Monthly Archives: September 2013

September 4–9: California, Here I Come!

California Quail

Six Hundred. I’ve been fixated on that magic number since I started birding and read The Bird Watcher’s Anthology, edited by Roger Tory Peterson. One essay in it was about the Six Hundred Club, which isn’t a formal club but rather a self-designation for birders who have seen over 600 species in North America. For the purposes of birders from the United States and Canada, that means just the continental US and Canada, so birds on the far side of the Mexican border don’t count. That book was published in 1957. Since then, birding has grown more sophisticated, and travel is much simpler and easier than it was, so more birders now have broken 700 than had 600 back then. I’ve never aspired to 700 (though if I ever do make it, I’ll be pretty darned pleased), but after reading this book, I yearned very specifically to get my list over 600. I accomplished that in 1999 when we took a family vacation to Florida. My number 600 species was the Florida Scrub-Jay, and the moment I saw it is seared into my memory. Russ and the kids enjoyed how tame the little family of scrub-jays was, too.

Now my lifelist for North America is over 650, but the magic of the number 600 has permeated my brain so thoroughly that my current goal is to see over 600 species during my Conservation Big Year. The biodiversity of the United States is great, but that’s because we have so many different habitats and climates. The only way you can see 600 is to get to a lot of those habitats.

All this travel in a single year is more than I ever thought I’d be able to do. Even when I had the money and time to travel while working for a Duluth optics company, I only took at most four trips in a single year. So far in 2013 I’ve taken road trips, birding all along the way, to Florida, Maine, and New Mexico, and flying trips to Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Delaware. This is very small potatoes compared to what I’d need to do for a “real” Big Year—the kind featured in the movie The Big Year. One guy this year is trying to beat the all-time record of 745—he’s been to all the basic birding places, including the Aleutian Islands, plus hopping a jet any time a vagrant appears in an out-of-the-way spot, such as the Sinaloa Wren that showed up this month in Huachuca Canyon in Arizona. That level of birding takes way way more money than I could muster up, and exciting and fun as it is, it also requires a different focus. I broke 500 in 1991, on one of Kim Eckert’s birding tours to Texas. My milestone bird was a Sprague’s Pipit—a drab bird lovely in a soft, quiet-spoken way. I ended that trip with 517, and Russ and the kids greeted me at the airport holding up a big hand-lettered sign, “Welcome home, Mommy,” with a bright red #517 painted in each corner.

So even if I don’t make it to 600 this year, the number 500 is also an important number for me. I left Duluth for California on September 4 with 482 species on my list and high hopes. There are so many birds in California that I’d not seen yet that I was certain I’d break 500, but I had no idea how many more I could get. One of my friends–a moderator on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Great Blue Heron nest cam chat named Eric Bowman–lives near Santa Cruz, which seemed reasonably well located for my purposes, and Eric was pumped up to help with logistics, so I got a room in Davenport, right near his place. He and his partner Larry met me at the San Jose airport and we birded on the way to Davenport. I had great fun reacquainting myself with the common California birds, adding 10 new species for the year during the first afternoon.

California Towhee


The rest of my itinerary included two pelagic trips, an overnight in Yosemite, one Santa Cruz Bird Club local field trip, and two field trips at the Monterey Bay Birding Fest ival, one focusing on California specialties and one to the Big Sur to try and track down California Condors. As of September 10, after the pelagic trips and local field trip but before Yosemite and the birding festival, I’m up to 523 and filled with optimism about my full week of California birding to go!

Anna's Hummingbird

ABA Bird of the Year: Common Nighthawk

Common Nighthawk

For the past three years, the American Birding Association has named a familiar, reasonably common yet declining species as the official ABA Bird of the Year. Two years ago they chose the American Kestrel, last year the Evening Grosbeak, and this year the Common Nighthawk.

Fred the Common Nighthawk

Nighthawks have long been among my own very favorite birds. When I was a wildlife rehabber, I specialized on caring for them, and was licensed to keep one individual, named Fred after Mr. Rogers, as an education bird. Having so many nighthawks under my care over the years gave me a rich sense of just how gentle and sweet-natured they are.

Nighthawks are obligate predators, able to eat nothing at all except insects they catch on the wing. They don’t build a nest, but rather make a simple scrape on disturbed ground or gravel-covered flat rooftops. They’re fairly quiet, but in late spring and early summer, we can hear them peenting in the sky at twilight and night. Males make a wondrous flight display, diving toward the ground and suddenly making a booming sound with their wings. The first time I ever saw nighthawks, at Michigan State University in June 1975, I thought the displaying bird was screaming in a panic as he plummeted headlong toward the ground. But he did it over and over, and so first thing the next day I headed to the university library to find out what it was all about. That splendid encounter is seared into my mind’s eye—the kind of lovely memory that almost 40 years later can still warm my soul during dark times.

Common Nighthawk

This past weekend marked Cape May New Jersey’s official nighthawk weekend, because Labor Day Weekend typically marks the peak of migration of this splendid bird through the central states and along the mid-Atlantic Coast. Nighthawk migration along Lake Superior peaks a little earlier than this. Some nighthawks are still passing through, but not in the huge numbers we witnessed two weeks ago. For the past couple of years, Jerry Niemi of the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth has been organizing a systematic nighthawk count from the roof of an apartment building on east Superior Street in Duluth. There is no budget to pay people to count throughout daylight hours, but his count at least covers the time from late afternoon until sunset when the birds are seen in largest numbers.

Common Nighthawk

The counter at Hawk Ridge Bird Observatory, Karl Bardon, has exceptionally keen eyes and skills, and an extraordinarily high level of commitment. In addition to his obligation to count raptors, he counts all the other birds winging past the Hawk Ridge main overlook, from hummingbirds and tiny warblers through herons and swans. And during nighthawk migration season, Karl goes above and beyond even that. This year on August 21, when nighthawks were cruising through, he raced down to Jerry’s rooftop counting site to keep his nighthawk tally going for hours after his Hawk Ridge counting responsibilities were over for the day. He ended up counting nighthawks literally from sunrise until sunset, tallying 30,874 nighthawks in that single day.

Common Nighthawk

Nighthawks are reluctant to cross large bodies of water, so their migration is concentrated along the Lake Superior shoreline. So every fall Duluthians can count on at least a few good flights, but in August, nighthawks can sprout up anywhere. As nighthawks finish raising young and start joining flocks, their normal pattern on days with low winds is to mill about starting in mid-afternoon, feeding heavily on flying insects. As individual birds grow satiated, they start flying higher and higher. By nightfall, they’ll be covering a lot of ground in a directed flight. Last week I received a letter from KAXE listener Paul Schanhaar who lucked into witnessing this exact situation a few miles east of Deer River on August 26. Paul writes:

I was outside splitting wood when I noticed shadows moving about on the ground. When I looked up I was surprised to see dozens of very sleek and agile looking birds flying around like you might see swallows doing when feeding on insects just before dark but this was in the middle of the afternoon. Some were as low as only a couple yards overhead [and some were] so high that the wing bars could not be seen. I had never seen this bird before and as I watched and looked around it became apparent there were …hundreds of these graceful birds circling …as far as I could see in any direction. I watched for several minutes and went about my work while keeping an eye on these birds. It was hard to tell if the same birds kept flying overhead or if they were moving on and being replaced by new comers but the action was consistent for more than an hour. …. When the sun shone through their wings the wing bars became brilliant and neon looking. I don’t recall ever seeing a nighthawk before let alone hundreds of them. It was amazing. … Being an avid outdoors person, it surprises me that I’ve not seen this before.

Common Nighthawk

The nighthawk migration spectacle is a silent one, so unless one happens to look up right where nighthawks are milling, it’s hard to realize it’s even happening. On the 21st, while Karl Bardon was counting over 30,000 nighthawks in Duluth, I stood out on Peabody Street with my neighbor Jeanne Tonkin, watching and photographing nighthawks passing over. A couple of cars went by and drivers stopped and asked us what we were looking at. The spectacle seemed so conspicuous that I was taken aback to realize that people right in the midst of it weren’t seeing it, but that’s the nature of nighthawk migration.

Common Nighthawk

Nighthawks face a lot of challenges. Changes in rooftop construction make many rooftops too hot, too slippery, and not camouflaged enough compared to the rock ballasted roofs nighthawks have used for centuries. Burgeoning populations of crows and gulls, which feed on eggs and chicks, are another problem. Mayflies, a major source of food fueling spring migration and the feeding of nighthawk chicks, can still be locally abundant, but there’s strong evidence that mayfly numbers are a fraction of what they once were. Thrilling as this year’s migration has been, it’s just a shadow of what it was a few decades ago.

Until Karl Bardon started counting at Hawk Ridge a few years ago and Jerry Niemi started organizing his East Superior Street counts, we’ve never had systematic counts of nighthawks in Duluth or anywhere else along Lake Superior. The largest flight ever recorded was 43,690 nighthawks counted by Mike Hendrickson on August 26, 1990, from the Lakewood Pumping Station in Duluth. That enormous number was tallied in less than three hours—from 5:35 to 8:20 pm. No one will ever know how many hundreds or thousands more had passed through earlier that day, nor how many were flying on other days that year or in other years. On that day, Mike headed to the pumping station after seeing how many birds were flying over—those birds that attracted his attention in the first place went untallied. During the 80s and early 90s, my family and I watched major nighthawk flights during several evenings every August. Numbers of birds in large flights and numbers of large flights each year have diminished since then. But this year’s wonderful flight provides a glimmer of hope that these lovely birds will long continue winging their way through the late summer sky.

Common Nighthawk