Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 28, 2013

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.