Joel on April 1st, 2014
Passenger pigeon from Yale University collection.

Passenger pigeon from Yale University collection.

It seems that whenever I am any where in the vicinity, I am drawn to the home of Renee and David Baade like a lost ship is to a beacon. Susan and I arrived in their drive way in Newtown, CT just before noon. Connecticut Audubon Society was hosting a talk for me at Kroon Hall on the Yale Campus (the university’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Studies partnered with  CAS in having me come). There was a very nice reception before hand. And here too I met in person some folks I had only known through cyberspace and or over the phone. Sharon  Sweet had reached out during the early days of Project Passenger Pigeon to tell me how much the bird’s story meant to her. When I was done with my talk, she rose to read a poem she had written in honor of the bird. Also introducing himself was Andy Caploe who made a special trip from his home in New Jersey to meet me and see the talk. Andy is the very talented actor whose voice one hears on the audio version of A Feathered River. He was accompanied by  his friend Jonathan Robinson (a documentary filmmaker), who lives in New  Haven, and the six of us went for dinner and enjoyed some wonderful tapas.

Andy Caploe and friend Jonathon.

Andy Caploe and friend Jonathon.

No talks the following day so Renee took Susan and me out birding. It had snowed a bit and was colder than it had been for a few days. We spent most of our time birding at Hammonasset Beach State  Park where highlights were red-throated loon, snow bunting, and Lapland longspur. Killdeer interjected the promise of spring even though it did not feel that way. Along the Connecticut River we scoped flocks of ducks including three species of mergansers,  ring-necked, and a locally unusual canvasback. Evening plans consisted of another stimulating dinner, this time with world-renowned book illustrator Wendell Minor and his wife Florence. Wendell, having become familiar with Project Passenger Pigeon, reached out a year ago and we almost crossed paths the last time I was staying with Renee and David. This time I wanted to make sure we did get together and everyone had a great time as evidenced by our retreating to the Baades after desert at the restaurant.

Ring-billed gulls at Hammonasset Beach State Park.

Ring-billed gulls at Hammonasset Beach State Park.

Susan had to return to Brunswick, Maine so arrangements had been made to drop me off along the Mass Turnpike near Lowell where I would be met by Charlie Browne, the former director of the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury Vermont where I would be speaking the next day. Just two days before they had received a large snowfall and temperatures had plunged below zero. Fortunately, things had warmed up a bit and the snowy landscapes were quite lovely. Charlie and his charming wife live outside St. Johnsbury.

Mountains on the way to St. Johnsbury.

Mountains on the way to St. Johnsbury.

Every morning he gets up to feed the rooster and several chickens they keep. We went birding soon thereafter in a 4,920 acre state-owned site called the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area. It lies along the Moose River and is a wetland-forest complex that includes a boreal bog dominated by spruce (black and red) and balsam fir. Moose are supposedly common and it is a good spot for gray jays, spruce grouse, and black-backed woodpeckers, but alas most of what we saw were blue jays and black-capped chickadees. The most interesting mammal I did see was a snowshoe hare that ran along the road as we were driving back from dinner one evening.

Birding the Victory Basin bog.

Birding the Victory Basin bog.

The Fairbanks Museum is a  grand old museum founded by its name sake in 1889 and contains 175,000 objects. I visited once decades before and was struck by the array of materials including a California condor. My friend Mary Beth Prondzinsky is collection manager at the museum but unfortunately a family matter brought her to the Midwest. Leila Nordmann, Fairbanks director of programs, did a great job organizing the event. A nice turnout came to hear the talk and Charlie took some of us out to dinner at St. Johnsbury’s premier restaurant.

Charlie and Leila at Fairbanks gift shop.

Charlie and Leila  at Fairbanks gift shop.

Uneventful drive to Boston and flight home.

David, Renee, Susan, Blogger, Wendell, and Florence.

David, Renee, Susan, Blogger, Wendell, and Florence.

My talk at the Fairbanks Museum: I hope the bison approves.

My talk at the Fairbanks Museum: I hope the bison approves.

 

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Joel on March 29th, 2014

 

Heath hen, a New England endemic last seen in early 1930s.

Heath hen, a New England endemic last seen in early 1930s.

Five talks in ten days in four states: it sounded like a daunting trip  but turned out to be delightful largely because of all the wonderful people who put me up and schlepped me around. Starting off was Wayne Peterson who had invited me in the first place to speak at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s annual Birders Meeting. From Logan Airport, we headed to Wellesley where  Wayne’s good friends John and Carolyn Marsh live. But on the way we made a detour through Wellesley College to see the campus’ latest attraction: the lifelike sculpture of the almost naked somnambulist.

The "sleepwalker" on the Wellesley College campus.

The “sleepwalker” on the Wellesley College campus.

Over two hundred people attended the meeting, held at Bentley College in Waltham. This year’s theme was “Extinction is Forever: What Have We Learned?” I was the keynote speaker and my talk- “Hope is the Thing With Feathers: Americans and Three Birds”- compared the passenger pigeon story as an example of extinction with the Kirtland’s warbler (a species we know how to maintain at healthy numbers) and whooping crane (a species we are still struggling to preserve). Other speakers addressed the legacy of the heath hen (we were treated to the only  surviving movie footage of displaying heath hens), broader issues of conservation, effects of weather on birds and birders, and the causes and consequences of avian extinctions.

First public showing of tight draft of From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction."

First public showing of tight draft of From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.”

There many highlights. This meeting represented the first public airing of the documentary David Mrazek and I have been working on for a few years now. From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction  (http://e-int.com/billionstonone/) was extremely well received: people found the animation particularly effective and moving.  I also had the opportunity to interact with an august group of bird folks. I chatted with Scott Edwards of Harvard, whom I met a few years ago at the first de-extinction meeting. I have been on Ray Brown’s Talking Birds radio show twice and it was great have the opportunity to talk with Ray and his partner Mark Duffield. And I signed books next to David Sibley as his legions of fans sought autographs for the new edition of his field guide. (It is tough being a star: one couple asked David if he remembered them from a signing years earlier.)

Ray Brown, Blogger, and Mark Duffield.

Ray Brown, Blogger, and Mark Duffield.

Next day was my talk at the Harvard Natural History Museum. Susan Wegner, my dear friend from Bowdoin College, had offered sometime earlier to spend part of her spring break shepherding me through New England on this trip. SO we were going to meet at the one entrance to the HNHM, a seemingly straight forward rendezvous location. But Cambridge is a difficult town to navigate and parking for the museum can be tricky: as Wayne put it, meeting at the museum seems like a good idea if you did not know the actual  logistics. Susan arrived ok and Wayne showed her the parking garage. The attendance at the talk was standing room only and exceeded 100. I was honored to have Scott Edwards introduce me. It was a diverse crowd (my first presentation where a canid was part of the audience) who asked interesting questions. Later we toured the museum and met Jenny Berglund  who designed the new passenger pigeon exhibit.

Jenny Berglund, who designed the Harvard passenger pigeon exhibit, and Blogger.

Jenny Berglund, who designed the Harvard passenger pigeon exhibit, and Blogger.

Susan and I said good bye to Wayne and we made our way to Providence. Plans were for Susan and me to meet Eugenia Marks of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. I was going to be staying at her house and Susan at a nearby motel. Eugenia gave us a terrific tour of Providence, a city I had never visited before. Blocks of historic buildings and much of Roger Williams, who early on imbued the city with his views of religious tolerance. (I now know why Providence hosted the nation’s first synagogue; the first Baptist church is here as well.) Eugenia gave us a tour of the Roger Williams Natural History Museum which has a wonderfully eclectic collection including many examples of nineteenth century vitrines  filled with birds from around the world. We then tarried at the unique  Rhode Island School of Design’s Edna Lawrence  Nature Lab, which holds 80,000 specimens of plants and animals that enable art students to “examine, explore, and understand the patterns, structures and interactions of design in nature.” Before our tour ended, Eugenia took us to a harbor area where we were treated to large numbers of brant, a species rare to the Great Lakes.

Susan and Eugenia.

Susan and Eugenia.

Eugenia handed us off the following day to Jeff Hall, a staff member of the society. He took us birding and we had a number of memorable sightings. It is possible I have only seen great cormorants once before so seeing a flock reasonably close was a treat. Adding to the experience was a flock of purple sandpipers that were issuing low chattering calls: the first time I have ever heard the species.  And our shoreline walk had an exciting finish when Jeff spotted the snowy owl that had been hanging around.

Purple sandpiper (John Cassady)

Purple sandpiper (John Cassady)

The talk that evening at the society’s Environmental Education Center went well with a nice turn our.. Eugenia had brought along the society’s passenger pigeon specimen. And later she told me that a the niece of George Bird Grinnell was in the audience.

Blogger and Wayne Peterson.

Blogger and Wayne Peterson.

 

The extinct Guadalupe caracara at the Roger Williams Museum.

The extinct Guadalupe caracara at the Roger Williams Museum.

 

 

Mounts at Nature Lab of Rhode Island School of Design.

Mounts at Nature Lab of Rhode Island School of Design.

Jeff Hart and right whale facsimile at Rhode Island Audubon Society's Environmental Education Center.

Jeff Hart and right whale facsimile at Rhode Island Audubon Society’s Environmental Education Center.

 

 

 

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Joel on March 6th, 2014

P3 greenbelt Passenger_Pigeon_poster_final

 

A unique event took place on February 20 at the Green Belt Cultural Center in North Chicago, Illinois. Sophie Twichell, director of the BrushwoodCenter at Ryerson, was the principal organizer, bringing together nine LakeCounty conservation organizations t to participate. Sophie has a particular interest whcih we both share: bringing the arts and science/conservation together. This program epitomized that overlap.

I had reached out to Paul Doughty, a birding friend who is also an accomplished fiddle player and singer, to see if he would be interested in recruiting other musicians to play passenger pigeon music. He was excited about the idea and brought into the program Jason Watts, a guitar player and vocalist, and Jim Loftus, who plays the steel, slide and blues harp. I sent Paul a sampling of passenger related music and poetry that ranged from the 19th century to current times. They selected a popular ditty from the 1850s that goes:

“When I can shoot my rifle clear,

To pigeons in the skies,

I’ll bid farewell to pork and beans,

And live on pigeon pie.”

Our exaltation of musicians.

Our exaltation of musicians.

The other two songs were contemporary. The late John Herald,  a leader among blue grass musicians, wrote Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons) is moving lament to  the loss of the species. The Handsome Family’s “Passenger Pigeons” uses the pigeon story as a haunting metaphor for lost love. I had long thought of a presentation where  the performance of these songs could be incorporated  into a talk. It worked perfectly, and the four of us finished our time up front with plenty of time for David Mrazek to introduce our documentary, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. David showed a ten minute scene fron the film, the first public airing of any of it. I was quite pleased with everyone’s response.

 

Rob with alligator.

Rob with alligator.

And as yet another treat, Rob Carmichael and his crew from the Lake ForestWildlifeDiscoveryCenter, brought a varied collection of  live reptiles. It was delightful to watch Rob holding a small American alligator, a species once threatened with extinction but which has since bounced back to become a common sight in the southeast. The hog-nosed snake (a fascinating species that scares off potential threats by flattening its head like a cobra; failing that it flips over on its back and plays dead) also had its fans.

Sophie and I really wanted this event to be well attended but we were worried about the weather. Predictions called for howling winds, freezing temperatures, sleet, and flooding. If it was warmer, I am sure we would have been expecting locusts. It turned out that, except for the winds, the prognostications were worse than what actually happened. And we were excited by the turn out: over 140 people were there including Laura Ericsson, a  distinguished ornithologist and author who came all the way from Duluth, MN just to be at our show.  (It usually takes a boreal owl to get Chicago birders to travel to Duluth.). She is wonderful.

And perched from his  table, Heinrich surveyed the crowd and activities with satisfaction.

 

Heinrich being admired.

Heinrich being admired.

 

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Joel on March 4th, 2014
Slaty-backed gull in Lake County, IL (photo by Michael Retter)

Slaty-backed gull in Lake County, IL (photo by Michael Retter)

Every year for the past 13, the Illinois Ornithological Society sponsors a February event called “The Gull Frolic.” It is located at the harbor club at NorthPointMarina, in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, just spitting distance from Wisconsin. For several days before, bread is tossed to attract gulls and over the years most every kind of gull found on southern Lake Michigan in the winter has been found. Birders are drawn from all over northern Illinois, and beyond, to gather in undiminished numbers. (I have queried people on the success of the event, and there is general agreement to the idea that after being cooped up for January and much of February, it provides a terrific excuse to do some birding and catch up with a range of folks you might otherwise encounter much. This year Gull Frolic was held on February 15 and I was invited to be the speaker. There  were two sessions, where about 50 people at each heard me give my talk, Hope is the Thing With Feathers: Americans and Three Birds. This one of my principal talks: I look at the passenger pigeon as an icon of extinction and compare it with Kirtland’s warbler (we know to keep it at healthy population levels),  and the whooping crane (after decades of effort, its fate is still an open question).

Gull watchers frolicking.

Gull watchers frolicking.

Given the  low temperatures and little in the way of open water, organizers were concerned that the gulls might be scarce and, indeed, tehy were in the morning with only about 200 present. But by late afternoon the number of individuals and variety picked up substantially. Besides the cold weather, there was another unusual factor in this year’s frolic. The day before, Amar Ayaash and a visiting birder discovered a slaty-backed gull in inland LakeCounty, maybe a half-hour away. When it was reported on Saturday, there was a steady stream of people going back a and forth: late in the afternoon when most people had left, a few lucky birders found the slaty-backed right behind the club. I did some birding during the day. Mick Minor let me look through his scope at the Kumlien’s Iceland gull. And later I saw a great black backed and lesser black-backed, along with a nice flock of white-winged scoters just offshore. As has been widely reported the Great Lakes are nearly 100% frozen. One consequence is the appearance of white-winged scoters inland, including at least one that was found dying in a woods, no where near large water.

Kumlein's gull (photo by Geoff Williamson)

Kumlein’s gull (photo by Geoff Williamson)

Here is a list of the day’s birds as compiled by Amar: 85 Canada Goose, 26 White-winged Scoter,,12 Long-tailed Duck, 8 Red-breasted Merganser, 4 Common Merganser, 1 Red-throated Loon, 150 Ring-billed Gull, 700, Herring Gull (many more out on the lake in the distance and not in the harbor this year), 15 Thayer’s Gulls (10 adults, 2 third cycles, 3 first cycles), 8 Kumlien’s Iceland Gull (5 adults, 1 third cycle, 1 second cycle, 1 first cycle), 4 Glaucous Gulls (2 adults, 1 second cycle, 1 first cycle), 5 Lesser Black-backed Gulls (3 adults, 1 third cycle, 1 second cycle), 2 Great Black-backed Gulls (both adults, beyond the breakwall and in flight) 1 Slaty-backed Gull (Adult. Confirmed as same bird from LCF), and 8 American Tree Sparrows.

A flock of codgers: Jeff Sanders, Blogger, and Larry Balch.

A flock of codgers: Jeff Sanders, Blogger, and Larry Balch.

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Joel on February 24th, 2014
Short-eared owl at Indie Regional Airport (Jeff Timmons)

Short-eared owl at Indie Regional Airport (Jeff Timmons)

Damon Lowe, of the Indiana State Museum and a long time participant in Project Passenger Pigeon, invited me to participate in a panel discussion at the annual gathering of the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers. My good buddy Don Gorney was the other panel member and he was putting me up during my stay. The event was scheduled for February 6. Now I like to arrive early to places but I think I established a personal record here.

On Tuesday morning the weather reports were ominous, with predictions of a major snow storm moving through late that afternoon. I-65 is notorious for being shut down during heavy discharges, and traffic on 80-94 can thicken like over cooked oatmeal when lake effect snows fall a bit to the east. With that those prognostications glaring at me, I talked to Don and suggested I leave Tuesday afternoon to try and beat the snow. He said that was fine and I set out. In Newton County, a lovely light phase rough-legged hawk was hovering right off the highway. All was well until about Lafayette, and from them on my progress proceeded at a crawl. It was dark by the time I reached Indie, and, what was worse, I was following Map Quest directions, meaning I had to discern street names through the dark and snow. And in my haste to pack and leave, I forgot to bring Don’s phone number so I could not give him a progress report. But sometime in early evening, I arrived, fully a day earlier than I had originally anticipated.

Don knows how to entertain a visiting birder, however, even in early February. We went to a big Indie park called Eagle Creek,  which features its Ornithology Center, a nature center focused on birds. (Before the building that houses the center became a park, it was the library of J.K. Lilly, a member of the family that seems to fund most every cultural and educational facility in the state.) Don introduced to me to the staff,  including the director Brittany Swinford and naturalist Maggie Jaicomo. Elsewhere in Eagle Creek,  there is a spot where a road ends at a now completely frozen lake. People have been depositing seeds off to the side and fun collection of birds are drawn to the cache. They are mostly white-throated sparrows, with cardinals, a blue jay, one tufted titmouse  (a species I rarely see on the ground),  and song sparrows. But mixed in, and being coy on the periphery, were two fox sparrows and one swamp sparrow. Heading out of the park, Don spotted a hawk that proved to be a young red-shouldered.

Fox sparrow (Don Gorney)

Fox sparrow (Don Gorney)

Next we headed out to the Indianapolis Regional Airport. Don started seeding one small area here as well. The road runs next to the fence delimiting one side of the airport, and Don started seeding one small area here as well. As we approached the spot, there were two cars, with two birders in one, both armed with cameras equipped with large lenses. The birders were Mike and Jeff Timmons and we chatted awhile.. There were lots of horned larks, but then a flock of snow buntings joined them. We had about 20 or more: a real treat. And then appeared a Lapland longspur. We watched this terrific mix until it became late enough to go to another spot in search of short-eared owls. Don and I scanned but to no avail. Eventually we decided it was time to call it a day, but before we left the airport area Don stopped at low area where the owls sometimes roost. And sure enough, I spotted one and then Don another. One moved around a bit, spreading its wings as if getting ready to go its nocturnal rounds. Then it relaxed, but in another short period, the two launched themselves skyward.

Snow bunting at Indianapolis Regional Airport (Jeff Timmons)

Snow bunting at Indianapolis Regional Airport (Jeff Timmons)

The next morning was the day of our meeting. We met Damon at the Indiana State Museum, which is almost across the street from the conference center. It was obvious that the weather had depressed the turnout, far less than the 1,000 who were expected. But our session did attract some listeners. Afterwards we went back to the museum where we met the ever growing flock of passenger pigeons. It is now up to two, with a third one awaiting in England for transferal to Indianapolis. Damon may actually have to go himself. One of the hazards of the job.

Don, Damon, and a flock of passenger pigeons (albeit a small one.)

Don, Damon, and a flock of passenger pigeons (albeit a small one.)

 

Blogger and Brittany (Don Gorney)

Blogger and Brittany (Don Gorney)

 

 

 

 

 

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Joel on February 13th, 2014

 

Image on screen by Kate Garchinsky at Wagner Free Institute of Science.

Image on screen by Kate Garchinsky at Wagner Free Institute of Science.

My last trip to Philadelphia was in fall 2012 to attend a charette sponsored by the Museum Studies Department at the University of the Arts. Graduate students were divided into four group, each of which was tasked with designing a passenger pigeon exhibit at one of four local institutions: zoo,  Drexel Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and Wagner Free Institute of Science. When I discussed Philadelphia with Carrie Major, my Bloomsbury publicist, I mentioned these four organizations as possible venues and she picked Wagner. I had met Susan Glassman and when I called her, she was most pleased with the idea of my giving a program. Her assistant, Abby Sullivan, put me in touch with Maureen  of the Audubon Center of Mill Grove and they too were interested in having me present a talks.

Making this all very easy was a terrific artist named Kate Garchinsky, who contacted me some time ago, having learned about Project Passenger Pigeon through the web-site. She and her fiancé Brian Carpenter, an archivist at the American Philosophical Society, very kindly offered to both put me up for the three nights I was going to be in town and drive me around.

Kate and I arranged to meet at the baggage area. We had seen each other’s picture on Facebook but I liken this to looking for say a western sandpiper in a flock of semipalms: you look carefully at everyone making sure you don’t overlook the target of your search. I saw someone holding up a sign for some name or other, so I took out a copy of the book as my field mark. We had no trouble finding each other and we headed off to Kate’s apartment. Brian arrived and we headed off to dinner where we were going to meet Rich Horwich and Gregg Gorton.  Rich is an ecologist who has spent his entire career at what is now called the Drexel Academy of Natural Sciences. He will always hold a special place in my heart for having taken me birding for the first time back in November 1966. Greg is a psychiatrist at U of Pennsylvania who is working on a biography of Ted Parker. He visited me in Westmont to seek anecdotes and insights on Ted, with whom I roomed for a year at University of Arizona. Terrific get together with an friend of longstanding and three new ones.

On WHYY with Marty Moss-Coane (photo by Kate Garchinsky)

On WHYY with Marty Moss-Coane (photo by Kate Garchinsky)

Thursday was a very busy day. Carrie had arranged for me to appear on Radio Times, a wonderful show on WHYY hosted by Marty Moss-Coane. (She is an excellent interviewer.) After that, we headed to the APS where Brian had planned a tour and some surprises. Brian works with old interviews and came across two from the 1950s of a Cherokee and a Seneca describing traditional pigeon dances. The Cherokee dance features one performer who plays a falcon and grabs “pigeons” from the flock of other dancers.

APS has a complete original set of Audubon plates. The volumes are kept on their “backs” in a special shelf. Brian and a colleague removed the tome that had passenger pigeons and placed it on a table where they began turning pages. I have seen original Audubon plates under glass but never close up and personal. The beauty of the work seemed enhanced.

Pileated woodpecker by John James Audubon.

Pileated woodpecker by John James Audubon.

The Wagner Free Institute of Science is a remarkable place. According to its web-site: “Established in the mid-nineteenth century to provide free science education for the people of Philadelphia, the institute is not a reflection of the past but the past itself, visible and vital.” Imagine putting a bell jar over a 159 year old museum and you have Wagner. Over 140 people came and the audience was as diverse as any I have seen for a natural history talk. Later Kate and I, had dinner with Rich, Susan, and Amy. A wonderful experience. Next day, Kate took me sight seeing.  Our first stop was at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, encompassing a lake (quite frozen), woods, and marshes. White-throated sparrows were in abundance and Kate spotted a sharp-shinned hawk. At one point a great-blue heron flew slowly over head. We stopped at BartramGardens founded by John Bartram. From their web-site “He purchased 102 acres from Swedish settlers in 1728, and systematically began gathering the most varied collection of North American plants in the world.” His son, William,  carried on the naturalist tradition, continuing to collect plants on his varied travels. One of their most remarkable discoveries was Franklinia altamaha, named for their close friend Benjamin and the river on whose shores the plant grew. The shrub seems to have disappeared from the wild as it has not been located since the early 17th century. All current living examples are descended from the seeds first collected by the Bartrams.

Kate with Franklinia.

Kate with Franklinia.

After a late lunch with Brian, the three of us headed to the AudubonCenter at Mill Grove in, appropriately named Audubon, Pennsylvania. John James Audubon lived here and this where he banded an eastern phoebe to determine if the same individual would return, the first known attempt at such an experiment. They also had a passenger pigeon thought to have been mounted by him. There is a museum and barn, the latter serving as the auditorium. We were met by Maureen Dando, education director,  the person with whom I had made the arrangements. She took us on a tour of and showed us their good collection of specimens, including a passenger pigeon thought to be mounted by Audubon himself. They are planning on mounting an impressive array of Project Passenger Pigeon related programming including one involving origami pigeons.

The talk and questions went just fine. As I was signing books- which for me takes concentration as it is easy to screw up a name (once, years ago, I was chatting away and found myself writing: “To Joel”)- a gentleman handed me a book and said “David Burg.” He repeated it and it finally sunk in: David is an amazing Facebook Friend who created an organization called WildMetro which focuses on conservation issues in New York City. We have had some terrific e-mail conversations but I had no clue he was going to be in attendance. Despite a bad cold and an early morning owl walk he was conducting the following day, he decided to drive the two hours from his home to Audubon. A delightful surprise capping a lovely trip.

 

Brian, Kate and Blogger.

Brian, Blogger, and Kate at Wagner Institute.

David Burg at Audubon Center in front of the most iconic of all passenger pigeon paintings.

David Burg at Audubon Center in front of the most iconic of all passenger pigeon paintings.

 

 

 

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Joel on February 12th, 2014

 

Charles Otis Whitman and his birds.

Charles Otis Whitman and his birds.

The University of Chicago has as strong a connection to the passenger pigeon as any other school. Charles Otis Whitman, chairman of the university’s zoology department, specialized in the study of animal behavior and his principal subjects were pigeons of varying species. In 1896 he added several passenger pigeons to his collection; these birds originated from a captive flock in Milwaukee. He had some success in breeding birds but eventually his inbred flock began their downward spiral to zero. But in 1902, he sent a female to the Cincinnati Zoo. This bird was almost certainly Martha, whose death in 1914 would conclude the passenger pigeon’s tenure as a living species. I contacted Fran Vandervoort, of the Hyde Park Historical Society, who has close ties with the university. She had studied animal behavior as a graduate student at U of C and was very interested in having the school mark the anniversary. Fran’s hard work and perseverance, in collaboration with  Jennifer Hart and Michal Safar, resulted in a wonderful display on Whitman that is currently showing at the university’s John Crerar Library. One entire case is devoted to passenger pigeons. And to celebrate the opening of the exhibits, Fran invited me to speak at the reception.

Blogger and Fran.

Blogger and Fran.

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Joel on February 12th, 2014
Big Blue, the last passenger pigeon killed in the wild for which there is an extant specimen.

Big Blue, the last passenger pigeon killed in the wild for which there is an extant specimen.

It is a strange feeling to have worked for three years preparing for an anniversary and then, low and behold, the time arrives. From early on, the launch of my book was going to be the opening event of  Project Passenger Pigeon. The exact date was January 7. To enhance the significance of the release, Bloomsbury’s publicist Carrie Major booked me on the Diane Rehm Show, a nationally aired NPR program originating out of WashingtonDC. (here is a link:  http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2014-01-07/environmental-outlook-feathered-river-across-sky-joel-greenberg) January 7 was brutally cold, so cold in fact that most schools in the Chicago region were closed, including Cindy’s. She accompanied me as we drove to WBEZ studios at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago. Many radio programs require that remote interviews be conducted in studios to achieve the desired quality in sound. Ms. Rehm also likes to see the person she is interviewing so a Skype set up is necessary. It all turned out very smoothly and the interview was wonderful. Other radio shows followed including Mike Novak’s show out of Chicago (a blizzard kept me from driving to the studio); Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds that originates out of Boston; Joy Cardin of Wisconsin Public Radio; Drew Lanham, an ornithologist at Clemson University, whose show is aired over South Carolina Public Radio; Thad Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo, has a nature oriented show over Ohio Public Radio; Molly Daley on KYW Philadelphia; and Mindi Todd of WCAI on Cape Cod. The most unexpected program was that hosted by Sean  Moncrieff, broadcast on  Newstalk Radio that originates in Dublin, Ireland.

 
The event.
Blogger, Steve Sullivan,  and David Horn.

Blogger, Steve Sullivan, and David Horn.

The big local event was the wonderful reception hosted by the PeggyNotebaertNatureMuseum. When I first talked to Deb Lahey, Steve Sullivan, and other key people at the museum about the anniversary way back in the spring of 2010, they were so enthusiastic, suggesting a whole bunch of great ideas. One was: “When your book comes out, we will host a reception for you.” When my last book came out in 2008, I threw my own reception, cooking for days, spending hundreds of dollars for cheese and chocolate, and recruiting henchman from as far away as CT. We drew 100 people. This time the museum provided the helpers and goodies, and we drew a crowd of  over 200. To make the event even more special, Steve Sullivan suggested that we invite David Horn, ornithologist at MillikenUniversity in Decatur, Illinois. During my research on the book, I learned that Milliken has a male passenger pigeon that was collected on March 12, 1901 in Oakford, Illinois. This would make the bird the last wild passenger pigeon for which there is an extant specimen. (Since the last passenger pigeons all have names, we call this guy Big Blue, after the sobriquet used by Milliken’s sports teams.) David graciously agreed to drive across the frozen tundra of central Illinois with Big Blue to share the bird and its story to all in attendance. I hope David publishes his superb talk. (And Heinrich, my passenger pigeon, was only a tad annoyed with having to share the stage)

Heinrich's loving parents, Cindy and Blogger.

Heinrich’s loving parents, Cindy and Blogger.

 

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Joel on January 18th, 2014
Snowy owl (John Cassady),

Snowy owl (John Cassady),

 

The three Christmas Bird Counts I participated in this year were marked by extraordinarily varying weather. On December 25, the day of the Chicago Lakefront CBC,  my party gathered at the Museum of Science and Industry around seven. Some of our regulars were missing but Kelly McKay was here as was Danny Akers. Kelly is a veteran of CBC marathons but this was Danny’s first crack at it. The marathon is an exercise whereby Kelly goes on a different count every day of the 20 or so day count period. they had a whole lot more counts to attend before it was over, and towards the very end they faced a grueling night drive from the Illinois-Kentucky border (Lake Mermet CBC) to southwestern Michigan. Danny and Kelly were in the parking lot waiting for me  when I drove up at 6:45. Eric, Ethan, and Aaron Gyllenhaal;, Amar Ayyash;, Tim Wallace; Stephanie Altneu, and Margo Milde filled out our ranks.

It was bitterly cold and I knew that the harbors would be mostly or completely frozen so it promised to be quick going with few results. Our first stop, La Rabida Children’s hospital, which often yields surprises, was extremely productive. There was a little open water which yielded hooded merganser, coot, and thousands of Canada geese. More exciting, gulls were moving along the shore and in their midst we, mostly Ethan and Amar, picked out glaucous, great-black backed, and lesser black-backed.

The bird I had really hoped would make the count stand out was snowy owl. Just a few days before, the Gyllenhaals reported eight individual snowies, at a single place: 31st Street harbor which is in our territory. And four of the owls had been hanging out at Montrose, so that meant at very least something 10 individuals were within the count territory. The state high for a CBC is eight in 1981, so we had a chance. At 31st Street we had but one owl and not another until we met our northerly group by Shedd Aquarium. While scanning the icy expanse to the north and east, Aaron spotted a snowy hunkered down way out on the ice. And we learned from our comrades (Geoff and Chris Williamson, Arie and Rebecca Rice, Dave Johnson, and Josh Engel) that they had two at Montrose first thing in the mourning. Not a record but four snowies aint bad.

Jan early 2014 005

Three days later, I met Lizzie Condon at 7am for the Evanston North Shore CBC. The day dawned clear, still, and reached the 40s before it was all over. An absolutely lovely winter day. Lizzie, working on shorebird research in California, was in town for the holidays, but ever so briefly. Fortunately, she did find time to be my companion on the CBC.

Our most productive birding was at the beginning too, but this time the operative word was ducks. Lizzie and I start by a stream fed by a water filtration plant:  even when all other water is solid, here it is open and flowing. Second stop was the plant itself, which we have been able to access for a few years now. Our mallards totaled 1247, and in with them were four blacks, four gadwall, and one pintail. The latter two would not be seen by any other party. We also had a great-blue heron and belted kingfisher.

Des Plaines River opposite Ryerson Woods in Lake County.

Des Plaines River opposite Ryerson Woods in Lake County.

We hit our usual spots, including the subdivision where two years in a row we had roused a barred owl. No such luck, and so by about 1 we headed to Ryerson Woods to meet the other half of our crew, Eric Lundquist and the Gyllenhaals,  and to meet Sophie Twichell , who was going to join us for our last major hike. The other folks were running late so Sophie, Lizzie, and I went off to finish. This area over the years has produced sharp-shinned hawk, swamp sparrows, and northern shrikes but, alas not much this year. Maybe the highlight was meeting up with Eric and his team: Eric had gone owling to the same spot we tried for the barred but he actually found one. And Aaron showed us the photo of the adult northern goshawk they had all seen. The countdown dinner, always fun, had us at 76 species.

Lizzie, Blogger, and Sophie.

Lizzie, Blogger, and Sophie.

On New Years Eve, Cindy and I cook all day for the countdown dinner the next evening. We had a whole ham, enough chili and macaroni to feed an army. I left a little before 4 am on January 1 to meet Tim Wallace for owling at Old School Forest Preserve. The snow was already falling hard: the woods were ghostly as they were rimmed with white. At least it was not very windy, and we did hear one screech owl. The we headed to meet the rest of the group, who were Eric and Ethan Gyllenhaal. (I am so pleased with the help they provided this year). The challenge was entering parking lots that had not yet been plowed.

We left two cars at Independence Grove, on the north, and dropped off the other car at the south end of our hike. We then set out for our five hour march along the Des Plaines River. At times my binos developed a thin layer of ice that precluded me from identifying anything smaller than a Canada goose, but the hike was very pleasant. We stopped frequently to play screech owl calls and, surprisingly, on two occasions screech owls replied. Variety was sparse but we did see 25 yellow-rumped warblers. Upon reaching the cars, we drove to a conifer grove and had a flicker and red-breasted nuthatch.

Tin, Eric, and Ethan on the long march.

Tin, Eric, and Ethan on the long march.

But the supply of falling snow seemed endless so we began questioning the wisdom of continuing or even whether to cancel the dinner. I called a few others and it was clear that few people were planning on attending the countdown. When I reached Cindy, she had already packed the car with food and juat about to embark on the drive north to Deerfield where we have the count. We decided to pull the plug on the dinner, and that proved to be wise. I left Tim around 3 from Independence Grove in Libertyville. As I proceeded to the tollway, I slid right through an intersection (going 20 mph). The when I reached 294, I found all lanes covered with snow. As I proceeded south towards home, one lane became clear enough to see patches of road. I never exceeded 40 mph so it took me two hours to  reach my destination. And I did not leave the house for three days.

 

The Evanston North Shore CBC featured am exaltation of  flock of young birders: Aaron, Codger, Amanda Zeigler, Kathleen Soler, Ari RIce, Josh Engel, and Ethan.

The Evanston North Shore CBC count down featured am exaltation of young birders: Aaron, Codger, Amanda Zeigler, Kathleen Soler, Ari RIce, Josh Engel, and Ethan.

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Fort Caroline, as drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who accompanied the voyage and stayed at fort.

Fort Caroline, as drawn by Jacques Le Moyne, an artist who accompanied the voyage and stayed at fort.

It happens that when you write a non-fiction book, relevant facts come to your attention too late to include them in the manuscript. Well after A Feathered River Across the Sky was at the printer,  I realized I had made an error that I want to correct before the paperback version comes out (the need for other revisions may well emerge too).

Jacques Cartier is the first European known to have encountered passenger pigeons. This on Prince   Edward Island on July 1, 1534. He may have killed some of them but he did not record that fact. Others saw them soon thereafter but the first written account that I used of someone killing passenger pigeons was that of Samuel de Champlain in 1605 on the coast of Maine. I make reference to this on pages 69 and 193. But that is incorrect as I am aware of one earlier occurrence (no doubt other European visitors killed the birds, but either such incidents went unrecorded or I have failed to find them). I am indebted to Jim Ducey, one of the country’s great ornithological historians, for graciously providing me with this information.

Although the effort was of short duration and profoundly unsuccessful, France attempted to establish one colony in South Carolina and another in Florida during the 1560s. During that time, France was embroiled in religious strife between the Catholic majority and Protestant minority (known as Huguenots). But some of the Protestants had the ear of the crown, and it was thought that a colony for the Huguenots would be a way to ameliorate some of the tension at home. Another incentive to occupy that region was Spain. Spain, which already claimed the territory, was reaping great treasure from her holdings in Mexico and South America. France wanted a share of that wealth and saw the southern coast as both a potential source of gold and a convenient point from which to pillage Spanish galleons that docked in Havana on their way  home.

The first of these colonies was founded in 1562 and named Charles Fort. Located  on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, the fort fell apart on its own because increased unrest in France prevented it from being resupplied. Some number of survivors built their own boat and returned to Europe.

A second voyage left France in 1564 under the command of Rene Laudonniere. At the mouth of the St. Johns River where Jacksonville now stands, he founded Fort Caroline on June 22. It, too, would fail, as the Spanish, aware of France’s intentions, sent a fleet about a year later to slaughter or imprison most of the inhabitants and destroy the structures. Laudonneire managed to escape, however, and wrote of his experiences. Sometime between January 25, 1565 and May 1565, there occurred the earliest instance of Europeans killing passenger pigeons that I know of:

“In the meantime, a great flock of doves came to us, unexpectedly and for a period of about seven weeks, so that every day we shot more than two hundred of them in the woods around our fort.” ( Rene Laudonniere, Three Voyages (translated, edited, and annotated by Charles E. Bennett), Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida (1975): 114.

 

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