Spiny softshell turtle (Twan Leenders)

Spiny softshell turtle (Twan Leenders)

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.

Robert Jackson Center

Robert Jackson Center

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.

The Leenders family.

The Leenders family.

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.

Northern waterthrush (John Cassady)

Northern waterthrush (John Cassady)

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.

Allegany State Park.

Allegany State Park.

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.

Spiny softshell turtle habitat.

Spiny softshell turtle habitat.

 

Reels of Roger Tory Peterson movies.

Reels of Roger Tory Peterson movies.

 

Blogger looking at ladyslippers (Twan Leenders)

Blogger looking at ladyslippers (Twan Leenders)

 

Twan and Mark by one of RTPI's passenger pigeons featured in their display.

Twan and Mark by one of RTPI’s passenger pigeons featured in their display.

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