By Howard Meyerson
Tom and Peg Comfort have a lot in common: an appreciation of natural places, a love of Torch Lake where they make their home and a strong dedication to making life better for birds, loons and bluebirds most especially.
The Comforts, now in their 60’s, grew up in an era when environmental activism was in its infancy and when Jack Kerouac, the American novelist and poet, assailed the imaginations of young idealists all over the country. Peg Comfort grew up in Chicago. Tom Comfort grew up there too. Each today is involved in exacting work to help their favorite bird populations.
“I think globally and act locally” said Peg Comfort, president of White Pine Associates, an environmental consulting firm. She is also founder of The Loon Network, loonnetwork.org, a project of Michigan Audubon Society and a public forum about loons nesting in the Elk River Chain of Lakes Watershed. The Network covers a 500-square-mile area in Charlevoix, Antrim, Kalkaska and Grand Traverse Counties where nine of 14 lakes now support nesting loons.
“They are beautiful and their calls are haunting; it’s the call of the wilderness,” Peg Comfort said. She has banded 40 of the watershed’s loons in an effort to help researchers track the population, and works to educate the public about how to protect nesting loons since they are sensitive to disturbance on the water.
“One of the biggest problems is that people drive loons off their nests chasing them. People like to see them dive,” Peg said. “Kayakers can get in even closer than fishing boats. What paddlers don’t realize is when a loon makes a yodeling call, or flaps its wings, they are saying: ‘Stay away. You’re too close.’”
Nest box junkie
Tom Comfort has helped Peg with banding loons, but the retired mechanical engineer,
and founder of Antrim Consulting Group, is primarily a bluebird enthusiast. He has an especially a sharp eye for nest box details and spends hours each week maintaining a 45-mile bluebird nest box trail with 23 stops, traveling by scooter. He personally has fledged 167 bluebirds.
“I’m a nest box junkie,” Tom Comfort said. He is the Michigan Bluebird Society’s Antrim, Charlevoix and Kalkaska county coordinator and a board member for the North American Bluebird Society.
“The feeling I get drinking a cup of coffee and watching a mom and dad (bluebird) go out of the box, or watching the young ones grow over 18 days as a result of something I’ve done, is huge. You just don’t get that in real life.”
Nest boxes that improve bluebird survival
Tom’s nest boxes have been lauded as smart, clean designs that improve survival for bluebirds. His plans draw on decades of development by Minnesota bluebirders like the late Dick Peterson, founder of the Minnesota Bluebird Recovery Program, and Steve Gilbertson. Gilbertson, he says, will end up in the Smithsonian “as the most influential living human being” to have a positive effect on bluebirds.
“Tom’s boxes, bar none, are the best I’ve ever seen,” said Joe Kaplan, a loon researcher and principal in Common Coast Research and Conservation in Hancock, a loon conservation and research organization. Kaplan has worked with Peg Comfort banding loons. He has come to know Tom Comfort over the years.
“I’ve been putting boxes up for 20 years and never thought twice about it,” Kaplan said. “He (Tom) critiqued mine and said I should ‘put them in the wood stove.’
“But he’s kind-of won me over. He’s not into it for recognition. Neither is Peg. They are just in it for the end result and don’t have time for nonsense.”
Tom Comfort said although Michigan’s bluebird population remains stable, there is a need for ongoing conservation effort. The nest boxes are surrogates for a diminishing abundance of cavity trees. The challenge, he suggested, will be finding the next generation of caretakers. Most all that do the work now have gray hair.
Call of the wild
The Comforts met as teenagers on the shores of Torch Lake where they spent summers with their respective families. That led to a few “practice marriages,” according to Tom. The couple also spent two years in the 1970’s travelling the country in a truck they called “The Mayflower.” Their son, Rob, lives in Minnesota. Today they share their home with two Labrador retrievers.
Peg attributes her love of loons to a canoe trip she took to the Minnesota Boundary Waters in 1972. She was 25 years old and became smitten by their calls. But her environmental activism was spurred by meeting the late Sigurd Olson in 1974.
Olson was a canoe guide who spent much of his life working to protect the Boundary Waters Canoe Area (BWCA). He was a gifted writer, college dean, and staunch proponent for designating the area as federal wilderness. Olson later became president of The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association. His legacy is carried on today by the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin.
“He testified at the first public hearing (about BWCA designation) and got involved with political battle for wilderness,” Peg Comfort said. “I was fortunate enough to meet him. That was a life-changer.”
That transformation shaped much of who Peg Comfort is today. Environmental matters remain of utmost importance, at least when she’s not out gardening.
An idealist from early on
“She is kind of an idealist gal from the 1960’s and we live in a pretty conservative world now,” Kaplan said. “In today’s political environment doing conservation is not fun. But she has very deep convictions. She’s a pretty tough lady and has a real common sense approach to conservation. Her commitment to it and passion are amazing.”
Peg describes herself as “an English major naturalist.” She got her bachelor’s degree in American Studies at Purdue University and her master’s degree in Environmental Studies from Bemidji State University. She taught high-school science for years before forming her own environmental consulting firm.
“My real interest is in the natural world,” she said. “I am a naturalist by nature and have been once since childhood. I love loons because they are ancient. They have survived climate change, world wars and glaciation and adapted to all kinds of change.”
© 2013 Howard Meyerson
This feature appears in the Michigan Audubon Society July/August Jackpine Warbler