Trumpeter swans at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Carrol Henderson)

Trumpeter swans at Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Carrol Henderson)

 

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.

Cindy, Blogger, Kim, and Kenn, two or so years ago when Kim invited me to this year's festival.

Cindy, Blogger, Kim, and Kenn, two or so years ago when Kim invited me to this year’s festival.

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.)

Birders gather at Maumee Lodge.

Birders gather at Maumee Lodge.

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.

Miraculous magical Magee Marsh.

Miraculous magical Magee Marsh.

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.

White-eyed vireo (photo by John Cassady)

White-eyed vireo (photo by John Cassady)

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.

Jim, Justin, Sarah, and Blogger.

Jim, Justin, Sarah, and Blogger.

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.

 

Laura and Blogger: welcome birders.

Laura and Blogger: welcome birders.

Inaugural Blue Grass Birding Festival

 

Prairie warbler (John Cassady)

Prairie warbler (John Cassady)

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.”

Running buffalo clover.

Running buffalo clover.

Habitat of running buffalo clover.

Habitat of running buffalo clover.

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.

Birding at Flora Cliff.

Birding at Flora Cliff.

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.

Passenger pigeon tattoo shared by visitor who came all the way from Cincinnati to hear my Lexington talk.

Passenger pigeon tattoo shared by visitor who came all the way from Cincinnati to hear my Lexington talk.

Detroit Lakes Festival of Birds

 

Displaying prairie chicken (Photo by Carrol Henderson)

Displaying prairie chicken (Photo by Carrol Henderson)

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.)

Denny and Barb Martin.

Denny and Barb Martin.

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.

Blackpoll warbler (Carrol Henderson)

Blackpoll warbler (Carrol Henderson)

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.

Palm warbler (Carrol Henderson)

Palm warbler (Carrol Henderson)

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.

Kim, Bob, and Blogger.

Kim, Bob, and Blogger.

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.

Bay-breasted warbler (Carrol Henderson)

Bay-breasted warbler (Carrol Henderson)

 

 

2 Comments to “Bird Fests 2014”

  1. Sara Cole says:

    What a wild tattoo! Was there a story behind it?

  2. Joel says:

    The lady had sent in a picture of her tattoo to the Project Passenger Pigeon Facebook page back when we were soliciting such pictures. I think our flock of tattoos grew to three.

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