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