Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, November 26, 2021

Black Friday Shopping!

Rufous Hummingbird

Thanksgiving morning began with a temperature of 11º F on my front porch, but surreal as it may be, at 7:16, nine minutes before sunrise, the little Rufous Hummingbird appeared at my window. I’d brought my two normal feeders in overnight, setting them out just before 7 so the water wasn’t too terribly cold yet, but ice crystals were forming by 7:45, so I swapped them out with feeders from inside—something I had to do every half hour to forty-five minutes all day. The temperature didn’t rise much—at mid-afternoon, it had barely crept up to 19. After being distracted for an hour making dinner rolls, I looked out to see the hummer sitting at the side-yard feeder, the sugar water and ice crystals forming a thick slurry. Fortunately, it wasn’t the kind of ice her tongue could stick to, but of course that made me wonder whether a hummingbird tongue could stick to ice. The answer will remain a mystery forever.  

Rufous Hummingbird on Thanksgiving

On Thanksgiving night when I hit the sack, the temperature was 10º, but when I got up at 6:50 the next morning, it was already 19º and expected to be rising to slightly above freezing by afternoon, making Friday much easier than Thursday was. 

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

Keeping hummingbird feeders thawed on a day like that reminded me of the only other time we had a hummingbird in the yard on a Thanksgiving, in 2004. Oddly enough, we were spending that holiday with our son Joey in Florida, so I didn’t have to do any of the work of swapping out feeders for several frozen days. My sweet mother-in-law, who was 85 at the time, was staying at our house while we were gone. The original plan called for her to feed our two dogs, two cats, and my education owl, Archimedes, but she took the additional hummingbird responsibilities right in stride. I’d have felt worse about it except she enjoyed bragging rights, boasting to her friends about both the owl and the November hummingbird she was taking care of.  

But she was apparently a lot hardier than I am. Just this Tuesday, I learned about a simpler way to keep sugar water thawed. When I described the logistics of swapping out hummingbird feeders all day on Facebook’s Duluth Nature Notes, one of the participants, Susan Darley-Hill, commented: “Our daughter in Washington has Anna’s hummers year-round (well below freezing many evenings); we ordered them a heated feeder and it was shipped to them from…Two Harbors. A small family-owned biz.”

She provided a link to an amazing local resource I’d never heard of, “Hummers Heated Delight” (hummersheateddelight.com). I was intrigued, read their website, and sent an email. I heard back the next morning and as soon as I could, I headed out to Two Harbors. 

Hummers Heated Delight

Hokey smoke—this was exactly what I needed! The market for heated hummingbird feeders is definitely a niche one, but Dave and Carrie Bolen are doing an amazing job of providing just what people in my situation need. The company was started in 2012 by Dave Bolen's uncle Lars Bolen in Oregon, where a lot of people need heated hummingbird feeders for the Anna's Hummingbirds that now winter there and even further north. That range expansion was not due to feeders but to climate change and changes in vegetation, especially hummingbird gardens and ornamental trees.  

Lars and his wife Sharon got the company off the ground, but he died in 2014, and she in 2017. The next year, Dave and Carrie took over production and management of Hummers Heated Delight to ensure their legacy. On their website, they say, "We intend to show the company, feeders and customers the same kind of attention and detail our Uncle and Aunt always did." Based on my experience, Dave and Carrie are more than living up to that legacy. 

Heated feeder from Hummers Heated Delight

David Bolen and his mother were the ones there when I got there, and were both wonderfully nice, and the feeder is perfect. I set it up as soon as I got home, when it was still bright outside. Within an hour or so of setting it up, the hummingbird was already feeding at it. If I hadn’t known that the heating mechanism is simply a 7-watt lightbulb, I’d never have guessed until after the sun went down, when the feeder started glowing. 

Heated feeder from Hummers Heated Delight

Heated feeder from Hummers Heated Delight

On Thanksgiving morning, when it was so cold, there was ice at the top of the clear tank of the feeder, but the water lower down and in the feeding reservoir stayed thawed through that frigid night. 

Thanksgiving Hummingbird

That evening I got an email from the Bolens telling me they’d just remembered that they send a 15-watt bulb to customers in Alaska, and that might be a better choice here in Duluth, too. They would have shipped it to me for free, but I figured if this hummingbird stays around much longer, I could use a second heated feeder anyway so I wouldn’t have to go outdoors to swap feeders anymore. The third one, right in my home office window, is easy to swap out no matter how cold it is. Also, I thought it would be worthwhile to compare two identical feeders with different bulbs to see how often the higher wattage is a better choice. The original 7-watt bulb uses half the energy and keeps the water a little closer to air temperature like natural food would be, but I'm sure the 15-watt bulb keeps the sugar water thawed at more extreme temperatures. 

So I headed out on a second shopping venture to Hummers Heated Delight on, of all days, Black Friday. This visit was even funner than the first one, because I got to meet Carrie Bolen, and now I have bragging rights. I will always have the distinction of being their very first Black Friday in-shop customer!

Hummers Heated Delight

I hadn’t even thought about the possibility of a heated hummingbird feeder since 2004, but now that I have two, whether my Rufous Hummingbird moves on quickly or not, I’ll have the feeders handy to use whenever we have unseasonable cold snaps in May. Or maybe in another 17 years another November hummingbird will show up again. Hope really is the thing with feathers. Little tiny hummingbird feathers. 


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Hummingbird Sunday

Rufous Hummingbird

At this very moment in the town of Duluth, Minnesota, it’s 10:26 am on Sunday, November 21, 2021. The temperature is 30º F—two degrees colder than last night’s low, and the wind chill is 16º. The west-northwest wind is howling at 25 mph with heavier gusts, and will worsen as the morning proceeds. The barometric pressure will be rising all day as the temperature drops. Tonight’s low is predicted to be 13º F. We were getting light snow since before sunrise, but the clouds started breaking 15 minutes ago. Even though astronomers claim this is still autumn, right now it’s one of those frigid but clear wintry days.   

And at this very moment, I’m sitting in my home office with the window wide open. It faces east, so although I can hear the roar of the wind, it’s not blowing in. I have the door closed so the rest of the house won’t get cold, and I’m dressed warmly so I’m comfortable. And right this very moment, I’m looking out that open window into the cold world at a hummingbird visiting my feeders for at least the 13th time since 7:15.  

Rufous Hummingbird

People keep telling me to bring in my feeders to hasten her on her way. That could certainly force her hand, or wing, but I’m trusting that she knows how autumn unfolds into winter and understands what her migratory options are better than we do. Anyone who must bundle up to be outdoors would of course feel uncomfortable seeing such a tiny mite, naked as a jaybird, out there in the cold. It’s easy to forget that she’s an experienced adult who can fly off wherever and whenever she chooses. She’s already survived at least one previous fall migration and winter, and she appears perfectly healthy.  

Rufous Hummingbird

I’m of course worried about her, but I’d be way more concerned if several people, including me, hadn’t been watching her darting about catching insects in various trees when temps were in the mid-20s. That natural source of food is far more important to hummingbirds than most people realize. Sugar water is nothing but carbs, and hummingbirds always spend far more time each day seeking out insects than they do drinking sugar water, even when the most pleasant feeding stations are available. It may be November, but this bird is no exception. 

Rufous Hummingbird

Rachel Field’s poetic “Something told the wild geese/ it was time to go” is so evocative because we trust and thrill at the mysteries of nature and migration, at least when it comes to geese. Why can’t we extend that same courtesy to hummingbirds? 

Rufous Hummingbird

Now, at this very moment, it is 11:21 am, the temperature is 29º, and I haven’t seen her in 54 minutes. The last photo I took of her before she left is timestamped 10:27. There are many places she could be, so I can hardly assume that she’s left for good. 

And sure enough, at this very moment, it is 11:22, and here she is again. And again at 11:45, and again at 11:58. Now it's 12:20 pm, and she's at the window feeder while the temperature is 26º and the windchill 10º. 

Viola the Rufous Hummingbird

The Rufous Hummingbird who visited my yard in 2004 didn’t leave until December 3, at some time between 10 and 11 am. That was the day after a blizzard and the morning after a night in the single digits. We know other Rufous Hummingbirds have survived overnight temperatures below zero and made it through whole winters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, and some have returned the following year. So even if my bird doesn’t leave today or tomorrow, she still has reasonably good prospects. Isn't that the best any of us can say?

I’m really glad she found this wayside on her journey, but I’m hoping against hope that in the coming days, as birders are scanning flocks of redpolls flying over, they’ll pick out one intrepid Rufous Hummingbird flying in that same sky, winging her way toward new adventures.

Rufous Hummingbird

Friday, November 19, 2021

Pileated Poop Shot!!

Laura and Russ at my favorite place

Back in the last millennium, when I was a junior high teacher, I used to take my students on bird walks. One morning when we were birding in my favorite Madison, Wisconsin, marsh, a Black Tern flying over pooped, making a direct hit on my hair and face. As is typical for a bird with a watery diet, the splat was a messy one.   

I was in my 20s and very self-conscious—had I been with an adult group, I probably would have been mortified. But I was in full teacher mode, trying hard to model being a mature, nature-loving adult, so even as I was wiping the mess up and cleaning the yucky drips off my eyelashes, I was explaining the difference between the mammalian and avian digestive and excretory systems— how the white parts of the poop were the bird’s urine while the dark parts were fecal matter. And on the spur of the moment, as if this would make the experience more fun and interesting than embarrassing, I told them that this made the Black Tern #1 on an important bird list I was starting up, my “Pooped-Upon List.”

I never committed this list to paper, but over the years, I’ve been pooped upon by some pretty cool birds—both species of waxwings, a Ruby-throated Hummingbird, a couple of warblers, and on one memorable occasion, a Pileated Woodpecker. I got pooped on all the time by birds I was rehabbing, but counting them would have been cheating. Oddly enough, I’ve so far never been pooped upon by either a gull or a pigeon. 

White Tern photo by Bruno Navez

Only once did I ever make an effort specifically to add a bird to my pooped-upon list, when my family went to Hawaii in 2000. One of my most yearned for lifers was the White Tern, and I decided that since my pooped-upon list started with a Black Tern, I should bring it full circle. So when I spotted a White Tern perched on a wire at Waikiki Beach, I parked myself strategically below and waited. Russ and the kids, never having been junior high teachers, found this mortifying and spent the next half hour getting ice cream and eating it as far from me as possible.  

When I started photographing birds, taking pictures one at a time, I’d end up with a lot of near-misses—a bird perfectly composed except for its eyes being closed in mid-blink, or its head all blurry because it turned just slightly as I snapped. That’s when I figured out what the “burst” function was all about—when a bird was holding still, I started taking at least 5 or 6 shots in rapid succession, having a much higher probability of at least one being good. That’s also how I took my pooped-upon list to the next level—and one requiring much less cleanup for me. I started getting photos of birds pooping. 

Over the years, I’ve gotten poop shots of Bald Eagle...

Bald Eagle

Atlantic Puffin... 

Another Atlantic Puffin poop shot!

Atlantic Puffin pooping!

Ruby-throated Hummingbird...

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

Turkey Vulture...

Turkey Vulture pooping!

Brandt’s and Pelagic Cormorant...

Brandt's Cormorant pooping!

Proper cormorant etiquette

Bobolink...

Bobolink pooping!

Snail Kite... 

Snail Kite pooping!

Great Gray and Northern Hawk Owl... 

Great Gray Owl pooping!

Northern Hawk Owl

Purple Gallinule... 

Purple Gallinule pooping

Downy Woodpecker... 

Young Downy Woodpecker poop shot!

Common Yellowthroat, and more. 

Common Yellowthroat pooping!

I take so very many photos of Black-capped Chickadees and Blue Jays that you’d think I’d have plenty of poop shots, but I’ve lucked into only a single one for each, unless you count the fecal sacs adult chickadees carry out of the nest cavity.   

Black-capped Chickadee pooping!

Blue Jay poop shot!

Black-capped Chickadees nesting in yard

Perhaps my favorite poop shot of all was of a Cerulean Warbler at the Magee Marsh in Ohio during their wonderful birding festival, “The Biggest Week in American Birding.” 

Cerulean Warbler Poop Shot! (Perhaps my finest moment as a photographer!)

My birding friend Curt Rawn was standing next to me, his hand in the right place at the wrong time or the wrong place at the right time, so while I was getting the photo, he was actually getting pooped upon, and let me take photos of that. 

Cerulean Warbler Poop! On Curt Rawn's hand!

Cerulean Warbler Poop! On Curt Rawn's hand!

When I was pooped upon by a Pileated Woodpecker, I was standing right by the trunk examining some lichen on the bark when I felt the plop on my head. When I looked up, the bird gave a yell and flew off—I didn’t actually see it pooping. (I'm not sure I'd even known it was there until that moment.) And although I’ve taken thousands of Pileated photos, I’ve never caught one in the act until just this week. I had my home office window open to get photos of the Rufous Hummingbird and while it was gone, my favorite backyard Pileated flew in to a box elder with a perfect opening between trees for me to take some pictures. Suddenly, he lifted his tail away from the trunk and let go. And I have the photographic proof. 

Pileated Woodpecker
Here's how he was sitting...
Pileated Woodpecker
when suddenly he backed up and...

Pileated Woodpecker
voila!!!

My career has never been very lucrative—I earned more money teaching in Catholic schools in the 1970s than I have in most of the years since—but you can’t measure wealth in mere money. Donald Trump, Elon Musk, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett: I bet not one of them has ever gotten a photo of a Pileated Woodpecker pooping. And that makes me feeling pretty darned rich.  

Pileated Woodpecker tongue!


Thursday, November 18, 2021

How I know that "my" hummer is a Rufous, and why it's important

Rufous Hummingbird

Recognizing birds is an essential skill for a birder, and as the author of the American Birding Association’s Field Guide to the Birds of Minnesota, I’m supposed to be an actual authority on bird identification. 

But important as recognizing birds is, it’s never been my primary interest. When I was a teacher, recognizing my students was essential, too, but hardly the point. On the first day of school, back in the days when 1-hour film development was a new thing, I’d bring my Olympus camera, loaded with a new roll of film, take a picture of each child, get them developed after school, and take the photos home to construct an identification guide for each class. 

In the way that I needed to learn a whole new batch of birds when Russ and I first went to Arizona, I needed to know each student’s range to put them in the correct guide: the Field Guide to Mrs. Erickson’s 6th Grade Science Class had an entirely different set of students than the Field Guide to Mrs. Erickson’s 7th Grade Math Class.  

In the classroom, the official range map—my seating chart—was very helpful, but in the same way that individual birds can sometimes be found out of range, occasionally a couple of kids would swap seats to try to throw me off. I couldn’t focus on a lot of elements of plumage—whatever a child was wearing in the first photo was bound to be different the very next day. Through the first week, I’d add helpful “field marks”—especially vocalizations and behavior—to cement my memory of each child. But as with bird identification guides, my field guides to my students quickly became extraneous as we fell into a new year of math or science or reading or music. 

At this point, the birds I find in Duluth are usually ones I recognize as easily as I recognized my students a few weeks after school started. But now and then, even today, I need to focus on identification, cracking out field guides and even more specialized resources. 

The hummingbird coming to my feeder right now is a case in point. The vast majority of hummingbirds appearing anywhere in the eastern United States are Ruby-throats. In spring and summer, I hardly even glance at those I see anywhere around here unless I'm trying to photograph them. Having a lot of experience does mean that I can take in a lot of details efficiently, but still, if there were an outlier hummingbird during the time when so many Ruby-throats were about, I could very easily overlook it, in the same way that if a Carolina Chickadee ever worked its way to Duluth, chances are I'd never notice unless it was a singing male. 

I've seen one probable Rufous Hummingbird in northern Wisconsin on August 11, 2007. I only saw that one because the homeowner called me telling me there was a "weird" hummingbird with all the Ruby-throats at one of his window feeders. I didn't get confirming details to exclude the rarer possibility that it was an Allen's Hummingbird.

Selasphorus sp.-- probably a Rufous Hummingbird
The August 11, 2007 bird in northern Wisconsin. I'm guessing this is an immature male because of how evenly distributed the "spangles" on the throat are. 

A handful of Allen's have appeared here and there in eastern states, but none have ever been identified in Minnesota—comparing their range map with that of the Rufous suggests why. 

Traditional range map of Allen's Hummingbird

Traditional range map of Rufous Hummingbird

The Land of 10,000 Lakes has had our share of outlier hummingbirds over the years—Calliope, Costa's, Rivoli's, Anna's, and Mexican Violetears, along with the one that has appeared most often, the Rufous Hummingbird.  

Rufous Hummingbird at feeder, November 2004
The hummingbird that appeared at my feeder from November 16 –December 3, 2004

It’s important to know for sure who the one showing up on Peabody Street right now is, because the likelihood of survival as November proceeds is much more probable if this is a Rufous Hummingbird than any other species. Why? Rufous Hummingbirds breed the farthest distance from the equator of any hummingbirds. In spring, the main population migrates north along the Pacific slope, they breed in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, and then work their way south along the Rocky Mountains before they get to the American Southwest and finally to their wintering grounds in southwestern Mexico. 

Rufous Hummingbird
This Rufous Hummingbird is exactly where they belong in October, in Mexico.  I photographed him in 2006.

Outlier Rufous Hummingbirds sometimes appear in the eastern states, especially during fall and winter. Most avian outliers end up dying without producing young, but individual Rufous Hummingbirds wintering in the United States are increasing in number, meaning these outliers must be passing their genes on to new generations. Normal Rufous Hummingbirds may now be at a disadvantage as extreme hot temperatures and droughts grow ever more common and as tropical deforestation damages their winter habitat, giving the outliers an evolutionary advantage. 

It’s fairly intuitive that hummingbirds wintering in the Southeast can survive winters down there, but we’re also seeing individual Rufous Hummingbirds surviving entire winters in Ohio and Pennsylvania, even with subzero temperatures. Confirming the Peabody Street bird's identity helps us understand changes in Rufous Hummingbird migration patterns in recent decades, giving us a glimpse at the species' evolutionary biology in real time.  

Rufous Hummingbirds are tiny, averaging a bit lighter in weight than the heaviest Ruby-throated Hummingbirds, tipping the tiny scales at 2–5 grams compared to the Ruby-throat's 2–6 grams. But they're not all that much smaller than the tiniest bird that regularly winters up here, the Golden-crowned Kinglet. Indeed, the weights of the two species overlap a bit, Rufous Hummingbirds averaging that 2–5 grams compared to the kinglets’ 4–8 grams. 

Golden-crowned Kinglet

The very lightest Black-capped Chickadees weigh almost double what the heftiest Rufous Hummingbirds do—9 grams vs. 5 grams. Chickadees have been exploring the hummingbird feeder I set out on my office window tray feeder, and they look enormous compared to the tiny hummer. 

Black-capped Chickadee

Allen’s Hummingbird is almost identical to Rufous, but one would assume Allen’s isn’t nearly as hardy—it breeds strictly along a narrow coastal strip of the Pacific Slope in California and Oregon and as a whole avoids mountains except in the Southwest and Mexico, wintering in Central Mexico. I'd think that in the exceptionally unlikely event that an Allen’s did find its way to Minnesota in November, its prognosis would be dire, except for the fact that an Allen's turned up in New Glarus, Wisconsin, sticking around in one yard from 26 November through 26 December just last year. That bird's identity was confirmed by a bird bander. 

So how do we confirm that the bird in my yard is not an Allen’s? To tease this out, we first have to figure out how old and what sex it is. Its back is green without any of the rich rufous plumage of adult males of either species, except on the flanks. That excludes adult male of either species. It has quite a few dark feathers on the throat, especially concentrated in the center. Immature male hummingbirds often get these (though they often look more uniformly scattered, like that Selasphorus I photographed in Wisconsin), but older adult female Rufous and Allen’s do get throat markings, especially concentrated in the center. And those markings exclude young females. 

Rufous Hummingbird

To figure out any more, a bird bander would take measurements—impossible if the bird isn’t in hand—and get a close look at the bill and the tail feathers. 

Hummingbird banding with Nancy Newfield
Hummingbird bander Nancy Newfield examines the bill of a Rufous Hummingbird with a magnifier. Taken in Louisiana in August, 2002.

Baby hummingbirds start out with what’s called a “corrugated” bill, as if the outer layer is full sized and a wee bit baggy until, as the beak grows, those vertical wrinkles smooth out. This is fairly easy to see in hand, especially if you're using a jeweler's loupe or other magnifying aid, which most hummingbird banders do, but seeing those corrugations is way trickier in the field. I’ve taken a bazillion photos of the hummingbird at my feeder, some very high resolution, and I can't see a single corrugation—the bill looks smooth and perfect in every one of my photos. Unfortunately, I’ve been mainly shooting at a fairly high ISO, so the photos are grainier than ideal, but nevertheless, my photos do support a higher probability that this is an adult female than a young male. 

Rufous Hummingbird

Now the shape of the tail feathers becomes the critical issue. In a hummingbird bander's experienced hands these are very easy to see, but it’s way, way trickier to get photos that clearly show them. The best we’ve managed so far with this bird are screen shots extracted from two slow-motion videos I took remotely. The best photos I’ve got are not in good focus but do show the shape of the critical r2 and r5 feathers—that is, the feather next to the central tail feather and the outermost tail feather. There's a notch on r2 that is clear enough to exclude Allen’s, and r5, the outer tail feather, appears wider than it should be on an Allen’s.  


So with this much evidence supporting my bird being an adult female Rufous Hummingbird and no evidence supporting it being an Allen's Hummingbird, I'm satisfied. And now I'm hoping that she heads out. 

I was hoping she'd leave today. It's very windy outside, though coming from the WSW it's at least tail winds. But hummingbirds migrate by day, usually taking off in mid-morning, and I'm still seeing mine as of 2:20 pm, so I expect she'll still be here tomorrow. The last time I had a lingering hummingbird, in 2004, she lit out about 10 am on December 3.  I don't want this one to stick around that late in the season, but even if she does, her being a Rufous means she has a pretty good a chance of survival, helping her species adapt to a new winter range.  

Rufous Hummingbird