Thursday, July 15, 2010

Hope on the Rocks

One of the ways I knew that Ma’ikwe was seriously interested in me as a life partner was when she told her father (Jim), a wildlife biologist, that she’d finally met a guy whom she felt she could bring bird banding without fear of embarrassing himself. While I could tell this was an important yardstick to be measured against, I had little idea what she was talking about… until last Sunday.

After spending a couple post-Drummond Island days [see my blogs of June 27-July 7 for more about that] puttering around the northeast quadrant of the Upper Peninsula, Ma’ikwe and I rendezvoused with her mother (Kay) and son (Jibran) at Uncle Ted and Aunt Barbara’s house on the St. Mary’s River outside Barbeau (just southeast of the Soo). Ted is Jim’s brother, and more to the point, they are both Fred Ludwig's sons. Fred was a doctor by profession and a bird bander by avocation. Starting around 1929, Fred got seriously interested in banding baby birds that nested in the Great Lakes, to help with wildlife research. He ultimately infected both his sons with this same zeal. By 1996, the extended Ludwig clan estimated that they’d banded about 650,000 birds, roughly 1% of the all those banded in North America. We’re talking serious banding.
While Fred passed away in 2002 and Jim has retired from banding, Ted keeps his hand in. A doctor like his father, Ted is also every bit the amateur supporter of avian wildlife that Fred was. Appropriately enough, Ma’ikwe asked Ted about his recent banding exploits after dinner, and it wasn’t 15 minutes later that Ma’ikwe, Jibran, and I were in Ted’s boat, motoring off to a special island he knew about two miles into Lake Huron, where common terns were hatching. Suddenly, Jibran and I were on our way to getting baptized as “real” Ludwigs.
I borrowed waders from Barb that I could just wedge my feet into without socks and off we went (the red welts on the top of my feet disappeared by the following morning).
The “island” turned out to be a modest pile of rocks, barely poking out of the water. It was more a miniature archipelago measuring all of 30 feet long by 12 feet wide, mostly disguised by reeds. Nonetheless, there were perhaps 50 pairs of common terns nesting there, and all the adults reluctantly rose up and hovered raucously 30-50 feet above us as we banded the babies.
As my community, Sandhill Farm, has had chickens every year since 1975, I’ve seen a lot of baby birds (no small amount of them have been incubated in our living room), and a chick is a chick. (My co-founder, Annie, had this particular trick she developed where she’d pop a baby in her mouth [after carefully wiping its clawed feet] and then causally mingle with folks, only to open wide at the appropriate moment and have the chick cautiously cock its salivated head toward the speaker inquisitively—it invariably stole the moment. But I digress… )
A few of the chicks we encountered in Lake Huron were still wet and exhausted from just having exited their shell. Unlike baby chickens however, these were a mottled brown that blended naturally with the reed nests and nearby stones, helping to keep a low profile against air-borne predators, such as gulls. While they may or may not have justified Ma’ikwe’s claim to be “the cutest chicks in the while world,” it was not hard to root for them. My favorite moment was when the chick I'd been holding (awaiting Ted's ministrations) horked up a fish that was three-quarters as long as it was, exiting tail first. I guess being held and banded by 200-pound monsters temporarily put it off its feed.
One Good Tern Deserves Another
As we were merrily banding away (Ted would expertly slip a marked aluminum band—they are only 1/4-inch wide and open like a letter C—over one of the legs and then squeeze it carefully closed with needle nosed pliers, leaving plenty of room for the leg to grow without pinching; our job was to tenderly place each bird back in the approximate place we found it), Ted explained that the common tern is rapidly becoming less common all the time. In fact, it’s one of the most endangered birds in the Upper Great Lakes, struggling to find decent habitat for breeding, and to compete successfully with cormorants for food.
Their fragility was poignantly apparent as strong winds out of the south had been blowing all day, piling water up at our end of the lake. This effectively raised the water level by several inches. Because the island had so little freeboard, an alarming number of eggs were floating in the water, which severely compromised the temperatures needed for successful incubation.
As you might imagine, the adult terns were highly relieved when our commando operation was over and we had shoved off from their spit of land. In perhaps 20 minutes, we had banded 69 chicks. While that’s only 0.01% of what’s been accomplished by Ludwig banders overall, I had finally gotten off the schneid.

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