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Following the Migration Trail

Ornithologist Bruce Beehler delves into his northward journey with spring’s songbirds

     Traveling via car, canoe, bicycle and on foot, Bruce Beehler, a Smithsonian ornithologist, wildlife researcher and lifelong adventurer, followed migrating birds for four months. Starting in late March 2015, he watched birds as they crossed into the U.S. at the southern border and as they traveled through the American heartland to their nesting grounds in the north woods of Ontario. 
      Here Beehler shares some high points of the experience. Meet Beehler and hear more of his story and buy your signed copy of his chronicle, North on the Wing, at the Anne Arundel Bird Club’s January 16 program at Kinder Farm Park.
 
Bay Weekly What was your strategy for following the songbird migration?
Bruce Beehler Go where the birds are. I was inspired by North with the Spring, E.W. Teale’s classic book that followed birds along the Appalachian chain. But the biggest migration starts in east Texas and southern Louisiana, where birds are pouring across the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean and Central and South America. From there I followed the Mississippi River north, which is the best bird migration route in the whole world. 
 
Bay Weekly Tell us what you like about traveling solo.
Bruce Beehler Oh, wow! I love my wife and kids, but for nature study and photography, I like the flexibility of working alone. When my car caught fire and burned up, it didn’t bother anybody but me. You never know how much time you’ll need, or where you’ll need to be when — even more so with photography than with birdwatching. You can hunker down and focus on what you want without inconveniencing anyone.
 
Bay Weekly Food has a strong presence in your book. What was a memorable meal? 
Bruce Beehler Ahh! Boudin is a deep-fried sausage with dirty rice and pork or crawfish. Delicious, but not good for you! I sampled three kinds in Billy’s Boudin in Lafayette, La., and again at a gas station in a tiny hamlet on the Gulf Coast. 
 
Bay Weekly What surprised you along the way?
Bruce Beehler Songbirds don’t sing when they come north across the Gulf. They’re mostly silent until they get to the mid-Atlantic, closer to their breeding grounds.
     Birds crossing the Gulf arrive in the afternoon, which is weird because they’re nocturnal migrants. They rain out of the sky around four in the afternoon, they fill a patch of woods, then they all leave at night.
     Overall, my happiest experience was that every single person I met went out of their way to help me.
 
Bay Weekly Your new book, Birds of Maryland, Delaware, and the District of Columbia, will be released in March. What was your favorite experience with this enormous project?
Bruce Beehler Working with so many people who love birds with their heart and soul. The book’s photographer, Middleton Evans, and Johns Hopkins University Press were wonderful. This was a much more collaborative experience than my other books. 
 
Bay Weekly What do you want readers to take away from North on the Wing
Bruce Beehler Hope! I believe in being optimistic even in dark times. There are hundreds of NGOs and state and county parks with underpaid people working their hearts out for conservation. I don’t shy away from the fact that we have problems. But look: We have eagles, ospreys, whooping cranes and California condors again. We’re doing a lot of things right.
 
      Wednesday, January 16, 7-9pm, Kinder Farm Park ­Visitor Center, Millersville; refreshments served; books available for sale and signing: 410-703-4664.