For the Birds Radio Program: Pumphouse Data

Original Air Date: Aug. 18, 1989

What have people been counting at the Lakewood Pumping Station? (4:08) Date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording of a Cedar Waxwing)

On August first, Duluth Audubon Society began our annual count of migrant birds from the Lakewood Pumping Station. Usually the first few weeks of the count are slow, allowing the counters to ease our way back into the swing of things, but this year migration was already powerfully underway. The first four days of the month counters were getting about 600 birds in a couple of hours, and on Saturday morning, when I first counted, there were 1815 migrants in 2 hours. 894 of them were blackbirds—just about all Red-wings. Red-wings fly in tight, fast flocks, with enough shifting of positions within the flock to make identification tricky. A lot of these red-wings were also flying with Cedar Waxwings, and there were lots of pure waxwing flocks, too–waxwings totaled 516 for the morning. I like counting waxwings—the flocks move a bit more leisurely than blackbirds, and their sweet snoring sounds are just the right note for lazy August days.

Evening Grosbeaks, which are cleaning me out of about 5 pounds of sunflower seeds every day now, were migrating past in good numbers–I counted 321. A couple of Eastern Kingbirds went past–these northern insect eaters go down to the tropics to eat fruit all winter, apparently believing a balanced diet is achieved over a year, not a day. Two loons hurried by, almost leaving their feet behind them. Migrating Cliff Swallows were tricky—there were 7 swallows that stayed around the old pumphouse building, flying out every now and then but pulling back like avian yo-yos. Whenever I saw swallows fly past, I had to keep track of them to determine whether they were truly migrants or were just the 7 on a short feeding flight.

To the unpracticed eye, a merlin went past every 10 minutes or so—but not one could be counted since they were all the same individual. There’s a Merlin nest somewhere in the trees behind us, and the male brought kills in every little while, or just checked in, both adults noisily proclaiming their presence. I didn’t see them make any kills–the resident birds near a Merlin nest are pretty wary, and the migrants were moving in dense flocks–but the male apparently knew of better hunting grounds elsewhere because he brought in three birds while I watched him.

One lone Solitary Sandpiper alighted on the brick wall only about 20 feet from me, and added me to his list before heading on. A couple of unidentified shorebirds also winged past, and a total of 5 warblers. Birders consider warblers and shorebirds to be the most common August migrants, because those are the species we see in trees or ponds this time of year, but in reality other migrants are at least as common. It wasn’t until we started watching the movement of birds along the shore that we realized how early finches migrate–like the 8 crossbills that flew over me in a flock.

There are more than just migrants over the Lakewood Pumping Station–Saturday I counted 104 resident birds–some skulking in the trees and shrubs beneath our counting area, and some, like the swallows and merlins, flying out conspicuously and making it hard to tell which were migrants and which residents. I counted the 69 gulls that flew over as residents–they moved along the shore in the right direction like migrants, but were all probably headed to the dump for breakfast. Counting migrants is an inexact science, but we do as well as we can.

If you’re ever headed up the shore on a weekend morning and see someone in a red hat up on the pumping station wall, honk and wave–or stop and visit a bit. Migration is far more interesting in person than it is on the radio.

(Recording of a Pine Siskin)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”