Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, May 27, 2016

Woodpecker City!

Red-bellied Woodpecker

My corner of Peabody Street seems to have become Woodpecker City this year. Last year I had two pairs each of Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers nesting somewhere near. I’m only regularly seeing one pair of each this year. I know both species are feeding nestlings now because I’ve seen the parents carrying large grubs. They don’t feed their young suet or seeds, so they only visit the feeder during breaks when they want a quick meal for themselves. They’ve stopped calling almost entirely—an excellent sign that they have more pressing issues on their mind.

Female Hairy Woodpecker with grub

Ryan Brady, one of the best birders I know, did the Great Wisconsin Birdathon Big Day on May 24, and his team saw 158 species, including a Loggerhead Shrike, Yellow Rail, 2 singing male Kirtland’s Warblers, Northern Saw-whet Owl, and White-winged Scoter, but they got skunked on Downy Woodpecker. People seem mystified that this extremely common bird is so often missed on Big Days in May, but that’s because the best days of migration for the best birding coincide so precisely with when Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are busy with nestlings. By the way, Ryan Brady’s Big Day was a fundraiser for the Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin, which plays an increasingly essential role in protecting non-game species as the state reduces support. Learn more about it at

A pair of Pileated Woodpeckers is nesting somewhere near my house. Both the male and female spent a lot of time in March and April yelling and hammering out their territorial proclamations on the power poles behind my yard and my neighbor’s. 

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

In the past couple of weeks they’ve been very quiet. It’s possible they’ve moved on, but much more likely that they’re nesting. 

Flickers have also been calling a lot, but aren’t spending much time right in my own yard.

Most unexpectedly, a pair of Red-bellied Woodpeckers have been digging out a nest in the maple tree right next to my driveway. I can’t see them from my upstairs office window, but the digging sounds filter in from sunrise till sunset. After it dawned on me what they were up to, I went onto the roof of our front porch, and it turns out I have a perfect view from there, so I got photos and videos.

Red-bellied Woodpecker

Red-bellied Woodpecker

I know Red-bellieds nested somewhere in the neighborhood last year because last September, a family with adults and young turned up in my yard. 

Young Red-bellied Woodpecker

When we moved here in 1981, Red-bellied Woodpeckers were a hotline bird—the first time I had one at my feeder, that first winter, I called Kim Eckert and before I could even get out the final syllables of Red-bellied Woodpecker I heard the phone click. Minutes later, there was Kim on the front porch. Sadly, the woodpecker had already flown the coop, so Kim had to wait a few months longer to add it to his St. Louis County list. Now they’re quite regular up here, but nesting is relatively new, and a pair actually nesting in my own backyard is cosmically thrilling.

Unfortunately, I’ll be gone to Maine from May 28 through June 15, so won’t be able to see for myself whether they give up or finish constructing the nest and start producing and incubating eggs. Once the nest is finished, it’ll take a few days to a week for the female to lay a full clutch, and then the pair will take 12 days to incubate them. By then I’ll be home, anxious to find out if this wonderful pair is really and truly going to produce babies in my very own maple tree. I love going on adventures, and I love coming home again. This time, there will be extra excitement in my homecoming.

Virginia Rails!

Virginia Rail

I consider myself a bird watcher, but even with some high-frequency hearing loss, many more of the birds I count in a given day are heard rather than seen. I get a lot of pleasure and joy when I get a good look and hear some songs or calls, but for the most part, just hearing birds is as wonderful for me as just seeing them. There are quite a few birds that if I had to choose, I’d rather hear than see.

One of my favorite groups of birds includes species I’ve heard far more often than I’ve seen: the rails. I’m particularly fond of Soras and Virginia Rails. Hearing them is always fun, but somehow because seeing them is so much harder, it’s a Red Letter Day when I do get a glimpse, and cause for celebration if I manage to get even a poor photo. 

Virginia Rail

When I started birding, before experienced birders clued me in on the most efficient ways to see birds, I spent a lot of time at the edge of marshes scrutinizing every space between cattails trying to see rails and bitterns. Sure enough, I saw them much more frequently than I do now.  When the American Ornithologists’ Union met in Madison, Wisconsin, in August 1978, I managed to give the participants on my field trips to the Picnic Point area great looks at a Virginia Rail and her chicks. They seemed to think that I had some super skills, but it was simply a matter of getting to know one particular small marsh really well, and scrutinizing the spaces between cattails until I spotted something I knew was supposed to be there.

With experience, we start taking shortcuts. We maximize our birding time, at least in the sense of finding the biggest numbers of species, when we don’t spend time searching for skulkers but in exchange for a slightly larger list of birds seen in a day we lose pretty much our entire chance of spotting rails. 

Even though I don’t search for rails as often as I used to, every now and then I do park myself at the edge of a marsh for a while to look for them. On May 8, I took a walk with my dog Pip at the Western Waterfront Trail, and when we were walking past a wonderful marsh area, a couple of Soras started calling from not too far away. So I went to the very edge of the mucky marsh and knelt down, and Pip sat down at my side. We saw one Sora fly over, and I made a couple of pitiful imitations, and suddenly what should walk into view but a Virginia Rail. Pip and I were enthralled—she watched the bird’s every move, both within the marsh and when it came out and walked past us—but she stayed completely rooted at my side without my saying a word.

Virginia Rail 

Virginia Rail

At one point, the bird I'm assuming was the male started making a cool grunt call. During it, he turned his head directly toward me for a moment, but that seemed random because he was looking every which way.

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

During that lovely interlude, I spotted two Virginia Rails and three Soras, though I didn’t get photos of the Soras. I was ever so pleased that the birds didn’t seem to be paying attention to me or Pip, who is simply the best birding dog I’ve ever known.

Pip the Birding Dog

Pip and I went back there a week later, on the 15th, and heard rails again but didn’t spot any. Then on the 18th, we took a hike there with Russ, our daughter, our son-in-law, and their dog Muxy, who is a large pit bull. 

Muxy and Pip go for a walk!

Pip and I were a little ahead of the others, and when we were walking past the rail section, right where the trail divides off a tiny section of marsh, one of the Virginia Rails ran out from that smaller part of the marsh right across the trail into the larger marsh. 

Virginia Rail

Katie and Michael kept Muxy at a distance while I got more photos of the rails, who are apparently nesting in there somewhere. 

Virginia Rail

Virginia Rail

I’m going to be in Maine until June 15 now, so won’t be able to check on them during incubation. I don’t get off trails to search for nests anyway, but with luck when I come back there will see some adorable little black balls of fluff running about to fill my heart with joy.

Virginia Rail

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Birding Listlessly

Katie, Laura, and Joey at Hawk Ridge
Me birding at Hawk Ridge with my Katie and Joey on September 26, 1987.
My bird lists help me put dates on family photos. 

When I saw and identified my first Black-capped Chickadee on March 2, 1975, I started my life list. Keeping track, one by one, of the birds I've seen in the wild has been one of the most rewarding pastimes of my life.

I've never been particularly competitive about my life list, county list, backyard list, list of birds that have pooped on me, or any of my other lists, even as I love making each list as long as I can. The only time I ever posted a list on the American Birding Association's Listing Central was for my 2013 Big Year total, and I only did that because I'd been in part inspired to do the Big Year thanks to the movie The Big Year. Seeing the totals in Birding magazine was such an important part of the movie that I figured I should do that, too.

Paula Lozano, one of my dearest friends and the first person I turn to whenever I have a tricky gull or shorebird question, does not keep a life list. She's a master birder without listing. And I know quite a few birders with huge life lists who would never consider themselves advanced birders—they've simply had lots of opportunities to go to lots of places with top-notch guides. Whether or not one keeps any lists at all is entirely a matter of personal preference, not in and of itself evidence of skill, commitment to conservation, or anything else. The American Birding Association provides a way for birders to post and compare their lists without any implication that keeping these lists is an essential component of birding—their motto is "A million ways to bird."

Most of my birding friends who don't keep lists choose not to because they bird to get away from the meticulous attention to detail required in their work life, or because listing adds a level of stress, or because after a day of birding, when they get home they want to concentrate on home things, not sit down and labor away on lists. One can take a great deal of pleasure in seeing your first Spruce Grouse ever without feeling any compunction to put it on a list, and for some people, the added layer of paperwork would take away from the enjoyment.

Over the years, I've heard listers encourage non-listers to at least post their sightings on eBird, but overall, those promoting eBird as a way to gather important data about birds haven't seemed to take on the evangelical zeal of a few of those in the opposite camp who outright dislike listing. A few birders seem to think competitive birding or putting any focus on seeing lifers is unseemly, and that their lack of lists is a measure of their purity in enjoying nature.

When I was writing my book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide, in 1993, I was inordinately pleased with the final sidebar in the book, for the December 31 entry:
When Russ and I put our family photographs in order, we couldn't recall dates—like one excursion to the Morton Arboretum. Joey was missing a front tooth so it must have been—no, Katie's hair had grown out from her experiment with bunny scissors so it couldn't have been before ... I remembered three Hooded Mergansers in the pond, checked my bird lists, and had the exact date. No one should go through life listlessly.
I personally take a lot of pleasure in keeping my own lists, but wouldn't want anyone else to compromise their own pleasure by feeling pressured into listing. That's why I found the pun so pleasing—birding with or without lists should be joyful, keeping listlessness at bay. Even so, my own lists have indeed brought me pleasure, as I noted in that final entry in the book:

As the year draws to a close, many people look through photographs of their past. I pull out bird lists and field notebooks. I seldom record more than date, place, weather, and species, but even that conjures vivid memories—four Buff-breasted Sandpipers running in the grassy park where I walked in solitude after my father's funeral, an adult Bald Eagle flying over the hospital as I held my newborn Tommy to the window, the time Russ photographed nodding trillium as I waited impatiently, antsy to see birds, not flowers. Even as I sighed audibly to hurry him along, my lifer Pileated Woodpecker flew in so close that I felt the rush of air as he landed. I remember a Herring Gull cruising over Hawk Ridge while Katie, one and a half, sat in her stroller. She couldn't pronounce the "s" sound yet, so she pointed up and said "eagull!" A dozen birders automatically pulled their binoculars up—and then gave her disparaging looks for misleading them. 
 Leafing through my notebooks, I remember other times, other birds. Lists unlock memories of auld acquaintance both avian and human—a lasting record of years of jolly times and friendships and birds and love. 
Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker
Look very carefully at the exact center of this photo. At the base of the broken birch is my lifer Pileated Woodpecker, here at Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan on June 5, 1976. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Correcting Past Errors

Blue Jay
I've mentioned this species in at least 278 For the Birds programs

In the three decades I’ve been producing "For the Birds," I’ve done my level best to be as accurate as possible. I’ve produced over 3,000 programs, mentioning at least 722 species. Some I’ve talked about more than others. I’ve discussed Black-capped Chickadees in at least 332 programs, and Blue Jays in at least 278. Those are of course exceptional, being my favorite birds, but I’ve talked about American Robins at least 257 times, and have covered a few common birds at least 100 times: Canada Goose, Bald Eagle, Rock Pigeon, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, American Crow, European Starling, Northern Cardinal, and House Sparrow.

The webpage my daughter created for me at makes it really easy to find programs, via date or species mentioned. I have every single transcript for 1986 through 1988, along with many recordings of the tapes, and have a lot of programs from 1989. I also have recordings of every program aired from 2005 through now. There are serious gaps in the early aughts, and lots of big gaps in the 90s. Christine Dean at KUMD found a stash of several open reel tapes with programs from the 90s that she digitized for me, and I’m little by little digitizing cassette tapes, but not all of them have labels so it’s been an interesting exercise trying to figure out when they aired—in a few cases I couldn’t even be certain of the decade, much less the year. It’ll take me years to get into the database every program I still have in some form, along with all my photos and natural sound recordings, but it’s been a fun process.

It’s also been a sobering one. I take a lot of pride in accuracy and sound information, but over the years I’ve made some egregious errors. Before I get too far into this fourth decade, I want to clear the record.

First of all, you’d think I’d have the facts straight about Black-capped Chickadees, but for the first seven or so years I was saying that on the coldest nights of winter they snuggle together in cavities. It turns out that chickadees are truly the Norwegian bachelor farmers of the bird world, very sociable but uncomfortable when other chickadees get too close. So except during the brief window of time when adult females are brooding very tiny nestlings, and during the brief window when nestlings sleep together before they fledge, chickadees sleep entirely alone.

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!
This was the last time these two chickadees were inside a cavity together. They fledged a few minutes later.

I’ve long known that White-throated Sparrows come in two facial color forms—those with brilliant white stripes and those with tan stripes. I’ve also known that those colors are like our eye color—both females and males can be either. And I knew that pairs could have one of each. So in at least one program I stated that the birds are undiscriminating—willing to take a bird of either color form as a mate. But it turns out the birds are highly discriminating—in about 98 percent of all pairs, a pair is made up of birds of the opposite color form, as if every human with brown eyes simply had to have a blue-eyed mate and vice versa. Since then I’ve done a couple of programs explaining how these are like Gone with the Wind characters, only in this plot Scarlett always ends up with Ashley Wilkes and Melanie always gets Rhett Butler.

White-throated Sparrow
This white-striped form White-throated Sparrow would be Rhett Butler or Scarlett O'Hara.

Those errors were a matter of my own ignorance spreading misinformation, but sometimes what scientists know about birds changes with times. Several listeners have asked over the years whether birds breed up here and also on their wintering grounds. I used to always answer no—that this is the only place our summer birds rear young. But it turns out one population of Barn Swallows nests in South America during our winter: it’s still unknown whether these individual birds migrate north and also breed up here or not. Also some birds of our American Southwest may nest again in northern Mexico during late summer/ early fall after migrating from what we thought was their only breeding grounds.

Barn Swallow
Does this Barn Swallow nest in South America too? 

In the coming decade I’ll try to keep my program clean of errors so I can’t be accused of just being for the birds when I’m Laura Erickson, speaking for the birds.