For the Birds Radio Program: Baker Woodlot Then and Now
Thirty three years ago, on March 2, 1975, I set out with my dog Scout for Baker Woodlot at Michigan State University to become a birdwatcher. On Sunday, March 2, 2008, I happened to be in Lansing again, so I set out with my dog Photon for a walk down memory lane.
When we return after many decades to a beloved natural area, it’s often a shadow of its former self if, indeed, it still exists at all. Fortunately, Baker Woodlot is not only still there, but has been maintained by the university as a natural area, so it’s the same beloved beech-maple forest I remember, with the same creaking trees and beautiful shadows. In the 70s, I seldom met anyone else on the trails, and it’s just as quiet now—Photon and I ran into only one person on our long walk. I don’t remember specific trees—young spindly ones from back in my own young, spindly days have expanded in girth, as have I. They’ve replaced older trees that are even older now, replacing ones that have fallen. All in all, the trees look pretty much the same.
I do remember a few specific rocks marking the place where Russ and I buried my pet gerbils. The rocks are still exactly where they were. And what flew in near those rocks but a little flock of chickadees—perhaps descendents of the very first chickadee I ever saw, at that very spot. These were as inquisitive and cooperative as my first chickadee and filled me with the same joy as my first one did. What this visit lacked in the thrill of seeing such an unfamiliar and exciting bird for the first time ever, it made up for in the warm joy of recognition.
I saw my first White-breasted Nuthatches at Baker Woodlot, where I once got a nuthatch to respond to my Audubon Bird Call—a little wood-and-pewter trinket that makes squeaky sounds, and to which I never ever called in another bird. I didn’t have the bird call with me Sunday, but the nuthatches still joined the chickadees in a welcoming reception for me. There were more crows than I remember. First thing in the morning they were making a “cacawphony.” I didn’t see it, but suspect they’d spotted the resident Great Horned Owl. Baker Woodlot is where I saw my first Great Horned Owl, and they still nest there.
I didn’t dare hope that I could celebrate the anniversary of my first bird by seeing another brand new bird at Baker Woodlot. I didn’t add a lifer but did see the first screech owl I’ve ever seen in Michigan, poking its little gray head out of a cavity. That was an unexpected bit of serendipity.
After my walk there, I headed to Fenner Nature Center for a bird walk led by Doug McWhirter, who’d been the teaching assistant in my ornithology class in 1976. Everything important about Doug was familiar—his voice, his birding skills, his sense of humor. He’s the only serious birder besides me who I’ve ever heard saying “twitterpated” to refer to hormonal spring birds.
I listened hard for titmice since Fenner is where I heard and saw my first. Sure enough, we had several. We also had a few redpolls, reminding me of my first, sitting atop a conifer there at Fenner. I used to hear lots of pheasants there; now there are turkeys. House Finches are also new since the 70s. A flock of waxwings flew over, including at least one Bohemian—that was a hotline bird for Lansing and new for my Michigan list.
Baker Woodlot and Fenner were not exactly as I remembered them. But nothing was worse, and some things were even better. Maybe at least sometimes you CAN go home again.