1 December 1987
Dear Friends and Family,
Season's Greetings! It's time for our second annual Christmas letter, bringing you up to date on what we've been doing over the last year, and, we hope, prompting those of you from whom we've not heard recently to write and let us know you're alive.
Where to begin? Eileen has nearly finished her masters, and started teaching this fall at a local Catholic school with temporary certification. She is teaching 7th and 8th grade social studies and a few miscellaneous classes to her 7th grade homeroom. She hopes to finish up her degree at the end of next summer, the vagaries of course scheduling permitting.
I have continued to enjoy my job at Kodak very much. The end of my training program is now in sight (a few months), and I have made some significant research advances that have resulted in several talks and reports. The research is difficult but each time a breakthrough occurs it is immediately useful to someone, which is encouraging.
We have continued to do lots of photography, and are getting better all the time. I am continuing to try to build a reference collection of slides of the more difficult bird groups, e.g. sandpipers and gulls, and have learned a great deal about their plumages this way. Eileen has been photographing all the kids in her homeroom with some very nice results. And, of course, we've been doing lots of scenic photography on our various trips.
Our big trip of the year was a 15-day trip driving from here
On the bird front, in addition to the five "lifers"
(birds seen for the first time) on the Dakotas Trip, I got four other lifers in
This year I worked fairly hard on a year list (an attempt to
see as many species as possible in a calendar year) in the
We hope that you have a great holiday season!
The trip was largely organized around trying to see half a
dozen lifers which could be found near the center of the continent: Kirtland's
Warbler, Yellow Rail, Spruce Grouse, White-winged Crossbill (not found on this
trip, but subsequently found on a canoeing trip in the Adirondacks), and LeConte's and Baird's Sparrows. The first day we drove to
Grayling MI, where we saw Kirtland's Warbler the next morning. Kirtland's
Warbler is a very rare songbird (a few hundred pairs), breeding only in stands
of sapling jack pines in a small area in Michigan, wintering only in the
Caribbean, and almost never seen in between in migration. It was interesting to
note the transition to boreal habitats as we got farther north in
That evening we joined a researcher at Seney National Wildlife Refuge (NWR) to search for one the more elusive North American birds, Yellow Rail. The freshwater marshes on the restricted western edge of the refuge are the finest I have ever seen. Once it got totally dark (about ten at night), the rails started calling. We attracted them by tapping pebbles together in imitation of their call, which brought one bird in close enough to be caught with a large net. They really bite! Around midnight, as we returned to our campsite, we were treated to the first aurora borealis we had ever seen! Really, two life birds and a life phenomenon in one day is almost too much.
On Day 3 we headed west across the UP to the Yellow Dog Plain near Marquette, where Spruce Grouse (an elusive but tame boreal species) had been extensively studied by Bill Robinson at the University of Michigan. Much of this area has been lumbered, but what remains undisturbed is very beautiful, consisting of spruce/jack pine forests with occasional open boggy areas. We spent the better part of the next day looking for grouse in the rain without success; late in the afternoon the weather cleared a bit and Bill met us with a new graduate student, Neil, and helped us in our search. We carried two stuffed grouse (a male and a female) and a tape recording with highly stimulating grouse vocalizations and tramped all over the place. At one point it was discovered that the head of the male stuffed bird had fallen off; when the head was finally relocated (at hundred to one odds, at least), Neil quipped "Are you sure it's the right one?" A few hours before dark we finally located two males and a female. Bill used the tape recorder and stuffed birds to lure one male in until it could be caught by hand!
Some years White-winged Crossbills breed in the UP but this did not seem to be one of those years so we moved on to Minnesota on Day 5 to explore the freshwater marshes near McGregor for LeConte's Sparrow (we heard this bird at Seney while looking for Yellow Rails but wanted to see it also if possible). There, at night, we heard more Yellow Rails (and saw one superbly), Sedge wrens (abundant), and Sharp-tailed Sparrows, as well as our target, LeConte's Sparrow. In the morning we saw these sparrows by going back to the areas where we heard them the night before.
One Day 6 we drove to northeast
After some more birding and photographing the following
morning, we headed south towards the Black Hills of South Dakota. The
topography became decidedly reminiscent of the arid southwest when we reached
the Little Missouri R. in southwest
The Black Hills, especially
In total, we saw about 180 species of birds (5 lifers) and
21 species of mammals (no lifers). We drove a total of 5315 miles, and shot 35
rolls of film. The trip was highly successful in terms of finding the last of
the "prairie" specialties I hadn't seen (some I had already seen in