The air just outside my window in Seattle is filled with the chatter of Pine Siskins, punctuated at times by ascending, zipper-like zreeEEE! calls. Tight flocks of up to 75 Siskins fly between trees and feeders. Then they descend and feed with determination and persistence. Following several years of Pine Siskin scarcity in the Pacific Northwest, they are back with a vengeance!
These small brown-streaked finches with yellowish wings are most closely related to Common Redpolls and the American Goldfinch. They have a fine bill and a forked tail. Pine Siskins chatter constantly.
As their name suggests, Pine Siskins are often associated with coniferous or evergreen forests. Being adaptable, they are also frequently found in deciduous trees like the Sweet Gum Trees in our front yard. You can find them – often hanging upside down – as they feed on seeds in trees.Pine Siskins gather on feeder. They can empty it in a single day.
It is not unusual for local populations of Pine Siskins to ebb and flow. The irruption that is underway now is a term for “the mass movement of typically non-migratory birds,” according to the Handbook of Bird Biology by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Pine Siskins are nomads of North America. They follow seed crops throughout the continental U.S. and southern Canada in the winter, and breed in the northern Boreal forests of Canada in the summer.
Denizens of colder climates of North America, Pine Siskins have developed strategies to survive sub-zero temperatures. One is their ability to increase their metabolism to help get through cold nights. In addition, they can store extra seeds in their crop which enable them to obtain much-needed calories in the dead and cold of a winter’s night.
You can get close to Pine Siskins; they are quite tame. If you go outside and sit quietly in a forested area or near feeders, they will come to within three feet of you. They have a higher tolerance of human movement than most other bird species. Yesterday I got to within two feet of several siskins on a feeder while carrying a large metal extension ladder before they finally decided to fly away.
Although Pine Siskins are considered common, they are part of a disturbing trend that was noted in the 2014 State of the Birds Report. Pine Siskins were among the 33 species of “Common Birds in Steep Decline” listed in this report.
For now, if you live in North America and visit evergreen forests or put out feeders with Sunflower or Niger Thistle seeds in them, you are likely to have large flocks of these gregarious, vocal birds in your midst. They provide us with yet another reason to conserve our trees and forests.
- All About Birds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology website
- Handbook of Bird Biology, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
- National Geographic Birds of North America website
- The State of the Birds 2014, U.S. Committee of the North American Bird Conservation Initiative—a 23-member partnership of government agencies and organizations dedicated to advancing bird conservation.
Lori scopes birds on Willapa Bay, WA
Recently, I was asked this question at a reading event of my book Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window. The man who asked seemed frustrated that his wife did not share his love of birding. I didn’t know how to answer his question, so I asked Lori, my wife, to respond. Here is what she said:
“I clearly remember the day I got “hooked” on birding. It was after years of Woody sharing his love of birding and my looking through binoculars at birds he found.
This day however was different. We had gone on a bike ride on the Burke Gilman trail near our Seattle home. This part was not unusual, we often enjoyed the trail as it winds its way north from the University District along Lake Washington. One frequent destination is Log Boom Park, about ten miles from our house – a stop complete with a dock (and thankfully, a bathroom). We enjoy riding to the dock, getting off our bikes to stretch our legs and walking on the dock to view the birds.
However, what was most memorable on this early spring day was our arrival home. As we dismounted our bikes and took off our helmets, Woody casually remarked he had heard twenty species on the way home. TWENTY SPECIES heard on a busy urban trail? It took me a few minutes to digest this bit of information.
Woody would always count birds and let me know what he was seeing – but HEARING twenty species. This was unbelievable to me. While he was counting bird songs, I had been concentrating solely on riding my bike, navigating the trail and its many cyclists, walkers, runners and children. Of course, I had noticed the trees along the way, this wonderful stretch of green in our city – but I certainly had not focused on the sounds of spring in the way I now have learned to do.
I still don’t have the musicality that Woody does to “bird by ear”, but I did start tuning into the bird songs and calls. Yes, I am hooked.
Whether or not I can identify all of the birds I hear and see does not really matter – I appreciate the fact that the birds are here. I have since learned that bird songs are more typically heard in the spring for mating; although a bit of sunlight in winter can trigger song as well. Bird calls are for their conversation or warnings, for instance to alert other birds if a hawk is nearby.
Hearing the variety of sounds is a joy, it makes me stop in my tracks to enjoy the sound and look for the bird(s) nearby. After this bicycle ride, next thing I knew, I became quite adept at spotting the birds I heard, watching their behavior and trying to identify them. What an astonishingly simple pleasure in life this has become!”
In 1987, the 22 remaining wild California Condors were rounded up in a desperate effort to save the species. Thanks to the combined efforts of agencies, nonprofits, zoos, universities and others, this species is back from the brink. There are now 439 California Condors -- mostly free-flying but also some captive individuals for breeding purposes.
My Naturalist Journeys (NJ) group and I were fortunate to see 11 California Condors on a recent Canyon Adventure in Condor Country tour in Northern Arizona and Southern Utah. Our first sighting took place in the middle of a geology presentation by a park ranger on the South Rim of Grand Canyon. He was doing an excellent job distilling the complicated geologic story into lay terms when a huge bird soared 30 feet directly overhead and glided majestically into the canyon with its over-sized wings and white underside. It silenced the presentation. Pat Leuders, the other NJ guide finally whispered “California Condor.” The park ranger confirmed this identification and deftly moved into a summary of the remarkable recovery of this species.
The comeback of the Condors has been miraculous. We witnessed the 18th annual release ceremony that added three California Condors to the wild population. Situated below the aptly named Vermilion Cliffs in the midst of a 300,000-acre National Monument, it would be hard to find a more spectacular setting for this event. Although dark clouds loomed, and we drove through rain showers on the way, this event occurred during a short window of fair weather.
Some 100 people were on hand, many with scopes and binoculars to watch the spectacle. Vendors sold pottery, artwork, t-shirts and hats.
Appropriately, the release occurred on the 40th anniversary of the Wilderness Act. If it were not for public lands like Vermilion Cliffs, Condors probably would not have sufficient habitat in which to re-establish their population.
Representatives of wildlife and land management agencies spoke, the Boy Scouts of Page, Arizona led a flag procession. Chris Parish, Condor Program Director at the Peregrine Fund, gave a brief history of the demise of the California Condor, followed by their re-introduction through captive breeding programs.
Soon afterward, the count-down to release took place. Two Condors took to the air immediately, soaring over the tops of the cliff and alongside their crimson rock faces. Eventually, the third condor joined them, so that for a brief time, all three were soaring together. Our group was deeply moved by the experience. Minutes after the release, storm clouds moved in, and the wind blew up. We headed to our cars for shelter as the rain pelted down on us. Somehow, the dramatic weather encore fit the occasion.
Bringing these majestic birds back was not easy. There were and still are major impediments to the recovery of their population. For starters, female California Condors lay only one egg per nesting attempt and do not always nest annually. It takes six-eight years for young Condors to reach reproductive maturity. Nest predators, including Golden Eagles, Ravens and Black Bear threaten the survival of the egg and the juvenile Condor. Once the Condor has hatched, it is dependent upon its parents for more than one full year until it fledges.
Captive breeding programs in Los Angeles and San Diego Zoos were initially key to bringing the population back. The Peregrine Fund has since led Condor recovery efforts, releasing more than 149 captively-bred Condors to the wild. Double-clutching techniques, where an egg is removed from the parent, causing them to lay another, and then incubating and raising the other hatchling with a surrogate parent (sometimes a puppet) has worked with Condors as it has for other endangered bird species.
Once released, Condors need large expanses of habitat where they can soar up to 150 miles at speeds up to 55 mph each day in search of food.
Now that Condors are re-populating parts of their original range, the leading cause of fatality is lead poisoning. This is due to lead shot used in hunting that often is found in the carcasses that the Condors eat.
Chris Parish spoke to our group about Condor Recovery and the lead poisoning challenge. Parish has been involved in Condor research and recovery efforts since 1997. The ultimate goal of these efforts is to attain a sustainable wild population of Condors. Parish and others have studied how lead gets into carrion and then into Condors, along with finding effective ways to reduce the use of lead bullets. Significant political challenges lie ahead.
If healthy, wild Condors can live up to 60 years. Some of the released wild birds are now in their 40s – an extraordinarily old age for birds of any species.
Seeing the release and recovery of California Condors was inspiring. It was also a poignant reminder that humans can not only destroy, but also can restore endangered populations of wildlife. The California Condor is a perfect and hopefully this time, lasting icon of Grand Canyon country.
Note: If you would like to go on next year’s Canyon Adventure in Condor Country tour, visit naturalistjourneys.com
This October in one of the west coast’s premier wildlife refuges, I will suggest that people do the obvious: look up. Except in today's world looking up is neither obvious nor typical human behavior. Many look down, stare at electronic screens and are oblivious to the outdoors.
It does not have to be this way. That is why I wrote the book Look Up! Birds and Other Natural Wonders Just Outside Your Window published by Influence Publishing. It is a series of well-researched nature essays that will inspire readers to experience the outdoors in an affordable, accessible and joyful way. The essays encourage backyard and local bird watching, native plant landscaping and restoration, practical energy conservation and land conservation. They also explore how we can derive psychological benefits from these activities—how nature can help us live happier, more fulfilling lives.
The book will be released at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge’s Birdfest and Bluegrass event on October 4 and 5, 2014. I will do two readings at the Davis Park story-teller’s tent: one on Saturday at 2 PM; and the other on Sunday at 11 AM. In addition, I will sign and sell books on both days at a vendor booth in the community center.
Please consider migrating to Ridgefield in early October to join me, my wife and one of my daughters at this event. There will be a wide assortment of field trips, live music, speakers, vendors, displays and food items available there: http://ridgefieldfriends.org/birdfest/
For those who cannot make it to Ridgefield, my book is available through Influence Publishing at http://www.influencepublishing.com/woody-wheeler/;
and at Barnes & Noble http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/look-up-woody-wheeler/1120035058?ean=9781771410625.
In the next few months, I will participate in readings and book events in the western and mid-western U.S. and Canada. What an exciting way to connect with kindred spirits, including with my community of friends and family! I hope to see you along the way.
Dickcissel at Illinois Beach State Park Prairie
The pursuit of birds often takes you to outstanding natural areas. Sometimes these areas are unlikely places and increasingly, they have been restored from previous, less than pristine conditions. All of this was true of the North Unit of Illinois Beach State Park.
What brought me and my good friend Bill Drucker here was a quest for a grassland bird species that had eluded me for years: the Dickcissel. When we discovered that this species had been seen recently at Illinois Beach State Park, we decided to make the one hour trip north of Chicago and try our luck. We had no idea what awaited us there.
Not only did we find a Dickcissel relatively soon, but we found at least a dozen of them singing and perching atop Cattails. In addition, we discovered an ecological wonderland near Zion, Illinois, close to the Wisconsin/Illinois border. The “North Unit of Camp Logan” should perhaps be renamed to "North Prairie Wonderland" or "Prairie/Dunes Extravaganza.” It is an impressively restored natural area.
Upon entering the North Unit, or former Camp Logan, which sounded drab, institutional and distinctly un-natural, we were amazed to find instead a 243-acre native prairie. This is a big deal in Illinois aka “The Prairie State.” Despite its lovely moniker, according to the Illinois Natural History survey, only .01% of the state’s original prairies remain intact. To put this into perspective, just 2,300 acres of high-quality prairie are left in a state that once had 22 million acres of prairie in 1820. We were walking through 243 acres of it, which was roughly .001% of Illinois’ original prairies.
Realizing this made the experience more remarkable. The birds seemed to recognize how special this place was too. Even on a cool, foggy June morning where we only had a few hours to spare, we saw 30+ species of birds here, including Dickcissels, Bobolinks and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo.
The prairie landscape itself, a gorgeous composite of cattail, Bluejoint Grass, Prairie cordgrass, Reed Grass, Big Bluestem, Sedges and abundant wildflowers at this time of year, was bordered by deciduous trees, and a rare sand dune ridge which divided the prairie from the Lake Michigan beach. Altogether this is an extensive natural area.
It did not always look this way. In fact, during the first half of the 19th century, Camp Logan was a shooting range operated by the Illinois National Guard. The prairie was mowed down, some of the sand dunes leveled, and buildings were constructed at the site. Since its closure in 1974, the buildings have been razed, native prairie vegetation planted, and invasive species removed. The new shooters are photographers.
It is worth noting that this transition took more than half a century and was instigated by visionary people, in this case a nurseryman, Robert Douglas, and a landscape architect and conservationist, Jens Jensen. They called for the creation of a regional park here in the early 1900s. Not until the 1940s did this translate to land acquisition and park designation and expansion, which continued until 1982. Currently Illinois Dune State Park encompasses 4,160 acres with 6.5 miles of Lake Michigan sand beach, including the only remaining sand ridge shoreline left in Illinois and boasts 650 species of plants.
Below: Bobolinks thrive in prairie vegetation