Our principal fund raising effort for our documentary, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction, was through an Indiegogo campaign that ended in June. During that process, director David Mrazek learned that a class at the Cincinnati Country Day School (CCDS) actually held a dance to raise money on our behalf. As David communicated further with the teacher, Dan Wood, he also learned that the seventh grade class is taken to the zoo and the Martha Memorial there every spring. Those kids were so moved by the story they wanted to help. David and Dan came up with the idea of our filming the class while they toured the memorial. We had been in Cincinnati in July to film John Ruthven as he and his team from ArtWorks worked on the magnificent mural on the side of a large building at 8th and Vine in downtown Cincinnati. We also wanted to interview zoo officials and shoot the mural now that it is complete. As an extra treat, Paul James, director of the Ijams Nature Center in Knoxville, TN and a strong supporter of P3, was driving up to join us that afternoon. He and I have talked a lot and I was looking forward to actually meeting.
Early on the morning of October 25, David, Larry Philippe (our cameraman), and I left the western suburbs of Chicago for Cincinnati. David had arranged with Dan W. that we would arrive at the CCDS to talk with the class at 12:30. It proved to be an interesting ride. We overshot US 65, encountered awful traffic near Indianapolis, and David calculated our time from Cincinnati where as the school is on the east side of the city. It was pretty funny as we approached our destination: Larry was monitoring the GPS and estimated arrival time: we gained a couple of minutes here, then lost a minute there, but hey we’re in a good patch and our arrival will be 12:25, oops that turning truck added a minute. . . In the end we had a good minute or two to spare. We talked about P3 for about a half hour and then headed downtown to shoot the mural.
David and Larry don’t need me to ply their magic with the camera, so it was fortunate that Paul showed up not too long after we arrived a the mural. We were gabbing away on a host of topics, with periodic breaks to respond to queries from a few homeless people and a discussion with two rabbinical students from Chabad Jewish Center. When work at the mural was over we moved to Mount Adams (aka Art Hill, where the city’s beautiful art museum is located) where David and Larry could take shots of river and city scapes. Dinner was at Mecklinburg Gardens, a restaurant that dates back to the mid-1860s when Ectopistes was certainly on the menu. The German cuisine was some of the best I ever had. I know latkes, and their version, garnished with candied apples, was outstanding.
We met Dan Marsh, education director of the zoo, early the next morning. The day’s first event was to shoot Dan Wood’s students as they “reenacted” their earlier visit. It turns out, though, that this year’s seventh graders had not yet visited the zoo (that would be next spring) so Dan asked his last year’s class to come. Many of them had been on a field trip to Washington DC and were not scheduled to arrive home until Friday night. But one of the buses had mechanical problems and did not actually make it to Cincinnati until three in the morning. Still, a good number of enthusiastic kids and their parents assembled at the Martha Memorial, across the path from the lynx cage. David and Larry spent some hours in the old aviary shooting the students and Dan W. We then did interviews with them outside. Meanwhile, this being Halloween at the zoo, we were entertained by a cavalcade of costumed people of all ages.
Sometime after noon, we finished with our guest stars, and said good bye to the two Dans and Paul, who earned himself a credit in the film by holding a reflecting sheet to give balanced light as I interviewed Dan M. David, Larry, and I took a leisurely stroll around the zoo to get footage of red pandas, elephants, snow leopards, and the zoo train loaded with passengers. A last stop to film the zoo’s entrance sign and we headed home.
(Although we raised a significant amount, we can use more for post production: here is the link to our web-site: http://www.e-int.com/billionstonone/helpfinish.html)
October was a far less harried month that the previous one. Lots of good things happening regarding the book. I have been hoping to get a distinguished panel to endorse the book for quotes (“Blurbs”) that could be featured on the back cover. And I could not have been more pleased with the really strong comments that were provided by Kenn Kaufman, David Suzuki (a recent poll found him to be the most admired person inCanada), and E.O. Wilson. Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, and BirdWatching also published extremely positive reviews.
And I was able to go birding. Last fall I joined my friends in NW Indiana only once (we had a nice flock of Sabine’s gulls), so I was resolved to do better this year. I met Ken Brock, Mike Topp, and John Cassady on one trip, and Ken, Randy Pals, and Lynea Hinchman on a second. The latter excursion also provided the opportunity for Josh Engle and Lindsay Wilkes to meet Ken and his crew, something I have been trying to organize for years now.
The itinerary for both days was similar, with us meeting at Forsythe Park, and then going on to the Hammond Sanctuary and Whiting Park. On the second trip we birded the periphery of George Lake. The results were somewhat lackluster but on the first day we had a nice female black-throated blue warbler at Hammond. And then a bit later I spotted what I thought was a blackpoll although a particularly drab one and not in good light. John saw it better and pronounced it a Cape May. As I focused it on it more carefully I could see the he was correct, the bird having more blurry streaks and shaped a bit differently.
The second day was in part defined by Lynea’s desire to see an orange-crowned warbler (she needed it as a year bird), which it turns out would also be a lifer for Lindsay. One had been seen at Hammond at the east end so we started there and sure enough Lynea found it. Our last chance was George Lake. The lake is surround by shrubby trees and as most of us stood in an opening scanning the lake, another orange-crowned was spotted and this time, Lindsay nailed it. I am particularly fond of ducks and it was a great pleasure going through the coots and mallards to pick out gadwall, widgeon, ring-necks, and even four pintails. Yep, fall is here.
Another autumnal joy are migrating raptors. My only concentrated hawk watch, so far at least, was at a place I have never really watched from before.Lake Forest College, on the lake about 15 miles south of the Illinois Beach State Park hawk watch. I met Jeff Kristen Sundberg, and Doug Light (all faculty or administrators at the college) on campus. The stairway that leads to the roof top of the multi-story building is tightly wound- think lighthouse- and in deep shadows. You definitely need to plant both legs on each narrow stair before ascending further. But there was light at the end of the tunnel and we situated ourselves and looked north. (The roof also serves as home for the college’s astronomical telescope, which was not present on this day).
The hawks were relatively few but it was a great experience: good company and enough variety of hawks to keep things interesting. We had terrific views of a couple of peregrines and a merlin. A young harrier cruised over. And an osprey appeared to be clutching a fish in its talons which seemed odd for a bird that was clearly hauling rectrices. And there were the red-tails, sharpies, and even a flock of siskin.
And then, saving the most exciting bird for last, Brendan Grube discovered a lesser sand plover at Michigan City, Indiana on October 15. Quoting Michael Retter’s account, “It was seen throughout the afternoon by a number of birders before it flew west over the water and out of sight about 17:55 CDT, just before sunset. It disappeared at least one other time over the course of the day, though, only to be relocated. It was spending most of its time on the outer breakwater and on the beach at the eastern base of the lighthouse breakwater.” But birders who went looking the next day were out of luck.
Fast forward to October 21. Jeff McCoy was birding Long Lake, a part of the West Beach Section of the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore and relocated the bird. Access had been closed due to our Republican friends in the US House of Representative so who knows how long it had been there. (And indeed, when the shut down ended the first birders into the site had a small flock of white-faced ibis). But, as far as I know, everyone who arrived that day did get to see it.
I have been doing this long enough to know that if you want to see a rarity, you should leave immediately. Long Lake, unlike Michigan City, is only an hour away but it was still just too difficult for me to manage. So I headed out the following day arriving around noonish. As I started towards the platform from where the bird had been seen, I encountered Chris Hill and a friend who had left Madison, WI in the wee hours. From their arrival at first light to then, no one had seen the bird. There were pectorals, lesser yellowlegs, snipe, killdeer, and semi-palmated plover. With that info, rain, snow pellets, and what seemed like decreasing temperatures, I abandoned the effort after 1.5 hours. It proved to be a sand plover so lesser I could not find it.
I flew out of O’Hare on the morning of September 19 headed towards Portland, Maine. My dear friend Susan Wegner had arranged for me to give a talk at Bowdoin College at 4:30 (Bowdoin is in Brunswick less than an hour from Portland.). Formally, my appearance was a Calista A. Was-Mayhew Lecture, created by a generous endowment made by the named benefactor for activities supporting “birds and bird life.”
With the flight scheduled to leave at 8 and arrive at 11, that would allow plenty of time for a relaxing afternoon. If only. Storms, with lighting and heavy rain, were also on the move, forcing our plane to remain on the ground for three hours. After sitting on the runway in line to take off, the pilot announced no one was going anywhere because of the weather. Then we received good news and bad news: our plane was given the go ahead but we were rerouted to go south of the storms. Unfortunately we did not have the fuel for this longer trip so we had to go back to the gate for a fill up. But since rules state no personnel can be on the runway within five minutes of lightning it would take a while before the fueling could begin.
Susan was there in Portland to pick me up and we arrived at the campus site fully one half hour before the talk was to begin. But every thing went smoothly thereafter: there was a nice turn out, receptive audience, and stimulating questions. My talk dealt with my favorite icon of extinction, along with two other species that represent other scenarios: the Kirtland’s warbler whose population has increased and is secure due to specific activities and a large annual expenditure of funds, and the whooping crane, whose future is still uncertain despite our best efforts. Afterwards, Susan took me to dinner where I met some of her colleagues in the Art History Department and had to-die-for-scallops.
Friday started with a 6:30 bird walk that was scheduled by Casey Meehan as part of his Place-Based Education class. (We met at the Polar Bear statue.) This was a new experience for most of the students, and most lacked binoculars. But three of the students were members of the recently resuscitated campus bird club. The person most responsible for bringing the club back is Ben West (of Iowa City) who joined as de-facto leader of the walk. We headed for the Bowdoin Pines nearby and saw a few yellow-rumped warblers but birding was slow. Indian pipes, a saprophytic plant, was one of our better finds. The day proceeded in fine fashion with breakfast in company of Lauren Schroeder and Natalie Clark (two of Susan’s students) and then attendance at Susan’s class (“Mannerism”). It was a joy and a privilege watching a superb teacher ply her craft, engaging even me who knows little about art history.
After a nap, I walked over to the Thorne Building where meals are served. Susan had arranged for me to have four companions: I do enjoy talking with smart, enthusiastic young people and am interested in their thoughts. Apparently, as expressed in their written comments to Susan, they were surprised that I asked about them rather than turning it into a pedagogical exercise. As the group gathered outside so I could take a photo, along walked Barry Mills, Bowdoin’s president. He offered to take our picture. He and I chatted briefly: his graciousness was delightful. Susan and I spent the afternoon looking at the public display of birds (including the college’s resident Ectopistes) and the Peary-McMillan Arctic Museum. I moved quarters to the home of Susan and her husband John Fischer. It was a pleasure meeting John as he is the person who manages the Project Passenger Pigeon website. (Without John’s generous help, P3 would be in bad straits.) The three of us went out for a lovely dinner of lobster.
And then an entire day of birding. We met Ben and two other students for a coastal excursion. At our first stop, I saw some large dark ducks that had white on them. I did not have a scope and was perplexed until Ben identified it. They were the first birds that I was not expecting: common eiders. I did not realize they were easy to see in the September. It is an exceedingly rare bird on Lake Michigan (no records ever for IN and in the almost 40 years I have been birding there has only been one in IL) and I have only seen it twice, both on trips to New England the most recent of which was in the early 1980s.
One important destination was important to me for historical reasons. Goose Faire Bay lies off southern Maine near Kennebunkport. On July 12, 1605, Champlain and his crew arrived in the area and noted what they saw: ““Upon these islands grow so many red currants that one can hardly see anything else; and there are also countless numbers of pigeons, whereof we take a goodly quantity.” This was the first recorded instance of Europeans killing passenger pigeons, and it began the carnage that would lead to the bird’s extinction 309 years later.
Biddeford Pool is a famous Maine birding location but we did not see much on our visit. Far more productive was Scarborough Marsh. As we pulled into one entrance we spied someone with a scope getting into a car with a bumper sticker saying “Ask Me About My Life List.” By now a bird had come to mind which would be a lifer and might be in the area. So I asked him if salt marsh sparrows might be findable. I was thrilled when he said they were, and he was headed that way next in search of a reported Wilson’s phalarope. His name is David Rankin and he is a graduate student at University of New England.
We followed him to an area with a broad trail that goes through the marsh. He said with high tide we would have a decent chance of finding the sparrow. Meanwhile, he was scanning the narrow flats for the phalarope. The shorebird would have been a lifer for Ben, but David spotted something that was of greater interest to me. A lovely heron, pied blue and white with an uncommonly large bill. The bird had been around and was thought to be a hybrid snowy egret (which nest in the area) and tri-colored heron (one lone bird had been present a year earlier). This mix has also been reported in Florida and it is an extraordinary looking bird.
Because we were at high tide, most shore birds were concentrated at the base of vegetation. David Found a familiar trail into the marsh that follows a low dyke. We did not go far when we flushed a sparrow that David identified as a salt marsh. I saw little on it. As we chased that bird, another flushed. Altogether maybe five or six likely salt marsh sparrows flew up but all them disappeared into the thick grass. At one point we seemed to have one cornered so that it would have to fly across a channel to escape us- but alas somehow it eluded us. But at least one bird allowed me to see streaks that would preclude the Nelson’s which I know pretty well from home. So I tallied an unexpected lifer, albeit one I am hoping to see again under more favorable circumstances.
And as I was chasing salt marsh chimeras, David was scanning newly visible habitat for the phalarope. He yelled that he spotted it. I had a decent look, and then headed back to my waiting companions. When I told Ben, he just could not let the opportunity pass, and he followed by trail to David where he too added a life bird.
Kansas City and Association of Zoos and Aquariums
Just a couple of days later on Tuesday, David Mrazak and I left forKansas City and the American Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) meeting. With the prospect of 90 degree plus days, David turned down my offer to drive (my car lacking both air conditioning and a radio) and decided to rent a vehicle. The only downtown hotel that had vacancies charged close to $300 a night so David found a Motel Six 20 minutes away that was all of $60. With a little more time to wander than we did, Steve Sullivan drove out on his own.
We were converging on the AZA meeting to participate on a panel set up by Dan Marsh of the Cincinnati Zoo to discuss Project Passenger Pigeon in an effort to get more zoo involvement. Each of us was going to address a different aspect: Dan his zoo, Steve the Chicago Academy of Sciences Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum; David the movie, and I the book and origins of P3. In addition, we were joined at the table by Ben Novak, of Revive and Restore (The Great Comeback) who talked about his de-extinction work.
The AZA draws a huge crowd and numerous vendors ranging from conservationists trying to save rhinos and river turtles to purveyors of automaton butterflies and carrousels with animal seats. Interestingly, there were no book sellers, an omission that surprised me. (But AZA has at least two big meetings a year.) Our talk was at 4:30 on Wednesday. We had over thirty people attend and hopefully we inspired some people to consider mounting exhibits or programming to mark the 2014 anniversary.
About 1:30 am, somewhere on Route 80 in western Illinois, David and I were stopped for speeding. I told the police officer we were headed back home to Chicago from Kansas City. He asked what we were doing there. I said we were speaking at a zoo conference. He went back to his car with our license and rental agreement, and returned saying he would only give us a warning. He said our record was clean and likes to take his kids to zoos. Before long, I was telling him about passenger pigeon. He said he would keep his eye out for when the documentary airs next year.
“Moving Targets”: We Host an Artist
From the beginning, Project Passenger Pigeon has reached out to artists in an attempt to tell the passenger pigeon story and its lessons in engaging ways and to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. In December 2011, I attended a P3 planning meeting held at Chatham University in Pittsburgh. Of those who came were a goodly number of artists, among whom were Ann Rosenthal and Stefi Domike. Ann teaches at the Art Instiutute in Pittsburgh and Stefi works for the United Steel Workers. Some months after that meeting, Ann and Stefi approached me with their P3 Project, entitled “Moving Targets.” I really loved the idea of presenting two parallel stories having connections that may not be obvious at first glance. Here is how they describe it:
“ Moving Targets is a collaborative art project created by Ann T. Rosenthal and Steffi Domike that will link our shared cultural heritage and family migrations to the story of the American passenger pigeon, casting the long-extinct fowl as a shared “non-human relation.” The origins of our mothers’ families from their homelands in the Ukraine illustrate a migration forced upon a culture that was deemed suspect and threatening. The demise of the passenger pigeon was the result of human ignorance and greed, a parallel story writ in nature. . . Motivated by a shared commitment to social and environmental justice, this new work reflects the Jewish cultural tradition of “Tikkun Olam,” meaning “repair of the world.” Artists have a critical role in society—to image connections, relationships, and patterns, and reconnect what has been fragmented.”
Sophie Twitchell, executive director of Friends of Ryerson Woods, was taken by the proposal as well and opted to host the installation as part of her organization’s participation in Project Passenger Pigeon. On September 13, Ann flew to Chicago to stay with Cindy and me, with her principal goal being to see the venue and to meet Sophie and Julia Kemerer, Administrative Coordinator of the Friends. It is an element of art displays that only insiders have a chance to observe: creating a smooth marriage between the artist’s vision and the reality of the space. We went through the various rooms of Brushwood, the beautiful mansion that houses the Friends, as (mostly) Julia and Ann discussed the opportunities and limits each space presented. At the end, Ann and Julia were shaking their heads and saying in unison, “Perfect” I am really looking forward to seeing the show. And if anyone reading this knows of a potentially interested venue for the show, please let me know.
Ann arrived on a Friday night and our meeting with Sophie was on Monday. So I came up with a passenger pigeon centric itinerary for the preceding two days. On Saturday we went to the Field Museum and truth be told we never really made it much beyond the passenger pigeon display. That display features about seven birds and two more mounts are also on view in the sections on pigeons and extinction. With skins and mounts totaling about 90, the Field Museum has one of the largest passenger pigeon collections in the world (The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto with 160 or so has the largest.)
On Sunday morning we picked up Lindsay Wilkes and headed to Three Oaks, Michigan where we were meeting Jon Wuepper, Steve Sass, and Jon Trapp. We had two destinations for the day. The first was one of my favorite places- that readers of this blog can guess- Warren Woods. To be standing amidst these towering trees, centuries old, is to be in the presence of a living connection to passenger pigeons. They certainly fed on the nuts of the beech and probably the samaras of the sugar maples. The always shadowed paths were shades darker than usual as a gray sky held clouds dense with rain: it was as dusk. As we turned a bend we encountered a botany class. We exchanged pleasantries when the teacher, Karen Borgstrom, informed us that her first visit to Warren Woods was on a field trip I led over a decade ago for the Brookfield Zoo: she recalled further, that Jon had met us at the woods and called in a barred owl. She invited the two us to talk about the forest and Jon declaimed on black bear movements in the 1840s and I on the pigeons. (Steve shook his head, and later posted, ” I don’t know what it is about being on outings with Joel Greenberg and Jon Wuepper, but every time we’re out somewhere, a group such as this botany class from Moraine Valley Community College suddenly appears in the middle of the woods and the professor remembers them from an outing 12 years ago.”)
The next place we went was novel. Jon loves historical natural history as much as I do: he has studied the newspapers and other documents of southwest Michigan with great care searching for early accounts of the area’s wildlife. Sullivan Cook published a memoir on his hunting passenger pigeons in Cass County where he had a farm in 1854. This was published in Mershon’s The Passenger Pigeon (1907), the first book ever written on the species. Cook writes how his daughter ran into the house all excited, “Pa, come out and see the pigeons.” He grabbed his gun, and ran to a rise on his property where he proceeded to shoot until he exhausted his ammunition, eventually bagging 23 dozen birds.
John had gone through the plat maps and census data to identify the exact location of Cook’s farm house. He had told me that a few years ago, but with Ann in town, I wanted to show her actual documented places where people interacted with pigeons. To be standing on ground once dampened by pigeon blood, and to know so with certainty, is a rare circumstance.
The site is adjacent to a state game area, where Jon engaged in conversation with a barred owl that Lindsay and John were able to glimpse. The question did arise as to how would a hoard of roosting or nesting pigeons impact the other birds using the woods. Alas, a question never asked when it might have been possible to discern an answer.
This was an incredibly busy September for me, with most days filled with Project Passenger Pigeon. There were film shoots in Wisconsin, a talk in Kansas City, hosting an out of town artist, and a trip to Maine. Now I am free to retreat to the small space in front of my computer and to make the occasional foray in search of birds.
The first adventure had me meeting David Mrazek, director of our documentary From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (we can still use some more funding: check out our website http://e-int.com/billionstonone/) in his rented SUV ( regular car can not accommodate all the equipment a shoot entails). We then drove into the Chicago to pick up camera man Oral Berat User before heading to Wyalusing State Park, near Bagley, Wisconsin to meet Stan Temple, emeritus professor of wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin and a group of Chicago photographers who joined us to help contribute to the camera work. Wyalusing is 2,600 acres of wooded bluffs overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. What makes it signifcant in passenger pigeon history is a memorial that was placed there by the Wisconsin Society of Ornithology in 1947.
There are three memorials to the species- the others are in Michigan (see Birdzilla http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2011/05/30/p3-in-michigan-more-of-lizzies-and-joels-marvelous/) and Pennsylvania- but this one is most famous because of the essay Aldo Leopold wrote in its honor. His essay has some of the loveliest passages written on extinction: “”The pigeon was a biological storm. He was the lightning that played between two opposing potentials of intolerable intensity: the fat of the land and the oxygen of the air. Yearly the feathered tempest roared up, down and across the continent, sucking up the laden fruits of forest and prairie, burning them in a traveling blast of life.”
Stan is on the board of the Aldo Leopold Foundation and held the chair at the university that was created for Leopold. He also knew A.W. Schorger, who wrote, The Passenger Pigeon: Its Natural History and Extinction. David wanted to capture the beauty of Wyaluisng while Stan and I stood at the monument talking about the bird, which would move up the Wisconsin River by the hundreds of millions.
The following day Stan took us to Quincy Bluffs, a state natural area in Adams County. This place has a very direct connection with the history of the passenger pigeon. In 1871, the largest nesting on record spread across 850 square miles of central Wisconsin. It was “L” shaped and delimited by such towns as the Wisconsin Dells (then known as Kilbourn City), Black River Falls, and Grand Rapids. In the last few years I drove numerous times through a portion of this area as I make two roundtrips a summer to Redwing, Minnesota where I conduct bird surveys. I have always wondered if there is any surviving section that still maintains the oak woodlands that drew the birds 142 years ago. Well it turns out that Quncy Bluffs, at 3,792 acres, maybe that special location. Walking through the site with Stan, as Oral filmed us, it was just possible to imagine what it would have looked like with every tree covered with pigeon nests. (Of course it helps that I read so many first hand accounts of the event.) Schorger estimated that the nesting involved 136,000,000 adult birds.
Stan has studied endangered birds all over the world and has deep insights into questions related to the importance of maintaining biodiversity. He is also experienced in working with film makers (See the wonderful documentary on Aldo Leopold Green Fire.) As the final chapter of our stay, Oral and David converted a room in the motel into a studio and interviewed Stan. Except for the occasional pauses due to noisy pipes, the effort produced some important and compelling footage.
Except for the AOU field trip, I have not been birding locally in ages. Until late August, local birding is pretty slow and to chase shorebirds you have to drive long distances to reach the hinterlands. By Labor Day weekend, I was up for an outing and when Lindsay Wilkes was interested in collaborating we picked the Sunday for our bout of birding.
I picked her up at 6 so we could reach the beach at Montrose early enough to have a chance at the big shorebirds that are apt to appear, but ever so shortly. We negotiated the maze of rope installed by volunteers to prevented meandering and spied a couple of birding friends on the beach looking north. As we approached, Alex Bloss and Fran Morel quickly shared the info that a whimbrel had landed and soon thereafter took off. Oh well, at least our plan was good. It was fun looking at the sanderlings, semipalmated sandpipers, and semipalmated plovers: and Lindsay was able to get close enough to get some good shots. The highlight actually was the young peregrine falcon Lindsay saw cruising over the lake.
We then wondered through the hedge area. There were a few passerines but not many: 4 warbling vireos (at least one pair that probably nested here), blue-gray gnatcatcher, two redstarts, and two Wilson’s warblers being the total of migrants. A fair number of birders drifted by and someone told us of a young peregrine perched on the interior branches of a big tree close to the entrance. Lindsay went off in search and by the time I arrived she had it under observation. It was tough to spot. Eventually other birders appeared and even with directions it was hard for them to locate it. But the bird just perched, occasionally looking at us but otherwise quite impassive. I don’t recall ever seeing a peregrine perched inside a tree like that: it is perfect for skulking accipiters but not falcons that rely on speed as they pursue potential prey across the sky. I would not be at all surprised if it was damaged in some way: hopefully, it was just resting.
And on to Skokie Lagoons. We walked the Willow Road trail and even played screech owl vocalizations to draw in warbler flocks, should there be any. Almost back to the cars, Lindsay spotted a male black-throated blue warbler which I never could pick up. But perhaps just as importantly it augured the long sought warbler flock. Suddenly there it was, seething with 1 bay-breasted warbler, 1 American redstart, and 1 Wilson’s warbler, and to add some bulk a few chickadees. Perseverance pays off.
The last time the American Ornithologists Union met in Chicago was at the Field Museum back in October 1982. I remember three things about that experience. First, in order to attend, I had to abandon my hawk watch just as the first northern goshawks started moving through in what would be the greatest incursion of this species into the Midwest. Second, I saw and chatted with my former roommate Ted Parker for the last time. And I spent a night in the room of Mark Robbins and Tom Schulenberg. I don’t even recall on what basis I was there- whether I was a volunteer or I paid for the day.
A few weeks ago the AOU returned along with the Cooper’s Ornithological Society: for AOU this was their 131st annual meeting and for Cooper’s it was their 83rd. John Bates, Associate Curator of the Field Museum’s Bird Division, led a team of colleagues that started working on this event a couple or so years ago. And they did a super job. The meetings were at the Grand Dame of Chicago hotels, the Palmer House, which accommodated the four day gathering of over 650 ornithologists from 11 countries. A concerted effort had also been made to attract youngsters and they were present in good numbers, at least one from as far away as California.
I was fortunate to have been able to attend almost all of it. I wore three hats: First, I was a volunteer assigned by my patient and forgiving commander Mary Hennen to help attendees with logistical questions. (My most frequent answer, regardless of the query, was: “Registration is just down the hall and to your right.”). Second, Steve Sullivan and I prepared a paper on Project Passenger Pigeon, and I presented it late on the final day. There was actually better attendance than I would have expected and Steve said the pile of brochures he put out were largely depleted. (It was probably the only presentation that did not discuss the results of ornithological research.) And finally, I led one of the two field trips offered on the Sunday morning after the conference formally concluded.
It has been my experience that most conference highlights involve conversations with folks in between sessions or during social periods. There were some people I wanted to talk to whom I had never met, but staring at name tags resting upon the pectoral region is asking for looks of disapprobation. (“No, really, mam, I was just looking to see who you are.”) I was able to hang out with long-time friends like Angelo Caparella and Arlene Koziol, the official photographer, as well as meet a bunch of folks who had previously been strangers. Ben Novak, who is working with the Long Now Foundation in the effort to bring back passenger pigeons, reported on the results of his preliminary genetic work on the species. He, Steve, and I bonded. (Ben joked that we three were going to get a reputation as the crazy Ectopistes guys: our bird is extinct so what do we care.) Later Ben and I went to the Field Museum where David Mrazek filmed an interview with us for the documentary. This was actually a “coming home” moment for Ben, as he found the very first passenger pigeon from which he had obtained material for his research.
One remarkable scientist I was privileged to meet is Sheila Conant who taught at the University of Hawaii for many years. Over the course of her career, she has studied ten species of birds that are now extinct. She later sent me an account of her visit to the Alaka’i Swamp on Kaua’i that she published in the Wilson Bulletin of March 1998 (pp. 1-22): these “were the last studies before catastrophic changes in the Kaua’i avifauna and included many observations that cannot now be repeated.” She said of the article: “It is probably the saddest thing I’ve ever written. Still, I’m glad to have had a chance to see what I saw.”
Even though mid-August is too early for much in the way of passerine migration, Josh Engel and Doug Stotz led early morning field trips to Chicago lakefront locations. On the first of these the debate was whether the best bird was an American goldfinch or kestrel. But by the last trip an actual migrant was found, one Tennessee warbler.
On Sunday following the end of formal events, two field trips were scheduled. We met at the hotel at 0530 and I was fortunate that Josh let me stay with him at his place so I would not have to drive the hour plus distance from home. The trip I was to lead had as its destination Kankakee Sands, a conservation site owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy in Newton County, Indiana. I had reached out to Jed Hertz, who birds the area more regularly than anyone, and Jeanette Jaskula a friend who is at St. Joseph University in Rensselaer. Jed had all the birds scouted out and gained permission for us to access the Momence Sod Farms which we were hoping would produce buff-breasted sandpipers and golden plover.
We had a terrific group of eight people which included a dynamite high school age birder from San Francisco named Logan Kahle (he took the great bird pictures that illustrate this posting); curators or former curators from the American Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institute, and the Beaty Biodiversity Museum in Vancouver; a researcher from an army installation in Utah;, and Heather Lerner of Earlham College (Richmond, IN) with two of her students. The big attractions were principally some grassland/ birds that are not found in the east. Through Jed’s scouting, we scored on Henslow’s and grasshopper sparrows, sedge wrens, blue grosbeak, orchard oriole, American bittern, and red-headed woodpecker (at nearby Willow Slough). The sod farms yielded golden and black-bellied plover, but alas no buff-breasts. The eight visitors observers had a total of 11 life birds between them and everyone had a thoroughly good time.
Deep lakes nestled between mountain peaks and whose banks are studded with towering pines are intrinsically appealing. This is especially true when you inhabit a state likeIllinois whose highest point is a corn field 1,235 feet high.Lake Tahoe, the country’s second deepest lake and sixth largest by volume, has a surface elevation of 6,224 feet. It is a stunning place and we spent most of our time exploring various areas in the vicinity.
On our first full day we headed to Black Wood Canyon, known to harbor a good population of pygmy owls. This species was the last owl that I needed for North America and I have seen it only once, in Cave Creek Canyon in Arizona in 1978. They particularly like areas with aspen. Cindy, Tom, and I pulled off the road in what seemed like appropriate habitat and began playing the IPOD. A flicker perched high in a dead pine made us look twice and brought to my attention a phenomenon that I was not expecting. The tree seemed to be reasonably close yet the bird on top appeared much smaller than it would have if we were home. I concluded that this is because the tree was located higher up on a steep slope from the road side and the tree itself was taller than most of ours. But then a second bird joined the flicker: the pygmy owl. A short bit later the flicker had evidently left but there were still two birds: another pygmy. They were silent but we did watch them fly around a bit to our great enjoyment.
The next day the three of us- Sonya and Lisa had other commitments- headed to Angora Ridge road where we were going to meet Will Richardson, one of the founders of the Tahoe Institute for Natural Science. When I first contacted him I learned he had grown up in Hinsdale, IL just a few minutes from where we live and he was familiar with a couple of my books. Will had set up 9 or 10 nets in a large meadow and would check them frequently. His first bird, and that one that resulted in the best photo, was a chipping sparrow, a species that inhabits my back yard. But over the course of the time we spent with him, he caught a whole bunch of birds I had not seen in years, and one I had never seen. This latter was a Cassin’s vireo, one of the three species that used to be lumped under solitary. Other species that Will caught included red-breasted sapsucker, dark-eyed juncos (most of which were thickly infested with Hippoboscdai flies), dusky and Hammond flycatchers, and MacGillivray’s warblers. One of the last birds netted was a female evening grosbeak. This is a bird that does not go gentle in the hand of the bander: it used its massive bill to strike Will’s hand. When he was done banding her and the bird was unconstrained, she continued to hang on to a finger until he eventually shook her loose and she flew away.
The Lake Tahoe area offers museums and cultural history as well. The Emigrant Trail Museum at the Donner Memorial State Park is in nearby Truckee. I have been telling Donner Party jokes for years, as cannibal humor is always in good taste and never goes bad. Donner Pass is the place where a group of settlers took a short cut and wound up being stranded in the earliest and heaviest snow in decades. Suffice it to say, 36 members had a tough ending. One day Sonya and Lisa joined us for a visit to Emerald Bay State Park, one of Lake Tahoe’s most beautiful spots. It includes the lake’s only island and waterfall, as well as Vikingsholm, a mansion designed to remind a wealthy dowager of her trips to Europe. The building is considered the country’s best example of Scandinavian architecture. The Taylor Creek Visitor Centeris a US Forest Service facility that offers a remarkable Stream Profile Chamber which allows you to descend beneath the surface of a diverted portion of Taylor Creek and observe the aquatic life through floor to ceiling windows. I was struck by this plaque which sounds so familiar:
As Cindy and I sat in the Reno Airport waiting for our connecting flight to Phoenix, she nudged me to point out that a fourth grader sitting us across from us with his family was studying a deck of bird cards, with illustrations on one side and text on the other. I could not restrain myself and asked dad if they were birders. It turns out the son recently became really excited about birding and we talked about what they had seen on their recent trip toWashington. At one point I asked the inevitable question: were they familiar with passenger pigeons? The parents guessed they were birds that carried messages but the boy knew: a powerful story endures. A great end to the trip.
Since we flew into the Reno/Tahoe Airport, I will start out with this geography question: What is the largest city in the US east of Reno and west of Chicago? (answer at end)
Cindy has long wanted us to visit her brother Tom Riley and his family in South Lake Tahoe. I had met Lisa (his wife) and Sonya (daughter) before when they came toChicago. (I became a huge fan of Sonya when she walked in our door lugging a text book on improvisation: seeing the venue where Second City performs was her top priority.) Steve, another member of the family, was there as well and we met for the first time: he works all night so did not join us for any of our excursions. Tom, Lisa, and Sonya all have interests in natural history, especially Tom. He worked for the California state parks system for years and thus was an excellent guide to all the places we explored near Tahoe.
As the planning for this vacation developed, we decided that since we were so close, we had to find a sea bird/whale boat trip. I was last on the Pacific Ocean in 1989 so the opportunity to be reacquainted with alcids, shearwaters, cetaceans, and the like was impossible not to pursue. Fortunately, the Oceanic Society offered a trip to the Farallon Islands the day after we arrived. So we drove directly to Fairfield (an hour from San Franciscobut offering affordable motel rooms) form Reno. We had to be at Pier 40 off Embarcadero in San Francisco by 7:30 to get the boat at 8.
With Scopalimine firmly in place behind our right ears, we were two of twenty or so excited to be part of the cruise. The naturalist was a first rate ornithologist named David Wimpfheimer, who has worked for years with the Oceanic Society and the Point Reyes Bird Observatory (now called Point Blue Conservation Science). (Check out his website The California Naturalist at www.calnaturalist.com) With his help, and a small cadre of four other dedicated watchers, we saw quite a bit during what is a slow time of the year. I wasn’t expecting any lifers but we did see such birds as common murre, pigeon guillemot, tufted puffin, red-necked phalarope, pink-footed shearwater, sooty shearwater, and one black-footed albatross during the short period when we were at the edge of the continental shelf. (White sharks gather around the Farallons to feed on baby elephant seals, but David said that would not be for another month or so.)
A northern gannet has been hanging out at the Farallons for a while now so we scanned the rocks carefully. When you consider that the species breeds exclusively in the North Atlantic (wintering farther south), the presence of this bird is really amazing: it either flew three thousands miles over the land mass that is North America or, more likely, negotiated the northern route through the islands of arcticCanadaand theBeringStraits. But soon after our arrival at the islands and our close perusal, word was received that a nearby tour boat had hump-backed whales under observation.
Hump-backs used to be my number one jinx North American mammal but I did finally see them of the east coast only one other time. Unlike the fins and blues which often give poor views, humpbacks are prone to rising out of the water and diving which displays its spectacular tail flukes. (As a general rule, whales with high dorsal fins like Orcas and Risso’s dolphins have small tails, and conversely, those with short or no dorsal fins, like the lake baleen whales, tend to have outsized tails. These adaptations have to do with the animal’s ability to stabilize itself as it moves through rough seas.) We spotted distant spray from surfacing whales and eventually had superb looks at one close hump-back which breeched reasonably close to the boat. The splotched tail and pectoral fins were apparent as the animal rose and dove.
From San Franciso we headed for Davis where we stayed with my long time friend Robin Kozloff and her partner Lorenzo Kristof. Robin grew up in Glencoe, IL and we met at Washington University. We haven’t seen each other for years and I thank Facebook for our reconnection. Not much birding in our brief get together but a great time.
The largest city west of Chicago and east of Reno is Los Angeles.
This year’s visits to survey the lands of the Prairie Island Indian Community (near Redwing, Minnesota) were on the early side, with one round of surveys during the first week of June and the second the final week. Prior to both, prospects of rain suggested that for the first time since we began the surveys in 2009, we might very well be rained out. We have become accustomed to completing the surveys in three days, but we do schedule one extra day should we need it. But hanging around for two extra days would put us into the weekend which impose hardships all the way around. Amazingly however, even though precipitation fell during most days, the morning hours we needed offered mild temperatures and low winds. Gabe Miller of the Prairie Island staff (and by now a good friend) accompanied us on all of the surveys. In addition, interns Nicole Stoudt and Leya Klingsporn lent us their assistance on most of the outings.
Water levels were high but did not block us from accessing any of the 73 points we cover. The area most affected were the islands on our route. When theMississippi Riveris high, we are unable to access all the islands by foot but we were able to get sufficiently close to the actual points so that adequate coverage was possible. We had our first ever brown creeper at one spot. These islands are also the only part of thePrairieIslanddomain that hosts cerulean warblers and prothonotary warblers. This year we found three of the former and six of the latter. We were also fortunate in locating a prothonotary nest. The yellow-bellied sapsucker also occurs on the islands in some numbers (and elsewhere on the property): it is significant to me because it may be the only bird that breeds here every year but is absent during the summer from my home territory in northeasternIllinois.
Three of our points are in a heavily wooded section of bluffs and lowlands. We routinely find one or two northern ovenbirds and wood thrushes but none of the other species that this kind of habitat might support. Every year, it seems, we question whether our visits were too early or too late in he morning. This year, though, its promise produced actual results. On both visits, a wood thrush and an ovenbird were noted. But in addition, an Acadian flycatcher, a bird that inhabits the midlevel of lowland forests, was heard on both surveys. With another one at one of the island sites, this was the first time in our five years of surveys here that the species has been encountered. During the early June survey these woods also yielded a chestnut-sided warbler and a black and white warbler. Both of these could have been migrants but southwest Minnesota falls well within the breeding range of these species so it is just as likely they were summering, if not actually nesting (since we did not relocate them.)
The prairies continue to develop and their increasing floristic richness is apparent. Two particularly noteworthy bird happenings this year were associated with these grasslands. First, at least one loggerhead shrike returned after an absence of a year. This is probably the most significant bird we have found nesting at PrairieIsland. Populations throughout the upper Midwest have collapsed and there are but a handful of breeding pairs known in Minnesota. And second, last year saw unprecedented numbers of dickcissels: sixty-six were counted during the first round of surveys. In last year’s report, I noted that the species has a habit of appearing and disappearing from one year to the next. Well, they appeared last year and disappeared almost completely this year, as only two birds were noted, both during the second visit. (I have since learned that two weeks after our second survey, the dickcissels have returned in force.)
But the most unusual bird we noted was an apparent hybrid between a barn swallow and cliff swallow. The bird was never seen again so no pictures were taken, but it did look a lot like the swallow pictured below. (This was taken in Orleans County, New York on July 17, 2011 by Chris Wood.) This mixing of two different genera has been noted several times before. A detailed description of such a specimen appears on page 73 of an early Auk (Vol. 19, 1902).