if anything set off my inner radar, I got out of the way fast. The times I was in physical danger, I protected myself with words and, when necessary, by physically defending myself. But I knew that most people aren’t dangerous, and that behavior, not appearance, tells us who to avoid. I was careful, but never fearful.

Chickadees open their social flocks to any birds that don’t endanger them, including species that look nothing like them. This openness makes them safer as the whole flock works together to provide for the common defense and promote the general welfare. The more open to novel experiences a chickadee is, the more likely it is to discover new food resources and places to make roost holes. The most fearless chickadees in my yard are first to appear when I crack open the window to offer mealworms. One of my chickadees is more fearful than the others. In the time most members of the flock have taken 4 or 5 mealworms from my hand, that wary one will get just 1 or even none. Caution is a useful trait, but since every chickadee flits off instantly if I do something unexpected, they’re all safe, and the most fearful one is the one at a disadvantage.

TV nature specials and outdoor adventure stories seem to equate fitness with aggressiveness, glorifying the “kill-or-be-killed” “nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw” philosophy. But chickadees are far more numerous and successful than the predators that attack them, because they know to avoid the bad without ever losing sight of the good in their world. Despite their tiny size and fragile bodies, some banded wild chickadees have survived over 12 years. They transcend the “dog-eat-dog” “it’s-a-jungle-out-there” mindset to lead their lives without ever once jettisoning their essential goodness and openness and trust. 

Victor Hugo wrote in Les Misérables:
Have no fear of robbers or murderers. They are external dangers, petty dangers. ... The great dangers are within us. Why worry about what threatens our heads or our purses? Let us think instead of what threatens our souls. 
Chickadees go through life souls fully intact, knowing instinctively what only the happiest, most successful human societies ever figure out: We’re all in this together.

Black-capped Chickadee

Friday, December 14, 2012

Gary Ganakas and Mike Robinson!!!!!!!!!

Oh, man--I am ELATED! My all-time favorite basketball players in the known universe, Gary Ganakas (who led the Big Ten in assists) and Mike Robinson (who was the Big Ten's biggest scorer) are at Michigan State's Jenison Field House tonight for a big reunion game, and Gary just sent me this photo of the two of them with Mike's son. 

I can't possibly explain how fun it was to watch these guys play! Russ and I always sat in the front row in the center. We were living on love and not much else, and the only money we could set aside for entertainment went straight to buying season tickets to watch Spartan basketball. It was money well-spent--I still get so much pleasure just thinking about this wonderful team. 

Russ and I badly wanted to go to the game tonight, but things got dicey with family responsibilities and the 700-mile trip suddenly became impossible. I would so much have loved to actually meet my heroes. But what a joy to know that for one brief, shining moment, they were thinking about their biggest fan--ME--and that maybe their smiles are actually directed at the woman who smiled so much watching them play lo those many years ago.

"Friendly" chickadees?

Black-capped Chickadee

Ever since I started buying mealworms to feed baby songbirds and injured insectivores when I was rehabbing, I’ve been in the habit of offering some to my neighborhood chickadees, who take them right out of my hand. Of all wild birds, chickadees are the ones who most readily bridge the chasm between humans and birds.

Handfeeding mealworms to a Black-capped Chickadee

It’s not that chickadees are stupider or more trusting or less genuinely wild than other species, or that they’re compliant or wimpy or even necessarily friendly. Even after I’ve been feeding an individual chickadee for weeks or months or years, it would never allow me to grab it. Chickadees are readily tricked into being trapped in mist nets or special chickadee cage traps, but any bird bander knows that when a chickadee is caught, it goes down fighting, determined and clever about inflicting pain. Many birds are put into a dazed condition when a bander holds them on their backs, and some get into such a panic by being held at all that they become utterly defenseless. Some Blue Jays seem actually to swoon in the hand. 

Blue Jay

Chickadees have far less strength and power than corvids, yet from any position they bite, peck, and hammer their bill under fingernails and into cuticles and knuckles, often drawing blood. A 150-pound bird bander weighs more than 7,000 times the weight of a chickadee, but like Ahab stabbing the White Whale over and over to his dying breath, a chickadee will rage, rage against the dying of the light, and not go gentle into that good night.

Taking revenge

So it seems paradoxical that chickadees are the birds that most readily come of their own free will to our hands. I think the reason lies in their intelligence and unique ability to particularize every single feature of their environment. Just as they recognize each other as individuals, they recognize specific trees and branches, and remember which are or will be perfect for constructing roost and nest cavities. They remember each tiny crevice where they’ve hidden food, returning precisely to these caches when they need. Of all the windows in all the houses in my neighborhood, there is only one at which chickadees gather and look inside and even tap on the glass, hoping to attract one particular person’s attention. They don’t approach most people at all, but when I’m outside, they recognize my face and voice, often gathering around me as if asking, “Where’s the food?”
These chickadees are fundamentally wild and free. If I ever once breached the trust of a chickadee by trying to grab it, it would easily get away, its reaction time and quick movements making a mockery of mine. Long before my clumsy hands could close in on it, it would have flown off, and it would take weeks or months for me to regain its trust, if ever.

 I can’t help but wonder what my chickadees think of me. They look into my face and eyes a lot. Do they recognize me as a living, possibly sentient fellow creature or a mealworm-dispensing robot? Do they think I’m kind and benevolent, or rather stupid and easily taken advantage of? Do they take pride in having tamed and trained me? Am I considered a friend, a well-trained pet, or a peculiarly unpredictable source of valuable food? It’s fun to speculate. But my human intelligence, limited as it is by my species’ very nature, makes communication impossible, so I’ll never know for sure.

Black-capped Chickadee

Friday, December 7, 2012

Keeping a Field Notebook and Lifelist

Some of my field notebooks from the 70s

On January first, I want everyone to start keeping a field notebook of the birds they see. Why? Because paying attention to birds contributes to our feelings of well-being. When we become mindful of the birds around us, we take more pleasure in even our most mundane everyday experiences, and when we write down what we see, we can easily recapture those joyful experiences and plan new experiences. As I see it, keeping a notebook of our bird sightings gives us pleasure in the past, present, and future all at once.

Now, while it’s still December, is the right time to head out and buy a notebook for next year’s bird sightings. Don’t get one of those lifelist or birding diary books that show all the birds possible or leave a large space at the top of each page for specific details you may not record every time. Get a plain old lined notebook in which, one by one, you can write down your birds as you see them. Before each day’s birding jaunt, write down the date, where you are, what the weather’s like, who you’re with, and any other details you choose—a blank notebook provides as much or as little space for this information as you like. If you don’t go out on a particular day or week or month, there isn’t a gaping hole between birding events. On a day when you see just a handful of birds, you can use a small space, and can use as many pages as you like when you see lots of birds. In a blank notebook, each bird is an experience in and of itself, and you can add particulars if the bird is doing something you especially want to remember. Checking birds off on a checklist or pre-printed birder’s diary leaves gaping holes at species you missed rather than focusing on the birds you actually enjoyed that day.

That said, those checklists have a lot of value. Few but the most disciplined and/or anal-retentive of us stop each time we see a bird to write it down. Tucked in my own field notebook is a checklist of the birds of whichever state I’m in. When I get back to my car or later that day when I’m home, I go through the checklist to jog my memory of each species I saw, adding these to my notebook along with any other notes I didn’t jot down in the field. If I’m being particularly lazy, sometimes I just check off the birds on the checklist and tape it into that day’s page in the notebook.

To be honest, I’ve been lazy about keeping my own lists for several years, and I’ve had lots and lots of enjoyable birding experiences without them. But when I look back, I can’t remember specific experiences when I didn’t keep notes, while I can thumb through pages of my notebooks from the 70s and vividly recall those lovely experiences. The more details I wrote down, the more fully I can recall the day and the birds, but even when I just recorded a few general notes about the day and jotted down my list without any other details, it’s surprising and gratifying to realize how much I can recall. Now I do take photos of most of the birds I see, which in some ways is even better at jogging happy memories, but I find it most satisfying to remember those photographed birds in context via my trusty field notebooks.

So, just in time for my 2013 Conservation Big Year, I’m getting back into the habit of being diligent about my field notebook again. I hope you have as much fun keeping your notebook as I’ve had, and will once again have, with mine.

(For those of us who submit to eBird, our field notebook can provide the data for us to submit checklists, too.)

Keeping a Life List

If we do keep track of the birds we see each day in a field notebook, is there any good reason why we should also keep a lifelist? If you mark each species you’ve seen into your field guide, a checklist of birds of your state or country, bird listing software, or eBird, you can’t help but notice the empty spaces for birds you haven’t yet seen. I don’t like being reminded of all the birds I missed when looking back on specific birding experiences, but I do like being reminded of all the birds I’ve yet to see—my personal bucket list. Each bird we’ve already seen represents at least one exciting moment in our past, and each one we’ve yet to see is a promise of an exciting moment in our future.

During the first year and a half that I birded, I stayed in Michigan, Illinois, and Wisconsin, with a brief trip to Virginia for a meeting. It was an exciting time for me during which I birded on my own for at least an hour or two every day. My first spring I saw 40 species—a total that would disappoint me for just a spring morning now, but each bird gave me a surge of joy, and I was adding a lifer on average more than every 2 ½ days. When I look at just those first 40 species on my lifelist, I relive each joyful discovery in a way I simply could not if I hadn’t written them down on a list.

After that first spring, in addition to my solitary local jaunts, I took two ornithology classes with lots of field trips, and the next spring went on some Michigan Audubon trips to see more far-flung birds such as Greater Prairie Chickens and Kirtland’s Warblers. If I’d been more experienced, this amount of birding would have left me with at least 250 species, probably more, but I was darned proud of the lifelist I did amass—188 species.

Painted Bunting

Then, in June 1976, Russ attended a scientific meeting in Savannah, Georgia, and took me along. I spent weeks ahead of time poring through my field guides, using the range maps to study all the new possibilities. Of course, I didn’t see most of them on the actual trip, but that didn’t take anything from the joy of anticipation, and the 26 lifers I did see—more than 5 per day—gave me 26 of the most thrilling moments of my life. My first Brown Pelicans! My first Painted Bunting—and he was singing in the sunshine! Anhingas! Snowy Egrets! Purple Gallinules! That spring I’d taken particular pleasure in warbler watching, and on this trip I added the Northern Parula and Yellow-throated Warbler. Filling in gaps in that part of my checklist was especially satisfying.

It was also satisfying to see familiar birds in new settings. Keeping state lists gave me something to look for and extra pleasure on the long drive, because every time we crossed a state line, I got to start anew, adding such common birds as crows, starlings, cardinals, Blue Jays, and Red-winged Blackbirds in each new state. Those state lists didn’t grow very quickly, but that just reminded me of new possibilities for future trips.

Once we reached Savannah I saw a lot of cool birds on both sides of the border, at places like the Savannah Wildlife Refuge in South Carolina and Skidaway Island State Park in Georgia. I had a huge sense of achievement when I broke the 200-mark on my lifelist with exquisite Least Terns at Fort Pulaski. Seeing each bird was a deeply felt joyful experience, but there was also something inexpressibly satisfying about adding birds to my lifelist and state lists, and keeping track of the places where I saw each species. A few years ago, Russ and I returned to some of these places, and we could compare the birdlife now to what I saw then thanks to my lists.

Again, as I always say, no one should go through life listlessly. 

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Reviewing the new National Geographic app along with Sibley and Peterson

This spring I got an iPad, and have tested a lot of birding apps that I spent my own money on. One of the first ones I got was NationalGeographic’s “Handheld Birds,” which was serviceable, but not all that great. But last week my iPad automatically updated it, and all I can say is WOW! The new version, now called National Geographic Birds: Field Guide to North America, is simply amazing, setting a whole new standard for birding apps. 

The new version includes all 995 species included in the new 6th Edition of the National Geographic field guide along with all the art and information about each from the new field guide and a variety of sound recordings from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for each, and tips on what to listen for. As in the newest paper edition of the field guide, the artwork has great identification pointers, and when you tap the screen, you can toggle those pointers on and off.

(You can scroll to the next screen, which includes darkest and lightest subspecies, along with screens giving lots of other information. Moving two fingertips closer or further apart enlarges the drawings.)

(You can scroll to the next screen, which includes fall adult male and immature female, along with screens giving lots of other information. Moving two fingertips closer or further apart enlarges the drawings.)

You can limit your choices to lists of birds that you make yourself, or to lists put together by National Geographic. These include lists of birds likely to be found in certain important birding destinations, such as the Rio Grande Valley, Madera Canyon, and Churchill, and lists of endangered species, the most abundant birds, backyard birds, and the birds most wanted by birders.

The app also includes a lot of extras. In addition to the sounds for each species, it has some very high quality close-up videos. There are only 16, but they’re extremely well selected to show secretive birds, including Ruffed Grouse, American Bittern, Sora, American Woodcock, Winter Wren, Hermit Thrush, and Ovenbird, all in the act of drumming, singing, or calling.

Also included are a lot of authoritative tips for new and experienced birders in 16 articles about birding and 10 quizzes that test you on bird recognition by appearance and sound, along with other important facts. And the app keeps track of your own personal sightings if you enter them in the built-in journal.

The Peterson Guide has an app, too, but that one was a disappointment to me—you can see each plate of the Peterson field guide only in its entirety, but if you accessed it via the species, all but one illustration are cloudy and unfocused, which hurts my eyes.

(If you click on the side buttons, you can also access the song, and get other information.)

(If you click on the side buttons, you can also see the immature plumage, access the song, and get other information.)

It’s irritating to try to compare two species on the same page because you can’t see both in focus at the same time after you've touched one on the page. 

The only field guide app I really liked up until now is the Sibley Guide app—that includes all the artwork and information from the Sibley field guide along with an excellent variety of Lang Elliott’s sound recordings. Overall, I prefer the artwork from the National Geographic—Sibley’s drawings are more patternistic while National Geographic’s are more lifelike, and Sibley has each bird on a plain white background while the National Geographic shows them in a bit of natural habitat and in more natural poses.

(Scrolling down gives a total of seven chickadee drawings, including flight, and you can see all the drawings enlarged by clicking on them.)

(If you scroll down, there are a total of eight blackburnian drawings, including winter and flight. And you can see each drawing larger, taking up a full screen.)

The Sibley guide and app don’t include quite as many species as the National Geographic one does, but only the rarest of the rare are missing. Both have excellent maps, though the National Geographic one includes more information about subspecies as well as species.  

The Sibley birding app costs 19.99. It was well worth paying at least twice as much as most other birding apps until now, and I'm sure I'll still use it a lot. The National Geographic one is as good—in my opinion even better—and it’s only half the price—$9.99. I’m glad I have both, but if you’re looking for just one, the National Geographic is the one I’d recommend.


NOTE: Right now about half the time when I open the National Geographic app, it shifts the window so I can't see the entire page--the right side of each is cut off. I'm sure they'll fix this bug ASAP. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

How the Minnesota DNR's Nongame Wildlife Program Has Betrayed Its Supporters

Photo by Gwyn Calvetti

A lot of people are decrying the Minnesota DNR for opening a season on wolves this year. For a third time in less than a decade, the DNR betrayed those of us who support the state’s Nongame Wildlife Program. When Russ and I moved here in the early 1980s, the wolf was a critically endangered species. We donated as much as we could afford every year to a program advertised as protecting beloved non-game wildlife. But the DNR is now engaging in a horrible bait-and-switch scheme. As soon as species we supported with donations and volunteer work reach sustainable numbers, they’re being re-designated as game species.

Sandhill Crane

The Minnesota Nongame Wildlife Program made another beloved species, the Sandhill Crane, their actual poster child for the nongame program in the northwest region. This is ironically the exact region where the DNR opened a Sandhill Crane hunting season in 2010. Three seasons of crane hunting have come and gone, yet the Nongame Wildlife Program keeps that photo of a Sandhill Crane on that region’s nongame web page. Back when we started donating, Sandhill Cranes were a hotline bird hardly ever seen in northeastern Minnesota. Thanks to research and conservation work by non-profits such as the International Crane Foundation and by nongame wildlife programs, the Sandhill Crane is flourishing again. We didn’t realize that the end result of our hard conservation work would be to re-designate cranes as game birds—their status before their populations were wiped out, partly by overhunting, in the first place. I particularly hate the idea of hunting cranes because they are so bonded to their lifetime mate.

Sandhill Crane

The DNR first betrayed supporters of the nongame wildlife program in 2004, when they opened a Mourning Dove season. Sadly, anti-hunters showed up at hearings, unfairly and even viciously attacking hunting and hunters, dooming a fair scientific evaluation of the proposal. I talked to several hunters who told me they personally were opposed to hunting doves until they heard the mean-spiritedness of the opposition. Duluth Audubon and I had made two requests regarding the season. First, we wanted the hawk migration pathway along the North Shore of Lake Superior closed to dove hunting. Even in states with longstanding dove hunts, hunters mistake a lot of birds for doves. One Texas case made national news when a TV news team followed a hunting party as the leader winged a bird. It was still alive when he picked it up and wrung its neck. None of the experienced hunters nor the TV crew noticed that the bird wasn’t a dove at all—it was a Killdeer—until it aired on the evening news. At Hawk Ridge, I’ve heard fairly experienced birdwatchers mistake flying doves for our two small falcons, American Kestrels and Merlins, and I’ve seen experienced birders confuse kestrels and doves when one is sitting on a power line at a weird angle. Since the hunting season coincides with the peak of falcon migration along the shore, we thought restricting hunting in this unique area of international importance was justifiable, especially because dove numbers are so much lower here than in other parts of the state anyway. Our other request was that they limit this new hunt to non-lead shot. But the DNR refused to even consider these requests.

Mourning Dove

So as 2012 draws to a close and Russ and I work out how much we can afford to donate to good causes, the Minnesota DNR has made one decision a no-brainer. I feel sad abandoning a program that still does a lot of good for wildlife. But this new wolf season and that Sandhill Crane photo still gracing the Minnesota Nongame Wildlife Program’s northwest region webpage are ample evidence that this program has jettisoned its original mission and left us behind. 

Mourning Dove

Down Memory Lane: My Magical Moment with a Pine Grosbeak

Pine Grosbeak

I haven’t been getting all that many birds in my yard so far this season, but on Thanksgiving afternoon, my mother-in-law and I looked out at my feeder to two gorgeous adult male Pine Grosbeaks. 

I’m inordinately fond of Pine Grosbeaks, in part because of my first experience with them. On December 3, 1977, as I was walking toward Picnic Point, my favorite birding spot in Madison, Wisconsin, I heard an unfamiliar whistle. I whistled back, and the sound grew louder almost too quickly as I drew closer. It sounded as if the bird were approaching me even as I walked toward it. Finally I saw it—a female or young male Pine Grosbeak--my LIFER! He was plump, both due to his natural body shape and because his feathers were fluffed out against the cold. His big black, confiding eyes looked directly into mine.

 Pine Grosbeak

Had that been the whole story it would have been splendid enough. But we kept whistling back and forth as he hopped and flitted even closer as I continued to walk toward him. Finally, for some unaccountable reason, I took off one glove and reached my hand toward him. I have no idea why I did that, and am even more mystified why, as if on cue, he alighted on my finger. Our eyes locked for a magical moment as we continued whistling back and forth. I have no idea how long this lasted—a second or many seconds or a full minute or more. My eyes welled with tears but I blinked them away, both so they wouldn’t freeze on my glasses and because they blurred my view of him. 

When he finally took off, he didn’t fly away in a huff—just hopped onto a nearby branch and flew along companionably with me for a good ten minutes. Pine Grosbeaks are very sociable birds, and this one had apparently been separated from his flock. All I could conclude was that for a little while that afternoon, he wanted company so bad that he decided I was better than no one.

Female Pine Grosbeak

That was one of the seminal moments of my lifetime. As I walked back to my apartment afterwards, I found myself singing a song from Hello, Dolly, “It Only Takes a Moment,” a song that still makes me think of my own truly magical moment. I’d have loved Pine Grosbeaks anyway, for their beauty, their gentle vocalizations, and the mysterious unpredictability of their winter movements, which makes any sighting an unexpected gift. But that single moment with my first Pine Grosbeak so elevated the species in my heart that I think it’s impossible for me to even think of the words “Pine Grosbeak” without smiling.

This encounter put the Pine Grosbeak at #263 on my lifelist. Some birders nowadays dismiss the concept of listing as meaningless collecting or competition, somehow contrary to the enriching elements of birdwatching and conservation. (See Jeff Gordon's thoughtful essay in the current issue of Birding.) 

These people are wrong. Just wrong. Sometimes on a stormy day I like to make a cup of cocoa and curl up in my window seat under an afghan and pore through the notebook in which I keep my lifelist. I’d birded two or three years before the American Ornithologists’ Union changed names and lumped or split various species. Over time, their taxonomy changes have messed up many names and numbers on my list—as I look at the entries and the scribblings I've added over the years, I appreciate how the science of ornithology has advanced even as I vividly recall my personal experiences with these birds. 

Pine Grosbeak

My lifelist includes only my first encounter with each species. To delve into my continuing relationship with each bird, I look at my field notebooks and photographs. I’ve not been as diligent about keeping detailed notes in recent years as I was in the beginning, but as I face my 2013 Conservation Big Year, I intend to keep track of the birds I encounter as I did when I started out. Some days back then I just kept barebones lists, but now when I look over even those minimal entries, the species combinations along with location and weather details and who was birding with me conjure vivid memories. 

As I always say, no one should go through life listlessly.

Pine Grosbeak

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Black Phoebe

Black Phoebe

On Christmas, 1974, my husband’s parents gave me my first field guide and binoculars—the best Christmas present I ever got. Between Christmas and the following March, I pored over the Peterson guide and then the Golden Guide, trying to memorize all the possibilities before I set out to be a birder. As I went page by page through the Golden Guide, I saw in the middle an elegant little bird, slate gray all over except for a white belly and white on the outer tail feathers. I thought I’d be able to keep that one straight, but then close to the end of the book I discovered another bird with the same description. The bird in the back was the Slate-colored Junco, now called the Dark-eyed Junco. The one in the middle was the Black Phoebe.  Seeing two entirely unrelated birds with such similar markings was sobering—identifying birds was going to be a lot harder than I’d thought.

I saw lots of juncos that first year but stayed well out of the range of the Black Phoebe for over seven years—they live in coastal California and along the US side of the Mexican border all the way down into northern South America. I didn’t need to worry about confusing Black Phoebes and juncos because I quickly got a good sense of what juncos were like and could identify them by shape and behavior within days of seeing my first one. By the time I saw my first Black Phoebe in Las Vegas in 1982, I was so familiar with Eastern Phoebes that the similarities were too strong to miss, and the color pattern similarity with juncos turned out to be completely unimportant.

Like Eastern Phoebes, Black Phoebes sit fairly erect and persistently wag their tails. They flutter out to catch flying insects and return to the same perch or fly to another nearby perch, often close to the ground.  They virtually never walk, hop, or even shift position, moving about almost exclusively on the wing. Every one I’ve ever seen has been close to water, from running streams in Costa Rica to sewage treatment ponds and ocean shoreline in California. They’ve allowed very close approach, but their facial plumage is so blackish that even at close range, I need good light to distinguish the eyes from the surrounding plumage. Last week Russ and I spent a few days in southern California. He spent the days at meetings while I was walking about birding. I came upon several Black Phoebes, and as is usually the case, some of them were extremely cooperative, so I did get a few nice photos.

Black Phoebes require not just water but good supplies of mud for building their nests onto a secure substrate, so pairs tend to be protective of their nesting areas. Perhaps because of this nest site fidelity, pairs tend to nest together year after year, usually beginning to nest weeks earlier than new pairs, probably both because they don’t need to establish a pair bond and because they already have identified a good nesting site. In winter, they’re fairly solitary. It’s tough eeking out an existence fueled on flying insects when predators lurk everywhere. But Black Phoebes do it with grace and style. Every moment I’ve ever spent in the company of a Black Phoebe has been a moment well spent.

Black Phoebe

Wednesday, November 21, 2012


Brant at Park Point

This morning Shawn Zierman, a Minnesota birder, found a Brant on the ball field at Park Point. He immediately called Sparky Stensaas who sent the word out on the MOU listserv. The moment I got the email, I grabbed my camera, hopped in my car, and drove straight to Park Point.

Brants are geese who breed on the tundra and normally spend their winters in salt water. There are two forms that used to be considered separate species—the dark-bellied one winters along the Pacific coast and the light-bellied one along the Atlantic. A lot of Atlantic birds were displaced following Hurricane Sandy, apparently including this one. It was hanging out in a flock of Canada Geese, and looked surprisingly tiny next to them. All the birds were grazing on the lawn , but this one seemed hungriest—even as the flock started moseying along, this one kept gobbling down grass even as it kept up with the others.

In winter, Brants usually feed on marine plants and short native vegetation, but eastern birds have adapted to eating lawn grasses as well, which is lucky since this poor bird is a long way from any marine plants. I always have sort of a sick feeling about birds far from their natural range, but this one probably has as good a chance as any bird of finding its way home. 

Brant at Park Point

It does seem a bit troubling that it was the only one of its kind in the flock—like other geese, Brant mate for life, and young birds remain with their parents through fall migration and often through the entire winter, so this bird was either separated from its family or the others were killed in the storm. Brants do tend to return faithfully to the same breeding and wintering grounds, and once lost birds get their bearings, they usually easily find their way home, so if this bird is a paired adult, it may well return to its territory in spring, and if its mate survived the storm, they may end up back together. If it’s a first-year bird, it should at least eventually find its way to the area where it was raised.

Brant families remind me of my own family on my mother’s side. Like more than one of my relatives, Brant pairs stick together through thick and thin over many years, yet have a tendency to stray now and then—the average female Brant  visits one or more males other than her mate during each nesting season. (Ornithologists keep track of her comings and goings by taking DNA samples of offspring, but obviously the males are mating with them.) Like my relatives, Brant families hang out with family and neighbors, and sometimes one pair will stick around minding everyone’s offspring while the other pairs wander off, maybe taking in a movie or wandering over the tundra to get away from the commotion or responsibilities for a while. Goslings and parents do recognize one another, and at the end of a big get together, the families sort themselves out the way my cousins and we did after a long visit.

When I see an off-course bird like this Brant, my motherly anxiety is immediately aroused, but that isn't sensible. The little bird may be over 1500 miles from its normal range, but it seemed perfectly at home here, and once it regains its body fat will most certainly set out and find its way home without some silly human playing mother hen. We only suppose out-of-range wild birds feel bewildered because that's how we would feel in the same situation. Brooks Atkinson wrote, “Although birds coexist with us on this eroded planet, they live independently of us with a self-sufficiency that is almost a rebuke… We are not that self-reliant. We are the ones who have lost our way.”

Brant at Park Point

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Surf Scoter

Surf Scoter

Of all the ducks cataloged in my first field guide, the one I was most fascinated by was the Surf Scoter. This sea duck has the most improbably colored and amazingly oversized bill, contributing to its many nicknames, including Goggle-nose, Horse-head Coot, Plaster-bill, Snuff-taker, Blossom-billed Coot, Bottle-nosed Diver, and Mussel Bill. Its most common nickname is the “skunk-headed coot,” though really, the conspicuous white area on the back of the head seems far less interesting than the humongous black, white, orange, red, and yellow bill on adult males. The bulbous bill seems to hold prey well, but can hardly be essential for survival because it’s much smaller on young birds and adult females. Both sexes and all ages join together in winter in large feeding flocks, all dining on the same prey. Females may use the males’ funky bills as a signal of good health and nutrition to help them choose the fittest potential mates.

Whatever the true function of the male’s bill, it sure is cool to see close up. Most of the Surf Scoters I’ve seen over the years have been off in the distance, and my best views have all been through a spotting scope until just this week. Russ had a meeting in Long Beach, California, and I tagged along to see what birds I could find. We’re staying onboard the Queen Mary, which is permanently docked in Long Beach. I spotted Surf Scoters from our room’s portholes, and  they’ve been surprisingly easy to watch at fairly close range everywhere along the water. A lot of litter floats in the water, auto and boat traffic are noisy, and dozens of feral cats lurk along the water, so there isn’t as much bird activity as I’d like, but the Surf Scoters seem to take it all in stride, despite the fact that they breed all the way up in the Canadian and Alaskan wilderness. Many first year birds don’t return to the far north for a year, remaining along the southern California and Baja California coast in the West, or along the mid-Atlantic in the East, so they apparently figure out how to deal with disturbance. At least for the most part. But Surf Scoters have declined in numbers rather dramatically. Their population is thought to have decreased from 50–70 percent in the past 40 years. In 2007, a huge oil spill in San Francisco Bay oiled and killed thousands of birds. About 40 percent of the 1,000 retrieved live birds and 25% of the 1,365 retrieved dead birds were Surf Scoters. Since most of them were healthy adults, scientists were concerned that these losses could contribute more to the species’ decline.

Surf Scoter

Right here in Southern California, it’s easy to forget about Surf Scoters declining because they’re everywhere. And on a day when I’ve gotten nicer photos than I ever dreamed possible, I want to think only about how much richer the world is for having this splendid duck on it.