Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Spring Update

Fox Sparrow detail

Every year, with rhythmic if not quite clocklike predictably, my Facebook friends complain about the spring weather—there’s still too much snow, ice-out is taking too long, where are all the migrating birds? On the very same days that I read those posts, my Facebook friends post about how the snow is gone, the temps are reaching the 80s, and how they’ve got Carolina Wrens nesting on their porch again. Photos just yesterday ran the gamut from pock-marked snow and ice-covered lakes and a late Snowy Owl to blooming flowers, orioles, and hummingbirds. Of course, that’s because I have Facebook friends from all over. I smile not only at the predictable nature of spring migration but also at the predictable nature of our own reactions to the predictable unpredictability of spring.

It’s hardly news when a robin sings, or a chickadee carries nesting materials, or a White-throated Sparrow arrives in April, but there’s such a feeling of joy when we see it again for the first time each year, as if we harbored a deep-rooted fear that maybe this year no robins would sing, and no chickadees would nest, and White-throated Sparrows would actually disappear. Rachel Carson understood this deeply-rooted need for annual predictability and repetition when she wrote:
There is symbolic as well as actual beauty in the migration of the birds; in the ebb and flow of the tides; responding to sun and moon as they have done for millions of years; in the repose of the folded bud in winter, ready within its sheath for spring. There is something infinitely healing in these repeated refrains of nature, the assurance that night after night, dawn comes, and spring after winter. 
Spring to a nature-lover is like Christmas to a Santa-believing child—there’s such intense impatience during the waiting, then such intense magic, and suddenly it’s all over for another year. Up here we’re still a bit in the waiting stages, but when the floodgates open to hummingbirds, orioles, warblers, and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, we can’t possibly take it all in before things settle back down as migration eases into the breeding season.

American White Pelican

My friend Lisa has been impatient for American White Pelicans; a listener named Richard Wright called her to report them arriving in Fond du Lac on April 22. We each have a few things we especially savor. I particularly relish hearing Fox Sparrows and Juncos singing. I’ve only had 3 Fox Sparrows and 30 juncos at most this spring, and very few songs, but to fill the void I’ve pulled out a recording I made in my backyard on April 21, 2011. That’s what I played in the background of today's podcast—just hearing it makes me very happy.

I try to savor each day as it unfolds. I am trying to be a more consistent eBird user. I kept track of every bird when Russ and I were in Florida last week, but I’ve been sloppier about it at home, even though keeping my backyard sightings on eBird can be lovely to look back on. Most of the spring migrant sparrows I love haven’t returned yet, but the number of juncos changes from day to day, from none all winter to a couple last week that I neglected to post on eBird, to 6 on Thursday, 15 on Friday, 30 on Saturday, and 10 on Sunday. On many years my junco numbers peak at a much higher number than just 30, but I don’t know how many are still south of here, so won’t know for at least a week if Saturday was the peak. Trying to stay in the habit of eBirding when my daily lists number less than 20 species is good discipline and practice for when migrants start rushing through. It won’t be long now.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Some choices for notecards/prints

I'm creating notecards and 8x10 photos as premiums for people who have donated on my Go Fund Me campaign at appropriate levels. I have over 20,000 photos on Flickr, which can be a little overwhelming. Here are some choices:

This isn't a photo: it's the drawing that Jeff Sonstegard did of my education nighthawk Fred for my first book (For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide). I bought the rights to it from Jeff when the book came out.

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Here is the most adorable bird in the universe, the Cuban Tody. People who donate $5 or more are getting a 4x6 print, but I'll get notecards made of this, too.

Cuban Tody!!

This isn't just ANY chickadee. This is my special guy--the chickadee who had an overgrown beak and was also missing its three front toes on its right foot. He nested across the street from me and successfully raised at least 5 chicks. (I watched three of them fledge!)

My little chickadee

And this isn't just any Great Blue Heron: This is "Dad," the wonderful male who built the nest in the pond outside the Cornell Lab of Ornithology while I was working there--the same male who raised five babies in that same nest in view of the cam in 2012, 2013, and 2014. This is the last photo I took of him, in spring 2015.

"Dad" the Cornell Great Blue Heron

I have several Turkey Vulture photos, but something about this one appeals to me. He or she didn't seem to mind me photographing him/her in the least.

Turkey Vulture

I have no idea how to choose a photo of Pip. Here are a couple of possibilities.

Pip waving

Pip loves her Cubbies!

Here's a friendly guy from Florida.

Roseate Spoonbill

This isn't just any Boreal Owl--it's the one I saw on Superb Owl Sunday with my husband Russ during my Conservation Big Year. Russ didn't get to go out with me at all that year except that one day.

Boreal Owl

I took this on Machias Seal Island during my Big Year.

Atlantic Puffin

THIS is the photo that made me, officially, a National Geographic photographer. It appears in the book I wrote for them, the National Geographic Pocket Guide to North American Birds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Some adorable little children discovered this perfect little nest right near the Magee Marsh boardwalk.

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

Yellow Warbler

If you have other suggestions for choices for prints or notecards, let me know.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Thank you SO much!

Great Blue Heron

I’m writing this on my brand new computer, and tomorrow being a very important day to me, I’m going to place an order for the camera lens of my dreams: the Canon 300mm f/2.8 that will make photography in dark woods, at dusk, and under overcast skies so much easier.

What’s so important about tomorrow? It’s Ulysses S. Grant’s birthday, and it’s also the 6th anniversary of the first two eggs hatching in the Great Blue Heron nest under the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s watchful nest cam. I was a moderator in Cornell’s heron cam community where I made dear and permanent friends, many of whom contributed to my Go Fund Me campaign.

Pips in Great Blue Heron eggs

I’ll be depleting my checking and savings accounts to make tomorrow’s purchase, but there is no way I could have bought these two important but truly luxury items at all without the generous contributions that are covering fully 2/3 of the cost and, indeed, making both purchases possible in the first place. It feels wonderful to know that so many people were willing to support my volunteer work on my blog, photography, and podcast in such a tangible way. I hope I can make my work even better in the coming years thanks to my new equipment.

I’ll be closing down the Go Fund Me campaign at midnight as April transitions into May. I’ll have the camera lens in time for The Biggest Week, the Iowa Ornithologists Union meeting, and the Acadia Birding Festival. With luck, I'll be able to take some amazing warbler shots over the coming spring. It’s been faster and easier processing the sound files for my production of For the Birds, and because the new computer is significantly faster than my old one, it’ll be easier and quicker to archive more old programs as well. 

Now that Russ’s and my trip to Florida is over and I’ve taken care of two exhausting speaking gigs this past week, I’ll have time to focus this weekend on ordering prints and notecards as gifts for these many contributions. That, too, will more easily be done on the new computer.

And all of this is possible because of YOU. I can't thank you enough.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

A day in Port Wing

This is a transcript of my podcast for April 25, 2018. You can hear it (with the children's voices) here, on the program page.

I got to spend a day in my old stomping grounds in Port Wing, Wisconsin, last week. I knew it was going to be a wonderful day when the very first thing I saw when I woke up was a bobcat. I had to be at South Shore School at about 9:30, but that left me a bit of time for a walk on Big Pete Road, on the eastern side of a protected boreal forest. I wasn’t out long, but did see eight Red Crossbills flying over, heard Sandhill Cranes calling in the wetlands adjacent to the forest.

Most fun of all, watched three Pileated Woodpeckers working out their romantic and territorial entanglements. One male had been calling from and drumming on a big, dead pine for several minutes when a female flew in and joined him. Suddenly a second male flew in—this one wasn’t so welcome, and he and the first male did some interesting displays at one another before the new arrival took off, the first male following as if to make sure he entirely left the territory. Then he flew back to his pine tree and hammered a victory drumroll.

Jeepers the neighborhood Pileated Woodpecker

Too soon it was time for me to leave, but fortunately, I was headed to South Shore school. My friend Deanna Erickson, the Education Coordinator at the Lake Superior National Estuarine Research Reserve, has been working with teachers in Port Wing for the past four years, helping them incorporate outdoor learning and Lake Superior into their classrooms. This year, some students will be making signage for a DNR restoration project where my beloved Port Wing sewage ponds are now becoming a restored wetland, and I was going to spend the day with three groups of kids learning about the birds of the area.

I got to the school a half hour before Deanna, when the organized program would begin, so I got to spend some time talking individually with some of Erika Suo’s third and fourth graders. Erika has done a wonderful job of getting her kids started learning about birds. Some of them told me what their favorite birds are. Birds of prey always are among the top picks whether I’m talking to kids or adults, and the speedy Peregrine Falcon always makes a huge impression.
1) My name is Dexton and my favorite bird is the Peregrine Falcon. I like it very much because it is the fastest animal on earth.  
2) Hi. My name is Sylas. My favorite bird is the Peregrine Falcon. I like it because it’s the fastest bird in the world and a great hunter.
 I’d seen two Bald Eagles that very morning in Port Wing—there are at least a couple of nests in my favorite haunts there, so I’m not at all surprised that they have fans.
3) My name is Aydan and my favorite bird is the Bald Eagle because it’s very rare and unique. 
 My own favorite bird made the cut.
4) Hi. My name is Sophie and I like the chickadee because it’s small, cute, and it’s fluffy.
 This was the first week that I’d heard robins singing their lovely spring song, and I got to watch several running in the marshes.
5) My name is Richard and I like the robin because they always stick together.
 Even when it’s not National Blue Jay Awareness Month, Mark Twain’s favorite has its ardent fans.
6) Hi. My name is Maddie. My favorite bird is the Blue Jay because it is intelligent and aggressive. 
Listening to these bright, articulate, knowledgeable kids gives me hope for the future of birds and of human beings.

Monday, April 23, 2018

A visit to Northern Wisconsin

Golden-winged Warbler

Last week I spent an evening in Ashland, Wisconsin, at the Northern Great Lakes Visitors Center, giving a talk about warblers for the Friends of the North Pikes Creek Wetland, a valuable and unique wetland area in Bayfield County that includes a trout stream and forests important for the declining Golden-winged Warbler. The Friends group is working tirelessly to protect and enhance the wetlands and to promote responsible recreational use of this resource and the education of the community, particularly local K-12 students. It felt wonderful helping raise awareness about this worthy organization. And driving to Ashland, I was getting a lovely sense of spring, seeing Turkey Vultures, robins, and Red-winged Blackbirds here and there despite the snow.

After the program, I drove to Port Wing, Wisconsin, where I was to spend the night. On the way down County A from Iron River, just as I was getting to Town Line Road, a wolf crossed in front of me. I see and hear coyotes way more often than wolves, but any time I see either it’s exciting. I thought about how lucky I am to live where I do, where most people really do seem to understand the value of wildness and of wildlife.

That night I got to stay by myself in a house right next to a wetland. I’m not quite as resilient as I was when I was younger, so I fell asleep almost immediately and didn’t wake up until just after sunrise. That meant I didn’t get any recordings of night or pre-dawn sounds, though robins were singing away.

The sun was still rosy when I looked out at the wetland without my eyeglasses. And what to my wondering eyes should chance to pass by but a big gray shape that looked for all the world like a cat with a short tail and pointy ears. Not only was I not wearing my glasses—I also didn’t have my binoculars right there. I couldn’t trust that it would still be there if I ran and got them, so I kept watch as it moved steadily and deliberately over the snow-covered ice and disappeared into the shrubs and weeds along the edge of the marsh at Washington Avenue. I was certain it was a bobcat, but despite how close as it was, to my nearsighted eyes it was little more than an evocative shape. Once it was gone, I went for my binoculars and looked out again. I didn’t know what I’d see this time, but I was certain I’d blown my chance of a close look at the bobcat. But suddenly out it came, now headed the other way. And if the full side view wasn’t enough, it stopped and turned its head to face directly at me. I hadn’t brought my camera, but those eerily haunting eyes burned themselves into my memory. I’ve spent a lot of my lifetime outdoors in good habitat, yet this was the first wild bobcat I’ve ever seen. I was thrilled.

Bobcat! (A re-enactment)
BOBCAT!! (A reenactment. I didn't have my camera along, but my dog Pip helped me recreate the moment.)
The Port Wing wetlands are on the edge of town, and a sizeable chunk of the area between them and the lake includes houses and dirt roads. The big spaces of land encircling the small town are mostly private, and although wolves, bobcats, coyotes, and even a mountain lion can be occasionally found there, they don’t have much space that they can count on—land that truly belongs to them. This wetland that felt magically like wilderness for that brief, shining moment is but a narrow, fragile strip open to a wide range of human uses. Indeed, a few cars going down Washington, Highway 13 traffic, and the sounds of boats squelched any sense of being in actual wilderness.

We humans no longer live on the edge of vast wilderness. The tiny dregs of wildness that we manage to hold fast to survive only as long as we allow it to. I felt proud that I’d helped another fragile little place, the North Pikes Creek Wetland up in Chequamegon Bay, the night before, and hope that there will always remain among us humans at least a handful of people willing to do what they can to protect what little wild land remains. We owe it to the human spirit and soul as well as to the creatures with whom we share this lovely planet.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Listener Favorite: American Bittern

American Bittern

Sometimes we have encounters with birds that seem utterly wonderful and amazing, even if the bird we encountered isn’t our favorite bird of all. Last week I received a phone call from a listener who didn’t identify herself telling about her most memorable encounters:
I’m calling about my best bird ever. I saw this bird on April 27, 1985, and it was memorable in that first I heard him sounding like an old-fashioned washing machine on its last legs. I had no idea what I might be listening to but stayed around that swampy area and finally caught sight of him with his head pointed straight up, and he kept croaking away. That was the first sighting of my American Bittern. 
And a couple years later I was treated to an unexpected sight when I saw a male American Bittern enthusiastically (according to me) trailing after a female as they walked down our driveway, and I thought that was unusual to be out in the open so, but I think when you come right down to it my favorite bird is the chickadee because he’s always there and gives so much pleasure. Thank you.
 I lucked into seeing my very first bittern calling out in the open on a college ornithology field trip. I’d already heard the bizarre call on my Peterson bird record, and our professor got the bird into his spotting scope and told us all what it was, so as wonderful as it was to see the bird making its amazingly cool calls the very first time I saw one, it wasn’t any kind of mystery for me to tease out. And unlike our fortunate caller, I’ve never ever seen a bittern walking around on my driveway.

American Bittern

The Medieval Latin word for bittern, butaurus, was constructed from the Middle English name for the Eurasian bittern, botor. In Pliny's Natural History, a comprehensive book, written in Latin, about what was known about the natural world, Pliny the Elder wrote that the derivation of the word was from Bos (ox) and taurus (bull), because the bittern's call resembles the bellowing of a bull.

Here in America, our bittern has several nicknames including “stake-driver,” “thunder-pumper,” “water-belcher,” and “mire-drum,” all to describe the bizarre quality of the call. Of course, the bittern and the Green Heron have also been given another nickname, “shitepoke,” but for an entirely different reason: the *shite* comes from a four-letter vulgarism referring to something that streams out of the birds on takeoff. I don’t know if Pliny the Elder paid attention to that or carefully diverted his eyes to avoid seeing anything so unseemly. 

Bitterns are in the heron family, and feed on fish, frogs and tadpoles, snakes, insects, voles, and other aquatic or wetland critters. Their most common insect prey include water striders, giant water bugs, water beetles, water scorpions, grasshoppers, and especially dragonflies—they can capture those in midair. Like other herons, they swallow their prey whole, head-first. 

Bitterns stalk their prey in a slow, deliberate kind of way, or just sit patiently waiting for the food to come to them. Their powerful neck muscles give them a fast and furious jab, a supremely effective means of grabbing the quickest swimming critters. Their cryptic coloration, with the vertical streaking along the neck, makes them almost invisible in a cattail marsh. But that coloration doesn’t help much when the birds arrive in spring before snow has melted—I’ve seen them standing with their bill up in the middle of a snow-covered, frozen marsh, standing out beautifully against the white background. My best photos were taken in Texas and Florida in winter, when the birds are usually silent but fairly easily seen from boardwalks in popular birding spots. 

It doesn’t surprise me that my unnamed caller didn’t think of the bittern as her favorite bird. Magical as her encounters were, bitterns are here only part of the year, you usually have to work pretty hard to see them, and they’re only found in wetlands where mosquitoes also abound. But magical encounters don’t lose their power and beauty just because the bird isn’t our absolute favorite. Wherever we go birding, from a sewage pond to an enchanted forest, and whenever we go there, there is always the possibility of a magical, or at least wonderfully memorable, encounter with some bird. When you're birding, something wonderful is always right around the corner, and while we wait, we can always count on our dear little chickadees. Our time spent in the natural world nurtures our sense of wonder, the very source of faith, hope, and love. 

American Bittern

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Listener Favorite: Val's Great Crested Flycatcher

Great Crested Flycatcher

I just got an email from my good friend Val Cunningham, who has written several fine books about birds as well as a column for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Regarding favorite birds, she writes:
I agree about how tough it is to choose just one bird, as a matter of fact, it’s impossible. I love all your choices, and then some.   
But may I toss in a bird that might be called my Most Rewarding Bird Ever? I worked and worked on this bird for weeks before I could finally nail down its identity.   
This was way back in the 1980s, when I’d barely begun birding and was still at the stage of reading a field guide and eagerly anticipating new birds I might see. It was early summertime, and since I am self-employed, I can be out and about at any time of the day.   
Riding my bike through a large park near my home I heard the most amazing sound, sort of a big ‘burp’ followed by some gasping ‘wheep’ sounds, repeated over and over. Screeching to a stop I hauled my binoculars out of the bike basket and scanned the nearby woods, but could not find the bird, even though it repeated its sounds over and over.   
As I walked through this park the next morning, I heard the sounds again, in the same wooded area, so I spent many minutes waiting, watching and scanning. But I couldn’t find the bird.   
This occurred over and over for the next several weeks, and I was becoming more and more eager to discover what this bird was. (This all took place before there were bird song apps, and great sites like the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds, that would have made short work of this identification challenge.) .  
Then, one gorgeous morning, as I stoood across the street and listened to the burp and wheeps, a bird flew to the top of one of the trees. Focusing my binos on him I saw a reddish back, a yellowish front and a tall crest, a gorgeous bird. Racing home I got out the field guide and paged through until I found it: a great-crested flycatcher!   
Part of my joy about being able to put a name to a new bird was the weeks-long patience it required, it was almost as if the bird and I were working together, he offering tantalizing sounds and me waiting patiently to see him.  
I wouldn’t say that great-crested flycatchers are my favorite bird ever, but this was one of my favorite birdwatching experiences ever.
Val’s observations seem particularly timely for me, because Russ and I just returned from a trip to Florida, and those burps and wheeps and other cool sounds were a highlight of our three days in the Everglades. I’d brought my recording equipment and managed to get a few recordings, which are serving as the background of this podcast. The Great Crested Flycatcher is a splendid bird by any measure—the sounds it produces give it a fun uniqueness that I’ll be looking forward to hearing up here in just a few short weeks.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Dangerous Spring Weather

American Robin closeup

Back in 1982, Russ and I left Duluth for Arizona at the end of March and didn’t return home until April 17. When we left, we had lots of redpolls at our feeder, and there was lots of snow on the ground, so I paid a local boy to keep my bird feeders filled each day, telling him he could stop after the snow melted and the redpolls disappeared. But when we got home, the snow was deeper and there were even more redpolls visiting our yard than when we’d left.

There’s a reason April Fools Day is set in April. The problem is that many of our migrating birds are playing games of probability, partly driven by genetics. If the first robins of spring happen to be early birds in a year when spring arrives early, they do indeed get the worms, along with top-notch territories and a jump on the more cautious or lackadaisical robins, and that year a bumper crop of baby robins will carry the antsy early bird genes. But in years like this, when there are no worms available for the early birds, the earlier robins end up hungry as late winter fruit supplies grow badly depleted and worms are securely buried under frozen topsoil and inches of snow.

I’ve received a few emails about robins visiting suet feeders, and I expect that when they wend their way up here, Yellow-rumped Warblers will be visiting feeders as well.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

There is always mortality during spring migration—whenever birds leave there are perils galore, including collisions with windows and lighted towers, predation, habitat destruction and loss, and all manner of other hazards before we even start considering the weather. Songbirds are tiny mites, many weighing significantly less than an ounce, yet they power their way through hundreds or thousands of miles without benefit of GPS, restaurants, hotels, or any of the other amenities we mere humans consider necessities on a trip. And whatever the weather, they make this journey naked as jaybirds.

Storms can kill a lot of birds, especially tornadoes and ice storms. Deaths from this kind of extended cold aren’t nearly as dramatic but are still significant. In 2004, after what seemed like an early spring in April, we had a crushing cold snap in May, after a great many of the insectivores that winter in the tropics had arrived. Scarlet Tanagers and Cape May Warblers became regulars at some fruit and sugar water feeders alongside Baltimore Orioles.

Scarlet Tanager at suet

Cape May Warbler

My own feeders certainly helped the dozens of birds that discovered them, but I hated thinking about the countless birds that never did find a feeding station. There’s a lot of controversy involved in providing jelly for birds, but that particular year, jelly feeders kept a lot of birds alive until spring finally arrived.

This year is shaping up to be a seriously bad one. This morning the Raptor Education Group of Antigo issues a Bird Emergency Alert. Marge Gibson posted:

Last night, into early morning, I took over fifty phone calls, texts and Facebook messages. Most were about weak and dying warblers, robins and woodcocks. Please understand this is an extraordinary situation. More snow and cold temperatures are predicted for Wednesday and Thursday. The birds require your help. YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE!   
This is not a normal spring. The birds can deal with some snow and cold, but not deep snow (30 plus inches) and sustained cold. They have slipped into hypothermia, unable to maintain their own body temperature or keep themselves warm any longer. Birds that eat insects cannot find natural food. They are starving. 
If you see a bird that you can pick up, PLEASE do so. Put it in a cardboard box, not a cage or a carrier. Put a towel in the bottom of the box and bring them into a warm area. Put a heating pad on low under part of the box. Cover the box to create an "incubator" of sorts. You are looking for a temperature of about 80 degrees. Put food in the box. Live or dried mealworms and live waxworms work. (obtain from Wildbirds Unlimited ,Gas station/Fleet Farm/Walmart anywhere that sells fishing bait) Keep bird/box away from family pets. Transport the bird as soon as you can to our facility or your local avian wildlife rehabilitation center. 
If you cannot transport the bird, we will try to find a volunteer transporter. If weather again becomes hazardous call for more instructions. Keep the bird warm, well fed, a small non-tip dish of water in the box in the meantime. Do not release while weather conditions remain challenging. 
AGAIN: Please keep your bird feeders full. Robins can eat cut-up raisins, dried mealworms, shelled sunflower-seed pieces, frozen blueberries, crumbled suet blocks. Put food on the ground where you see the birds. Robins congregate along rural roads, near stands of pine,spruce or other conifers. You can also feed them in those locations, Make sure the food you put down is off the roadway. If you see a bird in need, PLEASE pick it up and put it in cardboard box with a towel in the bottom. Bring it into a warmed area. Birds are dying of malnutrition and hypothermia and need assistance to get through this horrific weather. Call REGI at 715-623-4015 or your local avian rehabilitator for guidance. We continue to operate without full staff due to weather conditions. 
Thank you for your help. We are in desperate need of volunteer drivers for this event specifically. Please call 715-623-4015 or leave a message on Facebook if you can help us. Birds are coming from Marshfield, Stevens Point, Pittsville, Adams Friendship, Wausau, Shawano, Marion and all of the surrounding areas.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Listener Favorite: Paul’s Winter Wren

Winter Wren

The trick with choosing a favorite bird is that there are just too many possibilities. Mine of course is the chickadee—except that I love Blue Jays so much that it seems hard not to call them my favorite. And the Cuban Tody. And the Red-eyed Vireo. And the Black-capped Vireo. And the Pileated Woodpecker. And the Winter Wren.

That may be why I haven’t heard from too many listeners so far about their favorites—it’s hard to pick just one. But a couple of weeks ago, I heard from Paul Peterson of Randle, Washington, who wrote:
So difficult to choose just one but if I must: Winter Wren for his gorgeous song, sung half the year; indefatigable attitude, fearless display, never shy, and cute silhouette.
Every single one of the stellar qualities Paul mentioned is spot-on. I love the Winter Wren’s song so much that it’s my main ringtone on my phone. The indefatigable attitude is so fun to see when I get to spend a few minutes watching one—of course, that’s only possible on the wren’s terms—this is a noticing kind of bird impossible to sneak up on.

Winter Wren

For a long time, our Winter Wren was considered the same species as the Wren of Europe and the UK, beloved by Brits from Shakespeare to Paul McCartney. Since 2010, that species has been called the Eurasian Wren. Not only was the wren from across the pond split off from the American version, but our American birds were split into two different species, the Eastern version, still called the Winter Wren, and the Western version, now called the Pacific Wren

Pacific Wren

The western species has a different song, packing many more notes per second in than the Eastern does, though our poor human ears can’t resolve the individual notes for the Pacific Wren as we can for the Winter Wren. Given our human limitations, the Winter Wren of the East sounds prettier to most of us, but the Pacific Wren’s more complex songs are more pleasing to some ornithologists as well as the birds themselves.

One of my favorite writers and human beings, John Bates, wrote a splendid poem about the Winter Wren—a poem that gushes through in the same cadence as the Winter Wren song:

When the winter wren sings
the notes make a riot in the leaves
as if the wind rose from every direction
and blew and blew
for seven seconds
then stopped, 
reminding us
why we fell in love
with the world.

When the winter wren sings
he invites us to join
his whirling dervish dance
a dizzying and heartbursting dance
a time when shafts of light sweeten the air,
the air that we breathe
when we finally remember to breathe.

When the winter wren sings
children stop chasing
and cock their heads
listening to his ecstasy
that takes them as far as their imaginations can go,
a voice that makes them fall
onto the wild ground
to lay among the cushions of mosses
and to laugh
in the dirt.

That was John Bates in his wonderful book, Cold to the Bone, published in 2017 by the Manitowish River Press.

The Winter Wren is plenty good enough for a favorite bird, but Paul Peterson gave honorable mention to the Barn Swallow, Barred Owl, and Timberdoodle. I did a program about the timberdoodle, also known as the American Woodcock, a couple of weeks ago—it’s a favorite of my friend Paula, too. In the coming weeks, I’ll try to talk about the Barn Swallow and Barred Owl as well.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Chapter 8: Five-striped Sparrow

Photo by Dominic Sherony, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons
In 1995, my friend Karen and I went down to Arizona on a summer birding tour. Karen was a pretty new birder, so just about everything was new to her. I’d been to Arizona once before, but I saw plenty of birds for the first time, too. One of the birds I badly wanted to see—a bird so rare in the United States that it wasn’t even included in my now vintage Golden Field Guide or Peterson Guide—was the Five-striped Sparrow. There was only one spot where we could hope to see it—a place called the California Gulch.

The California Gulch is in the Pajarito Mountains within the Coronado National Forest, 19 miles west of Nogales, 13 miles southeast of Arivaca, and just 1.8 miles from the Mexican border. It’s accessed by an extremely rugged road down into a wash. Our group was in a couple of vans, and the road really was awful, especially the final 5-mile stretch. My only previous experience with the word Gulch was from The Wizard of Oz, wherein the nasty Miss Gulch transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West. So on the whole awful ride in, I had visions of Dorothy and her friends arriving at the Haunted Forest with the broken sign saying, “I’d turn back if I were you.”

A guy named Jack wrote for an Avian Sites website with this information:
Standard passenger cars with low clearance are guaranteed to scrape the bottom due to ruts in the road and to large, embedded rocks that cannot be moved. Standard passenger cars will almost certainly scrape the bottom several times. Despite being inanimate, the rocks are skilled at moving about the road during the summer (and all other seasons), meaning the road conditions can be different from what your buddy experienced, saying he had no problem driving the road last week.  
The best vehicles to use are SUVs and pickups; or, better yet, someone else's car -- perhaps the car of your buddy who said he had no problem with the road last week.  
Our trip leader had come here before, but the other driver hadn’t, and the road was at least as bad as described. When we finally made it to the rocky parking area about 11 in the morning, the sun high and the temperature in triple digits, both drivers were fried, and already dreading the fact that they had to make the exact same trip in reverse after we were done with our long hike.

I, on the other hand, was extremely thrilled to be at this storied destination. I was first to hop out of my van, spotting scope in hand, ready for anything. And sure enough, the moment I jumped out, I spotted an adorable fluffy baby bird perched on the barbed wire fence. It looked like it may have fledged that very day. I’ve never been able to turn away from a baby bird. This was long before I had a digital camera—I didn’t even bring a film camera on this trip—but I got the bird in my scope and suddenly a bunch of us were oohing and aah-ing at the sweet little thing.

The hike into the spot where habitat was right and our bird was supposed to be was a long one, so our leader told us all to drink water now and make sure we brought along plenty more. I’d made sure of all that already, so I kept watching the baby bird. I didn’t know what species it was—there were several possibilities there—so I was hoping that one of the parents would come to feed it before we walked off.

I waited patiently, letting everyone get leisurely views of it through my scope. As soon as everyone had had a drink and got a water bottle, our leader said it was time to head out. We’d already been there a good 5 minutes—maybe even 10—so I figured a parent bird would be flying in any time now. I told the leader to go on without me—I was young and peppy and filled with curiosity about this baby bird, and could walk plenty fast when necessary, so I knew I could catch up. But he thought this spot was too dangerous to leave a woman alone, so he said no—I’d have to go with the group.

I’m pretty easygoing most of the time, but can be tenacious when the situation calls for it, and here was an unidentified baby bird—I simply needed to know what species it was. I told him to give me just one more minute. He looked fit to be tied, but a couple of other people were curious, too. With exaggerated exasperation, he gave me 60 seconds. Absolutely no more. 

He was starting to clear his throat as the clock wound down. With less than 5 seconds to spare, in flew the mother bird. And yep—she was a Five-striped Sparrow! Everyone was elated to get such wonderful views—she flew straight to her chick right there on the fence. And while she was still feeding it, in flew the father, who gave a bug or two to the baby and then opened up into song.

The level of my jubilation just to be able to see this little family group at close range was even higher than the level of my satisfaction at helping the entire group skip the long hike to where the birds were supposed to be. It really wasn’t like I expected the birds to be Five-striped Sparrows. But wow was it wonderful that they were!

Of course, when I tell this story more than two decades later, most people listening immediately realize that that’s where the story was going from the start. Sometimes a real-life story really does have an improbable yet obvious ending. Predictability isn’t always a bad thing, especially when it comes with a dollop of vindication. That little Five-striped Sparrow fledgling and its parents were my Best Birds EVER!

Monday, April 9, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Chapter 7: White Tern

White Tern photo by B. Navez

During the five years Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, I regularly birded what people call a “patch.” And when I say “regularly,” I mean at least once or twice a week most months, and from March 1st through the last day of school, every single school day morning.

My birding patch was on the university campus, at Picnic Point and the nearby 1918 Marsh, which was called that because the wetland was donated to the university by the Class of 1918. I usually called the entire area Picnic Point.

Laura and Russ at my favorite place

When we left Madison in early 1981, my Picnic Point list was at exactly 200. I’d seen plenty of lifers there, and had had plenty of wonderful experiences. Among my favorite birds of all there were the Black Terns that showed up each year in mid-spring and remained to nest. It was impossible to walk along the path around the marsh without stirring up at least one pair, as hard as I tried to not disturb them.

Black Tern

I’d never lived near other terns to figure out how to handle their defenses of their nests. I later learned how Common and Arctic Terns come up from the side or back to hit you hard on the head—Russ bears the scars of one tern attack when we were at Machias Seal Island.

Common Tern

To safely walk about back when terns nested there, everyone had to carry a pole—the terns hit the highest part of the victims, so when the pole was higher than your head, it was the pole that got hit, but Russ put his pole down to take a picture of the kids holding their poles, and BAM!

The kids on Machias Seal Island
While Russ took this very photo, an Arctic or Common Tern hit him on the head.
In Madison I learned that Black Terns don’t actually strike, but they seem much more dangerous Common Terns because they fly straight toward you, looking right into your eyes as they zoom in, and not veering off until the very last moment. At first I couldn’t help but duck and cover my head, but I figured it was probably less stressful for the birds if I didn’t slow down but got out of there as quickly as possible. And one day while I was walking along that path, I got pooped on—the very first time ever that a bird pooped on me.

This of course prompted me to do what any self-respecting birder would do, so I started a new list, of all the birds that have ever pooped on me. After I started rehabbing, this list would have grown by leaps and bounds, but I decided to limit it to wild birds in their wild world pooping on me.

Blue-gray Tanager

(The only exception I’ve made was in 2007 when I was in Costa Rica. A Blue-gray Tanager collided with a window when my group was having lunch at an outdoor restaurant, and our leader handed it to me. The bird was stunned, and sat quietly for several minutes. Like many Neotropical tanagers, this one ate primarily fruit, and I’d been studying bird digestion during my ill-fated Ph.D. research, so I found the glistening poop it produced fascinating, even right there on my hand. After the bird flew, I wiped my hand and that was that. I somehow neglected to use the disinfectant hand wipes and hand sanitizer gel that I kept in my belt pouch precisely for this kind of situation. Sure enough, that night I got horribly sick—the one time I’ve gotten sick in the tropics that was 100 percent my fault. I keep the Blue-gray Tanager on my pooped-upon list so I can at least feel that getting sick was worth the cost.)

Even though the rest of my pooped-upon list is limited to wild birds in the wild, over the years, I’ve added quite a few interesting species, including Ruby-throated Hummingbird and Pileated Woodpecker. Oddly enough, I still don’t have a gull or pigeon on the list!

Whether it had to do with being in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time, I never ever tried to add a species to the list—except one time. In 2000, my family went to Hawaii for our last big family vacation, when our son Joey was a senior in high school. Somehow, I became fixated on the gorgeous White Tern, which had recently been split from Australia’s Fairy Tern. I not only wanted to see this bird—I wanted one to poop on me, to bring my pooped upon list full circle, starting with the Black Tern and ending with the White one.

The easiest place to find White Terns in Hawaii is at Waikiki Beach on Oahu, where some of them nest. This species’ nesting is perhaps even cooler than its stunning white plumage. The female lays a single egg not on the ground or some thick substrate, but directly onto a bare thin branch in a small fork or depression.

Baby White Terns have strong feet to hang on! Photo of chick on Midway Island by Milo44
To find nesting or roosting birds, all one needs to do is scan with binoculars on every fairly horizontal branch, and this was made even easier for me because one bird was sitting on a power line right out in the open! I positioned myself in what seemed like a propitious spot and waited.  

Russ and my kids have always been extraordinarily tolerant of my eccentricities, but my sitting down on the grass in a public park waiting for a bird to poop on me while people milled in every direction exceeded even their equanimity. So they all went to a restaurant for ice cream while I sat there.

Waiting for a bird to poop is not the kind of experience most people engage in, probably for good reason. But sitting there was enjoyable. Every time I looked up, I saw the ethereally beautiful bird—sometimes called a fairy or angel tern with good reason. And the gorgeous bird often looked right at me—its large dark eyes meeting mine filled me with joy. There are worse ways to spend a half an hour.

It took a good ten minutes before the bird finally let go, but the poop plopped onto the grass to my right. So I wiped the grass off and moved over a bit. The tern must have been perched there digesting a meal, so it took only seven or so minutes for the next delivery, that one to my left. The next plop came a good ten minutes later, this one making a direct hit on my hat at the very moment that I saw Russ and the kids returning. Despite their best intentions, they were there to witness the memorable event. They all seem to have recovered, and I will always treasure my time directly under an obliging White Tern, my Best Bird EVER!

White Tern photographed by Erik Bruhnke

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Listener Favorite: Mike Elliott's Loon

Common Loon

A few weeks ago, I asked listeners to send me a recording or a voice mail giving me their name, their favorite bird, and a brief reason why. A 15-30 second recording can be emailed to, or you can call Lisa Johnson’s KUMD voicemail after 2 pm at 218-726-6755. These instructions are near the top of the sidebar of this blog, too.

Not everyone makes digital recordings, so a couple of people have sent me emails telling me what their favorite bird is. Mike Elliott of Jacobson, Minnesota, sent me an essay about a lovely encounter with a Common Loon he calls Lady Flame, and how his brief interlude with her led to the best fish fry of his life. It’s too long for me to read on air, but I’ve linked to it here. Mike considers the loon his Spirit Bird.

More and more people in canoes are having close encounters with loons, though Mike’s encounter was definitely on the magical side. Based on stories I’ve been hearing from listeners, many loons in northern Minnesota and Wisconsin seem to have figured out that Bald Eagles are reluctant to drop down and attack a loon or grab a loon chick when the loon is anywhere near a boat. Several people have told me of an adult loon leading its tiny chick near a canoe, or a pontoon boat with its motor off, and then leaving the chick there to go off fishing. Until the past few years, I’d never heard of this happening at all, so it appears to be a genuinely recent phenomenon.

Common Loon
The parent loons left these two chicks by the pontoon boat I was in--that's how I got this photo!
There are so many ways that our species, often completely unknowingly but sometimes with malice aforethought, harms birds, and loons are among the most vulnerable to human-caused harm. They pick up lead sinkers, get entangled in tackle and monofilament, and eat fish contaminated with mercury. We don’t even think about the ways we cause that, but every one of us using electricity from a coal-burning power plant contributes to the mercury problem. Dental amalgam fillings contain mercury; indeed, even though many or most dental offices have installed amalgam separators, which catch and hold the excess amalgam waste coming from office spittoons, the EPA says that dental offices are still the single largest source of mercury at sewage treatment plants.

Many appliances and machinery, from irons with automatic shut-offs to refrigerator and car doors that switch lights off when closed, are laced with mercury, especially older models. Fluorescent lights and button batteries are other sources. And antique mirrors, barometers, and other wonderful old items can have disturbingly high levels of mercury. All these items should be disposed of at hazardous waste facilities, not landfills. It takes more work, but that is a reasonable price to pay for using these products to begin with.

Shoreline runoff from fertilizers, weed killers, and lawn pesticides damages water quality for loons. Fortunately, a great many people with waterfront property belong to local lakes associations, and many of these groups are very conscientious about protecting the water, for humans and wildlife both.

The first loons are already being spotted here and there. Apparently Mike Elliott’s loon and the ones that trust us enough to leave their babies near us think we’re a fairly innocuous species--certainly more innocuous than Bald Eagles. Mike Elliott said he'd never thought about loons approaching boaters to protect their families before, but added:
Two Summers ago on Vanduse Lake, where I live, I witnessed the passion and fight of mom and pop warning off our local area eagle that was attempting to have one or both of their kids for lunch. The eagle left. They won. But the victory was short lived as about a week later the couple were swimming alone.
As we approach the 48th anniversary of the first Earth Day, I hope our species' innocuousness grows, so Mike’s beloved Spirit Bird and the loons on everyone’s lakes can live long and prosper.

Common Loon

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

More than halfway there!

Pip thanks everyone who has donated to my Go Fund Me campaign

Since first releasing the link to my Go Fund Me campaign on Sunday afternoon, I've made it more than halfway to my goal! As of this moment, my total is $5,450 counting two lovely donations mailed directly to me rather than through the Go Fund Me site. I'm overwhelmed by the generosity of my friends and family and listeners and blog readers!

Despite Russian bots and privacy concerns, I'm still using Facebook, and I've linked to the Go Fund Me campaign on my own wall, but am NOT linking the campaign to Facebook directly. To do that gives Go Fund Me all my Facebook contacts, and that seems like an invasion of all of our privacy. I linked to the campaign once on my Twitter feed, but have very few Twitter followers and only rarely tweet at all.

So between Facebook, Twitter, and this blog, I've gotten the word out as well as I know how. I'm ordering the computer tomorrow. Russ and I are going to be visiting our son in Florida for ten days, so the computer will be here when or right after we get back. And I've got an excellent start on saving up for the Canon 300mm F2.8 lens, too!! If I get close enough in time, I'll be able to buy that in time for The Biggest Week, the Trempealeau National Wildlife Refuge IMBD Celebration and the Acadia Birding Festival! No matter what, I'll be closing down the Go Fund Me campaign at midnight on April 30.

I am so very grateful for so much support for my volunteer work! I'll try hard to be worthy of so much generosity.

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™ Chapter 6: Tommy’s Bohemian Waxwing

Bohemian Waxwing

When I started birding, my field guide (the Golden Guide) was like the Sears Wish Book of my childhood—it showed so very many birds in such a rainbow of colors and array of sizes and shapes, making me salivate over the prospect of seeing some. Not being in any serious birding networks at the time, and this being 1975, long before home computers, much less projects like eBird giving us quick access to all the checklists of other people in our area and further afield, I had no clue how many of those birds I could be seeing right near home had I more experience, or how very many I could be seeing if I could travel. I never dreamed that it would be remotely possible to see all the birds in that book, or even half—I was genuinely satisfied with my total my first spring—40 species—and my total for my first year—120. I had seen so many! And by going at it in my poky, lackadaisical yet somehow methodical way, I savored each new bird, read a lot about it, and tried to see it again and again.

But after 5 years in Madison, Wisconsin, after Russ got his Ph.D. and started fielding job possibilities, I was ready to branch out, and lobbied heavily for him to take a job offer in Duluth, almost entirely because of the birding possibilities. I was thinking about Boreal Chickadees and northern owls, of course, but the Bohemian Waxwing was high on my Most Wanted list, too. Arthur Singer’s field guide drawing was stunning—the bird’s stately bearing with that lovely crest, ethereally soft plumage in understated colors accented with brilliant wing and tail decorations—how could the reality possibly match the anticipation? Yet over and over I’d been discovering that real birds were even more gorgeous than their drawings. Could a Bohemian Waxwing be as pretty as its picture?

Our very first December in Duluth I saw my lifer in my own neighborhood, but unlike most of my lifers, this wasn’t just one bird—it was a whole flock pigging out on mountain ash berries.

Bohemian Waxwing

I could look from bird to bird to bird. Young ones had fairly minimal wing ornaments.

Bohemian Waxwing

Older birds were even more stunning than the one in the book—the soft texture of the body feathers, so strangely sleek compared to most bird plumage—made such a wonderful contrast to the shiny, waxy primary yellow and red of the wing markings and tail tip.

Bohemian Waxwing

How could a bird possibly grow such incongruously spectacular feathers?

Seeing waxwings near my house became an annual winter tradition—they’d show up at crabapples and mountain ashes just about every December, and would stick around until they depleted the neighborhood’s fruit supplies. And every time I stopped to watch them, I was taken aback all over again by their stunning beauty.

After I started talking about birds on the radio in 1986, people in my neck of the woods started thinking of me as the “bird lady.” When confronted with a bird problem, my name would be the first thing that would pop into a lot of people’s heads. I quickly had to get a license to rehab injured birds, because suddenly I’d come home from the pediatrician to a bird in a box on our front porch with a note, “Take care of this bird. God bless you.”

In late February or early March in 1988, someone found a Bohemian Waxwing right at an entrance to the Miller Hill Mall. The poor bird had an open wound on his foot and seemed to be intoxicated—a condition that occasionally affects waxwings in late winter as sugars in fruits and berries ferment. We’d already started calling our house the Peabody Street Detox Center. And now suddenly I had a real, live Bohemian Waxwing in my hands!

The delicate body feathers were just as soft as I’d imagined while the bright feather parts had a smooth, waxy texture. But what seemed even softer and more wondrous than the bird’s plumage was the bird’s soft, gentle nature. As sociable flocking birds, waxwings have a deep-rooted need for companionship, and when they don’t have other waxwings to hang out with, will sometimes settle for other species, at least temporarily. This handsome bird ate raisins and applesauce right out of my hand, and included my two-year-old son Tommy in his new circle of trust, readily alighting on Tommy’s finger. Unfortunately, I don’t have photos, but can still picture in my mind’s eye the wide-eyed delight on Tommy’s face, looking into the eyes of this handsome bird, who looked right back at Tommy. 

He sobered up by the second day, but I was giving him antibiotics for his foot gash, so kept him for a few days longer. Every now and then he’d make soft little notes, and whenever he did, if I looked out, there would be a flock of waxwings in our mountain ash. His keen hearing could pick them out even with all our windows closed.

His foot healed well and his restlessness grew whenever he heard a flock outside, his soft little notes like pleas to the birds to come rescue him. So one morning during a warm front, I carried him out to the front porch, crouched down low so Tommy could bid the bird farewell, and opened my hand.

You’d think a captive bird would fly instantly off when you let it go, but in my experience they take a moment or two to get their bearings. Early spring music–the zip of Pine Siskins and the trickling gurgle of melting snow–filled the air. The waxwing sat in my hand for a full minute or so, looking from me to Tommy to the nearby trees. Then he nonchalantly flew up to a maple tree to perch, looking all around and preening his wings and his tail–maybe trying to shake off the taint of captivity. We watched him for a while, and then went inside, Tommy wistfully waving to him and saying, “Bye-Bye, Waxwing.” 

We peeked out the living room window several times. After a few minutes, he flew to the mountain ash, so we had to switch to my bedroom window, where we watched him eating berries. He glanced occasionally at us through that window as he ate.

A half hour or so later, a small group of waxwings joined him. We could still recognize him because his tail feathers had become slightly bent—one of the problems of keeping any wild bird in captivity. Of the flock, he was the only waxwing that peeked at us through the window. The group stayed in the tree for only a few minutes. Fortunately, Tommy and I were watching as they took off. “Bye-bye, Waxwing,” we said together, to the best bird EVER.

Tommy in the Everglades