Birds Ahoy! – Captain John Paul Perkins

John Paul Perkins, Second Mate on the Benjamin Fairless, had maritime connections forged in steel, made from the iron ore that the ships of his Pittsburgh Steamship Company, later to become part of the U.S. Steel fleet, transported from Lake Superior ports to Lake Erie ports. Conneaut served as home port for him and his family and Conneaut harbor the place he watched disappear over the horizon every shipping season.

The water route of the ships, both up and down bound, took them west to east across Lake Superior, through the Locks at Soo Ste. Marie. The next leg of the journey traversed the length of Lake Huron, through the St. Clair River, and Lake St. Clair. The final leg of the journey took the ships down the Detroit River, across Lake Erie for approximately eighty miles and to the ports of northeastern Ohio, including Ashtabula and Conneaut where Second Mate Perkins, who his fellow mariners nicknamed,  “Perk” lived.

Perk created his personal scientific methods of on deck birdwatching. He purchased balled trees and other habitat equipment like branches and perches from friends in various ports along Lakes Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Erie. He set them up on deck along with bird seed and water stations and then placed a park bench in a strategic yet non-threatening location to sit on while he birdwatched, photographed them, and took movies of them. He created a film called “Birds Ahoy!” that he used in his speaking programs about birds and that garnered respect in the scientific world as well.

Besides for his personal enjoyment, Perk observed birds for their own sake – their plumage, their habits, their personalities, their grace, their freedom of movement, and yes, their predatory skills, especially those of gulls and hawks, revealing the cruel side of nature. Perk spent years taking meticulous, detailed notes of bird life and behavior. His notes and the articles he wrote, including one published in Audubon Magazine, changed traditional ideas about migratory patterns of birds, including those over the St. Clair River and the Great Lakes.

Perk explained his methods in one of his articles: “Over several years I have kept detailed notes on the migration waves and single birds sighted during the sailing season. Each year a little more data is added until at present the notes include observations, location of ship, weather at ship’s position, barometric and temperature graphs plus the weather synopsis of the location of atmospheric pressures each day for the Great Lakes region.”    

Every trip he took up and down the Lakes, Perk observed birds and took notes about their behavior. He described how flocks of birds would rest aboard ship in his National Forests and on suitable places all over the ship. He described their flight patterns and their habits. He elaborated: “The trees were arranged daily according to the position of the sun and a chair or park bench was placed the correct distance away for the focus wanted. With a bottle of coffee and a few doughnuts handy on the hatch, I was ready.”

His bird watching did not escape the notice of his shipmates. They christened his tree arrangements “Perk’s National Forest,” and they gave him nicknames like “Ranger” and “Nature Boy.” Some enterprising sailors placed an artificial nest complete with four plump grapes in one of his trees and at Christmas, ornaments appeared hanging from the branches. The teasing was good natured, and Perk described encountering shipmates searching his bird books to identify their ship’s passengers. He also recalled a captain or two calling from the pilothouse that his trees were full of birds.

His ornithological or bird loving connection, existed from his boyhood when Perk roamed the hills of Belmont County, Ohio, seeking, finding, and photographing interesting birds. During his teen and adult years living in Conneaut, Ohio, he examined and explored the local bird populations, discovering that birds had much the same free spirits and migratory lives as sailors. And from the 1930s to the early 1970s when he combined his maritime livelihood with his birding passion, he made significant scientific contributions to the ornithological world from his shipboard perches.

By the time he became first mate on the J.P. Morgan Jr., with several berths in between, Perk could describe the times, places, and participants of flocks of birds traveling over the Great Lakes and their connecting rivers.

His observations included eagles and their nests in the lower St Mary’s River, large heron rookery on Stony Island and Grosse Isle in the lower Detroit River. Thousand of gulls and terns on the stone dike below Bois Blanc Island in the lower Detroit River. Flights of black crowned night herons around the western Lake Erie islands. Large flocks of ducks at St. Clair Flats and at Bar Point in the St. Clair and Detroit River.

By the 1960s-1970s last stages of his career, Perk had earned the position of captain on several Pittsburgh Fleet ships, including the Thomas F. Cole, the John Gates and the  Richard V. Lindabury his last ship before his 1972 retirement. As his maritime career advanced, so did his Floating Forests and bird watching and recording skill and contributions to ornithological knowledge.

Throughout 31 years of impeccable note taking, photos, and films, John Paul Perkins made impressive contributions to ornithological knowledge. He identified and named seven migration corridors over Lake Superior and many more over Lakes Michigan, Erie, and Huron and revealed how the Mississippi and Atlantic Flyways overlap with the Great Lakes Flyways. He described previously unidentified flight patterns, flocks of different bird species migrating together, and sighted rare birds where they were not supposed to be sighted. He described birds at play.

As he advanced through the ranks from deckhand to third, second, and first mate to captain, John Paul Perkins also continued his at home bird watching, recording, countless birds in the marsh and sandbar area of Conneaut Harbor, a location lush with grasses, saplings, and other green plants and a break wall and lighthouse framing spacious water meadows.

Captain Perkins observed and identified several species of birds at Conneaut Harbor, including songbirds, shorebirds, and of course, the standard species of sea gulls.

The Ohio State Department of Natural Resources noted that Conneaut Harbor consistently shelters a number of rare bird species. The site contains a plaque honoring the contributions of Captain John Paul Perkins, Conneaut resident and consummate bird watcher.

Summing up his maritime ornithological philosophy, Captain Perkins noted that “A complete check list of birds seen on and from the ship (just one ship, the Benjamin Fairless) totals 190 species…not much compared to lists compiled ashore, but each year we add a few more species to the total. It is the constant expectation of seeing something more that makes bird watching so fascinating.”