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.

March 31, 2015: “The Originals,” a lecture for New York City Audubon Society.

April 8: Spring bird walk at Brookdale Park.

April 18-25: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

May 11: “Taking Off the Blinders,” a lecture for Biggest Week in American Birding.

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.

March 19-26, 2016: Nebraska: Sandhill Cranes and Prairie Grouse.

April 14-22: Birds and Art In Catalonia.

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

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.


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Greater Prairie-Chicken

They’re stately, dignified, even slightly pompous birds. But when the spirit is upon them, even greater prairie-chickens can lose control, as these two did this past week in the Sandhills of Nebraska.

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Greater Prairie-Chicken

Yes, it’s the season of love and battle on the prairies.

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Woodcock and Gulls

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woodcock skies

My Nebraska tour is off to a great start — and with a great group, which makes me look forward even more to the rest of the week.

We started yesterday afternoon with some waterfowl watching near the airport, relishing close-up views of lesser scaup and redheads. I’d been worried that the fancy gulls of the day before might be gone, but sure enough, one of the first we saw on approaching the bleak marina at Dodge Park was an adult lesser black-backed gull, squabbling with the abundant ring-billed gulls over surprisingly large but obviously tasty dead fish. The day’s first bald eagles were here, too, perched impassive over the whole scene.

After an early supper at La Mesa, we moved across to Lake Manawa, where many thousands of gulls were streaming in to roost. Another adult lesser black-backed joined the flock, and most of us caught at least glimpses of three or four Franklin’s gulls out there in the horde; I’m hoping for more and closer views of this most handsome of North American larids.

The coloring of the skies reminded us that it would soon be woodcock time. We took our places in a traditionally good spot and watched the creatures of the night emerge, among them a few white-tailed deer and what I imagine will turn out to be the tour’s first great horned owl. Promptly at eight came the first nearby buzzings, and a few minutes later half a dozen birds were peenting and skydancing all around us. Several flashed right through the group as they took off in display flight — happily, no puncture wounds from the big-nosed lovebirds.

Best of all? Standing in the evening light without a coat. Spring on the Great Plains: you can never tell!

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Lesser black-backed gull

Not that long ago, a lesser black-backed gull was red-letter news in eastern Nebraska. No more: this snazzy adult was only one of two individuals at N.P. Dodge Park this afternoon. The other was the first first-cycle bird I’d seen in the state (and even less obliging in matters photographic).

Plenty of bald eagles out there, too, but disappointingly low waterfowl numbers.

Our tour begins tomorrow, and if these gulls stick around, it will be a great start.

Too late for this year, but join me next March for cranes, sharp-tailed grouse, and greater prairie-chickens in one of North America’s hidden birding paradises. 

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Eimbeck, Mergus anaterius

This handsome lithograph — an illustration for some reason not listed in McCarthy — is the earliest depiction of a now well-known hybrid combination, that between the common goldeneye and the smew.

The bird was shot in the spring of 1825 on the Oker River near Braunschweig,

on a stretch where various duck and merganser species are regularly found every year in migration (open water is maintained here even in freezing temperatures by the rapid current). Fortunately, it came into the hands of a collector, who mounted it for his otherwise run-of-the-mill collection of common German birds.

When that collector died, apparently in the summer of 1828, A.F.E. Eimbeck, Inspector of the Ducal Museum in Braunschweig, obtained the “fairly well preserved specimen” and added it to the collections he oversaw. The following year, Eimbeck prepared a description of this “hitherto unknown, very striking German waterbird,” in the hope that

as a result of wider knowledge of this rarity, it might be determined in the future whether there exists anywhere another specimen resembling this one, and it would thus be determined whether this should be accepted as a new species or considered a hybrid.

Eimbeck reports that several of the ornithologists to whom he had shown the Braunschweig bird believed it to be a hybrid, but those expert opinions did not keep him from giving the creature a name: Mergus anatarius, the Entensäger, the “duck-merganser.”

Christian Ludwig Brehm agreed with Eimbeck that this curiosum was the representative of a newly discovered taxon — but he decided that it was not so much a duck-like merganser as a merganser-like duck, and so he named it the narrow-billed goldeneye, Clangula angustirostris.

Brehm appears to have been alone in his opinion. In 1840, H.R. Schinz (of dunlin fame), while dutifully reproducing Eimbeck’s species name, nevertheless appears to be among those who believe that the specimen represents a hybrid — but that it is no less noteworthy for it: this is, he says,

the only example other than the rackelhahn of two species of different genera living in the wild having bred together; extremely remarkable.

Naumann, 1844, Mergus anatarius

Naumann, too, four years later rather left the question open, but

the remarkable intermediate appearance, which would place this bird precisely halfway in between two known species, irresistibly suggests to the practiced observer at the first glance that this is a mixture or hybrid between the common goldeneye and the smew.

All the same, the title cut to Naumann’s waterfowl volume remains cautious: this is a “suspected hybrid.”

Not until 1887, though, would the assertion be made without qualification. In the Vogelwelt for December of that year, Rudolf Blasius, son of Eimbeck’s successor at the Braunschweig museum, published an illustrated study of Eimbeck’s Mergus anatarius.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 13.28.59

Blasius’s subtitle says it all: the Braunschweig duck is a hybrid between the smew and the common goldeneye. While the other natural historians cited above could rely only on the specimen in that city’s museum, Blasius knew of three others: a Danish bird killed in February 1843 and named as a new species, Anas mergoides;

Screenshot 2015-03-11 14.35.18

a third taken on Poel in the German Baltic in February 1865;

Screenshot 2015-03-11 14.51.29

and finally one collected in Sweden in November 1881.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 14.42.00

Blasius was able to handle three of those birds, and to work from a very careful description of the Swedish individual. Compiling a series of measurements of these four ducks and of smews and common goldeneyes, he was able to show that the hybrid individuals were exactly intermediate between the presumed parental species; he also presented detailed parallel plumage descriptions.

The precise comparison of the plumages of the adult male goldeneye and the adult male smew with those of the hybrids described … clearly leads to the conviction that we are truly dealing with hybrid forms and not with distinct bird species…. One can hardly doubt any longer that these are actually hybrids.

He goes on to urge zookeepers to help prove his point by intentionally breeding smews to goldeneye:

It would be a lovely experiment to produce these hybrids artificially.

As we now know, though, the birds do just fine out there on their own.




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