Adventures in the North Woods

As mentioned in an earlier post, I attended my first ornithological meeting while I was still an intern at Manomet Bird Observatory in 1974. The Wilson Society met that year at the University of Michigan Biological Station (UMBS) in Pellston – a rustic camp about 25 miles south of the Straits of Mackinaw in northern Michigan, where all of the University’s field courses are taught. Faculty and students from U of M as well as from other academic institutions come for 8 weeks of intensive courses including aquatic ecology, physiological ecology, mammalogy, herpetology, mycology, boreal flora, ornithology and more. Typically a full load for the summer is two courses. I would get to experience this myself a few years later, but this time I was just there for a few days of talks about birds and field trips around the area.

One of these field trips was led by an ornithological legend: Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. Pettingill literally wrote the book on ornithology: his textbook was the standard for over 40 years. Among his many “bona fides”: he taught ornithology at UMBS for 35 years, at Carleton College for 17 years, and was director of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology for 13 years. I had a good laugh when I was submitting historical data to eBird last spring: my list from Pettingill’s field trip included 15 Red Crossbills, and an eBird volunteer wrote to question this sighting, despite my note that the trip was led by Pettingill and attended by Joseph Hickey (I can’t remember if Harold Mayfield was on the trip but he attended the meeting). I figured this volunteer was probably too young to know either of these names, and I emailed back and kindly explained why he could be confident in this observation.

Also attending the meeting were some birdwatchers that included a middle-aged couple from Beaumont, Texas. They took a liking to me and invited me to accompany them to the Huron National Forest after the meetings, where we would try to find the very local Kirtland’s Warbler. This species breeds only in north central Michigan in jack pine trees that are 10-15 feet tall. The forests are managed vigorously for the warblers, with controlled burning to allow regular germination of jack pine cones, which require a very high temperature to melt the cone resin and liberate the seeds; this ensured continuous recruitment of pines into that critical age cohort that the warblers require. The management plan was also designed to prevent excessive parasitization by Brown-headed Cowbirds, which target Kirtland’s Warblers heavily as surrogate parents for their offspring.

While we were thrashing around the Huron National Forest looking for this rare bird, we happened upon a young man who was camping in a tent and looking for Kirtland’s Warblers also. Charlie Munn was a student at Princeton and a birder, and was enjoying the solitude of the north woods and working on his life list. Charlie hung out with us for an amusing several hours; we found our birds, and went our separate ways. An aside: in one of life’s funny twists – Paul Donohue, with whom I went to Monomoy Island to find the Gyrfalcon later that summer, and Charlie Munn currently work together at Charlie’s ecotourism company, Southwild, in Brazil.

I kept in touch with the couple, and a few months later they wrote to my parents to invite me to join them for a trip to Mexico in January of the following year. They invited Charlie as well, so during an amazing week of birdwatching in south Texas and the cloud forest at Rancho del Cielo in Tamaulipas, I had the opportunity to get to know Charlie. We kept in touch, and he encouraged me to apply to participate in Princeton’s Tropical Ecology course. A year later, in January of 1976, I joined Professor John Terborgh, Charlie, and a bunch of other undergraduate and graduate students (a total of 11 or 12) for a trip to Trinidad and Tobago. We spent 3 weeks camping in the mud (week 1) and on the beach (weeks 2 & 3), mist-netting and banding birds and having a glorious time. By this point I had transferred to Smith and was in the process of taking all their whole-organism biology courses and was faced with the prospect of having to take what was left over, namely cell biology and genetics – a horrifying prospect. Of course I had to get out of there! After spending time with like-minded people in the tropics and somehow believing that life at Princeton would be just like that, I applied to transfer one more time. So in the fall of 1976, I began the final leg of my undergraduate journey, at Princeton.


The next step in Rip’s education

So 1972 was a big year for Rip – she started birding, with Central Park as the incubator for a growing interest in ornithology. What could help to move this interest along?

First of all, I was growing pretty tired of being in school, even though Dalton was and remains an excellent institution. My parents suggested I might drop out and take a year to do other things, and one of the things I did was to take an evening class in German at NYU and volunteer at National Audubon Society in the office of American Birds Magazine, working with Robert Arbib and Susan Drennan and helping with the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey parts of the publication. It was not always thrilling work, but it got me more familiar with bird names and places and the people watching and studying them, as well as giving me the chance to meet a lot of bird people who had doings and comings and goings at National Audubon.

I don’t remember where I got the idea that Cornell University was a good place for the study of ornithology, but it was a good idea. I wrote to the man who had recently replaced the legendary Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. as the ornithology professor at Cornell, namely James L. Tate, Jr. to ask if he was doing ornithology research and if so, could he use an assistant? In those days, without the internet or any other way to collect information rapidly and assess the possibilities, it was a slow process to work one’s way through ideas. I stuck with the first one I had, and after a few letters back and forth, Jim suggested I apply to take ornithology during Cornell’s summer session the following year. That is what I did- it was my first college course and my first time in a classroom with college students (I don’t really count the NYU night course), prior to starting college at Barnard in the fall (yes it is possible for a high school dropout to go to college!). I did well in the lecture and field part of the course, but not so great in the lab because we had to learn the names of a lot of muscles (not sure this was the greatest idea to get people interested in birds, but I could be wrong) and I just wasn’t into it. Paradoxically, I would go on to do my Ph.D. research (less than 10 years later!) on limb myology in tyrant flycatchers, so you just never know when something is going to turn out to be important to you – even something you hate at first. But at the very least, everyone should know the names of the muscles they’re eating for Thanksgiving dinner, right? “Yes please, I’d like the iliotrochantericus caudalis if it’s available”.

Summers in Ithaca, NY are hot and muggy, but we had great birding opportunities in the ornithology course and took frequent field trips. Shockingly and uncharacteristically, I didn’t keep lists for most of them so those data are probably lost to science (if anyone reading this was a part of that course in the summer of 1973 and would like to share your lists – please let me know!). It was an education-packed summer that got me into disciplined habits, so I was ready for my first semester of college a month after the course ended. I continued participating in the field trips, speaker series and other programs of my home town bird club, the Linnean Society of New York, and as I hinted in an earlier post, one of the evening speakers in the coming year was to have a profound impact on my future as an ornithologist.