Laura Erickson's For the Birds

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!
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.