Bruce M. Beehler ’74 developed an affinity for wood warblers as a child while listening to his mother’s bedtime stories. Nature writers were their favorites, especially the naturalist Edwin Way Teale and his 1951 book North with the Spring.
Beehler went on to a career in ornithology, ecological research and nature conservation, mostly in tropical Asia and the Pacific. But retirement offered an opportunity to follow the brightly colored songbirds on their annual spring migration from the Mississippi Valley to the Great North Woods, where they settle to breed.
In 2015, he set out on a 100-day excursion through 19 states and a large section of Canada, traveling by car, bicycle, kayak and on foot, and camping out each night. Along the way, he encountered 259 species of birds, including all 37 wood warblers of Eastern North America, and he chronicled his journey as Teale had done. The result is Beehler’s memoir, North on the Wing: Following the Songbird Migration of Spring, an excerpt of which follows.
Illustrations by John James Audubon, Courtesy of the National Audubon Society
From the Gulf coast, my path leads me north into the interior bottomlands of Louisiana and Mississippi, with their mix of hardwood swamp forest, river oxbows, row-crop agriculture and the tiny old towns of the lower Mississippi. The ecologically rich, junglelike forests of the Mississippi Delta are the places that Gulf-crossing migrant warblers hurry to reach after their brief stopovers in the coastal cheniers. More than 20 species of wood warblers pass through here en route to parts north, and populations of 13 migrant wood warblers actually stop to breed in these forests. How many breeders will I find, and how many passage migrants will I see? And what environmental conditions will my quest birds face?
North of Pecan Island, La. (a town, not an island), I came to cultivated rice fields alive with Fulvous Whistling-Ducks and other waterbirds; I was leaving the vast and lonely expanses of marshland and arriving in inhabited farmlands with crawfish ponds and cattle pastures. Here many farmers cycle their fields from rice to crawfish and back to rice, which can produce bird-friendly wetland habitat. Both depend on seasonal flooding of diked fields, and both provide good foraging opportunities for shorebirds, long-legged wading birds and waterfowl. Ducks Unlimited works with farmers in southern Louisiana and southeastern Texas to create waterbird-friendly winter wetlands, an effort partly funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Passing through the decrepit town of Opelousas, I enter the watershed of the Atchafalaya—the river that is trying to capture the lower Mississippi. Where the Atchafalaya passes close by the Mississippi, the Atchafalaya is the lower watercourse. Thus, if the paths of the two meet, the Mississippi will be drawn down into Atchafalaya’s lower basin and follow its course to the Gulf. The Army Corps of Engineers has spent many millions to prevent this catastrophe of their own creation. If the Atchafalaya does capture the Mississippi, Baton Rouge and New Orleans will lose their river, and the Mississippi will flow into the Gulf about 75 miles west of where it does today. The Atchafalaya, created by the confluence of the Red and Black rivers, meanders in a big, swampy bottomland that I crossed as I headed eastward on Highway 190 toward the town of Lottie. I drove several miles atop a raised causeway passing over the swamp forest of Atchafalaya National Wildlife Refuge.
I needed my GPS to navigate this little rural patch of low country that has been much confused by the periodic shifting of the two big rivers and their various tributaries. In the balmy afternoon, I traveled back roads past the small communities of Blanks, Livonia, Frisco, Parlange and Mix, finally coming to the prosperous town of New Roads. The country here is pretty: a mix of tall woodland and agricultural fields bounded by neatly planted rows of trees. Cattle Egrets forage in the fields, and it has the feel of Virginia horse country but without any prominent hills. At Pointe Coupee, I crossed the Mississippi on the John James Audubon Bridge, a graceful engineering marvel of concrete and steel completed in 2011. It is the second-longest cable-stayed bridge in the Western Hemisphere. The swirling brown river was in flood, and lots of bottomland was underwater.
On the east side of the river is West Feliciana Parish, home of the historic town of St. Francisville, just uphill from the ancient community of Bayou Sara, right on the main stem of the big river. I was here to visit Oakley Plantation, where John James Audubon once worked while he was struggling to become America’s ornithologist. And, of course, I’d come in search of the various wood warblers that nest in this low country—the same birds that Audubon marveled at nearly two centuries ago.
On my first morning in St. Francisville, I am awakened early by the songs of Summer Tanager, Orchard Oriole and Great Crested Flycatcher from the oak canopy. I rise and travel the low-country road to Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge, down on the Mississippi. In the bottomland woods I hear the voices of several passage migrants—Nashville, Black-throated Green and Chestnut-sided Warblers—in counterpoint to the song of commonplace local breeders such as the Carolina Wren, Tufted Titmouse and Northern Cardinal.
The verdant bottomland forest of the refuge sheltered singing Kentucky and Prothonotary Warblers, two more of my quest birds, on their breeding territories. The Kentucky has a song reminiscent of the Carolina Wren’s, but fuller and less complex. This powerful songster is olive above and bright yellow below, with a drooping black ear streak. This is a true denizen of the deep-forest interior, its breeding range entirely confined to the eastern United States. It winters south to Columbia and Venezuela. Whereas the Kentucky was difficult to spot in the forest, the Prothonotary—the golden swamp warbler—was a flash of orange-burnished yellow with blue-gray wings, often in full view on a prominent perch. Its monotonous swit swit swit swit swit swit signaled the presence of a swamp, for this species nests only in trees standing in swamp water—something Cat Island National Wildlife Refuge has plenty of. Because of its strong affinity for swamplands, the Prothonotary is especially common in the Deep South. It winters as far south as northern South America.
After my visit to Cat Island, I drove to downtown St. Francisville, the most picturesque and historically preserved small town I’d seen in the Deep South. Its main residential street was lined with period bungalows painted white or a pale pastel. All were built more than a century ago, and all had been lovingly preserved: small, cozy and set under the deep shade of Live Oaks and other old trees. I took breakfast at the Birdman Café, where a resident, seeing my field guide on the table, struck up a friendly conversation about birdwatching. Such conviviality, combined with the fine architectural touches downtown, was beguiling. This was a place where it would be fine to retire—or at least spend the winter.
Afterward, I drove back to the campground and bicycled to the Audubon State Historic Site at Oakley Plantation. John James Audubon, who arrived here from New Orleans on June 18, 1821, as an aspiring bird artist, wrote of the site: “The rich magnolias covered with fragrant blossoms, the holly, the beech, the tall yellow poplar, the hilly ground and even the red clay, all excited my admiration.” A long entrance drive passed through a mix of grand old-growth pines and towering hardwoods, with Live Oaks and Loblolly Pines prominent among the ancient trees. Greeting me was a morning chorus of breeding birds from the canopy as well as from the thick understory set back from the drive—Kentucky Warbler, Summer Tanager, Great Crested Flycatcher, Wood Thrush, Red-shouldered Hawk, Yellow-billed Cuckoo, and Red-headed and Pileated Woodpeckers were all in voice. I stopped several times to revel in the symphony of spring at this wondrous intersection of ornithology, landscape, history, architecture and art
Oakley House, in the early Federal style, is handsomely proportioned and clad in white clapboard. Set in a small clearing at the end of the long, winding driveway, it is distinguished by its two floors of porches and its wooden-slat jalousies set to block the summer sun. The house is bracketed by several large, spreading Live Oaks, and great Southern Magnolias stand guard near the front porch. Oakley’s interior, restored to reflect its appearance at the time when Audubon stayed here, conveys both rural wealth and lived-in practicality. The three-story home contains 17 rooms, with front and side entrances leading to the landscaped grounds, shaded by oak and Crape Myrtles. It is flanked by formal gardens and several period outbuildings that contribute to the sense of a lost time and place, and a small, understated accompanying museum. The grounds also include a nature trail through the forested reaches of the hundred-acre property. Restoration and maintenance of the estate have been ongoing challenges; Hurricane Katrina blew out many of the upper-story windows and knocked down scores of trees on the grounds in 2005.
“Just as Audubon stopped over in various homes here in West Feliciana Parish, many species of migrant songbird arrive here in late April. … This is important songbird country; in every direction from where I stood at Oakley Plantation were tracts of forest teeming with birds of passage, at the height of spring.”
Construction began on the house in 1799, when Ruffin Gray, a successful planter from Natchez, Miss., moved here onto land he purchased from the Spanish authorities (yes, this still was part of Spain’s territory at the time). Gray died before his house was finished, and his widow, Lucy Alston, oversaw its completion. She later married James Pirrie, an immigrant from Scotland, and Eliza, their daughter, was born here in 1805. Eliza Pirrie’s educational needs eventually brought Audubon to the household. In the 1820s, Audubon and his family made a living not only through tutoring but also by painting portraits and doing other odd jobs among the wealthy planters of Louisiana and Mississippi, particularly in New Orleans, St. Francisville and Natchez. It was in the forests and swamps near the Mississippi that Audubon observed and collected the birds appearing in a number of the color plates of his masterwork, Birds of America. Today the house’s main rooms feature Audubon prints of birds he painted here in West Feliciana Parish.
In 1821, Audubon took up residence at Oakley as tutor to 15-year-old Eliza. His contract required him to spend half of each day tutoring the girl, but the rest of the day he was free to explore the woods and paint the birds he encountered and collected. Audubon’s stay at Oakley House did not last terribly long because of a family misunderstanding (it seems Eliza may have become overly enamored of her dashing tutor). Nonetheless, Audubon spent, on and off, more than eight years based out of West Feliciana Parish, and while he was here he painted as many as 80 species for the double-elephant folio Birds of America. St. Francisville, then, was one of the most important places for Audubon as he created his magnum opus. Aside from Oakley, he spent time at Beech Woods Plantation, among other places, and it was during this period that Audubon committed to having his great ornithological opus produced in England, with his painted images reproduced by the renowned engraver Robert Havell.
Bird species illustrated by Audubon in West Feliciana Parish include the Swallow-tailed Kite, Pine Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker and Red-shouldered Hawk. As highlighted by Mary Durant in On the Road with John James Audubon, Audubon and his assistant, George Mason, also illustrated in the book’s plates many of the more interesting local plants, including Cross Vine, Jessamine, Toadshade, Red Buckeye, Rose Vervain and Silver Bells. According to Durant, Audubon himself took little interest in the flora except to liven up his bird compositions, and thus Mason did the lion’s share of such work for the master.
After my tour of Oakley House and its grounds, I understood why Audubon loved this landscape. It includes a diversity of natural environments, both upland and bottomland, and the culture and wealth of the plantation families made for a pleasurable lifestyle, something for which Audubon had a taste. Of course, Audubon was also a wanderer, and he traveled much of the length and breadth of the continent, from Key West north to Newfoundland and west to the upper Missouri River. But certainly he undertook the preponderance of his fieldwork and painting in the Mississippi drainage between Louisville and New Orleans.
Just as Audubon stopped over in various homes here in West Feliciana Parish, many species of migrant songbird arrive here in late April and either nest in the area or briefly rest and refuel for the next flight northward. This is important songbird country either way; in every direction from where I stood at Oakley Plantation were tracts of forest teeming with birds in passage, at the height of spring.
To see more of Audubon’s drawings, visit www.audubon.org or Williams’ Chapin Library, which has an original double-elephant folio edition of Birds of America.
Bruce M. Beehler ’74 says he came to Williams “in love with birds and nature but not certain how to apply this interest.” Biology and its rigorous pre-med curriculum weren’t the right fit. But “American civilization and Fred Rudolph ’42 welcomed me with open arms,” he says of the longtime Williams history professor. “Fred said as long as birds were American, he was OK with my doing a thesis on them.”
That honors thesis, “Birdlife of the Adirondack Park,” became Beehler’s first book, published in 1978 under the same title by Adirondack Mountain Club. A Watson Fellowship led him to New Guinea and, later, a career as an ornithologist, naturalist and conservationist in tropical Asia and the Pacific.
Now a research associate of the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution, Beehler kept in touch with his professor until Rudolph’s passing in 2013. Says Beehler, “Fred was kind enough to offer his editorial services on several of my popular books. He was the first teacher of mine who took the time to show me how to write a sentence and a paragraph in English.”
Adapted from North on the Wing by Bruce M. Beehler ’74. Copyright © 2018 by Smithsonian Books. Reprinted by permission of Smithsonian Books