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.


Manomet Bird Observatory

My first year of college was an interesting one. Unlike most first-year college students who leave home and live without their parents around for possibly the first time ever, I stayed in my childhood home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and my parents went away for the year (a sabbatical at Cambridge University). I tried to keep up with birding and managed a pelagic trip off Rhode Island and a couple Linnean Society field trips (Brigantine NJ and Cape Ann MA) plus some forays into Central Park, but for the most part my focus was on studying. The monthly Linnean meetings were a key part of maintaining my sanity, and a presentation in the spring of 1974 was a life changer. Kathleen S. Anderson, Executive Director of Manomet Bird Observatory, gave a talk about Manomet and the research and educational opportunities they offered. She also mentioned their intern program! I popped up as soon as the talk and questions ended and asked how I could apply for an internship. She invited me up for an interview and within a few days I was on a bus headed north. I met with MBO staff, notably Ms. Anderson and staff scientists Brian Harrington and Trevor Lloyd-Evans, and it wasn’t long before I had secured a spot in the program. I have rarely been so excited about anything in my entire life. I was about to start the most wonderful summer – and fall, as it turned out – of my existence.

Within a week or so of completing my first year of college, I packed my bags and was once again on a bus north, this time to stay and begin a glorious adventure. Numerous research opportunities were available at Manomet. Brian Harrington was conducting projects on various species of shorebirds including monitoring the Common Tern and Piping Plover populations at Plymouth Beach. A visiting scientist was looking at behavior of Gray Catbirds on Manomet’s property. Trevor Lloyd-Evans was in charge of the banding program, which was a large–scale operation: as I recall there were around 40 mist nets on several acres of the 40-acre property, and we kept them open from dawn to dusk during spring and fall migration, closing them for part of the day if it got too warm out (we didn’t want birds waiting in nets in the hot sun). Given that the number of birds netted was so high during migration, once we had processed the birds from a net round, it was time to go back out and check the nets again. We took with us on each round a number of drawstring cloth bags (all hand-made by volunteers). The nets are made of nylon mesh of about 1 cm weave, with 4 or 5 pockets such that a bird would fly across the path, encounter the net and fall gently into a pocket and rest there until we came to take them out. To do this we would hold the bird gently but firmly with the two tibiotatarsi between two fingers and work the threads of the net away from the bird. Many challenges presented themselves along the way: chickadees tended to grasp the net very tightly with their toes, and peck at our cuticles every step of the process. Cardinals also pecked and their robust beaks could cause significant pain, as did those of Rose-breasted Grosbeaks. It was always immensely exciting to make the rounds of the mist nets, as you never knew what you would find – it was like Christmas! I suppose we had many exciting and rare birds but the one that stands out most vividly in my memory was an Olive-sided Flycatcher, which presented me with the type of moral dilemma probably only faced by the young, since at my advanced age I see no dilemma at all. I had never seen an Olive-sided Flycatcher so this would have been a life bird for me. You can’t count a netted bird on your life list, so I thought if I released it and then was able to identify it as it flew away, I could count it. It flew off quite quickly and there was no way I could ID it on the wing, so I came sadly to the obvious conclusion that my life Olive-sided Flycatcher would have to wait.

So, once a bird was removed from the net, it went into its own cloth drawstring bag to be carried back to the banding lab for processing. The work bench at the lab was equipped with a row of hooks underneath so we could hang the bags up, and this dancing array awaited the recording of a variety of data. The bench also had good lighting, scales for weighing each bird (first popping the animal beak down in an orange juice can to anchor it to the scale), magnifiers for closer examination of feathers and skin, and rulers and other measuring devices.

We banded the bird with an aluminum Fish & Wildlife Service band of the appropriate size (catbirds were also color-banded for recognition of individuals for the local behavior study), weighed the bird, measured wing length, checked for parasites such as ticks and lice, checked for moult, and then released the bird through a special little hatch door built for that purpose. Someone with a clipboard would log all the data as the bander called them out. The days were long – we didn’t have Fitbits or tracking apps in those days but we logged many miles making net rounds, and at night we would “sleep the sleep of the just” as my mother used to say and be up and at it again early the next morning.

With so many birds passing through our hands each day, multiple research opportunities presented themselves. I quickly became enamored of Empidonax flycatchers and Trevor and I analyzed their various measurements to see if the different species fell into their own multivariate spaces. I have never lost my love of flycatchers and went on to do doctoral research on the genus Tyrannus. To this day the sight of an Olive-sided Flycatcher is just beyond thrilling.

That summer was magical in so many ways. In addition to the banding program, which took up a lot of our time, we did breeding bird surveys with Trevor in Myles Standish State Forest and I remember learning how to estimate tree height by holding up a 3 meter stick and and multiplying it mentally. One night we helped Brian set up a cannon net and carefully herded 350 Red Knot towards it before detonating the net. That was a whopping success and we were up many hours banding all those birds in the field. There was time for birding too – a report of a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in Manomet village had us all out looking for it. Imagine getting your first look at a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher on someone’s clothesline in eastern Massachusetts!

In early June, I accompanied Kathleen Anderson to the annual meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society held in Pellston, Michigan at the University of Michigan Biological Station, where I would meet some of the great “old-time” ornithologists of the 20th century. That meeting led to several very interesting and even life-changing experiences that I’ll come back to in another post. It was exciting to attend my first professional meeting – the first of many. At this point it was only 2 years since my first day of birding.

Life at Manomet Bird Observatory was so rewarding, so full of the kinds of experiences and educational opportunities I needed, that I decided I couldn’t go back to Barnard, with its emphasis on reductionist biology and its dearth of natural science courses. Instead I spent the fall at MBO and continued to learn as much as I could about birds, and applied to and was accepted at a school with a more balanced biology curriculum: Smith College.

I’ll describe one last Manomet adventure, which occurred on my birthday, Sunday November 17th. We had heard reports of a gray-phase Gyrfalcon on Monomoy Island off Cape Cod, and my friend and former MBO intern Paul Donohue and I set out in a canoe to see if we could find it. It was an incredibly mild day for mid-November and the sea was calm and flat as glass. We hiked the length of the island, racking up an impressive list of 15 species of ducks and a whopping 54 Dovekie, among other sea and land birds. We finally found the falcon at the lighthouse at the southern end of the island. A wonderful birthday, still the best I’ve ever had. We were fortunate, as that day turned out to be the last one of the season that one could sanely consider canoe travel off the coast of Chatham, Mass. My Monomoy bird list is the last one I recorded from my MBO days, and thus an appropriate close to my account of a wonderful chapter in my life.