Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Duck(ling) Hunter

Russ and I are spending a week in Florida, visiting our son and doing some birding. We spent three full days in the Everglades and Keys, mostly looking for Caribbean species such as Mangrove Cuckoo and Black-whiskered Vireo.

I like birds of all kinds and photograph whatever birds I see, so I took plenty of photographs of common and even domesticated birds, too. Russ is very indulgent of my birding habit and asks for very little in return, but whenever we’re in Florida City, we make one or two stops each day at his favorite fruit stand in the known universe, a charming place called Robert Is Here, famous for its amazing fruit shakes and smoothies, and for having an occupied Purple Martin house that is the farthest south in the United States.

Southernmost Purple Martin colony on the continent.

After we get our order, we go in back to an informal zoo, where various domesticated ducks, geese, and chickens walk about with goats, parrots, and other assorted animals.

This time, I focused on a mother duck. She had traits of domesticated forms of both Mallards and Muscovy ducks, and some of her tiny ducklings were pure yellow while others were the more typical combination of yellows and browns of baby Mallards. I walked close to make a video of the family with my cell phone. I was so focused on the ducks that I didn’t notice that I was actually making a suspense movie.

A turtle that I hadn't even noticed was also focused on the little family, and started stalking one of the baby ducks. Unlike me, the mother was aware of it and was ushering her babies out of the water when suddenly the one baby started peeping piteously and struggling against the turtle, who was trying to pull it under. The mother noticed and went ballistic, attacking the turtle until the baby was released and scrambled up out of the water. It instantly sat down, so I couldn’t see whether the turtle had damaged one of its feet, but I didn't see a trace of blood where the baby duck climbed up, so am hopeful the mother rescued it in time. 

Turtle hunting duckling

I can’t see my cell phone screen very well in bright sunlight, so I hadn’t even realized what I was taping until the woman next to me yelled out. I kept the camera pointed the right way until the entire family was ashore, but it wasn’t until that night that I looked at my video and realized my cell phone had captured everything—the turtle following the ducklings, choosing one and swimming straight for it, and the little guy struggling against it. I hadn’t heard the duckling's peeps while it was being attacked, but my phone captured it all.

Turtles seem so very innocuous—that very morning, I’d taken photos of a turtle in the Everglades eating a pond lily flower.

But like people, turtles are omnivorous, eating plants and meat both. And baby ducks are defenseless against predatory turtles and fish—this is why we tend to see so very many tiny ducklings following their mother, and then smaller and smaller broods as the ducklings get older. 

Twice in my years of birding, I’ve seen a tiny duckling disappear before my very eyes, pulled down into the water by something lurking below, but I’ve never before actually watched, much less videotaped, a predator in action. Predation is the natural order of life on earth, and without turtles and fish, ducks would soon take over the world. But I’m really glad that when I finally got to see a turtle preying on a baby duck, the mother was right there to save the day. Turtles have to eat, but warm-blooded mothers, avian and human both, have an equally natural instinct to nurture and protect babies. I’m thrilled to have made such an exciting video, but even more thrilled that it had a happy ending. No duckling snuff films for me.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Sabria's Blue Jay

Blue Jay

A couple of weeks ago, I spent a weekend with a charming young lady named Sabria. She’s taken with a bird that I’m very fond of myself.
My name is Sabria and my favorite bird is the Blue Jay because it has a crest and it’s like meaning “I’m the ruler of the world!”   
You’d think Blue Jays would be satisfied with how gorgeous and intelligent they are, but their spunkiness is also beyond compare, and that jaunty little crest somehow accentuates their attitude, making them indeed seem to proclaim that they are the rulers of the world. When a jay is squawking its head off, you can bet money that its crest will be fully erect. But when a jay is physically crestfallen, it’s not literally so. Merriam-Webster defines crestfallen as dejected, sad, or disappointed, but when a jay’s crest is down, it’s sharing a convivial meal with flock mates, enjoying a tender moment with its mate, or spending time with its young. That lowered crest for a Blue Jay indicates that it’s happy and contented. I suspect the bird that inspired the dictionary meaning of the word crestfallen was the rooster—those lower in the barnyard pecking order do tend to have droopy crests and are probably dejected, sad, or disappointed about their station in life.

Our good old Blue Jay is the only New World jay exhibiting latitudinal migration—some jays in the mountains do exhibit altitudinal migration, but otherwise, American jays like to stay put. Blue Jays can be found throughout their range year-round, yet we can also observe major migration movements every spring and fall. I don’t think Blue Jays chose a migration strategy specifically to bewilder ornithologists, but then again, maybe they did.  Virtually everything about Blue Jay migration is poorly understood. We know that some individuals are usually present year-round throughout the range and that at least some individuals depart during spring throughout the range, except from peninsular Florida and the Gulf Coast. We also know that some jays that leave an area in autumn may be replaced by those migrating from farther north, but many jays are resident year-round; the proportion that migrates is probably not >20% of the population even in northern parts of the range. On good autumn days at Hawk Ridge, counters can count over a thousand, but no one knows where they came from or where they’re headed. It’s mystifying how or why such a conspicuous bird could keep so much of its life secret. Here in Duluth, I seem to see the most spring flocks moving in mid-May, but after going weeks without seeing one in my own neighborhood, I started seeing and hearing at least a couple last week. 

Older bird books often mention that Blue Jays usually or often build a false nest before getting down to business, but this is almost certainly only when they feel that the first nest was in jeopardy—when a cat briefly climbed one tree where jays had been busily constructing a nest, they immediately abandoned it. It’s quite likely that the people reporting false nests were the very ones who made the jays move to a new nest site. 

Blue Jays almost definitely nest only once per season unless something destroys their first eggs or young. Some observers have claimed that Blue Jays renest once or twice in a season, but there is absolutely no documentation that a pair has ever started a new nest after rearing young that fledged successfully. Jays stay together as a family unit for a month or longer after the chicks fledge, keeping the parents plenty busy without starting a whole new brood. Teaching one to five young birds how to raise a ruckus and yell convincingly that they’re king of the world takes time and work. My friend Sabria sure picked a cool favorite bird.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Sharp-tailed Grouse

Last Wednesday (April 17), I woke up at 3 am, packed up my camera, recording equipment, and little dog Pip, and headed to Oulu, Wisconsin. A really nice guy named Tim Ciembronowicz had emailed me, telling me about an open field with some displaying Sharp-tailed Grouse, and I wanted to get photos and sound recordings. 

I love all the prairie grouse—the two species of prairie chickens and two species of sage grouse, and of course the sharpie. But there’s something special about Sharp-tailed Grouse that fills me with joy. I don’t know if it’s their psychedelic colors—those 60s shades of purple and orange in the inflatable air sacs on their throat and eyebrows—or the amazing rattling sound they make when stomping their feet, or the pointed teardrop tail that males hold fully upright while displaying so their the cottony white undertail coverts stand out like beacons in twilight. Like other grouse, these birds are popular quarry for all kinds of hunters, avian and mammalian, and like most game birds, females produce many chicks per season in order to keep their numbers stable. But as a grassland species with special habitat requirements, Sharp-tailed Grouse are declining despite their high reproduction rate. In Wisconsin, they are dependent on young, open pine and oak barrens and savanna ecosystems. Historically, they were found throughout the state, but due to habitat loss and fragmentation, most sharp-tailed grouse in Wisconsin are now found only in the northwest. Minnesota has seen a massive decline since 1963, and here it’s listed as a Species in Greatest Conservation Need. I see them regularly in the Sax-Zim Bog. About one-third of the entire North American Sharp-tailed Grouse population lives in North Dakota.

The spot Tim told me about is half a mile from a county road and over a mile from Highway 2, but my microphone picked up constant traffic sounds. Fortunately, I set up the microphones close enough to where the birds would be displaying that the background noise wasn’t too disruptive, but as usual whenever I record birds, it hits me just how noisy we’ve made this world.

When I first arrived before sunrise, five males and a female were on the lek, but only four males returned after a harrier scared them off. My best recordings are of the four males. They made lots of vocalizations, but didn’t do the coolest foot-stomping display very much. What you’re hearing in the background is my recording of these birds. I also got a nice recording of an Eastern Meadowlark song.

I stayed in my car, using it as a blind, too far from the displaying birds to get good photos. But even extremely cropped, I could see that at least two were wearing some hardware on their breasts, and at least one had colored leg bands. Tim told me that they were originally part of a group of 64 Sharp-tailed Grouse translocated to the Moquah Barrens in 2018. He and his son have now also seen small leks in a couple of other spots in the area. 

I’m going to be out of town for over a week, and Sunday evening was my last opportunity to see them until I get back. Grouse mostly display in the morning, but a few are often on the lek at the end of the day, too, and sure enough, there were two there, but the light was already so low at 6:30 due to the heavy clouds that my photos were horrible. So I’ll try again the first week of May. Even if no grouse show up, there are lovely birds there, worth looking at and listening to.

Essentia's Proposed Glass Building in Duluth

Black-and-white Warbler

Essentia, a large medical provider in Duluth, is planning to build a huge new building in downtown Duluth. I’ve attended a meeting at the Duluth Planning Commission regarding it, and then two weeks ago an information meeting about it. It sounds very much like the people working on the structure, which will be mostly glass, are taking seriously the needs of birds—they listed minimizing bird collisions at the very top of the list of issues they were trying to address in their building design. 

Duluth is at the epicenter of songbird migration in the Upper Midwest, and a tall, glassed-in building could lure a lot of nocturnal migrants to their deaths. To prevent this will involve employee discipline. It’s critical for every one of the shades in the building to be drawn at night during spring and fall as the default; individual patients can open them to look out, but unless someone is actively enjoying the view, the shades should always be closed at night, especially in the higher stories. 

Windows also kill birds during daytime when drawn shades don’t make much difference. And again, Duluth’s position on the western tip of Lake Superior ensures that plenty of migrants are present all day just about every day during spring and fall, in addition to all the local birds that live year-round in the area. The building planners seem to have learned a lesson from the US Bank Vikings Stadium disaster, and intend to use fritted glass—that is, glass that has been etched in a pattern to make it more visible. Unfortunately, the samples of fritted glass I saw had the fritting on the inside between double panes, rather than on the outside surface—what architects call Surface #1. I asked one of the architects about it, and he said that fritting on the outer surface weathers too quickly. 

As far as I could see, the sample fritted glass seemed just as reflective as non-fritted glass. I was troubled, so I wrote to Dr. Daniel Klem, the world authority on bird-window collisions, asking about this. He responded: 
Jury is still out as to how frit on the outside surface (what architects call Surface #1) will hold up to the weather. I am, however, aware of installations that have installed fritted glass on the outside Surface #1. Someone recently informed me that a Calgary glass manufacturer, Goldray, is the only company who will guarantee fritted sheet glass where the frit is on the outside Surface #1. 
You have reason to be concerned about claims that the frit will deter bird strikes if placed on any surface. This certainly is not true in all circumstances. For example, it is true if the fritted panes are used in a corridor (what our Canadian neighbors call linkways), atria, railings where looking at the windows from either side we humans and the birds will see the frit and if the frit is applied in the 2 x 4 Rule (pattern elements separated by 2 inches = 5 cm if oriented in horizontal rows or 4 inches = 10 cm in vertical columns) it will effectively deter, even completely eliminate strikes. But these are relatively rare installations for windows compared to most other placements; most windows cover a dark interior space, and as such even a perfectly clear pane with or without frit will reflect the facing habitat and sky off of Surface #1. In these majority of installations with Surface #1 reflecting like a mirror the frit or any other markings applied to interior window surfaces will be hidden from humans and birds. Without knowing, I suspect your new building will have sheet glass covering a dark interior compared to the outside, and any frit pattern applied on an inner surface will not deter bird-window collisions. In these majority of installations the frit definitely must be applied to the outside Surface #1 to be effective.  
I’m forwarding Dr. Klem’s comments to people involved in the project. With luck, they’ll at least try to get glass fritted on that outside surface, especially on the lower floor windows, except where Dr. Klem noted the more standard fritting would work fine. This building will serve Duluthians for decades to come. The better it can be constructed to protect our natural environment and precious wildlife, the better for all of us. I’m healthy and alive today thanks to Essentia’s cardiology, surgery, and oncology departments. It would be ironic indeed if I had another heart attack thanks to bird-killing glass at my own medical provider.

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.


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.