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.
Damon Lowe, of the Indiana State Museum and a long time participant in Project Passenger Pigeon, invited me to participate in a panel discussion at the annual gathering of the Hoosier Association of Science Teachers. My good buddy Don Gorney was the other panel member and he was putting me up during my stay. The event was scheduled for February 6. Now I like to arrive early to places but I think I established a personal record here.
On Tuesday morning the weather reports were ominous, with predictions of a major snow storm moving through late that afternoon. I-65 is notorious for being shut down during heavy discharges, and traffic on 80-94 can thicken like over cooked oatmeal when lake effect snows fall a bit to the east. With that those prognostications glaring at me, I talked to Don and suggested I leave Tuesday afternoon to try and beat the snow. He said that was fine and I set out. In Newton County, a lovely light phase rough-legged hawk was hovering right off the highway. All was well until about Lafayette, and from them on my progress proceeded at a crawl. It was dark by the time I reached Indie, and, what was worse, I was following Map Quest directions, meaning I had to discern street names through the dark and snow. And in my haste to pack and leave, I forgot to bring Don’s phone number so I could not give him a progress report. But sometime in early evening, I arrived, fully a day earlier than I had originally anticipated.
Don knows how to entertain a visiting birder, however, even in early February. We went to a big Indie park called Eagle Creek, which features its Ornithology Center, a nature center focused on birds. (Before the building that houses the center became a park, it was the library of J.K. Lilly, a member of the family that seems to fund most every cultural and educational facility in the state.) Don introduced to me to the staff, including the director Brittany Swinford and naturalist Maggie Jaicomo. Elsewhere in Eagle Creek, there is a spot where a road ends at a now completely frozen lake. People have been depositing seeds off to the side and fun collection of birds are drawn to the cache. They are mostly white-throated sparrows, with cardinals, a blue jay, one tufted titmouse (a species I rarely see on the ground), and song sparrows. But mixed in, and being coy on the periphery, were two fox sparrows and one swamp sparrow. Heading out of the park, Don spotted a hawk that proved to be a young red-shouldered.
Next we headed out to the Indianapolis Regional Airport. Don started seeding one small area here as well. The road runs next to the fence delimiting one side of the airport, and Don started seeding one small area here as well. As we approached the spot, there were two cars, with two birders in one, both armed with cameras equipped with large lenses. The birders were Mike and Jeff Timmons and we chatted awhile.. There were lots of horned larks, but then a flock of snow buntings joined them. We had about 20 or more: a real treat. And then appeared a Lapland longspur. We watched this terrific mix until it became late enough to go to another spot in search of short-eared owls. Don and I scanned but to no avail. Eventually we decided it was time to call it a day, but before we left the airport area Don stopped at low area where the owls sometimes roost. And sure enough, I spotted one and then Don another. One moved around a bit, spreading its wings as if getting ready to go its nocturnal rounds. Then it relaxed, but in another short period, the two launched themselves skyward.
The next morning was the day of our meeting. We met Damon at the Indiana State Museum, which is almost across the street from the conference center. It was obvious that the weather had depressed the turnout, far less than the 1,000 who were expected. But our session did attract some listeners. Afterwards we went back to the museum where we met the ever growing flock of passenger pigeons. It is now up to two, with a third one awaiting in England for transferal to Indianapolis. Damon may actually have to go himself. One of the hazards of the job.
My last trip to Philadelphia was in fall 2012 to attend a charette sponsored by the Museum Studies Department at the University of the Arts. Graduate students were divided into four group, each of which was tasked with designing a passenger pigeon exhibit at one of four local institutions: zoo, Drexel Academy of Sciences, American Philosophical Society, and Wagner Free Institute of Science. When I discussed Philadelphia with Carrie Major, my Bloomsbury publicist, I mentioned these four organizations as possible venues and she picked Wagner. I had met Susan Glassman and when I called her, she was most pleased with the idea of my giving a program. Her assistant, Abby Sullivan, put me in touch with Maureen of the Audubon Center of Mill Grove and they too were interested in having me present a talks.
Making this all very easy was a terrific artist named Kate Garchinsky, who contacted me some time ago, having learned about Project Passenger Pigeon through the web-site. She and her fiancé Brian Carpenter, an archivist at the American Philosophical Society, very kindly offered to both put me up for the three nights I was going to be in town and drive me around.
Kate and I arranged to meet at the baggage area. We had seen each other’s picture on Facebook but I liken this to looking for say a western sandpiper in a flock of semipalms: you look carefully at everyone making sure you don’t overlook the target of your search. I saw someone holding up a sign for some name or other, so I took out a copy of the book as my field mark. We had no trouble finding each other and we headed off to Kate’s apartment. Brian arrived and we headed off to dinner where we were going to meet Rich Horwich and Gregg Gorton. Rich is an ecologist who has spent his entire career at what is now called the Drexel Academy of Natural Sciences. He will always hold a special place in my heart for having taken me birding for the first time back in November 1966. Greg is a psychiatrist at U of Pennsylvania who is working on a biography of Ted Parker. He visited me in Westmont to seek anecdotes and insights on Ted, with whom I roomed for a year at University of Arizona. Terrific get together with an friend of longstanding and three new ones.
Thursday was a very busy day. Carrie had arranged for me to appear on Radio Times, a wonderful show on WHYY hosted by Marty Moss-Coane. (She is an excellent interviewer.) After that, we headed to the APS where Brian had planned a tour and some surprises. Brian works with old interviews and came across two from the 1950s of a Cherokee and a Seneca describing traditional pigeon dances. The Cherokee dance features one performer who plays a falcon and grabs “pigeons” from the flock of other dancers.
APS has a complete original set of Audubon plates. The volumes are kept on their “backs” in a special shelf. Brian and a colleague removed the tome that had passenger pigeons and placed it on a table where they began turning pages. I have seen original Audubon plates under glass but never close up and personal. The beauty of the work seemed enhanced.
The Wagner Free Institute of Science is a remarkable place. According to its web-site: “Established in the mid-nineteenth century to provide free science education for the people of Philadelphia, the institute is not a reflection of the past but the past itself, visible and vital.” Imagine putting a bell jar over a 159 year old museum and you have Wagner. Over 140 people came and the audience was as diverse as any I have seen for a natural history talk. Later Kate and I, had dinner with Rich, Susan, and Amy. A wonderful experience. Next day, Kate took me sight seeing. Our first stop was at the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, encompassing a lake (quite frozen), woods, and marshes. White-throated sparrows were in abundance and Kate spotted a sharp-shinned hawk. At one point a great-blue heron flew slowly over head. We stopped at BartramGardens founded by John Bartram. From their web-site “He purchased 102 acres from Swedish settlers in 1728, and systematically began gathering the most varied collection of North American plants in the world.” His son, William, carried on the naturalist tradition, continuing to collect plants on his varied travels. One of their most remarkable discoveries was Franklinia altamaha, named for their close friend Benjamin and the river on whose shores the plant grew. The shrub seems to have disappeared from the wild as it has not been located since the early 17th century. All current living examples are descended from the seeds first collected by the Bartrams.
After a late lunch with Brian, the three of us headed to the AudubonCenter at Mill Grove in, appropriately named Audubon, Pennsylvania. John James Audubon lived here and this where he banded an eastern phoebe to determine if the same individual would return, the first known attempt at such an experiment. They also had a passenger pigeon thought to have been mounted by him. There is a museum and barn, the latter serving as the auditorium. We were met by Maureen Dando, education director, the person with whom I had made the arrangements. She took us on a tour of and showed us their good collection of specimens, including a passenger pigeon thought to be mounted by Audubon himself. They are planning on mounting an impressive array of Project Passenger Pigeon related programming including one involving origami pigeons.
The talk and questions went just fine. As I was signing books- which for me takes concentration as it is easy to screw up a name (once, years ago, I was chatting away and found myself writing: “To Joel”)- a gentleman handed me a book and said “David Burg.” He repeated it and it finally sunk in: David is an amazing Facebook Friend who created an organization called WildMetro which focuses on conservation issues in New York City. We have had some terrific e-mail conversations but I had no clue he was going to be in attendance. Despite a bad cold and an early morning owl walk he was conducting the following day, he decided to drive the two hours from his home to Audubon. A delightful surprise capping a lovely trip.
The University of Chicago has as strong a connection to the passenger pigeon as any other school. Charles Otis Whitman, chairman of the university’s zoology department, specialized in the study of animal behavior and his principal subjects were pigeons of varying species. In 1896 he added several passenger pigeons to his collection; these birds originated from a captive flock in Milwaukee. He had some success in breeding birds but eventually his inbred flock began their downward spiral to zero. But in 1902, he sent a female to the Cincinnati Zoo. This bird was almost certainly Martha, whose death in 1914 would conclude the passenger pigeon’s tenure as a living species. I contacted Fran Vandervoort, of the Hyde Park Historical Society, who has close ties with the university. She had studied animal behavior as a graduate student at U of C and was very interested in having the school mark the anniversary. Fran’s hard work and perseverance, in collaboration with Jennifer Hart and Michal Safar, resulted in a wonderful display on Whitman that is currently showing at the university’s John Crerar Library. One entire case is devoted to passenger pigeons. And to celebrate the opening of the exhibits, Fran invited me to speak at the reception.
It is a strange feeling to have worked for three years preparing for an anniversary and then, low and behold, the time arrives. From early on, the launch of my book was going to be the opening event of Project Passenger Pigeon. The exact date was January 7. To enhance the significance of the release, Bloomsbury’s publicist Carrie Major booked me on the Diane Rehm Show, a nationally aired NPR program originating out of WashingtonDC. (here is a link: http://thedianerehmshow.org/shows/2014-01-07/environmental-outlook-feathered-river-across-sky-joel-greenberg) January 7 was brutally cold, so cold in fact that most schools in the Chicago region were closed, including Cindy’s. She accompanied me as we drove to WBEZ studios at Navy Pier in downtown Chicago. Many radio programs require that remote interviews be conducted in studios to achieve the desired quality in sound. Ms. Rehm also likes to see the person she is interviewing so a Skype set up is necessary. It all turned out very smoothly and the interview was wonderful. Other radio shows followed including Mike Novak’s show out of Chicago (a blizzard kept me from driving to the studio); Ray Brown’s Talkin’ Birds that originates out of Boston; Joy Cardin of Wisconsin Public Radio; Drew Lanham, an ornithologist at Clemson University, whose show is aired over South Carolina Public Radio; Thad Maynard, director of the Cincinnati Zoo, has a nature oriented show over Ohio Public Radio; Molly Daley on KYW Philadelphia; and Mindi Todd of WCAI on Cape Cod. The most unexpected program was that hosted by Sean Moncrieff, broadcast on Newstalk Radio that originates in Dublin, Ireland.
The big local event was the wonderful reception hosted by the PeggyNotebaertNatureMuseum. When I first talked to Deb Lahey, Steve Sullivan, and other key people at the museum about the anniversary way back in the spring of 2010, they were so enthusiastic, suggesting a whole bunch of great ideas. One was: “When your book comes out, we will host a reception for you.” When my last book came out in 2008, I threw my own reception, cooking for days, spending hundreds of dollars for cheese and chocolate, and recruiting henchman from as far away as CT. We drew 100 people. This time the museum provided the helpers and goodies, and we drew a crowd of over 200. To make the event even more special, Steve Sullivan suggested that we invite David Horn, ornithologist at MillikenUniversity in Decatur, Illinois. During my research on the book, I learned that Milliken has a male passenger pigeon that was collected on March 12, 1901 in Oakford, Illinois. This would make the bird the last wild passenger pigeon for which there is an extant specimen. (Since the last passenger pigeons all have names, we call this guy Big Blue, after the sobriquet used by Milliken’s sports teams.) David graciously agreed to drive across the frozen tundra of central Illinois with Big Blue to share the bird and its story to all in attendance. I hope David publishes his superb talk. (And Heinrich, my passenger pigeon, was only a tad annoyed with having to share the stage)
The three Christmas Bird Counts I participated in this year were marked by extraordinarily varying weather. On December 25, the day of the Chicago Lakefront CBC, my party gathered at the Museum of Science and Industry around seven. Some of our regulars were missing but Kelly McKay was here as was Danny Akers. Kelly is a veteran of CBC marathons but this was Danny’s first crack at it. The marathon is an exercise whereby Kelly goes on a different count every day of the 20 or so day count period. they had a whole lot more counts to attend before it was over, and towards the very end they faced a grueling night drive from the Illinois-Kentucky border (Lake Mermet CBC) to southwestern Michigan. Danny and Kelly were in the parking lot waiting for me when I drove up at 6:45. Eric, Ethan, and Aaron Gyllenhaal;, Amar Ayyash;, Tim Wallace; Stephanie Altneu, and Margo Milde filled out our ranks.
It was bitterly cold and I knew that the harbors would be mostly or completely frozen so it promised to be quick going with few results. Our first stop, La Rabida Children’s hospital, which often yields surprises, was extremely productive. There was a little open water which yielded hooded merganser, coot, and thousands of Canada geese. More exciting, gulls were moving along the shore and in their midst we, mostly Ethan and Amar, picked out glaucous, great-black backed, and lesser black-backed.
The bird I had really hoped would make the count stand out was snowy owl. Just a few days before, the Gyllenhaals reported eight individual snowies, at a single place: 31st Street harbor which is in our territory. And four of the owls had been hanging out at Montrose, so that meant at very least something 10 individuals were within the count territory. The state high for a CBC is eight in 1981, so we had a chance. At 31st Street we had but one owl and not another until we met our northerly group by Shedd Aquarium. While scanning the icy expanse to the north and east, Aaron spotted a snowy hunkered down way out on the ice. And we learned from our comrades (Geoff and Chris Williamson, Arie and Rebecca Rice, Dave Johnson, and Josh Engel) that they had two at Montrose first thing in the mourning. Not a record but four snowies aint bad.
Three days later, I met Lizzie Condon at 7am for the Evanston North Shore CBC. The day dawned clear, still, and reached the 40s before it was all over. An absolutely lovely winter day. Lizzie, working on shorebird research in California, was in town for the holidays, but ever so briefly. Fortunately, she did find time to be my companion on the CBC.
Our most productive birding was at the beginning too, but this time the operative word was ducks. Lizzie and I start by a stream fed by a water filtration plant: even when all other water is solid, here it is open and flowing. Second stop was the plant itself, which we have been able to access for a few years now. Our mallards totaled 1247, and in with them were four blacks, four gadwall, and one pintail. The latter two would not be seen by any other party. We also had a great-blue heron and belted kingfisher.
We hit our usual spots, including the subdivision where two years in a row we had roused a barred owl. No such luck, and so by about 1 we headed to Ryerson Woods to meet the other half of our crew, Eric Lundquist and the Gyllenhaals, and to meet Sophie Twichell , who was going to join us for our last major hike. The other folks were running late so Sophie, Lizzie, and I went off to finish. This area over the years has produced sharp-shinned hawk, swamp sparrows, and northern shrikes but, alas not much this year. Maybe the highlight was meeting up with Eric and his team: Eric had gone owling to the same spot we tried for the barred but he actually found one. And Aaron showed us the photo of the adult northern goshawk they had all seen. The countdown dinner, always fun, had us at 76 species.
On New Years Eve, Cindy and I cook all day for the countdown dinner the next evening. We had a whole ham, enough chili and macaroni to feed an army. I left a little before 4 am on January 1 to meet Tim Wallace for owling at Old School Forest Preserve. The snow was already falling hard: the woods were ghostly as they were rimmed with white. At least it was not very windy, and we did hear one screech owl. The we headed to meet the rest of the group, who were Eric and Ethan Gyllenhaal. (I am so pleased with the help they provided this year). The challenge was entering parking lots that had not yet been plowed.
We left two cars at Independence Grove, on the north, and dropped off the other car at the south end of our hike. We then set out for our five hour march along the Des Plaines River. At times my binos developed a thin layer of ice that precluded me from identifying anything smaller than a Canada goose, but the hike was very pleasant. We stopped frequently to play screech owl calls and, surprisingly, on two occasions screech owls replied. Variety was sparse but we did see 25 yellow-rumped warblers. Upon reaching the cars, we drove to a conifer grove and had a flicker and red-breasted nuthatch.
But the supply of falling snow seemed endless so we began questioning the wisdom of continuing or even whether to cancel the dinner. I called a few others and it was clear that few people were planning on attending the countdown. When I reached Cindy, she had already packed the car with food and juat about to embark on the drive north to Deerfield where we have the count. We decided to pull the plug on the dinner, and that proved to be wise. I left Tim around 3 from Independence Grove in Libertyville. As I proceeded to the tollway, I slid right through an intersection (going 20 mph). The when I reached 294, I found all lanes covered with snow. As I proceeded south towards home, one lane became clear enough to see patches of road. I never exceeded 40 mph so it took me two hours to reach my destination. And I did not leave the house for three days.
It happens that when you write a non-fiction book, relevant facts come to your attention too late to include them in the manuscript. Well after A Feathered River Across the Sky was at the printer, I realized I had made an error that I want to correct before the paperback version comes out (the need for other revisions may well emerge too).
Jacques Cartier is the first European known to have encountered passenger pigeons. This on Prince Edward Island on July 1, 1534. He may have killed some of them but he did not record that fact. Others saw them soon thereafter but the first written account that I used of someone killing passenger pigeons was that of Samuel de Champlain in 1605 on the coast of Maine. I make reference to this on pages 69 and 193. But that is incorrect as I am aware of one earlier occurrence (no doubt other European visitors killed the birds, but either such incidents went unrecorded or I have failed to find them). I am indebted to Jim Ducey, one of the country’s great ornithological historians, for graciously providing me with this information.
Although the effort was of short duration and profoundly unsuccessful, France attempted to establish one colony in South Carolina and another in Florida during the 1560s. During that time, France was embroiled in religious strife between the Catholic majority and Protestant minority (known as Huguenots). But some of the Protestants had the ear of the crown, and it was thought that a colony for the Huguenots would be a way to ameliorate some of the tension at home. Another incentive to occupy that region was Spain. Spain, which already claimed the territory, was reaping great treasure from her holdings in Mexico and South America. France wanted a share of that wealth and saw the southern coast as both a potential source of gold and a convenient point from which to pillage Spanish galleons that docked in Havana on their way home.
The first of these colonies was founded in 1562 and named Charles Fort. Located on what is now Parris Island, South Carolina, the fort fell apart on its own because increased unrest in France prevented it from being resupplied. Some number of survivors built their own boat and returned to Europe.
A second voyage left France in 1564 under the command of Rene Laudonniere. At the mouth of the St. Johns River where Jacksonville now stands, he founded Fort Caroline on June 22. It, too, would fail, as the Spanish, aware of France’s intentions, sent a fleet about a year later to slaughter or imprison most of the inhabitants and destroy the structures. Laudonneire managed to escape, however, and wrote of his experiences. Sometime between January 25, 1565 and May 1565, there occurred the earliest instance of Europeans killing passenger pigeons that I know of:
“In the meantime, a great flock of doves came to us, unexpectedly and for a period of about seven weeks, so that every day we shot more than two hundred of them in the woods around our fort.” ( Rene Laudonniere, Three Voyages (translated, edited, and annotated by Charles E. Bennett), Gainesville: The University Presses of Florida (1975): 114.
In the course of my passenger pigeon work I have become a big fan of Lewis Cross. He is an obscure painter whose work is best known in Michigan, where he lived and died. From the perspective of art historians, he is a naive painter with some talent but probably not outstanding. But in the world of the passenger pigeon art he may indeed be unique in this important respect: unlike Audubon and Wilson say, his intent was not to create technically accurate images but rather to convey the awe he felt when he witnessed the huge flocks of passenger pigeons as they coursed over him. He painted them in what Walton Ford refers to as expressive natural history, but unlike other artists who have adopted this style, he knew the birds in life. He did not want people to forget this remarkable creature: “There are not many of us left who remember the pigeons as they were then. Maybe some of my work is not artistic but it is historical.”
Passenger pigeons figured in a number of his paintings, several of which I have seen on-line. I have now seen three in person. Back in April 2011, Lizzie Condon and I visited the LakeShoreMuseumCenter in Muskegon and saw one superb example, along with the stuffed pigeon that Cross used as his model. (http://www.birdzilla.com/blog/2011/05/30/p3-in-michigan-lizzies-and-joels-marvelous-adventure/) On the weekend of December 7, with two friends from the Field Museum in tow, Josh Engel and Amanda Ziegler, I headed up to the beautiful Grand RapidsArt Museum where we met Cindy Laug of GrandValleyStateUniversity who helped me make connections and who acted as our guide for the second adventure of the day.
The museum has two Cross paintings. The large canvas we wanted to see is not on display so we were fortunate that Associate Curator Cindy Buckner graciously showed us the painting. It is a huge piece, about seven feet high and 12 feet long. Whatever weaknesses Cross had as a draughtsman, he did capture better than anyone those descriptions of what Aldo Leopold called, the feathered tempest.
Cross had a flair that went beyond his paintings. He built a large house out of concrete blocks and situated it on the family holdings overlooking Doremo Bayou. Cindy knows the Seys, the present owners and made arrangements fro us to visit. Mrs. Hey is a local historian and authority on Lewis Cross, whom she knew when she was a child. As you climb the steps to the family’s living quarters, you are met by another large Cross painting of passenger pigeons on the wall. Mr. and Mrs. Hey were very generous with their time and told us how the house and surrounding lands had changed over time. An eerie touch was the knowledge that Cross, infirm and losing his eye sight, took his own life and tumbled to the bottom of those stairs.
We dropped Cindy off at her car and Josh, Amanda, and I headed for Ann Arbor where we were having dinner with Ralph and Janet Finch and Sara Cole. I had met the Finches last year: he is a former newspaper editor and avid collector of 19th Century glass shooting targets. Back in the old days, people used live passenger pigeons and other birds as live targets for trap shooting meets. Passenger pigeons became unavailable and attitudes changed so people switched to the glass balls and then later to the “clay pigeons” that are used today. He publishes a newsletter on the glass orbs called OnTarget!
Also joining our party was Sara Cole, a graduate student at U of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources. I met her last spring in the university’s bird collection where she volunteers. She is yet another who has been moved by the pigeon story which she has known since childhood. For a while, she generously acted as Project Passenger Pigeon’s web-manager, uploading new material to our web-site. She had not finished semester duties yet and needed to complete a paper, so after dinner we dropped her off and then headed to our motel. A terrific weekend following in the wake of the wandering migrant.
I rarely bird Jackson Park on Chicago’s south side in the fall (this day was November 3) but I was headed to a destination near by and was running quite early. I parked on the east side and crossed the bridge to Wooded Isle when I encountered my longtime friend Paul Clyne, who has made the park his birding project for some decades now. Long before e-Bird made it easy, Paul has been meticulous in his data collection We had not seen each other for a while and so I wound up spending more time here than I had originally anticipated.
Paul and I tallied a total of 24 species, none of which were particularly unusual. There were lots of late season passerines, including 2 winter wrens, 2 brown creepers, 2 ruby-crowned kinglets, 2 fox sparrows, 4 white throated sparrows, and, at 11, more golden-crowned kinglets than I usually encounter. The fox sparrows were especially gratifying because they migrate through here early in spring and late in fall while I am spending most of my time looking at water or at hawk watches.
I mentioned that I was on my way to another destination: A new birding area on the south side of Chicago’s lakefront has opened up. Closed to outsiders since its abandonment in 1992, the former United States Steel (EUX) Plant encompasses 600 acres just north of the Indiana border. A lot of effort has gone into figuring out what to do with potentially plum real estate and there has emerged The Chicago Lake Development plan which calls for 13,775 houses, over 17 million feet of retail space, a high school, and most anything else you can imagine. And 125 acres are slated to be public land. It will take an expected 25-45 years to complete a cost of over four billion dollars.
I visited the site some years ago as part of a tour and recall seeing huge numbers of red admirals, which were in particular abundance that year. But just this fall a portion of the property was opened to the public under the name Park 523. My friend Kathleen Soler suggested on Facebook that she would like to have a field trip there and so we arranged to meet on October 27.
The birding was slow with few land birds although some nice numbers of horned grebes and a common loon offshore. Perhaps most interesting are the concrete walls that were once part of loading docks where ore was moved from ships to the factory where steel was made. They form canyon walls flanking wetlands supporting dense stands of Phragmites. Kathleen and I tried to fight our way through this morass in the hopes of flushing some secretive migrants but to no avail. Arguably our least expected find was meeting Charles Anderson, whom I occasionally run into at Jackson Park and whose company I enjoy very much. (I had asked Paul if he had seen him lately and he said he had not. So I was quite surprised upon encountering Charles an hour later).
Fall is also Jasper Pulaski time. This year I made two trips and invited a bunch of friends. One was on November 16 and the other November 24. Time truly spent with special birds and special people makes these outings particularly important to me. The first trip was warm and we had a relatively small group. Amanda Zeigler met me at my house and we drove to Kankakee Fish and Game where we met Jeanette Jaskula and the Sass family, which consisted of the full compliment of Steve, Jodi, Sarah, and Lindsey. There were some ducks at Kankakee Fish and Wildlife Area, including green-winged teal, shovelers, and pintail. Jeanette had arrived earlier and saw a bald eagle. Maybe the highlight was a light-morph rough-legged hawk I spotted perched on the ground. It was my first of the year.
A few days before, there had been waves of cranes flying south over the Chicago region. The most recent count for cranes as Jasper Pulaski was 10,500 and indeed the sights and sounds were not disappointing. Warm weather and lots of cranes spelled lots of people too. Well over a hundred at any given time. Steve said he was betting I would meet 10 people I knew. When he and his family left, I had not seen anyone but by the time Jeanette, Amanda, and I had left for dinner the number had grown to 5.
The following week’s group of comrades promised to be really large: 15 people indicated an interest, but for a variety of reasons, including temperatures in the teens, only Tim Wallace and Stefanie Altneau arrived. But there were more birds to be seen. At Kankakee we had the same ducks although more of them. Treats awaited, however, amidst the Canada geese. There were cackling but even more gratifying were three adult white-fronted standing on a close dike. It was a lifer for Stefanie.
Just as we ascended the ramp that leads to the Jasper Pulaski viewing platform a heavy movement of cranes arrived before alighting in the field. There seemed to be fewer cranes than the previous week but still nothing to sneeze at. White tailed deer wondered through the groups of cranes as they always do no turkeys on either trip. In trees near the parking lot a small flock of eastern bluebirds milled about. The sun was getting lower and temperatures were inching down, when Barny Dunning, there with a group of students from Purdue University, spotted an adult whooping cranes coming in for a landing with a few sandhills. It was a gorgeous adult bird with appropriate bling on its legs. It was in a perambulating mood, walking into a ditch where it became a shapeless blob of white and then moved onto the flat ground where we watch him until it was time to leave.