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Historic Tower Home to Swifts        Bob Anderson Dies        The 2015 Swifts        History for Lunch        The Swifts' Story Continues        Birds Nest in Historic Tower        Famous Tower Rebuilt & Awaiting Swifts        Hooked Up for Web Viewing        Tower on par with Englert, Old Brick        Vote for Bob Anderson        Bird Observatory Upright Again        A Tower to Remember         Restoration of Historic Bird Observation Tower Advances  12/27         News Archives

In the Paper:  The Gazette, 08/01/16, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Historic Iowa Tower Home to Family of Chimney Swifts

Birds being studied in Althea Sherman's 101-year-old laboratory

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

 

Photo: view of the Tower.

The Althea Sherman tower near Buchanan, Iowa, in Cedar County on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. The tower was built by pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman in 1915 as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in Clayton County. The tower fell into disuse and deterioration following Sherman’s death in 1943. The tower was rescued and restored and erected a few years ago at a location in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Read the entire article here.


In the Paper:  The Gazette, 07/28/15, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Man Who Launched Decorah Eagles Webcam Dies

Bob Anderson helped save peregrine falcons

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

 

The Decorah eagles' best friend and an inspiration to the thousands of raptor enthusiasts he helped create died suddenly Monday morning.

Photo: Bob Anderson reacts as he picks up a signal of the transmitter-equipped Decorah eagle known as D1.

Bob Anderson director of the Raptor Resource Project, reacts as he picks up a signal of the transmitter-equipped Decorah eagle known as D1 on Wednesday,

Feb. 8, 2012, near Highland, Iowa. The immature eagle was hatched at the project's Decorah nest.

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Bob Anderson, 64, founder and director of the Raptor Resource Project, helped save peregrine falcons from extinction, led the successful effort to reintroduce them to their historic eyries on the bluffs of the Mississippi River and then educated and warmed the hearts of multitudes with an Internet nest camera that documented the lives of a bald eagle family.

Scores of Decorah eagle fans, writing on the Raptor Resource Project's Facebook page, expressed their condolences and their wish that his spirit will soar with birds he loved.

From the Facebook page:

Bob's Celebration of Life will be on Saturday, August 8, 2015 at the Trout Hatchery in Decorah at 1:00 p.m. Bob's celebration is public and all are welcome to attend.

Bob's passions were his work with falcons and the Decorah Eagles cam. Bob loved the role the eagles played in education, and keenly felt the surcease they gave others towards the end of his own life.

Although we are still working out the details of a way forward, Bob's work and legacy will go on. We have more projects planned for this fall, including a Decorah North project, work on a possible catalyst for nest building in the area of the now-defunct N2, ongoing activities in the Philippines, and replacement of several nest boxes.

You can make a donation to this Paypal. If you prefer to send a check, please send it to:

The Raptor Resource Project
PO Box 16
Decorah, IA 52101

The Raptor Resource Project is a non-profit organization and all donations are tax deductible. We respectfully ask that you not send flowers, although cards to the PO Box are welcome.

Friend and colleague Dave Kester of Decorah said Anderson had been feeling weak, tired and short of breath this spring before being diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which at times manifested itself with a racing heartbeat.

Anderson was on his way to the doctor Monday when he collapsed and died, Kester said.

Kester and other friends and associates of the man responsible for the wildly popular Decorah eagles webcam said Anderson likely will be remembered more for his successful efforts to restore peregrine falcons to their historic haunts.

“The eagle cam, with its incredible teaching value, made him famous, but to me his leading role in the peregrine falcon recovery and his successful effort against long odds to restore peregrine falcons to the bluffs of the Mississippi—that is his true gift back to the planet,” Kester said.

Longtime friend and colleague Amy Ries, who maintains the Raptor Resource Project's website and helps band raptor chicks, said Anderson recently told her that he considers his role in restoring falcons to the Mississippi River cliffs his greatest accomplishment.

“He was also proud that he produced MF1, the first midcontinent peregrine falcon hatched on the birds' road to recovery from near-extinction. As of last year, she had 512 descendants,” Ries said.

 

 

Photo: Bob Anderson runs a remote video camera showing an eagle nest.

Bob Anderson executive director of the Raptor Resource Project operates a remote video camera positioned over an eagle nest near the Decorah Fish Hatchery on Friday, April 8, 2011, in Decorah, Iowa.

Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette

Photo: Bob Anderson of Decorah talks about the rescue of an injured eagle.

Bob Anderson of Decorah talks about the rescue of the injured eagle that was nursed back to health before the release of the bird at Phelps Park in Decorah, Saturday, October 22, 2011.

A father and son, Dean and Mike Loney, helped Anderson rescue the bald eagle that had been struck by a car.

Anderson is the director of the non-profit Raptor Resource Project whose nest-cam website went viral and was visited more than 206 million times this past season.

The nest-cam recorded images non-stop as a pair of adult eagles raised three eaglets to maturity near the Decorah Fish Hatchery.

Joyce A. Meyer/Freelance

In the wake of the pesticide DDT's devastating effect on raptors, “the earth needed someone with Bob's energy, commitment and focus,” said Raptor researcher Jon Stravers of McGregor.

“A lot of us will never see a falcon over the Mississippi River without thinking of Bob Anderson,” Stravers said.

Contagious enthusiasm

When live falcons were extremely rare, Anderson used artificial insemination to breed captive females at his acreage near Decorah. Anderson's chicks, released at nest boxes attached to bridges and power plant smokestacks, have produced more than 1,500 progeny—a decisive factor in the birds' removal from the endangered species list.

But those birds would not nest on the Mississippi River bluffs until Anderson devised a technique in which the chicks were released from simulated rock boxes atop a bluff at Effigy Mounds National Monument, imprinting in the brains of the young falcons the concept of cliffs as nest sites.

“The experts said it could not be done, that great-horned owls, the falcons' archenemy, were too numerous, that they would eat all the chicks. But Bob persevered, and Bob was right,” said Pat Schlarbaum, a wildlife diversity biologist with the Department of Natural Resources.

Ries said Anderson ended his 17-year career with 3M, a multinational corporation based in Maplewood, Minn., to move to Decorah in 1996 to devote his life to the well-being of falcons and other raptors.

 

Wales native John Dingley, now of Decorah, said the highlight of his life was helping Anderson put falcons back on the bluffs.

“His plan sounded so improbable, but it worked and it worked fast,” he said.

Dingley, a Raptor Resources Project board member, said Anderson “went through his life savings” funding his falcon recovery efforts.

Anderson, who maintained videocameras at numerous raptor nests, pioneered the use of video technology to increase understanding of raptor behavior and the public's appreciation of the magnificent birds.

The Decorah eagle cam, with 324 million hits, ranked as the most viewed live video of all time.

“He taught people to care about raptors. His enthusiasm was contagious, and a lot of people caught it,” said DNR wildlife diversity biologist Bruce Ehresman.

DNR Director Chuck Gipp, a longtime admirer of Anderson's work, said his “enthusiasm for raptors has inspired countless others and will live on as testimony of his dedicated efforts through the years.”

Photo: Bob Anderson installs a webcam in Althea Sherman's newly renovated chimney swifts' tower.

Raptor expert Bob Anderson works on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, to install a video camera in the confined space of a chimney swift tower built in 1915 by pioneering Iowa ornithologist Althea Sherman.

The photo was taken through one of several small windows and peepholes through which Sherman observed the nesting secrets of the chimney swift.

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Photo: First eaglet of the 2015 season in its nest.

The first eaglet of the season, hatched Friday night, March 27, 2015, shares the world-famous Decorah eagles nest Saturday with one of its parents and two soon-to-be hatched siblings.

The eaglet’s mother laid the season’s first egg on Feb. 18, ending what had shaped up as a power struggle with a pair of great-horned owls for occupancy of the eagles’ nest near the Decorah fish hatchery.

Raptor Resource Project photo

Rescuing raptors

Collaborating with award-winning cinematographer Neil Rettig of Prairie du Chien, Wis., Anderson mounted a miniature camera on a peregrine falcon to capture stunning in-flight footage for the documentary “Raptor Force,” which aired on the Public Broadcasting Service's “Nature” series.

Anderson marveled at the falcon's physical capabilities and enjoyed telling about a tableau he witnessed on the smokestack of a Wisconsin power plant.

The male falcon, while delivering a dead pigeon to his mate, fumbled it near the nest box, according to Anderson. The female stepped to the edge of the nest box, glanced at the plummeting pigeon, dived off the stack and caught it before it hit the ground, he said.

Anderson said he never felt more alive than when rappelling down the sheer face of a bluff to band baby falcons—a practice he maintained until recent years.

Retired DNR employee Lowell Washburn, who worked closely with Anderson on the falcon recovery, recalls his colleague as a “fearless climber” who traversed cliffs, smokestacks and skyscrapers as if he were “immune to gravity.”

He rescued many ill and injured raptors and spoke eloquently on their behalf against lead ammunition and faulty electricity transmission lines, both of which kill many eagles and other raptors.

Footage from the first camera at the Decorah Hatchery, installed in 2007, became an integral part of “American Eagle,” another Rettig documentary for “Nature.”

“It's the real reality TV,” Rettig said of Anderson's nest cams. “He brought the secret lives of birds' right into people's homes.”

Rettig, who worked with Anderson since the mid 1990s, said he and other colleagues are meeting to discuss “how we can keep his dreams alive.”

A participant in those discussions, Brett Mandernack, manager of the Eagle Valley Nature Preserve near Glen Haven, Wis., said he met Anderson in 1984 and volunteered the next year to work in Anderson's peregrine falcon breeding chambers in rural Hugo, Minn.

Mandernack, a Raptor Resource Project board member, said Anderson relied primarily on the help of like-minded volunteers, with little corporate or foundation support.

“He did not look for fame or glory. He was indifferent to it,” said Mandernack, who recalled several joyous moments with Anderson.

“He did a 'happy dance' when we caught D1 (one of the Decorah eagle offspring) to mount a solar powered tracking device on her,” he said.

Photo: Bob Anderson releasing an eagle.

When the two of them observed the cracking egg shell of the first Upper Midwest peregrine to be hatched in 20 years, they exchanged a look that said, “Cool. We did this,” Mandernack said.

© 7/28/15 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa


In the Blogs:  Field Guide—Linda & Robert Scarth, 03/15-07/15

Renowned nature photographers Linda and Robert Scarth have been visiting the Tower just about every other day! We are so fortunate and grateful that they are keeping a photographic and written record of 2015's nest life!

The Scarth's blog Field Notes about the Sherman Tower's 2015 Chimney Swifts:

• Althea R. Sherman Chimney Swifts’ Tower—03/24/15

• Chimney Swifts Back in Tower—05/28/15

• Chimney Swifts' Progress—06/12/15

• Chimney Swift Update—06/17/15

• Nest Expansion—06/25/15

Discovery Day—06/30/15

Feather Buds—07/02/15

Four Days Old on July 4th—07/05/15

• One Week Old Today—07/07/15

Growing—07/09/15

Pincushions—07/12/15

92º in the Shade—07/13/15

Only a Mother Could Love—07/15/15

Days 17 & 18—07/18/15

Wall Birds—07/20/15

Maturing—07/23/15

Rainy Day—07/25/15

Empty Nest & Empty Chimney—07/26/15


Out and About:  History for Lunch Series, 03/12/15

Photo: History for Lunch poster.


In the Blogs:  Field Guide—Linda & Robert Scarth, 08/13-09/12/14

The Scarth's blog Field Notes about the Tower's 2014 Chimney Swift Nest

• The Story Continues—08/13/14

• Chimney Swifts, continued08/14/14

• The Difference Three Days Make08/17/14

Gray Day at the Tower08/20/14

• Eye and Dots08/21/14

Vote of Confidence—08/24/14

• X Marks the Spot08/24/14

• Fully Feathered—08/27/14

Family Portrait08/29/14

• Today’s Challenges08/31/14

Growing Up09/02/14

Windy Day at Chimney Swift‘s Tower—09/04/14

• Fledged but Still Roosting09/09/14

Nature photographers Linda and Robert Scarth's blog, Field Notes, is absolutely exquisite! As we've said before, "The Scarths are not only fabulous photographers, but really fine writers, too. Their blog, techniques, notes, and the other features on their website are very informative, beautifully written, and inspiring."

Now the Scarths' blog is featuring the outstanding photos they have taken of the restored Tower's first Chimney Swift nestlings! As their first blog post states, "The Story Continues..."

A nest with five eggs was discovered on 8/2/14, and still held five eggs on a return trip the next day. By 8/6/14, at least three hatchlings were present. It was initially thought that two of the eggs had been knocked out of the nest and broken on the chimney floor. Swift parents take turns sitting on the nest and their presence made it very difficult to count heads.

Then a fourth hatchling was confirmed. It wasn't until the Scarths' first photo appeared on their blog on 8/13/14, however, that we knew for certain that there were five hatchlings in the nest! All babies present and accounted for!

From that point on, the Scarths have been documenting this unfolding story. They are providing the definitive historic record of this nesting for all of us. New installments appear on their blog every other day or so and will continue until the babies have fledged.

We are so fortunate and so grateful for the Scarths and their deep interest in this on-going experience. Each nesting that occurs within Althea's Chimney Swifts' Tower will be special for us. But this one is especially so and we thank Linda and Bob Scarth for devoting themselves to creating this wonderful photographic, written and historic record!


In the Paper:  The Gazette, 8/8/14, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Birds Nest in Historic Chimney Swift Tower

Structure was re-erected a little over a year ago in Cedar County

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

 

Photo: First Chimney Swift nest in the Tower at Bickett-Rate.

Our very first swifts' nest with five eggs!

© Barbara Boyle—08/02/14

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman’s historic chimney swift tower, unused by birds for many decades, again houses a nest with hungry swift chicks.

“This is astonishing—such a gift,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg, who spearheaded the effort to restore the forsaken structure and re-erect it at a site frequented by its intended inhabitants.

Photo: Barbara Boyle, Director of the Althea R. Sherman Project.

Barbara Boyle, Director of the Althea R. Sherman Project.

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Boyle said she discovered the active nest Aug. 2 during a routine inspection of the 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower situated a little over a year ago on a 560-acre nature preserve along the Cedar River near the Cedar County town of Buchanan.

“I did not expect this to happen at all,” she said, referring to the five luminous white eggs that began hatching Wednesday. “Late July is way past prime time for chimney swift nesting.”

Photo: First Chimney Swift nest in the Tower at Bickett-Rate.

The sticky-looking material is the swifts' saliva used to adhere the nest to the wall.

© Barbara Boyle—08/02/14

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

The tower was restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, built the tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National to aid in her study of chimney swifts.

The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman observed through windows and peepholes accessible from a circular stairway.

Her groundbreaking bird study methods and meticulous observations attracted renowned ornithologists to National.

After Sherman’s death in 1943, the family property in National was sold and the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, where it stood until the Johnson County Songbird Project acquired it in 1992.

The substantially-deteriorated tower had been in storage until May 2013, when it was refurbished at the Bickett-Rate Preserve, owned by the Cedar County Historical Society.

“I am absolutely tickled,” said Sharon Lynch-Voparil, a member of the historical society’s board of directors.

Though Lynch-Voparil often had worked at the site in July, she said she never once thought to look inside the tower. “I just thought it was too late for this year,” she said.

So did Mike Bixler, historical society president, who said the nest provides momentum to complete other projects at the site, which temporarily will be closed to visitors to give the swift family privacy.

Raptor expert Bob Anderson of Decorah eagles fame installed two cameras and a microphone in the tower last fall, but more work remains before streaming video will be available online.

 

 

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Boyle said she thinks she “felt much the same as Althea did nearly 100 years ago when she was stunned to see the chimney swift nest in front of her eyes.” Like the first nest built in the tower in 1918, the new nest is glued—with chimney swift saliva—to the north wall of the chimney just beneath the observation window.

“Well chosen!” wrote Sherman in her 1918 Chimney Swift Journal. “The projecting angle of the window must protect from rain, the north side must be the coolest one.” Nearly identical to Boyle’s observations last week, Sherman also noted in her journal an aborted nest attempt lower in the chimney.

Though Boyle had often peered into the chimney, she said “seeing this nest with its eggs crystallized a recognition and appreciation in me that I had not experienced before, of seeing the tower in its true intention and purpose as the remarkable, pure tool of scientific observation that it is.”

Boyle said the tower’s design, with light streaming down the chimney to illuminate the nest and well-placed observation windows, “will surely serve its purpose of revealing but not disturbing the birds.”

© 8/8/14 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa


In the Paper:  Bird Watcher's Digest, March/April, 2014, Marietta, Ohio

Photo: Tower.

Sherman's Renovated Tower.

Famous Tower Rebuilt and Awaiting Swifts

By Paul J. Baicich, Bird Watcher's Digest

Right now, chimney swifts are returning to eastern North America, seeking appropriate nesting areas. By mid-April, when they come back to Iowa, there will be a restored research tower awaiting them that had its original opening almost 100 years ago.

In 1915, Althea R. Sherman (1853–1943) hired local carpenters to build a 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower in Clayton County, Iowa, for nesting chimney swifts.

She designed the tower, with a staircase winding from bottom to top through three floors and enclosing a 2-foot-square artificial chimney.Small doors, windows, and peepholes into the interior structure allowed this meticulous observer to be the first person to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of these swifts.

Althea Sherman’s journals, covering 18 years and more than 400 pages, offer the single most extensive study of this species in existence. In its heyday, the tower hosted thousands of curious visitors.

Swifts Flying Nonstop for Six Months

While we are on the subject of swifts, there was a fascinating paper published late last year in Nature Communications concerning the behavior of the alpine swift (Tachymarptis melba). This is a species related to our own chimney swift but found breeding in southern Europe, parts of North Africa and the Middle East, and eastward into the Himalayas.

Although observers have claimed that some swifts may stay on the wing for almost their entire lives—except for breeding—there was no solid evidence of this. Then, a team of researchers caught six alpine swifts in Switzerland, tagged them with data loggers (to record the birds’ acceleration and location), and were able to recapture three of them the next year, upon their return from Africa.

Once they reconstructed the flight patterns, the scientists asserted that the swifts appear to fly nonstop when they aren’t breeding. (The swifts eat insects in mid-air, of course, so they don’t starve.) The actual time totals up to a phenomenal 200 days aloft.

But this also raises the question of “how or whether these birds sleep,” the lead researcher, Felix Liechti, adds.

The birds’ activities appeared to fluctuate during flight, especially at dawn and dusk, and the researchers speculate that the birds might still be able to control their flying while sleeping during these 200 days.

How many other swifts—such as the three species nesting in North America—do the same?


In the Paper:  The Gazette, 10/4/13, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Northeast Iowa Chimney Swift Tower Hooked Up for Web Viewing

Setup likely to go online in spring

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

Pioneer ornithologist Althea Sherman’s 98-year-old chimney swift observation tower got wired for the 21st century Thursday.

Two video cameras and a microphone, installed by raptor expert Bob Anderson, will eventually provide to Internet users the same views of nesting chimney swifts that Sherman once regarded through a series of peepholes.

“This is so far beyond anything she could have imagined, but entirely consistent with her mission to learn about birds and teach others about them,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg, a member of the Johnson County Songbird Project, which has worked for more than 20 years to preserve Sherman’s historic tower.

“The more I read about her, the more I appreciate her innovative studies in an era when women were not encouraged to be scientists,” said Anderson, director of the Raptor Resource Project, whose Decorah eagle nest cam has set the modern standard for bird observation techniques.

One of the two cameras will focus on a swift nest, and the other will record birds flying in and out of the chimney. It will likely go online next spring. After the nesting swifts’ young have fledged, the 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower will likely become a communal roost, Anderson said.

Swifts entering a chimney is a spectacular sight, according to Anderson. “They don’t fly into it. They just drop into it,” he said.

Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist born in 1853, built the ingenious tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National.

After she died in 1943, the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry. The Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. It was in storage until May, when it was refurbished and erected at the Bickett-Rate Preserve, owned by the Cedar County Historical Society.

© 10/4/13 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo: Bob Anderson installing a webcam inside the Tower as seen through one of the observation windows.

Raptor expert Bob Anderson works on Thursday, Oct. 3, 2013, to install a videocamera in the confined space of a chimney swift tower built in 1915 by pioneering Iowa ornithologist Althea Sherman.

The photo was taken through one of several small windows and peepholes through which Sherman observed the nesting secrets of the chimney swift.

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Orlan Love, The Gazette's outdoor writer since 1994, graduated from Marquette University in 1977 with a degree in journalism, after serving more than four years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War. Born and reared in Quasqueton on the Wapsipinicon River, he still lives there with his wife, Corinne. Among other awards, his writings have twice earned the Iowa Newspaper Association’s master columnist designation.


In the Newsletter:  Chaetura, Vol. 18, Fall 2013, Austin, Texas, Driftwood Wildlife Association

Photo: Tower front and side.

Althea R. Sherman's original Chimney Swifts' Tower photo courtesy of Barbara Boyle.

Original Chimney Swifts‘ Tower Restored

By Barbara Boyle, the Althea R. Sherman Project

Althea R. Sherman's original Chimney Swifts' Tower has been fully restored and stands again!

Designed by Sherman and built in 1915 to attract and study Chimney Swifts, the tower is both habitat and a research tool that advanced ornithological science. It is the only remaining structural artifact belonging to Sherman. The tower allowed Sherman to be the first ever to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of this species. Throughout 18 years she filled more than 400 journal pages with her pioneering Chimney Swift research.

The Chimney Swifts' Tower is sited at the 540-acre Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve in Cedar County, Iowa. The land encompasses 350 acres of timber, a sand prairie and over a mile of Cedar River frontage. It offers exceptional opportunities for bird and nature study.

With its original purpose as Chimney Swift habitat and research facility reclaimed, the tower will be open to scholars, school children and the public. Future plans include a Sherman museum and interpretive center. Bob Anderson (Decorah Eagles) will be installing cameras and microphones in the tower, as well.

For more information about Althea Sherman, her archetypal tower, and the Althea R. Sherman project, please go to http://althearsherman.org/.

Editor’s note: Ms. Sherman’s tower was the inspiration for the first towers built by the Driftwood Wildlife Association in the 1980s and the hundreds more that have since been built across North America. Without this innovative design, Chimney Swift conservation would not have the momentum it has today.


In the Paper:  The Press Citizen, 7/27/13, Iowa City, Iowa

Sherman's Tower on par with Englert, Old Brick

By Patrick Muller, The Press Citizen

I didn’t climb the rickety ladder that Althea Sherman ascended each fall to close her tower’s opening. I did climb the rest of the stairs and looked through all the peepholes and viewing windows through which she made her scientific observations.

Each notch I climbed, I strode further into the incredible.

This is a regional story that spans four counties and two centuries—although a significant chunk happened in Johnson County. And for the county, it’s one of the most amazing efforts of historical preservation we’ve seen—on par with Old Brick, The Englert Theatre and Isaac Wetherby’s house.

This effort needs award recognition from the county as well as recognition that transcends the county.

In 1915, Sherman erected a swift observation tower on her parents’ farm in National (Clayton County), Iowa. She became a nationally-known ornithologist, and every Iowa school child ought to know something of her life’s work. But our story begins at her end.

Sherman died in 1943; thereafter the Sherman homestead eventually sold; and the tower—to save it—was moved to Harpers Ferry (Allamakee). The tower deteriorated over time and was threatened with demolition in 1992.

Enter the Johnson County Songbird Project, which agreed to be its caretaker and moved it to Iowa City. Over the years, the tower was stored in a sanctuary at the fairgrounds, on a farm and in a warehouse.

Collaborating with the Cedar County Historical Society, the Songbird Project located a forever home for the tower on the Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve in Buchanan (Cedar). (Edward Rate had a glove manufacturing concern on the land before building a factory in Iowa City.)

The preserve will one day have an interpretive center for the swift tower and also be a working farm. The restored tower was erected this spring and one of several open houses was held July 21. (More information is available at www.althearsherman.org.)

If not for the tireless efforts of the Johnson County Songbird Project for the last two decades, though the structure resides in another county, the tower would not exist. (If you want to find a meaningful rendition of the cliché “think outside the box,” this effort is an exemplar.)

Sherman’s tower demonstrates an incredible act of historic preservation. More than that, it’s a paragon of geographical, multi-organizational, and otherwise manifold collaboration—a template for our time.

Plan to visit it sometime and climb its stairs into an amazing achievement.

© 7/27/13—Special to the Press-Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa

Photo: Tower finished at last.

The bird observation tower Althea Sherman originally built on her family homestead now stands in Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve in Buchanan.

© Patrick Muller/Press-Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa

 

Photo: Patrick Muller.

Patrick Muller serves on the Johnson County Historic Preservation Commission and lives in Hills.

© The Press Citizen, Iowa City, Iowa


On Facebook:  Vote for Bob Anderson:  7/15/13

The following post is currently on the Raptor Resource Project's Facebook page. We are such fans of Bob Anderson, and are so looking forward to the work he will be doing with us, that it felt appropriate to post this on our website, too.

Bob was nominated for an Eagle Rare Life award this year because of his work in peregrine falcon recovery. Although we are best known for our work with birdcams, Bob has been involved in falcon recovery since 1971. At that time, the peregrine population in the United States and Mexico had dwindled from an estimated 1,500 pairs to just 19 pairs located in remote areas of the far West.

Bob quit his corporate job, cashed in his retirement, sold his home, and founded the Raptor Resource Project to help recover the peregrine falcon. He has truly lived a rare life.

The article about Bob "Dedicated to Recovering Birds of Prey" is very inspiring, and really illustrates the significant impact of his contributions to the bird world over several decades. It would be fabulous for us to help Bob win this award.

Vote for him. No sign-up or registration is required. The 'Vote' button is at the bottom of the page. The winner gets $40,000 donated by Eagle Rare to the charity of his or her choice. You can vote once a day until 11:59pm EST, January 7, 2014.

Photo: Bob Anderson and an eaglet.


In the Paper:  The Green Gazette, 5/8/13, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo:  Watching the Tower fly.

Spectators photograph the historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower as a crane lowers it Wednesday onto a foundation built for it at the Bickett-Rate Preserve near Buchanan in Cedar County

Orlan Love/The Gazette

Bird observatory upright again

Tower had been in storage for 21 years

By Orlan Love, The Gazette

Buchanan—The historic Althea Sherman chimney swift tower stood upright Tuesday for the first time in 21 years.

Photo:  Barbara Boyle, John County Songbird Project.

Barbara Boyle—Johnson County Songbird Project

Orlan Love/The Gazette

“There were many times I thought this day would never come,” said Barbara Boyle of Williamsburg.

Shortly after, a crane lifted the 6,500-pound tower onto a concrete foundation at a 560-acre nature preserve along the Cedar River near the Cedar County town of Buchanan.

“It has been 98 years since the tower first went up, 77 years since Althea Sherman last used it, nearly 21 years since it last stood,” said Boyle, a member of the Johnson County Songbird Project who has championed the effort to preserve the memory of Sherman.

“Your devotion has paid off,” Dan Daly of Iowa City, a member of the Songbird Project’s board of directors, told Boyle.

“No one knows more about Althea (than Boyle),” Daly said.

“This project will help popularize the work of a very important woman scientist of the early 1900s who seemed doomed to oblivion.”

Althea Sherman, a self-taught ornithologist, built the ingenious tower in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National to aid in her study of chimney swifts.

The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman observed through windows and peepholes accessible from a circular stairway. Her groundbreaking bird study methods and meticulous observations attracted renowned ornithologists to National.

• Born in 1853, Sherman lived most of her life in National, where she conducted painstaking studies of birds that nested near her home.

• Many of her observations were recorded in Birds of an Iowa Dooryard, a book published after her death.

• In 1912, she became only the fourth woman to be named a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union.

“The more I read about her, the more that woman amazes—a self-taught woman rising to the top of a then-male dominated field,” said Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Research Project, whose Decorah eagle nest cam has set the modern standard for bird observation techniques.

As soon as swifts settle in the tower, Anderson will set up a nest cam that will enable Internet users to see what Sherman saw though her peepholes.

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

Oberlin College Archives photo

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

Oberlin College Archives photo

The tower was moved to Harpers Ferry in 1962 and it has been in storage for the past 20 years, but it may soon be restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

After Sherman’s death in 1943, the family property in National was sold and the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, where it stood until the Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. The 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square tower has since been in storage.

The site is the Bickett-Rate Preserve and the partner is the farm’s owner, the Cedar County Historical Society.

“I think we’ve got something special here. History is coming back alive,” said society president Sharon Lynch-Voparil.

The tower stands next to Edgewood Hall, a rambling 1836 farmhouse listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The preserve has seldom been open to the public since it was bequeathed to the historical society in 1994, but that will change when restoration of the tower and of Edgewood Hall is complete, Lynch-Voparil said.

“It will be a combination historical site and bird refuge. We should not be hiding something like this,” she said.

Photo:  Sharon Lynch-Voparil, CedarCounty Historical Society.

Sharon Lynch-Voparil—Cedar County Historical Society

Orlan Love/The Gazette

 

© 5//8/13 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa


In the Blogs:  The American Birding Association, 4/28/13, ABA Blog

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

A Tower to Remember

by Paul Hess

You are forgiven if you can’t guess the purpose of the odd building in this photograph from 90 years ago. You are forgiven, as well, if the name of Althea R. Sherman does not ring an ornithological bell.

She is the woman at the center of the picture, who conceived and designed the building. Her sister, Amelia, is at right, and they are accompanied by a group of neighborhood children in the tiny hamlet of National, Iowa. The photo, probably taken in 1923, is used by permission of the Oberlin College Archives in Oberlin, Ohio, where Sherman studied and taught art for a number of years.

The structure is a fascinating piece of ornithological history that deserves more widespread attention than it has received. The 28-foot-tall, 9-foot-square wooden tower topped by an artificial chimney is ingeniously designed to observe nesting Chimney Swifts. Sherman and other observers climbed stairs winding up three stories through the tower to the chimney.

An extraordinary self-taught ornithologist, Sherman (1853–1943) had the tower constructed to her careful specifications in 1915 at her residence amid the vast farm country of northeastern Iowa. Remarkably, it still exists, and what an achievement it would be to restore it!

That is exactly the goal of a nonprofit organization, the Althea R. Sherman Project, which is campaigning for funds to make it possible. There are good historical and ornithological reasons for the restoration. As leaders of the project note on their website, the tower allowed Sherman to be “the first person ever to witness and record the entire nesting cycle of these birds. Her Chimney Swift journals, covering 18 years and more than 400 pages, may offer the most extensive study of this species in existence.”

Reading some of Sherman’s minutely detailed day-by-day notes, you will see that the project leaders do not exaggerate. Excerpts from the journals are published as a chapter “The Home Life of the Chimney Swift” in her posthumously published 1952 book Birds of an Iowa Dooryard. A 1996 edition of the book includes a great deal of interesting background on Sherman and her various ornithological projects.

Dilapidated and in storage after many decades of disuse, the rehabilitated tower will be moved to the Cedar County Historical Society’s Bickett-Rate Memorial Preserve near Buchanan, Iowa. The preserve includes a bird sanctuary, a museum, and an environmental education center.

You will not need to go to Buchanan to see the nesting show. The stairs inside will not accommodate visitors, but it will eventually include two webcams and a microphone. If swifts decide to use the beckoning “chimney,” you’ll be able to peep at their domestic life via the Internet. Robert Anderson, executive director of the Raptor Research Project, is donating the webcams.

How soon the restoration will be completed depends on success of the fund-raising campaign. The tower is certified as eligible for status in the National Register of Historic Places, and the State Historical Society of Iowa has awarded the project a matching grant. Now the project leaders are seeking the $87,000 necessary to receive the other half of the grant.

Besides its historical, ornithological, and educational values, the tower will have a third important benefit: conservation. It will call attention to the dire plight of the Chimney Swift, whose relative abundance in the U.S. and Canada has declined 66% from 1966 to 2011, according to the North American Breeding Bird Survey.

That is almost exactly the decline reported for Iowa, which is severe enough to warrant conservation attention there. The plunges in relative abundance are even more severe in southeastern Canada and the northeastern U.S.

For example, during the same 1966–2011 period, the survey shows declines of 97% in Nova Scotia and Ontario, and 90% in Maine. Clearly, the Chimney Swift needs all the conservation attention it can get.

An article in my News and Notes column in Birding (July 2011, p. 27) described a combination of dangers contributing to the Chimney Swift’s decline. First is a decrease in acceptable breeding sites as suitable chimneys have dwindled in residential and other architectural designs.

Another is a decline in the abundance of flying insects, perhaps because of increased use of pesticides. A third may involve ecological threats in the species’ South American winter range that are not well understood.

It’s worth noting that ABA’s Bird of the Year, the Common Nighthawk, faces the exact same trio of troubles:  dwindling nest sites, food shortages, and threats in its South American range.

A recent News and Notes article (Birding, March–April 2013, pp. 26–27) reported the nighthawk’s decline, and a feature article in the May/June 2013 Birding will explore the matter in greater detail.

As for the Chimney Swift, there is scarcely a better examination of its breeding behavior than Althea Sherman’s tower and her nearly two decades of observations. One of her comments in Birds of an Iowa Dooryard sounds quaint today, but it represents the feelings she had for the bird:

“During the many summers of intimate living with the Chimney Swift, I have never found it a subject for criticism in any respect—no evil has been detected in its relations with its own or with other species. In short, it appears to be a paragon of perfection—the bird that properly might be chosen as the emblem of peace.”

Yes, quaint, reflecting an almost spiritual relationship between the lady and the bird, but let us not be cynical about the role such statements had in ornithological writing a century ago. They were altogether typical of her time. After all, “modern” bird lovers have a similar feeling about our favorite species, even though we don’t express it in such an old-fashioned way.

The Althea R. Sherman Project is doing its part to help resurrect such personal respect for the Chimney Swift and, in the process, for all of nature. That’s an eminently worthwhile environmental goal.


In the Paper: The Gazette, 12/27/12, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

by Orlan Love, The Gazette's outdoor writer since 1994, graduated from Marquette University in 1977 with a degree in journalism, after serving more than four years in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War.

Born and reared in Quasqueton on the Wapsipinicon River, he still lives there with his wife, Corinne. Among other awards, his writings have twice earned the Iowa Newspaper Association’s master columnist designation.

 

Restoration of Historic Bird Observation Tower Advances

Sherman was among ornithology group's first female members

A 97-year-old dilapidated bird observation tower in storage for two decades will soon be returned to its original purpose.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman’s ingenious chimney swifts’ tower, constructed in 1915 in the Clayton County town of National, will be restored and erected, perhaps as soon as next year, at a historic Cedar County nature preserve.

It’s uncanny how similar the two sites are,” said Barbara Boyle of the Johnson County Songbird Project, which is working with the Cedar County Historical Society to make the restored tower a reality.

The historical society owns the Bickett-Rate Preserve, a 560-acre tract along the Cedar River near the town of Buchanan, on which stands Edgewood Hall, a rambling 1836 farmhouse that closely resembles the long- demolished Sherman house in National.

Photo: Althea Sherman outside with binoculars 1923.

Self-taught ornithologist Althea Sherman peers through binoculars at birds near her home in the Clayton County hamlet of National early in the 20th century.

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

The restored tower will stand next to Edgewood Hall, just as it once stood next to the Sherman home, when scores of renowned ornithologists visited to learn about Sherman’s groundbreaking bird study methods. “You’d swear it’s meant to be,” said Sharon Lynch-Voparil, director of the historical society. Not only are the houses similar but the surrounding areas are also bird havens, she said.

Photo: Althea (left) and Amelia (right) and friends in front of the Tower.

Althea Sherman (left) and sister Amelia Sherman (right) with a group of young friends in the yard near the Tower.

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

“Much of the preserve is timber and river bottom, and the only sounds you hear are natural. People notice the quiet, which is like it must have been at National a century ago,” Boyle said.

The preserve has seldom been open to the public since it was bequeathed to the historical society in 1994, but that will change when the tower is up and the restoration of Edgewood Hall is complete, Lynch-Voparil said.

After Sherman’s death in 1943, the family property in National was sold and the tower was moved to Harpers Ferry, where it stood until the Songbird Project acquired it in 1992. The 28-foot-tall, 9-foot square tower has since been stored first in Iowa City and later at Bickett-Rate.

The tower’s artificial chimney attracted nesting swifts, which Sherman was able to observe through windows and peep holes accessible from a circular stairway. While Sherman’s research was cutting edge in the 1920s, the restored tower will be fitted with a pair of cameras and a microphone that will enable bird lovers to view the swifts’ domestic life via the Internet.

The equipment will be donated and installed by Bob Anderson, director of the Raptor Research Project, whose Decorah Eagle nest cam has set the standard for the innovative bird observation technique. “I’m honored to be involved,” said Anderson, who is a fan of both chimney swifts and Sherman’s research.

Sherman (1853-1943) lived most of her life in National, where she conducted painstaking studies of birds that nested near her home. Many of her observations were recorded in “Birds of an Iowa Dooryard,” a book published after her death.

She taught herself how to study birds and became only the fourth woman to be named a member of the American Ornithologists’ Union in 1912.

Songbird Project President Jim Walters said a pair of anonymous donors recently pledged $25,000 toward the restoration effort on the condition that other donors match the funds. “We are about half way there, but we can use some help,” he said.

The group is also still raising money to meet the required match on a $175,000 Historic Site Preservation Grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa, Boyle said.

Tax-deductible contributions can be sent to the Johnson County Songbird Project, 1033 E. Washington St., Iowa City, IA  52240-5248.

Pioneering ornithologist Althea Sherman built this tower as a means to study chimney swifts at the family home in National in 1915.

The tower was moved to Harpers Ferry in 1962 and it has been in storage for the past 20 years.

It may soon be restored and erected in Cedar County under a partnership of the Johnson County Songbird Project and the Cedar County Historical Society.

© 12/27/12 The Gazette, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

Photo: portrait of Althea R. Sherman

Althea Rosina Sherman

© Oberlin College Archives. Oberlin, Ohio

Contact Us
1033 E. Washington St   •   Iowa City, IA 52240-5248
319.668.1838
www.althearsherman.org   •   4althea@windstream.net

updated      08.01.16
Grafic: pen and ink drawing of Sherma’s Chimney Swifts’ Tower by William J. Wagner, AIA

Sherman’s Chimney Swifts' Tower

© William J. Wagner, FAIA (1965)