My connections with the wonderful Heard Museum in McKinney, Texas began when Michele Dudas wrote the Project Passenger Pigeon web-site saying the museum has a passenger pigeon. One of the goals of the web-site was to amass as complete a list as possible of US and Canadian collections with passenger pigeons. Paul Hahn did that back in the early 1960s but over the decades new specimens have emerged while others have been lost. He did not list a single Texas site that held passenger pigeons and our web-site reflected that. Michele wanted us to know that Heard did have one and we have subsequently learned about four other collections with specimens or an egg. But Heard was also interested in mounting an exhibit and joining the P3 effort, the only organization we had in the state. Later I received an e-mail from a Heard volunteer, Rick Joosten. We wound up talking and I said I would love to visit their museum. One thing led to another and I was invited to spend four mid-August days in McKinney, with Rick being my principal care taker, as I stayed with him and his wife Yolanda at their lovely home. Rick said if you don’t have a pool, there would be no reason to be in your back yard all summer. This is my first immersion in a pool in some decades.
One day was spent on an early morning bird walk that Rick organized, having recruited some top local birders such as Gailan Brehm, John Lingenfelder, and Sam Crowe. Sam, I hardly need to add, is the person responsible for Birdzilla and hence my blogging boss. We birded in an interesting area of woods, grasslands, and marshes. Not surprisingly, given the date, the birds were limited but we did get such nice species as red-shouldered hawk and western kingbird (rare in northern IL), One of the birders had recently returned from Oklahoma City to chase a south polar skua, an oceanic species that breeds in Antarctica. They saw it attack and eat a little-blue heron. Since these two birds should never occur anywhere near each other, the act of predation was undoubtedly an occurrence that has rarely, if ever, been enacted within the ken of human beings. (Sam is on the left and Rick fourth from left)
The next day was indoors. Rick made arrangements for me to be interviewed by Krys Boyd, whose show Think, airs on Dallas’ principal NPR station, KERA. It was also possible for to utilize the station for another interview: this one by Swiss public radio. It was broad cast in German.
Events at Heard were a pleasure. A slight digression first. P3 sought to create materials that would facilitate participation in the anniversary. One of the most successful were the panels created by the U of Michigan’s Museum of Natural History. Heard’s exhibit combined the panels with origami pigeons and a video program that used, in part, excerpts of “From Billions to None.” When I first walked in it was disconcerting hearing my voice from the film. There were lots of kids- they were given “passports” and had to get it signed at various stations, including the one that featured me. Piranha like, they swarmed in masses to accomplish their mission.
A couple of high school students were quite impressive. One said she wants to write bird books when she grows up and had already started a manuscript on owls. Another showed me the copy of a A Feathered River that her mom just bought her. I said I would be most grateful in getting a report from her on what she thought of the book after she finished reading it, asking only that she be polite in her criticism. She told me not to worry as she has never read a book she did not like.
I had seen ivory gull in Illinois before, the immature that was at Burnham Harbor in 1991, so it was not a top priority to rush off to Quincy to see the gorgeous adult that no searcher had yet missed. Day after day friends went down to see it. Dave Johnson even took a train from Chicago, rented a car in Quincy, and obtained good looks. Wes Serafin braved threats of a snow storm and he too returned victorious. By its very lingering it was an irritant, an itch that would not go away. And it can not be denied that ivory gulls are remarkable birds, denizens of open arctic seas (coming to land only to nest), where they feed in part on dead whales and rarely stray beyond the realm of floating ice. Read this passage from Townsend’s account in Arthur Cleveland Bent’s Life History of North American Birds: “About a gallon of seal blood is poured on the ice near the rocks . . . Some of the [ivory gulls] in their eagerness to obtain the blood dash themselves with such force against the ice as to kill themselves.” Not to drive five hours to see such a species just seemed wrong.
But the mundane dictates of everyday life intruded. For example, on Thursday I had to join a conference call and Friday a guy was coming over to clean the furnace. Meanwhile, I had made reservations for Cindy and me to stay Saturday night at Starved Rock State Park, one of our favorite places just two hours south and west of us. Illinois’ oldest state park, it encompasses 2,800 acres of wooded valleys and ridges overlooking the Illinois River. The spacious lodge is of CCC vintage and boasts cozy rooms and a fine restaurant. A further attraction is the lock and dam nearby which is usually a very productive location for gulls, waterfowl, and bald eagles.
Hmm, thinks I. And a plan emerged which Cindy agreed to. When she arrived home from school on Friday, she immediately went to packing and we had a quick dinner. By 5:30. we were on our way to Quincy. Arrived 5.5 hours later and stayed at a slightly over priced motel. In the morning, we met another guest who is from Mesa, Arizona and had seen the bird Friday at the Art Keller Marina, perhaps the most reliable spot since temperatures dropped. The bird was hanging out at a tiny open patch of water kept from freezing by aerators. At 7:30 we were in place, along with a few ohter birders. Among them was Phil, a local birder involved in the initial discovery and identification of the gull. He suggested that the bird was getting lethargic, hanging out at the marina once it arrived in the morning. He said he saw it feeding on suet that someone had brought (a poor substitute for walrus entrails).
More birders continually arrived, from places like Pennsylvania and Mississippi. My friend Laura Ericson was driving down from Duluth. Another carload from Chicago was headed by Craig Taylor: we exchanged cell numbers to keep in touch during the day. (Knowing we were at the marina, his group spent most of their day at the lock and dam.) During discussions it emerged that the bird had appeared on Friday at exactly 9:32. It was easy to shed off concerns: “Oh, it is only 9.” “So the bird is only a half-hour late.” A flock of 20 something great-blue herons flew by; a pileated put in an appearance; and a kingfisher sat peacefully next to the bubbling open water. But alas the ivory gull never did show up. We waited until 11 before we headed out with Craig to check a stretch of river a bit north. Then Cindy and I aimed for Starved Rock where we arrived shortly before dark.
But perhaps the last word was issued by an obviously unenthused gull watcher whose pithy assessment of the effort was written in snow next to the marina:
It had been my intent to record this year’s travels through my posts on this blog. I was doing pretty well up until mid-July. But as the year progressed, my trips increased to a rate I never experienced before. There were times where I was literally home for one day between peregrinations. To maximize efficiency, I took the suitcase to the washer and emptied the clothes directly into the machine to save the time of choosing outfits from the larger available universe: the ensembles worked on one trip so they would work on the next. Needless to say there was not much time to work on blogs, which now included the act of going through the much greater number of photos that I took with my new camera.
To pick up where I kind of left off, I headed to the University of Michigan’s Biological Station in Pellston, on the shores of Douglas Lake, towards the northern end of the southern peninsula. I had been there before some years ago to attend a regional meeting on piping plover. That was in early April when the place is nearly empty but in the summer students and scholars from all over the country converge to teach, study, and learn. I was invited to speak as part of an endowed lecture series: my principal sponsor was Stephen Pruett-Jones of U, of Chicago, whom I first met this spring at a talk on his home turf although I have long known his wife Melinda, many years director of Chicago Wilderness.
The field station is one of, if not the oldest, of its type in the country. The United Nations has recognized its significance by naming the site a Biosphere Reserve. It is a point of pride among some as to how far back their connection to this wonderful place goes. I met one person who claimed to have first visited while still snugly ensconced in her mom’s womb. Mary Whitmore, a scientist and educator, invited a number of us over to her house for dinner. I was touched by the sight of A Natural History of the Chicago Region on a table and even more so when Mary told everyone how much she valued the book.
Besides my two lectures, I was invited to join Keith Taylor and his creative non-fiction writing class. They had all read the book and Keith was the perfect facilitator of a stimulating and fun conversation. Keith also took me on a nearly day long sightseeing tour. Keith, who has authored several books of lovely prose and poetry, coordinates the undergraduate program in creative writing at the University of Michigan and directs the Bear River Writer’s Conference. He is also an authority on all things Michigan, with fascinating historical and cultural tidbits about a state that I thought I knew fairly well.
One of the highlights of our tour was the Little Traverse History Museum, maintained by the Little Traverse Historical Society. It is located within the 200 square miles that formed the last great passenger pigeon nesting in 1878. The society published an account of the nesting called Blue Meteor in 1997 and had a large collection of 19th century photos taken locally. At the time I was engaged in research for the book, I contacted the prior director and a visit proved impossible. It featured a fine passenger pigeon exhibit but what blew me away was the remarkable mural, created in the 1970s, depicting in great detail the taking of pigeons from a big nesting. There are lots of passenger pigeon paintings but, as far as I know, none like this.
For a seven year period beginning in 1985, I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to engage in international nature travel. As preparatory to those excursions, I acquired a couple of Nikon FAs and several Nikon and Tamron lenses. But then digital emerged and my slides and slide projector became increasingly anachronistic: I felt like Martha in her cage, the last of a kind, becoming ever less connected with the present. In 2008, I did buy a point and shoot which I never fully mastered. I could record the people I was with (increasingly important as I age) and landscapes, but if I wanted wildlife shots I had to ask better endowed companions to share their pictures. (Sometimes they did not arrive until after I needed them.) If I was by myself, I would use photos by generous friends: although they depicted the same species it would be at least slightly better if the shots were actually taken on that excursion.
This year I was going to do more traveling than I ever have before. Getting good new gear was a priority but due to inertia and expenses it did not happen until last month. Cindy and I were embarking on a road trip through West Virginia, where I had been invited to speak at the Mountain Instiute,, and then up to Pittsburgh for another talk sponsored by the Audubon of Western Pennsylvania. It seemed like the perfect time make the purchase.
I solicited Facebook Friends (what did we do before such resources?) for advice on cameras and Chicago area stores. I was intending to buy my camera at the place I always used to, Helix on Racine Avenue: but as I sought the exact address, I learned it is closed and has been since February 2013. It was my friend Robin Kozloff who first suggested that a local store I should try was Central Camera, in downtown Chicago. I had kind of decided what I wanted so buy I called and talked to Don Flesch, Central’s owner, who gave me all kinds of info. I selected the camera and I told him I needed it no later than the following Friday night, since we were leaving for WV on early Saturday morning. He called me on Thursday afternoon to say the camera had arrived from Helix. He suggested me meet that evening but I had a talk so instead we agreed to rendezvous at a restaurant Friday at 6 am. That is service! We had a nice breakfast and I secured my camera for the trip early next morning.
My camera is a Nikon D610 with a 28-300 x zoom. (It is apparently compatable with some of my old lenses but all functions would have to be performed manually: I have a ways to go before I master the automatic lenses before I try something really challenging.) The huge instruction manual starts out with pages warning you how many ways you can hurt yourself if your not cautious. My favorite: should you mount the camera to a tripod, be careful when you walk lest you strike someone with the legs.
After perusing the manual some, I could not wait and began stalking the subject of my first picture.
Later when Cindy returned from an errand she became the second subject.
Saturday morning we arose and departed bright and early. In early evening we stopped at a motel in Parkersburg, West Virginia just over the Ohio line. We explored the area a bit and lingered at Fort Boreman Historical Park, which overlooks the city and the confluence of the Ohio and Little Kanawha rivers. (Visible is Blennerhassett Island, where, it is alleged by some, Aaron Burr planned to raise an army and launch a coup; friend and Burr aficionado Brett Angelos assures me, however, that Burr had no such aspirations and that claims to the contrary were manufactured by political rival Thomas Jefferson.) This was my first opportunity to practice with the camera. My first vistas!
I was also awaiting my first bird photo. There were some poorly lit and distant robins which I decided did not warrant this great honor so I used restraint. The next morning we weaved our way through the mountains on our way to the institute, a terrain far different than the one at home, dominated by a lake plane and punctuated by gentle glacial moraines.
When we arrived the only people we encountered were staff. The facility is a lovely place that successfully blends in with the wooded hills and grasslands that surround it. Guests can choose as housing their own personal yurts or dormitories. We chose the yurt closest to the bathroom and parking lot and brought our gear inside. (Some say it is haunted by a spectral foot.)
Over the course of our time, we wandered around and the camera recorded its lifer butterfly (a fritillary of undetermined species) and lifer amphibian (a common newt in the eft stage).
We headed out in late afternoon for Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia with an elevation of 4,863 feet. It has a distinct alpine feel, and though not particularly birdy when we were there, it offered more lovely scenes for the insatiable camera. The next day a close by destination was Gaudineer Knob Spruce Forest. Gaudineer is one of the few uncut spruce forests in the state. Like most virgin forests in the Midwest or East, there was a specific reason it was never logged. In this case it was because a surveyors mistake prevented anyone from claiming it. The oldest red spruce here are about 250 years old, which is about the upper life span of the trees. Thus many of the most dramatic specimens are dying. But there are also fine examples of ancient beech and maple growing in slightly drier portions of the tract.
The morning after I presented my talk we drove north to Pittsburgh, where we met Chris Kubiak and other staffers from the Audubon Society of Western Pennsylvania. There was an excellent turn-out for my talk. (Pennsylvania has a particularly strong connection to the passenger pigeon.) We had breakfast with my friend Ann Rosenthal the next morning and the camera captured its first birds, doing the original goose step.
Joel recently spent an hour with listeners on the Dallas PBS radio station KERA. Listen to his interesting and informative presentation.
My second trip to Kansas this year spanned the days of June 17-19 and it was in Manhattan, home of Kansas State University and Konza Prairie. My institutional host was the Northern Flint Hills Audubon Society, but the three people who actually made sure the trip went swimmingly were Cindy Jeffry of KSU’s communications and marketing department, MJ Morgan of KSU’s history department (her dissertation and a subsequent book was about the French exploration of the Illinois River country: we had some fun time discussing early Midwest natural history), and Margy Stewart (a retired history professor from Washburn University).
MJ and her spouse Ron (an entomologist) met me at the airport and we headed to a most remarkable museum which anchors Manhattan’s downtown development. It is the Flint Hills Discovery Center which is all about the Flint Hills, the largest area of unplowed tall grass prairie in the United States. Due to shallow soil over limestone and chert, corn and wheat farming proved difficult and cattle ranching became the agricultural mainstay. This spared the land from being plowed and discouraged a surge of settlers. As a result, “the Flint Hills represent the last expanse of intact tallgrass prairie in the nation” (Wikipedia).
Any visitor to the discovery center needs to see the introductory film. MJ called it fourth dimensional so I hesitated drinking water from the fountain, thinking that might be the source of this perception. But she was right: smoke from burning prairies depicted on the screen billows up from the stage. As we are treated to the prairie throughout the year, winter brought flakes of snow wafting from the ceiling: and a few minutes later it had all “melted,” leaving nary a trace.
The Morgans drove out of town to deposit me at the Stewarts. They own and manage the Bird Runner Wildlife Refuge, a 320 acre section of the Flint Hills that is maintained as a working cattle farm and native prairie preserve. The refuge also offers accommodations, and I was put up at The Guest House, a lovely place a half mile off the paved road and situated in a wooded swale. It features most all of the modern conveniences plus an extensive tract of unplowed prairie a short walk away. Early that evening we went for a tour of the land with an ORV across the prairie. The scent of crushed bergamot and sage mingled into an olfactory delight.
The next day Cindy, MJ, and one other took me to the Konza Prairie Biological Station. I had long heard of this place and I was excited to see it. It consists of 3,487 hectares of native prairie and “is dedicated to a three-fold mission of long-term ecological research, education, and prairie conservation. It is a unique outdoor laboratory that provides opportunities for the study of tallgrass prairie ecosystems and for basic biological research on a wide range of taxa and processes.”Because thesite is so big, scientists can leave sections unburned studying the replace of grasses and forbes with shrubs and trees; or they can burn frequently to see what impacts that has. Prairies out here in IL are so small you could never conduct research like this.
The tall grass prairies of Kansas are different from the prairies east of the Mississippi and not only in size of surviving remnants. We get more precipitation and the geographic distance means there are different, though analogus, species. In northeastern Illinois we have two kinds of wild indigo (Baptisia) while a third is very rare and local. In the Flint Hills that have at least one I was unfamiliar with, blue wild indigo. I was even more surprised with a gorgeous milkweed I had never seen before, spider milkweed, aka green antelope horn.
The last day turned out to be pretty amazing. I had the morning unplanned so before light I walked out to the prairie up the hill from the house. I had a good view of the Flint Hills as they were slowly illuminated by the rising sun. Bird song on the grassland was sparse, except for the persistent songs of eastern meadowlarks and dickcissels riding on the dawn breezes. On my way back, I tarried in the woods and was treated to a male summer tanager who sang vociferously from an exposed perched. A bit of modernity intervened when I realized that my phone could get a signal from higher on the hill and not in the hollow where the house is: there had been a curve-billed thrasher at Montrose, on the Chicago lakefront (second state record, the first of which I did not see.) A little later Margey was taking me to the airport, a twenty minute drive that passed a scissor-tailed flycatcher on a telephone wire.
Cindy picked me up at O’Hare and we took Irving Park to Montrose. Some other people were looking for the thrasher too with no luck. We were chatting with Josh Engle and Amanda Zeigler when Evan Graff spotted the bird. It was easy to see- “next to thst white plastic bag”- and all was good.
I first met Twan Leenders in January 2012 at a Project Passenger Pigeon meeting at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. He has a strong interest in birds but most of his research has focused on reptiles and amphibians. He is now the director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, the town where Peterson was born. We had not kept in touch so I was both surprised and very pleased that he invited me to be the keynote speaker at this year’s RTPI Bird Fest.
Jamestown has a tiny airport (receives three commercial flights a day) but United reaches the airport via Cleveland. Everything at O’Hare ran smoothly until I learned that the gate to the Cleveland flight had been changed and there was a two hour delay. The delay meant that I would miss my connecting flight by 15 minutes or so and would have to take the middle flight of the day. Upon arriving in Cleveland, I walked forlornly to the gate where both my origianl flight and the later flight flew our of. As I approached, person from United emerged to ask me if I was Mr. Greenberg. Upon my amazed confirmation, she said my plane was waiting. The small plane was waiting on the runway and I boarded, thereby increasing the passengers from three to four.
Twan arrived shortly thereafter and I was in his hands for the rest of my delightful stay. He drove me to my lodgings, the Sheldon House, grand historic home now operated by the Jamestown Community College. As we headed to the Institute, we passed the Robert Jackson Center. Yep, the Robert Jackson, one of my favorite Supreme Court justices. He was one of the three justices who dissented in the Japanese internment cases, calling the action racist, and then presided over the Nuremberg trials.
Next was a tour of the RTPI: it is in a beautiful building filled with the things that engaged its namesake. A passenger pigeon display was in a prominent space as was a striking traveling art exhibit entitled Environmental Impact compiled by David Wagner. The National Audubon Society used to sponsor movies and lectures by prominent naturalists including Peterson. Back in the late 1960s, my mother and I went to see his presentation on Antarctica being hosted by the Field Museum. RTPI has shelves filled with his reels of film. That night I went to dinner with Twan , his wife Casey-Leenders Reddington, and his two children Jason and Madeleine. The restaurant was recommended by the kids for its grilled cheese and pickle sandwiches: it proved to have a wide range of really outstanding dishes.
Twan picked me up early the next morning for the first of two field trips scheduled that day (I skipped the second to rest up for my evening talk). We birded the Akely Swamp Important Bird Area just south of the border in Pennsylvania. The leader was local birder, Don Watts. We had 68 species, a mix of birds that would be expected as breeders in norhtern Illinois as well as northern species such as northern waterthrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and alder flycatcher. Arguably, from the perspective of what was unusual to me, the two highlights were herpetological in nature. Although I had seen milks snakes twice before, we met a local guy who had caught one in his green house nearby and was releasing it at Akely. (Nice, too, to see people going out of their way to protect snakes.) But I did come closer than I have ever before in seeing a pickerel frog, a major jinx organism. There are records for the Chicago area but they are old or on the very northern edge of the territory. Twan told me they were around at Akely and so he was quick to point out its vocalization, but alas we never saw one.
On the following morning, the field trip destination was Allegany State Park in Cattaraugus County. Tim Baird, an experienced birder and naturalist, was the leader. Our total that day was 59 species with highlights being twelve species of warblers. We tallied 13 parula warblers including several pairs in the same tree, which as RTPI naturalist Elyse Henshaw pointed out suggests this species can nest in very close proximity to each other. (Maybe even colonies?).I had asked about moccasin flowers (Cypripedium acaule), a stunning orchid that I had only seen once. Tim had one staked out and I spent a bit reveling in its beauty. Another memorable moment for me on this outing is that in over 45 years of birding it is the first time I was in group looking for breeding yellow-throated warblers when we shushed up a dark-eyed junco.
My flight home was in the afternoon so even after the field trip there was some time to meander. On the way to the airport Twan showed me something quite remarkable. In a decaying part of town there flows the Chadakoin River, a stream that has been channelized and whose bank is littered with rebar and other industrial waste. But this small stretch is home to about 100 state endangered soft-shelled turtles. We saw a number of them climbing atop old pipes looking for places to lay their eggs. A ruderal environment providing habitat for rare animals is a wondrous thing: not only for the species dependent on it but as an educational tool that can introduce urban dwellers to the marvels of nature.
I had never been to a birding festival. This year I have been a speaker at three.: Biggest Week in American Birding (Oregon, Ohio); Bluegrass Birding Festival ( Lexington, KY), and Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds (western MN).
The Biggest Week is probably the largest birding festival in the country. It has some exceptional birding areas and it is organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory whose director is Kim Kaufman. Kim, Kenn, and a legion of volunteers who are inspired by them make this remarkable extravaganza possible: the site attracts both birds and many top birders. In addition, through the hard work of Kim and her staff, many of the region’s local chamber(s) of commerce and the businesses they represent have become involved: the 37 million dollars a year generated by visiting birders is widely recognized and appreciated.
Kim and Kenn are also dear friends (I have know Kenn since June 1972) who have been as supportive of my efforts as any friends can be. In the fall of 2012, the Kaufman’s and I were both speaking at an Indiana Audubon Society event at Pokagon State Park. On the last morning, Cindy and I joined them for breakfast. I laid out ideas for Project Passenger Pigeon and Kim immediately invited me to be a speaker at the 2014 birding festival. It was my first venue of what now is over 60 in 22 states.
I arrived at the lodge at Maumee Bay State Park in the afternoon: while events and displays are held at several venues, this is the hub of the festival. I caught the tale end of David Sibley’s talk on the variables of observation. He cited as an example his search for a loggerhead shrike which he fully expected to find. He glimpsed a bird he put down as a loggerhead but upon getting a closer view he realized that it was a great egret head that appeared to be perched shrike-like on a bare branch. (I once had something similar happen to me: a perched tree swallow turned out to be a Canada goose head: key is that one should never count mere glimpses.)
I had not signed up for any trips but a bus trip leaving the next morning at 6 and returning at 10, allowing me plenty of time to get ready for my 5:00 talk seemed like a good choice. I was told that if I arrived at 5:30 am I would have a decent chance of getting on. As I proceeded to the lodge Wednesday morning, I was pelted by heavy rain which fortunately stopped not too long thereafter. It turned out that the bus was indeed full so I wound up doing something that I am guessing was even better. I joined Erik Bruhnke (whom I first met two years ago in Duluth, where he lives) and Ethan Kistler for breakfast, after which we headed for the famed Magee Marsh. A portion of the parking lot was cordoned off out of consideration for the pair of bald eagles nesting next door.
Cindy and I had been there once before years ago, in late May when there was little birding action. On this day though it was filled with birds and, almost as spectacular, hordes of people. The wide boardwalk was clogged with people, but wheel chairs could still find room to creep through. A fine assemblage of warblers were easy to see including baybreast (which I rarely see many of in the course of a spring) and good numbers of what is probably my personal favorite, blackburnian. (“Oh that? Just another male blackburnian.”) The vireos proved also extremely cooperative, with knockout views of warbling, yellow-throated, blue-headed, and a five-feet-away-and content-to-stay white-eyed.
Erik seemed to know everyone he met, and so I perambulated down the boardwalk on my own. (I did encounter people I knew, too, including my Indiana friend Evie Kirkwood). At one point, I stopped to look at something when I vaguely noticed two people heading my way. I did not pay attention until the fellow asked if I could tell him anything about passenger pigeons. I was not sure how to respond, so I offered my hand in introduction. He reciprocated with, “Justin Peter.” I almost fell over. And there standing next to him was Sarah Rupert. They have become dear Facebook Friends and close collaborators on all things passenger pigeon. Justin works for a nature tour company and lives in Toronto while Sarah is a naturalist and painter at Point Pelee in Essex County, Ontario. (She won my heart when she posted that reading Allen Eckert’s novel on the species, Silent Sky, inspired her to become a naturalist.) It turns out that Justin drove from Toronto and picked up Sarah, specifically to hear my talk that night. I was deeply moved. And as we were talking along comes Jim McDonald, whom Cindy and I had met in Kirtland’s warbler country two years ago. A terrific moment.
The talk went very well. I was also touched when Kim and Kenn entered the room to listen. And I met a birder from CA who came in part because he too had been affected by the pigeon story most of his life. Laura Ericson was there as well and learning that she was staying at the same motel as I was, we had dinner with Ed and Rebecca Rice (local birding friends who were in the area ostensibly to pick up a daughter who goes to a nearby college.) Laura, whom I have come to really adore, has a radio show, blog, and authored several excellent bird books. We met in her room and chatted for a good long while.
Inaugural Blue Grass Birding Festival
Kentucky is one of the most important states in the history of the passenger pigeon. It is where Wilson and Audubon made their observations and created prose that have become the best known of any. After seeing a passenger pigeon slaughter in Harford in 1847, the French visitor Henry Revoil predicted that if such killing continued, the species would be gone in a century (it actually took only half that time). He was the first toexpress such perspicacity. My efforts, though, at getting support for Project Passenger Pigeon in the state did not result in much so I reached out to Will Overbeck, a botanist and restorationist who used to live northwest of Chicago but was just finishing graduate school in Kentucky. He was interested in talking up P3 and, living in Lexington, he reached out to folks at Central Kentucky Audubon Society. Tony Brusate of that group asked me if I would like to be the keynote speaker for the birding festival they were planning. Everything fell into place so after returning from Ohio on Thursday, I headed back down US-65 on Friday morning for the six hour drive to Lexington. The festival was to start the next day.
Will was tasked with meeting me at my motel and to shepherd me around the rest of the day. We visited a number of local sites including Ashland (The Henry Clay Estate) and Lexington Cemetery. We ran into a few warblers but the overwhelming highlight was the federally endangered running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum). Apparently, no extant populations of the species were known from 1940 to 1985 until two turned up in West Virginia. I have sought out rare plants over the years and in every case I am remembering they survive in high quality natural areas: almost by definition endangered plants do best at sites undisturbed by people. But not the running buffalo clover. The species requires rich soils in an ecotonal environment between heavy shade and prolonged sunlight that was evidently maintained by the hooves of bison. (The bison also helped disburse the seeds.) While the bison are gone, the human foot traffic and mowing in certain old parks replicate the movement of the lost herbivore closely enough to provide refugia for the clover.
Another fascinating aspect of the running buffalo clover is discussed in the Wikipedia account: “[It] is also the only known species of Trifolium that has no apparent rhizobial association. Rhizobium typically nodulate the roots of Trifolium, increasing nitrogen availability to the plant. It is unknown whether Trifolium stoloniferum has evolved beyond the need for Rhizobium due to the high nitrogen environment associated with Bison, or if the rhizobial associate is extinct due to either the decline of the clover or from competition with rhizobia that was introduced with exotic clovers.”
The next morning, I met David Lang, one of the more avid birders involved in the festival, who was leading a walk at Flora Cliff. Flora Cliff is a 287- acre private nature preserve that includes “steep slopes, mixed hardwood forests, Kentucky River bottomlands, swiftly running tributary streams and limestone palisades” (Flora Cliff web-site). It is a lovely place, one that can be best appreciated in the absence of pouring rain. While still on flat land, David heard a prairie warbler singing which I then spotted. I rarely see that bird so it always ranks high when I do encounter it. But then the small group that had assembled began to explore the site, which required walking up and down those steep slopes, now very slick. At one point, the Flora Cliff guide warned that we would soon be headed down a steep ravine. I thought, “are we going down as bipeds or otters?” Exacerbating the difficulty of the trek, my glasses became fogged and sweat was dribbling into my eyes. Fortunately, one of group members and her young nephew each sported canes. She offered me hers and boy it did make the hike much easier.
The talk was in an assisted living facility close to Jacobsen Park, where the festival was centered. As Tony and his wife were setting up the room, we could hear the A 4, C-11, N-44 of a bingo game going on next door. Fortunately that ended by the time the talk began. Nice turnout, which included one person who came from Cincinnati to show me her passenger pigeon tattoo.
Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds
When I was first invited to the 17 annual Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds I thought it might be in Michigan. But in fact it is located in a bird rich area of western Minnesota with ready access to prairie potholes, lakes, extensive grasslands, deciduous forests, tracts of conifers, bogs, and even Lake Itasca, out of which the Mississippi River begins it journey to the gulf. I flew to Minneapolis and then on to Fargo. Detroit Lakes is about an hour to the east. (One noteworthy aspect of the Fargo leg was conversing with a charming young woman who is a goat herder, or as she prefers to identify herself, “a goat person.” I have never knowingly met anyone before engaged in that profession.)
Cleone Stewart is one of the principal organizers and she made a point of hooking me up with Denny and Barb Martin who were scouting areas out on May 14 and first half of May 15. They are both retired and spend a lot of time working on their county lists. The festival started Thursday afternoon. We were staying at the same motel so it was easy for them to pick me up for an afternoon of birding. Promising shorebird habitat yielded two principal species: least sandpipers and yellow-rumped warblers. (Great comparison views of these two very similar species.) I don’t think I have ever seen so many butter-butts feeding on wet fringes of shallow potholes in amongst the sandpipers. Another treat that day was dancing prairie chickens. The festival offered folks the opportunity to enter blinds pre-dawn to watch the spectacular lekking behavior of these splendid birds but we were treated to much the same thing in early evening. The wind was blowing towards the somewhat distant dancers so we could not hear their haunting nuptial entreaties but we did see them well.
Next morning, the Martins headed toward the nearly 43,000 acre Tamarac National Wildlife refuge. The refuge harbors 30 pairs of trumpeter swans, sizable numbers of the diminishing golden-winged warbler, and gray wolves. As we worked our way towards the refuge headquarters, we stopped to watch swans out on the lake. Next we encountered groups of warblers and worked the small flocks. We wound up with 14 species including palm, Cape May, Blackpoll, orange crowned, Nashville, and Tennessee. They were low next to the lake and we had fun views. At one point, a trumpeter swan flew over as it issued the cries by which it received its name. A moment later a common loon also chimed in. This was a first for me: observing warblers while being enchanted by the calls of trumpeter swans and loons.
Denny and Barb dropped me off at the motel where long time friend Kim Eckert would also be staying. I have known Kim, raised in Wilmette, Illinois, since the late 1960s. Kim is a major fixture in Minnesota birding and led bird tours for many years with VENT. (The Martins credit Kim with being one of the people most responsible for them getting into birding). He had hoped to surprise me with his presence- the info had leaked out earlier- but we as we drove to the winery where my book signing session was scheduled we had a chance to chat about a wide range of birding topics. Soon after arriving at the location, someone else appeared whose presence was a most pleasant surprise: Bob Russell. I had met Kim through Bob, whom I first encountered on an Evanston North Shore Bird Club field trip in October 1967. Bob and Kim have been close buddies from that time forward, even going to the same college. Kim brought along a photo of Bob and me that he took when the three of us went on a birding trip to California in August 1969.
The rest of the evening went well, with a good turn out at the talk and an excellent repast of pan fried walleye. One highlight was the gentleman who approached me as I signed books. He is 90 years old (truly coming across at least ten years younger) and when he was 16, he became friends with a fellow who at the time was 80 (meaning he was born in 1860). This person had trapped passenger pigeons as a young man, a fact that caused him great sorrow later in life when he reflected on his collaboration in the extinction of the bird. To me being only one degree of separation from one who knew the birds in life is quite extraordinary as well.
Mark Robbins and I first met when he knocked on the dorm room in Graham Hall at the University of Arizona that I shared with Ted Parker. That was in early September of 1973. We don’t see each other very often- the last time, in fact, was 25 years ago when I visited him in Philadelphia. Since then he has been the bird collection manager at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. When I was spreading the word on Project Passenger Pigeon, I reached out to Mark and he in turn shared information with a number of organizations in the state including the Burroughs Audubon Society of Kansas City. Elizabeth Stoakes of the society reached out and invited me to speak at their annual dinner on April 25-27.
Mark met me at the Kansas City International airport and off we went birding. He took me to a large grassy site, off limits to the public without special permission, used by the Missouri National Guard for practicing parachute jumping. Our principal quarry was Sprague’s pipit, a species I have seen once before. In that case, I saw a bird on its breeding grounds performing its “skylarking” nuptial display (evidently the longest such display of any bird). While clearly a Sprague’s pipit, the bird never afforded me an opportunity to see its morphological field marks. Mark was looking for patches of dried brown grass that the birds prefer. As we drove slowly along, we saw upland sandpipers and a Le Contes sparrow. Mark also mentioned that Franklin’s ground squirrels inhabit the area as well. Just as we spotted what Mark though was a squirrel burrow, a pipit flushed and we chased after. The bird eventually perched on grass stalks each leg on a different stalk. We saw the light legs, streaked back, large eye on buffy face, and all the other subtleties of its plumage. It is not often I get a near life bird.
Mark lives outside Lawrence and we stopped at at the university so Mark could show me the bird collection. I had told him that my jinx mammal is spotted skunk (either species will do) and that I would be willing to travel a fair distance to see one. (They are more nocturnal than striped skunks, but I fantasize that there is a state park somewhere within 500 miles where spotted skunk den has been dug under an outhouse or other structure: if one sat watching all night, the chimera would finally emerge.) Mark said he would consider joining me on such a trek- not the usual response I get- and he added that a road kill from a nearby county had just been brought to the museum. We observed the skunk and the small passenger pigeon flock.
Arrangements had been made for Mark to lead a field trip for Burroughs Audubon to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a place that I have been wanting to visit since Mark enthuses about during our Arizona days. Over 7,400 acres, much of it marsh and open water. During migration periods, it attracts literally millions of snow geese. That species is so common that there is now a spring hunting season for it. We could see the results: many snow geese (at least one Ross’s) were apparent, likely victims of gunshot wounds, as few geese would have lingered this late prior to the new hunting season. The day also brought a modest flight of my seasons first broad-winged hawks, and a fine list of shorebirds including marbled godwit, willet, Baird’s sandpiper, and Wilson’s phalaropes.
After the well-attended dinner and talk at the elegant Country Club Christian Church, I went home with Marilyn and Steve Koshland who graciously put me up at their lovely home overlooking a lake just outside Kansas City. In the morning, Baltimore orioles foraged at the feeder and an osprey lazily circled over, plunging once into the water to emerge fishless. Then on to the airport.
Blue-winged warbler at Mary Gray Sanctuary (photo by Scott Arvin)
I have been spending so much time on US 65, I am thinking of building a hut at the base of one of the many “Jesus Is Real” signs and assert squatters rights. I would have thought that bad weather would be but a memory for my trip to Earlham College spanning April 14-15 but alas. An ornithology class field trip was scheduled for the morning and I was looking forward to the phenologiccal manifestations of early spring at place substantially south of Chicago. But there was a significant snowfall the night of April 14 and the world that awaited us was one of winter’s white. The students gathered in the morning chill and it was a pleasant outing, but birds were limited to the earliest of arrivals: golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warbler, red-winged blackbird, and a pine warbler. (The drive home along 65 was interminable: the snow had created a back up the preceding evening and a car with one adult and two children slammed into a stopped truck, killing all aboard and throttling the movement of traffic lasting until at least my arrival.)
Earlham College has a national reputation- and is probably Indiana’s premier small liberal arts college- imbued with Quaker traditions. The Joseph Moore Museum has, I think, the largest collection of birds in the state. Heather Learner, a biology professor, is director of the museum and we met last August at the AOU meeting. Her predecessor was Bill Buskirk, who taught at Earlham for many years and is still active with the school. He and I met some years ago when I was conducting bird surveys nearby. Heather invited me to speak at Earlham and I had a great time talking with her museum studies students. One of them, Asa Duffee, was really taken by the passenger pigeon story and created the anniversary exhibit that graces the museum. The panels had been printed and installed just hours before my arrival. They have three passenger pigeons in their collection, including one striking bird with its wings partially opened. The following week had me headed towards Indiana State University.
I was invited by Peter Scott (whom I also met at AOU) and his colleague Rusty Gonser to be the Earth Day Speaker. (Randy also organizes the February Darwin Day festivities and presented me with a leftover Charles Darwin Bobble Head Doll: one of the more interesting items of swag I have received so far.) Peter and his wife, Diana Hews (who is chair of the biology department) generously put me up for my stay. They have a lovely house surrounded by woods and it was an unusual experience for me to fall asleep to the singing of spring peepers. As I lay there, the serenading would suddenly stop, only to renew a short while later. I wondered what was afoot in the forest.
Fortunately for me, Peter has recently retired so he was able to spend time taking me birding. I arrived probably around noon, plenty of time to explore one of Indiana’s premier birding areas: Goose Pond, 8,000 acres of wetland and grassland. I was there once before, in the spring of 2013, when Cindy and I ran down to see a spotted redshank. (In 1973, my dad drove me to Brigantine NJ, an almost 1,800 round trip from home, to see a purported spotted redshank, that we never found but was most likely an oiled yellowlegs. It was a long-suppurating wound that needed healing.) The birding was excellent. We only had 34 species but some were not expected (at least by me). I am still not used to seeing black-necked stilts in the Midwest, where they now breed in increasing numbers. In addition, I added a number of year birds including bobwhite (a species declining across most of its range), American bittern, warbling vireo, and Henslow’s sparrows. The overwhelming highlight, though, were two white-faced ibis. One bird was an adult in alternate plumage with an obvious white rim to the face, while the second was in transitional plumage showing little white.
Randy had set up the next day with me talking to students and faculty before the evening talk, which had a nice turnout. A lunch with graduate students was particularly fun, with a wide ranging discussion of topics including ideas for books and how each first learned of passenger pigeons. A student from India said that she learned about it in high school (I doubt many American’s can say that.). But the highlight was seeing Margaret Moga: Peggy and I were birding/prairie friends back 20 or more years ago when she was in graduate school at Loyola. Her field is neuroanatomy and she teaches at the Indiana University Medical School which is located on the ISU campus.
My final spring jaunt to Indiana (May 2-4) was to be the keynote speaker at the Indiana Audubon Society’s spring meeting at the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Connersville. On Friday, the day before the meeting, I picked up my good friend Jeanette Jaskula, who lives in Rensselaer right off US 65, and we proceeded on to Connersville. (Jeanette has two delightful youngsters and she said that being away from home for two consecutive nights- which this trip entailed- would be the longest time she has been away from them. I thank her husband Mike Nickels for making this possible) And there would be other friends at the meeting as well including Steve and Sarah Sass, Peter Scott, and Terri Gorney. (I also met one of Indiana’s most active young birders, Alexandra Forsythe, and her parents: Alex graciously asked me to sign a copy of A Feathered River, which she had reviewed quite favorably on her blog, and a terrific conversation ensued.)
On our way to the refuge that first day we spotted black vultures in with the turkeys as they all fed contentedly on a fawn carcass Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary is a lovely 700 acre area of wooded ravines with a few small artificial lakes. In the morning Jeanette. Steve, a visiting couple, and I took an early morning walk. We were treated to a stunning male scarlet tanager, parula warbler, yellow-throated warbler, and Louisiana waterthrush. A blue-winged warbler sang from afar. Later that day, I was scheduled to lead a walk for the young birders who were present. There were 18 youngsters present, about half of whom had a genuine interest in nature and birds. Our route around the lakes yielded a few expected warblers but things did not get really interesting until we were almost at our starting point and met a non-birding parent who said she saw a dark bird with a red bill swimming along the cattail-fringed edge of the closest lake. The group walked back to pursue the area more closely but failed to see anything. I started clapping my hands and a low and behold a common gallinule flushed from the marsh and flew towards the near shore. It proceeded to climb the bank and ascend a tree where it crouched down. I have never seen a gallinule that high in a tree before: word spread and lots of folks were able to see it.
Common gallinule at Mary Gray (photo by Scott Arvin)