For the Birds Radio Program: Home from Ohio

Original Air Date: June 5, 2003

Laura and Russ had a few adventures, some better than others, on their journey to bring Katie home from college for the summer.

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This May, as birds migrated north to start new little babies, my husband and I migrated east to pick up our own little 19-year-old baby from her first year of college. It’s a long way to Ohio, and interstate birding opportunities aren’t what you’d call varied, but I’ve always enjoyed seeing what birds I can on trips like this. On this trip, I saw dozens of Red-winged Blackbirds chasing crows, several American Kestrels hovering over open fields, and about fifty Turkey Vultures. I only saw three Red-tailed Hawks on the whole trip, which was scary evidence of how devastating West Nile Virus may have been to some hawks and owls.

We spent a night in Oberlin, Ohio, helping Katie finish packing. That’s where I heard my first nighthawk of the year, its sound drifting in through her dorm room window as we sorted through stuff. The nighthawk is one of my favorite species, but opportunities to see and hear it are becoming few and far between. That night I also heard toads trilling at the lovely little artificial pond outside the Oberlin conservatory. Walking past, I found one female toad trying, without luck, to hop up the steps toward the pond where she was obviously intent on meeting some of those calling males. The moment I released her near the pond, she hopped eagerly away. I walked past again in the morning, but she didn’t come out to share girlish secrets about her romantic night on the town.

That morning I also met an Oberlin student from Hibbing named Naomi, who would be riding back with us. Young women in 2003 bring a lot more stuff to college than I did back in 1969, but we had no trouble putting all Katie’s and Naomi’s stuff in a U-haul truck. We loaded up to the arrhythmic beat of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker and the cheerful chittering of Chimney Swifts, along with Mourning Doves, Cedar Waxwings, House Finches, Goldfinches, and Yellow Warblers, and we got on the road a little after 10.

The girls slept most of the way through Ohio after their long night of goodbyes and packing, and then watched movies on Katie’s laptop through Indiana as I kept watch on birds we passed. The Ohio turnpike parallels Lake Erie, so there were gulls, geese, cormorants, and an occasional Great Blue Heron flying overhead here and there. The trip seemed uneventful and simple until we came to the end of the Indiana Tollway. As we started up after paying the toll, our car’s transmission suddenly decided it had seen better days. We limped to a transmission shop just outside Gary, where we learned that our car would be out of commission until at least late morning the next day.

Now if you’d like to have a logical explanation how we happened on that elegant syncopation…Gary, Indiana, turned out to be just the place to be stranded for a night—it’s plenty close to the Indiana Dunes and other nice birding spots. Unfortunately I was the only birder in the group, but we did go to a little park for an early evening stroll before taking in a movie. The park is built along what used to be a railroad right of way, with catbirds, wood thrushes, and other lovely singers to lighten my spirits after the discouraging problems with the transmission.

The next morning, our transmission was fixed, and although we were poorer, the car got us home. I have to admit that I was a little tired of expressway birding by the end of the trip, but I was all eyes as we drove near the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge in Wisconsin, hoping against hope for a glimpse of the Whooping Cranes from the reintroduction program. I had no luck this time, just like I’ve had no luck the dozen times I’ve driven past there in the past year, but if I don’t look, I’m certainly never going to see one.

We made it to Duluth a little after midnight, met Naomi’s parents, transferred all her stuff to their car and said goodbye to her, and headed on home. And as we were emptying the last of Katie’s stuff from the U-Haul trailer, just shy of 1 am, I heard the lovely chittering of a woodcock flying overhead. In the 22 years since we moved into our house, this was the first time I ever heard a woodcock from my yard. It was a happy omen—a little sign that my daughter was home for the summer and, transmission or not, all was right in my world.