Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Saturday, October 1, 2022

October!

Blue Jay

I’m starting to write this barely a half hour after sunrise on October 1, 2022, with a bazillion Blue Jays filling my trees yelling their heads off. I live below Hawk Ridge, where last year’s Blue Jay count was a record-breaking 59,601. In 2020, when I was home everyday, we had a great Blue Jay migration, too, with the count at 50,646. That's when I got photos of my big tray feeder overflowing with jays.  

At least 19 Blue Jays plus one on the squirrel baffle

This year I haven’t been able to set out that big feeder because of bears and rats in the neighborhood. I’ve even had to stop filling a small tray feeder in the backyard thanks to the rats, so the only feeder the jays can visit is the small tray feeder in my second-story home office window. The most jays I've seen in that one was 11, and the most I could capture in a photo today was 7.

Blue Jays at my window feeder

Losing my big feeder reduces the number of jays I can see in any given moment but doesn’t seem to have affected how many are on this corner of Peabody Street, based on how many I'm hearing. Blue Jay numbers peak in mid-September, so it’s possible they won’t reach last year’s record high at Hawk Ridge, but as of 5 pm today the count is up to 58,810. Considering that 852 of them were counted today, there's a good chance they'll break last year's record in the coming days.   

Sharp-shinned Hawk watching the Blue Jays in my feeder
Sharp-shinned Hawk eyeing my Blue Jays in 2020

Here below Hawk Ridge, some of those jays are clearly in jeopardy. I’ve found clumps of Blue Jay feathers in my yard twice this week, and I freak out every time I hear the distinctive Blue Jay danger yell, but it’s the jays themselves dealing with this ever-present danger, not me, and they seem to shrug it off with equanimity except during actual or threatened attacks, and then for a little while afterwards. After yelling their heads off complaining, they go back to their usual jolly ways.  

Blue Jay

Blue Jays are exactly the right size to make a satisfying meal for a Merlin or Sharp-shinned Hawk, with enough calories to hold the predator for a full day. A Blue Jay weighs more than four times as much as a White-throated Sparrow, more than seven times more than a Yellow-rumped Warbler, and almost eight times more than a chickadee. I hate witnessing predation firsthand, especially on my favorite birds, but raptors have to eat, too. I’ve watched Blue Jays pull robin nestlings out of the nest, and even the sweetest chickadees rip apart innocent caterpillars—it’s a bird-eat-someone world out there. 

Young Black-capped Chickadee devouring a caterpillar

Predation is hard on both ends of the talons. On Thursday, I looked out my window exactly at the moment a Merlin knocked a Ruffed Grouse out of the air. I’ve seen a Ruffed Grouse on my corner only once before in the 41 years I’ve lived here. This one, mortally injured, struggled on the ground, but the Merlin couldn’t pick it up—even the heaviest female Merlins weigh less than half what a grouse weighs, and bazillions of screaming jays and a murder of crows were clearly not going to let the Merlin eat it right there in the open, so it flew off, still hungry. The grouse died a few minutes later and I retrieved the carcass, too sad to take any photos. I gave it to Clinton Dexter-Nienhaus, who has a salvage permit and will have it prepared for display at the Sax-Zim Bog.  

BB, the banded Pileated Woodpecker, at my feeder
BB at my feeder October 1

Knowing that any day can be the last for any wild bird makes my encounters with special individuals even more precious. Last fall, a banded male Pileated Woodpecker who I nicknamed “BB” for Banded Boy started showing up. I photographed him whenever I could. I could usually capture just two or three numbers on the band, but little by little I managed to tease out the entire string of nine digits: #115423658.

   Pileated Woodpecker

BB came just about daily all fall and winter through late April. On April 23, I even got a photo of him and a female in my feeder at the same time—I'm pretty sure she was his mate and that they nested somewhere in the neighborhood, but not near my corner. Soon after that, he stopped coming entirely, and I didn’t see him, or indeed any Pileateds, in my yard through the summer.   

BB the banded male Pileated Woodpecker
A scruffy-looking BB on September 2

In September, I started seeing BB once or twice a week, at first looking very scruffy after apparently raising young. Now he’s coming daily again. He comes to the suet feeder but also to our very old box elders, the power poles behind the yard, and a stump I often sit on near our raspberry patch. This morning he showed up at the suet feeder and then a female—unbanded so I have no way of knowing if she’s his mate—came to my window feeder right as I started writing this very sentence. She stayed in the feeder for at least four minutes as I got photos and video of her with my old cell phone. 

Pileated Woodpecker and Black-capped Chickadee at my window feeder

Pileated Woodpecker at my window feeder

A couple of chickadees alighted on the feeder while she was in it, but the Blue Jays kept their distance until she’d flown off.  A little while later, after I had my good camera, she or another female Pileated returned to that window feeder, and then a second female chased her off. A female appeared at that feeder at least 7 times through 4:30 pm, and BB made a second appearance in the suet feeder, as did at least one of the females.  

Pileated Woodpecker at my window feeder

My yard hasn’t had many rarities lately—the poor Ruffed Grouse is the only one I’ve noticed—but considering that chickadees, Blue Jays, and Pileated Woodpeckers are my top three favorite birds of all time, I’d say October is shaping up to be a splendid month. 

Pileated Woodpecker at my window feeder

Addendum: As of 1 pm on Sunday, October 2, the Hawk Ridge Blue Jay total for the season is 59,027, just 574 from the all-time record. We may break it today!


Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Rizzo makes the top ten of all time in hits-by-pitches!

Grandpa and me

From my very earliest memories I’ve loved birds. This is connected with my grandmother, whose name was also Laura. She died when I was very little but I remember her, and family lore has it that she loved birds. When my Grandpa gave me The Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps, he told me it was because my Grandma had loved birds just like me.  

Little Golden Activity Book: Bird Stamps

My Grandpa always kept two canaries in his dining room, but I don't associate him with birds the way I do my Grandma. No, the love he inspired in me was for the Chicago Cubs. He never missed listening to or watching a game on TV unless he was at Wrigley Field seeing it live. When we watched games on Channel 9, he’d tell me about the game itself, but also about the players. He particularly liked Ernie Banks, so of course I did, too. Ernie Banks, the Chicago Cubs, and my Grandpa are inextricably intertwined in my brain and heart. Banks started playing for the Cubs in 1953 while I was still one year old and stayed with the team for the rest of my childhood and my Grandpa’s life. My Grandpa died in 1970, and Ernie Banks retired in 1971, every one of his 19 seasons in the Major Leagues with the Cubs. For a few memorable years, Ernie Banks was my friend on Facebook. Russ gave me a baseball autographed by him for my 70th birthday last year. 

My baseball autographed by Ernie Banks

Somehow it was always easy to love Ernie Banks and the Cubs even though I never particularly followed a baseball season from start to finish until 2016. I had no idea how well the Cubs were doing—the reason I picked 2016 was simply that January 11 marked my Grandpa’s 120th birthday, so I decided that in his honor, and in honor of Ernie Banks, who had died the year before, I’d get a baseball app and pay attention to every single Cubs game for the entire season. The only week I couldn’t pay attention was in October when I was birding in Cuba, where news from the US was blocked. 

I really was planning to follow the Cubs just that one season, but over the course of it, I grew to care about the players. And in the same way that my enjoyment of the games of my childhood centered around first baseman Ernie Banks, I focused in 2016 on first baseman Anthony Rizzo. That year I had a couple of other favorites, too, but the one I’ve followed diligently every year since then, becoming increasingly fond of, is Rizzo. When he comes up to bat, I find myself singing in Maria’s voice, from West Side Story, “Tony, Tony, Tony.” The night the Cubs won the World Series, with an infield grounder fielded by Bryant to Rizzo to make that final out, I was so thrilled that I couldn’t settle down until 1 am. When I took my little dog Pip out before finally heading to bed, a Boreal Owl was calling in my backyard! Clearly, I wasn’t the only one celebrating.  

Some of my 2016 Cubs/Rizzo memorabilia

In 2008, while he was still in the minor leagues, Anthony Rizzo had Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the horrible disease that killed one of my cousins back in the 1970s. Fortunately, treatment has improved enormously since then, and Rizzo made a complete recovery. He and his foundation have been tireless advocates for families dealing with cancer and for cancer research. Rizzo grew up in Parkland, Florida, and attended Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. After the horrifying school shooting in 2018, he attended vigils for the victims and helped raise large amounts of money for victims, their families, and the school. Rizzo is well known to be an excellent role model for rookies and an essential glue binding his team together. And I loved how in most of his Cubs games, he used eye black, which helps reduce glare in the exact same way that many birds have dark markings below their eyes to reduce reflections in bright light. 

Laughing Falcon
A Laughing Falcon with nature's own eye black

Anthony Rizzo with eye black

But perhaps the most compelling reason I singled in on Rizzo from the start is that he looks a bit like my son Joe, who lives in Florida where Rizzo came from.

Ernie Banks was always a Cub, from the start of his career in the Major Leagues until the end, so I never had to work out which was more important to me—the team itself or my favorite individual player. Last year I had to figure that out the hard way, when the Cubs traded Rizzo to the New York Yankees. Suddenly, I find myself following every single Yankees game as well as every Cubs game. 

Rizzo, a left-handed slugger, has always hugged the plate, a time-honored strategy for hitting that put him on the All-Star team three times and made him an MVP almost 50 times so far during his career. He’s hit 32 home runs this year, placing him in 12th place in the major leagues this season, at least as of today. But his strategy for hitting also places him in jeopardy for getting hit by pitches. He’s not crazy—he stays in the batter’s box, never crossing into the strike zone where the pitchers are ostensibly aiming. He’s not trying to get hit, but he is fearless, knowing he has a better chance of making a solid connection where he stands than a little further from the plate. So his slugging record comes at the expense of getting hit by pitches more than most players. Indeed, in three of the seasons he’s played, he’s led the major leagues in the number of times he’s been hit by a pitch.

On Thursday night, while I was at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory's 50th anniversary banquet, I had to track the Yankees-Red Sox game on my friend Erik Bruhnke’s phone because I’d forgotten mine. And that night, Rizzo got hit by a pitch for the 19th time this season. (Well, actually, the 20th. On August 15, he got hit hard on his thigh but umpire DJ Reyburn claimed he’d leaned into it. I was listening to the game and watched replays, and the pitch was behind Rizzo, way, way out of the strike zone—where was Rizzo supposed to go?! But the umpire'a ridiculous claim was a non-reviewable call.) The hit-by-pitch Thursday was the 197th official one in Rizzo’s career—the one I’d been looking forward to for a long time, because it placed Rizzo in 10th place in the all-time Major League Baseball standings for hits-by-pitches, tying with Minnie Minoso (if you count the times Minoso was hit by pitches in the Negro leagues, which of course belong in the stats). Then, on Monday the 26th, he got hit again, so with 198 hit-by-pitches, Anthony Rizzo is now tied with Frank Robinson for 9th place. 

Being hit by any pitch is dangerous as well as painful. In 1920, Ray Chapman, playing for Cleveland, was hit in the head by a ball thrown by Yankee pitcher Carl Mays. Blood gushed out of his ear and he died 12 hours later. That led to a rule change that pitchers could no longer throw spitballs or coat baseballs with dirt, licorice, tobacco, tar, or other substances that made the ball go more erratically and also made it harder for the batter to see. You’d think it would also have led to a rule requiring batters to wear protective helmets at the plate, but that didn’t come about until more than 30 years, and a lot more injuries, later.

In 1936, while playing for the Negro leagues, Willie Wells got hit by a pitch that knocked him unconscious. He insisted on playing the next day, this time wearing a helmet lined with cork. The next year, Mickey Cochrane’s career with the Detroit Tigers ended when he suffered a near-fatal skull fracture on a pitch by Yankees' Bump Hadley. Finally there was a strong call for batter helmets, but players and most teams resisted. Batters said they couldn’t see the ball as well wearing a helmet, and the issue wasn’t settled through the 30s or 40s. In 1954, Joe Adcock, a first baseman for the Milwaukee Braves, was struck by a pitch on his head while wearing a helmet. Taken off the field on a stretcher, he was uninjured; his helmet was visibly dented. (This reminds me of when a car in the right lane made a left turn right into my son Joe on his motorcycle. Joe's arm was broken in seven places and the rest of his body battered, but his head was fine. His helmet? Not so much.)

Joey's Helmet

First the National and then the American Leagues started recommending helmets and making them sort of mandatory, but it wasn’t until December 1970 that MLB set a strictly enforced helmet mandate. Even then, older players who didn’t want to wear one were allowed to play without it. The last Major League player to bat helmetless was the Red Sox’s Bob Montgomery in 1979, a time well within my memory but before any active players of today had been born.

Hit-by-pitch injuries on two of my other favorite Cubs—Ron Santo getting his cheek fractured in 1966 and Jason Heyward getting a broken jaw in 2013—explain why protective ear flaps and then the C-flap were developed, to protect more of the head and face. Rizzo of course wears protection when batting. Indeed, the Rizzo bobblehead on my desk near my signed Ernie Banks baseball depicts Rizzo wearing his Yankees batter’s helmet.  

My Anthony Rizzo bobblehead

Batters are not the only ones who can be hit by a pitch. Among human beings, catchers and umpires are also in the line of fire. But oddly enough, non-humans are also at risk. On March 24, 2001, during a spring training game, Diamondback pitcher Randy Johnson threw a 100-103 mph ball that made it about ¾ of the way to the plate when suddenly the ball disappeared in an explosion of feathers—somehow a hapless bird had flown by at precisely the wrong moment. The umpire, catcher, and batter were stunned. When they figured out what happened, it was ruled a no pitch because there is no official rule that covers that bizarre scenario.

Ornithologists interviewed by Newsweek at the time said the bird was most likely a Mourning Dove, but I am at least somewhat skeptical because I can’t find evidence that the carcass was retrieved to be accurately identified. One of the articles about it uses a photo of a Eurasian Collared-Dove to illustrate the Mourning Dove, which tells you how important ornithological accuracy is in the sporting world. 

Mourning Dove
Mourning Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove
Eurasian Collared-Dove. There is a difference!

That same year, Johnson was named co-MVP of the World Series when the Diamondbacks beat the Yankees, but to this day, he says that people ask him more about hitting the dove than they do about his critical role in Arizona’s first World Series win ever or anything else in his storied career. 

After retiring from baseball, be started a photography business. The exquisite wildlife photos on Randy Johnson's website provide solid proof that he cares about wildlife conservation. His photos run heavily to mammals, with stunning pictures of elephants, lions, leopards, and gorillas. There’s one gorgeous shot of a Blue-footed Booby, but the only other bird currently depicted on his website is within his logo: a songbird lying flat on its back with feathers flying. The astronomical improbability of hitting a flying bird with a pitch juxtaposes genuine tragedy with slapstick humor. 

It was obvious at the time that Johnson felt bad about it, but his webpage makes it clear that he’s mustered a sense of humor about how that single unforeseen and freakish moment has overshadowed his long Hall of Fame career. 

The only other time in baseball history that a pitcher hit a bird, as far as I can find, is from 2014, in a Class A minor league game when John Maciel hit a bird that wasn’t identified. Someone calculated that in the Major Leagues, almost 6.5 million pitches were thrown just between 2008 and 2016, and during that time frame, zero of them, and zero pitches in the millions thrown since, has hit a bird. 

Those two bizarre incidents were accidents. But in 1983, Yankees outfielder Dave Winfield killed a gull—I’d guess a Ring-bill—in Toronto with a warmup throw. It sounds like the bird was sitting, not flying, and the throw appears to have been intentional. The Ontario police charged him with animal cruelty, although that was later dropped.

All in all, I’m very glad that Anthony Rizzo is sturdier than a bird. 

Rizzo must have noticed birds during his childhood, and one would hope that his education at the high school named for one of the most important environmental writers in Florida’s history included information about some of Florida’s bird life. I don’t know if he ever noticed a Peregrine Falcon flying over Wrigley Field as I once did, or if he ever walked past the Picasso at Chicago’s Civic Center when clouds of pigeons took off, or if he’s ever taken a stroll through Green Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn and noticed the Monk Parakeets. I know if I were a baseball player, I’d spend at least part of my down time on road trips checking out the local bird life, but I doubt that real professional baseball players have much time to notice birds except in the event of a freak accident. 

So far, I don’t think any baseball announcers or news reporters have noticed that Rizzo just made it to the all-time Top Ten in MLB history for being hit by pitches, and I've never heard anyone ask him about the birds in his life. But it sure would be fun to know what my favorite baseball player’s favorite bird is.

My favorite baseball player with my favorite bird
My favorite ball player with my favorite bird

Addendum: On Tuesday, September 27 (the day this was published), Rizzo got hit by yet another pitch! Now he holds 9th place alone, with 199 career hit-by-pitches. 

Addendum: On Wednesday, September 28, Rizzo was the Yankees' acting manager when Aaron Judge hit his 61st home run of the season. I love that! 

Addendum: On Saturday, October 1, Rizzo got hit by a pitch yet again. #200!!!!! Four to go and he'll tie Chase Utley for 8th place. Plus, as Suzyn Waldman (my favorite baseball announcer of all time) pointed on out WFAN Saturday, he's one of only FOUR players ever to have at least 200 homers and 200 hit-by-pitches in their career!!!

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