Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Tuesday, December 31, 2019


Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth
This sloth was right outside my window at the Canopy Tower in Panama. Boy did she fill me with gratitude!
I like to end every year thinking about all the things I’m grateful for. In the face of so many genuine environmental disasters with even more cataclysmic disasters looming, it can be hard to feel gratitude or joy, yet unless we can clearly see the beauty and value of the natural world, we lose our incentive to protect it. Every bit of distressing news works like a cataract, darkening our outlook by giving everything a dirty yellowish-brown cast, clouding our vision with despair. One thing I’m grateful for this year is cataract surgery, which has given me a literally brighter view of so many birds I love, and a useful metaphor, too.

How my cataract distorts color

Gratitude is a kind of cataract surgery, clearing our eyes to see what we value with more brilliance and clarity. And the more clearly we see treasured things in peril, the more clearly we will notice the hazards they face, propelling us to action. 

What else out there fills me with gratitude? In late November, one particular individual Laysan Albatross known as “Wisdom,” who was originally banded early in 1956 when she was a minimum of 5 years old, arrived back on Midway on her breeding territory. Wisdom is the only wild bird known to be older than I am—at least 69 years old right now. Her mate arrived late this year, so they may be taking a gap year, something most albatross pairs do every other year—Wisdom, overachiever, has raised a chick every year since 2006, and has fledged at least 35 chicks over her lifetime. It’s endlessly pleasing to realize there’s a bird out there older than I am, and that she’s still doing her part to ensure that Laysan Albatrosses exist well into the future. 

Wisdom (left) and her mate Akeakamai on 9 November 2019; photo by Emily Jankowski / USFWS

In 2019, I spent time with lots of amazing birds. All the way down in the Darien area of Panama, close to the Columbian border, I saw my lifer Harpy Eagle...

Harpy Eagle

....and a host of wondrous tropical birds between there and Panama City. (Hover your mouse above any photo or click on it for Flickr to identify it for you.)

Blue Cotinga

White-fronted Nunbird

Black-throated Trogon

Blue-chested Hummingbird

Blue Dacnis

Striated Heron

Rufescent Tiger-Heron

Rufous-capped Warbler

Barred Antshrike

In Maine, for the first time in my life, I got to see and photograph baby Piping Plovers—my photos will be among my very most treasured as long as I live. 

Piping Plover chicks

Piping Plover adult with chicks

And 2019 turned out to be a banner year for the species in Maine, where a minimum of 165 baby plovers fledged, a 29 percent increase over last year—and last year’s numbers were 30 percent higher than 2018. And in Chicago, a pair successfully brought off two chicks in the city for the first time since 1955.

When I was in Maine, I also took my prettiest Bobolink photos ever.


And in Wisconsin, for the first time in my life, I photographed a family of Le Conte’s Sparrows, in the very field where I used to bird when my mother-in-law lived there.

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow

Ryan Brady documented more Le Conte’s Sparrows there than anywhere else on Wisconsin’s Breeding Bird Atlas—that fills me with gratitude for those wonderful birds, for that beloved field, and for Ryan Brady’s hard work. Grassland birds are declining more precipitously than most other groups, so I feel a deep despair every May and June when I drive past newly mowed fields—crows, ravens, and gulls circling overhead anticipate the feast of mangled nestlings below. But knowing that there are pockets of thriving grassland birds here and there gives hope that if we can educate more landowners to do things right, there will still be Bobolinks and Le Conte’s Sparrows around to populate improved habitat. 

Le Conte's Sparrow

This year I had the enormous thrill of being invited to speak for groups from northern Maine to southeastern Arizona, enjoying birds ranging from Atlantic Puffins and Arctic Terns to Elegant Trogons and Five-striped Sparrows. (The only one I took a photo of this year was the trogon, and I've never photographed a Five-striped Sparrow.)

Atlantic Puffin

Arctic Tern

Elegant Trogon

Photo by Dominic Sherony, via Wikipedia, Creative Commons
On all those trips, I also got to spend lots of time with lots of inspiring people doing inspiring things to help protect birds.

Russ impressed quite a few of our high school friends at our 50-year reunion by telling them I was invited to speak at Harvard. Of course, I had to make it clear that I wasn’t invited by Harvard, but by the storied Brookline Bird Club, but either way, it was quite a thrill! 

Russ and I took two other trips together, too. We went to Florida to visit our son; in Orlando we saw the very first Limpkin chicks I've ever seen...

Limpkin chick

... in the Everglades we saw baby Anhingas...

Baby Anhinga

Anhinga chick

Baby Anhinga

... and in Saddlebunch Key, I got photos and a recording of a couple of Mangrove Cuckoos.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Then we went to California so Russ could for the first and last time go on a Debi Shearwater birding pelagic trip before she retired this year.

Debi Shearwater and me!
Debi Shearwater and me in Hungary in 2014.
We also visited the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa to see my letter to Charles Schulz and his response to me in the Woodstock exhibit.

Laura at the Charles M. Schulz Museum's Peace, Love, and Woodstock exhibit

So 2019 was an absolutely wonderful year for me, one of the most wonderful, start to finish, that I’ve been given. I’m ever so grateful for the 673 species of birds I’ve seen this year, a full 60 of them lifers. I end the year in good health, with better eyesight than ever, and my husband, family, and little dog Pip all well and happy. So gratitude for all this will light my path in 2020 as I work as hard as ever to protect all these treasures I’ve been given.

Family Portrait

Monday, December 30, 2019

The End of Mitigation

Black Skimmers

Ever since the Migratory Bird Act was enacted in 1918, it’s been illegal for people to “take” wildlife, defined as killing it, bringing it into captivity, disturbing it during nesting, or keeping body parts, pelts, feathers, nests, or eggs. For many decades, enforcement has been in the hands of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, except for some provisions allowing private landowners to kill wild predators and “nuisance animals”—those killings are now enforced by the Wildlife Services division of the US Department of Agriculture, which is focused on profitability for landowners, with very little interest in or expertise about wildlife. 

Red-winged Blackbird
Red-winged Blackbirds destroy about 2 percent of the nation's sunflower crop each year (though some individual farmers lose much more of their crop to them). This loss amounts to $7 to 10 million annually. Millions of Red-winged Blackbirds are baited and poisoned every spring by sunflower seed farmers, mostly in western Minnesota and the Dakotas. There is no research to support that these spring migrants are involved in the late summer damage to sunflower crops, and there is evidence that these poisoned birds in turn poison scavengers and predators. It would be more effective to recompense farmers for their losses than to kill birds not necessarily even involved in the losses. But this has been the policy for well over a decade, with the USDA's Wildlife Services, not the US Fish and Wildlife Service, in charge. 
We have just about all been involved in what is called “incidental take,” when a bird is killed by our car, one of our pets, or in a window collision at our house.

Dead Blackburnian Warbler
"Incidental take": a tragic bird death at one of my own windows. (Blackburnian Warbler)

The “incidental take” by some businesses, especially developers and the oil and gas extraction industries, is orders of magnitude larger than that by individuals. For a couple of generations now, we have expected that when individuals, corporations, and federal, state, and local governments are involved in projects that will have a heavy toll on wildlife or damage critical habitat, they must somehow mitigate for what they destroy.

One of my favorite birding spots between my house and Port Wing, Wisconsin, the Roy Johnson Wetland, is a “mitigation wetland,” put under management by the Wisconsin DNR to replace destroyed wetland elsewhere, and much of the quality habitat paid for by Duck Stamp dollars is also mitigation wetland. Developers of course hate having to pay out of their profits for this mitigation, doing it only when the savings from killing birds or setting a project in the middle of important habitat makes paying for the mitigation worth it.

Northern Harrier
This Northern Harrier flying over the Roy Johnson Wetland is one of a great many species that require wetlands for survival. When wetlands are destroyed, mitigation projects have at least compensated somewhat for the losses. 
But suddenly, things are changing so developers and others can make their profits at the expense of wildlife and habitat with no repercussions at all. Last year, the State of Virginia developed plans for a major bridge and tunnel expansion in the tidewaters of the Chesapeake Bay, where the project would literally plow under the nesting grounds for 25,000 Black Skimmers, Royal Terns, and other protected species.

Royal Tern

To mitigate the loss they developed plans for creating an artificial island where the birds could safely nest. But in June, thanks to brand new rules eliminating all criminal penalties for “incidental” migratory bird deaths in the course of “normal business,” the federal government said creating this island was “purely voluntary,” so the state decided not to bother mitigating the habitat loss. The New York Times is reporting that this is an actual trend—the federal government is actively discouraging local governments and businesses from taking any precautionary or mitigating measures to protect birds.

If that isn’t bad enough, the Fish and Wildlife Service told a Wyoming-based oil company that it no longer had to report any bird deaths to the agency. When residents of a Michigan apartment building complained about birds being killed as workers put up siding and gutters, Fish and Wildlife replied that it was fine as long as the purpose of the activity wasn’t specifically to hurt birds. And when a homeowners’ association in Arizona complained that a developer had refused to safely remove nesting burrowing owls from a nearby lot, Fish and Wildlife said that, because of the new legal interpretation, it would not compel the developer to act. 

Burrowing Owl

The Fish and Wildlife Service quietly made this enormous policy change in 2017, the administration claiming it is no more than a simple technical clarification to the Migratory Bird Act. It was reported at the time, but no one paid much attention except a handful of organizations that are suing to demand enforcement of the law. In the meantime, as we face huge losses of birds, the federal agency charged with protecting wildlife will no longer be doing the job most of us have long expected it to do.

Sarah Greenberger, senior vice president for conservation at Audubon, was quoted by the New York Times saying:
This is how we lose birds. We don’t lose them a billion at a time. We lose them from small incidents happening repeatedly over the vast geography of our country. 
What can we do about it? We need to show the same full-throated bipartisanship for conservation we did in the 1970s when we enacted so much environmental legislation to begin with. Dr. Seuss put it pretty clearly, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.”

Piping Plover mother and chick

Friday, December 20, 2019

I Can See Clearly Now

(Oops! I'm always getting left and right confused, and reversed which eye was which in part of my podcast! This has it right--or, I should say, correct.)

How my cataract distorts color

On Wednesday, I got the cataracts in my left eye removed. When I had the right eye done on December 4, my vision through that eye was blurry all day. That must have been partly a function of the dilation drops they gave me before surgery. I don’t think this nurse gave me as many, and even by Wednesday afternoon I was comfortable looking out the window without my sunglasses. Today I’m perfectly comfortable without them, even outside. And as early as Wednesday, I could see well through both eyes, together and independently. Today it’s even better. 

On Thursday, I had an early morning eye doctor appointment, which Russ drove me to in the dark. Through my left eye, headlights had dramatic lines of light shooting out, exactly as they did through my right eye the day after that surgery. But for the first time ever, I don’t see any weird halos of light around lights—either while Russ was driving in the dark or in other situations. Our Christmas tree lights are as brilliant as I’ve ever seen them. 

Unlike on Saturday, when Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count took place and so Russ paid attention to our mostly empty feeders all day, on Thursday they were busy enough for me to enjoy testing my new, improved vision. I can clearly see chickadees way in the back of our yard, something I’ve not been able to do even with eyeglasses for as long as I can remember. Knowing chickadees so well, this hasn’t hampered my recognizing them by their shape, the way they fly, and just something magical about them, but it’s so wonderful to see their perfect white cheeks, gray back with white edgings on the flight feathers, pure white underside, and buffy sides from so far away, without grabbing for my binoculars. Without eyeglasses, I can even tell if a Hairy or Downy Woodpecker way back there is a male or female. 

I tried out my binoculars Thursday, and it’s like I got new ones—everything is so much brighter and clearer! And having the eyecups extended, because I’m not wearing glasses, makes the view even better—those eyecups hold the eyes at exactly the right distance to give the optimal magnification AND block peripheral light. So when I do get bifocals, I’m still going to do most of my birding without glasses. I’ll still have to keep reading glasses or bifocals near for when I enter my birds into eBird on my phone or check my camera’s screen to review photos.

The problem with my perfect distance vision is that nothing close is in focus. We stopped at a store to buy some reading glasses en route to my second surgery to get ones that work with the right eye. I was surprised how well they’re working—I got one pair for my desk treadmill, and a stronger pair for closer work. I can wear them low on my nose when watching TV while working on my laptop. I’m keeping that pair on a chain around my neck because there are lots of times when I need to see something close. I won’t be able to drive until I get bifocals—I can see the road ahead, signs, and everything I need outside the car better than ever, but can’t read the dashboard at all. I’ll wait 10 days or so to get my first pair of bifocals. If my eyes do any changing beyond that, I’ll use the first pair as a backup. 

Cataracts build up slowly, and since mine are congenital, I may have never in my life been able to appreciate just how blue the sky is before. Having this surgery has literally given me a brighter outlook. Cataract surgery has an extremely high success rate, though there are occasional problems with it. But in the case of this 68-year-old, cataract surgery has left me not just much improved, but better than ever.

Thursday, December 19, 2019

Bird Declines, Part 2

Northern Bobwhite
Captive bobwhites sometimes escape game farms and retriever training clubs, like this one I took on my block a few years go. These poor birds are unsuited for the Upper Midwest, but even when they escape near their proper range, they seldom survive long and may also introduce diseases and genetic weaknesses into wild populations. 
Birds are declining dangerously. Not all species, of course. Urban and suburban populations of Canada Geese are higher than is good for us humans or the geese themselves. The same is true with regard to turkeys. Ironically, in both of those cases, overpopulation is not just due to human-altered habitat changes that are helpful to these species to the detriment of other species, but also due to the fact that a great many states’ natural resources departments reintroduced, or introduced in the first place, geese and turkeys for the benefit of sports hunters, despite knowing how harmful that has been with regard to augmenting populations of white-tailed deer and bringing in feral hogs to please hunters. In all these cases, hunting has not been enough to keep these populations in check, primarily because all these game species benefit from the way habitat is managed and the way humans alter habitat in urban, suburban, and rural areas. Managers focused on wildlife for hunting tout the “edge effect” and dismiss the importance of large, uninterrupted tracts of forest and grassland for the species that need them.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken
Lesser Prairie-Chickens have declined so badly that they should not be hunted at all until their numbers recover.
Over the years, several hunters have told me that if you want to protect an endangered species, all you need to do is make it a game species, because hunters ensure that the species they hunt for sport are properly managed. But all you need to do is look at Northern Bobwhite and sage and prairie grouses to see that that’s entirely wrong—those game species are all dangerously declining. Captive-reared bobwhite from game farms and retriever training clubs do show up even in my own neighborhood occasionally, and this summer one bobwhite was calling persistently on Kinney Valley Road in Port Wing, Wisconsin, but this is much too far north for these escaped birds to survive. They once were abundant in several birding places where I could count on seeing lots of them—now I usually miss them entirely.

But finally, virtually all ornithologists, conservation biologists, and others agree that the magnitude of loss of so many birds of so many species is not sustainable. Some of this is clearly due to habitat loss, but that makes it sound like a simple matter of using better management on public lands. We’re losing a lot on that front as states and the federal government cut back spending for knowledgeable and effective wildlife managers and on protecting public lands themselves. Back several administrations ago, money for Duck Stamps started covering the cost of temporarily leasing habitat rather than purchasing it outright, enriching landowners until they could find more lucrative, often environmentally destructive, uses for that land. Now just about all Duck Stamp funding is used for temporary leases, not outright purchasing quality habitat for our children and our children’s children. 
When small landowners ran America’s farms, they learned farming techniques to minimize or prevent erosion, and also learned to leave hedgerows where they couldn’t plow or harvest anyway. Some individual farmers flagged at least some bird nests so they wouldn’t mow them down. But we’ve lost a lot of birds that farmers used to enjoy—meadowlarks, bobolinks, harriers and short-eared owls have dwindled as mowing schedules advanced earlier and earlier into the nesting seasons, and farm cats have always taken a toll on songbirds as well as the rodents they ostensibly help control. 

Eastern Meadowlark
Eastern Meadowlarks are harder to find now than generations ago. 
Outside the major tracts of public and agricultural lands, we’re eating up habitat so more and more people can live away from more and more people. Thoreau wrote “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” That is absolutely true, and it’s equally true that in cities is the preservation of wildness. As our own species’ numbers mushroom, we need more, not fewer, people concentrated in cities to save what’s left of wild areas. That of course requires us to support every effort to make cities livable for everyone.

When I started doing my Breeding Bird Survey route in the 1980s, much of it was along old logging roads, with no houses anywhere near, and no traffic. But more and more of that was bought up for people who want to live out of town and don’t mind commuting 10 miles to Two Harbors or 30 miles to Duluth. Indeed, three times during the time I had that route, between the 80s and 2007, they had to reroute me three times as logging and rural roads were transformed into major thoroughfares carrying more and more commuters, compromising data quality because of the noise and making the roadside survey more dangerous. Ironically, moving the route like this also compromises the data, because the original routes were randomly selected. Every time they reroute it now, taking it onto a less developed road, they’re skewing the data, making it seem like less development, alone with the avian changes that come with it, is happening.

I used to think people who moved to the woods relished the forest habitat, but a great many of the houses that have cropped up along formerly forested areas of my survey routes have large swaths of lawn and are planted with exotic ornamentals rather than native trees and shrubs. And people with yards and gardens use more pesticides per acre than farmers do—pesticides have led to enormous losses of beneficial insects and to the birds that depend on them. 

Given all the problems birds are facing—and I haven’t yet touched on climate change, which is already leading to enormous losses and promises to get even worse—you’d think there was no hope of making things better. But there is. In coming days I’ll talk about what we can and must do, individually and collectively.


Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Bird Declines: Part 1

Window-killed Black-capped Chickadee

I’ve received several emails this fall like the one I received from Shenda Skalski and her daughter Ella K. They write:

>We live on Stingy Lake north of Nashwauk by Side Lake, McCarthy Beach area. Have owned our place since 1994. We used to have to fill our 5 bird feeders 2x daily!! Now, we barely see a bird and have not filled our 3 feeders once in 2 months!! We also barely saw a duck this summer!! We used to have almost 25 baby ducks in our yard at a time...several Mama mallards trusted our home as safety to rest.

I’ve heard from several people with similar concerns. The day after Duluth’s Christmas Bird Count, when I had a horrible time finding chickadees, I got an email from a woman named Alice who wrote:

>This is first winter since I moved up to NW Wisconsin that I see NO chickadees! Usually MANY. What’s going on???! 

My own dwindling backyard birdlife is certainly consistent with these observations. As a 68-year-old who has been an active birder for almost half a century, keeping track of my backyard birds here on Peabody Street for over 38 years, I’ve watched a steady decline in a great many species. My starting point for my own observations came in 1975, after big drops in bird numbers during the time DDT was being heavily applied in many areas in the Fifties and Sixties. Some of those species—in particular, robins, Bald Eagles, Ospreys, and Peregrine Falcons—have recovered since DDT was banned in the United States. Others have been declining steadily. Some of the most dramatic declines involve grassland species, or other birds with specific habitat needs.

This September, a study found that 3 billion birds have been lost in the U.S. and Canada since 1970. Suddenly people were shocked and distressed, though we’ve long known that roughly a billion birds a year are killed by domestic cats, and another billion by collisions with windows. There is a lot of magical thinking engaged in by conservationists about some mythical “surplus population.” Many species do have what we could think of as “extra” individuals not able to claim and defend their own territory, but out there waiting in the wings just in case a bird on territory gets killed. Well over a decade ago, Sidney Gauthreaux, using radar records, discovered that movements of migrating birds over the Gulf of Mexico had declined about about 50 percent between the 1960s and 1980s, and another 50 percent between 1980 and 2000. Many conservation biologists pooh-poohed his research because, although they, too, had detected declines using Breeding Bird Survey data, they didn’t see such a dramatic change. Birders actually had seen enormous declines already in the magnitude and number of warbler waves during migration, but biologists said we were using subjective impressions not supported by science. When Gauthreaux actually used science to prove the decline was larger than they had thought, rather than take it seriously, they shot holes in his work. This newest study is using radar data, with some of the same researchers who had pooh-poohed Gauthreaux now taking credit for their “discovery.”

Daniel Pauly at the University of British Columbia in Canada, called the problem of forgetting past natural abundance, or of new generations not knowing about it, “shifting baseline syndrome.” People seeing their first good warbler waves can’t help but thrill at the variety and numbers, without having a clue that those of us watching these waves in the 60s and 70s were seeing many more of them, with most waves including many more individuals. Yes, there is always some nostalgic coloring exaggerating memories, but in the case of birding, these memories are borne up by field notebooks of those keeping track of numbers from back then—another tool being used today as data from some of these old notebooks are entered into eBird.

Birds are indeed declining, dangerously, and attention must be paid. This week I’ll be writing about why the declines are taking place and what we can do about them.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Curious Adventures of Max the Maggot

How an Insignificant Little Grub Saved the Life of a Mighty Red-tailed Hawk

Based on a True Story

I wrote this story a decade ago, and tried to get it published as a picture book, but for some reason publishers shy away from stories about spunky maggots feeding on necrotic tissue. So I self-published it as a Kindle book in 2012, but have yet to receive a penny for it. Max wanted to be free so here he goes! If you know of a publisher who might like it, let me know.

Chapter 1: Hungry Babies

     Vanessa Redtail was discouraged and weary. She'd been hunting since early morning, scrutinizing every inch of ground, and hadn't detected a single thing. Not a rabbit or a snake--not even a lousy grasshopper!

     She didn't mind so much for herself. She was in fine fettle and could easily last two or three days more on a single scrawny mouse if she had to. But her nestlings were starving. Yesterday when Bruno ate little Bobby, it made her downright cranky. Vanessa was a skilled predator who understood Nature's way. Truth to tell, she was relieved to have one less mouth to feed. And although Bobby was hardly more than pinfeathers and bones, he made a satisfying meal for her eldest son. But she always felt a bit irritated when her children ate each other. 

     She circled above a farm field, noting with distress that the shadow of the oak was getting longer and the afternoon sky paler. Weakening thermals warned her that she didn't have much time left. She saw a movement in a tree--a squirrel! But it stayed in the branches where a buteo with long, broad wings couldn't possibly catch it. 

     Before she could feel the disappointment, a brown streak flashed through the grass. It looked like a fat snake but moved too fast. A weasel! Vanessa did her best to avoid weasels--vicious, nasty things her mother always said--but today she was desperate. She folded her wings and dropped like a bullet. Her aim was perfect, and she dug her talons into the slinky creature dead center. 

     Well, not quite DEAD center. Quick as lightning the weasel twisted itself around and sank its teeth into her neck. She screeched with pain but kept her wits about her, deftly biting it at the base of its skull to kill it instantly. In one smooth movement she opened her wings and took off, lugging her booty home. Sticky, warm blood oozed through her neck feathers as she flapped. 

     Her three babies squawked with hunger as she flew in. With a single practiced bite she snapped off the weasel's head and fed it to Bruno. Bailey got the forequarters and Belle the hindquarters and tail. Although she kept nothing for herself, Vanessa relished the taste of that weasel's blood in her mouth.

     She affectionately watched her babies back to the edge of the nest to poop, and then they snuggled down to sleep. All three had full crops for the first time in five days. She would have to search out better hunting grounds tomorrow, before Bruno and Belle started examining Bailey with hungry eyes, but tonight she would sleep well even with the painful neck wound, satisfied with a job well done.

Chapter 2: Pain in the Neck

     Two days later,  Vanessa's neck hurt as painfully as when the weasel bit her, and now it felt hot, too. Her head ached and her wings were stiff and heavy. The world looked blurry. She'd had great luck hunting yesterday after she discovered a pond in the middle of an open wood. The whole area was crawling with toads and snakes, and even a few mice. The nestlings had eaten well for which she was grateful, because today she was too sluggish and feverish to catch much of anything. She was crabby, too. Flies swarmed about her face, making it hard to see and harder to listen with that incessant buzzing.  

      One of the flies, named Sweet Shue, was cranky herself. She felt bloated, weighted down by hundreds of eggs all ready to lay, and right when she found the perfect spot for them this pesky hawk had started flying. The wind from its wings made it hard to land accurately. But Sweet Shue was a determined fly, anxious to unburden herself, and she finally got a toehold on Vanessa's neck, quickly deposited a small cluster of eggs, and buzzed off.   

     Vanessa circled the air. She was too dizzy to see anything on the ground so she gave up and went back to the nest tree while the sun was still high. By day's end, she felt even worse. She wanted to go to sleep and never wake up. But her babies needed her. What would happen to them if she didn't get better soon?  

Chapter 3: Max to the Rescue! 

     The next afternoon, one of the eggs on Vanessa's neck opened up and out popped Max the Maggot. He was a lively little larva, and hungry! He sniffed and sniffed. Something smelled wonderful. The world was still out of focus and he wasn't sure what he was supposed to be doing, but without thinking he started blindly tasting all around.  

     Vanessa's neck wound tasted yummy! Max went to work gobbling infected tissue as if it were the best thing he'd ever eaten, which, of course, it was. His brothers and sisters were hatching out, too, and within minutes all of them were lined up around the wound like King Arthur's knights at the Round Table. Mmmmmm, they all thought, but they didn't say anything, being quiet little grubs. They just ate and ate and ate.  

     Vanessa was sicker than ever. She hadn't been able to fly from the tree all day. The pain from her wound was overpowered by a dull throbbing that racked her whole body. The world looked gray and dark despite the sunny blue sky. She could barely see the ground from the nest. She drifted in and out of sleep, wondering if she was going to die. She wasn't scared, just weary, and vaguely wished that whatever was going to happen to her would happen soon.  

     The nestlings complained more and more as the day wore on, and finally Bruno jumped out of the nest and flapped clumsily off. He came back a couple hours later with blood and a clump of fur sticking to his beak. Vanessa was too weak to ask him what he'd caught.  

     The next morning she was feeling a little better. Her eyes seemed to be working okay and the throbbing had stopped. Her neck felt odd, but she couldn't see down there so she never guessed she had maggots. If she'd seen them, would she have been grossed out! She'd have shuddered at the repulsive things and clawed them off with loathing. Not being an entomologist, Vanessa didn't realize that some species of maggots digest soft, necrotic tissue, the kind that develops gangrene, and control infections as long as they themselves don't harbor diseases. Luckily, these were healthy maggots. And even more luckily, her wound was too far from her ear openings or eyes for the grubs to work their way inside her head. Now that would have been an ugly predicament! As it was, Max and his brothers and sisters were saving her life and she didn't even know it. Fortunately, they were too busy eating to notice that she never thanked them.  

Chapter 4: Wash Behind Your Ears 

     Soon Vanessa was feeling much better, well enough to preen for the first time in days. She drew each wing feather through her beak, straightening barbs and scraping off dust, grime, and lice. Then she preened her tail, back, and belly feathers. It felt good! The early morning sun warmed her with its radiance, and she savored the sunbeams streaming around glowing pink clouds. It was going to be a beautiful day!  

     Suddenly, the ground started shaking beneath the maggots. Earthquake! Or, rather, hawkquake! Vanessa was scratching her neck. Her sharp talons combed through the feathers, pulling off dried blood and goop and maggots. The first scratch shook off half of them. They fell to the ground like rice off a wedding veil. The next scratch shook off the rest—all except Max, a most tenacious little fellow. Fortunately for the others, cows that had rested in the shade of Vanessa's nest tree the day before left plenty of manure. Max's brothers and sisters would finish out their larval days in fragrant bliss.   

Chapter 5: A Room of His Own

     Now Max was alone. He didn't mind. He wasn't particularly close to his brothers and sisters and wouldn't miss them. Besides, they had finished off so much of the festering tissue that there wasn't enough left for a whole family anymore. He had Vanessa's neck all to himself!  

     He was starting to wonder about the world. Usually it seemed a tiny, dim place, there beneath Vanessa's neck feathers. His mouthparts sucked so hard on her wound that he never noticed much else. When he was just a baby grub, food was all he cared about anyway. Now he was growing older and wiser, and more curious. He decided to crawl around a bit, to get a feel for the lay of the land.  

     Maggots are not complicated animals, in body or in mind. Max didn't understand that he was living on a hawk, eating her infected tissue, or that hawks are birds that perch in trees and fly in the sky. But he was starting to notice that the air around him sometimes moved and sometimes didn't. He didn't have a clue what caused the windiness, but one morning he started thinking about it. He thought and thought and decided he might try, just for a moment, to take his mouth off his food source and look around. "Pop!" Letting go, his mouth made a popping sound like a cork. A teeny tiny cork, of course, but Max was amazed. He'd never made a sound before. He tried again. "Pop!" And again. "Pop! Pop! Pop!" Max was proud to be making sounds by himself.  

     The next time the windiness started, Max remembered what he wanted to figure out. He pulled his tiny head up and examined, for the first time, a feather. It was brown and blurry. Max wished he could see it more clearly. Suddenly he noticed something that took his breath away. Peeking through a break between the barbs in Vanessa's feather, he saw something far beyond that was brilliant blue, so pretty and bright that it made his heart ache. Max had discovered the sky.   

Chapter 6: Peeking Through Feathers

     Max ate and ate, and grew and grew. One day his skin felt so tight he thought he would burst right out of it, and all of a sudden he did! He was soft and squishy for about an hour and then felt like his old self again. But now he was bigger!  

     He was starting to realize that what he'd thought of as his home was actually somebody alive—someone who could come and go as she pleased. He wanted to thank her for giving him room and board, so one day he searched around and finally found her ear. He said in his loudest voice, "Thank you very much." Vanessa didn't seem to notice, but he couldn't be sure. In any event, he felt glad that he had said it.  

     Max ate a lot, but he also studied the world. He noticed that whenever he felt that windiness, everything got brighter. He loved popping his mouthparts off Vanessa's neck and peering through her feathers at the sky above and the ground below. The sky was beautiful, but so changeable! On warm peaceful days it was soft, pearly blue. Once when it was steel gray, drops of water raced by. One went through the space in Vanessa's feather right smack onto Max's snout. Was he surprised! Days when the sky was vivid blue were the most perfect days of all. Cottony white masses floated above, and Max thrilled at the many forms they took. They could be thin and wispy like feathers, or fat and round just like him! His favorite clouds were the bright ones with round tops and flat bottoms. He wondered what made them that way.  

     If Max turned his body exactly right, he could see the ground below. It was more complex and patterned than the sky, and more colorful. He particularly loved the many shades of green. Maple trees were deep and rich, aspens lighter, oaks had a subtly brownish tinge, and spruces were soft and silvery. Of course, Max didn't know anything about trees, but they sure were pretty from so far above.  

Chapter 7: Yearnings

     From up high, most of the ground was designed in squares as if someone had outlined every field and woodlot with a crayon. Max could never have imagined roads or highways, but he liked the patchwork effect. One unique place didn't fit the pattern. It was outlined in graceful curves, dazzling blue, and alive with sparkles. How Max longed to get a closer look! On sunny days with light winds, the surface danced with merriment. On gloomy, still days it seemed like a gray mirror of the sky. On blustery days it bustled with movement and whitecaps. But always there was a translucent, lovely quality that he yearned to explore. He wished so badly that Vanessa would fly closer just once. Being an inexperienced maggot, Max didn't realize that hawks seldom fly over lakes where no thermal air currents can hold them aloft. He just knew he wanted a closer look.  

     If only he could make Vanessa understand! Maybe if he talked to her again. He popped his mouthparts off her neck and crawled over to her ear.  

     "Hello, O wonderful flying creature. You have a magnificent talent. You can take off whenever you like and soar through the sky. The beautiful sky! Won't you consider flying nearer to that great sparkly place? I yearn to see it close up. I would be ever so grateful."  

     That long, formal speech was quite a production for an uneducated little grub, and the exertion completely tuckered him out. But Vanessa kept flying the same direction she'd been going as if she hadn't heard a word he said. Max wondered if her illness had made her deaf.  

     All he could think about was that lovely blue sparkly place. What was it? Why wouldn't Vanessa fly near it? Every time she came close he could feel his heart pound with anticipation, but she always veered off at the last moment. "Please, O flying one! Please!" Max pleaded, but she never acknowledged him. He felt small and insignificant.  

Chapter 8: Growing Pains

     There was less and less for Max to eat as Vanessa healed, and he was feeling lost and out of sorts, which made the yearning worse. Those blue sparkles haunted his dreams. Max wished it were possible for him to go there on his own. How he longed to have wings! To flutter up and go anywhere he wanted! He was growing bored eating the same stuff day in and day out, and now it was harder to find soft food on Vanessa's neck. What a splendid gift flying would be!  

     Max imagined that he could fly. Where would he go? Of course, first he'd check out the sparkly place. But then... The world was enormous big, he was starting to realize. Sometimes when Vanessa flew way up high in the sky, he imagined himself exploring it all. If only he had wings!  

     One day Max ran out of food. Vanessa's wound had healed totally, thanks to him, and now there was nothing left to eat. He felt hunger for the first time in his life, but he also had a different strange sensation. At least he thought it was different, but it was hard to be certain since hunger and weird feelings were both new to him.  

     Vanessa was flying high that glorious afternoon. The sky was ever so blue but Max felt too weak and out of sorts to enjoy it. Unexpectedly, without warning, of its own accord, his mouth let go of Vanessa's neck. With one final, pitiful "Pop!" he dropped off. He didn't know what was happening—all at once he was plummeting down, down, down.  

     At first he shut his eyes tight. But then it occurred to him that this might be the only time in his whole life that he would be in the air on his own so he tried to look, but everything whirled and whirred too fast to savor. Such a blur of colors! It was beautiful in its own way, and if he weren't shuddering in fear that this would be the last moment of his life, he'd have been thrilled.  

     He landed on a dandelion leaf and bounced off, huddling on the ground. He felt so peculiar. He didn't know how long he lay there paralyzed—it might have been hours or days—as his mind streamed in and out of consciousness. He dreamed about sparkles and clouds and monstrous feathers. 

Chapter 9: A Whole New World

     When Max finally woke up, he had his land legs. Legs! How did that happen? Six of them! They had just sort of popped out! With a start, he realized that his eyes could see ever so clearly, every which way. Kaleidoscope eyes! What a dazzling world he found himself in. He stretched and flexed his legs like a ballerina. What a grand feeling! But something weighed down his back. He tried to shake if off but it was stuck. What could it be?  

     A dewdrop hung from a drooping blade of grass, and with a shock he saw his reflection in it. Max wasn't a maggot anymore! That burden on his back—was a pair of wings! Beautiful, translucent wings! His wish had come true!  

     He instinctively tensed his back and the wings vibrated, making a soft, raspy sound. He experimented, working his back this way and that, and somehow the wings began to flutter. Harder and harder. He felt a windiness, and realized with joy that he was flying! All by himself!  

     His beautiful wings carried him up, up, up. At first he flew in a crooked, confused way, but when he mastered steering, Max flew straight to Vanessa and thanked her. Even with his shining silvery wings she didn't seem to notice him, but he was glad he thanked her anyhow.  

     Then he headed straight for the beckoning sparkly place. It was even more beautiful close up. He flew low to gaze at the mesmerizing waves and listen to the gentle, rhythmic lapping. He envisioned himself alighting on the sparkles, but cool air above the surface seemed ominous. Something deep inside him, deeper than curiosity, warned him not to touch. So Max didn't drown.  

Chapter 10: Maggots—The Gathering 

     Now where to? Max sniffed the air. Something smelled wonderful! He headed off toward the captivating smell. A moose! A big, dead, luscious, putrescent moose! With a bazillion flies just like him all gathered, feasting and buzzing and having a jolly time. He joined them, happy to be one of the crowd again, remembering with nostalgia the carefree days of his early youth.  

     Max ate until his stomach felt satisfied. Then he washed his eyes and body with his front legs and slowly raised and lowered his wings, feeling their delicate movements with pleasure. A soul-deep restlessness overpowered him. What a big, wide, wonderful world this was! Max itched to explore every inch. A couple of final mouthfuls of the succulent moose and he was ready. With one last glance at the gala feast, he bid his friends "Farewell! Carry on!" And with a flick of his wings, Max flew off into the glorious, enticing unknown.  

Friday, December 13, 2019

Color Perception

How my cataract distorts color
On the right is how my right eye, with the new lens replacing my cataract-ridden lens, sees this photo. On the left is about how my left eye, which still has the cataract, sees it. 
Just about every child wonders at some point how other species, and even other humans, perceive colors. Do a blue sky and white clouds look the same to everyone who isn’t colorblind? Sure, we humans all have pretty much the same eye structure, but in the same way that a joke could be hilarious to one person but fall flat to an identical twin, maybe colors look different to different people, too.

I was pretty sure I had a good handle on color—I’ve always been able to appreciate the different shades of red in a Scarlet Tanager, Northern Cardinal, and Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and I love the lovely tropical greenish yellow of a Chestnut-sided Warbler in autumn and the subtle shades of pinks and purples in a Common Grackle in full sunlight.

Chestnut-sided Warbler

Common Grackle
This Common Grackle, sitting in perfect light, is showing off his iridescent colors. This is how he really looks, without any color adjustments. If he also displays some UV colors, we can't see them. 
But now that I’ve had one of my cataracts removed, I’m discovering that the colors I see are different through that eye with its crystal-clear lens than through the eye still obscured with the cataract. I’ll be getting the second eye done on Wednesday, but during this interim period, I can actually use the magic of Lightroom and Photoshop to make two copies of the same photo, and then use a color sliders to show how the eye with the cataract sees it differently from the newly cataract-free eye. This is purely subjective and not at all scientific, but by switching eyes, I made the two photos on the left look the way my left eye sees it compared to how my right eye sees the same thing when I go back and forth between eyes.  I seem to see a more dramatic shift with the chickadee photo above than with this Blue Jay photo.

How my cataract distorts color
Left is how the Blue Jay looks through my left eye, which hasn't had cataract surgery yet. 
Meanwhile, last week, the British Ecological Society published a paper by Cedric P. van den Berg,  Jolyon Troscianko,  John A. Endler,  N. Justin Marshall, and  Karen L. Cheney in Methods in Ecology and Evolution titled “Quantitative Colour Pattern Analysis: A comprehensive framework for the analysis of colour patterns in nature.” We humans and many primates are trichromatic, meaning we have three kinds of cones in our eyes—sensitive to red, blue, and green hues—that allow us to see colors along the ROYGBIV spectrum. Most mammals, including dogs and cats, are dichromatic with just blue and green-sensing cones in their eyes. Arctic reindeer have a special cone that detects the UV light that lichen emit.

Bees are trichromatic, but also pick up UV light. Many insects, fish, reptiles, and birds have four kinds of cones, and the mantis shrimp can have up to 16 kinds of cones. Color perception is important for such essential tasks as detecting prey animals or vegetation types, noticing predators, and signaling their own kind for competitive, mating, or flocking purposes.

To better understand the function of colour signals in nature, the researchers developed quantitative analytical frameworks to estimate how animal and plant color patterns appear against natural backgrounds as viewed by ecologically relevant species. The program they developed takes a photo of how we see something and adds brilliant colors to the areas outside our own visual spectrum.

Of course, what we can see in any photo is limited to colors within the wavelengths our human retinas can see, so this is just a visual representation to help our understanding, not at all the way animals actually see the world—our imaginations really are limited to the colors within our own spectrum. The photos they’ve produced are brilliantly wonderful, but the popular press picking up those photos are saying “This is how birds see the world,” and “This software shows you exactly how different animals view the world” when it isn’t. We have no idea what colors look like outside our own visual range, so although this wonderful work is important and cool, it simply does not show “how birds see the world.” Until we humans can evolve retinas with more kinds of cone cells, the colors birds and other animals see will ever remain a mystery to us mere humans.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Book Review: When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin

Russ and I lived in Madison, Wisconsin from 1976 to 1981, while he was working on his Ph.D. and I was teaching. I spent one or two days every weekend birding, went birding every spring morning before school started, and spent a lot of my summer mornings birding—it was simply what I did. I was part of a small birding circle, and when I wasn’t helping with Madison Audubon field trips with one or two of my friends, one day each weekend I’d be off on a more focused birding jaunt with my more competitive birding buddies. Being both an introvert and timid about driving, I never set the agenda or invited others, leaving that to the people who were driving.

One of my favorite birding friends, Randy Hoffman, was a lot like me—introverted and rather shy. Randy was at least a few steps ahead of me in his birding skills, but like me didn’t like birding as a competition—he simply liked getting out there and seeing birds. Unlike me, Randy was also a superb general naturalist, far more knowledgeable about plant communities and big picture stuff, and extremely generous with his knowledge, so the few occasions that I did get to go out with him were wonderful and memorable. In May 1978, when he found out I still had never seen a Barred Owl, to took me where he knew we’d find one. And when he pointed it out and I still didn’t see it at first, he wasn’t the least bit arrogant or superior about it. I learned a lot about sharing my good birds and how to treat other birders as equals from Randy Hoffman.

Barred Owl

Randy wrote a fantastic book back in 2002, published by the University of Wisconsin Press, titled Wisconsin’s Natural Communities: How to Recognize Them, Where to Find Them, which somehow I didn’t learn about until just last month. It’s heavy on text which is fine with me—Randy is a very fine and vividly clear writer, and the maps and occasional illustrations are very helpful. He describes the natural communities of the state and gives excellent examples of places we can go to enjoy each one. Randy writes in the introduction that the book is written for:
amateur naturalists, hunters, bird watchers, hikers, campers, anglers, and others who appreciate the natural world and want a deeper understanding of what makes a healthy natural community. It is also intended for landowners or land managers who want to manage their land in the best way possible for the health of the natural community. The book is designed to help you understand the workings of these natural communities and to provide a foundation for recognizing the interconnections between different species in a community and between species and their habitats.
Last month, Randy came out with another great book, When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin. This one is self-published, available on Amazon in paperback or as a kindle-ebook. Like every self-published book and, nowadays, too many by major publishing houses that have cut back on copyediting, it could stand a bit of editing, but Randy is a clear enough writer that the book is still excellent—what I consider, like his Wisconsin Natural Communities, to be an important book for birders of Wisconsin and surrounding states.

When Things Happen breaks the year into 36 periods, three per month. It’s not really a phenology, because Randy doesn’t focus on first and last occurrences of anything, and has few illustrations. Instead, he offers in rich detail and depth is what is happening throughout the state in each time period. He starts each section with the day length in Racine in the southeastern corner of the state and Superior in the northwest, and often mentions meteor showers and other regularly appearing sky-watching phenomena. Depending on the season, he may talk about the sap running in trees and its value for humans and wildlife, give the peak blooming times for various plants, explain when does are most likely to drop their fawns, or tell us what to look for when trying to identify lichens. Where illustrations or sound recordings would be important, he gives excellent resource recommendations.

The meat of each section is an essay about some natural phenomena happening right about then, or simply something to think about—the essay for December 11-20 is about generosity and giving, focusing on ways we can give back to nature via conservation. These essays conjure the magical times I spent birding with Randy back in the 70s, with him sharing his knowledge in such an inviting way. In forthcoming blog posts over the coming year, I will highlight some of what he shares. Meanwhile, When Things Happen: A Guide to Natural Events in Wisconsin by Randy Hoffman is a splendid book to be savored, month by month.