The Ruffed Honeysucker: By a Hair

Latham Rufous Hummingbird

The Rufous Hummingbird was “discovered” for European science by the naturalists of the Cook Expedition aboard the Resolution. As we’ve already seen, the Englishmen didn’t actually come across the bird themselves, but rather first saw it when it was brought to them “in great numbers” by the native inhabitants of Canada’s Vancouver Island.

According to Thomas Pennant, who in his Arctic Zoology worked up many of the specimens that came back with Cook’s ships (and without Cook), some of those hummingbirds came to the crew of the Resolution still breathing:

 The Indians brought them to our navigators alive, with a long hair fastened to one of their legs.

Just where Pennant came up with this piquant detail isn’t clear: it isn’t in the report of Cook’s voyage, and I don’t find it in Latham, either, whose General Synopsis provides the illustration at the top of this entry. But it’s a fine picture, isn’t it, little red birds buzzing around at the end of their tenuous tethers like flies in a bored high school classroom. Maybe it’s true, maybe it isn’t; but it’s worth pondering.



Captain Cook’s Birds of Canada

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.



A Twitch and an Owl

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.


Hoover’s Warbler

The Yellow-rumped Warbler deluge shows no sign of receding, and Jericho Park is pretty much crawling with chipping, singing, flycatching Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers again today.

It’s important–well, I think it’s important–to remember that both Audubon’s and Myrtle are polytypic; thus, it’s incorrect to speak of “the Audubon’s subspecies” or “the Myrtle subspecies” of Yellow-rumped Warbler, unless, of course, you’re using the word in the plural. The Myrtle Warblers we see here in Vancouver, the breeding race of northern British Columbia, are Dendroica coronata hooveri, differing in measurements and in some plumage characters from their eastern, nominate-race cousins.

This subspecies was described in 1899 by Richard C. McGregor, an adoptive Californian who would later become famous as the doyen of Philippine ornithology. He named his subsp. nov. after his college friend Theodore J. Hoover, collector of the type specimen and the older brother of Herbert.

In preparing his original description, McGregor also used specimens taken by Henry Ward Carriger, an early California oologist. I don’t know much about Carriger–fill me in if you do–but I was greatly impressed to read that as early as 1898, he had recognized the differences in the call notes of Audubon’s and Myrtle Warblers, a distinction that even today not all birders are aware of.

The Californians were out in front even then.