November storms bring birds, and as a rule of thumb, the bigger the storm the better the birds. This year we marked the anniversary of the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald with a storm as violent as the one that sent that ship to the bottom of Lake Superior.
The storm reached its peak on the evening of Tuesday, November 10. Winds were gusting up to 60 miles an hour. Trees were losing limbs, and every falling limb seemed to hit a power line. At our house we enjoyed a candlelight dinner that night. Our power went off just as we were setting the table, and it stayed off until midnight. Power failures in the city have a very special quality. Just two blocks away in every direction the lights were on. There were no lights on our street except for the occasional glimmer of a candle in a window. But the sky still glowed a dull orange, and you could see quite plainly.
For migrating birds a major wind is an opportunity. They can use the energy of the storm rather than their own muscles to carry them toward their wintering ground. The danger is that once they are aloft, the birds are at the mercy of the wind. They can get blown hundreds of miles off course and discover themselves in the morning over hostile territory, where food and resting sites are hard to find.
The whooping crane seen and photographed at Illinois Beach State Park around noon on Wednesday, November 12, may be facing that problem. Or it may get lucky. It was flying with a huge flock–estimated at 3,000 birds–of sandhill cranes. The sandhills have a well-established migratory route that takes them around the southwestern corner of Lake Michigan to a feeding and resting spot at the Jasper-Pulaski fish and game area in northwestern Indiana.
Whooping cranes may once have nested in Illinois. Accounts from the late 19th century say they did, but evidence in the form of eggs or specimens is rare. Certainly they were migrants through this region. They have been hovering on the brink of extinction for many years and became famous as an endangered species before there was an Endangered Species Act. The only breeding flock spends the summer in northern Alberta and winters at the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge on the Texas coast. Their normal migration route would be through the Dakotas, Nebraska, and Kansas, so this bird was presumably blown east by the strong winds.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been trying for many years to establish a new flock of whooping cranes. They have captive birds at their research center in Patuxent, Maryland, that are breeding successfully. Eggs from these birds have been placed in the nests of sandhill cranes in Idaho. The sandhills have reared these foster children, but the whoopers have shown signs of major identity crises and have not been able to breed.
My own feel-good fantasy about the whooping crane that passed through on the 11th is that it will winter in Florida with the sandhills and will find there another whooping crane of the opposite sex. In the spring these birds will go back north with the sandhills and become the Adam and Eve of a new flock of these majestic birds. Things like this have been known to happen.
The winds also blew an immature golden eagle through the Botanic Garden. This is a “rare but regular” species in this area. Some individuals spend the winter along the Illinois River or at the southern tip of the state, where large concentrations of waterfowl provide them with food.
The golden eagle has all the qualities humans have traditionally admired. It is huge, powerful, regal in manner. It is capable of killing animals substantially larger than itself and in general seems to prefer killing to the eating of carrion. There are reports by apparently sober observers of golden eagles killing adult white-tailed deer and calves as old as seven months.
The winds brought us the large and rare species. They also brought us abundance, a natural quality that is hard to find these days. That flock of 3,000 sandhill cranes at Illinois Beach State Park was only one of the large groups observed on the Wednesday following the storm. Two thousand cranes passed over the Botanic Garden, and more than 200 flew over Rosehill Cemetery. At the Northwestern University landfill, between 6:30 and 10 AM, nearly 900 snow geese and more than 1,000 shovelers passed by. Shovelers are ducks with long, broad beaks that they use to strain food from the water. Their nesting range is concentrated in the prairie pothole region northwest of here. We always see them in spring and fall, but we don’t expect to see 1,000 at a time.
Snow geese are also more common to the west. A 1960 record shows 7,000 seen in Indiana in a day, but in recent years 900 has become a very big deal.
Sixty-five white-fronted geese–another report from Illinois Beach–are an even bigger deal. In fact, it may be a record high count for the species in this area. White-fronted geese nest in the arctic and migrate south to the gulf coast. Their migration route is almost entirely west of the Mississippi. We see only a few off-course stragglers here in an average year.
The wind also blew us large numbers of Lapland longspurs. If you are not a birder, you probably have never heard of this species. These are tundra nesters that winter in open fields, pastures, and prairies across the U.S. They are finches, only about six inches long. In spring and summer the males are quite distinctive, with their black faces and bibs and rusty napes. In their nondescript winter plumage of drab brown stripes on a pale background they are very hard to identify. Adding to the difficulty is their habit of staying on the ground. They don’t fly up into trees and perch on branches where you can get a good look at them. At least 200 Lapland longspurs passed through the Botanic Garden the day after the storm.
The ideal job for a birder would be weather dependent–you wouldn’t have to show up if a front had just moved through. Instead of spending the day sitting at a desk, you could be out doing the really important work of counting the 269 Franklin’s gulls, 275 Bonaparte’s gulls, and 17 northern harriers that passed the Northwestern landfill on Veterans Day. You could be noting the arrival of black scoters at Waukegan, recording the first rough-legged hawks of the season, or watching 200-plus cedar waxwings feeding at the Botanic Garden. Tundra swans flew through here, as did bald eagles, short-eared owls, and red-throated loons. A California gull was well observed at Gillson Park, along with 349 horned grebes. What have you got to do that is more significant than that?
Imagine launching yourself into that storm. We were all huddled in our houses, checking our supply of flashlight batteries and wondering if the food in the freezer would thaw before Com Ed got the power back on. Only the largest of human aircraft can dare the skies when the winds are gusting to 60 miles an hour. But a Lapland longspur, which weighs about an ounce, can use the energy of the storm to carry it hundreds of miles.
The drama in the lives of these birds is what keeps me interested in watching as they pass through my earthbound life. They own the skies. They move across the face of the globe as freely as the air. Birds that I see over the waters of Lake Michigan were on Hudson Bay yesterday and will be above the Caribbean tomorrow. Wisdom says everything is connected. Birds reveal the connections.