November 20-29: Private Birds and Art tour: Venice to Florence.
January 31: Birding New Jersey with the Brooklyn Bird Club.
February 11: Lecture for the Montclair Bird Club.
February 18: Lecture and book signing for the Queens County Bird Club.
February 20: Lecture and book signing for the Wyncote Audubon Society.
March 21-26: Birding Nebraska with WINGS.
April 18-25: Birding Catalonia with WINGS.
Both photographed here in northern New Jersey on the same late October day.
On October 29, 1786, Goethe arrived in Rome, where he was met by the painter Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein. The rest, as they say, is history: the two traveled Italy together, and their long friendship would be commemorated in Tischbein’s most famous painting, the most famous image of Goethe ever produced.
A century and a half later, Roger Tory Peterson posed for a portrait of his own — striking a pose that I have always suspected was modeled on Goethe’s.
Whether that connection is real or — just barely possibly conceivably — imagined, there is another, more easily demonstrated. For Tischbein, the creator of so many famous portraits and classicizing history paintings, was a lapsed birder.
From Rome, the artist wrote to Johann Heinrich Merck
I was once a great amateur of birds and knew almost all the species, especially the native ones. In Holland I saw some very fine ones. I like birds very much; it seems to me that they occupy the same place in living nature as flowers in a nature morte. The bright, beautiful colors and the feathers in themselves are a beautiful thing. I’ve seen some here I didn’t know before: a green bird that resembles a kingfisher but is a type of thrush; a blue thrush; and another little birdlet like a wren.
If I could be certain that these birds were not already known, I would have them drawn and their life histories added.
It didn’t happen. And maybe that’s just as well.
Surely, I thought, on opening the Sunday paper a couple of weeks ago — surely, this must be the first time that a Lewis’s woodpecker has been pictured in the pages of the Times.
Sixty years ago today, on October 27, 1954, Mr. and Mrs. Gerard Swope, Jr., discovered an unfamiliar dark bird at their feeders outside Ossining, New York. It turned out to be the state’s first Lewis’s woodpecker, and even beyond the week and a half of its stay, the rare westerner saved more than one slow news day.
On November 7, the Times published its first article about the bird, recounting John Kieran‘s visit to pay his respects. “This is really something,” the famously witty Kieran is reported to have said.
The sighting had apparently been suppressed up to that point, Kieran warning the homeowners that otherwise “there’ll be hundreds of bird watchers tramping all over their place.”
But now the secret was out, and on the day the article was published, the Times wrote that twenty-five or thirty
bird fanciers … gathered in excited little groups beside Mr. Swope’s private lake … [having] a glorious and rewarding time peering through their binoculars at the ornithological phenomenon.
Alas, November 7 proved to be the woodpecker’s last day in Westchester. “Apparently tired of flapping about before astounded bird lovers,” the Swopes’s distinguished visitor was gone the next day, leaving
enthusiastic bird lovers great disappointment. They stood around with binoculars hanging uselessly about their necks hoping for a change of fortune that did not come.
And no, the Times, in a grave lapse of taste, couldn’t resist the headline:
That first article had been illustrated with a detail from an Allan Brooks painting, the first time the species was ever depicted in the Times. A month later, the paper published a photograph of the “tourist from the West Coast.”
I had hoped that this might be the Swopes’s actual Lewis’s, but it’s pretty clearly a stock photo.
Still, it’s better than the way the very first Lewis’s woodpecker mentioned (but not illustrated) in the Times was memorialized.
In August 1900, Leander S. Keyser visited Colorado “bent on feathered rarities.” Keyser especially enjoyed watching the nest of a pair of Lewis’s woodpeckers — so much so, in fact, that
on returning to Colorado Springs, I bought a mounted specimen from a local taxidermist.
Nice that those days are behind us now.
George Ord published the description of his toothed-bill gull in 1815, calling it
a beautiful Gull… discovered on the Delaware below Philadelphia…. Length nineteen and a half inches, extent three feet ten inches; the upper mandible has four indentations or blunt teeth, the lower three; corners of the mouth and the eyelids bright vermilion; head, neck, tail and lower parts pure white; wings, back and scapulars blue ash. Weight nineteen ounces avoirdupois.
Mysterious, isn’t it?
Once again, it was George Lawrence, working up the gulls for Baird’s 1858 volume of the Railroad Surveys, who figured out what on earth the Philadelphian was talking about. As to that odd bill, Lawrence was satisfied that it was
a possible malformation, or probably an accidental toothing, caused by its being worn in some particular mode of feeding.
Otherwise, he assures his reader that Ord’s description “agrees precisely with the adult of” another gull, described as new in 1831, Larus zonorhynchus. Richardson notes that the chief distinction between his new bird and common gull lies
in the size of he bill … being very much wider at the base, more rounded on the ridge, and stronger [in] every way than that of L. canus: it has a conspicuous salient angle beneath, and is of a dutch-orange colour, with a blackish ring near its tip.
Lawrence’s identification of Ord’s gull with Richardson’s bird meant, of course, that our ring-billed gull must bear the older name, delawarensis. And it does.
Not that it matters, but I think there’s something very fishy here. I see no reason that we should simply accept Lawrence’s synonymizing zonorhynchus — and he himself admits that, in spite of his own “strong opinion,” it is difficult “to establish certainly the identity of Mr. Ord’s species with” the one described by Richardson. A far better thing it would have been to simply declare delawarensis a name attached to nothing, and to give Richardson the credit for having produced an identifiable description of the bird.
How about it? Shall we all start calling this abundant and familiar bird the Richardson’s gull?
No, probably not.