Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Hunkering Down


I’m sitting in a little room at a lodging called Spinney’s in Phippsburg, Maine, drinking hot tea and going back and forth between writing this and looking out the window. I stayed in this exact same room last year and was thrilled to get it again. Tragically for me, this is still the off-season when Spinney's Restaurant is open only on weekends, so I have to forego their wonderful food, but the room is plenty good enough. I arrived just as the rain started, and it’s been pouring for the past 7 hours.

It’s 43 degrees out there, with just enough wind to make this a bone-chilling day even without the rain, so I’m glad to be indoors. If I had to be stuck anywhere during a steady downpour, Spinney’s is perfect. It’s sandwiched between Popham Beach State Park and the Fort Popham State Historical Site, and the birding out the windows has been wonderful. 

I don’t think I’ve ever in my life seen so many Ospreys concentrated in one spot, with as many as eight at one time cruising and hovering over the water in clear view (well, as clear a view as one can have through the rain). A Great Blue Heron has been standing on a rock at the shore this whole time. As many as 15 cormorants were swimming together in a fairly tight group, perhaps fishing cooperatively or maybe just commiserating about the weather. Several pairs of Common Eiders have also been swimming and hunting in the open water. They were calling for a while, though from a big enough distance that the rainfall overpowered my sound recording. 

When I arrived, the tide was out and a flock of shorebirds was gathered in the inlet right outside my window, including Black-bellied Plovers, Ruddy Turnstones, Willets, and Short-billed Dowitchers. I was thinking of this as a nice flock, but then I saw a female Black-bellied Plover very un-nicely attack a Ruddy Turnstone, grabbing its wing and tail hard—the poor turnstone had trouble escaping. The Birds of North America states that Black-bellied Plovers sometimes show aggressive behavior toward Ruddy Turnstones, but the turnstone seemed to be minding his own business until the plover charged and grabbed him. My photos out the window are unfortunately blurred, but at least document this interesting interaction. 

Black-bellied Plover attacking Ruddy Turnstone

Quite a few terns were hunting over the water as the tide started coming in. Most were Commons, but I picked out at least three Arctics and, because one good tern deserves another, a Roseate Tern, too. By then my window was too covered with raindrops for photography.

A catbird sang close enough for me to hear it through the closed window, but the weather must have gotten to him because he sang for less than a minute. A Song Sparrow was less easily daunted—he sang for long stretches for the first three hours. All in all, without leaving this room, I’ve seen 21 species, which isn’t at all bad for being stuck indoors in the pouring rain. 

If the weather prognosticators are right, the rain will end about sunrise. I’ll load up my car, check out, and head straight to Popham Beach to spend a few hours with Piping Plovers before I drive up to Mount Desert Island for the Acadia birding festival. I had a great time with Piping Plovers just yesterday, when Maine Audubon’s Laurie Gilman took me to Laudholm Farm, home of the Wells Reserve.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

I’d also been hoping for Saltmarsh Sparrow, which I had no luck with, but the plovers more than made up for it. As cooperative as they were for photos, they were overall pretty quiet, and I badly want some sound recordings, so I’m hopeful that the rain will end as it’s supposed to, the wind won’t be too bad, and the plovers will be cooperatively noisy. Whether or not any of that happens, I’ve sure had a lovely day hunkered down at Spinney’s.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Yellow-breasted Chat!

Yellow-breasted Chat

I’m in Maine right now. Friday night I was the keynote speaker at the LL Bean/Maine Audubon Birding Festival and have been helping with field trips for that, and next weekend I’ll be helping with field trips at the Acadia Birding Festival. I’ve run into quite a few people who come to both festivals, taking the opportunity while they’re in Maine to see as many birds as possible. The only birding I’d done in southern Maine before this has been at Popham Beach State Park, which I haven’t visited so far this time, but I’ve already added 19 species to my Maine list without spending time on the coast yet.

Except for the coast, which is populated with puffins, razorbills, and other ocean species, Maine seems a lot like northern Minnesota, and shares a lot of our birdlife. So I never expect to see anything out of the ordinary inland. But on Friday morning when I was birding with Laurie Gilman of Maine Audubon, we came upon something unexpected in a little birding spot in Freeport: a Yellow-breasted Chat, singing away. 

I saw lots of chats during my Big Year, mostly in Delaware where they belong—their population is densest in the Southeast, most especially in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, and they range north to Pennsylvania across to south-central Wisconsin; they also breed throughout the American West where they find suitable scrubby habitat. 

Individuals sometimes overshoot during migration, and that’s presumably what happened to this guy. The habitat looked good, and as long as he was in Maine, I guess he figured he’d stake out a piece of property. I doubt if any males were anywhere near to dispute his claim. If a female overshot her own migration route and was anywhere near, this guy’s singing would certainly have been a welcome sound, but as far as we could tell, he was the only chat anywhere around. When I first heard him, I didn’t even realize what he was—he didn’t sound like a catbird, thrasher, or mockingbird, and I was mainly considering what I thought were likely suspects. I recorded him without knowing who he was until suddenly he flew from one perch to another and I got a brief but clear look. 

Many birders feel offended when they submit a bird list and an eBird reviewer asks for documentation. But in order to keep accurate records of rare birds, it’s important to ensure that those birds really were what the birder thought they were. This weekend a Kirtland’s Warbler was reported in Duluth by John Richardson. In eBird, he noted:
Brief but good looks by the beach house. Decent sized Warbler. First thought was female MAWA, but the bobbing tail was very distinctive warranting further investigation. Noticeable feature included the two thin white wing bars, thin black streaking on the sides. When it flew there was a uniform dark from head to tail. No yellow on the rump eliminating MAWA. Also, the only white on the tail was restricted to the outer tail feathers at the end. MAWA should have had white in the mid-section of the tail. Eye ring was broken with white at the top and bottom of the eye. 
That account gave every one of the salient identifying characteristics of Kirtland’s Warbler and clearly eliminated the possibility that it could have been the species most easily confused with it. I'm really sad that I was out of town to miss such a great bird. My Yellow-breasted Chat was not nearly as much an outlier here in southern Maine as the Kirtland’s Warbler was in Duluth, but it still required documentation. I was lucky—not only did I get a clear look, but my recording of the unmistakable song was compelling proof. 

Until 2017, the Yellow-breasted Chat belonged to the same family as Kirtland’s—Parulidae, or the Wood Warbler family, but taxonomists were never comfortable about that. It’s much larger than warblers, its song is far more robust and filled with mimicry, its beak is heavier, and its natural history different. The problem is that the chat shares even fewer characteristics with any other family, either. So in 2017, ornithologists placed it in its very own family, created just for it, Icteriidae. They’ve yet to tease out how the species came to be, much as I’ve yet to figure out what my chat was doing in Freeport, Maine. But bird mysteries are fun to think about, and whatever the answers, we’ve got beautiful Yellow-breasted Chats and their funky songs to fill us with as much wonder as questions.

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Spring Update

White-winged Dove
I photographed this White-winged Dove in Kissimmee Lakeshore Park in Florida last month. One was hanging out in Two Harbors this week!

I’ve been out of town for over a week, so my only experience with Duluth’s recent snow and cold has been vicarious, when I talk to Russ every night and via news on social media. Today it’s sunny and just warm enough to be perfect in New York City, so I feel bad hearing about frigid conditions in Duluth. I've been getting emails about unusual birds showing up at bird feeders, like Todd writing about an Indigo Bunting in Duluth “The cold, strong wind seems to have him grounded and chilled today.” I’ve seen lots of photos of hummingbirds, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and warblers against a snowy background. I’m sad that I’m not around to see what shows up in my own yard and that I can’t be there to make sure my backyard birds are getting nutritious fare when the weather is leaving both resident and migrant birds so stressed. A pair of chickadees is nesting in Russ’s old cherry tree—the decrepit, dead tree we were planning to chop down this spring until I noticed the chickadees—now I’m worried that the young will fledge before I get home June 8th. 

Such cool birds are making me feel like I’m missing out. Rarities always show up during spring migration, but the weather is certainly contributing. I missed this year's usual yet thrilling influx of Bonaparte’s Gulls and Red-throated Loons. It’s not at all unusual to see a Whimbrel or two on the ball field or beach on Park Point, but on the 21st, a full 79 were there.

I photographed this Whimbrel on Park Point's ball field on June 14, 2011. Might one show up after I get home June 7?
These ghostly Whimbrels were on the Park Point beach on May 30, 2013.
My friend Don Kienholz had a Black-throated Blue Warbler visiting his jelly feeders. I’ve only seen this species at a feeder once in my life—that was in Cuba at the feeding station where I saw my lifer Bee Hummingbird. It would be fascinating to learn if the ones that use jelly feeders in Cuba are more likely to notice them up here.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Cape May Warblers were also visiting feeders this week—I’ve had them in my own yard coming to jelly and to oranges, only during cold days in May, so I don’t see this every year.

Cape May Warbler
I photographed these Cape May Warblers during a cold May in 2004. 
This week a rare Summer Tanager turned up north of town. Even more exceptional, a Yellow-throated Warbler turned up in Duluth—some nest in southernmost Wisconsin and southeastern Minnesota, but that’s as far north as this Southeastern species should ever be.

Yellow-throated Warbler
Here's a Yellow-throated Warbler where it belongs, in Spanish moss near Savannah, Georgia. 
The Pink-sided form of the Dark-eyed Junco, which belongs in the Rocky Mountains, showed up in northern Wisconsin Monday, and a gorgeous Audubon’s Warbler—that’s the western form of the Yellow-rumped Warbler—turned up on one of the Chequamegon Bay Birding Festival field trips Saturday.

Tuesday, the day I left, a Hooded Oriole, a bird from the extreme Southwest, turned up in Sanborn, Wisconsin. It would, of course, have been new for my Wisconsin list.

Hooded Oriole
This is the only Hooded Oriole I've ever photographed, near Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico, where they belong.
On Sunday, a Painted Bunting turned up in South Range, Wisconsin. I actually saw one in Tomahawk back in 1982, and another in Douglas County in 1983, both long before I was photographing birds. I’d have sure jumped in my car and gone to South Range to see another!

Painted Bunting
I photographed this Painted Bunting in Florida. How I'd love to photograph one closer to home!
A White-winged Dove turned up and stuck around in Two Harbors for over a week. I got several nice photos of one in Kissimmee, Florida this spring, but would never ever have expected one in Lake County, Minnesota. When I started birding, even Florida White-winged Doves would have been unheard of. They were once fairly restricted to desert thickets, specializing on saguaro cactus seeds. Now they’ve become common in cities and towns across the southern U.S., and seem to be expanding northward as well. I don’t know if they’ll compete with Mourning Doves—I hope not, because they’re shockingly colorful and lovely, so I’d just as soon welcome their natural expansion rather than worrying about what they’re doing to our long-time native birds.

White-winged Dove

My extended road trip involves three birding festivals—the one last weekend in the Indiana Dunes, and one this coming weekend in Freeport, Maine, sponsored by LL Bean and Maine Audubon.

Photo by Laurie Gilman

Then I'll be helping with field trips at the Acadia Birding Festival in northern Maine the following weekend. On the way home on June, I’ll also be a speaker for the Thursday Evening Program series at the Ottawa National Forest Visitor Center in Watersmeet, MI, on June 6th. Then I'll get home June 7. By then, the wintery weather should be over and all those vagrant birds should be back where they belong. I'm sorry I'm missing it. 

Monday, May 20, 2019

The Indiana Dunes Birding Festival

Poster art by Kristina Knowski
I just spent the weekend in Porter, Indiana, and at the nearby Indiana Dunes State Park and the brand-new Indiana Dunes National Park at the fifth annual Indiana Dunes Birding Festival. Considering that I grew up in Chicago, it’s embarrassing that I’d only been to the dunes area once before in my lifetime, before I became a birder, so the wonderful avifauna was entirely off my radar. Russ and I went there for our prom picnic in 1969—exactly 50 years ago this month—and it was apparently romantic enough to seal our relationship, as it seems to have been for the many pairs of Sandhill Cranes I saw this weekend. But unlike the cranes, we never returned.  

This time I didn’t actually get to any of the beaches. My first morning, I went birding along a lovely boardwalk and into the woods with a couple of friends—the big draw was a pair of nesting Prothonotary Warblers using a nest box that was quite close to the boardwalk.

Prothonotary Warbler

That morning there were lots of people looking at the Prothonotaries, so I returned early the next morning to have them to myself and get a bit of a recording. Then, in a nice hilly area of the woods just beyond the boardwalk, a Worm-eating Warbler sang out loud and clear—he must have been close—but after just two songs, he shut up and I couldn’t find him anywhere. I’d pulled out my cell phone to try to get a recording, but too late. We don’t get Worm-eating Warblers in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota, so that was such a treat that I bought a gorgeous art print by Kristina Knowski to commemorate the event. 

Stunning painting of Worm-eating Warbler by Kristina Knowski
Saturday I helped with a field trip that visited several places in the state park. We had a few Golden-winged Warblers singing from close enough range that I could actually hear their entire song—usually I miss the first note and often the rest of it, too, so this was a treat. One Blue-winged Warbler also sang persistently. And Wood Thrushes were everywhere, filling me with joy. Their song is ethereally lovely, and hearing so very many gave me a rush of contentment and happiness.

A lot of top-notch birders pooh-pooh festivals, preferring to find their own birds on their own schedule. But birding festivals have a lot to offer just about everyone. They provide visitors and new local birders a fine introduction to the best birding spots in an area, and the field trip leaders know the territory and the quirks of the birds living there. Birds vary by song and often some behaviors in different areas, so this can be very helpful to advanced birders, too. I often am listed as a field trip leader at festivals, but there is always a real leader who knows the places intimately—I’m just along for color commentary.

Most avid birders help out with their local birding festival, and get the word out when anything good appears, so a festival is a great way to see a lot of birds in a very short time. And almost as important as the quality of the birding, most festivals have a great human element as well. I was especially taken with the Indiana Dunes Birding Festival because there were so many talented people involved, from naturalists and bird banders to artists. The Friday night social included a bird-calling contest that was both fun and hilarious. A very high quality art fair showing dunes birds was on exhibit at the national park visitor center. And everyone I talked to was warm and welcoming.

My banquet talk was about my “Best Bird EVER,” and after I was done, I was shocked when a superb artist, Annie Aguirre, came up and gave me a wonderful sketch she had made during my program of several of the birds I’d talked about! Largest was my first bird, a most cooperative chickadee, with smaller ones of the Cuban Tody I had yearned for so long to see and finally got to after my heart attack, the Cedar Waxwing one of my students brought me that sat on my shoulder during a faculty meeting, freaking out the principal, the Pileated Woodpecker I rehabbed who liked to sit on my upper arm with his beak next to my ear, sticking out his tongue to trace all the folds of my ear, and the White Tern that I intentionally added to my personal “pooped upon” list by sitting under it while Russ and my kids tried to stay as far away from me as possible.

Laura's Best Bird EVER
This photo, taken with my phone, doesn't do it justice. I'll make a good scan when I get home, and frame the original. Copyright 2019 by Annie Aguirre.

It’s such a beautifully rendered and fun drawing. I can’t wait to get it home and have it framed. I’ll treasure it as the best keepsake of all, so beautiful and yet so very personal. Now that I’ve been to the dunes as a birder, I’ll have to bring Russ back there. If those Sandhill Cranes keep returning, so should we.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Distressing News for Birders with High Frequency Hearing Loss

Le Conte's Sparrow

Being what some people call “a woman of a certain age,” that age being, more precisely, 67 ½, and being a woman who taught junior high school long enough to have shed her sense of dignity and to believe that just about any experience can provide a teachable moment, I’ve been extremely open about losing my high-frequency hearing. I’m mystified why so many birders refuse to acknowledge that they can’t hear some birds even as they’re perfectly happy wearing eyeglasses or contact lenses and paying good money for the very finest binoculars and spotting scopes to improve their ability to see birds. No one thinks find vision loss embarrassing, but hearing loss is another matter.

Back when I was in my 20s, I was usually the first in birding groups to hear a Le Conte’s Sparrow or Blackpoll Warbler. The first year I didn’t hear any Le Conte’s Sparrows at my mother-in-law’s place in Port Wing, I thought the local population had disappeared, not that my ability to hear them had. I realized it was my own hearing only gradually. Hearing loss must work rather the way cataracts do—virtually everyone I know who’s had cataract surgery on one eye was shocked at how suddenly bright and colorful everything was through that eye, and how dingy and brownish everything was through the other eye—they’d never noticed the gradual darkening as the cataracts grew. I was equally surprised when first wearing my hearing aids that suddenly robins sounded much better again. I’d never lost the ability to hear them, but without realizing it, I had lost the high-frequency overtones that give robin songs their brilliance.

The vast majority of people who get hearing aids most urgently need to hear human voices more clearly, so hearing aids are usually programmed to enhance the middle frequencies. Mine certainly help with that, but they were specially programmed by my audiologist to bring out the highest frequency sounds. High quality hearing aids are great at helping us hear against background noise—with my hearing aids, I can hear birds against a noisy wind or wave background even better than when I was in my 20s.

So I love my hearing aids, but they’re not perfect. I can’t hear a Le Conte’s Sparrow anymore even with them, unless I'm so close that I could see it with my bare eyes anyway. But they definitely improve my ability to hear Cedar Waxwings, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Brown Creepers, and Blackburnian, Cape May, and Blackpoll Warblers.

WXPR Cedar Waxwing

When I’m recording birds, wearing headphones with my powered Sennheiser shotgun microphones, I can hear even distant Le Conte’s Sparrows, but lugging that equipment on top of my camera and binoculars is more than I want to deal with when I’m not specifically wanting to record birds, especially because I need to point a shotgun mic almost directly to where a bird is to hear it at all.

Laura recording birds in the Everglades
Here I am, recording birds before dawn on the Everglades Trail, with my Sennheiser M66 microphone. While I have the headphones on, I can hear better than without them, but Russ has to point to birds for me to point the microphones toward them.
Here I am wearing my hearing aids (you can see the one tucked behind my ear) with my SongFinder headphones around my neck. Wearing both like this maximizes the number of birds I can hear well. 
To hear the highest warblers and those Le Conte’s Sparrows, I’m more likely to be wearing a different pair of headphones, attached to my beloved “SongFinder,” a wonderful invention by Lang Elliott and Herb Susmann. The earpieces on the headphones each have a tiny microphone that shoots the sound not into my ears but through a wire to a high-tech device about the size of a deck of cards. That’s where the magic happens—it lowers the frequencies of the sounds going in on each side by half, a third, or a quarter (I have mine set on a half) to bring the sounds within my hearing range, and instantly shoots the changed sound into the hearing part of the headphones. Not only is the idea of lowering the frequencies in real time sheer genius—the microphones on both sides of the headphones bring the altered sounds to my ears exactly as they would in nature, so I get perfect directionality, too. Unless I am trying to locate one particular bird with a high voice, I usually wear mine around my neck rather than on my ears. This way I hear robins and other medium-frequency birds naturally while easily picking up the sounds of higher-frequency birds from the headphones.

This wonderful invention is expensive—it cost $750 plus shipping and tax—but that’s still an order of magnitude less than my hearing aids cost while bringing more birds to me than my hearing aids can.

I’ve written about this for my podcast and blog, and in an article for the American Birding Association’s magazine. So this “woman of a certain age” often hears from people who want advice about hearing birds better. This week, I got an email from a birder in Virginia that made me really sad. It read:
Your article on digital hearing aids intrigued me. I did some research and learned that the Song Finder device is no longer being sold. Do you have any information about similar products either on the market or soon to be? I am frustrated enough to give up birding. 
I went to the SongFinder website, appropriately at the URL, and sure enough—they were discontinued back in October. 

Tragically, the SongFinder was designed for an extremely tiny niche market. There are plenty of birders and nature aficionados who have lost their upper-range hearing, of course, but the number of them willing to admit to a hearing loss and to wear headphones in public to hear warblers and sparrows, or insects or frogs, is pretty tiny. So I’m not surprised, but very disappointed, that more birders with hearing loss won’t get to experience high-frequency birds, insects, hearing frogs the way I can. This invention was sheer genius, and I feel really sad that developing such a wonderful tool couldn't be sustainably profitable.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

About that United Nations Extinction Report

California Condor
This California Condor seemed to be demanding of me, "What are you prepared to DO?"
When I was a freshman in college and America celebrated the first Earth Day, I was a committed environmentalist. The creek in my Chicago suburb had been highly polluted, I could see how black the snow along our low-traffic little residential street got within hours of a snowfall, and newspapers and magazines did stories about the Cuyahoga River afire and endangered species and a lot of other serious issues.

I cared, but really, I didn’t have a clue about most of it. I felt bad for California Condors and Kirtland’s Warblers even though I’d never seen one, even in a zoo. So much of what I understood, especially about habitats and wildlife, was pure abstraction, informed by sources I trusted, from the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation, Time magazine, and the Chicago Tribune. It made sense to protect other species, whether I was basing my concern on my Catholic school education, where I learned that God had instructed Noah to save every single species, or on my slowly awakening environmental education, wherein I learned that Aldo Leopold said, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

That first Earth Day and the aftermath were heady experiences. Within just three years, a fully bipartisan Congress passed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts (and overrode Nixon’s veto on the Clean Water Act), passed the Endangered Species Act, strengthened the Environmental Protection Agency and more, to address the problems we’d allowed to advance so critically. The global warming I heard about in several science classes way back then seemed like it could be forestalled by reducing our use of fossil fuels. I was absolutely certain that our nation was committed to remaining at the forefront of environmental protections and would remain so forever. 

I of course had never heard of the Koch Brothers, and my Catholic education had been given to me by women who had taken a vow of poverty. So it never occurred to me that I’d ever see public support for policies that brought us backward, not forward, on the environmental front.

Some of the first efforts to dismantle our environmental protections were subtle, and some blatant. Ronald Reagan ridiculed Jimmy Carter’s turning down the White House thermostat and assured the nation that there would be no sweater-wearing in his White House. He immediately tore down the solar panels Carter had installed. People like me, who loved animals abstractly, as well as more deeply knowledgeable people, were outraged by overt attacks on endangered animals, so at first the quiet attacks were on obscure rules and enforcement policies of the Clean Air and Water Acts. But industries started changing the face of endangered animals from charismatic, beloved species to a tiny fish called the snail darter, and a bird called the Spotted Owl. Little by little, in full view of a no-longer-interested public, people in both parties chipped away at the environmental protections we had worked so hard to effect.

Now, 49 years after that first Earth Day, scientists are saying we’ve reached a tipping point—fully a million species are now in danger of extinction. And my country—the one that led the world in environmental protections back during my idealistic youth—has become so focused on materialism and profit margins for the one percent that we’re way, way behind the rest of the world in protecting our natural resources. Whenever I speak about environmental policies, it's virtually guaranteed that at least a few people will call and write the radio stations that carry For the Birds to complain that I’m supposed to be talking about birds, not politics, even as politics threatens to destroy those very birds. And even as last week’s United Nations report was being unrolled, the news media and people stayed more focused on the final episodes of Game of Thrones than on the real-world devastation we are plummeting toward. 

Those Game of Thrones episodes are proof that we humans have the intellectual capacity and imagination to visualize beyond our personal experience. But they’re also evidence that we’d rather deal with fiction than reality; that we would rather watch television than do anything about even the most dire looming crisis. Some young people are focused on the Green New Deal and other ways of doing what they can to save the day. I hope they stay as focused and committed as we did in the 70s, but I also pray that they stick to their guns after they win a battle or two, rather than relaxing into materialism and entertainment as my generation and the so-called Greatest Generation have done. A future filled with chickadees, cardinals, hummingbirds, and all our other beloved birds and other wildlife depends on them.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

Warbler Day 2019

Black-and-white Warbler

There are two birding dates I celebrate every year. I call March 2 “Chickadee Day” because on March 2, 1975, I saw my first Black-capped Chickadee, the first bird on my life list, at Baker Woodlot on the Michigan State University campus. After that, I spent at least a few hours almost every day looking for and trying to identify birds. By May 11, I had my lifelist up to 30 species, which seemed like an awful lot at the time. And on that morning, what I now commemorate as “Warbler Day,” I encountered wave after wave of warbler flocks on the Red Cedar Woodlot on campus, and managed to identify four of them.

I’d read the warbler section in my Peterson and Golden guides over and over, but the sheer number of species in the array was daunting. I decided that I’d only count a warbler on my list when I could see every field mark as I kept one individual in sight. Warblers are so animated, flitting here and there in their quest for insects, that this was harder than I’d anticipated.

Black-and-white Warbler

My first was relatively easy—the Black-and-white Warbler. It was easy to see that my bird had only black and white plumage, without a trace of yellow or buffy. The only other warbler with simple black and white plumage is the Blackpoll Warbler, but it has a solid black cap without a center white stripe, white cheeks, and yellow on both the bill and feet.

Blackpoll Warbler
A Blackpoll Warbler for comparison
The male Black-and-white that I identified had a clear black line through the eye, a white line through the center of the crown, and blackish bill and feet. Voila! My lifelist was at 31, and I’d teased out my first warbler!

Nashville Warbler at birdbath

My second took longer to figure out, plus a stroke of luck. Nashville Warblers have a gray face with a perfect circle of white feathers around the eye, olive-gray back and wings, and a pure yellow underside from the throat to the undertail coverts. The larger Connecticut Warbler has a gray hood without a yellow throat—that one was easy to exclude.

Connecticut Warbler
Connecticut Warbler for comparison
But my field guide mentioned that male Nashville Warblers have a chestnut cap that they can hide or expose as they choose, even trickier for me to see than the ruby feathers of a Ruby-crowned Kinglet. Fortunately, while I struggled to keep my first Nashville Warbler in view, he raised the orange crown and my list was suddenly at 32. 

Nashville Warbler
Even when a Nashville Warbler exposes those chestnut feathers, it's pretty subtle. 
I vividly remember figuring out number 33, and also the one warbler I really did identify that day, though I didn’t count it because it wasn’t still in view when I figured it out. In studying my field guides, I knew I had to concentrate on the presence or absence of an eye ring or eye line and of wing bars, as well as noticing whether the breast was streaked and where any yellow might be. That morning, suddenly I noticed a warbler sitting conspicuously on a low dead branch. It had a brilliant yellow breast, a vivid black necklace with streaks of black running a short way down the breast, a solid slate-blue back, clean white eye rings connected by yellow lores, and no wing bars.

Canada Warbler
A Canada Warbler just like the one I didn't add to my lifelist that day.
I rifled through the pages of my field guide, came to the Canada Warbler, which matched every particular, and looked into the same branch to compare the picture with the real thing. Only suddenly the bird sitting on that very branch, still with the brilliant yellow breast and black necklace with streaks of black, had huge white wing patches, like wing bars gone wild. Instead of eye rings, it had white eye crescents, and had a black cheek patch.

Magnolia Warbler
A Magnolia Warbler like the one I confirmed on Warbler Day.
I rifled through the field guide, found the Magnolia Warbler, and the real bird gave me time to compare every feature. So Magnolia Warbler was Number 33. I didn’t encounter a countable Canada Warbler until the next year.

Magnolia and Canada Warbler side by side
A bird bander holds a Magnolia Warbler (left) and Canada Warbler for comparison.
The final warbler that I identified on Warbler Day had a white belly, rich black throat and sides, white wing bars, and a yellow face—a Black-throated Green.

Black-throated Green Warbler

That one even sang while I was reading about it, and the description, zee, zee, zoo-zoo-zee, was easy to match to the song. 

Oddly enough, I did not identify what was almost certainly the most abundant warbler thereabouts that day, or all spring. To identify a Yellow-rumped Warbler using the rules I’d set for myself, I’d need to be able to see the male’s yellow crown, epaulets, and rump all while I had the book open to the right page.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
Not even my best photographs of Yellow-rumped Warblers show all four yellow marks simultaneously.
Now I don’t even need to glance up when I hear their familiar chip, but my painstaking procedure, although it kept my lifelist from growing fast, made me more painstaking in noticing features of every bird.

I’d stayed in the woodlot longer than I’d planned and had to rush to my environmental education class. One guy in there, named Dave Catlin, was a Real Birder, and I gushed to him about my experience. Some of the Real Birders I’d already encountered were rather snooty, and would never have taken seriously someone with a lifelist of 34 who had just identified her first warblers. But Dave seemed almost as thrilled as I was, listening with joy and excitement to every detail. That was wonderfully affirming, and made birding into a shared pleasure.

Every year on Warbler Day, I think of my first four warblers and Dave Catlin. I did manage to tease out the identification of my lifer Yellow-rumped Warbler that autumn, even in its drabber fall plumage.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

The next spring, it was Dave Catlin who was with me when I saw my first male Yellow-rump in full breeding plumage. He also showed me my lifer Hermit Thrush and Winter Wren. I love that my learning about nature also gave me more appreciation for the best of human nature.

Thursday, May 9, 2019


Anhinga chick preening, loafing, and moving about.

Russ and I have visited Everglades National Park on four Florida trips since 1988. We’ve explored quite a bit of the park on these trips, though the park so huge that we’ve still barely scratched the surface. But we’ve gone to one spot multiple times on every trip—the Anhinga Trail.

This trail, which starts at the Royal Palm Visitor Center, is a paved walkway and a boardwalk over Taylor Slough, a freshwater sawgrass marsh teeming with life. The trail is just 0.4 miles long, so it's less than a mile to walk to the end and back including taking the little side loops. The only problems with the trail are that it is so heavily used that it can be hard to make good videos and sound recordings that don't pick up people's voices, and that a surprising number of airplanes fly over, making an even noisier background. But I've made some excellent recordings there early in the morning, when natural sounds are finest and people are mostly still in bed.

Most people seem to come to the Anhinga Trail to see alligators. This poor Anhinga couldn't attract anyone's attention. 

For such a short, easy walk, the wildlife is amazingly abundant. I could talk about the seven alligators that were all sunning just inches from the wall at the entrance—I had to use the panorama function on my cell phone to get them all in one photo.

Panorama shot of 7 alligators right next to the Anhinga Trail

American Alligator

People looking at very close alligators

And colorful eastern lubber grasshoppers were everywhere.

Eastern Lubber Grasshopper

But the three times we walked the trail on this trip, I was so absorbed with Anhingas that I didn't pay all that much attention to anything else. Adults were everywhere, flying, swimming, perched on the guardrails and in the trees.



Russ photographing an Anhinga


The Anhingas allowed me to come close enough that I even got photographic proof that they do have a preen gland.

Yes, Anhingas have a preen gland.
Yep--the preen gland!
Why must they hold their wings out to dry them, and even flap them to shake out the water, then? Oils from preen glands don't really "waterproof" any bird's feathers. Those oils simply keep feathers in good condition. As birds that fish most efficiently by staying submerged, anhingas and cormorants have wonderfully wettable feathers. When an Anhinga's feathers get soaked, good condition or not, they hold a lot of moisture.

Shaking out wings to dry the soaked feathers.
This female Anhinga is sitting in the typical open-wing posture to help dry her wing and body feathers
One male sitting on the guard rail seemed to want to demonstrate what "totipalmate" means by holding his foot up to show me. All four of an Anhinga's toes are webbed, unlike the way only the three front toes of a gull or duck are webbed.  

"Totipalmate" foot: all four of an Anhinga's toes are webbed.

One pair was nesting at the beginning of the trail, and two pairs of fuzzy chicks were tucked into the dense foliage in trees further along, still too young to be making tentative flights.

Baby Anhingas

Anhinga chick

Falling into the water would be lethal—everywhere there were alligators hoping to capitalize on clumsy young birds. Oddly enough, many wading birds, including Anhingas, benefit from those very alligators, which make short work of predators swimming to a nesting tree, too.

American Alligator

But thanks to those alligators, individual babies must cling to their branches for dear life, quite literally. For a chick to simply turn around to face the opposite direction on a branch takes all its concentration and balance. Anhinga feet have strong, gripping toes and sturdy claws, and determination and spunk also help. I watched one baby end up literally upside down when it let go of a branch with one foot trying to move it to the next branch. The other foot stayed latched to the branch, and the baby managed to get its leg and wing hooked to the branch as well. The alligators were left with a fish dinner that night.

Anhinga chick trying to move about in mangrove

Anhinga chick trying to move about in mangrove

Anhinga chick trying to move about in mangrove

While the parents were off fishing, the two chicks spent their time snoozing, preening, looking about, toying with branches and moving around a bit, and watching each other. I took hundreds of photos (all linked to on my Anhinga Page, though the algorithm adds all the photos I've taken at the Anhinga Trail, too).

Anhinga chick figuring out mangrove branches

Their heads looked bizarrely tiny when they were facing me directly, especially above all the thick downy feathers on their necks.

Baby Anhinga

The narrow, streamlined head lived up to the Anhinga’s nickname, “snakebird,” but as befits a species that feeds on rather large fish, the mouth has to be able to open wide. These chicks could somehow set their jaw to make their head much wider, the skin stretching weirdly over the slender bones.

Anhinga chick

Anhinga chick

Baby Anhinga

The moment a parent flew into the tree, the two chicks instantly engaged in a competition to see which could seem most desperate for food. They made non-stop begging sounds (you can hear the recording I made on this trip here) while fluttering their wings and gaping.

Anhinga chick trying to move about in mangrove

The newly-arrived parent ignored them for several minutes, an important time lag while the adult’s stomach juices softened the fish. The babies waved their wings wildly and tried hopping and climbing between branches and stretching their long necks to get closer, but didn’t seem to influence the feeding schedule.

Adult and chick Anhingas have such long, sharp beaks that the feeding bouts looked dangerously violent, but the babies had grown and thrived being fed this way since hatching with not a single injury to show for it. There were dozens of Anhingas on this short trail—I don’t think we could look in any direction without both seeing and hearing them, and every single one of them had started its life just as these two chicks were, jousting for food with those dagger-like bills. The parents could hardly warn them that they could poke someone’s eye out with that thing when their own bills were even longer, sharper, and more dangerous.

Food delivery from father Anhinga

Food delivery from father Anhinga

Food delivery from father Anhinga

Russ and I went down to the Keys for an overnight, and when we returned, we simply had to check on the little ones again. They were just where we’d left them, a bit bigger but just as adorable. We stuck around to make sure both parents were still alive and well, too. The father snagged a big fish under water and lugged it to one of the boardwalk’s supporting beams. I watched him struggle to swallow it, thinking about the fish's rough scales and fins. No wonder Anhingas always swallow their fish head-first!

Father Anhinga dealing with a very big fish

Father Anhinga dealing with a very big fish

Father Anhinga dealing with a very big fish

Father Anhinga dealing with a very big fish

Father Anhinga dealing with a very big fish

Father Anhinga dealing with a very big fish

I also got lots of photos and videos of the chicks.

Anhinga chick figuring out mangrove branches

Everything about my time on the Anhinga Trail made me happy to be alive on a little planet teeming with such splendid lifeforms. If Russ and I get back one day in the murky future, there’s no way we’ll recognize these individual Anhingas. But we’ll see something of them in every other Anhinga we see. I feel wonderfully rich thanks to these splendid birds sharing their time with me.