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..
The Cincinnati excursion described in my last post was sandwiched between two interesting trips also to Midwest destinations. Harbor Springs, Michigan is at the northern end of Michigan’s southern peninsula. It is an important place in the history of the passenger pigeon because the town is located with the area of the last great pigeon nesting in 1878. Covering about 200 square miles, the nesting probably involved something like 50 or 60 million birds. This nesting was also unique in that it was the first time in history that an effort was made to minimize the killing. That effort probably had minimal impact on protecting birds but it did draw attention to the plight of the bird. Harbor Springs is also an important place in the history of Project Passenger Pigeon, for it was one of the places Lizzy Condon and I visited on the first P3 organizing trip back in April 2011. (See my blog http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2011/05/30/p3-in-michigan-more-of-lizzies-and-joels-marvelous/) Mary Cummings, director of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society and Museum, received us very warmly and we had been in touch ever since.
I drove up on October 22 and spent all day of Oct 23. Mary took me to a local school where we showed the movie and then in the afternoon a group of students visited the museum. In the evening I gave my talk. One jewel that the museum offered was a painting by Lorna Jean Schneider created in her high school art class in 1940. It is entitled “Arrival of the Pigeons.” Know one seems to know what became of Ms. Schneider, but the hand written note on the back of the painting (likely by her teacher) says this about the artist: “Lorna Jean is very gifted and I think intends to go on with her art work. She lives on Howard Street.” The painting is in the possession of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians Department of Archives and Records, the agency that generously lent the work to the history museum for its display.
From the beginning of P3, Stan Temple, who taught for many years in the Department of Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said he would organize anniversary activities within his state. He enlisted many organizations including the Wisconsin Historical Society and the Wisconsin Academy of Science, Arts, and Letters to help publicize the importance of 2014. Perhaps the culmination of his efforts occurred over the weekend of November 1 and 2. The Wisconsin Academy sponsored a screening of From Billions to None, followed by a panel discussion involving Stan, Curt Meine, David Blockstein, and me. In the evening, there was a reading with actors of Brett Angelos’ wonderful play, Savage Passengers, based on the incident in 1834 when actor Junius Brutus Booth attempted to recruit the well-known theologian James Freeman Clark to preside over a funeral for a bushel of passenger pigeons. Booth abhorred killing and wanted Clark to join him in this protest against the slaughter of the pigeons. Part of Brett’s play had been performed in a Chicago theater but this is the first time the entire piece was read.
The following day, on Sunday afternoon, the Wisconsin Symphony Orchestra performed Anthony Philip Heinrich’s “The Columbiad; Or the Migration of the American Passenger Pigeon.” Heinrich was America’s first symphony composer and his master piece was this nin movement symphony, each movement of which depicted a different aspect of the species’ life.. He lived for a while in the woods of Kentucky during the 1840s and knew the bird well. The work had been performed once, in Prague in 1857. So it had been a goal of P3 to get this piece played and we worked closely with Neely Bruce, a musicologist, conducter, and composer at Wesleyan University, to make it happen. Stan reached out to his contacts in Madison and we were thrilled when the University of WIsconsin orchestra committed to a performance. (Neely was also able to get the Yale Symphony Orchestra to perform the music in mid-October.)
Another important aspect that made this weekend so enjoyable was that it drew a wide range of friends. Cindy joined me; Brett and his wife Cheryl attended, as did Susan Wegner from Maine, Lynne Hepler from Vernon Hills, Bob Russell from Minneapolis, and Lizzy Condon from Duluth. In varying combinations we hung out.
The first half of Sunday was open so Stan had organized a tour of the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo. It was a special experience because besides Cindy, Cheryl, Brett, and me, the tour leaders included people who had been closely involved with ICF in a variety of capacities: Lizzie worked there for six months (and works there now); Curt and Stan have been consultants and/or on the board; and Jeb Barzen is Director of Field Ecology. ICF has all 15 species of the world’s cranes, including whooping and the Siberian, which is now the rarest of all. One of my favorite birds in the collection is Slidell, a gray-crowned crane from Africa. In Jeb’s words: “Slidell is a female who was raised at the Miami Zoo to be a bird trained to fly in front of audiences. She didn’t fit in well at ICF for being part of a flight show though because she was imprinted on people too strongly. This caused her to be highly aggressive to female staff (imprinting goes both ways), of whom we have a preponderance, and this interfered with her flying on cue. Now she is a great display bird and approaches people readily. For women human guests, her approaches are to threaten them while her approaches to males are to court them!” I have been told by some female staffers that even if they do their best to dress and act like a male, Slidell is never fooled and acts as aggressively as ever.
Cincinnati, of course, plays a special role in the history of the passenger pigeon. I was there on September 1 for the anniversary but had been invited by Xavier Univeristy to return in late October to participate in a special panel discussion organized by Karim Tiro of the History Department and James Buchanan of the Edward Brueggeman Center for Dialogue. The title of the program was ” The Legacy of Martha: The Last Passenger Pigeon and the Rise of Conservation.” The Brueggeman Center is devoted to the idea of bringing people with different backgrounds and emphases to discuss issues of public concern. This type of interdisciplinary approach is near and dear to my heart and so it was an honor to be on a panel including such people as Thane Maynard (executive director of the Cincinnati Zoo) and John Reiger, a historian. (Although not on the panel, I also had a chance to chat with P3 stalwart, Dan Marsh.)
Cincinnati, besides being home of the zoo, is also where my long time friend Stan Hedeen lives. Stan grew up in Evanston and was a regular on the Evanston North Shore Christmas Bird Count, where we probably first met in December 1967. He was a member of the biology faculty at Xavier for many years and then worked in administrative positions. When I started my evangelizing to grow interest in the 2014 anniversary, I first contacted Stan as my entree into Cincinnati (see my spring 2010 blog posting http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2010/04/17/a-trip-to-the-holy-land-part-ii-piketon-and-cincinnati/). Through his efforts, I met Dan, Thane, Karim, and John Ruthven. He agreed to put me at his home during my stay in Cincinnati.
Getting to Cincinnati was something of a challenge. Round trip airfare on American was something like $800. Fortunately, my dynamite travel agent Maura Stein, found a company called Ultimate Air Shuttle that flew round trip from Midway Airport to Cincinnati for just over $500. In over 20 years of being in the business Maura never heard of the airline but we booked it. It turns out that while it flies out of Midway it does not use any of the Midway terminals. Rather you have to go through a guarded gate to get to a building with a different name on it. (The operation was beginning to resemble something out of the television show Blacklist) I mentioned to one of the employees that even the web-site was unclear as to where you need to be, and she said that was in part because some of the customers prefer traveling under the proverbial radar. (The price of airfare actually declined because from Cincinnati I would up flying to DC where I rented a car to attend the American Conservation Film Festival which was bestowing an award on “From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction.” Each of the three legs of the trip was with a different airline.)
Ultimate uses a genuine terminal at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport, but one that was long abandoned and now only houses Ultimate. But upon my arrival, Stan and I found each other without difficulty. He took me straight away to Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky. This site has a remarkable history in that during the Pleistocene salt springs attracted large herds of two bison species, mammoths, mastodons, toed horses, and ground sloths. But the earth was soft (early European settlers called it “jelly ground”) and many of these big mammals became mired, their bones gathering over the millennia. The remains were concentrated over a ten acre site that became known as Big Bone Lick. Long known to native people, the first European to record the remains was a French Canadian explorer who visited in 1739. Collectors followed and the specimens were distributed to museums throughout Europe and the United States, as well as to such prominent Americans as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. Scientists recognized the unique value of the place by referring to it as the “Birth Place of American Vertebrate Paleontology.” And beginning in 1953, an effort began to have the Big Lone Lick protected as a state park. Seven years later that mission was accomplished, and over the seceding years the park has grown to 813 acres and a beautiful museum has been erected.
Stan had a personal interest in the park, having been active in the creation of the interpretative signage. He shared one anomaly in the paleontological record of Big Bone Lick: despite all the large vertebrates present, no one has ever found the remains of a saber-toothed cat or any other predator.
The next morning we went to the Cincinnati Museum Center. The center is unusual, if not unique, in being located at the former Union Terminal. The exhibits had to be constructed to correspond to the long spaces characteristic of train stations. The other element that contributes to the center’s distinctiveness is that it is comprised of three separate museums (in addition to an OMNIMAX theater and history library): the Cincinnati History Museum, Duke Energy Children’s Museum, and the Museum of Natural History and Science. There are some unfortunate aspects to the museum as well. Recently, it was established that the rebar within the building’s frame had rusted to the point of compromising the integrity of the structure. A lage bond referendum was passed last fall and the funds will be available to restore the building, but during that process the museum will be closed for over a year. And second, like many museums, curators have been jettisoned so that the valuable bird collection receives mainly the attention of volunteers, including Stan.
Being an old collection, the museum has a goodly number of both passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets. The last Carolina parakeet to die in captivity was Incas, who spent his days in the Cincinnati Zoo until he perished in February 21, 1918 (the anniversary is approaching). Unlike Martha, his body was never placed in a big block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian where his arrival was well marked. As far as I know, Incas’ fate has never been established. The Cincinnati Museum would be a likely repository for the local celebrity but none of the parakeets have any provenance so it is impossible to know if Incas is amongst them. As far as I can tell, every passenger pigeon in captivity after 1900, with the exception of Martha, were thrown away when they died. I was struck therefore by one pigeon in the collection that did originate from the zoo. But the year was 1883.
The museum has two other truly extraordinary avian specimens. a great auk and great auk egg. They acquired the mount and egg in a special purchase made many decades ago. Great auks became extinct in July1844 when three collectors ascended Eldey Island, off the coast of Iceland. Two of the men wrung the necks of the only pair they found while a third smashed the lone egg.
Having arrived late on the evening of October 16 from a talk in Springfield, Illinois, Cindy and I left early the following morning for Wausau, Wisconsin, the home of the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum. On our way up we stopped at the Baraboo Wisconsin High School: Paul Roth, a chemistry teacher, had reached out earlier to tell me that they had two passenger pigeon pigeons in their collection and we arranged that I would give a talk on our way to Wausau. Back in 1895, Charles Deininger donated his bird collection to the high school. With 265 mounts of 150 species, it is said to have been the largest privately owned bird collection in Wisconsin.
The talk was in the library, now known as the “media center,” and was well attended by upper level science students and some middle school students who are members of their Science Club. Paul also reached out to the local media, International Crane Foundation, and the Aldo Leopold Foundation all of which were represented. (I met for the first time Buddy Huffaker, the Leopold Foundation’s executive director who was so helpful to David Mrazek and me in the making of our documentary.) It is always interesting what students bring away from a presentation. One of the television reporters who was supposed to be present called Paul and told him she could not make it because of illness. I quipped that I hoped she did not have Ebola. When Paul later talked to students, one cited that joke as a highlight.
The Leigh Yawkey Woodson Museum of Art has as its “guiding spirit the marriage of art and nature.” The families who created the museum, all with deep roots in Wausau, wanted to share their love of these elements and the museum has grown over the years so that it now holds over 5,000 objects and is one of the country’s premier wildlife art museums. Every year since 1976, the museum has mounted its internationally acclaimed Birds in Art where artists are encouraged to send in their works related to related: a jury selects 100 of the top submissions which are then put on display from September through November. After the exhibit closes, 60 pieces are selected for a traveling show that is hosted by museums across the country.
Stan Temple had contacted Kathy Foley, the museum’s director, to see if they would be interested in offering any exhibits or programming for the anniversary. Kathy was very enthusiastic and not only put together an exhibit, but invited me to spend two days at the museum giving programs. I was to give a talk on Saturday and they considered having me give a different talk on Sunday, but they were afraid the Green Bay Packers game would reduce attendance, so instead, we scheduled a screening of the movie. When we arrived on Friday, I realized I had not brought a copy of the film so in panic I called David Mrazek, my partner on the documentary, and asked if he could send a copy that would arrive the next day. (Although it would be dreadful, I was prepared to drive home to pick up a copy and then return) Fortunately, the documentary arrived in time and, football game or not, a nice crowd came to see the movie and participate in the discussion afterwards.
Our stay at the museum was wonderful. Most unexpected was running into long-time birding friends Jerry Rosenband, Larry Balch, and their respective spouses. We had dinner together. In addition, Cindy and I had the privilege of spending quality time with Kathy (who at one time was the director of Leigh Block Gallery at Northwestern University: it is always nice to see local ties), Catie Anderson (curator of education), and other staffers. Cindy and I were put up in the guest house across the street from the museum. Often such facilities have a book, where guests are encouraged to leave comments. Because most of those who stay here are world class artists, the guest book was brimming with stunning images. I felt quite inadequate with my few lines of enthusiastic prose.
On our first morning, Kathy arranged for us to go birding with Susan Ford-Hoffert, a local birder who is very active. She took us to several areas, including some neat wetlands, but unfortunately we did not see very much in way of birds. (The highlight was a group of wild turkeys.) It was duck hunting season and the reports of gunfire sounded frequently. The following morning we followed Susan’s suggestion that we explore Rib Mountain State Park. Again we did not see many birds but being surrounded by the autumn colors of northern Wisconsin was a fine experience.
About 40 miles south of Wausau, is Stevens Point which hosts a University of Wisconsin branch with a particularly strong natural resources program. It also has a museum of natural history. Ray Reser, the museum’s director, had asked me if I would be interested in giving a presentation on the Monday Cindy and I were returning home. Even though the only time I could do it was mid-morning, there was a nice turnout by students and others. Cindy had lesson plans to prepare so we scooted home without delay.