Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

More about that Pink-footed Goose

Pink-footed Goose

I received an email a little while after my Monday program aired on KUMD. The writer said he’d looked at all the photos I’d posted on Flickr of the Pink-footed Goose I saw in New York City, and not one of them showed the pink feet. He wondered how I could be sure of the identification.

Many birds are named for distinctive features that aren’t always visible in the field, and some of those distinctive features aren’t unique to those species. Yellow-rumped Warblers don’t always part their wings to show their rumps, and a few related warblers also have yellow rumps.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers and Red-bellied Woodpeckers both keep their bellies hidden against tree trunks during normal activities, and most individuals of both species lack any noticeable belly coloring even in the hand.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers

By that standard, Pink-footed Geese are actually fairly appropriately named, though to see the pink feet, the bird does need to be standing on land or flying without its feet tucked. The entire time I watched the New York bird, it was in the water, its feet entirely submerged.

Pink-footed Goose

Fortunately, those feet are not the only way to recognize the bird. The only all-dark-headed goose that might be confused with it in North America is the White-fronted Goose, and a bit of conspicuous white at the base of the bill excludes that.

Greater White-fronted Goose

The extremely rare Graylag Goose and Bean Goose both have orange feet, and do not have conspicuous pink on their bills. My goose showed the proper plumage and very conspicuous pink on the bill, so there was no doubt about its identification.

Pink-footed Goose

My friend, the Port Wing artist Jeanne Perry, asked me, “Didn't the pink-footed goose figure heavily in one of the scenes from “The Big Year”?

The Big Year poster!

Jeanne remembered correctly. I’m still out of town so don’t have a chance yet to rewatch the movie, but in the scene where the characters played by Jack Black, Steve Martin, and Owen Wilson are on High Island in Texas during the huge migration fall-out, someone yells about a Pink-footed Goose being seen off the boardwalk. Owen Wilson plows right through a group of girls and their teacher or scout leader, but Jack Black and Steve Martin wait until the girls all pass through. Of course Owen Wilson gets a quick look before it flies away, and gloats about it.

Later, the woman Jack Black has fallen for calls him about one being seen near where she lives in Boston. He takes a bus there, and she meets him with her boyfriend. Jack Black is distressed about her having a boyfriend in the first place, so he goes ballistic when the guy comments about his coming all that way to see a “pink goose.” To add insult to injury, of course Jack Black misses the bird again.

Finally, near the end of December as the Big Year is drawing to a close, Steve Martin finds out about a Pink-footed Goose impossibly hanging out in a small bit of open water in the Colorado mountains and brings Jack Black to see it.

Pink-footed Geese are definitely rare birds here in the US—they breed in Greenland, Iceland, and northern Scandinavia, and winter in Europe and the UK. Individual vagrants do turn up rarely in the US, and although this is extremely rare, they often do stay put for a month or longer, as the one at Arthur J. Hendrickson Park has been doing this year. It’s not the kind of bird I’d ever hop a jet and fly across the country in hopes of seeing, but as long as I was in New York anyway, I gladly hopped aboard a commuter train to see it, whether or not I got to see it showing off its pink feet.

Pink-footed Goose

Monday, January 23, 2017

How I spent January 21, 2017


Last Friday I was in New York City looking at my lifer Pink-footed Goose. Saturday, I headed to Washington, D.C., to join a flock of pink-capped members of another species. My daughter and several friends and I drove down in a van, and of course I had my binoculars. It was foggy and murky along the drive, but I saw at least a couple of species each in New York, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland, including one Great Black-backed Gull, which was new for the year. We parked at the park-n-go lot at the Greenbelt stop, one of the end stops for the DC Metro.

The long line to the Metro for the Women's March

The line for tickets there was amazingly long—Saturday turned out to be the second busiest day for the DC Metro in its entire history—but not only were we with kindred spirits, there were also plenty of birds to watch while we waited. Ring-billed Gulls, European Starlings, and House Sparrows comprised the bulk of them, but I also picked out two Black Vultures and some Fish Crows, both new for the year.

It’s tricky to identify crows anywhere along the East Coast unless they call—American Crows and Fish Crows are essentially identical in size and plumage—so all the crows I saw from the car went unidentified, but here I could keep track of them until I heard a Fish Crow calling. I tell people that the two species are easy to tell apart—all you need to do is ask, “Are you an American Crow?” and if it responds, “Uh uh,” it’s a Fish Crow.

 I didn’t bring my camera with the long lens, so didn’t bother taking any photos of birds. Once we finally made it to the train and reached D.C., I was focused mostly on negotiating the ginormous crowd.

Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C. Women's March on Washington D.C.

But of course my eyes were drawn upward now and then. As we walked along the Mall, I spotted a Peregrine Falcon sitting atop one of the grand old buildings, possibly there in solidarity with the protestors carrying signs about protecting the natural world. I couldn’t help but take its photo, but it’s little more than a speck with the lens I brought.

  Women's March on Washington D.C.

The crowds were so massive that it was hard to focus on anything but people, but occasionally I looked up, and later in the afternoon saw two Peregrines flying together—I couldn’t be sure whether either of them was the bird I’d seen earlier, so I counted a total of two on my eBird checklist. I didn’t notice either carrying food—a definite sign of courtship—and it was hard to keep my eyes on them consistently because so many signs kept popping up blocking my view and pulling my thoughts back to earth, but nevertheless, I was pleased to see them.

By the time we’d marched for five and a half miles, we were exhausted. Partway along our walk, we chanced upon a lovely Lutheran church where protesters were invited in to take a break, use the bathroom, have a snack, and listen to music.

Women's March on Washington D.C.

We stopped for a bit, and then went on to Sticky Fingers, a vegan restaurant where Katie used to work, to have a small dinner before heading back on the Metro for our car and the long drive back to New York. It was quite dark by then, so my bird spotting for the day was over.

I will never forget being among such a huge throng of people who were all fighting for the values I believe in: equal rights and protections for all citizens, acknowledging and fighting against climate change and protecting our air, water, natural habitats, and wildlife. This was a cheerful and peaceful rally, without a single act of violence all day—indeed, DC police reported zero arrests for the day.

This is the America I love—the land of the free and the home of the brave, where women are free to speak up about our concerns and brave enough to fight for what is right, and where a birder from Minnesota wearing a Chicago Cubs cap and draped in an American flag symbolizing liberty and justice for all can watch Peregrine Falcons flying over our nation’s capitol in the company of half a million pink-capped women and men who know that this land was made for you and me, and for the birds.

Laura and Katie at the Women's March in D.C.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

How I spent January 20, 2017

Pink-footed Goose

Whenever I go to New York City, people from more rural areas—which, really, is just about everywhere I go—seem to think that of course there won't be any interesting birds in the Big Apple. In recent years, I’ve been to movies, gone on top of the Empire State Building, spent time wandering around Manhattan, and attended an off-Broadway play when I've been in New York, but I’ve also done my share of birding. As a harbor city, it’s not at all hard to find good coastline birds in New York, and it obviously abounds in urban birds and birds that can manage to eke out an existence in small urban parks. But it also has some genuinely quality habitat as fine as anything we have in Minnesota or Wisconsin, some with the added advantage of saltwater.

On Friday, I needed to do something quiet and contemplative, and happened to be visiting my daughter in the Big Apple. A Pink-footed Goose had been seen at a small city park on Long Island starting on November first. It was still being reported as late as January 16—the last date anyone had reported from Arthur J. Hendrickson Park—so I figured it was worth a shot and that a literal wild goose chase would be as good a way as any to spend the day.

So in the morning, I walked a few blocks from my daughter’s apartment in Brooklyn to catch one of the commuter trains to Long Island. I’ve been using New York’s subway system for a long time, and get around pretty well as long as I write down all the subway lines that stop in my daughter’s neighborhood and pay attention to when I need a local vs. an express to make a connection or get off at the right place. I was fearful that taking a commuter train would be more complicated. As it turned out, though, it was quite simple. To buy a ticket in the first place, I did have to know which of the Long Island trains I needed—the Far Rockaway—and which stop I’d be getting off at—Valley Stream—and then I had to pay attention to signs and schedule boards to make sure I got on the right train and got off at the right stop. A couple of passengers on my train found out too late, from the conductor taking their tickets, that they were each on the wrong train. The conductor told them each where to get off to catch a connecting train, but one even went past the stop she needed and was going to have to pay an additional fare to turn around. I guess when you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s better to realize it and be extra careful about asking directions than to not realize you don’t know what you’re doing in the first place.

Being directionally impaired, I depend on Google Maps on my smart phone a lot. The Google Map Lady wanted me to walk along one street, but I could see on the directions screen a short detour that would bring me along a brook, so I went that way. It turned out to be a wise decision—one male Hooded Merganser was hanging out with a large group of Mallards, and he gave me some of the best merganser photos I’ve ever taken.

  Hooded MerganserHooded Merganser

Arthur J. Hendrickson Park is a small urban park surrounding a small urban lake—what Jethro Bodine or Elly May Clampett might have legitimately called a cement pond. It reminded me a bit of Lake Merritt, a large tidal lagoon in downtown Oakland, California, which happens to be historically significant as the United States' first official wildlife refuge, designated in 1870. (The Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, established in 1901, is the first wildlife refuge to be part of the National Wildlife Refuge system.)

I arrived on the west side of the park, and walked past a building and some tennis courts to reach the lake. All the waterfowl were loafing and snoozing in the water along the east edge, in large clumps. The main birds were Mallards and Canada Geese, and as I walked along the length of the lake on the far side from them, I counted them as accurately as possible—120 Mallards and 360 Canada Geese. As I counted, I looked for outliers—there were 8 American Black Ducks, a pair of Northern Shovelers, another male Hooded Merganser, and also one goose that looked suspiciously good, but I’d never have dared count it from that distance with my 8x binoculars. Fortunately, the geese weren’t going anywhere, so I kept walking and counting until I rounded the long, narrow lake and started looking at the birds now on the close side of the lake.

Like all urban parks, Arthur J. Hendrickson Park has a lot of foot and bike traffic, and the birds who live there are as used to people wandering by as wilder wildlife is when a deer passes through. The geese kept snoozing as I walked past the first group of about a hundred. At that point, I encountered a sweet retired couple from the neighborhood taking a stroll, and they asked me if I'd found what I was looking for—my long camera lens and binoculars were the giveaways that I was there for a reason. I told them I was looking for a rare bird—a Pink-footed Goose that belonged across the ocean.

They were intrigued, looking at the mass of geese out there, and asked how I could possibly pick out one individual rarity among so many. But right at that very moment, I was picking out the outlier—that one Pink-footed Goose happened to be at the water’s edge right below us! I showed how its color and pattern were different, and how it had a uniformly brown head instead of the black-and-white head of the Canada Geese. They seemed excited to see it, and I was thrilled to share my happy experience with someone.

  Pink-footed Goose

I first spotted the goose about 11:22 am, and decided I should stay with this lovely and welcome avian immigrant through 12:01 pm. The weather was pleasantly cool but the sky was rather bleak, so my photos are duller than I’d like, but I was close enough, and the light decent enough to get reasonably good pictures—I took a LOT!

  Pink-footed Goose

A nearby Methodist church’s Westminster chimes went off at noon—bright and ringing—but the bell that tolled the hour was lower pitched, giving a most somber reminder that after that moment, human immigrants to our shores would not be as welcome as this avian one.

I thought of this land that I love—the country that often falls short but has proudly stood up for liberty and justice for all, for protection of vulnerable wildlife, and for maintaining and restoring clean air and water for all of us—this country that has inspired so many other nations with its progressive ideals.

And I thought of my favorite president of all, Ulysses S. Grant. When he was traveling in Germany after his presidency, Bismark congratulated him on saving the Union. Grant pointed out that America’s achievement was to “Not only save the Union, but destroy slavery.”

Grant modestly dissented when one German consul claimed that Grant had singlehandedly saved the nation. “If our country could be saved or ruined by the efforts of any one man, we should not have a country.” Grant’s reassuring words gave me hope as I gave the Pink-footed Goose a sad backward glance and started walking back to the train station and a new America.

  Pink-footed Goose

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

This New Gilded Age

Laura and the Cubs' World Series trophy

I drove down to northern Illinois, to a tiny town called Stockton, a week ago Saturday to spend the weekend with my treasured lifelong friends Kathie and Steve, and also to spend a bit of time in the next town over, Freeport, to see the Chicago Cubs’ World Series trophy, which was on public display for a couple of hours that Sunday morning. I brought my dog Pip along for the ride.

The temperatures were bitter cold, but the sky was that intense blue that stands out so beautifully against a snowy landscape, and the northwest winds pushed me along, helping my mileage.

All along the drive, I kept thinking what a beautiful world I live in, and how rich I am—rich in friends; rich in my family of lifelong Cubs fans and in living this lifelong dream now come true; rich in having a sweet, loving dog; rich in having a husband who was holding down the home fort so I could escape for such a frivolous jaunt; and rich in the capacity to savor all these treasures.

I’ve always believed that the richest people aren’t the ones who have the most; they’re the ones who want the least. And during that lovely drive, I felt like the richest person on the planet.

While I was still in Douglas County along Highway 53, I saw two Bald Eagles and a Pileated Woodpecker. I’ve seen countless individuals of both species over the years, but for some reason this time I thought of the first ones I ever saw, both at Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan in June 1976.

Back then, both species were at the top of my wish list—that was back when I was hungry to see new birds, and my field guide was like my personal Sears Christmas Catalog. Considering how many birds there are, and how many I yearned to see for the first time, I was in one way not at all “rich” in the sense that I wanted so very much. But oddly enough, even then I felt rich, because every time I did see a new bird, or got to see one of my new birds a second and third time, I felt a deep pleasure—and everywhere I looked I saw more new birds and ones I’d already seen once or more, but was thrilled to be seeing all over again.

That very first Pileated Woodpecker literally took my breath away. And the very next morning, my first Bald Eagle! Imagine that.

We birders can’t help but take these treasures for granted after a while, but just yesterday I saw a Pileated Woodpecker on the power pole in the back of my own yard and yet again, I could feel an electric surge of pleasure charging through my body. I wonder how many possessions a rich person in the monetary sense can acquire while still getting that rush of joy?

Mark Twain wrote in his Revised Catechism:
What is the chief end of man?--to get rich. In what way?--dishonestly if we can; honestly if we must. Who is God, the one only and true? Money is God. God and Greenbacks and Stock--father, son, and the ghost of same--three persons in one; these are the true and only God, mighty and supreme.
Twain was writing of an earlier Gilded Age, but his words seem appropriate as we usher in this new Gilded Age the very week that Oxfam released the news that the world’s 8 richest men, including Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, and Michael Bloomberg—just eight individuals—own as much wealth as the poorest half of the entire world’s population of over 7 billion people.

Our Republican Congress just passed a rules change for the way Congress calculates the cost of transferring federal lands to the states and other entities, to make it easier for members of the new Congress to cede federal control of public lands. Gold is hard and cold, and despite Forbes and Fortune magazine’s assessments, is not an accurate measure of a human being’s value, or of the value of real treasures like our public lands. Alan Rowsome, senior government relations director for the Wilderness Society, said, “This is not Theodore Roosevelt-style governing, this move paves the way for a wholesale giveaway of our American hunting, fishing and camping lands that belong to us all.”

Teddy Roosevelt worked hard to curb one Gilded Age. With luck, someone will step up to the plate to protect the many treasures and the real wealth of this nation before it’s too late in this new Gilded Age. In a world where the Cubs can win the World Series, which they last did during Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency, anything can happen.

Bald Eagle

Friday, January 6, 2017

Facing 2017


Next month I’m celebrating the 2-year anniversary of my heart attack or, in medical parlance, my acute myocardial infarction. Having survived it at all, and especially having recognized my bizarrely mild symptoms in time so the damage was limited, makes me exceptionally lucky. Having the medical insurance to get superior care during the emergency and lots of follow-up support with cardiac rehab involved a different kind of luck, one not subject to the vagaries of human existence but to the whims of politicians and corporations. So I’m doubly lucky.

2016 was a year of loss for many of us Americans, in many ways. Ironically, it was also one of the best years of my life, starting on the very first day of the year, when an Ivory Gull turned up in Duluth. I've never before had a lifer on New Years Day. A few days later, I got a call about a dead Ivory Gull in Superior, which I retrieved to send to the Field Museum of Natural History. Fortunately, the one at Canal Park was still alive.

Ivory Gull

It was the first year I came anywhere close to seeing, much less topping, 1,000 species in a single year, plus I brought my life list to over 2,000. Those are just numbers—it was the experiences behind those numbers that took my breath away. Birding with Minnesota friends in southern California; teaching classes off the coast of Maine; and then birding in Peru, Cuba, and Uganda! In Peru I saw Marvelous Spatuletails, Andean Cock-of-the-rocks, and Emerald-bellied Pufflegs.

Marvelous Spatuletail

Andean Cock-of the-rock

Emerald-bellied Puffleg

In Cuba I finally saw Cuban Todies along with Bee Hummingbirds and American Flamingos.

Cuban Tody!!

Bee Hummingbird

American Flamingo

In Uganda I was thrilled to see several kinds of bee-eaters, hornbills, turacos, and sunbirds, to say nothing of lions, giraffes, elephants, hippos, chimpanzees, and mountain gorillas, all in the wild.

Red-throated Bee-eater

Abyssinian Ground-Hornbill

Great Blue Turaco

Northern Double-collared Sunbird

African Lion

Rothschild Giraffe

African Elephant

Mother and baby hippopotamus

Mountain Gorilla

I never dreamed that I could see all these things in my lifetime, much less during the year after a heart attack. I’m also still basking in the joy of the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in my life, and then hearing a Boreal Owl in my own backyard an hour or so after the triumphant final win.

Pip in her Chicago Cubs shirt!

At midnight on New Years Day, Russ and I started our 2017 smoking a Cuban cigar from my trip. Our resolution was to quit smoking, which won't be hard since we barely got started.

Russ and Laura enjoying a Cuban cigar to ring in the New Year.

Looking ahead to the rest of the year, many of my friends in the sciences and science education are petrified about the future of their very livelihoods. Many of my fellow self-employed writers are panicking about whether they'll be able to afford healthcare. All my friends who hunt, fish, bird, or in any other way enjoy nature are terrified that the public lands so critical to  wildlife will lose important protections or even be sold off to the highest bidders.

Whooping Crane

All of us who have studied the scientific evidence for climate change along with projections of storm and fire activity, higher ocean levels, and temperature fluctuations are despairing about grim inevitabilities as we come to the sad realization that politicians won't do anything to help forestall the worst of it, even though every way we can possibly help reduce the effects of climate change would also be good for the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the wildlife we love. On top of everything else, the social fabric upon which our nation has fashioned its democracy has been frayed so badly that it’s hard to see how it can be sewn back together or patched, at least while so many politicians and citizens are lighting matches rather than picking up thread and needles. Our very culture, based on both shared and different experiences among our richly diverse population, seems to be collapsing around us.

But hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul. I’ve seen a few memes on Facebook about one quiet person in a fearful group. When asked how she envisions 2017, she says it’ll be filled with flowers. How could that be? She answers, “I’ve been planting seeds.” We all have the power to plant seeds, at least some which may sprout to give us a brighter future, even as overpowering events swirl around us.

Goldfinch eating thistle

So I cling to that hope with a heartfelt prayer, as Terry Tempest Williams does in her exquisite book Refuge:
I pray to the birds.  I pray to the birds because I believe they will carry the messages of my heart upward. I pray to them because I believe in their existence, the way their songs begin and end each day—the invocations and benedictions of Earth. I pray to the birds because they remind me of what I love rather than what I fear. And at the end of my prayers, they teach me how to listen.

Black-capped Chickadee