I first met Twan Leenders in January 2012 at a Project Passenger Pigeon meeting at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. He has a strong interest in birds but most of his research has focused on reptiles and amphibians. He is now the director of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute in Jamestown, New York, the town where Peterson was born. We had not kept in touch so I was both surprised and very pleased that he invited me to be the keynote speaker at this year’s RTPI Bird Fest.
Jamestown has a tiny airport (receives three commercial flights a day) but United reaches the airport via Cleveland. Everything at O’Hare ran smoothly until I learned that the gate to the Cleveland flight had been changed and there was a two hour delay. The delay meant that I would miss my connecting flight by 15 minutes or so and would have to take the middle flight of the day. Upon arriving in Cleveland, I walked forlornly to the gate where both my origianl flight and the later flight flew our of. As I approached, person from United emerged to ask me if I was Mr. Greenberg. Upon my amazed confirmation, she said my plane was waiting. The small plane was waiting on the runway and I boarded, thereby increasing the passengers from three to four.
Twan arrived shortly thereafter and I was in his hands for the rest of my delightful stay. He drove me to my lodgings, the Sheldon House, grand historic home now operated by the Jamestown Community College. As we headed to the Institute, we passed the Robert Jackson Center. Yep, the Robert Jackson, one of my favorite Supreme Court justices. He was one of the three justices who dissented in the Japanese internment cases, calling the action racist, and then presided over the Nuremberg trials.
Next was a tour of the RTPI: it is in a beautiful building filled with the things that engaged its namesake. A passenger pigeon display was in a prominent space as was a striking traveling art exhibit entitled Environmental Impact compiled by David Wagner. The National Audubon Society used to sponsor movies and lectures by prominent naturalists including Peterson. Back in the late 1960s, my mother and I went to see his presentation on Antarctica being hosted by the Field Museum. RTPI has shelves filled with his reels of film. That night I went to dinner with Twan , his wife Casey-Leenders Reddington, and his two children Jason and Madeleine. The restaurant was recommended by the kids for its grilled cheese and pickle sandwiches: it proved to have a wide range of really outstanding dishes.
Twan picked me up early the next morning for the first of two field trips scheduled that day (I skipped the second to rest up for my evening talk). We birded the Akely Swamp Important Bird Area just south of the border in Pennsylvania. The leader was local birder, Don Watts. We had 68 species, a mix of birds that would be expected as breeders in norhtern Illinois as well as northern species such as northern waterthrush, ruby-crowned kinglet, yellow-bellied sapsucker, and alder flycatcher. Arguably, from the perspective of what was unusual to me, the two highlights were herpetological in nature. Although I had seen milks snakes twice before, we met a local guy who had caught one in his green house nearby and was releasing it at Akely. (Nice, too, to see people going out of their way to protect snakes.) But I did come closer than I have ever before in seeing a pickerel frog, a major jinx organism. There are records for the Chicago area but they are old or on the very northern edge of the territory. Twan told me they were around at Akely and so he was quick to point out its vocalization, but alas we never saw one.
On the following morning, the field trip destination was Allegany State Park in Cattaraugus County. Tim Baird, an experienced birder and naturalist, was the leader. Our total that day was 59 species with highlights being twelve species of warblers. We tallied 13 parula warblers including several pairs in the same tree, which as RTPI naturalist Elyse Henshaw pointed out suggests this species can nest in very close proximity to each other. (Maybe even colonies?).I had asked about moccasin flowers (Cypripedium acaule), a stunning orchid that I had only seen once. Tim had one staked out and I spent a bit reveling in its beauty. Another memorable moment for me on this outing is that in over 45 years of birding it is the first time I was in group looking for breeding yellow-throated warblers when we shushed up a dark-eyed junco.
My flight home was in the afternoon so even after the field trip there was some time to meander. On the way to the airport Twan showed me something quite remarkable. In a decaying part of town there flows the Chadakoin River, a stream that has been channelized and whose bank is littered with rebar and other industrial waste. But this small stretch is home to about 100 state endangered soft-shelled turtles. We saw a number of them climbing atop old pipes looking for places to lay their eggs. A ruderal environment providing habitat for rare animals is a wondrous thing: not only for the species dependent on it but as an educational tool that can introduce urban dwellers to the marvels of nature.
I had never been to a birding festival. This year I have been a speaker at three.: Biggest Week in American Birding (Oregon, Ohio); Bluegrass Birding Festival ( Lexington, KY), and Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds (western MN).
The Biggest Week is probably the largest birding festival in the country. It has some exceptional birding areas and it is organized by the Black Swamp Bird Observatory whose director is Kim Kaufman. Kim, Kenn, and a legion of volunteers who are inspired by them make this remarkable extravaganza possible: the site attracts both birds and many top birders. In addition, through the hard work of Kim and her staff, many of the region’s local chamber(s) of commerce and the businesses they represent have become involved: the 37 million dollars a year generated by visiting birders is widely recognized and appreciated.
Kim and Kenn are also dear friends (I have know Kenn since June 1972) who have been as supportive of my efforts as any friends can be. In the fall of 2012, the Kaufman’s and I were both speaking at an Indiana Audubon Society event at Pokagon State Park. On the last morning, Cindy and I joined them for breakfast. I laid out ideas for Project Passenger Pigeon and Kim immediately invited me to be a speaker at the 2014 birding festival. It was my first venue of what now is over 60 in 22 states.
I arrived at the lodge at Maumee Bay State Park in the afternoon: while events and displays are held at several venues, this is the hub of the festival. I caught the tale end of David Sibley’s talk on the variables of observation. He cited as an example his search for a loggerhead shrike which he fully expected to find. He glimpsed a bird he put down as a loggerhead but upon getting a closer view he realized that it was a great egret head that appeared to be perched shrike-like on a bare branch. (I once had something similar happen to me: a perched tree swallow turned out to be a Canada goose head: key is that one should never count mere glimpses.)
I had not signed up for any trips but a bus trip leaving the next morning at 6 and returning at 10, allowing me plenty of time to get ready for my 5:00 talk seemed like a good choice. I was told that if I arrived at 5:30 am I would have a decent chance of getting on. As I proceeded to the lodge Wednesday morning, I was pelted by heavy rain which fortunately stopped not too long thereafter. It turned out that the bus was indeed full so I wound up doing something that I am guessing was even better. I joined Erik Bruhnke (whom I first met two years ago in Duluth, where he lives) and Ethan Kistler for breakfast, after which we headed for the famed Magee Marsh. A portion of the parking lot was cordoned off out of consideration for the pair of bald eagles nesting next door.
Cindy and I had been there once before years ago, in late May when there was little birding action. On this day though it was filled with birds and, almost as spectacular, hordes of people. The wide boardwalk was clogged with people, but wheel chairs could still find room to creep through. A fine assemblage of warblers were easy to see including baybreast (which I rarely see many of in the course of a spring) and good numbers of what is probably my personal favorite, blackburnian. (“Oh that? Just another male blackburnian.”) The vireos proved also extremely cooperative, with knockout views of warbling, yellow-throated, blue-headed, and a five-feet-away-and content-to-stay white-eyed.
Erik seemed to know everyone he met, and so I perambulated down the boardwalk on my own. (I did encounter people I knew, too, including my Indiana friend Evie Kirkwood). At one point, I stopped to look at something when I vaguely noticed two people heading my way. I did not pay attention until the fellow asked if I could tell him anything about passenger pigeons. I was not sure how to respond, so I offered my hand in introduction. He reciprocated with, “Justin Peter.” I almost fell over. And there standing next to him was Sarah Rupert. They have become dear Facebook Friends and close collaborators on all things passenger pigeon. Justin works for a nature tour company and lives in Toronto while Sarah is a naturalist and painter at Point Pelee in Essex County, Ontario. (She won my heart when she posted that reading Allen Eckert’s novel on the species, Silent Sky, inspired her to become a naturalist.) It turns out that Justin drove from Toronto and picked up Sarah, specifically to hear my talk that night. I was deeply moved. And as we were talking along comes Jim McDonald, whom Cindy and I had met in Kirtland’s warbler country two years ago. A terrific moment.
The talk went very well. I was also touched when Kim and Kenn entered the room to listen. And I met a birder from CA who came in part because he too had been affected by the pigeon story most of his life. Laura Ericson was there as well and learning that she was staying at the same motel as I was, we had dinner with Ed and Rebecca Rice (local birding friends who were in the area ostensibly to pick up a daughter who goes to a nearby college.) Laura, whom I have come to really adore, has a radio show, blog, and authored several excellent bird books. We met in her room and chatted for a good long while.
Inaugural Blue Grass Birding Festival
Kentucky is one of the most important states in the history of the passenger pigeon. It is where Wilson and Audubon made their observations and created prose that have become the best known of any. After seeing a passenger pigeon slaughter in Harford in 1847, the French visitor Henry Revoil predicted that if such killing continued, the species would be gone in a century (it actually took only half that time). He was the first toexpress such perspicacity. My efforts, though, at getting support for Project Passenger Pigeon in the state did not result in much so I reached out to Will Overbeck, a botanist and restorationist who used to live northwest of Chicago but was just finishing graduate school in Kentucky. He was interested in talking up P3 and, living in Lexington, he reached out to folks at Central Kentucky Audubon Society. Tony Brusate of that group asked me if I would like to be the keynote speaker for the birding festival they were planning. Everything fell into place so after returning from Ohio on Thursday, I headed back down US-65 on Friday morning for the six hour drive to Lexington. The festival was to start the next day.
Will was tasked with meeting me at my motel and to shepherd me around the rest of the day. We visited a number of local sites including Ashland (The Henry Clay Estate) and Lexington Cemetery. We ran into a few warblers but the overwhelming highlight was the federally endangered running buffalo clover (Trifolium stoloniferum). Apparently, no extant populations of the species were known from 1940 to 1985 until two turned up in West Virginia. I have sought out rare plants over the years and in every case I am remembering they survive in high quality natural areas: almost by definition endangered plants do best at sites undisturbed by people. But not the running buffalo clover. The species requires rich soils in an ecotonal environment between heavy shade and prolonged sunlight that was evidently maintained by the hooves of bison. (The bison also helped disburse the seeds.) While the bison are gone, the human foot traffic and mowing in certain old parks replicate the movement of the lost herbivore closely enough to provide refugia for the clover.
Another fascinating aspect of the running buffalo clover is discussed in the Wikipedia account: “[It] is also the only known species of Trifolium that has no apparent rhizobial association. Rhizobium typically nodulate the roots of Trifolium, increasing nitrogen availability to the plant. It is unknown whether Trifolium stoloniferum has evolved beyond the need for Rhizobium due to the high nitrogen environment associated with Bison, or if the rhizobial associate is extinct due to either the decline of the clover or from competition with rhizobia that was introduced with exotic clovers.”
The next morning, I met David Lang, one of the more avid birders involved in the festival, who was leading a walk at Flora Cliff. Flora Cliff is a 287- acre private nature preserve that includes “steep slopes, mixed hardwood forests, Kentucky River bottomlands, swiftly running tributary streams and limestone palisades” (Flora Cliff web-site). It is a lovely place, one that can be best appreciated in the absence of pouring rain. While still on flat land, David heard a prairie warbler singing which I then spotted. I rarely see that bird so it always ranks high when I do encounter it. But then the small group that had assembled began to explore the site, which required walking up and down those steep slopes, now very slick. At one point, the Flora Cliff guide warned that we would soon be headed down a steep ravine. I thought, “are we going down as bipeds or otters?” Exacerbating the difficulty of the trek, my glasses became fogged and sweat was dribbling into my eyes. Fortunately, one of group members and her young nephew each sported canes. She offered me hers and boy it did make the hike much easier.
The talk was in an assisted living facility close to Jacobsen Park, where the festival was centered. As Tony and his wife were setting up the room, we could hear the A 4, C-11, N-44 of a bingo game going on next door. Fortunately that ended by the time the talk began. Nice turnout, which included one person who came from Cincinnati to show me her passenger pigeon tattoo.
Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds
When I was first invited to the 17 annual Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds I thought it might be in Michigan. But in fact it is located in a bird rich area of western Minnesota with ready access to prairie potholes, lakes, extensive grasslands, deciduous forests, tracts of conifers, bogs, and even Lake Itasca, out of which the Mississippi River begins it journey to the gulf. I flew to Minneapolis and then on to Fargo. Detroit Lakes is about an hour to the east. (One noteworthy aspect of the Fargo leg was conversing with a charming young woman who is a goat herder, or as she prefers to identify herself, “a goat person.” I have never knowingly met anyone before engaged in that profession.)
Cleone Stewart is one of the principal organizers and she made a point of hooking me up with Denny and Barb Martin who were scouting areas out on May 14 and first half of May 15. They are both retired and spend a lot of time working on their county lists. The festival started Thursday afternoon. We were staying at the same motel so it was easy for them to pick me up for an afternoon of birding. Promising shorebird habitat yielded two principal species: least sandpipers and yellow-rumped warblers. (Great comparison views of these two very similar species.) I don’t think I have ever seen so many butter-butts feeding on wet fringes of shallow potholes in amongst the sandpipers. Another treat that day was dancing prairie chickens. The festival offered folks the opportunity to enter blinds pre-dawn to watch the spectacular lekking behavior of these splendid birds but we were treated to much the same thing in early evening. The wind was blowing towards the somewhat distant dancers so we could not hear their haunting nuptial entreaties but we did see them well.
Next morning, the Martins headed toward the nearly 43,000 acre Tamarac National Wildlife refuge. The refuge harbors 30 pairs of trumpeter swans, sizable numbers of the diminishing golden-winged warbler, and gray wolves. As we worked our way towards the refuge headquarters, we stopped to watch swans out on the lake. Next we encountered groups of warblers and worked the small flocks. We wound up with 14 species including palm, Cape May, Blackpoll, orange crowned, Nashville, and Tennessee. They were low next to the lake and we had fun views. At one point, a trumpeter swan flew over as it issued the cries by which it received its name. A moment later a common loon also chimed in. This was a first for me: observing warblers while being enchanted by the calls of trumpeter swans and loons.
Denny and Barb dropped me off at the motel where long time friend Kim Eckert would also be staying. I have known Kim, raised in Wilmette, Illinois, since the late 1960s. Kim is a major fixture in Minnesota birding and led bird tours for many years with VENT. (The Martins credit Kim with being one of the people most responsible for them getting into birding). He had hoped to surprise me with his presence- the info had leaked out earlier- but we as we drove to the winery where my book signing session was scheduled we had a chance to chat about a wide range of birding topics. Soon after arriving at the location, someone else appeared whose presence was a most pleasant surprise: Bob Russell. I had met Kim through Bob, whom I first encountered on an Evanston North Shore Bird Club field trip in October 1967. Bob and Kim have been close buddies from that time forward, even going to the same college. Kim brought along a photo of Bob and me that he took when the three of us went on a birding trip to California in August 1969.
The rest of the evening went well, with a good turn out at the talk and an excellent repast of pan fried walleye. One highlight was the gentleman who approached me as I signed books. He is 90 years old (truly coming across at least ten years younger) and when he was 16, he became friends with a fellow who at the time was 80 (meaning he was born in 1860). This person had trapped passenger pigeons as a young man, a fact that caused him great sorrow later in life when he reflected on his collaboration in the extinction of the bird. To me being only one degree of separation from one who knew the birds in life is quite extraordinary as well.
Mark Robbins and I first met when he knocked on the dorm room in Graham Hall at the University of Arizona that I shared with Ted Parker. That was in early September of 1973. We don’t see each other very often- the last time, in fact, was 25 years ago when I visited him in Philadelphia. Since then he has been the bird collection manager at the Biodiversity Institute at the University of Kansas. When I was spreading the word on Project Passenger Pigeon, I reached out to Mark and he in turn shared information with a number of organizations in the state including the Burroughs Audubon Society of Kansas City. Elizabeth Stoakes of the society reached out and invited me to speak at their annual dinner on April 25-27.
Mark met me at the Kansas City International airport and off we went birding. He took me to a large grassy site, off limits to the public without special permission, used by the Missouri National Guard for practicing parachute jumping. Our principal quarry was Sprague’s pipit, a species I have seen once before. In that case, I saw a bird on its breeding grounds performing its “skylarking” nuptial display (evidently the longest such display of any bird). While clearly a Sprague’s pipit, the bird never afforded me an opportunity to see its morphological field marks. Mark was looking for patches of dried brown grass that the birds prefer. As we drove slowly along, we saw upland sandpipers and a Le Contes sparrow. Mark also mentioned that Franklin’s ground squirrels inhabit the area as well. Just as we spotted what Mark though was a squirrel burrow, a pipit flushed and we chased after. The bird eventually perched on grass stalks each leg on a different stalk. We saw the light legs, streaked back, large eye on buffy face, and all the other subtleties of its plumage. It is not often I get a near life bird.
Mark lives outside Lawrence and we stopped at at the university so Mark could show me the bird collection. I had told him that my jinx mammal is spotted skunk (either species will do) and that I would be willing to travel a fair distance to see one. (They are more nocturnal than striped skunks, but I fantasize that there is a state park somewhere within 500 miles where spotted skunk den has been dug under an outhouse or other structure: if one sat watching all night, the chimera would finally emerge.) Mark said he would consider joining me on such a trek- not the usual response I get- and he added that a road kill from a nearby county had just been brought to the museum. We observed the skunk and the small passenger pigeon flock.
Arrangements had been made for Mark to lead a field trip for Burroughs Audubon to Squaw Creek National Wildlife Refuge, a place that I have been wanting to visit since Mark enthuses about during our Arizona days. Over 7,400 acres, much of it marsh and open water. During migration periods, it attracts literally millions of snow geese. That species is so common that there is now a spring hunting season for it. We could see the results: many snow geese (at least one Ross’s) were apparent, likely victims of gunshot wounds, as few geese would have lingered this late prior to the new hunting season. The day also brought a modest flight of my seasons first broad-winged hawks, and a fine list of shorebirds including marbled godwit, willet, Baird’s sandpiper, and Wilson’s phalaropes.
After the well-attended dinner and talk at the elegant Country Club Christian Church, I went home with Marilyn and Steve Koshland who graciously put me up at their lovely home overlooking a lake just outside Kansas City. In the morning, Baltimore orioles foraged at the feeder and an osprey lazily circled over, plunging once into the water to emerge fishless. Then on to the airport.
Blue-winged warbler at Mary Gray Sanctuary (photo by Scott Arvin)
I have been spending so much time on US 65, I am thinking of building a hut at the base of one of the many “Jesus Is Real” signs and assert squatters rights. I would have thought that bad weather would be but a memory for my trip to Earlham College spanning April 14-15 but alas. An ornithology class field trip was scheduled for the morning and I was looking forward to the phenologiccal manifestations of early spring at place substantially south of Chicago. But there was a significant snowfall the night of April 14 and the world that awaited us was one of winter’s white. The students gathered in the morning chill and it was a pleasant outing, but birds were limited to the earliest of arrivals: golden-crowned kinglets, yellow-rumped warbler, red-winged blackbird, and a pine warbler. (The drive home along 65 was interminable: the snow had created a back up the preceding evening and a car with one adult and two children slammed into a stopped truck, killing all aboard and throttling the movement of traffic lasting until at least my arrival.)
Earlham College has a national reputation- and is probably Indiana’s premier small liberal arts college- imbued with Quaker traditions. The Joseph Moore Museum has, I think, the largest collection of birds in the state. Heather Learner, a biology professor, is director of the museum and we met last August at the AOU meeting. Her predecessor was Bill Buskirk, who taught at Earlham for many years and is still active with the school. He and I met some years ago when I was conducting bird surveys nearby. Heather invited me to speak at Earlham and I had a great time talking with her museum studies students. One of them, Asa Duffee, was really taken by the passenger pigeon story and created the anniversary exhibit that graces the museum. The panels had been printed and installed just hours before my arrival. They have three passenger pigeons in their collection, including one striking bird with its wings partially opened. The following week had me headed towards Indiana State University.
I was invited by Peter Scott (whom I also met at AOU) and his colleague Rusty Gonser to be the Earth Day Speaker. (Randy also organizes the February Darwin Day festivities and presented me with a leftover Charles Darwin Bobble Head Doll: one of the more interesting items of swag I have received so far.) Peter and his wife, Diana Hews (who is chair of the biology department) generously put me up for my stay. They have a lovely house surrounded by woods and it was an unusual experience for me to fall asleep to the singing of spring peepers. As I lay there, the serenading would suddenly stop, only to renew a short while later. I wondered what was afoot in the forest.
Fortunately for me, Peter has recently retired so he was able to spend time taking me birding. I arrived probably around noon, plenty of time to explore one of Indiana’s premier birding areas: Goose Pond, 8,000 acres of wetland and grassland. I was there once before, in the spring of 2013, when Cindy and I ran down to see a spotted redshank. (In 1973, my dad drove me to Brigantine NJ, an almost 1,800 round trip from home, to see a purported spotted redshank, that we never found but was most likely an oiled yellowlegs. It was a long-suppurating wound that needed healing.) The birding was excellent. We only had 34 species but some were not expected (at least by me). I am still not used to seeing black-necked stilts in the Midwest, where they now breed in increasing numbers. In addition, I added a number of year birds including bobwhite (a species declining across most of its range), American bittern, warbling vireo, and Henslow’s sparrows. The overwhelming highlight, though, were two white-faced ibis. One bird was an adult in alternate plumage with an obvious white rim to the face, while the second was in transitional plumage showing little white.
Randy had set up the next day with me talking to students and faculty before the evening talk, which had a nice turnout. A lunch with graduate students was particularly fun, with a wide ranging discussion of topics including ideas for books and how each first learned of passenger pigeons. A student from India said that she learned about it in high school (I doubt many American’s can say that.). But the highlight was seeing Margaret Moga: Peggy and I were birding/prairie friends back 20 or more years ago when she was in graduate school at Loyola. Her field is neuroanatomy and she teaches at the Indiana University Medical School which is located on the ISU campus.
My final spring jaunt to Indiana (May 2-4) was to be the keynote speaker at the Indiana Audubon Society’s spring meeting at the Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary in Connersville. On Friday, the day before the meeting, I picked up my good friend Jeanette Jaskula, who lives in Rensselaer right off US 65, and we proceeded on to Connersville. (Jeanette has two delightful youngsters and she said that being away from home for two consecutive nights- which this trip entailed- would be the longest time she has been away from them. I thank her husband Mike Nickels for making this possible) And there would be other friends at the meeting as well including Steve and Sarah Sass, Peter Scott, and Terri Gorney. (I also met one of Indiana’s most active young birders, Alexandra Forsythe, and her parents: Alex graciously asked me to sign a copy of A Feathered River, which she had reviewed quite favorably on her blog, and a terrific conversation ensued.)
On our way to the refuge that first day we spotted black vultures in with the turkeys as they all fed contentedly on a fawn carcass Mary Gray Bird Sanctuary is a lovely 700 acre area of wooded ravines with a few small artificial lakes. In the morning Jeanette. Steve, a visiting couple, and I took an early morning walk. We were treated to a stunning male scarlet tanager, parula warbler, yellow-throated warbler, and Louisiana waterthrush. A blue-winged warbler sang from afar. Later that day, I was scheduled to lead a walk for the young birders who were present. There were 18 youngsters present, about half of whom had a genuine interest in nature and birds. Our route around the lakes yielded a few expected warblers but things did not get really interesting until we were almost at our starting point and met a non-birding parent who said she saw a dark bird with a red bill swimming along the cattail-fringed edge of the closest lake. The group walked back to pursue the area more closely but failed to see anything. I started clapping my hands and a low and behold a common gallinule flushed from the marsh and flew towards the near shore. It proceeded to climb the bank and ascend a tree where it crouched down. I have never seen a gallinule that high in a tree before: word spread and lots of folks were able to see it.
Common gallinule at Mary Gray (photo by Scott Arvin)
On April 9, Cindy and I drove to Springfield, Illinois to give a talk at the Illinois State Museum. This was set up by Terry Martin, a museum anthropologist whom I had interviewed in the course of my research for the book. I am quite fond of this museum (and it is something it shares with most state museum): founded in 1877, it is an interdisciplinary treasure devoted to the land, life, people, and art of the state. As we entered, we saw the exhibit that was most vivid in my memory. One reads how the force of a tornado can drive a straw deep into a piece of wood. In the museum, they have a tree trunk that has been penetrated a good few inches by the blunt end of a board. Photos accompanying the specimen show a man hanging by his arms from the board to show how deeply it was held by the trunk. The museum also boasts some lovely models of passenger pigeons and Carolina parakeets in flightas part of a permanent exhibit, but they will also have some special displays for the pigeon anniversary.
Shortly after we started our walk we were approached by Bonnie Styles, who is the museum’s director. She had just finished a conversation with Terry who mentioned in passing that Cindy and I were in the museum. We had met one other time briefly and she wanted to say hello. She then gave us a grand tour of the museum, transforming our visit into something almost magical. She has been at the museum for quite a while, starting as a curator, and so she was able to provide us with her rich insights and marvelous anecdotes. Many museums have been forced to shed curators, but due to Bonnie’s insistence that research is an important element of the museum, the institution still boasts many first class scholars.
Bonnie and Cindy.
The talk drew over 100 people and there were great questions afterwards. Maybe the highlight was when a gentlemen in a cap came up and introduced himself as Marc Miller, the Director of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. I could not have been more surprised or pleased. He and I had never met but, when I co-hosted a radio show a few years ago, he was a guest whom we interviewed over the phone. On the way home we stopped at Goose Lake Prairie. Eastern meadowlarks and field sparrows sung from the grasslands, though the lake was devoid of white pelicans or other water birds. As we retraced our steps back to Rt 55 we noticed some wet flats off the side of the road that were filled with ducks and spiced with shorebirds. When I stepped out of the car to use the scope, many took off,, but there were yellowlegs, gadwalls, both teal, and masses of shovellers. A nice end to the trip.
My March 31 talk at the Urban Ecology Center was mostly through the effort of Christina Clancy, an English Professor at Beloit College. She had contacted me sometime earlier with the news that her college was going to devote next semester to passenger pigeons: there would be classes in most every discipline where passenger pigeons would be a part. This was thrilling to me, as I am aware of faculty in at least two other schools who tried unsuccessfully to get passenger pigeons incorporated into the activities of their institution. Christina has me booked to speak at the college next fall and I may just amble over on my own to catch some of the programming on tap.
The Urban Ecology Center is a remarkable and unusual entity. They have three sites: the one which hosted me is in Riverside Park. The organization came into being when growing crime rates and a neglected park led citizens to conclude that environmental restoration and involvement would be a good way to turn the tide. In 1991, according to their web-site, “they organized park clean ups and started to use the park to teach neighborhood students about nature and science.” The center where I spoke has a lookout on the roof and a fascinating interior that has live fish and herps, as well as sofas and free coffee that creates a wonderfully friendly and informal ambience.
I arrived at the center and met Tim Vargo, Manager of Research and Citizen Science. A little while later we were joined by Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor of BirdWatching magazine. Matt and I had never crossed paths before in person, but I have worked with him during my writing of three articles for the magazine. We headed off to a Belgian restaurant (a cuisine unfamiliar to me beyond waffles and sprouts. Our dinner party was quite large and included Christina, members of her family, Collin Sprenkle (a student of Christina’s whose passion for passionger pigeons is very strong, as manifested in the delightful article she wrote of the evening for the college newspaper), and Ken Leinbach, Executive Director of the Urban Ecology Center (his favorite mode of summer transportation is unicycle). Dinner was a hoot. It would have been reason enough to visit. The talk itself was well-attended and everything proceeded in fine fashion.
The center I was at, 1500 East Park Place, overlooks the Milwaukee River. This is an incredibly important place in the history of the passenger pigeon, for it was here, for most of the period from 1888 to 1909, that David Whittaker raised passenger pigeons in a coop next to his house. He claimed in a 1928 article, published when he was 89 years old (he died later that year), that he produced 72 passenger pigeons, all descended from a single pair he obtained from Shawano, Wisconsin. If this is true, there is no record of where most of them wound up.
In 1896, he said he had 18 birds. But while on a trip, he returned to find that all of his birds had been stolen. He was to learn that the entire lot was sold for $1,500 to Professor Charles Otis Whitman of the University of Chicago. Whittaker exculpates Whitman from any knowledge of the crime, and eventually received some of them back. It is curious to note that 1896 was a big year for those particular passenger pigeons: Whitman had many of them photographed (these represent almost all the photos ever taken of live passenger pigeons) and it was in this year, obviously before the theft, that Chicago ornithologist Ruthven Deane visited the Milwaukee birds and wrote about what he saw in the Auk. And I was where this mystery began.
It seems that whenever I am any where in the vicinity, I am drawn to the home of Renee and David Baade like a lost ship is to a beacon. Susan and I arrived in their drive way in Newtown, CT just before noon. Connecticut Audubon Society was hosting a talk for me at Kroon Hall on the Yale Campus (the university’s Department of Forestry and Environmental Studies partnered with CAS in having me come). There was a very nice reception before hand. And here too I met in person some folks I had only known through cyberspace and or over the phone. Sharon Sweet had reached out during the early days of Project Passenger Pigeon to tell me how much the bird’s story meant to her. When I was done with my talk, she rose to read a poem she had written in honor of the bird. Also introducing himself was Andy Caploe who made a special trip from his home in New Jersey to meet me and see the talk. Andy is the very talented actor whose voice one hears on the audio version of A Feathered River. He was accompanied by his friend Jonathan Robinson (a documentary filmmaker), who lives in New Haven, and the six of us went for dinner and enjoyed some wonderful tapas.
No talks the following day so Renee took Susan and me out birding. It had snowed a bit and was colder than it had been for a few days. We spent most of our time birding at Hammonasset Beach State Park where highlights were red-throated loon, snow bunting, and Lapland longspur. Killdeer interjected the promise of spring even though it did not feel that way. Along the Connecticut River we scoped flocks of ducks including three species of mergansers, ring-necked, and a locally unusual canvasback. Evening plans consisted of another stimulating dinner, this time with world-renowned book illustrator Wendell Minor and his wife Florence. Wendell, having become familiar with Project Passenger Pigeon, reached out a year ago and we almost crossed paths the last time I was staying with Renee and David. This time I wanted to make sure we did get together and everyone had a great time as evidenced by our retreating to the Baades after desert at the restaurant.
Susan had to return to Brunswick, Maine so arrangements had been made to drop me off along the Mass Turnpike near Lowell where I would be met by Charlie Browne, the former director of the Fairbanks Museum and Planetarium in St. Johnsbury Vermont where I would be speaking the next day. Just two days before they had received a large snowfall and temperatures had plunged below zero. Fortunately, things had warmed up a bit and the snowy landscapes were quite lovely. Charlie and his charming wife live outside St. Johnsbury.
Every morning he gets up to feed the rooster and several chickens they keep. We went birding soon thereafter in a 4,920 acre state-owned site called the Victory Basin Wildlife Management Area. It lies along the Moose River and is a wetland-forest complex that includes a boreal bog dominated by spruce (black and red) and balsam fir. Moose are supposedly common and it is a good spot for gray jays, spruce grouse, and black-backed woodpeckers, but alas most of what we saw were blue jays and black-capped chickadees. The most interesting mammal I did see was a snowshoe hare that ran along the road as we were driving back from dinner one evening.
The Fairbanks Museum is a grand old museum founded by its name sake in 1889 and contains 175,000 objects. I visited once decades before and was struck by the array of materials including a California condor. My friend Mary Beth Prondzinsky is collection manager at the museum but unfortunately a family matter brought her to the Midwest. Leila Nordmann, Fairbanks director of programs, did a great job organizing the event. A nice turnout came to hear the talk and Charlie took some of us out to dinner at St. Johnsbury’s premier restaurant.
Uneventful drive to Boston and flight home.
Five talks in ten days in four states: it sounded like a daunting trip but turned out to be delightful largely because of all the wonderful people who put me up and schlepped me around. Starting off was Wayne Peterson who had invited me in the first place to speak at the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s annual Birders Meeting. From Logan Airport, we headed to Wellesley where Wayne’s good friends John and Carolyn Marsh live. But on the way we made a detour through Wellesley College to see the campus’ latest attraction: the lifelike sculpture of the almost naked somnambulist.
Over two hundred people attended the meeting, held at Bentley College in Waltham. This year’s theme was “Extinction is Forever: What Have We Learned?” I was the keynote speaker and my talk- “Hope is the Thing With Feathers: Americans and Three Birds”- compared the passenger pigeon story as an example of extinction with the Kirtland’s warbler (a species we know how to maintain at healthy numbers) and whooping crane (a species we are still struggling to preserve). Other speakers addressed the legacy of the heath hen (we were treated to the only surviving movie footage of displaying heath hens), broader issues of conservation, effects of weather on birds and birders, and the causes and consequences of avian extinctions.
There many highlights. This meeting represented the first public airing of the documentary David Mrazek and I have been working on for a few years now. From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction (http://e-int.com/billionstonone/) was extremely well received: people found the animation particularly effective and moving. I also had the opportunity to interact with an august group of bird folks. I chatted with Scott Edwards of Harvard, whom I met a few years ago at the first de-extinction meeting. I have been on Ray Brown’s Talking Birds radio show twice and it was great have the opportunity to talk with Ray and his partner Mark Duffield. And I signed books next to David Sibley as his legions of fans sought autographs for the new edition of his field guide. (It is tough being a star: one couple asked David if he remembered them from a signing years earlier.)
Next day was my talk at the Harvard Natural History Museum. Susan Wegner, my dear friend from Bowdoin College, had offered sometime earlier to spend part of her spring break shepherding me through New England on this trip. SO we were going to meet at the one entrance to the HNHM, a seemingly straight forward rendezvous location. But Cambridge is a difficult town to navigate and parking for the museum can be tricky: as Wayne put it, meeting at the museum seems like a good idea if you did not know the actual logistics. Susan arrived ok and Wayne showed her the parking garage. The attendance at the talk was standing room only and exceeded 100. I was honored to have Scott Edwards introduce me. It was a diverse crowd (my first presentation where a canid was part of the audience) who asked interesting questions. Later we toured the museum and met Jenny Berglund who designed the new passenger pigeon exhibit.
Susan and I said good bye to Wayne and we made our way to Providence. Plans were for Susan and me to meet Eugenia Marks of the Audubon Society of Rhode Island. I was going to be staying at her house and Susan at a nearby motel. Eugenia gave us a terrific tour of Providence, a city I had never visited before. Blocks of historic buildings and much of Roger Williams, who early on imbued the city with his views of religious tolerance. (I now know why Providence hosted the nation’s first synagogue; the first Baptist church is here as well.) Eugenia gave us a tour of the Roger Williams Natural History Museum which has a wonderfully eclectic collection including many examples of nineteenth century vitrines filled with birds from around the world. We then tarried at the unique Rhode Island School of Design’s Edna Lawrence Nature Lab, which holds 80,000 specimens of plants and animals that enable art students to “examine, explore, and understand the patterns, structures and interactions of design in nature.” Before our tour ended, Eugenia took us to a harbor area where we were treated to large numbers of brant, a species rare to the Great Lakes.
Eugenia handed us off the following day to Jeff Hall, a staff member of the society. He took us birding and we had a number of memorable sightings. It is possible I have only seen great cormorants once before so seeing a flock reasonably close was a treat. Adding to the experience was a flock of purple sandpipers that were issuing low chattering calls: the first time I have ever heard the species. And our shoreline walk had an exciting finish when Jeff spotted the snowy owl that had been hanging around.
The talk that evening at the society’s Environmental Education Center went well with a nice turn our.. Eugenia had brought along the society’s passenger pigeon specimen. And later she told me that a the niece of George Bird Grinnell was in the audience.
A unique event took place on February 20 at the Green Belt Cultural Center in North Chicago, Illinois. Sophie Twichell, director of the BrushwoodCenter at Ryerson, was the principal organizer, bringing together nine LakeCounty conservation organizations t to participate. Sophie has a particular interest whcih we both share: bringing the arts and science/conservation together. This program epitomized that overlap.
I had reached out to Paul Doughty, a birding friend who is also an accomplished fiddle player and singer, to see if he would be interested in recruiting other musicians to play passenger pigeon music. He was excited about the idea and brought into the program Jason Watts, a guitar player and vocalist, and Jim Loftus, who plays the steel, slide and blues harp. I sent Paul a sampling of passenger related music and poetry that ranged from the 19th century to current times. They selected a popular ditty from the 1850s that goes:
“When I can shoot my rifle clear,
To pigeons in the skies,
I’ll bid farewell to pork and beans,
And live on pigeon pie.”
The other two songs were contemporary. The late John Herald, a leader among blue grass musicians, wrote Martha (Last of the Passenger Pigeons) is moving lament to the loss of the species. The Handsome Family’s “Passenger Pigeons” uses the pigeon story as a haunting metaphor for lost love. I had long thought of a presentation where the performance of these songs could be incorporated into a talk. It worked perfectly, and the four of us finished our time up front with plenty of time for David Mrazek to introduce our documentary, From Billions to None: The Passenger Pigeon’s Flight to Extinction. David showed a ten minute scene fron the film, the first public airing of any of it. I was quite pleased with everyone’s response.
And as yet another treat, Rob Carmichael and his crew from the Lake ForestWildlifeDiscoveryCenter, brought a varied collection of live reptiles. It was delightful to watch Rob holding a small American alligator, a species once threatened with extinction but which has since bounced back to become a common sight in the southeast. The hog-nosed snake (a fascinating species that scares off potential threats by flattening its head like a cobra; failing that it flips over on its back and plays dead) also had its fans.
Sophie and I really wanted this event to be well attended but we were worried about the weather. Predictions called for howling winds, freezing temperatures, sleet, and flooding. If it was warmer, I am sure we would have been expecting locusts. It turned out that, except for the winds, the prognostications were worse than what actually happened. And we were excited by the turn out: over 140 people were there including Laura Ericsson, a distinguished ornithologist and author who came all the way from Duluth, MN just to be at our show. (It usually takes a boreal owl to get Chicago birders to travel to Duluth.). She is wonderful.
And perched from his table, Heinrich surveyed the crowd and activities with satisfaction.
Every year for the past 13, the Illinois Ornithological Society sponsors a February event called “The Gull Frolic.” It is located at the harbor club at NorthPointMarina, in Winthrop Harbor, Illinois, just spitting distance from Wisconsin. For several days before, bread is tossed to attract gulls and over the years most every kind of gull found on southern Lake Michigan in the winter has been found. Birders are drawn from all over northern Illinois, and beyond, to gather in undiminished numbers. (I have queried people on the success of the event, and there is general agreement to the idea that after being cooped up for January and much of February, it provides a terrific excuse to do some birding and catch up with a range of folks you might otherwise encounter much. This year Gull Frolic was held on February 15 and I was invited to be the speaker. There were two sessions, where about 50 people at each heard me give my talk, Hope is the Thing With Feathers: Americans and Three Birds. This one of my principal talks: I look at the passenger pigeon as an icon of extinction and compare it with Kirtland’s warbler (we know to keep it at healthy population levels), and the whooping crane (after decades of effort, its fate is still an open question).
Given the low temperatures and little in the way of open water, organizers were concerned that the gulls might be scarce and, indeed, tehy were in the morning with only about 200 present. But by late afternoon the number of individuals and variety picked up substantially. Besides the cold weather, there was another unusual factor in this year’s frolic. The day before, Amar Ayaash and a visiting birder discovered a slaty-backed gull in inland LakeCounty, maybe a half-hour away. When it was reported on Saturday, there was a steady stream of people going back a and forth: late in the afternoon when most people had left, a few lucky birders found the slaty-backed right behind the club. I did some birding during the day. Mick Minor let me look through his scope at the Kumlien’s Iceland gull. And later I saw a great black backed and lesser black-backed, along with a nice flock of white-winged scoters just offshore. As has been widely reported the Great Lakes are nearly 100% frozen. One consequence is the appearance of white-winged scoters inland, including at least one that was found dying in a woods, no where near large water.
Here is a list of the day’s birds as compiled by Amar: 85 Canada Goose, 26 White-winged Scoter,,12 Long-tailed Duck, 8 Red-breasted Merganser, 4 Common Merganser, 1 Red-throated Loon, 150 Ring-billed Gull, 700, Herring Gull (many more out on the lake in the distance and not in the harbor this year), 15 Thayer’s Gulls (10 adults, 2 third cycles, 3 first cycles), 8 Kumlien’s Iceland Gull (5 adults, 1 third cycle, 1 second cycle, 1 first cycle), 4 Glaucous Gulls (2 adults, 1 second cycle, 1 first cycle), 5 Lesser Black-backed Gulls (3 adults, 1 third cycle, 1 second cycle), 2 Great Black-backed Gulls (both adults, beyond the breakwall and in flight) 1 Slaty-backed Gull (Adult. Confirmed as same bird from LCF), and 8 American Tree Sparrows.