A fair few of birders in the eastern half of the continent have their attentions on the Great Lakes region for the Greatest Week in American Birding Festival going on over the next few days in northern Ohio. The draws for this particular event are the northbound migrants stacking up on the south shore of Lake Erie before making the perilous multi-hour water crossing into Canada.
The spectacle, thousands upon thousands of individual birds – not to mention birders – in one relatively confined patch of habitat, is one of the most incredible birding experiences in North America, and a testament to the importance of stopover habitat on both the American and Canadian sides of the lakes. But our knowledge of bird migration over these bodies of water is relatively recent, and dependent in good part to those who don’t necessarily fit the birder/ornithologist mold.
Take, for instance, the remarkable story of Captain J.P. “Perk” Perkins, a ferry captain and birdwatcher who plied the Great Lakes between Erie, Pennsylvania, and Duluth, Minnesota, and whose story is related in a blog post from the Lake Superior Journal:
An avid birder, Perk Perkins decided not to let his career interfere with viewing birds. From the early 1930s through the early 1970s, Perk created his own on-deck forests, setting up a little green oasis on whichever Pittsburgh Steamship Division vessel he was assigned by the U.S. Steel Corporation.
His floating forest amused his shipmates, who called it “Perk’s National Forest.”
Perk’s forest habitat changed depending on available trees and shrubs. He’d buy balled and burlapped trees from landscapers before he left a port and arrange them in bushel baskets on deck. Birdseed and a viewing bench completed the waterborne landscape.
Perkins identified 17 distinct migration corridors over lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie, recording more than 200 species using the flyways. And his reports dispelled the commonly held notion that birds crossing the Great Lakes were blown by weather and proved that trans-lake migration was a real and substantial occurrence. And on top of that, he was an amateur filmmaker whose footage of rarely seen canopy species feeding and resting at close range on his boat was revolutionary for the time.
Captain Perkin’s “forest” attracted thousands of exhausted migrants stopping for a rest while crossing the Great Lakes, and a great deal of what we know about migration in the area comes from his observations, which are nothing short of amazing. An excerpt:
“One of the most unforgettable occurred on August 20, 1961. … We were sailing eastward from Devils Island in the Apostle group. The fog had changed to a misty drizzle. When I aimed the searchlight upward, the beam revealed heavy flights of passing birds. … At times there were so many on the bridge deck that the lookout had to be careful not to step on them. …
“Although navigation of the ship required most of my attention, occasionally the watchman would pick up a bird and hold it up to the open front window where I would identify it by flashlight. … Most of the birds were the small empidonax flycatchers – myriads of them. … The second most abundant group were red-eyed vireos. These also had the heaviest fatality rate. There were other species too: downy woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, 13 species of warblers and chipping sparrows and song sparrows. The massive wave continued without let up until 3 a.m. Then it started to subside; possibly our ship was leaving the flyway. … There is no way to estimate the number of birds which crossed Lake Superior that night, but it must have been in the millions.”
This is all second nature now, of course. But it’s amazing how far we’ve come in our understanding, and how much the actions of regular birders helped us get there. Keep it in mind as you watch those birds take off over the water for parts north!