Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Monday, May 23, 2022

My Most Colorful Spring, and an Adorable Little Despot

Cape May Warbler

This has been possibly the most glorious spring migration I have ever experienced. I’m way behind many years in the number of species I’ve seen so far this year partly because I’ve been so rooted to home first trying to avoid Covid and then sick with it. But also, thanks to the exceptionally cold April and May so far, migration is very late. Late migrants haven’t arrived in any numbers yet, but that means some earlier migrants have been staying put for a surprisingly long time in surprisingly large numbers. 

Harris’s, Lincoln’s, and White-crowned Sparrows were especially persistent. 

Harris's Sparrow

Lincoln's Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

One Ovenbird showed up on May 13th and sang away just about all day every day through the 18th.  He foraged along my fence close to the house for a photo op, too. 

Ovenbird

I’ve been inundated with some of the most colorful and photogenic birds of all. Rose-breasted Grosbeaks showed up on May 9—I had at least 20 on both May 13 and 14. 

Rose-breasted Grosbeak

Scarlet Tanagers showed up on May 10 along with my first hummingbirds. 

Scarlet Tanager

Scarlet Tanager

Ruby-throated Hummingbird

And Baltimore Orioles showed up on the 11th. Like the grosbeaks, I’ve had at least 20 on a couple of days. 

Baltimore Oriole

I saw my first Indigo Bunting on the 14th and have seen as many as three males at a time.

Indigo Bunting

But of all the colorful birds I’ve seen, my favorite has been one particular little Cape May Warbler. 

Cape May Warbler

Cape Mays eat insects year-round like other warblers, and on their breeding grounds they’re a specialist on spruce budworm. But during their winters in the West Indies, nectar and fruit provide 30 percent of their food intake. Indeed, their tongue has a brushier tip than other warbler tongues specifically to take in fluids more efficiently than other warblers can. Between their breeding and wintering ranges, Cape May Warblers also search for sweet food sources, and can become rather dependent on them during cold snaps when insects are harder to come by. I’ve seen individuals take over a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker’s sap wells, chasing off every other bird including the sapsucker! 

Cape May Warbler feeding at Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sap wells.

Cape May Warbler feeding at Yellow-bellied Sapsucker sap wells.

Cape May Warblers are considered an economic pest by vineyard owners in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia because they puncture grapes to drink the juice. Over the years, I’ve seen them and Tennessee Warblers doing that to the fruit in Russ’s cherry trees as well.  

During their arduous spring migrations, Cape May Warblers have adapted to the human landscape by developing a search pattern for oriole and hummingbird feeders. I first discovered this in 2004 during another very cold May, when I had as many as 30 Cape Mays at a time feeding in my yard on oranges, jelly, suet, and sugar water. One even figured out how to hover at a hummingbird feeder. 

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

This year the first Cape May Warbler I spotted in my yard, on May 19, was a female or young male coming to my window feeder. 

Cape May Warbler

By the 20th I had 8, and on May 21 and 22, I was up to at least a dozen—quite likely more. I have five different oriole feeders, with oranges, sugar water, and grape jelly, in different places in my yard. One adult male Cape May Warbler appropriated the one at my home office window feeder, along with a big chunk of the nearby spruce tree, for several hours on Saturday. 

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warblers are tinier than chickadees, but this little guy was bound and determined to keep everyone else away from his little empire. I watched him chase other Cape May Warblers along with 15 other species. The chickadees, Red-breasted Nuthatches, starling, siskins, goldfinches, and Blue Jay were not even competition—not one of them was coming to the fruit, nectar, or jelly.  And during his reign of terror, I couldn't get photos of the Blackpoll, Blackburnian, and Black-and-white Warblers in my spruce tree, even though none of them even looked at the bird feeder.  

Cape May Warbler

Cape May Warbler

The other species were at least more realistic competitors. Hummingbirds, Tennessee Warblers, and other Cape Mays were at least in his weight category, but he also successfully drove off orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, a Gray Catbird, and my rare visiting Summer Tanager. The heaviest Cape May Warblers barely tip the scales at 15 grams—less than half an ounce, which is less than half the weight of those orioles, catbirds, and the tanager, and not even a third of what Rose-breasted Grosbeaks weigh! 

Cape May Warbler

I finally lost track of him after so many other Cape May Warblers arrived, with three or four coming to that feeder at once so he couldn’t possibly keep them all away. But during his brief yet tyrannical reign, this little Napoleon truly was the emperor of Peabody Street. When he reaches the end of his migration in a lovely, dark and deep spruce forest, I hope he meets up with his Josephine and they produce many tiny new despots. 


Cape May Warbler

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Serendipity and the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect

Summer Tanager in Duluth!

Last week, I experienced a 24-hour period I’ll never forget. I’ve been scattering white millet here and there in my yard during this year’s amazing sparrow migration. On Tuesday morning, just a few minutes before I had to leave for my daughter’s house to babysit Walter, I spotted something I’ve never seen here in the 41 years we’ve lived on Peabody Street—a Field Sparrow! 

Field Sparrow in Duluth!

After living here so long, it’s unusual for me to add new yard birds, and this has been a most yearned for species. Earlier this month, I mentioned how with climate change we might start seeing Field Sparrows more up here, but I certainly didn’t expect one to turn up so soon, and in my own yard!  

Field Sparrow in Duluth!

When I took ornithology in 1976, I did my field research project on the Savannah Sparrow and inadvertently learned something cool about Field Sparrows. (Coincidentally, a Savannah Sparrow also showed up in my yard for a week or so, even singing a few times.) For my class project, I mapped out all the Savannah Sparrow territorial boundaries in my study area by playing tape recordings of their song. If I was on a Savannah Sparrow territory, that bird would fly in, and if I was on a border between two territories, or where three territories intersected, all the owners would respond. 

Savannah Sparrow

But wherever I was, the moment I played a Savannah Sparrow recording, I got a response from one or two Field Sparrows. Their beautiful whistled song is entirely different from the short, buzzy Savannah Sparrow’s. In class I’d learned that mapping territories is straightforward and simple, but as it turns out, real-life birds add a lot of wonderful complexities. And Field Sparrows are not just complex—they’re unpredictable in another unexpectedly wonderful way. One researcher documented a pair nesting less than 2 feet from a pair of Eastern Towhees, and both species fed the young at both nests. In another case, a pair of Field Sparrows and a pair of Common Yellowthroats actually shared the same nest, both incubating full clutches at the same time. I treasured Field Sparrows long before I knew that. It’s yet another case in which the more I learn about a bird, the more wonderful it turns out to be. So I was beyond thrilled to see one right here in my own backyard.

Field Sparrow

Wood Thrush

Before this, the most recent yard bird I’d added was a Wood Thrush last May, so this was a red-letter day for me, but I couldn’t stay home to savor it—I had to get to my grandson’s to babysit. I alerted a small birding network that the Field Sparrow was at my place and drove off. 

While Walter was napping and I was looking out his window, I discovered a pair of chickadees apparently excavating a nest cavity on the backside of a tree in the woods across Tischer Creek. From my daughter's property, I can’t see the hole, but I could see the birds disappearing and coming out with wood chips. I watched them for 15 minutes or so, and then one of them alighted on the tree closest to Katie’s window and fluttered its wings. Its mate alighted in the branch above it, fluttered its wings back, and sauntered closer and closer, both birds quivering and fluttering their wings. And suddenly I had a full, X-rated view of baby chickadee production. I couldn't get a photo, but this was through the window glass anyway. Yep—a red-letter day for sure! 

Right as the two birds were getting back to business as usual, my phone pinged with a text message—Jim Lind and Peder Swingen, who had gone to my place to get the Field Sparrow, had found a White-winged Dove right there on Peabody Street! 

White-winged Dove in Duluth!

Now it’s one thing to see a Field Sparrow in my yard—they at least belong in Minnesota. The White-winged Dove is a southwestern bird that was once fairly restricted to desert thickets—in Arizona, it specialized on saguaro seeds. Recently, it’s been expanding its range eastward—I see it on every trip now when I visit my son in Florida—and it’s also been expanding its range northward. The furthest north I’d seen one before was Kansas. In 2019, when I was on a road trip to birding festivals in Indiana and Maine, Jim Lind discovered one in Two Harbors. Jim has amazing rare-dove karma—he’s also the one who found an Inca Dove in Two Harbors—so it was fitting that he was the one who wrote the text message about this bird. 

White-winged Dove in Duluth!

A long time ago, birders in Southeast Arizona used to stop for a break at a roadside picnic spot called the Patagonia Rest Stop,. People would take a break from birding at the picnic table and restrooms. But then somebody noticed a rare bird. When word got out, more and more birders stopped for more than just a break. With so many eyes scrutinizing every inch of this small roadside picnic spot for one rare bird, other rarities were noticed as well, even though this was just a regular old roadside rest stop surrounded by plenty of much better Arizona habitat. When acquisitive birders gather at even the most ordinary spot, any rarities that might be there are going to be noticed. This phenomenon is called the Patagonia Picnic Table Effect. And it certainly was on display in my backyard Tuesday! 

I get so much fun and joy babysitting Walter, and virtually never feel like there’s something else I’d rather be doing, but to have such an extraordinarily rare bird in my own yard right that moment was a little more than I could handle. Katie was in the middle of an important meeting, but my son-in-law, who couldn’t be considered a birder by any stretch of the imagination, is most understanding about his mother-in-law’s obsessions. His workday was far from over, but he offered to multi-task so I could add this exceptional bird to my state, county, city, and backyard lists. 

White-winged Dove in Duluth!

Several birders were in my backyard when I got there, as was the dove. And befitting that Patagonia Picnic Table Effect, several of the birders were sitting at my picnic table! I didn’t get any good photos—the bird stayed in a tangle of dogwood and Virginia creeper while feeding on the ground and perching on my fence, and after 15 minutes or so, it flew off. Most of the birders disbanded and I went into the house.

Ten or 15 minutes later, the White-winged Dove was back, and for the next few hours, the bird and birders came and went. It was at one feeder close to the house but the window was closed and I didn’t want to risk scaring it away, so the photos I took there were through the glass. 

White-winged Dove in Duluth!

Starting at first light on Wednesday, I searched everywhere in my backyard. The dove was gone but the Field Sparrow was still there. 

Field Sparrow in Duluth!

Eventually I went upstairs to fill my home office window feeder, when what to my wondering eyes should appear but a greenish yellow tanager! I’ve seen more Scarlet Tanagers than usual this year. As of Wednesday, all of them had been gorgeous males. 

Scarlet Tanager

Now I was finally seeing a female, but she looked wrong for Scarlet. Her wings and tail didn’t show a trace of black—they were much closer to the color of her back—and her bill looked a bit too long. She was a Summer Tanager! Yep, within less than 24 hours, I'd seen three extremely rare birds in my own backyard!  

Summer Tanager in Duluth!

Summer Tanagers are seen in northern Minnesota much more often than Field Sparrows or White-winged Doves—indeed, one turned up in my own neighborhood, a few blocks from my house, in October 1981, my very first autumn in Duluth. I saw a stunning male along the Red Cedar River on the Michigan State University campus in May 1976, but the field guide map showed them south of Michigan and I was too inexperienced to trust my own eyes or judgment, so I didn't add it to my life list until the following month when I saw one where he was supposed to be, on Skidaway Island in Georgia.  

Summer Tanager

Summer Tanagers have always wandered, so random appearances up here are not really indicative of climate change, but increasing sightings of them are consistent with both temperature and vegetation changes due to warming. As with Red-bellied Woodpeckers and cardinals before them, these random sightings are growing more common, so eventually a male and female will meet and nest up here. And one day, probably not in my lifetime but quite likely in my children's, the species may become established here. 

Summer Tanager in Duluth!

The tanager has stuck around through at least today (Sunday), and most of the birders who have come to see her have managed to get at least a glimpse. She’s been coming to my office window feeder as well as my other oriole feeders, and spends much of her time at my neighbor Jeanne Tonkin’s house as well. 

Summer Tanager in Duluth!

I don’t know how long she’ll stay around our corner of Peabody Street—the White-winged Dove was not seen again after Tuesday, and the Field Sparrow disappeared on Thursday—but it’s sure been lovely hosting this exceptional trio. I can’t imagine I’ll ever have a 24-hour period again in which I add three new birds to my yard list. Serendipity? The Patagonia Picnic Table Effect? It’s fun to have cool terms for birding phenomena, but really, I’m just grateful to be hanging out on this planet for yet another spring to witness yet  another of the myriad miracles of migration. 

Summer Tanager in Duluth!

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Celebrating Individuals

Pileated Woodpecker

Every day for most of this fall and winter, I saw at least one Pileated Woodpecker in my yard. Sometimes it was a female but more often a male. When it was a male, I’d try to see the bird’s right leg. If I got a clear view, part of the time I could see that it wore an aluminum numbered band; part of the time, that band was clearly not there.   

Banded Pileated Woodpecker

When I did get photos of the bird with the band, at most only three numbers were visible from my angle. But day after day I took photos, and little by little worked out the entire 9-number sequence (#115423658). I was so focused on the male with the band that I couldn’t help but name him—BB for “Banded Boy.” I suspected that I had a total of three Pileateds visiting: BB, one female, and one unbanded male, but because the two were not banded and didn’t bear any other permanent identifying markings, I’ll never be sure that there weren't more. The bird I was invested in was the individual I could pick out—BB.   

Pileated Woodpecker

On April 23, I was delighted to see and photograph BB and a female in my suet feeder at the same time. He’s been visiting every few days—I took my most recent photo of him so far on May 13. I presume he’s nesting somewhere in the neighborhood, but so far, I haven’t tracked down where.   

Adult Black-capped Chickadee regrowing tail feathers

It’s thrilling to be able to recognize an individual wild Pileated Woodpecker with absolute certainty. Over the years, I’ve been able to recognize a handful of individual chickadees, some for longer periods of time than others. Early this spring one of my feeder chickadees and a chickadee at my daughter’s house were both missing all their tail feathers, presumably from close encounters with predators. I got to watch day after day as the tail feathers grew in, but now these chickadees are indistinguishable from the others, to my eyes.   

Black-capped Chickadee with deformed bill

One winter, I had a chickadee with a deformed, badly overgrown bill. He became a regular, feeding directly out of my hand and counting on me to provide nutritious mealworms, so I faithfully attended to him every single day. In spring, the overgrown tips of the beak eventually broke off and with proper wear and hammering, he managed to make it pretty much indistinguishable from any other chickadee's bill. But meanwhile, while the bill was still overgrown, I discovered he had a more permanent identifying feature—he was missing the three front toes on his right foot. After the bill was fixed, I could still pick him out.  

My little chickadee

Black-capped Chickadee

A full year later, when he nested in my neighbor Jeanne’s yard, I could see him feeding young and carrying away fecal sacs. He was the father of the first two baby chickadees I ever watched fledge from the nest. I was thrilled and filled with pride, knowing I had played a part in his survival. But after that summer, I never saw him again. The probability is high that he died that fall—we live right along the hawk migration flyway. But there is also a good possibility that his mate was from a different winter flock and he moved on to her part of the neighborhood. He may well have lived one, two, or several years longer. I’ll never know for certain.  

Black-capped Chickadee--fledging day!

BlueJayLudwig1.jpg

During the years I rehabbed wild birds, three of “my” birds came back the following year and were recognizable by their behavior. First was when we lived in Madison, Wisconsin, and I raised a baby Blue Jay I called Ludwig. Over the course of the summer, he grew adept at finding his own food and started associating with the neighborhood jays; he disappeared in the fall. The next year when we were in Chicago for spring break, our neighbor saw a jay pecking on our apartment’s kitchen and bedroom windows, and he alighted briefly on her lawn chair to stare at her face before flying off. That had to be Ludwig.  

Katie and Pine Siskin

In Duluth, a baby Pine Siskin that my little daughter helped me care for disappeared with the siskin migration that fall. But the next spring when Katie was riding her tricycle on our front sidewalk, in flew a little siskin who alighted on her finger. It’s pretty much impossible that that could have been any other individual.   

Northern Flickers

Northern Flickers

And one summer my boys helped me raise two baby flickers. When they could fly, we set them free in our yard. As they went farther and farther afield, they’d fly back and alight on or near us if they were hungry and heard us make a particular whistle. They disappeared in October, but the next spring when Joey was doing his paper route, a flicker was watching him from a tree so he made that whistle and zoom—in flew the bird, alighting right on his chest!   

We never saw any of these birds again, but felt so grateful that they’d survived the winter. And we felt something deeper than gratification that they still recognized and trusted us enough to stop by and give us a final little greeting, their way of acknowledging that we'd done right by them.

Northern Flickers