Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Tufted Duck in Duluth!

Tufted Duck

A week ago, on December 11, Kim Eckert saw a weird duck in Canal Park in Duluth. The improbability of what it looked like made him tentative about his own identification, but he sent word out immediately at 11:09 am:
POSSIBLE FEMALE OR JUV TUFTED DUCK NOW IN CANAL PARK SHIPPING CHANNEL. With goldeneye flock. Looks like female scaup with inch-long horizontal tuft at hind crown. Have no scope or camera with me.
The duck disappeared when a ship came into the canal under the lift bridge, but Don Kienholz posted at 12:18 that it was back. When I saw the posts, at 1:15, I immediately headed out with my dog Pip, but I had an appointment at 2:30 so needed luck if I was going to find it quickly enough.

The only time I’ve seen a Tufted Duck in Minnesota—a hotline bird chased by lots of birders throughout the state—it was hanging out in a sewage pond somewhere near the Twin Cities. The Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union Records Committee rejected that sighting.

Tufted Ducks are a Eurasian species—I’ve seen them when I was in Austria and Hungary. Theoretically it’s possible that that one had escaped captivity, and so the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union decided it was possible it wasn’t truly wild.

I first saw a Tufted Duck for my life list in 2013—a wild one had been turning up at Merritt Lake, a small park right within downtown Oakland, California, for several winters running.

Tufted Duck

Tufted Duck

There are also acceptable state records in many states. Seeing one here in Duluth, genuinely wild or not, was worth a trip to Canal Park.

I ran into Larry and Jan Kramer at Canal Park, and they showed me the duck in their spotting scope. It kept its head tucked and the sky was very overcast, but at least I got an identifiable photo.

The bird was seen on Wednesday and Thursday as well. The Christmas Bird Count for Duluth was held on Saturday, so everyone was anxious about whether it would stick around for the big event. If not, it would at least be on our official “Count Week” list, but it’s of course always nicest when it’s on the Christmas Bird Count itself. Worryingly, as much as people searched, it was nowhere to be found on Friday.

Fortunately, it was back at Canal Park on Saturday, boosting our species count total to 59 based on what each group attending the compilation dinner reported. A few people who counted weren’t there, so it’s possible we’ll add one or two more species.

It’s also possible that our total will drop one after the MOU Records Committee votes on whether this bird is countable. People got excellent looks at the legs and feet—it was clearly not banded nor missing a hallux (its hind toe), vastly reducing the possibility that it had been a captive bird.

The other question is whether it is a true Tufted Duck or a hybrid of a Tufted Duck with a scaup or Ring-necked Duck. John Richardson, a wonderful birding guide who is from the UK and has lots of experience with wild Tufted Ducks said it looked perfectly normal to him. Some people speculated that the tuft on the back of the head wasn’t quite long enough for a true Tufted Duck, but internet photographs and field guide illustrations show some variability, and the tuft was pretty darned prominent even when the bird had her head tucked. To me, the possibility of a hybrid is so very speculative, especially when nothing about this bird makes it look like anything but a true Tufted Duck, that people would be grasping at straws to call this bird a hybrid rather than the much more likely possibility that it’s truly a wild Tufted Duck.

I’ll only be keeping it on my Minnesota list if the Records Committee accepts it. But my dog Pip is much less fussy—it’s staying on her list either way, a Christmas lifer. And Pip can do whatever she wants—she’s a dog.


Wednesday, December 12, 2018


Christmas Bird Count Rat

I love rodents. I take lots of squirrel and chipmunk photos and have rescued several deer mice from houses and cottages. As a child and even as a young adult, I’ve had my share of rodent pets—white mice, hamsters, gerbils, and even one thirteen-lined ground squirrel named Sammy. My kids had gerbils, guinea pigs, a white-footed deer mouse, and one lovely white rat that we all loved. 

Of all the rodents in the world, rats are the only one that I have a visceral dislike of—a rat is the main villain in the movie Lady and the Tramp, which originally came out in theaters in 1955, before I was old enough to go to the movies, but was re-released in 1962 when I was an impressionable 10 year old. My father was a Chicago firefighter who often told us gruesome stories about rats attacking people and eating dead bodies. When my son Joey came home with that white rat in fifth grade, the little thing’s intelligent eyes and sweet disposition instantly quelled my antipathy. When I visit my daughter in New York City, we compete to see who can spot the most rats skulking around the subway tracks and in Katie’s neighborhood—that counts as wildlife watching in the Big Apple. But still...

Rats have been associated with people for so long, and are intelligent enough to thrive even where we have spent billions trying to eradicate them, that it’s hard to imagine a large city without them. In natural habitat, particularly on islands, non-native rats and mice exact a huge toll on endangered species. Eradicating them can be done where people maintain sanitation standards and aren’t constantly augmenting their numbers via transporting grains and other foods, but virtually every rat control project involves collateral damage to humans, pets, and other wildlife, and despite our best efforts, in big cities, it’s impossible to entirely eliminate them. Katie has a dog, so we have to be extra vigilant to spot rat poison set along our walking routes before Muxy does. 

Widespread as rats are, Russ and I have not had to deal with them often during our lives. Neither of us ever saw them in our blue-collar Chicago suburb as children, nor did we see them in our college towns of Urbana, Illinois; East Lansing, Michigan; or Madison, Wisconsin. I spotted one, once, in our own backyard in Duluth in the 1980s, but that was a fluke. We set out a live trap, but just caught chipmunks and never saw another rat in our neighborhood for decades. Duluth is far enough north that our cold winters have historically kept rats in check except where they can be well protected from sub-zero temperatures. Downtown Duluth has had longstanding rat problems that I learned about when I was working there back in 2005—apparently rats have a huge subterranean population living in the tunnels beneath the streets and buildings, where they can stay plenty warm. I never saw a rat downtown, but did occasionally find droppings, once even on my desk.

With climate change and an increase in composting, Duluth’s rats seem to be more able to survive outside of their sheltered downtown environment, and are spreading. A few years ago I spotted one at a friend’s feeder further east in my neighborhood. There had been a large construction project just a couple of blocks from her place, so I was hoping that was a temporary problem. 

But this year, Congdon Park School, just a couple of miles west of my neighborhood, was so badly infested with rats that they had to close down the building and grounds for the entire summer. And suddenly rats started appearing right in my own neighborhood—my neighbors started seeing them fairly frequently on the other side of Peabody Street. I didn’t see any myself until just last month, when a large rat and a smaller one appeared in the back of my yard where I feed my juncos and native sparrows on the ground. The two rats scurried off to a tunnel under our neighbor’s shed. When I told my neighbors about it, they mentioned that they’d seen rats during the summer and had already trapped a couple.
I’ve always felt so lucky to live in a ratless area where I never had to worry about spreading seed on the ground during migration—that is now officially a thing of the past. And now Russ and I can’t compost until we have a chance to entirely cage in our compost bins to exclude all rodents. 

With rats on the scene, I can only feed birds from elevated bird feeders, and am going to have to buy or create seed catchers too high for rats to jump into on all the poles that support my feeders, to entirely eliminate spillage.

One of my friends brought Russ and me some live traps. So far we haven’t caught a rat, which is a good thing because I’m not at all sure how we’d deal with it if we caught one. My visceral antipathy for them would be offset the moment I made eye contact. The fact that we haven’t seen or trapped any so far shows that the measures we’ve taken have at least helped. But a rat infestation on Peabody Street marks the end of my personal Age of Innocence. Too many people and a warming climate are wreaking havoc on this little planet, and attention must be paid.

Monday, December 10, 2018

Helen Erickson

My mother-in-law and me
Helen and me at the Port Wing Fall Festival in 2014, when she was 95.
Helen Erickson, my mother-in-law, who I’ve known since I was 16 years old and who gave me my very first pair of binoculars and field guide, died in the early morning on Saturday, December 8. She was 99.

I’ve long talked about how I got my start in birding when Russ and I were in college and he told his mom to give me my original birding equipment for Christmas. She had a small bird feeder in her suburban Chicago backyard, where I saw my very first junco and grew more familiar with some other common birds as I was starting birding. 

Laura's new binoculars!

On college breaks when Russ and I would visit Chicago, she often took me to various birding spots like the Morton Arboretum and the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center. One time when her car got stuck in a slurry of snow and ice on a wet, muddy road, she calmly turned the engine off, jumped out of the car, opened the trunk and took out first a small shovel, digging out some of the snow in front of the stuck tires, then took out some rag rugs and wedged them into position in front of the stuck tires, started the car again, and voila! Without saying a word, she was modeling how independent, self-sufficient women are prepared to deal with emergencies as they come, without losing their cool.

Thanks to that field guide and binoculars, I quickly became obsessed with birding. My skills and experience eventually surpassed hers in that one area, though neither of us felt any kind of competitiveness. Indeed, she took a great deal of pride in my birding and then in my radio program. One time when I was visiting her in Port Wing, she was helping a neighbor prepare for a luncheon. When we went to her house to bring over what Helen had prepared, she had me carry in the cookies while she carried another armload. Her friend exclaimed when she saw the cookies, “Oh, these look wonderful! Did you bake them, Laura?” Before I could even begin a response, Helen jumped in with, “Laura doesn’t have time to sit around baking cookies! She has much more important things to do with her life.” She must have talked about my birding to her many friends, because they would send her clippings from all over of news stories related to birds, writing on them, “For Laura.”

She took enormous pride in “For the Birds,” and was my most loyal radio listener—if KUMD was even a minute late airing it, she’d call the station asking “Where’s Laura today?”

In January 2009, we held a 90th birthday party for Helen in Port Wing. The whole town was there, and we heard lovely stories about her. She was still going along on local nature hikes, easily keeping up with people half a century younger, noticing and identifying all kinds of things that would otherwise have gone unobserved. It was lovely to hear all the stories.

But she was growing more forgetful, our first intimation that dementia was setting in. She was also getting a bit frailer. She was still quite independent and capable of living on her own, more than half a mile from her nearest neighbor in rural Port Wing, until 2012, when she was 93 and developed a crippling case of bursitis. I spent much of that year living 24/7 with her.

That’s when I was writing the National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America, and she got a huge kick out of it whenever Jonathan Alderfer, who edited all of National Geographic's bird books for decades, called so we could hammer out various issues, from selecting the species to be covered to choosing the artwork. The sad thing was that every time I took one of these calls, Helen had forgotten that I was working on a National Geographic book—but each time she found out, it made her excited and happy all over again.

While I was staying with her that year in May, Ryan Brady, Dick Verch, and I did a Big Day, starting out at Ryan's place in Washburn. I headed there the night before after Helen and I had dinner, so we could start birding around 3 am. I’d arranged with some of Helen’s friends to come by with Helen’s mail and to check on her—I didn’t get back until 10 pm. I thought she’d be getting ready for bed, but she had waited up for me, and immediately started to fix me dinner while asking me all about the day’s birding.

She was still so competent in so many ways, and the bursitis cleared up, but her dementia was making driving dangerous and her general confusion was leading to other serious problems, so by December 2012, we were all growing to realize that she couldn’t manage on her own anymore. It was also becoming increasingly difficult for Russ and me to go back and forth so often, so we finally decided that the best thing would be for her to move in with us.

That changed our home routine quite a bit, but was easy to adapt to, and it was lovely having her with us. She was always self-sufficient, and kept herself busy by day, but I started spending my evenings watching movies or TV shows with her. She was receiving eldercare at our health care provider, and they gave us a set of exercises that would help maintain her strength and preserve her ability to balance for as long as possible. I did those with her every afternoon.

Katherine, Mom, Russ, and Katie
I took this photo in 2013, using my iPhone's panorama function. Helen got a huge kick out of how it turned out--Katie had jumped up after the camera passed her on one side and ran behind me to get back in by the time the camera panned to the end. 
For the first three and a half years, I drove her to and from Port Wing every two weeks for card club, one of her most treasured routines. It was win-win for me—not only was I being a dutiful daughter-in-law, but I got to spend a couple of hours every two weeks birding in my beloved Port Wing. For the first couple of years, we had lovely chats on our drive—I’d point out birds, we’d both spot deer and an occasional raccoon or even bear along the road, and we’d reminisce or chat about random things. I made up a playlist of songs I knew she liked for our drives, and every now and then one would trigger a memory for her; the stories she told made this shared time even more precious for me.

But as her dementia progressed, she was also growing increasingly detached from friends, family, and everything else, and was also having more trouble keeping track of the cards and scoring. And the long drive had been becoming more uncomfortable for her, too. So finally her visits to Port Wing came to an end. The last time we brought her to the Port Wing Fall Festival was in 2015, when she was 96.

Russ, Mom, and Pip at the Port Wing Fall Festival
Helen, Russ, and Pip at the Port Wing Fall Festival in 2015.
When Joey or Katie were in town, we’d pull out our Uno cards and all play, and Helen was still winning as often as anyone else.

1989-Mom, Joey, and Katie play cards
Helen playing cards with Joey and Katie long, long ago, when Tommy was still too little. 
She and I were still enjoying movies and TV shows in the evening, too. But little by little, she was losing pleasure in the things she’d once loved. When she was standing in the kitchen or near the dining room window and I pointed out a Pileated Woodpecker at the feeder, now she wouldn’t even look up.

Helen collapsed while standing in the kitchen this past May, and broke her leg at the hip. Surgery went well, but she developed edema, and the pain in her leg didn’t go away. Russ patiently did exercises with her every day trying to rebuild strength in her legs, because the hallways and doors in our very old house are just too narrow to accommodate anything wider than a narrow walker—the nice wheeled walker we’d gotten for her couldn’t negotiate turns here, and no way would a wheelchair work here. So when Medicare rules cut her off from rehab when she didn’t improve quick enough, she had to stay in the nursing home.

A couple of months ago, I could tell she no longer recognized me most of the time, but she’d still brighten up when I brought my little dog Pip in. I got Pip groomed last Monday, and she was at her most adorable, wearing a Christmas neckerchief and bow—the kind of adornments Helen always loved.


But when I brought her to the nursing home, Helen didn’t smile or seem the least bit interested. Little by little she’d been slipping the surly bonds of earth. On Friday, my sister-in-law Jean came in from Chicago.

Dinner at Bellisio's
Helen, her daughter Jeanie, and her son-in-law Mike
Helen did recognize her, and was still recognizing Russ, her two children. They kissed her goodnight and left at Helen’s regular bedtime. And after such a very long farewell to all of us who loved her, and after making her final goodnight to her beloved children, Helen went to sleep for good.

Helen turns 99
Helen receiving birthday greetings on her 99th birthday this January 24.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

The Value of One Individual

My female Pileated Woodpecker

Last Wednesday, I witnessed a Sharp-shinned Hawk repeatedly attacking the female Pileated Woodpecker who hangs out in my neighborhood. The hawk attacked her over and over as the two of them worked their way west, finally out of sight and earshot, a case of “Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk.”

Exit, pursued by a Sharp-shinned Hawk

I didn’t see my female Pileated Woodpecker for the rest of the day. She usually doesn’t come around as often as her mate—he visits my trees and feeders at least three or four times most days, while I sometimes don’t see her for a few days running. Thursday I kept watch and she didn’t show up, but I tried not to worry.

Soon after the birds flew away on Wednesday, I posted about it on Facebook with one of the photos I’d taken of the attack. Most of the comments were sympathetic to both birds, but because I post so many photos of my two Pileateds, people were more worried about the woodpecker than the hungry hawk, just as I was.

Many comments were like this one, “ I hope she’s ok and that the sharpie has decided she’s too much work.” Only one person articulated a hope that the Pileated had pecked the Sharpie to death, and only a couple of people took a completely detached “nature red in tooth and claw” view. Somehow when you personally recognize one of the actors on either side of the predator-prey seesaw, this kind of story takes on a larger, more personal meaning, for better and for worse. Predation is natural and important, and it’s important not to trivialize it or to develop a hatred for hawks after this kind of encounter, but it’s hard to dismiss the fundamental value of a Pileated Woodpecker, too.

I wrote a blog post and produced a “For the Birds” program/podcast about the whole episode on Thursday, and linked to the blog on Facebook, getting even more comments.

That's when people started emailing and private messaging me to ask if I’d seen the female Pileated Woodpecker in my yard since the encounter. The male came in several times on Thursday, and each time I’d check out his mustache and forehead hoping they’d be black rather than red, but no such luck. And no sign of the female on Friday. That’s the day the program aired on KUMD, which triggered even more people asking if I’d seen her again yet. I was starting to get really worried, myself.

The male showed up first thing on Saturday morning—he sometimes sleeps in the box elder right by my window, and when he does, he appears at the feeder while it’s still fairly dark before dawn. Then right around 9, suddenly there she was.

One female Pileated Woodpecker looks pretty much exactly like any other, but she went to the suet feeders she usually frequents and went to the back box elder where the two birds have been working on what may end up being a nest cavity. So I’m as certain as possible that this was MY female. I posted on Facebook at 9:20, “SHE'S BACK!!! In all her favorite spots! I am sooooooooo relieved!”

143 people “liked” that, and a great many people commented. Most of the people posted happy dancing Snoopys or other cute gifs, or said how relieved they were, and several people said this was the best news of the morning, or the week. One of my Duluth friends said, “It's wonderful news! I'll now have John Sebastian's 'Welcome Back' in my head for the rest of the day: 'What could ever lead ya, back here where we need ya?!'” That got a few people commenting about John Sebastian, too.

When I had my babies, I discovered firsthand that loving a whole new person made my capacity for love grow. Rather than dividing a finite pie of love, my heart was baking more pies. And I can see that specifically loving particular individual chickadees, Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-rumped Warblers—all the individual birds I come to recognize and start feeling personally attached to—expands my capacity for loving nature.

We humans have a tendency to see nature as separate from our human world. Nevertheless, our lives are intertwined with the natural world—as Robinson Jeffers said, we’re “Not man apart.” The life of one single woodpecker may be pretty insignificant in the overall scheme of the cosmos, yet it does seem significant that so many people could be so very interested and concerned about one particular woodpecker whose life suddenly became enmeshed with ours. As we grow in compassion for one individual creature, our capacity for love enlarges. And what we love, we protect.

Our planet is at a turning point with regard to climate change. The loss of forests exacerbates the carbon load in the atmosphere even more than every form of fossil-fuel-burning transportation. We have to start making serious changes to save our world. Desperation is one great motivator. Maybe we could and should be cultivating another powerful motivator as well—love.

Female Pileated Woodpecker

Saturday, December 1, 2018

She's Back!!

The last time I saw my female Pileated Woodpecker was on Wednesday, when she was attacked repeatedly by a Sharp-shinned Hawk. The hawk pursued her until they were out of sight. (You can read the blog post and see the photos here.) I've been a nervous wreck ever since, though really, she doesn't normally come every single day as the male does. Finally, this morning, she came in to visit my feeders and trees.

My female Pileated Woodpecker