Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Birding with the Flu

Common Goldeneye
(Transcript of yesterday's For the Birds)

Four weeks ago, I came down with the flu. This year’s virus strain is a doozy—every time I thought it was actually clearing up, I got sick all over again, which is not a good thing for a person who makes her living mostly by out-of-town public speaking. I had several engagements, each of which came up right when I thought I was getting better, and after each one, I ended up sicker than before. I came home from the last one with a full-blown infection—fortunately, I could feel it coming on and got to the doctor while the fever was still low, but it climbed all day and into the night before it finally broke due to the antibiotics. Now I can finally talk for a few minutes straight before I break down into coughing again.

Overall, this wasn’t that big a deal, because lucky for me, I’m a human. Birds don’t have the luxury of being able to hunker down and watch romantic comedies and funny Leslie Neilson DVDs when they’re sick. Even the most wonderfully paired cranes can’t rely on their mate to prepare chicken soup, and if the weather is uncomfortably cold and wet and you happen to be a bird, well, that’s just too bad. If a bird is too sick to spend all its waking hours finding food and detecting potential predators, it simply won’t survive.

The engagements I did while I was sick included leading a couple of field trips at the Sax-Zim Bog, one for the Sax-Zim bird festival and one for Duluth Audubon. A Great Gray Owl has been hanging around, but hasn’t been very cooperative and never seems to be hunting anywhere near a road, so seeing this one involves not just luck but a good hike. But Boreal Chickadees, Gray Jays, Evening Grosbeaks, and Common Redpolls have been fairly easy to see all winter at the bog, and even when I was feeling sick, I couldn’t help but take photos of them.

Boreal Chickadee

Gray Jay

Evening Grosbeaks with a siskin and redpoll

Common Redpoll

Canal Park in Duluth has also been superb, with six species of gulls still turning up fairly regularly, including not just the regular Herring but a few overwintering Ring-bills, several Glaucous, a few Iceland and Thayer’s, and even one or two Great Black-backed Gulls. I’ve managed to get photos of all six species even though I’ve only been to Canal Park three times all season.

Herring Gull

Ring-billed Gull

Glaucous Gull

Iceland Gull

Thayer's Gull

These gulls spend part of the day by the Superior landfill and part by the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District facility. Unfortunately, some birders were stopping by WLSSD even though it’s closed to the public for obvious safety reasons, and despite the fact that it’s much simpler to just head to Canal Park in mid- to late-afternoon, when the birds take a break from sewage and garbage to loaf around near the lift bridge. Several birders have been feeding them bread there all winter, making the gulls’ regular visitors at Canal Park, where they are extremely easy to see. Common Goldeneyes are hanging out in several areas in the Lake, and are now doing their cool breeding displays. The males bob and suddenly jerk their head all the way to their lower back, bill pointed skyward. That’s one of the coolest, most thrilling breeding displays I’ve ever seen, and right now when you find a flock, it’s almost certain that at least some of the males will be doing this.

Common Goldeneye

Goldeneyes have been here all winter, but Hooded Mergansers are also starting to show up, the males making their breeding displays by bobbing their heads and raising and lowering their elegant crests. Even when I’ve been stuck home in bed, I’ve been able to see dozens and sometimes hundreds of winter finches and my own dear chickadees, but I’m glad I’m getting well in time to enjoy spring migration at its finest.