[Pat] I got the signal. Thank you everyone for joining us tonight. Everyone here in the room and everyone tuning in via our live broadcast. My name is Pat Leonard. I’m in the communications department here at the lab, as a staff writer, media relations, and assorted other things.
I think you’ll really enjoy tonight’s presentation by Albany-based author and journalist Darryl McGrath. Her talk is based on her newly published book Flight Paths: A Field Journal of Hope, Heartbreak, and Miracles Among New York’s Bird People, so being that there’s New York in the title we have a vested interest in this.
The book is available, by the way, at the store if you haven’t already discovered that. And Darryl will be happy to sign your copy afterwards if you wish. Now you may not realize that New York State actually led the way in the recovery of both the peregrine falcon and the bald eagle, both species just whose populations just flipped into free fall in the late ‘70s. And in fact the peregrine was wiped out here in New York and across much of eastern United States. And as for the bald eagle there was exactly one pair left in the late ‘70s, near Hemlock Lake. And over 11 years, as Darryl reports in her book, they fledged only one chick. And that’s because of the rampant DDT pollution that caused the eggshells to be so thin that they broke every time the pair tried to raise a chick.
A lot of dedicated biologists, both at the government level and here at the Cornell Lab and the Cornell University, makes this a terrific recovery story. Darryl’s book is really true to its title. These heroic rescuers brought tons of hope into each of their endeavors, and they withstood some heartbreak along the way. They were trying things that hadn’t been tried before with these species, such as hacking and captive breeding. A, but, at the end of it all, the miracle. The bald eagle is no longer on the federal endangered species list, though it is still listed as threatened here in New York State. But his, its lot has improved considerably.
Darryl and I were talking just earlier and now the estimate for breeding pairs in New York State is somewhere up around 350-390 pairs. Just amazing when you consider we were down to one pair. So that’s the kind of work that’s been going on. You can see them near the lakes. We see them sometimes near Cayuga Lake. There’s one I see just up the road on 81 near Preble. I’ve seen it two or three times and every time I go by my driving deteriorates considerably when I go through that section. [laughter] I’m like this the whole time, and I just saw he was flying by me the last time I went up that way. Flying in the same direction so I could see him as he was flying. It was just a magnificent sight.
And that’s probably the first time I’ve ever seen a bald eagle in New York State, which is kind of sad, but also very invigorating at this point.
The peregrine falcon is also no longer on the federal endangered species list, but it is still listed as endangered in New York State. But the peregrines are also coming home. The Department of Environmental Conservation estimated in 2010 that there were 76 breeding pairs. They seem to be clustered mostly in our biggest cities. As you may know they like to build their nests on buildings and on bridges. It’s sort of the modern-day equivalent of the cliffs that they historically liked to nest on. Out in the observatory you may even have noticed a very beautiful sculpture of a falcon that is dedicated to Tom Cade, who actually started the captive breeding program for falcons here at the lab.
Darryl interviewed Tom Cade and others who saved the falcon and eagle. She also traveled with biologists working right now to save other species we love that are endangered, such as the Bicknell’s thrush, the short-eared owl, the piping plover, and the common loon.
Darryl’s particular focus tonight is on four women biologists who played key roles in the recovery of the peregrine and the bald eagle. They labored under difficult, often dangerous conditions at a time when few women ventured into that field. Flight Paths is the outcome of Darryl’s lifelong interest in birds, and a career spent writing about the environment and about natural history.
She’s written for, worked for and written for the Albany Times Union, Chicago Tribune, The Buffalo News, and was the national correspondent in upstate New York for the Boston Globe. She’s won numerous journalism awards and is a graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism.
And finally the title of Darryl’s book is also appropriate for her own journey. I’ve never written a book before, but I have, believe it takes a great leap of faith, and yes hope, that you can get the story, get it right, and that people will want to read it. And yes, personal heartbreak is also part of her story. But in the end, the miracle. This beautiful, fascinating book about a little-known chapter in conservation history.
I’m very proud to present to you Darryl McGrath.
[Darryl] Thank you, Pat. And thanks to all of you for being here. It’s a, really a great honor to have an opportunity to speak here at what I’ve always described as the National Cathedral of bird work, or in baseball terms, because Albany is a divided baseball city, being asked to speak here is like being asked to toss out the first pitch in a Yankees-Red Sox game.
And I won’t tell you which team I’m on.
Thank you all for being here, and for being so interested in this topic. As Pat said, this was, this book developed. Once I started it, it sort of took off in its own direction. I started out thinking I was going to tell a story about contemporary bird conservation in New York State. And the story grew, and I realized you couldn’t tell what was happening now without also telling what had already happened, and what set the groundwork for that. And a really lovely, unexpected discovery was that I learned this almost lost story of a number of very pioneering women biologists who were not only the first people to do a lot of what they did in raptor recovery work, but the first women, and the first people to do this.
So it was a lovely discovery, and I’m really honored that all of these women spoke to me and shared a lot of their memories with me. I’m especially honored that one of them was able to be here tonight. All were invited, they all had family obligations and other reasons, one’s a schoolteacher. But Phyllis Dague is here, and I would love, she didn’t know I was going to do this so she’s going to kill me, but I’d love to ask Phyllis to just come up for a moment so that she can be acknowledged.
She was part of the original rescue team that worked on bringing the peregrine falcon back from the brink of extinction
And she had a, a long—those lights are something. She had a long and distinguished career here at the lab, and was a wonderful help to me when I was working on this book. So it was a great delight to know that she could be here tonight. Thank you, Phyllis.
[Slide text: FOUR AMAZING WOMEN
Four biologists who helped save the peregrine falcon and bald eagle from extinction: Phyllis Dague, Tina Milburn Morris, Barbara Loucks, and Lois Goblet]
I’m going to tell you the stories of these women and their names Phyllis Dague, Tina Milburn Morris, Barbara Loucks, and Lois Goblet. They all worked over, the primary part of their career was about a 20 year period dating from the late ‘60s to the late ‘90s on the raptor recovery work. Only two of them had really sustained careers in this. It was a very difficult field to go into. And they didn’t have a lot of role models, but they did have some role models, women that were also groundbreaking pioneers. I want to talk a little bit about those women.
[Photo: Black and white portrait of Lucille Stickle]
Every time I put this photo up people think, wow I do not want to be on her bad side on a day at work. Um this is Lucille Stickel, and by all accounts she was an absolutely gracious, lovely person. This is her official U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo. And if you knew her background and knew the responsibilities that she carried you would understand why she really looks like she means business.
She was a chemist and a biologist and she was the first woman to run a major federal laboratory. And she had the distinction of being the scientist who oversaw the pesticide studies that helped the federal government decide to ban the agricultural pesticide DDT.
She died a number of years ago so I was not able to interview her for the book, but I was able to interview a biologist who worked under her, and worked directly on that project. This was done in the late ‘60s and into the early ‘70s. DDT was banned in 1972. And it was very difficult work, and one of the reasons it was so difficult to do these studies was they had to use test birds, and they had to inject them with large amounts of pesticides. A lot of these birds had to be euthanized, and one of the species they used was the kestrel, for a lot of reasons. It was an easy bird to work with for that purpose. And the biologist who talked to me about this said it was really difficult, and very courageous of them because they had to do this in order to prevent entire species from disappearing.
And Mrs. Stickel and her husband actually lived on the grounds of the Patuxent Research Center in Maryland. And she was really a first in many areas and her lasting legacy, she’s best remembered for being the scientist that convinced the federal government to ban DDT.
[Photo: Frances Hamerstrom holding a golden eagle]
This woman is less well known, although in her day she was an acclaimed naturalist. Her name is Frances Hamerstrom, and as I learned from working on this book a lot of the raptor people know each other and it was a very small and often intersecting world. So a young man named Jim Weaver, who would come to Cornell and work on the peregrine falcon recovery project, was actually a student who studied as an amateur expert, he never got a degree in science, but he studied under Mrs. Hamerstrom and her husband, Frederick.
They both were students of a famous naturalist at the University of Wisconsin named Aldo Leopold, and Mrs. Hamerstrom was the first, and at that time only, female graduate student that Mr., Professor Leopold had ever taken on. She was that good. She lived in Wisconsin and she was an expert on the prairie chicken, and that is not what she’s holding here.
She’s holding, that’s an adult golden eagle. And I’ll tell, I’ll admit I’m a lousy bird identifier, so I ran this photo by a real expert and said, “That is a golden eagle, isn’t it?” Oh yeah.
Um they lived like pioneers in the 20th century. They lived in a rural area, they pumped their own water, used a wood-burning stove. And a fascinating couple by all accounts. And she was a real mentor. You’ll often hear this about the men and women in raptor recovery work. They were very willing to be mentors, they shared their knowledge with young students who went on to great careers of their own.
[Photo: Rachel Carson leaning against a tree]
I think a lot of people know who this is, but I will tell you it is Rachel Carson. And this is one of the more famous photos of her. It’s been used and reproduced a lot of times. She is best known as the author of a book that really was her masterpiece, which was Silent Spring. And that was published in the late 1960s, actually excuse me, the mid-1960s, and what’s really interesting is she was not an ornithologist, she was a marine biologist. And she had actually won a National Book Award for a book about the ecology and life cycles in the ocean called The Sea Around Us.
But she loved birds and Silent Spring is really the book that not only changed the way we think about the environment, it’s a classic, a masterpiece of environmental advocacy, but it was really one of the groundbreaking works that helped convince the public. And you need public will to change federal policy. And I think if the public hadn’t become so concerned about what was happening to songbirds, which was really her area of interest, it might not have been as easy as it was to get DDT banned in a matter of just a few short years. 1972 it was banned.
And I’ve had biologists who worked on that project tell me if you tried to do that today it would be almost impossible. You need political will, you need public will. Rachel Carson didn’t live long enough to really see the fruits of what she had set in motion. She died in 1964, just a year or two after Silent Spring was published, and she died of cancer. What’s really interesting is that her work was instrumental and was cited in the banning of DDT, which at that time to the public was best known for its hazards to birds of prey. She never even mentioned peregrine falcons in Silent Spring, her focus was songbirds. And it killed songbirds much more rapidly than it killed birds of prey. But she used and relied on a lot of the studies done at Patuxent under Dr. Stickel. So there was an intersection and a lot of very accomplished women, really decades ahead of their time, working on these. Then you had a younger generation come up and…
[Photo: Phyllis Dague standing next to an alert sign about peregrine falcons]
We’ve met Phyllis and here she is again in the early 1970s. Phyllis grew up in the Midwest, she grew up in Wisconsin. And I mentioned a gentleman named Jim Weaver who studied under Frances Hamerstrom. Phyllis and Mr. Weaver knew each other. Jim Weaver had come out to Cornell and was about to get hired to work on a project that was going to try to keep the peregrine falcon from going extinct.
She ended up, she started basically as a file clerk on a project that was recording nesting habits of birds. And she ended up so accomplished that she co-authored papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals with Tom Cade, who was and remains one of the best-known ornithologists of the last century, and he was her boss on this project.
It was a time when you could really develop your expertise even though you didn’t have a college degree, and two of the people that worked on this project didn’t have degrees in science, or college degrees. But that was not that uncommon at that period. A lot of people were self-taught, they studied under famous ornithologists like the Hamerstroms and became very accomplished naturalists.
[Photo: Close up of peregrine falcon head]
So let’s let’s see the bird that was the subject of all this work. This is not life-sized, but I love the idea that this is such a good close-up, because it does show you why scientists today, most scientists accept the theory, and it’s it’s beyond the theory stage, it’s pretty much been proven birds evolved from dinosaurs. And you can certainly understand looking at this ferocious female peregrine falcon.
This is a bird that used to live in Rochester, she’s long dead now. But I’m friends with the biologist who took this photo, and people always say, “How did she get so close to that bird?” Well, she was defending her nest. This picture was shot up on a building in Rochester, probably in the 1990s, and peregrine falcons are ferocious, they’re extremely aggressive, they’re very territorial, and they will dive-bomb anything that gets near their nest. They’re about the size of a crow.
I love this close-up because it shows one of this bird’s really great features, which is, you can see the notches on each side of the front part of the upper half of her beak. They catch their prey always on the wing. They don’t capture animals on the ground, they catch birds in flight. And they` are expert hunters, and they use those notches to snip through the spinal cord. So they’re pretty pretty cool birds for a lot of reasons.
But in 1965 a conference was held at the University of Wisconsin. Peregrine falcon experts from all over the country, and all over the world gathered, about 65 people. And they were called together by an expert named Professor Joseph Hickey.
He had pieced together regional reports where people who had been following peregrine falcons for decades, and they nest over and over, generations will nest in the same areas. And he had been for several years hearing scattered reports from people saying, you know I haven’t seen any young coming out of that eerie, I haven’t seen any parent birds, I see, I see one adult but not a pair. And he initially dismissed this, he thought that these were kind of scattered reports. And then he read some serious scientific papers coming in from Europe and realized there was something much bigger going on, these weren’t scattered regional reports. Something was killing this bird off.
So he called together a number of experts. They had a conference that lasted several days, and in the bird world it’s simply referred to as the 1965 Madison Conference. Very few people who were at that conference are still alive, but I was very fortunate to interview professor Tom Cade, who had a long career here at Cornell, and he was there. And he became the person who, because of the circumstances of his life, his age, the fact that he was willing to take on a project, and his career at that time was just conducive to him being the one that this group by consensus said, would you like to take on this project? At that time he was at Syracuse University, and he did agree.
[Photo: Tom Cade holding a peregrine falcon]
Here’s Professor Cade. He did agree to take on the project, and just as he was going to get underway with it at Syracuse University, Cornell recruited him for a full professorship. And he said great, but I’m, this project is going to have to come with me. And so what Cornell actually did was build a research center, it was known informally as the hawk barn, and we are sitting right now approximately where the hawk barn used to sit. It’s long since taken down, it was taken down in the late ‘90s to clear the way for a beautiful brand-new lab building that we see today. But at that time this was an even more isolated area, it was really rural.
And Professor Cade, one by one, pulled in three people to work on his team with him. We’ve met Phyllis, there was a gentleman named Willard Heck, who actually graduated from Cornell.
[Photo: Jim Weaver looking in a microscope with Tom Cade watching]
And here’s Jim Weaver working in the lab with Dr. Cade. And Jim Weaver never got a college degree, but is, was and is regarded as one of the best naturally gifted raptor experts in the country. He lives in New Mexico now and is renowned for his research as a conservationist. So you had, you had three young people all able to come together and plan to devote, at first they thought it’s going to be just a few years, it ended up being 20 years, that they worked on this project. And Phyllis’s role in this was quite interesting, and she ended up being the person that lived in the barn with the birds.
And I’m going to read a section at the end of my talk that will tell you a little bit about that. But she had a long career here at the lab, and as I said went from starting as a file clerk really, to ending up as a respected author of, co-author of, peer-reviewed articles. So it was quite a fascinating transformation for her.
[Photo: Bald eagle pair on a nest]
At the same time that the peregrine falcon was recognized to be in severe danger, so was the bald eagle. And this is one of the very few photos that exists of what was, in the mid-1970s, the last nesting pair of bald eagles in the, in the state of New York. They were not young birds, they were probably 18 to 20 years old, when that, this project started. And it was a profound embarrassment. We were about to have our bicentennial and our national symbol was almost non-existent, it was rapidly becoming extinct. We were down to probably I’m going to say a few hundred adult nesting bald eagles throughout the entire continental United States.
There was a larger population in Canada, where DDT had not been used, and there was a large population in Alaska, where DDT had been used in very limited applications. But one of the reasons that wasn’t any reassurance for the future of the species is DDT lasts a very long time in environment, and bald eagles migrate hundreds of miles. So every year still a number of bald eagles come down from Canada to spend the winters. They need open water to catch fish. So the fact that there were healthy populations elsewhere really didn’t mean a lot because, as we now know, environmental toxins can travel a huge distance through the food chain. There are polar bears that have PCB in their fats.
So we realized we had to do something. And a couple of young, untested biologists at the DEC, one of them named Pete Nye, the other named Mike Allen, were more or less recruited to do this project. Pete Nye, who went on to become one of the world’s great experts in bald eagles, was given a choice at the start of his career. His boss told him you can work with black bears or you can work with bald eagles, and he just thought bald eagles sounded like an interesting challenge, so he picked bald eagles.
[Photo: Tina Milburn Morris holds a restrained bald eagle with Jim Weaver looking on]
His colleague Mike Allen also was more or less tapped without really any knowledge of the species, and Mike had grown up in the central part of New York State in an area where it would be ideal to see a bald eagle. And he had been an outdoorsman his whole growing up, he had never seen one in the wild, they were that rare. So they worked with Tom Cade. By now Dr. Cade was well established at Cornell, and he had proven that you could raise peregrine falcons in a wild nesting box without any exposure to their human caregivers, they were fed from behind a blind.
And he had proven that if you raised these young birds, you would be able to release them into the wild, and they would survive and come back and form nesting pairs. First, they had to get a breeding population, and that was a long and difficult effort that Phyllis worked on, and her two teammates with Dr. Cade.
It was trial and error to get peregrine falcons to breed in captivity. They have to do what’s known as a courtship flight in the wild, they spiral up into the air, and they do this beautiful, looping dance through the air in descending spirals. And it was thought that they had to be able to do that in captivity, and nobody could build a cage large enough to accommodate that. So at Cornell they had finally in the early 1970s started to get a small, but growing number of bred in captivity peregrine falcon chicks to release into the wild.
The next step after those chicks survived, when they got old enough they were put into these nesting boxes, or hacking boxes as they’re known, and caregivers were assigned to work with them and stay with them sometimes four or five months at a time.
So when the state decided to see if they could also bring the bald eagle back they needed someone to teach them how to do this technique, it had never been done with bald eagles. And the young woman who took on this project, her name is Tina Milburn Morris. And she had actually a very short career as a wildlife biologist, she went on to become a science teacher, and she was a graduate student of Tom Cade.
And it was just the perfect set of circumstances. Pete Nye and Mike Allen really would have loved to have done this, but they were studying the two birds up at Hemlock Lake in preparation for the day when they would be expected to do this entire project on their own. They had the expertise of Tom Cade for two years when he was hired as a consultant. Jim Weaver, who was on Tom Cade’s team here at Cornell, had the innate ability to be able to do this work in the wild, and the willingness to do it. But he could not be spared from the peregrine falcon work.
So a young woman who had pretty much talked her way into a graduate student’s position with Tom Cade, she came to Cornell determined that she was going to end up studying birds of prey with Tom Cade. And in fact she she had a fair amount of determination, and that is what she ended up doing. She was looking for a master’s project, and just at the same time that she was looking for that project that project was looking for someone who could take on this work.
And to do this she had to be willing to spend, at first they thought it would be just one summer it ended up being two, in a completely remote, isolated location, the Montezuma Wildlife Refuge. Which many many people who live in New York State are very familiar, it’s exit 41, and the Thruway goes right through it. That little part you see on each side of the highway, that’s just a snippet of it, it’s a vast, enormous, very isolated area. If you go back hundreds of acres back into it, as I was able to do when I was researching the book.
Tina was, gosh about 25, when she took on this project, and she had to be willing to live in a tent for that first summer, and it was a pretty much a five, almost six month assignment. And two young bald eagles were captured from a nest in Wisconsin, they were brought down to New York State, and they were put into these hacking boxes on towers, and Tina was their surrogate mom, although they never saw her.
She was pretty much on twenty-four/seven duty, it was like the worst childcare assignment in the world. And she had a blast, she she thought this was incredible fun. She had two dogs with her, but otherwise very primitive living conditions. She was camping, basically, for almost six months. She dug a latrine in the woods, she had food in a cooler, and once a week she was able to get into town for a shower. The rest of the time she could not leave the birds.
The photo you see here is Jim Weaver, who came out to help her put a radio transmitter on one of those birds that first summer. And the bird is wrapped up in what looks like, almost like a straitjacket. A lot of these early biologists improvised, and now there’s all this equipment that they can use, but back then nobody—I can see Phyllis laughing as she’s remembering some of her own improvisations—you, you’ve thought up stuff nobody had done this before, so nobody realized gee we need some way to restrain this bird, which has a six-foot wingspan, while we’re putting a radio transmitter on it. So she cut the leg off of one of her pairs of blue jeans, which is actually what that bird is wrapped up in.
And those two birds were brother and sister, and there’s a really interesting postscript to that story. They both survived. She had a couple of scary times. When young birds of prey get old enough to start parasailing out of the nest, they often can’t get right back up off the ground, and mom and dad are there and no predator is going to mess with an adult bald eagle protecting its young. Well, she was it, so she was spending an incredible amount of time running through the cattails looking for where the bird had landed. Until Jim Weaver came out one day and built slats, like crib slats, around the artificial nest. She’s sitting in the artificial nest, they built that themselves out of sticks, so that it would look as much as possible like a real eagle’s nest.
And those two birds took off, they survived, they were brother and sister. And four years later, and right about the time you would expect them to reach maturity and start looking for their significant other, they found each other again, and they were pretty much the only two bald eagles available in upstate New York, so they, they formed a bonded pair. And that’s not common, but it’s, it was, this was not the first time that had happened. So when the two biologists doing the eagle project, Pete Nye and Mike Allen, realized they had another nesting pair in New York State they were thrilled. And so we know the, I don’t know how long those two eagles lasted, but they they did produce viable young.
[Photo: Barbara Loucks climbing up a bridge over the Hudson River]
This is Barbara Loucks, and I love this picture. She’s asked me to never tell what bridge this was taken on, so I’ll respect my source’s request, but she’s, what you see below her 180 feet down is the Hudson River. And she doesn’t have a safety belt clipped to this, she’s climbing down from having banded uh the chicks in a bridge nesting box. And Barbara, like several women that went into this field of work, was told don’t bother doing this, you’ll never get a job.
When she was in high school she thought that she would want to work with birds of prey, and she wrote a letter to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and asked them to tell her what careers would be available to her. And they sent her back a brochure that showed women working as file clerks and secretaries, and said there’s lots of career options for you. Her parents encouraged her, though, and I’ve heard this over and over again, that somebody who really mattered in these people’s lives, male and female, encouraged them to try to do this, even though the odds were against it.
And Barbara’s parents encouraged her, she went to the University of Connecticut and then she went to the College of Environmental Science and Forestry at Syracuse for her master’s work. And through it all her parents were just an incredible source of support for her, and I think one of the things that really galvanized her to continue, her mother, who had been just so supportive of her unusual career choice. Barbara defended her master’s thesis and her mother died a week later of cancer.
And she still, it, when I interviewed her about this, she still finds this really difficult to reconcile, that her mother never saw her end up with one of the biggest jobs in her field. She ended up becoming the manager of the statewide peregrine falcon population when the state of New York, eventually, under the federal government, had to take over the management of the peregrine falcon population.
And at that point it was clear the species was going to survive. To get her dream job, though, she first did something that I still find incredible that she was even asked would you be willing to do this. She was given a volunteer assignment that lasted for six months, and she was tracking a bird known as the northern harrier around upstate New York and trying to get a fix on the population numbers. It’s a bird of prey, not terribly common, um and at that time the state was trying to get a count on them. And she pretty much lived out of her car while she was doing this, she was living off of her savings, she was crashing on a cot in a friend’s house once a week when she got back to her home base. But she did this for six months, and at the end the reward was she got her dream job.
[Photo: Barbara Loucks on the supports of a bridge with a peregrine falcon nearby]
And I’ve got one other shot of her. You can see up in the top left corner that’s almost certainly the mama bird, because they tend, I think, around the nest to be even more ferocious than the males. And she’s wearing a hard hat, not because she’s on the bridge, but because that bird would dive bomb and go right for her scalp. That’s why when people rock climb, certain rock climbing routes in the state are closed off during nesting season because it’s literally too dangerous, the peregrine falcons are really aggressive, territorial birds.
And one of the biologists working on bald eagles said to me, “Thank God they don’t act like peregrine falcons around the nest because we would all be killed.” So Barbara did end up having a very long career. She worked for the state for 35 years. She just retired a few years ago, and she was still doing stuff like this right up to the end. She’s in her 60s, in incredible shape, very athletic, and really if you asked her where any particular bird was she could pull it right off the top of her head.
And the population in New York State went from zero, and thanks to the work done here at Cornell, we now have my last count, as Pat said, was about 76 nesting or breeding pairs. I know it’s higher than that, so I’m willing to say we probably have at least 85 breeding pairs. And this bird was completely wiped out. We lost the eastern subspecies due to DDT, which thinned the eggshells of the birds of prey and all birds that ingested it. That eastern subspecies is gone, and the stock that we have now comes from a different genetic stock, but as Dr. Cade said, in the end they’re all peregrines.
And the people doing this work realized if they were going to bring these birds back, they were going to have to accept that some of them were going to be gone forever. Our bald eagles here, they’re from mostly Alaskan stock, and most of the bald eagles in the northeastern United States, I think if you trace their genetic stock back you would find that they had started from New York stock brought down from Alaska.
[Photo: Lois Goblet holding a bald eagle in front of her]
I’m going to, for this biologist I’m going to just read a very short excerpt from the book, and I’m going to read another excerpt at the very end, but… this is Lois Goblet, and she started her career after getting a conservation degree. And she was hired directly to be a hack site attendant on the bald eagle project. And she was the first woman and the first biologist to reintroduce bald eagles back up into the Adirondacks.
We lost probably a half a million trees in the Adirondacks between the 1850s and the 1950s. The logging industry completely denuded hundreds of thousands of acres, and they were going after the very tall trees, which is also what bald eagles need to nest. So by the time that that clear cutting of trees had stopped and enough trees had grown back so that bald eagles could come back to the Adirondacks, there were none left to breed up there. So Lois was hired to work at the bald eagle hacking site, and this was kind of a big experiment.
Again, they had done it before, but every time you tried to reintroduce a bird like this to an area where it’s been absent for a long time you have no idea how it’s going to work out. So she was required to be up at the Follensby Pond site which is close to Tupper Lake, and this is now a nature preserve. The state of New York bought this, it was a former privately owned great camp, and it was the last known nesting site for wild bald eagles in the Adirondacks, I think about 20 years prior to her being assigned to do this.
So she had to be willing to live up there for six months, by herself. She lived in a camping trailer and she was 15 miles away from town or a phone. This is 1980, I think it was 1983 when she did this. I’m going to just read a very short excerpt. Her own words described this so well.
“The hack site attendants formed the front lines of the bald eagle restoration project. They were mostly young wildlife enthusiasts, many of them with degrees in biology or environmental conservation, who were willing to live in the wilderness on duty for weeks at a stretch as they tended the eagles until the birds were old enough to fend for themselves. Lois Goblet had become the youngest hack site attendant to date on the project when Pete Nye hired her right out of college two years earlier, and now she was alone in this remote place surrounded by dense and mostly trackless forest. She had no telephone or radio communications to the DEC, and no weapons. The nearest road was 14 miles away and the region was abundant with black bear.
The only humans she encountered during her solo weeks at the hack site were occasional loggers. She had a DEC pickup truck at the site and when she needed to make a telephone call she drove to a payphone 15 miles away in the town of Tupper Lake. Goblet lived in a camper at the hack site sometimes for two or three weeks at a time, until another biologist could relieve her for a few days. She had known the job would require her to live like this. The young eagles went into the hack boxes in July, and the attendants stayed at the sites until after the birds fledged, monitoring them until they were fully weaned, and had moved off in search of a wintering ground, usually in late November. She cooked over a campfire, or at a propane stove burner in the camper using water and food brought in by truck.
She washed under a lukewarm trickle from a hanging water bag, but by the end of a two or three-week shift at the site every piece of her clothing was covered with grime, fish guts, bird droppings, and blood from preparing food for the young eagles. She occasionally saw bears as well as tracks and droppings, but never encountered one. Just to be safe, though, two bear biologists from the DEC rigged battery-operated electrified fences around her camper and the base of the hacking towers, so that any bear hoping to get a free meal of fish scraps would instead get a walloping shock.
People would say, ‘Weren’t you worried?’ Goblet recalls, ‘What bothered me was we were inundated with mice at the camp. They’d be running across your feet at night. The bears didn’t bother me.’ ”
And it’s worth noting she’s five feet one inches tall and she still weighs less than 100 pounds, and to do this job she had to know how to handle a chainsaw, and be able to lift enormous crates, the size of a good-sized dog crate, um in case she had to move the eagles. And in fact, on that first assignment she did have to get all eight eagles down to a veterinarian, they came down with avian pox. And she didn’t even know what was wrong with them. It’s a contagious disease, bacterial infection that spreads among birds. It was at that time not very often seen among bald eagles, and she had to get all eight birds back into their crates and get them down to a vet.
So she is quite an amazing person. She had a very short career with the DEC. She married and she had first one set of twins and then a second set of twins, and that wasn’t conducive to doing this kind of work for very long.
[Photo: Lois Goblet, Pete Nye and others on a boat in Alaska]
But she did a really interesting couple of projects with the DEC. The bird that you just saw her holding in the last picture, let me go back to that.
[Photo: Lois Goblet holding a bald eagle in front of her]
That’s an eagle named X11, and this picture was taken down in the Mongaup Valley, which is now the Mongaup State Wildlife Preserve. It’s a protected area in Sullivan County and it’s actually remarkably close to New York City, but wild, very inaccessible. You can, it’s open to the public, but it was a wintering site for bald eagles at a time when there were otherwise very few bald eagles in the state. They would come down from Canada, and Lois as part of her master’s research, she wanted to prove that bald eagles coming down from Canada would demonstrate what’s known as site fidelity, that they would come back to the same place year after year.
So to do that she first had to catch an eagle, and they do that with a big net on the ground, and they usually use a really badly rotting deer carcass, which bald eagles love. Our national symbol is not a fussy eater, they love dead deer. And they caught this young bird, banded him, and this picture was taken the first winter. And you can tell his white crown is still a little bit mottled, so he was probably three, three and a half years old at that time, his adult plumage was almost in, but not entirely. And then the next winter she had to catch the same bird, which sounds impossible and when I started researching this book I used to think, really? You think you’re going to catch the same bird two years in a row? Birds are creatures of habit, they often cross the same trails, come back to the exact same area, and yes all sorts of birds get caught more than once. So the following winter she caught X11, which is just an arbitrary number from his wing tag, caught him a second time, and this time she attached a radio transmitter to him. Then she had to sit around all winter following him and waiting for him to take off and go back home to Canada.
And of course he did this on Easter Sunday, the first day off she had had in about three weeks. And she was home having dinner with her family, and she got a call from her boss Pete Nye who said he just took off. So she dropped what she was doing, drove up, back up to the Albany area, and a plane was waiting for her. And she attached the receiver for the battery-operated transmitter to the struts of the plane, and they took off and they followed this bird for two weeks through the air, all the way back up to Canada. They almost never actually saw him, they were following the signal. And this is really primitive technology at the time, but it was the best game in town. Now, you put, if you, if it’s a really important project you put a satellite transmitter on your bird, you fire up your computer, and you know right where he is.
At this time, yeah I can hear, I’ve talked to a lot of biologists that have really bad memories of waving the receivers around and trying to figure out where their bird is. It took them two weeks, he got fogged in one day, so did they, and when they took off she found him again and she said every time they would pick up this signal it was so thrilling, they were like whooping and hollering in the plane.
She followed him all the way back up to the tree that he nested in in Ontario province, and they circled over, she marked the site, they landed the plane, and then she hiked back in on snowshoes. And she had to be accompanied by an armed Canadian wildlife agent, because this area, it was the end of a long winter and this area had a lot of moose, they were very hungry, they were very ill-tempered, and he had a gun to protect her.
They snowshoed back in, she identified the tree, and then later that spring Pete Nye swung in to that area on a trip back from Alaska, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. And he banded the chicks in the nest. We don’t know, that was the last time this bird was identified, he may still be alive, he would be really old for a bald eagle now, about 38, 39 years old but, old but not impossible. They’ve been known to live that long in the wild.
[Photo: Lois Goblet, Pete Nye and others on a boat in Alaska]
The other really cool thing that Lois got to do was spend two and three weeks on a very small boat packed with eagles and eagle poop, and very crowded conditions, but this is where they got a lot of the eagle chicks. You’re not allowed to import bald eagles. So there was a population in Canada, but we are not allowed to bring bald eagles into the United States. So we couldn’t get the eagle chicks for this hacking project, we couldn’t get them from Canada, even though Canada was very willing to help us out.
But we did have a pretty healthy population in Alaska so Pete Nye, who’s on the far right side of this picture, once a year in June would go up to Alaska and they would spend two weeks collecting eaglets out of nests. They never took, if there was just one eagle, they were looking for nests that had more than one chick. So if there were two or three chicks they would take one to two chicks out of the nest. They never took the one check out of the nest and left the parents, you know, bereft and wondering what happened to their young.
They flew them back, and a vet would check them, and then they would put these young eagles into a hack box, and by now they had hack sites in several locations around the state. And this is how they built the bald eagle population back up from literally nothing.
The two old bald eagles at Hemlock Lake, it’s a wonderful story that I really was very glad to be able to tell in the book. The male was shot and killed in 1981, the winter of 1981. The person who shot him was never identified, never arrested, and by now the female was over 20 years old. And the two people who had worked so long with this pair of birds wondered what’s going to happen to her? There was almost no one else for her to mate with.
She had kept this nesting territory going for probably at that point 15 years, and she was not a young bird. So they thought that might be the end. And they had been using these birds, even though she couldn’t produce viable eggs, they had been using them as foster parents and they were wonderfully successful. They would put a young eagle chick in and they, she like instant mamahood, and she just did a great job as a foster parent. And they had hatched, excuse me, they had reared probably about eight foster chicks.
In the spring she showed back up at the nest with a really young male bald eagle. This really is a male, May-December romance. She was about twenty two or three years old at that point, he was maybe four or five. And how he was identified was by his wing tag, and it turned out he was one of the bald eagles that Tina Milburn Morris in her second summer at Montezuma had hacked and released. The first summer they did just two and that was the brother and sister pair, the second summer they did eight. And one of those young adult male eagles hooked up with this old female at Hemlock Lake and he too proved to be a very good foster parent.
It didn’t matter what condition the male is in, it’s the female that determines whether they can produce viable eggs. If she’s loaded with DDT it wasn’t going to work, but they continued using that pair as foster parents. It’s believed she died of old age as best as they can determine, which almost never happens in the wild. She finally just a few springs after that, she didn’t come back to the nest in the spring, and they concluded she must have died, and probably died a natural death. They never found her carcass.
The male, the hot young new guy, he just died last June, and that was a news story. He was 38 years old and he got nailed by a vehicle, and unbelievably the people didn’t, I don’t believe they stopped. There’s no way you can not realize you hit a bald eagle. Um he was killed on a roadway about 20 miles from Hemlock Lake, and was still, you know there’s three active nests up there now, but he was still one of the parent, adults up there for all those years. He was 38 years old, and they knew this because of the band on his leg. And that is believed to be the oldest bald eagle ever identified in the wild. So he had a really long, successful career.
I want to read, read one more small section out of the book, and the reason that I picked this, first of all as a tribute to Phyllis, who was so kind to be here tonight, and such an enormous help to me on this book, and shared a lot of memories, but also I really, in talking to people who were working on this seemingly impossible couple of projects, I never heard anybody ever say they thought it was not going to work.
And I just came away from this thinking it was wonderful that you had a group of people doing something that had never been done before, and they, while they were doing it they just believed it was going to work. And I can’t tell you how hard this was, and how many setbacks. How many babies they hatched that died, how many young birds they released, and two weeks later they were found dead somewhere, and they never got discouraged on either project. So i’m going to read just a little section about what it was like for Phyllis when she was living here, in the hawk barn, and given this huge responsibility.
“No one had ever been able to get peregrines to breed in captivity in anything other than a hit or miss pattern that made the rare successes seem almost accidental. But then again, falconers had never set captive breeding as a goal. Falconry was heavily steeped in tradition, and falconers preferred the challenge of capturing and training a wild hatched bird.
When the Cornell team started its work only seven previous falconers or researchers had succeeded with captive breeding, meaning a natural mating or artificial insemination of falcons which had produced fertile eggs and then live chicks. The Cornell team needed more than a handful of almost accidental successes if they were going to repopulate peregrines in most of the continental United States.
No one had to remind Tom Cade that even if they figured out how to produce say, a dozen chicks a year, that just getting those dozen chicks through the first perilous weeks of life would be a challenge. Infections and viruses set in, and sometimes the chicks simply failed to thrive and died for no discernible reason. And even if all of those hypothetical dozen chicks survived long enough to begin flying, and could be released, as many as half might die in their first year in the wild.
The task might have seemed daunting, but none of the people confronting this problem in the hawk barn saw it that way. Willard Heck recalls, ‘We were absolutely confident that it would work.’
The personal circumstances of the team members made it easier for them to concentrate on the project. Phyllis Dague, Jim Weaver, and Willard Heck were young and single, and could give the sometimes round-the-clock effort the falcons required. Tom Cade’s wife, Renetta, a warm and gracious woman, supported her husband’s total immersion in the effort, and would end up knowing as much about peregrine falcons as the average graduate student. Despite Cade’s long hours, erratic schedule, and research trips to remote regions where he would be unreachable for weeks, Renetta Cade remained unfazed as the couple raised five children, and Tom’s career took an unexpected direction with the peregrine work.
In later years during the project, Renetta Cade would spend a summer under extremely rustic conditions on an island off the Virginia coast with her husband and one of his colleagues as they supervised a peregrine hack site. They lived there in a ramshackle house without running water, plumbing, or electricity. Renetta Cade described it as indoor camping. The ceiling leaked and they had to bring everything to the island by boat, but Renetta would remember the summer as one of the most beautiful and unusual experiences of her life.
Phyllis Dague’s quarters in the hawk barn were not quite so rugged, but she also lived without a shower or bathtub and washed under a garden hose. Despite the primitive conditions, Dague loved the peaceful seclusion of her loft apartment. The peregrine team acquired a couple of dogs to guard the barn, and although the dogs lent a sense of security, no intruders ever bothered the falcons.
The hawk barn was on what is now the parking lot for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the location, while only a 20-minute drive from downtown Ithaca, had the look of a truly remote area because of a buffer of forest between the lab and the roads heading into downtown.
Weaver, Heck, and Dague rigged up an intercom system between the falcon chambers in the hawk barn and Dague’s loft, so that Dague could hear the birds’ calls at night and could tell if they were mating, alarmed, or in distress. The barn was quiet in the off hours except for the vocalizations of the peregrines, which are by nature noisy birds. And because Dague was so close to the falcons, she grew to know them in a way that very few other people have ever done, and she learned to read their language.
She was living with the world’s largest collection of peregrine falcons of any place on earth, a unique situation that some experts feared might represent the birds’ last stand before extinction. But Dague didn’t think the Cornell peregrines symbolized desperation. She thought of the captive falcons as a sign of hope, and so did everyone else on the project.
It was easy to feel that way when the last thing you heard at night, and the first thing you heard in the morning, was peregrine falcons shrieking every possible variation of their imperious commanding cry of keck keck keck keck keck keck, and then you could imagine that call duplicated in the wild over and over, in every place where the peregrine falcon had disappeared.”
Thank you. I’m happy to answer some questions, and I know that if I can’t answer the questions there might be somebody who’s a far more expert birder than I am in the audience who will be able to, but I’ll be glad to take some questions. Yes. Thank you. Uh the the word. The question was, why do we call it the peregrine falcon? That comes from latin, and it comes from the latin word for traveler.
And I had a great comment from Professor Cade in the book when I interviewed him, he said the first year that they started to release these young peregrines, they had no idea if they were going to come back. But the theory was they would come back roughly to the area that had sort of imprinted on them when they were in the nesting boxes. And they released that first year, and I forget the year but it was in the late 1970s, and they started to come back, the ones that had survived. And not to the exact same location, but the general area. And he said to me that’s the wonderful thing about this bird, they travel all over the world, but when it’s time to mate they come home. And they are found on every continent except Antarctica, but they, they migrate sometimes long distances, and they are great travelers. Thank you.
Yes, yes. It’s um, I thought it was too, but Tom Cade told me that that is actually a different, he thinks it’s a different species of falcon, but I won’t argue with you if you are from Egypt. Certainly the way that the bird looks has been seen in a great deal of Egyptian art. I thought it was a peregrine also, he said he thinks it’s a different species. The question was in Egyptian art and sculpture you often see a depiction of what looks very much like a peregrine falcon, and the gentleman was asking if if indeed that is believed to be one. I thought it was, and it’s hard to tell. They’ve certainly existed as a species then. They’ve been around for you know, far longer than we’ve been humans in the North America I can assure you. Um but I can’t I can’t be absolutely sure.
Oh yes. Any, any other questions? Yes? The question was is DDT still in the environment, is it, how long will it be there, and is it still affecting birds of prey at any level? It’s not used in the United States or Canada, the question of how long it lasts in the environment was one that scientists actually had to answer, and there are some studies that indicate that it survives for decades.
Obviously if you’re not putting it back into the environment constantly, eventually the exposure is going to be a lot less. It’s used in other parts of the world, and what happens with DDT is when it was used as a pesticide, and it, and there was every reason to believe it was going to be like a miracle drug for agriculture. And the Swiss chemist who discovered it actually won the Nobel Prize for that discovery, his name was Paul Mueller.
It started to be used right after World War II as commercial applications in the United States, and it was used for approximately 20 years. Yes, there’s still DDT in the environment, but in in much lower amounts, lower and far fewer locations now. So it’s not still a problem for birds in the United States. One thing I personally worry about is with the Zika virus that you will hear, and there’s still people calling for a return to the use of DDT, and that was happening before this outbreak of the Zika virus. I think a lot of people would tell you there are very effective ways to control mosquitoes, and I certainly hope that we never hear a call for it to be used again in the United States. It’s still manufactured, and it’s still used elsewhere in the world.
Now any, any other questions? The questions were are there still, are their larger numbers of women now than there were, and can you still break into this work without a college degree? To the first question, yes there’s a lot more women, and it’s not even uncommon now. In fact the woman that’s the head of the pesticide studies unit at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional office in western New York, Anne Secord, and I know she’s still there because I just talked to her a few weeks ago, she was one of Tom Cade’s students. She also said his course, she still has nightmares about it, she said it was a four-credit killer. And she’s well into her fifties, just I think she’s still having college anxiety dreams about that. But it’s not even uncommon, now in fact I saw so many women working in this field that it started to almost be unusual to see, on some projects, to see men.
The hack site program, the hack attendant program that I described where people worked with the young bald eagles and peregrine falcons. That spawned a whole generation of people that went into this work, and that was their first job in that work. In terms of your, your second part of your question sir was?
Oh if they could, yeah if you could break out into the work without a college degree. Today I think it would be harder, and I see Phyllis agreeing with me. I think it would be a lot harder now. What’s interesting about that 1965 conference at the University of Wisconsin that I described was, there were several people there who were not trained scientists, and there was another woman and she’s really not well known now, Katherine Skelton, and she was an amateur expert who was invited to this very prestigious concert, conference, because she and her husband both had done extensive surveying of the peregrine falcon sites in New York State along the Hudson River and she had serious data to present at this conference. And nobody cared that she wasn’t a trained scientist.
Today it’s a very competitive field, I think you would really need, you know, a college degree, and then an advanced degree to get your foot in the door. Also these two projects opened up so much work, and and were the start, this was the start of the endangered species movement, the environmental movement in the United States. So now, yeah, I would I think you might get your foot in the door but you would need to go back and get that degree.
Any, yeah? Yes, sir? Yeah the the question was um with a bird that is known to travel a great deal like a peregrine falcon do they come back to their home territory, and the answer is yes. One of the reasons that, and I address this in the book, when you look at an area like upstate New York that has, you know, just it seems to have just endless amounts of open space, and people will say why is there a problem with birds disappearing if there’s all this open space? And I actually had someone once say to me as he was talking about why he wanted to put a wind project in the Adirondacks, you know if the birds can’t nest in those trees, they can nest in some other trees. And that’s actually a title of the chapter in the book, all those trees out there.
The problem is birds come back to the same place, and not just peregrine falcons, they come back to pretty much the general area where they were reared, where they fledged from the nest. And they’re so, they demonstrate site fidelity so much, that this is why I said it was easy. You can catch, I went out with some biologists doing work on the Bicknell’s thrush, which is an extremely rare high-altitude songbird. There was one bird they caught more than once in one day, and they had been catching this bird for years on the same trail. So imagine that, that you hone in on not just the same mountain, but you go to the same part of that mountain.
Peregrine falcons do that, and that’s why nesting boxes work. The same pair comes back to the nesting box, year after year after year. And the expression among birders is they mate for life and they mourn for five minutes. If they lose their mate they find another one as fast as they can, because they need two birds to defend that territory. Otherwise another mated pair will come in and try to take over the nesting territory, they’re very territorial, far more so than bald eagles. There’s three, there’s three nests up at Hemlock Lake now and those birds have been coming back for year after year after year, too.
Any other questions? Yes, in the back? I don’t know, that the question was the osprey population, and somebody reporting their belief that it’s depleting in a section of Long Island, and do I know of any efforts to do any work on that specifically? My guess would be if anybody who’s a casual observer has noticed this, probably somebody who’s an expert has noticed it also, and I’m not sure, I hadn’t heard about that. My work down on Long Island was mostly on the piping plover. The osprey was badly affected both by habitat loss and DDT, they too eat fish, and that kind of food, there was a lot of concentration. They were brought back, they got, they never got the same amount of attention that the bald eagle got. And they’re a really cool bird, they look like The Lone Ranger, they have this beautiful mask of black feathers. And you see their nests, you can see them around Montezuma. They build stick nests high up, often on light transmitter poles. The reasons, if somebody is observing a depletion of the population, I wouldn’t know what could be the cause of that um, and I would hesitate to offer a guess on that. I know that their comeback was a great story also, and that was helped along by building nesting platforms. Sometimes also with birds there’s a temporary decline in an area, and I think even sometimes the scientists don’t know why. But I hadn’t heard about that.
Yes, any any other questions? Okay I think we’re done. Thank you.
[Applause]End of transcript
Join Darryl McGrath who discusses her new book, Flight Paths: A Field Journal of Hope, Heartbreak, and Miracles with New York’s Bird People, that documents raptor recovery programs over the last forty years in New York, and pays tribute to the determination of the women biologists who helped make these programs possible. These early women conservationists played key roles in the projects that kept the Peregrine Falcon and Bald Eagle from going extinct, and were among the first scientists to achieve success in this kind of conservation work. Their research often unfolded in the wilderness, under difficult, isolated and even dangerous conditions.