For the Birds Radio Program: Elderhostel

Original Air Date: Aug. 21, 1989

Laura taught a class at the edge of the Boundary Waters, birds in tow. (4:01)

Audio missing



(Recording of a Red-eyed Vireo)

Two weeks ago I taught an Elderhostel class for the St. Paul YMCA’s Camp Northland on Burntside Lake outside of Ely. I spent the week at the camp, where I had my own cabin, but I was never lonesome. My seven-year-old son Joey came along—he not only kept me company, but also served as a 5-minute guest lecturer in my class, talking about his pet, Mortimer the Starling. Mortimer of course came along as a noisy and friendly visual aid. Then I had to bring some of my injured and orphaned birds—Woody Woodstock the Blue Jay came along, and so did my little Pine Siskin. The baby nighthawk I’ve been caring for came, too—she sat on a bookcase in my cabin most of the time, but one morning she decided to fly into Joey’s bed while he was still sleeping. When he rolled over they both got the surprise of their lives—she squawked to beat the band, and he leaped out of bed like a jay with a sharp-shin on its tail. Every evening the little nighthawk stretched her wings and flew around the room a bit—she even started chasing moths. I wanted to release her at camp, but a nearby family of Merlins changed my mind, so I waited until I got home.

Of course you hardly have to bring your own company to an Elderhostel. The people, some of whom came from as far as New York, Florida, and California, and some as near as Ely, were company enough, and taught me as much as I taught them. A lady from Ely knew more about the wildflowers of the area than anyone I’ve ever met. And an 83-year-old woman taught Joey and me how to play Bocce Ball.

The first week in August is probably the worst week in the year for spotting birds at Camp Northland. Baby birds have left the nest and are keeping as inconspicuous as possible while they learn to fly and find their own food. Joey managed to find a baby Red-eyed Vireo that hadn’t quite learned how to lay low, and all the elderhostelers got a good look at it. I set it back in its tree so everyone could see that even after you handle a baby bird the parents will still care for it. Sure enough, within a minute of putting it back, it’s mother or father flew in and fed it. There were a few warblers starting to flock, but nowhere near as many as normal for the time of year—I suspect a lot of small birds will be late this fall. A lot of their first nests didn’t succeed thanks to forest tent caterpillars exposing the babies to sun, wind, and rain, and eating leaves normally used by more palatable soft caterpillars. The baby loons in Burntside Lake were about three quarters grown—one of the ones I watched each day even took a couple of test flights with its mother or father. It was fun watching the parent loons divide their duties—unlike most American human couples, which apparently don’t really divide tasks fairly according to the newest studies, a pair of loons believes in absolute equality, each caring for one of their two babies and teaching it how to dive, catch fish, and fly. This method allows them to cover more of the lake for fishing, and yet give the vulnerable young plenty of protection at all times.

Getting into the Boundary Waters is always a rich experience–and seeing it from the eyes of older people makes it seem even more important to me to keep this precious wilderness area accessible to everyone. Yet I sure enjoy the natural sounds of a genuine wilderness setting. It seems like environmental organizations might consider providing free portaging services for elderly and handicapped people. So many issues like motorized portages needlessly tear apart people who should be working together–after all, isn’t peace and harmony what the Boundary Waters is all about?

(Recording of a Red-eyed Vireo)

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