Archive for April, 2017

No Place Like Home


The phoebes are back. This is a bird whose vocalization is its own name: “Fee-bee. . . fee-bee.”

The foot-long ledge under the eave of our screen house has hosted a moss-covered phoebe nest for the past six or so years.

While it would be unusual for a phoebe to live that long, it’s not impossible. Bird banding has helped unlock secrets of bird migration, territories, and age.

The phoebe, a rather drab smudge-colored bird, holds a special place in bird banding history. In the early 19th century, young John James Audubon* noticed that a pair of phoebes showed up at his father’s Pennsylvania farm each spring. The budding teen naturalist wondered if they were the same birds. So to help identify the birds he captured the pair and tied a short piece of silver thread around their legs.

In the fall the phoebes left and he wondered if they would come back the next spring. Lo and behold, the following April, two phoebes showed up, each with a duller piece of silver thread wrapped around its leg.

Audubon’s experiment in marking the phoebes gave rise to the practice of bird banding using lightweight aluminum instead of thread.

I have banded hundreds of songbirds, including phoebes. To capture the birds, federally licensed banders stretch a forty-foot long and seven- foot tall mist net in locations where birds are apt to pass, such as thickly vegetated cover or along the edge of habitats. The nets are erected and taken down daily.

I recall a memorable day when we untangled a cantankerous chickadee from the net. The bird we removed had already been banded. It wore a tiny, lightweight aluminum band around its leg. With the help of a magnifying glass we could read the stamped identification numbers. We were mightily surprised that the little fellow had worn the band for 11 years! Truly a Methuselah among songbirds who rarely experience five years.

While banding we record data such as age, sex, wing length, breeding readiness or status of incubating. We send this information to the federal banding laboratory operated by the Fish and Wildlife Service. If the bird is recaptured by a licensed bander or found dead by anybody, that person can call the phone number noted on the band and help unravel a part of the bird’s life history.

Once I caught an ovenbird, a small woodland warbler, on May 30th. The bird had recently returned to Minnesota after spending the winter in southern Mexico or Central America. I carefully untangled it and carried it in a cloth bag to the banding table to get the bird processed and banded.

Unlike most warblers, sometimes referred to as the “butterflies of the bird world” because of their bright coloration, the ovenbird is fairly inconspicuous. Its back is olive-green and it has a heavily spotted breast making it ideal camouflage for this ground-nesting bird.

I banded the bird and released it.

The following year, I caught a banded ovenbird in the same thick swale. I was excited to discover it was the same bird I had banded the previous year. But what made it most remarkable was that it was exactly one year later, May 30th in exactly the same location!

The following year I did not catch it. No surprise as migration is extremely dangerous and life expectancy is low.

But on spring number three we recaptured the bird in the same net location, on May 31st.

In the four years that we had our relationship, the banded ovenbird, weighing an ounce, had migrated back and forth from Minnesota to its tropical wintering grounds eight times, covering roughly 4,000 miles with each trip.

As spring unfolds into more bird song and daily phoebe nest building duties, I really want to push aside the taboo of anthropomorphism or designating human qualities to animals, and allow myself to believe that the loud dawn bird chorus is all about a joyful homecoming.

It’s not. But spring is so ephemeral that we get to believe anything is possible.


*Audubon eventually became a renowned naturalist and wildlife painter. He would become best known for his oversized, four-volume set of bird paintings. Titled the Birds of America, the set stood over three feet tall and each volume weighed sixty pounds. He included the phoebe, painted in Louisiana, among the 435 species illustrated. Two hundred sets of the hand colored sets were completed between 1827-1838. Amazingly 134 of the original sets remain. Not surprising they have increased in value. The original cost was $1000 per set. In recent years one set sold at auction for over nine million dollars!



Christening a Raft



In the last days of March, Nancy and I unloaded a small raft from our truck at the Anderson County Park canoe dock one-half mile from our house. This was no ordinary raft. It bore a title: The U.S.S. Gavia. A floating nesting platform intended to attract the attention of a pair of loons.

Gavia is the genus for the common loon. The word “loon” is thought to be derived from an old Scandinavian word, lom, meaning a clumsy person. While loons are graceful swimmers and powerful and direct in flight, they are clumsy on land. Their legs are positioned well to the rear of the bird’s body. This placement makes them superior divers but awkward shufflers on land.

The ice on Horseleg Lake had been off for a week. Now, at water’s edge, we busied ourselves in last minute touches such as tying anchor ropes to opposite corners of the four-foot by four-foot platform.

We are hopeful that a pair of loons will find it homey. The lake has mostly undisturbed shoreline, no outboard motor traffic, and most importantly, populations of minnows for loons to feed on.

The haunting yodels of tundra swans interrupted our work. We scanned the sky for the birds. On they came, high overhead in a ragged “V” moving steadily northwest. These birds have a long ways to go before they can nest in northern Canada.

We tied the floating platform to a rope fastened to the stern of our canoe. Slowly we towed the U.S.S. Gavia to its berth, some two hundred yards distant.

We were barely underway when we heard the familiar yodel of a loon. It was the first loon call of the spring. The call came from Horseshoe Lake, a short hike south. We took the vocalization as a good omen.

Does the distant bird spy the fruits of our labor? Is it pleased? Does it feel a spike in breeding hormones when it spies the floating bedroom? Unlike grebes and many species of waterfowl that copulate on water, loons mate on land.

It’s early for the loons to come back but with the shortening of winters, I shouldn’t be surprised. Open water by the end of March just might be the new norm.

It took us ten minutes to tow the Gavia into position. We stopped offshore of the park observation tower where visitors will have a good view without being too close to taunt or disturb any nesting birds.

The pair of anchors sank into the clear water and through the swirling jungle of aquatic vegetation. We spread a layer of old shoreline vegetation and a chunk of hummock over the top of the raft to make it look like a wee island. I tried to get a small chunk of earth with a two-foot alder seedling but the swamp ground was frozen rock hard.

Suddenly from the north came excited honking from a pair of Canada geese. Ten yards above the water they approached us. For a moment they even set their wings into a glide. It looked as if they wanted to immediately claim the faux terra firma before any common loon could inspect it.

The pair of geese swung over us and landed a couple hundred yards away and continued their noisy honking. We quickly departed and paddled back to the dock.

Attention loons, geese, loafing turtles and muskrats: The U.S.S. Gavia is open for business.


photos by Steve Kingsbury