Red-cockaded woodpecker (Photo by John Cassady)

Red-cockaded woodpecker (Photo by John Cassady)

One of the more unexpected invitations that I received was proffered by Scott Bishop, a curator at the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art at Auburn University. Among the materials for which Scott has principal responsibility is the Louise Hauss and David Brent Miller Audubon Collection consisting of over 100 Audubon prints,  most of which are from Birds of America.  The 2014 anniversary provided an unusual theme that could be illustrated by the Audubon prints. To explore that possibility, Scott originally contacted the Project Passenger Pigeon web-site to find out more about the Anthony Philip Heinrich symphony, the nine movement piece that depicts the life of the species. (The symphony had been performed but once, in the 1850s in Prague,  and a major goal of P3 was to have it performed during the anniversary year. More on this later.) I sent the information that was requested, along with images by contemporary artists that might comprise a compelling exhibit.  As the correspondence between us increased, there was an effort to become Facebook Friends.  My failure to find the right Scott Bishop to  make the request,  led to an e-mail and this reply from Scott: “My name is hyphenated on Facebook. There is always the moment when I have to explain that I am a woman.” Scott is Alabama raised and her parents kept up that fine southern tradition of giving female offspring Christian names that sound like surnames: one thinks of such southern luminaries as Harper, Flannery, and Carson.

Bachman's warbler by John James  Audubon at Smith Art Museum at Auburn University.

Bachman’s warbler by John James Audubon at Smith Art Museum at Auburn University.

These early e-mails were sent in early January right when the book was coming out. Scott read some of the reviews and took me up on my interest in coming down to give a talk. So I was scheduled for the last day in September and the first days of October. (I later learned to my great pleasure that Scott had earlier brought in the poet Tom Crawford, who is also featured on the P3 web-site, to give readings and talk to students.) She was a terrific host, contacting other faculty members who might want to get together or even take me birding. (On the rare occasions where the inviting venue is within the range of the spotted skunk, my number one jinx mammal in the US, I ask if there are any known locations in the vicinity. To date only one person has replied affirmatively: Scott actually knows someone who does see them on occasion. Unfortunately, the logistics of looking for this largely nocturnal species just did not work out . But God bless her for trying.)

Isabelle Wagoner and mom Scott Bishop.

Isabelle Wagoner and mom Scott Bishop.

Getting to Auburn is a little bit of an effort. It is about 100 miles from Atlanta’s Hartsfield Jackson Airport, which vies with O’Hare as the nation’s busiest. But the shuttle bus arrived on time and dropped me off at the Hotel at Auburn University, a stately establishment which is affiliated with the university’s program in Hotel and Restaurant Management. My room was on the fifth floor and the elevator opened opposite a door labeled “Presidential Suite.” I later asked a hotel employee about the room and he gave me a tour of the capacious space. Apparently, one gentleman has reserved if for something like twenty years of football weekends when he brings his family for all of the home games. (I am not a huge fan of college sports, but clearly at places like Auburn it generates a tremendous amount of good will throughout the state. I left on Friday- the following day there would be battle of large felids as the Tigers of Auburn were hosting the Tigers of LSU- and the campers and trailers had already begun occupying all the flat vacant land in town. I was told that some people actually own houses in Auburn which they use precisely 14 times a year, the night before and night of home games. )

After I settled in Scott picked me up and we joined friends of hers for a great southern style barbeque. I had visited Alabama but twice beofre (it was the destination of the family’s first vacation, when we went to visit my mother’s brother in 1960.) and so it was particularly fascinating listening to long-time residents discuss the state of their state. I wish I had the list of everyone present because it was most enjoyable. I did bond with Barry Fleming in particular, being that he is an active birder (as a day job, he is a member of the art department).

Geoff Hill.

Geoff Hill.

Among the people I most wanted to meet was Geoff Hill, Auburn’s ornithologist who authored a recent book on ivory-billed woodpeckers. Geoff led a group investigating the presence of this legendary species in northern Florida. He picked me up in the morning to do some birding. There were no life birds in the area but I did mention that I had not seen either Bachman’s sparrow or red-cockaded woodpeckers for a long time so we targeted those species. Geoff obtained permission for us to visit a private holding which harbors, in Geoff’s words, “an odd shortleaf pine/loblolly pine savanna that looks like a longleaf pine savanna.” The site holds the largest local populations of both the woodpecker and the Bachman’s, but Geoff thought the time of year would be an impediment to our success. It took us a little time to find the right area but finding the exact location for red-cockadeds is pretty easy: the trees are spray painted with either an x (in northern Florida) or a ring. As we walked off from the road at one point, we flushed a sparrow that I barely glimpsed. Geoff saw it better and identified it as a Bachman’s. Fortunately we had much better views of a red-cockaded.

Red-cockaded woodpecker nest tree.

Red-cockaded woodpecker nest tree.

Geoff dropped me off at a university picnic on campus. One group was folding origami passenger pigeons. But a lot was going on such that it merited an appearance by the university president. Perhaps of even greater import, the event drew none other than Aubie. It was the first time in my life that I shook hands with a Division I mascot. Next on the agenda was my presentation to a class on conservation biology for non-majors taught by Bob Boyd, a plant ecologist. A tour of the Donald Davis arboretum (part of Auburn) with Scott and Dee Smith followed. It is 13.5 acres in size and packed with gems including a fine collection of insectivorous plants.

Insectivorous plants at Donald Davis Arboretum.

Insectivorous plants at Donald Davis Arboretum.

Scott picked me up Thursday morning for a tour of the Smith Museum where I was presenting my talk later in the day. The extraordinary exhibit, entitled “The Art of Vanishing,” represented a collaboration between the art museum and Auburn’s Museum of Natural History: the Audubon plates were augmented by actual specimens of endangered and extinct species. The exhibit was described in an article as “a cautionary tale bridging art and science.” Jason Bond, biology professor and director of the natural history museum characterized the effort as “a tremendous opportunity to work with the art museum as it highlights the importance of natural history collection and showcases the intersection of art and science in such a meaningful and poignant manner.” On display were such Alabama specialties as the flat pigtoe mussel (endemic to the Tombigbee watershed but presumed extinct as it has not been found since the late 1970s ) and two endangered subspecies of the beach mouse.

Presumed extinct flat pigtoe mussel.

Presumed extinct flat pigtoe mussel.

Near our dinner venue was a small space that is used as a gallery to display the works of students. At least one class was given the assignment to take passages from A Feathered River Across the Sky and create images inspired by the words. It was exceedingly moving to see my words so skillfully depicted by these so very talented young artists. Following dinner was my One more highlight of a grand trip.

PP tour auburn 4

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