Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, September 23, 2022

Dee Dee Nana

Walter and Chuckie Chickadee

Before my children were school aged, I didn’t feed squirrels in the backyard so they wouldn't approach the kids expecting treats before the kids had learned how to recognize which squirrels were steady and reliable, how to choose long peanuts, and how to hold them very steadily at one tip so the squirrel’s mouth would be as far as possible from fingers. Meanwhile, I did feed squirrels on the front porch. My kids could watch through the living room window as I whistled and squirrels scurried right up to me for treats.  

Blue Jays love peanuts just as much as squirrels do and quickly caught on to what my whistling meant. When they heard me at first, they’d fly to the maple tree and watch. Sometimes the squirrels ran to a tree and ate the peanut right away, but they buried most of them in the front yard. Then the moment a squirrel turned its back, a Blue Jay would drop to the ground, dig up the peanut, and fly off to eat it right away or to bury it somewhere else.   

A pair of Blue Jays soon figured out how to skip the middleman. One was braver than the other and started taking peanuts right out of my hand. The other was more skittish, so I’d line up peanuts on our flat porch railing. When I stepped back a safe distance, that one flew in to grab its own treat.   

Laura and Katie at Grandma's house, summer 1984

Our daughter Katie loved watching these big, colorful birds. When she was a year old and still crawling, she learned to pull herself up to stand at the front window to watch them. When I asked her if she wanted to go to the window to see the Blue Jays, she’d say, “Boo Jay!” Yep—Boo Jay was her second word, after Mama. That was cosmically gratifying.   

My little grandson Walter has had several words for a few months now. “Dee Dee” means chickadee, and he uses it when he sees chickadee photos, his own plush chickadee that makes a whistled “Hey, sweetie!” song when he squeezes it, and real-life chickadees that come to the bird feeder. When we take our walks, he points when he hears their song or call and says “Dee Dee!” This spring one chickadee perched on a street sign singing the entire time we walked past it on the sidewalk. He still points to that sign every time we go by and announces, “Dee Dee on Hign.”  

His very first toy from me was a Blue Jay Beanie Baby that we named “Doctor Blue Jay,” which he calls "Docto." He also has a plush Blue Jay that makes the Blue Jay call when he squeezes it. But he doesn’t say anything close to Boo Jay—he refers to every Blue Jay we see as “Docto!”   

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

“Dada” and “Mama” were among Walter’s first words, but he hardly ever said “grandma”, and when he did, it came it out as gaggy, gaagaa, or something pretty close to “dada.” But a few weeks ago, Katie and Michael brought him to New York where they spent three weeks with Michael’s parents, right when he was picking up words like crazy, and his other grandparents became solidly “Nana” and “Pop.” 

They came home this past weekend, and on Tuesday when Walter and I were looking at a photo of that grandmother and he was pointing and saying “Nana,” suddenly a thought hit him like a thunderbolt. He’s been obsessed with the number 2 since even before his birthday, and now he exclaimed, “TWO Nanas!” He pointed at the picture and said, “Nana!” He pointed at me, laughed, and said, “Dee Dee Nana!” And ever since, he has been calling me "Dee Dee Nana."   

I often feel surges of gratitude that I have been given so very many wonderful days and years, so many wonderful experiences, and so many people I love. But being my dear grandson’s “Dee Dee Nana,” his chickadee grandma, is so unexpectedly and crazily wonderful. That little guy fills me with joy beyond anything.  

Wawa, Dee Dee Nana, and Bear

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Hawk Ridge: Fifty Years and Counting!

Laura with Common NIghthawks at Hawk RIdge
Me counting hawks at the main overlook around 1991

When Russ was finishing up his Ph.D. and considering job offers in 1980, one possibility was at the EPA’s water quality research lab in Duluth. He leaned toward that one because he wanted to focus his life’s work on the environment, and also because his parents had recently retired from Chicago to Port Wing, Wisconsin. Having them just an hour away was another selling point. 

Our plan was for me to be a stay-at-home mother at first, so career-wise, it didn’t matter to me where we settled. My personal stake in Russ taking the Duluth job was the birds. Several of my Madison friends had driven to Duluth a year earlier for a big invasion of Great Gray, Boreal, and Northern Hawk Owls. They went up on a weekend when I had a nasty stomach bug, and they saw not only those wonderful owls but also Boreal Chickadees, Black-backed Woodpeckers, and Evening Grosbeaks galore. I got over whatever I had within a few days, but 40-some years later, I still felt sick at heart for not being able to go along with them. 

Boreal birds were not the only avian draw. Duluth was already famous among birders for Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve, the best spot anywhere in the Midwest for observing raptor migration. 

I didn’t lobby Russ much about the job—it was his career, after all. But he took it and we moved here early in 1981, renting for a few months until we found a little house for sale on Peabody Street. Russ’s parents helped with the down payment, but we could barely afford the monthly mortgage payments—at the time, mortgage rates were 15 percent! 

Evening Grosbeaks in my yard, May 18, 1982
My mother-in-law took this photo of our feeders in May 1982, our first spring in Duluth.

It would be a few weeks before I realized we’d picked a house in the neighborhood right below Hawk Ridge—indeed, after I knew it was there I could see the main overlook from our backyard. But from the very start, when we were lugging the first boxes into the house on moving day, Evening Grosbeaks were calling from backyard boxelders as a Bald Eagle circled overhead. Within minutes of Russ setting up a bird feeder, chickadees and grosbeaks were pigging out. Duluth, including my own backyard, was a birder’s delight. 

I of course spent a lot of time up at Hawk Ridge that fall. Back then, everyone seemed to focus on the Broad-winged Hawk migration, which is concentrated in September. Most days in August, no official counter kept a tally, but I loved sitting by myself on a rock at the main overlook, watching Cedar Waxwings swirling along, an occasional Osprey or Bald Eagle, and a slow but steady stream of Sharp-shinned Hawks. That’s when I discovered how lovely migrating flocks of Blue Jays are. 

By September, Molly Evans was counting just about every day, along with increasing numbers of birders, all looking skyward. When winds were easterly, barely a trickle of raptors, mostly Sharp-shinneds, passed through, but on a day with northwest winds, I could see thousands of Broad-winged Hawks in just an hour or two.  

Katie, Laura, and Joey at Hawk Ridge

The composition of fall migration has changed quite a bit since the 80s and 90s—there are substantially more eagles, Osprey, Red-tailed Hawks, and Merlins than before even as the numbers of goshawks, harriers, kestrels, and other vulnerable species declines. Broad-wings are still the most numerous species most years, but our biggest days for them now are smaller than they once were.

Hawk Ridge was obviously there long before white people settled in Duluth, and for many decades in the 20th century it was a popular spot for Duluthians to go to shoot hawks despite that being illegal. But 50 years ago, the Duluth Bird Club became Duluth Audubon and, thanks to contributions from Minnesota birders and a gift from The Nature Conservancy, they bought the property and donated it to the city with the stipulation that it be protected permanently as Hawk Ridge Nature Reserve. A committee of Duluth Audubon was responsible for collecting scientific data and providing educational opportunities. 

People my age often complain that things aren’t as good as they were in the “good old days.” Some hawk numbers have gone down since I first was going to Hawk Ridge, but just about everything about Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory is better today than it was 50 years ago. Frank Nicoletti set a whole new standard for counters, so now our counts conform to the strict protocols developed by the Hawk Migration Association of North America, and the current counters count every single bird flying past, including songbirds and hummingbirds. You can see up-to-the-minute data from this year’s migration—and yes, I mean up to the minute—by clicking on the "LIVE Fall Count Data" button at hawkridge.org

This weekend we’ll be celebrating Hawk Ridge’s 50th anniversary with lots of activities. My dear friend Erik Bruhnke, one of the former naturalists, will be up there every day teaming up with our current naturalists to point out birds and answer questions. Programs at UMD, a paper session at the Great Lakes Aquarium, and lots of field trips to other places are all on the agenda. I’ll be leading Saturday and Sunday morning field trips at Park Point. If you’re in the Duluth area, come join us!

Pip on Panda's Rock at Hawk Ridge

Sunday, September 18, 2022

Fork-tailed Flycatcher!

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

I’m behind on several deadlines, so Saturday morning, after I drank my coffee while plotting out my calendar for the coming week and then started laundry and put my pills together for the week, I set to work on my computer. It was still dark and it was supposed to rain all day, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t have to deal with many distractions. 

Blue Jay

This is the peak of Blue Jay migration, but the rain was keeping them down. Unfortunately, “down” turned out to be my backyard for a bazillion of them. I set out peanuts and a blend of seeds and nuts before I got to work, but at first light the jays pigged out on the tastier stuff and then, like Oliver Twist, a few approached me with their plaintive, “Please, sir. I want some more.”

Like Mr. Bumble, I’m pretty good at ignoring hungry little ones at the window feeder in my home office while I’m working on my computer at my desk treadmill. My window feeder is right next to my desk, and one jay has taken to rising up from the feeder in the Blue Jay version of a hover, staring at me as it flaps its wings at my eye level as long as it can before it drops to the feeder and tries again. That’s hard to ignore. And if that jay isn’t around, a couple of others have learned to catch my eye by sitting on the air conditioner jutting out of the window right in front of my desk at exactly the right angle that if I glance below my monitor, there they are, giving me a long, hard stare. I’m not quite as hard-hearted as Mr. Bumble, so I can’t help myself—I must oblige them. On Saturday, I was still working hard despite the interruptions. As long as the rain kept up, it was looking to be a productive day. 

But then at 8:18, I got a text message from Alex Sundvall saying that Adam Sell had found a Fork-tailed Flycatcher at Stony Point, about 12 miles up the shore in Duluth Township, and my productive day went out the window. I grabbed my binoculars, camera, and raincoat, changed from my treadmill shoes to more water resistant ones, and set out.

Meanwhile, text messages were warning that Adam Sell couldn't relocate the bird. This happened to be the day of Duluth’s annual in-line skating race, which follows the same route as Grandma’s Marathon, closing off London Road and Scenic Highway 61. From my neighborhood it was easy to follow Superior Street straight onto the freeway, but the roads that cross between the two highways were closed. I’d have to cross Scenic 61 at Alseth Road to get to where the bird had been. Even though Alseth was marked closed,  a bunch of cars were parked there with binocular-clad people getting out, so I pulled in. Hope may be the thing with feathers, but we’re talking about a bird who’d flown up here from South America, five or six thousand miles away. Where it was headed next, no one could know. Would I luck into seeing it?  

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

The last time a Fork-tailed Flycatcher was seen in my neck of the woods was thirty years ago, in May 1992 up in Grand Marais. That one stuck around for several days so a lot of birders got to see it. I dragged my whole family up—that was the bird that inspired my 6-year-old Tommy to start a life list. The previous fall, one had turned up in Duluth, but Peder Svingen was the only one who saw it—Kim Eckert and I arrived minutes after Peder called but it was gone for good. Before this Saturday, not one other birder had seen a Fork-tailed Flycatcher for their St. Louis County list, and it would have been a lifer for lots of people. Plus it’s a darned cool bird. No wonder dozens of birders rushed to Stony Point within minutes of word getting out. 

Fork-tailed Flycatchers range from Mexico down through Argentina, but the Mexican subspecies is non-migratory. It’s the birds breeding in the southernmost part of their range in South America who migrate north for the austral winter, so oddly enough, the Fork-tailed Flycatchers who breed the furthest from the United States are the ones who make occasional appearances here. Vagrants are so rare that this was the last bird Roger Tory Peterson added to his North American life list.The birders gathering on Stony Point to see it comprised sort of a Who’s Who of northeastern Minnesota birders, and text messages were flying from Twin Cities birders already on the road in hopes of seeing it.

After Adam Sell got a good look and photos, the bird disappeared. Now as dozens of birders were arriving, no one could find it. Living up to their name, flycatchers sally from tree branches to catch flying insects, but rain was keeping both birds and insects down. Some of us wandered up and down the road a bit from where the bird had been seen, but while the rain was heavy, we were also clustering in groups catching up with each other’s news.  

When the rain finally slowed down, Bruce Munson wandered by himself a tenth of a mile up to Stony Point Road to get a different vantage point, turning out of our sight range. Suddenly a few birders near me spotted what could have been the bird flying toward where Bruce was. Sure enough, a few moments later, he saw it light on a spruce tree and sent out a text message. Everyone charged over.  

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

I barely got a glimpse before it flew off, and people behind me didn’t see it at all. But then suddenly it flew to the top of another spruce next to where a starling was perched. It was off a ways, but I got identifiable photos. A few people had brought spotting scopes, so I’m pretty sure everyone there got decent looks.  

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

When it flew in the direction of where it had first been seen, we all scurried back. Now it was perched much closer to the road. Despite the foggy, gray conditions and back lighting, this time I got halfway decent photos.  

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Then it flew across Alseth toward the freeway, perched one more time giving us a last look, and disappeared for good. Some birders kept searching, knowing that in an hour or so, birders who’d booked it from the Twin Cities would start arriving, but no one managed to find it again. 

Vagrant birds provide unexpected and lovely grace notes that make our lives so much richer and more interesting. Even when we miss a good one, like the King Eider in Grand Marais that I missed by barely 10 minutes back in the 80s, they give us cool stories and memories. 

Thirty years between Fork-tailed Flycatcher sightings in northeastern Minnesota is a long time—many of the birders who saw this bird Saturday were babies or hadn’t been born yet when the Grand Marais bird appeared, and of my own age cohort, many had been too busy with work lives to drive so far for a bird likely to disappear before they got there. It must have been cosmically disappointing for Twin Cities birders who drove up in the rain only to miss it. 

A Fork-tailed Flycatcher might not reappear in Minnesota for another three decades, but then again, it could be three weeks, or three days. Hope is not the only the thing with feathers. You never know when the next Fork-tailed Flycatcher’s feathered wings will carry it our way. 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher

Saturday, September 17, 2022

Hummingbirds in September—and Later!

Rufous Hummingbird

Back when I started feeding hummingbirds when we moved to Duluth in 1981, my mother-in-law told me her ironclad rule—always take in hummingbird feeders by Labor Day. 

That made no sense. Many birds, including hummingbirds, migrate exactly when food is most abundant. Hummers fuel their journey every step of the way on the abundant food flowers provide in terms of nectar and insects. Stragglers are juveniles who hatched later than most that year or adults who took a little longer than most to get into migratory condition after breeding. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding in bee balm

Fall migration is rather leisurely without spring hormones pressing birds forward, but as a species reaches the end of its normal migratory timetable, other factors play into how fast individuals move. Eastern birds depend on the foods that eastern plants provide, so the Ruby-throats that started migration on the later side usually seem to be in more of a hurry than the early birds. On the rare occasions that I've seen a Ruby-throated Hummingbird in late September or October, it took its fill of sugar water and immediately moved on. 

Hummingbirds don’t have a transporter room to magically beam themselves to their wintering grounds from their breeding territories. Each individual travels hundreds or thousands of miles. Hummingbirds have excellent memories, not only for their nesting territories but also for good gardens and feeding stations they encounter along their travels, and so many of the birds passing through recognize us as much as the ones breeding in our neighborhoods do. It's virtually impossible to distinguish what we think of as our own hummingbirds from the migrants. 

Anna's Hummingbird

A combination of tropical deforestation, climate change, people planting so many flowering shrubs and trees in American towns and cities, bird feeding, and other factors have changed many bird movements and ranges, including hummingbirds. Anna's Hummingbird is a case in point. In the first half of the 20th century, this species bred only as far north as Baja California and southern California. But as more and more people moved to the West Coast and planted flowering trees and shrubs, Anna's Hummingbirds slowly spread to places where they could find food year-round until they reached Oregon, then Washington, and now British Columbia and even southeastern Alaska. 

It can be disconcerting to see hummingbirds in the snow, and many people believe it was bird feeders that enticed them to "stay too long" without seeing how deforestation, habitat, and climate change altered the old patterns. Feeders do help hummingbirds, but even in cold weather, they search for and find insects. The two times Rufous Hummingbirds have visited my feeders in November and early December, I watched them darting for insects at the tips of my spruce branches and in stands of tall weeds even when the temperature was below freezing. 

Rufous Hummingbird

Most of the hummingbirds that turn up in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other Eastern states in late autumn and early winter are Western species wandering far from what we think of as their normal range. Intriguingly, Rufous Hummingbirds used to winter almost exclusively in Mexico, but are expanding their winter range into more and more places in the East. Here is the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s range map for the Rufous Hummingbird:

But here is Cornell’s eBird map for confirmed Rufous Hummingbird reports made ONLY in November 2021. Apparently Rufous Hummingbirds are expanding their late fall/winter range.

I brought in the hummingbird feeder on my front porch last week—I don't pay much attention to that one—but I’m still maintaining a feeder in my backyard and one on my home office window. I glance at them occasionally, but don't keep watch consistently throughout the day, so I'm sure I miss more than I see.

The last time I saw an adult male Ruby-throat was September 1. After September 4, I didn’t see any hummingbirds at all until September 11. On the 14th, I had at least 2 and possibly 3. I had one again today, the 18th.

Thanks to the Rufous Hummer I had last year, I’m keeping up these two feeders until the end of November; I'll change the sugar water once or twice a week. When the sugar water starts freezing overnight, I'll put out one or two heated hummingbird feeders, too. It’s extra work with a very low probability of my seeing any hummingbirds after September anyway, but hope is the thing with feathers. If any stray hummingbirds do pass through, I cannot bear for them to leave my neighborhood hungry.

Rufous Hummingbird



Monday, September 5, 2022

Moosey and Puffy

A boy and his puffin

   Our Alaska tour in June was the first trip Russ and I took since our grandson Walter was big enough to notice we were missing, so we of course had to bring him back some sort of souvenir. But what do you give a two-year-old that you can be certain he’ll love while also giving him a sense of traveling to an exciting new place?

Moose cow and calf

We came up with the answer on our very first day in Nome while looking at a cow moose and her calf. Russ and I both love moose and this was the first time I’d ever photographed any. Moose are hardly restricted to Alaska—indeed, Walter has seen pictures of them in one of his books,  Good Night, Minnesota. But they're still characteristic of Alaska. Indeed, as climate change melts the permafrost, changes in vegetation that are decimating caribou are increasing moose populations up there, even as changes due to climate change are threatening moose here. 

Anyway, moose were a big feature of our trip as we continued to see them in Nome  and then in Anchorage, Denali, and Seward. 

Moose and twin calves

Moose cow and twin calves

Bull moose

Moose

I got lots of photos of several more cows, each accompanying not just one calf but two, and also some reasonably good photos of bull moose, their antlers still fairly small and in velvet. So we decided to search out a plush moose for Walter.  

Of course, Walter identifies his grandma much more with birds than mammals, so I also wanted to get him some sort of avian souvenir. That choice also seemed obvious. That first day in Nome, we saw very distant, flying Horned Puffins, another species I’d never photographed. I didn’t want to give him a souvenir of something we’d seen only from a distance, so I hoped that at some point we’d see puffins at much closer range. 

This was a serious birding trip. Except for some  restaurants, we didn’t spend time around touristy places and didn’t get to any gift stores in Nome. There was a big gift shop where we stayed in Denali where we found and bought the perfect plush moose. Mission Half Accomplished.   

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But overall, there were too many birds about for me to waste birding time checking out gift shops. Seward was our last birding destination, with very few days left before heading home, so finding a puffin souvenir was suddenly urgent.   

We had a couple of free hours the afternoon we arrived in Seward and another hour or two the next day, after our boat ride before the group would meet for dinner. 

But oddly enough, especially considering the huge mural of Horned and Tufted Puffins on a building overlooking the harbor, we could not find a single plush Horned Puffin at the town’s biggest gift shop, the one in our hotel, or the one in the National Park Visitor Center. If that surprised me, I was even more shocked that no one was selling Tufted Puffin souvenirs—this is a seriously funky looking bird who you’d think would make a very popular plush toy. 

Tufted Puffin

There were plenty of puffin souvenirs—carvings, keychains, Christmas ornaments, and yes, plush toys—but not a single one depicting either of Alaska’s two native puffins. Every puffin souvenir I saw in Seward, Alaska, including at the National Park, depicted an Atlantic Puffin. 

Atlantic Puffin on souvenir from Alaska!
We bought this at a Seward gift shop, and it will serve as our 2022 Christmas ornament despite the fact that the birds depicted, Atlantic Puffins, live thousands of miles from Alaska.

I was puzzled but not too bummed out. We hadn't yet had great looks at either puffin. Advertising for the Kenai Fjords boat tours said they sold souvenirs on the boats, so I figured if I got good looks at Horned Puffins on the boat trip, that would be the coolest place to buy a souvenir anyway. 

On the boat, I got lovely looks and a few decent photos of Horned Puffins. 

Horned Puffin

Horned Puffin

During a lull in birding activity when the crew was making margaritas, I asked the naturalist whether they were selling plush puffins. He said he’d forgotten to stock them for this trip, but I should try the gift shop associated with the boat tours when we got back. Sure enough, they did have lovely plush puffin toys, but again, every single one of them was an Atlantic Puffin! 

So what does an anal-retentive stickler for ornithological accuracy do when she wants to bring her little grandson a puffin toy from Alaska? I bought the softest, nicest Atlantic Puffin I could find, and named it Puffy the Magic Puffin—because really, a magic puffin could find its way from the Atlantic to the Pacific, right?  

Even stuffed animals know better than to go around in public spaces indoors unmasked.

I took photos of Moosey and Puffy wearing masks in our hotel room, but then I unthinkingly packed them in our checked luggage. We could have taken a great series of photos of them sitting, seatbelts strapped,  in the plane, interacting with the flight attendants, eating Delta's wonderful airplane cookies—what a wasted opportunity! Regardless, Walter was delighted with both of his new friends. 

When we take walks in his neighborhood, he always chooses one of his stuffed animals to come along. His absolute favorite is Bear, but Moosey and Puffy have both made the cut several times, and they’ve also become an integral part of our nap-time ritual. 

So all’s well that ends well, but I’m still mystified why we couldn’t find a single souvenir in Alaska depicting a native Alaskan puffin. Attention must be paid. 



Thursday, September 1, 2022

It's "Anything Can Happen" time again!

Common Nighthawk

The weeks immediately before and after Labor Day weekend are what I think of as the “Anything Can Happen” time of year. I can’t be outside long in my own yard or any wooded places without hearing chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches—that’s a constant. Cedar Waxwings eating berries, fly-catching from dead branches, and flying over in swirling flocks are another. 

Cedar Waxwing
Immature Cedar Waxwing

And this is peak dragonfly time, as wonderful and exciting as it is bittersweet. 

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Dragonfly numbers have decreased enormously since I moved to Duluth. They’re still easy to see this time of year, but the numbers are nowhere near what they were. They're pigging out on other flying insects, as are nighthawks. Dozens and even hundreds of Common Nighthawks have been seen darting about over some fields in recent afternoons, and a couple of directed flights of over 2,000 have been observed. 

Common Nighthawk

In recent years, Steve Kolbe has been conducting a regular, standardized count at an excellent vantage point near the shore in Lester Park. Annual totals have spanned between 15,000 and 45,000. This is impressive and important work, but again just a fraction of what we used to be able to see. In the 80s and early 90s, I spent evenings counting thousands from my yard and when I walked my boys to late-afternoon/early-evening scout meetings half a mile away, though I was doing it for fun and not recording my numbers.  

Local birders didn’t have the will or wherewithal to start doing standardized nighthawk counts back then, but on August 26, 1990, Mike Hendrickson, perched at the Lakewood Pumping Station, counted 43,690 nighthawks in 2 ½ hours, and the migration that day was heavy both before and after his tally. The huge nighthawk flights weren’t limited to one or two nights a year—unless it was raining, we were pretty much guaranteed to spot at least a dozen, and often hundreds or thousands, just about every night from mid-August through the first week of September. 

Common Nighthawk

Of course, even a single nighthawk is cause for celebration—this is one of my favorite birds of all for good reasons—so whenever I see even one, I’m as elated as cognizant of how much we’ve lost—the horrifying result of decades of pesticide use, development and damage to wetlands, and allowing craven oil corporations and people ignorant about science to prevent any proactive work to reduce our impact on climate change.  

Evening Grosbeak
An adult male Evening Grosbeak sandwiched between two begging young.

Evening Grosbeaks were another abundant constant this time of year. I started writing about their noticeable decline back in the early 90s, voicing my concerns in my first book, For the Birds: An Uncommon Guide, published in 1994. A few readers and listeners chided me for being alarmist because they were still seeing plenty in their rural yards. I’d so love to have been proven wrong. But since this IS that “Anything Can Happen” time of year, delightfully unexpected things still do happen. In August 2011, the morning after I brought Russ home after cancer surgery, we woke to the ethereal calls of Evening Grosbeaks.  A flock of 16 birds, including at least 2 families, stuck around our yard for several weeks, right when we needed them most. Anything Can Happen. 

Evening Grosbeak

On August 20, this year, for the first time on record, a Swallow-tailed Kite appeared at Hawk Ridge. It kited about snatching insects out of the sky for at least a half hour around 2 pm. 

Swallow-tailed Kite
I didn't see the Swallow-tailed Kite in Duluth on August 20 (I took this photo in Florida), but did see one in Faribault, MN, in May 1999. 

I got a text alert about it while it was still there, and spent 45 minutes scanning the sky between my yard and the ridge, but never caught a glimpse. (The bird was eventually spotted from the Lake Aire Bottle Shop parking lot flying over the lake, and again in Wisconsin near the grain elevators, headed south where it belongs.) But while I was scanning, a flock of 6 American White Pelicans passed over. Yep—anything can happen.   

Two days later, a Mississippi Kite flew over Hawk Ridge and was later seen over Mike Hendrickson’s yard in Smithville. 

Mississippi Kite
I've seen Mississippi Kites at Hawk Ridge a few times, but have never photographed them here. This photo is from a spring in Oklahoma. 

Mississippi Kites don't appear every year, but several times they have appeared at Hawk Ridge, always during the two weeks before or after Labor Day. 

Red Knot

This week, we had some surprising shorebird visitors on Park Point. Two very cooperative Red Knots—a dangerously declining species—spent at least three days on the little bayside beach at the entrance of the Sky Harbor Airport, along with a Stilt Sandpiper, two Baird’s Sandpipers, and a Semipalmated Plover. 

Red Knot

Stilt Sandpiper

Baird's Sandpiper

Semipalmated Plover

The birds somehow decided that birders don’t pose much of a threat. I sat there for over an hour on both Tuesday and Wednesday. The birds looked my way when I got there, but almost immediately resumed whatever they were doing. As other birders arrived, the shorebirds didn’t seem fazed at all. At one point when I was all alone, the Stilt Sandpiper and Red Knot started snoozing about 30 feet from me. 

Snoozing Stilt Sandpiper

Red Knot

A few minutes later, the whole little flock started moseying down the beach directly toward me, and then right in front of me, just 6 or 7 feet away, giving me lots of satisfying full-frame photos in perfect light, as well as one of the most magical moments of my birding life.   

Stilt Sandpiper

There have been sightings of other rarities, such as Buff-breasted Sandpipers and a Smith's Longspur, in town in the past week. Plenty of migrants, including rarities here and there, will be passing through for the next month. A lot of people wait to look for them until what is considered the "best" time to go to Hawk Ridge, the second or third week of September. But that’s too late to see the best of the early migrants. Labor Day Weekend is the peak of my "Anything Can Happen" time. Get out there and enjoy some unexpected delights!

Red Knot