Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, November 29, 2021


Rufous Hummingbird

When I let my dog Pip out in the rain or blowing snow, she heads straight for the underside of our picnic table or under the back bay window, whichever is drier and less exposed to wind, exactly as my previous little dog Photon used to do. The three big dogs I’ve had in my life never took shelter in those spots at all—they’d stay out in the middle of the yard, blasted by the brunt of whatever the weather could mete out.   

Don't forget Pip!

Are little dogs smarter? All three of my big dogs were hunting breeds, their coats and muscles designed for rugged outdoor adventures. Rain took a long time to penetrate their outer coats, while even a few raindrops instantly reach my little foo-foo dog Pip’s skin. Sheltered microclimates don’t matter nearly as much to bigger dogs.  

Rufous Hummingbird

I’ve been thinking a lot about microclimates as I watch the little Rufous Hummingbird coming to my feeders. There are three houses on Peabody Street that provide hummingbird feeders right now. The other two have one feeder in front of the house, facing north, and one in back, facing south. In both cases, the front feeder is at a window, in shade all day, and gets the brunt of north winds. And in both cases, the back feeder is away from the house on a deck, getting sunlight as well as shelter from north winds.  

My house is on the opposite side of the street. I have one feeder on my front porch facing south. That one is under a porch roof, mostly sheltered from rain and often quite a bit warmer than all the others. Yesterday was sunny when I looked at our backyard thermometer. It read 33º, while the one on the front porch read 41º. 

Thanksgiving Hummingbird

Another feeder is set on the tray feeder on my home office window, facing east. So close to the house, that one is very sheltered from rain if winds have a westerly component. 

Rufous Hummingbird

My third feeder is in my side yard, also on the east side of the house. That one I mainly watch from my upstairs window, but it's the closest and easiest for birders coming here to see from next to the fence. 

Rufous Hummingbird

From the first time I saw the hummingbird in my yard, within an hour of my setting out feeders, she came fairly frequently every day. But I started noticing that she came more often to the front porch feeder when it was sunny and the wind northerly, and more often to the side feeders when the wind was from the west. As November has proceeded, she’s coming less and less to the front feeder, I suspect because most of the surrounding vegetation has lost its leaves now, giving her no protected hideouts when she flies off in a hurry.   

One week we had several days with fierce east-south-east winds. On those days she came to my feeders only a few times all day, spending more time in the other the two yards with more protected feeders on the north-facing windows. When the wind shifted to the west, she was back at my window feeder two or three times every hour.   

Meanwhile, my chickadees come to pretty much the same feeders at pretty much the same frequency no matter what the weather. Chickadees are considered among the smartest birds on the planet, and they’re tiny, so it may seem counterintuitive that they wouldn’t pay attention to microclimates. But chickadees don’t sit in bird feeders to eat—they each fly in, grab a seed, and fly off to eat somewhere else. The few moments at the feeder are insignificant. I’m sure they take microclimates into account in selecting where to stop and eat those seeds.  

Black-capped Chickadee vs Rufous Hummingbird

Rufous Hummingbirds weigh 2–5 grams while Black-capped Chickadees weigh 9–14 grams, but more important, the hummers don’t fly in and grab food to eat elsewhere. When nothing disturbs my Rufous as she feeds, she remains for 50–125 seconds each time, so of course she chooses whichever feeders are least exposed to the elements.   

None of us have figured out where she sleeps at night, but that also seems to vary. Sometimes as sunset approaches, I watch her fly from my feeder to the north, towards a little woodsy spot where 49th Avenue East dead-ends or beyond. Other times, she heads south or southeast, toward the other houses with feeders.   

Rufous Hummingbird

The only places we can actually watch her are at feeders or, if we can track her as she leaves a feeder, at a few roosting spots. But most of the time no one knows where she is. We know her temporary home range is at least a block long, and quite likely larger than that. Even in winter, hummingbirds cannot live by sugar water or natural nectar alone—they need protein, which they must get from insects, and she's apparently figured out where to find them even during cold weather. When I've had my window open to take unobstructed photos, tiny insects have flown in even when the temperature was in the low 20s.  

Several times since my hummingbird arrived, I’ve asked her how she makes these minute-by-minute and day-by-day decisions about where to be and what to eat, but so far she’s not talking. 

Rufous Hummingbird

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” ( 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 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

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!