Still raining

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).


A hard rain’s gonna fall

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


The day after…

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?


Total birding

Today was a birding day – an excellent birding day.

Yesterday evening I drove through the north Ohio landscape looking for a cheap motel.  I travelled parallel with Interstate 75 on smaller roads including Route 66 (though not that one) for a while.  It was like travelling through The Fens – the roads dead straight until you come to a 90 degree turn, the landscape dead flat, the fields all arable with no fences, walls or hedges, only the scattered large farmhouses and the occasional wood broke up the landscape.

And as I set off this morning, about 630am, from my cheap motel, I picked up the same landscape again. It was like driving across The Fens for a day’s birding in North Norfolk.  The journey a bit dull but a growing sense of excitement as one neared the destination.

The destination was Crane Creek/Magee Marsh on the coast – the coast of Lake Erie.  As I got close I asked the folk at the Black Swamp Bird Observatory and they pointed me further down the road and said I’d know when I got there as there would be 200 cars in the car park – they were right about it being unmissable but there were closer to 400 cars there.

Wallace Kornack had pointed me in the direction of this place as we talked in Rock Creek Park – he said it was  a place to see warblers up close.  And it is.  You can see hundreds of birders up close too – and that’s a mixed blessing.

But, for English birders, Crane Creek is a bit like the wood at Holkham stuck on top of the marsh at Cley and then a system of boardwalks installed above the swamp.

The place was packed.  The boardwalk is about 5 feet wide and when 200 people are waiting for a Connecticut Warbler to show you can’t move.

Under such circumstances birders show their best and worst sides.  Through the day there was some tetchiness when people got jostled, blocked or unsighted but I met some really nice people out on the boardwalk.

I eased through the Connecticut crowd as soon  as I could but the rest of the boardwalk was pretty busy too.  The four rarest warblers of the day were apparently Connecticut, Mourning, Cerulean and Worm-eating – I saw two of these which was probably pretty good going.

You do have to imagine somewhere like Holkham Pines, the Scillies or Portland Bill when there has been a fall of migrants to catch the atmosphere.  As a Brit, and as me, I wasn’t too worried about seeing the rare ones, I was keen on seeing the common ones up close and personal – and that’s what I did.

I saw 19 species of warbler today, being: Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Black and White, Parula, Yellowthroat, Yellow-rumped, Prothonotary, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided, Cape May, Magnolia, Canada, American Redstart, Ovenbird and these three which were new for me; Yellow, Wilson’s and Blackpoll as well as the two rare ones I haven’t yet told you about.  And all, without exception, were seen very clearly at some stage during the day.

There were other good birds too – let’s not forget Gray-cheeked Thrush, American Woodcock, Whip-poor-will, Nighthawk, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Screech Owl and Rose-breasted Grosbeak.

And the diversity of birders was high too.  There were some beginners – some of whom didn’t know they didn’t know much – many of whom were helped by others.  There were some excellent birders – most of whom were nice to everyone else – but some of whom were a bit superior about everything.  And there were lots of keen people in the middle.

It’s quite interesting being a pretty good  birder like me in a country whose birds you don’t know well.  You know how to look but you don’t always know the significance of what you have seen.  So I know how to look at a warbler – does it have a wing bar? is it streaked? how far do the streaks go? – when I have that information I may spend a few minutes with the Field Guide working out what I have seen.  And that’s tricky too – how long do you watch before you check the book? Short watches may not collect enough information but long watches may leave no chance to look again with the knowledge from the Field Guide in your head.  Don’t smile like that – this is serious stuff!

But admitting to being English got me a lot of help and in turn I was sometimes able to help others.

So which were the other two? The Worm-eating was only seen early morning so it wasn’t that and a few Ceruleans were seen but they all seemed very high and mobile.  So I saw Connecticut and Mourning.

I went back to the Connecticut spot when the crowds had died back a bit – but it was still busy.  This little warbler walks about on the ground rather than flicking about in the trees so it takes some spotting.  To be honest, only its Mum would think it was lovely, but it was a triumph to see it at all.

But the Mourning Warbler illustrates a truism of birding – if there’s one there may be more, so leave the jostling crowds and find your own.

I wasn’t too fussed whether I saw a Mourning Warbler or not – don’t get me wrong, my preference was to see it – but if I didn’t, no sleep would be lost.  But I looked it up in the book and kept it in mind as I warbler-watched.

And about 20 minutes later I found one.  I was pretty sure it was one but I looked it up in the book to check – it was.  And then I refound it through binoculars, and then I wondered how sure I was and whether I should announce it to the 30 people nearby when a lady down the boardwalk shouted “Mourning’ and 30 people gathered around to see.

So there usually is more than one, and that was shown to be true later in the day, near the visitor centre, when I went for a walk and found another one.  There was no-one to tell at the time, so I am telling you now.

Full-on birding, and great fun.  19 species – pity I didn’t make the 20 but a great day.  I’ll be back there tomorrow but I won’t inflict a bird list on you tomorrow – unless it’s a really really good one.  I will blog on the costs and benefits of birding.

Cup Final tomorrow – Man City to win in 90 minutes would be my bet.

Today’s soundtrack: American Anthems CD3 with such tracks as Sweet Home Alabama, Baby I’m-a Want You and Bette Davis Eyes.


Homage to the Passenger Pigeon

I did a strange thing in a zoo today.

My days are beginning to fall into a certain order.  Wake at 5am after a good night’s sleep and without an alarm, check emails (‘cos Europe is already up), shower, move stuff into the car and then hit the road. And so I headed North from Somerset, Kentucky at around 630am this morning.

It’s a good time to start – there’s little traffic and the early start makes me feel virtuous.

At around 730 I was looking for breakfast in Lancaster.  The first thing I noticed about Lancaster was Ron’s Pawn with a big sign saying ‘Guns – sell, trade or buy’ and he was open.  It’s clearly never too early to think of lethal weapons in Lancaster.

I did a little loop around the town and found what I hoped to find – a quiet cafe selling breakfast.  This was called Wajaba’s Too and I had a delicious breakfast of pancakes, bacon and coffee.  I told the waitress, Anna, how good the pancakes were and then we got to chatting.

I asked Anna what Lancaster was like.  She said it was…a bit of a pause…and then we both said ‘quiet’ and laughed. I didn’t ask whether that was because all the guns were in pawn but instead pointed to my bird book, said I was travelling around the USA birding, and asked whether I could ask her what might seem a daft question.  The cafe wasn’t busy the only other customer was a grumpy looking man whom, I noticed, didn ‘t say ‘thank you’ when Anna served him.  We English have lovely manners apparently.  In fact a friend claims a crowd gathered around her on an AMTRAK once because she could eat with a knife and fork at the same time!

Anyway, my question was ‘Have you ever heard of the Passenger Pigeon?’ and Anna said ‘No’.  I wasn’t surprised, but over a refill of coffee explained that maybe 120 years ago that the Passenger Pigeon had lived around these parts and had been the commonest bird in the world – maybe 9 billion of them.  But that on 1 September 1914 there was only one remaining bird, a female, called Martha, who had died in Cincinnati Zoo and I was heading to Cincinnati Zoo this very day to look at an exhibit there.

Anna clearly thought I was a little strange but wanted to know why the bird had died out.  I said that we don’t really know but habitat destruction, shooting, trapping and imported diseases may have all played their parts.  But wasn’t it amazing that a bird went from commonest in the world to extinct in about 50 years?

We chatted a little longer about my trip and then a little later I got up to pay.  Anna emerged from out-back and, with a smile, said ‘Your breakfast is on me today.  It’s been so nice talking to you and I hope you enjoy your trip in America – it sounds really great.’. I argued a bit about this – after all the breakfast had been very good and the chat had been good too – but Anna insisted very nicely and so I thanked her again and left a tip covering half the breakfast in the jar by the till.  The kindness to strangers of small-town, quiet-town, gun-pawned town, America.

So it was on up the road with a cheap breakfast inside me and I was thinking that Kentucky was a bit dull until I passed Keeneland Racecourse when I perked up.  I noticed there were signs up for ‘Drive thru betting’.  Americans like driving thru to do most things.  There are probably drive thru births, toilets, brothels and cremations.

Further on, I saw a sign to the Buckley Wildlife Sanctuary and decided to give it a go.  It was worth it.  The road first took me through some lovely country and past the Pin Oak Stud with its own small private racetrack – presumably for training thoroughbreds – and there were some beautiful looking horses in the fields.

When I got to the wildlife sanctuary I was relieved to see that it was what we would call a nature reserve and not a home for injured birds and mammals. And I got to meet Tim Williams the Sanctuary Manager.

He’s a character and was kind enough to take me down to the blind (we’d call it a hide) which was small but had one-way glass so that we could look out but the birds couldn’t see us.  We looked out over some feeders, a pool of water, the woods and a small lake.

I asked Tim how long he’d worked here and the answer was 37 years- so he knew the place!

A couple from Indiana joined us and outside there were good views of Blue Jays, American Goldfinches, Grackles, Tufted Titmice, Red-winged Blackbirds, White-breasted Nuthatch, Brown-headed Cowbirds, House Finch, Grey Squirrels and Eastern Chipmunks.

Tim gave me his card – he has a neat trick with this that must go down brilliantly with kids.  He showed me his card, both sides, and it’s blank.  Then he puts it in his closed fist, pushes one knuckle and makes the card, still blank, come out from his fist like paper from a fax machine. He does this a couple of times and then presses another knuckle and out comes the card with his details on it.  It’s very neat – I’d like to see it again to see whether I can spot it this time.

And Tim can talk – he was good company.  The conversation turned to grey squirrels and it is clearly one of the species whose popularity level is low.  Tim reckoned squirrels make good gravy – you cook the squirrel, throw it away and eat the gravy.

But racoons are worse – for the damage they do to other wildlife but also property.  Tim’s line on these was that squirrels and racoons were both born with engineering degrees but that racoons graduate to PhDs they are so clever at damaging things!

I turned the conversation around to Passenger Pigeons but Tim wasn’t too genned up on them and the couple from Indiana weren’t too sure either so I went for a lovely walk round the woods and meadows – seeing Fox Sparrow (which I recognised) and Mockernut Hickory (which was labelled).  It was a relaxing walk – I imagined thousands and thousands of Passenger Pigeons pouring over in a seemingly never-ending stream as John James Audubon had once seen.

And onwards, past another thing, apart from racehorses, that makes Kentucky famous – the Jim Bean Old Crow Bourbon distillery.

Cincinnati is just across the Ohio River in Ohio State.  Approaching it on Interstate 75 you get a great view of the tall buildings before you leave Kentucky (which I decided was really quite interesting).

At the Zoo I paid my $10 to get in (and it’s another $8 to get out of the car park), got the map and set off in search of the Passenger Pigeon Memorial. It’s easy to find -past gorilla world and it’s on your left.

The small pagoda hut has good information about the fate of the passenger Pigeon as a species and the fate of its last representative on Earth – that female called Martha.  Martha was hot news in her last few years of existence, people flocked to see her, and her death on 1 September 1914 was a national story.

On her death, Martha was shipped to Washington DC, packed in ice, and she is in the Smithsonian Museum – although not on display (David Blockstein, from the National Council for Science and Education had told me, as we lunched at the Tabard Inn last week, that rumour has it she is in the Director’s office there).

David and others, including Dan Marsh from Cincinnati Zoo, are planning events to mark the upcoming centenary of Martha’s death in a few years time. I wish them well.

I think we sometimes overrate the importance of species’ extinctions but the Passenger Pigeon was phenomenally abundant just 50 years before being reduced to a sad widow we called Martha in a cage in Cincinnati Zoo.  That is a cautionary tale to keep in mind and spread around, for sure.

There is a bronze statue of a Passenger Pigeon by the Memorial and it carries a plaque which includes the following words:  ‘It is the hope of the Langdon Club that people who visit this memorial will want to work toward the preservation of all the world’s fauna’. I do.

There were two more things I did at the Zoo.  First, I sat across from the memorial and watched the people go past – and go past they did.  120 passed the memorial without a single one looking at it.  Fair enough – let’s concentrate on the living rather than the extinct.

But as I left I went into the Zoo Shop to buy a hat and some post cards.  I would have bought a little memento of Passenger Pigeons if there had been any, but two different shop assistants confirmed that in the well-stocked shop there was not a single item with a Passenger Pigeon on it.  Retail managers are a canny bunch – they don’t use shelf space for non-sellers, so that is further confirmation that it is only a strange Englishman who travelled 3000 miles and has been looking forward to visiting this Zoo for months that would have parted with cash for a memory of Martha.

And that strange thing I did in the Zoo?  I imagine I was the only person who visited the Zoo today, perhaps this year, perhaps ever, who came to remember an extinct species and didn’t look at a live animal.

There’s much more to say about Passenger Pigeons, other extinct wildlife (and a further link to Cincinnati Zoo) and extinctions in general – but that will do for now.

Today’s soundtrack – American Anthems CD No. 2 where I discovered the wit of Crash Test Dummies.