Laura Erickson's For the Birds

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.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Leucistic Chickadee

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee

Last week I got an email from a nice woman named Lisa just south of Duluth. She’s had an almost all-white chickadee visiting her feeder for a while, so I drove down to see it.
Birds that have areas of pure white along with at least some areas of normal-colored plumage used to be called “partial albinos.” I like that term, because these birds are entirely different from those who have what used to be called “dilute” plumage. I learned to use the term “leucistic” for paler than normal birds, but nowadays most people refer to any bird with abnormal white or pale plumage, whether it’s in the form of white patches or all-over pale plumage, as “leucistic.”

I’ve only seen a handful of leucistic chickadees in my many years of birding, and this was the whitest one I’ve ever seen, though here and there it had little bits of dark and had a normal-colored bill. I wasn’t absolutely certain, but the eyes appeared to be normal, too. That’s a good thing, because eye pigments protect the retina from ultraviolet light. Without eye pigment protection, birds are subject to premature blindness.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee

White feathers may have some disadvantages in winter, if they’re flimsier without the added structural strength that pigments provide. Many mostly white bird species have black wingtips, the melanin making the feathers stronger exactly where they most need that structural strength. If pigments help feather barbs and barbules endure and hold together better, that may give an edge to normally colored chickadees in winter and any time when it’s raining.

Chickadee flocks have a hierarchical structure, birds choosing their mates across the hierarchical ladder. Their ranking corresponds to the amount of ultraviolet reflectance in the bib and cap. This leucistic bird may be lacking that, which would put its rank at the bottom of its flock, but it’s clearly been accepted into a flock, and if there are as many birds of the opposite sex in the flock, this one may well find a mate.

I just happen to be reading Moby Dick right now. There’s an internet site providing a daily chapter (Moby Dick Big Read), and I’m reading along as I listen. I just happened to listen to the chapter called “The Whiteness of the Whale” this week. Herman Melville found all kinds of fascinating cultural references to the color white, and expounded on the many ways we deify or demonize unusually white animals and people. To me this little chickadee, flying in with the flock and zipping back and forth from the feeder to a branch where it fed, seemed like any other chickadee in essentials. It was cool to see and photograph it. When the other chickadees flew in, I found them endearing, too, but my eyes kept being pulled toward the white one. 

It’s a human quality, quite possibly one we share with other animals, to take interest in the particular. When I’ve fed chickadees out of my hand, I took a lot of pleasure in recognizing individuals. That’s the special thing about an outlier. You can look at and enjoy every one of your chickadees, but when one just pops out so easily, it’s really exciting. Of course, it’s also a mercy that most chickadees look pretty much the same. When one stands out, we can’t help but notice if it stops coming, and we get more invested in its survival. That’s rather the opposite of Moby Dick, where the white whale’s paleness is what kept the poor thing in a very ugly spotlight. One never knows quite what to expect in the natural world, but I think it’s safe to say that Lisa’s great white chickadee won’t be encountering any harpoons in the foreseeable future.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee

Thursday, November 8, 2012

My First Nighthawk

Fred the Common Nighthawk

One of my favorite birds of all is the Common Nighthawk. I was taking a field ornithology class in the summer of 1975, and birding on my own every moment when I wasn’t in class, and had read about this wonderful bird. That day, our instructor described nighthawks—how they dart and weave in the sky, chasing flying insects with a flight pattern that matched in erraticness the flight patterns of its prey, their nasal peent calls and deep booming sounds, and their habit of nesting on rocky bare ground or on rock-ballasted flat roofs. 

That evening, Russ had to do some work in his lab at the Natural Resources Building at Michigan State University. I often tagged along to keep him company when he worked at night, but when we got to the parking lot and I saw the nighthawks, I was rooted to the spot. He went in and I parked myself right there, sitting on one of those parking space cement thingies for an hour or two, utterly mesmerized. The gracefully erratic flight was made even more beautiful because the white patches near the wingtips looked like crescent moons. 

One male persistently boomed nearby. I found that fascinating. The booming sound serves territorial and mate-attraction functions, but to me it looked like he was diving straight for the ground at high speed, realizing at the very last moment that he was going to crash and making a booming gasp as he righted himself just before bottoming out on asphalt. One time he plummeted down just two or three feet from my face, the wind reaching my bare legs as I watched, frozen in amazement. 

This was one of the seminal experiences my first year of birding. I’d been at Michigan State for over three years at that point and had never noticed this, not even once, until this night, after I’d read about nighthawks and learned more about them that very day in ornithology. I had started birding just 3 ½ months before, and had already seen such amazing sights as Scarlet Tanagers, Blackburnian Warblers, and Great Blue Herons—birds that had been in my world my entire life, but I’d never once noticed until the scales were removed from my eyes and ears by becoming a birder. When I was little, I’d once seen a dead Baltimore Oriole in my yard, the morning after the DDT truck drove by. But I never once had seen or heard a living one in my neighborhood, despite the elm trees in my yard. How much more was “out there” that I’d just never noticed until I cracked open a field guide and started looking?

Lat night I recounted my beautiful nighthawk memory to Russ. It jogged his memory of his own seminal experience in the Natural Resources Building parking lot. One night when I had not accompanied him when he had to work until almost midnight, he went out to the car and it wouldn’t start—the engine was deader than a doornail. He went inside and searched out one of the janitors who went out with him to jump the battery. Russ opened the hood and .... the battery was gone. Poof! Vanished! It would never in a million years have occurred to us that someone would steal the battery right out of our car. The janitor drove him home and next day we had to scrape up money for a new battery. Russ told our children this story when they were learning how to drive, explaining why cars nowadays have a hood release inside the car, so people can’t just open it and steal the battery.

So there you have it. Two different people’s memories taking place in the exact same place at the same time in our lives. My nighthawk memory is of course a lot pleasanter. So this is my cautionary tale on why people should become birders—our memories are a lot happier than those of people who don’t. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Top Ten Reasons for Being Happy about Turning 61

Laura Erickson

1. I'm reaching my prime! 61 is not just any prime number, either--it's a prime twin with 59 (two prime numbers separated by just one number.) And it may be the largest prime that divides the product of the next two primes plus 1. If there is a larger such prime, it would have to be greater than 179,424,673.

2. As a geek who has been called "square," I especially appreciate the fact that 61 is the sum of two squares, 5x5 and 6x6. And because 5 and 6 are consecutive numbers, 61 is a centered square number. It's also a centered hexagonal number and a centered decagonal number.

3. 61 is a Keith number, because it recurs in a Fibonacci-like sequence started from its base 10 digits: 6, 1, 7, 8, 15, 23, 38, 61...

4. Highway 61 goes from Duluth to Grand Marais, Where the Boids Are. (Bob Dylan wrote some unrelated music about the same highway, which runs south from Duluth to Mississippi.)

5. Roger Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961.

6. Elgin Baylor set the record (still standing) for number of points set by an individual player in an NBA finals game. He scored 61 points in a game against the Celtics at the culmination of the 1961-62 season.

7. In '61, the Beatles first performed at the Cavern Club and first met Brian Epstein. At that point, I'd never heard of them.

8. First American in space: Alan Shepard, on the Mercury Redstone 3 in May, '61. Being almost 61 years old, I remember this.

9. West Side Story was released as a movie in '61. I was too young and had too little money to see it then, but have since made up for lost time.

10. I started fifth grade in '61, with the best teacher EVER. And while I'm 61, I get to spend a day with him when we go to Disney World in January!!

Fifth Grade with Mr. Borkowski

Additional reasons 61 is a cool number
  • The #61 bird on my life list was the Bank Swallow, a sociable and graceful little bird that sports a band across its chest like the slot of a piggy bank, which helped me remember it. I saw my first during a field ornithology class excursion on June 23, 1975.
Bank Swallow
  • Number 61 on the Periodic Table is a geeky little atom called Promethium, discovered at Oak Ridge, TN, in 1945 (before I was born), named after "Prometheus" in Greek mythology, who stole fire from the gods. It's an element only a geek would even be aware of. From the website I linked to, "It appears that there is no known Pm existing in the earth's crust other than in very small quantities in uranium ores where it is present as a uranium decay product."