May
25

Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

August 13: “Museum Birding,” a workshop for Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.

August 14: “Prophets of Woe and Mischance,” a lecture for Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival.

October 3: Autumn bird walk at Brookdale Park.

October 7: Autumn bird walk at Brookdale Park.

October 7: Book signing for Brookdale Park Conservancy.

October 8: “Putting Birds Where We Want Them,” a lecture for Real Macaw Parrot Club.

October 21: Lecture for Delmarva Ornithological Society.

November 9: Lecture for Ralph T. Waterman Bird Club.

March 3, 2016: Lecture for Delaware Valley Ornithological Club.

March 19-26: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

April 14-22: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

April 24 – May 2: Birds and Art in Provence.

May 24: “How — and Why — To Start Birding,” a lecture for North Shore Audubon Society.

May 29 – June 4: Birds and Art in Burgundy.

September 30 – October 8: Birds and Art in Berlin and Brandenburg.

October 24 – November 1: Birds and Art in Venice and the Po Delta.

Sycamore-Rick.jpg

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May
28

The Pious Vulpanser

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Pelican, Princeton University Chapel

Even if, like Augustine, we’re not certain whether to believe it or not, everyone has at least heard of the sacrifice of the mother pelican, who opens her own breast to nourish her young with the blood.

We may be less familiar, however, with the story of the generous vulpanser, another remarkable example of selfless love in the bird world.

According to the Italian iconographer and emblematist Ioannes Pierius Valerianus,

when the Egyptian priests wished to denote parents’ love for their children, they used the hieroglyph of the vulpanser.

He reports that

this bird attends to its offspring with so great a love that should it ever happen that it encounters hunters and finds that it and its chicks have been spotted, both father and mother rush to surrender themselves to the hunters and to draw their attention away from the young…. And so it seemed to the Egyptians that an animal of such piety should be regarded with great veneration.

The British, Pierius tells us, once considered this bird the finest of foods, but by the time of Caesar, they too had decided that it was a sacred creature not to be eaten.

But what is it, this vulpanser, this “fox-goose”?

Buffon knows:

one can readily see, thanks to one of the natural attributes of the bird — more decisively than by any erudite conjecture — that the name belongs exclusively to … the only species in which one can discover a unique and singular similarity to the fox, namely, its finding shelter, like the fox, in a burrow.

Common Shelduck

The vulpanser of the ancients and the not-so-ancients is the common shelduck,

first designated by the name “renard-oie”; not only does this bird shelter itself like a fox, but it nests and lays its eggs in holes which it normally expropriates from rabbits.

Not very nice to the rabbits — but at least they love their offspring.

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One hundred eighty-five years ago, the recently widowered Charles Waterton set off for the continent, in search of warmer climes in the south of Italy.

On the way, accompanied by his sisters-in-law and his tiny son, Waterton stopped in the “fine old city” of Bruges, where he had married his late wife in the convent school where she had been educated.

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Waterton, the premier taxidermist of his day, naturally spent much of his time in the natural history collections — most of them, he reports, old-fashioned and full of horribly prepared, misshapen specimens — but he also devoted himself to the artistic treasures of that loveliest of medieval cities.

He singled out for praise one of the convent’s paintings,

a picture of a boy laughing at his own performance on the fiddle. So true is this to nature, that you can never keep your eyes from gazing on it when you are sitting there.

Waterton liked the painting so much, in fact, that he light-heartedly fantasized about stealing it, “were thieving innocent, and the act injurious to none.”

His other favorite in Bruges was a still life by Frans Cuyck van Myerop, featuring “a dead bittern suspended by the leg.”

Van Myerop, Stilleven met dode vogels

Beautiful indeed, and a fitting reminder of transitoriness today, on this 150th anniversary of Waterton’s death.

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Do you ever get the feeling that the nineteenth-century world was so small that anyone who was anybody inevitably bumped into everyone who was somebody? In the ornitho-realm, think of Alexander Wilson and John Greenleaf Whittier — or John James Audubon and virtually every single one of his notable contemporaries.

Charles Waterton

Most such meetings were felicitous encounters, but late the night of June 17, 1841, two ornithologists bumped into each other in the worst possible way. As The Tablet reported, that afternoon

the Pollux, a new and very pretty steamer, left Civita-Vecchia with every promise of a most delightful passage to Leghorn. As evening closed in the daylight failed, but the night was pleasant, the sky serene and starry, the sea calm and smooth. These circumstances had fortunately induced many of the passengers to sleep on deck. About an hour before midnight, some one being still awake noticed a vessel approaching, and already so near as to cause alarm. It was some time before any one could be found to look to the danger — and when perceived, the vessel was only just turned with its broadside forward when the other vessel, also a steamer, ran into her amidships, with a shock that threatened instant destruction to both.

The Yorkshire naturalist, ornithologist, and taxidermist Charles Waterton was on board the Pollux with his sisters-in-law and young son:

it was evident that she had but a very little time to float. I found my family all around me; and having slipped on and inflated my life preserver, I entreated them to be cool and temperate, and they all obeyed me most implicitly. My little boy had gone down on his knees, and was praying fervently to the blessed Virgin to take us under her protection, while Miss Edmonstone kept crying out in a tone of deep anxiety, “Oh, save the precious boy, and never mind me!”

Bonaparte Charles Lucien 1803-1857.png

Waterton and his family, and indeed all but one of the passengers on the Pollux, were indeed rescued. Credit for averting total destruction went to — get this! — Charles Bonaparte, who just happened to be on the Mongibello when that ship so quickly sank the Pollux:

Had it not been for Prince Canino, Charles Buonaparte, it is more than probable not a single soul would have been saved. The Pollux would have been literally cut in two had he not had the paddles of the Mongibello reversed; the Mongibello could not have got the passengers to her deck in time had not he seized her helm, and brought her alongside the sinking vessel, which, within fifteen minutes after the first shock, had disappeared.

According to Waterton, his princely colleague’s ministrations continued even after the Mongibello and its shipwrecked passengers reached the harbor at Livorno:

Prince Canino pleaded our cause with uncommon fervor. He informed [the port officials] that we had had nothing to eat that morning…. He described the absolute state of nudity to which many of the sufferers had been reduced, he urged the total loss of our property, and he described in feeling terms the bruises and wounds which had been received at the collision…. The council of Leghorn relented, and graciously allowed us to go ashore.

Waterton would never forget the bravery and generosity of the Franco-Italian ornithologist, and neither should we.

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May
24

Sowbelly Canyon

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One of my favorite places and one of my favorite place names — but Sowbelly wasn’t especially Prius-friendly the other day after the snow. So we took just a quick, chilly walk into the top of the canyon before heading west.

Rick and Gellert, Sowbelly

It was quiet up there, a circumstance that only convinced me there were really great birds down lower; but it’s hard to complain about fences lined with mountain bluebirds and Brewer’s blackbirds.

A distant Pheucticus song was neatly identified when a male black-headed grosbeak flew in to investigate our presence; both species occur in spring on the Pine Ridge, and — confession time — I can’t consistently tell the songs apart, and these ears of mime don’t always pick up those chip notes at a distance.

Red-headed woodpecker

We were hoping for Lewis’s — it’s just time for that species to arrive — but had to content ourselves with the even more stunning red-headed woodpeckers; the bird is common all across Nebraska, wherever there are trees or fence posts, but it’s still a bit disconcerting to see it against a background of shortgrass prairie and buttes.

And even more disconcerting to look down the fence and see a Cassin’s kingbird.

Cassin's Kingbird

These no-longer-quite-so-southwestern tyrants breed in the upper canyon (and even farther north into Dakota, if I remember right), but I’d resigned myself to their late arrival when this one suddenly appeared. Who knows — this may have been the first of its species to make it to Nebraska this year. And it couldn’t have chosen a more beautiful place to land.

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