Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Finding Amazing Birds with Laurens Halsey

Laurens Halsey and me

Did you ever find yourself enjoying your favorite thing in the world—say, getting out into some wonderful wild habitats to listen to and look for birds—in the company of a genuine kindred spirit? I found myself in that happy situation at the Southeast Arizona Birding Festival when I got to spend an evening and then an afternoon with Laurens Halsey, a fantastic local birder and independent guide. Laurens specializes in taking out small groups—just one or two people is his preference—and he especially focuses on night birds. His hearing is amazing—I think he pulls out birds better than I could at my best when I was younger.

On Friday evening, I was assigned to co-lead a field trip for night birds with Tim Helentjaris. Tim had arranged to meet with Laurens, who happens to keep close tabs on owls in Madera Canyon, including two different screech owls, which live at two different elevations, in two different sets of habitats.

We started out at mid-level, where we heard well and got an excellent but brief look at one of what sounded like a family unit of Whiskered Screech-Owls.  I didn’t get photos. Even better as far as my personal lifelist goes, in the same spot we heard a Mexican Whip-poor-will. that bird started out far enough away that when I focused incredibly hard, with my hearing aids cranked up to 11, I could barely hear it. But then it came in close enough for me to get a short recording with my cell phone. A distant Elf Owl was not so cooperative, but I heard two of its calls.

At the lower, more desert-like stop, a family of Great Horned Owls was about, at least two chicks making constant begging calls. The obvious presence of the big predators kept smaller birds pretty quiet, but we managed to hear a distant Common Poorwill—again, I would never, ever have heard it without Laurens pointing it out—and then, finally, the evening’s pièce de résistance, a calling Western Screech-Owl who not only let me get a few recordings but also some photos.

Western Screech-Owl

The little guy had to be on red alert for the Great Horned Owls, though the one near us was an inexperienced fledgling who squawked persistently, telegraphing its whereabouts every several seconds. Our group stayed in one mass, easy for the little guy to keep track of, too. 

Laurens shone a flashlight on the Western Screech-Owl—not a powerful spotlight but a good flashlight—as it hunted large insects, looking every which way. When the bird faced directly toward us, the pupils constricted, but when it looked to the sides, the pupils immediately dilated, so we didn’t seem to be disturbing it much—it continued quietly calling throughout.

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Western Screech-Owl

Several people commented about how softly this owl and the Whiskered Screech-Owls were calling. That quietness is something people often notice when they see a nearby Eastern Screech-Owl calling, too. The word screech suggests loudness, and we’re so used to turning up the volume on bird recordings to suit our own preferences that we expect the living creatures to call at a higher volume too. I’ve been out with guides and field trip leaders who carry little speakers to boost the sound on their recordings, as if they don’t realize that real birds don’t yell. Male birds can be intimidated by such loud sounds, and in at least some cases, females can grow disenchanted with their own mate after hearing an electronic male demonstrating such prowess.

In my experience, when playback is used to attract birds, less is more in terms of both ethics and effectiveness. Indeed, the only reason the Mexican Whip-poor-will came in so close to our group was because Laurens played a recording on his cell phone, softly and just a few times. Birds are curious, but also busy with their real lives, so it may take them a few minutes to fly in to check out the new bird in town. Patience is way more important than annoyingly loud persistence.

I was thrilled going out with Laurens for both his deep knowledge of the local avifauna and his ability to use playback respectfully and minimally. And when we were getting ready to move on after our wonderful experience with the Western Screech-Owl, something else struck home when Laurens gave it a nod and said "Thank you." I very often thank birds for wonderful experiences, too, but never ran across a professional guide who does this, at least not out loud. That was pretty wonderful.

I ran into Laurens and met his wife Awshee on Saturday, and it felt like we were old friends. Then on Sunday, after my last field trip, I ran into Laurens at festival headquarters. One bird I’d talked about in my keynote the night before was the Five-striped Sparrow. None of my field trips had visited the right spots for it, but Laurens happened to know exactly where to find some, and out of the clear blue sky he offered to drive me over to Box Canyon to see or at least hear some.

Five-striped Sparrow habitat

Five-striped Sparrows have a soft, delicate song. With my hearing aids set at their highest volume, I managed to hear the three individuals that Laurens could easily pick out, one close enough for even me to hear really well. I got a quick glimpse of that one flying past, too, but no photos. I wasn't disappointed. Even as my hearing goes south, hearing bird music strikes as deep in my soul as seeing birds does. I don't know if it's my background in music, or my childhood adventures with imitating my Grandpa's canaries and our neighborhood cardinal, but hearing birds is just as wonderful as seeing them for me.

Laurens picked out a new mammal for me—a Harris's ground squirrel—and a reptile—a whiptail lizard. 

Harris's Ground Squirrel

Whiptail 

That final afternoon of the birding festival was magic thanks to the sparrows, a little flock of Common Bushtits and Verdins, distant Cactus, Rock, and Canyon Wrens—such splendid avian company along with other cool wildlife and a top-notch birder who seems like a genuine kindred spirit. All in all, my last birding stop in Arizona was about as perfect as it could possibly be—a story-book ending to a perfect adventure.

Laurens Halsey in the Five-striped Sparrow area

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Southeast Arizona Birding Festival

Elegant Trogon

In October 2018, I received an email from Luke Safford asking me to be the keynote speaker at the 2019 Southeast Arizona Birding Festival. I was thrilled beyond compare, and for the past ten months I've been floating on high with anticipation. Last week was the actual event, and it was even more wonderful than I'd anticipated.

Jonathan  Lutz (Executive Director of Tucson Audubon), Luke Safford (Festival Coordinator), me, and Kevin Karlson
Jonathan Lutz (Tucson Audubon's Executive Director), Luke Safford (the festival director who made every detail of my visit so wonderful), me, and Kevin Karlson, the Friday evening featured speaker.
I arrived in Tucson on Wednesday, August 7, about noon. A birder named Jennie MacFarland picked me up at the airport, and during our drive, she told me a bit about her work with the southwestern population of Yellow-billed Cuckoos—when I ran into a group of three loud cuckoos on our first field trip, I of course sought out Jennie to tell her all about it. Wednesday evening I got to meet lots more people from Tucson and beyond at the social hour, and then went to bed early so I could be up for my morning field trip to Walker Canyon, an infrequently birded area very close to Nogales and the Mexican border.  

I was ostensibly a field trip co-leader, but since I live in Minnesota and have birded this area of Arizona only four times before, I was actually just along for color commentary. Our real leader was Tim Helentjaris, who loves birding in out-of-the-way places few other birders check out. We were hoping for a lot of Mexican specialties, and the trip didn’t disappoint. I got my first photos of an Elegant Trogon ever when a female posed from not too terribly far away.

Elegant Trogon

I also got a great look at a Varied Bunting flying by too quickly for me to photograph, and took a few photos of a young Gray Hawk.

Gray Hawk

Right now Montezuma Quail are busy raising their chicks, making this secretive species even more focused on staying out of sight than they usually are, so we didn’t see any.

The next day, Friday, my group headed for the famous Madera Canyon, one of the most popular birding canyons in the state. This time my co-leaders were Robert Mesta and Mollee Brown. We started out trying to get some lowland desert sparrows like Rufous-winged, Black-throated, Cassin’s, and Botteri's Sparrows.

Looking for Botteri's and Cassin's Sparrows

My ears are not what they used to be, but I did manage to hear the Cassin’s and Botteri’s both. Tragically, my photos were at such a distance and the two birds look so similar that I can’t be sure which photos were which. But the four sparrows did all end up listable, and while none came in close, I did get a distant recording of Cassin's.

A Varied Bunting was more cooperative, singing persistently from an exposed perch. We weren’t very close, but I did get some marginal recordings and photos, which was thrilling because I’ve only seen this gorgeous desert species once before in my life.

Varied Bunting

When we got up to a picnic ground, we had good views and photo ops of a male trogon.

Elegant Trogon

I got photos of a second male trogon in the trees behind the Santa Rita Lodge feeding station.

Elegant Trogon

That’s also where I got lots of photos of Broad-billed Hummingbirds ...

Broad-billed Hummingbird

... and a few photos of one Rivoli’s Hummingbird, which was up until recently called the Magnificent Hummingbird. That species was split into the Talamanca Hummingbird of Central America, which I’ve seen and photographed in Costa Rica, and the Rivoli’s, which I’d seen before but never photographed in Arizona.

While we were birding there, I got a wonderful sighting of another Minnesota birder, my friend John Richardson.

Laura and John Richardson

That night we took an evening field trip back to Madera for some owling. That evening was special enough to warrant its own blog post and podcast.

Western Screech-Owl

I didn’t get out birding at all on Saturday, which sounds strange for what is supposed to be a birding festival, but on Saturday I had to give both a morning talk and then the evening keynote at the banquet. The evening's "Fiesta de Aves" featured a mariachi band during the reception. I got to meet a wonderful young man named Dorian Escalante. I was thrilled later when he was given Tucson Audubon's brand new youth award, named in honor of Bill Thompson III. Dorian's is the first name on the beautiful new plaque.

The birding festival's Saturday night Fiesta de Aves featured a mariachi band!

Dorian Escalante and me

Dorian Escalante after being awarded the first youth award named for Bill Thompson III at the festival banquet.

Sunday was my final field trip, this time led with Gordon Karre, up Mt. Lemmon to the town called Summerhaven, at such an elevation that it’s cool up there even when Tucson is over 100 degrees. We had some excellent warblers—I got photos of Virginia’s, Hermit, and Olive Warblers and Painted Redstarts, and also got quick looks at Red-faced Warbler.

Virginia's Warbler

Hermit Warbler  

Olive Warbler

Painted Redstart

Broad-tailed Hummingbirds dominated at the feeding station we visited.

Broad-tailed Hummingbird

We also had some very quick looks at what is now called the Blue-throated Mountain-Gem, but I didn't get photos.

My total for the four days of birding was 90 species of birds along with some really cool other animals, such as Coues’ deer, which happens to be America’s second smallest deer after the Key deer, which I saw this very year in Florida. (Both are subspecies of our good old white-tailed deer.)

Coues' White-tailed Deer

I also saw a desert cottontail, Harris’s ground squirrel, and Abert’s squirrel, along with a coachwhip lizard.

Desert Cottontail

Harris's Ground Squirrel

Abert's Squirrel

Whiptail

I always see birds at birding festival field trips that I would miss on my own. The main reason is the leaders are intimately familiar with their local areas and know exactly what to look and listen for. Festivals are a great initiation into a new area for learning the ins and outs of some of the best birding spots.

But birding with groups, the point is to get on each bird well enough for everyone to see, meaning you can’t get close before everyone has seen it, and at that point people are ready to move on to the next bird. Birding alone allows me to spend lots of time with a single warbler flock or other aggregation, giving me time to pick out and verify more species.

As with everything in life, it’s a trade-off. Meeting great people, spending time in the field with experienced leaders, and spending time at festival headquarters learning about important conservation efforts to ensure that all the wonderful wildlife of that region will continue to thrive well into the future are the kinds of advantages a good birding festival provides.

The Southeast Arizona Birding Festival is at the forefront of the birding festival world. It was so inspirational that now I’m planning a road trip back there with Russ for next April. Then I can do the kind of low-key independent birding I also love, spending the kind of quality time watching, recording, and photographing individual birds that the logistics of festival field trips simply don't allow. Attending birding festivals and getting out on my own are both wonderful in their own ways. I love living in the best of both worlds. 

Five-striped Sparrow habitat

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Piping Plover news

Piping Plover mother and chick

June 3 was the day that turned 2019 into my Year of the Piping Plover. I'd already spent a satisfying morning on May 29 watching nesting adults at Popham Beach State Park in Maine.

Piping Plover

Piping Plover

Piping Plover on nest

But it was on June 3 that Laurie Gilman of Maine Audubon took me to some other Maine beaches where Piping Plover chicks had just hatched. It was the first time I’d ever seen these adorable, fluffy ping-pong-balls on stilts, and I’m still smiling whenever I think about it.

Piping Plover family

Piping Plover chicks

Piping Plover mother and three chicks

I haven’t been able to spend time in Chicago in the past few months, the very summer that a pair of Piping Plovers nested on Montrose Beach. The area around the beach and Montrose Harbor includes what birders call the “Magic Hedge.” I spent a lot of time birding there while my uncle was living. His apartment overlooked the harbor, and I stayed with him and my aunt for the last month of his life, for the duration of his receiving home hospice. Whenever I needed a few minutes to myself, I’d head through the tunnel under Lake Shore Drive, escaping to birding for respite. I love that area, though I’ve never ever seen a Piping Plover there. When I was a new birder, there were barely a dozen pairs along the entire Great Lakes. This year there are about 70.

The last time this endangered species nested anywhere in Chicago was 1955, when I was three years old. This year’s pair started their first nest a bit too close to the lake when water levels were already extremely high with the abundant rainfall. When a new storm threatened, researchers with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources removed those eggs for captive rearing. Monty and Rose—the nicknames birders gave the adults—started renesting quickly, on safer, higher ground. Three little plovers hatched. One ended up dying—when it appeared to be ill, it was captured and brought to a rehab center but they couldn’t save it. The other two seem to be thriving. People from Chicago Audubon, including friends of mine, are monitoring the birds all day every day to make sure human beachgoers are following the rules to protect them.

Montrose Beach used to be an ugly site, riddled with debris pushed around by bulldozers and sand-grooming machines. In the past two decades, thanks to conservation organizations and the Chicago Parks District, the beach has been restored into a beautiful site, as natural as possible at the edge of one of the country’s largest metropolitan areas. Ironically, that natural beauty attracted the attention of organizers of a huge music festival, with an expected attendance of over 50,000 people, and they scheduled the event at the beach this year. Public pressure, in part to protect the plovers, forced them to cancel. 

The 2 chicks and their parents continue to thrive—on August 6, they even both took their first very short flights. Russ and I will be in Chicago for our 50th year high school reunion in September, and plan to stop by and try to see these young birds before they migrate if it's not too late.

I will not have an opportunity to visit Maine again this year, but it sounds like the plovers there are having a banner year, too. Laurie Gilman just let me know that Maine had a total of 89 nesting pairs this year, up from 68 last year, and that 168 chicks are still safely running about.

I joined both the Chicago Audubon Society and Maine Audubon this year to support all the work both organizations have been doing to help one of my favorites of all birds. Piping Plovers are beautiful in a quiet, soft way; their young are objectively adorable; and they have never harmed a human being, our crops, our domesticated animals, or done anything else harmful to our interests. They don’t quite understand beach-going as recreation—beaches are where they live out every moment of their lives except when they’re in the air flying between beaches, so for them beaches are simply home. I’m glad enough people understand that and are helping these innocent, inoffensive creatures survive that their future is brighter today than it ever has been during my lifetime. I hope we can be as successful approaching other critical environmental issues.

Piping Plover

Saturday, August 3, 2019

It Ain't Over till It's Over

Le Conte's Sparrow

A few days ago, I was lamenting that my hearing loss is now making it impossible for me to hear LeConte’s Sparrows in the field without a lot of technology. It felt like I was never going to be able to see one of my favorite birds on the planet ever again. 

But Friday I went back to my mother-in-law’s old place on Kinney Valley Road in Port Wing, this time with my friend Paula and my trusty Bird Finder headphones that lower the frequency of the highest-pitched bird songs and calls. With their help, I easily found the sparrows, and took photos and made more sound recordings.

I arrived at 5:30 and played a recording, and immediately a family unit of at least four birds came right up to the shrubby area alongside the dirt road—that’s where I got most of my pictures. The sun was mostly behind them, but at close range, the birds weren’t too badly backlit.

Le Conte's Sparrow
This bird, which I think is a juvenile, was making chipping notes, not singing. 
Le Conte's Sparrow

They were mostly in among branches and leaves, so focusing was a bit of a challenge, but that’s the reason I take so many photos—some of them usually turn out. Many of my photos must have been of young birds—they no longer showed any trace of the gape that characterizes baby birds, but had fresh tail feathers (by now, I think the adults’ must be quite worn) and they had lots of delicate streaking on the breast and supercilium, or eyebrow. But I’ve not had any experience photographing LeConte’s Sparrows in August before, so without a baby bird’s gape mark, I’m not 100 percent certain about the age of any of the birds I photographed. I'm making guesses about age, and that almost all my photos are of young birds, but won't mind if any experienced banders tell me I've got it wrong. 

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow
I THINK this is the only adult I photographed yesterday, based on the worn tail, broad back streaking, lack of tiny streaking on the eyebrow, and delicate purplish markings on the nape. 
The mosquitoes on Kinney Valley Road were horrible for the first hour or so—they drove Paula back into her car before I arrived. I did have to pull up the hood on my sweatshirt, but the sparrows kept me so engaged that I didn’t feel any bites until I got home later.

At one point, one sparrow landed on the gravel road—I wasn’t quick enough to get its photo before it disappeared into the very lowest branches of a spruce tree on the far side. A second sparrow was over on that forested side of the road, too. I could see movement as they worked their way up the tree for a bit, but the only photos I got, with the sun full on one bird, were overexposed with glare light.

We stayed on Kinney Valley Road until 7 am, getting photos and recordings of the LeConte’s and a Sedge Wren, until the sun was high enough to be heating things up and the birds were losing interest in singing and staying by the road—they all seemed to gravitate to the more distant, entirely grassy areas of the field. 

I’ve never felt comfortable walking into that field—I’m petrified of damaging plants to begin with, and am absolutely horrified by even a possibility of unknowingly stepping on a nest. This being August, I’m presuming no females are on eggs, but it’s hard to break old habits, and I hate the idea of crushing plants, disrupting butterfly chrysalises, or unknowingly doing other damage to the natural creatures who belong in that field anyway.  Somehow the road itself seems to be the domain of humans, while the field belongs to birds and other natural creatures. If they come to the edge where I can see them, that seems fair, but it feels wrong to crash into land that belongs to them, not me.

That’s why as much as I’d love to do a solid study of LeConte’s Sparrow’s natural history, I never will get close to finding a nest—I’ll leave that to others. Meanwhile, my despairing about my ability to interact with this wonderful bird was premature. Yes, I’ll never be able to hear its whispered hiss of a song except at extremely close range, but I am still able to see and enjoy this tiny jewel of a bird.

Le Conte's Sparrow

I like goals, and so right now I’m planning to make 2020 "Laura's Year of LeConte’s Sparrow." I'll spend time in Port Wing every month from late April through August or September, and try to get down to Kansas, Oklahoma, and northern Texas each of the other months. My despair of just a few days ago has been replaced with hope and good cheer, and concrete planning. It ain’t over till it’s over.

Le Conte's Sparrow
I digiscoped this adult male LeConte's Sparrow (he was singing part of the time)
in that same field on 15 June 2005.