I grew up just down the road from Mill Grove, where John James Audubon lived as a young man, and where he apparently conducted the very first banding experiment on a migratory American bird, an Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe). But I never knew it—or even who Audubon was—until I was already an ornithologist in my own right and using Audubon’s technique to study the social behavior of migratory birds.
In fact, it was through Audubon’s friendship with Reuben Haines III, the corresponding secretary of the Academy of Natural Sciences and proprietor of Wyck, the historic house in Germantown, where they became acquainted in the summer of 1824, and where I lived nearly two centuries later in 2010, that I became interested in Audubon and his life. It was only then that I realized how close the site that now hosts the John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove was to the forests and fields of my own childhood (see map below), and the impressive legacy of naturalists from Chester and Montgomery counties (e.g., Graceanna Lewis, one of America’s first female ornithologists). When recently, I was afforded an opportunity that Audubon himself was famously denied–to pursue my ornithological studies with the support of the Academy–I decided that the time was ripe for a pilgrimage. I waited until May so that I could be sure to hear Wood Thrushes (Hylocichla mustelina) singing during my visit—and I brought my microphone.
It was the 11th of May, a Monday afternoon, and the parking lot was empty but for some Brown-headed Cowbirds (Molothrus ater) perched in the adjacent hedge. Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor) danced overhead and the reverent chimes of a Wood Thrush (as hoped) beckoned me from the nearby forest. I closed my eyes and imagined the ancestors of these thrushes flitting amongst the branches, as the sounds of a piano etude emerged from the window of the nearby house, drawn by the fingers of Lucy Bakewell while her beloved John leaned against the wall, sketching the scene.
“To it I owe much. How often has it revived my drooping spirits, when I have listened to its wild notes in the forest …doubting perhaps if ever again I should return to my home, and embrace my family!…how fervently, on such occasions, have I blessed the Being who formed the Wood Thrush, and placed it in those solitary forests, as if to console me amidst my privations, to cheer my depressed mind, and to make me feel, as I did, that never ought man to despair, whatever may be his situation, as he can never be certain that aid and deliverance are not at hand.” (Audubon, Ornithological Biography 1831, p. 372)
I strolled through the grounds, and took note of its various inhabitants and their behavior. A Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia) bathed in a shaded rivulet, shaking vigorously at intervals to expel the water, not unlike a dog. A red fox (Vulpes vulpes) scratched behind its ears and yawned as I watched from a distance, undetected. The slope of the Perkiomen creek just north of Audubon’s house gets quite steep. This is presumably near to the place that John and Lucy found the Eastern Phoebes nesting on a bluff. Up a small tributary of the Perkiomen, there are steep berms on either side of a broad floodplain, so that a person standing on the forest floor gets the feeling of being inside a bowl. When I entered that place, the hairs on my arms raised in awe as Wood Thrush songs echoed through the wooded cathedral.
“After resting a few moments, I abruptly took my hat and ran wildly towards the woods, to the grotto where I first heard from my wife the acknowledgment that I was not indifferent to her”? (1868, p. 87; Ed. R. Buchanan, The Life and Adventures of John James Audubon)
Under a nearby bridge across a small tributary, I found the nest of a pair of Eastern Phoebes……a sanctuary, indeed.