Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, September 9, 2019

Of Blue Jay, Squirrel, and Human Intelligence

Blue Jay

On Sunday, September 8, I was writing away at my desk treadmill when I noticed a Blue Jay sitting in the box elder right outside my office window, staring straight at me. It’s been at least one full year since I set out peanuts for jays. A couple of squirrels often approach me when I’m in the yard and I usually toss them a peanut, but I haven’t been leaving extras out for birds because of my neighborhood’s rat problem. 

On the off-chance that this Blue Jay remembered me from a year or two ago, I went outside with a handful of peanuts and left them on the usual stump. I whistled the way I used to whistle when I fed jays and started back for the house. Before I reached the door, the jay was already on the stump sorting through the peanuts—it grabbed the biggest one and flew off. Within 5 minutes, that jay and some others had taken them all, so I didn’t have to worry about any rats getting a free meal. I went back to work, and twice more, the jay showed up, gave me a long, hard stare until it caught my eye, and got rewarded with peanuts. The fourth time, another Blue Jay came with it—I think the first jay had told it, “Watch this—I trained a human to hand out peanuts!” Some Blue Jays may doubt that humans are intelligent, but they have to concede that some of us are trainable. 

Gray Squirrel

That same day, I read a New York Times story about a study done at Oberlin College that showed that squirrels not only notice when birds make alarm calls; they also seem to relax when birds are making relaxed calls.

People continue to be surprised that animals notice and respond appropriately to obvious signals within their environments. The more animals are discovered to be able to make and use tools, like Green Herons using bits of bread to bait fish, or New Caledonian crows fashioning hooks to pull food from otherwise inaccessible crevices, the more desperately members of our own species try to affirm our superior intelligence. Of course no bird or squirrel has ever invented a bomb, nuclear weapon, or even just an assault rifle, nor has one ever been able to learn to read in any language, invent a vaccination that could save millions of lives, or write or read ridiculous, easily disprovable studies saying vaccinations cause autism or that there is no such thing as climate change.

It feeds my ego to believe I’m smarter than the Blue Jays and squirrels in my backyard, but I’m not entirely sure that it makes sense to believe my species is. Birds and squirrels take note of potential dangers and figure out what to do to protect themselves, their families, and their whole neighborhood—squirrels may be noticing bird calls to tell them about local conditions, but they also alert those birds with their own calls when they discover something dangerous. Blue Jays are credited with planting the eastern oak forests following glaciation, ultimately providing food for thousands of generations of Blue Jays. Their eagerness to plant acorns may have been based more on instinct than genuine forward thinking, but I wish we humans could cultivate that kind of instinct to give our children and grandchildren a better future.

Squirrels are smart enough to know that paying attention to how well birds are faring directly affects their own well-being. When, by a huge, bipartisan majority, Congress passed the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and Richard Nixon signed it into law, I truly believed that our species was now enlightened enough to have set in stone permanent protection of every one of our fellow creatures, for their own sake and for ours. After all, even rodents are smart enough to know that when birds are safe, so are they.

But since the 1980s, corporate America and wealthy developers have been lobbying to eviscerate the Act, pressing to make it almost impossible for new species to be listed for protection no matter how devastatingly their numbers are declining, and to chip away at enforcement. 

Now suddenly science itself—the discipline that, more than anything else, is cited to prove our so-called superiority to animals—is in jeopardy.  Last week, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued a memo cautioning scientists that even if people in their area were preparing for a hurricane that had no chance of hitting them, meteorologists must *not* correct totally inaccurate weather predictions made by an angry old man shaking his fists at clouds and drawing his own weather maps with a sharpie.

Are we humans as intelligent as Blue Jays and squirrels? The jury is still out, but it’s not looking good. 

Eastern Gray Squirrel

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Nighthawk Migration

Common Nighthawk

Friday, August 30, was Russ’s and my anniversary, so we went out for an early dinner at a restaurant in downtown Duluth, and then went to an ice cream shop in West Duluth while it was still light. I’ve been out of town way too much lately, and that means I’ve been stuck indoors most of the time when I am home, trying to meet a big deadline for a new book. And my focus on Friday was not supposed to be birds but my husband, who I've been ignoring even worse than I've been ignoring birds, but as we drove downtown, I couldn’t help but see dozens, and then hundreds, of Common Nighthawks winging through the sky. They were mostly paralleling the shoreline, sometimes darting this way or that chasing down a flying insect, but the birds were making steady progress toward the tip of Lake Superior. When they got there, they’d head more directly south. 

We got a parking space right in front of the restaurant so weren’t outside for even 30 seconds, but at least half a dozen nighthawks flew overhead, and when we came out, nighthawks were still flying. Russ was driving so I could keep watching nighthawks course over as we went for ice cream, and there were still some flying not far above treetop height as we drove home before sunset, but at that point most were no longer visible. I think they fly lowest when starting out, feeding while afternoon insects are still numerous, and then rise to higher altitudes for their more serious overnight flights—they’re headed all the way to South America. 

Common Nighthawk

I associate nighthawk migration with family events, perhaps because the first huge migration of them I ever saw was on an August 14, 1983—it was Russ’s dad’s birthday and we were driving home to Duluth from Port Wing. On good migration days—those still, quiet days in mid- and late August when green darner dragonflies are aloft—nighthawks could once be seen any time in the afternoon, often swirling above open fields. When my kids were little, there were often nighthawks flying over during their soccer games, distracting me. One time I was so transfixed by them that it was only Russ jabbing his elbow into my ribs that grabbed my attention in time so I didn’t miss Tommy scoring his first goal. Back in the 80s we saw lots more nighthawks than we do now, with many, many more counted on the best days, and more good days each season. As flying insects disappear, the birds that depend on them are disappearing, too. We’d had a couple of decent days this season, but I’d been out of town or too busy to enjoy them until August 30.

Cedar Waxwing devouring a dragonfly.
Nighthawks and many other birds depend on dragonflies and other insects for food. Dragonflies eat insects, too--their disappearance is due both to pesticide use killing them and their food directly, and to problems with water quality—dragonflies spend a year or longer as aquatic nymphs before emerging as adults. I include several ways we can help protect water quality and insects at my Ways to Help
Every summer I give a talk at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Minocqua, Wisconsin, and this year it happened this weekend. I headed there on Saturday, and in early afternoon saw a small group of nighthawks hawking for insects above Highway 2 and some surrounding fields near Iron River. On Sunday when I drove back into Duluth in late afternoon, nighthawks were back on the move, cruising along the lake shore between the harbor and my neighborhood. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Seeing them always thrills me—nighthawks have long been one of my favorite birds for many reasons. I started specializing on their care when I was a rehabber, studied their digestion during my ill-fated Ph.D. research, and had a dear nighthawk named Fred as my licensed education bird for several years—how could I not deeply love these gentle-spirited birds? Watching them this year made me sad, knowing that a great many of them are headed straight for Brazil with its massive fires, mostly set to grow soybeans and beef by destroying the rainforest. 

My favorite cow
Eating less meat, especially beef, helps birds as well as reduces our impact on climate change. See my Ways to Help #2: Eat lower on the food chain, and especially eat less beef. 

This world is growing less and less recognizable to me, and certainly less and less recognizable to a great many creatures. Lovely evenings with nighthawks aloft in the sunset sky are a precious reminder of something genuinely worth fighting for. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Hummingbird Update

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Now that most adult male hummingbirds are gone, we’re left mostly with adult females and young of both sexes, and the only Ruby-throats with brilliant red throats still remaining are stragglers. But it’ll be tricky to notice exactly when the adult females disappear—young males as well as females have white on the outer tips of the tail and lack red throats. A handful of brilliant iridescent gorget feathers may have already grown in on some young males, but older adult females may have a few ruby throat feathers, too. Young birds have tiny little marks called corrugations on the bill, lost as the bill reaches full size and hardens, but this is extremely difficult to see except by bird banders holding the bird in hand, and these have already been lost by some of the first-hatched birds this year. 

Every now and then an outlier hummingbird turns up—in Minnesota and Wisconsin, the most likely vagrant is the Rufous Hummingbird.

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

Selasphorus sp.-- probably a Rufous Hummingbird

Both states have also had isolated cases where an Anna’s Hummingbird and a Mexican Violet-ear were found. Wisconsin has had at least one Green-breasted Mango and one Broad-billed and Buff-bellied Hummingbird show up, while Costa’s and Calliope Hummingbirds have been seen in Minnesota. The 3 records of Magnificent Hummingbird in Minnesota, all from the month of June, were from before the species was split—I’m not sure if there is enough data for the Minnesota Ornithological Records Committee to make a decision whether those were Rivoli’s or Talamanca, and the species was never reported to eBird. 

Because the Ruby-throat really is the only hummingbird that nests in the Midwest, it’s easy to assume that every hummingbird at our feeders is a Ruby-throat, and that’s a fair assumption. Chances are that every time you carefully scrutinize every single hummingbird in your yard, you’re only going to come up with Ruby-throats. But the only absolute guarantee is that if you never scrutinize every single hummingbird, you’re never going to see a rare one. The one year that I left my hummingbird feeders out until November, a Rufous Hummingbird actually did show up and spent two weeks in my yard before heading on. 


Many people notice in mid-summer that hummingbird numbers dwindle in much of our area, as natural food is at its most abundant and nesting females focus on tiny insects to feed their growing young. Now that migration is in full swing, feeders are getting plenty of action again. But now that summer’s end is near, people are growing a bit more lackadaisical about hummingbird feeder maintenance. It’s important to keep the water fresh. Changing it and giving the feeder a thorough rinsing every 2 or 3 days is ideal—it can be good to change it even more often during hot weather, when sugar water ferments quite quickly. In cool areas it’s fine to leave feeders unattended for a week or so, but people who visit their cabins only on weekends really should make sure they keep their feeders in the shade. 

Thanks to the Internet, more and more unqualified people are expounding on the best, or the only, proper mixtures to offer hummingbirds. Some people say hummingbirds won’t touch anything but cane sugar, others swear by beet sugar—the banders I’ve talked to say the birds really don’t care, and I’ve never noticed a difference in my own yard. An excellent rule is to use one cup of sugar to four cups of water. That’s about the average concentration of flower nectar, but natural flowers vary, from about a 1:5 ratio up to about a 1:3 ratio. If you’re mindful and keeping track of weather conditions, upping your sugar water strength to one cup of sugar to three cups of water is a good thing during cool or rainy conditions, especially when birds need a boost as natural food sources dwindle. During hot, dry conditions when hummingbirds may get dehydrated without enough water to metabolize the sugar, it’s a good idea to lower the concentration to one cup of sugar per five cups of water, but the 1:4 average is fine any time. 

Virtually every hummingbird will be gone from up here by the second week of September or so. Individuals never, ever linger simply because a feeder is there—their urge to migrate is far, far stronger than the appeal of even the Midwest’s finest feeding stations. When a Ruby-throat does stick around late, it’s virtually always a young bird from a late hatching, still getting its body in shape. As we start experiencing killing frosts and sources of natural nectar disappear, our feeders really can help keep these birds alive—I’ve a couple of times had young Ruby-throats show up as late as early October. But if you do leave the feeders out there just in case of a straggler, make sure you keep changing the sugar water. And check those stragglers, because by October, the probability rises that a hummingbird up here is of those outlier species. Autumn hummingbird watching is like a box of chocolates—you never know what you’re going to get, but it’s certain to be sweet.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Finding Amazing Birds with Laurens Halsey

Laurens Halsey and me

Did you ever find yourself enjoying your favorite thing in the world—say, getting out into some wonderful wild habitats to listen to and look for birds—in the company of a genuine kindred spirit? I found myself in that happy situation at the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival when I got to spend an evening and then an afternoon with Laurens Halsey, a fantastic local birder and independent guide. Laurens specializes in taking out small groups—just one or two people is his preference—and he especially focuses on night birds. His hearing is amazing—I think he pulls out birds better than I could at my best when I was younger.

On Friday evening, I was assigned to co-lead a field trip for night birds with Tim Helentjaris. Tim had arranged to meet with Laurens, who happens to keep close tabs on owls in Madera Canyon, including two different screech owls, which live at two different elevations, in two different sets of habitats.

We started out at mid-level, where we heard well and got an excellent but brief look at one of what sounded like a family unit of Whiskered Screech-Owls.  I didn’t get photos. Even better as far as my personal lifelist goes, in the same spot we heard a Mexican Whip-poor-will. That bird started out far enough away that when I focused incredibly hard, with my hearing aids cranked up to 11, I could barely hear it. But then it came in close enough for me to get a short recording with my cell phone. A distant Elf Owl was not so cooperative, but I heard two of its calls.

At the lower, more desert-like stop, a family of Great Horned Owls was about, at least two chicks making constant begging calls. The obvious presence of the big predators kept smaller birds pretty quiet, but we managed to hear a distant Common Poorwill—again, I would never, ever have heard it without Laurens pointing it out—and then, finally, the evening’s pièce de résistance, a calling Western Screech-Owl who not only let me get a few recordings but also some photos.

Western Screech-Owl

The little screech owl had to be on red alert for Great Horned Owls, though the big bruiser near us was an inexperienced fledgling who squawked persistently, telegraphing its whereabouts every several seconds. Our group stayed in one mass, easy for the tiny owl to keep track of, too. 

Laurens shone a flashlight on the screech owl—not a powerful spotlight but a good flashlight—as it hunted large insects, looking every which way. When the bird faced directly toward us, the pupils constricted, but when it looked to the sides, the pupils immediately dilated, so we didn’t seem to be disturbing it much—it continued quietly calling throughout.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Several people commented about how softly this owl and the Whiskered Screech-Owls called. That quietness is something people often notice when they see a nearby Eastern Screech-Owl calling, too. The word screech suggests loudness, and we’re so used to turning up the volume on bird recordings to suit our own preferences that we expect the living creatures to call at a higher volume too. I’ve been out with guides and field trip leaders who carry little speakers to boost the sound on their recordings, as if they don’t realize that real birds don’t yell. Male birds can be intimidated by such loud sounds by what they perceive as competitors, and in at least some cases, females seem to grow disenchanted with their own mate after hearing an electronic male demonstrating such prowess.

In my experience, when playback is used to attract birds, less is more in terms of both ethics and effectiveness. Indeed, the only reason the Mexican Whip-poor-will came in so close to our group was because Laurens played a recording on his cell phone, softly and just a few times. Birds are curious, but also busy with their real lives, so it may take them a few minutes to fly in to check out the new bird in town. Patience is way more important than annoyingly loud persistence.

I was thrilled going out with Laurens for both his deep knowledge of the local avifauna and his ability to use playback respectfully and minimally. And when we were getting ready to move on after our supremely satisfying experience with the Western Screech-Owl, something else struck home when Laurens gave it a nod and said "Thank you." I very often thank birds for wonderful experiences, too, but never ran across a professional guide who does this, at least not out loud. That was splendid.

I ran into Laurens and met his wife Awshee on Saturday, and it felt like we were old friends. Then on Sunday, I ran into him at festival headquarters after my last field trip. One bird I’d talked about in my keynote the night before was the Five-striped Sparrow. None of my field trips had visited the right spots for it, but out of the clear blue sky, Laurens offered to drive me over to the easiest spot for them, Box Canyon.

Five-striped Sparrow habitat

Five-striped Sparrows have a soft, delicate song. With my hearing aids set at their highest volume, I managed to hear the three individuals that Laurens could easily pick out, one close enough for me to hear quite well. I got a quick glimpse of that one flying past, too, but no photos. I wasn't disappointed. Even as my hearing goes south, hearing birds sing strikes as deep in my soul as seeing them does. I don't know if it's my background in music, or my childhood adventures with imitating my Grandpa's canaries and our neighborhood cardinal, but hearing birds has always been plenty good enough for me.

Laurens picked out a new mammal for me—a Harris's ground squirrel—and a reptile—a whiptail lizard. 

Harris's Ground Squirrel

Whiptail 

That final afternoon of the birding festival was magic thanks to the sparrows, a little flock of Common Bushtits and Verdins, distant Cactus, Rock, and Canyon Wrens, and more—such splendid avian company along with other cool wildlife and a top-notch birder who seems like a genuine kindred spirit. All in all, my last birding stop in Arizona was about as perfect as it could possibly be—a story-book ending to a perfect adventure.

Laurens Halsey in the Five-striped Sparrow area

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Southeast Arizona Birding Festival

Elegant Trogon

In October 2018, I received an email from Luke Safford asking me to be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. I was thrilled beyond compare, and for the past ten months I've been floating on high with anticipation. Last week was the actual event, and it was even more wonderful than I'd anticipated.

Jonathan  Lutz (Executive Director of Tucson Audubon), Luke Safford (Festival Coordinator), me, and Kevin Karlson
Jonathan Lutz (Tucson Audubon's Executive Director), Luke Safford (the festival director who made every detail of my visit so wonderful), me, and Kevin Karlson, the Friday evening featured speaker.
I arrived in Tucson on Wednesday, August 7, about noon. A birder named Jennie MacFarland picked me up at the airport, and during our drive, she told me a bit about her work with the southwestern population of Yellow-billed Cuckoos—when I ran into a group of three loud cuckoos on our first field trip, I of course sought out Jennie to tell her all about it. Wednesday evening I got to meet lots more people from Tucson and beyond at the social hour, and then went to bed early so I could be up for my morning field trip to Walker Canyon, an infrequently birded area very close to Nogales and the Mexican border.  

I was ostensibly a field trip co-leader, but since I live in Minnesota and have birded this area of Arizona only four times before, I was actually just along for color commentary. Our real leader was Tim Helentjaris, who loves birding in out-of-the-way places few other birders check out. We were hoping for a lot of Mexican specialties, and the trip didn’t disappoint. I got my first photos of an Elegant Trogon ever when a female posed from not too terribly far away.

Elegant Trogon

I also got a great look at a Varied Bunting flying by too quickly for me to photograph, and took a few photos of a young Gray Hawk.

Gray Hawk

Right now Montezuma Quail are busy raising their chicks, making this secretive species even more focused on staying out of sight than they usually are, so we didn’t see any.

The next day, Friday, my group headed for the famous Madera Canyon, one of the most popular birding canyons in the state. This time my co-leaders were Robert Mesta and Mollee Brown. We started out trying to get some lowland desert sparrows like Rufous-winged, Black-throated, Cassin’s, and Botteri's Sparrows.

Looking for Botteri's and Cassin's Sparrows

My ears are not what they used to be, but I did manage to hear the Cassin’s and Botteri’s both. Tragically, my photos were at such a distance and the two birds look so similar that I can’t be sure which photos were which. But the four sparrows did all end up listable, and while none came in close, I did get a distant recording of Cassin's.

A Varied Bunting was more cooperative, singing persistently from an exposed perch. We weren’t very close, but I did get some marginal recordings and photos, which was thrilling because I’ve only seen this gorgeous desert species once before in my life.

Varied Bunting

When we got up to a picnic ground, we had good views and photo ops of a male trogon.

Elegant Trogon

I got photos of a second male trogon in the trees behind the Santa Rita Lodge feeding station.

Elegant Trogon

That’s also where I got lots of photos of Broad-billed Hummingbirds ...

Broad-billed Hummingbird

... and a few photos of one Rivoli’s Hummingbird, which was up until recently called the Magnificent Hummingbird. That species was split into the Talamanca Hummingbird of Central America, which I’ve seen and photographed in Costa Rica, and the Rivoli’s, which I’d seen before but never photographed in Arizona.

Rivoli's Hummingbird

While we were birding there, I got a wonderful sighting of another Minnesota birder, my friend John Richardson.

Laura and John Richardson

That night we took a field trip back to Madera for some owling, a trip special enough to warrant its own blog post and podcast.

Western Screech-Owl

I didn’t get out birding at all on Saturday, which sounds strange for what is supposed to be a birding festival, but on Saturday I had to give both a morning talk and then the evening keynote at the banquet. The evening's "Fiesta de Aves" featured a mariachi band during the reception, and I got to meet a wonderful young man named Dorian Escalante. I was thrilled later when he was given Tucson Audubon's brand new youth award, named in honor of Bill Thompson III. Dorian's is the first name on the beautiful new plaque.

The birding festival's Saturday night Fiesta de Aves featured a mariachi band!

Dorian Escalante and me

Dorian Escalante after being awarded the first youth award named for Bill Thompson III at the festival banquet.

Sunday was my final field trip, this time led with Gordon Karre, up Mt. Lemmon to the town called Summerhaven, at such an elevation that it’s cool up there even when Tucson is over 100 degrees. We had some excellent warblers—I got photos of Virginia’s, Hermit, and Olive Warblers and Painted Redstarts, and also got quick looks at Red-faced Warbler.

Virginia's Warbler

Hermit Warbler  

Olive Warbler

Painted Redstart

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds dominated at the feeding station we visited.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

We also had some very quick looks at what is now called the Blue-throated Mountain-Gem, but I didn't get photos.

My total for the four days of birding was 90 species of birds along with some really cool other animals, such as Coues’ deer, which happens to be America’s second smallest deer after the Key deer, which I saw this very year in Florida. (Both are subspecies of our good old white-tailed deer.)

Coues' White-tailed Deer

I also saw a desert cottontail, Harris’s ground squirrel, and Abert’s squirrel, along with a coachwhip lizard.

Desert Cottontail

Harris's Ground Squirrel

Abert's Squirrel

Whiptail

I always see birds at birding festival field trips that I would miss on my own. The main reason is the leaders are intimately familiar with their local areas and know exactly what to look and listen for. Festivals are a great initiation into a new area for learning the ins and outs of some of the best birding spots.

But the point of birding with groups is to get on each bird well enough for everyone to see, meaning you can’t get close before everyone has seen it, and at that point people are ready to move on to the next bird. Birding alone allows me to spend lots of time with a single warbler flock or other aggregation, giving me time to pick out and verify more species.

As with everything in life, it’s a trade-off. Meeting great people, spending time in the field with experienced leaders, and spending time at festival headquarters learning about important conservation efforts to ensure that all the wonderful wildlife of that region will continue to thrive well into the future are the kinds of advantages a good birding festival provides.

The Southeast Arizona Birding Festival is at the forefront of the birding festival world. It was so inspirational that now I’m planning a road trip back there with Russ for next April. Then I can do the kind of low-key independent birding I also love, spending the kind of quality time watching, recording, and photographing individual birds that the logistics of festival field trips simply don't allow. Attending birding festivals and getting out on my own are both wonderful in their own ways. I love living in the best of both worlds. 

Five-striped Sparrow habitat

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Piping Plover news

Piping Plover mother and chick

June 3 was the day that turned 2019 into my Year of the Piping Plover. I'd already spent a satisfying morning on May 29 watching nesting adults at Popham Beach State Park in Maine.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover on nest

But it was on June 3 that Laurie Gilman of Maine Audubon took me to some other Maine beaches where Piping Plover chicks had just hatched. It was the first time I’d ever seen these adorable, fluffy ping-pong-balls on stilts, and I’m still smiling whenever I think about it.

Piping Plover family

Piping Plover chicks

Piping Plover mother and three chicks

I haven’t been able to spend time in Chicago in the past few months, the very summer that a pair of Piping Plovers nested on Montrose Beach. The area around the beach and Montrose Harbor includes what birders call the “Magic Hedge.” I spent a lot of time birding there while my uncle was living. His apartment overlooked the harbor, and I stayed with him and my aunt for the last month of his life, for the duration of his receiving home hospice. Whenever I needed a few minutes to myself, I’d head through the tunnel under Lake Shore Drive, escaping to birding for respite. I love that area, though I’ve never ever seen a Piping Plover there. When I was a new birder, there were barely a dozen pairs along the entire Great Lakes. This year there are about 70.

The last time this endangered species nested anywhere in Chicago was 1955, when I was three years old. This year’s pair started their first nest a bit too close to the lake when water levels were already extremely high with the abundant rainfall. When a new storm threatened, researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources removed those eggs for captive rearing. Monty and Rose—the nicknames birders gave the adults—started renesting quickly, on safer, higher ground. Three little plovers hatched. One ended up dying—when it appeared to be ill, it was captured and brought to a rehab center but they couldn’t save it. The other two seem to be thriving. People from Chicago Audubon, including friends of mine, are monitoring the birds all day every day to make sure human beachgoers are following the rules to protect them.

Montrose Beach used to be an ugly site, riddled with debris pushed around by bulldozers and sand-grooming machines. In the past two decades, thanks to conservation organizations and the Chicago Parks District, the beach has been restored into a beautiful site, as natural as possible at the edge of one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas. Ironically, that natural beauty attracted the attention of organizers of a huge music festival, with an expected attendance of over 50,000 people, and they scheduled the event at the beach this year. Public pressure, in part to protect the plovers, forced them to cancel. 

The 2 chicks and their parents continue to thrive—on August 6, they even both took their first very short flights. Russ and I will be in Chicago for our 50th year high school reunion in September, and plan to stop by and try to see these young birds before they migrate if it's not too late.

I will not have an opportunity to visit Maine again this year, but it sounds like the plovers there are having a banner year, too. Laurie Gilman just let me know that Maine had a total of 89 nesting pairs this year, up from 68 last year, and that 168 chicks are still safely running about.

I joined both the Chicago Audubon Society and Maine Audubon this year to support all the work both organizations have been doing to help one of my favorites of all birds. Piping Plovers are beautiful in a quiet, soft way; their young are objectively adorable; and they have never harmed a human being, our crops, our domesticated animals, or done anything else harmful to our interests. They don’t quite understand beach-going as recreation—beaches are where they live out every moment of their lives except when they’re in the air flying between beaches, so for them beaches are simply home. I’m glad enough people understand that and are helping these innocent, inoffensive creatures survive that their future is brighter today than it ever has been during my lifetime. I hope we can be as successful approaching other critical environmental issues.

Piping Plover