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.