I have been making winter trips to Duluth since 1969 when Bob Russell guided my mom, sister, and me on a foray into the north woods. (To placate my non-birding sister, I offered her varying sums if she spotted life birds: for an ivory gull she would have received- if my parents backed my promise- $50.) For the last two years, my friend Lizzie Condon has been attending graduate school in this fair city and so plans were made for me to visit. Little did we know that in the weeks between plans and arrival, boreal owls would appear in some numbers. A couple days before I left, Lizzie called me while she was actually observing a boreal. (Ah, modern technology.)
Of the northern owls, I have seen numerous hawk and great-grays but only two boreals. One would readily stick its head out of a nest hole while the other was along Rt, 41 where a waiting birder pointed it out to my group. When Lizzie and I met on February 15, I was surprised to learn to that although she had already seen at least two boreals within the past week or so, she still had not crossed paths with a great-gray. So we headed out in late afternoon to Rt 41, which goes north along the Lake Superior shoreline, in search of owls. Looking down a short road to the lake we spied that tell tale sign that a good bird was present: several cars and birders. Sure enough they were watching two great-grays and Lizzie had her lifer.
Next morning we repeated the route and found yet another great-gray. This weekend coincided with the Sax-Zim bird festival which, along with the owls, brought brigades of birders from all over. We ran into Chicago friends, Bob Hughes and Karen Mansfield. One of Duluth’s premier birders and a friend of Lizzie, Erik Bruhnke was leading a group. With both we agreed to share info if we found a boreal. Well Lizzie pulled off a feat that I still find amazing. If a boreal is facing you while perched on an exposed branch as you drive slowly down a road, you have a chance of discerning it. But my sharp-eyed friend actually spotted a boreal with its back to us. We stopped started calling to the other folks and in no time we had a horde of birders milling around. And among them was my Indiana birding buddy John Cassady and his wife Wendy. A really wonderful moment.
Several months have now passed. And the owls seem to have departed. But Lizzie recently posted on Facebook that she just accomplished a long held aspiration: on May 4, enough snow remained in Duluth that she was still able to ski.
I made three trips to Markham Prairie this year with a total of nine different companions. The first trip was on July 21 to see how things were doing before my talk on prairies scheduled the next day for the Mike Novak radio show. I try to do my heaviest recruitment to share the beauties of the prairie when the blazing stars are going strong and I figured it would take one more week. July 29 was the day people converged on the prairie from as far away as Michigan and Indiana. The final trip was on August 17, when there was also the opportunity to visit Wolf Road Prairie as well, my only trip there this summer.
On the first trip, which was typically early, we did have a singing Henslow’s sparrow singing in plain view but I never found him on any subsequent visit. Sedge wrens were cooperative, though, on the second outing; the species was a lifer for at least one member of the group. I scheduled the last two trips a little later in the day to maximize our chances for butterflies which we had nice numbers of, but missed the regal and Aphrodite fritillaries.
One of the best articles ever written about the original prairie is by the biologist Albert Herre who grew up in the 1870s near Pekin Illinois where he would watch the kaleidoscopic nature of these rich grasslands: “As seas of phlox faded it was succeeded by another marvelous flower bed of nature’s planting, and this in turn by others until mid-summer was reached. The great coarse perennials belonging to the Compositae dominated, and instead of a single mass of color there was vast garden of purple cone flowers, black-eyed Susans, rosin-weeds, blazing start, asters, goldenrods, and others.”
Over the course of these trips the changes that Herre described were evident. In this blog, I will let the photos tell the story. After all, of the friends who accompanied me on these jaunts, six are photographers.
Each of this year’s two visits to Prairie Island Indian Community were a week later than usual due to previous commitments by our hosts and guides, Community biologists Brad Frazier and Gabe Miller. This did not affect the first set of surveys but there was probably some reduction in bird activity by July 9-12 when we conducted the second survey. Making this even more likely was the heat that scorched the region during the weeks between our trips. Fortunately for us, though, the days we were on site were lovely and mild.
Rain had fallen to the north so the river was in a period of changing water levels that made it difficult to access a few places. The islands, whose very character is dictated by the vagaries of the Mississippi River, are sometimes easily accessible by the boat so we can reach the exact point from which we count. At other times, the water is so high we can often reach those points or get very close to them from the boat. On several occasions this year we encountered something in between. The water had receded enough so that we could not float to our exact spot but not decreased enough for us to reach the island by foot. Rather between us and the islands were mudflats that were just too soft and deep to make it possible to proceed. So we conducted the surveys from the boats, which really does not make any appreciable difference in the results as the islands are pretty narrow anyway.
The most significant bird we have had over the course of our surveys has been the loggerhead shrike, a pair of which nested in 2010 and 2011. There was some fear that the bison herd kept at another portion of the community land might be moved to the prairie where the shrikes nested, but that plan has been abandoned. So even though there had been no change in the habitat, the shrikes had still for some reason left the site. Bob Russell, of the USFWS, told me that shrikes were found during the ongoing Breeding Bird Atlas not too far away so they might return in the future.
Last year the yellow warbler was encountered at more points than any other species. This time, with a presence at 23 points, its rank had fallen considerably. More widespread were American redstart, eastern wood pewee, house wren, and red-winged blackbird. This years most ubiquitous bird, however, was the American robin recorded at 41 points. The drought probably accounts for the more restricted occurrence of the yellow warbler.
At least one bird was at all time high. Dickcissels tend to arrive later than other species but even so last year we never even saw one on our first visit and only 7 on our second. This year, though, things were completely different: on our first visit we had an amazing 66 and on the second visit 35. This is characteristic of the species, though, as noted by Kenn Kaufman in his wonderfully informative Lives of North American Birds (1996): “Very erratic in summer occurrence; they may nest in large numbers in an area one year and be totally absent there the next, presumable as a response to rainfall and its effect on habitat.”
There was a modest mayfly emergence but the mosquitoes were a bit heavy particularly on our second visit. One morning before donning my head net, I made the mistake of opening my mouth and ingested quite a number, an augmentation of the day’s protein ration. I figured they can’t be too unhealthy as they were probably loaded with the blood from me or my companions and no one ever talks about vampires suffering from high cholesterol or diabetes.
It doesn’t look like we are going on any lengthy trips this summer so Cindy suggested a quick get away to a place neither of us had ever been before, Cahokia Mounds (sometimes you feel like a nut and sometimes you don’t). We left home on July 5, fleeing the Chicago area while it was in the grip of one of hottest spells in years. But unlike some people in the same position, we headed for a place that was several degrees higher. My car lacks air conditioning so Cindy put her foot down and insisted we take hers. (One way to think of the heat: If you left something alive in the car for very long, do not expect to be very animated when you return.)
Cahokia is in Collinsville, Illinois, just a little east of St. Louis which makes it about a five hour drive. A beautiful visitor center (free admission) offers a superb explication of Cahokia, one of the most important archeological sites in North America. From 600 to 1400 it hosted the larges city in the new world north of Mexico. That title wasn’t surpassed until 1820, when Philadelphia exceeded the 40,000 population that lived at Cahokia at its peak.
It is no wonder that people gathered there as it lies at the confluence of three great rivers, the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois, all in proximity to the rich terrestrial environments of the Ozarks and tall grass prairies. But it was the introduction of corn from Mexico that created the surplus wealth necessary for the city to expand: specialization and the a large population enabled the small religious/political elite to commission the building of the great mounds (of which 80 still exist) that mark the Missississpian Culure. Trade flourished, reaching the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes. Exactly why Cahokia declined is unknown, but expanding populations that exceeded the resource base, perhaps exacerbated by climate change, is likely a major factor. And once the trajectory was established, other factors like internal dissension and war probably took their toll.
The visitor center has one small area dealing with wildlife. White-tailed deer were the preferred prey, as they were large and offered valuable pelts, bones, and antlers in addition to meat. One panel depicts a peregrine falcon stooping at a pigeon, which happens to be a rock pigeon (imported from Europe centuries after the abandonment of Cahokia) and not a passenger pigeon, the only pigeon that would have been present. It is interesting that even where great scholarship, resources, and care are brought to bear on the main topic, peripheral subjects are often treated without much circumspection.
Outside the center is a small pond fringed with cattails. As we drove by it to enter the parking lot, I could see four or five cattle egrets. There was a brief period a few decades ago when the species nested in northeast Illinois but as of now it is an uncommon visitor and I rarely see them. I walked over to watch when one of the weirdest things I have ever encountered happened. A truck pulled out of the parking lot with its horn blaring. The honking vehicle stopped next to the pond, not leaving until the egrets flew off. That this was a deliberate effort to flush the birds I was observing is really beyond comprehension but I can think of no other explanation.
We meandered towards our evening destination, Pere Marquette State Park which offers one of the lovely CCC era lodges. But on the way we crossed the Mississippi for a visit to the
Audubon Center at Riverlands. I had talked to director Patty Hagen on the phone before we stopped but unfortunately she could not meet us. Matthew Magoc, Environmental Education Specialist, proved to be an excellent host pointing out least terns coursing the river. The Interior least tern, a federally endangered species, is not faring well and to provide additional habitat, innovative approaches are being utilized: “The US Army Corps of Engineers created a floating barge habitat for the Interior Least Terns in Ellis Bay (located within the Mississippi River) to provide ideal nesting conditions, create a potential siting tool for future permanent habitat locations, and restore sandbar habitat to the stretch of the Mississippi River. For construction, they used two dredge pontoon barges and altered them to hold 5 feet of sand/gravel mix. They anchored the barges and attract birds with call boxes and decoys. This season, the floating habitat has been considered a success with 20 adults, 23 hatchlings, and 5 eggs remaining during the last count.” (Matthew Magoc).
Pere Marquette is one of the two or three most visited parks in the Illinois system (and every park is free). In the morning, close to 90 degrees at 6:30 am and windless, we took a short hike through the lovely forest. Birds were largely quiet, with Acadian and great crested flycatchers being the most conspicuous exceptions. The silence of the birds and the knowledge that the day was only going to get hotter encouraged us to head home, but not before buying some lovely peaches to sustain us on our way.
I had not seen Kirtland’s warblers since the late 1980s and it is a bird that has long interested me. Back in seventh grade (fall of 1966), I had to write a report on a local bird and I called the Field Museum asking which rare birds are found here. They mentioned the Kirtland’s as such a species that has occurred here on infrequent occasion. (For more information on the status of local birds, they recommended Birds of the Chicago Area by Ellen Thorne Smith, a small almost pamphlet of a book that I later acquired: it led to the Evanston North Shore Bird Club and the passion that has imbued most of what I have done since. For better or worse.) I wound up writing about the warbler and its history for my class. Later, I learned that one of the first nests ever found of the bird was discovered by Nathan Leopold, a brilliant young ornithologist from Chicago who in 1924 or so murdered a teenage boy with his partner Richard Loeb. Their deed became known as “The Crime of the Century” (there is a great book with that title by Hal Higdon) and is the perfect confluence for those of us with interests in birds and true murder stories.
Cindy had never seen the species so we went on a three day trip to Kirtland’s country. The Kirtland’s warbler is one of the most finicky birds of the continent, requiring young jack pines between 5 and 20 feet tall. Virtually the entire population nests in a few counties in the northern part of the Southern Peninsula of Michigan: most birders see them in Crawford (Grayling) or Oscoda (Mio) Counties. A few now also breed in the Upper Peninsula and Wisconsin. Precisely one pair nests on a military base in Ontario.
Back in 1968 when I saw the species for the first time, birders could wander through the national forest lands at their leisure looking for warblers. I remember being there a year later and encountering National Guard troops and tanks moving through on training maneuvers. But for the benefit of the birds, the US Forest Service offers trips out of their Mio office (for a charge of $10) and the US Fish and Wildlife Service provides the same outings that meet at the Ramada Inn in Grayling (no cost).
Cindy’s last day of school was June 4 so we headed north on the following day. Our first stop was the Chippewa Nature Center in Midland, located at the confluence of the Chippewa and Pine Rivers. I had become familiar with the facility through Kyle Bagnall, a naturalist there who is also active in Project Passenger Pigeon. Originally comprised of land once belonging to the Dow family, it is now one of the largest private nature centers in the country. It has grown to over 1,200 acres and the Visitor Center is stunning, with big windows that provide a lovely riparian vista. We did not have time to hike the trails but Kyle showed us around the center and we want to come back.
The two warbler tours were thoroughly enjoyable, as were our knowledgeable young leaders Dana Smith (Mio) and Alison Vilag (Grayling). (Alison, by the way, is from Berrien County, MI and is also a big fan of Sarah Sass.) There were only six of us at Mio, including Jim McDonald of Ypsilanti and Thom Barnell, of KY but the Grayling trip was heavily attended, in part because we were joined by a group from the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. The warbler has a distinctive song that makes it relatively easy to locate, although seeing one can be more difficult. Fortunately, the males often conduct their performances while perched on the tops of the scattered oaks: it is when they secrete themselves within the boughs of the pines that they can become invisible. (The writer Peter Matthiessen came up with my favorite bird song pneumonic of all time to describe the vocalization of this species: Felicity has to wee-wee.) On both trips we had excellent views of Kirtland’s warblers, and at Grayling everyone was able to look at a singing clay-colored sparrow through a telescope. We befriended an excellent young birder named Neil Gilbert. He heard an upland sandpiper high up in the sky and was able to watch until it was blocked by a tree. But through his directions I was able to glimpse it for a moment. Both tours spend some time at enclosures that hold live cowbird decoys, all fitted with little yellow tags on their legs to distinguish them from recently caught birds. Cowbirds parasitize Kirtland’s warblers heavily and contribute in a major way to the warbler’s rarity. (The first person to record this fact was the aforementioned Nathan Leopold.) So along with habitat management, control of cowbirds is a necessary activity in maintaining healthy warbler populations. The introductory film that precedes both tours and the tour leaders talk of the need to “remove” cowbirds. The meaning is pretty obvious but some people are still surprised when it dawns on them that none of the caged cowbirds will leave on their own power. If you add up the cost of cowbird control and the actions necessary to maintain large tracts of young jack pine (when the trees become too tall they are logged and very small saplings are planted in their stead), it costs about $1,000,000 a year to preserve the Kirtland’s warblers. Without this expenditure of mostly public monies and government action, this bird would without question become extinct. Too bad the warblers can’t vote.
I like showing off our natural gems to people who are not familiar with them. It takes a day, but the Kankakee River country is so unlike the rest of the Chicago region it is high on my list of places to show-off. The Kankakee Fish and Game Area in Starke County is comprised of miles of dikes that meander the various banks of the Yellow and Kankakee Rivers close to where they converge. The swamp-like habitat is reminiscent of the south, minus cypress trees and alligators, of course. Thus it was a high priority for me to give Lindsay Wilkes, born, raised, and educated in the south, a glimpse of a northern bayou.
In homage to the alleged bird migration of the season, we first headed to the Hammond Bird Sanctuary. We had a few warblers at the entrance but our best bird- and a lifer for Lindsay- was a well marked female black-throated blue, the two little white marks on her wings well defined. It would be the first of several lifers for her. A late palm warbler was also new. Then off to Kankakee Sands where things were slow but the ever charming dickcissels put on a nice show and added to Ms. Wilkes’ life list.
Perhaps because it was late in the afternoon and Mother’s Day, but we had Kankakee Fish and Game virtually to ourselves. (We met one large oncoming vehicle on a portion of the dike that makes passing difficult) Low water levels left most of the forest floor dry except for sporadic depressions that held the last of the excess moisture. A pileated woodpecker called and made a brief appearance. One pond hosted a rim of open mud whereon a greater yellowlegs foraged peacefully. (New bird for Lindsay.) In years past, I have found numerous prothonotary warblers here, not surprising since trees growing in or next to water is ideal habitat. But the conditions being what they were, I figured there would be fewer of them. And Lindsay had a particular interest in seeing one: here only previous experience, literally first hand, was a dead one she found as a collision monitor. I managed to locate one working the edge of the pond and she was able to get a good view.
Birding with someone who is still adding new birds to their personal list offers the pleasure of seeing long-familiar species with a fresh pair of eyes. We saw a number of wood ducks (another lifer), including several hens with long lines of trailing babies. I quoted the great Sterling North for the proposition that the wood duck is the most beautiful bird in North America. Lindsay accepted their beauty but was skeptical that no others were their equal. Yep, I guess on an empirical basis such a claim is hard to prove. This was made clear when a male indigo bunting perched long enough for me to get it in the scope to show my friend. A 32x wide angle lens trained on a gentian-blue bird illuminated by a late afternoon sun was one of the highlights of the day. For both the newbie and the jaded old timer.
Markham Prairie calls loudest in mid May and late July-early August. This is another stunner I wanted to show Lindsay. The opportunity arose when Cindy and I arranged to meet Josh Engel, who lives in the city close to Lindsay, and Lindsay at the prairie. We arrived well after the vernal high point but at a time I rarely visit. The dominant blooming forb was spiderwort, a plant that fascinates me because it is a native species that can thrive in the most pristine of prairies as well as urban backyards (less so in the latter). Wild quinine was also starting to flower: by the time we arrive two months later to ogle the blazing stats, the quinine blooms have seriously shriveled. A few cream white indigo were also still flowering.
From Markham, we headed off to Calumet. Burnham Prairie yielded a female orchard oriole bathing in the road and a pectoral sandpiper, another first for Lindsay. But the birding apex was reached at the corporate wetland near Wolf Lake. Walter Marcisz had found white-rumped sandpipers in amongst the semi-palmated sandpipers but all we saw were the latter. Still, it was a new species for one of us. As Josh was working the sandpipers, I spotted two adult little-blue herons, which are real stunners. And Lindsay’s final lifer of the day.
- Yellow head, yellow head (John Cassady)
A year ago, a small article about Project Passenger Pigeon (P3) appeared in Birdwatchers Digest. Among those who read the piece was Susan Wegner, an art historian at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. She was born and raised near Fond du Lac, WI and has passenger pigeon in her blood. Susan immediately became as enthusiastic about P3 as any of us and even began incorporating it into her own work. She authored and submitted a really cool proposal to the College Art Association meetings in NYC in Feb. 2013 for a paper entitled “From Venus’ Chariots to Chicago’s Wild Game Market: Imagining Wild Pigeons and Doves in Western Art.” It addresses the changing meanings ascribed to birds in images from ancient Egyptians up through unrelenting harvest and extinction of tourtes voyageuses (aka passenger pigeon).
When Susan saw our new website (passegerpigeon.org) she felt compelled to contact me. It was so gratifying to receive such a message, especially from a scholar like Susan. And it came at a perfect time as I was tasked with submitting a P3 themed proposal for an upcoming conference which would have been difficult for me to do. So when I spoke with Susan about the need for a proposal she whipped out a fine draft. Her mother lives in Fond du Lac, WI, only three hours north of here, Since she was planning on visiting, she asked if we could meet to finish the proposal and, maybe even do some birding. When I was done leading my Friday morning bird walk, I headed north and we met that evening, finished the proposal, and left the motel at 4:30 Saturday morning for a place as magical as its name, El Dorado Marsh, 6,300 acres of marsh and woods that supports an array of birds that puts most of our Chicago wetlands to shame. It was created by the same glaciers that left us the much larger and more famous Horicon Marsh to the southwest.
The oonk-a-chunk of American bitterns greeted us. Later as the sky took on the character of day, we say one flying across the marsh, its protruding legs and dark primaries highlighted by the low sun. Yellow-headed blackbirds, a bird whose appearance, scientific name (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus: yellow-head, yellow-head: as if you might miss the point the first time), song, and habitat all leave me enthralled. They populated the marsh in conspicuous numbers: they are the gold that dusts the waving green cloak. Susan spotted a string of distant black-crowned night-herons emerging from a distant grove. Wood ducks and blue winged teal darted low over the cattails before plopping down in the small openings.
Susan informed me that this was a place where her family visited often. For her, then, this oasis of vibrant life has special meaning. And it does for me as well.
The Spring Bird Count, this year on May 5, is always a highlight of the season. And, as I always do, I go out a few days ahead of time to scout my area. The scouting is less about finding birds and more about checking areas and assembling an itinerary. Indeed, actually encountering good birds while scouting usually proves frustrating: they are often gone. Tim and I it turns out made two excellent finds. We had a light-colored rough-legged hawk circling over the Chain of Lakes State Park headquarters. No way was that guy hanging around. But even better, and more problematic in some ways, was a flock of 5 marbled godwits and 11 Hudsonian godwits, some of the latter in very nice breeding plumage. They were in a small flooded pond on private property that I always check because it is convenient to do so. I was reluctant to broadcast the info in the fear that they would be flushed and it would annoy the land-owners. Andy Sigler said they would probably be gone in a day, anyway. Whether, he was correct or not I do not know but they were certainly gone four days later.
When my spring count regular Tim Earle told me he would be in Australia instead of Lake County on May 5, I was confronting the possibility of covering my territory alone. But I was joined by semi-regular Jennifer Schmidt, and SBC newbies Al Sander and Patrick Palmer. As always, we gathered in the dark of Deer Lake Marsh waiting for the birds to wake up. Despite lengthy efforts, we never roused a screech owl, first year I have missed it there in a long time. And then it started raining. It must have been the wet and cold that shaped the grim countenances on the faces of my comrades: they looked like a special operations team about to launch a suicide mission. Fortuantely, Deer Lake does offer a structure and we were able to shelter ourselves for the duration of the precipitation.
Worthwhile birds in the morning included black terns, a bunch of lingering ducks (northern shoveller, ring-necked, etc), a pine warbler. Shorebirds were not anything like what they had been on Tuesday: even a dowitcher had flown the coop. At the end of the day, with an hour or so left of light, Al counted up the totals and announced a figure. Patrick then added the list up and reached yet another number. So I gave it a try and came up with something else again. (Exactly why the ineptitude in simple counting is not clear: it may well have been rooted in my bad handwriting and the fact that over the course of the day the same species was written down more than once). By performing the tally as a group, we finally reached the grand total of 99 species. That was clearly unacceptable so, the three of us (Jennifer had left at lunch time) headed out to find a bluebird where I knew there were houses. And sure enough: a nice male brought us into triple figures.
If you think about the life of a migrant bird, there are three basic periods: breeding, wintering, and migration. There is no doubt that we know the least about migration, which is also likely the most dangerous: that patch of woodland in the middle of a soybean desert that provides refuge and food for a day before the next leg of the journey, could easily be eradicated. Birders enjoy the masses of birds that congregate at migrant traps, but whether these places provide the forage necessary to sustain the health of the birds may be an open question. And birds spend more time at these stopover locales than they do actually moving north or south.
Lizzie Condon has decided to devote her master’s research on the question of how these migrants fare in urban areas. I spent a morning with her as she checked out potential sites for her study. She is focusing on woodlands and they need to be of different sizes and distances from the lake. A team of counters will conduct point count surveys at each of these. I think this is really exciting work but the challenges of counting birds in the early hours on property in the urban area poses huge challenges. There are issues of land owner permission and potential safety risks to the counters. One potential area we checked was in the process of being cut down and turned into a housing sub-division.
But Lizzie did manage to find and cover all the sites she needed. Now that the field part is over, she will be busily engaged over the next period of months analyzing data. I will keep you posted on how the study progresses.
This May’s migration stands out as being one of the least productive I can recall. My initial thought would be that I did not bird as much as I usually do, which might be true, but after just tallying up my days in the field, I realize I was still out 12 times. (Pity the poor people who have lives and real jobs.) One striking example is that I led a morning walk to the Skokie Lagoons on May 18. There were about 20 people, a good number of whom are very experienced and knowledgeable birders. One person brought along the list we had accumulated on the same walk and day in 2011. On that outing we found 25 species of warblers: this year, the total number of warbler species reached all of 6 (although we did have a very cooperative Philadelphia vireo and olive-sided flycatcher).