A Stint on the Way to Mt. Washington
Departing Cleveland on the 20th day of July that midsummer of 1962 was, owing to my inexperience of driving in traffic, tantamount to running from, with, and away from the bulls. The four lanes started out at 35 mph, the faster with the addition of two more lanes, and faster still as more crowded on what, if I counted correctly, eight lanes. It was one of those all too familiar situations. Go as fast as you can, watch out for anyone changing lanes, keep one foot hovered over the brake pedal and one foot on the throttle. It was a relief to escape the traffic.
In my last letter home, I wrote that my next General Delivery address would be Bar Harbor, Maine, where I planned to be on 1 August. I was right on schedule for catching the shorebird migration along the shore. I also wanted to be north of the dog days of summer to try to escape the hot humid nights and days I knew to be so unpleasant. I also wrote home that I was alternating the use of the two gas credit cards I carried. The cards were really my dads’ cards. In 1962, at least in the circles that I was familiar, just any old credit card would not work at any of the gas stations as they do today. Furthermore, teenagers very rarely had their own credit card accounts. Before leaving Oregon my savings account became accessible to my dad, who paid the gas companies. He also occasionally wired me money from the account, which I converted into travelers’ checks.
My ledger of expenses by the third week of July showed that I had spent about $40 for food or about 80 cents a day. Of course there were those that feed me, either to hear, in return, what in the world I was attempting, or was it just raw pity. In addition, of course, there was the week in Ohio at the relatives, who provided food and lodging. Relatives, by proxy, have to feed you. I budgeted for $150 for miscellaneous expenses. Any budget should have a section that covers the unexpected or unclassifiable costs. Mine included postage, film development, lots of ice, camping and YMCA fees, and anything else that did not fall under food or transportation. By now, I had spent almost as much on miscellaneous expenses as I had on food. The transportation part of the budget of course took into consideration distance traveled and the going price for gasoline. It also allowed for oil changes and lubes, and even the slowly seeping transaxle. By late July 1962, I had spent about $61 to get myself to the east side of Cleveland.
Paul Savage, long-term resident and birder of Ashtabula, Ohio, and I had exchanged letters prior to me leaving Oregon. He wrote that I should look him up when I got in town. I ended up as a guest for a couple of nights. Paul’s wife, Lois, although not a birder, was great company and a gracious host. Paul had written that this time of year it was a good possibility to see Ruddy Turnstones, a Willet or two, and “most of the common sandpipers.”
Starting on the afternoon of the 20th and during the next day, we scoured Walnut Beach of Lake Erie for shorebirds. Ruddy Turnstones, as promised, were foraging, but not with Willets but with Sanderlings, Semipalmated Plovers, and both species of yellow-legs. It is reassuring to know for sure which bird is the Lesser and which is the Greater Yellowleg. There were Dunlins dotting the sand. Dunlins were new for the trip and several species of shorebirds were life birds, including the plover and Stilt Sandpiper. Besides the shorebirds, a couple of early Blue Geese, a dark morph of Snow Goose, were on the shore. Among the Herring Gulls were smaller Ring-billed Gulls, and a new one for the trip, Bonaparte’s Gull.
The next morning, following sleep on a clean and comfortable bed and hearty breakfast, we hit the beach again. Jon Ahlquist, a young high school student who painted birds, joined us. Between yesterday afternoon, today, and early tomorrow we would see 71 species. Over half were nonpasserines, with Great Blue Heron topping the list by its rank in taxonomic sequence and over all height. We scared up Green Herons and a Least Bittern. There were two species of geese and four species of ducks, Turkey Vulture and Sparrow Hawks, a couple of different woodpeckers, gulls, three species of terns, and 13 species of shorebirds.
We carefully checked each and every one. Paul said you could not be too careful when it comes to identifying shorebirds, especially this time of the year when the more distinctive breeding plumages are replaced by drabber fall plumages. We soon realized that one of the sandpipers was different. About the size of the other so-called peep sandpipers, our mystery bird was far more rufous than the others were. We watched from inside a car and were only feet away from the bird and the other peeps incessantly jabbing the sand for morsels. We could see eyes blinking, sand stuck to damp scurrying feet, and, from our vantage point, we noticed that most of the Least and Semipalmated sandpipers would jab at our mystery bird if it attempted to come as close as their own kind. The lone bird was not in Peterson. We just did not know what it was but we knew it was something unusual, or like so many birders, we hoped it was unusual. With no other choice, we left Walnut Beach for reinforcements.
A couple of unsuccessful phone calls to other birders meant we were on our own. Jon grabbed his camera and I grabbed a couple of books I thought might help, and we were soon back on the beach. At first, we were more nervous than the shorebirds scattered along the beach, but we quickly found our strange bird. While Paul drove to the beach, Jon loaded his camera, and I flipped through pages in Pough’s field guide. There was an illustration of a bird in full breeding plumage that fit our bird perfectly but how could an Asian species get to faraway Lake Erie? Part of the adventure of birding is that almost anything can happen. The three of us deliberated, and decided our bird was a Rufous-necked Sandpiper. Jon took numerous photographs, which we hoped would help prove our sighting. Otherwise, who would believe us?
My hand-written lists of birds for each birding site I visited during the trip, listed species in the taxonomic sequence of the 5th edition of the AOU Check-list. My journal was typed. I made no mention on plumage patterns of dunlins. If I had looked closer, I wonder if I would have noticed they were the subspecies from Arctic Canada. Probably not, but my two taxonomic papers, one of them thirty years from the day on Walnut Beach, revealed the Canadian birds had faint markings on their flanks, a character not found in any of the many subspecies of this circumpolar bird.
In September 1962, Paul Savage satisfied my anxiety about the rare sandpiper. He wrote that the company Jon sent the film had taken extra-long in processing and that only one slide of two photos revealed relevant characters to enable identification. Paul planned to send copies of the slide to Gabrielson and Dr. Axtell. I met Harold Axtell at the Buffalo Museum of Natural History the same day I departed Ashtabula. Ira N. Gabrielson was a name I knew well; he was the senior author of the 1940 Birds of Oregon, the definite work on my state. I met Ira N. Gabrielson in the late 1960s. When I boldly announced to Dr. Gabrielson my intention of writing a new book on Oregon’s birds, he surely chuckled inside. Little did I realize the magnitude of such task. My contribution as the taxonomic editor of the 2003 “Birds of Oregon” shepherded by Dave Marshall, I hope, would have pleased Dr. Gabrielson.
Anyway, getting back to the mystery bird, Paul wrote the next month that Dr. Dean Amadon, Lamont Curator of birds at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Dr. Alexander Wetmore of the National Museum of Natural History, and Oberholser at Cleveland had examined the slide. They agreed that the bird was definitely a Red-necked Sandpiper that later became known as Red Stint. The photo these ornithologists reviewed is on the web at www.aves.net/ohio-shorebirds/OSNphotos-vagrants.htm. The modern marvels of science reveal all. Since our sighting, the first in the contiguous United States, Red-necked Stints have been discovered at several localities on the east and west coasts. The species now appears in most editions of the various field guides, including Peterson.
During discussions on my last night at the Savage’s, Paul and I agreed that specimens were the preferred means for documenting and confirming bird distribution. I came to agree with our decision more and more during my career. Paul and I kept in touch until 1965 following the departing of Lois, his wife, and my engulfing college days. In his last letter, he wrote that Jon is beginning involvement with Charles Sibley, who is investigating the systematics of birds using proteins.
It was raining while Paul and I toured Pymatuning State Park in Pennsylvania. The park and reservoir by the same name border western Ohio. We also drove to Presque Isle, a point of land jutting a few miles into Lake Erie and famous as a migrant trap. Both places were literally washouts; the wet deluge drenched everything under the dark sky. No new birds were to be found today. There were essentially no birds of any kind. Back in Ashtabula, I thanked Lois and Paul for their help and hospitality, and drove east along the Lake Erie shore on U.S. 20 to Buffalo, New York.
The rain had stopped by late afternoon when I drove to Humboldt Park to meet Dr. Harold Axtell, the curator of birds at the Buffalo Museum of Science. He had written a paper in 1938 on the song of Kirtland’s Warbler, and he was the first curator of a museum that I had ever met. A checklist accompanied Dr. Axtell’s lengthy April reply to my questions about birding in the Buffalo region. He had marked the species likely to been seen in late July. The list promised few species that would be new for the trip.
By previous invitation, I stayed the next two nights at the Axtell cottage just across the Peace River in Ontario. It turned out, to Dr. Axtell’s surprise that a number of relatives had also planned to stay at the cottage. I said I would be happy rolling out a sleeping bag on the lawn. That was not an option, nor was it an option to sleep on the porch. Hospitality is not limited to the south, and I ended up in a comfortable bed.
The next morning began with a hardy breakfast in an all-night café. I had Canadian bacon with two eggs and toast. It was 5:30 a.m. and the day was just beginning. We drove back to Buffalo to pick up Kenneth P. Able, who has lived in the region about a year but Dr. Axtell said Kenneth had a remarkable knowledge of local birds. Yesterday Ken completed leading a local bird group counting shorebirds. A Ruff was among 18 species of shorebirds. We combed the locality where the solitary European waif was last observed. Throughout the day, we revisited the site three more time, but the Ruff was not being found. We did manage to find 11 species of shorebirds, which was more species than I had ever seen in one day. Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, members of the small sandpipers sometimes called peeps. Our Rufous-necked Sandpiper falls into the arbitrary peep designation. It is always fun to watch sandpipers fly in their tight formations as they wheel back and forth in zig-zags swooping up and down over the flat. How they do that without crashing into one another is amazing.
A little after a quick lunch clouds rolled across the sky but that did not dissuade us as we continued to bird the shore of Lake Erie, marshes and nearby deciduous forests. We saw only two species of warblers, no vireos, all possible swallows except Cliffs, but only one species of flycatcher. We found one thoroughly dead Black-billed Cuckoo nearly flattened on the pavement. Besides the shorebirds, the highlights were two new birds, Great Black-backed Gull and Mute Swan. As the light faded in the west, we hurried one last time to where the Ruff was last seen. Again, the beach was empty.
After dinner, Harold talked about his plan to turn the acreage around his newly purchased property into a sanctuary. He already had planted 600 evergreen trees and several species of plants that would produce seeds to attract finches. Several bird feeders and baths dotted the land. He also talked about the difficulty in chairing list committees, stating that the “big shots” would threaten to leave the local group if their records were not accepted. He also recalled his 1949 birding hitch-hiking tour of the U.S. As I lay in a cozy bed, I thought about the 65 species we had seen, and Harold at the wheel of his sedan. He had the annoying habit of pumping the accelerator. The car’s small engine and being in high gear probably kept us from lurching back and forth. I ignored the pulsating sound as much as possible until the behavior seemed normal to me as it was for Harold. We had talked until 2 a.m. Sleep soon overcame another great day.
Howard Axtell’s position as a curator intrigued me. But, really, I could not imagine at that time what a curator really did. About nine years later, I began learning about curators, curation, and museums. I also began meeting curators. They are keepers of the treasury of specimens that continue to teach us the many facets of biology. Curators are orderly and well-organized people at least insofar as the collections in their responsibility. Some are stuffy and difficult, wear suits and real shoes. Some wear sandals and Hawaiian shirts in the summer. Most bird curators are somewhere in-between formal and informal. Harold Axtell was somewhere in the middle.
Shorebirds flying as if in a ballet also intrigued me. Kenneth Able, many years later, would write that slow-motion photography reveals that the whirling flocks are led by different individuals during a flight and that as a leader changes course, the entire flock cues on the leader. The change in direction and speed takes place in microseconds. If humans could react as rapidly, there might be fewer auto accidents. Just think how such reaction time would enhance our birding.
Before leaving the Buffalo region, I drove to Niagara Falls, the town, in Ontario, Canada. At the shoulder of the city was the river and world-famous fall by the same name. Niagara Falls was well-known to Iroquois Indians, who informed French explorers about the Falls. It was later, possibly 1615, when Etienne Brule, the first European to the see all of the Great Lakes but Lake Michigan, and became the first tourist to view Niagara Falls. This is where the Niagara River, flowing from Lake Erie jumps downward abruptly before emptying in to Lake Huron, the last lake before the St. Lawrence River. The immensity of water jumping over the edge of the Niagara Escarpment at Horseshoe Falls was breathtaking. I can still hear the liquid roar pounding the rocks below. The plummeting water travels vertically only 177 feet from the top of the 400 million year old escarpment that existed about 350 million years before dinosaurs were extinct. Anyway, moving on millions of years, Niagara Falls begins to form. That was only about 12,000 years ago. About 7 thousand years later, we have the modern, postcard panorama of thundering Niagara Falls, complete with thousands of tourist. In fact, tourist attractions lined every shore of the river and the falls. The Canadian and American shores were crawling with people and everything that the civilized world brings with them. In this case, it was places to eat, buy souvenirs, film for more and more pictures, and tickets to the boat tour and any other tour that might bring a profit. I succumbed to the so-called tunnel tour. Draped in huge heavy rain coat and boots, I joined a similarly yellow clad group of tourist in an elevator that would lower us through part of the 400 million year old rock. After a long ride down several feet, the door opened to a hushed rumble and a misty tunnel. The wet rock walls of the corridor led to an area of natural light where an opening put the observer behind a curtain of water. I looked through the opaque Niagara River as it raced vertically to the talus below. The mass of water was frightening. The thick curtain’s steady flow roared vertically downward out of sight, hidden by the cold mist billowing upward and all around. Back on the elevator, its doors closed, someone announced that 90% of the six million cubic feet of water plummeting over the three Niagara Falls thunder over 170 foot Horseshoe Falls. The thunderous rumble of Horseshoe Falls came into the elevator and hushed the chattering tourists.
Although the rain gear kept most of my clothes dry, I was drenched around the edges. Even though I have avoided most tourist attractions, other than National Parks, I was happy with my subterranean experience. In fact, getting so close to the falls was fantastic. There was so much water. The force was humbling. As I walked back to the car parked somewhere in the acres of paved parking lots, I glanced back at the falls, held my hands up to frame my view as if a movie photographer, and took in the view. My hands blocked out the manmade structures for a more natural Niagara Falls. They were beautiful.
Eight years later, I visited Niagara Falls on a break from an A.O.U. annual meeting. My daughter was still in her swaddling clothes. Harold Axtell was at the meeting. We reminisced about birding in 1962 but not for long. He was part of the committee hosting the meeting. Anyone who has helped host a large meeting knows that there is little time for musing.
The next pilgrimage, about 20 years after the first, was for a leg stretching on a trip back from a Wilson’s Ornithological Society meeting at Guelph, just west of Toronto. There were a few hundred Ring-billed Gulls milling on the talus of Goat Island between Horseshoe and American Falls, but as was the other visits, there was little birding activity to report.
The importance of the history and geology of Niagara Falls, since there were so few birds to see in late July 1962 or the other hurried visits, bears a couple of comments. A geologist named Lyell was interested in the rate Niagara Escarpment was eroding. He surveyed people living in the area about how quickly they thought the Falls was eroding the escarpment. They told him that it was wearing away at about 4 feet per year, but that was not what Lyell wanted to hear. That rate meant Niagara Falls was too young to support Lyell’s theory determining the age of earth. And, here is the rub. Lyell fabricated the facts, and published an erosion rate of one foot per year. He claimed that the Falls were 35,000 years old or too old to conform to Biblical timeframes. Oh well. Erosion is the primary factor that will change the Falls. The average rate of erosion is now believed to be about 5 feet per year, which means it will take between 8,000 to 12,000 years, give or take a few months, before the Falls erodes all the way south to Lake Erie. In the meantime, an average of 212,000 cubic feet of water per second falls a distance of 325 feet from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. Power companies have harnessed some of flow and in doing so have slowed some of the erosion either by happenstance or on purpose. Slowing the rate of erosion would benefit the production of 5,965,600 kilowatts of electricity and keep the tourist facilities standing.
Ontario’s Niagara River, including the falls, is reputed as being an excellent place for gull watching. Summer, when I was there in 1962, is not the time for gull watching. Approximately 14 million human visitors (in 2004) far outnumber birders and gulls. Southern Ontario has also offered up some interesting specimens of gulls, among which, with thousands from museums, especially collections in southern Ontario, were the subject of an attempt by Dick Banks and I to unravel the mystery and controversy of the true relationship of Arctic nesting Thayer’s Gull. We traveled to museums in Toronto and Ottawa and elsewhere to study gulls. Our travels between those collections demanded we hurry as we careened past the Buffalo Museum of Natural History, along the shores of Lake Huron and the St. Lawrence River. However, that is another story. In 1962, I did not attempt to identify Thayer’s Gulls; the A.O.U. considered it a subspecies of Herring Gull. I was not trying to identify subspecies, and the only likely place of seeing a Thayer’s was along the Atlantic shore where the species winters casually.
Yesterday my plan for camping somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester was not possible along the route. I pushed on to Rochester for a bed at a YMCA. Before turning in early (I usually was asleep before most since I was usually up very early), I made a couple of calls to birders mentioned in Buffalo. It was just about my usual bedtime when I found a YMCA for last night’s respite. My potential guides were busy; Rochester was not going to be a birding location.
When the morning broke, I bought 7.8 gallons gas for $2.35, food for $2.00, and ice for 25 cents, and headed east to Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. The refuge is located on the north end of Cayuga Lake near Seneca Falls. The 6,432 acres of marsh and swamp, and even the cultivated fields offered some reasonable birding. It was windy, with the threat of thunderstorms. A Semipalmated Plover at refuge headquarters perked me up. Three people down one of the dikes were glassing over a group of Gadwalls. By coincidence, the three were the very same people I had phoned last night. A few feet down the dike, they identified the squawking call of a Green Heron as a Pileated Woodpecker. That is when I decided to go solo for the remainder of my visit to the refuge. I managed to find 34 species that balmy afternoon.
Not far from Montezuma NWR was Cayuga State Park where I spent the night. I should have gone fishing the next morning. Cayuga Lake beckoned those imagining a northern pike or large-mouthed bass hooked for breakfast. Fishing was not in today’s plan. The Rochester group at Montezuma yesterday suggested I drive down to Cornell University to visit Sapsucker Woods. Anyone who listens to recorded sounds of birds has heard of Sapsucker Woods. The place is famous. By the time I rolled into Ithaca the sun was baking the Finger Lakes region. The only thing that prevented the hot rays from drying everything to a crisp was the heavy overbearing humidity. My first set of directions from a student I snagged turned out to be directions to one of the dorms. The second, third, and fourth set of directions from students were useless. The hot sun bearing down and my heated frustration got the better of me. I drove east, ending up at a YMCA in Amsterdam northwest of Schenectady. It was a sultry night. I looked for an all-night movie theater hoping for some air-conditioned relief. There was none.
Vermont was another new state. It was by far the most mountainous state since leaving Montana, and it was the greenest eastern state yet. Not far east of Rutland I hiked part of the Appalachian Trail to look for Blackpoll Warblers and Boreal Chickadees. The southern part of the trail doubles as part of the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail. The former begins in Georgia and ends 2,159 miles to the north at Katahdin in northern Maine. The Appalachian Trail probably originated in 1921 whereas the 265 miles of Long Trail, extends the length of Vermont and began in 1910. I hiked to the fork where the Appalachian Trail continues northeast, and Long Trail bears left and north toward Canada. I opted for Canada but only for a couple of miles. The cool forest was full of deciduous trees that seemed huge to the scrub oaks and madrones of southwestern Oregon. The wide leaves of these Vermont trees could not stand the searing dry summers of the west. Fire danger, according to a local warden is low. Out west, the dehydrated pines and firs were experiencing fire danger levels of high to extreme. Some were burning. The New England forest floor was thick and moist, with matted ferns and shaggy mosses. There was a soft rustling breeze along the deserted trail. The warblers and chickadees, if they were there, remained unseen and quiet.
My list for the round trip hike was shameful. Three species of warblers that I had seen elsewhere, Black-capped Chickadees, Eastern Wood Pewee, a couple of finches, American Robin and Slate-colored Junco. This was the third day since seeing any species new for the trip. I was becoming discouraged.
The drive north to capitol Montpelier was grand, and almost wild except for the frequent New England hamlets, with white church spires and small neat fields sharing the wooded slopes. There was more of the same east to the Fairbanks Natural History Museum in St. Johnsbury. The museum is similar the one in Buffalo. Both began in the 19th Century, were crowded and poorly funded. I spent most of my time in the cool halls of the natural history exhibits, and peeked in their one-year-old planetarium. This was a new and almost unbelievable experience. I could almost hear the faint calls of thrushes and warblers migrating in the night sky.
The next morning I woke in White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire. I hoped to take the cog-driven train to the top of 6,288 foot Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeast. I would be just one of many since the first train, called Old Pepperass, made the climb in 1869, but I could not afford the fee. The wind above timberline, I had read, can be ferocious, with a 231 miles per hour blow as the a World record. I suppose I could have hiked the easy trail to the summit but it was not the risk but the time it would have taken. Remarkably, Mount Washington has one of the highest human casualty rates in world. Because it is relatively accessible to a large population, many inexperienced or out of shape, people think they can accomplish the deceptively easy trek. Hikers often misjudge rapidly severe weather changes on its slopes. People going up Mt. Washington have died from many causes. Chronicled is an over- turned carriage (in 1880), avalanche, getting lost, a Pepperass engine accident, heart attack, and among others, drowning. I don’t understand drowning but the guy who died of hypothermia in June1962 is understandable to a westerner. Actually, according the brochures, the killer weather on Mt. Washington is the worst in North America and even rivals that of Antarctica!
Not far from the Mt. Washington trail, I managed to find three chickadees. My first view of these birds was their backs and crowns, which resembled badly faded Black-caps. About the time I saw the dark flanks, I heard the nasal call heard from my Sapsucker Woods recording. I suppose I should have paid homage at Cornell University, but I didn’t, and the cool New England woods gave me my first Boreal Chickadee. Tried as I did, no Blackpoll Warblers or Gray-cheeked Thrushes could be found.
I made no record of the fee to get up Mt. Washington. Recalling my tight budget, it was probably $5.00. In 2004, it was $49.00 per adult. It may be luck that I didn’t try to hike to the summit. The average temperature at the top is only 26.5º F, with a range from -47º to 72º. The average wind-chill in July is five degrees below freezing. After 1962 there were deaths caused by hypothermia and a couple of plane crashes. There was even a murder on the mountain.
Almost two months and a continent were nearly behind me. This is the day for arriving on the Atlantic shore. Maine, as did Vermont and New Hampshire, go down in my list of new states. The Atlantic Ocean would be a lifer. I was excited but before I got there, after traveling almost across the United States I was stuck behind what appeared to be an overloaded truck of cattle on a narrow two-lane highway. It was bumping along about 25 mph. After a couple of miles, I chanced to pass but had to duck back behind the cow brigade. After another slow mile, I looked in my rearview mirror to see a car speeding toward the mooing bovine and me. I wasn’t sure if I should go for the shoulder or try to pass. The car was rapidly filling my rearview mirror. A sickening screech of tires quickened my pulse. The rearview mirror revealed the driver’s pursed lips and wide eyes. By then the shoulder was gone so I swung out into the oncoming lane, which I hoped would be empty for a while and I stepped on it. Not much happened; my vintage car was slow to respond and no one was in the westbound lane. The speeding car behind me twisted and dipped to a tire burning 25 mph just inches from on looking cows at the rear of the truck. After overtaking the beef, I discovered that there was a slow car directly in front of the truck. Apparently, this was the leader of the herd. Somehow my little engine could get me a couple car lengths ahead before I pulled into my eastbound lane, not a second before an oncoming vehicle. Ten miles closer to the Atlantic the car that nearly rear-ended me was barely staying on the cambered road as it went careening by doing over seventy.