Archive for Famous Birders

Jan
03

The 2018 ABA Bird of the Year Stinks

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Merrem Iiwi

The stunningly scarlet and black iiwi was the first endemic Hawaiian landbird known to European science: it was the first to be drawn by a European — in 1778, by John Webber aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution — and the first to be formally described — two years later, by Georg Forster.

Forster, who had accompanied his father on Cook’s second voyage, was professor of natural history at Kassel when the German sailor Barthold Lohmann brought him the type specimen — now lost — of what Forster named the “carmine treecreeper.” A testimony to the considerable excitement with which discoveries from the South Seas were welcomed, Forster’s description appeared in print a scant three months after Cook’s ships arrived, without the late Cook himself, in London.

Screenshot 2017-12-26 12.22.37

Most of the bird skins from the voyage remained in Britain, but as early as December 1780, Forster had seen no fewer than three specimens of his Certhia coccinea, well justifying his claim that the bird was “decidedly common” in its native range. Indeed, the expedition’s surgeon, William Anderson, recorded “great numbers of skins” of this species offered up for sale by the Hawaiian natives,

often tied up in bunches of 20 or more, or [with] a small wooden skewer run through their nostrils.

Forster’s type was apparently one of those that had been tied rather than skewered, as he describes in detail the characteristic operculum covering the nostrils.

The Hawaiians, it turns out, had not collected all those iiwis just to please their European guests.

Blumenbach Iiwi

In Forster’s words, the natives of Hawaii

make ornaments and various articles of clothing using the feathers of this bird, which must be extraordinarily abundant there given that such items are not at all rare. Mostly, capes are thoroughly covered with feathers, but the young women also wear necklaces, as thick as a thumb, made entirely of such feathers. For ceremonial dances, they weave as many of seven of these bands around their heads…. Barthold Lohmann … has donated one of these necklaces to the royal museum here [in Kassel].

But what exactly were, in the systematic sense, these birds that gave their brightly colored feathers and their lives to the lush beauty of Hawaiian featherwork? Forster in his original description

had no hesitation in assigning this new species [Gattung] of bird to a place among the treecreepers….

He considered and rejected the possibility of affiliating his new bird to a more exotic group:

Only its bill shape suggests any connection to the birds of paradise, in that it is bent like a scimitar, but shows not a sharp culmen, as in the other treecreepers, but a convex culmen. Incidentally, in the collections of the Landgrave of Hessen’s natural history museum, I have had the opportunity to discover that there are both curve-billed and straight-billed species [Gattungen] in the family [Geschlecht] of birds of paradise…. Already on my trip around the world I noted similar variation among other species [Gattungen], without feeling myself justified in increasing the number of families [Geschlechter]. A treecreeper from Tongatapu has fleshy wattles or beards… and two further species from New Zealand… are distinctive for their stronger, longer feet, just like the one [namely, the iiwi] lying before me.

Screenshot 2017-12-26 11.50.45
John Latham was of the same opinion, retaining the species in the genus Certhia in his 1790 account; inexplicably, Latham took it upon himself to replace Forster’s perfectly good epithet coccinea with vestiaria (“of clothing”), an invalid alteration that would nevertheless give rise to a widely used genus name for the iiwi. Even as late as 1820, Louis-Pierre Vieillot agreed that the “eee-eve” (another example of the great French ornithologist’s struggles with written English) was simply the representative of “a different tribe” of treecreepers found in the South Pacific.

There were competing taxonomic assessments, though. Blasius Merrem reported finding a specimen in the museum at Göttingen (kept there with a fine example of featherwork) labeled with the name “Red Humming-Bird.” Merrem moved the erstwhile treecreeper into the genus Mellisuga, erected in 1760 by Mathurin Brisson for the vervain hummingbird; in 1783, Joseph Märter shifted it into another Brissonian hummingbird genus, Polytmus. 

Screenshot 2017-12-26 16.19.09

The most influential early recognition that the iiwi was not a close Certhia relative (and indeed not a hummingbird, either) came in 1820, when Coenraad Jacob Temminck described the genus Drepanis on the basis of the now extinct Hawaii mamo; his new genus also included the iiwi.

Screenshot 2017-12-26 16.31.29

Today, following a suggestion first offered by R.C.L. Perkins in 1893, the iiwi and its finch-like Hawaiian relatives are recognized as a close assemblage within the “winter finch” subfamily Carduelinae. Support for grouping them together is provided by a range of shared features, including similarities in plumage, musculature, tongue structure, nostril structure, and vocalizations.

And smell. Odor. Scent. Aroma. Fragrance. Stench.

Shaw and NOdder Iiwi 1791

Perkins was the first western scientist

to notice the scent emitted by so many and so different species of Hawaiian birds. I cannot liken this scent to any other that I know; but I should certainly call it disagreeable.

It was in fact “the peculiar odour” like that of mildewed canvas that first led Perkins to conclude that the thin-billed and the thick-billed Hawaiian honeycreepers belonged to one and the same family. The smell, apparently produced by the uropygial gland, is said to be so strong that it contaminates the feathers of birds placed in the same museum drawer with honeycreepers, and traces of the odor can be transferred from specimen to specimen by the hands of researchers.

Screenshot 2017-12-26 17.52.31

Which raises a question, I think. Heinrich Zimmermann, Cook’s coxswain on the third voyage, noted that one only rarely saw the red feathered cloaks and capes worn, which led him to believe that their use must be largely restricted to religious ritual. I wonder, though, if perhaps, for all their visual splendor, they weren’t just too smelly.

The iiwi is the 2018 Bird of the Year of the American Birding Association

 

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Sep
16

Into the Hills

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Sylvan Lake

We arose this morning to temperatures a full 55 degrees lower than those we’d basked in in Denver. And fog. And mist, and a little rain, too.

All that changed, suddenly, miraculously, within moments of our arriving at our first stop for the day, Sylvan Lake, more than 6000 feet up in the Black Hills. First the clouds lightened, then lifted, and soon enough the sky was actually blue — a rare enough sight at this location, and one that we enjoyed to its fullest.

Sylvan Lake

We saw several good birds up there, including an adult broad-winged hawk, two squabbling sharp-shinned hawks, a Clark’s nutcracker, and a gray jay. As usual, though, it wasn’t the rarities and scarcities that truly made the morning, but rather one of the commonest birds of the area, and perhaps its most charming: the white-winged junco.

white-winged junco

I love seeing this species (!) at this locality because it calls to mind the story of Elliott Coues, Principal Danby of Custer High, and their new junco from Sylvan Lake.

Coues had been stationed at Fort Randall in the early 1870s, but he paid his first visit to the Black Hills in 1895. On September 16 of that year he wrote from “picturesque and romantic” Sylvan Lake, where he had installed himself for a month of “much-needed respite from work and worry.” Coues may have escaped worry, but his work was with him always, especially in a place as birdy as Sylvan Lake.

Two birds in particular caught Coues’s attention: the pinyon jay, “one of the commonest birds,” and the breeding junco, which the visiting ornithologist tentatively described as a new taxon to be named Danby’s junco, Junco hyemalis danbyi. The proposed subspecific epithet was chosen in honor of Durward E. Danby, principal of the high school in Custer, the faculty and students of which Coues happens to have addressed earlier in the day on that September 16.

Coues noted that the differences between the nominate slate-colored junco and the Black Hills bird were obvious even “at gunshot range”:

The impression is that of a large gray rather than blackish bird, with the dark color ofthe breast fading gradually into the white of the belly [and] the gray of the back overcast with a brownish wash; and some of them show an approach to the characters of aikeni [the white-winged junco] in having an imperfect wingbar formed by the white tips of the … secondary coverts.

Two years later, in the pages of the Auk, Coues recanted. The Danby’s junco, he affirmed, was “simply the young of” the white-winged. Even so, Coues found a silver lining in his having described the Sylvan Lake birds as new even provisionally:

The naming of the supposed new form will prove to have been not entirely in vain if it serves to emphasize the fact that [the white-winged junco] is so thoroughly distinct from [the slate-colored] that it can be recognized at any age,

even in individuals that lack the eponymous wing bars.

The bird could not be mistaken for hyemalis at any age; the ‘aspect’ in life, even at gunshot range, is distinctive; for one receives the impression of a large gray bird.

We confirmed that impression over and over this morning as we watched our white-wingeds, the descendants or at least near relatives of the very birds described from Sylvan Lake exactly 122 years ago today.

Sylvan Lake

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Feb
14

Lovebirds to the Very End

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It’s Valentine’s Day, and those little Agapornis parrots are showing up on cards and computer screens around the world.

rosy-faced Lovebird

But lovebirds aren’t the only lovebirds.

Buffon writes of The Amorous Titmouse that

we owe our knowledge of this species to the Abbot Gallois, who brought it back from the Far East and showed it to Mr. Commerson in 1769…. The epithet “amorous” given to this species indicates quite well the dominant quality of its temperament: In fact, the male and female caress each other endlessly; at least when caged, that is their sole occupation.

They give themselves over to love, we are told, to the point of exhaustion, and in this way they not only mitigate the annoyances of captivity with pleasure but curtail them; for it is obvious that such a practice means that they cannot live for very long, in accordance with the general principle that the intensity of existence diminishes its duration.

If that is their goal — if in fact they are striving only to end their captivity quickly — one must confess that in their despair they choose a very sweet way to do it.

Mr. Commerson does not tell us whether these birds perform with equal ardor the other functions required to perpetuate their species, such as the building of a nest, incubation, and parental care.

We know nothing more of this species, alas, than its affectionate habits, and it may well be extinct. But, as they say, what a way to go.

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Sep
20

Quelili

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In July 1896, the wealthy California collector A.W. Anthony and his party set out from San Diego for a tour of the west Mexican islands.

AW Anthony

One of Anthony’s companions, Horace Amidon Gaylord, D.D.S., reported that their schooner “anchored at the Mecca of the expedition, Guadalupe Island,” on September 17. Anthony immediately proceeded to the very top of the island and set up camp, hoping to descry one of the three or four Guadalupe caracaras that the local goat hunters assured him still survived.

Don Eckelberry

Don Eckelberry

He had no luck. But on September 20, a group of hunters hailed Gaylord to tell him that a “Quelili,” apparently an echoic name for the bird, had landed in a cypress near their cabin.

A shot while the bird was still in the tree, and another, as, wounded, it circled within range, secured the only Guadalupe caracara of the expedition.

The Gaylord caracara, now in the Carnegie Museum, was not the last to be collected. The estimate of only three or four survivors in 1896 was, it turns out, low.

In 1898, a hunter by the name of Harry Drent returned from Guadalupe Island with a load of goat meat — and four living Guadalupe caracaras. Drent captured the birds by shooting and winging the first, then using it as a decoy to lure in three others, which he lassoed with a short rope. He later told a San Diego paper that

I have been offered $100 for the four, but I will not sell them. I have written the Smithsonian Institute, and am confident that I shall secure a high figure.

While awaiting his windfall from Washington, Drent exhibited the birds in the back room of “a saloon on Fifth Street near G” in San Diego, where they “attracted lots of attention” but were eventually evicted by the saloon owner “on account of their dirty habits.”

After taking his birds to California, Drent claimed that only three caracaras remained on Guadalupe. In fact, the species persisted, as the famed Rollo H. Beck discovered in 1900. Thirty years later, he wrote that

Although I had no idea of it at the time it seems probably to me that I secured the last of the Guadalupe caracaras on Guadalupe Island on the afternoon of December 1, 1900. Of 11 birds that flew toward me 9 were secured. The other two were shot at but got away. The 11 birds were all that were seen….

And all that would ever be seen again.

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May
20

“Never Assume the Obvious”

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Bonaparte's Gulls

real Bonaparte’s gull

One hundred years ago today, Ludlow Griscom was out shooting birds for his graduate alma mater, Cornell University. As Roger Tory Peterson told the story,

Firing into a flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls, he shot a bird which he skinned and labeled as an immature Bonaparte’s. Then taking aim at one of the passing Common Terns, he dropped it into the water, retrieved it, and subsequently labeled it an adult Common Tern.

You can guess what followed when

both specimens were re-examined. The supposed Bonaparte’s was actually a Little Gull, the first record for upstate New York; the tern was an Arctic Tern…. May 20, 1916, had been a red-letter day, but Ludlow did not appreciate it at the time.

“Never assume the obvious,” the resolutely unchastened Griscom told his disciples. But Peterson, telling this tale long after Griscom’s death, did just that. It would seem to be obvious that Griscom made up his own skins. Not this time, though.

Look what I found:

Screenshot 2015-08-20 14.20.44

I guess we know what America’s greatest bird painter was doing, too, one hundred years ago today.

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