Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Birding Alone vs. Birding in Groups and on Tours

Black-capped Chickadee peeking in my window waiting for mealworms
This Black-capped Chickadee peeks into my window to see where I am.
I've always enjoyed traveling to new places, and that enjoyment increased manyfold when I became a birder. In my own backyard, I know what species I can expect from day to day and can keep tabs on special individual birds. After traveling a few days or weeks, it's lovely to crank open my window and instantly have my good old chickadees alighting on my hand again. Yet as much as I treasure my backyard birds, every now and then I am seized by a powerful wanderlust. This January I drove to Florida for a couple of weeks. I love exploring places on my own. This year at one spot, I came upon a mother raccoon with three half-grown youngsters, and further on found an otter basking in the sun. I'd seen the otter earlier, running in that wonderful wavy lope characteristic of otters, and now it was resting. If I'd been with a group, we'd have quickly moved on to the next thing, but being alone, I could park myself near these beautiful animals for as long as I wanted.

Mother raccoon and baby at Viera Wetlands

Otter basking at Viera Wetlands
Last week I had an entirely different kind of birding experience--I went on one of Kim Eckert's Minnesota Birding Week adventures. Kim's been leading these trips for over 30 years, and they're always wonderful. Kim is intimately familiar with all the Texas birding hotspots, keeps in touch with virtually all the serious birders of the area, and has matchless bird finding and identification skills, so if a bird is anywhere to be found, people on his trips have as good a chance or better of seeing them than anyone going it alone.

Between about noon on Saturday, February 16, and Sunday, February 24, our group saw a total of 201 species, of which I personally saw 199, so in one week I saw more species than I'd seen in the previous 6 weeks of 2013, adding almost 100 species to my year list. Texas bird numbers are way down this year, based on my own personal experience and on what all the local birders were saying. Extended extreme drought conditions have taken a toll, sending some species elsewhere and almost certainly causing high levels of mortality in others.

Despite bad conditions, we had wonderful looks at some exceptionally difficult species. We started at 7 each morning and birded until almost dark each day. Each day was intense, but to offset the occasional frustration in not being able to spend as much time watching something fun, it's nice to put all the trip planning and driving in someone else's hands. I'm always a bit exhausted at day's end, but it's the good kind of exhaustion wherein I fall asleep with visions of Green Jays, Altamira Orioles, Whooping Cranes, and other amazing birds.

Green Jay
Green Jay
I spend a lot of time studying birds on my own, and I’ve always observed that I learn the birds of an area by searching them out one by one on my own. People who do virtually all their birding on group trips are seldom as strong on identification skills as those who bird alone. But it’s much easier to maximize the variety of birds seen in a new area in the company of a truly professional guide like Kim Eckert and a group of good birders who help spot things. I think the ideal approach is a combination of the two. On my Texas trip we saw and I photographed a large variety of wonderful birds, including a Flammulated Owl (well, his tummy feathers),

Flammulated Owl
Flammulated Owl's tummy feathers
 a small group of White-collared Seedeaters,

White-collared Seedeater
White-collared Seedeater
 and even a Crimson-collared Grosbeak.

Crimson-collared Grosbeak
Crimson-collared Grosbeak (immature)
  In coming weeks I'll be talking more about these and other exciting species, mostly at my Conservation Big Year website.

Why I love living in Duluth

Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl
When Russ finished his Ph.D. and was considering potential jobs, I strongly lobbied for the job offer he got in Duluth. Yes, we were about to start a family and it would be nice to live near where his parents had retired in Port Wing, Wisconsin, and yes, his decision was going to affect his professional standing and career for the rest of his life, but I admit it—my only real consideration was the birding. I still needed Great Gray Owl, Northern Hawk Owl, Boreal Owl, and Boreal Chickadee on my lifelist. And to spend each summer day where my most treasured warblers and dear little Le Conte’s Sparrow actually breed, and to have Evening Grosbeaks as year-round backyard birds—imagine that!

Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeaks

I was expecting my first baby when we moved here in early 1981, but despite my pregnancy and then our having a newborn, within that same year I’d added two of the owls and the Boreal Chickadee to my lifelist. It took a few years longer to luck into finally seeing a Boreal Owl, but even before that I’d experienced their magic. In 1983, a former Duluth doctor named Benton Basham was working on a Big Year and asked Kim Eckert to take him to a Boreal Owl. Benton was aiming to break the 700-species-in-a-single-year barrier as well as the all-time record for a Big Year. To accomplish this, he needed to minimize how many days he spent looking for each rare bird, which is why he asked Kim to take him out for Boreal Owl in April. And Kim generously invited me to come along to the Gunflint Trail with them.

That beautiful evening is seared into my memory. Northern lights streamed in the sky in the most beautiful display I’d ever seen. In the ethereal brightness, an American Woodcock performed his skydance over and over, long into the night. After each flight, he alighted on the roadside right in front of us, the first time I’d ever actually watched a woodcock peent. And over and above the woodcock’s peents, from deep within the shadowed forest rang out a Boreal Owl’s sharp calls. That was before the American Birding Association allowed people to count heard-only birds on our official lifelists, but the joy of the evening was too intense for me to care about that.

I finally added Boreal Owl to my lifelist on February 1, 1987, when my friend Vada Rudolph discovered one in Saginaw. We’ve had a few irruption years since then, when they’ve descended on the Northland in large numbers, so I’ve even been able to see one once in my own backyard.

During the years I was rehabbing, I held many Boreal Owls in my own hands. My best experience was when someone brought me one in March 1996, the night before the manuscript for my book Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids was due at the publisher, when I was also to head out for Nebraska to watch Sandhill Cranes. I was up all night with the little owl on my lap at the computer. First he needed fluids and then I started feeding him Gerber strained chicken while I tried to make the final edits to my book, getting up frequently to clean off my goopy keyboard. In the morning, after never getting to bed, I dropped off my manuscript and then headed toward Nebraska, dropping off the owl at the Raptor Center in the Twin Cities en route. Someone from the Raptor Center later told me that of several emaciated Boreal Owls brought to them that year, mine was the only one who survived.

Billie Anderson and me with Boreal Owl
Billie Anderson and me with the Boreal Owl I helped in 1996

Anyway, six years after moving here, I’d seen all my target birds, but long after life birds have been few and far between, I’ve loved living in this wonderful area characterized by the most haunting species of owls, the most beautiful of breeding warblers, and a host of other birds that make me feel part of one of the loveliest avian communities in the world.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Boreal Owl update

Boreal Owl
Boreal Owl seen on Superb Owl Sunday

I recently wrote about a Boreal Owl Russ and I watched on Super Bowl Sunday—or what I call Superb Owl Sunday. Birders from as far as Scotland have been descending on Duluth to see these birds, and Sam Cook wrote about them in a Sunday Duluth News Tribune.
All the attention and all the birders have been making drives down Highway 61 more interesting than usual. In the same way that Turkey Vultures locate good thermals by watching for other Turkey Vultures already floating on them, birders sometimes locate good birds by watching for other birders already looking at them. It’s way easier to spot a dozen birders gathered on the roadside, binoculars, spotting scopes, and cameras pointed at a 10-inch cryptically-colored bird, than to notice that tiny camouflaged mite in the first place.

I think it would be impossible for me to have a better time with a Boreal Owl than I already have this year, so I haven’t been searching for them or chasing reported ones down, but it’s been ever so fun and exciting to read about other birders’ sightings, and to forward messages about ones being observed right that minute to out-of-towners who are still searching. The thrill of hearing people’s joyous experiences with these exquisite creatures, often for the first time in many years of birding, has been giving me plenty of vicarious joy. Part of the fun this year comes about thanks to social media—text messages and emails accessed via cell phones are getting more people to the right place at the right time than has ever before been possible. Duluth’s cadre of professional birding guides has been sharing information among themselves, and a couple of them have been at least occasionally keeping me in the loop so I can also help visiting birders.

Of course, the huge number of birders and photographers involved and this kind of immediacy are also leading to problems. When one Boreal Owl was hunting on the edge of the tree line off Highway 61, one well-known professional wildlife photographer ran off the road toward it, chasing the little predator until it fled into the woods. Another well-known author/photographer lured a Boreal Owl across the highway—a dangerous road with fast-moving traffic—by setting out pet-store mice for it on the far side. There were witnesses to both these egregious lapses of ethics, but I can’t help but wonder, if such prominent people who tout themselves as conservationists can do such unethical things in front of people, how are they getting their photos when no one’s around to see? That was very disillusioning, and I’m glad they were soundly chastised both when they were caught in the act and later on the Internet.

Fortunately, the vast majority of birders and photographers here have been enjoying the birds from a respectful distance. Some people are naturally worried that big crowds of birders might be disturbing the owls, but even without birders, Highway 61 and the Scenic North Shore Drive are busy and noisy, yet the owls along them have been observed hunting successfully. It’s almost certainly more disturbing when busloads of birders comb the much more remote Sax-Zim Bog during their annual birding festival, but that once-a-year event has raised awareness of northern birds, including vulnerable species, and virtually all the field trip leaders are conscientious about protecting the birds. When I weigh the interests of birders vs. birds, I would much prefer erring on the side of the birds, so I’m glad that so far most of the Boreal Owls have been seen hunting successfully, and most of the birders have been exemplary in behavior toward one another and toward the owls on Highway 61. 

No, birds do not give birth to chicks

Last time I talked about the oldest known wild bird, a Laysan Albatross nicknamed “Wisdom” who is still, at 62 years of age, producing and successfully raising young. Since her chick from this year hatched on February 3, a lot of news reports have covered the story. I’ve read the news releases put out by the US Geological Survey and know they presented accurate information, but some of the media got two important elements wrong.

First, Wisdom is definitely not the oldest bird in the world—some captive parrots live into their 80s—and she’s probably not even the oldest wild bird. What she is is the oldest wild bird that we know about. The vast majority of birds, including the vast majority of albatrosses, are never banded, so we have no means of tracking their age. Most banded birds are never retrapped—the way we get data on their ages usually comes from finding a dead bird with a leg band and finding out when it was first banded. Of the birds that are banded, only a tiny fraction are caught again, and only in a few careful studies, such as Ryan Brady’s tracking of the oldest known Northern Shrike, are bands carefully scrutinized year after year—even in his case, Ryan puts a unique combination of color bands on each banded shrike’s legs so that he doesn’t actually have to catch them repeatedly to verify their returns.

In the case of Wisdom the Albatross, the hard work and tenacity of one man, Chandler Robbins, was necessary to confirm Wisdom’s age. Leg bands deteriorate over time, and hers has been replaced with a new one several times since 1956. Each time a band is replaced, the old one’s number is recorded, but that provides just one entry in the Bird Banding Lab’s enormous database. Of the very few birds whose leg bands ever need replacing, only a tiny fraction need the replacement replaced even once, much less several times. So there has never been a specific and easy-to-use protocol for tracing replacement leg bands that were replacing already-replaced ones, much less a way to trace them through four or five or even more changes. Chandler Robbins is painstakingly going through the database, tracking each change on the Midway albatross bands, which is how he confirmed in 2001 that this particular bird was, indeed, one of the ones he’d banded in 1956. 

Some of the birds banded then may have moved to more remote islands, and some birds living back then may have eluded capture all along, so we’ll never know if she’s the oldest surviving albatross on Midway Island, much less if Laysan Albatrosses living elsewhere are just as old or older. We don’t even know for sure how old Wisdom was in 1956—all we know is that at that time she was nesting, so was a minimum of 5 years old. For all we know, she could have been 10 or 20 at that time.

Next, Wisdom did not give birth to an egg—she laid it—and certainly did not "give birth to a live hatchling" or "birth a chick"—something that would deservedly make headlines. Her chick hatched from an egg on February 3. I do occasionally refer to a bird’s hatch-out day as its birthday, but that’s stretching the truth by quite a bit. Some reptiles produce extremely thin-shelled eggs retained in the mother’s body until they hatch and the young can crawl out. That may be interpreted by some as giving birth, but birds don't do anything like this. I don’t know if headline writers belong to a group of people that tuned out their elementary and high school biology classes, but if they were daydreaming while looking out the window, I wish they’d have noticed the birds out there. 

It’s thrilling that the news media recognize a good story when they see it, and most of the headlines and stories presented the news accurately, but it’s depressing to have found yet more examples of the media’s lack of understanding of such a basic part of natural history and biology. I wish that when people taught kids about "the birds and the bees," they'd actually teach them something about the birds and the bees. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

Oldest Known Wild Bird

(My birding adventures this year are being posted at my Conservation Big Year blog.)

Now that I turned 60 over a year ago and have had a chance to test the waters a bit, I can affirm that not only is being in one’s sixties far, far better than the alternative, but also that the sixties can provide as many wonderful experiences as any other decade. Since turning 60, I’ve seen my lifer California Condor, taken my best photos ever of Northern Gannets, Boreal Owls, and even otters, become an author of a National Geographic bird book, and overall been having a jolly good time.

But one albatross—the only wild bird known for certain to be even older than I am—seems to be putting my activity level to shame. Back in early 1956, Chandler Robbins banded a breeding female Laysan Albatross on Midway Island in the Pacific. Today Robbins is one of the most respected and beloved ornithologists in the world—the lead author of the Golden Guide field guide and the man who started the Breeding Bird Survey—but then he was a hard-working young employee of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, working on the banding project in order to work out win-win strategies to save the Midway albatrosses from extermination while protecting military aircraft coming and going on the island.

We have no idea how old the albatross was at the time, but she had to be at least 5 years old to be nesting, so she had hatched out at the latest in January or February of 1951, and may well have hatched years earlier. Since Robbins originally banded her in 1956, her leg band has been replaced several times—leg bands can easily last a decade and sometimes more, but birds are overall sturdier than aluminum or plastic. In 2001, Chandler Robbins started tracing records of each band replacement of the older birds on the island, and realized that this particular albatross was one of his 1956 cohort of banded birds. That’s when she was given the name “Wisdom.” Now she’s at least 62 years old, yet in late 2012 she and her mate produced yet another fertile egg, which hatched on February 3, 2013. Chandler Robbins told reporters, “While I have grown old and gray and get around only with the use of a cane, Wisdom still looks and acts just the same as on the day I banded her.”

Some people have commented to me that her feathers look awfully good for being 62 years old, but they’re not—albatrosses replace every one of their body feathers once a year along with many of their flight feathers, and none of the flight feathers are older than three or four years old. So she doesn’t have to worry about going gray. Being a bird, she also doesn’t need to concern herself with stray hairs growing in on her chin or giving her an unwanted mustache. Unlike humans, birds of both sexes are usually attracted to the oldest mate they can find—experience counts for a lot, and unlike us mere mammals, avian fertility and the ability to ability to raise young seldom diminish with time. And birds of neither sex bother with mirrors anyway, going about their lives without stressing about superficial matters.
I take supplements that include Omega-3 fatty acids to prevent my creaking joints from getting sore. I presume Wisdom’s fishy diet protects her from that sort of thing, but nevertheless, all the obstacles a bird faces make surviving for 62 years darned remarkable. 

The researchers tracking her estimate that she has flown up to 3 million miles since she was first banded. That’s “4 to 6 trips from the Earth to the Moon and back again with plenty of miles to spare,” said one spokesman. Like I said, she puts me to shame, and she’s still laying eggs and raising chicks. It’s ever so  lovely to realize that I’ve spent every single day of my life on the same planet as this remarkable bird. I hope she returns to Midway Island to raise chicks for many years to come.