After such a long absence, where to begin? I have working exclusively on Project Passenger Pigeon (P3): preparing a draft of the book manuscript, working on web-site content, and doing some traveling to places like New England, Pittsburgh, and Louisiana. Future blogs will detail some my peregrinations pursuing P3 (P5). Although I have not really been out to enjoy it much, we have had an extraordinarily early spring, with blooms, insects, and frogs active considerably earlier than usual. I hope that the phenological synchronization that leads to the availability of insects for arriving birds is not broken. If flowers and pollinators are out this early, what will happen to the neo-tropical migrants that won’t show up for another month or month and a half?
Yesterday, though, a convergence of events drove me into the field for a most lovely day. Although we exist in the same general world and even actually crossed paths it would seem, Brian “Fox” Ellis and I were not really aware of each other until he contacted the P3 web-site. Fox is involved in all aspects of natural history education and outreach, most notably performances where he portrays either John Audubon (mostly), Charles Darwin, Walt Whitman, or Gregor Mendel. His repertoire represents a truly rich and broad series of roles. Audubon’s prose is among the most powerful of any in regards to describing the life history of the passenger pigeon. Many authors noted the sun being darkened for hours at a time as the big flocks of pigeons crossed the sky, but Audubon’s record of such an eclipse lasting for three straight days is unique. As part of their participation in P3, it would be great if venues would enlist Fox to elaborate on the passenger pigeon story and broader themes of P3 in his engaging manner. But because, we had never actually met, we arranged for a joint outing at Goose Lake Prairie, a spot somewhat between his home in Peoria and mine.
After those plans were made, another person with whom I had met briefly last spring birding at Montrose and then again a month ago at a talk I gave for the Chicago Ornithological Society, called to say she would like to get together. Lindsay Wilkes is an attorney who has been active with the COS and one of the groups that monitors and rescues bird collisions. She has never been to Goose Lake Prairie so I invited her to join us. She took the train from downtown the night before, and I met her at the Westmont station a few minutes from where I live. I always find it extra special to meet someone coming off a train. There is the discharge of people and you pick out the person you are waiting for, as if they were a western in a sea of semipalmated sandpipers. I learned, as the pictures attest, she is also an excellent photographer.
The day was sunny, with a brisk wind. Given the company, I would have had a great time whether we saw anything or not, but, fortunately for the sake of the blog, the birds were terrific. A prairie this time of year is not hopping with passerines, but there were plenty of field sparrows, eastern meadowlarks, and tree swallows but what we saw was memorable. We were greeted by the trumpeting of cranes, and one did arise from the marsh to give us nice views. Brian spotted an adult bald eagle, which later coursed low over a pond and then caught a fish. A young eagle, to far too age, also put in an appearance. A closer pond hosted blue-winged teal, northern shovelers, and a greater yellowlegs. Several flocks of white pelicans, the second heaviest flying bird of the continent, circled over head. Fox pointed out the phenomenon where flying birds can seemingly disappear when they are at a certain angle in strong sunlight. A small pond by the cabin yielded not only two pied-billed grebes but a horned grebe as well. Several northern harriers, though none adult males, hunted low over the grasses.
At one point during our conversation on the way home, Lindsay and I shared our respective pessimism for the future of the planet. Lindsay pointed to the small victories that come with saving individual birds as part of her bird collision monitoring. And then there were the avian highlights of our day. In the 1930s, sandhill cranes were on a trajectory that seemed headed towards extinction (read the account in Bent). Bald eagles and white pelicans are more common in northeastern Illinois then they probably ever were. In an 1833 copy of the Chicago Democrat, the city’s first newspaper, there is the mention that a pelican was killed near the city. Now many hundreds, if not thousands, of white pelicans use the upper Illinois River: for the first time in history they now nest in Illinois and at least two places in Wisconsin. Thank the Clean Water Act and other government actions that have lead to these oases of hope and joy.