Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Of Nighthawks and Kind People

Common Nighthawk

Yesterday, I got an email from someone named Dan who was in the middle of a nighthawk emergency. I virtually never give out my home phone number, but I made an exception because he sounded very nice and very anxious. And a few minutes later, my phone rang. 

Dan lives in Jackson, Wyoming, where he had hit a nighthawk with his car. It fell, wings outstretched, on the road. A vehicle was approaching from the opposite direction but simply straddled it, so Dan turned around to check the poor thing out. It couldn’t fly, but didn’t seem to be wounded, so he brought it home and placed it in a small safe enclosure. 

Not many rehabbers deal with nighthawks, and most of the ones that do handle only nestlings. This species is uniquely high maintenance because in the wild, once young birds fledge and for the rest of their lives, they eat only flying insects on the wing, their huge gaping mouth ideal for scarfing down moths, mayflies, winged ants, and other flying insects. A nighthawk flies into the insects at such a fast speed that the insects go down the opened throat without any effort at all. The nighthawk's vestigial tongue is just too tiny to get in the way. Its beak is tiny, too, and rather loosely attached to its huge mouth, so a nighthawk has no way of picking up food items, much less getting them to its throat to swallow.  When a nighthawk has even a minor injury that grounds it, it’s pretty much doomed to starvation. 

All baby songbirds and many other kinds of birds, including nighthawks, are fed by their parents, and in a rehab situation, they usually open their mouths readily to be fed by a rehabber. Adult birds usually can feed themselves as long as provided suitable food. Flycatchers and swallows usually take their meals on the wing but have no trouble picking up mealworms, crickets, and other insects when in captivity. Adult nighthawks simply cannot do that, and they also don’t have a clue that there is any other way of getting food in. When I’ve rehabbed them, it took time and patience to get them to open their mouths willingly—until then, I’d have to very gently tease open the mouth. And even then, with the food in their mouths, adults, especially males, had trouble swallowing it. Females are the ones who feed the young, so they still have working muscles in the back of the mouth and the throat which they use to regurgitate the food into their waiting babies. Adult males haven’t needed to swallow like that since they were chicks. For at least a couple of days and sometimes a week after they were eagerly opening their mouth to be fed, I’d still have to stroke their throat over and over to help them get the food down. 

Fred the Common Nighthawk

On top of this, nighthawks have fairly fragile wing and tail feathers but very short legs. In the wild, they can keep their feathers in good condition, but in captivity, the tips of those flight feathers often get frayed without protective sleeves over the tips. And care has to be taken to protect their feet—they can’t perch on normal bird perches, so care must be taken to keep whatever substrate they’re kept on clean, especially because at least once a day they produce a very liquid and caecal dropping which is quite messy. Rehab facilities are usually much too short-handed to be able to devote the time and attention, day after day, to that kind of high maintenance. 

Anyway, Dan in Wyoming had called the nearest rehab facility which said they could just hold it for observation for a couple of days and then would have to have it euthanized. Dan googled nighthawk care and came upon a long blog post I’d written about it in 2012, which is why he emailed me. 

Because this is nesting season, he was concerned about more than just this one nighthawk being lost if it was taking care of babies. Knowing only the females feed the young, I asked him if it was a male or a female, and told him he could tell by what color the throat was. He said it was brown, with some white on both sides. I focused on the brown and said it must be a female, but I should have realized that male nighthawks also have a brown throat—the white bib is not part of the upper throat area—so the bird was probably a male. But both of us thinking it was a female made us both even more concerned about what to do. 

He said the bird seemed a lot more perky now. Sometimes it was spreading its wings on the bottom of the enclosure, but when I asked, he said it was holding them symmetrically, wasn’t listing to one side, and both eyes seemed fine. 

Since the only realistic choices were to see if the bird could be released or to take it to the rehab center, he wondered if it would be worth driving back to the area where he’d hit it to let it go. It was 20 miles away, which meant a 40-mile round trip for nothing if the bird couldn’t take off, but if the bird was okay, he wanted it to have a chance to find its nest easily again. He was worried because he wasn’t sure of the exact spot, but said he could find it within five miles or so. I figured that should be plenty close enough for a bird that covers a lot of ground hunting. So that’s what he did.

Almost exactly an hour later, my phone rang again. Dan told me that when he let go of the bird, it fell on the ground, but he let it get its bearings and then prodded it gently a moment, and voila! It took off, circling higher and higher in the sky.  

I haven’t rehabbed birds in over 20 years now. Many of the birds I took in were hopeless, and it grew more and more painful watching yet another one die from massive internal injuries after a cat attack, or after suffering extensive neurological damage from lawn pesticides. It was thrilling to hear about a happy ending right when I’ve been so sad and scared about how rapidly climate-change-related weather patterns have accelerated and how rapidly the COVID-19 Delta variant has spread. Yes, this was just one nighthawk, not a population, and won’t even begin to reverse the downward trend the species has suffered in recent decades, and certainly won't help with any other problems either. But Dan’s going to such lengths to help it made a huge difference in this nighthawk’s life, and in the lives of its mate and young, and that is something worth celebrating.   

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Of Heat, Rain, and Particles in the Air

Young chickadee

I’m writing this on July 18, 2021, at my place in Duluth, Minnesota. There’s not a cloud in the sky, but the sky isn’t blue—more of a murky brownish gray. I can’t smell smoke today but I could yesterday, making us reluctant to open our windows last night—it’s hard to sleep when the inside temperature is 80º F, but even harder to sleep when you think about your baby grandchild, his tiny lungs still developing, breathing in dangerous particulates. 

This year’s dry June and July are the worst northern Minnesota has experienced since the Dust Bowl. Exacerbating the situation is the smoke from fires associated with the heat and drought in Canada and the West. Here in Duluth, we’ve had air quality warnings for weeks now.

I’m taking this situation very personally because of Baby Walter, but he’s hardly the only baby out there, and hardly the only baby I’m personally concerned about. We human parents and grandparents can at least minimize our children’s exposure to dangerous outdoor conditions, but what can my backyard Blue Jays, chickadees, wrens, and robins do to minimize their own and their babies’ exposure to this ever-present smoke?  

Baby Blue Jay begging from parent

Last week, the smoke from those distant fires wasn’t the only source of particulates in Duluth’s air. The Minnesota Department of Agriculture sprayed parts of Duluth and outlying areas, including my neighborhood, for “gypsy” moths. These invasive, non-native moths have caused billions of dollars of damage to Eastern forests since the mid-1860s, when Étienne Léopold Trouvelotin, a French artist who had immigrated to Medford, Massachusetts, brought egg masses from Europe in hopes that he could breed a hardy silkworm by raising them in the forest behind his home. The first recorded defoliation by these moths in the United States was in 1889 of the street trees in Trouvelot's own neighborhood. The moths have also been brought in less intentionally—they arrived in New Jersey in 1920 on blue spruce trees imported from the Netherlands. Little by little the moth has worked its way west and south. 

Spraying for it in recent decades has mostly involved what’s called BtK, the variety of Bacillus thuringiensis that targets lepidopteran larvae. Apparently little or nothing else is harmed by it, but it is utterly indiscriminate in which moth and butterfly caterpillars it kills. 

Great Spangled Fritillary
Caterpillars of all moths and butterflies, including this Great Spangled Fritillary, 
are killed by BtK

The Minnesota Department of Agriculture is still using BtK here and there this year, including in St. Louis County, but the spraying this week in my neighborhood was a species-specific pheromone bound to a polymer matrix. Assuming the pheromone is as safe as it’s supposed to be, I’m still uneasy with polymer matrices—it's just more particulate matter mingling with the smoke until it settles on the ground, where it's supposed to draw male "gypsy" moths away from the females to reduce reproduction. The polymer matrix is ostensibly inert, just as plastic microbeads are, but how do we know that its accumulation in our water and soil won’t eventually be just as bad as other plastics? It’s not considered an “active ingredient,” so its effects on human or avian lungs before it settles on the ground haven’t been studied at all. All this to kill an invasive exotic pest that got here in the first place thanks to people. 

This year, even with the serious threat from these moths, the north woods seems in far more danger from new weather patterns. Many of our conifers and birches are in jeopardy from so many 90º days, not even counting the lack of rain. Foresters need to be planning for changes in species composition in the northern forest, because these warming trends are getting worse. 

Connecticut Warbler
This Connecticut Warbler was easy to photograph this June because the roadside ditch along the sphagnum moss-covered ground is usually knee-deep with water. This year it was distressingly dry.

Thinking about my family and backyard birds and northern trees is sad enough, but then I think about the children and birds living in the huge swath of land where the fires are burning. When fires are small, at least some and often most birds and other animals can escape, but the size and duration of fires has been growing in recent decades. During the Dust Bowl, when conditions were as bad as people then could imagine, we were not yet spreading pesticides over the landscape, invasive species hadn’t taken over so much of our forests, prairies, and other habitats, and many of the other ways we've been developing and degrading habitat now make it even harder for a landscape to recover after a drought, even without a fire. 

A half century ago, when I was in college, I learned about the serious threat of climate change, along with a huge host of other environmental dangers caused by burning fossil fuels: Power plants where coal or oil is burned release nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, mercury, and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere along with small amounts of toxic metals such as arsenic, cadmium, chromium, and nickel, and we have to deal with horribly toxic oil pits and coal ash disposal sites, oil spills, and pipeline leaks—the list goes on and on. We knew with the gas crisis in the 70s that our dependence on fossil fuels was also an issue of national security. 

Oil companies have long understood the implications of climate change, but even as they started planning ways to exploit Arctic oil supplies as the icepack melts, they've suppressed public information about climate change and ridiculed people talking about it, taking rather the opposite tack of Margaret Mead, who said, “I was brought up to believe that the only thing worth doing was to add to the sum of accurate information in the world.” 

Think of the decades we’ve squandered doing so little to find clean alternatives! And now my baby grandson, and those baby chickadees I’ve so treasured this year, can’t play outside without breathing in toxic particulates. 

Yes, I’m bitter and my sense of despair is growing. But just yesterday, my friend Karen posted a poem by Wendell Berry that calmed my soul, at least for a moment. He wrote:

The Peace of Wild Things 

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free. 

Baby W

Thursday, July 15, 2021

Winter Wren

Winter Wren

Of the thousands of bird songs in the world, if I were pressed to choose one favorite, I’m pretty sure it would be the Winter Wren's. This long, silver-threaded song is so exuberant and lovely that it fills me with joy whenever I hear it—it’s the sound I use for my cell phone’s ringtone and alarm clock. Somehow I can hear it from a couple of rooms away, but even in a restaurant or other public place, it doesn’t seem to annoy anyone. Outside, I can’t hear Winter Wrens as far away as I used to, but that gives me more incentive to wear my hearing aids when I’m birding.

When I started birding, the species that American ornithologists called the Winter Wren was the same as the one that European ornithologists simply called the Wren; that species also included the population found along America’s Pacific Slope up into Alaska, from which the Eurasian population originally reached Asia and Europe. Ornithologists have now split those two groups into separate species.  

Pacific Wren
I photographed this Pacific Wren in British Columbia in 2014. In terms of size and plumage, it's just about identical with the Winter Wren. The species are told apart by song (and range, though there is some overlap in the far West.)

Intriguingly, the songs of both the Pacific and Eurasian Wrens include pretty much the same notes as our Winter Wren but sung at a much faster rate. Winter Wrens sing about 16 notes per second, which is darned fast, but Pacific Wrens sing more than twice as fast—a full 36 notes per second. Our human ears can’t resolve such rapidly delivered notes, making some of the tinkling notes into what we perceive as a buzz, and making the Pacific and Eurasian Wren’s songs less pleasing than the Winter Wren’s, at least to me. In his superb book, Birdsong for the Curious Naturalist, Don Kroodsma discusses these songs and provides, on the supporting website, recordings of the Winter Wren played at normal speed and slowed down and does the same with the Pacific Wren.  

On the Fourth of July weekend, I went to Rib Mountain State Park in Wausau, Wisconsin. My main goal was to see a particular southeastern bird, the Acadian Flycatcher, whose range barely extends north into the park. I did not expect to find a bird I so associate with northern forests side by side with this southern bird. A combined map of the breeding ranges for both the Winter Wren and Acadian Flycatcher would pretty much cover the entire eastern half of the continent from the Gulf states and northern Florida all the way up to the Maritime Provinces and Hudson Bay, but there would be only a very thin line of overlap, which Rib Mountain happens to be within. 

Breeding range of the Acadian Flycatcher is shown in orange. The pale orange in northern Iowa, Wisconsin, and Michigan, the northernmost reaches of the range, indicates it's scarce there. Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's splendid All About Birds website

Breeding range of the Winter Wren is shown in orange and purple, where they're found year-round. Notice that the main overlap between the two species is in the Appalachians, where the wrens are found at higher elevations, in conifers, than the flycatchers. Map from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's splendid All About Birds website

Winter Wrens are mouselike in habits and appearance, being tiny and brown, and skulking about on the ground and low branches, usually trying to stay hidden in tangles. When they appear in backyards during migration, it’s often at a brush pile or raspberry patch or other bramble. In their breeding forests they may sing at any height—their voices carry farther from atop a tall tree, but I’ve seen them singing when barely off the ground. The one I watched singing at Rib Mountain spent a minute or two at my eye level, not a single branch blocking my view, which was so fun it drew my attention from the Acadian Flycatchers I was there to see. 

I’d never thought about the likelihood of seeing both Winter Wrens and Acadian Flycatchers not just in the same general area but in the same woodland, both singing at the same time. Acadian Flycatchers need mature deciduous forests; Winter Wrens are found in evergreen forests near streams with lots of fallen logs and dense understories. How can they both find what they need in the exact same tiny area of one small park? I don’t know, but it’s pretty wonderful and cool that two such marvelous species do. 

I recorded a few Acadian Flycatcher songs, but a much closer Winter Wren dominated my recording and my attention. Unfortunately, I was recording with my iPhone’s Voice Memo app, which is designed to accurately capture human talking, not the rapid-rate, high-frequency Winter Wren song. It did a credible job with the flycatcher, but doesn’t sound quite so spot on with the wren. If I’d known one would be right in my face, I’d have brought along my good digital sound recorder.  Oh, well. This gives me one more excellent reason to return to Rib Mountain State Park next year. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021



In 2013, when I did my Big Year, I focused on species of conservation interest and other native species. I certainly didn’t close my eyes to vagrants that showed up, nor to exotic birds whose populations are established. The birds I was looking for were the day-to-day birds who belonged in the places I was birding in. I certainly didn’t think about seeing the national bird of Iraq and Pakistan.  


Chukars have been introduced into the United States and Canada many times beginning in 1893. They got well-established in mountainous western states, but despite several introductions and a lot of escapes from game farms, they’ve never developed a self-sustaining population in the Midwest. They do live in a few of the places I birded during 2013, but I never lucked into seeing one. Indeed, in all my years of birding, I’d never once seen one.  

That is, until yesterday. In the past week or two, a small group of them started hanging around in people’s yards in my neighborhood, a few blocks southwest of me. I first heard about them last week on Facebook and combed the area pretty thoroughly, pushing a stroller with my grandson Walter, but no luck. Then a few days later my friend Dudley Edmondson mentioned seeing them—as soon as I was done with grandma duty that day, I drove up and down all those blocks again, but again without luck.   

On Monday, when I saw another Facebook post about them, I commented about how much I wanted to see and photograph them, and in early afternoon Tuesday, my friend Sarah Glesner sent me a message telling me where the covey has been most reliably seen. A little while later, she sent another message that one bird seems to have split off from the group and was hanging out in a yard four and a half blocks east of my house. It was too hot and muggy to walk there with the baby, so when I was free at 5, I hopped in my car with my camera and voila!   


The single Chukar was foraging at the end of a driveway exactly where Sarah said the lone bird would be. I photographed it from my car—it was a little backlit but only about 20 feet away. Chukars feed on the ground, eating insects, seeds, tuberous roots, and berries. I couldn’t figure out exactly what this little guy was picking at on the edge of the lawn, but it also seemed to be picking up a bit of grit in the driveway.  


 Chukars take their name from their call, sort of a chuck, chuck, chukar, chukar, but I didn’t hear it utter a peep during the time I watched.  

In the wild, Chukar coveys tend to include one mated pair and their young, but sometimes even in wild situations multiple families join forces to form a larger covey. It’s hard to understand why the one bird in my neighborhood is on its own when a covey is just a few blocks from it.  

Chukars do not belong in Duluth—the birds in my neighborhood apparently escaped from captivity somewhere around here in the same way that bobwhites sometimes do. Like most birds raised in captivity, the one I saw was pretty tame—not the least bit concerned about me photographing it from such close range. Sarah mentioned that the birds in the larger group seem quite tame, too.  

In a neighborhood where Great Horned Owls and foxes are hunting for their young right now, these Chukars may not survive long, but I prefer to focus on the fact that they’re at least living out what time they have on their own. In the next few days, I may try for photos of the covey, but I’m darned happy that after 46 years of birding and 16 years photographing birds, I’ve finally seen and taken pretty good pictures of a Chukar, even though as an escapee, it doesn’t count on my lifelist. I’m still reporting it on eBird, not to plump up my lists but because if Chukars ever do get established in Minnesota, it will be useful to be able to figure out when they first appeared. Regardless, I’m thrilled that I finally saw one. 


Monday, July 12, 2021

Acadian Flycatchers at Rib Mountain State Park in Wausau, Wisconsin

Acadian Flycatcher photo from Wikipedia, public domain. 

I was in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, for the Fourth of July weekend, and got up early that Saturday morning to head to Wausau, to Rib Mountain State Park, to hike along the Homestead Trail.   

It was a wonderful hike for seeing birds but not for photographing them—at least, not most of them. A Black-billed Cuckoo flew fairly close, though he stayed in the foliage. A few Wood Thrushes sang away—lovely caroling mostly heard in southeastern hardwood forests than our conifer-dominated North Woods, but they all stayed too far from the trail for photos. A silent Scarlet Tanager alighted on a branch overhead, but flew off before I could pull up my camera.   

My target species in that perfect area of the park was the Acadian Flycatcher. Rib Mountain seems to be the farthest north this species extends in Wisconsin—right at the point where hardwood-dominated forest ends; the species doesn’t reach Minnesota except in the extreme southeast. I never thought to look for Acadian Flycatchers in Wausau, but the small population is well enough known to be on the bird checklist for the park, so I’m a little embarrassed that I’d never known it was there.   

It was pretty easy to locate at least two—they were singing their explosive little songs from two different directions at a spot where the trail split. And when I walked a quarter of a mile or so further, I heard what was probably a third individual. None of them were close to the trail, and I didn’t want to disturb them by playing a recording to lure them closer.   

The Acadian Flycatcher is quite rare in Minnesota, where it’s listed as a Special Concern Species—the DNR designated it a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. There are a handful of reliable locations for it in the state—Beaver Creek Valley State Park, Murphy Hanrehan Regional Park Reserve, and Seven Mile Creek Park. It’s threatened in Wisconsin, but a bit more widespread than in Minnesota, though only in the southern half of the state. Rib Mountain’s habitat is unique for so far north. This species is a useful indicator of forest health because it requires relatively undisturbed hardwood forest. Development sends them packing.   

Acadian Flycatchers are one of the species in the genus Empidonax, all of which have an eye-ring and wing-bars—the Acadian’s markings are a little more striking than some of the others, but what clinches identification is the voice. I learned it as pizzAH, but the short, explosive notes are better transcribed as tee-chup or ker-chip. I captured a few songs on my iPhone, but a much, much closer, more cooperative Winter Wren’s persistent singing dominated my recordings—the more distant Acadian Flycatcher sounded like a background singer. That recording is here.   

Winter Wren
This persistent little Winter Wren, right in my face, made it hard to record the Acadian Flycatcher! But you can hear the flycatcher a few times in this recording, and also in this one.

It was thrilling to hear singing Acadian Flycatchers even if I didn’t get any photos. So far, the only photo I’ve ever managed to take of one was a shot from behind, the face not at all visible, which I got in Delaware during my Big Year. 

Acadian Flycatcher

Now that I know where to find them at Rib Mountain State Park fairly easily, I’ll try next year, if they are still there. The City of Wausau and the Wisconsin DNR are considering expanding the Granite Peak Ski Area—a privately owned resort in the park that wants to build ski runs, ski lifts, mountain bike trails, and parking lots right through this unique hardwoods forest, destroying butternut trees and other plant species of special concern in the state and threatening roosts of the threatened Northern Long-eared Bat and Big Brown Bat. You can read about the issue on the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology's website, which also says how to send comments to the DNR before July 14, 2021.  

The Acadian Flycatcher is known for requiring undisturbed forest, and this development will directly affect the area where they live in the park. I’m sad that I didn’t even discover this lovely treasure until now, when it is in danger of disappearing forever from that checklist of the birds of Rib Mountain.

This is just the first page of the checklist, with the key, and the page with the flycatchers. What a rich park this is!