Monday, October 13, 2014

For the Ovenbird

For the Ovenbird

For the little brown bird
That no longer walks slowly
Head bobbing
Over the forest floor.

For the loud, clear song
That no longer sounds
Through the forest.

For eggs
That will never hatch.
And for chicks
That will never fledge.

For the little flame
Of energy and life
That took the perilous journey
From Costa Rica to its breeding grounds,
Only to be extinguished

By a window pane.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Bird Bander's Dilemma

I’ve come a little late to the banding station, anxious that I’ve missed something.  I wait, but no one shows up for 15, 30, 45 minutes, and finally over an hour late for the first net run.  When Carrie finally returns, the first thing she says is “It’s been a real hell of a morning.”  I ask why.  She tells me a horrifying tale, something I couldn’t have dreamed up in my worst nightmares.

Rose Lake Wildlife Research Area banding station is divided into a side with mostly invasive plants and a side with mostly native plants.  This way the banders can research physiological differences between the birds on the non-native and native sides.  Rose Lake is also  crisscrossed by roads and trails, all open to the public.  For this reason, the banding station has been located off one of the most inconspicuous trails so as to avoid attention from hunters and hikers.  But that morning, Carrie told me, she had been tipped off by a fisherman that a man had been camping on the invasives side, unfurling the nets and eating the birds he captured.  She told me that there were several nets in bad shape, having been furled carelessly and left with debris stuck in them.

I’m not ready for what I see, though, when she takes me to see the damage for myself.  Five of the mist nets are so full of branches and leaves that they appear beyond repair.  In one of the nets remains the tail and feet of a Blue-winged Warbler.  In other nets there are the tail and tail coverts of a female American Redstart and the hallux of another small bird.  These birds were obviously not extracted from the net by a bird bander, but hacked out with a knife.  Several trammels are also slashed open, leaving gaping holes in the fragile netting. 

I find it hard to believe that someone could have so little respect for scientific research.  Besides that, there is not even a half-ounce of meat on a small songbird such as a redstart or Blue-winged Warbler.  I am horrified and disgusted by what has happened.  When we get back to the banding tent, we get out the scale and discover that the batteries have been taken out.  We search for the extra batteries, only to find that those have been taken as well.  It doesn’t take long before Carrie and the other bander, Yushi, discover that one of the machetes and the lopper have been stolen.  It’s a horrible thought: the man who slaughtered and ate all of those birds is loose somewhere with a machete and a pair of loppers.


This incident, as rare as it must be, brings to mind the risks of bird banding.  I am aware that birds sometimes die, whether in or out of the nets, at banding stations.  Chipmunks, raptors, and wet, cold, or hot weather can cause bird deaths at banding stations.  I am bothered that any birds die at all in these situations, but I have seen banders typically feel responsible to minimize those risks.  At Rose Lake, for example, the next day’s operations will be cancelled if the weather forecast shows that it will be too hot, cold, or stormy.

I am also aware that some individuals and organizations believe that bird banding should be stopped altogether.  I disagree.  The scientific knowledge that comes out of banding studies is valuable.  In addition, the newly imposed restrictions on who can get a banding permit ensure that bird banders know what they are doing, and the numbers of birds that die at a banding station are almost always, if not always, very small compared to the numbers of birds that are released alive.   I have never witnessed a bird death during the banding process.

One particular anti-banding group catches my attention.  It calls itself Stop Banding Birds and most of my experience with the group comes from browsing its Facebook page.  The group appears to have originally formed in protest of banding American Dippers in the Pacific Northwest.  Their case for stopping the banding of dippers seems well founded and includes photographs of birds whose legs have been worn raw by the bands while they were hunting in the fast-flowing mountain streams.  Since it formed, the Facebook group has gone on to protest all kinds of avian and other wildlife research worldwide, claiming that “banders and wildlife biologists are a shameless group” and bird banding is  “worthless research, that only kills birds.”  While their original concerns about banding Dippers seems to have some merit, these sweeping statements appear to be inaccurate.

I am interested, though, in whether they have evidence to back up their broader claims.  Members of Stop Banding Birds routinely post about such topics as “The Kiptopeke Problem,”  (a description is beyond the scope of this post) which I cannot substantiate despite much searching on the Internet.  These incidents, it seems, are simply not mentioned anywhere except on the Stop Banding Birds Facebook page.

It is unfortunate that some birds die in the process of being banded.  However, because of the value of the knowledge that comes from banding, I choose to trust that bird bander’s are a cautious and caring when it comes to bird mortality.  I would argue that the new insights into the lives of birds make it important that the practice of bird banding not be stopped because of a few mortalities.  The good that comes to birds from banding, in my opinion, far outweighs the risks that birds face from the practice.  

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Hiawatha National Forest Road 3344

The road has a rather inauspicious name.  From what I can see of it from the highway it doesn’t look that promising, either.  The gravel cuts through the jack pine barrens typical of the area, the dry sandy soil capable of supporting only low bush blueberry, bracken fern, and reindeer lichen.  But drive half a mile down Hiawatha National Forest’s Road 3344 and the landscape changes dramatically.  The ground level suddenly drops a few feet and extensive bogs flank the road on either side, with Club-spur Orchis, Marsh Cinquefoil, and Northern Pitcher Plant crowding the roadside ditches.

The birdlife changes just as dramatically.  In contrast to the Song Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds which are practically the only birds in the barrens, the edge of the bog harbors Canada Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Alder Flycatcher, and Connecticut Warbler, among others. I get out of the car and crouch on the side of the road.  I hear a sound overhead which I had the opportunity to become familiar with last winter.  It’s the “tchet tchet tchet” of a flock of White-winged Crossbills flying over.  Just seconds later, I hear a similar sound coming from the treetops:  I’m not as familiar with this sound, but I still recognize it as the deeper, slower “thyuk thyuk thyuk” of a feeding group of Red Crossbills!  In minutes, a Lincoln’s Sparrow comes within arm’s reach.  Lincoln’s is my favorite of the Emberizidae.  When non-birders think of sparrows, they probably do not envision a bird with a striking white eyering, beautiful buff breast and flanks, deep maroon crown, silvery supercilium, and a resounding, luxurious song.  I guess I’m lucky to notice it!

Walking the roadside deeper into the bog, I spot an intriguing flycatcher perched on the pinnacle of a large dead tamarack.  With a pale eye ring and two striking white wing bars, it’s definitely an Empid.  One loud “pish” draws in a whole menagerie of curious songbirds, including the flycatcher.  I have a good enough look to see several field marks that make it my favorite Empid, a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher.  Among the Midwest’s Empids, Yellow-bellied is decidedly the most distinctive, with its striking orange-and-black bill, raindrop-shaped eye ring, bright greenish back and of course the namesake yellow belly.  The species’ habit of living in the most remote and inaccessible boreal bogs really gives it charisma, and seeing one from a roadside is exhilarating.

The Yellow-bellied takes off, and to my surprise a much larger flycatcher immediately takes its place!  As it flies in, it belts out the “quick-THREE-BEERS” song of an Olive-sided Flycatcher.  “Pishing” does nothing to draw this bird in, but a look at it through binoculars reveals a very muscular, crested bird with a striking black bib, looking like a boss on its lofty perch.  He slowly raises and lowers his crest several times, as if to make sure that he holds my undivided attention.  After singing once more, he flies off to another corner of the bog, defending his territory against any unwelcome bird foolish enough to challenge his rule.

This can’t get any better!  Well, apparently it can, because when I get my binoculars on a pair of woodpeckers hitching up a dead snag, I notice their muscular profiles and completely black upper parts.  I see that one of them has a yellow “forehead”—I’m looking at a pair of Black-backed Woodpeckers!  They fly away too quickly for me to get a really good look, but a couple of minutes later a peculiar, resonant “chek!” 100 meters to my right allows me to relocate the male, who is spiraling up a dying tamarack nearly out of sight.  Moments later the female, who had been feeding on the opposite side of a nearby tree trunk, appears a few yards from me.  She lets loose with a bizarre “KYAH-kikikikiki!” and the male immediately takes flight and alights on a tree close to her left.

I don’t exactly understand what just happened but I’m glad it did, for now both of the woodpeckers are actively feeding and interacting within ten feet of me! They appear equal in length to a Hairy Woodpecker, but are altogether more impressive.  More muscular than a Hairy, they have angular profiles and a fiercer expression.  As they forage they tear off chunks of bark, flinging them to the ground several feet below. 

The male, seemingly curious, approaches even closer, taking me in with his dark brown eye.  The color of his forehead patch belongs in Fort Knox!  He is close enough that I can see he has three, instead of four, toes on each foot.  His stiff tail is bordered in white and his glossy black feathers reflect a bluish sheen as he moves in and out of the dappled sunlight.  A black moustachial stripe begins at the gray base of a sturdy bill that turns black towards the tip.  His immaculate white throat and undersides are complemented by flanks barred black and white.  Behind his eye is a thin white line, tapering where the ear lies beneath the feathers.  White dots on his primaries are arranged to form several slanting lines, which end abruptly at the secondary feathers.

I’m entranced by my close encounter with this woodpecker, one of the most transient of the North Woods’ inhabitants.  After a long time of unconcernedly allowing me to witness him in his secret world, he flies away, and I finally release my breath.

Friday, September 26, 2014


The ground on which I am standing is part of a massive Jack Pine barren near Whitefish Point, Michigan.  It stretches for miles in all directions.  It appears at first glance to be devoid of life, but looks can be deceiving.  I know that Jack Pine barrens to the south (where Kirtland’s Warblers nest) are excellent habitat for Common Nighthawk, so my friend Drew and I decide to revisit the barrens after dark to try to find some of these nocturnal birds.

It is ten at night when we return, and the first fifteen minutes yield neither sight nor sound of a nighthawk.  I’m surprised: I thought for sure there would be nighthawks out here.  Despite the lack of nighthawks, there are other birds around.  Drew and I identify the “tewtewtew” call of a Greater Yellowlegs coming from Andrus Lake.  We are both rather bemused at a shorebird calling this late at night.  An American Robin calls up ahead.  So far we have heard a shorebird and a thrush, but no nighthawks!

Ten minutes later, Drew and I hear what we are listening for: the distant “peent” of a Common Nighthawk.  A few seconds later it calls again, this time much closer than before.  Each time, the calls get louder and louder, until the bird is right above us.  Now the sound is painfully loud.  I raise my hands to cover my ears when suddenly, the loudest peent yet is accompanied by a deep, rumbling WHOOM—the very ground seems to vibrate with the intensity of it.  The bird flies away, the calls getting softer and softer, sparing our eardrums.

Immediately, several more nighthawks start calling all around us.  None of them, for now, is as close as the first, but I suspect that is because these birds are patrolling the edges of their territories, warning off potential intruders (In fact Sarah, another friend, observes the birds flying in irregular circles the next night, tracing what must be the boundaries of their territories).  We walk about a hundred paces, then hear a nighthawk start displaying closeby.  We search the sky, by now illuminated only by the pale light of a gibbous moon, for any trace of the bird.  We meet with no luck until the sound has reached a painful volume.  The instant an enormous WHOOM sounds, the North Star is blacked out for a fraction of a second.  It must be a coincidence, I think to myself.

This nighthawk does not stop calling as the others have.  I listen as the calls get quieter and farther away, then closer and louder, until once again they have reached that nearly unbearable pitch.  Then, WHOOM! Once again, the instant I feel the vibrations, Polaris is blocked out.  I exhale in amazement, and Drew says he saw it too.  Still the bird calls, and this time we’re watching Polaris closely, seeing if it will be blocked out once more.  We anticipate the moment of the next boom, and to our surprise, the North Star disappears for the third time!

I find it amazing that birds can migrate to and from their breeding and wintering grounds successfully, so I am stunned that a Common Nighthawk could navigate with such precision to “WHOOM” within the same tiny area, three times in a row!  Did it use the stars to work its magic, or did it use landmarks, or a mental map of its territory?  We don’t know for sure, and we decide to content ourselves with being there to see it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Standup Birding Moments

Now that I've shared my e-portfolio, I'll share some writings I did last summer.  Enjoy!

I heard a familiar sound coming from almost underfoot in the tangled mess of dead juniper branches on the beach.  It was a Dark-eyed Junco, but I had never heard one sing so loudly or so monotonously.  After a minute or two of searching I found a light brown bird streaked and spotted with dark brown, with no tail and a bright pink bill and legs.  I had never seen anything quite like it but it still looked familiar... Of course, I thought, a baby junco!  Verification came moments later with the arrival of an adult female junco, her bill loaded with tiny invertebrates.

Knowing there must more where that came from, the young junco wolfed down the insects then followed its mother into a dense hemlock thicket.  She had found a stash of small caterpillars, and the baby was perching close by so its hard-working mom could pick off a caterpillar and immediately stuff it in down her demanding child’s throat.  Eventually there were no more caterpillars within reach, so the mother moved to a different branch.  The young bird did not budge.  When its mother turned around with a caterpillar in her bill, the little fluffball stretched forward to accept it.  So eager was the youngster that its mother had unexpected relief from her child’s relentless cries.  It stretched too far forward and fell off its branch, tumbling headlong into the tangled brush below!

Many birders’ most memorable experiences are defined by seeing lifers, close encounters, or birding in exotic places.  But what about the funny encounters, the ones that leave you laughing unstoppably, the hilarious stories you tell to friends for years to come?  For me, it’s moments like these that become some of my fondest memories, some of the reasons that I stop and think “I’m so glad I watch birds.”

Even backyard birding proves to be humorous on occasion.  At my feeders, offering up whole unshelled peanuts usually incites an array of amusing antics.  Titmice, Downy Woodpeckers, and nuthatches drop by for their share of this very popular food, either staying there and hacking the morsels out of the shell or flying off with it to hack at it in private.  Whatever they do, it is usually entertaining.  The titmice are quite the picture with their stout, conical bills grasping an impossibly large and heavy, but obviously desirable, unshelled peanut, then taking off from the edge of the feeder, weighed down by their load. The nuthatches and woodpeckers seem to have figured it out, and they hack a hole into the shell which they then grasp with their bill, making the haul much easier.  

When birds stay at the feeders to extract the food on site, it is once again the titmice that provide the most entertainment.  While the nuthatches and woodpeckers easily puncture the shells with their long bills, it is not so easy for a titmouse.  Titmice balance themselves on top of the peanut, often toppling backwards or sideways.  Sometimes I see a titmouse lose its balance and fall onto another bird, leading to a rather loud debate about who must leave immediately.  Once the bird gets its balance, it proceeds to violently shred the shell, sending tiny bits of it flying through the air.

Blue Jays inevitably come to join the fun.  Their antics are of a different sort: one of them will alight on the feeder and pick up a peanut in its bill, which, through this limited inspection, it finds unsatisfactory.  It drops the peanut and picks another one up, and again somehow finds this one sub-par. This can carry on until the jay is picking some peanuts up for the second time.  Sometimes, the bird seems to get frustrated and picks up the peanuts one by one, dropping them over the edge of the feeder!

One year ago my feeders were frequented by an endearing young male Red-bellied Woodpecker.  It too loved peanuts and was sure to come calling within minutes of the moment the first peanut was set on the platform feeder.  It was not the brash bird that I’m used to in baby Red-bellied Woodpeckers, however.  On the contrary, it seemed very shy and retiring.  When it flew in to fetch a peanut, it would land and immediately crouch itself down as far as it could in order to hide behind the wood of the feeder.  To reach the peanuts, the scrawny fellow had to stretch his neck across several inches of the wooden surface.  He made quite a picture, trying to hide behind the feeder and trying to reach the peanuts at the same time, not quite succeeding in either endeavor.

Volunteering at a bird banding station inevitably leads a few funny moments.  One that I remember in particular involves a very indignant female Northern Cardinal.  After being removed from one of the mist nets, she reached her bill back towards the bander’s thumb, meaning to give her a lesson.  Being all too familiar with the cardinal’s fearsome bite, she quickly pulled her thumb away and the bird’s bill clamped down on its own primary feathers!  It took both of us quite a while to tease the feathers out of her bill, one at a time.

Baby birds, like the Red-bellied Woodpecker, are veritable fountains of humor.  About a month ago, I was watching a family of newly hatched Mallards at a local riverfront park.  There were five of the tiny fluffballs floating in the water, following their mother wherever she went in a single file line.  Occasionally, one of the chicks would suddenly zoom out of line with astonishing speed, sometimes ahead of the group, sometimes behind it, sometimes off to the side.  Then the chick would zoom right back to its place in line, and one could hardly tell that anything had happened, save for the dragonfly that one of the chicks now had in its bill.

Reddish Egrets are famed for their hilarious style of hunting, but I have seen Tricolored Herons hunt with some outrageous antics as well.  For spring break, my family and I headed to Florida for a week of birding.  One of the places we visited was Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, and on the wildlife drive we came upon a Tricolored that was prancing around like a maniac, running with jerky motions between one school of fish and another.  It haphazardly plunged its bill left and right into the water, not catching a single fish.  Other Tricoloreds nearby patiently stalked their quarry, giving this one a wide berth.  This bird’s state of hyperactivity came abruptly to an end when it tripped over its own feet, toppling headlong into the water!

What may have been the most hilarious of my birding experiences also happened in Florida.  I was watching a territorial male Gray Catbird calling endlessly atop a palm tree when he suddenly dove down to a tree full of old, shriveled red berries.  While still calling, he plucked a berry off its stem and held it in its bill.  Still calling, he reared his head upward and gulped down the berry.  The effect was rather like this: “MEWW...  MEWW... MEglggEW...MEWW!” Without pausing for a heartbeat, he gagged on the berry, swallowed it, and kept singing as if nothing had happened!  My family and I were in stitches!