Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Alaska, Part 2: Nome!

Russ and me in Nome, photo by Erik Bruhnke
Erik Bruhnke took this photo of Russ and me in Nome at the end of a long but triumphant day, when we saw the Bristle-thighed Curlew. 

At the height of the Gold Rush in 1900, Nome (on the southern shore of the Seward Peninsula in Norton Sound in the Bering Sea) was the largest village in Alaska, listed in the U.S. Census as having a population of 12,488. During the following decade, as the Gold Rush ebbed, Nome’s population dropped by almost 80 percent. The 1910 census listed just 2,600 residents, putting Nome behind Fairbanks in population. By 1920, after losing fully half of the Native population in the flu epidemic, only 852 residents remained. A hundred years later, Nome’s population in the 2020 census was 3,699, making it the 31st largest city in the state.  

Seward Peninsula showing three roads out of Nome
This Track My Tour map of the Seward Peninsula shows the three roads out of Nome.

The saying may be “All roads lead to Rome,” but NO roads lead to Nome. Three gravel roads do connect Nome with tiny villages, but not a single highway or railroad line connects Nome with any larger city—to get there, you must travel by air, water, or sled dog.  

Nome is of course famous as the destination where, in winter 1925, a relay of sled dogs carried ampules of diphtheria antitoxin to save Nome’s people during an outbreak. The only aircraft that could quickly deliver the medicine from Anchorage was frozen and would not start, so officials transported the serum north to Nenana by train, and then northwest to Nome via a relay of more than 20 sled dog teams. The famous Balto was among the team that made the final run to Nome, saving thousands of lives. The Iditarod sled dog race was inspired in part by that “Great Race of Mercy.” 

The Iditarod makes its sentimental start in Anchorage with a great deal of fanfare, but that first leg of the race is purely symbolic, the time not counting until the race’s “restart” the next day, currently 80 miles north of Anchorage in Willow Lake. (Climate change threatens this: in 2015, due to unusually warm conditions and lack of snow, the restart was temporarily moved to Fairbanks.) I didn’t see the starting point in Anchorage, but our group passed the finish line in Nome several times, and one day we rode past the last checkpoint, at the Safety Roadhouse, on the Council Road.  

Safety Roadhouse

We arrived in Nome on June 12 in late morning. While our two leaders, Barry and Erik, went to get the rental vans and the rest of us waited outside at the airport parking lot, we saw our first three Nome birds—a Long-tailed Jaeger and White-crowned Sparrow, both of which we saw over and over throughout the next four days, and a White Wagtail perched on a power line, right there in front of us for several minutes. 

White Wagtail

We figured it must be pretty common, so when we mentioned seeing it to Erik and Barry, we didn’t realize that it would be our group's only sighting, which the leaders missed! Oddly enough, the next day the two of them saw one that the rest of us missed. 

We piled into the vans for the short ride to Nome's Subway restaurant, which doubles as the town’s movie theater. 

Subway in Nome

The Bering Sea from Subway

We ate our lunches at tables looking out on the Bering Sea as rumbles from the new Jurassic Park movie leaked in, and then our group headed out to see what we could see a bit east of town at the mouth of the Nome River. In just a tiny hike here, I got my first two lifers of the trip—dainty and beautiful Aleutian Terns... 

Aleutian Tern

Aleutian Tern

...and distant Bar-tailed Godwits.  

Bar-tailed Godwit, Black-legged Kittiwake

We also saw lots of birds we'd see again, such as Red-throated Loons...

Red-throated Loon

...Western Sandpipers...

Western Sandpiper

...and Long-tailed Ducks.

Long-tailed Duck

One of the three gravel roads out of Nome, the Nome-Teller Road, runs northwest for 72 miles until it reaches the Inupiat village of Teller. For the remainder of our first afternoon in Nome, we birded the first 15 miles of this road, seeing our first musk oxen... 

Musk Ox

...and an American Dipper...

American Dipper well as two more lifers for me—Arctic Warbler...

Arctic Warbler

... and Bluethroat. 


Then it was time to return to Nome, check into our hotel, and head to dinner.  

Aurora Inn Nome

That night I did something utterly unprecedented: I skipped an optional after-dinner birding outing to Cape Nome in search of a vagrant Brambling that had been hanging around. I’ve seen that species just once in my life, in February 1989 when one turned up in East Grand Forks. I'd have dearly loved to photograph one, but I was just too exhausted. As it turned out I didn’t miss anything unbearable—the handful of birders who did go saw neither the Brambling nor any other birds that the rest of us wouldn’t see later. The optional trip did yield an unusually bushy-tailed Red Fox that I’d have loved to see; I didn’t see a fox on the entire trip. Whether or not I saw new birds and mammals, though, it was disconcerting to stay back, making such a concession to the aging process. Fortunately, that was the only time I missed any birding opportunities on the entire trip. 

We’d return to Cape Nome, the mouth of the Nome River, and Nome Harbor several times in the following days, when we'd get our only looks at a Slaty-backed Gull (along with more frequently seen Glaucous-winged Gulls)... 

Slaty-backed Gull (first cycle) and Glaucous-winged Gull

... and a lifer Thick-billed Murre. 

Thick-billed Murre

We took a whole day each to bird the three roads out of Nome, but each deserves its own blogpost.

Nome is located 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, making it the farthest north I’ve ever been in my life. And when we reached the 72.5 mile marker on the Kougarok Road on June 15, that became the farthest north I probably will ever be—we were closer to the Arctic Circle than Duluth is to the Twin Cities! Being there the week of the Solstice, we never did see any real darkness at night.  

During the four days we spent in Nome, we saw or heard 114 species, of which 10 were lifers. This was a truly thrilling adventure I could never forget even without the 2,000 photos I took during those four days. As it is, I have those lovely memories AND a whole lot of pictures! 


Monday, June 27, 2022

Alaska, Part I: The tour begins in Anchorage

The glacer!

Russ and I just got back from two absolutely perfect weeks in Alaska, participating in a Victor Emanual Nature Tour (aka VENT) led by two extraordinary birders, Barry Zimmer and my dear friend Erik Bruhnke. We flew in on June 10, a day before the actual tour began, in order to relax after the very long flight and get acclimated to the time change. 

Our plane landed in Anchorage after 9 PM. It might as well have been 4 PM as far as daylight went—we never once were awake during the brief period of darkness on the entire trip—but it was well after midnight according to our biological clocks. Traveling west through time zones is the right direction to make waking up easy— our days started at 5 or 5:30 AM through the entire two-week tour, but we always woke up before the alarm went off. Of course, we paid for that at the other end of the day. When we settled down for dinner at 7 or 8 PM, I was always wiped out. 

The official tour wouldn’t begin until dinnertime on June 11, so Russ and I had that whole day to ourselves. It turned out we needed it after realizing that we’d both forgotten important things at home. Erik and Barry had both arrived the night before, too. (Erik was on the same flights as us.)

Erik at the Minneapolis airport

They offered to take us to the Anchorage REI where they had to buy bear spray anyway, but we decided to walk the 3.1 miles on our own. It wasn’t exactly exercise—I’m a pathological moseyer, so we hardly made good time, but walking felt good after sitting so much the day before, plus I spotted a snowshoe hare chomping on some ornamental plants along the street, retreating to the adjacent parking lot when I pulled out my phone to photograph it. That turned out to be our only sighting of this species on the trip. 

Our one and only snowshoe hare of the trip

Having never been to Anchorage before, I had no clue that the dominant urban gull in those parts is the Short-billed Gull (formerly called the Mew Gull until it got split from its Eurasian counterpart). It was disconcerting to check through so very many gulls flying over without being able to detect, for certain, a single Herring or Ring-billed Gull. 

If the walk to REI turned out to be exhausting or even just tiring, we’d have called a cab for the return trip, but we both felt fine and I got to try out my new sunglasses on the walk back to the hotel. And neither of us needed to rest up after the 6.2-mile roundtrip, so after I got my camera stuff organized, we headed out again to nearby Lake Hood, a popular seaplane base, where we could get a feel for the common waterfowl in the area. I got pictures of a Barrow’s Goldeneye...  

Barrow's Goldeneye

...and a gorgeous but elusive Black-billed Magpie. 

Black-billed Magpie

The 8 ½ miles Russ and I walked that day was far and away the most we’d walk during the entire two weeks. We freshened up for meeting the group in the lobby at 6:30. After a bit of schmoozing, we piled in the two vans and rode to the Kincaid restaurant for an outstanding halibut dinner.

The first part of our tour was listed as VENT’s Grand Alaska Nome pre-trip. Our flight from Anchorage to Nome (arrangements made by VENT) was set for mid-morning. Some participants would be leaving after Nome without having a chance to bird in Anchorage at all, so our leaders set up an early-morning optional short trip to Westchester Lagoon—an outstanding Anchorage birding hotspot. Knowing we’d be back there again, Russ stayed behind to get our stuff in order. Our group saw some splendid birds, including most cooperative and photogenic Short-billed Gulls and Arctic Terns.

Short-billed Gull

Short-billed Gull

Arctic Tern

I even got a poop shot from one obliging Arctic Tern, along with it snoozing, showing off its white eyelid. 

Arctic Tern poop shot!

Arctic Tern snoozing

The Holiday Inn Express served as our group’s basecamp between excursions to Nome, Denali, and Seward. They let us to keep extra stuff in a storage room between these shorter trips. Russ and I had each checked a large bag for our flight in, but would only need our carryon bag for the four nights we’d be in Nome, so Russ brought our large suitcases to the storage room and then chilled out a bit. When the rest of us got back to the hotel, we loaded up our luggage for Nome and headed back to the airport. Our big adventure was about to begin!

Monday, June 13, 2022

Packing for Alaska

Some of my references for planning my Alaska trip

I’m writing this on June 5, but with luck when you read or hear it, I’ll be in Nome, Alaska. (I'm actually posting this 15 minutes before Russ and I leave for the airport, which is why there are virtually no photos.)  

When I have an opportunity to travel, the joy lasts way longer than the trip, starting well before I leave. For the past several weeks, I’ve been making lists of all the things I need to bring and where to pack it all. I’m bringing one large bag to check, a carry-on, and my backpack. My camera, sound recorder, and binoculars go in my carry-on along with memory cards, batteries, and other accessories and my medications, a change of clothing, and a raincoat, in case there’s a delay getting my checked bag. The camera batteries have to be accessible in case I have to gate-check the bag—then they’ll have to go in my backpack along with my laptop, trip checklist, headphones in case there’s an inflight movie, neck pillow, and anything else I might want on the plane. My small purse goes on top. 

I’ve been going on birding trips now and then since I started birding in 1975, but this is the first time I’ve had to pack face masks. On the other hand, I used to always pack at least one field guide and often a birder’s guide to the location I was visiting. Now all that information and more is on my tiny smart phone, which is also how I keep records of all the birds I’ve seen using eBird, so I no longer pack a field notebook. For many years I brought a spotting scope and tripod, but that’s too much to lug with my camera. This is an organized tour so the leaders will have scopes to share anyway. And I don’t have to pack stamps to send postcards or notes to anyone. An app called “Track My Tour” will keep track of exactly where we go as I post photos and little notes on mapped “waypoints.” I don’t need internet access to update these on my phone, but whenever we do have access to wifi, they’ll be added to my Track My Tour online page so my family and friends can see how things are going. 

It’s hard to predict the weather we’ll be encountering. An all-day boat trip to Kenai Fjords National Park is pretty much guaranteed to be cold, and one rugged and potentially very long hike through tundra tussocks in a remote spot on the Seward Peninsula near Nome in hopes of finding a Bristle-thighed Curlew is guaranteed to be buggy with temps anywhere from the 40s to the 80s. Last week it was warmer in both Nome and Anchorage than it was here in Duluth, so although I’ll need to be prepared for cold, I’ll obviously be dressing in layers. I’ll need my thick La Crosse rubber boots for the tundra hike, but the rest of the time my good hiking shoes should be enough. 

Most of the places I go have lots of mosquitoes or ticks. That grows increasingly worrisome as far as disease transmission goes. I don’t like putting bug spray on my skin, so I always keep a mosquito net handy and wear treated gloves, neck gaiter, and leg gaiters when hiking. 

I used to treat my clothes with permethrin ahead of time. It’s not safe to spray that indoors, but there’s nowhere safe to use it ouside, either, as far as avoiding collateral damage to innocent insects. I have a few pre-treated clothing items that were supposedly good for 70 washes—they have lived up to that just fine, but were quite expensive. 

In 2016, I found a solution. I sent a box of my favorite long johns, socks, shirts, and pants to the Insect Shield company. They treated everything with permethrin and sent it all back. It’s way cheaper than buying pre-treated clothing, and the treatment lasts much longer than spraying the clothes myself. It’s been 6 years now, and everything has held up well on trips to Peru, Cuba, Uganda, Costa Rica, Panama, and a few visits with our son in Florida. I only wear the treated items in very buggy situations, so I think the most any one item has been washed has been 25 or 30 times. At some point I’ll have to get them re-treated, but I’d say I’ve given Insect Shield a pretty good test run and based on my experience, it lives up to the hype.

One of my favorite things about packing is savoring memories attached to my birding garments—the socks stained on a hike through volcanic rock in Guatemala to see a Horned Guan, the rain pants I wore in Panama to see a soaking wet Harpy Eagle, the shirt that got pooped on by a Blue-gray Tanager in Costa Rica. And thinking through my electronics makes me think of what I hope to photograph and record. I’ll be taking thousands of photos and will make sound recordings whenever the situation warrants—imagining the possibilities reminds me of the best photos and recordings I’ve made in other places, too. And those memories affirm that the joys and pleasures of this two-week trip will last way into the future. Travel really is a gift that keeps on giving.  

Friday, June 10, 2022

Recording Birds and the Merlin App

Cape May Warbler
This Cape May Warbler's song is as pretty as he is, but I can't hear it anymore. 

(This is very last-minute before I leave for Alaska in 20 minutes, so hardly any photos!)

I start out every morning drinking a cup of coffee where I can hear birds singing. When it’s cold or raining, I head up to my home office and turn on one of the bird recordings I made this spring. I’ve got a good hundred hours of morning song sound files to go through and edit. It’s a pretty task that takes only half my brain, so I catch up on email and other busy work at the same time.  

I’ve been using Adobe Audition to edit my sound files since I was working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and got to use all the Adobe products free on my university computer. Some less expensive sound editing programs may be equally good. Virtually all of them allow you to see both the waveform, which shows volume, and the spectrograph, which shows frequency.   

My “sound studio” for recording my voice for this podcast is a 2’ cube with one side open and the other five sides covered in soundproofing foam, so there is no background noise to edit out. When I’m editing my own narration, I just use the waveform, which shows me exactly where I need to cut out coughs, sniffling, throat-clearing noises, and mistakes where I did a retake.   

It's when I’m editing bird recordings that I need the spectrograph. Visitors often tell me how quiet my neighborhood is, which I used to think, too—at least in the early morning before lawn mowers and chain saws kick in—but when you listen to a recording, you notice the ambient noise. Most of us learn to filter out distant traffic and nearby cars, a gas furnace kicking in, the garbage truck, airplanes, and other human-produced sounds as we go through our daily lives, but these noises stand out when I’m listening with headphones.  

These sounds are almost all low-frequency, and the lowest ones, below 400 Hz or so, are both the loudest and the ones that virtually never overlap with bird sounds—at least not in my neighborhood—so I delete them entirely. It’s the frequencies between 400 and about 1.5 kHz that are the problem—those include Mourning Dove songs, geese flying over, and the lowest elements of crow and Blue Jay calls. I can’t delete those frequencies, but I do lower the volume, tweaking it trying to get the birds to sound right without distracting noise.  

The computer I use for this is slow, so these preliminary tasks can take a half hour for a long stereo recording, but then comes the fun part—I get to listen to it. I wear high quality earphones or ear pods and list all the birds I hear as I’m going along. I easily identify the vast majority of them, and when I hear something really good—a perfect robin song or a less-than-perfect song of a hard-to-get species—I may copy that segment for a new, short sound file. Listening to these recordings is a lot of fun for me.  

When I’m done, I give my ears a break and scroll through the entire file looking, not listening, for just the high frequencies. That’s when my eyes pick out what my ears missed.   

This spring, a host of Cape May and Tennessee Warblers visited my feeders and also sang in my yard. Tennessee Warbler notes span a lot of frequencies, so even if I can’t hear the highest elements of their songs, I can still identify them. But Cape May Warbler notes are clear, single tones mostly between 8 and 10 kilohertz. I used to have no trouble at all hearing them, but now, even with my hearing aids cranked up to 11, I can’t hear them at all.   

For the past few years, when I’ve been mystified by notes I could see on the spectrograph but couldn’t hear, I’d send a sound clip to one of my young birding friends, but I hated imposing on them. But now the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has developed a great new app called Merlin, giving me the identifications of those high-pitched singers instantly. All Merlin needs to know is the date and location to identify bird sounds outside in real time or when I’m playing a recording. And it’s absolutely free.  

Merlin does make mistakes now and then, but shockingly few, and I have enough experience and knowledge of birds moving through Duluth to figure out most of them. I haven’t used Merlin in unfamiliar places yet, but when I do, I’ll be careful to double-check any rarities. It’s an excellent resource, and based on what I’ve heard from both serious, experienced birders and beginners, other users are as thrilled with it as I am.   


Sunday, June 5, 2022

Book Reviews

Two years ago, I downsized from my large home office to a much smaller room. At my age, I’m trying to get rid of stuff anyway. I gave away a lot of books and haven’t added many new ones, but sometimes even now I come across a book I need to add to my library.  

The newest one—it came out just last week—involves absolutely no shelf space at all. Way, way back in 1961, Sam Robbins compiled a groundbreaking work, Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts, for the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology (WSO). This first edition covered 30 of the best birding spots in the state. Daryl Tessen greatly expanded the book in the second edition in 1976, and he compiled and edited the subsequent editions through the fifth, spanning 540 pages, which was published in 2009. I’ve owned all five editions and still have Robbin’s very thin and treasured original. But I let each of the others go as a newer edition became available, and then in 2020 the fifth edition was reissued in searchable PDF form on the WSO website. That’s exactly when I had to clear out a lot of books, so I let go of that final edition.   

Now, Wisconsin’s Favorite Bird Haunts has been revamped as an amazing online resource with detailed instructions and interactive maps to help navigate the intricacies of spots that can be hard to find. It also lets you know where to park and provides the name of the eBird hotspot there. This will be extremely useful in planning trips to new birding spots ahead of time, but also, when a sudden rarity turns up in an unfamiliar place while I’m on the road, I can look it up via my smart phone. And unlike a printed book, the online version can be updated whenever it’s needed. And it takes up zero space on my crowded bookshelves.  

You must be a member of the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology to access this online resource. WSO does so very much valuable work in researching and protecting birds and the places they need and educating the public about them that anyone who enjoys birds in the state should be a member anyway. An annual membership is $40 for a household, and just $25 for students and seniors at least 65 years of age.  

Of course, not every book is available in an online version, and some books I want even if they do weigh 6 pounds and take up almost 5 cm of valuable shelf space. The third edition of National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America, an authoritative 752-page reference work, came out in 2021, but I didn’t hear about it until last month. It includes all the artwork, maps, and identification information in their latest field guide, only more fleshed out and with additional information about each of the 1,040 species covered.   

I've kept my copy of every one of the seven editions of the National Geographic field guide and find myself referring to the older editions for various comparative reasons now and then, but I can’t justify keeping my second edition of National Geographic’s Complete Birds of North America when room on my shelves is at a premium. Fortunately, I found a good home for it; replacing it with the slightly expanded, updated, and thicker third edition is worth the loss of 3 mm of shelf space.  

I was asked to review a digital copy of Sharon Stiteler’s North American Bird Watching for BeginnersThe digital copy was free, but I loved it so much that I paid good money for a hard copy. I am hardly a beginner, but Stiteler’s book provides information not available anywhere else on the planet. For example, who but she would explain that one difference between Mourning Doves and Rock Pigeons is that the Mourning Dove’s eyes make it look like it’s apologizing while the Rock Pigeon’s eyes make it look confused? And nowhere else have I read the true fact that Canada Geese can be found “Everywhere. They could be inside your house right now.” Sharon Stiteler warns readers never to disturb herons in a nesting colony or they will vomit down on you. That’s a way more effective way of keeping people at a safe distance than asking them not to bother the poor birds.  

The one thing I found distressing in Sharon Stiteler’s book is the clear and convincing evidence that she is a better housekeeper than I, at least in terms of how often she cleans under her bed. She says the tiny Common Yellowthroat is “the shape, size, and texture of a dust bunny,” when I’d have to give that description to the Barred Owl. North American Bird Watching for Beginners is a fun little book that was well worth both the $13.99 cover price and 1.5 centimeters of valuable bookshelf space. 

Friday, June 3, 2022

Desperate Times Call for Sweetness

Cape May and Tennessee Warbler in June!!
Photo from June 1, 2022!

I’m writing this on June 1, 2022, while looking out my home office window at Tennessee and Cape May Warblers at my feeder and in the boxelder and spruce trees next to the window. A week ago I had at least 30 or 40 each of these two species in my yard and as many as 10 at a time in the feeder. This morning there are at most 10 or 12 in the yard, and they’re coming to the feeder much more sporadically. It’s pretty cool outside still, but there is much more insect food now that the trees are leafed out. Only a few of these migrating warblers still need supplemental calories on a morning when it’s in the 40s and our furnace is still kicking in. 

Tennessee Warblers and chickadee at feeder

The only time in my life before this spring that either of those species visited my feeders was 18 years ago, during another cold spring—that time it was only Cape Mays, and they were gone before Memorial Day Weekend.  

The intrepid bikers

Watching these warblers eat jelly reminds me of my daughter Katherine when she was 19 years old, when she and two young friends rode their bikes around Lake Superior. They brought sleeping bags, tents, a couple of changes of clothing, flashlights, first aid stuff, and essential bike-repair tools, minimizing everything else they had to lug in one Burley trailer and one small one-wheeled trailer. Like migrating warblers, they figured they could find food along the way.  

They stopped at grocery stores when passing through cities but got most of their food at gas stations. This worked out well as they worked their way through Wisconsin and Michigan, but as they reached more genuine wilderness in Canada, gas stations became fewer and farther between, and eventually, they got very hungry indeed. When they finally reached one remote gas station, they were so starved and the shelves so poorly stocked that they bought chocolate milk and a box of Betty Crocker chocolate chip cookie mix, glopped it together, and ate it just like that. Not exactly healthy fare, but it gave them the calories they absolutely needed to travel on to where they could find more nutritional fare.  

Cape May Warbler at oriole feeder

In the exact same way, the grape jelly at my feeder is giving these warblers the calories they need to get through this hard leg of their migration. I’ve seen both species every day for almost two weeks. None of them are banded so I can’t be certain how long individuals stay before moving on—some may have been here the whole time, but it’s equally or more likely that the first to arrive are long gone, replaced by later arrivals. Their numbers peaked on May 27. 

Most years migration is pretty much over by the end of May, but over Memorial Day weekend this year, huge numbers of warblers, vireos, and flycatchers were still being seen at Park Point, including one lost little Hooded Warbler on May 30. Every one of the tiny birds was exceptionally active, desperately spending every second searching for insects. 

Even though I offer jelly almost every spring for migrating orioles, most years only 3 or 4 show up. This cold year was exceptional—I had as many as 20 orioles in my yard at a time. I hadn’t seen a single Cape May Warbler eating jelly since 2004, and I suspect I won’t see them or Tennessee Warblers again at my feeders until the next exceptionally late spring. In the same way that my daughter and her friends have not once been tempted to glop chocolate milk and cookie dough mix together and eat it raw since that desperate moment on that long-ago bike trip, warblers don’t eat jelly unless they absolutely need it. 

Tennessee Warbler

Every one of these tiny birds is an adult who has flown on its own power all the way to the tropics and almost all the way back again at least once, a feat we mere humans can’t even imagine. They know their bodies' needs far better than we do. It's very hard for humans to accept that a half-ounce bird understands a lot that we cannot fathom.  

Cape May Warbler

I'm finishing writing this on June 3 at 7:30 am, when the temperature is 47ยบ F. This morning I could find only a single Tennessee Warbler and Cape May in my yard, and they visited my feeders for just a few seconds, not giving me enough time to get a photo. How I'll miss seeing warblers at my feeder! But boy did I feel thrilled and gratified watching these last little birds gleaning insects in my trees, the natural diet they need in order to make that final leg to their boreal forest home at last. 

The bikers reach home!

Thursday, June 2, 2022

Monty and Rose (2017–2022)

Rose (left) and Monty, 24 July 2019.
Photo copyright 2021 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved.

Every now and then I fall in love with an individual, identifiable bird—BB, my banded Pileated Woodpecker; the Black-capped Chickadee with a deformed bill and 3 missing toes who successfully nested and fledged at least five chicks; the robin who always did his singing at the very top of my largest spruce tree. BB occasionally still visits, so I presume from day to day that he’s alive. I haven’t seen that chickadee since his babies fledged in 2015. He may have died that year, but it’s equally likely that his mate came from a different winter flock and he moved on with her. It is improbable that he’d be living now, 7 years after that, but not impossible—at least one banded chickadee lived to be 12 years old. I think I’m glad that I’ll never know for certain. I do know exactly what happened to my robin—he was killed by a Cooper’s Hawk who started feasting on his pectoral muscles while he was still alive. I’d have been happier had I never witnessed that gruesome scene or at least didn’t personally know the victim.  

Black-capped Chickadee
I'll never know how long this lovely little dear lived, but how thrilling to see two of his chicks emerge from this cavity and to know I'd helped him through a whole winter when his beak was so overgrown! He broke the long tip off a year before this photo, but his missing toes on the right foot could not regrow.

Monty, 24 July 2019
Photo copyright 2022 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved. 

I fell in love with two individual birds without ever meeting them in person: Monty and Rose, the famous Piping Plovers who successfully nested on Montrose Beach in Chicago from 2019 through 2021. Many Piping Plovers are banded with colored as well as numbered aluminum bands so birders and photographers can track down which individuals they see. That’s how we know that Rose spent winters in Florida, and Monty in Texas.  

Monty returned to Chicago this year on April 21, and the many plover monitors and other people paying close attention were joyful. But day after day, there was no sign of Rose. Weather patterns this spring have slowed migration, but people quickly started growing concerned. Piping Plovers who successfully raise young in an area virtually always return to that same spot the following year, so it grew increasingly clear that something bad had happened to Rose.  

Monty watching his sleeping chicks, 8 August 2021
Photo copyright 2022 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved. 

As bonded to their mate as Piping Plovers must be to successfully nest, they can’t afford to dilly dally when their mate from the previous year doesn’t turn up. Indeed, on the Atlantic beaches where Piping Plovers are much more abundant than on the Great Lakes, one bird often accepts a new mate almost immediately after arriving without waiting even a day or two for its previous year’s mate to show up. When that bird does arrive, it doesn’t take umbrage—it simply finds its own new mate. But the entire Great Lakes population of Piping Plovers numbers fewer than 200 individuals. There weren’t any potential mates waiting in the wings for Monty, and none turned up over the following three weeks—birders and Piping Plover monitors were eagerly keeping watch in anticipation of this year’s nesting season officially beginning. 

On Friday, May 13, plover monitor Daniela Herrera was birding on the dunes when she saw Monty fall over a number of times. He appeared to be gasping for air, and suddenly, just like that, he was dead. I can’t imagine how devastating this must have been to witness. Leslie Borns, the beach steward who spearheaded the protection of dunes vegetation back in the 1990s (her tireless work finally made it possible for Piping Plovers to nest in such a huge city—you can learn more about her in the Chicago Reader ) arrived minutes later. They retrieved the poor little body to be sent to the Lincoln Park Zoo for a necropsy. 

Both Monty and Rose hatched in 2017, and in news articles, a lot of people have been quoted saying the life expectancy of Piping Plovers is 5 years, but that’s a meaningless oversimplification. Most hatchlings don’t survive their first year, but once a Piping Plover reaches about two years of age and has successfully bred, its life expectancy rises dramatically. Indeed, five-year-old Piping Plovers are at the very prime of life. Banded birds have survived well into their teens, and the oldest known Piping Plover was alive and healthy when photographed in Cuba in 2016 at a minimum age of 17!

My sadness is a combination of having spent a lot of time with these beautiful and charismatic little plovers in Maine; understanding how critically important each individual is in such a rare species, especially in the endangered Great Lakes population; and my personal connection to Montrose Beach, directly across Lake Shore Drive from where my beloved uncle lived for 30 years. 

Susan Szeszol monitoring plovers during the lovely days of last summer.

As sad as this news was for me, I can’t imagine how horrible it’s been for the monitors who spent so many hours, days, weeks, and months watching these birds’ every move and becoming so intimately acquainted with them. My treasured friend Susan Szeszol was a plover monitor who spent a great many hours watching and photographing Monty, Rose, and their chicks and generously sharing her work with me. 

28-day-old Imani, 4 August 2021
Photo copyright 2022 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved. 

The pain Susan and her fellow monitors are feeling is an order of magnitude greater than mine—they share all my love for this adorable shorebird and understand the conservation value of each one, plus they feel a deeply personal connection to Monty and Rose. How can they not be devastated? My friend Susan told me: 

Too many people have said to me, “It’s part of the life cycle” or “Life goes on.” They truly don’t understand the deep personal connection. When I went to the beach last weekend for the first time since his passing and her apparent passing, it was overwhelming for me. I stood at all of the places that the monitors and I had watched them over the years, sitting on the eggs, little chicks warming up underneath mom, …. and it was just so empty without them there.

On May 31, results of the necropsy were released. Tests for avian flu were negative. Monty died from a severe fungal infection in his lungs. How and where he picked that up is not known. 

31-day-old Imani, 8 August 2021
Photo copyright 2022 by Susan Szeszol. All rights reserved. 

Meanwhile, there is some good news—one of Rose and Monty’s babies from last year, Imani, was briefly seen here in Duluth on May 16 until people walking dogs off-leash on the beach scared him away. Exactly one week later, on May 23, he was back in Chicago at Montrose Beach! He’s still hanging out there, but so far, no females have found their way to him. Migration has been late this year so there’s still a little hope for this year, and even if a female doesn’t turn up, it’s wonderful that we know Imani survived the winter and was smart enough to figure out that the people of Chicago are way more willing to make accommodations to help nesting Piping Plovers than the dog owners of Duluth.  

Imani in Duluth, 16 May 2022
© 2022 by Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus. All rights reserved.