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Bird migration, frogs, sumacs, and more! A conversation with retired non-game biologist Pam Perry

A brown bird with a streaked, white chest and white line from the beak, through the eye, and to the back of the head. The beak is very large.
Photo by iNaturalist user KrissKinou
A brown bird with a streaked, white chest and white line from the beak, through the eye, and to the back of the head. The beak is very large.

John and Heidi had a great chat with Pam Perry, retired non-game wildlife biologist and phenology enthusiast! Their conversation covered early signs of fall, migrating birds, the joys of handling snakes, and balding blue jays. Enjoy!

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.


Pam: Good morning, Heidi and John!

John: Good morning, Pam. I have to tell you a story, Pam, about a young 8-year old girl I met on a nature hike. She captured a garter snake in her net. I fished it out for her, and she asked to hold it! I showed her how to pinch it behind the head- not too tight, so it could breathe- and when she got a grip on it, she asked if I could wrap it around her arm. She wanted to feel it! So, I did, and honest to God, Pam, she was built in your image. Absolutely a joy to be with!

Pam, laughing: Yep, I remember speaking to a group of students in Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge when I was still working, and there was a garter snake I captured. I held it up, and a picture showed up in the paper of me in front of a whole bunch of students holding a garter snake that's wrapped around my arm! Yep, that’s me.

John: That’s me too!

Pam: When I was a kid, I used to catch frogs along the shoreline.

John: They’re amazing critteres, and fun to look at.

Pam: They’re all amazing critters.

John: They truly are!

Heidi: So, Pam, are you seeing signs of fall migration already?

Pam: Oh, I’m seeing signs of fall migration and fall in the vegetation! I wanted to add, John, you didn’t mention sumac leaves turning red in your phenology report: that’s one of the first things I see here in the Brainerd area. They’re turning bright red. I’ve got them in my backyard, and I see them driving down the road and in the countryside. For me, those red leaves are a certain sign of fall!

John: Yeah, and they are gorgeous.

Pam: Yes. Bird wise, I think most people have noticed a lack of bird song. We hear calls and some chatter, but except for the occasional red-eyed vireo, there’s not a lot of singing anymore. That’s because they’re moving around in families; the adults are all taking care of the youngsters and it’s not territorial time anymore. To me, that’s the obvious thing.

John: When do the young birds learn their song?

Pam: That’s a good question.

John: The parents sing when they’re marking their territory, when they’re getting ready to nest, and when they’re trying to attract a mate. Then they stop. So, how do these young birds learn the songs? Are they born innately singing that song, or do they learn it?

Pam: You know, I don’t know for sure. I will say that I’ve read that the young birds hear it while they’re in the nest as nestlings. That goes on through July. So, they hear that and it just clicks for them: I think that’s how it works.

[Editor’s note: learn more about the development of bird song here.]

Pam: I wanted to mention that I’m seeing crows flock in the fields, just as John mentioned. They’re hitting the grasshoppers pretty hard.

John: Not a good day to be a grasshopper! You see some shadows coming overhead, and it’s time to lay low.

Pam: Yeah, you get a whole bunch of crows out there and they’re working that field pretty hard. You know, I wanted to commiserate with Heidi on her poison ivy.

Heidi: Pam’s getting a look at my arm on Zoom.

Pam: Yeah, I can see it. I haven’t gotten any yet this year, so that’s good! I did want to mention that I got chiggers two weeks ago in Minnesota. That’s new for me. I’m 70, and have never gotten chiggers in Minnesota before! I’ve gotten them in Florida, Arizona, and Costa Rica. They’re usually in wet, grassy, hot areas. I think I got them while working in my garden: I was kneeling in the grass for a long time and it was wet and hot. I regularly go to therapeutic massage, and my specialist mentioned that I was the fourth case they’d seen! All the cases were from southern Crow Wing county.

John: Oh man!

Pam: I just wonder if this is a climate thing, with it getting warm and wet. I don’t know: I’m just throwing that out there.

John: I have run into chiggers in the south, but never up here. I’ve talked with people from Georgia and Florida who come up here to work in the bog, and they say, “Where are the chiggers?” I tell them they left them behind when they crossed the Iowa border!

Pam: I didn’t think they occurred in Minnesota, but you know, they do!

John: That’s ugly, I hate to hear that.

Pam: Okay. Yeah, I’m seeing a lot of young birds at my feeders: young cardinals, young blue jays, young woodpeckers. Of course, you can’t tell the young ones for chickadees and nuthatches, but I know some of those are young ones too. Lots of baby birds! I have a young Cooper’s hawk hanging around, constantly calling and begging for food. You know, those are all August-type things!

I wanted to mention the Merlin Bird app. This is a really wonderful thing for people to identify birds by song or call, and it’s free! It’s easy to use, and you get it on your phone and just point the phone to where the call or song is coming from. It’ll tell you what bird it is!

John: That’s nice!

Pam: Try it! I really urge our listeners. I downloaded it earlier, then didn’t do much with it for a while. But now I’ve started using it and I am having so much fun with it! It’s picking up birds and calls and chip notes that I didn’t even know. I’m learning, and it’ll help you confirm: you think, “Oh, I think that’s an indigo bunting.” Hold up your phone, press the button, and it’ll tell you if it is an indigo bunting or not!

John: Wow!

Pam: Yeah! It’s the Merlin bird app from Cornell. It’s free and easy to use. That’s my hint for today!

John: Thank you! I was looking through my notes from past years and on August 19th of 2008, I wrote a note about blue jays’ heads looking kind of sparse. I wanted to ask you about that! I’ve noticed them coming to the feeder, and I’m wondering if they’re starting to lose their head feathers again. What’s going on?

Pam: I haven’t seen it yet this year, but I have in the past. They are molting, but they do look very odd when it happens.

John, laughing: Suddenly, their heads are much smaller!

Pam, laughing: Yeah, darker and funny looking!

John, still laughing: We shouldn’t laugh at them.

Pam: I’d like to mention frogs. John mentioned frogs along the shorelines, and I’m seeing lots of tree frogs and little toads all over my yard and in my gardens. The tree frogs crawl up the glass! There are lots of little ones this year. I think there were fewer last year because it was so dry, but this year they’re certainly something to look out for. I look for them in my gardens on my plants; there are those tiny tree frogs. Keep in mind that even though they are green-colored, they are grey treefrogs! They’re not even an inch long yet.

John: Yeah. Now those are this year’s frogs, right? So, they were tadpoles in the spring, and now they’re one-inch long little green frogs. I’m seeing a bunch of them myself!

Pam: The toads can be all different colors, but you’ll see them hopping around. They’re barely an inch long.

John: I haven’t seen a lot of toads in my area this year. But over the years, I have had times where I didn’t even mow my lawn for a couple of weeks because there were so many little toads out there. I just couldn’t bring myself to be that slaughtering individual with the lawnmower.

Pam: Right. I’ve seen that with wood frogs some years, but not this year. Yeah, the wood frogs were so abundant through the grass I just couldn’t mow. I couldn’t do it. There were too many wood frogs!

John: The grass will take care of itself!

Pam, laughing: Yeah, I can always mow it later.

John: If you can still see the dog, it’s not that tall!

Pam, laughing: Right? Well, you have a big dog. I have a little dog.

John: Yeah, if you can see the back of your dog, the grass isn’t out of control yet. You know what I’ve noticed, Pam? I’m not seeing any male rose-breasted grosbeaks right now. There are some young ones and some females, but I haven’t seen a male on my feeder in probably a week.

Pam: Yeah, I don’t think I’ve seen a male for quite a while either. Even the females or youngsters are few and far between. The orioles are completely gone too. I haven’t seen an oriole for a long time.

John: I don’t get many orioles at my feeder or even around my yard. I don’t hear them very often.

Pam: I get orioles regularly! They bring the young ones in to eat the jelly. But, they’re gone right now. One other thing about migration is that the shorebirds are moving through. I was out birding yesterday in the Sterns county area. We were looking for shorebirds, and we found some including [unintelligible]. And then warblers are going to be moving through. I get some reports from Duluth, and they’re seeing lots of warblers there right now. So, they’re going to be moving down. I haven’t seen the migrating ones yet, but the locals are here at my water in the backyard. The migrators will be here soon: we’re definitely in fall migration!

John: Yeah. To finish up, can you give us a quick overview of hummingbirds? What’s up with them? A few weeks ago, I was feeding a lot, and it has decreased significantly.

Pam: I agree. I could hardly keep my feeder filled, and now it’s slowed down. I think they’re moving; you’re going to have some migrants, and a few that were summer residents, but it’s less. They were feeding heavily for migration.

John: Laura Erickson in Duluth tells us that it doesn’t hurt to increase your ratio of sugar to water. (From 1 part sugar to 4 parts water, to 1 part sugar to 3 parts water.)

Pam: You know, sometimes I do it, sometimes I don’t. I tend to keep the 1:4 ratio and they seem to do fine.

John: I just get a little less meticulous about my measuring!

Pam, laughing: I know! But enjoy the birds we’ve got now, because they’re all going to start moving out of the area if they haven’t already.

Heidi: Pam, you also got to see some otters?

Pam: Oh yeah! The otters! We were birding in Morrison County. We had a house we wanted to check out that had a pond with shorebirds a week or so ago. There’s a farm pond in the front yard that’s all green with mud flats. When we got there, we were looking at solitary sandpipers, killdeer, and a bunch of other birds, then something else came over the hill. My partners who were with me said, “What are those?” They were otters going cross-country to the pond! The pond was scummy green. They would dive down and pop up with green stuff all over their heads. We got to watch them for a long time. So that’s the thing: bird watchers go out, and yes, we look at birds. But we look at everything, and seeing a pair of otters like that is wonderful!

Heidi: That sounds great! We love to hear from you. Thanks so much, Pam!

Pam: You betcha!

Heidi Holtan is KAXE's Director of Content and Public Affairs where she manages producers and is the local host of Morning Edition from NPR. Heidi is a regional correspondent for WDSE/WRPT's Duluth Public Television’s Almanac North.
As a mail carrier in rural Grand Rapids, Minn., for 35 years, John Latimer put his own stamp on a career that delivered more than letters. Indeed, while driving the hundred-mile round-trip daily route, he passed the time by observing and recording seasonal changes in nature, learning everything he could about the area’s weather, plants and animals, and becoming the go-to guy who could answer customers’ questions about what they were seeing in the environment.
Charlie Mitchell (she/they) joined the KAXE team in February of 2022. Charlie creates the Season Watch Newsletter, writes segment summaries for the website, and coordinates our Engaging Minnesotans with Phenology project. With a background in wildlife biology, she enjoys learning a little bit about everything, whether it's plants, mushrooms, aquatic invertebrates, or the short-tailed shrew (did you know they can echolocate?).