Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Record breakers, from turkeys to that Bar-tailed Godwit

Bar-tailed Godwit

The Guinness Book of World Records has 973 bird-related records, including the slowest flying birds, American and European Woodcocks who can fly a mere 5 miles per hour without stalling while displaying; the strongest bird of prey, the Harpy Eagle; and the bird with the highest-pitched call, the Black Jacobin, a Brazilian hummingbird whose lowest recorded sounds are above 10 kHz, making the song higher-pitched than the hearing capabilities of any bird so far tested. It’s possible the jacobin’s calls are too high for even them to hear, meaning their call could have a function unrelated to vocal communication. I love ornithological mysteries like this, though I suspect the birds can indeed hear their own calls, meaning ornithologists haven’t quite figured out how to accurately test hearing capabilities in such tiny birds.  

Wild Turkey displaying

This week, when normal people are thinking about turkeys as a Thanksgiving meal, or because they’ve seen President Biden or their governor pardoning one, or read about or saw video accounts of a Wild Turkey attacking people in Washington, D.C., I’m thinking about turkeys holding the world record as the "bird with the strongest gizzard." Yep—that thick organ found in the little bag of innards inside a store-bought turkey is more amazing in life than in the most delicious giblet gravy or stuffing. According to the Guinness Book account, “One [turkey] specimen had crushed 24 walnuts in their shells within 4 hours, and had also ground surgical lancet blades into grit within 16 hours.”  

Bar-tailed Godwit

The whole reason I’ve been checking out the Guinness Book is that a splendid bird I saw in Alaska this year, the Bar-tailed Godwit, made international news in October when one individual broke the record for the longest non-stop journey of any wild bird. Some whales may make even longer non-stop journeys, but they feed along the way. The godwit's flight was the longest non-stop journey without feeding en route of any animal in the world. 

Before this past October, the bird holding the record was another Bar-tailed Godwit individual—a satellite-tagged adult male who, in 2020, flew from Alaska to New Zealand without stopping for food or rest, 7,580 miles away. That same individual broke his own record with an 8,100-mile flight on his next migration in 2021.

But this year, scientists placed a transmitter on a first-year bird still too young for them to determine the bird's sex. That bird left the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta on October 13, and 11 days later made it to Ansons Bay in Tasmania, some 8,425 miles away. Again, this was entirely without stopping or feeding. It took 11 days and 1 hour to make that amazing trip. And godwits can only fly by steadily flapping their wings—they can’t soar to minimize their energy use as eagles and hawks do. To have the strength to do this, they boost the size of their pectoral muscles and heart before the trip. And to fuel the flight, they put on enough fat to double their weight. All this requires them to shrink their other internal organs to make room for the enlarged muscles and all that fat. 

The individual birds bearing these satellite trackers are not the only ones who have made these impressive flights—godwits virtually always travel in flocks, so any birds with them accomplished the exact same feat without any fanfare at all. And interestingly, it’s very unlikely that these flights that made the Guinness Book are really the furthest any Bar-tailed Godwits have flown—they’re just the furthest we happen to know about. Satellite trackers and the technology to read them are expensive, so very, very few birds bear these trackers. Like Wisdom, the banded Laysan Albatross on Midway Island who holds the record as the oldest wild bird ever, this record is only among birds we actually know about—there may be albatrosses years or decades older than Wisdom who have never been banded, and Bar-tailed Godwits who have travelled even farther. 

Nevertheless, the information we get about tracked birds gives us a fuller and more nuanced look at their species. And regardless, even if a banded or marked individual hasn’t done anything genuinely unique, it’s special and lovely to know about a special and lovely individual. 

Sunday, November 20, 2022


Black-tailed (front) and Bar-tailed Godwits 
Illustration from Naumann, Natural history of the birds of central Europe, 3rd Ed. 1905 

When Russ and I arrived in Nome on June 12 this year, the very first bird I added to my life list, at the mouth of the Nome River, was a wonderful one, the Bar-tailed Godwit. There are four species of godwits in the world, and this one completed my godwit list. 

Godwits are large shorebirds with straight or slightly upswept, extremely long bills, which they use to probe deeply in sand and soft mud for aquatic worms and mollusks. In winter, they flock together where food is plentiful.  

The English word godwit was first recorded in about 1416–17. Its origin is uncertain—it may have been an imitation of the bird's call, or it may have been derived from the Old English god whit or god whita, meaning “good creature”, probably suggesting good eating. Sir Thomas Browne, writing in about 1682, noted that godwits “were accounted the daintiest dish in England.” English speaking people would have encountered both Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits, though they probably didn't worry about telling them apart. Linnaeus didn't distinguish between the two. 

The Black-tailed Godwit, the national bird of the Netherlands, breeds from Iceland through Europe and areas of Central Asia, and winters in the Indian subcontinent, Australia, New Zealand, western Europe, and west Africa. I saw some in June 2015 when I was in Austria and Hungary but didn’t get any photos. In November 2016, I saw some wintering in Uganda and got distant photos during a boat trip. 

Black-tailed Godwit

The Bar-tailed Godwit breeds further north, on Arctic coasts and tundra from Scandinavia east to Alaska. The Bar-tailed Godwit includes five different subspecies with different breeding and wintering ranges and migration routes. 

Maps by Onioram

When creating the first scientific names, Linnaeus placed the godwits in the same genus with several long-billed sandpipers. He considered both the Bar-tailed and Black-tailed Godwits the same species, and in 1758 gave them the scientific name Scolopax limosa; Scolopax was the Latin word for snipe and woodcocks, and limosa was Latin for “muddy.” Two years later, French zoologist Mathurin Jacques Brisson decided that the godwits deserved their own genus, Limosa and re-named the Black-tailed Godwit Limosa limosa and the Bar-tailed Godwit Limosa lapponica.  

We’d expect to see only two godwits in the Lower 48: the Hudsonian Godwit and Marbled Godwit. The English naturalist George Edwards described and illustrated both of these species in his 1750 work, A Natural History of Uncommon Birds. Edwards called the Hudsonian Godwit the “Red-breasted Godwit”...

... and the Marbled Godwit the “Great American Godwit.” 

Edwards based those illustrations and information on specimens brought to London by James Isham following a Hudson Bay expedition. Linnaeus referred to George Edwards’s work when he included both species in the 10th edition of his Systema Naturae

Hudsonian Godwits breed in the far north near the tree line in Alaska and northwestern Canada and, as the name suggests, on the shores of Hudson Bay; they winter in South America. In good weather, they can make the south-bound journey non-stop, which explains why most of my sightings of Hudsonian Godwits in Wisconsin and Minnesota have been in spring, including my lifer, which I saw in May 1977 at Goose Pond near Madison, Wisconsin. I also saw them in Kansas in April 2015. I would have missed the Hudsonian Godwit altogether in my 2013 Big Year except that I lucked into two of them at the Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge in Upstate New York on September 28. 

Hudsonian Godwit

My photos are horrible, but it was a very lucky sighting—during migration, most East Coast sightings are from late July through early August, not the very end of September. 

This June, I saw two Hudsonian Godwits in breeding plumage at the Westchester Lagoon in Anchorage, Alaska. 


The Marbled Godwit, the largest of the four godwits, breeds in mid-continental North America, eastern Canada, and the Alaska Peninsula. The largest winter ranges are along the Atlantic, Pacific and Gulf coasts of the US and Mexico. I saw my first Marbled Godwits in September 1978 at Goose Pond. Since then, I’ve seen them many times in many places in Minnesota, California, Texas, Colorado, and Kansas.  

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwit

Marbled Godwits

So by 2014 I’d seen 75 percent of all the godwit species in the world. But the one I hadn’t yet seen, the Bar-tailed Godwit, was the one I was most fascinated by. Next time I’ll explain how this extraordinary bird made it into the Guinness Book of World Records

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

In My Prime

Black-capped Chickadee

As of Friday, November 11, 2022, for the 20th year of my life, I’m officially in my prime, thanks to 71 being the 20th prime number. I’ll have to stop saying I’m in my prime next year about this time, but will have two more prime years this decade, assuming I make it to 73 and then 79.   

As much as people my age seem to hate anyone referring to people in their seventies as “elderly,” I can’t think of a single boomer who was so prickly about calling people this age “old” when we younger, even as late as our fifties. The Beatles’ recorded “When I’m Sixty-Four” for Sergeant Pepper when Paul McCartney was 25, the same age Paul Simon was when the song “Old Friends” appeared on Bookends with the line “How terribly strange to be seventy.” Even if we don't want to call 64 old, the Biblical “three score and ten” is the quintessential definition of old age.  

Wawa, Dee Dee Nana, and Bear

Also as of Friday, I’m not just in my prime—I’m the precise definition of what a 71-year-old looks like. My whole life, the multi-billion-dollar cosmetics and fashion industries have been hell-bent on making everyone feel dissatisfied with our own faces and bodies. I’m pretty good at ignoring the constant barrage of ads for beauty products—they don’t feel personal except for one ad for Botox looking down at me above my dentist’s chair. It’s bad enough knowing the dentist and hygienist judge my toothbrushing and flossing habits—are they also using their magnifying lenses to study my wrinkles? That is the kind of thought I try to banish by thinking about birds.  

Maybe it’s because I focus my eyes and optics on birds rather than the mirror that I don’t mind being whatever age I happen to be. I’m still in good health, but even when I’ve faced surgeries, two heart attacks, and cancer, paying attention to nature has had real medicinal value. 

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher

In April 1978, I had abdominal surgery back when they made incisions bigger than they do now. The doctors and nurses told me to go slow with walking and stay off uneven surfaces, and that lifting would be especially bad. I don’t remember the precise weight limit—just that my 7x50 Bushnell binoculars exceeded it. But hokey smokes—it was April—spring migration! The morning after I got home, Russ took me to my favorite birding spot. When I heard Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, I forgot all about my incision as I charged up a small hill to see them, and the pain magically stayed at bay. My recovery took way less time than doctors predicted, thanks to birding.  

Barn Owl

On January 12, 2020, days after my second heart attack, a Barn Owl turned up at the Sax-Zim Bog. I was thrilled—the experience definitely speeded up my recovery—but the poor owl, so far north of its range, died a few hours after Russ and I left. I’d wanted to use this poor bird as a sign of resilience and hope, but instead, it reminded me that we’re all muddling through life as well as we can for as long as we can. All of our days are numbered. 

Black-capped Chickadee

That lovely owl also reminded me that no one on this planet—avian or human—is obligated to serve as a symbol of anything for anyone, nor to be burdened with lugging around some dead person's spirit. When I die, my kids will probably think of me when they see chickadees. But those chickadees will not, in any way, shape, or form, be embodiments of me. Chickadees have been bringing me comfort and joy just about every single day that I've been home or anywhere else in their range since I saw my first on March 2, 1975. Seeing these lovely sprites who have brought me so much joy for almost 5 decades should be good enough for anyone. 

The medicinal value of birding is not unique to me—during my father-in-law’s final months in the late stages of cancer, he was up and at his chair by the living room window every morning at first light to see the birds arriving at his feeder. Over the years, a great many other people have told me how birds brightened the final weeks and days, and sometimes hours and minutes, of loved ones.   

The therapeutic value of birding isn’t just anecdotal. New research from King’s College London found that seeing or hearing birds is associated with an improvement in mental wellbeing that can last up to eight hours, including for people diagnosed with depression. Johanna Gibbons, co-author of the study, said that the dawn chorus is “A multi-sensory experience that seems to enrich everyday life, whatever our mood or whereabouts.” She continues, “This exciting research underpins just how much the sight and sound of birdsong lifts the spirits. It captures intriguing evidence that a biodiverse environment is restorative in terms of mental wellbeing. That the sensual stimulation of birdsong, part of those daily ‘doses’ of nature, is precious and time-lasting.”   

The value of birding isn’t limited to mental health. Ontario writer Robert C. Bell contracted a debilitating case of Lyme disease in 2013 when he was in his late 50s. He had to take early retirement from a job he loved in the mining industry and thought his life was pretty much over. But he got so engrossed in birds at his feeders that he started going outdoors to see more birds, got more serious about birding, and took up bird photography. He says, simply, “Birding saved me… It’s given me a real spark and purpose in life.” Bell just wrote a book about his experience, Out of the Lyme Light and into the Sunlight: Birding as Therapy for the Chronically Ill, which will be out this month by Hancock House—I have it on pre-order from the publisher.  

None of us can turn back the clock except in a Standard Time vs. Daylight Savings Time sense, and even the U.S. Senate knows how stupid that is. As with every living thing, each of us is given a finite set of years, months, and days, and no beauty or fashion products or injections of botulism toxin can change it. Why squander valuable moments of my finite life fretting about my reflection in a mirror when I can reflect on and enjoy real beauty? Life doesn't have many guarantees, but birds, from everyday chickadees and jays to much harder-to-see species, are guaranteed to bring beauty and fascination to our lives if only we open our hearts to let them in.  

Walter and Dr. Blue Jay

Monday, November 7, 2022

Phainopepla: A Bird As Unique As Its Name


Ever since the Phainopepla turned up outside Duluth last week, I've been thinking of when I first discovered this lovely bird. In 1982, when our baby Joey was 6 months old, Russ had a meeting in Las Vegas and we made it into a family vacation. This was the very first time I’d ever been in the Southwest, and I saw Phainopeplas first at Sunset Park in Las Vegas, and then in several places in southeastern Arizona.   

Russ’s parents had gone to Arizona a year or two before we did that first time, and Russ’s dad was utterly taken with Phainopeplas. They often sit on conspicuous perches, and so are a characteristic desert bird that non-birders are likely to notice. But I think Russ’s dad especially liked their name. I remember him holding baby Joey and saying, “Did you see a Phain-o-PEP-la?”  It’s a fun word that even my 2-year-old grandson Walter likes to say.   

The unusual but cool-sounding word comes from the bird’s scientific name, Phainopepla nitens. In Greek, phainos means “shining,” and peplos means “robe.” In Latin, nitens also means “shining,” emphasizing that lovely quality of the adult male plumage.  


The Phainopepla belongs to the silky-flycatcher family, which was once part of the waxwing family. Like waxwings, phainopeplas sally out to catch insects from conspicuous perches and then return where they started out or alight on another conspicuous perch.   


Also like waxwings, Phainopeplas eat a lot of fruit. Phainopeplas are specialists on desert mistletoe, with a uniquely adapted stomach to extract as much nutrition from their berries as possible. The seeds and pulp hold almost all the nutrition, but the much less digestible skin makes those nutrients hard to access for animals that swallow berries whole. To get enough food value, Phainopeplas must eat a lot of mistletoe berries—as many as 1,100 in a single day. They devour enough to stuff their crop (a pouch in the esophagus) to capacity, and then retreat to a perch to quietly digest the feast.   

The Phainopepla’s muscular stomach chamber, or gizzard, is very tiny, processing one berry at a time by contracting to squeeze the seed and semi-liquid pulp directly into the small intestine as the berry’s sturdy outer skin remains in the gizzard. One by one, the berries run through the gizzard like this, the digestible pulp and seeds extracted and running through the intestines as the skins accumulate in the gizzard in a compact mass. When that mass builds to about 10 or 20 packed skins, the gizzard ejects it into the small intestine in a bolus separate from the pulp and seeds. As far as I can find, the Phainopepla is the only known bird able to shuck the outer coatings of berries like this. Between swallowing the berry and it coming out the other end takes only about 12 minutes, making the system as fast as it is efficient.   

Phainopeplas arrive on their breeding grounds in the United States between February and April. The birds in Arizona and California, the most well-studied populations, breed in two distinct habitats at two different times of the year. Between February and April, they breed in the Arizona's Sonoran Desert and California's Colorado Desert. In May, as summer heat intensifies and desert berry supplies dwindle, the birds appear in oak and sycamore canyons, where they breed through July.   

Nesting Phainopeplas behave quite differently in the two habitats. In the desert, mated pairs are extremely territorial, probably because desert mistletoe parasitizes the same trees over and over, producing a stable, long-lasting supply of berries close to where each pair nests. But in the oak and sycamore woodlands where they breed in summer, Phainopeplas nest in loose colonies of from 3–15 pairs, feeding on such fruits as redberry and elderberry, which grow away from their shaded nest sites. In this habitat, foraging Phainopeplas lose less from sharing the fruits than they benefit from more eyes searching out new fruiting plants and noticing and helping one another to mob nest predators.  

So far, researchers haven’t figured out whether the desert-nesting Phainopeplas in Arizona and California are the same individuals that nest in woodlands later the same years, or if these nesting styles represent two different breeding populations. Either way it's unique, befitting a bird with such a unique and fun-to-say name.


Sunday, November 6, 2022

Phainopepla: Which Way Did She Go?


On Saturday, October 29, word went out that a Phainopepla had turned up near the parking area of the McQuade Boat Landing just up the shore from Duluth. I was in the first crowd of people to see this first state record after Molly Misfeldt and Michael Sack reported it.   

The bird stuck around all weekend and all day Monday, and was still there on Tuesday, November 1. I didn’t need to babysit until mid-afternoon, so I went back a couple of times to get better photos and a sound recording, along with bragging rights about seeing this extraordinary bird in Minnesota in two calendar months. There were still birders watching it when I left, but it wasn’t seen again after that day. I felt bad for out-of-town birders who wanted to see it on Wednesday, but I was also relieved, hopeful that the bird left on its own power, not in the grips of a Sharp-shinned Hawk. I thought about the Saturday morning cartoons when I was a little girl, with a clueless sheriff trying to catch some speedy prankster like Wile E. Coyote and asking in a cartoonish voice, “Which way did he go?” There is at least some hope that the Phainopepla headed toward the Roadrunner's habitat in the Southwest, but we’ll never know for sure.   


Scientists simply do not know what makes some individual birds wander well out of their normal range, but vagrancy happens fairly frequently in a few species. The Fork-tailed Flycatcher that turned up at Stony Point this spring was even further out of its range than the Phainopepla. Fork-tailed Flycatchers that wander into the United States tend to be from the South American population that migrates fairly long distances, while Phainopeplas migrate much shorter distances, yet that Fork-tail was Minnesota’s fourth state record, the second to be reported in St. Louis County, and they appear at least somewhere in the United States just about every year. Some ornithologists speculate that the migratory compass of vagrant Fork-tailed Flycatchers somehow got reversed. But there are only a handful of records ever of Phainopeplas anywhere out of the Southwest and California. How did one end up in Duluth?      

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Jaegers and Sabine’s Gulls do not belong on Lake Superior, but every fall there are several sightings of Parasitic Jaegers, a handful of Pomarine Jaegers, once in a while a Long-tailed Jaeger, and usually one or two Sabine’s Gulls, seen right here in Duluth and Superior. The individuals are vagrants, but of species in which some individuals always wander. The Ivory Gull that showed up in Canal Park in Duluth in 2016 was the 12th state record; this past January Minnesota birders found the state’s 13th record.   

Ivory Gull

If no one understands what makes some individual wander, we have even less understanding of whether any of them ever get back to where they belong. Vagrants that linger a while may be in trouble—the Ivory Gull that appeared in Duluth on January 1, 2016, stuck around Canal Park for over three weeks but ended up dying on January 24; oddly enough, during the time that one was in Duluth, a different individual was found dead in Superior.  But lingering isn’t always fatal. One banded female Rufous Hummingbird wintered in northern Massachusetts at least six years in a row.   

Most exceptional vagrants appear out of the blue and disappear within days, or even hours or minutes. The Fork-tailed Flycatcher on Stoney Point September 17 this year was seen only a few times within a couple of hours before it disappeared for good. The only other Fork-tail ever seen in St. Louis County, in Duluth on September 6, 1991, was seen by only one person, Peder Svingen, and only for a few minutes. But the very next spring, one appeared in Grand Marais on May 3 and stuck around for 11 days. The only predictable thing about vagrant birds is their unpredictability.   


I haven’t heard of any out-of-range Phainopeplas in the United States in the six days since the McQuade Harbor bird disappeared, and even if one turned up, we’d have no way of knowing for certain that it was “our” bird. Uncertainty and mystery are part of the magic of these sightings, and since our Phainopepla disappeared while the weather was still pleasant, there’s at least some hope that she’s been working her way back to familiar terrain in her natural range. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, but my mind keeps going back to those Saturday morning cartoon sheriffs asking, “Which way did she go?”  


Friday, November 4, 2022

The New Kid on the Block

Two male Pileated Woodpeckers

For the past year, I’ve been doing my best to keep track of one particular Pileated Woodpecker that I call BB, or Banded Boy. Frank Nicoletti banded him as an immature at Hawk Ridge last year.   

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

From the start, BB seemed like an old pro at using a bird feeder and is very laid back in my yard—last November he tolerated a whole lot of birders coming over to see a Rufous Hummingbird, and he doesn’t bolt from the feeder when my neighbor is mowing the lawn or when people and dogs walk by just past the fence, 15 or 20 feet away. And BB ignores me when I open a window and stick my long camera lens out. He kept coming frequently through this past April. Then he seemed to hook up with a female.  

Pileated Woodpecker

BB and his lady love stopped coming soon after I photographed them together, and I had very few Pileated sightings in my yard all summer. BB reappeared on September 3. Since then, I’ve also been seeing at least two female Pileateds, somewhat regularly. Oddly enough, they feed not only at the suet feeders but visited my window seed feeder for a couple of weeks.   

Pileated Woodpecker at my window feeder

On Sunday, October 30, I was watching BB in the suet feeder when suddenly a second male Pileated appeared on the cross-pole supporting the suet feeder, his face just a couple feet from BB’s. BB ignored him for a minute or two, but when the new guy started pecking on a wire nearer the suet feeder, BB flew up at him, and then flew away.   

Two male Pileated Woodpeckers

That left the new kid on the block with the feeder all to himself. I always thought that suet feeders must be a little intuitive for woodpeckers, and it’s not like this new guy hadn’t watched BB on the feeder for at least a little while, but he simply could not figure it out. 

Male Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker

Male Pileated Woodpecker

First he sat on the supporting pole and leaned down to take tiny bits of suet. That didn’t give him much food, so he jumped on top of the feeder but it was too slippery, so he grabbed on to the pole with one foot and straddled, sticking his tongue into the little holes holding the supporting wires, not getting much food at all. He did not sit vertically on the feeder the way woodpeckers normally do, and finally gave up and flew away.  

That was on Sunday. Since then, we haven’t seen him, but meanwhile BB has been coming several times a day, possibly making sure the new kid on the block isn’t trying to take over BB's favorite feeding station.  

It surprised me that the unbanded male didn’t know how to get food from a suet feeder, and made me curious about how Pileateds normally figure feeders out. Back in 2004, a male Pileated visited my small window suet feeder repeatedly for a few months. 

Pileated Woodpecker

But otherwise Pileateds just did not come to feeders in my yard or my mother-in-law’s in rural Port Wing, Wisconsin. I saw them at feeders here and there in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Ithaca, New York when I worked at Cornell, 

Pileated Woodpecker

But I haven’t figured out whether those individuals had figured out feeders on their own, watched other Pileateds or other species of woodpeckers, or learned from their parents. I’ve had several different individuals coming to my feeder consistently for the past several years, so however each individual figured it out, it’s become pretty normal here. But as the new kid on the block shows, how you get food out of a suet feeder doesn’t appear to be intuitive, at least not to every Pileated. I’d love to ask BB how he figured it out. He’s pretty tolerant of me, but I suspect he will not give me a straight answer.

Pileated Woodpecker

Monday, October 31, 2022

What's the Name of That Song?

Black-capped Chickadee
The original Li'l Darlin'

At least two or three times every year, my high school jazz band played a song that I grew to love. It was probably listed in a program or two, but I never noticed what its name was. I last heard it the year I graduated, in 1969, but it’s been stuck in my head ever since as my most beloved and persistent earworm.

My son Tom was in Duluth East High School’s jazz band, but I never heard them play it and it didn’t occur to me to ask Tom if they ever played it in a practice, which was too bad—when I hummed it eight years after he graduated, he immediately recognized it, but he couldn’t remember the name. At least I finally had confirmation that my earworm was an actual song that my brain hadn’t made up whole cloth.  

That was ten years ago. And last week, like a lightning bolt out of a clear blue sky, Tom sent me an email with no subject line or text—just a link to a YouTube video. I clicked on it, and there it was—a full 57 years after I first heard the song and 53 years after I last heard it, Count Basie’s orchestra was playing “Li’l Darlin’,” written by Neal Hefti for Basie’s 1958 album, The Atomic Mr. Basie. Note for note, it sounded exactly as I remembered it. How thrilling to hear it again, and to know what it is!  

I asked Tom how on earth he’d found it, and he told me that now there are apps that specifically identify songs by humming the tune, and a search on Google can do the same thing when you click the microphone. I was impressed and touched that he remembered the song and how badly I wanted to find out what it was.

Northern Cardinal

An app called Spotify, which has been available since 2006, can identify any recorded song in their database, which has millions of recordings. But if a group does a cover of their own song, with the exact same voices, melody, and instrumentation, Spotify can't identify it unless that exact same version is also in the database.  

The algorithms in newer apps such as SoundHound or Google itself not only have a huge database of melodies but can recognize them in perhaps an almost infinite number of combinations of tempos, pitches, and tones, from whistling and humming to scat. Even so, some parts of a song may be more recognizable than others—my son didn’t get a response when he hummed the first two lines of “Li’l Darlin’.”  It was only in the next two lines that Google came up with the answer.  

As with human dialects, bird songs can vary regionally, and individual birds may sing their own personal tunes. Some species are famous for how many different songs they sing—a single Brown Thrasher is known to have sung 2,400 distinct songs. 

Brown Thrasher

To confound bird song ID even more, thrashers, mockingbirds, and starlings very often mimic the songs and calls of other species. And at a given moment, several birds can be singing along with assorted insects, frogs, mammals, and human-generated sounds. If it was tricky for me in my 20s, with excellent hearing, to pinpoint each bird song within the entire surrounding soundtrack, it’s trickier for an app in a cellphone with only a single omnidirectional microphone.


As someone who spent decades desperate to identify a single song, and who spent a lifetime studying bird songs, I appreciate not just how frustrating it is when we don’t recognize something, but how satisfying it is when we do figure it out. Unfortunately, describing bird songs with human words is very hard. If someone uses the word “spiraling” in their description of a northwoods bird, they are usually describing a Veery, and if they whistle a White-throated Sparrow or Black-capped Chickadee song, I can give them the answer just like that, but few bird songs are that easy. Now people often send me recordings made with their cell phone to identify, which would have been very easy before I lost my high frequency hearing, but background noise and the distance between the phone and the calling bird make even some low register songs difficult for me.  

Fortunately, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has come up with a wonderful bird identification app called Merlin that anyone can use to figure out what birds they’re hearing. Merlin started out identifying birds by description, giving the most likely possibilities for the date and location when you answered a few questions. Then it rose to the next level, identifying bird photos, too, again when it knows the date and location. And now Merlin can also identify birds by sound. When you’re out walking and hear something interesting, you can turn on the app and it will identify, with surprising accuracy, all the birds singing and calling around you. If you’re trying to figure out a Blackburnian Warbler as a robin sings nearby, that doesn’t confound Merlin—it lists them both. Merlin is free, and you can integrate it with eBird so that your sightings will not only satisfy your own curiosity but contribute to the body of citizen science data Cornell is famous for. 

So now we can find out what the name of that song is whether it’s produced by a 50s-era big band or an elusive bird singing right that moment, thanks to the wonders of modern technology. From Count Basie to Merlin, how times do change. And, at least in this case, for the better.

Banded Merlin
Low-tech Merlin

Sunday, October 30, 2022

Rarity Begets Rarity

Eastern Screech-Owl

On May 17 this year, I saw a Field Sparrow in my yard. This is a common bird over much of the eastern United States and Canada, Duluth is within its breeding range, and I’ve seen quite a few in the state, but it doesn’t turn up here very often and this was a new bird for my yard list, so I sent out an alert in case any other local birders wanted to see it.   

Field Sparrow in Duluth!

A few hours later, when I was babysitting my grandson Walter at his house 3 miles away, I received a text message from Bruce Munson about a much rarer bird that was right that minute in my yard—a White-winged Dove. 

White-winged Dove in Duluth!

Ironically, Bruce lives next door to my grandson, but at that moment he was sitting in my backyard looking at a bird I’d never seen anywhere in Minnesota before. Thanks to the alert, I got home in time to see it, a bird that would never have been noticed at all had not a bunch of birders been in my yard looking for my Field Sparrow.   

White-winged Dove in Duluth!

Something similar happened this weekend. On Saturday morning, Jim Lind found a gorgeous Eastern Screech-Owl roosting tight against the trunk of a spruce tree close to the main parking lot at the McQuade boat landing and got the word out. I missed Jim’s original text, but a little while later, Bruce Munson texted me to make sure I knew about it. I’ve only seen a screech owl in St. Louis County once before, way back in 2004, so I grabbed my binoculars and camera and set out.   

The last weekend in October happens to be when a lot of good birds turn up along the north shore of Lake Superior, and of course a screech owl is too good to miss. Lots of other rarities have turned up around McQuade over the years, more often on the far side of the smaller parking lot, so as long as they were there anyway, birders were checking that out, too. Sure enough, that’s where Molly Misfeldt and Michael Sack discovered a mega rarity—a Phainopepla! This silky flycatcher of Mexico and the American Southwest does very rarely appear way out of its range. The eBird map shows sightings on Nantucket Island and places near Toronto and Winnipeg, but these outliers are few and far between and never before has a Phainopepla appeared in Minnesota.   

Before I was even out of the driveway, hoping for the screech owl, I got a text message about the Phainopepla. When I arrived at McQuade, at least a hundred birders—some local and some from farther away, most here on day or weekend excursions up the shore—were crowded onto Scenic Highway 61. Their spotting scopes, binoculars, and cameras were all focused on one precise spot—a low branch of a dead spruce where the little wanderer was perched in a splash of sunlight.  


After getting a bunch of distant photos, I went to the other parking lot to look for the screech owl and was surprised and delighted to discover that it was a red, or rufous, morph. The gray form is far more common in the upper Midwest. What a visual treat!

Ethical birders don't dare approach too close to roosting owls. We don't want to alarm them—if they open their eyes wide, they're likely to be noticed by chickadees whose alarm calls will alert other birds. I've seen both robins and Blue Jays draw blood when mobbing tiny owls. So I stayed in the parking lot, not getting any closer to take photos. Some people feel that an expensive camera with a long lens somehow justifies getting really close to a bird, but the way I see it, my expensive camera and long lens help me get decent pictures while staying at a respectful distance. 

Eastern Screech-Owl

After I'd taken several photos, I headed back to spend more time with the Phainopepla. I spent an hour and a quarter at McQuade in total, going back and forth between the two birds. The screech owl stayed put, but the Phainopepla left its perch several times to feed on buckthorn berries and once alighted in a willow where it preened for a bit, but it kept returning to the same spruce branch. 




I helped some newcomers see the birds and explained to a few passersby on Scenic Highway 61 what all the commotion was about, but I was so focused on the birds that it didn't occur to me to take a photo of the crowd.  

I felt joyful heading home—the birds had been thrilling to see, I was reasonably happy with my photos as far as documenting the rarities went, and most of all, it was so rewarding to share these splendid birds with so many other birders, on the receiving end when people told me where they were to begin with, and then on the giving end as other people arrived.   

I take so much pleasure in seeing my favorite backyard birds over and over, and so much satisfaction in birding alone—walking or just sitting in lovely places and quietly communing with whatever birds' paths cross mine, not needing to talk to people at all. But even an introvert like me likes to spend some time with kindred spirits, and nothing beats mingling with a crowd of happy birders, every one of us sharing such a joyful experience. 

Eastern Screech-Owl