Author Archives: lindaferring

World Sparrow Day – An Examination of Conscience

This little “housie” has a fancy tail-do for World Sparrow Day March 20.

It’s March, have you made plans for World Sparrow Day? House sparrows are a worldwide force, and it seems they have worldwide supporters. International Sparrow Day is March 20, 2018.

In 2005, Mohammed Dilawar read about the decline of house sparrows in Great Britain. An ecology student of western India, Dilawar began looking for data to determine whether the same was true in India. Almost no data had been collected. (Most conservationists in India work on endangered tigers.) Since then, Dilawar has launched his own nationwide survey of the house sparrow population and found a serious decline. He distributes house sparrow nest boxes and tries to spread the word.

World Sparrow Day logo

It’s too late for nominations, but awards will be announced soon at

House sparrows have also been declining in America for years, but it took ornithologists quite a while to notice. Even today most birders admit to being happy to hear it.

The house sparrow’s biggest flaw is that it is so darned adaptable. It thrives in whatever degraded human environment we can make. House sparrows follow humans around the world, reproduce prolifically, and build messy nests in any cranny they can find. This week, since they stay year-round, house sparrows are busy scouting out nesting territory to get the good spots before other birds return. House sparrows are a threat to native birds that are more particular about habitat, which is about any other bird you can name.

Nest cameras confirm that house sparrows are aggressive toward other nesting birds. They move into other birds’ cavities. Then they invade nests of other species to kill baby birds by pecking their skulls, though they never eat them. In the US, the sheer numbers of house sparrows edge out some species as the supply of native habitat declines.

We Americans protect our native birds, but we feel little responsibility for house sparrows even though they were intentionally introduced in the mid-19th Century. In those days, many of us were more comfortable with familiar European things. Some New Yorkers imported house sparrows for Central Park, thinking their nestlings would consume more insect pests than native birds did. The first sparrows died before reproducing, so more were introduced. Eventually house sparrows thrived, when streets were full of horses being fed bags of oats. Then cars replaced horses, but sparrows had found human garbage, and they also spread out to farmyards. Throughout the world, house sparrows live always near humans.

Rene Lalique’s Parisian glass sparrows sell for hundreds of dollars.

House sparrows have been in Europe for centuries, though the population was estimated at only  12 million in 1943 while the US population had soared to 150 million. Once here, house sparrow numbers increased without restraint until the population was out of balance with the ecosystem, even in urban America. When causes of the current decline become  clear, they may be understood as a natural balancing effect.  Partners in Flight estimates that 13% of the global breeding population of 540 million house sparrows is in the U.S. House sparrows rate just an 8 out of 20 on the Continental Concern Scale.

Meanwhile in London, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ( found only eight sparrows in all of Kensington Gardens during a 2000 survey. They say that causes remain largely undetermined, but house sparrows are down by nearly half in the UK, particularly in urban and suburban environments. Numbers have also declined in rural UK, and the house sparrow is now red-listed as a species of high conservation concern there.

March 20 is the heart of Lent, so perhaps it is time to examine our consciences: aren’t the reasons we care about native birds true also for house sparrows? They eat weed seeds; they feed owls and hawks. And what threatens house sparrows probably indicates something significant about our own habitat.

We are as connected to house sparrows as we are to any other elements of our natural world. To assume that they should be ignored – or, worse, eliminated –  is as misguided as to assume that nature would somehow be more perfect without Homo sapiens in it. If something is eliminating sparrows, we should find out about it.

Hand surrounded by four flying house sparrows

Canadian Lisa Solonyko treats house sparrows with respect at

It’s not about the money

When someone starts a conversation with those words, you know exactly where they’re coming from. You can talk about ideals and principles, but for the majority of people, big decisions have to be good for the bottom line. Enter the Salt Creek tiger beetle that lives in saline habitat north of Lincoln, Nebraska.

Salt creek tiger beetle. Many thanks, Tony Palmer and, for permission to use excellent photo.

At first glance, the Salt Creek tiger beetle might be thought of as a poster-child for arguments against environmental regulations. How important could a beetle be? Who has ever seen one? How much difference would it make to your life if we just let it disappear?

The US Fish and Wildlife Service is administrator for the Endangered Species Act, a law that places no priority over species that might not somehow serve mankind. The USFWS has been stuck between environmental ideals and private industry throughout the century it has existed. While politicians and private industry argued over whether to spend taxpayer money to preserve the Salt Creek tiger beetle’s environment, a group of conservationists from the USFWS at Wood River, local Natural Resources District, the City of Lincoln, the Game & Parks Commission, and the Nature Conservancy talked up the Salt Creek tiger beetle story until the tiny beetle became a bit of a local phenomenon.  Still, you have to spend some time in Nebraska, and probably in Lincoln, to get it.

Even as insects go, the Salt Creek tiger beetle is plain. Cicindela nevadica lincolniana has a body that shines metallic in good light, but the color is mottled olive-gold, and blends into the sand and mud. Large eyes are the only part of its little face we can make out, and it doesn’t stand still.

Most of us never see a Salt Creek tiger beetle for two reasons: there is only one salt creek system in Nebraska, and the beetle spends most of its 2-year life underground.  It comes up for only 4 weeks in early June. So life as we know it would not change noticeably if the Salt Creek tiger beetle disappeared.

In the short run, that is.

While arguments raged about what good is a beetle, those few who believed in the tiger beetle and its habitat quietly raised money to begin buying back land in the Salt Creek drainage. So far that land totals over 1,500 acres, with another 900 acres protected against development by conservation easements. This is about one-third of the land designated by Fish and Wildlife in 2014 as prime Salt Creek tiger beetle habitat.

Meanwhile, the beetle was listed as endangered by Nebraska in 2000 and federally in 2005. Finally in 2014 the Fish and Wildlife Service funded a formal recovery plan for $30 million.

The question is, why? If you can understand the value of the Salt Creek tiger beetle, you can understand environmental amenities.  It’s not just about the money. It’s also about us.  Turns out, lands under protection are opened to the public.  Just a mile away from I-80 and the hustle and bustle of the North 27th Street interchange is a place where people now go get away from the city and take a walk.  Further north and north east near Ceresco, large parcels of land purchased with the beetle in mind are also open to the public, and contribute to a setting where it’s hard to believe a major city is near.

It’s also about the planet. Those lands purchased or under conservation easement for the beetle also provide flood protection and improve water quality for people. Those lands provide habitat for a huge diversity and number of other wildlife species.  $30 million isn’t a lot for these benefits.

The Salt Creek tiger beetle evolved north of Lincoln in an area where an ancient sea covered Nebraska about 100 million years ago, leaving salt deposits, now far from either ocean.  Early settlers needed salt for food preservation, which is why they chose the site for Lincoln, thinking they could mine it. The industry was short-lived, 1850-1880s. They failed to find a deep salt lode, and the intercontinental railroad came, delivering salt more economically. For another decade, our Capitol Beach, thought to be the largest saline wetland of all, instead boasted health spas, while tourists gawked at the “crystal lakes” glistening in the sun from evaporated salt.

Lincoln retained status as State Capital, and the salt lake remained a site for recreation through the 1950s. Still we can see the salt from the Age of Reptiles and our inland sea of 70-150 million years ago, especially from airport land northeast of Capitol Beach just off the northwest side of I-80.  When it’s hot there during the summer and a few days after a rain, the salt crusts look like snow.

Our pioneers decided that if they couldn’t make money on the salt, they would try to eliminate it and farm the land. That generally failed too because most crops cannot tolerate high concentrations of salty soil.  Channelization of Salt Creek began in 1891 to prevent its frequent flooding, which prevented crop production and resulted in the loss of property and lives. After the big flood of 1950, the Army Corps got serious, and the straightened creeks now run deep, and serve to drain rather than offer subirrigation of the soil. Restorers are now encouraging the Salt Creek and its tributaries to re-salinate the soil, and to create the moist saline seeps environment the beetle likes for burrows. We hope the beetle will respond enthusiastically at the NRD’s Marsh Wren property and several other small restorations where such saline restoration projects are occurring.

It’s about understanding our impact. Acting only in favor of our bottom line, we impact our world, often in negative ways. Thinking only about the short term, one day we will discover a natural world we can no longer live in. For our own survival, we are responsible for our land.

And there is a lot we don’t know. Biologists and students have already added to our understanding of the Salt Creek tiger beetle’s habits and needs, rare salt-loving plants it lives beneath and which have nearly disappeared from the area, groundwater management, and population dynamics of many species, including the migrating water birds attracted to salt water.  As the Salt Creek tiger beetle returns, animals that eat it will be healthy, and animals that eat them may even be us. The Salt Creek tiger beetle will teach us how to approach other situations that have been diminished by our short-sightedness.

We are part of our world, not separate from it. And we are the only part that has evolved to know that.

…extracting a living from the land was a matter of survival. Later, intensive use of the land brought a higher standard of living. Not until recent decades did we glance back and realize the cost to our natural heritage of this prosperity.
Jon Farrar and Richard Gersib. Nebraska Salt Marshes. 1991.


The author thanks Bob Harms of the US Fish & Wildlife Service for his help.

Counting Birds

If counting the birds at your feeder and reporting to a national database doesn’t sound like fun, what can I say? Just try it and see why people from every US state and Canadian province report birds each week from November through March.

Once you decide to report, you’ll start to notice when the extra cardinals come from the neighbors’ yards at sunset, and when their blue jays invade your own jays’ territory at sunup. You’ll know when your three chickadees sadly become only two during midwinter. When it snows, the juncos will sometimes outnumber the house sparrows out there.

Thanks to Terry Sohl for excellent picture.

Gradually you will recognize visitors you had overlooked. A tree sparrow or a spiffy Harris sparrow at the edge of the crowd under the feeder.  Red and gold finches among the sunflower seed eaters.

You won’t miss the drama when the downy becomes motionless on the suet and every bird on the ground disappears into the bushes. On lucky days, the Cooper’s hawk shows itself, sometimes you’ll even see it swoop in. Moments before, a bluejay had screamed just before birds scattered, but bluejays scream all day, and yet the birds knew to dive for cover or freeze in place. Soon they’ll help you sense the presence of the hawk you can’t see.

As you form a habit of naming each bird for a report, you’ll discover birds that don’t come often – cedar waxwings in a bunch when the crabapples are soft, bluebirds at the bird bath.  Your skills honed, you’ll be ready when the unexpected red-shafted flicker or the yellow-bellied sapsucker lands in your yard.

By the end of February, the scattered groups of each species will be pairing up, the first clear sign of spring. Soon after, house finches and cardinals will sing the first spring songs.

Listening for songs is hard to learn without something to make it a habit. On reporting days you don’t want to miss anything, so you take a quick walk around the house, and listen. Eventually you hear an unusual song, and you discover that Carolina wrens live in the woodpile long before they show themselves. With this training during the winter, you’ll be ready for April phoebes, thrashers and orioles!

They call it citizen science: connected by crowd sourcing, untrained observers can provide the raw data for researchers to analyze. leads window observers to report on the same 2 days each week through the winter. If something in a report sounds unexpected, the site will ask for details or a photo, and it’s easy to correct your report. You watch whatever time you want, and report the most individuals of each type you see at any single time.  To avoid recounting the same bird, if you see 2 robins and later see 3, you report only 3 for the whole period. is related but does not have the 2-day format. You can report to ebird any time, and eventually you have saved your own bird list.

A good time to start is the Great Backyard Bird Count ( On one 4-day weekend, February 16-19, 2018, you save one or more lists from times and locations of your own choosing. You can start any day now to scout your neighborhood for the ravine where a flock of mourning doves winter, or the field terraces where meadowlarks shelter.

Databases from all three of these projects are open for anyone to explore. Look for one species over its whole range, one location over time, or for all birds listed at one hot spot, county or state. Research based on this information is reported on these websites as well as in a wide range of birding publications, and is yielding understanding of bird responses to climate change. Equipment can be as simple or elaborate as you wish, and two of the three websites require no fees to sign up.

Know my Garden, Know Me

Elizabeth Von Arnim may have been looking at winter garden catalogs when she recorded this thought:

On learning to garden: As I have not a living soul with whom to hold communion on this, my only way of learning is by making mistakes.

That was in ­­­­­­­­­­­1898. My favorite garden friends think this way today, and Elizabeth’s journals put it into words perfectly. Her book about her first garden claimed “ignorance” throughout, while she enthusiastically broke rules from the experts.  Funny and irreverent, she just loved being out there.

At one point, Elizabeth’s hired gardener gave up on a weedy lawn. Elizabeth said, “I saved the dandelions and daisies on that occasion, and I like to believe they know it. They certainly look very jolly when I come out, and I rather fancy the dandelions dig each other in their little ribs when they see me, and whisper, ‘Here comes Elizabeth; she’s a good sort, ain’t she?’ for of course dandelions do not express themselves very elegantly.”

E von Arnim Rose 2016

The International Elizabeth von Arnim Society chose this rose in 2016 to celebrate the 160th anniversary of her birth.

People loved Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Her attitude is as endearing today as then, because most gardens offer an escape from restrictions of daily life.

Elizabeth’s was not your average garden.  She was a countess in Pomerania, on the Baltic Sea between Germany and Poland. Her gardeners were hired, and elite socialites in those days were not seen working in gardens, though they might walk stylishly through manicured paths.

Elizabeth (not her real name!) was not content as a countess. Financial Times blogger Robin Lane Fox ( says Elizabeth longed to handle a spade and she thought that, if Eve had done the digging in Eden, there might never have been a Fall.

Von Arnim learned to garden during the rise of the stylized “cottage garden” in Europe, replacing stricter formal gardens like Versailles and Buckingham Palace. This may help to explain her misunderstanding with the gardener who wanted to remove all daisies. Gardeners began to value more natural flowers, adding beds of herbs to enhance their food, and replacing straight rows with curving beds and paths. Her life continued to reflect social change as she matured through the 1920s, and she apparently continued to have fun.

A garden reveals a lot about the gardener, even if you don’t publish a garden journal. In the US, proper gardens have usually been compared to English gardens as the standard. However, as early as the American Revolution, Washington (Mount Vernon), Jefferson (Monticello) and Madison (Montpelier) were devoted gardeners who introduced native American plants into their landscapes, often in “competition” with traditional English plants. To these Founding Gardeners, their showy estates were patriotic extensions of the American Revolution. They encouraged all Americans to plant gardens that would outshine the European standard.

The early presidential gardeners were influenced by botanist John Bartram, a Quaker plowman of Darby, near Philadelphia. In the early 1700’s Bartram founded our first botanical garden, scouring early colonies for plants to fill it, corresponding widely with botanists in Europe, exchanging seeds and plants. Bartram  also hybridized the first American garden flowers. Nurseries and gardens sprang up, making Philadelphia a garden center.

John Bartram’s garden today is a National Historic Landmark in central Philadelphia ( However, the calendar of activities is focused on community gardens, with programs for all ages to encourage low-income urban residents to grow gardens for food as well as for green space in their neighborhoods.

Another community gardener was Alice Waters, the San Francisco chef who whose Chez Panisse restaurant started the local-food movement during the 1970s and continues today. Her Edible Schoolyard at an inner-city San Francisco middle school eventually dug up a concrete parking lot to build a garden and outdoor kitchen.  Alice said, “You begin with food because it’s the essence of life. If you’re seduced by something that’s beautiful   and nourishing, you want that experience again. You realize that it’s growing right over there, and you want to take care of that thing right over there.” Omaha community gardens such the HOPE Garden and the Big Garden are planning gardens while it snows, and will produce food for Omaha’s needy populations. Other local gardens encourage neighbors to garden.

Most gardens also connect us to earlier times. Flowers and vegetables in this winter’s nursery catalogs trumpet new varieties, but most plant species are the same as in early gardens. The Fort Atkinson historical garden here in Nebraska grows many of the forty-some vegetables and herbs that sustained the Fort before white settlement of our state. In that garden, as in other American gardens of the early 1800s, a large number of native American foods were already familiar: pumpkins, squash, beans, corn, cantaloupes and watermelons. Most of these became eagerly adopted also by European gardeners.

Whatever gardens we plant this year, all gardeners will think about insects more than before. Only one percent of insects are pests, according to entomologist Scott Evans. Gardeners are being encouraged to select plants for their value to local pollinating butterflies, bees and other insects, with the aim of creating an interrelated community. Exotic plants will probably not attract local insects for either larvae or nectar, and gardeners are nudged to take another look at plants that have long grown right where their garden now sprouts.  As larger farms and fields eliminate spots where native insects formerly thrived, backyard gardens are now important insect habitat.

Some garden reading:

Elizabeth and Her German Garden. Elizabeth von Arnim. First published 1898 but still available, even on Kindle.

Founding Gardeners. Andrea Wulf. 2011.

Chez Panisse and Alice Waters. Thomas McNamee. 2008.

Days that Count


January and February might be worth more if you lived in Florida.

In 1939, Charles Broley retired to Florida from Winnipeg, and threw himself into his lifelong hobby, leading him to one of the most important discoveries of the century.

After Charles Broley retired at age 58 from a successful banking career, he had more time for birds. The amateur birder became licensed by the US Fish & Wildlife Service to place ID bands on the legs of eagles. This was the early 1940s, when eagles nested in the tallest trees along the western Florida coast.  Only 166 eagles had ever been banded.

Charles learned to climb trees up to 90 feet tall, and to avoid attacks by adult eagles while he banded eagle chicks in the nests. He banded over a hundred chicks per year from Tampa to Fort Myers. Here in the midwestern US, eagles don’t hatch until early April, but most of Broley’s banding was done in January and February, on eaglets less than 12 weeks old.

Thanks to for Charles Broley photo by Joseph Janney Steinmetz. CreativeCommons license.

Suddenly in 1947, Broley’s eagle chick numbers dropped. Many eagles made nests but laid eggs that failed to hatch. Other nests had no eggs. Broley continued to survey declining numbers of nests until in 1958 he found only a single chick to band.

As people retrieved his eagle bands and sent them to Fish & Wildlife, biologists learned for the first time how far up the East coast the Florida birds ranged after they fledged, in search of fish.

Charles  suspected DDT as the cause of eagle nest failures, and raised awareness of industrial waste containing DDT which entered the water along which eagles fed. He spoke to many groups about eagles and their sudden decline. He published articles and received conservation awards. But Charles Broley died in 1959 before he could establish a definite cause for the eagle decline.

Using his meticulous records from work with more than 1,200 eagles, other researchers proved DDT was the cause of egg shells so thin the weight of adult birds crushed them in the nest. In 1962, Rachel Carson cited Broley’s work in Silent Spring, Chapter 8: “And No Birds Sing,” addressing for the first time the dangers of pesticides to health.

Eagle banding continues today, at least on the Mississippi River and in the Rocky Mountains, and possibly in up to 49 states, as the eagle is healthy again. For states along the east coast, The Center for Conservn Biology lists eleven active eagle banders in eleven states and one province. All these appear to be professionals for governmental or nonprofit organizations. Their tools now include GPS and Cessna aerial survey, but someone still has to climb.

Dear Department of Roads

Trees removed ahead of highway widening

Dear Nebraska Department of Roads:

For decades our narrow highway has been at the top of your most-urgent-projects list and we are thrilled to see our dream coming true. Driving on the first new segments, we appreciate seeing that hills are now flatter and curves more gradual.

Big things are happening fast, and none too soon. Even though two lives have been lost this winter on our highway, we continue to drive too fast and try to pass where there is no room. We are counting on this highway to make us safer.

Small things are also happening fast.

Trees removed ahead of highway widening

Trees removed ahead of highway widening

Bucket loaders and  scrapers remove whole rows of mature trees and roadside shrubs in a day. The 20-foot pile of trees that burned near our county road this week is only the latest in a series that has preceded the advancing construction.

What is our plan to replace these trees?   The sodbuster law would require mitigation if a landowner developed native prairies. A wetlands law would require mitigation if we disturbed wetlands.

Your own Plan for the Roadside Environment (2008, p. 13) states your aim to “minimize effects on biotic communities, limiting possible negative effects of construction and maintenance activities on the living features of the natural systems the roadway corridors traverse. “

Our highways are important wildlife habitat. Roadside planting of prairie grass and flowers has been customary for the Nebraska Department of Roads since the 1980s. But grass is only a start. Are we still the Tree Planter State?

What bird would nest along a busy highway?

Remains of 3 nests near highway with traffic

Several birds nested on the edge of this highway last summer.

Birds nest only where food is available. The insects they depend on are only available where native plants grow. The nests in the accompanying picture are left from last summer’s dickcissels or goldfinches, indigo buntings or yellowthroats. All of these birds are on the Audubon Society’s radar as their habitat is being cleared across the great plains. The same is true of our state bird, the meadowlark, which nests in tall grass.

A glance east or west of Highway 133 will confirm that bigger farm equipment is prompting farmers to remove fences and accompanying native trees and shrubs. Roadsides are becoming crucial wildlife refuge. We leveled their habitat, we need to replace it.

When these trees go, what habitat is left?

When these trees go, what habitat is left?

As you inspect the construction, look also at the fields beyond. With a new blank slate along the roadside, decide where trees and shrubs would enhance the highway. Start planning for new native black cherries, buckeyes and hickories, an occasional bur oak, and clusters of wild plum and dogwood.

One for each tree and shrub removed. Thank you.


Paul Dunbar’s Big Year in Nebraska

Paul Dunbar is becoming legendary.  Among those in a certain group, his name evokes that other Paul, the Minnesota lumberjack. Paul Dunbar saw 347 different bird species in 2013 – without leaving Nebraska.

Nobody else in Nebraska has come close to his list. You can see it at   [].

Three wild turkeys display on the picnic table.

No problem identifying these new neighbors. Dunbar also saw turkeys in January.

What kind of a guy is Paul Dunbar? As are all those who get into birding Big Year lists, or birding-as-competitive-sport, he’s got to be a bit of a nut-case.  Nevertheless, it’s not likely that people will doubt his claims. He is a Methodist pastor. His wife and his congregation supported his 2013 Big Year, according to the article.

Reverend Dunbar recorded the first time he saw each species, from a junco on January 1,  to a long-eared owl on December 31. What does he know that most of us don’t? Let’s look more closely at his list.

Early January lists began with predictable birds. Dunbar is lucky to live almost exactly on the 100th meridian, where the East traditionally meets the West in the U.S. He could expect to see the cardinal-robin-dove group and winter woodpeckers, and to add in the junco-tree sparrow winter birds including last year’s erupters such as redpoll. Near his central Nebraska home, he was also familiar with grassland birds such as Harris sparrow, horned lark and prairie falcon, and he found some January open water holding goldeneyes and widgeons.

After New Year’s week, he usually listed birds only once or twice a week. As spring approached he added migrants. By July he added only a single bird many weeks. He said his method was to go to the edges of the state on his days off.

Dunbar also tuned in to the state’s rare-bird network, and must have often dropped everything and driven hours to view something such as a marbled godwit someone reported. He even came here in February to see the evening grosbeak a friend told me about on a feeder up on the hill. Someone similar must have led him to a calliope hummingbird on July 29.

Big Paul must have had witnesses for unusual listings. Looking at the 21 warblers he found south of here on May 10, I would bet he was walking a conservation area with a naturalist I know who is a warbler guru. Suppose he knew such individuals throughout the state – some at lakes, some on western prairie buttes, some in southeastern forests. That could account for the exaggerated number of gulls, sandpipers, and flycatchers.

Peterson Guide page 19, showing cackling goose

Page 19 of the Peterson guide, 2010

So I got out my Peterson Guide and looked up unfamiliar birds from the list. Here’s where the legend grows. Big Paul knew enough to look for the small cackling goose mixed in with Canadas, identical except for size. I had never noticed it on the goose page, but the cackling goose is well within our range.

He went west where horned grebes, golden eagles and rosy-finches are less than exotic, but he also knew where to look. And to listen. Surely he found whippoorwills and short-eared owls by their calls, even if he didn’t see them.

In April, even secretive birds like Henslow’s sparrow and Say’s phoebe would have been singing. In May he must have known the difference between calls of a Swainson’s thrush and the gray-cheeked thrush he saw a week later. I’ve heard that some birders work more than 80% by ear, and Big Paul might be among them.

On the other hand, hawks can only be known from distant wing patterns or flight habits. Dunbar listed almost every hawk in the book, the western ferruginous hawk we might never see as well as the Mississippi kite that supposedly migrates through here if you know enough to look for it.

Following Dunbar’s list, I found a whole page of flycatchers in our range that I had never noticed in my well-worn bird guide. Townsend’s solitaire. Pipits and waterthrushes. Longspurs. Dunbar knew to look for them where most of us would assume a bird is the usual robin, sandpiper or horned lark.

I do have to wonder about a few claims on even Big Paul’s list. A mew gull is so rare no range is listed, though it might wander through most any location. You wouldn’t think Nebraska would be big gull country, but surprisingly a lot of gulls migrate through here. On the other hand, distinguishing marks for gulls are minute. Where I see a flock of gulls, Big Paul can find every gull on the page. At least with flycatchers or even warblers and sparrows, their calls separate them.

I have to hand it to you, Reverend D. You found a Lapland longspur and a white-winged dove. You knew enough to spot a black duck and a ruddy turnstone. How can I doubt your plumbeous vireo or your glaucous-winged gull?

The only one I doubt is surely a typographical error: a ruby-throated warbler. Among your four other hummingbirds, all rare for Nebraska, you couldn’t have missed the more common ruby-throated.

Now you approach spring of the year-after-the-Big-Year. Yep, there you are, out there listening and listing all over again. Raising the bar for the rest of us.


January bird questions

Birders are excitable people, ready to take any suggestion to get out and see something. They usually have wide-ranging interests and few dull days. But I have to wonder when I listen to a birder absolutely  identify a bird he saw only at a fleeting glance.

With effort I have mastered the distinction between downy and hairy woodpecker: sure, one is bigger, but when do they sit side by side? The secret is to look at the beak, not the feather pattern.

Another puzzler here is the meadowlark. We are lucky to have a place where both species of meadowlarks sing in April. Nobody can tell eastern from western from their appearance, but even to me their songs make it easy.

And the hawk that visits our feeder this winter has a tail exactly between square and pointed, but it confuses me no longer: the Cornell Lab tips me to check out the head pattern and size, so I believe I can now distinguish Cooper’s from sharp-shinned hawks.

This is birding progress for me. Not much, though – a good birding trip still leaves more questions than answers, and I guess I am not holding my breath for the day when I really know birds, anyway.

January is a good time for lists. This year I may:Low possible vireo nest Loess Hills

Find the vireos. I have found the excellent shallow-basket nest, and the Cornell Lab ( says vireos may be the most common bird group in our summer woods. Who knew? If I see one, nothing makes me sure it is not a warbler. It would help to learn the calls, as I guess they sing all day long.


See migrant hawks. Nearly every big hawk you see turns out to be a red-tail.  Colors vary greatly even among red-tails, and they change for several years as they mature. I know red-tails overhead now by their dark shoulder patch. If I keep my eyes open, I should see six or eight other hawks that visit here.

rough legged hawkThe past month a group of rough-legged hawks have hung out on a floodplain near us while they wait to return to Canada and the Arctic. They really beg us to watch as they perch on power poles and even sometimes hover over the mice or whatever they hunt that I can’t see.  I can’t say I know their rough legs, but they reliably have dark spots on their “wrists” under their open wings. And certainly they think more highly of our January than anyone I know.


Woodpeckers were here

Woodpeckers were here

This may be the year I locate a few of the cavity nests of my yard’s woodpeckers, nuthatches and chickadees. I haven’t a clue.


In 2014 I hope I will also hear a wood thrush. Are they really in my woods? Maybe I will have to go out at first light.

And 2014 may be the year I finally discover an ovenbird.


Creeping fall color: Vines get no respect

It’s been dry in the northeast Iowa woods this year, and the leaf-tourists are disappointed. Instead of the usual mid-October reds and golds, most leaves just wither to dull brown and drop off. Only the vines have leaves left, and they don’t really count, do they?

Wait, where would the woods be without Virginia creeper, wild grape and poison ivy?

This walnut has lost its leaves but Virginia creeper glows

This walnut has lost its leaves but Virginia creeper glows on.


Even when the fall trees color up spectacularly as expected, a good share of the drama is added by the vines. Virginia creeper, wild grape and poison ivy are more widespread in American forests than any tree. They may be a bit spineless, depending on tree trunks to reach the light, but they do know how to adapt, growing from northern Mexico to southeastern Canada.



Part of Virginia creeper’s image problem goes back to its close relation to poison ivy.

Virginia creeps with 5 red fingers, produces purple berries. Green here is an interfering grape.

Virginia creeps with 5 red fingers, produces purple berries. Green here is an interfering grape.

Poison ivy holds on with hairy rootlets, berries are white.

Don’t touch this one. Poison ivy holds on with hairy rootlets, berries are white.

Both VC and PI are in the sumac family and the leaves look similar. However, a Virginia creeper leaf has five prominent fingers, except on a few tiny new leaves. The creeper is not poisonous, unless you eat a bunch of the small purple berries, which look like wild grapes in loose clusters.



Poison ivy vines have three-leaf clusters and white berries. One reason both vines spread is because animals including birds eat both kinds of berries. No animals are known to be allergic to the urushiol oil in poison ivy, except people.


Instead of hairy rootlets, Virginia creeper holds on with tendrils.

Instead of hairy rootlets, Virginia creeper holds on with tendrils.





Virginia creeper and poison ivy both cling to tree trunks as they climb, but the creeper holds on with tendrils and the ivy grows a bunch of hairy rootlets along the stem.

Besides providing food for animals, both Virginia creeper and poison ivy also add security to nest sites, provide browse for deer and other animals, and attract insects.


Grape vines can be small and green or big and shaggy. They hang on trees without attaching..

Grape vines can be small and green or big and shaggy. They hang on trees without attaching.

The wild grape doesn’t do much for fall color, but of course it is also among the most valuable to other woods inhabitants.  In the woods, grape vines hang like swings in Tarzan’s jungle, unattached to the trees they climb.

A woods without vines would be a room without furniture.