Last Friday I finished the last of my three Christmas Bird Counts: Chicago Lakefront, Evanston North Shore, and Waukegan. These are the ones I organize and have been doing for decades. The time I spend on these counts- before, during, and after- largely define the holiday season for me. There are some who like to do counts on a more intermittent basis or prefer the allure of new places: counts for which they have no emotional connection and at the completion of the day there are few if any lingering attachments. To each his or her own.
Chicago Lakefront, on December 25, yielded several birds not ever seen before on the count. At La Rabida, the Gyllenhaals spotted a small white goose in with the Canadas. It indeed was a Ross’s. And as some went to get closer looks of the goose, Eric G. looked up and there perched above us was a merlin. We also had very close views of a one-eyed red-tailed hawk (pictured). Later we learned, the northern party (including the Williamsons and Josh Engel) found a palm and an orange-crowned warbler at Montrose and a gray catbird in a Navy Pier parking garage. Mid-morning, I was texted that Channel Two (WBBM) wanted to meet the group for an interview. We met by Shedd Aquarium as the camera whirred and Aaron and I answered questions.
I am not used to two CBCs in a row, but on the very next day I met my two companions, Jane and Dave Bunker, at my regular spot at 6:45. (My concern of being on two consecutive CBCs is rendered insignificant by Kelly McKay, whom I was with on Lakefront, famous for his CBC marathons that require full participation on 24 consecutive counts) Our first locations are a stream leaving a water treatment plant and the plant itself. With warm temperatures and open water everywhere, the paucity of waterfowl was not surprising, as they had no compunction to concentrate. We did wind up with one species that was missed by everyone else on the count: in amidst a flock of 250 Canada geese there were six cackling geese.
The Waukegan CBC, on January 1 as always, started at 5 am when I met Stefanie Altneu and Tim Wallace at Old School Forest Preserve for two hours of owling. The night air had a temperature reading in the teens, accentuated by a hearty wind. We usually find one or two screech owls at the parking lot by the gate but after an hour we failed to find a single one. It is bad for morale to put in that kind of effort without any results, but fortunately over the course of the final hour before dawn we wound up with three screechies (had nice views of one) and two great-horneds.
The Monday before the January 1 Waukegan CBC saw a heavy ice storm. That was followed by light snow and plunging temperatures that created a hazardous glaze over the ground. The Des Plaines River was also high, at places inundating the Des Plaines River trail we hike along during the first five or so hours of the count. Tim dropped Stefanie and me off at 176 (from which we start our walk north) and he met us at a canoe launch a half hour away. At one point, we encountered a bulging surface of untrammeled ice flanked by partially frozen water. I opted to wade and crunch my way through the shin deep water, preferring getting soaked over falling. Stef dropped to her hands and knees and crawled across the treacherous ice. (My pants froze, and so every time I took a step it sounded as if I was dragging something.) But the walk was productive, as we found golden-crowned kinglets and yellow-rumped warblers. In most years, when the Des Plaines is within its banks, we leave the trail and follow the river’s winding course. This usually produces a kingfisher or great-blue heron, but our inability to leave the trail caused us to miss these species, assuming the birds were even present. Land birds were also in low numbers, most notably hairy woodpecker which we failed to hear or see altogether.
The best birds, though, were in the afternoon. There is an open pine tract that we cover every year. One species that we almost always get there is red-breasted nuthatch. Despite playing screech owl calls, however, we missed it (indeed, no field party encountered one anywhere). But this year it yielded a real gem: Stef spotted a ruby-crowned kinglet flitting in low shrubbery. We all saw it well, and it is likely the first time the species has been seen on the count. We parked cars at Independence Grove, and thus scanned the lake several times over the day. There were lots of Canada geese, coots, and a nice variety of ducks. As late afternoon was about to segue into dusk, we made our last visit and I spied two swans not far off: two gorgeous trumpeters. Tim took some great photos.
Saturday had me going on a half-day field trip led by George Andrejko (a Chicago native, it turns out), a photographer for the Arizona Fish and Game Department. The focus of the trip was to enhance the participant’s photographic skills (modern cameras are so complicated now that while I can do maybe five things with it, someone thoroughly knowledge could probably perform a hundred). Our destination was Ft. Huachuca. One of our first birds was a trogon that flew across the road but we never found it again. George spent some time with me and I did learn more about Nikons than I knew before (that is his brand as well.) We also found some very accommodating Arizona sisters, a not uncommon but drop-dead gorgeous butterfly. (Also had a great shot of a two-spotted forester moth).
Sunday was Robin’s last day of vacation so Cindy and I arranged to meet her and Travis, as well as Gary and his wife, for lunch in Green Valley, just south of Tucson. Cindy and I arose early to do some birding at Madera Canyon in the Santa Ritas. One bird which I have not seen in decades was the varied bunting, a stunning finch whose US range is limited to AZ, NM, and western TX. It is not particularly rare but I have just tended to miss it. Bob Behrstock told us that a good place for it is near the Coronado National Forest center just before you ascend towards Madera. Cindy and I walked over to the kiosk and to our amazement read that the bird of the week was: varied bunting. We proceeded down the path and Cindy pointed to a small bird atop a shrub and said, “hey, that looks like a bunting.” Indeed it was a varied bunting. Seconds later, Bob Behrstock’s voice was heard proclaiming, “there is your varied bunting.” I wish all birds were that easy. (Bob was leading a tour and happened to arrive the same time we did.)
Up into Madera Canyon we ventured, stopping at the humming bird feeders at the lodge. It was a great opportunity to use the info offered by George and I took what I think are some pretty nice photos. While immersed in the birds, I heard my name called. This time it was from a totally unexpected source: Theresa Schwinghammer, from Indiana who provided me with some valuable passenger pigeon information some years ago and we have become cyber friends. But it took a trip to Arizona for us to finally meet.
After lunch with family and old friends, Cindy and I drove back to Han to settle in in our new digs at the Casa de San Pedro. Patrick and Karl are wonderful hosts and that night Cindy and I were the only guests. Last year I entered a swimming pool for the first time since the early 1990s but I couldn’t pass up this unusual opportunity. (It was encouraging that I can still sort of swim) Cindy spotted a great horned owl in the trees overlooking the pool and it was heavenly floating on one’s back while staring at the clear desert sky.
Our final day had us heading to my favorite mountain range, the Chiracauhas. On our way to the visitor center, we saw a freshly killed skunk by the side of the road. There are four species in the area and so we stopped. It was either a hooded (a southwest specialty) or a striped. We stopped at the visitor center and I asked the naturalist about the skunks. During our conversation, I mentioned that the last time I visited the center, there was a big commotion due to a black-tailed rattlesnake curled up just inside the entrance. It turns out she was on duty that same day and shared my recollection of her colleague coaxing the snake into a safer space out of doors. Our goal was drive up to Rustler Park, containing ponderosa pines and such specialties as olive warbler and Mexican chickadee, and then descend to Portal with its famous humming bird feeders. But I was most disappointed, indeed saddened, to learn that a forest fire in 2011 burned many thousands of acres of highland forest including Rustler Park (although I am told our target birds could still be found). Making matters worse, the denuding of vegetation made for more severe road washouts such that it is impossible now to get beyond Rustler. We decided to go up as far as we could. A little ways up the road we reached a dried washout filled with rocks: we crossed but grimaced every time we heard the thuds against the bottom of the car. Next we crossed a wet and muddy section. Things seemed to be getting more severe the higher we went so we decided not to brave the next challenge, a combination of deeper water and more rocks. We probably could have crossed but not knowing how much worse things would be before arriving at our destination we turned back.
Bob’s group stayed at the bed and breakfast that night so Patrick and Karl hosted a special dinner for them. We were invited to join and so even our last evening of the trip was particularly memorable. As I said to start, I really love southeast Arizona.
From a natural history perspective, southeast Arizona may be my favorite part of any of the 48 states I have visited. I just love the “sky islands,” those isolated mountain ranges rising above the desert lowlands: in a two hour or so drive you can traverse several of Merriam’s life zones, from desert to ponderosa pine forests. The Chiricahuas, Huachuca’s, Santa Rita’s and other local ranges provide unique opportunities to see birds, mammals, F herps, and other taxa that do not occur elsewhere in the country. I was particularly excited, then, when last year I was invited to present the key note talk at Southwest Wings, a birding and nature festival centered in Sierra Vista. In addition to nature, my sister and her family live in Rio Rico and I have not seen them since 2008. And to top it off, this trip spanned the period from July 28 to August 4, well before Cindy’s school season starts and thus enabling her to come along.
Through the miracle of Facebook, I have reconnected with several people I have not seen since elementary school. One of these people is Gary Kipnis who now lives in Tucson. So the very first thing we did after leaving the airport with our car rental was meeting Gary for lunch. It was fun chatting about highlights of the intervening decades.
Then it was down to Rio Rico, where my sister Robin lives. She, like Cindy, is a special education teacher (and has been her entire career) so she also was available, as school for her did not begin for another week. Her spouse, Alberto, was working but my nephew Travis, a student, was present. They also have three pugs, long Robin’s favorite breed. We spent the afternoon before we all headed towards Nogales for dinner and the motel where Cindy and I were staying for the night. Robin has a longtime colleague and friend named Maria who joined us the following day for a tour of Nogales. We were originally going to cross the border into Nogales, Sonora but there had been heavy flooding so we stayed on the US side. That was Wednesday and we would see Robin and Travis again when they drove the hour to Sierra Vista to hear my talk, Saturday night. Spending time with Robin and Travis was a real joy and hopefully they will fly north to the land of great lakes in the not too distant future.
That second morning before meeting Robin, Travis, and Maria, Cindy and I left early for our first birding of the trip. We headed to Sonoita to enjoy Paton’s Center for Hummingbirds (now maintained by the Tucson Audubon Society) and The Nature Conservancy’s Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve. August is the monsoon season in southeast Arizona and the road to the two preserves looked impassable for our low clearance car, but fortunately the washout was very close to Patons which abuts the TNC property so we were able to enjoy the former and could bird at least a portion of the latter. The first exciting moment was when the shrill call of a hawk reached our ears and I thought it was likely a gray hawk. A gray hawk did indeed fly over and land in a tree where we saw it well. (Adding to the fun was that all these southwest Arizona specialties were lifers for Cindy) We walked back to Paton’s and parked ourselves there for an hour or so. Common southwest specialties like Abert’s towhee, gila woodpeckers, phainopeplas, pyryloxias, and broad-billed humming birds were conspicuous.
After spending mid morning and late afternoon with Robin, Travis, and Maria, we drove the hour or so to Sierra Vista to register for Southwest Wings. We met Gordon Lewis, Sally Rosen, Ann Gallus, and the other folks who make this wonderful festival possible. On to Hereford where Bob Behrstock lives with his partner Karen. They have added a water feature to their backyard and have turned it into an oasis of biological diversity. To date they have recorded over 175 species of birds and 114 butterflies in this small space. Bob’s knowledge of birds, insects, herps, fish, and plants make him a superb field tour leader, something he has done professionally for a good many years now. (Here is a link to his fascinating web-site http://www.naturewideimages.com/)
This summer has seen an unprecedented number of plain-capped starthroats in Arizona. This ,hummingbird typical ranges from western Mexico south to Costa Rico. Fortunately, one decided to take up residence in Bob’s backyard and after a most pleasant wait, the bird appeared in all of its glory. It would be my one life bird of the trip. Not unusual, but we were also treated to a Clark’s spiny lizard that lounged on Bob’s back screen.
The festival had us staying at a lovely large house on the road to Ramsay Canyon. The first night we had it all to ourselves and assumed that would be the case for the duration. But we learned the following night that we had six roommates: three homo sapiens, one black vulture, one aplomado falcon, and one kestrel. This was the contingent from the Liberty Wildlife Rehab Center based in Phoenix. They are regulars to the festival. (One member of the group is a graduate of West Point and we had a stimulating discussion of military history.)
Bob and I were to co-lead a festival field trip the next morning. Our destination was Las Cinegas National Conservation Area. (The trip was filled so Cindy participated on another trip that focused on the history and birds of Fort Huachuca: one highlight for her was having good views of elegant trogons.) Las Cienegas is 45,000 acres of what was originally two ranches. Quoting from its web-site, the area includes “five of the rarest habitat types in the American Southwest: cienegas (marshlands), cottonwood-willow riparian forests, sacaton grasslands, mesquite bosques, and semi-desert grasslands.” We had 62 species including yellow-billed cuckoo (populations in Arizona are deemed federally threatened), gray hawk, Botteri’s, Cassins, and black-throated sparrows. Our stop at Cottonwood Pond yielded the federally endangered Gila topminnow. We returned via Pategonia where we spent quality time at Patons. This time a violet crowned humming bird put in a prolonged appearance. We also saw the nesting thick-billed kingbird at the Patagonia rest stop.
On Friday Cindy and I were on our own and we headed up to Ramsay Canyon. Back in 1972, when I first visited there was a guest facility with lots of hummingbird feeder. It was called Mile Hi and it was owned and operated by the Peabody’s. Now it is owned by the Nature Conservancy and not one of the personnel were familiar with either Mile Hi or the Peabody’s. Among the many lifers I saw on that first trip there with my parents many decades ago was a sulfur bellied flycatcher and Arizona (then brown-backed) woodpecker. They were among the first birds we saw on this trip too. There was a nesting tufted flycatcher in the canyon but getting there required a long and very steep hike. We did reach the spot where a flame-colored tanager (which I have seen in AZ before) and may have seen the bird.
The evening’s festivities featured a showing of From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, the documentary David Mrazek and I made, so we had to get back in time for that. Among the people who came to see it were Patrick Dome and Karl Schmidt, owners and operators of a gorgeous bed and breakfast that caters to birders (and others) called Casa de San Pedro. It is almost on the banks of the San Pedro River. Patrick in a most gracious gesture had earlier offered Cindy and me two nights at the lodge as his guest when the festival ended. (http://www.bedandbirds.com/).
Horicon Marsh, about an hour northwest of Madison, spans 32,000 acres, making it one of the largest cattail marshes in the United States. The northern two-thirds is a National Wildlife Refuge while the southern third is a Wisconsin State Wildlife Area. With its size and richness, Horicon sustains healthy populations of wetland breeding birds that are barely present in the Chicago region anymore. I had not been up there for a while and Tim Wallace, who lives an hour north of me, visits regularly so it seemed a worthy destination for a day-long field excursion.
A wonderful sight is had as you reach the lip of a vast and shallow declivity, carved out of limestone by the last glacier incursion and filled with meltwater that gave birth to the wetland. We traversed the north end first along Route 49. We saw a few yellow-headed blackbirds but not the numbers I expected: likely the singing and posturing of males had ebbed by June , the date of the trip. We pulled over to the side of the road to identify the large floating mats of ducks. There were mallards, blue-winged teal, shovellers, gadwall, ruddy ducks, and redheads. (The concentration of redheads was a major reason the marsh was declared a national wildlife refuge in 1941: more redheads nest here than anywhere east of the Mississippi.) Forester terns and black terns are virtually gone from northern Illinois but they thrive at Horicon.
In previous years, Tim had seen white-faced ibis and black-necked stilts. Horicon is the only place in Wisconsin where stilts nest and I am still amazed that the species now nests in goodly numbers in various places in the Midwest. We did not see any of these species on this trip. The number of white pelicans, another relatively recent arrival as a breeding species, are tremendous. They maybe the most conspicuous bird on the refuge.
And then we come to three special cranes: Grasshopper, a male whooping crane; his unnamed mate who is a female sandhill; and their single progeny, Whoopsie. A couple of years ago, crane conservationists decided on yet another strategy to increase the numbers of this endangered species. Rather than picking breeding and wintering grounds for the birds, scientists have adopted the Direct Fall Release of captive raised individuals. The cranes are being “trained” in Princeton, Wisconsin and then released in the fall at Horicon Marsh to find the sites they themselves find most supportive. Grasshopper is such a bird and his return to Horicon was deemed a good thing until it became clear he had bred with a sandhill. Interbreeding between the two species is what ruined the first effort to create a new flock back in: whooping cranes eggs were placed under sandhills at Grays Lake National Wildlife Refuge in Idaho with the hope they would follow the foster parents south to Bosque del Apache and back. But despite the best laid plans, the whoopers imprinted on the sandhills and then mated with them. Authorities are closely monitoring Grasshopper and his family but the bottom line is clear: Grasshopper’s genetic material is too valuable to share with a member of the world’s most abundant crane species.
Besides Grasshopper, there might be as many as four other whooping cranes at Horicon this summer (it seems to depend on whom you talk to). We were given directions to an area often frequented by the Grasshopper clan. Tim has seen whoopers here before so was familiar with the side road from where they can often be observed. After looking around without success, we were ready to move on when a car pulled up. We started chatting with the birder/photographer who emerged. Vaughn Compton, from Denver, was also looking for the crane. After a while, the three of us concluded Grasshopper was not intending to be seen, so once more everyone began the process of leaving. And once more, a new car came down the road and parked in our midst. This time, Rick Vant Hoff, a local birder who is a volunteer with the International Crane Foundation and active in the whooping crane training program, joined the conversation and shared lots of information on the status of local whoopers. As we listened, Vaughn spotted the objects of our search as they landed in the field that is their normal haunts. They were a ways off but the their visages are clear in Vaughn’s photo.
I have been following the efforts to restore whooping cranes to numbers where their future existence need not be in question. One conclusion that their history makes clear: it was a lot easier to nearly wipe them out than to bring them back.
David Harwood sent us these photos of a Pine Warbler feeding a young Brown-headed Cowbird that it no doubt raised. Brown-headed Cowbirds lay their eggs in the nests of other species, including small warblers like this Pine Warbler. They then leave it to the new foster parents to raise the young cowbird.
One theory is that Brown-headed Cowbirds evolved to follow the buffalo herds to feed on the insects the buffalo scared up. Since the buffalo roamed the plains and the cowbirds chose to follow them there was no time for nest building and egg laying. The cowbirds responded by laying their eggs of in the nest of other species.
Now lawnmowers have replaced the buffalo and the cowbirds have become more widespread and parasitize the nest of more species. Cowbird eggs usually hatch one day ahead of the host’s eggs. In addition cowbird nestlings usually are larger and grow faster than the host’s young, which enable them to garner more than their fair share of the food brought to the nest. The result is the young of the host are often ejected from the nest or starve.
Cowbird parasitism played a major role in the fall of of Kirtland’s Warbler populations.
Here are a few questions and answers about the bully-bird behavior of some cowbirds.
When you get on to I-55 in Chicago, the sign says your headed to St. Louis. On I-80 near Iowa City, east is designated as towards Chicago. Algona, Iowa does not appear on signs until Humboldt, 20 miles away. Algona was the destination of this year’s Iowa Ornithologists Union spring meeting where I was presenting the keynote talk. Denny Thompson had made the arrangements on my behalf and the venue where the meeting was being held is the lovely Waters Edge Nature Center, only a few minutes out of town. The movie was screened the Friday night I arrived, while the first half of Saturday was devoted to field trips.
The field trip I opted for focused on Union Slough National Wildlife Refuge. The site is 3,334 acres and comprises both upland, marsh, and open water. Formerly a pre-glacial river bed, the slough was subjected to only partially successful efforts to drain it through the construction of dams and levees. Both the Blue Earth River and the east fork of the Des Moines RIver come together here and it is this connection that led to the name Union Slough. According to the refuge web-site, “Native Americans called this area Mini Akapan Kaduza, meaning ‘water which runs both ways’ ”. Because of the refuge’s narrow configuration, wildlife could be easily disturbed by heavy visitation so the property is generally closed to the public. The field trip, therefore, was a rare opportunity to access the site and the field trip drew a large crowd. I was fortunate to be able to ride with Richard Sayles and Cathy Conrad from the Dubuque area. This may sound like a broken record but the birding was terrific, but the pleasure was enhanced deeply by some people I most certainly hope to stay in touch with.
Large hemme marshes rich with conservative breeding birds, are at best, rare in the Chicago region. Years of research has shown that, for reasons I am not totally clear, many marshes lose their moorhens, black terns, yellow-headed blackbirds, least bitterns, and other, what I am calling, conservative species over time. Many sites are at their peak soon after initial inundation. Lake County, Illinois now has a single place that still hosts yellow-headed blackbirds and that is private property. As our caravan neared the refuge, we pulled off to bird some stunning big marshes. Two of my favorite sounds of nature are singing yellow-headed blackbirds and the unk-a-chunk of American bitterns. The voice of the yellow-head is not really pretty but is so evocative of the marshlands I enjoy and, of course, is definitive evidence that one of my favorite birds is nearby. I note again the scientific name of the species, Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus, meaning “yellow-head yellow-head.” If you didn’t know ahead of time, the origin of the bittern’s call would be almost unimaginable. And not only did we hear the bittern, he obligingly performed while elevated on a musk rat house deep in the marsh, thereby allowing us to watch as well. Throw in the sounds of a Virginia rail and the cavorting of black terns overhead, and this was a compilation of the marsh birds I so dearly miss.
Trumpeter swans also inhabit these Iowa marshes in much larger numbers than they do farther east. Two swans gracefully alit on the open water and commenced to peacefully swim, occasionally tipping downward in search of forage. But soon after their arrival, they were met by a single bird coming out of the vegetation, in a presumed effort to keep the interlopers from getting too close to the nest that its mate was protecting. Since I obtained my camera last year, I have also developed affection for photogenic birds and there is nothing like huge white birds slowly flapping low overhead to provide can’t miss opportunities for the budding photographer. The day’s list yielded a bunch of other neat birds. Steve Dinsmore, an ecologist from Iowa State U. whom I had never met before but knew of, heard a great-tailed grackle calling. (James Dinsmore, Steve’s dad, was also on the faculty at ISU for a long time and wrote the state’s great volume on historical natural history, A Country So Full of Game: The Story of Wildlife in Iowa) We all wound up with very good looks at the bird. I had no idea they were regular in Iowa, given their rarity in the state to the east. Another unexpected species was a neotropic cormorant. A small row of trees produced several warblers and an alder flycatcher.
I took a break in the afternoon and returned to the IOU meeting where organizational topics were being discussed. They have just upgraded their web-site and are in the process of other innovations. Iowa birders should feel good. I sure did.
There are birding festivals that are wonderful because of the avian attractions they offer. There are also birding festivals that are wonderful because of the programs offered and the people assembled. The Biggest Week in American Birding fits both categories and is something not to be missed. The event is organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory whose executive director is Kim Kauffman. She had graciously invited me way back in September 2012 to give a talk on passenger pigeons for the 2014 festival: it was the first bird festival I had ever attended. She invited me again this year to present the documentary David Mrazek and I made, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.
The screening was scheduled for Friday night which would ordinarily mean I would have arrived the day before. But so many attendees are now good friends I reached out to a few I knew would be there too. Rick Wright, Book Review Editor of Birding, suggested I come on Wednesday which also was the narrow window for Ontario friends Justin Peter (who works for Quest Nature Tours) and Sarah Rupert (a naturalist at Point Peele National Park) to make the trip south. The lodge at Maumee Bay State Park is the center of the festival and I arrived around lunch time, a few hours before I was to meet the others. I made my way to the very nice restaurant and was seated next to Drew Lanham and Katie Anderson. Katie is an active volunteer for the festival and we had a chance to chat last year. Drew is an ornithologist at Clemson University who had me on his radio show last year when the book came out. At the 2014 festival, we met, literally like ships passing in the night: at the very moment I was walking through the lodge doors to my car and the trip back home, Drew was entering. I yelled his name, we shook hands, lamented not having more time, and proceeding on our prospective ways. But this time Drew, Katie, and I had a leisurely lunch where we spent more time chatting than eating.
At the appropriate time, I perched on a chair by the lodge entrance waiting for Rick, Justin, and Sarah. It felt like being at a hawk watch, checking off the birding luminaries I knew. “Oh my gosh, there is John Kricher (from MA).” “By the other table, Chris West.” (I had met Chris while we both searched Long Lake at the Indiana Dunes in an unsuccessful effort to see a lesser sand plover present the previous day). And then Kim Kauffman arrived: she is unbelievably busy handling all kinds of tasks at the event but she always finds time for a conversation and a hug. (I would not see Kenn until the next day and somehow I missed any photos with either of the Kaufmans.)
Eventually all three migrants arrived and we went to check a flooded field for shorebirds prior to heading off for dinner. The wet spot yielded a lesser yellowlegs and a nice flock of breeding plumaged dunlin, with waves of ring-billed gulls overhead. Sarah and Justin were staying at the same hotel I was while Rick was at the lodge so we agreed to meet at Magee Marsh early the next morning.
Eating breakfast in the hotel, I noticed someone looking at my name tag. He introduced himself as Dave Fischer, whom I had not seen in 32 years. For a year or two, he and I spent hours in Waukegan, Illinois counting hawks. Then he left to pursue a doctorate studying raptors at Brigham Young University. It was a real surprise and pleasure. (And we would run into each other later on the boardwalk.)
Magee Marsh was, of course, magical. Warblers took center stage with such species as prothonotary, Blackburnian (“just another Blackburnian”), bay-breasts (more than I have seen in a long time), Canada, Cape May (all females), and maybe fifteen more. You know you are at the peak when early species like yellow-rumpeds are still around and they have been joined by Canada’s and mourning (which I did not see but others did.) A green heron posed for a long time so that even I could capture a decent photo (but not as good as Justin took) and a black-billed cuckoo called from deep within the foliage. Another striking aspect of the Magee is that between the four of us, every few minutes someone would be stopping to stay hello. Sometimes it felt as if we were at a wedding reception. One person with whom we shared the boardwalk was Jim Berry, former executive director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Both Rick and I have the pleasure of knowing Jim, who graciously took this photo of the group. We birded for about five hours: after that Justin and Sarah had to go back across the border, and Rick and I headed back to the lodge (where I stayed the last two nights)
Rick and I met again as we each sought lunch at the lodge. Soon thereafter, Kenn and I crossed paths and continued our conversation as he collected something from his car. It was almost time for the first keynote address of the day and that was by 14 year old Matthias Benko, another of Indiana’s stellar young birders. He focused on how birding fuels the fire of conservation and did a fine job. (Hats off to Kim for her work on promoting young people in birding: that she invited someone who is barely a teen to present a keynote both shows her commitment to this vital aspect of birding and her understanding that such an honor will not soon be forgotten by Mr. Benko.)
At first break of day, such as it was, I was at Magee Marsh. Unfortunately, there was more rain that light. Most of those present had assembled under the shelter of the tent waiting for the torrents to abate. A few hardy souls ventured onto the walk. I had my poncho on but it just seemed fruitless to enter into falling water that would make eye glasses and binos much less effective. Two of the people sharing cover were US Fish and Wildlife employees, one from Florida and one from Columbus.. Magee Marsh abuts the Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge , and because there are so many visitors during the festival, the service seeks birding employees throughout the system to bolster personnel for this busy time. Eventually, the rain subsided and I had another fine three or so hours birding on the boardwalk. One highlight was a very tame white-eyed vireo on a bare branch.
While kibitzing on the boardwalk, I learned that there was a drive tour at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge which is on the way back to the lodge. On two occasions earlier in the trip I had run into this delightful young couple from the Detroit area: Benjamin Prouse and Jacqueline Mannino. He is a graduate student who works at two nature centers and she is a blood expert working in a hospital. Soon after starting down the drive tour, I saw them birding. They had left their car at the refuge headquarter so I asked if they wanted to join me. At one of our first stops we saw a palm warbler, an early migrant that should be gone by now. It was fun listening to singing willow flycatchers, which neither Benjamin nor Jacqueline had heard before. The route meanders along a large lake where we saw two bald eagles, Caspian terns, and two common terns.
The Kaufmans and Jeff Sayre just completed a fine volume entitled Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of the Midwest. Such a book can not be comprehensive, but it is an entree into unfamiliar taxa, facilitating the process of identifying a perplexing critter or plant. As are all of the Kaufman Field Guides, the images are stunning photos. It will certainly encourage and illuminate the way for naturalists who want to explore a broader array of nature than they know. Kim introduced her fellow authors, and Kenn and Jeff presented a thoroughly entertaining discussion of their valuable contribution to the natural history of the region.
The screening of the movie was at 7. A nice crowd was present and Kenn introduced me in such glowing terms, I was moved to almost tears. I can not say enough about how supportive he has been of me over the years. I am really honored and privileged to have Kenn as a friend. (Kim’s comments after the film were also extremely generous and touching: these two will always have a special place in my heart.) After the screening, there was an enthusiastic discussion which is always enjoyable.
I can hardly wait until next year.
Michael Galas of the Buffalo Ornithological Society, founded in 1924 to promote the study of the birds of the Niagara Frontier Region, sent me an email in March asking if I would like to speak at the organization’s 85th Anniversary Dinner on November 15. I was familiar with the BOS from having met a couple of times in the 1970s Harold Axtell, a curator at the Buffalo Museum of Science who was very active in the society. Harold was undoubtedly one of the premier field ornithologists of his day. Niagara Falls, as I have expressed in an earlier blog, is one of the continents great natural spectacle (its mind boggling to realize that as dramatic as it is, much of the water that could pour over the escarpment is diverted for hydroelectric production) and in November the liquid grandeur is augmented by vast numbers of gulls.
As I reviewed the correspondence between Mike and me for this account, I am struck by how gracious he is and how much effort he put into making my stay so enjoyable. He picked me up at the airport on November 14 and we drove to Grand Island where he put me in the hands of Willie D’Anna (one of the society’s most accomplished birders) and Betsy Potter. The mass of gulls had not yet appeared but there were still a good number. The most unexpected bird around was one, or possibly two, Sabine’s gulls. Willie spotted one individual and I managed to take some photos that when blown up sufficiently allow for identification of the subject. We also had an Iceland gull. But the bird highlight for me was a swarming flock of Bonaparte’s gulls. They are becoming increasingly scarce at the southern end of Lake Michigan and this might have been the large group of the species I have ever seen. Suffice it to say I took a whole lot of photos and the challenge became selecting one or two for this blog posting.
The next morning (after having dinner with Mike and his wife Sylvia on the previous evening) Gerry Rising, a mathematician and former board member of the Buffalo Museum, took me on a tour of the museum. There were a lot of people there, mostly parents with their children, to partake of Bubble Fest. As we learned later most every floor had a device for making bubbles. As we stood in the long line to buy tickets, Gerry saw the new director who came over to say hello. He generously ushered us around the line and through the gate. At one time there used to be an exhibit specifically devoted to birds but that apparently no longer is displayed, although birds are present in a number of exhibits. My travels over the last few years have introduced me to lots of museums. Some are doing well while sticking to their original missions, while others have had to offer more in the realm of popular culture. Buffalo seems to be in the latter category: although having dropped most of its curators and reduced its natural history displays, the visitors we talked to said it is a great place to bring kids in winter.
My talk that night for BOS was held in a venue called Aqua on the Niagara River where one could literally bird from one’s table. I met Kayo Roy, whom I had not seen in the several years since Cindy and I met him at a Tim Horton restaurant on the other side of the river. A local artist displayed her striking depictions of birds. I left the next morning, and arrived home on Sunday afternoon. Monday, a lake effect snow blanketed- indeed smothered- parts of Buffalo in six to seven feet of snow. Houses actually collapsed. Tuesday I took off to San Francisco for eight days.
I have written in an earlier blog how Terri Gorney and I became good friends. The first time we met was at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan when she agreed to drive up to Ann Arbor from her home in Fort Wayne to help me with research on passenger pigeon author William Butts Mershon. Terri has been supportive of Project Passenger Pigeon ever since, sharing info from her own research and helping promote the effort in Northeast Indiana. She is vice president of the Friends of the Limberlost and works closely with Randy Lehman, site manager of the Limberlost State Historic Site (Geneva, IN). (These efforts celebrate Gene Stratton-Porter, whose novels about the Limberlost Swamp were read by millions of readers throughout the world.) Teri would make a great agent and she put together and coordinated a three venue tour for me in her region from November 8-10.
The first night’s presentation was at the annual banquet of the local land conservancy, ACRES, an organization that has been preserving land in the region since 1960. They currently hold over 5,700 acres. I had a nice conversation with their executive director, Jason Kissel and the event was well attended. The second talk was at Limberlost. The date corresponded with Terri’s birthday and was close to my mine so the event was something of a birthday party. Most unexpected was the amazing birthday cake created by chef Cary McClure and decorated to look like the cover of A Feathered River. And the third talk was at Ball State University’s beautiful Minnetrista, “a museum for cultural exploration.” Minnestrista means “a gathering place by the water,” in this case the White River. The site takes up forty acres including archival space, display galleries, performance space, and a variety of gardens and natural landscapes. Nearby were three of the remaining Ball Brother mansions, one of which served as my overnight accommodation.
On my first full day, Terri gave me a tour of south Adams County. We did not see much in the way of noteworthy birds but Terri’s connection with the Amish provided fascinating insights. Indiana is home to the third largest Amish population in the world and Adams County has the second largest in Indiana, with 47 districts. The Amish, like many other small minorities, dance with modernity, knowing that jettisoning traditions will weaken or destroy their group identity yet recognizing that modern technology can open important opportunities and even save lives. So, on an earlier trip, she showed me a farm house owned and operated by an “English” family (how the Amish refer to others). Local Amish asked if they could install a telephone in the outhouse on the English farm: they acknowledge the importance of that device in reaching emergency services but don’t want it located in a comfortable place where people might be inclined to use it for recreation.
Randy has reached out to the Amish to see if he can offer programs at Limberlost that they might attend. In the process, Teri and Randy have become friends with an Amish midwife named Sylvia. (When a pregnancy proves problematic, she has no hesitation recommending that patients go to nearby Lutheran Hospital for the more advanced care that is needed.) Over time, a program developed where a remarkable high school-aged student named Alexandra Forsythe, who is passionate about birds and nature, was allowed to teach bird classes in Amish schools. Teri and I visited Sylvia’s home , and it is the first time I have been in an Amish home. Sylvia was not in at the time but I met her husband and daughter.
I had never been to Ball State University before but I had been in correspondence with Barb Stedman, an English scholar who teaches in the university’s honors program, since at least 2007. In the course of doing research on my book, Of Prairie, Woods, and Waters: Two Centuries of Chicago Nature Writing,. I came across a web site (no longer extant) she created where her students would write accounts of Indiana authors who addressed environmental themes in their work. She had been interested in Project Passenger Pigeon since I first brought it to her attention in spring of 2011. To mark the anniversary she collaborated with Kamal Islam, the university’s ornithologist, in teaching a class on passenger pigeons and the lessons inherent in its story. But this wasn’t all: the students had to create art pieces related to the pigeon, which were displayed at Minnestrata. One student composed a flute piece memorializing the bird; others created a hunting scene with origami pigeons, a net, and bushel filled with the “dead” paper birds. The whole effect was very moving. On display, as well, was the one passenger pigeon that is part of the bird collection.
I also spent some time with Kamal, for he showed me that bird collection. (His areas of research include the conservation of rare and endangered species, the evolution of mating systems, and the impacts of habitat fragmentation.) There was one individual in particular that received most of our attention. Earlier in the fall (2014), someone had found a dead jaeger along a road not far from Muncie. The bird was presented to Kamal, and he was surprised to see that it was an immature long-tailed jaeger, an oceanic bird that does occasionally show up on inland lakes, but rarely corn fields.
The passenger pigeon story itself took place, of course, mostly in the eastern half of the US and Canada, although the messages in that story are relevant everywhere. Most of my talks were in areas that the bird once lived but I did have the opportunity to travel west twice in November. The first invitation was proffered by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Each year they collaborate with the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory in sponsoring a lecture series on birds and my presentation would be part of that program. Julia Spaulding-Beegles, who coordinates adult programs at the museum, sent the invitation and she did a masterful job of making my stay so enjoyable.
I was picked up at the airport on November 4 by Norm Lewis, who for over twenty years has led bird walks for the museum, including some to South America. He is also the Past-President of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. In a series of e-mails, I answered his questions on what I wanted to see by saying that I did not have any target species but, given their absence from my usual haunts, mountains were of great appeal.
Our first stop was Red Rocks Amphitheater, a musical venue that seats 9,450 listeners. The site has an interesting history. During the first decade or so of the twentieth century, John Brisben Walker saw the rock walls, then called “Garden of the Angels,” as providing the ideal acoustics for musical performances, and he produced several shows. In 1927 the city of Denver bought the property, currently co-owned with the County of Denver, and completed construction of the venue in 1941. But not only is the area scenic, but it harbors good birds. We were fortunate in seeing the golden-crowned sparrow that has shown up for the last few years. Later Norm guided us into the foothills to Genesee Mountain Park. From there, we circled back through Evergreen, where we had lunch at The Little Bear. Then we came down Bear Creek Canyon, with a side trip to Mount Falcon Park, and we finished up at Lair O’ The Bear Park. Birding was kind of slow, but with the dynamite scenery and great conversation hardly noticed. We did see one species I had not seen for years: mountain chickadee. On our way back we also stopped at a lovely stream where Norm had seen dippers but we had not luck. The dipper has always been a noteworthy bird for me because I saw my first one in the summer of 1966, five months before I started birding, and did not see another for several years, missing it on a number of western trips.
The next morning I went out with Larry Modesitt, who is board chairman of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. Larry had a fascinating story that took place during his time as a student at Williams College. Martin Luther King had come to speak and he was seated next to Larry at dinner, when the two shook hands. I felt quite honored to be with someone who had once shaken hands with a luminary such as Dr. King.
Larry took me to Barr Lake State Park in Brighton. The lake started life as a bison wallow, but has been enlarged in modern times by two dams. The park itself is 2,715 acres. It is heavily birded and boasts a list of 350 species. Little rain fell this summer and fall, and thus water levels of the lake were low. We found a nice number of shorebirds and waterfowl. The most striking sight was the large white pelican colony at one end of the lake. While hardly from a self-sustaining population, it was fun to see a very tame chukar run by park headquarters.
Across the railroad tracks from Barr Lake is the headquarters of the Rocky Mountain Bird Observatory. Established in 1988, RMBO works across a broad swath of the Rocky Mountains extending into Mexico. They have a large staff who work on all facets of bird conservation including science, education, and land stewardship. It is a very impressive organization and one that I had been very familiar with before. Larry introduced me to Tammy VerCauteren, executive director of the observatory. I met the rest of the board that night for dinner prior to my talk.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science is, unlike too many museums nowadays, thriving and financially healthy due to wise management. The auditorium I spoke at was large and nearly filled. A huge surprise awaited me with the beginning of the questions after the talk. The first person prefaced his query by saying he grew up near the Skokie Lagoons (one of my favorite birding spots in the Chicago area) and thought birds were decreasing. A second person started with, “When I worked with Chicago Wilderness. And the third mentioned she grew up within a block of where I lived in Chicago for 11 years. I was waiting for close relatives to stand up.
Afterwards I was given a tour of the bird collection by John Demboski, the museum’s Department Chair & Curator of Vertebrate Zoology. The collection was built primarily through the efforts of Alfred Bailey, an ornithologist who served as the museum’s director from 1936 to 1969. The museum has the largest number of passenger pigeons of any west of the species’ range. (The pigeon diorama is also outstanding and among the best I have seen.) Several of the skins and two eggs were on display for my talk. The eggs were unusual in that they supposedly came from one dead bird bought in the New York market. The size of a passenger pigeon egg clutch was a matter of great controversy with Audubon and many others saying the birds laid two eggs and Wilson saying they laid but one. The best evidence was that supplied by captive birds, almost all of which were recorded as having laid one egg. So if these two eggs really came from one bird it would be quite remarkable although as my friend Garrie Landry, an experienced aviculturist, has pointed out to me, on occasion an individual of a species that ordinarily lays one egg will produce a second. Other odd passenger pigeon remains in the collection are the bits and pieces of at least three birds. Apparently Bailey encountered a collector who in addition to having whole birds had these chunks and decided to buy that too.
I have commented before that on rare occasions I have looked through a collection and recognized specific birds from the literature. An example was at the Smithsonian when I saw the passenger pigeon shot in Nevada, the farthest west the bird is known to have occurred in historic times. In Denver the bird that had me hyperventilating was a female ivory-billed woodpecker that I have long mused about (although forgot was in Denver): it was shot in Forest Park in St. Louis in 1876, the same year the park opened, thus making it the world’s farthest north most ivory-billed woodpecker record. Washington University, which I attended for five years, is just across Skinker Boulevard from the park and so I spent a fair amount of time there. Knowing of the record, images of ivory-bills flashed in my mind on more than one occasion as I meandered along the paths..