For the Birds Radio Program: WHOA! Big Day at the Pumping Station

Original Air Date: Oct. 7, 1988

93,948 birds, mostly robins and warblers, were tallied flying over the Lakewood Pumping Station on Saturday. Laura is still reeling with quantification. (4:04)

Duration: 4′05″


Lakewood Pumping Station

(Recording of Trillium singing “Red Red Robin”)

The red red robins have certainly been bob-bob-bobbin’ through the Northland this fall. Much of last week we were socked in with gloomy weather in Duluth, but a cold front started to move in Friday afternoon. So naturally I was excited about what I’d find at the Lakewood Pumping Station when I headed out there before dawn on Saturday.

The dark, overcast sky looked ominous, and for a few minutes I was afraid I’d be rained out. It never did rain, but it was sure a dark morning—cars on Scenic North Shore Drive kept their headlights on for over an hour after the sun supposedly rose.

There were a few warblers making seeping notes overhead as I wrote down the weather data, and when I started officially counting just before sunrise, I had to scramble to count a few small flocks of robins and warblers flying inland along the ridge. It took a few minutes for me to realize that something extraordinary was happening. The flocks of robins didn’t stop. Normally I write down individual marks for each bird, or numbers like 50 or 100 for flocks which I count one by one. But now I found myself writing down numbers like 2,000 and 2,500. I was still managing to count most of the flocks by twos, but more and more I was finding myself counting by 5’s and 10’s. And the birds kept coming.

It’s a bit of a trick to count thousands of robin specks flying over the horizon, but I didn’t think I was missing too many of them until suddenly I looked up and realized that the sky overhead was also streaming with robins. I scanned to the west, trying to find the beginning of the flock, but there were birds as far as the eye could see. So I started counting at the western horizon back to overhead and beyond to the east. Thousands. Then I rushed back to scanning the northern horizon, where the robins were still flowing non-stop. Plus I had to keep track of thousands of warblers, also on the move, along with the odd Sharp-shinned Hawk and kestrel. I was missing an awful lot of birds, but I was counting an awful lot, too.

After about an hour, Kim Eckert showed up with his bird identification class, and suddenly I had helpers. Kim counted robins along the ridge–he’d call out things like “2,000 robins. Do you have those 300 warblers? 2 Sharpies. 3,000 robins. 900 warblers over the tower. I tallied his birds between counting warblers along the ridge and everything overhead. We counted a greater percentage of the birds this way, but after 3 hours Kim had to leave, and soon I was soloing again. By this time my eyes were seeing specks everywhere, and my brain was reeling with quantification. But just before I went completely bonkers, a Peregrine Falcon circled right over my head half a dozen times, drawing my eyes from the robin specks like a magnet. After a magical minute, he tipped his wing at me and lit out for the territory, and, refreshed, I turned again to the robins.

All in all, I counted 93,948 migrants in five hours that morning–by far the all-time record for the pumphouse count. There were over 62,000 robins, 30,000 warblers, and a smattering of other things, like Lapland Longspurs, Pine Siskins, crows, ravens, Canada Geese, and Bald Eagles. It was frustrating to realize that I missed so many–if Kim could have stayed the whole time, we would surely have broken 100,000. By the time I got home I was a wreck. I smacked right into a bag of sunflower seeds in the garage when I got out of my car, and found myself counting the spilled seeds as I cleaned them up. It was a day I’ll never forget–but, then again, it was a day I’d just as soon didn’t come again–at least until next year.

(Recording of an American Robin)