Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, October 29, 2021

Halloween Storm Reminiscences

Joey and Katie Stegosaurus

This weekend, we mark the 30th anniversary of the record-smashing blizzard that fell on the Northland on Halloween 1991. Two feet fell in the Twin Cities, over three feet here in Duluth, and 45 inches in our neighboring Superior, Wisconsin—our blizzard was part of the huge system called "The Perfect Storm" on the Atlantic. Here the storm made a huge and lasting impression on everyone, from the adults who had to shovel and drive in horrible winter conditions so early in the season to the littlest school children. Naturally, many Minnesota news stories this week have been filled with reminiscences. 

The snow started on Thursday evening while Russ was taking our kids trick-or-treating. I stayed home to hand out goodies to the intrepid few who showed up at our house, some bundled up so their costumes were entirely hidden. (I always sewed costumes to fit over a heavy coat and snowpants.) With so few kids showing up, I gave out more candy than usual to each—something that other people apparently did, too, because our kids came home with an exceptionally large haul.

The snow continued all night and through the next day, and trading candy and eating it were fine activities to fill the time until Russ and I could finally clear enough snow from the front and back doors to open them so the kids could play in that unbelievable winter wonderland. Schools were closed Friday, but the snow was so very deep that the plows had trouble clearing it all away—as I recall, Monday was also a snow day, and when the kids went back to school on Tuesday, they had to be sent home early because it snowed again. That snowfall was pretty insignificant, but so much snow was already piled up along roads that there was nowhere to push the new stuff. 

Anyone who has ever experienced a blizzard knows that snow depth varies crazily due to wind-blown drifts. The piled-up snow against the front and one side of our house obliterated the windows in Russ’s and my downstairs bedroom. They stayed covered up, our bedroom as dark as night even at noon, for months—it was hard enough clearing away the snow from the porches and driveway. The kids had great snow hills to sled down the whole winter. We kept a path open in the backyard for me to fill the feeders and let our dog Bunter out. 

The storm was hard on a lot of people, and also caused bird mortality, particularly for owls. I heard from a few Duluthians who found dead owls while shoveling out. October is the migration season for them, especially saw-whets and Long-eared Owls, both way to small and lightweight to possibly capture rodents buried under three feet of snow. One radio listener brought me a dead Long-eared Owl. The poor thing was beyond caring, so I photographed its ears, hidden beneath its facial disks. I’ve been using those photos in programs ever since, but I still felt cosmically sad for the poor thing.  

Long-eared Owl

Long-eared Owl

That weekend, I got a call from the Lakeside tool house where plows and other city equipment are kept, a few blocks from my house. Someone had been out in the parking lot when a duck literally dropped out of the clear blue sky. I went over and got it—an exhausted female goldeneye whose wings had iced over in flight. The poor thing had to spend a few days in our bathtub. She was fine after pigging out on minnows, dog food, and over $20 worth of brine shrimp, but she'd need a running start to get aloft again, and it was about a week before we could get to any part of the lakeshore to release her—even after the roads were plowed out, who was going to shovel a path to a beach? We had only one bathroom, so I had to scoop the little duck into a box whenever anyone needed the tub. My in-laws managed to drive here from Port Wing before we could let her go, and oops—I forgot to mention she was in the bathtub until after my mother-in-law let out an unexpected scream. 

Most early snowfalls melt before winter settles in, but in 1991, the ground stayed snow-covered from that last day in October all the way into spring. That was back when my bird feeders were always full, and I remember that winter as rather idyllic, with fine backyard birding for me and great sledding and snow fort fun for the kids. But my most vivid memory is still that poor duck in the bathtub and how happy she looked when she swam away at last.

Common Goldeneye

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Pandemic Birding after almost two years

American Crow

Last year when the Covid-19 pandemic was starting to change life as we know it, the national media focused a lot on how so many people were suddenly paying attention to nature, often for the first time in their lives. I started hearing from a lot of people who were starting to watch birds. With the sudden drop in traffic noise right at the time of year when birds are singing most, it was small wonder so many people were paying attention to birds.

I love to travel and certainly missed going to cool places to see birds that I just can’t see on Peabody Street, but I’ve still thoroughly enjoyed the birding I’ve done since 2020 began. I picked up several new species for my yard list, but even cooler, I got some lovely recordings and photos of some of my favorite birds—something I hadn’t focused on in my own backyard before.


I’m thinking about how much the pandemic actually enriched my own birding because on October 27, Ethan Freedman wrote an article in Slate magazine titled, “The Pandemic Was the Perfect Time to Bird. Except for Me,” beginning, “While my hobby went mainstream, I couldn’t find joy in it anymore.”

Freedman, a graduate student, lives in D.C. and wrote, “Without the promise of a toucan or a biblical torrent of shorebirds, what was the rush to go see some sparrows I’d seen a thousand times before?” He talked about his early magical days of birding:

I’d spot a bird, yellow on its front, black around the eyes, small, jumpy, and flip through the pages to find a match: common yellowthroat! I’d look at the bird, whose name I now knew, and marvel that it had always been right in front of me—common yellowthroats live in grasslands and forests across North America—and I’d never known it.

But after a while, seeing a common yellowthroat started to feel a little mundane. They are, as the name implies, quite common! I craved that initial feeling of a new species, that shock of wonder—it’s infectious. So, as I started to run out of new species to see around my neighborhood, my birding became less leisurely backyard pastime and more thrill-seeking adventure sport.

Freedman made one nasty ageist comment about birding being “an activity that is typically associated with aging boomers.” It’s possible that my own personal status as an aging boomer contributed to my contentedness with backyard birding, but I think two more important things were at play. First, even though I was stuck in the same place, I was doing new and exciting things by focusing on building up my recordings and photographs of those common birds. 

My home office window.

And second, as much as I love both traveling and getting lifers, I also like doing, seeing, and hearing the same things over and over. For example, when I buy Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, I always get Cherry Garcia. There may be other flavors that taste as good, but why experiment when I know for a fact that Cherry Garcia is perfect? When I’m tired or sick, I always turn to tried and true novels I’ve read before or the same romantic comedies I’ve seen many times rather than try anything new. Even when I travel, I love returning to the same spots over and over. This is the way I’ve always been—it has nothing to do with my advancing age. When I was in my acquisitive twenties, I went afield birding every weekend. But I spent every weekday morning every spring birding at a single spot walking distance from my apartment in Madison, Wisconsin—Picnic Point. Knowing this one lovely park so intimately improved my birding skills and gave me much more understanding of the shape of avian seasonal movements. Young birders now use the word "patch" to describe the places they love to bird over and over again, and when talking about taking actions against climate change, act as if they were the ones who discovered the concept. 

Laura and Russ at my favorite place

So I feel sad that Ethan Freedman lost his passion for birding while he was stuck home during the pandemic. I suspect that as more and more activities open up again, a lot of people who got excited about backyard birds during the pandemic will find themselves losing interest as they return to normal life. That’s okay—we all have different tastes and passions, which is exactly why Ben and Jerry’s makes so many different flavors.  

But I hope that Freedman and new birders who go back to their old interests never lose their awareness of the importance of conservation and the clean air and water that birds, and all the rest of us, need. I also hope that everyone who returns to traveling for birding is strict with themselves about their carbon footprint, taking measures to offset their travel, whether it's local commuting or long-distance adventuring, with other ways to reduce their personal impact on climate change. We may all be very different people, but we're still all in this together. 

Sunday, October 3, 2021

Sharing a Sense of Wonder with Walter

Grandma showing Walter a chickadee 

In 1957, the year before Rachel Carson started writing Silent Spring, her niece died, and Carson adopted her 5-year-old grandnephew Roger. She’d already had many lovely experiences with him along the Maine coast; she’d written an article for the July 1956 issue of Women’s Home Companion magazine about them, titled “Help Your Child to Wonder.” (You can read the magazine article here.) She planned this to be the start of a book to inspire parents to help their children experience the “lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world…available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea, and sky and their amazing life.” Her book, The Sense of Wonder, which was mostly this magazine essay filled in with photos, was published posthumously.

Older adults are very important in a child’s life, and almost certainly contribute to the values children develop, perhaps most notably around nature. I know many birders who got their start by looking at wild birds with a grandparent. My own very earliest memories are of my grandmother , who died when I was just a couple months older than my 13-month-old grandson Walter is now, so I was just a toddler. But I vividly remember her smiling at me. One day back in the early 90s, a relative I didn’t know who lived on the East Coast, out of the blue, mailed me a photo of her. The moment I saw it, before I even read the letter, I started crying, so clearly remembering her eyes and smile. I’d never seen that photo before.  

My Grandmother

Indeed, at that time I’d never seen any photo of my grandmother at all except one wedding picture taken decades before I knew her, but her face was apparently firmly embedded in my memory.

Even though I never went birding with her, she’s also tied in with my earliest memories of birds. She was named Laura, and everyone told me how much she loved birds. She had pet canaries that I loved dearly, and after she died, my Grandpa always kept canaries in her memory. He told me a lot of stories about birds, from Passenger Pigeons to the canaries that died saving miners’ lives, and gave me my first bird book, Bird Stamps: A Little Golden Activity Book. I’m sure all this reinforced my deep love for birds. 

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

My own little grandson is not quite talking yet, though Russ insists that two times on Friday, when Walter was looking out the window toward the bird feeder, he said something that sounded for all the world like “chickadee.” That would of course gratify me no end—my daughter Katie’s second word was “boo jay.” Walter saw Blue Jays quite a bit in the window feeder in my office while he was living with us, but they moved to another neighborhood of Duluth now, and Blue Jays don’t come to the hanging feeder out the living room window there. But Walter has seen chickadees just about every day of his life since he came home from the hospital and I held him up to the window. And ever since he was three or four months old, he’s been waving his arms and smiling whenever they show up. One of our games is to spend 10 or 15 minutes watching my laptop’s screensaver randomly showing pictures from a folder of my favorite photos. He gets most excited when a picture of him, his mom or dad, his Grandpa, his dog Muxy, or my dog Pip appears, but he seems fascinated, focusing on all the pictures as I tell him the names of the birds from around the world, and gets very excited when a chickadee or Blue Jay pops up. When a photo of a squirrel or rabbit appears, he wrinkles his nose and makes an adorable sniffing sound. 

Walter’s first toy, and still one of his most treasured, is a Beanie Baby from the 90s that we call Dr. Blue Jay. Dr. Blue Jay takes naps with Walter, rides in his wagon with him, and watches birds out the window with him. When Walter is sad, it doesn’t take much more than Dr. Blue Jay flying in to cheer him right up. 

Chickadee at the feeder and Dr. Blue Jay in his hand.

Walter’s yard has lots of birds, but only chickadees and once in a while a goldfinch approach the hanging window feeder, so now that I’m babysitting at his house rather than ours, I can’t show him many real birds close up. But last week, when we were feeling the textures of different kinds of tree trunks in his yard, a Brown Creeper appeared barely 4 feet away, hitching its way up a maple. The movement caught both our eyes at the same time, and as I was telling Walter it was a Brown Creeper, he started making delighted squeals and waving his arms. I’d have thought that would scare away the tiny bird, but the creeper stayed just as close. When it reached a thick limb above us, it flew not to another tree but to the base of the same one, so we got a repeat view. I was transfixed as much by the look of delight on Walter’s face as by the magical little bird. 

Brown Creeper

I’ll be 70 next month. I’ve already lived 13 years longer than Rachel Carson, and 8 years longer than my grandmother, so although I plan to stick around this lovely planet as long as possible, and got my Pfizer booster shot last week as a wee bit of insurance, I have no illusions about the finite nature of my life. I’m so grateful that I’ve been allowed to stick around this long, and to be having such wondrous experiences with Walter. I want him to develop his own passions in life based on who he is, not who I am, and sure hope I can enjoy his whole childhood and even some of his adulthood. But my dearest hope of all is that throughout his life, he’ll keep a place in his heart for birds and all of nature, a place warmed by memories of his Grandma.