I connected with Kellee Waddell, The Mountain Institute’s Education Coordination, through our mutual interest in passenger pigeons. Passenger pigeons were once the most abundant bird in North America but were hunted to extinction 100 year ago this September. I wrote my book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction about the subject.
Kellee invited me to speak about the fate of the passenger pigeon for a watershed education conference being held at The Mountain Institute. When we arrived the only people we encountered were staff. The facility is a lovely place that successfully blends in with the wooded hills and grasslands that surround it. We chose the yurt closest to the bathroom and parking lot and brought our gear inside.
In the late afternoon we visited Spruce Knob, the highest point in West Virginia with an elevation of 4,863 feet. The day before we left on the trip, I had acquired a new camera with a 35-300x lens so I had plenty of opportunity to try it out on all the gorgeous scenery. Spruce Knob does have an alpine aspect with red spruce the dominant tree. Though not particularly birdy, it was beautiful. One downside to mountain driving, at least for those not used to it, is that it takes longer to get to places than you expect. Thus we were a bit late for dinner when we arrived back but had a leisurely conversation with the talented and fascinating staff.
Next day some of the teachers began showing up. The basic emphasis of the workshop was watershed issues, and Kellee had invited experts from Washington, DC and elsewhere to help teach the class. Cindy and I immediately hit it off with Roy Boyle, an avid birder. He had just found a grasshopper sparrow in the grassland, and we heard one later from the same area. Later we spotted a newt in its juvenile stage as a red eft.
Two local attractions that we wanted to visit that day were Gaudineer Knob Spruce Forest and the Green Bank Science Center at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. Gaudineer is one of the few uncut spruce forests in the state. Like most virgin forests in the Midwest or East, there was a specific reason it was never logged. In this case a surveyor's mistake prevented anyone from claiming it. The oldest red spruce here are about 250 years old, which is about the upper life span of the trees. Thus many of the most dramatic specimens are dying. But there are also fine examples of ancient beech and maple growing in slightly drier portions of the tract. We didn’t get a chance to see two rare specimens associated with the environment: the Cheat Mountain Salamander and the West Virginia Northern Flying Squirrel.