"God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help in trouble" (from Psalm 46) seems like a good verse for All Saints Day.

Everyone needs a refuge sometimes. So do little birds. The little birds that come to my feeders have adopted this pile of bramble underneath my deck as their place of refuge. It’s unsightly, but the birds love it. It’s a place for them to keep warm in the winter, and to hide from predators anytime.

It wasn’t planned. Tree debris would show up on the lawn after a storm. We all know the place to take this stuff is the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District’s yard-waste disposal site. But it’s problematic when you drive a Honda Civic … and when you’re a procrastinator.

So twigs and sticks accumulated, and before long I noticed it was a gathering place of choice for chickadees, sparrows and house finches. Juncos have frequented it lately.

Neighborhood cats also have discovered the bird hideout. But the cats are fat, overfed and stupid. Whatever predator instincts they have are none too sharp. They’re liable to fall asleep while waiting for prey. Birds spend every moment of their lives in survival mode. Pampered cats are really no match for them.





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Halloween birds

During Minnesota Public Radio’s pledge drive, I listened to tapes in the car, including the "Stokes Field Guide to Bird Songs," which was borrowed from the Duluth Public Library.

Listening to those bird songs at this season of the year made me think what a great soundtrack some of them would be for the front porch when trick-or-treaters come on Halloween night.

One would have to be selective. The songs of chickadees and goldfinches aren’t going to produce shivers up any spines no matter how dark it is outside. But it’s astonishing how many bird songs, if you don’t know what they are, sound mysterious and otherworldly. The offer perfectly creaky, creepy sounds — as long as you edit out the voice of the fellow who’s telling you what they are.

My favorite was the Atlantic puffin, which sounded like a cross between a very heavy, ancient door slowly opening in a very spooky house and labor pains of a very large mammal. The Stokes guide describes it this way: "A low growling ‘urrrrrr’ that rises then drops in volume and pitch is given from burrow during breeding (has been compared to the sound made by a chainsaw)"

I rest my case.

By the way … I suppose we all think of owls when it comes to Halloween. But I think the group of birds with the perfect name for Halloween are boobies. You’ve got your brown booby, your red-footed booby, and — best of all — your masked booby. If you want to see a booby, you’ll probably have to travel. In the U.S., they are almost exclusively birds of the southern coasts.

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Seen in Duluth

A couple of particularly interesting bird sightings have been reported during the past couple of days on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s e-mail listserv:

  • Ornithologist and author Kim Eckert passed along a report that Duluth city workers had found a dead snowy owl on Monday near Garfield Avenue and Railroad Street in the harbor area. The owl had no obvious injuries, indicating it might have died of starvation, Eckert wrote. Since it happened relatively early in the season, it could indicate we’ll get an "invasion" of snowy owls and perhaps other northern owls this year, he wrote.
  • Karl Bardon, a counter at Hawk Ridge, reported a mountain bluebird passed by Hawk Ridge Monday morning. I haven’t seen an Eastern bluebird for a very long time; I’ve never seen a mountain bluebird. It’s a rare bird in Minnesota, more common in places with … yes, mountains. More than 150,000 non-raptors have been counted at Hawk Ridge this fall, a number that takes my breath away. They’re still seeing quite a few robins. And they’ve counted more than 2,000 white-winged crossbills within the past week, which fits with Bob King’s sighting of a bunch of white-winged crossbills in Lakewood Township the other day.

 You can get reports about birds sighted in Duluth and all over Minnesota flowing into your e-mail and  eliminate the middle man. Just click on the Minnesota Ornithologists’ Union’s Web site, listed among the Web sites on the right side of this blog. On the left side of MOU’s home page, click on Internet listserv, then click on "Subscribe." It’s free, and it’s invaluable even for amateurs like me. Fair warning: The people who contribute to the listserv are plain old humans. Some of them get a bit testy at times. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

And if you’d like to share your bird sightings and even bird pictures with me, that would make me very happy. I also get a bit testy at times, but almost never about birds. You can e-mail me at:


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The return of Woody the Woodpecker

I looked up from my cereal and my News Tribune this morning (Tuesday, Oct. 28) to see a pileated woodpecker on my deck’s railing. It’s the first one I’ve seen, up close and personal, since last winter.

Pileateds are outsized woodpeckers with showy red crests, the birds that inspired the cartoon character Woody the Woodpecker. I think the pileated is the Northland’s most spectacular bird.

It surveyed the situation through its beady eyes, then hopped to the suet log, which suddenly seemed small. It nibbled for about 10 seconds, then flew off.

In that short time, it put a smile on my face. I hope it returns often.

It’s usually winter when I see pileated woodpeckers, as in the attached picture. The limits of my photography and my camera make it difficult to appreciate the size of this bird, but you’ve probably seen this bird yourself. They’re fairly common around here. But I’m always thrilled every time I see one.


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Congregation of crossbills

Bob King reports a flock of about 50 white-winged crossbills congregating this morning (Monday, Oct. 28) near his Lakewood Township home.

Crossbills are about the size of house finches, reddish-pink in color with distinctive white patches on their wings. Bob said the white patches were certainly noticeable. Yes, their bills do cross at the end, although you might have to have really good eyes or a spotting scope to pick that out. Bob saw them hanging around spruce trees, which fits with their preferred habitats — spruces, pines and larches. Red crossbills actually are more common; they’re similar, but they don’t have the white patches.

When the crossbills were startled, they’d all fly in a tight, amoeba-like formation, Bob said.




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Bird droppings

Bits and pieces (actually, one bit and one piece) from here and there, gleaned from the Associated Press and its member newspapers:

  • The Zumbro Valley Audubon Society wants the Mayo Clinic to dim the lights on some of its medical towers in Rochester, Minn. The Audubon Society fears the brightly lit buildings contribute to a high casualty rate for birds, the Rochester Post-Bulletin reports. Volunteers combed the grounds of the Mayo Clinic over a 10-month period ending in June and counted 231 killed or injured birds. The Audubon people suspect upward-facing lights on the taller buildings draw birds downtown at night, then the birds crash into the reflective windows. Clinic officials agreed to turn off some lights near one building, but the Audubon Society hopes for more.
  • People who use Wisconsin’s state parks were asked to vote for their favorites in a number of categories. The choice for best bird-watching trail: Wyalusing State Park. Wyalusing, at the confluence of the Wisconsin and Mississippi rivers in the far southwestern corner of the state, is one of Wisconsin’s oldest parks, according to its Web site. It’s home to 90 bird species during the summer and 100 more during the migration seasons. Mapquest says it’s about a six-hour drive from Duluth, although Mapquest never seems to allow for bathroom stops.


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Sandhill cranes

Buffalogal wants to know more about the sandhill cranes she sees each spring.

"I am extremely interested in seeing the Sandhill Cranes in Nebraska during their spring gathering there…do you have knowledge of this place?" she writes.

"Also is it Sandhill Cranes who migrate on the heat thermals in spring? They are huge birds with strange cries as they circle overhead. We see them almost every spring going northward."

I don’t have an answer about the heat thermals … perhaps someone out there does.

Happily, I knew whom to turn to for help on the Nebraska question. Jaime DeLage, night city editor at the News Tribune, has journeyed to Nebraska to witness the sandhill crane migration each of the past two years.

When to go? Think St. Patrick’s Day. One year, it was the first day of the trip, the other year it was the last.

Where? First to Lincoln, Neb., for steak and beer, Jaime says. Then to Kearney, Neb., which is close to the birds. Once you’re settled in, head to the Rowe Audubon Bird Sanctuary, where you’ll find all the information you need. Between now and then, you can go there online. I’ve added the Rowe Sanctuary link to my Web links to the right of this blog. 

Jaime says the best time of the day to see the cranes is around sundown, when they’ll all start to come in from their journeys.

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This has gone too far

I spent some time at Hawk Ridge today and watched a small boy hold, and then release, a sharp-shinned hawk. Neither the hawk nor the boy seemed entirely happy about the situation.

They do this a lot at Hawk Ridge. They’ll bring out a bird they’ve banded. Someone (or someone’s mom) "adopts" the bird — this involves an exchange of money — and that someone gets to release the bird. Pictures are taken. This is one of the reasons you should bring your children to Hawk Ridge, if you haven’t already. (The money supports the work of Hawk Ridge, and you’ll be able to see all around you that it’s being well-used.)

I was happy to see the hawk up close and personal, but I was really hoping to see a black-backed woodpecker. This is an uncommon bird in these parts, and it has been seen several times this week at Hawk Ridge. In fact, Erik the Hawk Ridge guy saw one this morning. (This morning being Saturday, Oct. 18, in case you are reading this on another day.)

I’ve seen a black-backed woodpecker before — last year, at Itasca State Park — but I’d certainly like to see more. It’s about the size of a hairy woodpecker, maybe a bit bigger, and it’s mostly black except for a white breast. Erik the Hawk Ridge guy says it drums evenly, slowing its pace as it finishes, but still at a regular cadence. This distinguishes it from the yellow-bellied sapsucker, which drums irregularly and has a much cooler name.

The fact that I had no luck spotting a black-backed woodpecker or much of anything else didn’t diminish the pleasure I nearly always experience just by being at Hawk Ridge. A lovely hike along Amity Creek added to the experience.

When I got home, I discovered that something else had been birdwatching.

I walked up the steps to my deck. A cat was not only on my deck … it was snoozing on my chair.

It looked at me, yawned lazily, roused itself, left the chair and stalked past me, complaining all the while. It showed its respect for me by going down two steps, then lying down again.

It used to at least pretend to be scared of me.

I mean, honestly.

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Remnant of robins

Today, I hiked the Superior Hiking Trail from 24th Avenue West in Lincoln Park west toward Haiines Road, completing a section I’ve taken before, but coming from the opposite direction.

I’d barely crossed the street and had headed down the trail toward Miller Creek when I thought I saw a robin. Actually, there wasn’t much doubt about it. But since this would’ve been the first robin I’d seen since August1, I lifted my binoculars to take a closer look, and I saw …


I’d forgotten to take the lens caps off.

Correcting that mistake, I looked again. It was a robin. Almost immediately, another one flew past.

And another one. Then two or three. Then another three or four.

In less than three hours of hiking, I saw scores of robins. They were virtually everywhere, in almost every tree, moving constantly, chattering constantly, flitting about on all sides. Only in the high places did I not see robins. As soon as the trail dipped back into the woods they were there again. Binoculars were unnecessary. I was practically tripping over robins.

In Revelation, John talks about seeing "many" angels. "The number of them was myriads of myriads, and thousands of thousands," he writes.

I didn’t see robins in those numbers, but I did see many robins. I’m certain I saw more robins than I’ve ever seen before in a single day. People told me that the robins hadn’t all left yet; they were just hanging about in the woods. People were right.

Perhaps this is the last major detachment of robins on its way south. Perhaps they were forced down by the strong winds. And if the wind dies down tonight, perhaps they will decamp and resume the long journey south.

If you hear a rustling in  your sleep tonight, it could be them, back on the great migration trail.

 1Strictly speaking, I saw two robins over the weekend, but that was in Iowa.

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Fun on the Web

Yet another new and fun Web site is designed to help us report the birds we’ve seen and figure out what they are.

This one is called Bird Post; you can visit it here: 

It’s somewhat like a couple of sites already listed on my Web site links: ebird and What bird? It appears that to really make use of the site, you need to sign up, but that’s free. I haven’t signed up yet, but at first glance it seems to be colorful, fun, interactive and fairly exhaustive in its coverage of birds. One neat feature I noticed is that if you look up a particular bird — a three-toed woodpecker, for instance — recent sightings of that bird are listed. You can look at the details of those sightings, but only if you’re signed up.

My colleague Holly Gruber tipped me off to this site. She found a short piece about it on the wires from the Los Angeles Times. One thing you can do with it, the writer said, is set up a rare-bird alert that sends you coordinates of the winged birds you want to see.

But the writer complained that although a search for a bird reveals that bird’s picture, there’s no descriptive text.

If you experiment with this site, or any of the ones listed on my Web site links, I’d welcome your reviews.

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