Prairie Home Naturalists


(This 825th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on January 21, 2007.)


One of my favorite jokes has Paddy bragging about his son who has just been ordained a priest. His Jewish friend Izzy is not impressed and this raises Paddy's Irish dander. He tells Izzy that his son could go on to become a Monsignor but Izzy is still unimpressed. Now really irritated, Paddy takes his son up through the Catholic hierarchy: Bishop, Archbishop, Cardinal, but each time Izzy simply shrugs. So Paddy finally announces, "He could even become Pope, and you can't do any better than that." Izzy now responds, "One of our boys made it."


I repeat that story because one of our local boys has also made it. Not in that religious sense, of course, but in an important arena nonetheless.


Rich MacDonald from Lewiston and his wife, Natalie Springuel, have served on the first two of Garrison Keillor's summer cruises as senior naturalists. The first tour took them to the North Atlantic and the second to British Columbia and Alaska. They are now scheduled to do so again this coming July on the Prairie Home Companion trip to the Norway fiords. I'm impressed.


I have known Rich and his dad Joel for many years. Joel, who once gave me a lesson on the difference between Mc and Mac, now splits his retirement between Lewiston and Florida.


When Rich was working for The Nature Conservancy in the Adirondacks, he led two Buffalo Ornithological Society birding trips there, showing us three-toed woodpeckers, spruce grouse, gray jays, ravens, crossbills, evening and pine grosbeaks, boreal chickadees, and a hawk owl.


Although Rich continues to teach courses at Plattsburgh State College, he and Natalie now live in Maine where, among their many activities, they lead kayaking trips along the coast. The two met in 2002 when they led a remarkable five month, 1300 mile sea kayak expedition following the shores of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. Their trek sought to gather and disseminate evidence about the Gulf of Maine's ecology, oceanography, shoreline, watersheds, habitats and people.


This is an exceptionally busy couple. In June, Natalie will take her College of the Atlantic class to Newfoundland, where Rich will continue research he began on Lake Champlain on double-crested cormorants. Rich also conducts a spring birding workshop each year through College of the Atlantic's Dorr Museum of Natural History and guides occasional birding trips around Mount Desert Island.


He's hoping to start a project next fall looking at the role of outer coastal islands in migration. It would have him holed up in a lighthouse for a week at a time on an island 25 miles from shore. He tells me, "There is some anecdotal observations of birds on outer islands, but no one seems to really know how important they are for migrating birds."


In the midst of all this, in May Natalie is expecting their first child.


File written by Adobe Photoshop® 4.0

Garrison interviewing Natalie and Rich

photo courtesy of and copyrighted by Thomas P. Scheuzger


On each Keillor-led cruise two Prairie Home Companion programs are recorded and Rich and Natalie were part of each. Here are excerpts from Rich's description of their first appearance:


"The Ketchup Advisory Board came on. Guy Noir. And then Garrison introduced us, sat us down and asked about the wildlife, the oceanography, and the landscapes we were going to see. Natalie gave well-thought-out, articulate, coherent answers to all of his questions. And then the mike was turned to me. The butterflies vanished. I was going to talk about something I knew well, was passionate about: birds. I spoke enthusiastically about pelagics: alcids, petrels and shearwaters.


"Then Garrison changed direction: Are there any birders here tonight? [Mild applause.] Birders are a weird lot. [Uproarious laughter!] They keep life-lists and state lists and year lists...


"Natalie: And yard lists [more laughter].


"Garrison: ...and they are always looking for some rare bird. Rich, is there any bird you haven't seen, that you hope to see on this cruise?


"Rich: Well, in fact, there is. When we are on Prince Edward Island we will have perfect conditions for observing two species that I would be eager to see: the rosy-breasted pushover and the scarlet teenager. [Laughter, GK included.]


"Garrison: In case you haven't noticed, birders have their own sense of humorŠ"


Congratulations to this richly deserving couple.-- Gerry Rising