Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fishy Tales

Bald Eagle

This week, a strange bird story on a golf course made the national news. I linked to it on Facebook, and one of my Colorado friends, Kim Sayers, added a story about her own strange bird encounter on a golf course. She wrote, “My neighbor teed off at a par three hole. A Canada Goose was sitting on the green and she hit it in the butt. Her ball bounced off the goose and landed a few inches from the cup. The startled goose let out a squawk and went running. While we were walking to the next stroke, the goose came stomping back, and used its beak to roll the ball off the green. I was laughing so hard I could barely walk, and my neighbor, who was expecting an easy one putt, asked why. I said, "Where's your ball?"

A friend from Washington contributed his own story. Ian Paulsen wrote, “This reminds me of the time I was watching a Bald Eagle trying to take a flounder from an Osprey. After a brief battle the Osprey dropped the flounder. It landed in someone's backyard. I wonder what the property owner thought when they found the flounder in their yard?”

This week’s original news story that inspired these tales came from a San Juan Capistrano golf course when a course marshal came upon a live 2-foot leopard shark on the 12th tee. The fish had fallen out of the sky when no one was looking, though it bore bleeding puncture wounds consistent with having been carried, and dropped, by an eagle or osprey. Golf course staff managed to get the fish into a bucket of water and quickly released it into the ocean, so the story probably had a happy ending for everyone except the hungry raptor.

Perhaps the most amazing bird story of all was reported inthe New York Times on an April Fools Day, though the story was not a joke. On March 30, 1987, an Alaskan Airlines jet—a Boeing 737—took off for Yakutat at mid-morning. The crew noticed a group of Bald Eagles circling to the south of the runway. One eagle was off to the left, and the crew was relieved to realize they would pass underneath it with room to spare. But they could also see that the eagle was carrying a large fish, and as the jet approached, the eagle dropped it. The pilots reported watching the fish falling toward them as if in slow motion. The fish hit the plane just behind the cockpit window on the captain’s side. All the controls seemed to be working, but the crew contacted Alaska Airline’s dispatch and maintenance control for further instructions. They were told to continue on to Yakutat, where a maintenance crew would be flown in to inspect the plane.

The pilot explained to the passengers that they’d had a mid-air collision with a fish and told them they’d have to deplane and wait inside the Yakutat airport terminal during the inspection. This had happened during a time when there had been reports of pilots flying under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, and so passengers could be forgiven for feeling a bit skeptical. But sure enough, the plane was dented; a greasy spot, trail of blood, and fish scales told the story. One FAA inspector was quoted saying the remains of a 3–4 pound fish were wedged in near the forward door and the wing root.

The mid-air collision with a fish made it into the New York Times and Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! Naturally all kinds of lame jokes have been used in news stories about it, such as calling the incident an example of fly-fishing, Alaska style. But as with most satisfying stories about such close calls, there was little loss of life. The passengers and crew were all fine and the eagle got away. The only fatality was the fish. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Brown Creeper

Brown Creeper

Last week I went birding with a few friends in the Twin Cities. It was a murky October morning, and despite temperatures in the fifties, the breath of winter was in the air. Birds were scarce and hard to see. Robins quietly rummaged in the oak leaf litter for grubs and worms. Blue Jays were drawn to the acorns. We found Fox, Song, White-throated, and American Tree Sparrows, and a few juncos. And of course chickadees were about, most conspicuously picking through the soft, wispy fluff on dried up weeds. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Migrating songbirds are attracted to chickadee flocks and, sure enough, we picked out Ruby- and Golden-crowned Kinglets, Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers, and a Brown Creeper.

Brown Creeper

The creeper was the last new bird of the day—the pièce de résistance of a pleasant morning. Since I’ve taken up photography, the Brown Creeper has been one of my nemesis species—I’ve gotten plenty of photos, but not very good ones. But this creeper was reasonably close and I managed to get at least a couple of clear ones. 

It’s small wonder that I have so much trouble getting pictures. W.M. Tyler wrote in his species account for the Brown Creeper in the Life Histories of North American Birds, “The brown creeper, as he hitches along the bole of a tree, looks like a fragment of detached bark that is defying the law of gravitation by moving upward over the trunk, and as he flies off to another tree he resembles a little dry leaf blown about by the wind.” The Brown Creeper bears plumage that camouflages it against tree bark, and its call is so thin and high pitched that many people cannot even hear one a few feet away. Its nest is so inconspicuous, tucked behind a loosened flap of bark, that it took until 1879 for naturalists to find one, even though Brown Creepers nest throughout New England.

Brown Creeper

Brown Creepers spend summer in closed canopy forests with lots of large dead and dying trees for nesting and large living trees for foraging. They use a wider variety of wooded habitats in winter, and you never know where one will turn up during migration. They often appear in my Duluth backyard. I saw my very first one at the Morton Arboretum outside Chicago on December 16, 1975—#113 on my life list. I knew what it was right off the bat because I’d noticed the drawings in my field guide and read about the species’ habit of creeping up a tree and then fluttering to the base of a nearby tree to creep upwards again. I found the real thing even more charming than the description.

When I was a teacher in Madison, Wisconsin, in the late ‘70s, a Brown Creeper crashed into one of the windows on our school, and our maintenance man brought it to me. The bird had a concussion and slightly sprained wing, and so we kept it in the classroom for a couple of days before releasing it in a nearby park. In the same way that creepers spiral up trees in the wild, this one spiraled up children’s pants legs and knee socks, and eagerly took mealworms out of our hands. I was utterly taken with this confiding little bird. When we brought it to my favorite park for release, it didn’t fly off immediately, and when it did, it simply dropped to the base of the nearest tree. We got to watch it spiral up, then drop to another nearby tree and creep up, again and again before it got too far away for us to track. Ever since, whenever I see a Brown Creeper, I think of that bird and the lovely experiences it gave my students and me. This gentle, quiet little bird goes about its life so unobtrusively that I suspect most Americans don’t even know it exists, yet the world is richer for having such treasure.

Brown Creeper

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Book Review: Hawks in Flight, Second Edition

This fall, the University of Minnesota Press published my newest book, Hawk Ridge: Minnesota’s Birds of Prey, with up to date information about one of my favorite places and our amazing hawk migration. Grand Marais’s Betsy Bowen illustrated it. If you want to get natural history and migration information for each vulture, hawk, and falcon species ever recorded at Hawk Ridge, this book might be for you. But if you want to learn how to identify hawks, remember that the only way anyone ever gets good at hawk identification is to spend a lot of time watching them. Standard field guides are quite useful for identifying an occasional hawk when out birding, but sooner or later, and probably sooner, you’ll encounter a hawk too far off to see the field marks your field guide emphasizes. And hawks have enough variation in their plumage to make some nearby hawks tricky using a regular field guide. To become a true expert at hawk identification, Houghton Mifflin’s wonderful Hawks in Flight is the right choice.
The first edition of Hawks in Flight came out in 1988, with a foreword by Roger Tory Peterson. He’d spent most of his life promoting his own system of field marks for identifying birds, but praised Hawks in Flight for its holistic approach, helping us identify hawks using shape, size, and actions as much as plumage. That became my own personal hawk identification bible. But almost a quarter of a century later, the three men who put together Hawks in Flight have finally produced a second edition. At 342 pages, it’s a third bigger than the original. I loved David Sibley’s drawings on the endpapers of the original edition. They were line drawings of each species, illustrations of a bird’s topography, and head-on profiles of several species soaring or gliding. Perfect as they seemed to me, Sibley managed to improve the drawings for this edition. The first edition included 23 fairly widespread species; the second edition includes 34, including the North American raptors with more limited range. To accommodate the extra species on the endpapers meant the head-on profiles were taken off the endpapers, but Sibley improved and expanded those, too, placing them within the species accounts.
Illustrations in the species accounts of the first edition of Hawks in Flight were limited to Sibley’s excellent black-and-white drawings. Way in the back of the book were black-and-white photographs, some of marginal quality. The new edition adds a plethora of color photos to the species accounts. In the entry for a fairly straightforward species, the American Kestrel, there are four drawings by Sibley and 9 photos. For a much more variable species, the Red-tailed Hawk, there are 20 illustrations and 29 photos.
Hawks in Flight is way more text-heavy than a standard field guide. People wanting a quick, simple way to identify hawks with pictures will get a lot of information, but reading the text with the referenced illustrations is what this book is all about. Imagine gleaning a lifetime of hawk-watching experience from not just Pete Dunne, David Sibley, and Clay Sutton, but also from three hawk authorities whose knowledge is legendary: Jerry Liguori, Allen Fish, and Duluth’s own treasured hawk authority, Frank Nicoletti. These men shared so much information that according to the book’s introduction, they should be listed as co-authors. A close reading of this book over the winter is quite honestly the best single preparation for getting out there and identifying North American hawks that anyone could ever have.  

DISCLAIMERS: Houghton Mifflin sent me a review copy for free, though I would have bought it with my own money otherwise, because I really wanted this book for my library. I've met David Sibley once (I have a photo of him, me, and Archimedes!), we corresponded a few times several years ago, and we were guests together on Larry Meiller's Wisconsin Public Radio program once. Pete Dunne used to remember who I was when I was young and slender, but the last few times I've met him he didn't remember me at all. I've never met or corresponded with Clay Sutton, Jerry Liguori, or Allen Fish. I'm one of Frank Nicoletti's biggest fans, and he actually lived with my family one migration season before he moved permanently to Duluth. I'm predisposed to like anything he does, because his hawk identification skills are exemplary, but this book stands on its own--I'd have loved it no matter what.

Book Review: National Geographic's "Bird Watcher's Bible"

When I started birding in 1975, there were very few bird books in print at any given time. Even when Russ and I were both students on an extremely limited budget, I managed to build up a reasonably complete birding library. Now there are an order of magnitude more books out there. Book stores often have a several shelves of bird books within their nature sections. A couple of publishers send me copies of new books, and I always feel awash in new books to read and review.

I don’t like writing negative reviews. the impulse to tear down the work of other people to make our own work seem superior seems childishly petulant. Plus I worry about dismissing some new project and then realizing I’ve missed some really good elements. And it seems wrong to draw people’s attention to something of poor quality rather than spending my time letting them know about really good bird books that they might not know about. The only time I write a negative review is when a new book garnering a lot of undeserved praise at the expense of better but less well known books.

This fall, National Geographic issued a brand new book, their Bird Watcher’s Bible, which belongs in every bird watcher’s library.  The cover says it’s a "complete treasury" including "science, know-how, beauty, and lore," and it fully lives up to that. It’s lavishly illustrated—when I slowly fanned through the pages, I did not see a single page that didn’t have at least one drawing or photo, and National Geographic’s designers did a great job of pulling it all into a gorgeous book. At 392 pages, it’s rather expensive—$40. I paid for my own copy, and it was worth every penny. 

Large sections of the book were written by three of the best bird writers out there. Kimball Garret, a well-known birder and top ornithologist who manages collections at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County and is the lead author on the excellent Peterson field guide to warblers and important books about birding in California, wrote the sections in the Bird Watcher’s Bible on “The Anatomy of a Bird” and “The Life of a Bird.” Catherine Herbert Howell, who writes about natural history and contributed to three editions of National Geographic’s field guide to birds, wrote the chapters “Birds through the Ages” and “Science Discovers the Bird.” 

Perhaps my favorite bird author of all, Scott Weidensaul, who was nominated for a Pulitzer for his exquisite Living on the Wind: Across the Hemisphere with Migratory Birds, wrote the rich introduction about “The Birds in Your World,” the detailed chapter on “Flight and Migration,” and a section, “Birdographies,” that includes brief portraits of 48 of the world’s favorite birds.

Two other chapters, “To Be a Birder” and “Bringing the Birds Back Home,” were put together by the fourth author and the book’s editor, Jonathan Alderfer, who is National Geographic’s birding consultant and a superb artist who contributed illustrations to four editions of the National Geographic field guide to birds. He’s also the co-author of the National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America that I just finished—our book will be out in spring, 2013. 

Working with Jonathan Alderfer of course made me predisposed to like the Bird Watcher's Bible, but it stands fully on its own merits. As a matter of fact, from the moment I opened it, I kept thinking how much I wish I’d written it myself. 

National Geographic’s Bird Watcher’s Bible is both fun and enlightening to read, lovely to look at, and provides a sound background in virtually every aspect of birds. No single book provides both the depth and breadth of information this book has, and the writing and illustrations are fun and extremely accessible. It’s a book I loved from start to finish.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Book Review: Music of the Birds, Volume I by Lang Elliott and Marie Read

As a writer and a reader, I love the smell and feel of real books, but I’ve adjusted to reading Kindle and Nook books on my iPad. When I’m traveling, it’s wonderful to bring along a single compact piece of electronic equipment in place of bulky books and magazine articles. As an added bonus, when Russ falls asleep while I’m still reading, it’s nice to be able to turn off my light and continue reading on the iPad. Project Gutenberg has put a whole lot of no-longer-copyrighted books into digital format, so I’ve been able to read a plethora of old bird books and the complete memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, too.

Virtually every electronic book I’ve read has been a straightforward digital text version of a printed book. Some of the bird apps I’ve bought, such as the digital Sibley field guide, have a good variety of sounds as well as illustrations, but overall, the digital format hasn’t changed the media nearly as much as I’d hoped. One of the most charming elements of Harry Potter was how the magical books and newspapers seem to come alive, people looking directly at the reader and moving. It seemed like the greatest innovation for eBooks could be to bring subjects to life, with both movement and sound.

Now, finally, there is a birding eBook that is every bit as magical as anything in Harry Potter. Lang Elliott and Marie Read, two of my favorite people, have put together an amazing eBook available via iTunes: Music of the Birds, Volume 1. The book features extraordinary photos, close-up, high definition video, and wonderful sound recordings of 20 North American birds, including species such as Rose-breasted Grosbeak, American Robin, Blue Jay, and Chipping Sparrow. According to iTunes, “This eBook has been made specifically to take full advantage of the extraordinary multimedia capabilities of the exciting new electronic medium.” I think that understates the case—this book is as magical as anything in Harry Potter.

I’ve spent countless mornings creeping up slowly on drumming Ruffed Grouse. Music of the Birds has amazing Ruffed Grouse videos so high definition it allows me to relive those experiences better than I’ve ever been able to do with any other media before. The soft greenery of the forest floor is so lush I can almost smell it. The Ruffed Grouse video is richer for my having sneaked up on so many drumming grouse in real life, and even the most beautiful and high definition video on an iPad is a poor substitute for reality, but being able to conjure reality when I can’t be creeping up on a grouse is pretty darned wonderful. To me that single video alone is worth the price of the eBook—just $7.99—and the other videos are equally good.

Music of the Birds is currently available only on iTunes for iPad, and currently, the format doesn’t allow playing on a computer. Marie and Lang are planning to expand the formats so these wonderful productions will soon be enjoyed on other devices. Most of the sounds are perfect on the iPad’s built-in speakers, but as with all small speakers, low frequency sounds don’t transmit well. I’ve always used Ruffed Grouse drumming sounds to evaluate speakers, and sure enough, on the iPad they sound like pitiful clicks rather than resonant, deep thuds. Fortunately, headphones, including cheap ear buds, provide the full range of frequencies to bring it all to life. If you have an iPad and want an eBook that fully lives up to the magical promise of electronic media, Music of the Birds Volume 1 is the perfect choice. If you’re wondering whether it’s worth the price, you can download forfree an excellent sampler from iTunes.


Disclaimers: I've never met Lang Elliott, but for years he has generously allowed me to use his sound recordings for production of For the Birds. Virtually all the recordings you've heard on this program have been made by him. I have met Marie Read while I was in Ithaca, and if I'm very lucky, she and I may work on a project or two together in the future.

I paid out of my own pocket for my copy of Music of the Birds Volume I, and don't think my relationship to either of the authors has influenced my opinion of their work. Really, I went to some lengths to meet Marie in Ithaca because I did so admire her work, and I've been a huge fan of Lang Elliott's for a very, very long time.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Election 2012

Common Loon

My elementary school didn’t have any sports teams, so when I started high school, I was bewildered when we used class time for all-school assemblies for pep rallies. Suddenly I was expected to have team spirit and cheer on teams of kids I didn’t know and boo other teams with kids I didn’t know. It seemed ridiculous. I never questioned my love for the Chicago Cubs—my grandpa loved the Cubs, and so of course I did. Had my Grandpa loved the White Sox, I’d have grown up a White Sox fan, and would find it bewildering that anyone would cheer on the Cubs. When it comes right down to it, there are no valid reasons for cheering on some teams and booing others, other than sentimental reasons and unquestioned family traditions.    

People have always chosen our political parties in a somewhat similar way to how we choose our sports favorites. We start out either adopting our family’s political leanings or rejecting them to prove we’re not like our family. Little by little as we grow more mature we learn that neither party represents every one of our views. Particular candidates have specialized knowledge and passion for particular issues. That’s when we start splitting our ticket to choose the particular candidates whose stands most closely reflect our own.

But now more and more Americans seem to be identifying with political parties in the same unquestioned way that we identify with sports teams. Being an environmentalist with a particular focus on bird conservation, I was of course horrified during the last presidential debate when Mitt Romney disparaged the federal prosecutors who sought criminal charges when birds died in the Bakken oil field. He asked, “What was the cost, 20 or 25 birds were killed?” The number of carcasses retrieved was 28, and the likelihood was that orders of magnitude more carcasses from that site were never found. In 1997, the U.S.Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that 2 million migratory birds were lost each year to oil pits throughout the United States, and they’ve been trying to reduce the problem with fairly straightforward and affordable ways which the owners and operators of the Bakken oil fields have been ignoring. Those criminal charges were reasonable, though a federal judge dismissed the case, saying the bird deaths were an “incidental or unintended effect” of oil production.

But Barack Obama never answered Romney, and doesn’t seem to be aware that the tiny bit of oversight Fish and Wildlife still has to enforce the Migratory Bird Act is being eroded. Neither of them mentioned the BP oil spill, and both of them seemed to be in a contest to see who was willing to drill the most on public lands and waters. Neither of them mentioned the word “conservation” and neither mentioned climate change or global warming. 

I don’t think it’s even possible in today’s world for anyone with environmental knowledge and commitment to reach high office or to become a federal judge. The country was extremely polarized in the 60s and 70s, too, yet the same president who coined the term “environmental wacko” signed into law the Clean Air Act and Endangered Species Act, and a bipartisan Congress overrode his veto of the Clean Water Act.

Unprecedented numbers of dead loons are washing up on shores of the Great Lakes this fall, but that news isn’t making front pages in the same way as the flaming Cuyahoga River did in the 60s. I’m afraid that the way our political system is working today, and the way fewer and fewer people have wildlife and the environment on their radar screens, things will get much worse than they were in the 70s before we’ll do anything at all to fix them.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Birding in the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary

Allen's Hummingbird

Last week I spent a few days in Orange County, California, as a speaker for the North American Bluebird Society. I didn’t have a car and was only there for a short time, so my birding was fairly minimal, but I did get to spend a couple of hours one morning at the San Joaquin Wildlife Sanctuary. This 300-acre freshwater marsh is owned and operated by the Irvine Ranch Water District, and the Sea and Sage Audubon Society operates a nature center and provides conservation and education programs. At least 282 bird species have been recorded there, 170 of which occur regularly. I saw only a tiny fraction of them, but had a magnificent time.

Allen's Hummingbird

I spent quite a bit of time at the parking lot by the Audubon center, where a lovely flower garden pulled in several hummingbirds. Most were Allen’s Hummingbirds, which look a lot like Rufous Hummingbirds and act excessively feisty like them. I’ve seen them a few times before, but never got photos until now. Their excessive territoriality meant they kept chasing off the bigger Anna’s Hummingbirds, so I got just one quick photo of an Anna’s compared to dozens of Allen’s.

Anna's Hummingbird

Due to hot dry weather, water levels in the ponds were extremely low. A man who worked for the water district came up and warned us that he’d be turning on a loud machine to pump more water into the ponds. He was so nice and polite about it, as if a noisy pump bothering us could have any standing compared to the important work of maintaining the water levels so critical to the birds we were enjoying.

American Avocet

A lot of birds are drawn to those pools. Avocets and Black-necked Stilts were perhaps the most eye-catching, at least at first, but we also saw Forster’s and Least Terns, plenty of ducks including all three species of teal, and a bazillion Western Sandpipers—another species I’d never had confirmed photos of before this day. They look a lot like our eastern Semipalmated Sandpipers, and for many decades birders seemed to see both on a good day of birding during migration, until more careful analysis indicated that the Western Sandpipers actually do live up to their name. 

Great Blue Heron eating fish

But as cool as it was enjoying a genuinely Western species that I only rarely get to see, I think my favorite sight was at the end, just before we headed out. We came upon a Great Blue Heron that had just caught a small catfish. Catfish spines are quite nasty, and the fish had been caught in the mucky bottom so it was pretty muddy. We watched the heron drop it into the water twice and pick it up again, getting most of the mud off it and waiting until it died and the spines relaxed before actually swallowing it. I’d make a terrible predator—I virtually always feel sad for the fish when I watch these dramatic events. But the heron worked so hard to get the fish ready and positioned for swallowing, and even the act of swallowing it seemed so hard, that I ended up feeling even more sympathy for the heron. 

Great Blue Heron eating fish

I’m hoping I’ll figure out a way to spend more time along the Pacific next year, when I hope to do a Conservation Big Year. My two hours at the San Joaquin Wildlife Preserve sure whetted my appetite!

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Making Our Windows Safe for Birds

Black-and-white Warbler

Before winter descends in earnest, it’s a good idea to check your bird feeding station for potential dangers. It’s a dreadful irony to invite birds in for human enjoyment if the price they pay is injury or even death.

The windows through which we so enjoy watching our winter birds are treacherous deathtraps. Windows kill half a billion to as many as a billion birds in the United States every year. Of birds that hit windows and fly away, studies conclude that a full 50 percent die later from head trauma and other collision-related injuries. Many of these birds aren’t drawn into our yards by feeders: every spring and fall I hear of residential house window mortality by Ovenbirds, cuckoos, and other insectivores that never visit feeders. Some of these were attracted to yards by all the bird activity even though they themselves don’t visit feeders. I’ve been brought dead and injured saw-whet and Boreal Owls that had been drawn to feeding stations not for bird seed but for the birds themselves.

Many window-related deaths take place in cities—birds have to pass through all kinds of habitat in their journeys to the tropics, and many nocturnal migrants are disoriented by lights at skyscraper windows up at the elevations at which the birds are migrating. Several large cities have organizations that work on minimizing those kills by encouraging owners and managers to douse the lights on good migration nights. [See the Fatal Light Awareness Program's website.) But kills at lower windows are just as bad, and trickier for us to deal with. A recent study inEdmonton found that birds are, as one might expect, most likely to be killed in areas where their numbers are most dense—in other words, in rural areas, in established urban areas that have many mature trees, and near bird feeding stations. So whatever we can do to minimize the issues in our yards does make a difference.

Unfortunately, making our windows safe for birds isn’t easy. When you’re installing new windows, double-hung windows with the screens on the outside are the only windows that are actually bird-friendly, at least as long as those screens stay up. You can affix decals or tape to the outside of the glass—including some sold by the American Bird Conservancy—to help birds see the glass, but it’s important to remember that in nature birds easily negotiate flying rapidly between branches. The only way decals or tape work effectively is when you leave no more space between them than a spread hand.

Bird Screening

Setting bird netting on the outside of a window can help, too, though it’s tricky to get it set to be taut enough to work as a trampoline rather than a bird trap. The BirdScreen Company customizes window screening designed to be hung on the outside of windows; creative people can devise similar systems for themselves.

Whether or not you can get up external screening, decals, or tape, set your feeders directly on the glass or window framing. When birds fly off from a feeder set any further than 3 feet away from the window, they can collide at top speed. When we set feeders any further than that while still at a comfortable distance for our viewing pleasure, we are unknowingly setting a deathtrap. One Mother’s Day, my husband and kids built a big platform feeder set into the framing of our dining room window, and since then not a single bird has crashed into what had been a real killer. Now THAT was a gift that keeps on giving.

Pileated Woodpecker

The Changing of the Guard

White-throated Sparrow detail

When I flew to New Hampshire on September 23, my yard teemed with mid-fall migrants. Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers flitted about in the trees. Robins and a variety of other thrushes filled the fruit trees and shrubs throughout my neighborhood. Blue Jays lined up along every edge of every feeder, the overflow waiting their turns up in the trees. I kept my window feeder filled with both sunflower seeds and peanuts. Most jays look at that as a lucky find, but a couple seemed to figure out that I was the peanut lady and would fly in the moment I appeared. As fun as it is to have jays that recognize and approach me, I’m hoping those are migrants rather than birds that will stick around all winter, because I’m going to be out of town quite a bit and don’t want to disappoint them when I’m not here. Russ is great at keeping the feeders stocked when I’m gone, but he often leaves for work while it’s still dark and doesn’t get back until after dark. I’m pretty even-keeled about squirrels in most of my feeders, but chase them out of my window feeder—something Russ can’t do from work—so I’m leery of asking him to leave peanuts when I’m not there to keep track of who is taking them.

Blue Jays

My yard also had the usual suspects—chickadees, a few Mourning doves and woodpeckers, one or two White-breasted Nuthatches, and a bazillion Red-breasted Nuthatches. But the birds that were stopping passersby because they were so very abundant and active last week were the sparrows. I counted 200 White-throated Sparrows at a time on Saturday the 22nd, along with a few Harris’s and Fox Sparrows and one Lincoln’s. Several White-crowned Sparrows were seen at Hawk Ridge, just above my neighborhood, but I hadn’t found one in my own yard yet. I felt sad taking off at the peak of the mid-season migration, knowing how fleeting it is.

Harris's Sparrow

Sure enough, when I returned on September 30, I still have lots of robins and jays, but only a fraction of the number I had a week earlier and no other thrushes at all. Some Blue Jays and a handful of robins may remain into the winter, but most have moved on. I still have a dozen or so sparrows, most still White-throated Sparrows, but now juncos and an American Tree Sparrow have replaced the Harris’s, Fox, and Lincoln’s Sparrows. Temperatures were balmy and leaf color gorgeous when I returned, but a true changing of the guard took place while I was out of town.

Dark-eyed Junco

Little by little, winter will take over and most of the birds I’m seeing right now will vanish. I’m headed back out of town, to California, tomorrow. I’ll be gone only five days this time, and although the weather is supposed to be more wintry later in the week, I expect some of these late fall birds will still be here when I return. There should be more juncos next week than this, and with luck, a handful will remain for the duration. But I’m not counting on it. Every year’s adjustment to winter is a sorrowful process of relinquishing, one by one, the plants and animals that defined the riches of summer and autumn. Winter will bring its own treasures and pleasures, frozen intensity making up for the tinier species composition. It’s always an adjustment to send species after species south or under cover with so few to take their place, but even this dwindling is strangely comforting. As Rachel Carson noted, “There is something infinitely healing in the repeated refrains of nature--the assurance that dawn comes after night, and spring after the winter.” And as climate change proceeds apace, I am finding reassurance in every sign of good old-fashioned frozen winter.

Black-capped Chickadee

Monday, October 1, 2012

Birding Northern New Hampshire

Spruce Grouse

I spent last week birding in New Hampshire. On Wednesday, I went north, to the White Mountains, in hopes of pretty much the same northern birds we get in the Sax-Zim Bog and Boundary Waters area. Unfortunately, New Hampshire is prone to the same autumn weather patterns that we are in the North Woods. I’d had a perfect sunny day on Monday on the coast, and a perfect sunny day on Thursday when I went to a popular hawk watch site, but Wednesday started out rainy and although the drizzling finally stopped, the gloomy darkness remained. We didn’t see many birds at all thanks to the weather, but I didn’t even care. I was out with one of the premier birders in the state, Dave Govatski, who has personally hiked every single mile of trail in the White Mountain trail guide, and personally skied every mile of cross country ski trails in his entire state. He’s one of the most committed conservationists I’ve ever met, who spearheaded a lot of great projects to protect valuable habitat and to create wonderful paths and boardwalks to make them accessible with minimal damage to vulnerable ecosystems. I know a lot of people who are creative and knowledgeable, who can come up with great ideas for protecting important places, but Dave is not just a visionary—he’s a doer and an effective project manager who has the practical experience, passion, and energy to see the projects all the way through, beginning with the fundraising. He’s a veteran, and credits his military experience with giving him the practical know-how to get things done.

Dave brought me to several spots where moose are often seen, including places where some people had seen them earlier that day, but we didn’t see any at all. I’d seen one feeding in a pond while driving up to his house, but that was on an interstate with a semi right behind me and one in the left lane, so I had no margin of error to slow down at all. Moose are very much threatened by climate change, their future not at all secure, but despite the fact that I didn’t get any good looks, they seem to be doing quite well in New Hampshire, where there are moose crossing signs all over the place.

Dave Govatski and I also got skunked on Boreal Chickadee, Gray Jay, and Black-backed Woodpecker. We crossed the Vermont border to get to the place Dave thought would be best for Spruce Grouse, and in that case we had wonderful luck, with a gorgeous male right there on the path ahead of us. As we approached, the bird didn’t flush—he simply strolled a short ways off the trail, giving me wonderful looks. I don’t like to use flash, and the light was very, very poor, but I took dozens of photos and a few turned out okay, even taken at 1/20 of a second using an ISO of 1600. 

Spruce Grouse

As fun as it was spending a day with a superb naturalist, it was also fun to meet Dave’s wife, who actually lived on Peabody Street when she was a little girl. Her house was just a couple of blocks from mine, and she went to St. Michael’s School just down from me. This of course made me think of the differences between human migrations and bird migration, which somehow doesn’t seem as random. Then again, I didn’t ask a single bird I encountered whether it had spent time in Duluth, and now I’ve migrated back. I could ask my backyard birds whether any of them have spent time in New Hampshire, but I suspect that most of them aren’t talking.

Black-capped Chickadee