For the Birds Radio Program: Lakewood Pumping Station

Original Air Date: Oct. 18, 1996

What birds are flying along Lake Superior? Laura Erickson tells us what’s new at the Lakewood Pumping Station. 4:23 (date verified)

Audio missing


This has been a long, beautiful autumn in terms of weather and leaf color, but a dull, uneventful one for bird migration, at least at feeders. In the past week, I’ve had several phone calls about the lackluster season—a lot of people are growing concerned about avian survival since so few birds are showing up at feeders in so many places right now. I’m hoping that with the late fall, many birds have simply not left the north yet, and that overall population numbers are really okay, but it’s hard to verify any trend based on a single season’s sightings.

I’ve been so busy this fall that I’ve had little time to bird, but I have spent at least one morning every week counting migrants along the Lake Superior shoreline from the Lakewood Pumping Station. Overall my numbers have been fairly low, my biggest days of the season totaling only 6 or 7 thousand when in many years I’ve had several days over 10,000. I’m attributing the low counts to the long stretches with east winds. Our biggest counts at the Pumping Station virtually always fall on days of strong westerly winds, which push central and northern Canadian birds against the big lake—to avoid flying over the dangerous water they hug the shoreline and migrate by day. Without a westerly tailwind, many migrants avoid the lake altogether and fly safely at night. Although they’re still out there, they don’t show up in our counts.

One bird that is suddenly appearing again on our counts is the Pine Siskin. A bit over a week ago, these tiny finches started moving, and suddenly we’re inundated with them. Siskins are cute and friendly little guys at feeders, but I dread counting flocks of them. Each siskin swoops up and down as if attached to its own personal yoyo string, making it frustratingly hard to accurately enumerate flocks of eighty or a hundred zipping past at high speed. It’s almost impossible to accurately count a siskin flock of over 200 birds, and worst-case scenario is when a mixed pack of robins and blackbirds move along with them. The birds aren’t hard to tell apart—the trick is keeping a separate tally of their numbers as they whip by. Siskins have yet to grasp the point behind our count, and don’t lift a finger, or even a claw, to aid our efforts.

Last Saturday l counted 1721 siskins in two hours, along with 1283 robins and various and sundry blackbirds, warblers, longspurs, and crows. The best part of counting that day was that none of the people who normally help record data were available, so I brought my little boy Tommy along. Actually, he’s not so little—he just turned 11 last week and prefers to be addressed as Tom.

Anyway, Tom was very good at finding and counting migrants winging past at high speed, but to his unpracticed eyes they were no more than bewildering specks. He was amazed that I could tell them apart. Of course I’ve had many years of learning and practice—now I know that robins have a somewhat flattened, wide appearance and snap their wings back as they fly straight, blackbirds are more cylindrical and flap their wings up and down, grackles have a longer profile and straighter flight than other blackbirds, Blue Jays have a straight, slow, labored flight, waxwings swirl along in more compact, less strung-out flocks, siskins and other finches bounce up and down even as they move forward. The nicest birds call out their identities as they go, making the whole process much easier.

Tommy’s not at my level quite yet, and it was fun seeing how big his eyes got when he made a guess and I told him why he was wrong. Identifying and counting birds will never pay as well as other jobs, but any job is worth the time when it doubles as an opportunity to impress your own eleven-year-old boy.