Wednesday, April 9, 2014

My Little Bird Dog

Laura and Photon

On July 2, 1998, I drove down to southern Minnesota to pick up a brand new puppy—a 12-week old bichon frise. She was a tiny particle of light and energy, so I named her Photon.

I’m not an assertive kind of person, so I need a dog that is even less assertive than I am. Our golden retriever Bunter—my constant companion while my kids were growing up—and then Photon both fit the bill. They both learned the basic commands—come, sit, stay, and down—almost instantly, as if when I told them what to do, they thought, “What a great idea!” rather than submitting to my will. Bunter, being a golden, had an over-developed sense of guilt. I called her my Roman Catholic dog, because anytime anything went wrong or any child cried, she hung her head and seemed to be examining her conscience trying to figure out what mortal sin she’d committed that was making her family suffer. Photon had all Bunter’s agreeableness and good cheer, but none of her guilt. When things went wrong, she just took a nap in a closet until the clouds passed.

While I was housebreaking Photon, we spent a lot of time in the backyard. It took her a while to figure out that there was a point to our being out there, but while sniffing around, she discovered an anthill. Of course she stuck her nose right in, and some of the ants got stuck in her nostrils—some may have even bit her. This was an instant lesson in the importance of keeping her little nose out of things even as it increased her curiosity about the fascinating world at her feet. She would stand, transfixed, watching that ant hill for 10 or 15 minute stretches. And for the next 16 years, whenever she noticed an insect, frog, salamander, or other tiny critter on the ground, she’d stop dead in her tracks like an exceptionally happy pointer, her tail wagging furiously but otherwise not moving a muscle till I praised her for finding me yet another interesting creature. Every salamander I’ve ever seen in the wild was thanks to my little herpetologist. And her quarry was never the worse for the encounters—she never ever touched them, maybe because of that uncomfortable experience with ants up her nose.


Bichon frises are one of the breeds people think of as foo foo dogs, but Photon never got that memo. The first time I brought her to Lake Superior, on a walk along Brighton Beach, she saw a golden retriever fetching sticks and instantly figured out that cool dogs swim. It was a warm summer day, but the next spring, she was out there swimming among ice floes. I kept her on a long retractable leash when there were shorebirds about. I didn’t need to worry about her scaring gulls—they just watched her with disdain. A Bald Eagle once circled around a few times looking down on her, but then flew off—Bichons originated in Italy and take their name from French, and I figured our nation’s symbol must prefer all-American food. 


Not that many people walk in the woods with little foo foo dogs, so birds have no clue what they are. Species that had always ignored us or disappeared when I walked with my golden retriever Bunter would come down low to scold Photon. I had some of my closest looks ever at Magnolia, Black-throated Green, and Chestnut-sided Warblers when I walked with Photon. One Winter Wren almost alighted on my hand he was so intent on giving her a piece of his mind. After I figured that out, I stopped walking her on narrow paths during the nesting season—the birds didn’t seem so agitated when we stuck to the middle of gravel roads.

A week or two after I got her, Photon and I went on one of my friend Kathleen Anderson’s women in the outdoors events. We started the day with a 6-mile hike. Jamie Nelson was along with a couple of her sled dogs. Photon was thrilled to be so close to these splendid big dogs, and kept trying to get them to play with her, but she was as invisible to them as the tiny subatomic particle she was named for. Large fallen trees blocked the trail here and there. The two big dogs sailed over them effortlessly. Photon scooted under them or scrambled to climb over. She ran ahead of us and then back again the whole distance while the sled dogs conserved their energy. The hot summer day was too warm for them, but Photon never did seem to notice that she was outshining them. 

At the end of the day, Kathleen had arranged for a dinnertime cruise on the Grandpa Woo. I could hardly leave such a young puppy in the car for three hours, so I took her onboard with me. After we were out on the water, the server said they didn’t allow dogs on the boat, but it was too late to turn back. Photon was perfectly well behaved, even waiting till I had her positioned just right in the women’s bathroom to practice her housebreaking skills.
Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge

I've never known a dog to be as aware of microclimates as Photon. In the car, the house, or wherever we happened to be, she could always find the coolest or warmest spot. On hot days at Hawk Ridge, she'd find a shady spot by a car. I couldn't leave her in the car when it was hot, obviously, but as long as I left a thick blanket in the car, she was fine in winter--if she got cold, she simply burrowed under the blanket. When I had an evening event in the Twin Cities, she’d come along for the ride, even though all she got to do was ride in the car for three hours, wait in the car for an hour and a half or so, and then ride home again for another three hours. She saw my car as our special place, and never minded being left there. As I walked away, she always curled up on the drivers seat, keeping it warm for me or, if it was warm outside, on the floor in the shade. She’d wake up and start wagging the moment I opened the door on returning.


On our drives, I made it a point to stop at every rest stop so she could at least enjoy those little walks. When we had time, we’d stop at wildlife refuges and parks we chanced by, but she was always agreeable even when we had to drive long stretches between stops.

Russ and Photon

The moment I put my binoculars around my neck at home, she’d start dancing, knowing we were going on an adventure. Her favorite birding destination was Port Wing, Wisconsin, where she knew all the good spots because we spent so much time there.

All in all, she visited at least 31 different states and Washington D.C. Wherever she went, Photon felt at home in the world. I called her my chickadee dog for her size, her sense of belonging and confidence no matter what the habitat, and her funny manner of eating--she'd take a kibble or bite of food from the dish to eat in a different spot, and then return to the dish to take the next bite. And like a chickadee, she was calm and easygoing, welcome just about everywhere she went.

I had to keep her close in the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, where some of the white-tailed deer in the campground attack little dogs—one had recently kicked a little dog so hard it ruptured its spleen—and diamondback rattlesnakes can be anywhere there. The only time she came upon a rattlesnake, it was a little one. Photon froze, staring intently and wagging as she always did when she found something cool. I praised her as I scooped her up out of harm’s way.

One night when it was raining hard, two rangers woke us up to evacuate us—tornadoes had been touching down nearby. They took us to the refuge education center in a big old log cabin. In the middle of the main room was a mounted mountain lion rearing up on its hind legs—the moment Photon saw it, she shrank, but I carried her over to it and showed her it wasn’t dangerous. She always trusted me, even when it came to oversized predators.

Photon came along when my sister-in-law Jean and I visited relatives on Long Island in 2009. When we brought her to a beach, Photon charged right in as if it were Lake Superior, and took a big drink. The look of shock on her face when she tasted saltwater was hilarious, but I could hardly wound my little dog's pride by laughing. The buoyancy of the salt water held her so much higher than Lake Superior that I thought she was walking in shallow water until I stepped in--there was a huge dropoff right near shore. 



She swam and ran and had a jolly time for several hours. As soon as we got back to the house, she fell fast asleep.  

Photon the Exhausted

Photon was a late sleeper, but she came with me to western Minnesota when I had reservations in a prairie chicken blind. 


I told her she’d have to sit still in a little folding chair for at least 4 hours, but that was fine with her. We arrived in the blind at 4 am, while she was still very sleepy, and she didn’t make a peep the whole time the prairie chickens were dancing, even though she’d never heard such fascinating sounds before, and the chickens were right outside the blind, occasionally even landing on the roof. The people in the blind next to ours arrived late, left early, and were noisy—they hadn’t turned off the electronic noises on their camera and left their cell phone on, flushing the birds several times. But my birding companion understood the rules.


When we'd set out on an adventure, I'd always tell her we were going to have "such larks, Pip!" On a single road trip, she and I went to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, Yellowstone National Park, the Bear River National Wildlife Refuge in Utah, Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico, and various other stops along the way. I never kept a life list for her, but I’m sure I’ve seen at least 450 species with Photon at my side. I brought her along to Arkansas when I spent a month there with my friend Paula Lozano during the big search for an Ivory-billed Woodpecker. Originally I was planning to leave her home because the trip was going to be so long, but the day before I left, when I closed my suitcase, it was way heavier than it should have been. I opened it to find her burrowed into my clothes. How could I not take her along?

Sometimes she'd sit in my lap as I drove, her head resting in the crook of my arm. I'd sing, "I wanna good luck charm a hangin' on my arm" as she settled in for a long stretch. Usually we were by ourselves, but Paula got a photo on our trip.

I wanna good luck charm hangin' on my arm

One night on our Arkansas trip as we were settling into our sleeping bags in the tent, we heard distant coyotes. Photon whined a little, and suddenly, there they were—at least 6 or 8 coyotes circling, noses poking against the tent here and there, breathing and snuffing in all our scents. Photon was thrilled, yearning as always to play with the big guys. I’m afraid the coyotes’ thoughts were more centered on the culinary opportunities. I finally thought to press the emergency button on my car keys. The moment the lights started flashing and the alarm started up, the coyotes disappeared into the night.

Laura and Photon in Arkansas

On that trip, we visited several national wildlife refuges, and Photon got to show off at every refuge office. She had three adorable tricks. When I’d say, “Roadkill!” she’d flatten herself, back legs splayed backward, head flat down on the floor between her front legs, her tail wagging merrily away. I’d touch her tail saying, “Not happy roadkill! Tragic roadkill,” and her tail would sink slowly to the floor. Once she finished that one, I’d say “Oh, no! Mommy’s got a gun!” and point my finger at her. The moment I said, “Bang,” she’d keel over on her side, tail wagging away. Then, when we were about to leave, I’d tell her to wave bye bye, and she’d raise one paw in the most endearing little wave.

A lot of people mistook Photon for a male. Maybe it was her tricks. Maybe it was her spunk and stamina—she had no trouble on long hikes till she was over 12 years old. Maybe it was the association people made with Star Trek’s photon torpedoes. But she was very much my little girl, whether she was being my sidekick on adventures or my companion at home. Virtually every time I drove between Duluth and Ithaca when I was working at the Cornell Lab, she was there at my side. We had plenty of non-birding adventures, too—I occasionally took her to work with me, and I smuggled her into my son Joey’s dorm room at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and into Katie’s dorm room at Oberlin College. She was in love with my sister Mary’s greyhound Buster, and adored Mary, too. We stopped by her house a lot while I was commuting back and forth to Ithaca, while Mary was in the final stages of breast cancer. Photon was always well mannered but was especially gentle with Mary.


A few weeks ago, Photon had a seizure. It lasted about 45 seconds and she was shaky the rest of the day, but by the next day she was pretty much back to normal. She’d been growing more fragile in the past two years—I couldn’t take her on road trips during my Conservation Big Year because there were just too many long hikes and hot days for a 15-year old dog. While I was on trips, Russ and our son Tom took her for walks in the neighborhood, and she was still all dancy and waggy when I’d come home. She was still eating with gusto and being her happy self most of the time, but an ominous pall fell over our days. She had a tail-waggin’ happy birthday on April 4 when she turned 16. But over the weekend she stopped eating, and Monday was very, very weak. We called our veterinarian who said he’d come to the house at noon.

She slept most of the morning, but about 11 o'clock, she unsteadily made her way to the back door. I let her out and stood on the porch with her. A robin was singing away--the very first robin song I've heard this year--and she sat down on the porch and turned her face to listen to him. A chickadee sang in another direction, and she turned her face toward him, and then tracked a crow cawing as it flew over. Then she faced the robin again, listening intently for a lovely 10 minutes. When he stopped singing, she slowly stood up and walked to the door. When we came in, I turned on a recording I’d made of birds at dawn from one of our Wisconsin birding adventures. She made her way over to a comfortable spot and settled down. She nestled against me and slept until Dr. Hargrove came. It was time, and her spirit rose ever so softly and gently, and slipped away.
Little Dog on the Prairie

Monday, March 31, 2014

PLEASE sign my petition to make sure oiled wildlife is counted

Oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron

I'm petitioning the White House to consider revising the method for counting oiled wildlife. The Consolidated Wildlife Reports issued after the BP spill include ONLY wildlife that was physically retrieved, either dead or still alive to be brought to rehab facilities. This did not give any clear picture of the huge numbers of wildlife that were not collected. The total number provided on the Consolidated Wildlife Report ended up with fewer than 8,000 birds--yet did not include ANY of the nesting birds on Raccoon Island. Of the 10,000 adults on the island, scientists estimated that 50–80 percent had been oiled, destroying the chances of most of the eggs and young. Counting just this one colony would easily have doubled the total, but none were counted on this or other nesting colonies in the Gulf, presumably because collecting these birds for rehab would have "compromised nesting success." Please sign my petition to the White House! You will have to "register for an account," because they will only consider petitions signed by 100,000 unique people, so need to verify that you're a real person who will answer the email they send back to you confirming your email address. It's easy to opt out of any additional emails.

Laura's petition to the White House to keep count of all oiled birds.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Review: The Sibley Guide to Birds: Second Edition

A good field guide is essential equipment for any birder/birdwatcher. In a lot of ways, it’s like a spouse: it can make your life much lovelier and richer, but once you have a good one, you don’t need another. And the more time you spend together, and the more intimately you get to know it, the more rewarding your relationship will be. Of course, bird taxonomy changes and exotic species get established and heavily used field guides eventually do fall apart, so you may want to occasionally get a new one. And if you want to become truly expert on any group--raptors, shorebirds, gulls, pelagic species, hummingbirds, warblers, etc., you'll want the specialized reference guide to that specific group—no human could possibly be truly authoritative about every single group of birds. But as long as your field guide can help you to accurately identify virtually every bird you encounter in day-to-day birding, there's no good reason to be playing the field.

Yet I myself have over 20 field guides just to North American birds, not counting the electronic versions.  My budget is extremely tight this year, but when the new Sibley Guide to Birds came out, I somehow needed to have it. I have no idea why I have this compulsion, but there you have it. I was not given a free review copy--I paid for mine.

So what do I think of it? I’m not nearly as big a fan of the original Sibley guide as many birders. My friend, the wonderful bird guide Erik Bruhnke, carries his everywhere when he’s guiding bird tours—David Sibley is one of the top bird identification authorities in the country, and he illustrates more plumages for most species than any other guide. My first edition copy is a first printing, and I was disappointed with the colors, which seem washed out. When I saw several of his original paintings for the book at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau a few years ago, I was blown away by the perfection of the colors, and subsequent printings of the first edition made them closer to those splendid originals.

Sibley, like Roger Tory Peterson, draws patternistic birds, all in similar poses mostly in profile, against a white background. I prefer the National Geographic guide and its predecessor, the Golden Guide, because they show birds in a variety of more life-like poses, with more natural backgrounds giving visual hints about behavior and habitat, but I know others prefer straightforward comparisons of the identifying plumage characteristics. This is a matter of personal preference.

The colors are much more intense in Sibley’s new edition, and for the most part I like them better. I did notice that they seem duller and darker in dim rooms than in bright light, but that's probably a good thing for actual field use. He’s added more than 600 new illustrations, included 111 rare species that weren't in the first edition, and added more written information as well, and many of the pages include less white space and larger drawings. These are all significant improvements. I would have expected gull watchers to be especially pleased—the new Sibley includes 26 color illustrations of the Herring Gull alone, doubling the number of drawings and giving that one species a 2-page spread. I’m not at all an expert on gull identification, so have no way of evaluating those specific pages beyond that. 

My technique in evaluating a field guide is to look up the species I am most familiar with to see how they look to me. By this measure, the new one seems better than the first edition with regard to many species, but unfortunately, NO field guide, including the new Sibley, shows an important plumage of one of my favorite birds on the planet, the Black-capped Vireo. In this critically endangered species, males do not molt into full adult plumage until their third year. Year-old males sing, hold territories, and breed with any females who can’t compete for a fully adult mate. 

Black-capped Vireo
Year-old ("second year") male Black-capped Vireo
Being able to age birds in the field is useful for many reasons, and so it is disappointing to me that even the guide considered most comprehensive left this important plumage out. And his drawing of a first-winter female isn’t quite accurate, giving her a white rather than buff eye ring and making her breast more yellowish than buff. I’ve only spent about 7 days with Black-capped Vireos in my entire life, so I’m hardly an authority, but I did get Joe Grzybowski’s take on this, too—he’s been studying the species since the 70s. But again, no other field guide gets this rare bird quite right either.

The deal breaker for me about the new Sibley—the thing that would prevent me from buying it as my primary field guide—has nothing to do with the bird portrayals at all, but with the font size, color, and typeface. For some reason, the book’s designers went with a sans serif font for the main text blocks, even though studies show paragraphs are much easier to read in serif fonts. Even worse, the font is gray rather than black, and too narrow or small for me to read without a magnifying glass. My eyes are 62 years old. I showed it to my husband, whose eyes are a few months older than mine, and he just said something to the effect of “holy crap!” and handed it back. But my 28-year-old son didn’t see a problem at all. So I’d recommend that you pick up a copy and see if you can read it before buying it. (Ironically, this very blog suffers the same problem. I don't know how to adjust it via blogger, and have to set my browser settings to enlarge most web pages to read them. Sadly, one cannot do this with an actual book.)

Again, no field guide is perfect. Like spouses, there are flaws in every one. My advice? Pick the one whose flaws are least objectionable to you and stick with it. Then go birding.

(Sibley's electronic version of his field guide is, in my opinion, the very best out there. The Nat Geo one is almost as good--both provide all the information in the field guide, plus vocalizations, but Sibley's makes it easier to look up birds in the first place. His electronic version will be available later this year. I'm sure I'll be buying that too. I have to face it—I'm addicted. Fortunately, I haven't been so fickle where my real spouse is concerned.) 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Obama, PLEASE change the policy back to counting ALL documented oiled wildlife

Please sign and share this petition. It's to, so will not get you on spam lists or plague you with requests for donations. We need 100,000 signatures in just 30 days.

Count ALL documented oiled wildlife rather that just oiled animals that are physically retrieved after a spill.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Oil Spill in Galveston Bay

Thick, tarry bunker fuel is extremely difficult to clean up.
Photo taken March 23, 2014 by NBC Bay Area News
On March 22, 2014, a cargo ship collided with a barge, and at least one tank filled with 4,000 barrels, or 168,000 gallons, of fuel oil spilled into a 53 mile long shipping channel between Galveston Bay and the Gulf of Mexico—a channel bordered on both sides by prime migratory bird resting and nesting habitat. And this wasn’t just any fuel oil—it was bunker fuel—the thick, tarry, extremely toxic sludge left over after gasoline, motor oil, propane, and other products have been refined out of crude oil. Also called marine fuel oil, this is the stuff that powers container ships from China lugging all the cheap merchandise Americans so voraciously consume.

Hard as it is to believe up here in the frozen Northland, spring has already begun in Texas, with migrants crossing the Gulf and many species starting to nest. Bolivar Flats Shorebird Sanctuary, which attracts 50,000 to 70,000 migratory shorebirds to its perfect foraging habitat, lies just to the east of the spill. Richard Gibbons, conservation director for HoustonAudubon, told ABC News that “the timing really couldn't be much worse since we're approaching the peak shorebird migration season," and added that tens of thousands of wintering birds also remain in the area.

Oil floats, so thick rolls of floating plastic or absorbent material called boom ostensibly prevent oil from floating beyond it, as long as the boom stays in place and the water is relatively calm. After the BP spill, this kind of boom was supposed to protect breeding islands, but it never occurred to the powers-that-be to anchor it and, like anything that floats, the boom washed ashore right along with the oil. When I was in Barataria Bay after that spill, we saw their too-late effort to anchor boom after the islands had already been oiled.

Oiled Great Egret

Things apparently haven’t improved since then—this weekend’s fog and rain, along with currents, the tide, and wind, made containment impossible, and oiled birds are already being found.

It hurts to see, over and over, this kind of disaster. This spill doesn’t involve nearly as much oil as the Exxon Valdez or the 2010 BP oil spill, and many people and news outlets only seem to consider record-breaking stories worth paying attention to, despite the many tens of thousands of birds in the oiled area right now and the uniquely dangerous properties of bunker fuel.

What is most infuriating to me is that in 2010, BP managed to set a new precedent in how oiled wildlife is counted--playing a form of Calvinball by changing the rules about which animals can be tallied. After the Exxon Valdez spill, every oil-covered bird, mammal, and other animal seen by responders was counted, whether or not it could be rescued or its carcass salvaged. But in 2010, BP somehow persuaded the government and environmental groups to let them limit the official count to animals that were actually picked up, dead or alive, making the total at least an order of magnitude less than the number of oiled wildlife seen by reputable observers. To skew the numbers even more to their advantage, BP also managed to get the government to limit the birds picked up to those completely incapable of flight. I was on a boat in Barataria Bay along Cat Island when we came upon a severely oiled Black-crowned Night-Heron.

Oiled Heron

Our boat spooked the poor thing, and it fluttered at most a foot or two from the boom into the water and struggled onto the island, but even though we could easily have captured it to bring it to a rehab facility, the boat captain could not permit it. He told us that he would lose his license for retrieving a bird that could still fly, and by BP’s definition, that was flight.

Due to their excessively restrictive rules, only about 9,000 oiled birds were physically collected, and so tallied, after the BP spill. And to skew the count even further, somebody in power decided to prohibit anyone from collecting dead or badly oiled birds from any of the nesting colonies, too. Not one of the 10,000 adult birds nesting at the breeding colony on Raccoon Island is included in the official count, nor any of their young, even though scientists observing that colony determined that between 50 and 80 percent of those birds were oiled. The US Fish and Wildlife Service and even Audubon claimed that entering the colony to help save birds or retrieve dead ones might compromise the ability of any birds in the colony to nest successfully, but didn't seem to notice that this kept thousands of fatally oiled birds off the official tally. They also didn't seem to realize that people had been allowed to photograph and make movies of nesting birds on this island many times, but suddenly were being shooed away. No birds were counted in any other affected breeding colonies, either.

Despite BP being allowed to count oiled birds by such a completely different method to minimize the total, many sources still use their 4-digit total in comparison with the 100,000–250,000 birds oiled after the Exxon Valdez. It’s bad enough that corporations are so badly polluting our world—the least they can do is let us get a clean estimate of their destruction.   

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Movie Review: A Birder's Guide to Everything

I don’t know if it’s because our culture is so very youth-oriented, but most movies about adolescents set up at least one adult, and often most of them, to be clueless and unsympathetic. It’s as if adult writers see adolescence through a nostalgic glow and adulthood through an unforgiving lens that magnifies every flaw. Adults seem to be the main obstruction blocking youth from realizing their dreams and potential. In most coming-of-age movies, at least one parent figure is portrayed as utterly wrong-headed—the one who in the end finally figures out just how wonderful the poor, misunderstood kid was or, in the case of something like Romeo and Juliet or Dead Poets Society, tragically never does until it’s too late. Some coming-of-age films, such as Stand by Me, are very dark, painting the adult world as inescapably grim--youthful characters who get out of these movies alive are left disillusioned for life. Others, like Breaking Away, are peopled with disillusioned adults, some who damaged their children a lot, but somehow give the main characters, adults and youth, hope that life may still hold for them meaning and even joy.

A quietly lovely new movie by Rob Meyer, A Birder’s Guide to Everything, places much more nuanced and realistic youth and adults in a gentle tale of love and loss. This coming of age story rings utterly true. The movie takes place a year and a half after the mother of the main character, David (Kodi Smit-McPhee), has died. David and his father (James Le Gros) are so locked in their individual grief that neither has much understanding of the other’s pain. Now David’s father is about to marry the woman who had been his wife’s nurse. Who better than she can fully understand how much he's lost or can fully appreciate his grief and what he's suffered? His conscience is clear—they never got together until after his wife had died—but he has no clue that his son doesn’t realize that. And his son has no clue of the dimensions of his father’s grief.

David is absorbed with birds with the monomaniacal focus we geeks always seem to fixate on our passions, but he and his two best friends, who form the Young Birders Society at his high school, are not stereotypical geeks nor archetypes—they’re just three individual boys on the cusp of adulthood, joined by a shared fascination with birds. And the three young actors who play them are superb. They’ve developed all kinds of wonderfully specific geeky rituals that the movie wisely doesn’t explain—at some point they’d decided to follow Robert’s Rules of Order, and even in normal conversation, they switch over to it to resolve disputes. Peter (Michael Chen), the quietly assertive leader of the group, is the chairman of the club, and whenever the boys disagree, he calls for a vote. They speak in Latin whenever they don’t want to be understood by outsiders. The third member is Timmy (Alex Wolff), who is obsessed with sex and clueless about girls. This role could have been played for laughs and mere comic relief—a throwaway character to contrast with David as a sensitive soul—but the movie doesn’t reduce any of the characters to easy clichés—Timmy's vulnerability makes him no less obnoxious, and his obnoxiousness makes him no less sweet and sensitive in his own right. 

The Young Birders Society had had two other members—a girl who quit just before the movie starts, put off by Timmy’s insufferable sexual harassment (he kept calling her a Tufted Titmouse) and a boy who quits at the movie’s start because the girl left—Timmy scolds him that the birding club isn't a dating service. Now suddenly down to three members, the club’s existence is in jeopardy because the school requires officially recognized organizations to have a minimum membership of four.

At the start of the movie, David sees and takes an out-of-focus photo of what looks to him to be an odd duck. He brings the photo to the club to see if they want to help him try to relocate it. They vote against it, but by the next morning, studying his photo and what he remembers of the duck before it took off, David has researched the possibilities and concluded that it seems to be not just a rare species, but a Labrador Duck, a “Lazarus Species”—a bird considered extinct so, if verified, would be "brought back from the dead," so to speak. The three decide to consult an actual expert—Dr. Lawrence Konrad, an ornithologist played by Ben Kingsley.  Konrad is a wonderfully developed character—world-weary author of a book titled Look to the Skies, who was a close associate of David’s mother and famous for his own controversial discovery of another Lazarus species, an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in 2005. The movie makes no bones about the fact that he couldn’t verify that sighting and that many ornithologists don't believe it. Konrad lost a leg in a long-ago accident while searching for a rare bird in the tropics, and lost his drivers license when he mistook a police car chasing him for an albino nighthawk—points he makes when he warns David not to consider him a role model.

Konrad agrees that although the photo is poor, it does support the possibility of a Labrador Duck. He points out on a map where he thinks a sea duck might be likely to be heading at this point in migration, and they pick a large lake in Connecticut as a reasonable place to search. Konrad emphasizes that the boys need a longer camera lens if they hope to get any sighting of it taken seriously. To accomplish this, David “borrows” a long lens from the school, and Ellen (Katie Chang), the girl who gave him the key to where it was stored, comes to his house to get it back. The boys are desperate and end up letting her tag along to photograph the bird. She has never birded before, and so naturally displays a certain bemusement about some bird names and confusion about how the boys know what each species is, but the movie plays this just right, never once working for a cheap laugh. She is sucked into watching the birds with exactly the kind of growing wonder I so often see in non-birders who for one reason or another end up on a birding jaunt.

I was very pleased with Ellen's character. She's just as geeky as the boys, with skills and expertise their little circle desperately needs, and when it becomes necessary, she jumps right in to speak Latin with them—the perfect way of establishing that she genuinely belongs in this insular little group. As a shy, geeky woman myself, one who had to work my own way into insular male birding cliques in my 20s and 30s, I particularly relished Ellen's role and Chang's performance. As a fully realized character, Ellen has a quiet dignity, intelligence, and her own longings and bewildering challenges. There are all kinds of tests nowadays to determine whether a movie shows gender bias, but the characterizations of both males and females (including David's dead mother) are so precise and nuanced that this film transcends the need for tests about stereotyping. The female roles are as robust as the male roles, David's dead mother and Konrad holding equal standing as the most admirable birders, and Ellen working her way into equal standing with the boys in terms of the Young Birders Society in an organic, human way rather than any kind of cliche'd or patronizing way. The movie is too quiet and realistic to pretend Timmy can undergo any kind of sea change in terms of his own sexism, but the movie paints that element of him in a very negative light even as Ellen rolls her eyes and ignores it—something girls and women in male-dominated fields learn to do even as we see clearly what jerks some individual men can be. Timmy does figure out that Ellen is a valuable part of the group and maybe, just maybe, he'll grow to start seeing other girls as human beings rather than sexual challenges to overcome.

Kenn Kaufman served as an ornithological consultant for the film and has a brief cameo—he has no lines, but plays an essential part in a lovely and pivotal moment. I love how the movie so seamlessly integrates appropriate bird songs in the background, and how the characters identify many of them but leave some unnoticed or unidentified. While they're camping, a Great Horned Owl hoots and Peter calls out the identification (and hey--it doesn't portend a death!!), but then a screech owl trills while they're in the middle of talking and no one notices. That made the scene the following morning somehow lovelier for me, when David discovers a beautiful red-morph Eastern Screech-Owl perched on a branch. And it was especially cool for me to see how elegantly a world-class birder like Kenn Kaufman can work magic with little moments in subtle ways that 99 percent of viewers may never notice at all, but ring wonderfully true for those of us in the know. Kingley's Konrad had lost his leg searching for a Pale-headed Brush-Finch in Ecuador. There was not a single sighting of the Pale-headed Brush-Finch between 1969 and 1998, making it a delightfully subtle and apt choice in a movie about a "Lazarus species." Indeed, the paper in the journal Cotinga  [11 (1999): 50–54] about the species' rediscovery in 1998 is titled, "Pale-headed Brush-Finch Atlapetes pallidiceps is not extinct."

Two dead birds figure prominently in the movie, but they’re not forced into a symbolic or precious movie cliché.  I particularly enjoyed the brief flashback scenes when David remembers birding with his mom--the hazy in and out flickerings were lovely and evocative without overdoing it. And the plot was simple, pulling the movie forward without becoming predictable. It was almost to be expected that competitors for the rare sighting would roar into the scene, but even with them (two only somewhat obnoxious birders in the extreme listing category), the movie reached its realistic climax and dénouement in a quietly organic way specific to its wonderfully fleshed-out characters. I was a little surprised that Konrad didn't instantly recognize one bird, but that seemed like the only birding flaw in the entire movie, and a very minor one at that.

As a birder, it’s cosmically satisfying to see a movie that is so spot-on about the vocabulary and feeling of birding. As a mother and a former teacher, it is wonderful to see a coming of age movie about realistic kids and adults. A Birder’s Guide to Everything holds together as a splendid movie for a general audience while honoring all the subtleties that the pickiest of birders could ask for.

The film has been released on iTunes (where I bought my copy), Amazon streaming, and various On Demand movie channels, and will soon be showing in some theaters. I hope Duluth’s Zinema shows it. This is a wiser and far more universal film than The Big Year was, as its second place audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival would attest. I give it two wings up.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Eileen Bentzen's Pileated Woodpecker!

Last week, I opened my email to discover one of the most fascinating photos I’ve ever seen, from a friend in Port Wing, Wisconsin. Eileen Bentzen writes,

On the morning of March 2, 2014, in this longest and harshest of cold winters on record, I glanced out my window and saw a black “lump” on the side of one of the trees in my yard, which piqued my curiosity. Even with binoculars it was too far away to see anything but the fact it was black, shaped like a bird with a flare of red at the top. There was a vicious wind, and I could see what looked like feathers fluttering.

I had to see what it was – maybe a bird in distress, freezing, injured – so I slipped on my boots and coat, grabbed my camera and went for it. The snow was up to my waist, and immediately my boots were full of snow and my legs aching, but I got to the tree and took one photo, afraid it would scare the bird, but he didn’t move. He was gripping the tree with his feet, and soft downy, feathers, gray with tips of white, moved in the wind, his gloriously red crowned head tucked. He was directly in the sun, about a foot above the snow line, and as out of the wind as he could be. I put the camera in my pocket and reached out my mittened hands to touch the bird on both sides. As my hands touched him, his wings FLEW apart, his head jerked up and he instantly flew away. It was a huge male pileated woodpecker. When I startled him, which I am very sorry for, his wing span was awesome – and his movements so quick it was difficult to register. At least he wasn’t hurt, and he was able to get himself back into the woods safely.

I’ve never seen anything like Eileen’s photo. The bird was perched on the trunk, wings down in the normal position, obscuring all but the tips of the tail, and the soft down feathers of the back and sides were entirely erect, protruding through what we call the contour feathers of the back, providing maximum insulation. The sun was shining directly on the bird, and out of the wind where he was, he may have been warmer in the sun than he would have been within a cavity of a frozen tree. It’s very easy for woodpeckers to rest in a vertical posture—their claws cling effortlessly to the trunk, their body also braced by their tail feathers. When I was a licensed wildlife rehabber, I once took care of a fledgling Pileated Woodpecker for a few weeks, and he slept on a nice thick chunk of wood in this same posture, except it was summer, so my young bird didn’t erect his down in the same fluffy way.

Seeing a sleeping Pileated Woodpecker in captivity is no big deal, if you happen to have one handy. But discovering one in the wild is something else! I was thrilled that Eileen sent me the story and her amazing photo.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Baiting Owls

Northern Hawk Owl

When Russ and I were living in Madison, Wisconsin in the late 70s, there was an invasion of northern owls into the Duluth area, and a lot of my friends drove up one weekend to see their lifer Boreal, Great Gray, and Northern Hawk Owls. I was sick with the flu and missed the trip, but from then on always associated northeastern Minnesota with incredible owls. After Russ earned his Ph.D. and had a few job offers, I lobbied for the one up here because of all those owls. 

I’m not the only one who equates Duluth winters with wondrous owls—year after year, people from every state and several foreign countries come up, hiring guides or combing the Sax-Zim Bog on their own, all in search of owls. In 1998, three men competed in a record-setting Big Year memorialized in the movie The Big Year—all three of them came to Duluth to get their owls. As digital photography and social media have grown in popularity, the fame of our owls has mushroomed.

When people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to see and/or photograph an owl, and then spend a frigid winter day in a remote bog, they want a payoff. But more and more, this wanting has evolved into a sense of entitlement. Now many people arrive here armed with bait, so when they do spot an owl, they can easily lure it in for close-ups and thrilling flight shots. Some professional birding guides (not the local ones that I know of) use bait so their participants will get incredible instead of ordinary views, and a great many photographers do this. 

They use two kinds of bait—live rodents and dead or fake ones at the end of a fishing line. When they spot an owl, they toss a hapless mouse or gerbil out onto the snow, or cast out a fake one and reel it in. Our winter owls are astonishingly alert—they almost always fly in instantly when they spy a rodent, instant gratification for the photographer that reinforces the practice. 

Some birders and photographers don’t see a problem at all. Some have enough misgivings about the ethics that they are secretive about doing it. And some twist arguments to act as if baiting is perfectly fine, or if not, is no worse than setting out bird feeders for songbirds.

Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins

Baiting owls is not at all comparable to traditional bird feeding. Americans have been offering breadcrumbs and seed to birds since before the time of Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. Little by little, we’ve learned that some practices are harmful—for example, we know that wet seed in spring can provide a medium for botulism and other pathogens, that wet corn and peanuts can become contaminated with aflatoxins, and that bread doesn’t provide enough nutrition for most birds and can encourage House Sparrows, starlings, and rodents. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which encourages backyard bird feeding, has conducted decades of research into best practices, and disseminates a huge body of accessible information far and wide to ensure that backyard bird feeding is as healthy for the birds as it is enjoyable for people. 

No one has thoroughly researched any best practices with regard to owl baiting. All we have are anecdotes. Most photographers and birders who lure owls claim never to have seen any bad effects, but many impartial observers have witnessed owls hurt or killed directly or indirectly due to baiting, and so the preponderance of data is clearly against the practice. The Raptor Center in St. Paul, the OwlFoundation, the Raptor Education Group, and Project SNOWstorm, world-class organizations with a thorough understanding of owls, are all on record opposing baiting, except by licensed bird banders or to trap individual owls to remove them from a dangerous situation or bring them to a rehab facility. 

Baiting owls with fake mice is a horrible practice, immediately harmful to the owls. Owls cast pellets consisting of felted fur and all the bones and other indigestible matter in their prey. These pellets are formed in their lower stomach—the muscular gizzard—and must pass through the glandular stomach and esophagus to be spit out. These organs are emptied of fluids before the owl regurgitates the pellet. Before swallowing the next meal, the owl "primes the pump" by siphoning off body fluids back into these organs, which is accomplished as the owl spies and closes in on prey. Doing this and then coming up empty, as always happens when the owl chases a decoy, is very harmful, especially for owls that are hungry and growing dehydrated. When this is repeated over and over, as many photographers do for more photos, it's extremely frustrating for the poor owl as well as potentially destructive.

There are also many reasons why luring owls with live rodents is bad for the owls. First, owls that are baited quickly learn to associate people with food, sometimes leading to extremely dangerous situations for both people and birds. And most baiting is done from roadsides, luring owls in to immediate danger. Last year, one photographer actually tried luring a Boreal Owl across busy Highway 61 so he’d have better light for photography, despite the fact that Boreal Owls seldom fly above the height of logging trucks. Considering that a primary cause of mortality for owls in winter is collisions with cars and trucks, this was unconscionable.

In 1997, when a Boreal Owl turned up at the Springbrook Nature Center in Minnesota, the staff, concerned about the bird and thrilled about so many birders coming to see it, started providing daily handouts. The vast majority of the bird's pellets that winter consisted of white mice raised at the facility--it was feeding on very little natural food all season, but fortunately, the mice were raised at the nature center. When spring arrived, the owl didn't migrate north according to a post by Michael Hendrickson on MOU-net in 2009.  I'd defended the feeding in 1997 because it was an exceptional situation--it was Mike Hendrickson's information and apparent inside knowledge about the fate of the bird that led me to think even that exceptional circumstance might not have warranted artificial feeding. Regardless, though, that was indeed an exceptional situation.

Northern owls seem far less fearful of people than most birds, often not fleeing until people have come within a few feet. There is no evidence that most of these species are the least bit tame, or associating people with food--they are simply trusting to their cryptic coloration and saving energy. Many spend their lives in remote areas where large mammals aren't particularly interested in them, so are less fearful than most birds. Northern Hawk Owls often actually approach people, whether or not the birds have been baited. They seem to share with Gray Jays the inclination to follow large predators in case they can capitalize on a feeding opportunity—there are records of them grabbing snipe shot by hunters before the hunters could retrieve them. I've taken many closeup photos of hawk owls, including the one at the top of this post, without ever baiting. I've also photographed them catching voles and other prey, no baiting involved.

When Boreal Owls descend on the North Shore of Lake Superior in winter, they are sometimes so hungry that they abandon their normal nocturnal habits and hunt by day. Photographing them is quite possible without baiting.

Boreal Owl

Boreal Owl

Pet store rodents are notorious for carrying salmonella. The Minnesota Department of Health and the Centers for Disease Control have published accounts of children contracting salmonella, including multidrug-resistant strains, from pet store mice, rats, and hamsters. The affected children had merely played with and sometimes kissed their little pets—as predators that consume the entire bodies of their prey, owls are even more vulnerable to swallowing pathogens. Of course, as natural predators feeding on raw meat, owls are more resistant to salmonella than we humans, but two species that are baited extremely aggressively by photographers, Great Gray and Boreal Owls, are typically most conspicuous when they are physiologically stressed, with their immune system already compromised—this is when they would be most vulnerable to disease organisms.

Mother and babies

My focus has always been on birds, but I’m also partial to rodents. It’s ironic that I’d consider the feelings of the little mice tossed onto the snow, considering that I myself thaw out a mouse every night for my education screech-owl Archimedes. But the frozen mice I purchase were raised and then killed humanely and in clean circumstances so are guaranteed not to harbor diseases, and I still feel sad about them. The ones tossed out on the snow are kept warm and cozy right up to the moment someone grabs them out of a cage and throws them onto the frozen landscape. Then, in the best-case scenario, they get grabbed and devoured before they have time to think. In the worst-case scenario, they escape, but are lost, bewildered, and cold. If they manage to survive, that introduces another exotic species and its attendant parasites and germs into the natural landscape.

Some photographers justify baiting owls by claiming that their photos are valuable for conservation and environmental education, when in reality many of these photos actually promote misinformation. One photo showing a Great Gray Owl closing in on a mouse won awards and was conspicuously displayed on the National Geographic and Nature Conservancy websites, even though it was a house mouse on the surface of the snow—something that would simply never happen in a wild situation. Over 90 percent of a Great Gray Owl’s normal diet consists of meadow voles, which never walk on the surface of deep snow—they construct tunnels at ground level under grass, so even when there is no snow cover at all, voles stay out of sight. Unfortunately, by posting the photo, these organizations were misinforming people about the way Great Gray Owls normally hunt, and also providing misinformation about rodents. Suggesting in a photo that a hamster or white mouse or brown house mouse is part of a wild owl’s normal diet hardly promotes education. Unfortunately, magazine editors don’t always recognize these unnatural situations themselves. Photographers claiming to be photographing the natural world should not be using such unnatural set ups.

In some cases, baiting owls interferes with research that is providing important information about owls. Scientists from the Northeast and Great Lakes areas participating in the brand new Project SNOWstorm are affixing GPS-GSM transmitters to Snowy Owls and then tracking them via the Internet. Each transmitter costs $3,000. In this, the inauguration year of Project SNOW Storm, we’ve already amassed a huge body of information about Snowy Owl movements, activities, and what habitats they’re drawn to. But one bird bearing one of these expensive transmitters in Ramsey County, Minnesota, is being persistently baited by photographers, who have been giving it so much food that it’s simply staying put. Scott Weidensaul of Project SnowStorm wrote a comment on the project blog:

We're aware of the situation in Ramsey, and very concerned about it. Jim [Williams] of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune has been writing about it, among others. The photographers feeding pet store mice to the owls are creating a situation in which the birds are becoming increasingly habituated to humans, which in a congested, suburban environment is especially risky. There's also the fact that Project SNOWstorm has invested thousands of dollars and a lot of collaborator effort in tagging Ramsey in order to learn how a wild snowy owl lives -- not to track a bird that's being fed by photographers too lazy to wait for natural behavior. It was our understanding that most of the feeding is targeted at the other, untagged snowy owl and not Ramsey, but that appears to be changing -- and it's not justified in either case. While it's not illegal, it is wrong, and we urge the photographers who are tossing mice to these owls to please stop.
The project website started out displaying real-time movements of the birds, but because photographers were using the information to rush in and bait them, Project SNOWstorm had to start putting a 3-day delay on the tracking maps. Photographers, birders, and bird guides baiting these or any owls are compromising important conservation or education work, not providing anything of value except to their own egos and pocketbooks.

As a former licensed rehabber who handled lots of owls, as someone who has lived with my licensed education screech-owl for 14 years, and as someone who studied bird digestion (specifically nighthawks and owls) during my ill-fated Ph.D. project, this area is something I do have some small bit of expertise in. By next winter, the Minnesota DNR will have new regulations in place prohibiting owl baiting. And in my considered opinion, that’s the way it should be.

Snowy Owl