For the Birds Radio Program: Lakewood Pumping Station

Original Air Date: Aug. 30, 1995

Today Laura Erickson talks about her favorite fall ritual, Dawn Dickey Duty at the Lakewood Pumping Station. 3:58 (Date confirmed)

Audio missing


One of the rituals of late summer for me is sitting atop the roof at the Lakewood Pumping Station and counting dickey birds at dawn—we call the exercise “Dawn Dickey Duty.” Kim Eckert and I have kept this tradition going most years since 1982, and my dog Bunter has been my companion there since she was a puppy in 1983.

This year we started our count on August 23. We arrived at 6:15, just two minutes before sunrise, so we had to hurry up the hill to start on time. There were enough clouds on the horizon to make the sunrise spectacular, and the haze colored the sun a brilliant red for several minutes after it cleared the low clouds over the lake. Loon music drifted up from the lake, accompanied by the sleepy sounds of Cedar Waxwings. I counted 358 waxwings during my two-hour count.

Warblers have been moving through for a few weeks now—we watch them in our back yard on foggy mornings, and always run out to identify them, hoping to finally add a Golden-winged to our yard list. The warblers at the pumping station are usually flying too high for identification. We recognize a lot of Yellow-rumps and Palm Warblers by their call notes overhead, and once in a while a Redstart or Magnolia goes by close enough to see its unique tail pattern. But we’re satisfied to call most fall warblers at the pumping station simply “Warbler species.”

Fortunately, most birds are more cooperative. Purple Finches have a simple “tink” call note, and Evening Grosbeaks call constantly as they move overhead. The trick with these two is finding them in the sky after we’ve heard them—if we don’t actually locate the flock, we can only count the one or two that we actually heard rather than the dozen or so flying over. Cedar Waxwings have a distinctive call, but their easy flight and swirling flocks make them easy to recognize even in foggy silence. Waxwings are easy to identify but hard to count—those swirling flocks keep shifting position, making exact counts challenging and fun. Blackbird flocks are usually easy even from afar, since the males are noticeably bigger and darker than the females, and they fly fairly straight and fast. This time of year, most blackbird flocks are made up of Red-wings, but now and again a grackle is seen in their flocks, and soon big flocks of grackles will also be migrating. The worst flocking birds to count are Pine Siskins—they swirl like waxwings, but at such high speeds that counting them while they’re in our field of view is extremely difficult.

From a long distance, a Great Blue Heron might be mistaken for a large raptor except that its wings move up and down in two graceful arcs, the wings somehow held in a more rounded position than those of hawks. I used to only be able to recognize Eastern Kingbirds if they flew directly overhead so I could see the white terminal tail band. Now I look for their flat-bodied appearance, and how shallow they flap their wings, reinforcing that flat appearance. Last time I was up there, I heard a call I didn’t recognize—just a little “zit” call note. Fortunately, Kim Eckert was there and knew that one—an Indigo Bunting. But some of the birds that pass over elude identification for both of us—1 ended up my first day with 18 unidentified small birds out of 643 total. I know these are just numbers, but somehow these numbers have a richness of meaning and memory for me.