Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Duluth Flood

Today's For the Birds radio program

One summer day when my kids were very little, they were playing down the street when Tommy suddenly came running home in a panic, crying and clearly scared out of his gourd. He kept repeating that a tomato was going to be coming down Peabody Street. All I could picture in my mind was the Oscar Meyer Weiner Mobile, which occasionally went down my own block when I was a kid. But that would have charmed Tommy, not frightened him. Joey and Katie came home a few minutes later and told me their friend had told them there was a tornado warning and they should hide in the basement.

I turned on the TV, and sure enough, we were supposed to take shelter. I tried not to sugarcoat the truth with the kids, but we do live in a sheltered neighborhood. We brought books and toys and the pets into the basement, and then I explained to Tommy that even though it was important to be careful, a tornado wasn’t at all likely because if it came from the east or the south, it would turn into a waterspout on Lake Superior, and if it came from the north or west, since we’re right under Hawk Ridge, it would be up too high as it passed over us to do any damage. I don’t know if that’s strictly true, but in the 31 years we’ve lived here, there’s never been a tornado anywhere near our neighborhood.

I told them that our neighborhood was safe from flooding, too, because we don’t live by a river, and Lake Superior can hold a lot of rainwater. And sure enough, our neighborhood got away with only minor damage during this week’s huge flood. Our sump pump went out and the storm sewers were so backed up that for a while our basement didn’t drain, leaving 6 inches of standing water in it. And our roof, which is almost 20 years old, sprung a leak under the deluge. But those caused only minor damage and a bit of inconvenience--overall, we got off pretty lightly.

The worst dangers from flooding for birds are for ground nesters, whose eggs and chicks can be drowned, and for any birds within a tree that topples down if they can’t react in time. Flooded basements and cars do release dangerous contaminants into the storm sewers or open water, too. But overall, flooding is far worse for humans than for animals. Sure enough, this morning the rain has stopped, the sun is shining, cardinals are singing, and I’ve watched my chickadees feeding their fledglings.

Overall, except for the chances for flooded nests, birds produce the most young during years with the most rainfall. Rain fosters insect and fruit production, essential for feeding baby birds. Where our eyes aren’t drawn to sinkholes and devastated property, we can’t help but notice how very beautifully green Duluth is this year, even this morning as the cleanup begins in earnest. It’s a mess out there, and the losses at the Duluth Zoo are too horrible for me to want to think about, but it sounds like no people were killed. When most birds lose their nest and young, they almost certainly grieve but get right back on task, starting over again. It’s not that they’re heartless or, for all we know, devoid of emotions such as grief--indeed, when researchers are able to assess the hormones associated with stress and joy in birds, they often seem to have the same kinds of physiological responses that humans do, releasing endorphins while singing, and showing high stress levels when facing losses. The difference is that birds don’t let their emotions stop them from doing what needs to be done--providing an excellent example for us logical, intelligent humans to imitate the morning after a flood. 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My Mourning Dove Survey 2012

Mourning Doves

On May 31, I conducted my annual Mourning Dove Survey for the US Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency keeps track of the most heavily hunted bird species in America by sending out a network of volunteers who each conduct one or more annual surveys, counting all the doves they see or hear on assigned 20-mile routes that were randomly selected decades ago. This provides a fair index of dove populations over the continent. My survey route was mostly forested when I started doing it 25 years ago, but quite a few houses and a few businesses have sprung up, and long stretches of dirt roads have been paved. During the 80s, I would see from 0 to 3 cars during my entire count. Now I see from 1-3 cars at each of my 20 stops.

Mourning Dove Survey 2012

This year I counted 2 doves. During the first 10 or 15 years, I averaged 0 or 1, but in recent years I’ve been finding at least one every year. My count, at the periphery of the Mourning Dove breeding range, has far, far fewer doves than counts further west and south. Minnesota’s new dove hunting season hasn’t reduced the number of doves in the state, at least not as far as my data and my personal observations can show. Overall, the population of this popular game is clearly sustaining a hunt.

Mourning Dove

When the dove season was proposed in Minnesota, a lot of people opposed it for a wide range of reasons. I was, and continue to be, opposed to allowing dove hunting along the hawk migration corridor along Lake Superior during the time American Kestrels are on the move, because doves are so easily confused with them, both in flight and while perched on wires. Unlike the dove population, that of kestrels has been declining.

American Kestrel

The other element of the Minnesota dove hunt that I oppose is allowing hunters to use lead shot. The body of data showing how harmful lead shot is for many birds continues to mushroom. “Data” is a dry and technical term to sum up the significant annual rise in number of eagles that are diagnosed with lead poisoning soon after deer season begins--it doesn’t begin to describe the agony of individual eagles losing their balance, gasping for breath, and suffering tremors, nor the investment of money and time in the exhausting work of rehab. Study after study even shows the harmful effects of lead shot on Mourning Doves themselves, picking it up as grit. 

Mourning Doves

When the hunt was first proposed, I talked to many hunters who disliked the idea and would have been willing to limit it--indeed, some were willing to reject it outright. Unfortunately, a lot of anti-hunters used the public hearings as a platform to attack hunting in general, and hunters legitimately felt beleaguered. The NRA has put massive amounts of time and money into widening the divisions between hunters and non-hunters, and opposes every single proposal to limit lead shot and bullets, even in the few areas of the country where critically endangered birds such as condors remain and die every year from lead poisoning tied to hunting. This dove season was brand new, so requiring non-lead shot from the start wouldn’t have been taking away anything from hunters and would have been an excellent way for the DNR and people on both sides of the issue to show that they are responsive to public input and capable of compromise. Unfortunately, the anti-hunters made the DNR feel beleaguered, too. I found it frustrating that rabid anti-hunting took the focus from the nuanced issues involved, and that this became yet another polarizing issue in a world too divided already. Hearing the pleasing coos of these beautiful birds on my survey, I was struck by the irony of this lovely bird blending soft and muted browns with traces of black and white being used by uncompromising people no longer capable of seeing any colors except black and white, and no longer capable of speaking softly on any topic when yelling has become the standard. It’s hard for any bird to symbolize peace in a world where compromise and camaraderie have so completely vanished. 

Mourning Dove

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Our Big Day Results!

Ryan Brady and Dick Verch

Last Monday, Memorial Day, Ryan Brady, Dick Verch, and I got up at 2 am and spent the day trying to see as many birds as we could in northern Wisconsin. While we were loading the vehicles at 2:30 or so, we heard the first bird of the day—a Common Yellowthroat. 

Common Yellowthroat
(Not our Big Day yellowthroat)

We listened hard at several good spots for owls, but it was windy and apparently owls don’t give a hoot about Memorial Day, or at least they don’t give a hoot on Memorial Day. We also didn’t get a single Common Nighthawk. We weren’t entirely skunked on nocturnal birds—we had several woodcocks and Whip-poor-wills, lots of American Bitterns, one Le Conte’s Sparrow, Soras and Virginia Rail, and a distant Least Bittern—my first ever so far north in Wisconsin.

Le Conte's Sparrow
(Not our Big Day Le Conte's Sparrow)

We had lovely shorebirding in Ashland, including Ruddy Turnstones and a Black-bellied Plover in splendid breeding plumage. One Black Scoter swam near shore, and we saw the last Mute Swan hanging around Ashland, a sight that always makes me sad. I know that it was wise from a conservation standpoint to stop invasive Mute Swans from breeding in the state, but that doesn’t lessen the individual tragedy for the very last of its kind, imprinted on the Prentice Park area and returns year after lonely year in hopes of finally attracting a mate.

Mute Swan

Some farm fields in the Benoit area gave us looks at, but no good photos of, Upland Sandpipers. 

Upland Sandpiper

I did get a few shots of Bobolinks--this has been a good year for finding them.


In the Moquah Barrens State Natural Area, we found quite a few neat birds, like Scarlet Tanager and Blue-headed Vireo. We also heard a lovely Winter Wren song, saw Olive-sided and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers, and enjoyed an unexpected flock of Red Crossbills.

From there we headed to the Port Wing beach where we had the best shorebird flock of the day, numbering about a hundred birds of eight species, including lots of one of my favorites, Semipalmated Plovers. 

Ruddy Turnstones

Mixed shorebird flock

Then we went to one of my favorite spots on earth, Big Pete Road. This excellent road through boreal forest in a state natural area gave us a handful of new birds for the day, including Golden-crowned Kinglet, Brown Creeper, and Northern Parula. 

Brown Creeper
(Not our Big Day Brown Creeper)

The most exciting find of the day was in Herbster, when we came upon a group of three Red-throated Loons in gorgeous breeding plumage. (No photo.)

Our list had reached 100 by 8 am, but sightings of new birds after that slowed down considerably, in part because we took time savoring some of our best sightings, like those shorebirds in Port Wing, in part because we never once came upon a flock of migrating warblers, and in part because the day was so windy. In the afternoon, well after we’d left Port Wing, a huge hailstorm hit there. By then we were in Washburn, and managed to elude the worst of the rain, though the edge of the storm did dump a bit of rain in late afternoon.


We called our team Invasion of the Boreal Chickadees, but didn’t get into the black spruce/tamarack bogs in the Clam Lake area, where we might have seen Boreal Chickadees and some other species as well. Plotting out routes for Big Days is tricky, and what with the weather and limiting our driving to less than 200 miles for the day, we were very pleased to tally 155 species. Spending the day with Ryan and Dick made the day even more fun for me. I’m usually a pokey kind of birder, trying to savor each bird I see, but focusing on sheer quantity for one day of the year was wonderful. Photos of the day’s more cooperative birds are on my blog. Check out the results of our and all the teams in the pilot Great Wisconsin Birdathon here.  It's also where to go to make a conservation toward Wisconsin bird conservation.