Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Backyard Update

White-throated Sparrow

As frustrating as it feels when I find out about rare birds appearing here and there, like a Townsend’s Warbler in the Twin Cities and a Ruff in western Wisconsin this week, I’ve been plenty contented right here in my own backyard. I love making sound recordings of birds, but seldom think of it when I’m home in spring. I normally do so much traveling that I tend to have too much to catch up on to focus on my own backyard. 

But this year I have no excuse, so starting last Friday, I’ve been outside with my sound recorder quite a bit, mostly making ambient recordings, in stereo, of all the songs going on simultaneously every morning.

My recorder

Yesterday morning, Wednesday, I set out my recorder in the back of the yard, propped on a long-dead tree stump, at 6 am, and got a full hour of White-throated Sparrows singing away.

White-throated Sparrow

My recorder

Then I put the recorder on my bird feeder in my side yard at 8 am and got an hour and a half of goldfinches twittering away.

American Goldfinch

That one is the recording I used for Thursday’s podcast. If you want a nice hour or so of bird songs while you’re focused on something, you can listen to or download any of the recordings on my webpage. If you click on "Miscellany" you'll find an easily accessed spot for my longer "ambient" sound recordings. I tag each recording with every bird I’ve been able to identify, if you want to quiz yourself.

White-throated Sparrow

I’ve been out there with my camera, too. On Tuesday, I spotted a gorgeous partial albino White-throated Sparrow—a bird most ornithologists call leucistic, but since that word has come to mean any bird with white or pale patches or all-over dilute plumage or all-white plumage with dark eyes, I prefer the more precise “partial albino” or “patchy albino” for a bird with abnormal patches of pure white.

White-throated Sparrow

Unfortunately, dense fog made good photos impossible all that day, but on Wednesday afternoon I sat out in my backyard for a little while, and that selfsame bird appeared up close and personal in lovely light.

White-throated Sparrow

I’ve not had a chance to get pictures of the kinglets passing through, but Wednesday did get a couple of good shots of a Brown Creeper.

Brown Creeper

A couple of American Tree Sparrows and an early Chipping Sparrow have also been hanging around the very back of my yard, but they seem to mostly come out when I’m in my home office, too far away for quality pictures. I have managed a photo or two of a Swamp Sparrow.

Swamp Sparrow

On Monday, there was a sudden shift—while I’d had only one or two White-throated Sparrows last week and lots of juncos, suddenly it was as many as 50 White-throated Sparrows and only two or three juncos. And the number of goldfinches has skyrocketed over the past few days. This is the funnest time to see them—most of the males have most of their intensely golden yellow feathers now, but some are still quite a patchwork—goldfinches are among the only songbirds that have a complete body feather molt both in fall and in spring.

American Goldfinch

They’re also fun to hear. I regret not starting to make sound recordings earlier, when I could have captured juncos and even a few Fox Sparrows singing, but I’m doing it now, and will try to capture some sounds and photos every day through migration.

Hunkering down does have its pleasures. I hope you’re finding some lovely backyard joys, too. Stay safe and well, dear reader.

White-throated Sparrow

Wednesday, April 29, 2020


Ruby-crowned Kinglet

In my time as a bird rehabilitator, I held a lot of different wild birds in my hands, from hummingbirds and warblers to Snowy Owls and a Great Blue Heron, but only because the birds had no choice. In my backyard, I’ve enticed perfectly healthy and free chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches to alight on my hand, but only by bribing them with mealworms. But there are three species of birds that have alighted on my hand without any coercion or bribes at all. I heard my lifer Pine Grosbeak before I saw him—a lone young male was whistling plaintively as I was walking toward my favorite birding spot in Madison, Wisconsin.

Pine Grosbeak

I whistled back to him, and this poor lonely flocking bird without a flock came closer and closer to me. When our eyes met, he seemed as delighted to find me as I was to find him. I have no idea what got into my head, but I took off my glove and raised my hand, and he alighted right on my finger! This was one of the most magical moments of my life. He whistled to me two or three more times as I whistled back and we gazed into each other’s eyes, but he seemed to realize that a mere human couldn’t provide either the companionship or the practical value of an actual Pine Grosbeak flock, and after an eternity of moments, he flitted to a nearby branch. We both kept up the whistling as he slowly, seemingly regretfully, retreated back into the woods.

Two other perfectly wild birds have also alighted on my finger, both in that same Madison, Wisconsin park. In neither case was it anywhere near as thrilling as with the Pine Grosbeak—they didn’t make eye contact, and in both cases I suspect they simply mistook my bare hand as a weird branch as they worked their way through a tangle of shrubs on frigid April mornings. The birds were ever so much tinier than the robin-sized grosbeak—indeed, they belonged to two of the tiniest songbird species in the world—the kinglets. Yes, both a Ruby-crowned Kinglet and a Golden-crowned Kinglet have alighted on my finger, both for just a couple of seconds at most, and even during that brief time looked every which way, so focused on searching for their breakfasts that I doubt if they even realized I was there. 

Golden-crowned Kinglet

These microscopic birds are passing through right now—they both reach the northland weeks before warblers do. Indeed, Golden-crowned Kinglets occasionally even winter up here, though unless one discovers a bird feeder, they can be very hard to notice with their exceedingly high-frequency triplet calls. Their golden crown gives some Old World relatives the name “firecrest,” conjuring not just the vivid, flaming color of the crown but a sense of fiery heat, appropriate because somehow these tiniest of all songbirds, weighing about the same as a nickel,  maintain an average daytime body temperature of about 110 degrees. 

Golden-crowned Kinglets are birds of the coniferous forest, with a very short tail, deeply grooved pads on their feet and a long hind toe that help them grip the tiniest conifer twigs, and just a single stiff feather covering their tiny nostrils.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

The much more generalist Ruby-crowned Kinglet, which is genetically different enough that some taxonomists place it in its own genus (Corthylio instead of Regulus), has a longer tail and shorter back toe. Both male and female Golden-crowned Kinglets have a flaming yellow crown—in males, the center is a brilliant scarlet orange. Female Ruby-crowned Kinglets lack any crown color, and males keep their ruby-crown concealed unless agitated.

I can’t hear Golden-crowned Kinglet calls at all anymore, and can just barely hear their song unless I have my hearing aids cranked to eleven. But thank goodness my hearing loss doesn’t extend to Ruby-crowned Kinglet songs. I’ve been hearing them a lot this week in my own backyard, reminding me how even in a pandemic when I’m hunkering down at home, life can be sweet and soul-enriching.

Ruby-crowned Kinglet

Monday, April 27, 2020

The completely made up story of Frederick the Nighthawk and Sneakers the Blue Jay

In 1992, at the height of my bird rehabilitation career, I had two education birds: a Common Nighthawk named Fred and a Blue Jay named Sneakers. I loved them both, but their personalities couldn't have been more opposite. They inspired the following story, which is of course entirely fictitious. (You can listen to the story on the podcast here.)

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Once upon a time, a serious young nighthawk named Frederick was hatched on a patch of bare ground not far from a massive oak tree. One morning, a spunky little Blue Jay named Sneakers fledged from his nest in the oak. He hopped to the ground near the fuzzy nighthawk, who was sitting thoughtfully in a patch of sunshine.

"My dad's bigger than your dad," boasted Sneakers.

"I believe you are partially correct in that assertion. Paternal progenitors of your species average about 12 inches in length, while in my species average only 9 or 10 inches. But adults of my species have a much larger wingspan: 24 inches compared with your species' 17."

Sneakers had never heard anyone talk so quietly and so numerically before. It made him uncomfortable and angry.

"My mom can whip your mom any day."

"That may well be true, if your mother is ill-bred enough to equate combativeness with strength of character." 

Sneakers didn't have the foggiest idea what the nighthawk was talking about, so he said, "One time my dad pulled a Great Horned Owl's tail feather right out of its skin." 

"My parents believe that discretion is the greater part of valor. My father has endured for a full decade now, surviving ten annual flights to and from Brazil. I believe individuals of your species have a much shorter life expectancy." 

The nighthawk was tired of talking to an ignorant jay, so he waddled about, turning his back on the little fledgling. Sneakers flitted over to face him again. 

"My name's Sneakers. What's yours?"

But the nighthawk turned about face again. Sneakers's feelings were hurt, so he tweaked the nighthawk's tail. One of the nighthawk's tail feathers suddenly gave out, and Sneakers, still tugging, fell head over heels backward. A drop of bright red blood marked the spot where the feather was pulled out. The nighthawk turned to face the jay.

"My name is Frederick," he said imperturbably. "But I have no interest in developing an acquaintance with someone as rude and thoughtless as you." He turned his back on Sneakers and fluffed out his feathers.

Sneakers was confused and sad and tuckered out after his first adventure away from the nest. He squawked loudly, and his mother came and led him back to the big oak.

As the summer went on, Sneakers learned the raucous and fun-loving ways of the Blue Jay. Frederick grew adept at catching moths in the evening sky, and spent his days in quiet contemplation. Although Sneakers never spoke to Frederick after that first awkward meeting, he often eyed him from the branches of the oak.

Just after dawn one late July morning, as Sneakers flew back to his tree with six raspberries in his throat pouch, something brownish red caught his eye. It was a fox, crouching low in a patch of weeds, inches from Frederick. "Look out!" yelled Sneakers. Frederick darted up in the air just as the fox sprang, narrowly escaping the predator's salivating jaws. As the fox slunk away, Frederick lighted on a horizontal limb of the oak and resumed his nap.

"You might say 'thank you,'" chided Sneakers. Frederick opened his eyes a moment and studied the Blue Jay placidly. Then he fluffed out his feathers and went back to sleep.

One August evening at twilight, just after Sneakers had retired to his branch in the oak, Frederick caught sight of a Great Horned Owl alighting on a branch above the Blue Jay and looking down on him. Great Horned Owls are fast and silent, but their long, broad wings don't maneuver well. Frederick darted through the branches, stomping his tiny feet on Sneakers's head.

"What the heck?!" yelled the sleepy jay as he tumbled through a mass of twigs and branches. He suddenly sensed the owl's presence and crouched as its shadow passed overhead. Then he spotted Frederick snatching a huge sphinx moth in midair.

"Did you really save me?" Sneakers asked in shock.

"It seemed the wisest and kindest course of action under the circumstances," said Frederick quietly. "Remember, you once saved my life."

"I wish we could be friends," said Sneakers.

"Caprimulgids and corvids are never friends," said Frederick wisely, but with a glint of longing in his own eyes. "Anyway, it is now time for me to follow my parents down our ancestral pathway to Brazil. I shudder to think what your winters must be like. You be careful out there."

"You, too," said Sneakers with feeling, wondering what it would be like to fly thousands of miles from home and have to learn to speak Portuguese.

The little nighthawk and the little Blue Jay saw each other every summer after that. They occasionally nodded to each other in passing, but they never again saved one another's lives, and never became friends in the normal fashion. Being neighbors was good enough.

Baby Blue Jay

Spring Is Springing!

One of Brad Snelling's amazing Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photos. Copyright 2020 by Brad Snelling
If we had to have so many people hunkering at home for weeks, and quite possibly for months, it couldn’t be happening at a better time of year. Right when I’ve been growing desperate for something exciting to happen, in surge spring migrants. The weather’s stayed cool enough that juncos are still the main ground feeders on Peabody Street, along with a couple of Fox Sparrows, my local Song Sparrows and a Mourning Dove. But suddenly goldfinches are everywhere, and my first White-throated Sparrow materialized on Thursday, hanging out with the juncos. I was thrilled to see one Yellow-rumped Warbler on Wednesday, and even more elated on Thursday when three or four were sampling the bugs in my aspen buds.

Yellow-rumped Warbler
NOT from this year!! I took this one back in 2006 at Park Point.

I’d expected my neighborhood to be relatively quiet with the shutdown, but there are just as many traffic sounds as usual, I heard my first lawn mower last week, and someone’s been running a chain saw a lot lately; meanwhile, people’s furnaces continue to fire up, giving an incessant hum to the background of my raw recordings. But my male robin has been singing a lot throughout the day as his mate scouts out nesting sites. He’s defending his territory and reminding his mate that he’s a fine and sturdy singer. So despite the noises, on Saturday I did make a pretty good recording. 

By Saturday, I had half a dozen Yellow-rumps, along with a couple of Ruby-crowned Kinglets, a Hermit Thrush and a couple of Brown Creepers.

Hermit Thrush
NOT from this year. I took this one in Port Wing in 2016.

I’ll set out hummingbird and oriole feeders on May 1—we don’t usually have either show up before Mother’s Day, but you never know, and ones that jump the gun really do need extra calories. And Russ set out my birdbath with the little running waterfall yesterday, so birds should start turning up there, too. Catbirds and Rose-breasted Grosbeaks should appear in the next several days along with a few more warblers. With the first burst of warm weather, we’ll start seeing White-crowned and Harris’s Sparrows, Brown Thrashers, and the first vireos. All this is filling my heart with gladness. 

As always seems to happen in my aspen tree, checking out its branches on Thursday revealed my first Yellow-bellied Sapsucker of the year, sipping sap in the upper branches. Saturday I took some very poor backlit, distant photos, but that very same day, my good friend Brad Snelling, from the College of St. Scholastica, managed to take some of the finest sapsucker photos I’ve ever seen. Brad was nice enough to let me share a couple of his photos on my blog—make sure you check it out. 

Another of Brad Snelling's amazing Yellow-bellied Sapsucker photos. (He took even more!) Copyright 2020 by Brad Snelling
The frustrations and anxiety in a time of pandemic are ever so much easier to deal with when we can set goals and share our achievements and good news. I doubt if I’ll get any sapsucker photos half as gorgeous as Brad’s, but I’m trying to get what photos and sound recordings I can. At least I can boast about my reasonably good photos of another woodpecker, thanks to pair of Pileateds that showed up for a couple of days last week. They’ve disappeared, but I’ll keep on watching.

Male Pileated Woodpecker
I did get this one last week. 
When we’ve no place to go, we might as well pay closer attention to the place we’re at—you never know what’s going to pop in, at least for a moment. Let me know what you’re seeing, and meanwhile, stay safe and well, dear listener.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Spirit v. Soul

American Woodcock
A soulful American Woodcock
I’ve been hunkering at home for the duration, spending my time archiving old radio scripts and going through my file drawers, unearthing all kinds of random treasures such as a play I wrote about Beethoven for my junior high students, a letter I received from chickadee authority Millicent Ficken, and the transcript of the program I wrote after the death of my friend Jeff Sonstegard, the artist who illustrated my book For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide.

Fred the Common Nighthawk
Jeff Sonstegard's soulful depiction of a Common Nighthawk
Delving into these treasured old memories epitomizes soulfulness to me. Coincidentally, one of the “For the Birds” transcripts I unearthed this week, from 1998, was about the difference between the spirit and the soul. I turn to nature to heal both spirit and soul, but how are the two different?

Ring-billed Gull

My most spiritual moments come as I look up into the sky, where my imagination places heaven. Snow-capped mountaintops climb to unreachable heights as inhospitable to human breath as the depths of the ocean. Clouds, wisps of crystallized water floating above the air, give shape and form to our dreams—our castles in the sky. The warm, glowing sun is achingly beautiful as it rises in the morning and sets at night. The luminous moon has such powerful gravitational force that it pulls even the ocean toward itself, giving us the tides. The uncountable stars are each their own sun, hot and gaseous but so remote to look like glittering diamonds, cold and hard. All of this appeals to my spiritual need to rise above a situation, to slip the surly bonds of earth to seek out such distant, lofty beauty. 

Sandhill Cranes

Birds in flight seem unfettered by the responsibilities and gravity that binds us to the earth. They fly easily at altitudes too high even for Sherpas, appealing to our spirit to come fly with them. Roger Tory Peterson wrote:
Birds can fly where they want to when they want to. So it seems to us, who are earthbound. They symbolize a degree of freedom that we would nearly give our souls to have.   

Least Tern 

Why would we need to give up our souls for that? I think it's because it is our souls that keep us rooted, responsible, down-to-earth. Ironically, birds are as bound and shackled by instincts and physical needs as we are by responsibilities and heavy bodies.

Yellow Warbler
This Yellow Warbler could fly anywhere she wanted, but stays hunkered down, soulfully brooding her chicks. 
But being bound to earth is hardly a bad thing. As Robert Frost wrote, “Earth's the place for love. I don't know where it's likely to go better.” Hermit Thrushes may sing their ethereal, spiritually uplifting songs at cathedral heights, but they return to the earth that so richly matches their plumage to soulfully nourish their bodies and raise their babies.

Hermit Thrush

The most soulful moments I have come at the shores of rivers and lakes and the ocean. I can sit for hours, mesmerized by the sparkling surface, hypnotized by the rhythm of the waves, searching into the unfathomable depths. A visit to the ocean is filled with soulful pleasures: Finding starfish and conch shells and other treasures in tide pools, watching Sanderlings scurry along the edge of the waves like tiny clockwork toys, seeing schools of fish suddenly appear and just as suddenly disappear back into the depths. Movement in water is slow and graceful, beautiful yet entirely different from airy flight. Cold-blooded water animals are hard for us to connect to emotionally—fish stare out with unblinking eyes that never look into our own. Yet warm-blooded aquatic animals—dolphins and whales, seals and penguins, loons and otters—all so warm and tender with their babies, their families, and sometimes even with us humans—seem soulful indeed.

Piping Plover mother and chick

Even the most aerial gulls and terns, ethereal white against the blue sky, beckoning to our spirits, come down to earth to raise their young with a tenderness that pleases our souls.

Least Tern nest

From guardian angels with feathered wings to doves symbolizing peace, birds embody both the lofty heights to which we aspire and the down-to-earth devotion so satisfying to our souls. What else on the planet so perfectly intertwines soul and spirit together?

Black-capped Chickadee

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Earth Day 2020

Pileated Woodpecker close-up

Fifty years ago this week, on April 22, 1970, schoolchildren and teachers from kindergarten through college, families, and all kinds of clubs and organizations banded together throughout the United States to celebrate the first Earth Day, which was the brainchild of Wisconsin’s own Gaylord Nelson. He said, “The objective was to get a nationwide demonstration of concern for the environment so large that it would shake the political establishment out of its lethargy and, finally, force this issue permanently onto the national political agenda.” 

Within three years, Congress passed the Environmental Policy Act, Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, and Clean Water Act. How very proud Gaylord Nelson must have been! Unfortunately, that Earth Day and its aftermath also shook many industries out of their lethargy, and some, including the Koch Brothers, immediately started banding together to fight these laws. Thanks to them, people were suddenly ridiculing such endangered species as the snail darter fish and the Spotted Owl, and decrying regulations that were designed to reduce the amount of mercury and other poisons and known carcinogens in our air and water. Just last week, the Trump administration’s EPA directors loosened the rules on mercury and other toxic pollutants, taking advantage of the pandemic, when most people aren’t paying much attention, reasonably assuming that a responsible federal government would be entirely focused on public health right now.

As a college freshman at the University of Illinois, I got involved with Earth Day, though I had no clue what it was really all about. Sure, I wanted to help Bald Eagles, Osprey, Peregrine Falcons, and California Condors. But I couldn’t even imagine that anything like these birds could actually exist, at least not wild and free in any place I could go to. These and other endangered creatures were what I thought of as zoo animals. Sadly, this Chicago girl had absolutely no sense of wildness beyond the Chicago’s forest preserves. There is no way I could possibly have imagined that there could exist a real-live woodpecker that looked like the Woody Woodpecker I’d seen on Saturday morning cartoons, much less that I would ever be able to live in a regular house in a regular neighborhood where this enormous and exotic woodpecker would come to visit.

When I got my first field guide for Christmas in 1974, I immediately got fixated on the Pileated Woodpecker.

The Ivory-billed was bigger and even more exotic, but the field guide said it was “on the verge of extinction.” The range map showed the Pileated all over the eastern half of the country, and in a big swath of the West as well—I should be able to find that one eventually, right?

I stared at the picture over and over during the following years, and finally saw my first Pileated Woodpecker a full six years after the first Earth Day, on June 5, 1976, at Hartwick Pines State Park in Michigan. Russ even managed to get a photo of the splendid bird, though it's pretty tricky to find it.

Laura's LIFER Pileated Woodpecker

Later that month, Russ had a meeting in Savannah, Georgia, and we came upon a noisy family of Pileateds while we were picnicking in a Georgia state park. To remember those splendid experiences, we bought the full-sized Audubon print of a Pileated family that year. It has hung in our living room, wherever we lived, ever since.

But Pileateds were few and far between most of the time during my early years of birding. My best place for spotting them was up in Port Wing, Wisconsin, when we visited Russ’s parents, but even there it was easier to hear a distant one than see one up close and personal.

Russ and I moved to Peabody Street in 1981. The first couple of decades, they were only rarely seen in our backyard, but in the early oughts, they started being much more regular. One male started visiting my window suet feeder quite a lot in 2004. I called him Jeepers.

Pileated Woodpecker

Pileated Woodpecker

Some years one or a pair have appeared in my backyard virtually daily. Suddenly I was getting photos and even videos, including my prized possession, a photo of a male sticking out his long, long tongue.

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!

But 2020 happens to be the first year in a while that I didn’t see a single Pileated on Peabody Street during all of January, February, and March. I had a heart attack in January and so was more stuck at home than usual, needing the soothing presence of birds right during a winter when they were few and far between at home. I didn’t see a Pileated Woodpecker during April, either, until yesterday, when a pair turned up out of the blue, calling to each other and visiting a lot of our old trees.

Male Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker calling to his mate

Female Pileated Woodpecker answering the call

As if to honor the fact that Earth Day is this week, the male even spent quite a bit of his time literally down to earth, feeding on and beside the dead birch trunks lining our raspberry patch in the back of the yard and on the ground beneath one of our neighbors' large maples.

Male Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker

The male also visited a couple of my feeders.

Male Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker

Even when they turn up daily, I cannot see or hear a Pileated Woodpecker without a deep and thrilling sense of satisfaction—a feeling of well-being down to my very core—something even more precious during a time when health and safety are so precarious. I may be spending my every minute on Peabody Street for the duration, but I’m hardly alone, not with my husband, son, daughter and son-in-law, and my little dog Pip sheltering here, too, and a grandchild coming this summer. The joys of backyard birding are a perfect icing on this splendid if fragile cake.

Knowing how precarious life is, and how precious this earth and its day-to-day treasures are, raises my commitment to protecting them. Fifty years after that first Earth Day, when I’m ever so much more aware and knowledgeable about wildlife and the environment and how important clean air and water are to my beloved family’s existence, I’m feeling more committed than ever to protecting this beautiful and fragile Earth.

Male Pileated Woodpecker