Category Archives: Birds

Double Tea Time for Towhees

Eastern Towhee breeding habitat is forest edge with brushy patches and usually including areas covered by leaf litter. Nests are often on the ground under brush. Photo in Oshtemo Township MI 7 July 2011 by Richard Brewer.

My hearing is not as good as it was ten or twenty years ago, mainly for high notes.  That’s one reason I was pleased to hear an Eastern Towhee singing today when I walked down to get the newspapers.  It took me a moment to identify the song.  One problem with losing the high notes is that, though you can still hear many songs, some may be hard to recognize when you’re hearing only the medium and low notes.

There was another reason I had to listen for a couple of repeats to identify this song.  The towhee song is traditionally rendered as “Drink your tea,” with the first note high, the second lower, and the third a trill, so it’s something like “Drink your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee.”  It’s an easy song to learn, even for those of us who aren’t particularly musical.

This bird, however, was singing “Tea your tea,” or “Tea-ee-ee-ee-ee your tea-ee-ee-ee-ee.”

I thought this version would probably serve the male’s territorial defense needs.  My wife, however, was doubtful that it would be as successful in attracting female towhees as the more conventional version.

Aretas Saunders, who probably qualifies as the first serious student of North American bird songs, commented in his little Guide to Bird Songs (Doubleday & Co.,1951 revision of the 1935 original) that unusual songs from Towhees are not uncommon.  One variant I’ve heard a handful of times is a two-noted version, just “Drink tea.”  Saunders mentions this variant, among others, and notes that when it occurs the introductory note is usually the lower one. In other words, it’s the first note (“Drink“) that’s omitted.  If that’s so, then I guess what the bird is actually singing is “Your tea.”

The name “towhee” comes from the bird’s voice, but not from the song.  “Towhee”  is one way to represent one of the common call notes of the species.  To me, it generally sounds a little more like “T’wee.”  “Chewink” is another representation of the same call note.  In earlier, less standardized times, “Chewink” was used as an alternative name for the species.

Saunders began to notice a deterioration in his ability to hear the high notes of bird songs around 1938 when he was in his mid-fifties.  For me, the inability to hear bird voices like that of the Blue-winged Warbler if I’m more than a few feet away  is a matter for regret. For someone like Saunders, such losses must be much sadder.

Quote 1, Aldo Leopold and the Odyssey of Evolution

Button found 14 April 2011 on WMU campus and reused

Every once in a while someone puts a thought so well that other people ought to know about it.  As I come across such a wise saying, or wise crack, I’ll put it in a post like this, for a while at least.

Here’s the first one.

We know now what was unknown to all the preceding caravan of generations: that men are only fellow-voyagers with other creatures in the odyssey of evolution.  This new knowledge should have given us, by this time, a sense of kinship with fellow-creatures; a wish to live and let live; a sense of wonder over the magnitude and duration of the biotic enterprise.

–Aldo Leopold, 1949

These two sentence come from a brief essay “On a Monument to the Pigeon” included as one of the sketches in A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There.  Leopold was probably America’s most insightful thinker on conservation.

Early Spring at Mildred Harris Audubon Sanctuary, Kalamazoo

In Oshtemo Township, it’s 64 degrees and sunny this afternoon and the wood frogs in the pond close to the road were clacking loudly.  This morning though, a few miles away at Harris Sanctuary, it was high 30s at the beginning and high 40s at the end.

Audubon sign at Mildred Harris Sanctuary, Kalamazoo. Photo April 2011 by Richard Brewer

I spent the early part of the morning in the beech-maple forest.  It’s still early spring  and none of the spring wild flowers are blooming yet. A few things are up, notably wild leek.  It’s abundant in this sanctuary. The flowers don’t appear till June, long after the leaves are gone.  A few of last year’s flowering stalks are still upright–dry and pale tan–and a few of these still retain a black, shiny round seed.   Never more than one on any I noticed.

I saw quite a few patches of bedstraw, Galium aparine.  This early, they are short thin stems with whorls of miniature leaves.

A fair number of toothwort (Dentaria laciniata) plants were up and had buds.  Maybe they’ll be the first plants to flower here.  In a beech-maple forest in Pavilion Township I visited last weekend, harbinger of spring was in full bloom, but the species doesn’t occur at Harris.

Beech-maple forest at Mildred Harris Sanctuary. The green is wild leek. Photograph April 9, 2011 by Richard Brewer

In 40 minutes or so of walking, I found only one small patch of garlic mustard.  This includes my visiting 20 or so flagged sites where we had found and pulled garlic mustard in past years.  The new patch was not near any of the old ones.  But someone else might have spotted other plants.  The garlic mustard is short, just basal leaves; some other plants might have popped out for someone with good color vision.

I then picked up trash along the two roads that adjoin the sanctuary and walked back to the car through the field half of the sanctuary.  One plant species was in bloom in the field–a low member of the mustard family with small, very small, white flowers.  With its four white petals, it was pretty obviously a mustard, but I couldn’t satisfy myself just what the species was.  Probably in a week or so, when some of the flowers give rise to fruits, it’ll be easier to key out. It seemed to be a weed of the old hayfield–none in the woods.

I wasn’t paying a lot of attention to birds, but turkey gobbling was coming from two directions when I went into the woods.  They quieted down before 9:30 AM.  Red-bellied Woodpeckers and flickers were making noise and there was evidence on some of the dead trees of Pileated work.  As I was walking alongside the field a pair of Wood Ducks flew over making the distinctive upward-slurred “Ooh-eek.”  I’ve read that it’s the female that makes this call, but the two birds are usually together when I hear

Field at Harris Sanctuary, looking north, woods to left. Photograph 9 April 2011 by Richard Brewer

it and I’m not sure that the male never produces it.

And there were Tufted Titmice singing in the woods and Field and Song Sparrow singing at the edges of the field.  And a few more I haven’t listed.

Back Tuesday for our second stewardship work day.

Stewardship Work Days at Aububon’s Harris Preserve Sat 9 April AM and Tues 12 April early PM

Saturday 9 April 2011 is the first Harris Sanctuary (Audubon Society of Kalamazoo) stewardship day, or to be blunt, first work day.  Hours are 9-11 AM.

The second work day is Tuesday, April 12, hours 5:30-7:30 PM.

Anyone who has an interest in the sanctuary and its management is invited to join in the effort on one or both dates.

The other two spring workdays are Saturday April 23, 9-11 AM and Wednesday April 27, 5:30-7:30 PM.

The Mildred Harris Sanctuary is located in the southwest corner of F Ave. and 8th St. in Alamo Township, Kalamazoo County.

What we can accomplish depends on how many people show up.  On this first work day of the year, someone should walk the roads that border the 40-acre property and pick up any debris that has built up over the winter.  When Katy and I visited Thursday morning, there seemed to be no major accumulation.

One change last year in our approach to management included brushhogging along the edge of the forest.  The preserve is roughly 50:50 beech-maple forest (west side) and grassland (old hayfield, on the east side). The one place where garlic mustard is abundant is in the areas along the forest edge occupied by dense growths of raspberries and blackberries or multiflora rose.  Large segments of these all but impenetrable thickets have been mowed down enough that they are not quite impenetrable, hence open for garlic mustard control.

One major task that we will begin Saturday will be attacking the somewhat exposed garlic mustard.  This will be by spraying, daubing with glyphosate, and pulling.  The second and third will be done by the volunteers who show up.

Someone can walk through the beech-maple forest looking for garlic mustard plants, which will mostly be visible as basal clumps of leaves.  In the woods itself only occasional individual or small clusters of plants will be found. Flagging any plants spotted can be followed up on later trips by careful pulling with the pulled plants carried away in bags.

In the brushhogged strip along the edge of the wood, the stubs left over from the larger trees and clubs could be lopped off at ground level to reduce the likelihood of tripping and falling by stewards and other visitors and daubed with glyphosate to discourage resprouting.

Brushhogging was also done in the field.  About one-third of the field was mowed last summer.  We will be interested in how many of the woody invaders resprout as the spring and summer go along.  It’s possible that brushhogging one-third of the field every year, so that the whole area is mowed every three years could keep the shrubs and trees stunted enough that the field area remains effectively a grassland.

One more task that we need to tackle sometime this year is the Mildred Harris Sanctuary sign.  It needs, at a minimum, repainting of the routed letters.  A thorough renovation of the sign, including repainting is another possibility.  A third, if there should be a woodworker with skill at routing, would be a totally new sign.

Katy and I will see you at 8th and F Saturday morning and/or Tuesday early evening. Park around the corner on F Ave. Bring work gloves and any tools you favor.  We’ll have some lopping shears, glyphosate, vinyl disposable gloves, and plastic bags.

The Ott Preserve and Attacks on Perpetuity

Slash in Ott Preserve after timber cut in 1993-4. Photo March 1994 by Richard Brewer

Preserved natural areas are vulnerable.  I don’t mean they’re delicate.  It’s true that some will need a particular kind of management, such as prescribed fire, and some may not tolerate a lot of human traffic, but good-sized natural areas–a few hundred acres–are often fairly robust.  They’re vulnerable not because they’re fragile, but because there are always certain people who look at preserved land and think it’s not utilized. It’s just empty land, a land bank waiting for their higher and better, destructive use.

The vulnerability is complete when the appetite for a quick, cheap, and easy fix is joined with one more factor:  The organization charged with defense of the conserved land is not up to the job.

We have seen this vulnerability several times in southwest Michigan.  One recent case is the Colony Farm Orchard at Western Michigan University, described in a number of earlier posts at this website.  Land bought with tax-payer dollars was given to WMU by the state with the restriction that it be kept as open space for public use.  But a little more than 30 years later, in 2009, WMU persuaded the Michigan legislature and governor to strip the restriction from the Orchard.  The land is currently open to any kind of development.  Though WMU claimed expansion of their BTR park–to create jobs–as their justification, no such restriction remained in the bill signed by then-governor Jennifer Granholm.

Another example is Jean Klock Park on the Lake Michigan shore at Benton Harbor. It’s a particularly sad case. In 1917, John Nellis Klock and his wife Carrie gave the city 90 acres of coastal marsh and sand dunes, including nearly 3000 feet of lake frontage and beach. It was, as far as I can determine, the first Lake Michigan natural land protected for public use.

Given as a memorial to a daughter who died young, the land was meant to be for the benefit of the people of Benton Harbor but especially for the children.  The city proved a good steward for nearly 70 years. Then, in 1986, the city tried to add a large part of the park to its Downtown Development Authority.  This threat was rebuffed, but another surfaced in 2003 in the form of a proposed luxury housing development.  Although this specific proposal also failed, the settlement reached set the stage for a successful attack within two years in the form of the Harbor Shores development which includes a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course that has subsumed a large area of the park’s best dunes.

The machinations that resulted in the degradation of Jean Klock Park are probably not yet totally revealed, but even so it is difficult to summarize the operation in a few paragraphs. Several people and agencies that might be seen as having protection of the park and its natural features as part of their job or mission, instead acted to undo the protection.  Among them were the Benton Harbor city commission, Governor Jennifer Granholm (again), U.S. Representative Fred Upton, Michigan’s Natural Resources Trust Fund board, and the U.S. Park Service.  There were, of course, also some conservation heroes fighting the development.

Loss of areas that we have every reason to think of as protected in perpetuity is not restricted to Michigan; attacks are regrettably widespread.  A current example is the pristine Izembek National Wildlife Refuge at the end of the Alaska Peninsula in southeastern Alaska.  The U.S. Congress provided pork-barrel funding to build a 9-mile road between King Cove and Cold Bay, two villages with a combined population of fewer than 900 people.  The road would run through designated wilderness including wetlands that are sites for feeding, nesting, or molting of black brant and Steller’s eider, among other arctic tundra species.   Construction is awaiting an environmental impact statement.

The current attempt to put a wide, paved trail through the best parts of the Harvey Ott Preserve in Battle Creek, Michigan, may not be as globally important as a road in a 400,000+ acre refuge containing wetlands of international importance. But otherwise the situation is fairly similar.

The Ott situation is especially unhappy because Ott has been through this before, about 15 years ago. The Calhoun County Commission sold about 300 trees, mostly large oaks, out of the preserve.  The catastrophe was not as complete as it could have been, because as the result of heavy citizen opposition, the commission canceled a second clear-cut that would have removed the rest of the upland forest in the preserve.

The 1993-1994 Ott timber sale had no redeeming features.  It happened mostly because the Calhoun County Parks Department was broke. On the other hand, a trail for hiking and biking can be a good thing.  (Trails and trail conservancies are given a thorough discussion in chapter 13 of Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America.) Certainly the existing foot paths in Ott are, to a point, good things.

One justification I’ve heard for running a trail through Ott is as a connector for the North Country Trail. If a connector is needed, it’s unlikely that a satisfactory route would need to invade the Ott Preserve.  I suspect that Ott has been chosen mostly because those pushing the trail see Ott as being unused, empty, not utilized.

I suspect they also see it as free land.

If the best route–avoiding the Ott Preserve except perhaps for a small spur–would involve private land, private land can be acquired by purchase or the right to use the land as a trail can be acquired as an easement.

Sometimes the right thing to do is a little harder than the expedient one.

It’s possible that a new trail for Calhoun County could be a good thing.  A new trail through the Ott Preserve wouldn’t be.  Ott is utilized.  It’s a preserve.

New Attack on the Harvey N. Ott Preserve, Battle Creek, MI

Shrubby cinquefoil, a characteristic fen species. Photo at Vanderbilt Fen October 1988. Copyright Richard Brewer

The Ott Preserve at the east edge of Battle Creek was the subject of an attack several years ago.  The 260 acres had been preserved early in the 20th century through joint efforts of local naturalists and John Harvey Kellogg.  In 1977, Calhoun County bought the preserve using money from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund.  Fifteen years later, the 1993 County government, ignorant of what the Ott Preserve was about, agreed to sell 305 large trees, mostly oaks from a southern upland section of the preserve.  Battle Creek citizens and conservationists throughout the state protested and the County Commission backed off from a second cut that would have logged the rest  of the preserve.  There is more about the events of 1993 in Chapter 4 of Conservancy: The Land Trust Movement in America.

Serious damage had been done, but the oak forests of the upland ridges (eskers in geological terms) were saved and the wetlands that include the unusual type of vegetation referred to as fen were not seriously damaged.  Now another 15 years has gone by and a new threat has shown itself.  A group has proposed running a wide, paved trail through the preserve.  Part of the justification appears to be to provide a link with the North Country trail.  Pedestrian trails already exist within the Ott Preserve.  Much is still unclear about the current proposal including justification, alternatives, funding for construction, ability to pay for maintenance in the long term, immediate and continuing impact, and acceptability to the citizens of the county and the region.

The following comments on this current threat to the Ott Preserve were prepared by Sophia DiPietro, an advocate for the preserve and member of the Protect Ott Coalition. They were published in slightly different form in the Battle Creek Inquirer Sunday 6 February 2011 with the heading “Ott is natural gem worth preserving.” The Enquirer website includes several useful comments by readers in addition to the article.

Don’t Allow Degradation of the Harvey N. Ott Preserve

By Sophia DiPietro
The nonprofit Calhoun County Trailway Alliance has proposed a nearly $2 million, 14-foot-wide “smooth-surfaced” trail-to-nowhere through the heart of the 100-year-old Ott Biological Preserve, and throughout Calhoun County. The Trailway Alliance says their aim is to “enhance the quality of life and environment for present and future generations.” As an outdoor enthusiast and healthy lifestyle advocate, I am in favor of outdoor recreation; but at the expense of damaging the natural features of Calhoun County’s only preserve? No way!

Ott Biological Preserve is the most biologically diverse and pristine natural area that Calhoun County has. It is a living piece of Michigan’s geologic history. Ott’s unique 10,000 year-old glacially-formed eskers were once the streambeds of ancient rivers. They wind nearly one mile throughout the Preserve. Unlike the existing trail that follows these eskers, the “hard” engineering required to level out inclines, and to cut and dig a “smooth” or paved ten foot-wide trail (with two feet of clearing on each side,) would compromise the esker. In the blink of an eye our rich geologic history will be replaced with the everlasting footprint of heavy machinery. Downslope lies a globally rare prairie fen wetland habitat (fewer than 2000 acres occur in Michigan,) and three spring-fed kettle lakes– former sites of large ice block melts. These sites could receive inputs of sediment via erosion from construction disturbance and from pavement runoff. These vital headwater ecosystems are habitat to state and federally listed threatened plants and animals. They provide us with floodwater control and groundwater supply filtration that enhances our water quality. Ott provides breeding grounds, shelter, and food to mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds.  Some may not survive, while adaptable ones may become “nuisances” in adjacent neighborhoods.

Ott’s trails are currently used for hiking, jogging, nature photography, birdwatching, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, quiet reflection and educational studies. Since the first 105 acres were purchased in 1911, the land has been used as an outdoor classroom, especially for advanced college research. The notion that Ott is not used enough is false, and a “preserve” is no place for 10-speed bicycles, skateboards and rollerblades. In fact, any asphalt, gravel, or other “smooth” development of the trails will eliminate cross-country skiing, snow-shoeing and winter hiking in the Preserve, since non-dirt surfaces are not appropriate for these sports. The proposed smooth impermeable surfaces would retain water in puddles, refreeze into ice and create a slip-and-fall danger. This would effectively take the Preserve out of use for the cold months, when many people are even more active in Ott.

Luckily, an alternative route through Ott exists that is more economical, more handicap accessible, and scenic but with fewer negative impacts. Providing an independently conducted environmental evaluation would give this route a green light, the trail would follow an already-cleared Consumers Energy power-line right-of-way along the west boundary of the Preserve, right to East Michigan Avenue. That exit point places you a mere 50 feet from where the Alliance proposes that their trail meet back up with the same exact power lines, right across the street in Kimball Pines! It could incorporate the placement of a currently un-used historic bridge, to cross over a tributary to the Kalamazoo River. The diversity of “edge-loving” species of birds and mammals that inhabit areas between forest and open habitats makes this alternative route rich in wildlife-viewing opportunities. I have bird-watched this route many times, to my heart’s content.

The development of the preserve as currently proposed would have complex and permanent environmental impacts.  Much more is involved than just “how wide” the proposed trail development is, or “what surface” is used. Transforming this peaceful nature preserve into an urban park would make Ott into what every other urban park is: paved, loud and with limited nature experience. And let’s face it, in a county that is recovering from one of the worst oil spills in its history, does it really make sense to develop and destroy the one last remaining public wilderness area we have?

The 100-year history of the Ott Biological Preserve rests in the hands of the Calhoun County Commissioners. Make your voice heard at But also contact Calhoun County Commissioners directly and attend Commission meetings. To stay informed, join our page at Facebook.    Spread the word.

Christmas Bird Counts, Murphysboro to Kalamazoo

Buttonbush swamp in winter, Oshtemo Township. Photo by Richard Brewer

Whatever else Christmas may mean to a birder, it definitely means the Audubon Christmas bird count.

The National Audubon Society sponsors a continent-wide set of local counts to be taken some time around Christmas, specifically on a single day between December 14 and January 5.   Local groups of birders count birds in circular areas 15 miles across. What most groups do is divide the circle up into sectors and maybe sub-sectors and assign a party to each.  The party may be one person ambling ( or driving) along and censusing birds by himself or herself.  Or it may be a small group, but if the group gets above about four, it would be more efficient to break it and the sector up.

A circle of 15-mile diameter doesn’t sound very big, but it is.  It amounts to a little more than 175 square miles. A square mile is 640 acres.  Except for a few sophisticated urbanites, most of us out here in the part of the US where the grid rules–where the land is laid out in townships, ranges, and sections–most of us have at least a vague idea of what 40 acres looks like.  A square mile (640 acres) is one section, which can be divided into quarter sections–each 160 acres–and each quarter-section can be divided into quarters.  These are each 40 acres, as in the back forty.

So if a local bird group divides its count circle into 20 slices or chunks, the average size will be between 8 and 9 square miles, or between 5000 and 6000 acres. The average bird club is making a good showing if it has 40 birders out and counting, or in other words, about 2 birders per sector.

The point of all these numbers, if there is one, is that most Christmas bird counts are a bit understaffed.

But that’s not a serious problem.  First, the main point of the count is fun, of a sort.  It’s fun to get out and brave the elements in the coldest, darkest part of the year.  The Christmas count is the birder’s winter solstice festival.  And it’s fun to see what birds are around, what birds are braving those conditions along with us.  A few bird species have normal body temperatures around the same as humans, 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, but most of the small birds we count at Christmas have temperatures up around 105-110 degrees. It takes a lot of feeding during the daylight hours, a lot of sunflowers seeds and suet or hibernating insects and fat from a deer carcass, for a chickadee to stay alive for 24 hours in winter.

Christmas Counts do provide data for scientific purposes.  They provide a very accurate map of the winter range of the most of the bird species.  They provide passable information on abundance of many of the species, expressed as an index value, usually number of birds per party-hour.

But except for a few species, a Christmas count almost never gives us the actual number of birds, Song Sparrows or Black-capped Chickadees or Cedar Waxwings, in our 15-mile circle.  On a well-regulated count, it might be possible to arrange things to tally every individual of an uncommon, conspicuous species, especially one of a well-defined habitat.  For example if there are only three areas of open water in a count circle and we cover all three, we can probably get a pretty good count for the ducks.  A good count for the time when somebody visits the three areas of open water, that is.  There’s no guarantee that some ducks from our circle didn’t fly a few miles to a different circle just before we counted.

The first Christmas Count I took was in 1949, when I was a sophomore in high school.  Bill Hardy, Kenny Stewart and I took a Murphysboro, Illinois, count on December 27th.  Hardy was the instigator.  He was the oldest, the best birder, and also more of an organizer than Kenny or me.

Things were more casual then.  We just decided to take a count, figured out our circle, took it, typed up the results, and sent them to Audubon Field Notes, which published ours along with the whole batch of counts from around the country.  Audubon Field Notes is called American Birds now, and the figures that get sent in on forms go into a database and the published Christmas Count consists mostly  of summaries for the different geographic regions.  The total number of counts today is well over 2000, mostly in the U.S., but quite a few in Canada, and some in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a few elsewhere.

We took the Murphysboro count a few more times. I can’t remember when we stopped, but eventually Hardy went off to graduate school at Michigan State and a little later I went off to the University of Illinois.

I ought to mention that the Murphysboro count was not the first southern Illinois Christmas  bird count.  A few years before, William Marberry, a botanist and all-round naturalist on the faculty at Southern Illinois University, had taken a count south of Carbondale and, I think, including Giant City State Park, or part of it.  He may have repeated the count another year, but I’d have to get to the library to look at the back issues of Audubon Field Notes to be sure.

I’ve occasionally gone on a couple of counts in a year, but I’ve also missed an occasional year.  Ordinarily though, even if I’ll be away from home, I try to get in touch with the organizer of a count near where I’ll be at Christmas time and ask if I can join in.  Most groups are happy to have visitors help out. Most of the other places where I’ve helped seem to be in places that are warmer in the winter than Michigan.

Most counts that have been running for a long time have a tradition as to when the count is held.  The Kalamazoo count is supposed to be the Saturday after Christmas.  When Christmas is on a Saturday, as is the case this year, this means that the count would be held on New Year’s Day.  That would seem to be no problem, except that the tradition for the Southern Kalamazoo County Count (SKCC) is that it be held on New Year’s Day.

The SKCC is relatively young, started for the 1975-76 count.  It’s odd in that it is a rectangle rather than a circle, hence it doesn’t qualify for the National Audubon database. One advantage of a rectangle is that, here in our gridded landscape, you nearly always know exactly whether a bird is in or out of the count area, depending on which side of the road it’s on.  Sometimes you’re not so sure about a bird near the edge of a circular count area. On the other hand, circular count areas are the most compact shape and accordingly have the least amount of edge to worry about.

I understand that in the clash of tradition this year, SKCC won.  The Kalamazoo Count is on Sunday, 26  December 2010, rather than on the Saturday after Christmas, 1 January 2011.  What would Frank Hinds say, or Theodosia Hadley?  Or Charlie Cook, or Helen Burrell, or Bob van Blaricom (Buckeye Bob), or Harold Wiles?

Our Little House in an Unpredictable Habitat

When I taught ecology to biology majors and minors I would occasionally include a question on the final exam something like this:  Describe two ways in which the study of ecology could save your life.

I was happy to accept answers at any level of the environment from “If I don’t build my house in chaparral I won’t get burnt up in the next chaparral fire.” to “I’ll cut down on energy usage, hence CO2 emissions, and I and the rest of us won’t get drowned when we’re living in Miami, Charleston, or Wilmington and the sea level rises.”

Some students got it, but a few didn’t.  For the latter, perhaps ecology was simply a required course, as remote from real life as a class in theatrical costumes of the 17th century.

Just out is an interesting article by two who get it, Jim Armstrong, a poet, and Kim Chapman, an old friend and former student.  Both got a lot of their schooling in Kalamazoo.  The article is called What Laura Saw: Making a Little Home on the Extreme Great Plains. The article is about the Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder but puts it in an ecological context.  Ecology turns out to set the social and economic contexts of the Ingalls’ lives also.

The article appears in the recently published Proceedings of the 21st North American Prairie Conference. The conference was at Winona State University in Minnesota in August 2008.

Western Michigan University was host in 1982 to the Eighth Prairie Conference. Kim Chapman, then a graduate student, served as field trip coordinator, poetry contest chairman, and co-designer of the logo.  He was also finishing up his master’s thesis.

What Laura saw around her little house, in Armstrong and Chapman’s words, was “a highly evolved environment, where several thousand years of drought, fire, hail, harsh winters, and intense grazing by ungulates and locusts shaped a responsiveness in plant and animal life that enabled the whole of the environment to persist even as individuals and species disappeared or shifted in abundance and location. That environment was beautiful and hostile by turns and Laura described this in memorable detail.”

The bison and the grasshoppers (the Rocky Mountain locust) were members of this ecosystem.  The locust is now extinct and the bison no longer around as a free-roaming species.  Still extant because they don’t infringe much on human property rights or economics are most of the bird species whose life histories fit them for flourishing in the years of good rainfall and good growth and pretty much moving out in the droughts.  The Yellow-headed Blackbird is an example that I talked about a few months ago.

“The argument threaded through all the books,” Armstrong and Chapman point out, “is that an independent-minded family, pulling together and with a little help from neighbors, could make a living on the Great Plains by their enterprise and hard labor.  As the books progress, however, the reader understands that Pa [Charles P. Ingalls] was not able to realize that dream for his family.  This tension is what makes the books readable today.”

By 1894, Laura and her husband, Almanzo,  had moved to “the well-watered Missouri Ozarks where they lived for the rest of their lives.”  And where Laura and her daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, worked on the Little House books starting in 1930.

The books promote individualism, hard work, and self-sufficiency.  These are admirable traits, but were not enough in themselves to bring success in the unpredictable habitat of the Great Plains.  Even here in the “well-watered” eastern U.S. and, in fact, in the world as whole, we now live in an environment  characterized by unpredictability–largely brought on by our own actions.  Other virtues, especially an attention to the whole ecosystem, human, biotic, and abiotic, will have to be added if success is to be ours.

Copies of the Proceedings, which have a lot of other prairie articles besides this one, are available in 2 formats: CD, $ 8.00 per copy or hard copy, $29.50 per copy. The combination CD and hard copy are $35.00.  All prices include mailing.  Make your check out and send to Bruno Borsari, Ph.D., Department of Biology, 175 West Mark Street, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987    Phone (507) 457-2822.

Rare Bird in Oshtemo

I became a birder the summer of my freshman year in high school, a bird-watcher a few years later, and an ornithologist a few years after that.

I’d have to find my life list to tell you just when I made my last entry, but I think it was sometime toward the end of my freshman year in college.  The summer after that, in 1952, Kenny Stewart and I hitch-hiked to Mexico and saw a good many new birds, quite a few that we could identify and quite a few we couldn’t.

There was no Mexican field guide at the time, and so we depended on George M. Sutton’s new book, Mexican Birds: First Impressions and Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds, and on taking lots of field notes to work with when we got back.  Sutton’s book had an appendix that tried to list most of the birds of Mexico; it was helpful, just not helpful enough for Neotropical beginners like Kenny and me.

The first Mexican field guide to appear was Birds of Mexico: A Guide for Field Identification published in 1953– several months after we got back home–by Emmet Reid Blake.  Blake was associate curator of birds at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Except for a frontispiece of the Collared Aracari, the book lacked colored illustrations, though about 350 species (or at least their heads) were illustrated with black-and-white drawings. Nevertheless, it was a very useful book and allowed us to identify most of our unknowns.  The first Mexican field guide with color illustrations of most species was the Peterson guide by Peterson and Edward L. Chalif. It did not appear until 1973–though it had been promised years before.

In my early days, I enjoyed seeing rare birds, and I still do.  I still enjoy birding, and I think this is probably true of most ornithologists.  Avian biologists, maybe not so much.

But there are many sorts of rare birds and some are more interesting than others.  An ordinary extralimital observation, say some European shorebird or gull that through a series of errors spends a few days on a Michigan beach or a mall parking lot is only mildly interesting; it does not have a lot of biology going for it.  Maybe there could be some interest in knowing what physiological aberration caused it to go astray and what the fate of the bird was.  A good many of these out-of-place birds are waifs whose life expectancy may be pretty short.

On the other hand, among the shorebirds and gulls, it sometimes happens that a single individual of an out-of-range species turns up at the same place in two or more successive falls, as Philip Chu describes in some of his species accounts in The Birds of Michigan (edited by G. A. McPeek and R. J. Adams, Jr.).  The suspicion in such a case is that the same individual bird is making the same mistakes in successive years.  That would be interesting. Interesting too is the case (also mentioned by Chu) of one adult Sandwich Tern being seen in June 1986 along Lake Superior in Minnesota, in 1987 at Lake Michigan near Berrien Springs, in Ontario April, May, and June 1988, and in April 1989 at Lake Michigan near Chicago.  It’s impossible to know if all the reports were of the same bird, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

Particularly interesting these days would be the first representatives of some southern species to try to nest in Michigan.  Someday, as the climate warms, several southern species may become common, but the first recorded nesting pair will be a rarity worth watching for.

Another interesting rarity is the Merlin that nested in Kalamazoo this past summer. Here is a species that seems to be nesting a little farther south than used to be the case, seemingly going against the global warming trend.  What’s that about?

The Yellow-headed Blackbird and other Great Plains species that I talked about in an earlier post are also interesting.  An occasional individual wanders over to Michigan most summers, but in severe drought years, more come, and some nest.

I got a phone call about a rare bird a few days ago.  The caller had seen a remarkable bird in Oshtemo Township, which lies west of the city of Kalamazoo.  It was a large bird, mottled reddish with a yellow head and a long tail.  The bird was at the edge of a wooded area.  I couldn’t think of any local native species or, in fact, any North American species that met those specifications.  But I’ve been baffled before when trying to identify a bird based on someone’s description.  Because we each have our own frame of reference, a description of what seems like a fabulous species can turn out to be something relatively routine.

Fortunately, the caller had taken photos.  Unfortunately, the image of the bird was too small to make out much detail.  But it was clearly a reddish bird with a yellow head and a long tail, standing on the ground.

It looked like a pheasant but was not any of the varieties of Ring-necked Pheasant that occur in North America.  Of course, Ring-necked Pheasants are not native to North America.  In Michigan, they were imported and released many times from the 1880s on by farmers, hunters, sportsmen’s clubs and the Michigan Conservation Department.  The species was well established in the state by about 1920.  Here in southwest Michigan, it was particularly abundant in the early 1970s but declined sharply after three hard winters late in that decade and has never, or at least not yet, recovered.

This bird was no Ring-necked Pheasant, but it did not take long to identify which pheasant it most likely was–a male Golden Pheasant, Chrysolophus pictus.

Golden Pheasants are native to China, occurring in broad-leaved evergreen forest and bamboo thickets of mountainous regions. The giant panda, in its much reduced current distribution, often occurs in the same habitats as the Golden Pheasant.

The life history of the Golden Pheasant in the wild seems poorly studied.  Because it has been widely imported to Europe and the U.S. by game-bird fanciers and aviculturists since the mid 18th century, its reproduction and life in captivity are well known.  Releases in some parts of the United Kingdom evidently led to some temporarily self-sustaining populations, but few have persisted.

I haven’t read of any feral populations of Golden Pheasants in the U.S., and I expect that the bird seen in Oshtemo escaped from some local pheasant fancier.  Aviculturists have propagated various mutants and hybrids, and the bird  in Oshtemo could well have been one of those rather than pure wild-type Chrysolophus pictus.

If I happened to see the Oshtemo Golden Pheasant, I don’t think I’d post it on the Michigan birding list or add it to my life list, if I still kept one.  But it would be fun to catch a glimpse of a large red bird with a yellow head the next time I’m driving in the vicinity of Prairie Ridge Elementary School.

Getting Maps Right for the Color-blind Naturalist

Rainbow at dusk near Tarcoles, Costa Rica, 17 February 2010. Photo by Richard Brewer

The January 2010 issue of The Auk published my review of the Atlas of Breeding Birds of Ontario, 2001-2005.  It’s a fine book. It may be a little heavy for some readers–it weighs more than seven pounds.

The next (April) issue of The Auk published a Letter to the Editor that made reference to the review.  The letter from Wayne E. Thogmartin (with the U.S. Geological Survey at its LaCrosse, Wisconsin, center) was prompted, he wrote, by “a peculiar aside proffered by the author.”  He then quoted the following passage from my review:

A word about the colors of the maps:  Like nearly 10% of males in the United States (a similar prevalence in Canada, I suspect), I have red-green color blindness.  Though it may seem unfair that maps and other color-coded graphics should be designed with 10% of one-half of the human population in mind, I suggest that it is unwise to design materials that will be unintelligible or at best ambiguous for this segment of the population. My wife, like 99% of the female population, has good color vision.  She informs me that the breeding evidence maps use the following colors–gold, orange, red, yellow, and dark gray (plus white). I can separate all these colors, whether I can identify them or not.

I have more trouble with the relative abundance maps; they use white, yellow, gold, light orange, orange, and red.  In areas where the abundance level marches in orderly progression from low to high, I can pretty much distinguish the six abundance classes.  But an isolated blob might require considerable study in very good light.

At least these maps do not intermix red and green.

The emphasis was added by Thogmartin.

He calculated that at 8% prevalence in the general (male) population, about 140 members of the AOU are likely to have red-green color blindness, or “color-vision impairment.” He went on to say, “Any failure to produce a color legend that is informative to the full spectrum of ornithologists is unfortunate,” because methods are available that allow map-makers to produce maps with color schemes everyone can interpret. He cited several sources that can be consulted by the map-maker who aspires to inclusiveness and social equity.

I’m indebted to Thogmartin for making my aside operational.  I admit I’m puzzled by his characterization of it as “peculiar.”  But it does seem odd, if not peculiar, that one of the most important students of getting map colors right for the color-blind, as cited by Thogmartin, is also named Brewer.  That would be Cynthia A., professor of geography at Penn State (no relation).

Cynthia A.  has an online tool for map design, ColorBrewer, that looks very useful for designing color schemes. On the other hand, just having the cartographer confer with a color-vision impaired person might do the trick almost as well.  The map Presettlement Vegetation of Kalamazoo County, Michigan (Thomas W. Hodler, Richard Brewer, Lawrence G. Brewer (also no relation), and Henry A. Raup, 1981, Western Michigan University Department of Geography) has a color scheme anyone can readily interpret because a color-vision impaired person (me) chose the colors for the cartographer.

I noticed a couple of days ago that the National Weather Service’s on-line radar maps have a downloadable Color Blindness Tool (located on the left side of the screen under Additional Info:)  On-line radar has always looked like multicolored hash to me, so I’m hoping the tool (Visolve) will prove usable and useful.