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.
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 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.
Almost five weeks left to see the final installment of the three-year Audubon show at the New-York Historical Society. If you haven’t gone, go; if you’ve gone, go again.
Unless you’re very, very young or of very, very long-lived stock, this is one of those rare opportunities that can be truly described as once in a lifetime. Starting in 2013, continuing last spring, and ending now on May 10, all (all!) of the original watercolors Audubon painted for The Birds of America have been on display — not the famous plates reproduced for sale to the subscribers, but the paintings themselves, from Audubon’s own brush. They’re an eye-opener, for would-be sophisticates who have long dismissed Audubon as kitsch and for birders hoping to discover more about Audubon, his times, and his birds.
I visited again last week, and was once again bowled over by the technical skill, the compositional imagination, and, yes, even the beauty of many of the paintings; I was not alone in standing rapt before the American bittern last week. But there’s a lot more to do at this exhibition than just ooh and aah.
One of the first decisions the curator, Roberta Olson, had to make when planning her exhibition was the sequence in which to present the more than 435 (!) objects to be displayed. In a canny move indeed, she settled on an order created by Audubon himself: the paintings have been shown not in taxonomic order, not in the order in which they were prepared, but in the order in which they were copied by the engraver and shipped to the subscriber.
Notwithstanding a nonsensical comment in the exhibition text — Audubon “believ[ed] that this order resembled that of nature” — that sequence was, and is, purely arbitrary, motivated simply by Audubon’s and his publisher’s eagerness to keep their subscribers’ interest by alternating big birds and small. For the modern viewer, this arrangement has the disadvantage of separating the images of similar birds — even in some cases images of a single species — and rendering direct comparison impossible; but there was no better solution, and this one has at least the advantage of giving the viewer an experience like unto that of the original subscribers opening their tin boxes of plates.
In this third and final installment, the sequence also makes abundantly plain what the exhibition texts (repeatedly) call Audubon’s “rushing toward the finish line on the project.” We see the paintings becoming more crowded, with more birds and, in many cases, more species to the sheet, and much more clearly than before, we see Audubon painting for the engraver, producing images intended from the start to be parted out and recombined into “composite” plates.
Unfortunately, that crowding is reproduced this time around in the physical space devoted to the exhibition. Where the earlier installations spilled pleasingly into the hallways and a second, smaller gallery, the paintings this time are all hung in a single large room. Not only is the wall space separating livraisons confusingly little, but many of the paintings are placed so high that they can hardly be enjoyed, much less studied. Binoculars, or a stepladder?
This one, for example, was far out of my visual reach, and I would have relished the chance to see it at eye level — especially given that the bird, which was not engraved for the Birds of America (the plant was), is identified as a Bachman’s warbler. In life and in the image above, it is obviously a mourning warbler, ironically enough a species Audubon probably saw less often than the Bachman’s.
This is not the only mislabeling in this installment. Two different tropical siskins in two different paintings are misidentified as lesser goldfinches; one (in the watercolor that would become Plate 433) is the yellow-faced siskin of Brazil, the other (400) is the widespread black-headed siskin. (Audubon himself corrected the first error in the Synopsis.) The shorebird hanging beside two black-bellied plover paintings is certainly not a dowitcher, as the exhibition label suggests, but rather a poorly remembered red knot or, perhaps, another black-bellied plover. And I suspect that with its big orange throat pouch and conspicuously fleshy lore, Audubon’s “Townsend’s cormorant” is not a Brandt’s at all but a double-crested.
Yes, looking close turns up these lapsus, but looking close also offers some spectacular insights into the Audubonian process. Especially revealing are the penciled traces of dialogues between the painter, his agents, his engraver, and even the eventual recipient of the plates. Next to the Forster’s tern, for example, Audubon writes several lines about an undescribed species he had seen by the “thousands” in New Orleans in the winter of 1820-21; but without a specimen,
[I] dare not publish it, I have notwithstanding named it “Black-billed Tern” Sterna Ludoviciana J.J.A.
They were winter Forster’s terns, of course, but even this short note gives us a glimpse into Audubon’s concern for the accuracy of his work — and a certain anxiety about its reception.
The most complex of the conversations on display this time is certainly that inscribed on the painting of the rufous hummingbird. Audubon here issues detailed instructions to both Havell and his son Victor, while his crossing out of one name — “Nootka Sound Humming Bird” — and replacing it with another –“Ruffed Humming Bird” — engages both the past and the future, as Audubon does justice to his nomenclatural predecessors and simultaneously places himself in the taxonomic vanguard.
One of Audubon’s notes, on his painting of the pine grosbeak, shows the intensity with which at this point the artist was thinking of the relationship between the images in the Birds of America and the texts of the Ornithological Biography. Beneath the crimson bird, he writes
Pay attention to Note diseased legs!
Indeed, the left foot of the male grosbeak in the painting is grotesquely thickened — a feature Havell omits from the engraved plate. In the Ornithological Biography, however, Audubon explains what he meant to have illustrated. He quotes his Nova Scotia correspondent Thomas M’Culloch:
These birds are subject to a curious disease, which I have never seen in any other. Irregularly shaped whitish masses are formed upon the legs and feet. To the eye these lumps appear not unlike pieces of lime; but when broken, the interior presents a congeries of minute cells, as regularly and beautifully formed as those of a honey-comb. Sometimes, though rarely, I have seen the whole of the legs and feet covered with this substance, and when the crust has broken, the bone was bare, and the sinews seemed almost altogether to have lost the power of moving the feet.
This is not the only example where the instructions on the watercolor were ultimately rethought and revised. Had Audubon’s original plan been followed, his plate 390 would have been completed with two dickcissels; instead, a lark sparrow came to occupy the space left at the top of the sheet. Here and elsewhere among the paintings preparatory to the composite plates we find the poses of individual birds obviously planned to ease their insertion into new contexts, the logical conclusion of the “collage” technique Audubon experimented with throughout his career.
One of the most tantalizing annotations belongs to one of the most fascinating paintings (this one hung right at eye level), that of the Townsend’s bunting. Unfortunately, the extensive inscription, which covers several long lines next to the figure of the bird, was erased at some point, though enough dim traces remain that it would likely be recoverable, at least in part, from the right angle under the right light: trivial though the content might prove to be, it could still double the nearly first-hand information we have about the bird — and perhaps even cast a little much-needed light on the recent second record of this mysterious animal.
Close looks at others of the paintings on exhibition here could contribute to other open questions, too. The apparently increasing incidence of pink-tinged plumage across several species of gull has puzzled observers for a decade or so now; but so far as I know, no one has pointed out that Audubon’s 1829 laughing gull painting shows the adult’s underparts nearly covered by a saturated dull rose. Havell’s plate does not.
Other elements of the original watercolors may be less potentially significant, but are delightful all the same. Behind Audubon’s exquisite least sandpipers is a roughly sketched landscape; one wonders what Audubon had in mind when he penciled in two donkeys, one standing and the other in repose, and why the charming scene was taken over neither by Havell nor in the octavo edition of the plates.
It has been a joy these past three years to come to know Audubon as a painter of shorebirds — and to recognize in him one of the very best of that rarefied lot. Even Homer dozes, though. As I lingered over the two (and a half? — see above) black-bellied plover watercolors on display, it suddenly struck me that there was something missing in one of the birds otherwise so well painted.
Two somethings, in fact: the basic-plumaged plover’s hind toes.
Neither this nor the inaccurate wing pattern of the female northern shoveler was corrected in the engraving. By no stretch of the imagination earthshaking, but still worth noticing.
And noticing is what birders do best, isn’t it?
I’ve still never seen a boreal owl. For that very reason, I’ve spent an awful lot of time listening hard to recordings of the song. I even, for a while, and to the occasional consternation of my field companions, used that slow liquid tremolo as the notifier on my mobile cellular telephone.
Such things are called “ring tones,” a linguistic relic from the way-back days when phones jangled. But I can assure you, the song of the boreal owl sounds nothing like a bell. Not like a jingle bell or a sleigh bell or a church bell or a desk bell or a school bell.
Or does it?
I ran across this when I was — naturally — looking for something else.
Linnaeus assigned it the scientific name Aegolius funereus for its mournful cry, like the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.” Actually the call of the Boreal Owl is a sharp and chipper “hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-hoo-HOO!” in the same rhythm and pace as a winnowing snipe — Linnaeus may have been influenced more by folklore than careful observation.
I’m gratified to find the author agreeing with my assessment of the bird’s unbell-like song: while I might have used different adjectives, the transliteration works for my ear and mind. But what about all that stuff surrounding it? Is big bad Linnaeus really to blame for this, too?
A good first clue is how un-Linnaean that phrase “the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bill” is — not to mention the fact that it is in English. It’s easy enough, too, to figure out that the great Swede named the species not for its voice but for its somber plumage; the diagnosis in the Systema naturae — which, by the way, does not use the name Aegolius at all, as Kaup would not erect that genus for another 70 years — is limited entirely to the bird’s appearance:
Neither in the Systema nor in the Fauna svecica does the taxonomer adduce any sort of “folklore” about this species: instead, the latter work informs us, the description relies on a painting — one assumes that it was a silent painting — made by his teacher Rudbeck.
My friend google takes you to some very unusual places if you try to find out who is really responsible for the notion that boreal owls sound like bells. Eventually, though, we arrive — with a forehead-slapping “of course!” — at Ernest Thompson Seton. In 1910, Seton wrote about “a new and wonderful sound” he had heard on a trip to the “arctic prairies” along the Athabasca River:
Like the slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell it came. Ting, ting ting, ting, and on rising and falling with the breeze, but still keeping on about two “tings” to the second, and on, dulling as with distance, but rising again and again…. Ting, ting, ting, ting, it went on and on, this soft belling of his love, this amorous music of our northern bell-bird.
Seton’s traveling companion, Edward Preble, identified the sound as “the love-song” of the boreal owl.
More likely, misidentified: that description is pretty clearly of the tooting song of a northern pygmy-owl, not of the dripping-water trill of a boreal. Whether the identification was correct or not, though, Seton’s description of the song, down to the very “ting, ting, ting” of it, has remained influential in the ornithological and, shall we say, other literature.
And sometimes, as in this excerpt from The Book of North American Owls, some people have put two and two together to leave the rest of us at fives and sixes.
Aegolius funereus owes its species epithet to its dark color. But look what happens when, as above, someone combines Seton’s owl’s tinging with an apparent bewilderment about the name. The “bell-like” song is analyzed as a “tolling,” the term for the slow striking of a deep-voiced bell on occasions of great solemnity. Thus, logically, the bird must be funereus because, well, its voice is funereal.
A not entirely lucky guess leads us to the culprit who first misleadingly put Seton’s song description together with the Linnaean name. Experience teaches that unattributed etymologies are almost always dependent on Choate, who writes of the boreal owl — quoting but not crediting Seton:
L. funereus, “mournful,” as its call has been likened to the “slow tolling of a soft but high-pitched bell.”
It turns out that this Linnaeus-Seton mashup has an equally incorrect competitor in the American tradition. Both Terres in the Audubon Encyclopedia and Gruson in his Words for Birds claim that the species epithet refers to the bird’s voice, not, however, because of its tolling peal but to an otherwise unattested scream,
as if wailing the dead.
I was disappointed to find Terres attributing this etymology to Coues, who certainly knew better. Happily, a look at the sources absolves Coues: he does indeed write that the adjective in question is
applicable to an owl, either regarded as a bird of ill omen, or with reference to its dismal cry, as if wailing the dead;
but he is talking here about a different species entirely, not the boreal owl at all.
In both cases — the owl as funeral bell, the owl as keening mourner — a little careful reading would have gone a long ways. Sometimes that appears to be too much to ask, though.
Especially when the modest truth threatens to get in the way of a good story.
Join me next year for some of the continent’s greatest birding spectacles.
Who could have predicted that—in March! in Nebraska!—we’d be peeling layers as fast as we could in temperatures in the 60s and 70s?
True to its changeable nature, though, by the end of this year’s tour, the Great Plains weather had us grateful for the coats and gloves we’d cast off at the beginning of the week. In between, we relished close-up studies of Ross’s and cackling geese, red-headed woodpeckers, and frantically displaying greater prairie-chickens and sharp-tailed grouse. We paid three visits to the spectacular roosts of the sandhill cranes, with the third time most decidedly the charm as thousands streamed onto the fields and river channels. Best of all, we made new birder friends and learned a lot along the way.
That first afternoon together, we looked at our suitcases stuffed with down coats and long underwear and smiled in embarrassment: why on earth should we have brought all that if the weather was going to be so resolutely springlike? The warm, sunny day was more than welcome as we explored a few of the waterfowl sites just north of our hotel; a good selection of lingering ducks padded the list neatly, while Dodge Park gave us our first looks at bald eagles perched hungrily in the giant cottonwoods and a fine adult lesser black-backed gull, still scarce on the eastern Great Plains, squabbled with ring-billeds over fish and other rotting tidbits.
We went on to a really good Mexican meal in Council Bluffs, then took our places on the shores of Lake Manawa for the evening show.
Right on time came the first buzzes, and soon half a dozen American woodcock were dancing in the sky above our heads, one of them repeatedly flashing right past us where we stood watching the sunset.
It was a good start.
And it got better.
The weather was even finer the next morning as we took our first walk through Fontenelle Forest.
A pileated woodpecker, sadly not seen by all, greeted us as we left the van, but red-headed woodpeckers were more obliging, perching and flycatching unconcerned as we admired them at close range. Prospecting wood ducks perched high in the trees, and the spring’s first red fox sparrows haunted thickets and brush piles.
A post-lunch visit to more wetlands, this time south of Omaha, produced a couple of horned grebes, one of them already in dashing breeding plumage. A gorgeous Franklin’s gull at close range on the water and in flight made up for the stand-offishness of one a few of us had glimpsed the evening before.
We ended a beautiful day at Schram Park, on the banks of the Platte River, where the always reliable feeders were attended by white-throated and Harris’s sparrows and at least two purple finches, a species whose occurrences in the area are unpredictable from year to year.
We could easily have spent the entire tour just in our little corner of eastern Nebraska, but the next morning, cooler and damper, we set off for the west. A stop at the Ceresco Flats and its “sparrow road” produced good views of Cassiar juncos and hordes of song sparrows; the handsome mink that emerged from the marsh was probably in search of muskrats rather than sparrows.
The first sandhill cranes welcomed us to Grand Island, and we paused at Mormon Island long enough for a leisurely study of our first close-up cackling goose. We would see many more more of both those species.
We drove the back roads to Kearney, stopping occasionally where it was safe to scan the crane flocks on the ground and to sort quickly through the roadside ducks. After checking in to our hotel, we found ourselves on the banks of the Platte River, where many thousands of cranes had assembled on the upstream roost. That first evening’s flight was not massive, but it gave us a taste of what lay ahead.
Sprinkles greeted us the next morning at Fort Kearny, and the cranes did not. Whether coyotes or human disturbance, something had pushed the birds off the roost early. It was time to shuffle the itinerary a bit to give us another chance at witnessing the great spectacle, and by the time we were finished with our well-deserved lavish breakfast, we had a plan.
After another look at roadside cranes, we drove north into the Nebaska Sandhills, one of the most beautiful and wildest areas in the lower 48. Red-tailed hawks were everywhere, among them a ferocious-looking Harlan’s hawk; not for nothing did Audubon style that (sub?)species “the black warrior.”
A suspicious bird wading in a ditch just west of Ravenna was occasion for one of those birderly u-turns. It was a rusty blackbird, with eight of its fellows; this rapidly declining species is scarce anywhere in Nebraska away from the Missouri River, and we would see only one more the entire trip, another female on the last morning in Fontenelle Forest.
Our walk around the Broken Bow sewage ponds turned up nice flocks of ducks, along with one of those “difficult” white-cheeked Branta: smallish and small-billed, but with a sloping forehead and long, thin neck, it may have represented the Canada goose subspecies parvipes, whatever that really is, a taxon poorly known in Nebraska.
We pressed on after lunch, arriving in Mullen (with a population of 491, the largest city in Hooker County) in time to put up our feet before meeting Mitch for the trip to a nearby greater prairie-chicken lek.
About 18 males strutted their weird stuff right in front of our schoolbus blind, occasionally breaking out into surprisingly violent dustups that left feathers flying and, no doubt, self-confidences battered.
When the dancing had waned and the herds of stotting mule deer started to descend from the hills, we bounced our way back to town for supper and an early night.
Thanks to the jagged line dividing the time zones in western Nebraska, 5:20 the next morning didn’t feel quite as early as it could have, but it was still dark when we arrived at the lek of the sharp-tailed grouse.
Less aggressively social than their prairie-chicken cousins, there were six males on this dancing ground, alternating their manic spinning dances with earnest, sometimes minutes-long stare-downs between rival males. The purple neck sacs, smaller and less conspicuous than the orange balloons sported by prairie-chickens, are always a surprise no matter how often you’ve seen them, surely one of the most improbable colors in the entire bird world.
The Pantry welcomed us for a huge breakfast, and then it was time to return to the east. Not straightaway, though: we wanted to leave ourselves time for another opportunity for the crane show at Kearney. Along the way, we witnessed one of the most memorable sites of the entire tour in the somersaulting display flight of a northern harrier at Clearwater, the bird again and again rising straight into the air, then twisting and turning on his descent into the cattails.
We went south to Sutherland Reservoir, where a distant flock of snow geese shimmered white on the gray waters and a great horned owl perched on the concrete dam and then flew in to inspect us at almost disconcertingly close range. A very active northern shrike was a reminder that no matter how warm the weather, winter wasn’t long past. The northern flickers here were apparently red-shafted birds, but a fresh roadkill confirmed just how complex the situation is for that species on the Great Plains: a visually “pure” red-shafted flicker at first glance, closer investigation of this unfortunate bird discovered a few red spots on the nape, certain evidence that somewhere in its family tree lurked a yellow-shafted bird or two.
After our Runza lunch in North Platte, we visited Cody Lake, that tiny urban pond on the banks of the North Platte famous for its appeal to lingering late-season waterfowl. This year, among the park ducks and barnyard geese, we found a female common goldeneye, several dozen cackling geese, a lone Ross’s goose, and a pair of dozing trumpeter swans, which raised their long necks to give their buzzy calls whenever a plane or red-tailed hawk passed over. The setting is far from pristine, perhaps, but there are few places where wild waterfowl are as trusting and as point-and-shoot close as here.
We were back in the Kearney area with plenty of time to watch the sandhill cranes feeding, loafing, and leaping on the fields, then took our place on the bridge at Fort Kearny.
A greater yellowlegs chased prey through the shallows of the Platte, and one of the red-tailed hawks was a dramatic dark-morph adult, crossing the river at close range.
Cranes, of course, were never out of sight and earshot, and as the evening went on, many thousands gathered on the low fields along the river. After two (almost) disappointing tries, this was the show we had been waiting for.
The light turned golden, then purple and pink and red, and still the cranes kept coming, flocks purring and trumpeting over our heads as they sought the safety of the river for the coming night. Even when dusk was approaching dark and we made the return walk to our vehicle, the shadows of the great birds were still overhead and their calls still echoed in the spring air.
The only downside to our having lingered at Kearney was that it was a long drive back to Carter Lake. The hotel desk, though, had our rooms waiting for us, and we were able to hit the pillows within a few minutes of arriving, crane music still in our ears.
It was easy enough to negotiate a slightly later starting time for our last morning afield. Cooler air had moved in during our time in western Nebraska, but even with temperatures right at freezing, the light breeze and brilliant blue skies made it a delight to take one final walk in Fontenelle Forest. Red-headed woodpeckers, eastern bluebirds, and American goldfinches were drinking from the shallow waters of the stream, and red-tailed hawks were moving north along the ridges as we bade farewell to the birds, to each other, and to the wonder that is springtime in Nebraska.
Next year: March 19-26. See you there!
It pleases me beyond belief that one of the most venerable of American bell manufacturers is called — get this — Verdin.
The company is not named for the penduline tit of the deserts, alas, but the coincidence got me thinking about a question that has bothered me for years — for decades, in fact.
What does it mean to say that a bird’s sounds are “bell-like”?
Compare the hollow clonking of a bearded bellbird
with the shirring trill of a Barrow’s goldeneye‘s wings
or the mock-ferocious tooting of a northern pygmy-owl.
Or even the staccato ticking of an excited verdin: all those sounds and many more are regularly described as “bell-like.”
They all are, I suppose, but the bells to which they are likened are all different ones. We have only the one word in English, unfortunately, “bell,” to describe the variety of noisemakers those birds’ sounds evoke, from the wooden thonk of the bellbird to the silvery jingle bell whistle of the goldeneye. Some other languages are better off here. Compare the German “Glockenvogel,” for example, for the bellbird with “Schellente” for the seaduck: the first rings like a church bell, the second sussurates in flight like distant sleigh bells.
This I can understand. And if we expand our definition of the bell just a little ways to include the triangle — that musical instrument so beloved of elementary school teachers and put to such good and witty use by Liszt — then it makes sense to me, too, to call the chips of verdins and black-throated sparrows “bell-like.”