Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, December 21, 2017

A Visit to Jamaica Bay

Mute Swan

I’m writing this in my daughter’s apartment in the Gowanus neighborhood of Brooklyn. I’ve been spending a week in New York City with Katie and my future son-in-law and their dog Muxy. They’re in a new apartment, and the very first species I saw in their yard was a Northern Cardinal. So far I only have four species here, with Rock Pigeon, European Starling, and House Sparrow making up the balance.

Northern Cardinal
Katie's backyard cardinal
Last year when I came in December, I spent time at the Brooklyn Bridge with Heather Wolf, who wrote Birding at the Bridge: In Search of Every Bird on the Brooklyn Waterfront. This year I was on my own, and most days had something going on with family. But Tuesday I decided to visit the Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge. So first thing in the morning, I walked with Katie to the subway. She got on the A train headed for Manhattan where she works; I went down a level and hopped on the A train headed in the opposite direction, toward Far Rockaway in Queens.

It was a nice long ride, much above ground, and I regretted having my binoculars in my backpack for the nice long stretch near JFK Airport, where we passed lots of waterfowl, including Mute Swans and Brants. When I got out at the stop marked “Broad Channel,” I pulled my binocs out of my backpack and took a short stroll through a neighborhood that brought me to the Cross Bay Boulevard, about ¾ mile from refuge headquarters. There’s a nice walking and biking path along there past waterfront houses, with a couple of access points for looking at birds in the water. I was already regretting bringing my more portable 8x32 binoculars instead of my heavier, bulkier 10x42s, and through the day wished I’d had more power for the distant birds.

At the first access point, right when I got on the Boulevard, I walked close to the water and set my backpack down. First I turned on the eBird app on my cell phone. It has a cool new GPS feature that not only keeps track of the time you begin and end, but also exactly where you walk, so all I had to do was mark in the birds I saw and now I have a permanent record of the trip.

Then I pulled out my camera and lens. I had to move slowly, because just a few feet away were a pair of Mute Swans—I wanted some nice face close-ups, so had to be careful not to scare them. There was enough vegetation between us to make it hard to take the perfect photograph, but I didn’t mind. I prefer my photos to show birds as they really are, not as I wish they would pose for me. I saw plenty of Mute Swans from the train, but these were the only ones I saw on the walk.

Mute Swan

That first spot was also where I took my best photos of Brant. These saltwater geese are abundant, but not the least bit sociable as far as humans are concerned, so I don’t have any good close-up photos. The photos I took were not just my best Brant photos of the day—they’re the best I’ve ever taken.


The other access spots along the walk weren’t quite as good, but the walk was fun. The Callahead Porta-Potty company’s headquarters are right there, so I saw lots of pumping trucks with such messages as “Number One in Dealing with Number Two.” Road traffic was moderate, but I didn’t pass any pedestrians and only one bicyclist before I got to the refuge headquarters.

The Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge is part of Gateway National Recreation Area, making this the only wildlife refuge administered by the National Park Service. It’s open Wednesdays through Sundays, and since I was there on a Tuesday, the visitor center was closed, but the bathroom was open and clean. Russ and I went there with Katie and Michael a few years ago, during fall migration when it was hopping with people. This was an entirely different experience.

I didn’t have the refuge entirely to myself—as I walked the 1.7 mile loop around the East Pond, I passed three couples. One woman wore binoculars, and we had the kind of quick, friendly exchange birders always do when they’re having fun but aren’t seeing many birds. Most of the water birds were too far away for great photos, and there weren’t all that many songbirds—I came upon one flock of robins, and two collections of skittish, photo-shy Yellow-rumped Warblers with some sparrows, but didn’t see a single chickadee. There were a few thick conifers near the path that I checked thoroughly just in case a Saw-whet Owl might be hidden within.

I saw 30 species on the walk—fewer than I’d hoped for, but I took a lot of joy in seeing each one. Finding moments of real solitude in view of Manhattan seems improbable.

Manhattan Skyline from Jamaica Bay NWR.

With the current push toward privatizing parks and refuges, this kind of urban wildness adventure may soon be a luxury of the past, but I relished every moment. New York New York IS a wonderful town.

Mute Swan
The Bronx is up and the Battery's down. 

Here are my eBird lists. This first one is from where I started walking along the Cross Bay Boulevard up to reaching the refuge headquarters. 

Broad Channel, south of JBWR HQ, Queens, New York, US
Dec 19, 2017 11:05 AM - 11:33 AM
Protocol: Traveling
0.688 mile(s)
20 species (+3 other taxa)

Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)  2
Brant (Branta bernicla)  300
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  27
Mute Swan (Cygnus olor)  2
Gadwall (Mareca strepera)  10
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  12
American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)  10
Greater/Lesser Scaup (Aythya marila/affinis)  2
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)  4
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)  4
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)  1
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  2
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)  8
Great Black-backed Gull (Larus marinus)  1
gull sp. (Larinae sp.)  10
Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) (Columba livia (Feral Pigeon))  50
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  2
crow sp. (Corvus sp. (crow sp.))  1
Ruby-crowned Kinglet (Regulus calendula)  1
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  55
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  2
House Finch (Haemorhous mexicanus)  1
House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)  15

The second checklist is from my walk around the East Pond at the refuge. 

Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge, Queens, New York, US
Dec 19, 2017 11:41 AM - 12:52 PM
Protocol: Traveling
1.713 mile(s)
23 species (+1 other taxa)

Snow Goose (Anser caerulescens)  10
Brant (Branta bernicla)  2000
Canada Goose (Branta canadensis)  200
Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)  1
Northern Shoveler (Spatula clypeata)  8
Gadwall (Mareca strepera)  2
Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  30
American Black Duck (Anas rubripes)  18
Bufflehead (Bucephala albeola)  4
Ruddy Duck (Oxyura jamaicensis)  6
cormorant sp. (Phalacrocoracidae sp.)  10
Ring-billed Gull (Larus delawarensis)  1
Herring Gull (Larus argentatus)  30
Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  22
Belted Kingfisher (Megaceryle alcyon)  1
Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) (Colaptes auratus auratus/luteus)  2
American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  11
European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)  45
Yellow-rumped Warbler (Setophaga coronata)  20
American Tree Sparrow (Spizelloides arborea)  1
Dark-eyed Junco (Junco hyemalis)  1
White-throated Sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis)  2
Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  5

The people ride in a hole in the ground.

Monday, December 11, 2017

An Open Letter to Senator Al Franken

Dear Mr. Franken:

I’m a Minnesotan who has admired you since your earliest Saturday Night Live skits, through your movies, your Air America days and book publications, up to your election and re-election as my U. S. Senator. There was always a sophomoric element to some Saturday Night Live skits that I found off-putting, just like the USO skits I've been seeing lately, but there was also a lot of more sophisticated humor exactly to my liking, much of it written by and/or featuring you.

I liked you because of SNL. I started loving you after I saw When a Man Loves a Woman and, especially, Stuart Saves His Family, which was rather a lifeline for me when it came out while I was going through a very difficult time. The personal lives of artists can be quite separate from their work, but I find it hard to believe that someone who speaks with so much understanding about fragile and vulnerable people would himself prey on vulnerable people.

As an assault victim myself, and the victim of various forms of sexual harassment over my life (you are exactly the same age as my husband and me), I think the #me,too and #Ibelieveher movements are timely and important. Tragically, your long track record of understanding and supporting important women’s issues is exactly what has put you in such an untenable situation now, and fully explains your reticence to defend yourself more strenuously after both the original Leann Tweeden charges and then additional people complaining about you groping them in photo ops. My default position has always been to believe the victim, but verify.

Tina Dupuy's article in the Atlantic, summarizing the charges against you in the worst possible light and saying she believes these charges because when she asked for a photo op, you “groped” her and “copped a feel,” said that your egregious sin was to place your hand on her waist. In the photo accompanying the article, her arm is around you, her hand on your shoulder, her head tilting toward yours, but she was left traumatized because your hand was on her waist?

I write books about birds and produce a radio program/podcast about them, so at book signings and visits to community radio stations like KAXE in Grand Rapids and KUMD in Duluth, men sometimes ask me for photo ops, and they virtually always put their arm around me. They want the picture to show that we've established a friendly if momentary relationship—that's the whole point. Sometimes a guy's hand doesn't find the proper target to begin with. These are hurried encounters, and often people feel pressured to get it over with because there's a line, plus they (and I) are often nervous, so I know the most awkward hand placement can often be entirely unintended. As the victim of attempted rape and assault, I know the difference between awkward human encounters and sexual assault.

I can understand some women who have been victimized in the past being triggered and traumatized by what for others would seem innocuous. But if an adult honestly can't handle an associate touching her waist in a photo op that she herself asked for, shouldn't it be her responsibility to make her limits clear from the start?

Back in the 1980s when our congressman, Jim Oberstar, did a town hall in Duluth, I gave a little spiel about some legislation that would have serious effects on birds. When it was all over, I was among the crowd leaving UMD when Mr. Oberstar was being led out by his staff, who were surrounding him to usher him away more quickly. He saw me, broke away from them, and walked straight over, gave me a huge bear hug, and said, “I like you!” I thought that was a lovely thing.

Your situation upsets me on a personal level. You of all the politicians I’ve ever paid attention to seem uniquely vulnerable as a human being to being wounded by such charges. It of course also distresses me on a political level. After your masterful questioning during Session’s Senate testimony and your longstanding work to protect net neutrality, coming to a vote this very week, the charge sparking this whole thing, with Roger Stone's heads up days beforehand, feels both uniquely politically motivated and uniquely politically damaging to the best of everything the Democratic Party stands for.

It also upsets me with regard to the specific issue of sexual harassment. I believe a full investigation of the charges against you, and against other Congressmen and Senators, would help clarify which offenses are truly toxic and even illegal, and which are ones people can deal with and move on from, allowing all of us to become more sensitive human beings. Democrats have historically stood for redemption and progress.

This entire movement to protect women will have been for naught if all it succeeds in doing is to destroy the careers of a few men without clearing a pathway to move forward so our daughters and granddaughters can live their lives without having to deal with the kinds of real assaults and harassment the #me,too movement is bringing to light.

I have been so proud to have you as MY Senator. I was one of the people up here in Duluth so painstakingly recounting every vote during your original election, and was filled with pride and joy when you won, fair and square. I expected a lot from you, and you’ve exceeded my every expectation as my Senator.

So I am hoping against hope that you will find a way to rescind your resignation. I need you as my Senator. The State of Minnesota and indeed the whole United States of America need you in the Senate. Please don’t abandon us now.


Laura Erickson

P.S. I sent you a fan letter back in the 90s when you were on AOL. You sent me a very nice response but it has been lost in the electricity. That is the only time I've ever encountered you in real life.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Book Review: Birds in a Cage

Five years ago, a truly exceptional nonfiction book was published in the UK about four British prisoners of war during World War II, and how their passion for birds helped them survive the horrifying conditions of the POW camps; after the war, they became important forces behind British bird conservation. Somehow, I managed to not even hear about Derek Niemann’s wonderful work, Birds in a Cage, until a few months ago, when one of my friends, Ian Paulsen, recommended it.

The book opens with a very brief overview and then introduces what Niemann calls “the cast.” Through the rest of the book, the author pretty much follows the chronology of the war, but where different men are in different locations, he goes back and forth between them. He researched the book using letters home and journals kept by the four men, so his available information provides more depth for some than others at various times. Based on the reviews on Amazon, some readers had difficulty following the book because of this. When I started out, I stuck a bookmark in that introductory section so I could go back and forth for a quick reminder of which character was which, but as it turned out, that wasn’t necessary—I quickly picked up on each one as an individual.

I knew I’d enjoy the book with the very first sentence of the first chapter:
On the day the Second World War broke out, Cheshire naturalist AW Boyd had one eye on the country diary column he was writing for the Manchester Guardian; the other he had lost on the battlefields of Gallipoli in 1915.
Niemann excerpts a bit of Boyd’s column:
I cannot help thinking that if only Hitler had been an ornithologist, he would have put off the war until the autumn bird migration was over. I wonder if any of the friendly Germans whom we met last year at the International Ornithological Congress at Rouen feel as I do. That he should force us to waste the last week of August and the first fortnight of September in a uniform that we hoped we had discarded for good is really the final outrage.
Boyd is not one of the four characters in Birds in a Cage; not only was he missing an eye but he was also in his mid-fifties when he wrote that column as the war was breaking out. By the end of the war, his ironic comment about missing the peak of the 1939 fall migration being the “final outrage” wouldn’t have seemed so humorous, especially to the four main characters of the book.

The very British ironic detachment of the opening didn’t close off author Derek Niemann from writing vividly about the harrowing conditions of the POW camps. We get plenty of details about the lice, fleas, freezing cold, malnourishment and chronic ill health of the camps, conditions so horrifying that sometimes men made a suicidal run for the barbed wire fences and razor wire in full view of the guards simply to end their own misery. One of the main characters was already suffering from dysentery, cholera, and stomach ulcers before he was even taken prisoner; in the prison camp, he became so ill that he was finally repatriated to Scotland in 1944. His death, decades later of a kidney infection, was caused by those wartime illnesses exacerbated by lack of treatment and conditions during prison life.

Even small children recognize the powerful metaphor equating birds with freedom. Whether the main characters of Birds in a Cage were marching in a frozen landscape or trapped within the barbed wire cage of a prisoner of war camp, their appreciation of the freedom of birds was far more steeped in reality than metaphor. They noticed and watched migrating rooks and jackdaws that dropped down from the skies to eat some of the prisoners’ own sewage, spread as manure on surrounding fields. They paid close attention to the little songbirds flitting in and out of the barbed wire—some of these birds became subjects of systematic studies.

Most of their observations didn’t amount to anything much after the war—indeed, John Barrett kept meticulous records in a journal—his mountains of raw data could have formed the basis of a monograph on the Eurasian Tree Sparrow, but facing an arduous long march as a refugee, he conscientiously mailed his journals to himself and the package never arrived. George Waterston’s study of the Wryneck was never published in any form either. Peter Conder’s notes on the European Goldfinch formed the nucleus of a scientific paper on the species, and most noteworthy of all, Edward Buxton’s work on the Common Redstart formed the basis for The Redstart, a major work on the subject. But whether or not the research each of them did during their imprisonment amounted to anything in the greater ornithological world, their work gave each of them a reason to look beyond the hell surrounding them. Indeed, Waterston and Buxton enlisted some of the other prisoners of war to help make observations, providing a beautiful if tiny diversion from the hell surrounding those men, too.

After the war, they each devoted their lives to something connected to birds. After writing his book about the Redstart, Buxton lived a quiet life as a respected naturalist. Barrett never again traveled from his beloved Pembrokeshire except to visit his children, yet he became the primary author of a universally praised book, The Collins Guide to the Seashore, and a noted bird teacher. Waterston became one of Scotland’s leader of conservation and came up with Operation Osprey, protecting these spectacular raptors not by keeping their whereabouts secret but by enlisting public aid by publicizing the birds. Conder became director of the RSPB, bringing the organization to a new level in professional conservation.

Even with the ability to focus on something far from the horrifying conditions of the prisoner of war camps, none of the four men in Birds in a Cage came through unscathed, in terms of both physical and psychic damage. Their story was one worth telling, and Derek Niemann did a wonderful job. I heartily recommend Birds in a Cage whether you’re interested in history, human resilience, or the importance of nature in protecting and restoring the human spirit.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See

One of the first books I ever read about World War II was Kurt Vonnegut’s novel, Slaughterhouse-Five. Billy Pilgrim, an optometrist opposed to war who is drafted and becomes a chaplain’s assistant, is captured after the Battle of the Bulge and brought to to a POW camp in a vacant slaughterhouse in Dresden, the city where American firebombing killed 135,000 German men, women, and children. Like the fictional Billy Pilgrim, Kurt Vonnegut and some other real-life prisoners survived the bombing, along with several German guards, deep in a cellar of that slaughterhouse.

Vonnegut writes:
Everything is supposed to be very quiet after a massacre, and it always is, except for the birds. And what do the birds say? All there is to say about a massacre, things like ‘”Poo-tee-weet?
The book ends as the prisoners emerged after the bombing.
And somewhere in there was springtime. The corpse mines were closed down. The soldiers all left to fight the Russians. In the suburbs, the women and children dug rifle pits. Billy and the rest of his group were locked up in the stable in the suburbs. And then, one morning, they got up to discover that the door was unlocked. World War Two in Europe was over.  
Billy and the rest wandered out onto the shady street. The trees were leafing out. There was nothing going on out there, no traffic of any kind. There was only one vehicle, an abandoned wagon drawn by two horses. The wagon was green and coffin-shaped.  
Birds were talking.  
One bird said to Billy Pilgrim, “Poo-tee-weet?”  
Birds figure in a great many fictional books about war. One reason is that birds eke out their existences apart from us humans, whether in wilderness forests or big cities or war zones. We wield ever more lethal human-designed killing technology against one another while birds try to stay alive as well as they can at the edges of the destruction, eating, sleeping, and even courting and nesting as bombs explode around them. We even take some comfort in that thought, though so many birds die as well—no one ever tallies their death toll after a massacre. The irony of Billy Pilgrim hearing that little bird singing is steeped in our deep-rooted sense of birds being missives of peace, from Noah’s dove returning with an olive branch, to the origami cranes made by Sadako Sasaki, the little girl who developed leukemia from radiation after Americans dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima when she was two years old. She started making the cranes to symbolize peace between nations as her disease progressed. She folded her 644th paper crane before she died in 1955, when she was just 12 years old.

Last week I finished another novel about World War II, Anthony Doerr’s 2015 Pulitzer-Prize winning All the Light We Cannot See, about a young German named Werner and a blind French girl named Marie-Laure, whose paths intersect, changing both their destinies. One of the most important secondary characters, a German named Frederick who becomes Werner’s closest friend and ally, is an avid bird lover. His passion for birds becomes a metaphor for ideals so far above and apart from everything the Nazis stand for that Frederick’s very existence within the Nazi Youth, and within Germany itself, is in dire jeopardy.

I can’t even begin to recount the beauty and nuance in the gripping stories of Werner and Marie-Laure. In every way, the novel is engrossing and beautiful and tragic; for me, the story of Frederick brought the entire work to both greater depths and loftier heights. All the Light We Cannot See is one of the finest books I’ve ever read.

Tomorrow I’ll review a nonfiction book about World War II, a true account of four British prisoners of war who got through their ordeal thanks to birds.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Passport to Adventure!!


In 1974, when I received my first field guide for Christmas, it was like opening the Sears Christmas Catalog—what we children called the “wish book.” A whole big section showed what seemed like every toy in the world. 

My first field guide was like that—showing so many thrilling possibilities, out there waiting for me. Some of the birds pictured I’d have to travel to see in real life—ptarmigans like the ones White Fang encountered in one of my favorite children’s books, California Condors and Everglade Kites that were appearing on posters supporting the Endangered Species Act, and puffins and Roseate Spoonbills, which looked too impossibly bizarre to be real. But according to the range maps, some of the coolest looking birds could be found right near me— Common Loons, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, Blackburnian Warblers, Pileated Woodpeckers! So many treasures, beautiful on the page, and now I could imagine seeing them in real life!

That field guide gave me the tools to identify birds, but much more important, it issued both an invitation and a personal mandate to go out and look for them. That little book was my very own Passport to Adventure.


During my first year of birding, I did manage to find in the field guide most of the birds I saw. I quickly learned that the challenge of identifying each bird could be both enjoyable and rewarding, but more importantly, I learned that the identifications were hardly ever the most enjoyable or rewarding elements of a day with birds. Indeed, sometimes it felt more rewarding to just stop and look at them, without teasing out each identification. One of the most pleasurable days of my first year of birding was spent in a railroad yard watching pigeons—seeing their muscular wings in action, drinking in their noisy takeoffs and powerful wing beats in direct flight, and thrilling at how they hold those wings in a steep V as they rock slightly back and forth in soaring flight. It was a wondrously satisfying three or four hours that I still remember with a smile.

Rock Pigeon

Knowing the names of things is a primal urge for our species, referenced as long ago as Genesis, with Adam naming all the beasts and all the fowls of the air. Children quickly need a more precise word than dinosaur for Triceratops, Stegosaurus, Brontosaurus, and Tyrannosaurus.

Not just ANY dinosaur--these are Stegosauruses! 

If I tell you a story about a bird and want you to be able to picture it the way it looks to me, calling it a brilliant red bird with black wings might not give you a picture of the Scarlet Tanager, Hawaiian Iiwi, or Vermilion Flycatcher I was trying to describe. The precise vividness of a name can be valuable.

Scarlet Tanager

Iiwi from Wikipedia by HarmonyOnPlanetEarth
Vermilion Flycatcher

You can, of course, take the precision of bird identification too far. About birds, Walt Whitman wrote:
Many I cannot name; but I do not very particularly seek information. (You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueness—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things…)
Even if you don’t want to go beyond Whitman’s free margin, a good field guide can inspire you to go a-looking for those birds and trees and flowers. Which one should you get?

My three favorite bird field guides are the National Geographic if you want the most comprehensive guide, the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America if you want a comprehensive North American guide that uses photos and is the one kids usually like best, and the ABA state field guides if you want a pretty comprehensive guide to just one state. I happen to have written the Minnesota one.

Laura's book: Pip approved!

But just as Walt Whitman bundled birds with trees and flowers, when we go out looking for birds we see a lot of other elements of nature. One field guide is perfect for even the most advanced birder who notices other things out there as well.

The one book I recommend for every man, woman, and child in the Midwest is a field guide, but not just a field guide to birds. Even those of us who are almost exclusively focused on birds can’t help but notice some non-avian animals and plants outside, or looking up at the night sky while out owling. The Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest makes puzzling out these features of nature simple and straightforward, enriching our outdoor experiences. If I were to recommend a single book for a nature-lover, this would be it. The Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest includes not just a great many animals and plants—it even shows the constellations in the sky.

Since it’s a pocket-sized book, it clearly cannot show all the living things of our area. Well over 400 species of birds have been seen in the Midwest, of which this guide  covers about 265 of the most common bird species. That leaves out quite a few, but the species are well chosen. I’d been an avid birder, going out daily for almost four months before I encountered the first species, Swamp Sparrow, that isn’t included in the Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest. For comparison, by that point in my birding, I’d seen 17 species that aren’t included in Stan Tekiela’s little Birds of Minnesota field guide. If you come up here to northern Minnesota for our famous owl invasions, you’ll have to recognize the Boreal and Northern Hawk Owls on your own, but it does include Gray Jay, Black-billed Magpie, Boreal Chickadee, both crossbills, and several of our other winter finches, as well as the rest of our owls.

And beyond birds, the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest includes fine samplings of the wildflowers, trees, other plants and fungi, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish, butterflies and moths, other insects, and spiders. And each section has an inviting explanation of how to enjoy that element of nature.

If you get fascinated by a single group, as I am with birds, you’ll certainly want to add a more comprehensive field guide. For birds, the simplest choice when available for your state is one of the new ABA state field guides. In the Midwest, we have the one I wrote for Minnesota, Michael Retter’s ABA Field Guide to Birds of Illinois and Allen Chartier’s one for Michigan, which will be out very soon—it’s at the printers. Outside the Midwest, ABA now has these state field guides for Florida, Texas, Arizona, Colorado, New York, Massachusetts, the Carolinas, California, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.

For an all-encompassing guide to the birds of the whole continent, if you want one with photos, I recommend the Kaufman Field Guide to Birds of North America, or if you prefer drawings, the National Geographic Field Guide to Birds of North America—their new 7th edition is now available, with the most up-to-date species names and taxonomic order of any guide.

But none of those bird guides will tell you what that pretty flower next to the path is, or the kind of tree that Great Horned Owl is roosting in, or what that big orange butterfly that has way too many spots for a Monarch could be.

Great Spangled Fritillary
Great Spangled Fritillary
When taking a family walk, you may prefer Whitman’s vagueness and free margin more than researching every single thing. But if you want to learn the name of a particular plant or animal to help you commit it more firmly and clearly to memory, the Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest will provide plenty of assistance. And thumbing through it at home may fill you with the inspiration to get out there looking in the first place. It’s a true Passport to Adventure.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Mokka, the Alakef Snowy Owl

From Duluth News-Tribune
Snowy Owls are not known for their affinity to coffee, but on Wednesday, one particular Snowy Owl in Duluth had a too-close for comfort encounter with Alakef Coffee Roasters.

We’re in the midst of what scientists call an invasion or irruption year for Snowy Owls. We used to attribute these years when a great many of the owls show up in the Lower 48 to crashes in the lemming population, and most of us believed that most of the birds were starving. Duluth’s own David Evans banded Snowy Owls every year in the Duluth Harbor, and some of the individuals, in perfect health, returned several years running, so people paying attention knew that the situation was more complicated than that.

Banders can tell by a bird’s condition and weight whether it’s actually starving. The ones taken in for rehab often are in terrible condition and down to unhealthy weights, but that is often due to those birds’ injuries making it difficult for them to hunt. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense that a bird starving in the Arctic Circle could make it all the way through the Canadian wilderness and well into the United States—it takes a lot of calories and strength to migrate at all, much less such long distances.  So during the Snowy Owl invasion in 2013-2014, Scott Weidensaul and several other bird researchers started tracking individual Snowy Owls over time by placing satellite transmitters on them in a wonderful, ongoing project called Operation SNOWstorm. Duluth’s own Frank Nicoletti has been involved in banding for the project.

So far we’ve learned that at least some of the years when owls invade, it’s because there have been so very many lemmings that reproduction was extremely successful. We’re presuming that as the birds space themselves, many of them are forced out of the Arctic by so many more experienced territorial birds. Some indeed have been found emaciated and weak, but many that are trapped by banders are robust and well filled out. Obviously, the ones that are in bad enough condition to be easily captured for rehab aren’t representative of the whole in the way that the ones trapped by banders are. And it may well be that when lemming populations crash, many more birds do head out our way. But during those years, far fewer baby Snowy Owls are hatched, and to get this far from the tundra, they still must have started in reasonably good health.

Once they get away from wilderness, they get a bit bewildered by the strange changes in habitat. One of the problems they’ve historically had in Duluth, and most certainly in other places, has been due to their preference for high places to roost, along with their equal preference for avoiding high deciduous trees, which aren’t part of their habitat in permafrost. Usually this isn’t a problem, and we often see them atop roofs, power poles, and other structures. Last week I saw one in Two Harbors sitting on a wall.

Snowy Owl

Unfortunately, sometimes something juts above rooftops that, from the air, looks stable and flat—a chimney or other kind of smokestack. On Wednesday, a Snowy Owl perched on the smokestack leading to the chaff receptacle at Duluth’s Alakef Coffee Roasters, and whoosh! Like Santa Claus, it dropped right down the chimney. Its scratching attracted the attention of Ezra Bennett, who found it, called Wildwoods Rehab, and made a YouTube video of the rescue.

Wildwoods kept the coffee-stained bird overnight and sent it on to The Raptor Center.
This story of course made the evening news. I knew it had to involve a smokestack before reporters mentioned how the bird got into the coffee-making machinery. A few decades ago, David Evans, Duluth's own prominent raptor authority, had funding to mark several birds with radio transmitters. He suddenly lost the signal of one bird, and in circling the Duluth-Superior harbor area and beyond, he finally began to pick up the signal again, but searched for two days until he finally pinpointed the bird’s location, inside an abandoned hotel. The owl had apparently fallen down the chimney. Evans got permission to go inside, and then to tear down a wall covering access to the chimney, and found the owl, still alive in a pile of dead pigeon remains, where he also found one or two dessicated Snowy Owl carcasses. When he mentioned this story at a Duluth Audubon meeting back in the late 80s or early 90s, the vice-principal of a local junior high school mentioned that a Snowy Owl had dropped down the chimney of the school, and someone else mentioned the same thing happening at their cabin.

Ezra Bennett said they’d be capping the smokestack at Alakef. That’s an important thing for all of us to do for any metal-lined chimney. Meanwhile, one thing the Snowy Owls might do next time they’re way, way up north is to talk to Santa Claus about chimneys. He can tell them how it’s easier to drop down them than to rise up again, which involves laying his finger aside of his nose—two specific pieces of human anatomy that Snowy Owls just don’t have.