Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Mayday on May Day!

Spring 2013 isn’t halfway over, and already it’s one for the record books. We Northlanders will never forget the many snowfall records shattered already this month. I’m down in Oklahoma, and while snow was falling up north, the wind down here was as fierce and relentless as I’ve ever experienced. When I tried to get out of my car in the Wichita Mountains, I could not open the door against the powerful wind until I moved it to face the opposite direction. It was hard for me to walk, and during a 2-hour search of the refuge, I saw only a single bird in flight—one Red-winged Blackbird flew across the road against the wind. I felt locked in a surreal movie, the poor bird moving in literal slow motion. I stared in such amazement that I didn’t think to time it, but I bet it took at least 30 seconds to cross a two-lane road. Even the huge, hulking bison huddled on the ground on the lee side of rocky mounds or stands of trees. I naturally worried about all the other birds, especially the Scissor-tailed Flycatchers, who weigh less than 1 ½ ounces but have so much surface area due to those long tails.

Team Sapsucker

On Wednesday, April 24, a team of 6 birders representing the Cornell Lab of Ornithology did a “Big Day” in Texas. The most birds ever seen in a single day on one of these Big Days was 264, seen by this very team in both 2011 and 2012. This year, perfect migration conditions from the Yucatan Peninsula sent literally millions of birds north, right as a cold front over Texas stopped them cold as they reached the shore. Photos of masses of birds went zooming through the Internet. So many birds were concentrated at High Island that the team demolished their own record by 30, tallying an amazing 294 species. This was cause for celebration of course—not only was it thrilling for the team to see so many birds in such a short period, but they were doing it to raise money for bird conservation projects at the Lab.

But for me the celebration was bittersweet—so many birds arriving to cold temperatures when they were exhausted and hungry meant many ended up dying. And many of the survivors made it up to Wisconsin and Minnesota just before our record snowstorms—again, weather will take a toll.

Weather of course has always taken a toll on birds and other wildlife. On March 13, 1904, over 750,000 dead Lapland Longspurs were tallied on two small lakes in Worthington, MN, following a heavy, wet snowfall during heavy migration, and it was estimated that millions died that night in southeastern MN and northeastern Iowa. Many birds wash ashore on the Great Lakes and ocean shorelines following extended foggy periods during migration, and that doesn’t count the drowned birds that are eaten by fish or gulls.

There isn’t anything we can do about the weather or its effects on wildlife other than long-term stuff that Al Gore has been begging us to do for lo these many years, and even without the climate change induced by our own shortsighted squandering of energy, there have always been bad weather events. But we can help those individual birds who gravitate to our own backyards. Setting out birdseed in reasonably sheltered areas of our yard is important. Black sunflower is the most nutritious for most birds. White millet scattered on the ground under some sheltering trees is valuable for the many Fox Sparrows, juncos, and other migrant sparrows passing through right now. Some early warblers have taken to visiting suet feeders right now. Setting out dishes of live mealworms will be appreciated by any insectivores who figure out such a novel source of food. And the first orioles and hummingbirds are starting to arrive not far south of us, so it’s not too early to set out grape jelly and sugar water. During cold weather, it’s okay to make the sugar water more concentrated—about 1/3 cup of sugar per cup of water. It may be a week or more before any hummers arrive, but just in case, I wouldn’t want the first ones passing through my yard to leave hungry.

Chestnut-sided Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler desperate for food in Spring 2004.