Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Laura's Best Bird Ever! Chicago Loop Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

In 1975, my first year of birding, I spent every free moment watching birds outside or studying them inside. When Russ and I headed home to Chicago from Michigan State for Christmas break, my lifelist was over 100 and I was hungry for more, so Russ and I went birding three times in the week we were in that toddlin' town. But the very best bird of that trip—one of the best birds of the entire year—wasn’t seen on any birding jaunt—it wasn’t even seen through binoculars.

On December 18th, we went to the Loop for some last minute Christmas shopping. We finished up with time to spare, and so visited a couple of museums along Lake Shore Drive. Because this was not a birding trip, I’d of course left my heavy 7x50 binoculars at home. 

Suddenly, as we walked along on the bustling sidewalk, what to my wondering eyes should appear but an enormous, mostly white bird flying toward us just a few feet over the mass of pedestrians, staying directly above the sidewalk. Its thick, rounded wings flapped slowly. Its huge yellow eyes, facing forward within its huge round white face made it unmistakably an owl. This was the first owl I’d ever seen, and it wasn’t just any owl. This was a Snowy Owl!

I spotted it when it was perhaps a hundred feet away still, but even though it seemed to be flying at a leisurely pace, it was moving in fast. My heart raced, oxygenated blood rushing to overloaded brain circuits as I tried to process and memorize every detail. When it was a mere 10 feet away or even closer, its eyes suddenly looked straight into mine; it held eye contact until it started passing over my head. I’d stopped dead in my tracks, too dumbfounded to even gasp, and Russ didn’t notice at first—he made it back to me, now facing the opposite direction to watch the bird retreat. Russ arrived barely in time to get a quick glimpse.

That encounter was a significant step in my growing competence as a birder—this was the first lifer I’d ever seen without binoculars, and I could appreciate that as it flew in, it was too close for my binoculars to focus on anyway. I was knowledgeable enough to realize that Snowy Owls do appear here and there along the Lake Michigan waterfront in winter and are often active in daytime, so spotting it wasn’t exceptional in any larger ornithological context than as an addition to my life list. But what an addition!

Birding is ever so much more than ornithology and lists, and this bird was ever so much more than a generic Snowy Owl. Something magic happens when our eyes meet anyone else’s—a spark of recognition of individuality, a momentary but real connection between two beings who are simply in the same place at the same time, but then unexpectedly and inexplicably join together in a single shared moment. This was certainly no Vulcan mind-meld, nor even what could be called a meeting of minds. Just a momentary connection, as sudden and electric as a synapse, lasting less than a second and ending the instant the owl broke eye contact. I kept following his retreating form with longing, tracking him as he grew smaller and smaller in the distance, moving on toward the rest of his life.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Last Robin of Winter vs First Robin of Spring

American Robin closeup

Back in the 1990s, a woman named Elizabeth Howard got a brilliant idea for an unprecedented educational service, developing a website that would be available for free to students and teachers, teaching about animal migration--she called it Journey North. One of the birds she was gung-ho to include was the American Robin because so many people associate robins with spring. She called me several times and came up to Duluth once to pick my brain about it, and hired me to write a lot of content about robins. 

Unfortunately for straightforward storylines, robins  don’t move between two separate ranges for summer and winter. They can be found year-round in coastal Alaska and British Columbia as well as at least a bit of all the northernmost states extending into Canada. I’ve personally seen robins on the Grand Marais Christmas Count as well as on a lot of Duluth Christmas Counts. “The first robin of spring” is hardly a ridiculous concept, but it is a complicated one that requires nuance to explain.

Robins are one of many species that switch their diet and lifestyle as well as their range between summer and winter. We think of robins as eating earthworms, which they certainly do, in addition to a whole host of insects, during their nesting season.

American Robin adult gathering food for chicks

They eat worms and bugs during migration and winter, too, as they find them. But overall, they feed much more on fruits from fall to early spring each year.

American Robin eating fruit

Their behavior shows a dramatic change when they arrive where they'll nest, and both male and female grow extremely territorial. After they're done raising young for the season, they'll grow extremely gregarious until the next year.

So we could think of winter robins as flocking frugivores and breeding robins as territorial worm-eating insectivores. To simplify that, the first robin of spring would be performing its most territorial act—singing—and running on lawns eating worms.

But there isn’t a simple on-off switch between the two seasons. It’s more of a dimmer switch that takes many days or weeks to move all the way from off to on. Through winter, robin sex organs are excess baggage—like most birds, their testes and ovaries shrink after the breeding season, swelling up again in response to increasing day length and weather conditions. During the time those sex organs are expanding in early spring, the birds start producing sex hormones, at very low levels at first, and peaking as they establish their territory and start nesting behaviors.

When I’ve gone down to Nebraska in March to watch Sandhill Cranes, I’ve seen huge robin flocks pigging out on old crabapples and running in brown grasses along the edges of marshes looking for worms.

American Robins

And I’ve occasionally heard individual robins singing while still associating in flocks. They usually sing more quietly than on territory, and quickly get chased by other robins that are starting to feel their oats enough to be stressed hearing their song. I’ve frequently seen squabbling between males in these late winter flocks that I hardly ever see in January or early February. Little by little, the flocks break up even as they follow roughly the 37-degree isotherm northward.

That 37-degree isotherm is another complexity. That’s roughly the average day-night temperature at which earthworms start emerging. But warm underground springs here and there can make worms available when the average air temperature is quite a bit colder, and in areas that didn’t get much snowfall despite frigid temperatures, soils may not thaw enough for earthworms to emerge for many days after that temperature threshold is reached. So again, the rule is a general one.

During a good spell of mild weather in late March or April, my own backyard male robin will arrive and start singing away—HE’S my first robin of spring. A week or so later, one wonderful morning, I’ll spot a female with him. They’ll squabble with any robins who come near my yard, especially defending my backyard birdbaths as their personal property, yet for weeks after they’re both back being fully territorial, I’ll be seeing flocks of robins still passing through and still acting like winter robins. Every step of the way, the hormonal levels of those migrating robins will be rising, and some will be squabbling with one another and some males will start singing and other males will give chase. Using robins to define the start of spring is like watching the snow melt in March and declaring winter is over—late snow storms and late winter robin flocks are two reasons there's an April Fools Day.

American Robin in my bird bath

So how do you distinguish between the “first robin of spring” and the “last robin of winter”? We simple-minded humans have trouble comprehending complexities. Fortunately, robins have an easy time wrapping their bird brains around this kind of complexity. They'll have no trouble knowing exactly what to do as our long-awaited spring finally unfolds.

American Robin

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Owl Drama from the Archives

Great Horned Owl

I came across a transcript from my For the Birds archives that seemed worth a second look. Fifteen years ago, back before I had a good camera, in the fall of 2004, I woke up one morning to the screaming of crows somewhere close.  Then the phone rang—it was one of my neighborhood friends, calling to tell me there was a Great Horned Owl in a tree on the next block.  So I hightailed it through a couple of backyards to see the owl perched in a big shade tree with thirty or forty crows all yelling obscenities at it, along with a spunky little Blue Jay who seemed to be coordinating the attack. 

Just as I got close, a couple of crows got closer than the owl wanted to deal with and it opened its great wings and flew off, the crows’ screams rising in a powerful crescendo.

Owls don’t like to fly long distances in daytime, and my neighborhood is old and established, with a great many huge trees, so I didn’t think the owl would go far.  Sure enough, the commotion moved down just a couple of blocks.  I walked over to find all the crows milling in a group of pine and spruce trees, complaining and seeming to be asking one another, “Which way did he go?” 

The spunky little Blue Jay didn’t waste his time griping—he started investigating.  The owl didn’t seem to be in the stand of trees the crows were in, so the jay flew to a spruce in the neighboring yard and started spiraling around it, working his wings as hard as a hummingbird as he scrutinized every limb.

I caught sight of the owl the moment the jay did—he was hunkered down near the top of the spruce, facing the trunk and not moving a muscle.  His feathers ruffled a bit in the wind, but otherwise he held stock still.  The jay let out a triumphant whoop, and the crows flew up on the attack again, but the owl’s camouflage worked more effectively against the crows. The first time they flew to the tree, none of them caught sight of the owl’s face, with the distinctive eyes and feather tufts, and after squawking a bit, they went back to their tree. 

But the little Blue Jay clearly wanted to be taken more seriously by his bigger brethren, so down he went again, this time squawking his head off, and managed to get the owl to turn its head and look at him.  A couple of crows noticed that and started yelling as they flew in.  Now the whole flock ambushed the owl, but he apparently figured he was safer where he was than he’d be flying through the open trying to find another hiding place.  So he turned his face in again and bided his time. After yelling a while, the crows finally gave up. 

The jay had lost interest as soon as he succeeded in getting the big guys to take him seriously, and had already left. A few of the crows sat back down in the pine trees and gossiped while the rest disappeared. 

I looked at the owl, but he was apparently not interested in having some sort of mystical communion of souls with me—he just wanted to be left alone and kept his face hidden. So I packed up my liberal good intentions and walked away, but not before I spotted the spunky little Blue Jay and watched him fly past the spruce tree, hovering and peeking in a moment to make sure the owl was staying put as the jay flew off to new adventures. 

Throughout the rest of the day, every now and then I’d hear the crows suddenly start squawking again, always from the same spot.  It’s tough to be an owl in broad daylight, and tough to be a crow in the dark.  But if I was going to spend my earthly existence as one of the birds in the day’s drama, I’d pick the one who has the most fun in any situation—the Blue Jay.

Blue Jay

Monday, February 25, 2019


Ruby-throated Hummingbird

February may be the shortest month as measured in hours and minutes, but it’s by far the longest as measured in moments we spend wishing it were over already. And this year, Duluth’s snowiest February ever seems to be lasting even longer than usual, with this week’s deep-freeze making me more impatient than ever to get the month over with. As I open my window to set mealworms out for my chickadees, I can’t help but yearn for the days ahead when my bird-feeding rituals won’t involve blasts of frigid air and will involve hummingbirds.

I suppose it's fitting to be impatient for hummingbirds, because these minute packets of energy and testosterone are nature's finest tributes to impatience. Hummingbirds seldom sit down to enjoy a meal--their wings stay in high speed motion, over a hundred beats per second, even at the sweetest, most nectar-filled flower, ready and set to go on to another flower the moment this one no longer satisfies.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Male hummers are as fickle as children opening Christmas presents. The first flower, or mate, may fill them with joy, but a moment later they've already moved on to the next. This readiness to move on is so deeply characteristic of hummingbirds that you'd think people who moralize about nature would dislike them, but we're as tolerant of a hummingbird's exuberantly greedy restlessness as we are of child's on Christmas morning. 

Hummingbirds have an iridescent beauty unmatched in the bird world, and their diminutive size—three Ruby-throated Hummingbirds would roughly balance one chickadee—makes them all the more endearing. The words people use to describe hummingbirds sound like exaggerations—glowing, jewel-like, brilliant, sparkling, dazzling—yet even those words fail when a sunbeam suddenly strikes, setting a ruby throat afire.

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbirds lack the gaudy brilliance of the males, yet they are just as endearing. Like males they are constantly on the move, except when on their nest. It's ironic that this is the only time they seem sedate and calm, when their whole bodies are seething with the heat of anticipation, their metabolism generating an abundance of body warmth to hasten the day their two round packages will open. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Hummingbirds arrive in the northland in early May, and although the trend of earlier springs seems to hasten them on a few days earlier now than decades ago, we still can't hope to see them before the last week of April. I’ll be eagerly watching for the first sapsucker to alight in my aspen tree, knowing that its drill holes will be a hummingbird's meal ticket until flowers open.

I track how hummingbird migration progresses on the Internet. Every year since 1996 I’ve been watching Lanny Chambers’s website at—people sent him word when hummers turned up, and he painstakingly added the points to his map, showing migration creeping ever northward. But in a tragic bow to progress, for the first time in 23 years, Lanny can’t do his annual map. He writes:
Google has stopped offering free, anonymous use of its map API, which partially automated the location of sightings by zip/postal code using a utility a smart fellow wrote for me (and which I do not understand). I am not interested in fundraising, learning API programming, or opening a Google developer account. As a result, producing this map is no longer practical, and I'm not looking for alternatives. Thanks to all of you for your participation and support over 23 migration seasons, and my apologies for any inconvenience.  
Lanny refers people now to the Journey North website. The dots entered before March 1 are much too pale for my 67-year-old eyes to see, but they’ll grow darker in two-week increments starting Friday. You can track them at When the map shows one in central Wisconsin or Minnesota, I’ll start putting out my feeders. 
Journey North Hummingbird Map for February 25, 2019
Meanwhile, I'm as impatient as a child waiting for Christmas. Hummingbirds come at the opposite season and from the opposite direction as Santa Claus, but these tiny gifts, wrapped in Christmas colors of brilliant green and red, satisfy even more than the nicest presents, and have one great advantage over toys--hummingbirds never need batteries. Give them something sweet to eat and their little motors rev up, filling me with joy.

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Onion story about Randy Johnson's bird-killing 2001 pitch

Back during baseball spring training in 2001, Randy Johnson, the amazing left-handed pitcher for the Arizona Diamondbacks, was up against Calvin Murray of the San Francisco Giants in a preseason game. His pitch was almost certainly over a hundred miles per hour, but just before the ball made it to the plate, it seemed to burst into a crazy explosion of feathers. Randy Johnson’s pitch had collided with a dove. The umpire called it a “no pitch”—almost certainly the most famous “no pitch” ever called, though I suppose the call could have more literally been a fowl ball. (You can see the pitch, including in slo-mo, here in YouTube.)

Randy Johnson had a long, illustrious baseball career, winning the Cy Young Award five times and amassing the second-most strikeouts of any pitcher in baseball history. He’s one of only five pitchers who have pitched no hitters in both leagues, he’s won at least one game against every one of the 30 major league teams, at forty he was the oldest player ever to pitch a perfect game, and he’s one of the tallest baseball players ever at 6’10”. The season he hit the Mourning Dove, the Diamondbacks won the World Series against the Yankees, and Randy Johnson pitched three of the winning games, so he was named a World Series MVP, too.

Yet despite all those accomplishments, there are more Google search results for "Randy Johnson bird" than there are for "Randy Johnson baseball.” He retired in 2010 and returned to a passion he’d nurtured as a photojournalism student at the University of Southern California. Randy Johnson Photography honors the poor dead bird in its official logo.

I vaguely remembered the story from 18 years ago, but I think at the time I’d decided it was too sad and brief to support a whole radio program. In 2016, for the 15-year anniversary of the mishap, Newsweek interviewed several ornithologists about it. They agreed on the species identification, but they noted that several gulls have also been hit by baseballs over the years, not during the pitch but after the ball was hit by the batter, and also that one bird that looked like a swallow was once hit by a pitch in a minor league game. Henry Streby, a researcher at the University of Toledo, recounted when the famous model Fabio, while riding on a roller coaster, was hit in the face by a flying goose—the goose was killed in the impact. Streby said, “Everyone talked about poor Fabio, but imagine how the goose felt!”

When asked “How fast would a ball have to be going to knock off a bird’s feathers like this? It looks like the bird exploded,” Streby responded, “A baseball is a dense 5.25 ounces. A mourning dove is about the same mass, but larger and much less dense. The bird is always going to lose a collision like that even with an off-speed pitch, and a poof of downy feathers would always be the result of a direct hit.”

Jerry Jackson, of Florida Gulf Coast University, said about the explosion of feathers, “A peregrine falcon hitting a mourning dove. Same cloud of feathers—doves have very "loose" feathers. Indeed, they are capable of releasing a cloud of feathers sort of like "chaff" to escape a diving predator. This is a reflexive action called a “fright molt.””

One question was how probable was it that a pitch would kill a bird—one said it was a one in a million chance, another said it was astronomical. Gavin Leighton, postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, put actual mathematical reasoning into it. He said,  “This is an extremely rare event.... Since there are about 2,400 Major League Baseball games per season and about 250 pitches per game between both teams, and if we limit ourselves to thinking that this happened once in the last 20 years that we can be sure of—that amounts to 1 pitch in 12,000,000 pitches.” But if we were truly going to approach this empirically, considering that this has happened exactly once, even today, in all of Major League Baseball, but also taking into account that for some of those years there were fewer teams and games, it still happened just once in at least 50,000,000 pitches.

One question was, “Do you feel bad for the bird?” Three of the ornithologists said they did, all noting that at least it went quickly and probably didn’t know what hit it. One put the death in perspective, noting how many birds are killed by human-related activities. Another expressed even more sadness for any nestlings the bird was caring for, noting that this happened during nesting season. But Michael Wunder, associate professor at the University of Colorado, Denver, irritated me to no end by saying, “I didn’t feel bad for the bird. I’m an ornithologist who studies population demographics, which just means I am interested to know when where and how birds die.” Any fifth grader knows that a billion, or a trillion, times zero is zero. You can know a lot about how aggregates work, but without reckoning the value of individuals, you really don’t know a damned thing.

I missed the Newsweek story when it first came out and had forgotten all about the bird-killing incident until just last week, when The Onion published a story about the aftermath, titled “Diamondbacks Settle Long-Standing Civil Suit With Offspring Of Bird Hit By Randy Johnson’s Fastball.” The illustration showed a press conference with two Morning Doves at the microphone.

PHOENIX—Finally closing a sordid chapter in team history, representatives for the Arizona Diamondbacks announced Friday that the franchise had settled a civil lawsuit with the offspring of a mourning dove who died after being hit by a Randy Johnson fastball during a 2001 spring training game. “We know this was an unspeakably traumatic moment for this family of doves,” said attorney Doug Muhlenberg in a statement on behalf of the Diamondbacks, who went on to lament how long the case had been stuck in litigation and referenced a contentious period which saw a large flock of bird protestors demonstrating outside the courtroom. “While no amount of money can bring back their father, we hope they can move on from this ordeal knowing that justice has been served.” At press time, the Diamondbacks announced plans to prevent similar incidents by installing a mesh netting over the infield. 
The Onion has a long history of doing hilariously spot-on bird stories, so this shouldn’t have surprised me. They of course got the species right, and based on the accompanying photo, they also got the likely number of offspring right—Mourning Doves usually lay two eggs in a nest. But when I showed my husband Russ the article, he immediately said that the incident happened 18 years ago—it was impossible that any of the bird’s offspring could still be alive. But of course they could—Mourning Doves happen to be exceptionally long-lived. Banded iIndividuals have survived 19 years 4 months, 27 years 3 months, and even an astonishing 30 years 4 months. So in The Onion's universe, it's quite possible two offspring of the bird could still be living and finally getting closure from their tragic loss.

The Onion didn’t say what the settlement gave the doves beyond an apology and a vague promise of the Diamondbacks taking action to prevent such a thing from ever happening again--even without netting, so far so good. But perhaps Mourning Doves can take enough comfort in this settlement that one day they'll be able to change their name to something more cheerful. Africa has its Laughing Dove; Australia and New Guinea their Peaceful Dove; Samoa, Fiji and Tonga their Friendly Ground-Dove. But no country has a Happy Dove. Mexico has a Happy Wren and many Mourning Doves migrate there for winter. Perhaps one can carry that felicitous name across the border so we in the U.S. can soon have our own Happy Dove.

Mourning Dove

Friday, February 15, 2019

Sad Endings and Happy Beginnings

Miranda Zaic, an employee at Wild Birds Unlimited, with Henry in 2014. Photo by Bob King, the Duluth News-Tribune
Duluth’s Wild Birds Unlimited store has been an important part of my life since Bob and Lois Heller opened the store in the early 1990s. When my first book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide was released in the fall of 1993, the grand unveiling took place with a book-signing in the store, which was packed the full two hours. This was thrilling for me until I noticed my younger son, Tommy, who was seven years old, growing more and more uncomfortable. Finally he walked up and whispered in my ear, “Mommy, why are you writing in everyone’s new books?” One of the great benefits of having children is to keep our heads straight about just how important we really are.

From the start, Bob and Lois kept their pet cockatiel, Henry, in the store with them. They didn’t need a bell to notice that a customer had walked in the door—Henry’s sweet call was just as effective and much more welcoming. He and I quickly became friends—he’d often fly straight to my shoulder the moment I said, “Hi, Henry!” 

Over the years and then decades, as management and employees and even the store location changed, Henry was the constant. He liked when I bought mealworms—I’d open the container at the counter and let him take one out to eat. And he especially appreciated when I started chatting with Lisa or Paul or whoever was at the counter—if he finished up his mealworm while I was still there, I’d let him take a second.

I was heartbroken to learn that Henry died on January 26 at the age of 27. He will be sorely missed by everyone who knew him.

Wisdom's mate Akeakamai with their new chick. Photo by Bob Peyton, USFWS
Twenty-seven is a ripe old age for most birds, but one bird who was already at least 41 years old when Henry hatched is still alive 27 years later, and still raising her own young. Wisdom, the Laysan Albatross who has been nesting on Midway Island since at least 1956, the year scientists first started banding birds on the island, is not only alive and well—she and her mate produced an egg this year, and last week scientists observed that it had hatched into a healthy chick. Wisdom was out at sea when the chick was discovered—the first photos show it attended by her mate, Akeakamai.

Albatrosses don’t feed on land, so parents must take turns heading out to sea to eat; one must be with the egg at all times to incubate and protect it. That’s how Wisdom and Akeakamai spent the past two months, each bird spending days or weeks out on the ocean as the other bird fasted and incubated. Now that the chick has hatched, parents will take turns making quick excursions to grab food while the other protects the baby. The parents are both eating for two—when one returns, the chick nibbles its bill, which stimulates the parent to regurgitate stomach oils down the baby’s throat--the returning parent will feed the chick several times within less than an hour. The chick averages more than one of these sets of feedings per day. As it get bigger and stronger, semi-digested food supplements the oils in the regurgitated food, but throughout, the main food the chick eats is that oil. When the chick is big enough to maintain its own body temperature, parents can both be out at sea at the same time; at this point, the parents can wander a bit further from shore, but each one averages returning to the chick every day or two.

The little chick wanders about a bit but must return to the nest in order to be fed. Scientists believe that the adults don’t specifically distinguish their own chick from others until it’s about 6 or 7 weeks old—up until then, if a strange chick wanders into a bird’s nest, it may get fed in place of the parents' own chick. Because the flight to sea and search for food are time- and energy-consuming, scientists believe that it’s impossible for albatrosses to successfully rear two chicks, or for one parent to bring off a chick if it loses its mate.

Fortunately, as one 68-year-old mother can attest, albatrosses are long-lived. The reason we still have any at all on the planet is because both parents do usually survive to faithfully return to the nest while there is a dependent chick. As the baby gets big, the parents come a bit less frequently, and one day they stop returning. At that point, the chick still has plenty of fat to live off for a while. Hunger and basic instinct lead it to the shoreline, and one day, off it takes, ready to lead the life of an albatross. Since 1956, we know that Wisdom has successfully brought off at least 30 fledglings. In 2019, it's thrilling to know she's on her way yet again.

Wisdom incubating her egg, December 2018. Photo credit: Madalyn Riley/USFWS Volunteer
Wisdom with her egg, December 4, 2018.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Great Backyard Bird Count

Bald Eagle

On December 15, most active birders in the Duluth area participated in our annual Christmas Bird Count. This annual tradition, conducted in the U.S for the past 119 years and now for decades in most countries in the Americas, provides an excellent dataset of the birds found in early winter. It’s a fun local tradition and gives birders a good idea of where to look for birds in late December through early January. Christmas Bird Count data have been used for scientists assessing some population trends and changes in bird distribution as a result of land use patterns, climate change, and more.

As wonderful as the Christmas Bird Count is, as a tradition and a gold mine of data regarding winter bird numbers, the picture it provides is limited to early winter, before many northern finches have come down and before many ducks and other species have moved further south. To understand bird numbers in the dead of winter, in 1998, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Audubon created the Great Backyard Bird Count. This fun new tradition takes place for one weekend in the middle of February.

Unlike the Christmas Bird Count, people can participate in the Great Backyard Bird Count as individuals wherever they happen to be, rather than as part of official groups staying within prescribed count circles. The standardized count techniques used in the Christmas count definitely have some advantages, but the flexibility offered by the Great Backyard Bird Count provides many other advantages.

People of any age, whether beginners or experienced birders, are invited to participate—the only commitments are that you count birds for at least 15 minutes on at least one day from Friday through Monday. You can participate in your own yard or wherever you happen to be, but to count, you must submit your checklists to either the Great Backyard Bird Count’s website ( or To do that, you must register with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, but that same free registration can be used to log in to other Cornell projects, including eBird, FeederWatch, and NestWatch. The Lab’s website provides a wealth of useful information to help you identify and learn more about birds, virtually all of it free—I wholeheartedly support them for their matchless work.

I took this photo, which shows three different species (Pine Siskin above, Common Redpoll and Hoary Redpoll) from my upstairs window, looking down on the roof of our bay window downstairs during the 2004 Great Backyard Bird Count

Those of us who use eBird to keep track of our bird sightings don’t have to do anything different during the Great Backyard Bird Count. As always, checklist data is most useful if you keep a separate checklist of each place you go. More and more, I’ve been using the free eBird app on my phone, and getting into the habit of making a new checklist at each spot I visit in the bog. It’s really easy now—GPS on the phone tells eBird exactly where I am, and if I start a new checklist when I get to a new spot and complete the checklist before moving onto the next place, eBird keeps track of how far I traveled within the area (like when I walk along the boardwalk at the Warren Nelson bog) and how long I was there.

Pip stays right at my heels/ Russ is holding the least and taking the photo
eBird keeps track of where I walk at the Warren Nelson Bog. I turn it on at each place I go in the bog before I leave the car. eBird picks the hotspot I'm near and knows the time, and it keeps track of my movements. When I get back to the car, I add all the species I've seen that I didn't put in during the walk, and submit. I may have ten or more completed checklists before I leave. 
I haven’t had many finches at all in my own backyard this winter, but I have seen a whole lot of Pine Grosbeaks in the bog, along with redpolls, siskins, and White-winged Crossbills.

Pine Grosbeak
This is how my feeders looked during the 80s and early 90s. Now I have to go further afield to see such wonders. This was taken at the bog on Superb Owl Sunday.
The bird count will show where finches are showing up in their highest numbers, continent wide. That will be particularly interesting in the case of Evening Grosbeaks, which have been appearing as far east as New York this season even if they haven’t made an appearance in my yard. Winter distribution of finches relates most closely to where cone seeds are most abundant, but changes in distribution of some other species compared to earlier years may give us an idea of how they were affected by record-breaking temperatures this year.

The Great Backyard Bird Count is fun and easy—I’ll be paying attention to my backyard birds, and hope you will, too.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Brown-eyed Owl

Barred Owl

Of all the birds in the known universe, the species that have elicited the most fear and awe in human beings, inspiring mythology and folklore in virtually every human culture, are the owls. Whether we’ve never seen one before or see them often, virtually all of us are filled with wonder when we behold one. I encountered a saw-whet owl hunting in my backyard in the early 90s, and recounted it in an old For the Birds program, writing:
I gazed at him from the porch and our eyes met momentarily, but people hold a lot less interest for a Saw-whet than a Saw-whet holds for us. He quickly broke eye contact and went back to scrutinizing the ground, knowing that a single deer mouse would do him a lot more good than a person ever has. Some people look up at the stars, so huge, so far away, so brilliant, so unreachable, to remind themselves of our insignificance in the overall scheme of the universe. But I can see that insignificance reflected in the eyes of a Saw-whet Owl. 
Northern Saw-whet Owl

That was hardly a scientific observation, but even within the realm of science, owls hold mysteries. That little Saw-whet’s eyes, like the eyes of a great many owls, are yellow. But why?

Even among scientists, our guesses are just speculation. My personal theory is that owls have yellow eyes to look more catlike. To enhance that cat-like appearance, some yellow-eyed owls have feather tufts sticking up on their heads exactly where cats’ ears are positioned.

Great Horned Owl

How is looking like a cat useful? A cat can reach out and scratch a larger predator before the opponent is close enough to chomp at it. When an owl drops down to grab prey, a larger predator may hesitate a moment if it thinks it has come upon a cat. That moment may be just enough time for the owl to fly off.

That theory is hardly provable, but neither are other theories about owl eyes. The Owls Trust, a UK organization, explains that owls with yellow eyes hunt mainly during day and owls with dark eyes at night. But yellow-eyed Saw-whet, Boreal, and Screech-Owls are almost exclusively nocturnal unless they’re starving, and the north country owl most active by day is our only brown-eyed species, the Barred Owl.

Barred Owl
I came upon a pair of hooting Barred Owls at mid-morning in Florida in 2013.

Only four owls of North America have brown eyes: the widespread Barn Owl, with a range that just barely extends into the Midwest, the Flammulated Owl of western pine forests, our Barred Owl, and the closely related Spotted Owl of Western old forests. I’ve found many Barred Owls in daytime over the years, hunting and hooting. There are features of every owl that I love—the Barred is a favorite for two reasons: First because I can easily mimic the Who cooks for you-all? calls of adult males (females have more vibrato than my voice can imitate), and so I’ve called in Barred Owls almost every time I’ve ever taken people out owling. My Barred Owl calls were the main reason I was a winner in an American Ornithologists’ Union’s bird-calling contest in the 90s.

Barred Owl
One of many Barred Owls I called in during "owl prowls," this one near Trees for Tomorrow in Eagle River, Wisconsin, in 2010. 

The other reason that I so love Barred Owls is their brown eyes. Chickadees, of course, also have brown eyes, as do Blue Jays, robins, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, and a host of other species, but the Barred Owl’s big brown eyes are especially arresting. I was in high school when Van Morrison’s song Brown Eyed Girl came out, and this brown-eyed girl loved that song. So of course, every time I see my brown-eyed owl, that song pops into my head. Great Horned Owls start nesting right around Valentine’s Day, but this year I’m celebrating the romantic holiday thinking about my brown-eyed owl.

Barred Owl

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Tom Cade: An Ornithological Giant

"Amy" the Peregrine Falcon
One of downtown Duluth's famous Peregrine Falcons. The original releases in Minnesota were with the Peregrine Fund. 
Last week, ornithology lost an important figure, Tom Cade, who as much as anyone on the planet is responsible for the existence of almost every Peregrine Falcon most U.S. birders my age and younger have ever seen. He was 91 years old.

In 1970, five years before I started birding, Peregrines were considered extirpated in the eastern United States; fewer than 40 pairs still remained in the West. I saw my lifer in Columbia County, Wisconsin, chasing a flock of plovers, in May 1977. I was helping lead a Madison Audubon field trip that day, and a boy needed me to sign his trip list to fulfill some high school science class requirement. The following Monday, his teacher called me, certain that the boy had fabricated the list because she knew that Peregrines were extinct. I had to explain to her that she was partly right: Peregrine Falcons no longer bred anywhere in most of the United States and were indeed considered extirpated in Wisconsin. Nevertheless, some still passed through on migration, and her student had definitely seen one with us. I also mentioned that it was that very boy who first noticed the chase, giving a bunch of us on the field trip a new and thrilling addition to our lifelist.

Thanks to Tom Cade, students telling their teachers that they’ve spotted a Peregrine are no longer suspected of lying. Dr. Cade, a falconer as well as a biologist, had a lifelong interest in falcons, which is why he founded the Peregrine Fund at Cornell in 1970, when things seemed dire indeed for the fastest known vertebrate on earth. Dr. Cade and others in the new organization started a captive breeding program at Cornell not to serve hobbyists but to restore the species to the wild. Once they had solidified techniques for getting falconers’ birds to reproduce in captivity, they started “hacking out” chicks from that captive rearing program. Between 1974 and 1997, the Peregrine Fund released more than 4,000 Peregrine Falcons into the wild. Those birds nesting in the eastern states all came directly from those releases.

Cover of my first ornithology textbook.
My first college ornithology text book, copyright 1975, cites several papers authored by Tom Cade. 
From the time I took my first ornithology classes in 1975 and 1976, I knew of Cade’s work, and his reputation—a hero among ornithologists. I heard him give presentations at a few ornithological meetings I’ve attended, but I never had a chance to meet him. Wisconsin’s own ecological visionary, Stan Temple, was a student at Cornell when Cade started working there; Cade became Stan’s advisor as Stan worked on Peregrine studies and then when Stan, as a graduate student, headed to Mauritius to study its critically endangered kestrel.

And Stan’s studies on the Andean Condor, again working with Cade, were instrumental in beginning a protocol to raise California Condors in captivity—an essential component in bringing back this critically endangered species from the very brink of extinction. I’ll never forget being at the Zoology Museum in Madison when Stan brought in a prototype Andean Condor puppet that would be used to feed baby condors without them seeing their human caretakers. That creation back in 1980 or so led directly to my own thrilling experiences seeing wild condors thirty years later.

California Condor
I photographed this splendid California Condor along the coast in 2013.
The only Aplomado Falcons I’ve ever seen in Texas were due to a release program spearheaded by the Peregrine Fund.

Aplomado Falcon
I have to go back to Texas to get better photos. This was a wild bird but probably originally was hacked out in this box. Now this handsome falcon seems to be holding its own. 
I’m headed to Panama in July, and if I succeed in seeing a Harpy Eagle, that may well be due to the Peregrine Fund as well. And the Peregrine Fund was instrumental in discovering that residue from a common veterinary medication in cattle carcasses, diclofenac, was responsible for the catastrophic die-off of vultures in Asia. Thanks to the Peregrine Fund, India, Pakistan, and Nepal banned diclofenac in 2006.

Isaac Newton famously said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” And if I have seen falcons and condors and other raptors come back from near extinction, it’s been by standing on the shoulders of Tom Cade.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Varied Thrush

Varied Thrush

Back in 2001, Russ and I took a cruise on a very small, Native-owned ship in Alaska’s Inside Passage.  Every morning, I’d get up before sunrise and take a cup of coffee on deck to sit in blissful solitude. It was July, so few birds were still singing, but bird song carries wonderfully over water, and every single morning I heard the thrilling tones of the Varied Thrush. Some people describe this song as like a police whistle, but the harmonics give it a hauntingly wistful quality I just can’t hear in any police whistle.

Ships are exceptionally costly environmentally, with a huge carbon footprint and toxic emissions into both the air and water from the highly polluting bunker fuel that powers them, to say nothing of how most of them dispose of raw sewage. I did a lot of research to find a small, environmentally responsible company; sadly, it's now out of business. So that remains the only cruise Russ and I have ever taken. And the Varied Thrushes I heard on those wonderful mornings remain the only ones I've ever heard.

Varied Thrush with a tick under his left eye

I've been to other locations in the Pacific Northwest where Varied Thrushes breed, but never during their breeding season, so they were very quiet. And most of the Varied Thrushes I've seen since my lifer in 1981 have been far, far from where this species sings and ostensibly belongs—my lifer was in Adams County, Wisconsin, and I've seen them a few other times in Wisconsin and several times in Minnesota, including, once, in my own backyard.  And last weekend I saw one just five or six miles north of my house, when I was invited by Jean Runquist to see one visiting her yard.

Varied Thrush

This "fancy robin" breeds through most of Alaska, Yukon, and the Northwest Territories through British Columbia and parts of Washington, Oregon, and even Idaho and northwestern Montana. Most of them winter along the Pacific Coast from Alaska to southern California. But for some reason, some individual Varied Thrushes travel to the beat of a different drum, wandering further east than the vast majority. Most of these outliers remain in the western United States, but a handful of them wander even further off the beaten path. During what we call irruption winters, one or even a small group might appear just about anywhere in the United States and Canada.  None of these movements is clearly understood, but at least one or two turn up just about every winter in Minnesota and Wisconsin, perhaps most regularly in Duluth.

When I wrote the American Birding Association Field Guide to Birds of Minnesota, I was limited to covering 300 species, but rare as it is, I couldn’t imagine leaving out the Varied Thrush. When one does show up, it usually appears in someone’s backyard, and is conspicuous enough that people notice and want to know what it is. 

The only Varied Thrush I've ever seen in my own backyard in all the years I’ve lived here was chased off by a shrike less than an hour after I discovered it. At the time, my yard had only a few big spruces and no pines—now it has even fewer, so I’m not holding my breath waiting to see another here.

I have seen many Varied Thrushes within a couple of miles of my place over the years, most in yards with feeders, near big stands of conifers. Varied Thrushes seldom actually visit those feeders—the one I saw this weekend was eating corn, sunflower seeds, and pine seeds on the ground. I suspect the other birds visiting the feeders attract the attention of the out-of-place wanderer, and conifers and spilled seed hold their interest. I've only rarely seen them in fruit trees.

Varied Thrush, Duluth CBC
This Varied Thrush was one my group found on the Christmas Bird Count in 2012. 

As much as Varied Thrushes look like robins, they’re classified in their very own genus, Ixoreus, which comes from the Ancient Greek ixos, for "mistletoe." Varied Thrushes aren’t particularly known to eat mistletoe, but the plant is characteristic of the deep, moist forests where they breed, so they may use it as people do, not as food but as a prompt for romance.

Varied Thrush

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Tips for Birding in the Bog

Great birding spot, or the greatest birding spot?

Northern Minnesota has many wonderful attractions, but perhaps the most well-known, at least among birding circles, is the Sax-Zim Bog, especially in winter, and most especially in February. This has been rather a lackluster year, with no irruptions, but it was still an easy matter for Russ and me to see four different owl species on a half-day trip to the bog this weekend.

Northern Hawk Owl

We of course can see owls every month of the year, but they are most conspicuous in February, the month providing some of the coldest weather Minnesota can offer. Our coldest day ever, when it hit 60 below zero in Tower, fell on February 2, 1996. Of the top ten coldest temperatures ever recorded in Minnesota, each one at least 52 below zero, one fell in December, three in January, and six in February. As more and more birds grow food stressed, owls that usually stay well hidden in the forest start hunting more out in the open. The hardest to find, the Boreal Owl, is especially more likely to be seen in February than any other month.

Boreal Owl
This photo was taken in Two Harbors, but the last Boreal Owl I saw was in the Bog.

A decade and a half ago, when we had our major Great Gray Owl invasion, I went out with three women from Atlanta, Georgia, on two different days, one to the bog, the other up toward Finland and Ely. It was so cold on one of those mornings that even inside my car, a crust of ice formed on our coffee. I’m sure those women never forgot the cold, but they also never forgot the owls we saw—Great Gray, Northern Hawk, and Boreal—along with a bunch of other northern specialties like Boreal Chickadee and Black-backed Woodpecker.

Boreal Chickadee

Black-backed Woodpecker

Traveling to a birding destination for just a few days in hopes of specific birds is always a crapshoot—you really never know if you’re going to luck into seeing any of your most wanted species. For some birders, the fun is trying to see all their birds on their own; others prefer to augment their chances by hiring a birding guide.  And in a remote area like the bog in winter, where cell phone service can be spotty, some of the good birding is many miles from the nearest town or gas station, and ice and snow can make roads treacherous, a good guide can provide serious peace of mind. Most of the local guides up here form a tight-knit group that share with one another their best sightings, giving clients of all of them a definite leg up on maximizing their species count.

John Richardson and Pip the Birding Dog
John Richardson gets the Pip Seal of Approval as a wonderful guide. His website is 
Pip and her Uncle Erik
Erik Bruhnke also gets Pip's approval. He's at
For those who feel comfortable driving around on their own up here, there are a few ways you can increase your chances of seeing your target birds. Before heading out, go to the website, and click on Explore. You can look up where individual species you’re hoping to see have been spotted in recent days, or look up specific locations you’re planning to visit. (Here's an eBird listing of recent sightings at the bog. My own sightings aren't listed, because I make my own checklists specific to individual locations within the bog.)

Whether you hire a guide or not, check out the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog website at  You can download a map, get information about birding in the bog and logistical help, including a current map with the best spots marked, and more.

If you go to the bog on your own, make sure to stop at the Friends of the Sax-Zim Bog Welcome Center—if you didn't download a map ahead of time, you can get one there, and volunteers keeping track of sightings can tell you what birds have been seen and where. I knew exactly where to look to find the Barred, Northern Hawk, and Snowy Owls last Sunday thanks to the people at the Welcome Center.

Barred Owl

Distant Snowy Owl
This Snowy Owl was on a power pole exactly where it was supposed to be. 
They also told me within a half mile where to look for the Great Gray Owl—sure enough, there it was.

Great Gray Owl

The most important thing to do in order to be safe and see birds is to pay attention while you’re driving. Roosting owls can be tucked in trees, very hard to see if someone in the car isn’t scanning.

Barred Owl tucked in
This Barred Owl would be easy to miss without close scanning, or noticing a group of birders looking up. 

Barred Owl roosting
Once you know where it is, you can't miss!
But also scan the road ahead—what may look like clumps of dirty snow may actually be interesting birds or mammals. Sunday, we’d have missed or gotten poorer looks at a Ruffed Grouse and White-winged Crossbills if we didn’t immediately slow down when we saw clumps ahead.

Ruffed Grouse

White-winged Crossbill

If you’re not paying attention, you risk scaring birds off before you’re close enough to identify them, or even killing them. I’ve heard from too many heartbroken birders who killed a Great Gray that flew in from the side without them noticing until it was too late.

Density vs. Mass
My friend Erik Bruhnke found this poor dead Great Gray Owl on the side of a road last year and brought the carcass to a non-profit for use as an educational specimen. My dog Pip is there to show the size difference and to remind readers how important it is to slow down. (On the day I took this photo, Pip weighed exactly 9 pounds, and the owl, who was not the least bit emaciated--it died of trauma--weighed 3 pounds.)
Always go slow enough to take in all in, while also keeping an eye on your rearview mirror so you can pull off if someone comes up behind. People who live in the bog don’t appreciate being late for work or a doctor’s appointment because birders slowed them down. However, when you do pull over, be careful! The graders used to clear country roads often smooth the snow well beyond the road itself.  What looks like a nice, wide shoulder may actually be a deep ditch. It’s a lot to deal with, which is why a lot of people prefer to pay a guide so they don’t have to drive at all.

The single most important thing to look for, besides actual birds, is birders. It’s shockingly easy, even for experienced owlers, to miss an owl tucked in the forest. When one birder spots one, that helps lots of others to see it, too. So if you spot people looking at something, check it out.

Charles Hagner
If you see a birder, say, for example, my friend Chuck Hagner here, looking into the trees at the bog, pay attention. 
If the people are staying in their cars, you should, too. And never pull past them before you know what’s happening—it’s the height of rudeness for a birder to pull up between birders and the bird they’re looking at to ask what they’re seeing. It’s also rude to pull ahead of someone rather than behind if you’re going to take advantage of a bird that person found first. You can always pull behind, and then walk toward the people, keeping the cars between you and whichever side the bird is on, to find out what’s happening. If people are photographing, some of them might be recording a video, so be quiet and alert until you’re sure it’s okay to talk.

Birding the Sax-Zim Bog is one of my favorite things about winter. Whether I luck into a day like last Sunday, with lots of owls and photo ops, or whether the birds are few and far between, or whether I get skunked altogether, I always have a good time. There are few guarantees in the world of birds, but if you keep an open mind and an open heart, a February day in the Sax-Zim Bog may be frozen, but like ice cream, it’s guaranteed to be sweet.

Northern Hawk Owl