I’ve spent another day at Cornell talking to interesting people about birds, the environment and environmental issues. Everyone has been very open and welcoming.
The day started with birding at 6am. We saw a few waders – a familiar Dunlin, some almost familiar Semi-palmated Plovers (much like a Ringed Plovers) and Spotted Sandpipers (much like Common Sandpipers with spots) and the slightly less familiar Least, Solitary and Semi-palmated Sandpipers (although I have seen all those species on this trip already). Also a new warbler – Blue-winged – and the first Ruby-throated Hummingbird of the trip. And the checklist is on EBird with my name attached to it along with my companions’ names.
Amongst my conversations I’ve been lucky enough to spend some time with the boss of the Cornell Lab – Professor John Fitzpatrick.
Fitz – as he is known throughout the lab – is an eminent ornithologist. I first came across his work when I was studying Bee-eaters in the early 1980s and his book with Glen Woolfenden on the Florida Scrub Jay was a landmark publication.
As we talked, it was clear that we see nature conservation in very similar ways – and a couple of Cornell staff told me in my conversations with them ‘You sound just like Fitz’ and I take that as a compliment.
Fitz told told me that he’s seen all but three of North America’s 700-odd breeding birds, and that he got hooked on birds as a child when he saw that the picture in the Peterson Field Guide looked just like the bird he was looking at – and that the book was full of birds – ‘All those treasures’.
We agreed that urban America sprawled across the landscape in an unpleasant way – wasteful of space and harmful to nature. And we talked briefly about those extinct American species that fascinate me – the Passenger Pigeon, Carolina Parakeet and Heath Hen and we touched on the probably extinct Eskimo Curlew which was pillaged after the Passenger Pigeon’s decline and thus came to be known as the Prairie Pigeon.
Fitz also told me that the Wood Duck, now common again, and visible from his office window as we talked, had once been expected to be the next American bird extinction before Theodore Roosevelt introduced better regulation of hunting.
It was time to broach the subject of that other possibly extinct species – a picture of which is outside Fitz’s office and a postcard-sized image was behind his head as I talked to him – the Ivory-billed Woodpecker.
On 3 June 2005 the Cornell Lab published a scientific paper in the journal Science entitled ‘Ivory-billed Woodpecker (Campephilus principalis) persists in continental North America’ which set out the evidence for there being a male Ivory-billed Woodpecker living in the Big Woods region of eastern Arkansas. The evidence is of some observations and some rather fuzzy video footage which has allowed speculation and debate to rage over the last six years.
Some people believe the record, others definitely do not, many are undecided but hope that it is an indication that there are still a few individuals of this magnificent beast out there in the woods of the South-Eat USA.
Fitz gave me a copy of the paper and I asked him to sign it, which he did with the words: ‘For Mark, hoping one or the other of us sees one some day!’ as Fitz, although senior author on the paper, and the main recipient of other’s scepticism or derision, did not witness the bird himself.
I read the paper at the time it was published but have read it again a couple of times and it is suggestive of Ivory-billed Woodpecker but probably not strong enough evidence to be totally convincing. But as with any good piece of science it lays out the evidence, draws some conclusions, and allows others to draw their conclusions too.
Possible sightings of Ivory-bills still come in to Cornell. Maybe one day someone will get a perfect image of a perfect Ivory-bill and the world can rejoice, although it seems quite likely that if any still exist they are so few, and far apart, that they are, in Fitz’s words ‘ecologically extinct’ even if there is the odd ‘Martha’ still out there. I guess we’ll see.
But the abiding memory of Cornell and Fitz for me is of a tight team of good people working hard to do the science on which sound nature conservation has to be based. It’s clear that the Cornell team admire and respect their leader – and my belief is that that admiration and respect has been well-earned.
Ithaca, NY is famous for vegetarian cookbooks, a defunct shotgun company and the truly famous University and the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology. The bird people are based on Sapsucker Road and I’ve been talking birds with them all day. The staff I’ve met have all been very keen and very proud of Cornell – and I think they have every reason to be proud.
The Cornell Lab is approaching its centenary and that makes it a very well established global centre of ornithological excellence.
One of their big projects is eBird – have a look and see what you think – if you are a birder you’ll be impressed. I was privileged to be talked through eBird by Steve Kelling and Chris Wood – both nice guys, good birders and with a passion for data-gathering, data-sharing, data-analysis and birds.
And Chris is a world record holder! Beat that – I’ve been with a world record holder today.
I can beat that – I had dinner with two world record holders this evening – Chris, and Jessie Barry who also works at Cornell. They were both members of a team who recently beat the North American record for the number of species seen in one day – amassing 264 species (and beating the previous record by 3 clear species). That’s probably more species in one day than I will see in my whole trip!
We ate at Maxie’s Supper Club where I had a delicious jambalaya – and we talked birds – everything from grassland bird declines to the impact of mute swans in marshes (they are seen as a pest), and grouse shooting to the decline in hunting in the USA. And everyone here wants to know the secret of the RSPB having million and more members.
But it’s late, and I am going out birding at 6 tomorrow with a world record holder so I need to get some sleep – if Room 101 will let me…
I thought of detouring to Niagara Falls but that would have been silly – it would have added too many miles and I have seen torrents of rain all day anyway. When it hasn’t been raining hard it has been raining very hard.
So not a bird-rich day – even though the Allegheny Mountains, through which I have meandered, look good for a warbler or two – but not in this weather.
I have two Field Guides with me and I have been comparing them – if you can’t bird then bird-book!
They are the ‘old’ Peterson ‘Guide to the Birds East of the Rockies’ and the ‘new’ Sibley ‘Guide to the Birds’. There are other guides available.
My Peterson must have been bought in about 1981 when I came to Canada for a few weeks to study bats. I see it cost me 7.50 (pounds – can’t find the pound sign on this US keyboard) and it is still a very good guide. I’m sentimentally attached to it but it also has the big advantage of being pocket-sized, partly because it covers fewer species than Sibley and covers them in less detail.
But Sibley is fantastic – in the depth and detail of its coverage. It shows every US and Canadian species in flight and all plumages but that makes it, for me, more a ‘leave it in the car guide’ than a ‘field guide’. It’s a tome.
It’s good to have both.
Peterson has some quirkiness and some wisdom.
He includes in the 1980 edition, which was completely updated from the 1934 first edition, illustrations of the Passenger Pigeon (which went extinct in the wild before Martha fell off her perch in Cincinnati Zoo in 1914) and the Carolina Parakeet (which fell off its perch (an interesting story here which I promise to come back to some time) in 1918). Peterson didn’t include the Heath Hen which survived on Martha’s Vineyard until 1932 – probably because he regarded it as a race of Greater Prairie Chicken (or maybe he just didn’t like it for some reason). Peterson included two more species as ‘nearly extinct’ – Ivory-billed Woodpecker and Eskimo Curlew – and most would agree with his prediction – although there is a story to be told there too. And Peterson also includes Bachman’s Warbler though noting it as the ‘rarest North American songbird’. Sibley doesn’t include any of these species – he’s a hard man it seems, he’s written them all off for ever, or maybe his publisher was tough on the number of pages.
Bachman’s Warbler was the last one to go – with the last one being seen in the USA in 1988 (and before that in 1961) at the I’On Swamp just North of Charleston and near where there was all that sex and laughing going on last week. There is a possible sighting from the wintering grounds in Cuba but it may well be that this species is extinct too – but if it isn’t, hang on to your Petersons because Sibley is no help here.
And yes, I did visit the I’On Swamp last week, not to look for Bachman’s Warbler but to look at the swamp – it’s a swamp for sure. The habitat looked quite similar to lots of other local habitats and the species was formerly widespread but it was interesting to have a look.
So there have been a few birds which have gone extinct, or probably have, in the last century. And mostly they disappeared in the period between the American Civil War and the First World War at a time of massive growth in the US economy and population, and when the West was ‘won’. We’ll come back to this too.
But Peterson also has a note at the front of his book which reads as follows: ‘Birds undeniably contribute to our pleasure and standard of living. But they also are sensitive indicators of the environment, a sort of ‘ecological litmus paper,’ and hence more meaningful than just chickadees and cardinals to brighten the suburban garden, grouse and ducks to fill the sportsman’s bag, or rare warblers or shorebirds to be ticked off on the birder’s checklist. The observation of birds leads inevitably to environmental awareness.’.
Brilliantly put and still true. And maybe that ‘ecological litmus paper’ is why Peterson included those extinct and near-extinct species. Maybe he thought we ought to be reminded of changing baselines and of what we have lost. Maybe he thought we should not close the page on these species; we should turn the page and be reminded of them. And maybe, if he did think these things, he was right.
Today’s soundtrack was Don McLean’s Greatest Hits and, I have succumbed at last, Bob Dylan (The Essential Bob Dylan – not by any means his best, but one I have listened to less than many others).
It’s raining here near Erie, Pennsylvania and the forecast is for rain for a week. A week!
But at least I have lucked out on where I’m staying – it’s ‘only’ a Travelodge but it’s got more facilities than the very cheap places where I have stayed most of the trip so far. It has a gym – and I’ve used it (that statement will amaze some of my readers).
And it’s raining. The rain outside my room will end up in the Allegheny River which flows into the Ohio River which feeds the Mississippi River which is full. Here the news is all about opening the floodgates to let out the Mississippi waters onto Cajun farmland so that Baton Rouge and New Orleans don’t get flooded.
That’s ecological services of land for you.
Sitting in Kozy Korners restaurant in Oak Harbour a couple of days ago – eating a ‘farmer’s omelette’ of potato, onion, peppers and ham (those farmers eat well) – there was a group of men who looked like farmers talking about the impending flooding of all that farmland. “They’re are going to be a lot of pissed farmers down there’ opined one good old boy.
Google Maps suggests it would take about 20 hours driving for me to get to Baton Rouge, I think it’s about 1100 miles by road. I wonder how long the drops of water pouring off the Travelodge roof will take to get to Cajun country?
And as Bob sang – maybe the definition of blogging:
And I’ll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Sometimes you have an observation and you don’t make the identification – and it niggles away at you until you solve it.
I returned to Crane Creek early this morning. After yesterday I was keen to have some more. I wasn’t alone – the crowds were there too. But the weather was dull and the birds were fewer and didn’t behave quite so well. I saw a lot of warblers but maybe yesterday had spoiled me. When I saw a male Blackburnian at the top of a tree (my 20th warbler for the site) and it looked a bit dull despite being a fiery mixture of orange and black I knew that it was time to go.
This period, ending tomorrow (Sunday) is regarded as ‘The Biggest Week’ and it lives up to its hype for the hundreds of birders who come. In the car park I saw licence plates for just about half of US states. Not surprisingly most were from Ohio and neighbouring Michigan, Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia and Pennsylvania but many from the next ring of states – Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, Virginia, and New York. Then a little further away there were Iowa, Tennessee, New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland. Long distance migrants were Alaska, Washington, California, South Dakota, Colorado, Texas and Florida. And throw in Ontario, Quebec and Nova Scotia and you’ll see it’s not just a meeting point for birds.
There can be few other small patches of Ohio farmland that attract visitors like this – and that’s what the locals think too.
When I filled up with gas at the BP station in Oak Harbour the elderly man in charge, sucking an unlit cigar, was fazed by by non-US Amex card and we took a while to work out how I could pay but he was very friendly – as were his mates, six of them, who seemed to be using his gas station for a boys’ meeting. As I left one of them asked ‘Are you a birder?’ to which I replied ‘Yes – how do you know?’ to which the answer was ‘There are a lot of you about just now.’ but it was said in a friendly way and was followed by a chorus of ‘Have a nice day!’. I certainly would not have visited Oak Harbour if it were not for the birds – not even for the excellent blueberry pie served in the friendly Kozy Korner restaurant (which isn’t nearly as naff as those Ks suggest it might be – very down to earth in fact.).
As I drove the 20 more minutes to Crane Creek I passed an ice-cream kiosk with a sign saying ‘Birders flock to us’.
At the Magee Marsh visitor centre I later bought a few things but had to pay cash as they don’t take credit cards. The lady serving me explained that ‘We are really busy for these two weeks but it’s kinda quiet after that so we don’t take credit cards.’.
And then in a tempting position in the car park is the Pam and Darryl’s Travelling Cafe which sells burgers, dogs, coffee, cakes and cold drinks. Pam, a short, slim, middle-aged lady with a ready smile is front of house – taking orders, being nice to the customers and taking the money whereas Darryl, who looks like he may have, quite properly, tasted his own cooking, fries away outside the van.
Pam told me they were based in Columbus Ohio and spent 10 days at Crane Creek each year – and it’s good business. Yesterday they sold out of hot dogs (200+) by noon and were expecting a busy day today when I had a breakfast of egg and sausage roll.
The rest of the year they do auctions, street fairs and art shows but Pam said she liked the birders best – I bet she says that to all the guys.
Darryl asked me to tell you his burgers are ‘awesome’ and so they are.
There’s no doubt that the local economy benefits from all those birders – gas stations, accommodation, eating places and others. It’s a windfall that I got the impression that the locals liked and appreciated. After all, birders aren’t that demanding as far as comfort and quality food are concerned – although I would have liked a Cerulean on the menu.
And that niggling identification problem? Yesterday I’d seen a chap who looked familiar but I couldn’t place him – and I didn’t hear him call otherwise I think I would have nailed him. Today he was wearing a top with a Wildlife Trusts logo on it as we almost bumped into each other. It was Derek Thomas from Wales (here pictured wearing a tie) and we had a chat about what we’d seen and missed.
Derek Thomas – who’d have thought it? These trans-Atlantic vagrants can be a bit tricky to identify!
Today’s soundtrack – back to Springsteen and Carly Simon.
And I told you that Man City would win inside 90 minutes didn’t I?