Do bird-watchers make better lovers?

Perhaps not.
Evidence that birders are not quite … normal keeps emerging.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, consider this:
Last week, someone writing to the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s listserv reported on a trip to South Dakota during which he saw several birds for the first time, including a violet-green swallow and a western woodpeewee, which is a very cool name for a bird.
Within four hours, a Minneapolis man requested specifics on where the birds were found, explaining that he would be in the Black Hills in mid-August on his honeymoon.
I sure hope the woman he’s marrying also is a birder.

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In the tick of things

Last night, I discovered a souvenir from my hike in the Ely’s Peak area: a tick, firmly attached to my right thigh, pretending to be a pimple.
If you are going to watch birds and want to avoid ticks, your best bet is to watch through your windows from your living room. The possibility of a tick getting on you while you’re in your living room is not much more than 0 percent.
In the woods, the chances are much greater, particularly if one wanders off the trail in hopes of catching a glimpse of a red eyed vireo.
Nonetheless, I hadn’t spotted a tick on my body in a very long time, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do about it. Ticks are said to spread infamous diseases, and leaving it didn’t seem to be a wise option.
In my Bible camp counselor days, the theory was that one shouldn’t remove a tick with tweezers because you’d leave the head in the skin, and that would do all the damage. Instead, you tried to induce the tick to withdraw on its own. The favored method, if I recall correctly, was to hold a lit match to the skin. This worked, I think, and had the added advantage of being entertaining, particularly if the tick’s host was a boisterous 13-year-old boy.
But trying to burn out my tick didn’t seem appealing.
It seemed to me that we also might have used Clorox bleach. Or perhaps that was just for leeches.
I found a bottle of vinegar and wondered if that would work. I didn’t think it would.
I had been wandering around the house in my underwear, and by this time I was in the basement. This is where my computer is, so I did the natural thing: I did a Google search for the phrase REMOVING TICKS.
The first site I came to said you shouldn’t do anything to try to induce the tick to back out. It will just dig in all the more, the Web site said. Instead, you should carefully remove it with … tweezers.
I had tweezers, and I gave it a try. It seemed to work. What appeared to be an entire tick wriggled angrily as I held it in the tweezers. I’d be angry, too, if someone snatched me away from my dinner with tweezers.
The Web site said you should keep the tick in a glass jar or film cannister and perhaps even mail it in for testing. I thought about that for 2 seconds, and decided: No. Instead, I flushed it out of my life.
The rest of the night, I was visited by dozens of ticks, all of the species Figmentus imaginatus.
But as I was writing this, I discovered what appears to be another tick on my right arm. This one is smaller (the dreaded deer tick?) and appears to have a good grip. A colleague has promised to return from a trip home with tweezers, something which is not in the copy editor’s tool kit. Then it will be round two.
Be careful out there.

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A very vocal vireo

So if the birds weren’t coming to me, I would go to them.
Actually, my hike today on a section of the Superior Hiking Trail that passes by Ely’s Peak was more about enjoying beautiful weather on the last day of my vacation than about seeing birds, but I took the binoculars, camera and field guide along.
It was a lovely hike, and I encountered some nice people and their dogs along the way. (Of six dogs I saw, only one was on a leash, and that was only after the gentleman who was walking with it saw me approaching. The reality is that every trail is a leash-free trail. For the most part, this seems to work OK.)
The birds I knew I would see were turkey vultures. I saw as many as six of them making lazy circles in the sky, to borrow a line from "Oklahoma!" Turkey vultures congregate in the Ely’s Peak area like Lutherans at coffee time in the church basement. It’s a fun place to watch them soar1, because you can see them from above as well as from below.
Otherwise: white-throated sparrows, a white-crowned sparrow and the usual run of birds I couldn’t quite see or couldn’t quite make out or couldn’t identify.
And one bird I couldn’t see but could identify: a red-eyed vireo.
At long last, all the time I’ve spent listening to CDs of bird songs paid off. It sounded just like it sounds on the CD, although it added a few variations. The CD describes the song as: Here I am. Where are you? Repeated and repeated again.
I like the song’s description in the field guide a little better:
Here I am. In the tree. Look up. At the top …
It certainly was near the top, hidden from view by a canopy of leaves. I looked for a long time, and I tried pishing, but it wouldn’t come where I could see it.
But thanks to the CD, the song was unmistakable. (And thanks, Henry B, for recommending that CD. It’s called "Peterson Field Guides’ Backyard Bird Songs," and it’s available wherever CDs of bird songs are sold.)

1 Turkey vultures, not Lutherans

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Starting over

It’s a little like that when one comes back to mostly empty bird feeders after a few days away.
Birds can’t take a vacation from eating; they’ve moved on.
The first evening, I washed caked leaves from the bottom of the birdbath and filled it with fresh water; I put out safflower and millet.
The first morning, something already had cleared out the millet and eaten some of the safflower. I refreshed those, and put out mealworms, fresh half-orange shells with watery grape jelly, cleaned out the other jelly holders and put jelly in them.
I still haven’t restocked the hummingbird feeders.
The first morning, I heard a single meow — the meow of a cat in a bad mood1 — and a single catbird arrived at the birdbath to take a long, luxurious bath. Catbirds, starlings and robins are the most enthusiastic bathers of any I’ve watched.
The orange shells weren’t out yet, and it ignored the jelly in the cups.
In the afternoon, a chickadee arrived and partook of safflower.
That was all I saw on the first day, although it’s not as if I was watching full time.
This morning, a pair of goldfinches — male and female — were breakfasting on the thistle, which is fortified with sunflower chips thanks to Henry Bird’s guidance.
The catbird came for another bath. It still ignored the jelly.
Again, something ate the millet and some of the safflower.
It’s a slow start, but it’s a start.

1Actually, it sounds just like Penny, my sister’s cat. Penny was born in a bad mood and hasn’t seen anything in the succeeding years to change her mind.

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On the road again

ESTHERVILLE, Iowa — It’s not so much that I’m seeing birds I haven’t seen before, it’s just that I’m seeing so much more of them in Mom and Dad’s backyard: Hummingbirds, orioles, downy woodpeckers and nuthatches make regular visits.

I’ve heard but not seen a wren, a bird whose loud, sweet song seems too big for its tiny body — as if a 5-year-old boy suddenly launched into a Verdi aria. Mom had to point out to me that the song I was hearing was from Jenny wren.

I’ve heard a cardinal here; I saw lots of cardinals in Davenport.

Estherville, my hometown, is in the northwest part of Iowa, and it has been spared from most of the flooding. In fact, this area could use a good rain.

Such is not the case in most of the rest of the state. Davenport still had significant flooding when I was there over the weekend.

I drove through Cedar Rapids on Sunday via Interstate 380. That was the road you saw above the water that covered everything else in pictures from about a week ago. The only obvious sign left of the flooding on Sunday were highway information signs instructing you to tune to 530 AM for flood recovery information. A chain motel had a billboard on the edge of town that was evidence of unfortunate timing. It boasted of the new showers in its rooms with the slogan: "Extended forecast: Heavy showers ahead." This is not the sort of forecast people in Cedar Rapids want to hear.

I could have driven through Parkersburg, and if I had remembered that an F5 tornado had hit the town a month ago, I would have. Perhaps it’s morbid to look at a community’s misfortune, but it would have been interesting. I learned later that Parkersburg was having a tornado-recovery fundraiser that day, and T-shirts were being sold commemorating the encounter with F5.

Instead, I stayed on U.S. 20, which provides many, many miles of efficient, four-lane travel with no rest stops, virtually no place to stop for services, and barely a glimpse of towns along the way. It’s a sleep-inducing road.

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On the road

DAVENPORT, Iowa — It was raining hard when I drove into town; something that’s not needed in these parts or in points south.
There’s no simple way to go from Duluth to Davenport, but I always go through Wisconsin. Somewhere along U.S. 53 in Washburn County, I saw a bald eagle and a couple of crows feasting on a deceased animal on the side of the road. Despite the resurgence of bald eagles, I haven’t seen all that many of them. It seems when I DO see one, it’s usually grabbing a road-kill snack somewhere on a Wisconsin highway.
Just north of Rice Lake, I saw a dead bear on the side of the road. No eagles were in attendance. I realize that some of you see so much of bears that you list them as tax deductions, but this was the first bear I’ve seen in the Northland. Since it was dead, I’m not sure it counts.

Other notes:

  • Driving through southwestern Wisconsin is lovely: idyllic farms nestled in the hills; neat, small towns … Westby, Viroqua, Soldiers Grove, Boscobel ("Wisconsin’s wild turkey hunting capital," the welcome sign says), Fennimore, Lancaster; intriguing side roads with names such as Childs Hollow Road. You travel more slowly than you would on an interstate. It’s worth it.
  • I managed to avoid buying gas in Wisconsin. Then I paid $4.089/gallon in Dubuque, Iowa — higher than any price I noticed in Wisconsin.
  • My goodness, so many red-winged blackbirds. For long stretches of road there seemed to be one every 100 yards or so, as if they were guarding their posts.
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Another handy Web site

Thanks to ndbirder (see ndbirder’s comment under "Variations on a theme"), I was directed to a Web site that helped me determine whether the mystery bird I was listening to was an American goldfinch.
The Web site allowed me to listen to samples of a goldfinch singing as well as to samples of similar birds singing. I quickly decided the Web site ought to be included in my links; it’s listed to the right as "What bird?" is a field guide on the Internet. It’s busy; perhaps too busy for my taste — I’m overwhelmed pretty easily. It also provides ample opportunities for you to buy things.
But it’s lively and fun and provides lots of information. Go to American goldfinch, for example, and you not only get song samples, you get illustrations; a map of its range; information on whether the bird in question is endangered (goldfinches aren’t); and various snippets of information, such as the fact that goldfinches are late nesters that begin to raise their families in late June or July. Just a little of that page is shown below.
I’ve only scratched the surface of this site, and I probably won’t scratch very deeply. But it’s clearly a helpful resource.

American Goldfinch

Carduelis tristisOrder:
Family: Finches (Fringillidae)

Common Name: AMGO
Scientific Name: CARTRI
ITIS Taxonomic No.: 179236

American Goldfinch: The breeding male American Goldfinch has a bright yellow body, black cap, wings, and tail, and a white rump and undertail coverts. The wings have flashy white patches. Bill is pink and conical.
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Astro Bob’s phoebe

Astro Bob, aka News Tribune photo chief Bob King, is a student of many things in addition to astronomy. (You can read his blog at
One of those things is birds. Another is tea, but that’s a subject for another blog. I’ve learned a lot about birds already from Bob, particularly about bird songs. He has a way of highlighting the single most memorable thing about a bird and its song.
He also takes good pictures.
Here’s what he wrote about the nesting phoebe:

I shot our phoebe on
its nest this morning. … . I know that she has at
least one chick because I’ve heard its tiny, high-pitched "fee-bee". This nest
is beautifully constructed of mosses, mud, a bit of string and grass. Our family
is very happy to have this new resident under the outside roof of our

  • Thanks to ndbirder for your suggestion on "Name that tune." Ndbirder suggested my mystery bird might be a goldfinch, which certainly would make sense because I’ve had goldfinches in my backyard. I haven’t yet gone to the Web link ndbirder provided, but this morning I listened to goldfinch recordings on a couple of CDs. They didn’t seem to match what I was hearing. The mystery continues …

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The falcons of Duluth

High above downtown Duluth, a mother falcon was feeding her baby.
I was watching on a little screen, the image on the dark side but clear. The screen is set up at Lake Park Place in Duluth — just above the "corner" of the Lakewalk.
Two telescope also are set up there, one pointing at the west side of the Greysolon Building, the other at the spire atop Old Central School.
Again this summer, a pair of peregrine falcons have established their nest in a box high up  on the Greysolon. A camera inside the nesting box sends images to the screen.
All of this is made possible through Peregrine Watch, which is sponsored by Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory. It’s directed by Julie O’Connor, Hawk Ridge naturalist and volunteer coordinator.
You can learn all about it on the Hawk Ridge Web site; the link is among those to the right. Or you can see it for yourself. The folks from Hawk Ridge are there from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day through mid-July.
The nest box was placed on the Greysolon in 1991, according to information provided by Debbie Waters, education director for Hawk Ridge. Peregrine falcons first nested there in 2003 and have returned every year since. Peregrine Watch started in 2006. It occurred to me that I’ve watched the falcons at least once each summer since it began. It’s easy for me because I work downtown, but it’s well worth going out of your way to see them.
Someday, the nest box camera might be making the Duluth falcons online stars, but not yet. Waters told me there are issues with wiring complicated by the historic nature of the Greysolon.

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Variations on a theme

The mystery bird offered a variation on its theme this morning.
It was the same bird; it had the same trill in the middle of the phrase. The trill seemed faster this morning. Maybe I was just listening more slowly.
Today, it started with a single note, then went up to the trill at a higher pitch, then to a two-note phrase that started higher still and went down to the original pitch.
I think the words go like this:
could keep on singing this
all day.
This afternoon, it added another, more complex variation. I couldn’t begin to tell you how it goes; it sounded like something by Sostakovich. But it still had the trill in the middle.
I think the songsters are catbirds. A pair of catbirds have been
hanging around and giving every indication they’ll stay as long as I keep putting out watery grape jelly. I haven’t seen them singing the mystery songs, but the bubbly notes I see them making seem to be in the same range.
The books and bird song CDs say catbirds’ songs are complex.
They also say mockingbird songs are complex, and that the mockingbird is more apt to repeat phrases.
I’d love to think there’s a mockingbird in the neighborhood, but for now I’m sticking with the catbird theory.

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