Audubon’s Pewee

It’s a day in late May and already the nests of our eastern phoebes are bursting with nestlings preparing to fledge. Over the 47 years we have lived on our mountain, our buildings have hosted many eastern phoebe nests.

A phoebe in Plummer’s Hollow

A phoebe in Plummer’s Hollow (Photo by Dave Bonta in Flickr)

Some buildings, such as the guesthouse portico and the old outhouse, contained nests for several decades, but the outhouse finally collapsed and the phoebes deserted the guesthouse portico after years of successful fledgings. They continue to use either the outside or inside of the small springhouse, while the barn overhang has become a more recent popular nesting place.

Still, there has never been a year when phoebes have not used the top of a veranda column and one of the garage beams to raise families, even though we tried to discourage the veranda column nest sites when we had it repaired and painted by blocking in the flattened tops of the columns. Undeterred, phoebes molded their nests around the obstructions.

Eastern phoebes have been building their nests on human homes and outbuildings for centuries and were known in the 19th century as “barn pewees” as well as “bridge pewees” because they also favor the undersides of bridges. Before the advent of human dwellings and even today, they will build nests in natural rock outcroppings. All such choices protect their nestlings from the weather and often predators as well.

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)

The Eastern phoebe (Sayornis phoebe) (Photo by Soerfm in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

Members of the Tyrant Flycatcher family, eastern phoebes follow the first flush of insects north from their winter homes in the southern United States, Texas, and Mexico, often arriving in Pennsylvania in early March and leaving in late October. Sometimes they must survive late spring snow storms and are able to subsist on small fruits instead of insects until the weather improves.

These gray-brown birds with off-white throats and bellies are the first songbirds to arrive on our mountain around March 15. When I hear the raspy “fee-bee” of a male phoebe and see this tail-flicking flycatcher on a wire near the barn catching insects from the sunny side of the building, I know that spring is here.

In scientific circles, eastern phoebes are known as “suboscine” birds because their songs are innate instead of learned like those of “oscine” birds such as wood thrushes. But lately bioacoustic studies of their songs detected variations among male song characteristics that are not obvious to our ears but are to those of the birds.

John James Audubon’s house at Mill Grove

John James Audubon’s house at Mill Grove (Photo by Dennis on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Eastern phoebes should be credited with first arousing bird artist John James Audubon’s interest in birds. When he was a youth, he lived at Mill Grove on the Perkiomen Creek in Chester County. Early in the spring of 1804, he found the empty nest of the bird he called “Pewee” or “Pewit flycatchier,” fastened to a rock in a cave on his property.

When the cave phoebes returned, he spent many hours watching them as they went about their phoebe business. “Before a week had elapsed,” he wrote in his Ornithological Biography, “the Pewees and myself were quite on terms of intimacy.”

Beginning on the tenth of April, he watched them repair their old nest as “they brought fresh materials, lined the nest anew, and made it warm by adding a few soft feathers of the Common Goose which were strewn along the edge of the creek water.”

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest

Four eastern phoebe chicks in their nest (Photo by jeffreyw on Flickr, Creative Commons license)

Even today, eastern phoebes often refurbish old nests instead of building new ones, since building a new nest takes five to 14 days and refurbishing an old one four days or less. One recent study found that new nest builders finished their first clutches later, were less likely to raise a second family, and lost their nesting attempts more often because of fallen nest structures, all of which led to “lower seasonal reproductive effort,” the scientists concluded.

Audubon’s close observations of phoebes’ family life reminded me of the time I spent watching a guesthouse portico family back in the early 1980s. The female refurbished an old nest and she then laid five white eggs.

The Guest House portico where I watched a phoebe nest; the arrow points to the location of a bat which also chose to nest under the roof another time

The Guest House portico where I watched a phoebe nest; the arrow points to the location of a bat which also chose to hide under the roof another time (Photo by Dave Bonta on Flickr

I sat inside the front door of the guesthouse and watched the family through the portico window, but I also climbed up on a chair outside and held a mirror above the nest to check the eggs. The female is the sole incubator, even sleeping in the nest overnight. It takes 16 days until the eggs hatch, and most eggs in a single nest, including the ones I watched, hatch within 24 hours.

Audubon’s eggs hatched on the thirteenth day and in his nest of six eggs one did not hatch just as in the nest of five that I watched one never hatched. In both cases a parent removed the egg. Audubon opened the rejected egg and “found the embryo of a bird partly dried up, with its vertebrae attached to the shell…”

Since the hatchlings are helpless, almost naked, and in need of nearly constant brooding, I waited until they were 11 days old, fully feathered, and active before spending an hour every day watching the nest and recording the number of feedings. For four days they averaged 25 feedings, but when they reached 16 days of age, the feedings diminished to 15 an hour. A recent study showed that parents adjust their feeding rates according to the begging rates of their nestlings.

By then the nestlings were flexing their wings or standing on the edge of the nest and beating them. When they were 17 days old, the female parent appeared with nesting materials in her beak and, despite screams of hunger from the nestlings, proceeded to build a second nest beside the first one, yanking nesting materials from the side and top of the first nest as the youngsters watched.

While she worked on construction, the male fed the nestlings. But sometimes when they begged, she tried to push construction materials down their throats which they promptly spat out. They even jumped back and forth between the old and new nests but settled into the old nest by nightfall. The following morning, at 9:30 a.m., they all fledged at once. Usually though phoebes fledge one at a time over an hour or so as the veranda column nestlings do.

Audubon’s painting of the eastern phoebe, the “pewit flycatcher” as he called it

Audubon’s painting of the eastern phoebe, the “pewit flycatcher” as he called it (Image in the Wikimedia, in the public domain)

While I kept a “hands off” approach to the young, Audubon spent his time gaining the trust of both parents and nestlings so that they tolerated the light silver thread he fastened to the leg of each nestling before they fledged. This was the first time that birds had been banded in North America.

His banding proved the following year that phoebes return to their same nesting site and even nest, writing, “When the Pewees returned to Pennsylvania I had the satisfaction of observing them again, in and about the cave. There again in the very same nest two broods were raised…Several of these birds which I caught on the nest had the little banding ring on the leg…”

He assumed many of the pairs he observed, not only in the cave, but on farm buildings and his mill nearby remained faithful during one breeding season and from year to year. Recently, two studies found that most pairs were both socially and genetically monogamous within a breeding season. In one case in Indiana only 15 of 87 families had extra-pair young in at least one brood, most commonly the second brood.

Those researchers followed up with a second study in which they captured and color-banded 198 males and 237 females, studied them for three seasons, and discovered that they were faithful to their territories, nest sites, and mates within and between years with 85.5% of males and 92% of females mating with the same mate during multiple breeding attempts. But mates were replaced following their disappearance and probable deaths.

A study of infanticide in Kentucky by an unrelated male phoebe even while the female continued feeding her nestlings, resulted in the death of all the nestlings. The researchers hypothesized that the male parent of the nestlings had died or disappeared and that it was a way for a non-breeding male to obtain a mate and start his own family.

A phoebe nest with a brown-headed cowbird egg

A phoebe nest with a brown-headed cowbird egg (Photo by Galawebdesign in Wikimedia, Creative Commons license)

A greater threat to breeding phoebes has been repeated brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds. I’ve occasionally observed cowbird parasitism in our nests over the years, but never in the veranda column nests. A study of cowbird parasitism in New York State concluded that even over generations of birds, cowbirds prefer particular eastern phoebe sites, such as our old outhouse.

Other threats to phoebe eggs and nestlings are black rat snakes, raccoons, coyotes, blue jays, American crows, chipmunks, and house wrens, but not one of those predators has climbed or flown into the veranda column nests.

Overall, phoebes are incredibly successful throughout their range including Pennsylvania where they live everywhere except for the urban cores of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Although our songbird population has dwindled since the 1970s, it is comforting to know that eastern phoebes continue to thrive and are able to quickly adapt manmade structures for their own purposes.


The Beautiful Beech

beech leaves in snow

Beech leaves in snow

Ghostly leaves of American beech trees sway in February storms like tiny spirits alive in a frozen world.  But only small and medium-sized beech trees hold on to their leaves throughout the winter.

In the fall, I watch the toothed, leathery, single beech leaves turn from green to gold.  Then the gold leaks from them and they become the color of polished brass — a striking contrast to their silver bark.  Most of the leaves sift to the ground in the slightest breeze, but those on smaller beech trees curl up and cling tightly, even as the brass leaks from them, leaving them a brittle, beige-white that catches the weak winter light and sets them glowing like torches among the dark hemlocks.

American beech trees — Fagus grandifolia — gather in silvered clumps, especially in our north-facing hollow.  Over the largest beech trunks lie a patina of lichen green.  Only a couple large tree trunks , with smooth, elephantine-like bark, bear the marks of humans.  But each trunk is unique, displaying its history of lost branches on its skyward way.  Some patterns look like upside down wide smiles, others like triangles.  Large “eyes” keep watch on the world around them.  Still others bear mottled marks.

Most trunks are reasonably straight, but one beech is bent like a contortionist as it reaches for light under the hemlocks.  Another is wrapped from bottom to top by a thick grapevine.

beechdrops in September

Beechdrops in September

If I look closely on the ground beneath the smaller beech trees, I see what, to untutored eyes, looks like dried, branched stems but are, in reality, the remains of beechdrops (Epifagus virginiana).  These nonphotosynthetic, flowering parasites on beech roots produce small, tubular, dull magenta and pale brown, insect pollinated flowers near the ends of their branches that bloom in September and October.  But the flowers farther down the branches never open and are self-fertilized.  Looking even more closely at the plants, I sometimes see the yellowish, felt-like galls on their tiny leaves constructed by the eriophyid mite (Acalitus fagerinea).

Beech trees themselves are wind-pollinated. But those clumps of trees in our hollow are clones that are the result of root sprouts.  Even though beech trees thrive in the moist soils of valley bottoms and lower slopes, such as our hollow, a clone of small and medium-sized beeches also grows in our upland forest between the spruce grove and the Far Field Road. Because they can reproduce in dense shade, beeches live easily in mature hardwood forests.

From long, thin, “cigar-shaped” buds, as my botany professor described them, stiff, green leaves emerge along zig-zag twigs.  At almost the same time, in April and May, male and female flowers bloom.  The head-shaped clusters of beige male flowers dangle from long green stems while the paired female flowers have short stems and one- quarter-inch, urn-shaped flowers.

beech eyes

Beech eyes

If all goes well and we don’t have a late spring frost, I will find beechnuts on our driveway in October after the first autumnal frosts.  Beech trees must be at least 40 years old to bear a good crop of nuts and those 60 or more are the most prolific.  Back before the eastern forests had been logged, millions of passenger pigeons fed on nuts from old growth trees.

Native Americans also made use of them, extracting their oil for cooking and pioneers used the oil in their lamps.  Native Americans also chewed the nuts to expel worms, while pioneers dried them and roasted them as a coffee substitute.

Today, bears leave claw marks on beech bark as they climb them to feed on the nuts.  Squirrels, white-tailed deer, white-footed mice, raccoons, rabbits, chipmunks, red and gray foxes, opossums, ruffed grouse, wood ducks, wild turkeys, blue jays, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and red-bellied woodpeckers also feed on the sweet, small, triangular-shaped nuts, which are borne in pairs within the four-valved, prickled husks. The larvae of the early hairstreak butterfly also eat the nuts.

The leaves are tasty to a huge number of caterpillars with charming names such as the spun glass slug, elegant tailed slug, red-eyed button slug, purple-crested slug, the laugher, red-humped oakworm, wavy-lined heterocampa, blinded sphinx, saddled prominent, and the Bruce spanworm, to name a few. The larvae of the more familiar moths — Io, luna, and cecropia — and butterflies — the red-spotted purple (which we have by the dozen in the hollow) and the closely-related white admiral — also feed on the beech leaves.

beech leaves in May

Beech leaves in May

Leaves were valuable to the pioneers who dried them to stuff in their mattresses.  Native Americans boiled leaves and bark to treat frostbite and burns.  They also took an herbal decoction orally for bladder, kidney and liver problems.  Even the bark was valuable in making an ointment to treat sores and ulcers. Rappahannock Indians steeped the bark in saltwater to make a lotion to counteract poison ivy.  Folks in Kentucky were said to use beech sap to treat tuberculosis.  But, for those folks who might be wondering, Beechnut gum contains no beechnut product.

The light-colored, hard and strong beech wood today is used for firewood, furniture veneer, railroad ties, crates, boxes, and paper and early settlers prized it for making charcoal and water wheels. The leaves and bark are popular for fabric dyes now that natural dyes are all the fashion rage.

red-spotted purple

Red-spotted purple

Although mature beech trees reach a height of 60 to 75 feet and sometimes a trunk diameter of two to three feet, they cannot compare to those described by early North American travelers such as Prince Maximilian of Wied.  Writing from southern Indiana in June of 1833, he recounted that he “came to a tall, gloomy forest, consisting almost wholly of large Beech trees, which afforded a most refreshing shade.  The forest continued without intermission…The lofty crowns of the trees shut out the sky from our view.  They were the most splendid forests I had yet seen in America…”

We’ll never see forests such as those again and, if beech bark disease continues to spread, not even the large trees we see today.  Right now the current champion in Pennsylvania is in Montgomery County with a diameter of 6 feet 8 inches and a height of 87 feet.

So far beech bark disease has not reached our hollow, but it is probably only a matter of time.  Although the beech scale insect first came from Europe on nursery stock to Halifax, Nova Scotia before 1890, it was only after the Second World War that it began to move aggressively south, reaching Pennsylvania in 1958.

Dead beech in the Adirondacks

A victim of beech bark disease in the Adirondacks

The beech scale insect Crytococcus fagisuga causes the disease by inserting its needle-like mouthpart into the beech bark and tissues beneath and sucking out the nutrients. This opening allows a native fungal pathogen Nectria coccinea var. faginata to enter it via spores it produces that can be carried by the wind or insects.  The fruiting bodies of the fungus are red and show up easily on the silver beech bark.

If I see a waxy white crust on the trunk of a beech tree, I will know that beech scale insects have reached our hollow.  Under the waxy material produced by the beech scale are the pale yellow insects.  They lay their eggs there in the summer.  Those eggs hatch and the young crawl into bark fissures on their natal tree or move to other trees with the assistance of wind or wildlife.

It may take several years for the fungus to establish itself in scale-infested trees, but when it does, it forms cankers which kill patches of inner bark.  Sometimes cankers expand and join together to girdle and kill a tree by choking off water and nutrients.  Other times a tree will survive the onslaught.  Occasionally trees are resistant to the scale insect.  It is those trees that may provide hope for the future of this beautiful tree.

On the other hand, when beeches regenerate after a scale infection, they usually resprout from the roots of dead trees, instead of from the nuts of resistant trees, and form thickets of small, weak trees genetically the same as those killed by beech scale and liable to succumb again to the disease.

beech with a flying buttress

A beech with an unusual, cathedral-style flying buttress

In Pennsylvania the disease has killed many beeches in northern Pennsylvania and has moved as far south as the Philadelphia area.  But beech trees live from Nova Scotia to northern Florida and west to Wisconsin and Texas.  Since the beech scale insect has only gone as far south as southern West Virginia and west to Ohio, the beeches farther south and west are safe for now.

When artist/ornithologist John James Audubon painted a pair of passenger pigeons, he perched them on a beech bough somewhere in Kentucky where he was then living with his wife Lucy.  But he was amazed by the abundance and wholesale slaughter of the pigeons in the beech forests of Kentucky.

“The pigeons, arrived by thousands, alighted everywhere, one above another, until solid masses as large as hogs heads were formed on the branches all round.  Here and there perches gave way under the weight with a crash and, falling to the ground destroyed hundreds of the birds beneath,” Audubon writes. Farmers drove their hogs to feast on the pigeons and “a great number of persons, with horses and wagons, guns and ammunition, had already established encampments on the borders [of the beech forest].”

It’s difficult to imagine such abundance today in our depleted forests. For, as Donald Culross Peattie writes in his classic A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America, “…two withered beechen leaves [in Audubon’s painting] tell us that the season is autumn when the mast is ripe.  An autumn that will not come again but lingers, immortal, in those leaves that cannot fall.”

* * *

All photos are by Dave Bonta, and all were taken in Plummer’s Hollow except the Adirondack beech. Click the photos to see larger versions.

In Search of Nature

John James Audubon portrait by John Syme, 1826

John James Audubon portrait by John Syme, 1826

“It’s too darned hot,” I said on our 45th wedding anniversary. The temperature was heading into the high, humid nineties so we shelved our plan to take a hike.

Instead, we followed Plan B and on a late August morning, my husband Bruce and I drove to the Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art in Millersburg, along the eastern side of the Susquehanna River. Named in honor of Millersburg resident, wildlife artist, naturalist and writer Ned Smith, the Center was founded in 1993 “to merge the arts and the natural world and foster a celebration of both,” according to their mission statement.

We were eager to see what was billed as “the largest exhibition of John James Audubon’s artwork ever to appear in central Pennsylvania.”  As someone who has written extensively about the history of natural history, especially in Pennsylvania, I was curious to see what material had been included in an exhibition at their new Olewine Gallery entitled “The Mysterious John James Audubon.”

Years ago, I had visited John James Audubon’s first home in America called “Mill Grove,” “a home,” his granddaughter Maria wrote, “He always loved and never spoke of without deep feeling.” His French father, who owned the property, sent Audubon there to escape the Napoleonic Wars.

Located in eastern Pennsylvania along the Upper Perkiomen Creek in Montgomery County, it was there that Audubon began what he called his “simple and agreeable studies” of birds, learning to draw them from nature by shooting and then immediately mounting them on blocks of wood with the help of wires that held them up in lifelike positions.  As part of his work, he banded the first birds in North America by tying silver threads around the legs of eastern phoebes nesting in a rock cave along the Perkiomen and was delighted when they returned the following year.

Mill Grove farm c. 1820 (painting by Thomas Birch)

Mill Grove farm c. 1820 (painting by Thomas Birch)

He lived at Mill Grove a scant three years from 1804 until 1807, but in that time he met his future wife, a neighboring woman named Lucy Bakewell and began his lifelong love affair with the birds of North America. Because his wife’s family continued to live along the Perkiomen, Audubon often returned to Pennsylvania to visit.

Built of Pennsylvania fieldstone, the farmhouse was and still is a treasure house of Audubon’s paintings. Now leased by the National Audubon Society from Montgomery County, which purchased the house and grounds back in 1951, it has been renamed the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove.  Several of Audubon’s paintings at Mill Grove were lent to the Ned Smith Center for display, including the massive oil painting “The Eagle and the Lamb,” painted in 1828 when he was in England.  So too were all four volumes of his massive Birds of North America.

I was especially interested in paintings he had done based on his research and travels in Pennsylvania.  One was Vigor’s vireo, named for British naturalist Nicholas Vigors, which he had collected at Mill Grove and painted several decades later.  But as it does for many birdwatchers today, the immature plumage of a pine warbler that he had previously painted in mature plumage had confused him.  In May 1808, he collected two male chestnut-sided warblers near Pottstown and later painted them on moth mullein.  Another bird he purportedly painted in Pennsylvania in 1824 was one of his favorites — our state bird the “ruffed grous.”

Audubon's "Ruffed Grous" from <em>Birds of North America</em>

Audubon's "Ruffed Grous" from Birds of North America

But he made his largest collecting trip in Pennsylvania in the late summer and early autumn of 1829 when he spent six weeks in what he called the “Great Pine Forest — Swamp it cannot be called” of the Upper Lehigh River “where I made many a drawing.”  He lived in the home of logger Jediah Irish and his family and ate “juicy venison, excellent bear flesh and delightful trout.”  However, he was distressed to see that “Trees, one after another, were… constantly heard falling during the days, and in calm nights, the greedy mills told the sad tale that in a century the noble forests around should exist no more.”  Nevertheless, he painted more than 90 birds for his Birds of North America because of his trip including the red-breasted nuthatch, pileated woodpecker in a wild grape tangle, and common ravens.

Near the end of his life, his focus turned to mammals and he produced, with the help of his sons and friends, The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. Several prints from that collection hung on the walls of the Olewine Gallery including “Pennant’s marten,” which we call the fisher.  The painting portrays a live fisher that had been captured on nearby Peter’s Mountain in Dauphin County and sent to Audubon by 21-year-old Spencer Fullerton Baird, a protégé of Audubon.

Audubon's "Pennant's marten" (A.K.A. fisher)

Audubon's "Pennant's marten" (A.K.A. fisher)

“It seems in very good health,” Audubon wrote, “and is without exception the most unmitigatedly savage beast I ever saw…”

Most people have heard of John James Audubon.  Fewer know of or remember Spencer Fullerton Baird.  Yet he was one of several well-known Pennsylvania naturalists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.  Born in Reading in 1823, his widowed mother moved her seven children to Carlisle, where she had family, when Baird was ten years old. Baird and his older brother William roamed the Cumberland Valley and, in 1838, Baird began a journal in which he listed various birds and recorded the weather.

The following year he corresponded with Audubon. “You see sir, I have taken (after much hesitation) the liberty of writing to you.  I am but a boy, and very inexperienced, as you no doubt will observe from my description of the Flycatcher.”  The flycatcher turned out to be one of two flycatchers discovered by Baird — the yellow-bellied and least flycatchers.

Audubon responded enthusiastically, writing “Although you speak of yourself as being a youth, your style and the descriptions you have sent me prove to me that an old head may from time to time be found on young shoulders.”  Perhaps, Audubon was reminded of the lament he wrote after his time in the Lehigh River area when he wondered why young men didn’t “occupy themselves in contemplating the rich profusion which nature has poured around them…But, alas, no! They are none of them aware of the richness of the Great Pine Swamp…” In Baird, he had found his “dear young friend” and as “a young naturalist of eminent attainments,” as Audubon described him in The Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America, Baird began collecting specimens for the book, sending Audubon a “common American wildcat” or bobcat he had shot a mile and a quarter from Carlisle that was two-and-a-half-feet long and weighed twelve-and-a-half pounds.

Bear Meadows Natural Area (photo by lemonad)

Bear Meadows Natural Area (photo by lemonad)

But Baird also made his own collection of birds and mammals mostly on foot. In June 1842, he took a marathon walking trip along the Susquehanna Valley and stayed with various families along the way.  He began by walking from Carlisle to Mifflin, then on to Lewistown and Stone Valley in Huntingdon County.  From there he “Went over to Bear Meadows [now a state natural area in Rothrock State Forest] 9 miles off, being a meadow on top of a Mountain so Boggy that you can thrust a stick through the roots and moss 15 feet.  The place is filled in most places with a dense growth of Rhododendron, Hemlock, Black Spruce, Tamarack, etc.  It contains many very curious and beautiful flowers,” which is still an apt description of the place today.

Continuing his walk, Baird visited the Andrew Curtins (of iron furnace fame) in Bellefonte where he saw a pair of Bewick’s wrens (now gone from Pennsylvania). Then he walked back to the Susquehanna River where he crossed over to Northumberland to visit Joseph Priestley “whom I found very clever.”  On he went to see a coal mine in Wilkes Barre and then back to Northumberland. From there he walked home in one day covering 60 miles in 15 hours.

“Lost 12 pounds of flesh, and burnt to the color of old Aunt Rachel. Walked in a Blouse Check shirt, Beaverteen Pants, Heavy shoes and cap. Carried Knapsack and Gun,” he wrote to his brother William. In all he walked 2100 miles that year.

Spencer Fullerton Baird, c. 1850

Spencer Fullerton Baird, c. 1850

A graduate of Dickinson College, he received a full professorship in natural history there in 1846. He introduced for the first time in America field excursions to his zoology and botany classes. Known affectionately as “The Prof” by his students, he continued his collecting and moved his collections from his mother’s overflowing shed to Dickinson College.

Then, in 1850, he was elected Assistant Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution to its first Secretary Joseph Henry. He filled two freight cars with his collections and shipped them to the Smithsonian. As Assistant Secretary, he encouraged any and all explorers and expeditions through prior training and prodigious letter-writing to bring back specimens for the Smithsonian. He also obtained funding from the government to build the United States National Museum to display the collections.

In the next 37 years of his life, he published over 1000 papers and books including Mammals of America and the Birds of North America. He added hundreds of new species to every branch of natural science, for instance, he increased the known number of mammals by 25% as he classified the material shipped to him from all over the country.

He started the United States Fish Commission in 1871 in response to enquiries about the decline of fish along the eastern coast of North America. Later he was named fish culturist of the world by the Germans and his research led to the eventual establishment of research facilities at Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts. Like Pennsylvania native Rachel Carson, who later studied at Wood’s Hole, Baird seemed to be fond of the ocean.

In 1878, Joseph Henry died and Baird became the Second Secretary of the Smithsonian and retained the title of Fish Commissioner. But after nine years at the helm of the Smithsonian, he resigned and died two months later at Wood’s Hole.

Modest, kind, gentle and sympathetic, the boy naturalist from Pennsylvania had become one of the most renowned scientists of the nineteenth century. As one biologist later wrote, “He had made the hills and streams of Pennsylvania his laboratory and he walked with Audubon.”

Joseph Priestly House (photo by Bruce Bonta)

Joseph Priestley House (photo by Bruce Bonta)

Like Baird, we finished our day by driving (instead of walking) up the winding, scenic highway along the eastern side of the Susquehanna River to Northumberland to visit the well-preserved home of the Rev. Dr. Joseph Priestley. In 1799 Priestley, a Unitarian minister from England credited with the discovery of oxygen, fled to America to escape prosecution for his theological and political views. There he isolated carbon monoxide in his Northumberland home before dying in 1804. No doubt, Baird had visited his grandson, also named Joseph, during his monumental walking tour.

Although the homes of the Englishman Priestley and Frenchman Audubon, neither of whom lived very long in Pennsylvania, are well-preserved and open to the public, no such monument exists for Spencer Fullerton Baird in his home state.  But every time I visit the Smithsonian, I am reminded of Spencer Fullerton Baird and his selfless life devoted to the discovery and study of North America’s natural heritage.

For further information:  Ned Smith Center for Nature and Art, 176 Water Company Rd. P.O. Box 33, Millersburg, PA 17061, (717) 692-3699 or e-mail nedsmith [at] epix [dot] net.

John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, 1201 Pawlings Road, Audubon, PA 19403, (610) 666-5593.

Joseph Priestley House, 472 Priestley Avenue, Northumberland, Pa 17857, (570) 473-9474. Their e-mail is mbashore [at] state [dot] pa [dot] us.

All three places are open to the public and have special programs for adults and children.

Thanks to lemonad (Jonas Nockert) for licencing his photo with a Creative Commons licence. (See all the photos in his Rothrock State Forest set.)