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Sparky Stensaas Collection
331jrnl1Captain J.P. “Perk” Perkins holds two of the winged visitors his floating forest attracted on Lake Superior.
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by Sparky Stensaas
During the recent construction of our house near Wrenshall, Minnesota, one builder, Andrew Webster, handed me a hardbound compilation of 1960s bird information from northeastern Minnesota. Andrew, who also is a friend and fellow biologist, got the materials from former Duluth News Tribune nature columnist Ray Naddy, for whom he had done some work.
Being a bird freak, I flipped through it eagerly, noting articles by pioneering Minnesota ruffed grouse researcher Gordon Gullion, seasonal bird reports by my friend Jan Green of Duluth and early butterfly records by Minnesota naturalist Ron Huber.
Suddenly something fluttered to the ground from between the mimeographed pages. It was an old, creased white-bordered Kodak print of a captain on the red deck of a laker. The captain stood next to a couple of very out of place, scraggly conifers; on his arm perched two broad-winged hawks and behind stretched the blue horizon of a large lake.
I turned with much curiosity to the part of the book from where the picture fell and found six years of typed correspondence between that captain, J.P. “Perk” Perkins, and Ray Naddy. The letters revealed a fascinating Lake Superior character who made important contributions to knowledge about bird migrations and the Great Lakes.
An avid birder, Perk Perkins decided not to let his career interfere with viewing birds. From the early 1930s through the early 1970s, Perk created his own on-deck forests, setting up a little green oasis on whichever Pittsburgh Steamship Division vessel he was assigned by the U.S. Steel Corporation.
His floating forest amused his shipmates, who called it “Perk’s National Forest.”
Perk’s forest habitat changed depending on available trees and shrubs. He’d buy balled and burlapped trees from landscapers before he left a port and arrange them in bushel baskets on deck. Birdseed and a viewing bench completed the waterborne landscape. He usually kept his forest small since the boats’ one-piece hatches required him to move trees to load the ore, though one letter mentions 14 trees that stayed in place because the hatch was removed permanently.
White spruce, hemlocks, balsam fir, northern white cedar and a dead snag for woodpeckers and larger birds often made up Perk’s National Forest. He’d add berry-laden red osier dogwood and mountain ash to attract his much-desired pine grosbeaks and other fruit-eating birds. Usually the berries were stripped clean before the next port. One of Perk’s balsam fir trees still has roots in Duluth, given to Jan Green in the early 1960s. She planted it in her yard, where it is today.
Perk’s odd hobby garnered more than his shipmates’ tauntings. He made a significant contribution to the ornithological black hole that is the open water of the Great Lakes.
Between ports, Perk kept exact records of birds that he saw and even filmed them. The footage he shot was edited into a film called “Birds Ahoy,” shown at bird clubs around his home territory of Ohio and Pennsylvania.
He identified 17 distinct migration corridors over lakes Superior, Huron, Michigan and Erie (he did not sail on Lake Ontario) and recorded more than 200 species using the flyways. His research was pioneering and mythbusting. Eventually, his firsthand observations of birds crossing the Great Lakes were deemed worthy of Audubon Magazine, which published his findings in two parts in the fall and winter of 1964-1965.
Perk, quite a filmmaker, shot images of migrating birds perching, resting, preening and feeding in the branches of his floating forest. He filmed pine siskins dining on dogwood berries from shrubs dug up in Duluth and brought on the boat. He amazed audiences with up-close views of normally wary birds feeding in the treetops – views made possible because these treetops were 6 to 10 feet tall, standing on the deck of a working ore boat in the middle of Lake Superior.
In one letter, Perk ecstatically reports to Ray that he filmed purple finches feeding in the trees with a beautiful blue sky in the background.
Perk recalls a phenomenal May day in 1960 when an incredible 44 species of birds, including 15 species of warblers, came to the decks and trees. Birds were so thick that they fluttered off in flocks to let crew members pass.
The floating forest dripped with birds. Without moving from the comfort of his bench, Perk filmed a red-headed woodpecker drinking from a puddle on the deck.
“Sitting on a bench in my own private forest with coffee and doughnuts nearby, I had no need to use binoculars or to crane my neck to pick out some bird half-obscured in a tree,” he wrote of his idyllic birding.
Tales of birds landing on ships in open waters were common in Perk’s time. Anecdotal evidence, such as songbirds washed up on Lake Superior beaches after storms, hinted that migration occurred over the big lakes, but no true research had been done by a knowledgeable bird person.
Perkins’ research dispelled the long-held belief that birds sighted over Lake Superior were wayward and lost, blown off course by strong winds or storms. Actually, the majority were migrating along traditional flyways over open waters.
Perk identified and named seven migration corridors over Lake Superior and many more over the other Great Lakes. The Keweenaw Flyway crossed the lake’s Ontario shore to Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula - a straight-line over 152 miles of water. Though an amazing distance, Perk points out that songbirds, including hummingbirds, regularly migrate over the Gulf of Mexico, some 300 to 500 miles. He goes on to write that “although the distances over open water (on Lake Superior) are not nearly as far as those of the Gulf and Caribbean Sea, the hazards are as great or greater.”
Gale-force winds, pea-soup fog and heavy rain marked some challenges. Other hazards had feathers; herring gulls could decimate small flocks of birds and even killed larger birds like the American coot. On board the boat, Perk observed normally vegetarian rusty blackbirds killing warblers, while predators such as the northern shrike (rare on board) and hawks, such as American kestrel, sharp-shinned hawk, Cooper’s hawk, Merlin and peregrine falcons, took their toll on weary birds.
Some nights the migration was heavy - “among the great spectacles of nature,” Perk wrote - and rivaled anything recorded over land.
Perk’s account, recorded in Audubon Magazine’s September/ October 1964 issue, described one migration interrupted by bad weather:
“One of the most unforgettable occurred on August 20, 1961. … We were sailing eastward from Devils Island in the Apostle group. The fog had changed to a misty drizzle. When I aimed the searchlight upward, the beam revealed heavy flights of passing birds. … At times there were so many on the bridge deck that the lookout had to be careful not to step on them. …
“Although navigation of the ship required most of my attention, occasionally the watchman would pick up a bird and hold it up to the open front window where I would identify it by flashlight. … Most of the birds were the small empidonax flycatchers - myriads of them. … The second most abundant group were red-eyed vireos. These also had the heaviest fatality rate. There were other species too: downy woodpeckers, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, ruby-crowned kinglets, 13 species of warblers and chipping sparrows and song sparrows. The massive wave continued without let up until 3 a.m. Then it started to subside; possibly our ship was leaving the flyway. … There is no way to estimate the number of birds which crossed Lake Superior that night, but it must have been in the millions.”
In letters to Ray Naddy, Captain Perkins - he was promoted from first mate to captain in 1962 - relates stories of birds that seemed to enjoy human company. He semi-tamed an American kestrel that fed out of his hand on one trip. Whenever a ship-board inspection was imminent, he hid the little falcon in his shower. Perk always regretted not keeping him.
Another time, an osprey rode for 120 miles on the steering pole that projects beyond the ship bow. A male purple finch spent nearly a week cruising. He busied himself catching flies in hallways and on deck. The crew took turns housing it in their quarters, enjoying the antics of the “animated bug catcher.” Then there was the rusty blackbird that learned what the flyswatter meant - a free meal of a dead fly. The rusty appeared as soon as it heard the slap of a swatter.
One of Perk’s wayward hitchhikers caught the attention of legendary birder, artist and field guide author Roger Tory Peterson. On Lake Superior heading for Devil’s Island, Perk noted a Kentucky warbler, far north of its home range, that hitched a ride all the way to Duluth, where it hopped ship for its next adventure. At a talk, Perkins mentioned this to Peterson,who felt it was the rarest species Perk recorded on the lake.
All in all, in 31 years of sailing with his floating forest and with his impeccable notes and impressive photos and films, J.P. “Perk” Perkins made his mark on the ornithological record of North America. It seems that the birding captain found happiness in a way most of us birders wish we could; he combined his paying profession with his passion for birds.
Mark “Sparky” Stensaas of Wrenshall, Minnesota, has also combined his passion for nature with his paying profession; he is a writer, photographer, publisher and hard-core birder. And, as a father to a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old, he now has two other wonders to observe.