Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Le Conte's Sparrow: Losing a Favorite Sound

Le Conte's Sparrow

One of my all-time favorite birds is Le Conte’s Sparrow. This tiny grassland bird was an important part of the birdlife I so loved at my mother-in-law’s place in Port Wing. When her house was sold, I felt utterly bereft and still feel deep pangs of homesickness.

Ryan Brady, a wildlife biologist and amazing birder in Wisconsin, has been working tirelessly on Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas, and some of the areas he’s been searching intensively have been in my old stomping grounds. The day I got home from Panama, he posted photos and sound recordings he’d made that very day of Le Conte’s Sparrows on Kinney Valley Road, including right in what I’d for so long felt was *my* field. It was already July 19, and I was so exhausted from my trip that I simply couldn’t get up early on Saturday. But I woke at 3 am on Sunday, made some coffee, and headed out.

I didn’t drive fast—there were too many deer on the road for that—but I still made it to Kinney Valley Road before the sky started brightening. It was a perfect morning—clear, with no wind whatsoever. For as late in the season as it was, several birds were singing persistently—a robin, an Alder Flycatcher, Sedge Wrens, crows, a Savannah Sparrow. And yep—with my hearing aids cranked up to their loudest setting and my powered shotgun microphone and headphones with the volume set high, I could hear one or maybe two Le Conte’s Sparrows. I was disappointed that there weren’t more, but figured I was lucky to hear any singing birds at all on July 21. I couldn’t get a direction on the sound and couldn’t see any, but I made a few recordings. Then I went off to Big Pete Road.

After that, at the Quarry Beach, I ran into Ryan Brady himself. He’d birded on Kinney Valley Road that morning, too, after I’d been there. I could see some surprise in his eyes when I said I’d heard only one or two Le Conte’s Sparrows—he’d heard several. It seemed a mystery—Le Conte’s Sparrows do most of their singing before other birds are piping in, often while it’s still quite dark, so it should have been me, not Ryan, who’d heard more.

When I went home, I checked out my recordings on my computer. My sound editing program shows the spectrographs of the sounds I’m editing, and there before me was visual proof that my ears are not what they used to be—I could clearly SEE the little blocks of Le Conte’s Sparrow songs on the spectrograph that my ears could not pick out.

Le Conte's Sparrow songs on a spectrograph

So from now on I’m not going to be able to count on either hearing aids or my recording headphones to find Le Conte’s Sparrows, and I’m only going to be hearing them marginally at best. I’m going to have to rely on my trusty old Bird Finder—the set up designed by Lang Elliott that lowers the frequency of high-pitched songs to bring them into my hearing range—to find them reliably.  

Here are three songs of Le Conte’s Sparrow that I recorded Sunday—I edited out all the lower-frequency sounds to help them stand out.  Their song extends to over 10 kHz, and is not made up of pure tones, making it hard for many ears to pick up.

Here’s how that same recording sounds after going through the Bird Finder. To make it, I used my sound editing software to reduce the frequency by exactly half. It sounds different, so I’ll have to re-learn my basic high-pitched sounds and will barely ever hear the endearing little hiss I love so much, but at least I’ll be able to locate Le Conte’s Sparrows in the field.

This is one of those tragic turning points in life when we know that going forward we’ll never be able to see someone or do something we’ve deeply loved ever again. I feel as bereft as I did three decades ago when I weaned my third child and knew I’d never again nurse a baby. But my son was thriving and I was enjoying his development into a toddler—I was giving up one stage to move into what was an even better one. This time no new, lovely experience is coming along to replace hearing that endearing Le Conte’s Sparrow hiss.

I’ve been given more than a decade of life more than my little sister or my father had, and a few years more than my big brother. I’m grateful to be alive at all, and realize that many people have never ever been able to hear Le Conte’s Sparrows or to see them, so in the overall scheme of the universe, I’m very lucky. And for the duration, I’ll at least be able to hear that sweet little sound in my dreams.

Le Conte's Sparrow

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Home from Panama!

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
How I returned home from my trip: kinda dopey and slow, but happy!!
I got home from Panama a week ago. I took my last dose of Malarone, a malaria preventative, on Thursday, and I’m still needing a nap every day. I’ve always been tired after trips, but as I get older, it takes longer to rebound, and I’m in the middle of a book project with tight deadlines, so I haven’t had time to carefully go through the thousands of photos I took, and haven’t done anything at all with the many hours of sound recordings I made. I’ll be taking four more trips within the next three months, but then life should settle down and I can start collecting my thoughts, photos, and sound files for what is one of the busiest years I’ve ever had.

We stayed at three birding ecolodges during our 10 days in Panama, all operated by a small company called the Canopy Family. Their stated mission is “To share the nature, history and culture of the Republic of Panamá with passion and enthusiasm, focused on customer satisfaction and guided by the principles of conservation and social responsibility.”  They seemed to genuinely live up to that. 

Our Panama tour
Waypoints I entered into Track My Tour
Because of their commitment to conservation and sustainability, none of the Canopy Family facilities offer air conditioning, but even in July we were wonderfully comfortable without it. Fans were provided in all their rooms, as were towel warmers in the Canopy Lodge and Canopy Tower. Evenings cooled down to the low 70s, and only on two days did highs reach the 90s. Right before I left, temperatures in Anchorage were exceeding 90, hotter than Panama City. Being a true Minnesotan, I personally don’t usually feel comfortable when temps reach the 80s, but somehow it’s much easier for me to deal with highs in the 90s in the presence of toucans and cotingas than Spruce Grouse and Gray Jays. That said, the humidity was ridiculously high everywhere, great for my skin but making my checked bag over 5 pounds heavier coming home than when I left.

We spent our first three nights at the Canopy Lodge, in the Cerro Gaital mountains at El Valle de Antón in Coclé Province. Our spacious room was on the first floor. In those first three days we listed 138 species of birds.

Watching birds from the veranda at Canopy Lodge
Birding from the veranda at Canopy Lodge

We stayed at Canopy Lodge for three nights.

Next, we moved on to Canopy Tower, a decommissioned US Military radar station just 35 miles north of Panama City in the rainforest atop Semaphore Hill within Soberanía National Park.

Canopy Tower

The lodging rooms in this wonderful jewel are high, with the dining hall and lounge a floor higher, at canopy height. At the very top, where we enjoyed our morning coffee, is a beautiful observation deck.

Because the tower was originally part of a military installation, it was built without any sound-proofing between rooms or floors, and no elevators. We had to climb steep staircases to get to our rooms, another to get to the dining hall, and a hatch-type ladder to ascend to the observation deck. Working at my desk-treadmill for a year and a half has kept me in excellent shape. I didn’t feel the climb at all in my leg muscles nor my heart and lungs, but it felt very rigorous for some of the people in our group. The Canopy Tower was also the noisiest place we stayed at. The kitchen, right above my room, was very noisy starting about 3 am. I’m an easy sleeper and adjusted easily, and had it been harder, a dispenser providing free earplugs was conspicuous on the landing by our rooms. But the noise did make the Canopy Tower the one place where a clean natural dawn chorus sound recording would have been very hard to get.

Our room in Canopy Tower

I didn’t mind—being up at canopy level, the visual splendor was beyond compare. From right outside our windows was a cecropia tree in which a female sloth spent her days and a howler monkey occasionally visited to munch on fruits. My photos of them with my 300-millimeter lens were frame filling.

View outside my window with my cell phone, not zoomed
View from our window, taken with my cell phone camera, not zoomed

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth; uncropped photo from our window with my 300mm lens.

Howler Monkey
Mantled Howler Monkey; uncropped photo from our window with my 300mm lens. 

From our room, the dining hall windows, the observation deck, and the entrance down below, we had wonderful close-up views of a rainbow of birds. We stayed at Canopy Tower just two nights, birding there and in nearby hotspots. As we drove away, our trip list stood at 211 birds.

Blue-chested Hummingbird
Blue-chested Hummingbird

Plain-colored Tanager
Plain-colored Tanager

Blue Dacnis
Blue Dacnis
Both the Canopy Lodge and Canopy Tower are close to parts of the Panama Canal. During those first five days, we took one boat trip in the Chagres River, a fairly natural part of what is now the canal. I’m not sure, but we may have been in part of the river where Ulysses S. Grant traveled in July 1852. Of course, our conditions were way, way nicer than his, with nary a sign of cholera to be seen.

Striated Heron
Striated Heron
Gray-cowled Wood-Rail
Gray-cowled Wood-Rail with chick

Rufescent Tiger-Heron
Rufescent Tiger-Heron
During those first five days, we also visited what are called the “ammo dump ponds” in Gamboa. During World War II when the US had control of the Panama Canal, our military stored ammunition in bunkers to protect the canal from an attack. It was in this military zone, extending about 10 miles on both sides of the canal, where they dug several ponds to have easy access to water in case of fire. We rode in a safari-style truck along a road in Gamboa, seeing lots of cool birds in the ponds and huge container ships in the canal.

Our last four nights were spent in far eastern Panama in the Darien Province, at Canopy Camp in the humid lowlands near the end of the Pan-American Highway. Our accommodations here were tents, but we were hardly roughing it—each one was on a raised wooden platform and had electricity and a good fan, and the beds were extremely comfortable. The tents were designed well enough to withstand even a driving rain without closing the canvas on the screened sides.

Our room at Canopy Camp

Each tent’s private bathroom was made of slatted wood. The roof ended at the shower, leaving it open to the sky above. One night I took a lovely hot shower as pouring rain came down all around. The next night the skies had cleared, and the stars and full moon shone above. Either way, the experience was uniquely enjoyable.

Our room at Canopy Camp

Wildlife—both animal and vegetable—of the Darien province include many common Central American species but also South American species, which makes sense because we were so close to the Colombian border. After our four nights at the Canopy Camp, our trip list had ascended to 300. We made two final stops on our trip back to Panama City the final day, ending the trip with 310 species.

The end of the Pan-American Highway (or start of the Darien Gap).
The sign at the end, or start, of the Pan American Highway. 
My dear friend Susan Eaton, my roommate throughout, organized this trip with the fantastic guide Ernesto Carman, who was also our guide in Costa Rica two years ago. He’s at the very top among birding guides, but he’s also right at the top among tropical naturalists, knowing a lot about just about everything. He kept us up to speed on many of the non-birds we saw throughout, and whenever I asked a question about anything, he had a sound answer.

The mammals we saw included two species of sloths...

Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
The colorful markings on the back of this Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth affirm that he's a male. Ernesto helped rescue him--he was trying to cross a busy road until Ernesto and a local man brought him to the other side. 

Two-toed Sloth
Two-toed Sloths were not as cooperative for photos, but you can at least count this guy's toes.

four species of monkeys (but I only got photos of three, not the Colombian Spider Monkey)...

Howler Monkey
Mantled Howler Monkey

White-faced Capuchin Monkey
White-faced Capuchin Monkey

Geoffrey's Tamarin
Geoffrey's Tamarin
a Brown Tree Rat...

Brown Tree Rat

a tiny Rothschild’s Porcupine...

Rothschild's Porcupine

a few distant agoutis, and a quick look at a capybara.

We saw Green Iguanas throughout, which was nice in Panama where they actually belong—I’d also seen them in the Florida Keys this spring, but there they’re an invasive problem.

Green Iguana

Also on the reptile front, we saw several crocodiles and a caiman from boats, some at very close range, and a few geckos, but virtually no other reptiles at all—not a single snake.

American Crocodile

We had a few Cane Toads and a few other frogs and toads, but that was pretty much it for non-avian vertebrates.

Cane Toad


On the invertebrate front, I’d never heard of a group of butterflies called "crackers." They belong to the genus Hamadryas and make a cool cracking sound with their wings, both as a warning to predators and to communicate with their own kind. When I first heard the sound, I thought we were near a manakin lek—they make the same kind of arrhythmic percussive cracks—but I neglected to make a sound recording of the butterflies and can’t find one online. Oddly enough, the one cracker I photographed, the Starry Cracker, has apparently lost this ability to make sound. Whether or not the one I saw could make sounds, it was very quiet while I watched.

Starry Cracker

We saw a moth that looks like bird poop—it’s nocturnal and can spend the day safely roosting in the open because no sensible insectivores seek out bird poop.

Bird Poop Moth

We also saw the weirdest caterpillar I’ve ever seen.

Weird caterpillar

On the one clear night we had, Ernesto trained his spotting scope on Jupiter and a line of three of Jupiter’s moons. That night I also grabbed a photo of the full moon.

Jupiter and its moons through a spotting scope
Ernesto took this photo with my phone through his scope.

Full Moon from Canopy Camp in Panama

But the reason I was there was to see birds, and they didn’t disappoint. I ended up with 58 lifers including the Harpy Eagle I so yearned to see, along with lots of photos and sound recordings.

Harpy Eagle
Soaking wet fledgling Harpy Eagle.
Blue Cotinga
It's so lovely to get a photo of a lifer, like this Blue Cotinga!

Rusty-margined Flycatcher
Rusty-margined Flycatchers were everywhere at Canopy Camp.

Black-throated Trogon
Black-throated Trogons weren't a lifer, but were still a sight for sore eyes!

Crimson-backed Tanager
Crimson-backed Tanagers (a lifer!) were easy to see at Canopy Lodge.

Common Potoo
We made a special trip to see this guy, a Common Potoo.
I relished seeing the Canopy Family programs in action. I’ve heard so much about them at their display tables at various birding festivals, and from the beginning they sounded like a genuine positive force on the conservation front. At each place we stayed, one or two Canopy Family guides was assigned to our group. They were without exception excellent—knowledgeable and helpful. All three Canopy Family ecolodges and all their ecotourism activities with us fully lived up to their reputation.

I'm not very fussy about food when I'm birding, but many of the people in our group were, and they all seemed very pleased with the menu at all three facilities. A few people had diet restrictions of various kinds, and all were given special meals when the day's menu wouldn't have worked for them. All I know is, there were lots of choices at each meal, generous servings, and everything I ate was delicious.

If you plan a trip to Panama specifically hoping for Harpy and Crested Eagles, you might want to set the dates a bit earlier in the year than July. The Canopy Family works with local people throughout Darien Province to find an active nest for both species each year. In both species, when the adults are in the final stages of courting, laying their single egg, and incubating, all during our northern winter, it's apparently almost a given that you'll see an adult. When the chick is young and adorable, a parent stays with it all or most of the time. In early summer, when the chick fledges, the parents may remain close at first, but as the chick's flying and hunting skills improve, it can be five or six days between visits by the adults, and as the chick matures, it spends less time near the nest, too. We were the first group to entirely miss the Crested Eagle this year. The local experts and our guides spent two hours searching while we waited. I'd have been game to wait another hour or two—I've spent years standing to watch and count birds at Hawk Ridge and the Lakewood Pumping Station, and am used to it—but normal people, including all the others in my group, were at their limit after two hours of standing, exposed to the worst of the mosquitoes and heat. It was a sunny day, and apparently the Crested Eagle chick felt like testing its wings that day. We still saw plenty of birds and it was a lovely experience for those of us for whom the journey is always at least as wonderful as the destination. And now I have one more reason to yearn to go back.

I think, if I had to choose, that the Canopy Camp was my favorite of the three ecolodges for being so remote, but all three places were splendid and worth visiting, and spending time at all three gave us a wonderful sampling of the best of Panama. I don’t know if the Canopy Family plans to open another ecolodge closer to the Costa Rican border—that would be an amazing way to get a more complete sampling of the country from west to east, but what we saw and enjoyed was incredible.

Susan Eaton and me
Susan Eaton and me during a mucky hike. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2019


Keel-billed Toucan

At about 8 am on Monday, June 10, and then at about 8 am on the following Wednesday, Friday, and Sunday, I swallowed live typhoid bacteria in the form of an oral vaccination. This week I’m headed to Panama to research and photograph the birdlife, and the CDC recommends this four-pill regimen, and a daily anti-malarial drug that I’ll start taking closer to the trip, for protection in the places I’ll be going. I’ll also be bringing some Cipro tablets along just in case I get a bacterial infection while I’m traveling—I almost certainly won’t need it, and would just as soon avoid Cipro’s nasty side effects, but tropical stomach bugs can give lie to the old saw about the cure being worse than the disease.

The vaccine gave me a stomach ache for a few days and made me more tired than normal, but being a Ulysses S. Grant fan, I can’t imagine not taking every precaution before a July trip to Panama. In July 1852, well before construction of the Panama Canal, Grant was assigned as regimental quartermaster to accompany a regiment to California. They took a steamer from New York to Panama and a train trip through part of the isthmus to where construction of the railroad ended at the Chagres River. From there, most of the regiment was sent via small man-powered boats through the marshy, watery area to Gorgona, and then took mule teams to Panama City, where they boarded a steamer to California. 

But the soldiers traveling with their families, and all the tents, mess chests, camp kettles, and other equipment, had to be transported in larger vessels, and Grant was charged with taking all these people and material in boats to Cruces, a few miles higher up the Chagres River than Gorgona, where they were to meet an American contractor who was supposed to supply them with enough mules to make the journey to Panama City. The mules weren’t there when Grant’s regiment arrived, and never did show up. While stranded there, suddenly cholera broke out.

Ulysses S. Grant

Fully a third of the people with Grant died. The still-healthy soldiers refused to get close to anyone sick, so Grant was the one who took care of them, so tenderly ministering to them that many of the survivors wrote accounts of his heroism. Granr never forgot that miserable time in Panama, writing "The horrors of the road in the rainy season are beyond description."  Grant thought it was foolish to build a passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Panama, supporting an alternative project through Nicaragua. He was concerned about how many people would die trying to construct a canal through Panama.

Like Grant’s, my visit to Panama will be in the month of July. It’s expected to rain every day, but the rain hardly ever lasts long. It’s also expected to be hot, but right now it’s a lot hotter in Anchorage, Alaska. Somehow I can deal with heat much better in the latitudes where you can find toucans than where ptarmigans live.

I theoretically could see up to 50 lifers on this trip, though it’ll probably be closer to 20 or 30. The one bird I desperately want to see, because I need photos and first-hand experiences with it, is the critically endangered Harpy Eagle, the national bird of Panama.

By Jitze Couperus - Flickr: Harpy Eagle II, CC BY 2.0, Common 
The Harpy Eagle is the largest, most powerful bird of prey in all the Americas, once found from southern Mexico all the way through Central and South America, but has been extirpated from most of its range, in part because it’s so approachable that it was easy for people to kill most of them. The Harpy Eagle’s expressive face was, by some accounts, an inspiration for the design of Fawkes, Dumbledore’s Phoenix in the Harry Potter movies. Now that my foreign travel is ebbing to a close, this is probably my last shot to ever see one in the wild. It’s also the very first trip I’ve taken in decades without a computer. I'll be keeping a map and photos of my trip as I go along, and will upload them whenever I have access to wifi. That won't be every day probably, but this link will provide the most up-to-date information about my trip until I return.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Lee Guthrie's House Wrens

House Wren

I recently received an email from Lee Guthrie, who wrote: 
I’ve been listening to the house wrens in my yard. This year they nested in a house which I mounted on my porch. I have a long history with these birds going back to when I was a kid. They would build their nests of sticks in our newspaper box, completely filling it. Their call is one of the cheeriest and one of my favorites. It's amazing how such a strong, prolonged song can come from such a tiny bird. They aren't being scrappy at all. My question is, why are they continuing to sing so much right now. I believe their young are out of the nest so I don't understand why they continue to bring attention to themselves.  
Lee is absolutely right that the first batches of baby House Wrens are out of their nests now. “Empty nest syndrome” strikes different birds in different ways. In House Wrens, even though those fledglings are still dependent on their parents for food and learning how to negotiate life, the mother often wanders off in rather a midlife, or at least midseason crisis, attracted to a new male singing. Meanwhile, the father faithfully feeds the young even as he starts singing again. That attracts a new mate—usually another female wandering after raising her own batch of nestlings. He shows her the cavities on his territory, she picks one, and soon she’s laying eggs. None of this is too time-consuming for him even as he continues feeding and educating his original brood. By the time the new eggs hatch, that brood will be independent, and he’ll be ready to focus all of his attention on the new brood. 

So that answers Lee’s question—when the young are out of the nest, the male must call attention to himself to attract another mate. Both males and females maximize the number of offspring they produce using this system of serial monogamy. But Lee managed to put a lot more into the email than that simple question. There’s something so warm and homey about House Wrens—how they select all kinds of sites for their nests, from bird houses and newspaper and mail boxes to an old sneaker sitting out on a picnic table or a pocket in a pair of overalls hanging on a clothesline. It’s the male who builds those nests of sticks, and he hardly ever stops at one, or even two. The more cavities he takes over and marks as his own with those sticks, the more likely one will be accepted by a future mate so he can raise a second and maybe even a third batch of young in a single season. 

The male stuffs the nest cavity with sticks, which seem to provide a barrier keeping out predators and competitors. The female constructs the actual cup nest in a depression in those sticks. House Wrens often incorporate spider egg sacs into the nest, probably so emerging spiderlings will eat mites and other nasty parasites that build up in the cozy nest during warm weather. 

House Wrens weigh 10–12 grams—the weight of two nickels, sometimes throwing in a dime for good measure. That entire tiny body quivers with the effort or excitement of producing that loud, robust song.  We mere humans don’t know how to translate the meanings and nuances of bird vocalizations, so we can’t be certain that singing House Wrens feel cheerful, but hearing that warm, bubbly song sure arouses good cheer in us. 

House Wren