Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Friday, March 24, 2023

Final Blogger Post: Moving to Substack!

Laura and Pip

When I started "Laura’s Birding Blog" in 2007, Blogger (owned by Google) took care of sending emails to subscribers. They discontinued that part of the service in 2021, so I started using MailChimp for that. But this month MailChimp significantly raised their rates exactly when I was working on my taxes and realizing that I'd spent way more in 2022 than my work brought in. We tried a different email service, but it had too many glitches. My work is primarily a labor of love, but there’s a limit to how much I should be asking my husband to subsidize it, and how much time and effort I can put into logistical and bureaucratic tasks rather than writing about birds and sharing my photos and experiences.  

So I’m switching both my blog and its email distribution to Substack, which seems both stable and trustworthy. I’ll be keeping this site as a blog archive because most of my podcasts for the past 15 years have a link to the corresponding post here, but all new posts will be at

Substack allows both paid and free subscriptions. Although I will greatly appreciate every paid subscription, I do not want anyone excluded from any of my content because they can’t or don’t choose to pay. I’ve set up my account so all subscribers, paid or not, will have access to *all* of my posts. 

Monday, March 20, 2023

Flaco the Eagle Owl: To Count or Not to Count?

Flaco (86944)
Flaco, the escaped Eurasian Eagle-Owl in Central Park, NY.
Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I recently received an email from podcast listener David McArthur from New York, who writes: 

As you may have heard, a Eurasian Owl named Flaco has escaped into Central Park. He is now living wild in the woods across from my house. I saw him yesterday and I am wondering whether it would be legitimate to include him on my life list. Thank you in advance for your expert adjudication.

I guess I AM sort of an expert in what is “countable” or not, because in 2013 I did a Big Year for the Lower 48, trying to see as many birds as possible during that calendar year. The American Birding Association sets the official rules for Big Year totals so any birder’s Big Year numbers can be fairly compared to anyone else’s. The final total of species I saw in the wild was 604, but only 593 of them were “countable” by ABA rules at the time. I'm perfectly happy telling people I saw over 600 species that year, but always with the explanation that that was my personal total, and that my ABA total—the one that counts for any fair comparison with anyone else's total—is just 593.  

California Condor

Nine of the "uncountable" species I saw in 2013 were introduced species that hadn't yet established a naturalized population as defined by various state ornithological societies. Two were native endangered species that had been reintroduced but still required active intervention. Even now people are monitoring California Condors, providing safe food sources, and occasionally recapturing birds who show signs of lead poisoning. In 2013, people were still providing nest platforms for Aplomado Falcons in south Texas.  

But that rule was changed a year or two later to this:  

An individual of a reintroduced indigenous species may be counted if it is part of a population that has successfully hatched young in the wild or when it is not possible to reasonably separate the reintroduced individual from a wild-born individual.

That rule was retroactive as far as state and life lists go, and since both condors and Aplomado Falcons were breeding successfully in the wild in 2013, they're on my official ABA life list, but rule changes are not retroactive as far as Big Year totals go. Those numbers only have meaning if everyone doing a Big Year follows the same rules. I made a special effort to see condors and Aplomado Falcons because of my personal focus on conservation. From a competitive birding standpoint, it wouldn’t be fair if my total for the year jumped with the rule change when other people doing Big Years in 2013 had no reason to look for what were uncountable birds.  

ABA rules allow us to count birds only if they're on the official checklist where we saw the bird. Vagrants, such as the Rufous-necked Wood-Rail I saw at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge during that Big Year, may not be on an official list yet when birders flock to see it, but as soon as that state’s records committee makes the determination that the bird almost certainly got there on its own, that bird does become countable retroactively. So those of us who did a Big Year in 2013 and went to Bosque at the right time listed the wood-rail “provisionally” until it became official when the New Mexico records committee voted in favor of it the following year.   

Rufous-necked Wood-Rail

Rules for Big Year and ABA lists are strict, but there are no rules for counting whatever we want on our personal lists, including our life list. eBird reports of the Central Park Eurasian Eagle-Owl are flagged “exotic escapee." If I lived near New York, I’d still do my best to see and photograph it and report it on eBird in the same way I put Chukar on my eBird list after seeing a group in my own neighborhood. Like the eagle owl, the Chukars apparently escaped from a game farm and are not countable on any official Minnesota list, but it's still worth keeping track of escaped birds just in case some eventually do end up breeding in the Upper Midwest, as they already do in the West. 


A few years ago, David McArthur saw a little flock of Helmeted Guineafowl on a country road in Upstate New York. Like my Chukars, those had clearly escaped from captivity. I’ve got Helmeted Guineafowl on my own life list because I saw them in the wild in Uganda in 2016. 

Helmeted Guineafowl

They’re native to Africa, but they’ve also been introduced in the West Indies, Brazil, Australia and southern France. They’ve never been introduced in America, though many aviculturists keep them in aviaries and on game farms. I saw and photographed a small flock in Port Wing, Wisconsin, in 2021, but did not list them on eBird—even though they weren't in any enclosure, they belonged to people who have a lot of exotic animals, and seeing them didn't feel all that exciting. If I see them again, especially if they wander to another property, I'll list them on eBird, not that they'd be “countable,” but like my Chukars, reports could provide valuable datapoints if escaped birds ever do start breeding in the U.S.  

Helmeted Guineafowl

The likelihood of David’s Eurasian Eagle-Owl starting a naturalized population is not just remote—it's impossible without any eagle owls in the wild to mate with. But if the species ever did become established anywhere in North America, or if the New York City owl mated with a Great Horned Owl and produced hybrid young, it would be valuable to know when the first individuals appeared. More important in the here and now, keeping track of this individual is essential for all kinds of conservation reasons in a city where rat poison and many other urban dangers are so prevalent. 

Beyond that, I'd relish a chance to see the species that delivered all those sweets to Draco Malfoy his first year at Hogwarts. If I saw Flaco, the memory would be more vivid and exciting than the memory of a lot of my countable lifers. He may not be a legitimate twitch on anyone's "official" lists, but based on the number of people thrilled to be seeing him right now, Flaco has earned an honored place on a lot of people's life lists of avian treasures. And isn't that what a life list is all about?

Our Birth Announcement Drawing: Baby and Wood Stork

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

On Saturday morning, in advance of a big snowstorm, my friend Erik Bruhnke and I drove to Superior, Wisconsin, to see a small group of Eurasian Tree Sparrows that have been hanging out in one neighborhood since December. Four birds were originally reported by DeAnna Leino on Dec 20, 2022, and since then, many birders have found up to three. I badly wanted to see them—the birds are winsome and cute, belong to a fascinating species, and are over 600 miles from the species’ established range in America, to say nothing of the fact that they’d be new for my Wisconsin list.  

Like their close relative the House Sparrow, Eurasian Tree Sparrows were introduced to North America long ago, but unlike their bigger, more aggressive cousin, the only place a breeding population became established was in the vicinity of St. Louis, Missouri. By the 1970s, they were also being found regularly around Cahokia Mounds State Park in Illinois—one of my dear birding friends, Randy Korotev, was one of the people studying their range expansion there. Once in a while, one would stray up to Iowa or southernmost Wisconsin, too, but that was pretty much that until around the turn of the century. Now the birds seem to be expanding in all directions, with eBird reports from as far west as British Columbia, north up to central Alberta, and east to Nova Scotia.  

In my neck of the woods people have seen strays in Two Harbors and Duluth, but so far, the birds appearing so far out of their typical range seem to be wanderers who stick around for just days, weeks, or a single season, so most birders still add them to their life list in St. Louis, where I saw my lifer in 2004.   

My lifer Eurasian Tree Sparrow, in St. Louis

I’ve seen them there multiple times since, especially at my friend Susan Eaton’s place.

Eurasian Tree Sparrows

In 2014, I saw them within their natural range in Austria and Hungary.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

2015, I saw some at a distance in southern Illinois during an unsuccessful attempt to see an Ivory Gull. Not too bad of a consolation prize! 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

In winter 2017, a Eurasian Tree Sparrow was found hanging out by the Do North Pizza Parlor in Two Harbors.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Last spring, one visited Scott Wolff’s place on Park Point. I got to see both of those Minnesota birds.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Erik Bruhnke is a professional bird guide for Victor Emanuel Nature Tours who has taken birders to many destinations in North, Central, and South America and Hawaii, but he’s never visited the St. Louis area. And because he spends so much time in far-flung places, he wasn’t in town when the Two Harbors or Duluth birds showed up. This Superior bird would be a lifer for him.   

And so Saturday morning, armed with our binoculars, cameras, and cups of Bird Friendly coffee, we set out at 7:30 knowing the snow was supposed to start at 9. When we arrived near the two backyards and alley where the tree sparrows were supposed to be hanging out, we didn't see anything except pigeons, but en route, I’d noticed a large flock of House Sparrows at a feeder a couple of blocks away, so we strolled around the neighborhood, checking out that feeder and all the juniper and cedar-type trees where sparrows like to roost. After an hour and a half or so, we warmed up with a donut break at a cool shop called A Dozen Excuses, where I got a cherry-filled turnover and Erik got a raspberry-filled donut. Yum!    

When we got back to our birding spot, someone else was pulling up—one of northern Wisconsin’s top birders, Robbye Johnson. We spent several minutes chatting as we scanned, but again no luck. When Robbye went on her way, Erik and I moseyed around the neighborhood one last time. I listened to a clock tower chime 11 times as the wind picked up and tiny snowflakes started to fall—excellent reminders that we'd lucked out so far, at least weather-wise, but didn’t have much time. This time, when we worked our way back to where the birds were supposed to be, voila! Erik got a great photo of one pretty much out in the open.

Photo by Erik Bruhnke, Copyright 2023 by Erik Bruhnke. 

I saw but couldn’t get my camera on that one, so my own best shots were from an entirely different vantage point, of one of the birds tucked in a white-cedar. 

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

We quickly spotted a second bird deeper in the tree, and as we watched for 5 or 10 minutes, we finally got glimpses of the third, staying even deeper in the tree. Two of the birds moved lower and flitted out a couple of times to grab morsels at a feeder close to an owl decoy.  

Eurasian Tree Sparrow

Now it was clearly time to head home. We made it back just before the serious snow started falling.   

Seeing these birds was ever so satisfying, far beyond being additions to our birding lists and photo collections. I’ll treasure my photos, but even more the picture in my mind’s eye of these plucky little outliers, so lovely, fluffed out against the wind, dealing so beautifully with this exceptionally long winter. I don’t know how long they’ll remain in Superior, or whether a breeding pair might form and stick around, but spending a little time with them just before the oncoming blizzard was the perfect way to warm our hearts.  

Sunday, March 12, 2023

Enhance Your Nest Box with Bark!

Russ Shoveling on March 12

At this very moment, people in my neck of the woods are digging out from a foot of new snow, with even more predicted later this week. Nevertheless, it is March and birds are on the move. In my dotage, I’m not as eager to get out birding when it involves winter driving as I used to be, but my good friend Erik Bruhnke, young and peppy, drove me to Superior, Wisconsin, yesterday in advance of the storm, to see three Eurasian Tree Sparrows that have been hanging around since December. En route, we spotted a small group of Trumpeter Swans in the St. Louis River. Many days this winter, I was seeing one or two Mourning Doves in my feeder, and at the beginning of the month I saw three together. But yesterday, I had four all feeding together in my platform feeder, staying there until dusk, pigging out before the storm.  

Mourning Doves before March snowstorm

Even as we humans are getting most of our cardio-exercise wielding snow shovels, we’re getting into spring mode, too. Some people have already started planting seedlings indoors to get an early start on their gardens, and some are getting their bird houses cleaned out in anticipation of move-in day for bluebirds, swallows, chickadees, wrens, and more. So I was thrilled when my Arkansas friend, certified wildlife biologist Jerry Wayne Davis, posted a wonderful and timely suggestion for improving next boxes: we should cover the front with natural bark except around the hole itself. He included splendid photos to show what it should look like, including inspirational shots of a male Eastern Bluebird and a pair of bluebirds perched on the bark on a couple of his nest boxes, and generously gave me permission to use them on this very blog post.  

Copyright 2023 by Jerry Wayne Davis, all rights reserved

How can a piece of bark enhance a nest box? Before many birds enter their nest hole, be it a natural cavity or a bird house, they often sit at the entrance for a moment, checking for predators or waiting for their mate to come out before they go in. The rough surface of bark makes this much easier. The bark he uses extends to the bottom of the next box—I suspect that a nice thick chunk of bark may provide some insulation as well as comfortable perching opportunities, providing eggs and nestlings at least a little extra protection from excessive heat and cold.   

Copyright 2023 by Jerry Wayne Davis, all rights reserved

Eighty-five American bird species nest in cavities in snags and hollow trees and Jerry also reminds us how important it is to these vulnerable birds to provide predator guards to keep cats, raccoons, and rat snakes out. He notes that we can find bark of appropriate sizes on fallen logs, snags, firewood, and at wood compost recycling centers. 

Jerry Wayne Davis helped me a lot when I was researching my 101 Ways to Help Birds. I particularly love what he wrote regarding nest boxes:

Research and surveys have shown that only one percent of [our human] population is willing to do anything to make a difference. Many labels on medication tubes state one percent active ingredients and 99% inert filler. Our birds need you to be that one percent of active ingredients and not just filler living a life of doing nothing more than taking care of your biological needs. Habitat problems were created one person at a time and will have to be solved the same way. If you are not doing your part the job is not getting done. If you are not going to do more for birds in this lifetime, what lifetime do you plan to start?

Copyright 2023 by Jerry Wayne Davis, all rights reserved

Friday, March 10, 2023

Chickadee Day and Life Lists

Every year I celebrate March 2 as “Chickadee Day," the anniversary of my seeing my first chickadee in 1975. This year, several people expressed surprise that I still remember the exact date I saw that first chickadee, but that’s the day I started my life list, and I'd honestly never noticed a single chickadee in the 23 years before then.  

Most birders, including those who are most diligent about keeping lists of the birds they’ve seen, saw chickadees and other common birds long before they started keeping a bird list. Before the eBird app, a lot of people checked off the birds they’d seen on some form of checklist card or in a favorite field guide, not bothering to enter dates for the everyday species they'd already seen before they became serious about listing.   

When I started, I’d never identified any wild birds except pigeons, House Sparrows, robins, cardinals, a single Blue Jay I’d seen when I was seven, and a pair of Sandhill Cranes who flew over our class on a field trip at Rose Lake Wildlife Management Area near the Michigan State Campus sometime around 1973. I’d never have had a clue what those extraordinary birds were except that our professor called them out. They were stunningly beautiful and memorable, but I never thought to write the date down.

Sandhill Crane

Something about birds seemed so wonderful and amazing that when my mother-in-law gave me a field guide and binoculars for Christmas when I was 23, I decided that unlike my usual haphazard way of doing things, I was going to be extremely diligent with bird watching. Before I ever took my new binoculars outside, I read that Peterson guide cover to cover, then read both the Golden Guide and Joseph Hickey’s A Guide to Bird Watching. Two and a half months later, the day I set out to be a bird watcher, the only species I saw was the chickadee, which remained alone on my life list for three days, when I saw Mallards on the Red Cedar River. Four days after that, I saw both starlings and House Sparrows. I’d seen cardinals throughout my childhood but didn’t count one on my life list until that March 17. I saw my first pigeons on the 19th, robins on the 20th, and Blue Jays on the 23rd. The only remaining bird I’d already seen but did not have on my life list was the Sandhill Crane. It took over two years, until April 30, 1977, for me to add that species, at Stevens Point in Wisconsin, after we’d left Michigan. It would be well over a decade before I finally saw cranes again in Michigan.

My daughter started a life list in 1988 when she was four, but she kept it up only until she reached 50 species—the benchmark at which I’d promised her I’d give her a brand new copy of the National Geographic Society Field Guide to Birds of North America. My older son Joe was never the least bit interested in keeping a life list, and Tom wasn’t until, when he was six, I dragged Russ and the kids to Grand Marais to see an extremely rare Fork-tailed Flycatcher on May 6, 1992. 

Fork-tailed Flycatcher
I photographed this Fork-tailed Flycatcher in Mexico in 2006, but it looks like the one we saw in Grand Marais in 1992.

When we got to where the flycatcher had most recently been seen, two Canadian birders were already searching. When we found it, their triumphant exuberance, along with the fact that the bird really was spectacular, inspired Tom to start a life list, too. But unlike his mother, Tom didn’t start with this amazing rarity as his Number One bird and go from there. I’d dragged him to a local wetland that very morning after we saw some birds at the feeder, so he started his life list with those, putting the flycatcher at around #25. It had taken me over 2 months to get my own life list that long.

But that’s the point. There is no right, or wrong, way to keep a life list. Now most birders, including me, put their sightings into Cornell’s eBird app and let the software keep track, providing invaluable data for ornithologists and other scientists as well as personal pleasure for the individual birder. But even using eBird isn’t a requirement to be a bird watcher. As long as you enjoy watching birds, as my birding friend Erik Bruhnke says, it’s all good.  

Grandma showing Walter a chickadee
Will Walter keep a life list? Only time will tell.

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Spring Update

Black-capped Chickadee

There may be a couple of feet of snow on the ground and more in the forecast, but ornithological spring has sprung. As of March 1, the birds we’ve been seeing are considered spring rather than winter birds, even though the species mix in my own yard is exactly what it’s been through January and February.   

The species may be the same, but their behaviors aren’t. When I hear crows yelling in winter, or see several at the same time, it usually means there’s an owl in the neighborhood. But now crows are getting into courtship and nesting mode, family groups and neighbors of mated pairs all making comments, suggestions, and complaints. These most human of all birds know that it takes a village to raise healthy young.   

American Crow

I heard a couple of chickadees singing their Hey, sweetie! song back in December, during the Christmas Bird Count. Every year, chickadees sing a lot during January and February, but this year I didn’t hear many up until March 3. Now I’m hearing those clear, whistled songs every morning. My male White-breasted Nuthatch is also doing what passes for song in that species.   

White-breasted Nuthatch

Most years I don’t have Mourning Doves in the winter, but this year I saw one or two, not every day but fairly regularly. I thought I had a pair, with just one showing up sometimes. Then, on March 2, I had three at once. I’m wondering if all three were in the neighborhood all winter long, but there is no way of knowing. At this very moment as I write this, on March 9 at 6:13 am, exactly 20 minutes before sunrise, I can pick out all three rising out of the dusky shadows in my platform feeder.   

Mourning Doves
Many days I saw two doves together, like these on January 10.

Meanwhile, Kelli Alseth of Proctor saw one individual dove, who came to the exact same areas of Kelli’s yard to feed and roost, every single morning and afternoon from early January all the way up to March 1, when the sweet little bird didn’t show up for breakfast. It did come by that afternoon and again in the morning on March 2, but that was the last Kelli saw it. She wrote that they miss her “in our hearts. Her daily visits sure made January and February much more bearable.”   

Evening Grosbeak
In winter, Evening Grosbeaks have drab yellowish-cream bills.
Evening Grosbeak
As Evening Grosbeaks get into breeding mode right now, their bills are turning green.

I haven’t had a single Evening Grosbeak in my yard this entire winter, but many people here and there were seeing them in good numbers all season. A flock of about 50 showed up at Julie Miedtke’s place in Grand Rapids in mid-December, appearing every morning a bit after sunrise, and more would be there during this winter’s many snow events. Julie said she was going through 60 pounds of seed every week! But on March 7, she wrote that “Something has changed, a sign of spring, and now we just have a few coming by.” I’ve got my own fingers crossed that as flocks disperse, a few of these beloved birds will make at least a brief stop on Peabody Street.   

Pileated Woodpecker

My woodpeckers are behaving in a very spring-like way. Pileateds are not coming every day now. My banded boy BB has been visiting only once or twice a week, and when he does show up, a female seems to be with him every time—otherwise I’m not seeing them at all. 

Red-bellied Woodpecker
Female Red-bellied Woodpeckers have a red nape but grayish on the crown.

For several weeks, both a male and a female Red-bellied Woodpecker have been visiting, and they seem to hang out near each other—when I see one, I can usually pick out the other as well. Two female Downy Woodpeckers seem to be in hot competition, bickering and displaying on and off every day.   

Two female Downies bickering--the one on the lower right stayed "hidden" like this for at least 20 minutes.
The Downy on the upper left seems to have the upper hand. The one on the lower right stayed hiding behind that narrow branch for at least 20 minutes!

I’m seeing small groups of ducks and gulls flying about whenever I'm driving anywhere near Lake Superior, and people are reporting new arrivals just about every day, including Trumpeter Swans and Peregrine Falcons. It may not look like it yet, but spring has sprung.

Trumpeter Swan