Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, March 22, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part IV: More Bird Stories

Pacific Wren

In her book, The Sun is a Compass, Caroline Van Hemert mentions just a fraction of the 160 species she noticed on her 4,000-mile journey in Alaska, but those birds come to life on her pages. She describes a Pacific Wren when it “launches into an enthusiastic outburst. These birds have lungs the size of lima beans but their voices are as large as their organs are small, filling the thick air with a waterfall of sound.” When I talked to her by phone last week, I asked her if she’d tell us about when she and her husband came upon a family of Brants, small saltwater geese, along the coast of the Arctic Ocean.
Ómar Runólfsson
We were hiking again along that narrow band between the ocean and the steep mud bluffs. Sometimes we’d have to go above and walk on the bluffs, but in certain areas we could walk along the beach more easily. We were doing that and we were making pretty good time. It was a pretty stormy day—it wasn’t too long before Pat capsized his raft in the Arctic Ocean and so we were happy to be on land.    
We came up and noticed this family of Brant geese—there were two adults and three young. They were running down the beach in front of us. Obviously the little ones were—I don’t know how old they were, but pretty fresh out of the nest, pretty gangly and awkward and doing their best to keep up with their parents. As we were walking, they were feeling pressure from us to keep running ahead. So we sat down and tried to figure out what we should do, because we didn’t want to push them but we also needed to get around them. It wasn’t a place we could camp that night and the bluffs there were far too steep for us to be able to climb up. And so we debated our options, and we thought if we could make it past, maybe that would be the safest for them and allow us to get away from them and let them do what they need to do.    
We started to walk, and as we did, we realized that wasn’t going to work, because one of the chicks and the parents had run ahead and the other two were already in the surf and swirling around. They washed up again, and I realized that our only option was going to be to try to grab them and reunite them with their parents, because at that point the rest of the family was long gone. They weren’t going to wait to see what happened to the other goslings. Pat and I were easily able to corner them, grab them, kind of tuck their heads under their wings, and run with them in our jackets and try to catch up with the rest of the family.    
At that point, we realized that the parents and the larger sibling had already gone into the water. At that point it seemed like maybe the best option was to reunite them with the rest of the family so we made our best guess and popped them into the water and watched them as they got pummeled by the waves.   
Eventually they got past that surf zone. The parents had taken off, and then flew back around to rejoin their young, which was a big relief. We got ourselves out of there and hopefully stopped bothering them as quickly as we could and hoped for the best, that they were able to stay together and get back on land and continue on their way. It was one of those moments where it wasn’t clear exactly what we should do. We had gotten ourselves into a situation where we knew we were harassing them and didn’t want to be, but there wasn’t a great way out either. I hope that we made the right choice. 
Caroline’s solid scientific knowledge melded with so much humility and heart was on display throughout The Sun Is a Compass. I spent just a week in Alaska, between Juneau and Haines, back in 2001, and I don’t know that I’ll ever get back again, but the stories in her book were so vivid that the vicarious journey was pure pleasure. The Sun Is a Compass is a book I’ll treasure. 



Thursday, March 21, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part III: On Being a Birder, and Some Bird Stories

Photo copyright by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
When I talked to ornithologist Caroline Van Hemert about her new book, The Sun Is a Compass, I asked her if she considers herself a birder.   
I’ve thought about that a lot over the years. I think so, because I would like to think of the term “birder” as being inclusive rather than exclusive, in part because I think the more we all associate ourselves with birds in our lives, the better chance birds have of long-term conservation. I think the science is important, but ultimately the public as a whole decides the outcome for habitat and all the things that birds need to persist for hopefully a long time. So I’m a birder in the sense that I love to look at birds. I keep a working list of what I’m seeing, usually more in a regional sense so less of a life list and more “these are all the birds I’ve seen in this area or on this trip.” I had a working list from our big trip that’s described in the book, and really enjoyed seeing new species and keeping track of where I saw individual species along the way.   
That said, I’m not a hardcore birder in the sense that I will rarely take a trip just to see birds—I tend to be more generalist, so I’ll go out to places where birds also happen to live and I get to have a bit of an adventure as well as seeing a lot of cool birds along the way. I also get to do a lot of birding as part of my work—I’ve done a lot of bird surveys over the years in some really amazing places, mostly in Alaska. That’s been a real treat and a gift.  

On this trip, how many species of chickadees did you see?
I saw Black-capped Chickadee, Chestnut-backed Chickadee, Boreal Chickadee, and Gray-headed Chickadee, so four species in total.  
No Mountain Chickadee?
No Mountains. We weren’t quite in the right area. We were coastal for most of British Columbia so as far as their northern range, we were outside of that.  
Gray-headed Chickadee photo by Estormiz, taken in Kittilä, Finland
But Gray-headed! Your first experience that you wrote about with the Gray-headed Chickadees was wonderful.
Thank you. That was an amazing gift after a fairly frightening and difficult experience in terms of coming across this river that was a lot bigger and swifter than we had anticipated. It was a pretty special thing to see a species that I don’t know that I’ll ever see again in North America.  
And it wasn’t just a Gray-headed Chickadee. You came upon a family!
Exactly.  
Now I’ve been a former wildlife rehabber, and so I was especially moved by some of your experiences with the baby Rough-legged Hawk, that Pat took the picture of.

Photo copyright by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Yep. I can say briefly what happened there. We had gotten to Hershel Island, which is way up, a little island on the Arctic Ocean on the Canadian side of the border, and we had gotten to Hershel Island where we were getting a resupply that was flown in by a park ranger. We had a day to rest and recoup and gather all our supplies and pack up again before leaving, and so we decided to take a little hike around the island, which is in this amazing location. As we were coming around, there’s these mud bluffs that are a pretty characteristic feature along a lot of that part of the Arctic coastline and also on Hershel Island, and there are steep mud bluffs underlain with permafrost. I think naturally they erode over time, and that process is sped up quite a bit because of the warmer temperatures in the Arctic now and also increased storm surge, because there’s less sea ice protecting a lot of that coast.   
So anyway, we had seen along the way a lot of other places where Gyrfalcons and Rough-legged Hawks were nesting up on these cliffs. It’s a pretty cool thing because when you come from the tundra you can actually see the nests above or at least in line, and then walking down along the coastline, look up and see lots of raptors which is a really cool feature of that coast. On Hershel Island we were hiking along the edge of the water at the base of one of these collapsing mud bluffs and came across two downy Rough-legged Hawk chicks.    
Their nest had slid down from far up above, right above the water line. When we encountered them, they were alive but they were probably not in great shape for surviving into the future because of where their nest ended up. We didn’t see their parents around anywhere. There was a headless lemming lying nearby that indicated that they had been provisioned there at some point, but whether that was going to continue, I don’t know.   
But there was at least hope—the one still looked pretty sturdy.
Yes. I actually assumed they were both dead when we came upon them because they weren’t moving and we saw them in this really unlikely place. We came up closer and saw them looking back at me. It was a pretty moving experience for me as well, just in knowing these chicks were vulnerable, beautiful little birds that hopefully would survive. But without seeing their parents, it was hard to know what their outcome would be.  
But I was grateful that you saw that headless lemming.
Absolutely! Yeah—there was hope for sure.  
Tomorrow Caroline Van Hemert will tell us about another encounter with baby birds.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

On Writing: How I Put My First Book Together


In the fall of 1992, I got a request from Don and Nancy Tubesing, owners of Pfeifer-Hamilton Publishers, a small Duluth company, to write a book based on my radio program. It would be their second book in a series they were calling “Appointment with Nature”; this one would be titled For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide. What they wanted was very specific—365 short essays, each with a sidebar, one for each day of the year. And they wanted it fast—I signed the contract in November and they wanted the completed manuscript by the first day of spring.

It wasn’t quite as rushed as it sounds. I’d been doing my radio program, “For the Birds,” for more than six years by then, which is why they knew of me and knew I had the kind of material they wanted. 

About a third of the book was drawn directly from whittled down program transcripts, another third involved significantly revised scripts, and a third was written from scratch. I had to stay focused and on task every single day for four months, averaging slightly more than 3 polished entries a day, in order to finish in time.

But before I could even start writing, I had a lot of organizational tasks. Every page was going to have a small drawing by the late Jeff Sonstegard, who needed to know what every page topic was going to be early on.

Fred the Common Nighthawk
Of all the drawings Jeff Sonstegard did for the book, this was my favorite of all: Fred, my education nighthawk. 
Jeff also would be producing a dozen larger drawings to go on the opening page for each month.



Those drawings would also be printed in paler form at the bottom of each daily entry.


Jeff needed to finish the large format drawings by January, and all the rest of them by early April, which was a major endeavor. So I needed first to settle on appropriate themes and species for each month, and then plotted out the topics of all 365 essays so he had them early on. 

To accomplish this, I got a loose-leaf notebook and drew into each two-page spread a generic month calendar, each day’s square sized to fit a post-it note. I put in some obvious date-related topics first. I wanted to start the year with the Black-capped Chickadee. For Russ’s and my children’s birthday entries, I wrote about their favorite birds. I didn't write the book in order, but could mark each of the 365 post-it notes as I finished each essay/sidebar, so I never lost track of what still needed to be done.

Of all the essays I wrote for "For the Birds," this one about the Snowy Owl, placed on Russ's birthday, was the one I was most asked for at readings.

Oddly enough, even though I'd specifically put Russ's and my kids' favorite birds on their birthdays, it never occurred to me that a great many people looking it over in bookstores would immediately turn to their birthdays. I once received an email from a man with a February 18 birthday who was delighted that his birthday entry was about plastic lawn flamingos.


I can't remember anyone with a November 3 birthday telling me about their reaction to the topic on that day--tapeworms!

I wrote about the Passenger Pigeon on September 1, the anniversary date of the death of Martha, which marked the species’ extinction. I wrote the April Fools Day entry as if Big Bird were a real species. I wrote about starlings on Shakespeare’s birthday, because their introduction to America was inspired by a club trying to honor Shakespeare by releasing in America every bird mentioned in one of his plays. Here and there were a few other date-related topics.

I also had to keep all the essays properly seasonal. I needed each one to stand alone, but I figured most people would read it in order, so I also wanted the book to build on what had come before rather than be static or random. The January entries included basic information about bird feeding, I put tips about birdhouses in early spring, and wove in lots of conservation information throughout, trying not to be heavy handed, and building up so my largest messages about the perils birds face would be near the end, trusting that by then readers would care more about their plight.

I also set as a task to end the book with the word “love,” but also with my best one liner joke—the essay/sidebar format was perfect for that.

The sidebar ends with my best one-liner, the main essay with the word "love." 
It took a while to plot out all 365 topics, and as I got writing, I got new ideas, or had a sudden reason to move a topic to a different date. So I kept in close communication with both my editor and Jeff, and gave Jeff the high-priority drawing topics first—the ones I was absolutely certain would be in the book. I researched out most of the reference photos he used, too.

The book ended up selling great guns thanks to how beautifully it was produced by Pfeifer-Hamilton and how effective their marketing team was. And they were effective. They managed to get wonderful blurbs from such luminaries as Chandler Robbins, Frank Gill (who'd written the ornithology textbook that was then and, in updated editions, is currently still in use in university ornithology classes), Joe T. Marshall of the Smithsonian, and even Pulitzer-Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry.

Postcard from Dave Barry
This is the endorsement Dave Barry wrote: "This book is invaluable. For example, it states that as many as 1,600 tapeworms have been found in a single duck. This is the kind of information I use every day."
Thanks to that great marketing, For the Birds, released in September 1993, sold out the first week. (I am not making that up.) A rushed second printing sold out before Christmas. Those two printings had been for 5,000 books each, so the third printing was for 10,000, and by 1995 it went into a fourth printing, again of 10,000. The Tubesings retired just a few years later, and the University of Minnesota Press picked up both For the Birds and my second book, Sharing the Wonder of Birds with Kids (winner of the National Outdoor Book Award). Both titles are still available. Unfortunately, Sharing the Wonder is badly out of date, and some information in For the Birds isn't accurate, either.

Two editorial changes made by Pfeifer-Hamilton's out-of-house copy editor still rankle. On the page about gynandromorphs, she researched some inaccurate information about sex chromosomes, and changed what I'd correctly written as the W and Z chromosomes to X and O chromosomes; my publishers accepted her change. Now that whole essay is out-of-date anyway, because it's been discovered that bilateral gynandromorphic birds are actually chimeras--two embryos fused together into one single individual.

Another change was even more irritating, for different reasons. After explaining that the skeletons of "bird-hipped dinosaurs" were more similar to birds than to other reptiles, I ended the essay about birds and dinosaurs with this:
It's hard to explain extinction to a small child. Even if dinosaurs were true reptiles rather than birds, it's appealing to look at a tiny chickadee and imagine that it embodies the spirit, and maybe something of the physical presence, of a lumbering Brontosaurus. 
Annoyingly, the copy editor had read somewhere that Brontosaurus was no longer considered a valid dinosaur, and she changed the final phrase to the woefully unalliterative "lumbering Apatosaurus." Pfeifer-Hamilton would not allow me to change it back--the best I could do was change the species to Brachiosaurus. It wasn't too long afterward that Stephen Jay Gould published his Bully for Brontosaurus. I still get mad thinking about this one even though—I know I know I know—Brontosaurus was not a bird-hipped dinosaur, anyway.



As big an ego trip as it was for me when For the Birds became a regional best seller and won some awards, it was exhausting to write. Because of the design constraints, I had no flexibility at all regarding how long each essay could be. Some topics deserved more in-depth treatment than a single page could offer, so one of the most time-consuming elements in the writing was paring those down to essentials. I became a master of conciseness. In a few cases, I could give a storyline the space it deserved by stretching it over two or even three days. In those few cases, I worked very hard to have each stand on its own even as I knew that group of essays would be best read in a single reading, or at least consecutively. I certainly didn’t want to waste words and space telling the reader the story would be continued in the next essay, and also didn’t want to waste space referring people to related essays on other pages—that’s what indexes are for. I made sure my terminology was self-explanatory even when I covered a concept in more depth elsewhere. This was a fun challenge, and the heavy editing it required for me to keep each page to the exact size needs made me see firsthand that most of the time, cutting away words makes writing better.

Nevertheless, even as I developed more skills at being concise, and even as I appreciated that this format was exactly right for a calendar book, I was drained by the time it was finished, and decided I’d rather have more breathing room to treat topics with as many or as few words as the topic deserved rather than as the page format dictated. My 101 Ways to Help Birds included, essentially, 101 essays, but was laid out so it worked even with some essays less than a page while one runs almost 20 pages.

I’ve been even more constrained by page design in a few other books I did, most notably my National Geographic Pocket Guide to Birds of North America and my American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota. As in a calendar book, page design in a field guide is critical, with space constraints baked into the recipe. Fortunately, the formats of most of my other books have been flexible.

I’m writing about this right now because I’ve been reading a book with as tight a design model as For the Birds, but without any compelling reason for it. And on most pages, that book refers the reader to at least one and as many as five or six different pages—on one single page, there are eleven!—breaking up sentences and paragraphs that otherwise would read beautifully, and it’s been driving me crazy. I’m not naming names—I doubt anyone else will even notice that about the book. But I find it irritating and even hurtful that that writer’s agent rejected out-of-hand a book proposal I sent him a few months ago about a collection of my “close encounters” essays. Without reading a single one, he said no one is interested in books of essays anymore. I guess my reaction to this new book he himself represented supports his decision.

Meanwhile, For the Birds continues to sell a few copies each year, and I still hear from people who love it. In 2011 when I was at a booksigning event in the Twin Cities with my then-new book Twelve Owls, a couple asked me to re-sign their first edition copy of For the Birds.

Vintage copy of For the Birds!

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part II: Planning and Packing for an Adventure

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
When I go on a birding road trip, I like to have the flexibility to check into an inexpensive motel or quiet campground as needed. I hardly rough it—I grind my coffee ahead of time and use a pour-over funnel and a washable, reusable filter, so all I need is 2 cups of boiled water to make a superb cup of bird-friendly coffee each morning. I keep an air mattress, sleeping bag, and pillows in my car, and sometimes a small tent. I fill two gallon jugs with fresh water before each trip, refilling as needed, and keep a supply of Fig Newtons handy. There were two or three days of my Big Year when I ate nothing else. I pack for whatever the weather may bring, and of course add my binoculars, cameras and bird recording equipment. In other words, I try to be prepared, but always figure I can get help and supplies as needed on the road. 

When Caroline Van Hemert and her husband Pat Farrell left on their 6-month, 4,000-mile journey through the Alaskan wilderness by rowboat, skis, boots, pack rafts, and canoes, they not only couldn’t count on picking up supplies just anywhere—everything they brought, they had to be able to carry on their backs through vast parts of their journey. When I interviewed her about her new book, The Sun Is a Compass, I asked her how they made decisions about how to get about on each leg of the journey and how to manage having the supplies they needed throughout.
It was a combination of trying to come up with the best way to travel through a given area but then also minimizing the number of transitions. We were relying on the postal service for most of our food resupplies and any gear swaps that we needed to do, with just a couple of exceptions. My parents did a gear pick-up for us in Dawson when we needed to get rid of our skis and get more of our backpacking, hiking equipment. And, like I mentioned, we slept at the cabin to do another gear swap.   
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
And we had one air drop in the western Brooks Range that almost turned disastrous. In general we tried to choose modes of transport that works best for that particular landscape or body of water without requiring us to do crazy logistical things to get boats from one place to another.  
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Specifically, we chose the rowboats for coming up the Inside Passage because we really wanted to use our entire bodies, not just our upper bodies, because we were going to be transitioning to skiing and hiking. We knew that if we were sitting in kayaks for six or eight weeks with our legs just kind of atrophying it might be a really difficult transition. So that was one of the motivations for rowing. We were also interested in stable they would be, because we knew it would be a pretty stormy spring period. They’re pretty “beamy” boats; they have 10-foot-long oars so you have essentially these large outriggers. They ended up being very stable in even pretty big seas.  
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The big disadvantage, we discovered when we were planning, was the fact that expedition-style rowboats are just not commercially available. We had already mentally committed to the idea of rowing at that point, and the only thing we had come up with was the option of Pat building the boats. Fortunately, he is a builder by training. It wasn’t a job that he needed to take on at that moment, but he did, and the boats were pretty amazing assets to have on the trip, but they came at a bit of a time cost.    
The pack rafts were a pretty obvious decision because they allowed us to cross over so many different drainages and cover large swaths of Alaska that wouldn’t otherwise be possible if we were just hiking or just boating. 
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The canoeing—those were sections where we had the luxury of being able to get a boat available to us; between White Horse and Dawson City is a pretty popular canoeing route and so there was already a rental company in place that we could easily pick up a boat and drop it off, and it was logistically straightforward. That was nice, and it was a luxury to have all that space rather than being in our little pack rafts. The same thing for the Noatak River—a canoe was very preferable to the pack rafts, and we were able to get an airdrop there with a canoe in it.  

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Conversation with Caroline Van Hemert, Part I: Where she went on her wilderness journey

Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Today is the day that Little, Brown Sparks publishers rolls out what I think is the greatest birding epic of all time, Caroline Van Hemert’s superb The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds. Caroline Van Hemert allowed me to interview her by phone last week. I wish my engineering and production skills were worthy of the wonderful conversation, so bear with me. Here Caroline reads a couple of paragraphs from the Prologue, when they were about three quarters done with their journey (Listen to today's conversation here):
It’s the fifth of August, 2012. Over the last 139 days, we have traversed nearly three thousand miles, most recently through places so lightly traveled our topographic maps have little to say about them. Only the highest peaks are labeled, and then solely by elevation. The Brooks Range is the northernmost major mountain range on earth and has retained its integrity in ways that few places have. Many of the creeks and valleys are nameless, their curves and riffles left unexplored. There are no soft edges here, no boardwalks or trails or park rangers. It’s wild, empty, and gritty.   
We’re here because we’re attempting to travel entirely under our own power from the Pacific Northwest to a remote corner of the Alaskan Arctic. We’re here because we need wilderness like we need water or air. Like we need each other. For me, this trip is also a journey back to trees and birdsong, to lichen and hoof prints. Before leaving, I had lost my way on the path that carried me from biology to natural wonder. I had forgotten what it meant, not only in my mind, but in my heart, to be a scientist.
Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Caroline and her husband Pat did this entire trip without any motorized transportation, entirely on their own. This week she’ll be telling us about some of her encounters with wildlife and her wonderful chickadee research. But to start out, today she’ll explain exactly where they went.
We started in Bellingham, Washington, in the northwest corner of Washington State, and took rowboats up the Inside Passage to a remote cabin we had built several years before, in southeast Alaska near Haines. And from there we left our rowboats and swapped those out for skis and pack rafts. For any listeners who aren’t familiar with pack rafts, they’re these amazing little rubber rafts that you can roll up and put in your backpack—they’re very lightweight and allow you to be amphibious, which can be really handy in certain places in Alaska and the North in general.   
We took our pack rafts with our skis strapped on across the water to cross the Coast Mountain Range by skis, and then got into the headwaters of the Yukon River, where we picked up a canoe and canoed to Dawson City, and then continued from there by pack raft and on foot, east into the Wind River drainage and up into the Mackenzie River drainage and eventually made our way to the Arctic coast.  
From the Arctic coast we headed west to the Alaska border, hiking and pack rafting as we went until we hit a community called Kaktovik, which is essentially the gateway to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We crossed through the refuge and got into the Brooks Range Mountains and then traversed west across the Brooks Range until we hit the headwaters of the Noatak River, this amazing river that flows kind of northwest and comes out into the Chukchi Sea. Eventually we went to Kotzebue. The Noatak River was the other section we canoed, reaching Kotzebue just before freeze-up in September. 
Photo copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Caroline Van Hemert told me a lot more about the trip, including logistics of packing for such an adventure and planning and packing for anticipated and unanticipated dangers. I’ll share some of that part of our conversation next time. The Sun Is a Compass is being released today.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Book Review: The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds, by Caroline Van Hemert



Part I: Why I don't normally enjoy reading books about epic adventures. You can cut to the chase and go straight to the review by clicking here.

I’ve often said that if I were to start a rock group, I’d probably be the only member, and I'd call myself the Pathological Moseyer. I’ve always been a plodding, lackadaisical sort of person, not the least bit inclined toward athletics or tests of physical prowess and endurance. Surprisingly, I was on a sports team once—as an undergrad, I was on Michigan State’s women’s fencing team. I loved fencing's precision and strategizing, and I could muster the necessary physical grace for foil fencing that I didn’t have for dance or anything else. I was skinny back then, providing a smaller target than most competitors, but my height was a handicap—being shorter than every woman on our college team and every woman I faced in competition meant I had to be quicker mentally to lure them close enough for me to touch before they realized they should have already touched me. 

The only photographic evidence of my short-lived fencing career
The only photographic evidence of my fencing days, though this was from high school. I'm not one of the fencers here. I'm the scorekeeper standing closest but with my back to the camera. 
That was before the Big Ten had women’s fencing, but the men’s coach found that horrifying, so he started up a women’s team on his own time and let us work out and practice with the guys. Because this wasn’t sanctioned or official, he didn’t require us to do the entire men’s workout routine, but we wanted to. I took pride in running five miles with them each day and keeping up with them on pushups, too. I could have done without the pushups, but I loved running, at least I did back before I was a birder. I tried a couple of times to get back into running after I started noticing bird songs, but the urge to stop and look at birds was far, far stronger in me than the urge to press on, so that was that.

Since becoming a birder, the most physically taxing thing I’ve ever done was to ride my Schwinn 3-speed bicycle 60 miles from home to my in-laws’ place in Port Wing, Wisconsin one June day. I love biking, but again, it didn’t work as well as I expected. The soft purring of the gears when I coasted interfered with hearing Le Conte’s Sparrows, Sedge Wrens, and several warblers, meaning I kept coming to a complete stop to hear birds whether I was going past pastures or woods along Highway 13. It took over 6 hours to make it the 60 miles. 

I’m a good if poky walker, but no one in my family likes to walk with me because I'm so slow. On family hikes, if the trail forms a loop, they invariably lap me, and even when they go around twice, they’re all done well before I get back from my first loop. I always see a lot more birds than they do, but even going faster, they notice plenty of things I miss. Their eyes and ears may not be as quickly receptive to the movements and sounds of birds, but unlike mine, their eyes and ears don’t filter out everything else

So except when leading a bird hike in Duluth or on a birding festival, or hiking on a birding tour, I usually hike by myself. The riskiest hike I ever did entirely alone was a 12-mile loop trail in Big Bend National Park in July 2013 to see a Colima Warbler. That hike took 10 1/2 hours, was entirely out of cell phone range, and was the only time in my entire life that I've come upon a mountain lion. When I had my heart attack two years later, a cardiologist told me about my congenital aneurism in a coronary artery and said that the heart attack could have happened at any time in my life, adding that if it had happened on this hike, "That would have been one happy mountain lion."

I have cross-country skis, but the shish-shish drives me crazy. I much prefer moving about on slow, quiet snowshoes. Even then, I’m a moseyer—If I’m snowshoeing with anyone else, I always bring up the rear.

Photon in the Wichita Mountains

Despite being poky and non-athletic, I do engage in some adventures that friends, including other birders, consider too risky, not even counting mountain lions. I’ve camped in a small tent or in my car, all alone or with a small, friendly dog, in lots of places over the years.

My campsite in the Wichita Mountains

During my Big Year, I camped alone at Lake Umbagog State Park in Maine, the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, and Water Canyon Campground near Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, as well as camping with my friend Eric Bowman at Yosemite that year.

On long road trips during my Big Year, I didn’t bring camping gear except my sleeping bag, an air mattress, and my pillow, depending on a supply of Fig Newtons when I didn't have a chance to shop for food, and I often slept in my car. People said they hoped that I at least kept the car locked all night and brought a gun, but no, I did the opposite. When I was a teenager, I was almost killed by a family member suffering from PTSD, and after talking him down with that gun pointed straight at me, there is no way I’ll ever own or travel with one, or allow one in my home. When camping, I always slept with my car windows open except when it rained—you can’t hear birds in a locked up car. The night I spent at Water Canyon I kept the hatchback of my Prius open all night. That’s where my head was, and all night long I dozed to the wonderful music of a Flammulated Owl.

Camping in my Prius in Water Canyon

Maybe because I’m not athletic and not particularly willing to take most kinds of physical risks, and am perfectly happy moseying through life, I’m not particularly drawn to fictional or true-life adventure tales. And I do very few book reviews on For the Birds—as much as I read and love books, I seldom go bonkers over them, and have never fallen in love with an adventure tale. So some people may find it strange that I’m devoting this entire week to a book about one adventure of the kind I'd never consider doing.


Part II: The Review.

Caroline Van Hemert’s The Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000 Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds is ever so much more than one woman's beautifully written account of a thrilling, dangerous, triumphant wilderness journey that she and her husband made in 2012, traveling from Bellingham, Washington, all the way up to the Arctic Ocean and across the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, just the two of them, with a few pre-planned drop-offs of food and supplies via the US Postal Service and Van Hemert’s parents.

The Prologue pulls us right into the story. She writes:
When we committed to this project—to travel from rainforest to ice-filled sea, from the edge of the continental United States to the edge of the earth—we decided it would be completely on our terms. No roads, no trails, and no motors. We would travel by foot, on skis, in rowboats, rafts, and canoes. We would use only our own muscles to carry us through some of the wildest places left on earth. This wasn’t a mandate borne purely of stubbornness, though Pat and I each possess a healthy dose of that trait, but because it would allow us to know the landscape as intimately as we knew each other. Just getting to remote places wasn’t the point. We could have hired a plane to drop us off at any number of locations that would qualify as the middle of nowhere. But we wanted something different. We wanted to hear the crunch of lichen beneath our feet, to smell the tundra after a rainstorm, to understand how it felt to walk in a caribou’s tracks or paddle alongside a beluga whale.
Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The details of their trip preparation and logistics were fascinating. I related to their decision not to bring a gun—they'd factored in the weight of a gun with all their other supplies and the low probability that they'd actually need it, and stuck with bear repellant. They did have frighteningly dangerous encounters with three species of bears, and may well have used a gun during one particularly scary encounter had they brought one. They got into several other dangerous scrapes involving capsizes in treacherous water and near starvation, but—SPOILER ALERT—they made it through the trip alive and well, as did the bears they encountered. About two thirds of the way through, I was so invested in these two young people and Van Hemert's riveting retelling of their adventure that I simply could not put the book down to go to sleep. I stayed up that entire night, finishing it just before dawn. I spent that day a little sleepy but very happy and satisfied.

Caroline Van Hemert is a prominent ornithologist doing important work—I knew her name from her seminal research on deformed bills in Alaska’s chickadees—and so her weaving in birds throughout, especially chickadees, was certain to please my sensibilities. She has spent a lot of time in the laboratory, and a lot of time writing scientific papers, but despite providing plenty of enlightening information, her conversational yet lyrical, elegant prose would make all her references to birds and other wildlife enjoyable for even the most determinedly non-birding reader. Her encounters with two baby Rough-legged Hawks and a family of Brant geese were especially moving and lovely.

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
Beyond the adventure, the wild splendor, stories about the wildlife, and the chickadees, woven throughout every page is a wonderful love story about two entirely different people—one a laboratory scientist and writer, the other a dyslexic artist and carpenter who has difficulty writing a postcard—who are so similar in essential ways that their fundamental differences combine in a genuine synergy that carries the two of them through their epic adventure.

Photos Copyright 2019 by Caroline Van Hemert and Patrick Farrell
The Sun Is a Compass is graced by beautiful line drawings at the start of every section done by Patrick Farrell, Van Hemert’s husband, who also took many of the photographs in the book.

Caroline Van Hemert was kind enough to give me a nice long phone interview yesterday. I’ll be excerpting from it all week on For the Birds, and making the whole conversation available on a bonus podcast as soon as I can. The Sun Is a Compass will be released on March 19.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

A New Glass Tower in Duluth

Boreal Owl
The Boreal Owl was one of the splendid birds that drew me to Duluth in the first place. Boreal Owls are frequently killed by windows when hunting in backyards. 
Last night, the Duluth Planning Commission heard public comments about the Environmental Assessment Worksheet that was completed regarding the glass tower that our biggest medical provider, Essentia, is planning to build downtown. A couple of people from Duluth's Dark Sky organization spoke about keeping the lights compatible with their mission, and I talked about the need for the glass to be fritted to protect birds by day and to have a very low light transmission to protect birds by night. What follows is the gist of what I said.

Notice that even the architects' conception of this project includes birds. 
When my husband Russ got his Ph.D. in 1980 and was fielding job offers, I lobbied very hard for him to take the one in Duluth, Minnesota, entirely because of Duluth’s amazing birds. A lot of other features have held us here for 38 years, not least our medical establishment. Russ and I have both had to deal with cancer and I had a heart attack, and so I can personally vouch for the excellent care we received, both during the immediate emergencies and the follow-up.

Now Essentia, the provider he and I have been using for decades, is going to be building a state-of-the-art facility, a glass tower that will stand far above the surrounding buildings. I’m hoping against hope that they will use glass that prevents birds from hitting the building both by day and by night. 

At least a billion birds a year are killed at windows in the United States, which is 5 to 10 percent of the total bird population of North America. As a city on a huge migration path, Duluth takes out more than our share. 

Many birds die outright in any collision with glass. We take hope when we find one still alive, and if it flies off, we enjoy a palpable sense of relief, but in truth, at least half of all birds that fly off after a collision die later, thanks to brain swelling and other injuries.

Vikings Poster

Etchings in what is called fritted glass help birds see it by day. That is what we desperately needed on the U.S. Bank Vikings Stadium, because the huge expanse of glass in that whole green area near the river makes the flood of birds feeding, resting, and moseying through the area in spring and fall vulnerable to collisions. I’ve personally found dead warblers in downtown Duluth that smacked into relatively low buildings, and people working at UMD, the airport, and Essentia as it is now have documented plenty of bird kills from collisions with glass at all those places. Fritted glass would have protected many of these birds.

American Redstart and Tennessee Warbler
I found these dead warblers below a fairly small window in downtown Duluth at sunrise in fall 2005.

But birds collide with glass at nighttime, too, and fritted glass doesn’t help them. What lures them in to collide with communications towers and tall buildings are lights. 

Most of our songbirds that pass through Duluth in spring and fall do their long-distance travel by night, when conditions are cooler and less windy, and when hawks aren’t about. As these songbirds take off after dark, they head straight for one bright light—which their instincts tell them is the moon—to know they have a clear path up above all obstructions. Once they reach altitude, they can use the stars, geomagnetism, and other guides to navigate, but if they get confused because of clouds or fog, they head straight for lights, which they instinctively know must be the moon or stars, which are impossible to collide with.

When I was rehabbing, I had to be careful at night during spring or fall if I entered a room with warblers—if I turned on a light, the little birds all instantly flew directly toward and into it. That gave me a pretty clear idea why so many birds are killed by colliding into windows and lights on high rises. These deaths are especially numerous when there are dense clouds, drizzle, or fog—weather conditions especially prevalent in Duluth during spring and fall migration. When birds lose sight of the moon and stars in these conditions, they go for the brightest light they can see.

Full Moon

Some glass has been developed to vastly reduce light transmission—this is now used in some coastal areas of Florida to keep baby sea turtles from heading the wrong direction when they hatch and must head toward the sparkling water. It would be great to use this low-transmission glass on the new tower. Having that darker glass fritted would protect birds 24-7.

Nature is such a part of our quality of life here in Duluth that many healthcare companies, from pharmaceuticals and insurance companies to Essentia itself, use nature in their advertising, as a palpable symbol of the quality-of-life issues their services and products help give us. Quality health care should not be incompatible with the survival of birds. Let’s hope Essentia selects glass for their new tower that will make this building state-of-the-art for healthcare and for the birds that help us to enjoy our healthy lives.

Katie and Orange-crowned Warbler

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Cathy Zimmerman's Bobwhite in Cornucopia, Wisconsin

Cathy Zimmerman's Bobbi the Bobwhite. Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved.
On Saturday, I got a wonderful email from Cathy Zimmerman. She wrote: 
On October 8, 2018, two female Northern Bobwhites wandered around our home outside Cornucopia, Wisconsin. I posted a picture to the Chequamegon Bay Birders Facebook page, and was quickly informed that they were likely used for training dogs and had escaped. A little research revealed that their northernmost range is far southern Wisconsin.   
Almost three months later, one female became an almost daily presence at the house. Because of her captive rearing, she was fairly tame, and quickly came to identify me with food. The turkeys, red squirrels and blue jays were more aggressive getting to the sunflower seed and corn that I put out in the morning, so I started to keep an eye out for her and would give her some food of her own.   
I immediately grew very fond of her, and each morning that she had successfully survived this most bitter of winters, my spirit rose with joy. She would come to me so trustingly, and make the cutest little noises as she quickly ate. Of course I had to name her, and of course I named her Bobbi!   
The Lake Superior winds and heavier than average snowfall, and presence of coyotes and other predators caused me to worry about her survival. According to The Sibley Guide to Bird Life and Behavior, “Northern Bobwhites usually roost on the ground, often in a tight circle of 5-15 outward-facing birds. Roosting coveys may be essential for survival in this species, since lone bobwhites may not generate enough warmth to survive a cold night.” Well, my little lone Bobbi proved them wrong, and 300 miles north of her usual range, and I was quite proud of her!   
I knew even if she survived the winter, she would likely never meet another Northern Bobwhite, and even less likely a male to mate with. Yet I hoped that she would get to experience the relief of spring, when life wouldn’t be so difficult. I took many pictures of her, knowing that ultimately they would be pictures to remember her by.   
We had a routine, and when she didn’t appear on the morning of Tuesday March 5, I was worried. There had been other days I hadn’t seen her before work and I tried to be optimistic. At 5:45 PM I happened to look out the kitchen window and saw not a bobwhite, but a bobcat!   

Lurking bobcat. Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved. 
I can only conclude that the bobcat ate my bobwhite, and I guess that’s not too bad a fate. And I will always have the sweet memories and photographs. It will almost be like looking through a family photo album—“ Here’s Bobbi with the Ruffed Grouse that decided to check things out.” “Here’s Bobbi with the rabbit who decided to help itself to her seeds.” “Here’s Bobbi with her most beautiful feathers that outdoes any supermodel’s costume.”   
Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved.

Copyright 2019 by Cathy Zimmerman. All rights reserved.
Some will find this sort of bond with a bird silly, but I know you will understand. I would often go to work and try to tell people with excitement about the Northern Bobwhite that had adopted our home, and they would nod politely, some venturing to ask, “So that’s a bird?”   
Yes, she’s a bird, but also a friend, and I miss her. And she is why Northern Bobwhite is my Best Bird Ever.  

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Birds in the News

Greater Prairie-Chicken

My treasured friend Mick Fiocchi sent me a link to a story this week from the Wisconsin DNR, from their Snapshot Wisconsin newsletter, regarding 15 trail cams they set out, three each on five Greater Prairie-Chicken leks in central Wisconsin. Direct monitoring for prairie chickens involves a lot of human hours, because at each spot, the person must arrive while it’s still dark and remain until the displaying birds depart, often not until mid-morning. Arriving late or leaving early risks frightening the birds off their display grounds, disrupting them at their most vulnerable period of the year.

The cams picked up prairie chickens at all five sites, while humans detected the birds only at three sites. At the sites where they did detect them, the human observers saw more prairie chickens than the cams picked up, so human observers are still important, but the cameras provided photos not just during the morning displays but also in the evening, interestingly, taking more photos per hour during the evening than morning displays. Those Snapshot Wisconsin cameras also collected over 3,000 non-prairie chicken images including badger, coyote, deer, other birds, and more.   

Rather brazen black bear at my mother-in-law's

An article dated February 26 in the national Sierra Club magazine titled “Does a Bear Think in the Woods” focuses on studies of bear behavior and intelligence, centering primarily on Ben Kilham, who has studied bears in New Hampshire since 1996. His work is utterly fascinating, and author Brandon Keim mentions in passing about research into intelligence and communication in other species, including birds, noting that “ravens can plan for the future and demonstrate a degree of self-control comparable to great apes'” and “Japanese great tits, songbirds related to chickadees, use syntax—a linguistic property long thought unique to human language.” He also mentions that magpies can recognize themselves in a mirror. 

Keim writes, “This research highlights an intriguing possibility: Could it be that much of North America is populated by hundreds of thousands of exceptionally intelligent nonhuman beings?” I’ve been harping on “this intriguing possibility” since the earliest days of producing “For the Birds,” but 33 years later, it is still apparently more intriguing and cutting edge than clear and obvious for anyone to speculate out loud about animals being intelligent creatures capable of genuine communication. 

During Turner Classic Movies’ “31 Days of Oscars,” I watched the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. I still find it hilarious that we can accept the idea that people could somehow forge communication with aliens based on musical tones—how could we be sure the aliens were ascribing the same meaning to  each tone that we did, when here in Minnesota, right this very moment, we can hear pure tones clearly meant as communication yet we still don’t have a clue know how to communicate with chickadees? Wouldn’t you think the scientists who think about finding and communicating with other forms of life “out there” would start by learning how to communicate with other forms of life right here on earth? 

One day, the anthropocentric people who dismiss animal communication and intelligence as being of an entirely different order than human communication and intelligence will be dismissed the way people who once believed the earth is flat and at the center of the universe are now dismissed.

Bald Eagle

Our final "Birds in the News" story took place on February 23, in the world of college baseball, when Jacksonville State University was playing against Jacksonville University. You can see a short video with charming color commentary online. In the top of the eighth inning, an Osprey flew over John Sessions Stadium carrying a fish. When a Bald Eagle divebombed it, the Osprey dropped the fish into the outfield. The eagle circled lower, apparently trying to retrieve the fish, but before it could reach it, one of the Jacksonville University players ran out, grabbed the fish, and carried it off, giving his team a double win. They beat Jacksonville State 5-2 and the Bald Eagle 1-0.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Abnormal Plumage, Part II: Leucistic Birds

Leucistic Black-capped Chickadee; photo Copyright 2019 by Gayle Friday
On February 26, I received an email from Gayle Friday, who lives in Lakewood Township. She sent me three photos of a very odd Black-capped Chickadee. This bird was extremely pale in all the body areas where it would have any melanin—the cap was a light brownish-gray rather than black, the back lighter gray, the wings and tale extremely light gray, and the sides a very soft yellowish buff. I thought about the possibility that it could be a leucistic Boreal Chickadee, but the bright white on the cheeks is too extensive, and too precisely matching that of a black-cap.

Leucistic Black-capped Chickadee; photo Copyright 2019 by Gayle Friday
Gayle wrote back with more details: 
He first appeared  on Feb 4 and what caught my eye was the white flash. He seems a bit larger than some of my other chickadees and they seem annoyed with him. His cap is lighter , kind of chestnut colored. He seems to like both suet and feeder but picks feeder over the suet. He is still coming daily. I live in Lakewood on 10 acres of mostly spruce pine aspen with some hardwoods. He is still visiting daily.  
Leucistic Black-capped Chickadee; photo Copyright 2019 by Gayle Friday
Any bird with lighter than normal plumage or unusual white areas on the body is called leucistic. This chickadee is the first one I’ve ever seen that was in what might be called dilute plumage—the definition of the word leucistic as I learned it in ornithology classes in the 1970s. I’ve seen several other leucistic chickadees over the years, but they were what I’d prefer to call partial albinos—parts of their bodies were normally colored while other parts were pure white.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee
I took this photo in Brimson, MN, some time in 2006.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee
I photographed this one in Esko, MN, on November 8, 2012.

The word albino is now used in ornithology only to refer to a bird that is genetically incapable of producing any pigments, so it would have pink eyes and pink or dull tan legs and beak. And now the term “partial albino” is also out of favor, but in my opinion it’s rather useful to have two different terms to distinguish between patchy white birds and overall pale birds.

As rare as leucistic birds are, and as exceptionally rare as this particular leucistic bird is, I don’t feel the inner urgency to see it as I would if it were a Brambling or Fieldfare. Birding is rather an acquisitive endeavor, and what we mostly list are new species.

Matt Mendenhall, BirdWatching magazine’s editor, wrote about the gynandromorph cardinal in Erie, Pennsylvania, under the headline, "Half-male, half-female cardinal is cool, but it's not drawing a crowd." Because gynandromorphism is a plumage condition even rarer than leucism, he wondered why a bird that had been so prominent in the media has been so ignored by birders, at least as far as going to Erie to see it. He writes:
I checked the Pennsylvania and Ohio birding listervs and did not find a single notice from members about this bird. No one posted directions to the yard, or additional photos, or tips for when to go.   
If the Caldwells were hosting a Calliope Hummingbird, Black-headed Grosbeak, or some other vagrant from thousands of miles away, you can bet they would be enjoying the company of many, many strangers toting thousands of dollars worth of optics. They would all, with good reason, be trying to add the wayward bird to their life lists — and a large percentage would be shooting photo after photo of the visitor.  
But no birder would travel to Erie or anywhere else to add Cardinalis cardinalis to their life list. Nor do I know anyone who keeps a list of gynandromorphs they’ve seen.   
I actually do keep a list of the gynandromorphs I’ve seen, or I would except that I’ve only ever seen the one back in 1986. I’ll be trying to head to Gayle’s sometime this week to photograph her bird, to add images of it to my small collection leucistic chickadee photos. I hope her little bird makes it through this long, hard winter and many, many days to come.

"Leucistic" Black-capped Chickadee