Monthly Archives: August 2013

Bicknell’s Thrush mercury threat

Bicknell's Thrush

In June, I took the Auto Road tour up Mount Washington in New Hampshire to see a Bicknell’s Thrush for my Conservation Big Year. This rare bird has one of the most restricted breeding ranges and wintering ranges of any bird species found in the entire United States. It breeds in the Catskills, White Mountains, and Green Mountains of New England, at an average of about 4,200 feet in elevation. The vegetation is so thick where it nests that ornithologist George Wallace wrote of it in 1939, “Only a freak ornithologist would think of leaving the trails [on Mt. Mansfield] for more than a few feet. The discouragingly dense tangles in which Bicknell’s Thrushes dwell have kept their habits long wrapped in mystery.”

Bicknell’s Thrush’s winter range is limited mostly to broadleaf forests in the mountains of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Smaller numbers winter in Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Jamaica.

Because Bicknell’s Thrush is so rare and so little is known about it, scientists have been studying every part of its life cycle in an effort to ensure that it won’t become any rarer, because the bird faces many critical issues. Researchers from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Vermont Center for Ecostudies have learned that the rat population on the thrush’s wintering grounds on Hispaniola is huge, and that these rats climb up trees and feed voraciously on roosting birds at night. During a 2009 study, they put radio transmitters on 53 Bicknell’s Thrushes, and rats killed 5 of them—almost 10 percent.

Other studies have been tracking the amount of mercury in the blood of Bicknell’s Thrush. Mercury is a known problem in the northeastern United States, where airborne industrial pollutants are causing more and more problems, especially at the high elevations where Bicknell’s Thrushes breed. It takes only a month or two for mercury levels to drop off, so researchers from the Cornell Lab, the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, and Syracuse University weren’t expecting to find high mercury levels of birds on Hispaniola in winter. But a 6-year study revealed that during winter, the mercury levels of Bicknell’s Thrushes didn’t drop off at all—indeed, they had more than 2.3 times as much mercury in their system on Hispaniola as they do on their breeding grounds! The researchers found that Ovenbirds and some other songbirds had even higher levels, and learned that songbirds in Hispaniola cloud forests had 2–20 times as much mercury as those in lower-lying rainforests. The lead author of the study, Jason Townsend, said that the pervasive fog in cloud forests provides the wet conditions that favor atmospheric mercury’s transformation into more lethal methylmercury, and noted that birds eat more invertebrates and less fruit in the cloud forest than in the rainforest below, resulting in cloud-forest birds taking in higher doses of mercury via their food than rainforest birds do.

Industry pumps about 2,300 metric tons of mercury into this planet’s air every year. Getting mercury out of the air we breathe and the water we drink would be even more difficult than eradicating the rats from Hispaniola—and both problems are so big and so deep and so tall that we’d need to focus extraordinary levels of national and international attention if we were ever to find solutions. Yet right now we’re not even looking seriously for solutions to climate change, which is also impacting Bicknell’s Thrush and other songbirds. During an unprecedented heat wave while the national treasure of Yosemite is on fire, as we enter yet another military engagement, while any search of the news reveals that new oil spills, big and small, are happening every week, it would be impossible for Americans to muster any concern at all about a bird virtually no politicians or voters have even heard of. Coal miners knew that they had to carefully nurture and protect their canaries for the little birds to be used effectively to warn of imminent danger to them all. Now we’re squandering songbirds—our own canaries-in-the-mine—as if the dangers they face weren’t threatening us humans as well.

John Burroughs wrote about Bicknell’s Thrush in 1904, “The song is in a minor key, finer, more attenuated, and more under the breath than that of any other thrush. It seemed as if the bird was blowing in a delicate, slender, golden tube, so fine and yet flute-like and resonant the song appeared. At times it was like a musical whisper of great sweetness and power.” It’s crushingly sad and frightening for me to realize just how few Americans would even notice if that musical whisper were silenced forever.

Bicknell's Thrush

I posted some basic information about Bicknell’s Thrush in my June 17 blog post.

Ken Wood


When Russ and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin, in 1976, I’d been birding just over a year, and had a lifelist of 214. I’d taken two college ornithology classes and spent virtually every free moment birding, but I was timid and shy. I was first in my high school class, graduated from college with highest honors in elementary education, and finished the coursework on a master’s degree in environmental education, yet was terrified to even apply for a teaching job, so I spent my first year in Madison working as a bank teller.

I went on Madison Audubon field trips from the start, but I was too shy to talk much. Fortunately, most of the field trips were led by a young man named Ken Wood. He was even shyer than I, but he was an excellent birder and naturalist with expertise in plants, especially prairie plants. Ken could overcome his own shyness to do what needed to be done—he’d even served in the Peace Corps in Africa for three years—and he took me under his wing. Little by little, he’d ask me to explain this or that about a bird we were seeing, gently easing me into sharing my expertise with field trip participants. Soon he was asking me to cover for him when he’d not be available to lead a scheduled field trip. By the next year, I had a teaching job, and Ken was encouraging me to teach beginning birding classes for Madison Audubon.

Barrel Cactus

When the city editor of Madison’s morning newspaper, the Wisconsin State Journal, heard about my birding class and asked me to write an article about warblers for them, I agreed to do it, but then became paralyzed with second thoughts and fears. Ken told me to pretend I was writing it for my students, hooking their interest with exciting, accurate information. The article was a big success—it even won the paper an award—and the editor asked me to start writing regular bird stories for them. This was thrilling for me, and no one was steadier in his encouragement than Ken. The first magazine article I ever wrote, a cover story about birding for Wisconsin Trails in the 80s, was based on an assignment from an editor who approached me because she remembered those articles in the newspaper. It is not an exaggeration to say that my entire career as a writer and speaker would never have come about if not for Ken.


When I’m birding, I’m a very poky walker. Last month when I took a 12-mile hike in Big Bend, a lot of people commented about what great shape I must be in, but really, you just need some endurance and motivation, not any kind of muscular definition, to hike 12 miles in 10 ½ hours. I’ve loved going on family outings to wonderful natural places—we all remember these trips with a great deal of fondness—but even when our children were little, it always shook out that Russ and the kids ended up way, way ahead of me, sometimes even lapping me on loop trails. It’s not just my family—virtually everyone, including other birders, walks much faster than I do, too. But Ken and I always moseyed along at the exact same pace.

Lugwig the baby Blue Jay

I was as scared about driving as I was about most things, but Ken took me birding almost every week while we were in Madison. It was through his eyes that I discovered the importance and magic of prairies. In 1979, he and I came upon the baby Blue Jay that became the first bird I ever rehabbed successfully—again, my becoming a wildlife rehabilitator was made possible in the first place by him.

An avid birder who was still in high school, Tom de Boor, was too young to drive. Ken and I always made sure Tom knew about field trips and that he had a ride–it was such a pleasure for both of us, because Tom was so bright and fun, and as good a birder as we. Tom recalls one thing I’d forgotten: Ken’s “ability to whistle at extremely high pitches, probably the only birder I’ve ever met who could do a convincing Blackburnian Warbler. ” Ken really was an amazing whistler. His Black-capped Chickadee was spot on–he captured that sweet tonality perfectly. As Tom said, “Somehow it seems appropriate that someone so unfailingly sweet and gentle should have been given that unique ability.”

Most of the friendships we make in life require some maintenance—it’s a rare friend that we can meet after years or even decades and pick up right where we left off. After Russ and I left Madison, I saw or heard from Ken only a handful of times. But when we reconnected in June in the aftermath of his surgery for a Stage-IV brain tumor, we were instantly back in tune. He was thrilled to hear tales and see photos from my Conservation Big Year, so I drove through Madison coming and going from every trip. I spent several hours with him on August 10, knowing it would be for the last time; he passed away on August 16.

My life in conservation and as a birder is so fundamentally intertwined with my friendship with him that I’m dedicating my Conservation Big Year to Ken Wood, the most treasured birding buddy and one of the very best friends of my life.

Ken’s obituary


One of Ken’s hobbies was making jigsaw puzzles. He’d cut a very thin slice of basswood, affix a picture from a magazine, calendar, etc., and cut it with a jigsaw. This one was tailor-made for Russ and me—a big E for Erickson made with a National Wildlife holiday card-sized calendar showing the state birds of the 13 colonies plus the Bald Eagle. Ken virtually never gave any hints about what a puzzle would look like. This one had EIGHT corner pieces, so we were mystified! This puzzle’s more than 35 years old now. Two pages of the original calendar have faded less than the others, even though the puzzle was stored in a dark cupboard most of this time.

Ken Wood Puzzle Collection #1

Ken knew I love rodents. This is my personal favorite.

Ken Wood Puzzle Collection #2

When I needed surgery in 1979, he brought me a puzzle every day I was in the hospital. This is the explanatory card he included with the first one.

Ken Wood Puzzle Collection Label

On April 1, 1980, I found right outside our apartment door a tiny tea tin labeled with this:

"Ultima"--the ultimate jigsaw puzzle


"Ultima"--the ultimate jigsaw puzzle

Ken Wood Handmade Jigsaw Puzzle collection

You can see the entire collection of 10 puzzles (or 11, depending on whether you choose to count “Ultima) on my Ken Wood Handmade Jigsaw Puzzle Collection flickr set.

Ken Wood Puzzle Collection #7

Ken Wood Puzzle Collection Label