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|Self-Guided Tour: Birding in RTP's Footsteps|
What was it like for Roger Tory Peterson to grow up as a young naturalist in Jamestown, New York? Those of you who reside here or come to visit our fair city can take the following self-guided tour to experience for yourself some of the places where Roger spent time during his formative years.
Your Tour starts and ends at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History at 311 Curtis Street in Jamestown.
From the Institute driveway turn right onto Curtis Street. Go 0.5 mile. Turn right at the first stop sign onto Falconer Street. Go 0.7 mile. Turn left onto Bowen Street. The site of Lillian Dickson School, the elementary school that Roger attended from 1914 to 1919, is now a playground/park on the right side of Falconer Street.
Once you are on Bowen Street, go 0.2 mile to the house on your left with a historic marker in front. This was Roger’s boyhood home from the time of his birth on August 28, 1908. During Roger’s childhood the house was occupied by his parents (Charles Gustav and Henrietta Peterson), his sister Margaret, his paternal grandmother (who owned the house) and, at various times, other relatives as well. Young Roger, always a nonconformist, plunged into nature study at the age of 11. In the early 1920’s the house became filled with nature specimens, including hundreds of herbarium specimens (pressed plants) drying under the carpets, swallowtail butterfly caterpillars (fed with pipevine leaves pilfered from neighbors’ front porch trellises), and Promethea moth cocoons, which emerged in spring and laid eggs on his mother’s curtains.
Look southeast beyond the old factories in the Chadakoin River valley to the hill beyond. This is “Swede Hill,” which was actually a mix of working-class neighborhoods of mostly Swedish and Italian emigrants. It was at the top of this hill that Roger had an experience so extraordinary that it set the course for his entire life. That is where you are headed.
At the bottom of Bowen Street, where it ends at East Second Street, turn left. Go 0.5 mile. At the intersection of East Second Street, Buffalo Street and Crescent Street turn right (not hard right) onto Buffalo Street. (You will pass the Dahlstrom Manufacturing plant where Roger worked briefly after graduation from high school in 1925). Go 0.2 mile, passing under the railway viaduct and, just before the traffic light turn hard right onto Allen Street. Go 0.9 mile to Willard Street. Along the way you will pass the Allen Street brickyard where shale was quarried, crushed, and fired into bricks by the millions to pave Jamestown’s streets.
At the stop sign turn left onto Willard Street and proceed up “Swede Hill.” Go 0.5 mile. At Pardee Avenue turn right, continue 0.2 mile uphill to the driveway for Bush Elementary School. You may park in the school parking lot. From here you will need to walk, along the access road along the perimeter of the raised water reservoir. With the reservoir on your left you will enter Reservoir Park, near the site where Roger went on his first bird-watching field trip.
(Note about the Reservoir: The City of Jamestown draws its municipal water supply from an array of wells in glacial deposits in the lower Cassadaga and Conewango Valleys (the “Jamestown Aquifer”). These wells provide some four million gallons of water per day, which is pumped to the city’s main distribution reservoir on Buffalo Street (you will pass this site later in your tour). Water not used immediately is pumped up to the ten million gallon reservoir here at the top of Swede Hill, holding the bulk of a three-day emergency supply.)
No one knows for sure where Roger had his life-changing encounter with a Northern Flicker while on a bird-watching foray with his friend Carl Hammerstrom on April 8, 1920, but it may have been in the area where you are now. That morning the boys spotted what looked like a brown bundle of feathers on the trunk of an oak (or possibly a maple). Curious, the boys approached. Roger touched it with his finger. What it was became clear in an instant. It was a Northern Flicker that had been sleeping, probably exhausted from migration. When Roger touched the bird it awoke, looked at him with wild eyes and took off with a flash of gold beneath its wings. Roger was transfixed. What had seemed dead was actually very much alive – almost like resurrection. From that moment on birds came to represent to Roger all the freedom, beauty and vitality of the natural world.
Spend some time birding along the wooded edge here. The mature trees are good woodpecker habitat. You may even see a flicker!
From Reservoir Park go back down to Willard Street, turn left onto Willard, and go 0.6 mile to Winsor Street. Turn right onto Winsor Street and go 0.2 mile. Turn right at the light onto Crescent Street. Go 0.2 mile; on your right is the site of the Union National Company’s furniture factory (now an overgrown vacant lot), where, following graduation from high school in 1925, Roger worked painting Asian motifs on lacquered cabinets until 1927, when he went to pursue art studies in New York City.
Continue straight to the traffic light at the intersection of Crescent, Buffalo and East Second Streets. Bear slight right onto East Second Street. Continue 0.3 mile to Curtis Street and turn left onto Curtis. At the stop sign go straight and go 0.8 mile, continuing past the Institute to College Park on your right. Park in the College Park lot. Here Moon Brook passes beneath Curtis Street and through the park on its way to confluence with the Chadakoin River in Falconer. College Park, or “the Hundred Acre Lot,” as it was known then, was the site of field trips Roger took with his seventh grade science teacher Blanche Hornbeck and fellow members of the Junior Audubon Club. Here, probably in the wetland habitat adjacent to Moon Brook, Roger identified his first Common Yellowthroat on a Saturday morning in the spring of 1920. Roger also spent time after school feeding and observing birds in winter in the early 1920’s with his friend Clarence Beal. At one time they kept 20 feeding stations filled with grain and suet in these woods near town.
As you walk these trails imagine Roger and Clarence as young teenagers on skis in sub-zero temperatures, hauling knapsacks full of sunflower seeds to fill their bird feeders.
From College Park go left back onto Curtis Street 0.8 mile to the intersection of Curtis and Falconer Streets. Go right onto Falconer Street. Go 0.2 miles to the traffic light at the corner of Falconer and Buffalo Streets. Turn right onto Buffalo Street and go 0.1 mile to the parking lot of Ring Elementary School. Park in the lot and look down the grassy bank. Before the school here was built this was an area rich in springs and wetlands with some open water even in winter. Here, in December 1924, Roger observed and reported wintering Wilson’s Snipe in Bird-Lore (the precursor to Audubon Magazine) in its Christmas Census report: “The Wilson’s snipe is not uncommon in this locality during the winter months. An individual has over-wintered at a warm spring in the city, for the last three years.”
From the school driveway turn right onto Buffalo Street. Continue on Buffalo Street 0.6 mile to the corner of Buffalo Street and Lakeview Avenue. Along the way you will pass George Washington Middle School, site of the former Washington Junior High School where Roger entered seventh grade at age 11 (1919-1920). His science teacher, Miss Blanche Hornbeck, started a Junior Audubon Club that met in her classroom, and it was Miss Hornbeck who Roger credited with igniting his lifelong passion for nature study.
Turn right at the intersection of Buffalo Street and Lakeview Avenue, then immediately turn left and through the gate of Lakeview Cemetery. Insects were one of Roger’s early nature study interests, especially butterflies and moths. Roger collected pipevine swallowtail caterpillars from pipevine growing on trellises on the front porches of many Jamestown houses, and also developed a great interest in the moths that gathered around streetlights on summer nights. Unfortunately, a citywide curfew prevented children from being out past 8:45 P.M. At age 12, in the summer of 1921, Roger requested and received a special permit from Jamestown’s police chief: a slip of paper that read, “This permits Roger Peterson and his assistant Benny Shapiro to catch moths around streetlights until 11 P.M. Signed, F. Johnson, Chief of Police.”
Roger’s boyhood friends Clarence Beal (1910 – 1981) and Carl Hammerstrom (1907 – 1993) are buried here in Lakeview Cemetery. If you wish to view their gravesites you may inquire as to their location at the cemetery office.
Many of the field trips Roger and his friends took to observe and photograph birds took place from the present-day cemetery east toward the Institute, the Hundred-acre Lot and beyond, when the north side of Jamestown was sparsely populated with farms and woodlots.
You may wish to drive through Lakeview Cemetery north to one of the gates on Marvin Parkway, or return to Lakeview Avenue, turn right, and go north 0.5 mile to the corner of Lakeview Avenue and Marvin Parkway. From here turn left onto Marvin Parkway and go all the way to the end where it meets North Main Street (Route 60). Turn right and proceed to the I-86 interchange. Go to the second entrance ramp (I-86 West) and head west on I-86. Get off at the first exit (Exit 11, Strunk Road). At the end of the exit ramp turn left. Go to the end of Strunk Road. Turn right onto Route 430 and go 0.4 mile to Bentley Avenue.
Turn right onto Bentley Avenue. Near the end of the road you will see a sign for the Bentley Sanctuary. This property, now a Jamestown Audubon nature preserve, once was owned by educator/naturalist Gustavus Bentley. RTP did a breeding bird survey here in summer 1933, one year before his Field Guide to the Birds was published. He recorded 60 nesting pairs of birds and 70 species in that survey. How many species can you record today?
From the Bentley Sanctuary return to Route 430 and turn left. Go 1.5 miles to Clifton Avenue. Turn right and continue to its end at the Outlet of Chautauqua Lake. The Outlet and surrounding wetlands are a magnet for wildlife as they were in Roger’s day. Roger observed waterfowl such as golden-eye, scaup, and merganser from many vantage points along the Outlet, and further downstream where the Outlet becomes known as the Chadakoin River.
From Clifton Avenue turn right onto Route 430 (Fluvanna Avenue). Go 0.7 mile, bearing left at the traffic light, to the intersection of Fluvanna Avenue and North Main Street (Route 60). Turn left onto North Main Street and go 1.2 miles to Horton Road. Turn right onto Horton Road and go 2.1 miles to its end at North Work Street. Turn right onto North Work Street and go 0.3 mile to the entrance to Pine Hill Cemetery on your right. Proceed up the service road 0.1 mile and turn left to the plot where Roger’s gravesite is located on your left.
Roger Tory Peterson passed away peacefully in his sleep at his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut on July 28, 1996. Nearing the end of his 88th year, he was still working on the day he died, illustrating the fifth complete revision of his Field Guide to the Birds. A portion of his ashes is inurned here at Pine Hill Cemetery in Falconer, in the family plot where his father and grandparents are buried. Roger’s simple granite headstone is inscribed with the words, “Birds cannot speak for themselves. I must speak for them,” and with a bas-relief carving of Northern Flickers, the birds that changed how Roger viewed the world at the age of 11, a view he came to share with millions the world over through his tireless work as the great nature educator of the 20th century.
If you wish to return to the Institute, turn left out of the cemetery onto North Work Street. Go 0.5 mile and turn left onto Hough Hill Road. Go 1.3 miles to Curtis Street Extension and turn left. Go 0.8 miles to the Institute’s driveway on your right.
Here is a checklist of birds you might find on your journey, birding in Roger Tory Peterson's footsteps:
Black-throated Green Warbler
Great Blue Heron
Great Crested Flycatcher