Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Anti-Woody Guthrie

American Robin

I saw my first robin of the year where I least expected it—in the Sax-Zim Bog on March 23. His plumage was bright enough that I was sure he was a male, but the ground was mostly frozen and the poor guy focused on finding food under the leaf litter. He didn’t make a sound. 

A robin showed up in my own yard the next day. I heard him before I saw him, making alarm calls, seemingly griping about the weather, not potential predators. I saw one robin on my walk along the Western Waterfront Trail on March 25, where I usually see and hear dozens when they first arrive in spring. This lone robin didn’t sing, and the robin in my own neck of the woods didn’t sing once while I was listening before I left town on March 28. It wasn’t until I was in Rhode Island that I finally heard my first singing robin of spring. I got home after dark April first; the first sound I heard the next morning was a robin song seeping through my bedroom window. I wasn’t the only one happy about that. When I let my little dog Pip outside, she ran to the fence in the direction of the singing robin and sat down to listen. Robins were singing the day I brought her home when she was a puppy four years ago, and I think that song is part of what tells her winter is over and life is going back to the way it’s supposed to be again. 

Robin songs are both thrilling and soul-satisfying. Thrushes in general have an extraordinarily well-developed syrinx, giving the robin’s song its rich tonal quality, but the joy a robin’s song elicits in some of us humans and even dogs comes from something far deeper than morphology. 

We humans seem to think that if only we could discover intelligent life outside our own solar system, we’d be able to communicate with it, but we have yet to communicate with other intelligent species right here on earth. Robin songs are sung just by males, and we know that they entice females and proclaim a warning to other males to keep out of a defended territory. But that’s hardly all the song is about. Imagine thinking that Shakespeare’s plays or Beethoven’s music or Itzhak Perlman’s violin performances or Robert Frost’s poetry were simply a proclamation of a male human’s rank and territory and an enticement to females. Individual nuances and personal expression are at the heart of art. We already know that many kinds of non-human animals appreciate human-created music, and we already know that many kinds of non-human music inspire human artists. So it seems bizarrely arrogant to imagine that we humans are somehow unique on our planet in having a capacity for artistic expression. 

That means it’s arrogant of me to write my own personal interpretation of a robin’s song, but after years of noticing where the neighborhood robins set their territorial boundaries, and then listening to my backyard male this morning, I couldn’t help but think of Woody Guthrie. Only my robin seemed to be singing the anti-Woody Guthrie anthem. 

This land is my land. 
This land is my land. 
This land’s not your land.
This land is my land.
From the big box elder, 
To the serviceberries,
This land was made for me, me, me. 

As I was flying o’er Laura’s backyard, 
I saw her birdbath, so clean and tempting.
I saw that spruce tree—ideal for nesting.
This land was made for me, me, me. 

This land is my land. 
This land is my land. 
This land’s not your land.
This land is my land.
From the big box elder, 
To the serviceberries,
This land was made for me, me, me. 

(Listen to the California Ravens sing the song here.)

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Birding in Rhode Island

Mute Swans
Mute Swans are invasive exotics, causing lots of problems for native Tundra Swans in the Chesapeake Bay, but they're a very pretty problem. 
There are four states in the Union with a land area smaller than St. Louis County, Minnesota: Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, and Hawaii. I spent the last weekend of March in the smallest of these, for the Ocean State Bird Club’s annual meeting. Oddly enough, the tiniest state has the longest official name, “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” Its bird list is surprisingly long, too. As of 2018, Rhode Island’s 431 species is barely fewer than Wisconsin’s 439 and Minnesota’s 442, while Rhode Island is less than 2% the size of Wisconsin and not even 1.5% as big as Minnesota.  As far as birdlife, the Ocean State is pure concentrated goodness.  

Tufted Titmouse

The day before the meeting, my host, Michael Gow, brought me to some of the state's best spots to see early spring birds. Along the coast, we saw lots of Brants and Common Eiders—species that only show up in the Great Lakes as vagrants.

Brant

The 30 Harlequin Ducks I saw at Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge may be more than I’ve seen in all my years of birding in Wisconsin and Minnesota combined.

Harlequin Duck

I’d already seen a Snowy Owl this year in the Sax-Zim Bog, but was nevertheless thrilled to see one at much closer range at that same National Wildlife Refuge.

Snowy Owl

I see a few American Black Ducks every year in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but there is always at least a bit of a question about whether the ones we see here have some Mallard blood. Black ducks are far more well-adapted to salt water than Mallards are, and on the East Coast, there are many more than here, and less question about their provenance.

American Black Ducks and Brants loafing

One of my most beloved birds is the Piping Plover—I haven’t seen one in Minnesota in years. The first migrants just returned to Rhode Island, and I got good looks at and photos of one banded male.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

That single bird would have made the whole trip worthwhile for me, but there a great many other birds that thrilled me, too. Great Cormorants mixed with the Double-crested Cormorants.

American Black Ducks and Brants loafing

Black Scoters turn up on the Great Lakes sometimes, but are much easier to find on the coast. 

Black Scoter

I miss the olden days when Russ and I lived in Michigan, where I could see Tufted Titmice whenever I wanted. I also got to see them quite a bit when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin. Duluth is out of their range. I got my fill when I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and visiting Rhode Island made me realize how much I’ve missed them. I took lots of photos.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

The ringing songs of Carolina Wrens also filled me with joy, but I didn’t get even a glimpse of one of them—a good reason to try to get back again one of these days.

Of course, building up a new state list involves seeing as many common birds as possible, too. Most migrants weren’t back yet—not even a single Yellow-rumped or Orange-crowned Warbler. It was early enough that on Sunday, when we birded a spot in nearby Massachusetts, I had to document a couple of Barn Swallows milling about with Tree Swallows. Early or not, I ended my trip with 57 species seen in Rhode Island and 44 in Massachusetts.

I’m heading back to New England again next month—I’ll be keynoting at the birding festival sponsored by Maine Audubon and LL Bean, and leading field trips for the Acadia Birding Festival, so I’ll get to spend some more quality time with birds I seldom or never see at home, including Least Terns, Atlantic Puffins, and maybe even Razorbills. Then in August, work obligations will bring me to the Southeastern Arizona Birding Festival to sample an entirely different variety of birds. In the coming five months, I'll be away more than I'll be home, but when I am here, I'll be enjoying my backyard chickadees and our other good old homegrown Lake Superior birds. I do love to travel and my making a living depends on it, but when it comes right down to it, there’s no place like home.