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Upcoming Events and Tours

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Birders birding La Crau sheep barn

Read more about my tour program at the website of Victor Emanuel Nature Tours.

March 31, 2015: “The Originals,” a lecture for New York City Audubon Society.

April 8: Spring bird walk at Brookdale Park.

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.

March 19-26, 2016: 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.


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Eimbeck, Mergus anaterius

This handsome lithograph — an illustration for some reason not listed in McCarthy — is the earliest depiction of a now well-known hybrid combination, that between the common goldeneye and the smew.

The bird was shot in the spring of 1825 on the Oker River near Braunschweig,

on a stretch where various duck and merganser species are regularly found every year in migration (open water is maintained here even in freezing temperatures by the rapid current). Fortunately, it came into the hands of a collector, who mounted it for his otherwise run-of-the-mill collection of common German birds.

When that collector died, apparently in the summer of 1828, A.F.E. Eimbeck, Inspector of the Ducal Museum in Braunschweig, obtained the “fairly well preserved specimen” and added it to the collections he oversaw. The following year, Eimbeck prepared a description of this “hitherto unknown, very striking German waterbird,” in the hope that

as a result of wider knowledge of this rarity, it might be determined in the future whether there exists anywhere another specimen resembling this one, and it would thus be determined whether this should be accepted as a new species or considered a hybrid.

Eimbeck reports that several of the ornithologists to whom he had shown the Braunschweig bird believed it to be a hybrid, but those expert opinions did not keep him from giving the creature a name: Mergus anatarius, the Entensäger, the “duck-merganser.”

Christian Ludwig Brehm agreed with Eimbeck that this curiosum was the representative of a newly discovered taxon — but he decided that it was not so much a duck-like merganser as a merganser-like duck, and so he named it the narrow-billed goldeneye, Clangula angustirostris.

Brehm appears to have been alone in his opinion. In 1840, H.R. Schinz (of dunlin fame), while dutifully reproducing Eimbeck’s species name, nevertheless appears to be among those who believe that the specimen represents a hybrid — but that it is no less noteworthy for it: this is, he says,

the only example other than the rackelhahn of two species of different genera living in the wild having bred together; extremely remarkable.

Naumann, 1844, Mergus anatarius

Naumann, too, four years later rather left the question open, but

the remarkable intermediate appearance, which would place this bird precisely halfway in between two known species, irresistibly suggests to the practiced observer at the first glance that this is a mixture or hybrid between the common goldeneye and the smew.

All the same, the title cut to Naumann’s waterfowl volume remains cautious: this is a “suspected hybrid.”

Not until 1887, though, would the assertion be made without qualification. In the Vogelwelt for December of that year, Rudolf Blasius, son of Eimbeck’s successor at the Braunschweig museum, published an illustrated study of Eimbeck’s Mergus anatarius.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 13.28.59

Blasius’s subtitle says it all: the Braunschweig duck is a hybrid between the smew and the common goldeneye. While the other natural historians cited above could rely only on the specimen in that city’s museum, Blasius knew of three others: a Danish bird killed in February 1843 and named as a new species, Anas mergoides;

Screenshot 2015-03-11 14.35.18

a third taken on Poel in the German Baltic in February 1865;

Screenshot 2015-03-11 14.51.29

and finally one collected in Sweden in November 1881.

Screenshot 2015-03-11 14.42.00

Blasius was able to handle three of those birds, and to work from a very careful description of the Swedish individual. Compiling a series of measurements of these four ducks and of smews and common goldeneyes, he was able to show that the hybrid individuals were exactly intermediate between the presumed parental species; he also presented detailed parallel plumage descriptions.

The precise comparison of the plumages of the adult male goldeneye and the adult male smew with those of the hybrids described … clearly leads to the conviction that we are truly dealing with hybrid forms and not with distinct bird species…. One can hardly doubt any longer that these are actually hybrids.

He goes on to urge zookeepers to help prove his point by intentionally breeding smews to goldeneye:

It would be a lovely experiment to produce these hybrids artificially.

As we now know, though, the birds do just fine out there on their own.




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White Nun

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Did John James Audubon shoot a female smew on Louisiana’s Lake Barataria in the winter of 1819? He says so:

It was an adult female in fine plumage…. I have taken the liberty to add one of the other sex from an equally fine specimen.

Of course, nobody believes it.

Audubon’s oedipal anxieties about the Father of American ornithology came out clearly in his prose introduction to the species, nearly half of which he devotes to his “strong misgivings” about the records reported by Wilson, who “was in all probability misinformed.” Rarely content just to let his great predecessor simply be wrong, Audubon goes on to accuse Wilson of having deceived his readers:

it is my opinion that his figure was made from a stuffed European specimen which was then in Peale’s Museum in Philadelphia,

a proceeding clearly and tendentiously distinguished from Audubon’s own. “Having found it,” Audubon “made a drawing of [the Louisiana bird] on the spot.”

I didn’t believe it either. But somehow, the aura of the original watercolor, which Alison and I were fortunate enough to see yesterday, is powerful enough to make me wonder.

Even in Audubon’s lifetime, even his friends had reservations about the Louisiana smew. Thomas Nuttall does not even cite the account, mentioning only that “the indefatigable Audubon” had not encountered the species on his tour of Labrador — and neither had Vieillot, Richardson, or Nuttall himself; Wilson, he says, accounted the bird an American species “probably on mere report.” Nuttall concludes that

As a native of America this appears to be a very doubtful species.

A few years after Audubon’s death, Thomas Brewer decided to “retain the smew among the birds of North America,” though “with no small degree of hesitation.” That formulation contrasts somewhat with his apparently unequivocal acceptance of the New Orleans record:

But one specimen has ever actually been known to have been obtained here. This was by Mr. Audubon, in Louisiana….

Spencer Baird was more circumspect, but no less self-contradictory, a short while later. Though he says of Audubon’s plate that the “female [was] figured from Am. specimen, male from European,” he also weighs the possibility that

Mr. Audubon may have even been mistaken.

By 1884, Baird was speaking with open skepticism about “the claim of Audubon to have obtained a single specimen, and that a female, on Lake Barataria,” and he writes that the specimen in Audubon’s painting was “said to have been” taken in the United States. In that same year, Elliott Coues — who had once admitted that the smew “could very possibly occur” in the region — deleted the species entirely from the second edition of his Key.

Now that someone had come out and more or less said it, and particularly since that someone was Coues, the American smew drifted over the ornithological horizon for a while. Neither the first nor the second edition of the young AOU’s Check-list mentions the species. In 1897, though, the committee — Brewster, Allen, Coues, Merriam, and Ridgway — revived the bird for the American list, not, though, from Audubon’s “claim,” but on the basis of a specimen “from northern North America” in the collections of the British Museum.

That specimen, the sternum of an adult female, was purchased from the Hudson’s Bay Company, one or another representative of which had collected it on an unknown date at an unknown locality in North America. For the time being, that was good enough for the AOU, and good enough for Coues, who had “not hitherto admitted [the species] to the Key.”

It wasn’t good enough for Daniel Giraud Elliot, though, who waxed downright snide in 1899:

 It is, so to speak, rather stretching a point, to include this beautiful species among the North American Water Fowl, with only an example of a female in the British Museum, purchased from the Hudson Bay Company, to prove the propriety of such a course. But I have always observed that ornithological committees are most lenient when the admission of a handsome bird (which under the most favorable circumstance can be regard[ed] as the merest exception straggler from foreign lands) into their native avi-fauna is to be considered.

One could make much of Elliot’s observation on the “pattern” of claimed vagrant smews in America:

At all events one cannot fail to notice that, up to this time, the male has rigorously and successfully avoided our shores.


Elliot’s view soon enough prevailed. Both the fourth and the fifth editions of the Check-list relegated the smew to the “hypothetical” list:

Audubon’s sight record of this Old World species, and several other alleged occurrences in America, are unsatisfactory.

That’s pretty sloppy. We know that Audubon shot the bird in Louisiana, whatever it might have been; and it would have been helpful indeed to have a citation or two to those “other alleged occurrences.”

One of them was certainly the British Museum sternum, which may no longer exist or be clearly labeled. Another was probably the female (Elliot was right!) obtained by Tristram from Lord Walsingham, the famous entomologist. (Did that specimen enter the BM in 1896 with the rest of the Tristram birds?)

And another was the earliest American report of the species I know of.

In 1785, when Audubon was just a mewling infant, Thomas Pennant published his account of the “smew merganser.” That page in the Arctic Zoology is most noticeable for laying the ghost of the “red-headed duck,” which Pennant now recognized as the female of the smew. But more to our purposes, he writes that

this species was sent to Mrs. Blackburn from New York, I think as a winter bird.

Ashton Blackburne, the man to whom we owe the first mid-Atlantic specimens of so many birds — from the red-shouldered hawk to his sister’s warbler — may also have collected North America’s first smew. (And just because he shipped that now lost specimen from New York doesn’t mean it wasn’t taken in New Jersey.)

All this was moot by 1960, at which point the regular occurrence of smews in Alaska was recognized; meanwhile, there have been good records (males — take that, D.G. Elliot) from scattered sites across the continent, though not, if rightly I recall, from Louisiana.

And so, ultimately, it doesn’t matter that Alexander Wilson didn’t know his buffleheads any too well, or that Audubon may, just may, have told a lie (gasp of amazement).

But I’d like to think he was telling the truth, and that the pretty little “redhead” in his so fine watercolor really did fall to lead shot on a Louisiana lakeshore — whence she entered into immortality.
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Tucson Museum Workshop

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Museum Birding: From the Specimen Drawer to the Field

Thursday, August 13

10:30 am

Register here

How do we birders know the things we think we know? Where do “field marks” come from? And what on earth do all those dead birds on their backs have to do with our hobby as we practice it in the 21st century?

orioles West Mexican Birds, museum skins 093

Join me on August 13 for a two-hour workshop exploring the intimate connections between museum specimens and conservation, research, and even recreational birding. We will discover how collections are formed and maintained, and learn about the sometimes surprising results when old specimens are brought to bear on new problems.

whtie fronted front and lilac crowned back parrots West Mexican Birds, museum skins 025

After an introduction to the enduring value of natural history collections, we will discuss a number of the Southwest’s rarest and most challenging birds, illustrated with representative specimens from among the more than 18,000 held by the University of Arizona.

Along with stories of collecting adventure, daring, and even foolishness, we will all come away with new knowledge we can use in the field—and a new respect for the sources of that knowledge, sources lying quietly on their backs in wooden drawers.

West Mexican Birds, museum skins 087

You can find out more, and sign up to participate, on the website of the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival. See you there!

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Tucson Lecture

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Western Screech-Owl

Come have dinner with me and hear my keynote lecture on August 14. It’s all about owls, and I promise that there is NOT ONE SINGLE who/whoo pun in the whole thing.

You can find out more and register on the website of the Tucson Bird and Wildlife Festival. See you there!

Great Horned Owl silhouette

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