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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

there are two kinds of yellowlegs, greater and lesser, but I can't tell which they are at this distance. © Tom Lowes
"…there are two kinds of yellowlegs, greater and lesser, but I can't tell which they are at this distance."

© Tom Lowes

October 2007

Century Run

A boy and his father wing it for birding glory.

Dave Crehore

In my dream I was in the belfry of a church steeple. The bell was ringing, and from the bottom of a long ladder, someone was shouting my name.

Then I woke up. My windup alarm clock was winding down and Dad was calling me from the foot of the stairs.

I opened my eyes and shut the alarm off. It was 3:30 in the morning. I put on jeans and a wool shirt, laced up my boots, hung binoculars around my neck and stuffed my copy of "A Field Guide to the Birds" into a back pocket. It was the first Saturday in May, 1953. I was 11 years old, and Dad and I were going all out to win the father-and-son division of the Bird Breakfast birding contest.

I'm not sure when Manitowoc's Bird Breakfast got started, but in the early fifties it was a minor cultural institution, sponsored by St. Paul's Methodist Church. For a couple of years it was held at our house just outside the city limits. I don't know why we were chosen to host the event, but I suspect it was because we belonged to the church and had two bathrooms.

The procedure was to arrive at dawn, eat an outdoor breakfast cooked on a Coleman stove, and then go birding. The competitors listed the species they saw, and those who had the most birds by noon won modest prizes. Scoring was on the honor system, so beginning birders who said they saw fulvous tree-ducks or painted buntings got to count them. Some participants did not go birding at all, but instead hung around Dad and his big cast iron skillet, eating bacon and eggs and drinking coffee. "My God, Dave, that makes three eggs I've had," a man would say, and Dad would reply, "Five, but who's counting?"

Birders gathered at dawn for breakfast on a Coleman stove. © Tom Lowes
Birders gathered at dawn for breakfast on a Coleman stove.

© Tom Lowes

This year, though, Dad was leaving the cooking to Mom. This year, I was old enough to do some fairly serious birding. Dad and I were going to skip breakfast, start out in total darkness, drive briskly from one hot spot to another, and rack up sixty or seventy species. This year, we were going to win.

Mom, Dad and I had no particular interest in birds until we moved from Ohio to Manitowoc in 1950. But when we bought our house on River Road, we acquired Merle Pickett and Lillian Marsh as neighbors, and they were master birders: experts, sharks. They knew habitats, field marks and songs, and shared their knowledge with everyone.

Under their guidance we became birders as well. Not masters, of course, but devoted apprentices. And now, with three years of bird-chasing under our belts, Dad and I were serious contenders for the father-and-son title.

Down in the kitchen, Dad poured me a half-cup of coffee and slapped butter on toast. "Eat quick, and let's get going," he said. "We've got a lot of miles to drive."

Dad planned our day as we finished our coffee. "First stop is the thrush woods," he said. "We should get two or three thrushes and a couple of owls, if we're lucky. Then we'll drive out to Collins for puddle ducks and shorebirds. After that we'll come back here and check out Rahr's farm. Then the cemetery, Lincoln Park and the Little Manitowoc, if we can squeeze it all in."

Nip and Jeff, our beagles, yawned and stretched and kept an eye on us. They knew something was up and wanted to be included. Dad reached down and patted Jeff's head. "No, we aren't going rabbit hunting and you aren't coming along," he said. "But don't feel bad, boys – in a couple of hours there'll be a hundred people here, and all the left-overs you can eat."

Outside, we paused for a moment in front of the garage. The moon was down, it was pitch dark and there wasn't a breath of wind. From the black sky overhead we heard the faint chipping calls of migrating songbirds. We weren't skillful enough to identify them, but birds were clearly on the move.

Dad raised the garage door. It made its usual screech and was answered by the rasping crow of a cock pheasant somewhere down in the wooded ravine that ran along the east side of our yard. "How about that!" Dad said. "Species number one and we haven't even started the car. Maybe it's an omen."

On our way to the thrush woods, Dad turned on the overhead light in our Studebaker station wagon. He took a folded bird list from his field guide. "You can be the accountant today," he said, handing me the list. I ran the point of my pencil past the loons and ducks and geese until I came to "ring-necked pheasant" and made a small, careful check. "That's one," I said.

The thrush woods was our name for a woodlot about 10 miles west of town. It was split down the middle by a gravel road. We stopped part-way through. Dad opened the Studie's tailgate and we sat on it while he poured some coffee from the thermos and lit his pipe. We waited through five minutes of unbroken silence.

"Come on, owls," Dad whispered. He tapped his pipe on his palm, dislodging a small shower of glowing red embers onto the gravel. Then, at a considerable distance, we heard the first owl of the morning. Hoo, hoo-hoo, hoo, hoo, it said, in a five-note pattern I had heard once before. Dad struck a match so I could see the list, and I checked off the great horned owl. "That's two," Dad said. "Heard birds count, if you're really sure what they are."

There was a hint of gray in the east. Dad cupped his hands around his mouth. "I wonder if this will produce anything," he said. "I've never tried it, but I've heard that it works." He hooted eight times in a jazzy rhythm.

There was an immediate, loud reply from a tree almost overhead: Hoo Hoo Hoo-Hoo, Hoo Hoo, Hoo Hoo-aw!

We tried to spot the owl, but it was too dark. "You try it, Davy," Dad said. I hooted, and got a similar answer. The branches of the trees were now faintly silhouetted against the sky, but the owl was still invisible. "Anyway, it's a barred owl," Dad said. "That was worth the price of admission." I checked it off. So far we had three species without seeing a thing.

Dad and I sat on the tailgate for another ten minutes, drinking coffee and listening. The thrushes started in shortly after the owls knocked off, and for a while we were serenaded by a veery and a wood thrush singing simultaneously from opposite sides of the road.

"Some day," Dad said, "you'll be reading a book and come across the word 'ethereal.' It means heavenly, and it's the best word for the song of the wood thrush." I glanced up at Dad; I had never heard him say anything like that.

He looked at me and winked. "And maybe for Audrey Hepburn," he said. "She's pretty ethereal."

By this time it was light enough to walk into the woods. We saw hermit and olive-backed thrushes, a brown thrasher, a flicker and a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Birds were singing all around us. Dad peered through the underbrush. "There's a fallen log over there – let's sit on it for a minute and listen." But when we got within 30 feet of the log, it seemed to explode. There was a thunder of wings and a shower of leaves as a large bird rocketed into the air and disappeared.

"Grouse," Dad said. "We must have jumped him off his drumming log." We headed back to the car. On the way we passed through a small clearing and I flushed a chubby, long-billed bird that ran erratically ahead of us and then twittered into the air. "Woodcock," Dad said.

Back at the car, Dad looked at his watch. "Five-thirty. We've got to hit the road for Collins. The sun will be up soon."

I opened the door of the Studie and took a last look around. On a lower branch of a big oak I saw a small, white-bellied bird with an eye ring and a long tail. Dad saw it too, studied it with his binoculars, and flipped through his field guide. "Blue-gray gnatcatcher," he said. "Page one sixty-three."

On the way to Collins Marsh, I checked off the birds we had seen or heard at the thrush woods. We were up to 13.

The marsh was a low-lying area along the Manitowoc River, near the little town of Collins. In wet years, it provided a temporary stopping place for migrating waterfowl and shorebirds.

Dad turned down a side road and stopped beside a flooded cornfield that was covered with ducks. He started identifying them and pointing them out to me as I made checks on our list. We saw nine species of ducks, a horned grebe, a hooded merganser, a marsh hawk tilting low over the field, Forster's and black terns, an eastern kingbird and a yellow warbler. Through the shimmer and glare we thought we could see shorebirds on the far side of the cornfield, but they were too far away to identify with our seven-power binoculars.

"Shoot!" Dad said. "I was counting on getting some shorebirds at this spot. We could walk out there, but there's no cover and we'd just scare them away." I counted up my check marks. "That makes 29," I said.

Out on the highway, Dad gunned the Studie up through the gears and leveled off at about fifty. Then I saw some puddles in a grassy field just ahead. Dozens of small, long-legged birds were wading in the puddles.

"Shorebirds!" I yelled, and Dad stamped on the brakes. From behind us came the squealing of tires from a much larger car. It slid to a stop a few feet from our bumper. I looked back and saw the toothy grille of a Nash Ambassador. The car was painted an ominous black and white; it was a state trooper. "Oh, Lord," Dad said, and pulled over onto the shoulder.

The trooper got out of his cruiser, straightened his flat-brimmed campaign hat and walked slowly up to Dad's side of the car, carrying a leather citation book.

"What did you stop for?" the trooper said. "It's lucky I was paying attention or I would have run you over!"

"Well, officer, we saw those birds over there," Dad said, pointing. The trooper looked over the top of our car at the puddles.

"So there's birds," he said. "So what?"

Dad smiled ingratiatingly. "We're in a contest – a birdwatching contest."

"I never heard of a birdwatching contest," the trooper said, suspiciously. "Who's putting it on?"

"St. Paul's Methodist Church in Manitowoc," Dad said. "Oh," said the trooper. He didn't seem impressed. He was a big, beefy blond fellow, probably a Lutheran or Dutch Reformed.

"So what kind of birds do you see over there?" the trooper asked. "Let me look," Dad said, lifting his binoculars. "Well, right in front of us is a Wilson's snipe, and behind him is a flock of dunlins, and then just to the left is a semipalmated plover and a pectoral sandpiper. Then there's a solitary sandpiper, and behind it is a little flock of yellowlegs."

Dad rattled on nervously. "Actually there are two kinds of yellowlegs, greater and lesser, but I can't tell which they are at this distance. I think that's pretty much all – except, wait – yes, those little reddish birds drilling in the mud are dowitchers. There's two kinds of them, too – long-billed and short-billed, but they are really hard to tell apart if you can't hear them call...."

"OK, OK, I believe you," the trooper said, beginning to smile. "Tell you what, sir – when I got out of my car I was all set to write you a ticket for reckless driving. But you two have made my day. I can't wait for the shift change, so I can tell the other guys about those short-legged doohickeys," he said, laughing. "In the meantime, you Methodists keep an eye on your mirrors – something might be gaining on you."

Dad lit his pipe as the trooper drove off. "Were you marking those birds down as I was calling them off?" he asked, all business again. "We've got a fifty-fifty chance of being right on the yellowlegs and dowitchers. Mark down one of each." I counted them up. "That makes thirty-six," I said.

On the way back home, Dad and I looked in four directions at once. The sun was well above the horizon, and we picked up eight more species flying or perched near the road: a turkey vulture, a red-tailed hawk, a chimney swift, numerous crows and starlings, an eastern meadowlark, a sparrow hawk and a goldfinch. I added the checks as we pulled up the driveway – the total was now 44.

As Dad eased the Studie into the maze of parked cars on our lawn, I spotted Nip and Jeff working the crowd of breakfast eaters, polishing off bacon crumbs, cold eggs and sausage scraps, their white-tipped tails waving. People were lining up to feed them. "I hope they don't get too many eggs," Dad said. "These folks are all going home this afternoon, but we'll have to live with two gassy beagles for a couple of days."

We walked around the house to check out the back yard and the bird feeders, and picked up seven more species: a robin, a chickadee, a mourning dove, a downy woodpecker, a white-breasted nuthatch, a palm warbler and a house wren. I added up the checks again. "Fifty-one," I said. "Halfway there," Dad muttered.

The next stop was Rahr's farm, across the road from our place. We walked along the half-mile farm driveway and saw 15 species – a great blue heron, a killdeer, a phoebe, a blue jay, three kinds of swallows, a catbird, a cardinal, chipping and song sparrows, red-winged blackbirds, a grackle, a cowbird, and a rock dove. I checked them off. "That makes sixty-six," Dad said. "Two-thirds of the way there."

"Two-thirds of the way where?" I asked. "To the century run," Dad said. "That's what you call it when you get a hundred species in a day. I never thought we could do it, but now we have a chance. We've got almost three hours to pick up another thirty-four birds. We could have a century run by noon! And we haven't even been to a good warbler spot yet. Let's get going!"

Now that we had a goal to shoot for, our birding took on a fresh intensity. The nearest good warbler spot was Evergreen Cemetery, on the outskirts of Manitowoc about a mile away. Dad let the Studie coast to a stop at the west edge of the cemetery, which was bounded by a stand of box elder trees and honeysuckle bushes that attracted migrating warblers every year. As we got out of the car, we could see small birds flitting from branch to branch, never spending more than a few seconds in any one place. Warblers were there in droves.

But the mild weather that had brought the warblers had also sped up the emergence of leaves. The box elders already had leaves the size of squirrels' ears, and the honeysuckles were almost fully leafed out, making the birds hard to see. We spotted a chestnut-sided and a magnolia, but the rest of the warblers were hidden by foliage.

Dad put his pipe in his mouth and drew through it before filling it. "Drat," he said, "it's plugged up." He blew through it, but the shred of tobacco stayed put. He pursed his lips and sucked on the end of the stem, and the pipe made a kissing sound ending in a smack. He sucked again and made another smack. I looked back at the honeysuckles and saw a half-dozen myrtle warblers flutter to the outside edge of the bushes, followed by a Cape May and a Blackburnian.

"Do that again, Dad!" I said. "It's attracting them!" And it was. In about a hundred yards of walking and smacking, we saw six more species of warblers – bay-breasted, blackpoll, black and white, redstart, Canada and Wilson's – plus a rose-breasted grosbeak and a Baltimore oriole, all brought out of the shrubbery and treetops by Dad's pipe.

"The next time I buy a new pipe and your mother complains, I'll tell her it's a bird call," Dad said. "That makes seventy-nine – we're getting close. Let's go to the park."

Lincoln Park was on the east side of town near the lakeshore. In its center was a stand of big oaks and pines crisscrossed with cinder paths. We walked fast, looking at our watches every couple of minutes, and saw eight new species: a pewee, a great crested flycatcher, three kinds of vireos, a red-breasted nuthatch, a ruby-crowned kinglet and a common yellowthroat. We circled back to the car, walking as quickly as we could. Suddenly Dad stopped in mid-stride and raised his binoculars.

"On the trunk of that big white pine," he said. "See it? A little greenish bird, no wing bars, no eye ring. I think it's an orange-crowned warbler, but I can't be sure. Could be a Philadelphia vireo – Oh rats, it flew."

"Should I count it?" I asked. "No," Dad said. "I'm not really sure what it was. Let's save it for an emergency."

"Well, that makes eighty-seven," I said, "not counting the little green bird."

Our last stop was a small estuary where the Little Manitowoc River flowed into Lake Michigan. It was alive with waterfowl; the problem was finding birds we had not already seen. We managed to sort out twelve new species – red-breasted and common mergansers, ring-billed and herring gulls, blue-winged and green-winged teal, a pied-billed grebe, a coot, a Canada goose and a common goldeneye, plus a Caspian tern and a kingfisher.

I totaled my check marks, counting under my breath from the top of the list. "Ninety-nine, one hundred!" I yelled. "We did it. The century run!"

Dad looked at me with a broad grin. He was not a demonstrative man, but he grabbed me in a bear hug, and then quickly let me go when his binoculars began to crush my ribs. Dad looked at his watch. "A hundred species with forty minutes to spare – let's head for the barn," he said.

We were a couple of happy birders as we drove out River Road to our house. A cold east wind had begun to blow off the lake, and the crowd had thinned a bit when we got home at twenty to twelve. I headed up to my bedroom to get my leather jacket, and as I put it on I realized I still had the bird list in my shirt pocket. I sat down at my desk, picked up a sharp pencil and re-counted my check marks, subtotaling at the bottom of each page.

I added up the column of figures. The total was 99. Fear clutched at my heart. I added again. The total was still 99. It was ten minutes to twelve. My brain began to churn. Of all the birds we had not seen, which one could we find in the next ten minutes?

I glanced over at a display of bird pictures that Mom had hung on my bedroom wall. At the very bottom was a woodcut of a sparrow bathing in a puddle, with a little poem:

The muddy sparrow,
Mean and small,
I like by far
The best of all.

House sparrow! I looked at the checklist. I had not checked off the house sparrow. Of course, we had seen house sparrows that morning; they were everywhere, like avian wallpaper. But we had not identified one.

I ran outside and found Dad. "I miscounted," I said. "We've only got ninety-nine. We have to find something right away, or otherwise count that little green bird from Lincoln Park."

"It's tempting," Dad said, "but it would be cheating."

Then I remembered something I had read about horses and house sparrows: Horses eat oats, and house sparrows feed on the undigested oats in horse manure. I had no idea where to find a horse, but there were cows aplenty right across the road. They would have to do.

"Come on!" I shouted, and started down the steep path from our yard to the farm driveway. Dad followed. We squeezed through Rahr's big wooden gate and ran out into the pasture. Not fifty feet away was a fresh green cowflop the size of a manhole cover, and perched on it was a male house sparrow picking at seeds, his feathers ruffled in the wind. We looked at him through our binoculars, to be sure, and I made the hundredth check on the list. We had done the century run, and were a shoo-in for the father-and-son.

Dad sat down to catch his breath. He took his pipe from his pocket and tapped the bowl on his palm.

"Good old Wisconsin," he said. "There's always a fresh cow chip around when you need it."

Author's Note: Birders who wonder about some of the species mentioned in this story should be aware that over the years, the names of many birds have been changed to confuse the innocent. In 1953, we were using the second edition of Peterson's Field Guide, and I have adhered to the names in use back then. In the meantime, for example, the fulvous tree-duck has become the fulvous whistling-duck, the olive-backed thrush has become the Swainson's thrush, the marsh hawk has become the northern harrier, the Wilson's snipe has become the common snipe, and the sparrow hawk has become the kestrel. I have used lower case for bird names that do not include proper nouns because I think the copy looks better that way, and to avoid hitting the shift key any more than necessary. I have also avoided the trendy practice of listing bird names without articles, as in: We saw starling and cowbird, when in fact a starling and a cowbird were seen. The "a" key is easier to hit than the shift key.

Dave Crehore pursues his memories for Wisconsin Natural Resources.