For the Birds Radio Program: Dawn Dickey Duty

Original Air Date: Sept. 6, 1989

Recast from 9-7-87 (3:40) Date confirmed

Audio missing


(Recording of Blue Jays)

Autumn is the best time of year for birds along the shore of Lake Superior, where millions of birds migrate. And fall means Dawn Dickey Duty.

Dawn Dickey Duty is what Duluth Auduboners call getting up at sunrise to count all the songbirds (or “Dickey Birds”) that pass over. Every year we count the hawks over Hawk Ridge, and for the past several years we’ve also been counting at the Lakewood Pumping Station, up the shore a ways. Five of us take days–I get the weekends. We even get paid–three bucks an hour, which may not be the minimum wage, but it’s a lot more than Donald Trump has ever earned bird watching. We carefully count the hawks, of course, but until the Broad-wings peak in mid- Sept., the big fun and the biggest numbers come during Dawn Dickey Duty.

The only thing in the world prettier than a Blue Jay is a whole flock of Blue Jays. On Sept. 4, 1985, we had 1170 Blue Jays fly over the pumping station in five hours, and, on Sept. 2 that year, 1,050 passed by in just 2 1/2 hours. Imagine hundreds of jays streaming through a clear blue sky, holding their bodies aloft on their wingtips, and you’ll understand why fall is my favorite season.

Some mornings, right within the few minutes as the sun pops up over the lake, thousands of warblers descend. From beneath, it’s hard to tell most of them apart, but sometimes a flash of orange distinguishes a redstart, or square white tail patches verify a Magnolia Warbler. The easiest warbler of all to identify in flight is the Yellow-rump–all the warblers make little “seep” sounds as they migrate, to keep from bumping into each other, but the Yellow-rump also makes a unique chip sound sort of like this:

(“tch tch”)

Whenever you hear that, casually point it out to your friends, saying, “Oh, just another Yellow-rumped Warbler,” and they’ll be amazed and impressed by your abilities.

Ornithologists have long believed that warblers, sparrows, and most other songbirds migrate by night, when it’s cool enough to keep their engines from overheating, but our data show a much greater daytime movement than people thought. And several species of songbirds always migrate by day and are fun to watch–jays, robins, Cedar Waxwings, blackbirds, crows, and ravens. Bluebirds are no fly-by-nights, either, though the bulk of their migration won’t happen until later in the month. Hummingbirds often zip by, but many people don’t notice them, or confuse them with the ubiquitous dragonflies.

If Dawn Dickey Duty is exciting because of the huge numbers of birds passing over, what makes it even better is the chance for finding a rarity. Last week I had a Western Kingbird. And the four resident Merlins make even the slowest days enjoyable. Last weekend I watched a hummingbird chasing one of the fierce falcons. I’m not sure the Merlin even noticed, but the hummer sure had a proud gleam in his eye when he cased the predator into a tree–sort of like Snoopy after a successful encounter with the Red Baron.

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