A bird bailout

You want some good news today, don’t you?

Here it is: The Kirtland’s warbler appears to be making a comeback.

The Associated Press reports today that the little songbird, which was close to extinction a couple of decades ago, has recovered to the point that it’s staking out new territory in the Uper Midwest.

This was particularly interesting to me after recently reading "A Supremely Bad Idea," by birding enthusiast Luke Dempsey. The hope of seeing a Kirtland’s warbler was the primary reason Dempsey and his two friends made a trip to Michigan. Dempsey bewailed the demise of the Kirtland’s, while noting that its fussy habitat requirements contribute to the problem. Kirtland’s warblers nest and breed almost entirely in young jack pines typically found in the northeastern part of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula. They spend their winters in the Bahamas, which seems like a good idea.

In 1987, biologists could only find 167 singing male Kirtland’s warblers.

Their plight wasn’t ignored. State and federal agencies have been clearcutting and burning older trees from their habitat zone and planting or seeding about 3,000 acres of jack pines each year on state and federal lands.

The effort is paying off. The count of singing males has exceeded 1,000 for seven consecutive years. This year, it reached 1,791, the most since counting began in 1951. Biologists assume one female for every male, so they think more than 3,500 of the species exist today. And they’re finding new breeding grounds: Thirty-four singing males turned up in five Upper Peninsual counties this summer, nine were heard in Wisconsin, and one pair turned up in Ontario.

The improvement hasn’t happened by accident, and it isn’t irreversible.

"It points out the importance of continuing to protect the habitat," said Sherry MacKinnon, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources’ acting endangered species coordinator, in the AP story. "If we decline on that, the birds are going to be declining."




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Fruit flies

My house came with a big apple tree in the backyard. Unfortunately, it didn’t come with an apple-tree caretaker.

The birds and squirrels love the apple tree, especially when it is leafed-out. They can hide in it while scrutinizing my feeders for signs of enemy activity. They can exchange gossip. I think bird romances have started in that tree. It’s part of the West Duluth Squirrel Superhighway.

In odd-numbered years, it offers a handful of blossoms, resulting in an apple or two. In even-numbered years, it puts on a spectacular springtime display of gorgeous white blossoms. The blossoms become apples — more apples than I could hope to count, more apples than any one tree ought to produce.

In July, the runt-apples start to fall. Medium-sized apples fall in August, bigger apples in September. By the middle of August, there’s no way to mow the backyard — hardly any way to walk to the garage — without first gathering apples. This continues through September and into October. I fill boxes and trash barrels with apples. Each Friday, I haul as many apples as my Honda Civic will carry to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District yard waste composting site. If my apples aren’t yard waste, I don’t know what is.

But this month, I missed a couple of weeks. I didn’t find time to make the apple run on Friday, so I knew I had to do it on Saturday. By then, the three-week-old apples had been reduced to a squishy mess, and the two-week-old and one-week-old apples weren’t much better.

And they had attracted a multitude of fruit flies, a swarm of biblical proportions, so many fruit flies it appeared my garage had turned into a ninth-grade biology experiment run amok.

I knew that when I transferred boxes and trash cans full of apples to the car, legions of fruit flies would come along. But what could I do?

I drove to WLSSD with the car windows down. The fruit flies stayed with the apples. After I drove into the composting site, I told the young employee I had apples … and fruit flies.

"We don’t take fruit flies," he said, grinning.

They didn’t take all of the fruit flies. A legion or two stayed in the car.

The fruit flies were still there this morning, when I was driving to church with the car windows down. They seemed to be multiplying. I came to a stop, and a gang of them circled my head.

Happily, they didn’t go to church with me. Perhaps they would have had they known it was communion Sunday.

That apple tree is a bane of my existence. It sinks its roots deep into my drainage pipes. Don’t ask me about the water in my basement this year. Don’t ask me how much it cost to get it dry again.

Every other year, the tree rains apples. This year, the apples begat fruit flies.

I ought to have it removed.

But the apple tree has been there much longer than I have. It represents cherished memories for the grandchildren of former owners of my home. I know this, because I encountered one of those grandchildren a few years ago. She was sitting in her SUV, which was parked in the alley, and she was gazing at the tree, weeping over her memories.

And the birds like it.

It stays. 


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Bookshelf … “A Supremely Bad Idea”

"A Supremely Bad Idea" is a remarkably good first book, written in a style that is 
reminiscent of Bill Bryson. In their search for rarely seen birds, Luke 
Dempsey and the married couple who befriend him (and take advantage 
of the fact that he drives, because they don’t) travel to Arizona, 
Florida, Michigan, the Pacific Northwest, Texas and Colorado as well 
as the Northeast, where they live (mostly in NYC). In the process, 
they see a lot of birds and stay an a succession of bad motels.
Beginning birders like me are sure to like this book; serious birders 
might be less interested. Those who have no interest in birds at all but 
enjoy funny travel books still might like these adventures of three mad birders.

Like Bryson, Dempsey is occasionally preachy (he doesn’t like the fact that we’re 
destroying bird habitat, and he’s certainly right about that; but he 
never mentions success stories such as the comeback of the 
bald eagle) and often very funny.
What I didn’t like:

  1. Foul (not fowl) language. Not on every page, but occasional bursts of it. Dempsey uses words we’re not allowed to use in the newspaper. I’m glad we’re not allowed to use them.
  2. The use of the name of God as a proper noun, but with a lower-case g. What’s up with that? Perhaps Dempsey doesn’t believe in the diety, but if so, why mention God at all?
  3. Overly casual use of the language, with "words" such as "ain’t" and "kinda" popping in. Maybe because Dempsey grew up in England he thinks he has to write that way for Americans to understand him. I think it’s dumb.

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Or maybe it was sunburned

This is how I identify raptors:

I go to Hawk Ridge. I wait until Eric the Hawk Ridge guy says, "Low-flying sharp-shinned over there." I look at it. I know it was a sharp-shinned hawk because Eric said it was.

On Sept. 17, at Hawk Ridge, the professionals saw 7,251 raptors, including 6,115 broad-wings and 921 sharp-shins. I saw one sharp-shin, the one identified by Eric. But I got a good look at the bird, and it was a gorgeous day. I was pleased.

This Wednesday, I was driving up Highway 61, on my way to a hike on the Twin Lakes Trail, which is near Silver Bay. Just north of Knife River, I got a good look of a raptor soaring over the highway. It was pretty big — I hope I’m not getting too technical for you — it wasn’t all that high up. It twisted and turned, giving me good views of its upper and lower sides. (Some people talk on cell phones as they drive; I look at birds.) The upper side was distinguished by a rusty red coloring around the shoulders. The lower side had white splotches.

I waited until my lunch stop to look at the book. None of the raptors in the book came close to what I saw — except the red-shouldered hawk.

So I think that’s what it is. But I have two problems with my own diagnosis:

  1. Eric the Hawk Ridge guy wasn’t there to say yes it is a red-shouldered hawk or no it isn’t.
  2. Red-shouldered hawks are common in the Southeast, but Northeastern Minnesota is a little out of their range. Hawk Ridge lists red-shouldered hawks as among the raptors that can be seen, but doesn’t even list a count for this particular raptor.

My friend Henry Bird assures me that red-shouldered hawks aren’t unheard of in the Northland at this time of the year.

I like those sorts of assurances. I’d be interested in additional input, dear readers. How likely, or unlikely, is a red-shouldered hawk in this area? Have you seen one? Is there a more common raptor that might be mistaken for a red-shouldered?

Could it have been a broad-winged hawk with a sunburn?

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Bird droppings

Bits and pieces from here and there:

  • This coming weekend is the big one: Hawk Weekend 2008 at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, on Skyline Parkway about a mile east of Glenwood Street in Duluth. Interpretive programs, bird demonstrations, merchandise, refreshments and, with any luck, lots of hawks and other birds passing through on their way to their winter homes. It’s a great place to take the kids. Many more details are available at the Hawk Ridge Web Site: . http://www.hawkridge.org/events/hawkweekend.html
  • Of course, you don’t have to wait for the weekend. You can visit Hawk Ridge anytime, and this is certainly the time of the year to do it. The Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory Web site’s home page offers helpful advice onwhat weather conditions favor raptor viewing and a link to the forecast.
  • Whether on Hawk Ridge or not, this appears to be prime time for fall warblers passing through. There were reports on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s e-mail listserv over the weekend of numerous kinds of warblers being seen on Park Point in very short periods of time.
  • And it’s never too early to start thinking about Christmas! … OK, it is … way too early. But Carl Greiner, coordinator of MOU’s annual Christmas Bird Count, wants you to think about staying in Minnesota this Christmas and participating in the state’s 103rd bird count. Last year, folks spotted 16 three-toed woodpeckers, 16 goshawks, 12 Townsend’s solitaires and a harlequin duck, Greiner reports. You can find out how it works and how to get involved here: http://www.moumn.org/CBC/


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Robins redux

I took our question about the apparent absence of robins to the Minnesota Ornitholoists’ Union’s e-mail listserv, and was gratified and humbled by helpful responses from some really top-rate birders, including Duluth’s Laura Erickson, now of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The response seemed to run in three strains:
1. Robins are around, but they tend to be in the deeper woods at this time of the year. When they start to run out of berries in the woods, they’ll be seen more in town again, munching on the mountain ash berries in your yards.
2. The robins we had during the summer have gone south, but we will be seeing new waves of robins coming through from Canada.
3. Related to No. 1 … Robins may be seen less because they become quieter and less visible once their territorial and child-rearing duties are finished.
4. Robins indeed are in the area. They’ve been seen in significant numbers on Minnesota Point and along Highway 61 between Duluth and Two Harbors within the past week.
5. Maybe they’re all down in Bloomington around the Cedar Avenue Bridge.
OK … that was five strains.
Any robin sitings out there?

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A book for a wannabe birder

The book is called: “A Supremely Bad Idea; Three Mad Birders and Their Quest to See It All.”
It’s written by Luke Dempsey, an Englishman transplanted to New York City.
I heard about it four days ago. I bought it today, and I’ve read the first chapter.
I’ll review it after I finish it, which may have to wait until after I’ve finished “Great Expectations” (I’m almost done) and a book I have out from the library.
But there’s hope — it’s supposed to rain tomorrow.
Based on the first chapter, “Supremely Bad Idea” is the journal of a man who originally was a doesn’t-wannabe birder. He becomes a wannabe birder, and then a hard-core birder, in the first chapter. The rest of the book apparently combines birding with road trip. He and his friends travel to Arizona, Florida, Michigan, the Pacific Northwest, Texas and Colorado.
His writing, again based on one chapter, is often funny, occasionally poignant.
This is how he describes the bird that got him hooked, a common yellowthroat warbler his friends pointed out to him:

“The bird hopped around a bit, mostly keeping low, and I followed it as best I could around the bushes as it chucked and witchity witchitied — that’s the sound it makes, witchity witchity. A tiny thing, but with such astounding markings: a shining yellow throat, and most vivid of all, a sweeping black highwayman’s mask across its face, bordered on the top by a thin white line of feathers. Tamely it came to us, turning from side to side so we could get perfect views. This way, that; that way, this. Witchity, witchity.
“There — that’s the sound of love as it begins.”

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The last robin?

I made a big deal out of seeing the first robin of the spring.

It’s a lot trickier seeing the last robin of the fall — or summer.

How would you know?

Still … are they gone already? I can’t remember the last robin I saw, and apparently I’m not alone. Rock, in nominating the robin for least favorite bird, wrote: "I don’t think I’ve seen a robin around my place in a month or two."

So, dear readers, I put the question to  you: Still seeing any robins? If not, do you remember the last one you saw? Does anyone out there know when robins typically pack their bags and leave the Northland for warmer climates?

I confess, it’s something I’ve never paid attention to before.

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Developing Park Point

The Duluth City Council is expected to reconsider its decision on selling Park Point land for development at Monday night’s (Sept. 8) meeting. The council blocked the sale two weeks ago in a 5-4 vote, but that decision well could be reversed.

I won’t rehash the arguments over the proposed sale here. They were covered thoroughly  in a Page One story in Sunday’s News Tribune. If you missed the story, here’s the link: www.duluthnewstribune.com/articles/index.cfm

I sympathize with Mayor Don Ness and the members of the council. I don’t think the mayor or anyone on the council wants to sell this land. We all know the financial difficulty the city is in, and all of the decisions being made involve unpleasant choices. I don’t think anyone wants to sell unspoiled land or an historic Tiffany window any more than anyone wanted to see city workers lose their jobs. People who oppose measures that have been taken or proposed to balance the budget ought to be wiling to come up with reasoned alternatives, not just make noise.

The value of the land being considered as a prime spot for migrating birds has been well-documented. But one doesn’t have to be a bird-watcher or an environmentalist to be disheartened by the thought of losing two more stretches of woods and shoreline. It’s so much nicer when development takes place on land that already has been spoiled, such as the emergence of the Duluth Heritage Sports Center at the old Clyde Iron Works site.

I applaud the efforts of the Audubon Society and others to try to achieve an alternative that will preserve the land while bringing money into the city’s coffers. I don’t know if any of the ideas will prove to be doable, but it’s something we all can hope for.

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Rogues’ gallery

And now the villains: Our least-favorite, most-annoying birds.


  • Crows and blue jays, writes buffalogal, "due to their cruelty to other birds." She adds: "I suppose that is their function in this creation, but I do not like them."
  • Perhaps a surprise choice from Rock: the robin. "This so-called sign of spring spends its winter in warmer climates — I wish I had that luxury," Rock writes. "Then, when it decides to show up in the spring, everybody is supposed to be so excited. Lousy tourist."
  • Tony M votes for the starling. "Besides being an invasive species, when they are around, they dominate my feeders and don’t like to share," Tony writes.
  • Another surprise choice, perhaps, from Far Side of Fifty: the eagle. "I have seen them take out rabbits, kittens and loon babies and attack trumpeter swans that were frozen in the ice," she writes. "They are mean and ugly. I have no idea why they should be our national symbol."

Pigeons (aka rock doves), starlings and grackles. Part of what Tony says about starlings applies to all three birds, I think. When they are around, they dominate feeders. In my rogues’ gallery, pigeons rank slightly higher (or is it lower?) than starlings and grackles because it’s my understanding that pigeons can spread diseases.
And yet, all three birds can be fun to watch. Pigeons come in such a variety of colors, and they can be so awkward and clumsy. They look like they belong in a Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Starlings are talented birds, and they are the most enthusiastic birds I’ve seen in my bird bath, with the possible exception of catbirds. Grackles — well, they just look so evil that it’s almost entertaining. A grackle seems to me to be like a bad ‘un in a Dickens’ novel — the Bill Sykes or Fagin of the bird world.

FOOTNOTE: Connie North asked me to add her vote for chickadee as favorite bird. Duly noted, and thank you, everyone, for playing our game.

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