Driving around, and I’ve already done a fair bit of it, you need things to keep you entertained. Music is one thing, listening to US radio is another, reciting all 50 states of the USA is another.
My car has Texas license plates so I’ve already had a few ‘You’re a long way from home’ remarks which lead into conversations about quite how far away from home I actually am.
I’m quite surprised how faithful the car license plates are to their states. Here in Michigan, almost every car I see has Michigan plates, and in Wisconsin they were almost all Wisconsin plates. It’s as though nobody leaves their state, except a few do and that means one can play ‘spot the license plate’ as one travels around. And try to get the set!
So far I have been in 11 states so their license plates were easy but I have added another 18: California, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, N Carolina, Minnesota, Mississippi, Maryland, Nebraska, New York, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvnia, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Wyoming. I was pleased to ‘get’ Wyo today!
I’ll be in another four states, I think, where their plates will be easy but (even assuming Alaska and Hawaii might be very difficult) that leaves 15 that may be tricky. Even though you may not be the least bit interested – I’ll keep you posted on progress.
Today I drove along with Lake Michigan on my right for most of the way. It’s like being by the seaside – they’re not called the Great Lakes for nothing. It was a nice sunny day.
I almost gave up glancing at the lake to see if there were any birds because there didn’t seem to be any, and then I saw two great northern divers (common loons, if you will). At a brief stop I confirmed that the gulls were ring-billed and saw a blackpoll warbler. A raven or two passed overhead.
I got to Petoskey around noon and, by chance, by happy happenchance, I spotted a museum. The museums I’ve visited so far have been good – and so was this one.
The Little Traverse Historical Society Museum had information about passenger pigeons and a very attractive large painting, at the end of the room, of folk collecting pigeon squabs in the woods as they did in prodigious numbers here in 1878.
Being on the lakeside, and the railway having arrived in 1874, this area could send out passenger pigeons to the hungry mouths of Chicago and points east.
In 1878, a minimum of 1.1 million passenger pigeons were despatched from Petoskey and nearby Boyne Falls and Cheboygan by rail and boat. The local paper described the 7-week period of the ‘big slaughter’ as having put into circulation locally between $30,000 and $40,000.
The number of birds killed in this colony must have been higher than those sent off for food. There will have been young that died because their parents were killed, birds killed but not recovered, birds scared away by the proceedings whose squabs starved, birds eaten or preserved locally and any manner of other losses along the way. Some say that as many as 5 million passenger pigeons lost their lives in this nesting.
But it was a huge colony – 40 miles long and a few miles wide. Who knows how many pigeons were there to start with.
Pigeon catchers, pigeon pluckers, barrel makers, ice-suppliers all had a bonanza. All looked forward to the pigeons coming back nest year or soon after but they never came back in remotely similar numbers to Petoskey. And they were soon gone completely. To what extent was the slaughter at Petoskey an important event in hastening their demise?
The telegraph and the railroad made it all possible, and the fact that Petoskey has and had boat links was important too. Other places, and this place at earlier times, could not have turned pigeon-killing into such a protitable industry for thousands of people – many of them arriving at the news of a pigeon nesting here rather than being locals.
I had a long chat with Michael Federspiel at the Museum and I am grateful to him for his kindness and his help (Michael – thank you!). He pointed me in the direction of another passenger pigeon memorial back up the road I had travelled a few miles.
The historical marker is at Oden (by the fish hatchery but the railway carriages by the side of the road are the best landmark). The front of the memorial has an image of a passenger pigeon and some general information. The back has:
At one time Michigan was a favorite nesting ground for the passenger pigeons. Vast quantities of beechnuts and other food attracted them. each spring immense flocks arrived, literally darkening the skies hours at a time as they flew over. Here at Crooked Lake a nesting in 1878 covered 90 square miles. Millions of birds were killed, packed in barrels and shipped from Petoskey. Such wanton slaughter helped to make the passenger pigeon extinct by 1914. The conservationist’s voice was heard too late.
I’m tempted to say, in that gloomy way that conservationists do, ‘ ’twas ever thus’ but tomorrow I hope to see a conservation success story.
Today is Bob Dylan’s birthday (although for British readers – that was yesterday) so I started the day with Blood on the Tracks, whose first track (Tangled up in Blue) starts ‘Early one morning the sun was shinin”. But it wasn’t first thing today, although it did for a lot of the day.
I drove to Wyalusing State Park, which I thought would be a quick visit but it turned out to be a bit longer. Wyalusing has a monument to the passenger pigeon – they say the first monument to an extinct bird in the world – and I wanted to see it.
When I arrived, Bev, the ranger at the entrance, was talking to two other couples. She was telling them where they might find cerulean warbler, yellow-throated warbler and Henslow’s sparrow. But she was also plugging the passenger pigeon memorial hard. And in the reception area there was a stuffed male passenger pigeon and three different paintings/prints of the bird too.
I waited patiently for my turn, which wasn’t difficult as I looked at the pigeon stuff and the ruby-throated hummingbirds on the feeder, and then said ‘I’ve come to see the passenger pigeon memorial, but I’d like to see some birds too, so can you go over all that again, please?”. A big, really big, smile spread over Bev’s face, and we started talking passenger pigeons. A kindred spirit at last. Bev – where have you been all my life?
Should I stop and look and listen for Henslow’s sparrow before visiting the memorial? No, I don’t think so. Life’s sometimes too short to bother with sparrows.
Should I stop and lokk/listen for yellow-throated warblers as their spot was right by my route to the memorial – no, they’ll probably be there when I come back.
So, straight to the memorial – a simple metal plate in a stone cairn in a wonderfully beautiful setting. It’s high on a wooded ridge overlooking the confluence of the Mississippi and Wisconsin rivers. This morning, having it to myself, it was an idyllic spot. The sun came out, an immature bald eagle circled below me and then gaining height, above me, and a song sparrow was building a nest.
The words on the plaque are very simple:
Dedicated to the last Wisconsin passenger pigeon shot at Babcock, Sept 1899.
This species became extinct through the avarice and thoughtlesness of Man.
Erected by the Wisconsin Society for Ornithology
It’s a beautiful setting, and an appropriate tribute (and admonition). I was quite moved and I was glad I had come, and glad that I had the place to myself for the time I was there. Looking down on the Mississippi River one could imagine a river of passenger pigeons in the sky above.
The yellow-throated warbler was singing from the top of the pine trees and in the same tree I saw a yellow-billed cuckoo – two lifers together.
I went to the spot where a couple of days earlier 30 cerulean warblers had been seen with little hope. That many meant they were on migration, and in spring birds don’t stop long. There had been no sightings yesterday so I guessed they had gone.
I had a chat with an elderly couple from Utah who were also looking for ceruleans. It’s OK, I think, for me to call them elderly as they had been married almost 50 years and were treating themselves with a year of travelling to bird festivals all over the USA – way to go! I said I hoped to revisit Mom’s Cafe in Salina in a couple of weeks time – and I do.
I checked in with Bev as I left and told her to read this blog and that I had really enjoyed the passenger pigeon monument. It’s just a plaque in some stone on a hill – but it meant a lot to me.
One of the people who attended the original ‘opening’ of the memorial was the famous American ecologist and writer Aldo Leopold. I’ve only recently discovered his writing although I’ve known the name for ages. His most famous work is the Sand County Almanac set on his farm in Wisconsin. It’s a lovely read – I don’t have it with me but his account of upland sandpipers is wonderful as are his musings on conservation ethics. He wrote about the passenger pigeon memorial too, in a very moving way.
Sand County was really Sauk County and it wasn’t that far so I headed off to have a look, and visit the Leopold Center.
I like Wisconsin. It’s very rural. My drive, of 90 minutes or so, was through wooded hills and open cultivated valleys with some fields of grass. I followed the Wisconsin River and saw more bald eagles, great egret and Sandhill cranes.
There wasn’t much traffic and it was all very pretty – the sun was now shining and Bob was singing away for me.
As the scenery passed it reminded me of Scotland – somewhere a bit like the Grampian farmland with the Dee or Don passing through it. There was little traffic, few people and it was a lovely drive.
As I approached the Aldo Leopold Center I had to slow down and go slightly off the road to avoid squashing a really big terrapin. I’ve seen quite a few on the roads, mostly tiny ones, and some squashed ones, and I didn’t want to arrive at the Leopold Center with squashed terrapin on my tyres.
I had a quick look at the exhibition and interpretation, chatted to the young lady on reception, bought some postcards and chose not to spend $7 looking at the cabin Leopold built. It was enough to look around the very well-designed exhibition and be reminded of some of the lines he wrote. Again, it was a kind of homage.
But the day had yet more to offer. Only 15 minutes drive away from the Leopold Center, through the quiet Wisconsin countryside is Wisconsin Dells – the tourist trap to end all tourist traps!
Water parks, theme parks, casinos and everything kitsch under the sun is here. A mixture of Blackpool and Alton Towers with America thrown in! It didn’t appeal to me, but I don’t want to be snooty about it. After all, I had spent the day so far visiting a monument to a dead bird and, really, another to a dead man – I’m the weird one.
I wanted to see Wisconsin Dells though. Partly, just to see, but also because it has a part in the passenger pigeon story too.
Wisconsin Dells was once called Kilbourn, and in 1871 there was an enormous nesting of passenger pigeons here. Kilbourn, now Wisconsin Dells the water park capital of the world, was the southernmost point for two enormous pigeon nestings which merged there. One arm headed off, northwest, to Black River Falls, the other headed northeast almost to Wisconsin Falls.
For those not familiar with the geography of Wisconsin, Black River Falls is 80 miles away and Wisconsin Falls 50 miles away. These two arms were six and eight miles wide respectively so the total area covered was in the order of 880 square miles. 880 square miles of a bird colony – with some trees holding up to 100 nests. Imagine it!
One reason I was here was that I couldn’t imagine it – I wanted to see the ground. Of course there would have been gaps in the colony and there may have been some exaggeration (but there may have been some shyness at seemingly telling a tall story too). But the mind can’t really take in the number of birds that might have been involved. Perhaps close to the whole American population of the already much-reduced passenger pigeon nested here in this year.
There were certainly tens or hundreds of millions of birds – perhaps billions. Lots anyway! Even though 28 years later the last Wisconsin bird was killed and 29 years later the last one on Earth was shot (remember Buttons from yesterday?).
The juxtaposition of the modern Wisconsin Dells and what was probably the largest described passenger pigeon nesting – overlapping in space but separated by 140 years – sums up rather a lot about ‘progress’, to my mind.
I wanted to head northeast so I drove up the length of the shorter arm of the colony – just 50 miles. After passing Wisconsin Dolls gentlemen’s club (which I noticed had some handy motel rooms round the back, I tried to imagine what the landscape would have been like and I tried to imagine it full of nesting pigeons. I looked across to a range of hills running parallel to the river and tried to imagine those woods full of nesting pigeons. I looked at a wooded hill in Friendship (25 miles out of WisDells) and tried to picture it covered with passenger pigeons. It’s very difficult, even for me, and I’m hooked, to keep thinking passenger pigeon for a 50 mile drive through the countryside but 140 years ago this site was covered with pigeons.
People flock to the modern-day Wisconsin Dells but would they flock to see one of the wonders of the natural world if the pigeons were still around? I wonder. I would – but then I’m a bit odd – but I bet Bev would come too.
I liked Coshocton very much, and if I find other places as nice, that would be good. I am, now, in Wisconsin, which means I have done a lot of driving today.
I drove through Chicago with Ol’ Blue Eyes on full volume, and on ‘repeat’, singing ‘My kind of town, Chicago is…’ over and over again.
But after an early breakfast in Jerry’s (same meal as yesterday except with wheat toast instead of rye toast) I did some writing (this isn’t a holiday you know) and then headed to the Ohio Historical Society Museum in Columbus. I’d have gone sooner but it it doesn’t open until 10 and it isn’t open on Monday or Tuesday so Wednesday at 10:15 I arrived.
There were lots of those lovely evocative yellow school buses arriving too. And they were full of excited kids – so I fitted in well. I paid my $10 entrance and asked the nice man whether he knew where I could find a passenger pigeon to look at. He thought it might be just down the aisle, but if not it would be in the natural history section.
It was in the natural history section in a case with other extinct species – Carolina parakeet, ivory-billed woodpecker and blue pike. There she was – ‘Buttons’ – the last wild passenger pigeon that was shot by a lad in Pike County (in March 1900).
Given her age and her manner of death I thought Buttons looked pretty perky really. Although the unbiased might have said slightly dull and tatty. But this was the last wild specimen of the most abundant bird on Earth. Hardly anybody else gave her a glance. She suffered from there being a stuffed bison just down the way and that got a lot of attention.
But I stood for a while and looked at her while young excited Ohioans rushed past.
I thought this was an excellent museum. Not stuffy at all. Light and airy in decor and design and light and friendly in interpretation. Here are some things I learned about Ohio relevant to the passenger pigeon story.
In 1800 9.5% of Ohio was forest but in 1900 that figure was less than 0.5% (a 90% reduction) and has now bounced back to around 3%.
In 1860, 1880, 1900 and 1920 the rural human population of Ohio remained fairly constant at 1.9, 2.2, 2.2 and 2.1 million whereas the urban population went from 0.4 to 1 to 2 to 3.7 million in the same periods.
Given that the passenger pigeon went extinct in the wild in Ohio, and on this planet, in 1900 it was interesting to see that other species went extinct in Ohio in the following years; bison (1803), red deer (or elk, 1838), wolf (1848), mountain lion, lynx, fisher, marten ( all 1850), trumpeter swan (1860 – being reintroduced), black bear (1881 – coming back from W Virginia on its own), snowshoe hare (1900), raven (1900), porcupine (1906) and prairie chicken (1934).
A very interesting museum indeed.
I was still thinking about all that when I listened to Frank Sinatra in traffic going through Chicago. The Wrigley Building is still the most beautiful part of the skyline but not by any means the tallest these days. Things change.
And now I am just in Wisconsin - ‘home’ of cheese (there are cheese factories, cheese adverts and restaurants offering cheese curds everywhere).
The highpoint today was success in a cemetery – but that’ll be going into the book so it’s a secret.
Much of today was doing domestic stuff. I bought some water to keep hydrated as I drive, and filled up with gas at the same time. A nice lady at the gas station and I talked about the oil boom in this part of Ohio – everywhere has oilmen, which means that fuel prices are low (lots of competition) but room prices are high (lots of competition for a limited resource). She thought I was Australian and had a nice accent.
I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Coshocton today. It’s a convenient centre for things I want to do – visit cemeteries, see old trees and see a stuffed bird (tomorrow).
But Coshocton is full of nice people – they may all hate Obama, for all I know, but they seemed very nice to me.
The lady in Walgreens, where I bought toothpaste and a new pair of cheap specs (having sat on one of my two pairs – silly me, but that’s why I buy cheap ones (so that I can enjoy sitting on them!)) pointed me in the direction of Bob Evans for breakfast but nearby was a place much more my scene – Jerry’s family restaurant - where I had two eggs easy over and hash browns (very nice too). Next door is the Motel where I am staying.
A very nice lady (a lot of ladies aren’t there?) in the optometrists on Main Street replaced a screw (no I didn’t have one loose) in my RayBans and wouldn’t take any money for it – even a couple of dollars for charity. She hadn’t heard of passenger pigeons but she might buy my book when I’ve written it. She also pointed me to Radio Shack where I looked for a battery for my camera.
My plan was to take photos every day but on my last day in the UK I realised the rechargeable battery was flat and wouldn’t charge. I have been searching for a battery, not very hard so far, ever since. Radio Shack seemed a possibility.
Radio Shack didn’t have the battery I wanted but they gave me some help. There was a man (see – I do talk to men, when I must) and also a young lady. I asked about good places to eat and was pointed to The Warehouse which is near the motel and where I have just had a very fine burger, salad and sweet potato fries, with Pepsi, for $8 – good food and excellent value. I also bought a charger for my phone – see, very domestic. The young lady was very quiet and I said to her ‘You think I’m mad don’t you?’ and she said ”No, I wish you’d stay and talk to us all day’. I probably blushed but since none of us had a camera we’ll never know.
Neither of them knew of the passenger pigeon but the guy confused it with the carrier pigeon – quite a few people do.
I checked into the Motel and the lady there knew nothing about the passenger pigeon. And then I did some washing – there are shirts and socks dripping dry in the shower right now.
But then I went to see some old trees!! Twice in two days!
The Johnson Memorial State Preserve is about 200acres of old growth deciduous woodland an hour and a bit north of here. It is a really lovely spot.
It has red oak, white oak, pin oak, beech, shagbark hickory, black cherry, white ash, sugar maple and white ash (because the interpretation boards say so). It also has a pair of red-eyed vireos feeding their young – ‘cos I say so.
Many of the trees are over 400 years old. There is lots of dead wood and, really, I thought there was a lot of birdsong. Some of the trees are enormous. It was another glimpse into what the woodland would have looked like when the passenger pigeon was the commonest bird on Earth.
And this wood, this small remnant, was in an area where there are good records for tree cover through the 19th century. Even in 1800 practically the whole township was woodland like this with the main gaps being in the boggy areas. And this area, Wayne County, was an area much used by passenger pigeons for winter roosts too.
Tomorrow I am off to Columbus to see Buttons – I hope.
PS Yesterday I checked the BBC news to see what had happened in the Test Match and got the news about tornadoes in Oklahoma – and it’s on the TV all the time here of course. It’s a long way from here – but Shreveport (night 1) had a tornado warning for today. And in a couple of weeks I’ll be quite close to Oklahoma. The destructive power of nature, eh?
Today I had the worst breakfast I’ve ever had in the USA so the names and locations in this tale have been changed to protect the guilty. But the food was not the worst part (there are happier bits later in the blog).
The coffee wasn’t good, the eggs were only OK, the toast wasn’t good and the home fries were poor. But the place had a sort of lack-lustre character about it. There was no waitress, only, shall we call him Gerald (not, definitely not, his real name)?
Gerald’s regulars were all men above the age of, I guess, 60. Some came and some went but at any one time 80% of them had baseball caps on, and at any one time about a third of the baseball caps were John Deere. We are talking rural Ohio here.
And that’s important because rural Ohio is different from urban Ohio. Ohio is a bit like, in political terms, my home constituency of Corby. How – you might ask? Answer – it’s a swing state, like Corby is a swing constituency. The voters of both change their minds when the country changes its mind.
Ohio is very good at it too.
Most of Ohio, geographically, voted Red in the last Presidential, which confusingly for we Brits means it voted for the Right not the Left. Only the cities were Blue, and the three main cities are the three Cs; Columbus, Cleveland and Cincinnati. But lots of people live in cities and so the overall vote was Blue (for Obama the man of the ‘Left’).
It’s rather like that in Corby too – Corby votes Labour, the small towns vote one way or the other and the countryside votes Tory.
Where I had breakfast, quite a poor breakfast, was rural and probably Right-leaning.
When I arrived and sat down there was talk of potatoes and racoons as garden pests – they could have been Countryside Alliance members for all I know. Then one guy pipes up, let’s call him Clarence, and asks:
‘That Obama done good. Done reduced tax on us. What do you think of him now? He done good.’
This remark may have been uttered to get the torrent of disagreement that it evoked – Clarence struck me as that type. One of Clarence’s friends said:
‘Don’t trust him. Good at playing dumb.’ which I have been thinking about all day. Very profound.
The conversation then turned to agricultural matters for a while before Clarence said he had bought some metal monkeys and they were rare (Can’t get ‘em on the internet’) but he was prepared to sell, at profit, which he suggested was over $25. He talked about these two monkeys for a while, and the crowd got interested (and so was I but trying not to show it) so Clarence got a monkey from the car.
It was an ugly little thing, hollow cast, and certainly a monkey. Clarence said it was made of ‘that yellow metal’ – someone said ‘gold?’, and Clarence smiled. I don’t think Clarence was anyone’s fool.
There were offers of $2 on the table already but Clarence was holding out for more to recoup what he said he had paid for them – I don’t think Clarence was any sort of fool.
There was apparently a little bit of yellow showing and the conversation centred on them being brass monkeys.
One man said ‘It’s dark’
Clarence ‘Scratch and you’ll see it’s yellow’.
Other man ‘Scratch Obama – what colour’ll he be?’.
Clarence and others ‘Still black’.
Someone ‘Monkey here looks like Obama – might be his ancestor’.
General laughter, then someone asked for wheat toast and gravy.
I don’t think you’d hear that sort of talk in Beans in Oundle!
I am quite shocked at the hatred for Obama in some parts of the USA. I have seen roadside signs saying ‘US threatened by foreign leader – Obama!’ and ‘Obama bringing down US economy with spending policy’.
Now the latter is a fair economic debating point but even I, as an ordinary citizen, haven’t bothered to make a sign criticising the boy-Osborne’s duff economic policy and put it in the garden.
Is it just a political difference? Is it fuelled by the fact that Obama is young? or good looking? Maybe the fact that he is clever is the problem. Maybe it’s all of these and more. Maybe, dare we say it, it is at least partly because he is black?
It was just an overheard conversation over a bad breakfast – but it left a worse taste in my mouth than did the breakfast.
But happily I met some really nice people, who were really helpful, and put me in the direction of Dysart Woods where there is a chunk of old growth forest. I stood by oaks and beech that were around 400 years old. When the passenger pigeon was still at its most abundant these trees were alive.
Some trees there have been dated to 600 years old – before Columbus arrived. This forest may resemble the forests before Europeans invaded America. Certainly some of the trees probably had passenger pigeons perching in them over the years. If they could talk they would talk of the rivers of pigeons passing by unpredictably and in search of acorns and beech mast.
There is more to tell of these woods and the impact of our management of them on passenger pigeons – but that’s for another time and place. But it’s late, and I need to sleep and dream of ancient forests and rivers of pigeons flooding the skies.
One of the noticeable things about America is the number and variety of churches. I don’t go to church but I am quite proud of my local church at home. It has an impressive spire, medieval wall paintings and has dominated the landscape for hundreds of years. If I come home after dark I can look along my street and see the lit spire of St Peter’s, erect as it has been for centuries, and that makes me feel content.
But America hasn’t been around for building churches for centuries and so many churches are very modern, rather small, and instead of being at the geographic centre of the community they are on the edge and surrounded by a parking lot.
I didn’t go to church but I paid my respects to nature (and Man, a bit) in four different ways.
I started with some early morning birding in the John James Audubon State Park – no breakfast today! This was the first birding (rather than looking out of the car window and wondering what most things flying past were) I’ve done. It was good to have a few hours to stroll around the Park and add some species to my list.
Here are some of the highlights; hooded merganser, American redstart, chipping sparrow, Carolina wren, cedar waxwing, parula warbler, tufted titmouse, Carolina chickadee, American goldfinch, eastern wood pewee…
And there were lots of eastern bluebirds, and I was in Kentucky, so it seems appropriate to remind you of the words of the song:
Kentucky bluebird, fly away
And take a message to Martha, message to Martha
When it looked like it might rain I nipped out to fill up with gas and buy a coffee. At the gas station I was told ‘I love your accent’ to which I replied that I loved her’s too. By the way, I should have said, Kaitlin ‘sweet-hearted’ me yesterday but I got no ‘honey’ from Karen the day before.
Back to the John James Audubon State Park for a spot more birding and a wait for the Museum to open. I watched, and listened to, Carolina wrens at close quarters and I think I have their song fixed now. Although, to be fair, I had thought it was one that I knew. ‘tea kettle, tea kettle, tea kettle’ describes it quite well but the first I heard today made me think ‘thrush’ not ‘wren’. I wonder how many extra species I would have recorded if I had ‘American ears’?
Birding was my first way to pay my respects. Visiting the Museum was my second. It’s an unprepossessing building from the outside – a bit Victorian gaunt I thought it looked, but it opened in 1938.
The centre has a shop (I bought postcards), a discovery room (where a father and elder brother were encouraging the younger brother’s interest in nature (nice to see)), a gallery downstairs which had an exhibition of local artists (I skipped that) and a viewing gallery over some bird feeders (stunning American goldfinch) as well as the Museum.
The Museum is superb, at least it is if you are a fan of JJA (and I am). You get his life history, an account of his meeting with Alexander Wilson (it was a bit cool -and you would have thought that a Frenchman and a Scot could at least have found common ground moaning about the English!) and a look at his art.
On December 6, 2010, a copy of Birds of America was sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $11.5 million, a record price for a single printed book. The Museum has four original double elephant folio copies – and I saw them this morning.
Audubon drew from skins but also from knowledge. But his paintings aren’t very accurate in many respects. The passerines, in particular, often look rather dead! But many of the paintings are incredibly beautiful: for example, the turkey, bald eagle, great blue heron and, yes, the passenger pigeon.
And the work that went into producing the set covering all of America’s known species was phenomenal for that time, 1820s-30s (or any other time, come to that). This was artwork celebrating nature, and I was pleased to go and celebrate JJA in my own little way.
I had a very nice chat to the lady on the desk who seemed knowledgeable about JJA. We agreed he looked rather handsome, and I said he reminded me of the French footballer David Ginola (in the days when he was endorsing L’Oreal hair products) which got us onto Beckham, so it was time to leave.
Next stop, was Cincinnati Zoo where Martha, the last passenger pigeon of her species, died on 1 September 1914. I made the same visit to pay my respects two years ago and nothing much has changed since then – although it is now $15 to get in instead of $10, but still $8 to get out of the car park. I was able to check a few things for my book, but really I couldn’t pass through Ohio without checking in at Cincinnati Zoo, could I?
Just briefly, so far the last few miles of Kentucky approaching Cincinnati have been the only cross-overs with my previous trip. I was interested to see whether the view of Cincinnati that you suddenly get as you sweep down a hill on the I71 and turn to the left, and there it is in all its glory, would impress as much as it did last time – and it did. It’s an impressive, suddenly-revealed view of tall skyscrapers.
Finding the Zoo last time was a nightmare – with satnav this time it was a doddle. I definitely went the quick way and it definitely wasn’t the same way as last time! I was taken, by the female instructing voice of my satnav, past the most priapic of the tall buildings and down Martin Luther King Avenue to the Zoo.
So that was my third homage to nature.
Now I am in Piketon, Ohio. It’s 2230 and I’ve filed my July column to Birdwatch – written in May, out in June, called July.
Piketon is not big but this motel room is clean and cheap. It is, I have noticed while working at this keyboard, close to the railway line – sleep is for wimps!
The nice Indian woman who checked me in told me that Ritchies did a good steak (although she is veggie herself) and as I had only had a couple of doughnuts all day (and lots to drink – it’s been hot) I looked it up. Ritchies was shut so it was take-away pizza from Gio’s.
Just down the road from here, as I have had a look, is the location where the last wild passenger pigeon was shot – in 1900. I’ll have another look tomorrow, and I might tell you about it, or, it might all go in the book!
So, a funny day in a way. Paying homage to live birds early in the day and then a dead Frenchman, a dead caged pigeon and a dead shot pigeon as the day wore on. But it’s been good. It’s been a long day though – how was yours? I’ve been working!
I was writing that last blog just before going out for a quick bite to eat and something to drink.
I sat in Henderson’s On Deck Riverside Bar overlooking the Ohio River. I watched the sun set behind the trees on the other side of the river while sitting outside eating tacos and drinking coke. Well, actually it wasn’t Coca Cola, but nor was it Pepsi; it was RC (Royal Crown cola).
My waitress, Kaitlin wants to be a world history teacher and will be in London fairly soon – but don’t worry (anyone), we did not exchange cell-phone numbers and nor did we talk about passenger pigeons.
Sitting outside, drinking a cool drink and watching the sunset was good. I was planning tomorrow’s travelling and flicking through Sibley to check bird id.
I find it difficult to get American bird songs into my head. Maybe I should stick to evening birding as sitting there I was listening to the characteristic noises of chimney swifts and I picked out the cried of nighthawks too. There were house sparrows chirrupping as well. And the other night-time songster that I associate with jet-lag, because that’s why I’ve heard it at night, is the mockingbird. These four species can be heard in the middle of Washington DC as well as on the banks of the Ohio and many. many points in between, north, south, east and west.
The other thing I could her was music of my vintage coming from the bar – The Eagles and Bob Seger (I have cds of both with me). I’ll have to tell you about music playing in the car, upgrades, sat navs, fuel consumption etc etc as time goes on. Don’t get too excited!
American history must be quite easy – they don’t have as much of it as we do. But then maybe they have more of future than us? Who knows?
Actually (oh!, and by the way, today’s waitress is Susan), the USA seems to have fitted in a revolution, a civil war, a couple of World Wars (although arriving a bit late for both) and lots of other wars in a very short space of time.
I had a refresher on American history on the flight over – I watched Django Unchained and Lincoln so I’ve got the Civil War period more or less taped. If you have a 10-hour flight then the more 2.5 hour films you watch, the better.
I am in historic Henderson, KY. It’s historic because John James Audubon lived here while producing his great work on American birds. I’ve had a quick look at the Audubon State Park and hope to be there at dawn tomorrow listening for warblers and vireos and then looking at the exhibits.
Audubon saw a flock of about one billion passenger pigeons just east of here. Here is a cheap motel on strip of cheap hotels, and cheap eating places just south of the mighty Ohio River.
Audubon’s sighting was about 200 years ago near a place called Hardinsburgh. Hardinsburgh is still there even though there aren’t a billion pigeons there.
It must have been a small place, only about 30 years old, when Audubon stayed there. Today it is clearly a farming town as John Deere and New Holland compete across the road to sell you a tractor on one road into town. There is also a US Department of Agriculture Service Center (!), a Farm Bureau, Farm Credit Services (with an American so-called robin in their parking lot) and Southern States have a 15% off offer on chicken wire.
I was up early and looking for breakfast at Hardinsburgh – where it was drizzling. There was nowhere obvious, but with all those farmers nearby I thought there must be somewhere. So I got some gas from the Marathon station at the crossroads and asked Trish where I should look. After trying to sell me a microwaved sausage bap (fair enough for trying – but no thanks) she told me where to find Jake’s Place. Trish, with her striking dark eye-liner underneath her eyes, had heard of Audubon (and there are quite a lot of businesses, roads and parks named after him here) but not of passenger pigeons. She was very helpful but not a waitress.
Susan is a waitress. She is (not that looks are everything) short, thin, limps in her right leg, is a bundle of energy and quite mouthy! I ordered the special (since this was the first food since breakfast yesterday) of two eggs easy-over, hash browns, ham, toast and coffee. Susan persuaded me to have gravy with it – white gravy.
The food was good but I’m not sure I’ll have white gravy again
I got chatting to two guys from Pennsylvania about passenger pigeons. Susan told us that she had had one in her garden. She’s also, apparently, had ‘that extinct woodpecker’ in her garden too. I wish I’d had an invite!
I liked Susan. She was full of energy and did a huge amount of work while I was there and yet still had conversations with lots of people including me. My suspicion is that Susan is a bit interested in birds but wouldn’t admit it.
Hardinsburgh was a nice stop. It was a good breakfast.
During the day I didn’t track down a passenger pigeon but I visited some places and saw some things that will find their way into my book eventually.
It was a history day and I visited both the Kentucky Historical Society’s museum and the Thomas D. Clark Center (!) for Kentucky History too. I did know, even before watching those two educational films that Abe Lincoln came from Kentucky but I hadn’t realised that Jefferson Davis, his opponent on the Confederate side, was also from Kentucky.
You see, Kentucky’s past was rooted in the South but its future was looking to the abolitionist west and north – it was conflicted. Not so conflicted were the KKK who were (are?) quite strongly represented in Kentucky. Did you know that in the 1890s there were 92 lynchings in Kentucky – 66 of blacks and 26 of whites? Neither did I until today – you see how educational this blog is?
You can’t understand the present without understanding the past (generally speaking). That’s true of race relations, voting in politics and the status of the passenger pigeon.
Today is tomorrow’s past.
And birds? Wild turkey (like on the bourbon bottle), gray (!) catbird and blue-gray (I can’t keep !-ing American spelling mistakes) gnatcatcher were old friends with whom I have become reacquainted. Hoping for at least a couple of hours of proper early morning birding tomorrow.
Jet lag is a funny thing. Despite having a very long day yesterday, and feeling knackered as I crawled into bed, I woke after just over four hours and have been awake from 0230 local time until after 2200 local time (although, the six hours that someone gave me as extras yesterday have been reduced to five somewhere between Shreveport, LA and Henderson, KY. Still, never mind, I’ll get it back in a while!
I drove for most of the day and added two states to my life list: Arkansas and Missouri. I had breakfast too – but I’ll keep that until the end.
Since arriving at Houston yesterday afternoon I have mostly been driving a car. You could say that I have spent two days undoing the progress of the last two hours of the flight – as we flew over here a while before landing.
Imagine yourself birding from the UK’s motorways and A-roads – you’d tend to see large, obvious birds and a lot of the small stuff would go down as unidentified. That’s what it’s like for me here too.
The first three birds I saw on arrival were; common grackle, great-tailed grackle and starling. I’ve seen lots of the common grackles and starlings but only a couple of great-tails. But I have now seen zillions of red-winged blackbirds which has reminded me of how red their wing patches are.
Here is a selection of other species: lesser snow goose (a flock in a field in Arkansas), turkey vulture, red-tailed hawk, American kestrel, killdeer, eastern meadowlark, white ibis, a few herons, American so-called robin, eastern phoebe, northern mockingbird, ‘our’ collared dove, mourning dove, distant unidentified terns, unidentified small woodpeckers flying across the road, barn swallow, cliff swallow, rough-winged swallow, chimney swift and the nighthawk outside my motel room.
The UK version of this would be similar – wouldn’t it? Some raptors, corvids, hirundines, swift and pigeons with a few other things thrown in (and some pheasants?).
This isn’t primarily a birding trip, but I will see some birds whilst here, and I might even see a passerine or two as time goes on.
As I stopped outside Red’s Restaurant on the 79 near Fordyce, AR, I heard a familiar song. There are very few songs of US birds that I have committed to memory but this one has stuck, thanks to good teaching by Wallace Kornack in Rock Creek Park two years ago.
I remembered the song as being like a very loud marsh tit call – I just couldn’t immediately remember which American species made this noise. Having thought about it over several hundred miles I now remember it was the ovenbird.
Red’s Restaurant had eight customers as I entered to be the ninth. Our waitress, Karen (and I have been challenged to tell you the names of all waitresses involved in this journey and I intend to meet the challenge), gave me a smile and the menu and went off to get a coffee mug for me.
The other customers had all given me the once-over as I entered, but they had also all nodded or even muttered a ‘good morning’.
I opted for cheese omelette and hash browns, with toast and orange juice as my start to the day – although to be fair, I had been awake for six hours already and this meal was the only one of the day.
The omelette (or in American, omelet) was fine (although no better than I could have cooked myself) but the hash browns were perfect – browned and tasty slivers of potato.
Altogether this was a very good breakfast experience. I was struck, as I have been before, that everyone else in Red’s knew each other, greeted each other by their names as they arrived and said goodbye when they left. Red’s seemed part of the community – and maybe an important part too.
Karen buzzed about, fuelling the atmosphere with both food and remarks to individuals and the room.
It was a rest from driving, a refuelling stop for the body but also a refreshing reminder of the atmosphere of rural America.
I paid, tipped, asked Karen her name (!), nodded to the room and stepped outside to be regaled by the sound of what seemed to be a giant marsh tit – for it was very loud.
Hash browns, ovenbirds and waitresses – I was back in the USA.
Please do leave comments on this blog – but note that they are likely only to be moderated at the beginning and end of my day (which is going to be between five and eight hours out of synch from the UK readership’s days). Thank you to those who commented yesterday. I now have a cell phone and its number is 870-575-2654
I am writing this in Shreveport, Louisiana. It’s been a long day so it will be a short blog.
The day started in the UK at 430 am and at 430 pm I set off in my hire car from George Bush (presumably Snr, but maybe both) International Airport, Houston, TX . It’s now 930 pm so that’s 17 hours but you also have to add in the 6 hours time difference so it’s been a long day. And I got 15 minutes sleep on the 10 hour flight. But I’m not complaining as I have seen a new species of bird, a new species of mammal and two new US states.
The mammal wasn’t looking at its best as it was squashed on the road, but I’ve never seen an armadillo before – and this was presumably the 9-banded one that has, I seem to remember, identical quads.
The bird was a bit frustrating as it was a scissor-tailed flycatcher – a stunning looking bird (according to the books) with an unmistakeable tail (according to the look I had before the lights turned green in Lufkin (what a lovely name!), TX. Objects in the rear view mirror may appear closer than they are, but not if they are small birds with amazing tails.
New birds that you see on Day 1 of a trip are ones that you tend to think ‘Oh I expect I”ll see plenty of them’ but I am, even now, teetering on the edge of this species’s range and will only reenter it after three weeks, or depending on route taken, maybe closer to six weeks – so one can’t be too sure.
Just a short blog to tell the world, but more particularly the few people who will be looking out, that I arrived safely and that the trip is underway.
Please do leave comments on this blog – but note that they are likely only to be moderated at the beginning and end of my day (which is going to be between five and eight hours out of synch from the UK readership’s days.