Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Anhinga Trail Then and Now

I don't know where exactly we took the photo of Tommy in 1988—the signs are gone now. But I made Russ sit pretty much where I thought our little boy had been sitting. Tragically, Russ doesn't have a single dinosaur shirt. 

1988 Tommy

Tommy in the Everglades

2018 Russ

Russ on the Anhinga Trail

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Laura’s Best Bird EVER! ™: Le Conte’s Sparrow—Tiny Ahab

Le Conte's Sparrow
NOT my first Le Conte's Sparrow--that was before I was taking photos. 

On April 30, 1976, Russ and I left for a Michigan Audubon field trip to northern Michigan. He and I camped in a state forest close to the Michigan State Prairie Chicken Management Area in Osceola County so we could meet the other field trip participants well before first light on May 1. We got little sleep because the spring peepers were calling up a storm that whole night, and we had to get up while it was still quite dark to meet the group where the blind was to observe the state’s last remnant population of prairie chickens dancing. The entire flock was about to disappear within the next few years, though our group was still hopeful that these mating birds could somehow defy the odds. We gazed at them for a couple of hours. After they dispersed, we headed north, making a quick stop at Hartwick Pines State Park, where I saw my first Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Warblers, and then we headed on to Whitefish Point. By the time we arrived after what had already been a full day,  everyone was more than ready for lunch.

I’d already added eight lifers that morning and was very hungry myself, so you’d think I’d be happy to sit down with our group for at least a bit of a lunch break. But I’d never before been to Whitefish Point, and so after a quick bathroom break I grabbed my bag lunch and headed back outside for some more birding. And right in the gravel-and-grass parking area, I came upon another new bird—a tiny, gorgeous sparrow. I rifled through the pages of my field guide as the bird obligingly stayed nearby, sometimes on the ground, sometimes in one or another small shrub. That kind of cooperativeness meant the little guy almost certainly had had a long night migrating and still needed rest and food. After looking through every sparrow in the book, I settled on Le Conte’s Sparrow.

Le Conte's Sparrow

After I felt satisfied with my identification and had drunk in its lovely features, I ran inside to tell everyone. And instantly the on-site bird bander told me that was impossible—he’d never seen or heard of a Le Conte’s Sparrow on Whitefish Point before. I was still very much a beginner, and didn't have the cockiness or confidence to argue the point, but I said the bird was probably still there and I could show it to him. He skeptically followed me to the parking lot, most of the field trip participants in tow, and sure enough, there was the bird, and sure enough, it was indeed a Le Conte’s Sparrow. He let out a triumphant whoop as if he’d found it himself and ran to his truck get a mist net. I’d never before seen one of those—it looked like an extremely fragile volleyball net. He set it up at the edge of the parking lot maybe 30 feet from the bird. Then he had us all line up on the other side of the bird and slowly walk forward, driving the bird toward the net. When the tiny thing was snagged, he quickly extricated it, transforming a bird in the bush into one in the hand.

This was the first time I’d ever seen a bird get banded, and it made a deep impression. The bander was a big guy, with huge hands. The size difference between him and the tiny bird was impressive enough, but what triggered my imagination was how the bird didn’t meekly submit to being manhandled—he threw his head back and opened his mouth, glaring at the enormous man with fury and defiance, reminding me of Ahab confronting the Great White Whale.

Unlike Melville’s Ahab, this little Le Conte’s Sparrow survived his first battle with his nemesis without getting his leg bitten off—rather than a wooden leg, my Ahab would forever carry a tiny aluminum band around his leg as a remembrance. And unlike Moby Dick, the bander didn’t get any deep wounds from harpoons and knives, though the little bird did bite his hand hard enough to draw a bit of blood. I, the Ishmael in this scenario, alone am escaped to tell thee.

When I got home, I headed to the university library to look up some numbers. The average Le Conte’s Sparrow weighs about 14 grams—that’s half an ounce. I don’t think Melville reported Ahab’s weight, but I found an old movie magazine on microfiche that had the next best thing—Gregory Peck’s weight, which was about 174 pounds. And I found in a book or encyclopedia article the maximum weight of a Sperm Whale, 63 tons. I worked out the ratios to discover that the Le Conte’s Sparrow was tinier, relative to Ahab, than Ahab was to the Great White Whale—and not just by a little. The biggest sperm whales weigh 721 times as much as Gregory Peck did; meanwhile, he weighed fully 5,643 times what a Le Conte’s Sparrow weighs. That’s an order of magnitude difference!

So my tiny little Ahab, fearless in the face of the Great White Bander, stood his ground and lived, escaping the dire fate that took Melville’s poor Ahab down into the depths. There’s no evidence that my avian Ahab spent the rest of his life obsessively seeking revenge—indeed, not one Le Conte’s Sparrow banded during the 1970s has ever been re-captured, so unlike Melville’s character, my little Ahab managed to move on from his ordeal without developing a monomaniacal obsession for revenge, leading an entire ship's crew to their deaths in the process. I don’t think Herman Melville ever had a chance to see a Le Conte’s Sparrow, much less observe one being banded, or his greatest work of fiction might have turned out a bit differently.

To this very day, whenever I have to stand up to something fearful, I see that Le Conte’s Sparrow in my mind’s eye—that unobtrusive, tiny guy holding firm in resistance as long as the danger remained. That tiny little Ahab was my best bird EVER!

Across the Universe

Northern Saw-whet Owl

This weekend, I listened to This American Life during a long car ride. The episode was a rerun, but I’d not heard it the first time around. Producer David Kestenbaum, who has a Ph.D. in particle physics, first explained The Fermi Paradox, which asks the question: if there really is life out there somewhere else in the universe, why haven’t we heard from it yet? Thinking about the low probability that there are other civilizations out there made Kestenbaum feel very sad and lonely.

The Drake Equation is physicists' best attempt to calculate how many other civilizations are out there—it’s n equals r star times f sub p, with n being the number of advanced civilizations there are in the galaxy. To solve, a physicist would have to estimate the fraction of stars that have planets, the odds of life evolving on any of them, and the average length of survival of any civilization. Depending on your assumptions, you can get a number as high as 156 million civilizations out there in the universe, or 9.1 times 10 to the minus 11th, which is basically zero. Kestenbaum’s mentor, Melissa Franklin, said that means that right now, we’re in the sweet spot. We haven’t been killed by any alien civilizations, but there’s still hope that there could be one or more out there. 

This whole discussion left me weary and sad. When I got home, I tried to find out how much money our civilization has spent seeking out other “intelligent life” out there in the universe, but I couldn’t find dollar amounts, though it surely measures in the millions of dollars. Even today, people and government agencies here in the US and in other countries are still trying to find out what intelligent life is “out there.”

I don’t think much about intelligent life on other planets. As Robert Frost wrote, “Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.” And just this very morning, before I even got out of bed, I was the recipient of several messages from intelligent, non-human life forms. I’ve received messages like this since I was a small child, usually transmitted at a frequency between about 1,000 and 10,000 Hz. Like us, these transmitting lifeforms are carbon-based and actually share a full 65 percent of their DNA with us. They aren’t sending us messages from outside our planet—indeed, the transmissions I was picking up this morning came from my very own backyard.

These messages were made by birds, who live in the exact same habitats on the exact same planet as the one species whining because it can’t find intelligent life “out there,” the one species who feels alone in the universe when it wouldn’t recognize another intelligent life form if it bit him on the hand and pooped on his head.

What exactly is it that birds are trying to communicate? We know that some of their transmissions are territorial declarations, some are directed to a mate or hoped-for mate, and some are warnings about potential dangers. In other words, a great deal of what birds communicate is exactly like a great deal of what humans communicate. Yet we deny avian intelligence and ignore bird voices even as we spend millions of dollars trying to communicate with non-existent beings from other solar systems and galaxies. Our definition of intelligence seems a bit shaky.

I don’t mind people looking up at the stars and wondering what, and who, might be “out there.” But when you’re looking up at that night sky and dreaming of E.T., it might be wise to open your ears to the owls, mockingbirds, and other voices of the night calling to you right here on our home planet. Our species is nowhere near as alone as David Kestenbaum thinks. And I suspect our civilization would have a much greater probability of long-term survival if we paid more attention to the life forms right here on planet Earth rather than gazing into the cold, vast emptiness of the night sky and feeling sad and alone.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

What Makes America Great

These birds breed in the wild nowhere else on the planet except the United States of America—most of them spend their entire lives without passing out of this nation's borders. And I left out all but one of the birds endemic to Hawaii. This land was made for you and me, and for them:

Gunnison Sage-Grouse
My crappy photo of a Gunnison Sage-Grouse

Greater Prairie-Chicken
Greater Prairie-Chickens were once found in Canada, too, but were extirpated. 

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chicken

Hawaiian Goose
Nene or Hawaiian Goose. 

Allen's Hummingbird
Allen's Hummingbird breeds only in the US.
Black Turnstone
Black Turnstones breed only in the U.S.

Mississippi Kite
Mississippi Kites breed only the the U.S.

Red-cockaded Woodpecker

Extinct Carolina Parakeet

Yellow-billed Magpie
Yellow-billed Magpie

Fish Crow
Fish Crow
Florida Scrub-Jay
Florida Scrub-Jay
Island Scrub-Jay
Island Scrub-Jay
Carolina Chickadee
Carolina Chickadee

Brown-headed Nuthatch
Brown-headed Nuthatch

Black Rosy-Finch (center) and Brown-capped Rosy-Finch
Brown-headed and Black Rosy-Finches

I don't have my own photo of Bachman's Sparrow

Seaside Sparrow
Seaside Sparrow 

Wolfgang Wander's photo of a Saltmarsh Sparrow

Sagebrush Sparrow
Sagebrush Sparrow breeds only in the U.S.

Boat-tailed Grackle
Boat-tailed Grackle

Worm-eating Warbler
Worm-eating Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Extinct Bachman's Warblers bred only in the U.S.

Swainson's Warbler
Swainson's Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Virginia's Warbler
Virginia's Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Kentucky Warbler
Kentucky Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Yellow-throated Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Hermit Warbler
Hermit Warblers breed only in the U.S.

Golden-cheeked Warbler
Golden-cheeked Warblers breed only in the U.S.
*This list of endemics came from here, a source not all that reliable because they think Bachman's Sparrow is extinct, and did not mark Bachman's Warbler as extinct, which it is.