Wednesday, January 29, 2020

My Gratitude Folder

Laura and Katie at Grandma's house, summer 1984

I have a folder in the Dropbox directory on my computer titled “Best Photos.” Every now and then I run through the pictures I’ve added on Flickr and add my all-time favorites to that folder. Because I keep the folder in Dropbox, my main computer and my laptop both select from those photos at random as my screen saver when I step away for more than a couple of minutes. Often when I return, I wait a minute or more just to savor those pictures. They change every five seconds or so, and I never know which one will pop up next—maybe a Cock-of-the-Rock from Peru,

Andean Cock-of the-rock

or a Cuban Tody,

Cuban Tody!!

or African Lions mating,

African Lion

or a soaking wet Harpy Eagle from Panama,

Harpy Eagle

or a Resplendent Quetzal from Costa Rica.

Resplendent Quetzal

The pictures recall trips and other cool experiences in both a general way and a very moment-specific way. A Mountain Gorilla photo brings me back to my one and only African trip, to Uganda, in 2016. But it also brings back that specific day, my 65th birthday, and the joy of hiking through the Impenetrable Forest in search of gorillas barely a week after the Cubs won the World Series, the song “Go, Cubs, Go!” running on an endless loop through my head that whole day. And the photo brings back the specific moment when I first saw that particular mountain gorilla—how shockingly peaceful and accepting of our presence the family group was, accustomed as they’d become to specific guides leading bunches of people, never more than once a day, to gawk at them. Any time a gorilla photo comes up, a host of happy memories floods my brain and heart.

Mountain Gorilla

In 2014, I spent a glorious morning in a photo blind photographing Lesser Prairie-Chickens. I got some spectacular photos, both through my own camera lens and also through an extraordinary 800mm f/5.6 lens. The man sharing the blind with me had rented that supersized lens, and when he wanted to use a different lens with his camera body, he let me hook up my camera to the big one. The birds were spectacular—I love recalling their amazing displays—but I also relish that encounter with a truly sweet and generous-spirited photographer.

Lesser Prairie-Chicken

My closeup photos of puffins and razorbills fill me with joy and happy memories of my 2013 trip to Machias Seal Island.

Atlantic Puffin


My Black-capped Vireo shots conjure the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, camping and hiking with my dog Photon, spending time with one of my favorite ornithologists on the planet, Joe Grzybowski, and so many thrilling moments there, like when two nice men helped me and Photon evacuate in the middle of the night when tornadoes threatened.

Black-capped Vireo

My Mangrove Cuckoo shots bring back Russ’s and my wonderful trip to Saddlebunch Key last April.

Mangrove Cuckoo

Bell’s Sparrow photos remind me of the great time I had in California with my treasured friend Ali Sheehey.

Bell's Sparrow

Baby Piping Plover shots bring me right back to the Maine coast and day my dear friend Laurie Gilman brought me to see these adorable puff balls.

Piping Plover chicks

A series of Boreal Owl photos remind me of the magical morning in 2013 when Russ and I came upon it, with my friend Jim Lind, in Two Harbors.

Boreal Owl

Some Evening Grosbeak pix remind me of the 16 that spent over 2 weeks in our yard beginning the morning after Russ returned from the hospital after surgery, right when we needed out spirits lightened.

Evening Grosbeak

My first California Condor photos are of the ones I saw with Russ in the Grand Canyon as our celebration of my 60th birthday.

California Condor

The first closeups I got, in California in 2013, do not just help me recall those birds but also my dear friend Eric Bowman who took me all around California that September.

California Condor

The ones from this past fall were of a very close bird—the first one Russ ever saw from close range.

California Condor

Over the past 15 years, I’ve gone on hundreds of trips. A single photo can bring an experience back into sharp clarity, at least until the next photo brings back another wondrous experience. A good half of my photos were taken in Port Wing, Wisconsin, mostly at my mother-in-law’s place, or right here in Duluth, many in my own backyard. Le Conte’s Sparrows, a host of warblers, Cedar and Bohemian Waxwings, Red-eyed Vireos, Pileated Woodpeckers—so many photos of so many wonderful birds I’m so very fond of.

Le Conte's Sparrow 

Bohemian Waxwing

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

And there are a bazillion photos of chickadees in there, too. Some were cooperative strangers I ran into at the bog or other places, but many are backyard chickadees I can still recognize as individuals.

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

And of course there are pictures of Russ and the kids—constant sources of joy.

Russ and Laura

April 6, 1982, Joey and me at the Tucson Desert Museum

Katie and Orange-crowned Warbler

Tommy and baby robin

Some of my bird photos go all the way back to 2005, but they run through the entire 15 years since then, too. I had a heart attack just 3 ½ weeks ago, but already since then I’ve added several new photos to this treasured folder. The poor Barn Owl I saw in the bog didn’t survive long after I photographed it, but I’ve yearned to see one up here for so very long, and will always feel grateful to that lovely soul because its path intersected mine for one brief and shining moment a week after my heart attack.

Barn Owl

I’ve also already had shockingly cool encounters with a Ruffed Grouse, Canada Jays, and a Great Gray Owl.

Ruffed Grouse

Gray Jay

Great Gray Owl

This folder on my computer is really my “gratitude folder,” reminding me over and over of so many wondrous moments that, just to see them for a few seconds at random intervals, each and every one, fills me with gratitude all over again. Right now there are 2,182 photos in there—I've barely scratched the surface when there are so very many birds and people that have so enriched my life, their photos reminding me that, despite two heart attacks, breast cancer, and other tricky stuff I've negotiated over the years, I'm living an extraordinarily lucky and happy life. Every time my Gratitude Folder pops up, it strikes me all over again just how happy I am to be here.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Lots of birders have been spending time in the Sax-Zim Bog this winter, and many of them have had good luck finding owls. I’ve seen lots of people talking about “their” Great Gray, Barred, and Northern Hawk Owls. A few have seen a Short-eared or Great Horned Owl in the bog, and some people have even managed to see a Boreal Owl there.  For one brief, shining moment, quite a few of us managed to see a Barn Owl—that poor thing was so far out of range that it almost certainly didn’t have a chance of surviving the winter even if it hadn’t been attacked by ravens. It was captured in a terribly emaciated state and didn’t survive being transported to the Raptor Center. They’ll do a necropsy to confirm exactly how the tragic wanderer died. 

The fact that so many birders gravitate to the bog improves everyone’s chances of finding any owls that are around. Basic birder etiquette requires anyone going to a heavily birded place to share our birds. When we see someone looking at or photographing a bird, we pull over behind them and carefully, quietly approach, holding back at least a bit and keeping cars between us and the bird until the other person gives us a signal that it’s okay to come on over—we stay quiet and stop if the bird shows any sign of spooking.

Great Gray Owl
Russ and I came upon this Great Gray Owl in the Bog last year. Lots of other birders joined us when they saw what we were looking at. 
Capitalizing on seeing the birds other people have found obligates us to share the ones we find, too. The vast majority of birders know how this works. This past weekend, when I was at the bog with my friend Pam, we got good looks at a few birds by stopping where others were stopped, and other birders stopped to check out what we were seeing here and there, too. But when we pulled over behind one car on Highway 7, to scan the field, a woman charged out of her car, asked if we were following her, and when we said we thought she might have found an owl, she told us to find our own birds. As far as we could tell, she wasn’t looking at anything, and we did find our own Northern Hawk Owl not far from there—we just don’t expect to meet rude birders.

Great Gray Owl

Yesterday, I had a completely opposite experience—someone actually going out of his way to make sure I got a good bird. My good birding friend Greg Garmer called me about 11:30 to tell me he could see a Great Gray Owl from his apartment below the freeway at 21st Avenue East—right in the city, just a few miles from my house. The bird has been there for a couple of days now, hunting in a narrow strip of open field between the freeway and Water Street, perching in some spruces and on a sign. Bazillions of birders have come there—it’s easy to park off Water Street and the bird quickly figured out that the birders are staying out of the field itself, staying on the roadside watching quietly enough that they’re not interfering with the owl’s hunting. Great Gray Owls feed primarily on meadow voles, which they detect by ear—the voles live in grassy tunnels that are right now buried under deep snow. The owls can focus their big facial disks so well that they can pick up mousey sounds even with highway traffic zipping by constantly. 

Great Gray Owl  

Great Gray Owl

I spent 45 minutes or an hour with the bird—I’d just bought a new camera body I wanted to test out, and got not just good photos when the owl was perched but also good flight shots.

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

Great Gray Owl

The light was fairly poor—I’ve pretty much forgotten what a sunny day looks like, it’s been so overcast lately—but I was thrilled, by my photos, of course, but especially by this magnificent bird who somehow is gracing Duluth’s waterfront for a few days.

Great Gray Owl

It’s very scary seeing such a stunning but fragile creature as cars roared past, knowing there are a lot of dangers between this urban spot and anywhere genuinely wild. 

Some people are talking about capturing and relocating it for its safety. The trick is that capturing a wild owl right next to a highway would not only be stressful for the bird but risk scaring the poor thing right into the path of those cars, and any place we relocated it would have its own dangers—some of the Great Gray Owls that have found good hunting areas in the open areas way out near Isabella or in the bog have ended up being killed by cars. We humans seem to think that we know more than wild birds do, and that a place we chose to put an owl in would of course be better than the one it found on its own. I’m sure we do understand the dangers of that place better than the owl does, but we may not understand the dangers of other places as well as the owl does, and we almost certainly don’t understand how stressful capture is under the best of circumstances. Relocating it is not a straightforward issue. 

Meanwhile, this magnificent bird has managed to survive here for at least two days, making lots of us very nervous even as we’re thrilled to have seen it. We’re all hoping that one morning it simply won’t be there, nor will its body be found near the roadside. It’s such a joy to see such a thing anywhere, much less right in town, and when a living being brings so much pleasure to so many people, we can’t help but wish it well, hoping against hope that it lives long and prospers.

Great Gray Owl

Monday, January 20, 2020

Book Review: Birds in Minnesota by Robert B. Janssen

Did you ever wait for the publication of an updated, revised, and expanded edition of an important book with eager anticipation, certain that it would be even more splendid than its predecessors? The first book I bought when we moved to Minnesota in 1981, which I got the very week we moved here, was Minnesota Birds: Where, When, and How Many, by Janet Green and Robert Janssen, published in 1975. No one has yet even tried to revise Thomas Sadler Roberts’s epic two-volume The Birds of Minnesota, published in 1932, but the information about where, when, and how many of each species one could see changed with time, and Green and Janssen did a masterful job of bringing that information up to date in one slender 210-page volume. They included every species reported to the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union through the end of 1970.

Pip perched atop The Birds of Minnesota
The works that sparked it all: Thomas Sadler Roberts's The Birds of Minnesota.
In 1987, Bob Janssen updated that book with his 352-page Birds in Minnesota. And finally, in 2020, he’s updated that with a 584-page full color edition: Birds in Minnesota, Revised and Expanded Edition. All three iterations have been published by the University of Minnesota Press.

I was certain I would love Bob Janssen’s long-awaited book just as much as I’d loved the previous two editions. Just after I ordered it, I suddenly and urgently needed current information about the Barn Owl (I'd seen one in the bog last week), and so that was the first species I checked out. And WHOA! He has it in the wrong family! The Barn Owl is the only North American owl belonging to the family Tytonidae. Unlike the typical owls belonging to Strigidae, members of the Barn Owl family have unique heart-shaped faces and proportionately smaller eyes. Their inner toe, which is as long as the middle one, has a pectinate claw like nightjars, and their sternum has two notches and is fused with the furcula. Both these old-fashioned structural differences and also the more modern DNA differences support keeping the Barn Owls in a separate family from typical owls.

Barn Owl
The Barn Owl has a distinctive heart-shaped face. 
Barred Owl
Typical owls, such as this Barred Owl, belong to the same order (Strigiformes) as the Barn Owl, but belong to a different family. 
Oddly, Birds in Minnesota puts the Barn Owl in Strigidae, and the error is emphasized because, thanks to being the first owl taxonomically, the Barn Owl is listed right under that wrong family name. The species entry is a page and a half long, but there’s an extra half page at the end of the owls, and the families have no special description—just the name and a generic graphic of a songbird on each one. It would not have taken much work from the designer to keep the total page numbers for owls the exact same, so I was mystified about this peculiar error.

A few other species are the sole representatives of their families, at least in Minnesota. Of them, the Osprey, Horned Lark, Brown Creeper, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and European Starling are all put in the correct families, but several other birds are misplaced. The Northern Fulmar, Wood Stork, and Magnificent Frigatebird are all placed in Gaviidae, the loon family; the American Dipper and Northern Wheatear are put in Regulidae with the kinglets; and the Yellow-breasted Chat is placed with the blackbirds. That one is a little understandable—the true blackbirds belong to Icteridae while the chat belongs in Icteriidae. But the book clearly states that “The nomenclature, sequence, and taxonomy used in this book are in accordance with the seventh edition of the American Ornithological Society’s Check-list of North American Birds (1998) and incorporates changes through the fifty-eighth supplement (July 2017).” Any copyeditor should have caught these obvious errors, especially in a book published by the University of Minnesota Press.

Paying close attention to the families made me notice something else that seemed strangely off—they used the same generic songbird silhouette at the top of every family section. A sparrow-type bird setting off sections about ducks or loons or herons seems bad enough, but a songbird depicting a section about owls, hawks, or falcons that eat sparrows seems genuinely inappropriate.  If the designers wanted to use the same simple graphic for each family section, they should have selected something else—a simple squiggle would have done the trick.

I ran into other irritating errors that should have been caught by any copyeditor. The Piping Plover entry says it’s “an rare spring migrant,” the kind of error even Microsoft Word picks up. And the photo credits are alphabetized by the photographers' first, not last, names, with the species listed under each photographer taxonomically. If you simply wanted to know who took that splendid photo of the Harris's Sparrow, you'd have to go through all the photographers' names, and the species listed under each, all the way to the T's to find Terry Johnson's name. It's rare to find a publication nowadays that doesn't list the photographers' names in tiny print along the side of each photo. And again, in what alternate universe do they alphabetize people's first names?

With regard to the photos, the information in the two previous iterations of the book didn't require photos, and I don't think they really strengthened this one in any way except to make it prettier. And if photos had to be included, many of them deserved more of a caption than simply the species name. The charming Winter Wren photographed by David Brislance is a young fledgling; someone unfamiliar with the species might have thought the yellowish gape and extremely short tail are typical of adults. And Andrew Nyhus's lovely Black-throated Blue Warbler is a female. Someone unfamiliar with that species would certainly wonder how it got its name. These were great and appropriate photos, but deserved a bit of an explanation.

Trumpeter Swan

A lot has happened in the 88 years since Roberts's Birds of Minnesota was published, including the loss of some species. Some had disappeared even before that. Roberts included an entry on the Trumpeter Swan even as he noted that they'd disappeared from the state decades before. Roberts knew a comprehensive book about the state's birdlife had to include every species found in the state, past as well as present. Janssen of course includes the Trumpeter Swan in this edition, noting, "What a great success story for this magnificent species."

But Janssen isn't so conscientious about including species that disappeared more recently. The Northern Bobwhite is listed in T.S. Roberts’ book and both earlier iterations of this one, but this time around, it’s simply dropped. It may have been absent in pre-settlement times, but there were many successful introductions up until 1952 and it's still found in surrounding counties in Wisconsin and Iowa. In Janssen's 1987 book it's listed as "regular, permanent resident," wild birds breeding in five counties. Suddenly the MOU is no longer accepting sightings even in those counties, but no explanation is given.

Northern Bobwhite

To this day, people sometimes see bobwhite in Minnesota, and not just where their last stronghold was—I photographed one right across the street from my house in 2014. I happen to know there's a retriever training club not far from here, from which bobwhites sometimes escape. And I realize that the numbers in Wisconsin and Iowa may well have been augmented by introductions and escaped birds rather than being genuinely natural, but it would have been valuable for readers who come upon a bobwhite somewhere in the state to be able to look up the species' status, wouldn't it? And people who remember that bobwhites were once found here and want to find out what happened ought to be able to read the answer in a "comprehensive" book about the state's birdlife. Unfortunately, Janssen dropped the species without explanation.

American Kestrel

For diurnal raptors, Janssen includes the yearly average seen at Hawk Ridge, the maximum seen in a single year, and the high daily counts. But considering how many decades of data we’ve amassed, isn’t it time he mentioned each hawk species’ count trends? Some of our raptors have increased wonderfully, like the Bald Eagle, Peregrine Falcon, and Merlin, but you’d never know from the text that the American Kestrel has declined dangerously throughout the entire country as well as within Minnesota unless you happen to notice the tiny graph from the Breeding Bird Survey. Janssen sums up the kestrel's status in the state as, “Regular. Migrant and summer resident. Uncommon in winter,”  and doesn't mention anything about its mystifying disappearance anywhere in his text.

Maps showing the nesting and summer range of each species are solid green with a dot in counties with confirmed nesting, the dot getting darker with increasing number of nesting records. But some counties are much larger than others, making the dot system pretty confusing and messy. It was a fine system when these same maps were originally developed, in black and white, in 1975, and not too bad in 1987, but by 2020, in a full-color book with the graphics allowing much finer detail, I wish Janssen would have used our state’s Breeding Bird Atlas maps, which show a lot more nuance and include far, far more valuable, current data. And even his other maps are not detailed enough. There is a single record, from 1997, of a Burrowing Owl in Duluth, but all of St. Louis County is colored on that species' map. This huge county is larger than four states, so showing that enormous swath of gray seems graphically misleading.

Burrowing Owl

When I bought my copy of this book, it was to keep my library current, so I don’t regret the purchase. But $34.95 is pretty pricey for people who simply want to know more about the state’s birds. Last I heard, the University of Minnesota Press will eventually be publishing the state’s Breeding Bird Atlas in book form, and if that work is anything like that project’s amazing website, it would be well worth double what this book cost.

I really wish the updated Minnesota Birds lived up to my expectations. I hardly ever write negative reviews of books—I know there are important things I may have missed or didn't properly appreciate about a work, and overall, it seems more useful to promote books and projects I do like than to attack ones I don't. But this book, published by a prestigious university press, stating on the cover that it is "authoritative" and "comprehensive," and "indispensable" for "birdwatchers in Minnesota, both amateur and professional," is simply not reflective of the best information we have about Minnesota birds in 2020. I can't come up with a single question about Minnesota birds that is answered in this book that isn't answered at least as completely, for free, online at or