Archive for Canada


Airmail from Canada

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I can’t claim to have read (or to want to read) all of the vast literature on the Passenger Pigeon and its decline, but I’ve perused enough to know that it is all much of a sameness, fact after repeated fact piling up into a story that is more and more familiar as this sad commemorative year goes on.

I’ve come to be more interested in — and sometimes more charmed by — those texts where pigeons and their habits and history are not the central subject, but rather where the birds flutter around the edges, as it were.

On May 6, 1721, the Jesuit explorer and historian Pierre François Xavier de Charlevoix found himself becalmed at Quebec’s ominously named Anse de la Famine, “the worst place in the world,” as he called it. To pass the time, he caught up on his “historical journal,” composed (or at least published) as a series of letters addressed to the Duchess of Lesdiguières.

“This contrary wind,” he wrote,

gives every impression of lingering for a while and of keeping me here in the worst place in the world for more than a day. I will overcome the annoyance by writing to you. Whole armies are passing without pause of those pigeons that we call turtles; if only one of those would take up my letters, then you might learn some of my news before I leave this place: but the natives have not figured out how to train the birds to that occupation, as they say the Arabs and many other peoples did long ago.

Charlevoix’s scientific, factual report on the birds is well known and widely reproduced — and apart from its early date, just a few years after Catesby, doesn’t really add much to what we know: the flocks once darkened the skies, they’re easy to shoot from the trees, they are kept and fattened to be killed and dressed in autumn.

But doesn’t the image of the homesick writer, looking longingly out the window and hoping that the wind will change — doesn’t that passage tell us more about the way the pigeon was experienced and what the pigeon meant than a whole sheaf of life history details? I think so.

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A Hundred Years of Titmice

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Tufted Titmouse

A hundred years ago today, Canada’s first Tufted Titmouse was discovered — where else? — at Point Pelee. What must it have been like to hear those now-familiar whistles for the first time?

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Varied Thrush

Among the birds from the final voyage of James Cook sent back to England was a new thrush, collected at Nootka Sound in what would later be British Columbia. The skins wound up in the collection of Joseph Banks, the naturalist on Cook’s first expedition, who passed them on to John Latham to prepare the formal description.

Latham named the bird the Spotted Thrush, a name taken over into scientific Latin a few years later by Gmelin as Turdus naevius, the “thrush with freckles.”

I’ve wondered for years just what those spots and dots were meant to be, and now, thanks to The Marvel That Is The Internet, there’s no reason to guess. We can know.

Latham says that the coverts of the wing are

ash-colour; the lesser ones plain; all the others marked with a ferruginous triangular spot at the tip: the prime quills dusky; each feather marked with two ferruginous spots on the outer web, one near the base, the other about the middle; the second quills have one of these marks near the end, but paler.

Those intricate wing markings are the only “spots” Latham’s account mentions. Gmelin, too, fidus interpres that he was, points out the same “macula” and no others.

Pennant, Arctic zoology XV 337

Thomas Pennant, writing two years after Latham published his description, was apparently less impressed by the bird’s freckled wing and more interested in the overall pied aspect of its plumage. Pennant gave us both one of the least successful portraits ever of the species and its enduring English name, Varied Thrush.

Pennant’s plate is so bad, in fact, that it misled Swainson and Richardson, who had access only to a single, molting specimen, to deny that the bird was a thrush at all:

it exhibits unequivocal indications of those characters by which Orpheus [the thrashers, catbirds, and mockingbirds] is so decidedly separated from the true Thrushes…. This opinion is, in a great measure, confirmed by the figure of Pennant, where the tail is represented as rounded, and fully as long as the wings, a structure which precisely agrees with the American Mocking-bird.

In order to “express what appears to us its real affinities,” Swainson coined new English and scientific names for the bird, Orpheus meruloides, the Thrush-like Mock-bird.

Varied Thrush, Fauna bor-am

Swainson’s view didn’t really catch on. Audubon, with “numerous specimens of this Thrush in [his] possession,” which he compared carefully to skins of the American Robin and “another new Thrush from Chili,” came to the

opinion that both these and the Chilian species are as nearly allied as possible, and therefore ought to be considered as true Thrushes….

With few and infrequent exceptions, such as the brief entry in Lesson’s Notices of 1840, ornithology has agreed with Audubon. In January 1854, though, almost three years to the day after the old man’s death, Charles Bonaparte went out of his way to take a cheap shot at his erstwhile friend:

Notwithstanding the efforts of the pen and the paintbrush of the famous ornithologist Audubon, Turdus naevius, Gm. (Orpheus meruloides, Sw.), is neither a Turdus thrush [Bonaparte: Grive] nor even a mimid [Chanteur], but a teniopterian bird, the type of my new genus Ixoreus.

That is simply mean-spirited, and Bonaparte deserved what he got when Philip Lutley Sclater pointed out that the ornithologist prince had been far more confused than either Audubon or Swainson:

The true type of Prince Bonaparte’s .. Ixoreus … is, as I know from its having been pointed out to me by the founder [viz., Bonaparte] in the Jardin [des] Plantes’ collection, the S[outh] American Taenioptera rufiventris….

If I’ve run the synonymies correctly, Taenioptera rufiventris is an obsolete name for the Streak-throated Bush-Tyrant. Thus, even as he ridiculed Audubon for his taxonomic naivete, Bonaparte was confusing the Varied Thrush with an entirely different bird, a lovely neotropical flycatcher.

Audubon’s old protégé Spencer Baird, on learning of Bonaparte’s confusion, decided to drop Ixoreus entirely, and coined the new and very pretty genus name Hesperocichla for the thrush. Not until 1902 did Charles Richmond restore the name Ixoreus:

it is yet plain that [Bonaparte’s] term was based upon Gmelin’s name.

His heart, in other words, was in the right place, and Ixoreus it has been always since.


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Captain Cook’s Birds of Canada

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Brian E. Sharp’s recent review of the California Condor in its northern range is a remarkable contribution to the historic record of that rare species (and almost reason by itself to join the WFO!).

Studer, Birds of North America 1903

Sharp adduces nine “records” of the species — or something like it — from British Columbia, beginning with “a bird of the vulture tribe” shot by the eccentric fantasist Alexander Milton Ross in 1817. Just how many of the remaining eight reports pertain to actual condors can probably not be determined, but Sharp is generally more forgiving than I think I would have been.

In any case, there may be a tenth report of California Condors from British Columbia, one that antedates all those cited in the Western Birds article.

In spring 1778, James Cook and the Resolution were at Nootka Bay on Vancouver Island. The crew had little time for zoological investigation, but they did observe

two or three racoons, martins, and squirrels … the prints of a bear’s feet near the shore.

They learned more from “the skins which the natives brought to sell”; the most commonly offered were bears, deer, foxes, and wolves. Ermines and squirrels were scarcer, but lynx seemed to be “by no means rare.” Those were the days.

Somewhat surprisingly, the Englishmen found birds to be both scarce and shy. In the woods they encountered Northwestern Crows and Common Ravens, Steller’s Jays, Pacific Wrens,

Pacific Wren

and “a considerable number of” Bald Eagles. The local residents also brought them “fragments or dried skins” of a small hawk, a heron, and the Belted Kingfisher.

Belted Kingfisher

Certain of the forest birds struck the visitors as likely new to science:

One less than a thrush, of a black colour above, with white spots on the wings, a crimson head, neck and breast, and a yellowish olive-coloured belly….

Indeed, Gmelin soon thereafter named the Red-breasted Sapsucker on the basis of specimens brought back by the expedition and described by Pennant (Gmelin, though, attributing it to northeastern South America rather than to northwestern North America).

Red-breasted Sapsucker

Cook also observed

a larger, and much more elegant bird, of a dusky brown colour, on the upper part, richly waved with black, except about the head; the belly of a reddish cast, with round black spots; a black spot on the breast; and the under-side of the wings and tail of a plain scarlet colour….

That one, too, made it into Gmelin’s edition of the Systema, though this time the German taxonomer was even more geographically mixed up when he named the Red-shafted Flicker cafer.

Northern Flicker

The third suspected novum was

a small bird of the finch kind, about the size of a linnet, of a dark dusky colour, whitish below, with a black head and neck, and white bill.

It’s impossible to know what flavor of Dark-eyed Junco is being described here; Gmelin no doubt assumed, reasonably enough, that it was just the Junco hyemalis of Linnaeus’s 1758 edition, and thus felt no obligation to name it himself.

Oregon Junco

The last of the small land birds encountered, which “the natives brought … to the ships in great numbers” towards the end of the mariners’ stay, were hummingbirds, which

seem[ed] to differ from the numerous sorts of this delicate animal already known, unless they be a mere variety of the trochilus colubris of Linnaeus.

The natives called the bird “sasinne, or sasin.”  Lesson would later use that name to denote a different species, but Gmelin named Cook’s bird, descriptively enough, Selasphorus rufus, the Rufous Hummingbird, the only hummingbird to be first described from a Canadian locality. 

USF&WS, D.E. Biggins

Vast numbers of shorebirds can be seen in the area in spring, but Cook and his crew, busy with their ships, found only “a plover differing very little from our common sea-lark” and two sandpipers, neither of them identifiable from the descriptions provided; one was “the size of a small pigeon,” the other “about the size of a lark” and said to bear “a great affinity to our burre,” a name as mysterious to me as the bird.

Waterfowl and other seabirds were “not more numerous than the others.” Gulls and cormorants were seen offshore and in the Sound, as were two species of ducks, a few swans, and a Common Loon. And Cook and his men also observed “quebrantahuessos.”

Now there’s a bird name not easy to come to terms with. In the early nineteenth century, Vieillot tells us in the Nouveau dictionnaire d’histoire naturelle that it was in use by Spaniards for the giant-petrels, southern hemisphere birds never seen off western Canada that Cook and his sailors had identified a year earlier at the Falklands.

The word is also applied, however, to the Lammergeier, that impressive accipitrid vulture of Old World crags and coasts. It seems possible that what Cook was reporting was a similar scavenger, large and long-winged and with an appetite for bones.

Turkey Vulture

Surely not giant-petrels, but perhaps Turkey Vultures — or perhaps, just perhaps, even California Condors.

A few weeks later, in May 1778, Cook again encountered “a few quebrantahuessos,” this time on the shore of Kaye Island in southern coastal Alaska. Again, he provides no information that would let us identify the birds with any real confidence, but the locality is not much farther north than some of the other historical condor reports Sharp cites.

We’ll never know. But it would be a shame to overlook even these possible records — and an even greater shame to ignore the contributions of the  Resolution to North American ornithology.


Categories : Canada, Famous Birders
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A Twitch and an Owl

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Who else out there knows that sinking feeling when you show up for a field trip in the worst possible weather–and there are people waiting for you? And who understands how just a few seconds of birding with friends can make the worst weather disappear and the day brighten?

That was our experience this morning at Kitsilano Point and Vanier Park. It was miserable when I arrived, but the four of us put up our hoods and had a great time–and the weather actually improved, with a patch of dry sky mid-morning and nothing really worse than mist by the time we broke up at 11:00.

As usual, waterfowl provided the major highlights. The strange Bufflehead x Common Goldeneye hybrid was bobbing around at very close range, giving us great looks at this strikingly beautiful bird; Alison and I had seen it yesterday afternoon on our scouting, too, so I was glad it deigned to perform for the group this morning. A drake Eurasian Wigeon was on the Vanier pond–yesterday afternoon we’d also found a female, but she was sensibly tucked up somewhere out of the rain.

The scoter flock was very close to shore this morning, hundreds of Surf Scoters forming and reforming their lines and blobs and clusters. At least half a dozen White-winged Scoters were mixed in, and the morning’s real prize was a female Black Scoter, the first for me on English Bay of a species said to have been hugely abundant there not that many years ago.

So a great morning in great company, and  with the rain tapering off, I met Daniel at the eagle-adorned totem pole (real Bald Eagles, not just carved ones) and stopped quickly at home for another waterproof layer before heading south to Alaksen. We pulled in just to find a small group of birders leaving. Smiling birders. Happy birders. And we shared their delight when we found the lingering Yellow-breasted Chat right away, not just near but actually under the breezeway leading to the offices. She (a dull lore) was even vocalizing, giving a chat-like buzz and wheeze as she fed on the ground and in the open trees. Poor Karen, trying to get from one building to the other, was stranded for some moments as she very generously waited for us to tire or the chat to fly off–the latter occurred before the former, but not before we’d had splendid views of a major December rarity.

Where to next? Skies were brightening, so we decided to go looking for owls nearby. Big ones eluded us, but our 700th or so search of a trailside holly turned up a splotch of whitewash and its snoozing author.

This was my first living Northern Saw-whet Owl of the year, and one of the sweetest little creatures of 2010 so far. And of course we paused on the way back out Westham Island Road for a look at the Northern Hawk Owl, making for a pretty good strigid day on top of a pretty good warbler day on top of a pretty good waterfowl day.

I like BC in December, I’ve decided.

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