Sunday – Day 4

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!

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10 Replies to “Sunday – Day 4”

  1. Bringing you back home did you know that Audubon recorded peregrine falcons in London some time between 1826 - 1829. He saw them on St Pauls and Westminster Abbey. Its in my next children's book [after screamer]. Enjoy your trip.

  2. Mark, what I'm wondering about is the habitat - what was it really like when Audubon watched millions (billions ?) of Passenger Pigeons ? How far had settlement gone in Ohio ? I'm always amazed by how late some of the settlement of the west was - the US was still fighting with the Indians in the late 1800s. So what was woodland cover like & what was its character ? How much seed might if have produced for the PPs ? If there are any older buildings its worth looking at the sort of timber used in their construction - big beams = big trees, obviously - also, if the art section is old don't pass it by - it can tell you a lot - for example, here in your native Bristol Francis Danby's pictures tell us that the far side of the Avon Gorge near the suspension bridge was very different - much more open woodland - in Georgian times than it is today. And obviously maps - especially if they show woodland vs farmland cover, which many would.

    1. Roderick - quite right. I am learning a bit. I need you in the car to interpret the landscape for me.

  3. "the words of the song:"

    Same bluebird, different genre
    "My bluebird, bluebird, please take this letter down south for me
    Now, bluebird, bluebird, please take this letter down south for me
    Now you can tell my baby, I'm up here in St. Louis, oh, but I'm just as blue as I can be"
    attrib William Lee Curtis "Sonny Boy" Williamson (1914-1948), recorded on the Bluebird label

  4. It's really the start of the Midwest plain, hundreds of thousands of square miles of rolling grasslands separated by wooded water sheds. Now it's divided into sections which are exactly one square mile or 640 acres. Each corner of the section was where the claim post was struck which so encapsulates the drive west. Talking of driving West if you take I80 for eight hours until it intersects with R72 then turn left you will come to the town of Audubon, founded in 1880. I've no idea why they named it Audubon, I often asked and never got an answer. I spent several years there working and learning Midwestern farming but its link to the JA was never talked about. I think I'm right in saying its the only town and county in the US named after him. It's modern claim to fame is that it has the largest statue of a bull on the world called Albert !

  5. A copy Audubon's Birds of America is on show in the newly refurbished Liverpool Central Library which opened a few days ago at a cost of £50 million just several times the price of the book !

    1. Vivienne - worth a look then! Thanks for that, I knew there was a copy but not that it was now on display.

      1. Well worth a look with a page turned each week & an interactive screen to view the other pages. Its huge 99cm x 66cm that's about 9 x A4 paper size ! Its another tick off my bucket list :o)

  6. Enjoying the road trip blog, Mark, brings relief from marking student reports!

    You may be aware that there is a hypothesis that the huge herds of bison observed by colonists in North America in the 18th and early 19th centuries were a byproduct of the extirpation of 90% of the population of its main predator - native Americans (see Charles Mann's book "Ancient Americans"). Has the same suggestion been made for the passenger pigeon? Do we know if it was actively hunted by native Americans?


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