Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, June 28, 2021

If you read this For the Birds blog via email…

 Email subscriptions for this blog have been managed by Google’s app Feedburner, but Google is ending the service in July (no date has been specified).

I’ve looked at alternatives, and MailChimp seems to be the best, least commercial and exploitative choice. On Thursday, I will import from Feedburner the addresses of For the Birds email subscribers and enter them into MailChimp. Emails may look different, particularly in the sender and subject lines, but should be easy to recognize.

It will be easy to stop getting emails from MailChimp by unsubscribing, but if you’re currently getting blog posts by email and want to opt out of this change entirely so MailChimp doesn’t get your email address at all, please email me by Thursday morning. Once MailChimp is running, I’ll turn off Feedburner, so you shouldn’t receive duplicate emails. 

My daughter and I tested MailChimp with Sunday’s blog post using our gmail addresses. Hers came through perfectly; mine was sent to spam. So if you don't get blog posts for a while, you might check your spam folder. 

This all only applies to people who receive the blog via email. If you read the blog on my website, nothing will be different. 

The Lost Weekend

Black-billed Cuckoo

When I wrote about the Black-billed Cuckoo last week, I started reminiscing about my lifer Black-billed Cuckoo and how, for one brief, shining moment when I was a new birder at Michigan State, I had an honest-to-goodness birding buddy. Her name was Mary Beauchard, and she was taking ornithology with me. Neither of us could get enough of birds, even with all the class field trips, so when I got an announcement from the Capital Area Audubon Society about a really exciting mid-May weekend field trip, we decided to go. Neither of us had much money, but we had a tent and two sleeping bags and were both up for a Big Adventure.  

I still have the field trip announcement in my field notebook!

At some point while we were making our plans, a guy in our class overheard us and asked if he could tag along. I didn’t know him very well and wasn’t keen about a third person. My car was a Ford Pinto, and with three, someone would be stuck riding in the cramped back seat. That also meant that Mary and I couldn’t leave our gear and snacks in the backseat where we could easily reach anything we wanted while we were on the road—we’d have to put most of our stuff in the hatchback. It seemed ungracious to outright say no, so I warned Dave that the Pinto didn’t have much legroom in back, and if he came along, he’d be the one back there. I also warned him that we were going to be camping and bringing our own food because even if we could afford to go to restaurants, we’d rather spend that time birding. He said he was an experienced camper and had all the gear he needed. So we were stuck.

When I picked them up in the morning, it was raining hard, but according to the Audubon announcement, the Fred Russ State Forest was 106 miles away—the rain couldn’t be everywhere, could it? Before I’d even made it out of the Lansing area, Dave started complaining about his back. I did not want Mary to give up her front seat—she was the one who’d helped me make all our plans plus she was an excellent bird spotter. But with the downpour, there weren’t many birds to spot anyway, and she kindly offered to let Dave sit in front. I found a place to pull over and they switched. He continued to complain but did not offer to switch back even though taking the front seat wasn’t helping.

If it had been just Mary and me, we would have spent the two-hour drive chatting about the birds we’d each seen that week as warbler migration was peaking, talking about the birds we hoped to see on this trip, and plotting out strategies so even if the rain kept up, we’d see wonderful things. But even from the front seat where Mary belonged, Dave continued complaining. What if the rain didn’t let up? I said birds can’t go indoors so we’d certainly see some, and it’s not like we didn’t have umbrellas. Except he didn’t bring one. I had a rain hat with a wide enough brim to protect my eyes and binoculars, so I told him he could use mine, but he said he could hardly manage binoculars with one hand while holding an umbrella. I’d already figured out the technique of sliding the umbrella under my shirt into the center of my bra, which holds it securely in place, but was too shy and proper to mention that sort of risqué thing, and he’d have complained about how that wasn’t fair to men. 

Then he started whining about how his tent leaked. I said I could flatten the hatchback’s backseat so he could sleep in the car, but no—he said his back would make that impossible. I don’t think we spent even a minute of the long drive chatting about birds. 

The field trip participants were supposed to meet at 9 am sharp in the picnic area near the entrance to the state forest, and the driving rain slowed us down plus we’d lost time pulling over so Dave could take the front seat, so we were cutting it close, but we made it. I expected to see at least a dozen cars there before us, but no—the parking area was empty. Well, empty of cars. There were plenty of birds in the trees, and now the rain was just a steady drizzle, so Mary and I jumped out. Despite the rain, we tallied 25 species, including a stunning Black-billed Cuckoo—a lifer for both Mary and me—not far from the car. I ran to tell Dave, but he’d seen one of those before. He stayed hunkered down with his arms folded across his chest and a frown on his face. 

Black-billed Cuckoo

Mary and I had a lovely time in the picnic and parking area while Dave stayed in the car, now complaining because he didn’t bring anything to read. The drizzle kept up, but the temperature was pleasant and there was no wind. It wasn’t the best birding ever, but was far from the worst. 

This being 1976, there was a phone booth by the office, not far away, so after a couple of hours, it occurred to me to call Russ at home. He said maybe 10 minutes after I left, someone from Audubon had called to tell me the field trip had been cancelled. I had the Audubon newsletter with the weekend’s itinerary and directions to Warren Woods State Park, Warren Dunes State Park, and the Grand Mere Dunes. Mary and I would have seen a LOT of new birds in those spots, and we both wanted to forge ahead, but somehow spending the next 30 or more hours with a cranky third wheel didn’t seem bearable, so we headed home. 

Mary Bouchard and I did some more birding together in the next couple of weeks, but then Russ and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, early in June and I lost track of her.  I just now googled Dave and he was easy to find, but I doubt he’d want to hear from me any more than I’d want to hear from him. He did teach me important lessons about saying no and about doing my best to be adaptable when birding with others. I can’t help but think about him as well as Mary Bouchard whenever I see or even think about a Black-billed Cuckoo—one of the saving graces of an unforgettable lost weekend. 

Black-billed Cuckoo

Sunday, June 27, 2021

How do woodpeckers learn to slam their faces into trees?

"Gepetto," a woodpecker I raised, figuring out that food grows in trees.

Last week I got an email from a good friend of mine named Scott. He writes about seeing: 

a little woodpecker doing what it does, hammering at a small tree. We mused about whether woodpeckers hammer out of nature or nurture, or trained nature. The question on the table was: if a woodpecker were raised by chickadees and never saw another woodpecker, would it still instinctively hammer?”

That is a great question with a complicated answer. Baby woodpeckers hatch in an earlier stage of development than chickadees or most other birds, with no down feathers at all. Their parents spend all day gorging themselves on whatever insects they can find and then returning to the nest to feed the babies by regurgitation. During my time as a rehabber, I raised two baby flickers and one baby Pileated. The flickers were fairly feathered out nestlings when I got them—their tree had broken right at the cavity in a storm. The parents were still returning and caring for the nestlings but then a crow discovered the open nest and carried off at least one nestling. As it was returning to take another, the people who lived there climbed a ladder, pulled out the surviving nestlings, and brought them to me. The baby Pileated I raised had apparently just fledged when it was hit by a car in Two Harbors—this may have been its maiden voyage. Its wing was sprained but there were no breaks. 

Both flickers and pileateds specialize on ants as well as on insects hidden under the bark of trees. It would be inefficient to carry ants via their beaks—they’d have to make an awful lot of separate trips to the nest from a good anthill, so instead, the parents swallow all the ants they can on a single trip and then feed the nestlings via regurgitation. There was no way I could obtain the precise mixture of natural food in the huge quantities their parents could feed them, so I substituted a mixture of mashed mealworms and a commercial powdered hand-feeding mix. I added enough water to make it the consistency of pancake batter and fed it via an eyedropper. They guzzled it down from the time I got the birds until they were independent.  

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers

I’ve watched woodpeckers of other species, less dependent on ants, at a few nests, most especially the Red-bellied Woodpeckers that nested in my boxelder in 2016. I have photos of adults carrying insects in their beak on June 17, a full 22 days before I got a photo of a well-feathered nestling sticking its head out of the nest, so those chicks must not be fed by regurgitation. 

Male Red-bellied Woodpecker
June 17, 2016
Nesting Red-bellied Woodpeckers
June 20, 2016
Red-bellied Woodpeckers bringing food items to nest
June 29, 2016
Hello, world!
July 8, 2016

I’ve not personally watched Downy Woodpeckers feeding their young, but two photos in my book, Into the Nest: Intimate Views of the Courting, Parenting, and Family Lives of Familiar Birds, showing the inside of a Downy Woodpecker nest, show the mother bringing beakfuls of insects and spiders to the nestlings.  I don’t know at what stage baby woodpeckers in general start paying attention to what their food looks like. 

Photo by Stan Tekiela from Into the NestCopyright 2015 by Stan Tekiela. All rights reserved.

Photo by Stan Tekiela from Into the NestCopyright 2015 by Stan Tekiela. All rights reserved.

Baby woodpeckers stay with their parents for several weeks after fledging. During the first days and even weeks, they follow their parents closely. I’ve had lots of opportunities to watch adults of several species with their young, and the interactions are charming. Once I spent a half hour watching a father Pileated and his daughter. He was pecking into a tree right next to her, seemingly showing her the right places to dig. I watched her dig out and swallow a few big bugs all by herself, but several times even after a few successes, she got impatient and started begging. Her father patiently fed her even as he seemed to make sure she was watching him dig out more. And each time after feeding her, he moved a foot or two away from her, as if encouraging her to dig out her own insects in the tree bark. 

This is how parents educate their young even as they continue to provide everything the chicks need. That is exactly why only qualified people should ever raise baby birds—when people don’t understand this critical process, their impulse is simply to let the babies go when they can fly by themselves. We obviously cannot teach them everything their parents can, but if we’re expecting them to pick up their knowledge on the street—where they can find their own food, what signals should they pay attention to when predators are near, where they should hide out during storms or when a predator is about, and probably little things we mere humans cannot imagine—we still must provide food as they figure all that out for themselves.  

When I raised the flickers, I could show them some of the anthills in my neighborhood, but it took them a long time to figure out other ways of getting food, so they were still coming back to me and my sons for feedings well over a month after natural flickers, properly educated by their parents, were fully independent. 

Northern Flickers

By October, my flickers were taking less and less food from us, and they disappeared by the end of the month. I know for a fact that at least one of them survived the winter, because when my son was doing his paper route the next spring and a flicker called, he whistled and it alighted on him. 

Woodpeckers have such exquisite hearing that they hear where insects are in the trees and learn how to slam their sturdy beaks right where they'll be able to get them. Wild woodpeckers get to study how their parents do this, and that studiousness itself is instinctive. But I know that the Pileated I raised figured out the tree-slamming stuff without my demonstrations. I was better at taking him to anthills—he could slurp up ants to his stomach’s content with fairly little effort, at least for a day or two before he’d decimated that ant population. 

So even though there is no record of a chickadee rearing a baby woodpecker, we know that they do work out how to slam their faces into trees to get out food—I imagine they also watch their parents excavating holes, though I can’t be certain about that. It's all so interesting, and the more we learn, the more we realize how much we still don't know. 


Thursday, June 24, 2021

New Technology for Citizen Scientists

Northern Flying Squirrel at my bird bath!

This week I talked about good and bad news about birds. There’s also a bit of current news about flying squirrels which I read about in an article by John Myers in the Duluth News-Tribune this week.   

A study out of Ontario is finding that northern flying squirrels are disappearing from the Northland thanks to climate change as warming trends lead to the loss of so many of our conifers. Southern flying squirrels, more associated with hardwoods, are advancing north and replacing the northern species at the astonishing rate of 12.5 miles per year. Rich Staffen, a biologist with the Wisconsin DNR, said southern flying squirrels have now reached Lake Superior, and that squirrel trapping programs in the past 5 years in the northern third of Wisconsin now are mostly catching southern flying squirrels and only rarely northerns. Both Wisconsin and Michigan are now listing the northern flying squirrel as a species of concern because of their rapidly shrinking range. Minnesota hadn’t been paying much attention until just recently. Now Michael Joyce, a wildlife ecologist at the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, is leading a pilot program to capture ultrasonic voices of flying squirrels and to capture their images from trail cams. He’s also asking people up here to share our reports. (Michael Joyce's email,) My backyard trail cams caught pictures and videos of flying squirrels in a feeder and a birdbath last fall. They look to my inexperienced eyes like southern flying squirrels but I couldn’t be sure—taken at night, the photos are black-and-white and don’t show that much detail, but that’s for Michael Joyce to decide.   

Northern Flying Squirrel at my bird bath!

During the pandemic, more and more people have started paying attention to backyard wildlife, and as people grow increasingly aware of birds and other animals living among us, the natural impulse is to care more. That should vastly increase the data citizen science provides for projects like the flying squirrel study. 

The single easiest way anyone can provide valuable data is to submit their bird sightings to eBird—a wonderful, absolutely free, tool managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I have the eBird app on my iPhone. Say I’m about to take a walk along the Western Waterfront Trail. I start up the eBird app in the parking lot. It produces a checklist of the likely birds I’ll see there that day. I keep track of species and numbers as I walk, but don’t entered some birds until I get back to the parking lot when I’m done—the idea of eBird after all is to keep track of the birds we see, not keep our faces focused on an app. When I’m done, eBird shows a map of exactly where I’ve been at that time on that date, along with my checklist. The data generated is valuable for conservation scientists, and grows ever more valuable as the network of people submitting data grows. And eBird’s value isn’t limited to science. It also keeps track of our personal birding lists so if we keep it up to date, we can find out exactly how long our yard list is, how many birds we've seen in any given year, and how many birds we’ve seen in each location, county, state, and country we’ve birded in.  

But what if you can’t recognize a bird? The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has another app, Merlin, designed to help anyone, including absolute beginners, with identification. Merlin even identifies bird photos if we furnish the date and place to narrow down the possibilities. I’ve tested Merlin many times with my own photos of known birds, including some pretty marginal photos, and been very impressed with the app’s accuracy. And it can be used with eBird so the birds we identify can be seamlessly added to our checklist. Like eBird, Merlin is absolutely free.   

And this week, Cornell announced a huge improvement in this already superb app. Now Merlin can help us identify the bird sounds we hear! I haven’t tested it myself yet—I only heard about it yesterday—but it looks fantastic. And again, it’s absolutely free. You can learn about it at  

Since the pandemic began, I’ve been making lots of recordings of my backyard birds. Sometimes those recordings reveal the presence of birds I hadn’t noticed in person. Now a group of biologists and conservationists have developed an exciting device called Terra, which contains a set of microphones and a radio receiver for radio-tagged birds to be set up on people’s property. It will keep track of night sounds of migrating birds as well as day-flying birds, and will recognize the increasing number of birds wearing radio tags as they visit or fly over our yards. Terra’s scientific value will come from having an extensive network of them. The Terra team is launching this project via Kickstarter, setting a goal of $266,700 in pledges in the campaign, which ends of July 1. No money pledged will be charged unless they reach this goal; the device will be sent to everyone who pledges $165 or more. The link to the Terra information page is here.   

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of so many urgent environmental problems. eBird, Merlin, and now Terra are wonderful tools to help us notice, recognize, and enjoy wildlife while making tangible contributions to their long term survival.  

Monday, June 21, 2021


Cuckoo Clock

Long before I ever became a birder, the word cuckoo conjured two things: the Three Stooges and cuckoo clocks. I had no idea that the distinctive sound cuckoo clocks make is a perfect imitation of the Common Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus), a bird that German clockmakers would have been very familiar with in the Black Forest when they created this wonderful timepiece. I didn’t know anything about the bird when I took my first Shakespeare classes. He makes reference to this bird, the inspiration behind the word cuckold, fairly often.

Cuculus canorus vogelartinfo chris romeiks CHR0791 cropped

The cuckoos of the UK and Europe are in the same family as our American cuckoos, but in a different subfamily, Cuculinae, and the birds are quite different in important ways. The Common Cuckoo is famous for being a brood parasite, meaning females lay their eggs in the nests of other species, and those parents raise the cuckoos instead of their own young. When a Common Cuckoo egg hatches, the tiny hatchling has a powerful instinct to roll out everything else in the nest, including any eggs or chicks belonging to the parents at that nest, so it will soon have no competition at all for every one of both parents’ feedings. American cowbirds are also brood parasites, but although baby cowbirds have a serious size advantage over the natural warblers or sparrows in the nest, the cowbirds aren’t aggressive toward them. In many species such as Song Sparrows, at least two and sometimes three of the parents’ own nestlings survive to fledge along with the baby cowbird. European cuckoos are larger than cowbirds and apparently need all the calories the foster parents can muster. 

Mangrove Cuckoo
Mangrove Cuckoo

Yellow-billed Cuckoo
Yellow-billed Cuckoo

Black-billed Cuckoo
Black-billed Cuckoo

The three cuckoos found in the United States belong to a different subfamily, Coccyzinae, and are not usually brood parasites (though they sometimes lay eggs in the nests of other birds—cuckoos and other species—in addition to laying eggs in their own nests and raising those young). All three of our cuckoos have distinctive calls but can sit still for many long minutes within foliage, so even when they’re calling persistently, they can be tricky to observe. Although we may work hard to see one at all, none of them seem all that wary, so once you do see one, you can often watch for a while. 

The Mangrove Cuckoo, found in the United States only in southern Florida and most easily seen here in the Keys, has a very loud call. This was considered a migratory species that withdrew from Florida in winter back, making it seem to be a rarer find than it really was when I saw my lifer in the Everglades in 1988. The birds don’t call in winter, so even researchers weren’t easily finding them in winter. I lucked into seeing mine only because a little group of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers were mobbing it as I hiked the Snake Bight Trail. It didn’t move a muscle while I studied it—I could only confirm that it was a real, live bird and not a fake or stuffed specimen because it blinked a few times.  I've seen Mangrove Cuckoos in the Keys a few times, including on Saddlebunch Key in 2019 when I was with Russ. I got photos while he got a recording with my iPhone. 

Mangrove Cuckoo
Click here to hear this very bird as recorded on my iPhone.

Two cuckoos are found in the US north of Florida. The Yellow-billed breeds throughout much of the eastern United States down to South Florida and west into the Great Plains, with isolated, declining populations in the American West, and down into Mexico and the Greater Antilles. It breeds throughout Wisconsin and Minnesota except northeastern-most Minnesota. The Black-billed Cuckoo ranges farther north than the Yellow-billed, but not in the Gulf States nor Mexico or any Caribbean islands. Both species winter in South America. 

The Yellow-billed Cuckoo is often called the rain crow because it calls so often on hot days just before a thunderstorm, and its strident call is hard to ignore. The Black-billed Cuckoo is more likely to be seen or at least heard by Northlanders, but only if they’re paying attention.  Its calls are well within the frequencies we humans hear very easily, but they aren’t loud, and their calls seem to simply be part of the soundtrack rather than the main feature, except for those of us for whom they are the main feature. When I was in the Sax Zim Bog recently and stopped to enjoy a Dickcissel on Arkola Road, suddenly I was hearing a cuckoo in the background. I got a few photos and recorded him with my iPhone.

Black-billed Cuckoo
Click here to hear this very bird as recorded on my iPhone.

Both cuckoos feed voraciously on cicadas and hairy caterpillars, including gypsy moths and the tent caterpillars that are abundant this year up here, which makes this summer a time when people are noticing cuckoos. I’ve been fielding lots of questions from people who are hearing them calling incessantly, sometimes by night as well as by day. 

I’ve always wished I could observe cuckoos nesting, but that would involve invading their privacy. Janice Hughes described the baby cuckoos in a charming way in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Birds of the World:

Shiny, black nestlings hatch following a brief 11-day incubation period. Within 3 hours of hatching, they can raise themselves onto twigs, using their feet and bills. They mature rapidly, and at 6 days of age resemble porcupines, with their long, pointed feather sheaths. Just prior to the young leaving the nest on the following day, the sheaths burst and the chick becomes fully feathered, a process once likened to the commotion in a corn popper. The agile, young cuckoos are capable of hopping and climbing rapidly through the vegetation. 

Despite their seeming abundance when we’re seeing lots of prey insects, Black-billed Cuckoos are nowhere near as abundant as they used to be.  Janice Hughes wrote:

Populations have declined across its range throughout the twentieth century, with particularly severe decreases in the 1980s and 1990s. Accounts from naturalists in the late 1800s speak of flocks of cuckoos descending on caterpillar-laden trees and not departing until every insect was consumed. Caterpillar irruptions still occur, but since they have been controlled by pesticide use, cuckoos are rarely seen more than singly. It is likely that pesticides, and the concomitant reduction of prey availability, have caused Black-billed Cuckoo mortality and reduced breeding success, but these effects have never been quantified.

Little by little, people seem to be waking up to the dangers of pesticides, but then again, I thought that back on the first Earth Day, and that was over half a century ago. Knowing about cuckoos is the first step in wanting to protect them. This would be a good time to start. 

Black-billed Cuckoo

Fantastic News on the Bird Front

Piping Plover adult with chicks

Last year’s pandemic had at least one bright side, at least for birds. Many beaches and other public gathering places were closed, giving birds a rare respite from dealing with people and our dogs. This was very important for one of my favorite birds on the planet, the Piping Plover. 

The two little plovers who, in 2019, started nesting in Chicago got a lot of protection from caring Chicagoans when they set up housekeeping on Montrose Beach. People started calling the birds Monty and Rose. The city sent a music festival elsewhere to reduce pressure on the tiny beach birds, who managed to fledge two chicks that year despite several close calls. And last year they successfully brought off three more chicks. 

Because these birds have been banded with both aluminum USGS leg bands and colored bands, they can be recognized individually from quite a distance. This is how we know that Monty wintered in on Bolivar Flats in Texas and Rose at Anclote Key Preserve State Park in Florida. They may have taken separate vacations, but they both returned to Montrose Beach again this April.

But in early June, Monty and Rose lost all four eggs of their first clutch to a skunk. A special fence called an exclosure, designed to protect plover nests, had been erected, but welding on a wire junction failed and the skunk managed to reach through to the eggs. A motion-activated camera caught the tragedy. 

Piping Plover on nest
Piping Plover safely nesting within an exclosure on a Maine beach

Birds often have to deal with setbacks and losses. Just six days later, Rose produced another egg, and now the pair has a full clutch of four eggs which should hatch in mid-July. 

Monty and Rose are the first Piping Plovers to attempt to nest, much less succeed, in Chicago since 1955. If this weren't wonderful enough, these two splendid birds are also responsible for another historical first. It’s been 83 years, since the Great Depression, since Piping Plovers nested in Ohio, but this year a pair turned up on Maumee Bay in Ohio, laid four eggs, and are now incubating them. And the male of this pair just happens to be Nish, one of Monty and Rose’s chicks from last year. The female, nicknamed Nellie, was hatched at Presque Isle in Erie, Pennsylvania. All the efforts made by the City of Chicago and its parks department, Chicago Audubon, and the army of volunteers out there protecting Monty and Rose get a lot of the credit, too. 

Rose and one of the 2019 chicks.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol.

This year there are somewhere between 60 and 80 pairs of Piping Plovers on the Great Lakes. Because the population is growing where the birds are protected, we could get them back on Park Point here in Duluth if only Duluthians could keep dogs off the beach during spring migration. But based on how rudely I’ve been treated when I remind people of the city ordinances against running dogs off-leash on city property, I’m afraid Duluth will never catch up to Chicago or Toledo in our conservation ethics. 

Just as exciting as the news of the Illinois and Ohio Piping Plovers is the news out of Maine. Back in 1981 when Maine Audubon counted Piping Plovers nesting on the state’s beaches, they found only 10 pairs. This spring, 120 nesting pairs were counted—not only the largest number ever counted in the state but the first time the number exceeded 100. 

I’m extraordinarily fond of Maine’s Piping Plovers because I’ve spent so much time watching them. I loved them plenty enough after seeing them several times in May and June on Popham Beach, but then in June 2019, my friend Laurie Gilman brought me to several beaches where the chicks had hatched. Adult Piping Plovers are wondrously adorable, and there are no words to capture the cosmic adorableness of their fuzzy chicks. 

Dr. Seuss’s Lorax said, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” The great success of Piping Plovers right now bears testament to the profound truth of just how effective conservation measures can be, when people care. 

Piping Plover family

Horrible News on the Bird Front

Red Knot photo by Hans Hillewaert, via Wikipedia and Creative Commons

There’s been some great news and some horrible news on the bird front in recent weeks. This year’s annual count of Red Knots along the Delaware Bay beaches showed yet another severe drop in their numbers, to fewer than 7,000, the lowest level since counting them began four decades ago and only a third of what was counted just last year.   

Back in the early 1980s when concern about the population was the impetus for starting conservation measures, there were about 90,000 Red Knots pigging out on horseshoe crab eggs on those beaches. Joanna Burger, a biologist at Rutgers University who has been studying shorebirds at Delaware Bay since the early 1980s, told the New York Times, “I think that we need to think about the Red Knot as a species that is dying, and we really need emergency measures.” She called for an immediate ban on the harvesting of horseshoe crabs for bait—that practice should have ended decades ago but is still active in Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia. Naturalists are also pleading with the pharmaceutical industry to stop using an extract from the crabs’ blood to detect bacteria in vaccines, drugs, and medical equipment—a synthetic alternative is available.   

Horseshoe Crabs

The Red Knots are completely dependent on the crab eggs to fuel the last long leg of their migration from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic. But other factors are also implicated. Low ocean temperatures in the mid-Atlantic last May delayed horseshoe crab spawning until June, too late for the knots. That led to a terrible breeding season last year, but the loss of two thirds of the population was far worse than biologists expected. Wildlife biologist Larry Niles estimates that 40 percent of last year’s migrants died before they even reached their breeding grounds because they left Delaware Bay in such poor condition without their essential food.   

"Amy" the Peregrine Falcon

Another factor is the growing coastal population of Peregrine Falcons thanks to all the nesting platforms in New Jersey. Their population is obviously not nearly large enough to be taking a significant number of the millions of shorebirds in Delaware Bay, but their frequent forays along the coastal beaches have made it harder for flocks of shorebirds to rest and eat so they can put on enough weight to complete their migrations.   

Birds are functionally illiterate and can't read these signs.

Meanwhile, there’s more bad news. Starting in late May, many birds have been found dead and dying in D.C., Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. The birds, which include Common Grackles, Blue Jays, American Robins, and European Starlings, are found with eye swelling, a crusty discharge, and neurological problems; rehabbers have not been able to treat the birds with any success at all. Several laboratories are conducting necropsies, but so far, no pathogens, bacterial or viral, have been found to be causing the deaths.  


The cyclic cicada population from Brood x emerged this year, and there is some speculation that pesticide use from people irritated by the cicada’s noise may be causing the outbreak, since the disease outbreak seems to be occurring where the cicadas are emerging. Many insecticides in common use cause the kinds of neurological symptoms being seen in these birds, which all belong to species that feed on cicadas, and all of which walk on lawns where sprayed pesticides can accumulate.   

Back in the early 90s I treated a baby Blue Jay suffering severe neurological problems. The woman who brought the doomed little thing to me said that the yards on either side of hers and behind hers had all been treated by a national lawn care company, but pesticides quickly break down, making them virtually untraceable, and there just isn’t enough tissue in a baby Blue Jay to do a thorough analysis of its tissues even if I could have afforded the thousands of dollars to have it necropsied after it died.  

Meanwhile, agencies are asking people in the affected area to stop feeding birds. It is important whenever there is an unknown disease that could be contagious to keep individuals from crowding together, so this advice makes sense, but I’m afraid a lot of people are jumping to the simplistic conclusion that it’s people feeding birds that caused the problem in the first place. This of course makes no sense when one of the most badly affected species, the American Robin, doesn’t even visit bird feeders. Without carefully examining all pesticide use, by individuals as well as larger entities, in the specific locations where each affected bird has been found, I don’t see how we can figure out what is happening.   

Not all the news about birds is horrible. Tomorrow I will cover some absolutely wonderful and exciting news about one of my favorite birds of all.

Sunday, June 20, 2021

Hot Summer Birding: A Look Back

Golden-cheeked Warbler

In 2013 when I did my Big Year, one of my goals was to see all the warblers that breed regularly in North America. Most are Neotropic migrants that are here in the United States only for the breeding season, and the rarest ones have very restricted breeding ranges. If you’re not in the right place at the right time, you miss them. Due to several constraints and some poor planning, it wasn't until July that I saw some of my most wanted warblers, species that would have been much easier to find in April and May. 

The Colima Warbler is a case in point. The only place to find it in the U.S. is in Big Bend National Park. Smart birders go there in late April to see the warblers soon after they arrive, when they’re singing most frequently and the weather isn’t too hot yet, but I didn’t get there until July 20. The most reliable and accessible place to see them in the park is about 6 miles up a fairly steep trail from the trailhead where the park’s lodge is. People told me to start the hike at 2:30 or 3 am, using a flashlight in the dark, so I’d be reaching the part where the warblers are at first light and could be back before it got dangerously hot. Some of them mentioned that birders should always hike that trail in groups to minimize encounters with mountain lions.  

That lodge was the most expensive place I stayed during that entire year, and I needed to stay there both the night before my early start and then when I got back so I could crash after the 12-mile full hike. But I got up at 3 am to a crazy thunderstorm and went back to sleep. When my alarm went off at 4 and again at 5, lightning, thunder, and the downpour were still intense. I stayed up at 6, and at 7 moseyed to the lodge restaurant for breakfast. By the time I finished, I was pretty sure the lightning and thunder were finally over. The rain was still steady, but not what I’d call a downpour anymore. I figured I’d have to stay a third night to do the long hike the next day, but since I didn’t have anything better to do that day, I decided to take a short walk in the rain to see what the trail would be like. It was already 9 am, and I was only going to walk a short way, so I wore my rubber boots rather than good hiking boots, brought just one small water bottle, and left my backpack with my first-aid kit behind. I of course brought my binoculars and camera, but in addition to the camera’s rain guard, I wrapped it in a plastic bag. The rain was still heavy enough to require an umbrella. 

I didn’t get more than a quarter mile up the trail before the rain lightened to a steady drizzle. The temperature was very comfortable—under 70—so I kept walking. In the drizzle, I heard virtually no birds singing, but the scenery was lovely. I wasn’t paying much attention, but suddenly I saw the sign marking the start of the stretch officially called the Colima Trail—I’d already hiked 6 miles! And at that very moment, the rain stopped and instantly a bazillion birds started singing. I managed to pick out a Colima song in time to point my binoculars at the soaking wet bird sitting on an oak branch. I dropped the umbrella, shook off the water from the plastic bag around my camera, and untied it. But by the time I could pull the camera up, the warbler had flown. I was sad that I didn’t get a photo, and I didn’t see or hear another one, but felt wonderfully triumphant that I got it at all. I’d not have to spend the time or money staying in Big Bend a third night.  

At that point in the loop trail, it was going to be 6 miles back to the lodge whether I backtracked or forged on. Either way, it would be downhill, so I kept going. Bird song ebbed rather quickly after the rain stopped, but it was a beautiful walk. About 2 miles before I reached the end of the loop, a large brown animal crossed the trail less than 20 feet ahead of me. I took it in piece by piece—the enormous cat-like head; the long, lanky body; the long, long tail. I never had it entirely in view—the trail was too narrow to fit it all in as it raced across. By the time my brain had even processed that I’d seen an adult mountain lion, it was gone, leaving me all the thrill and none of the fear, at least for about 15 seconds.  

Then I started thinking. Hmmm. If it could run through the dense underbrush without my hearing a sound, imagine if it had been stalking me from behind. For a few seconds I wished I'd brought the little mirror that I have on my bike helmet, but then I thought, stupid, what on earth would I do if I did see one coming up behind except maybe get a quick photo that I’d never get to enjoy. But then I thought, well, at least it would be quick. There are way worse ways to go than to be killed by a mountain lion in this beautiful place. By the time I arrived safely at the lodge, not a single blister on my feet despite wearing simple rubber boots on a 12-mile hike, and not a bit sweaty—the temperature never did get above 70 that day!—I was thinking what a great story this day made. At the Big Bend gift shop, I bought a little picture of a Colima Warbler and a much larger poster and a little stuffed animal version of a mountain lion. That seemed about the right balance. 

Mountain Lion

It wasn’t until late on a hot afternoon two days later, on July 23, that I arrived near Austin, Texas, to try for another extremely rare and tricky warbler. The Golden-cheeked Warbler nests only in central Texas in old-growth and mature second-growth juniper-oak woodlands, and winters in montane pine-oak in Mexico. The habitats Golden-cheeks need for breeding are climax communities that may take decades to recover from disturbance, and their range is under intense pressure from development. It’s not too hard to see one from mid-March through mid-May, during the peak of their singing, but I’d never been in the right place at the right time to see one there before. (I had seen my lifer in Guatemala in February 2007.) My friend Heidi Trudell, who put me up overnight at her house close to Big Bend before I looked for the Colima Warbler, had the scoop on the easiest place to find a Golden-cheeked Warbler—at Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge. I arrived in Austin at the hottest point in the afternoon on the 23rd. My plan was to head to the refuge first thing the next morning, but since was I nearby, I figured it wouldn’t hurt to scout it out ahead of time. 

Balcones Canyonlands National Wildlife Refuge

A bright male flew across the road as I approached the refuge entrance, giving me a good enough look to count it, so I could have turned around right then—mission accomplished!—but I headed to the parking lot which was of course empty except for my car. I opened the car door to what seemed like an oven—the temperature in the parking lot was 110 ºF. Clearly this was a worst-case scenario, but what the heck—this was a new adventure, so I walked the trail loop where they were supposed to be easiest to find. 

Markers on the Cactus Rock Trail at Balcones Canyonlands NWR

The trail has beautiful, numbered rocks that serve as markers corresponding with numbers on the trail guide—a Golden-cheeked Warbler was painted on each one. As I trudged in the heat, I started thinking that those painted warblers would be the only ones I’d see on the entire trail, and sure enough, they were. 

When I got back, the parking lot was even hotter than when I’d arrived, and my car felt lethally hot, so I opened the doors, all the windows, and the hatchback and walked around the wooded perimeter a bit. Well, I started to, but suddenly a family of four Golden-cheeked Warblers was right there in front of me. I got several photos before they wisely retreated somewhere I could at least hope was a little cooler. 

Golden-cheeked Warbler

So that’s how on my Big Year, I got two of my best warblers at the wrong time of year. You can’t count on luck, so I did a pretty poor job of plotting out my Big Year, but then again, you can count on birds being out there even if they’re starting to quiet down for the year. And the only way to find them is to look. 

Golden-cheeked Warbler

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Out with the Old and In with the New

Every year, people ask me whether they should clean out old nests after birds are done nesting so that other birds can use them. Old nests can be dangerous for new baby birds. Some avian parasites enter nests via the adult birds or fly in where they sense hot little nestlings. And some of these parasites spend part of their life cycle in the nesting materials, ready to attach themselves to new baby birds when there’s a second nesting. Clearing out all the nesting materials reduces the chances of that. You must be certain that the birds are done with the first nesting before disturbing any materials, though. And as I just learned, birds are quite capable of throwing out old nesting material without our help. 

When my baby chickadees fledged a couple of weeks ago, I knew they were gone for good—chickadees nest only once a year, and to minimize parasite issues, neither the adults nor the chicks ever return to the cavity. I wanted to salvage the nest as a keepsake, and also wanted to know exactly how deep the cavity was. I dreaded the possibility that there might be unhatched eggs or dead chicks in the nest, but that would have been worth knowing. Our cherry tree is so riddled with holes that it wasn’t going to be suitable for digging out a new cavity next year anyway, so Russ was planning to cut the tree down this week. But on Tuesday, a House Wren changed our plans. When I saw him inspecting the cavity, I set up my 300-mm camera on a tripod to get some video. 

House Wren taking over now empty chickadee cavity!

He was focused on two tasks, claiming the cavity for his own in a way that a female House Wren would recognize, and ensuring that the cavity would be a safe place for babies by dumping out all traces of the chickadee nest. When I first noticed him, I saw him toss out two big chunks of the chickadee nest, which fell to the ground at the base of the tree. I wondered how long it would take before he started carrying in sticks—the tangible proof of a House Wren’s claim of ownership. My very first video showed that he was already accomplishing both aims. He flew in with a stick, pushed it through the cavity entrance, and then disappeared inside, popping up to the entrance a few times to toss out fluffy bits of the chickadee nest. Then he flew away to get another stick and repeated the process.

During the time my camera was capturing video, he also brought a forked twig. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get it through the entrance hole. When he gave up, the twig didn’t fall to the ground—one end got stuck in an edge of the duct tape wrapped around the tree below the entrance hole. It is still there two days later despite the rainstorm Wednesday night.

 This male seems to be the wren who is busy with a nest in the little woods at the back of my yard.  Most of the time he sings from back there, but when he came over to the chickadee cavity, he sang a few songs from the cherry tree and nearby boxelder before getting too busy to sing—he only stuck around the chickadee cavity for short bursts of activity before returning to his current nest and chicks. Wren parents share their feeding duties while their young are nestlings, but when the babies in their first nest fledge, the mother usually takes a break while the male assumes all or most of the responsibility for taking care of the fledglings even as he advertises the other cavities he’s maintaining in hopes of attracting a new mate or the previous one if she hasn’t already moved on to someone else. I don’t know how many other cavities he has, so at this point don’t know whether a batch of baby wrens will take their start in the chickadee cavity or not. Nature will take its course, but meanwhile, for the first time ever, I have some very fun video of a busy little House Wren.