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The great bird day


Sun, Nov 19th, 2000
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The diaries of Dr. Johan C. HvoslefBy Nancy OvercottMonday, November 20, 2000

Editors note: Dr. Johan C. Hvoslef, who practiced medicine in Lanesboro from 1876-1920, was an enthusiastic birdwatcher and prolific writer. His journals, written in both English and his native Norwegian, are filled with details of his daily activities and observations of nature. In the following article Nancy Overcott writes of Dr. Hvoslefs life and the fascinating glimpse of Fillmore Countys past that his journals provide.

The great bird day

Thursday, October 5, 1911: This morning 38 degrees and it looked as if the long period of rain at last had come to an end. I went to the hill and took fresh flowers along... In the valley and at the outlet, there it was swarming with birds.

When I got home I was called to Miss Ole Carlsen near Pekin [Pilot Mound] and drove there with livery team from M. Horihan, with Erik Bohn driving...

At length the rain poured down and the roads became horrid. On the Casey hill met with an automob. in the deep clay mud. That ride could hardly have been very pleasant... [As part of this entry, the writer listed the birds he identified in passing.]
~Dr. Johan Christian Hvoslef, Diary 10


Dr. Johan Christian Hvoslef came to this country from Norway at the age of thirty-three. He attended medical school in Chicago, then moved to Lanesboro where he practiced medicine from 1876 to 1920. By most accounts, he was a dour person with little sense of humor and may have felt superior to his neighbors.

He married Karen Anderson of Lanesboro and they had a daughter named Agnes. The doctor was heartbroken when Agnes died in 1898 at age six. From the time of her death until his own, he brought flowers to her grave every day.

Besides practicing medicine, Dr. Hvoslef was also a birdwatcher who completed over fifty journals of his daily activities and observations of nature, particularly birds, in Fillmore County. He gathered bird specimens by shooting the birds, as was the custom then. The following excerpts are from Diaries 1 and 2:

Friday, March 3, 1882: Summerlike temperatures. Bottomless roads. Few folk in town. I went out with my gun this afternoon. Near Patterson's I saw two beautiful birds of the Sialia sialis (Eastern Bluebird), the first of the season. Shot one...

Friday, June 30, 1882: Last night we had the most awful storm that I've ever lived through in the United States. When I, this morning, after a sleepless night, went out at six o'clock I found the river higher than I've ever seen it before. To reach here from Brooklyn one has to use a boat... With violent force the waters of the flood rush over the highway and under the trestle, the latter almost hidden under the water. The grand iron bridge by Iverson's is wrecked, and the same is true of the bridge leading to North Prairie... All mail and telegraph communication with the rest of the world is cut off. The Thompson dam is out, and the roads are impassable for all vehicles... The riff-raff keeps up an uninterrupted racket with their fire crackers in our poor town, and there is other devilishness going on...

Monday, Oct. 30, 1882: Called to Rushford. A lot of the Colinus [Bobwhite] are being shot on the plain above the town...

Thursday, April 12, 1883: Overclouded, gray, and cold. The Prairie Chickens boomed so loudly this morning from Henrik's field that we could hear them very plainly in town. Never before have I heard anything like this...

Prairie Chickens disappeared from Fillmore County in the late 1930's. They were hunted in Minnesota until 1942. The highest number, (410,000), was taken in 1925.

Over the years, the Lanesboro Journal reported on Dr. Hvoslef's care of area patients and his bird-related activities:

April 26, 1895: Regarding the disappearance of bluebirds, Dr. Hvoslef... was a severe mourner over the fate that has deprived our northern homes of one of their spring-time charms. (The bluebird population has since recovered.)

November 15, 1895: Dr. Hvoslef reduced a fracture in the arm of Helmer Edwin, son of E. H. Kolstad. "We are sorry for the little fellow as it is the third time the same arm has been broken.

February 24, 1916: Cardinal birds... have been seen several times during the winter... They are very beautiful birds and belong further south... the cardinal bird was first reported to have been seen in Minnesota in 1898 by Dr. Hvoslef of Lanesboro.

In his classic 1932 work, The Birds of Minnesota, Dr. Thomas S. Roberts wrote: All the many records from Lanesboro in this work are from Dr. Hvoslef's notes... Fortunately he recorded carefully and accurately everything that came under his notice, and Minnesota bird-students owe no small debt of gratitude to this retiring but hardworking man of science.

In an article titled Lanesboro Revisited-75 Years Later ("The Loon," Winter 1986), Anne Marie Plunkett, Rochester, wrote that she had been birding in Fillmore County almost daily in an attempt to fill the data void following Dr. Hvoslef's death in 1920. On October 5, 1986, exactly seventy-five years after Dr. Hvoslef's "great bird day," she attempted to recreate that day. She began by placing flowers on Agnes' grave. Rain fell off and on, as it had in 1911. She followed the former main road from Lanesboro to Preston, then drove from Lanesboro to Pilot Mound where she encountered the "deep clay mud" referred to in the journal. She saw most of the same birds Dr. Hvoslef had seen: robins, seven species of sparrows, yellow-rumped warblers, ruffed grouse, Cooper's hawk, goldfinch and others.

A renewed interest in Hvoslef

In October 1996, Dr. Kinsey Anderson, formerly of Preston, now of El Cerrito, California, donated 204 acres of land to Minnesota for a Wildlife Management Area (WMA) in honor of Dr. Hvoslef. The property is in Amherst Township midway between Lanesboro and Harmony. At the dedication of this land, Dr. Anderson spoke fondly of his boyhood days spent observing the property's wildlife and exploring its farmland, limestone bluffs, upland woods, springs and the South Fork of the Root River.

After the dedication, area residents and DNR officials formed a committee to discuss management plans for the WMA. Among other projects, committee members proposed to obtain copies of the Hvoslef journals from the University of Minnesota with the intention of transcribing and translating them, approximately half of which are in Norwegian. They proposed to publish the journals verbatim, then produce a book containing biographical and historical information, journal excerpts, old maps, photographs and illustrations.

In July 1999, I received a call from Dana Gardner, a Lanesboro native and internationally acclaimed illustrator of books about birds. Dana, who now lives in Berkeley, said he likes my column in the Fillmore County Journal, which his father, Paul Gardner, who still lives in Lanesboro, sends him. He then offered to illustrate some of my columns.

One day, during Dana's visit in Lanesboro last spring, I showed him around the Hvoslef WMA and asked if he would be interested in illustrating the journals. He said, "Yes."

At a meeting held last June, which Dana attended, everyone agreed his illustrations would add greatly to the proposed publication. At that meeting, I offered to contact Anne Marie Plunkett as a possible consultant. Although we had recently been out of touch, I remembered her fondly as my first birding mentor. When we talked a few days later, she enthusiastically agreed to work with us.

When Dana returned in October, I arranged for us to meet Anne Marie for lunch and an afternoon of retracing the doctor's footsteps. During lunch, Anne Marie mentioned that the only ot

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