Mar
11

Nebraska with VENT

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Franklin's gull

We’re off to a fine start on this 2017 Victor Emanuel tour to Nebraska, with an afternoon of good birding and great company behind us.

The pretty little Franklin gull in the photo was a good find. The big flocks won’t be appearing for another three weeks or so, and I’d suspect that this bird was one of those that for whatever reason linger all season far north of the usual South American wintering grounds.

Lake Manawa produced a smattering of waterfowl, including half a dozen hooded mergansers and a nice gang of 35 or so canvasback among the couple of hundred lesser scaup. That we weren’t the only ones watching ducks this afternoon was made clear by the roost flight of bald eagles: at least 30 came out of the trees around the lake to seek safer perches on the Nebraska side of the river.

This tour is often very nice for mammals, and I hope we didn’t use up all our luck today. We started off with excellent looks at a black-morph eastern fox squirrel, one of the handsomest of the squirrels. Then at Lake Manawa we were serenaded in the late afternoon by a pack of coyotes, beautiful noise that never fails to send a shiver up the spine.

If there was a disappointment today, and I don’t think there really was, it was the woodcock show. The first started to buzz at 6:40 pm, but we had only fleeting views of three birds flying in early to display, and not a single good look at any of the birds up in the sky. It was getting chilly and the wind came up, so we kicked it in half an hour later. We’ll try again at the end of the tour — tomorrow it’s west to look for cranes, gray ones and white ones and maybe, fingers fervently crossed, one with a black and white neck….

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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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Feb
11

The Dog Ate My Homework?

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At the age of 26, Adrien-Louis-Jean-François Sumichrast had wearied of studying the fauna of his native Europe, and in the autumn of 1854 set off with the young naturalist Henri de Saussure for a year’s exploration in the Caribbean and Mexico. After just four months in Mexico, Saussure wrote that he had “had [his] fill, ten times [his fill]…. Mexico is a horrible country.” He and two others of the party took the first opportunity to return to Europe, but

for all the “horrors” of Mexico, Sumichrast was so taken by the country that he chose to stay, giving the rest of his life to the scientific exploration of Mexico. He discovered vast numbers of species of mammals, birds, insects, and his favourite creatures, reptiles. (J. Joseph. 2012. Saussure. Oxford UP)

Sumichrast supported himself for the next quarter century as a commercial collector, supplying specimens to museums throughout Europe and North America. Around 1870, the Smithsonian Institution commissioned Sumichrast to undertake “an extended exploration of the Pacific side of the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Southwestern Mexico,” and between 1872 and 1876, more than 1,700 bird skins, representing more than 300 species, arrived in Washington. George Lawrence, asked by Secretary Henry to work up the collections, registered his pleasure with Sumichrast’s work:

The specimens sent (which are of a remarkably fine character) bear testimony to Professor Sumichrast’s efficiency as an industrious and energetic collector, and the many valuable notes manifest his accuracy and intelligence as an observer.

But Lawrence was at the same time disappointed that so many of the skins had come to him unaccompanied by “biographies,” accounts of the species’ life history. Sumichrast responded to Lawrence’s query with one of the most cogent excuses in the history of ornithology:

I regret to be unable to tell you certainly which are the biographies and notes that I forwarded to the [Smithsonian] Institution. Almost all of my books and papers were carried off in 1871 during the pillage of my house in Juchitan,

in the course of Porfirio Díaz’s revolt against the regime of Benito Juárez.

I think we can all cut Sumichrast some slack.

 

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Feb
09

Passive Aggressive Much, Mr. Bonaparte?

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Screenshot 2017-02-07 10.00.25

It was a common enough fate in the early days of American ornithology: the same species of bird formally described and named more than once, swelling the synonymies and causing confusions great and small until the polynomy was resolved.

It happened to this fine-looking passerellid, the black-chested sparrow. Jean Cabanis published the name humeralis in 1851, taking it from a specimen label in the Berlin museum; thirty-five years later, Robert Ridgway innocently described the species as new, again, naming it for Fernando Ferrari Perez Aimophila ferrariperezi. The mix-up was minimal, not least because the bird was still so very little known, and it was cleared up just a few months later when Osbert Salvin and Frederick Ducane Godman established the two nominal species’ identity — notably, basing their conclusion on photographs rather than on examination of Ridgway’s type in skin.

All very collegial, all very straightforward, all very helpful.

And all very different from Charles Bonaparte’s comments, published just a couple of years after Cabanis announced the new species. Bonaparte wrote in 1853

I had dedicated a sparrow to Mr. Dubus [curator of the museum in Brussels], who had planned to illustrate it in his beautiful ornithological plates [Dubus’s Esquisses ornithologiques]…. I now find it published by Cabanis as [Aimophila] humeralis. Here is what I wrote about it several years ago on the basis of a fine specimen collected near Mexico City and now no. 3026 in Brussels….

Bonaparte goes on to copy out the Latin diagnosis he composed but failed to publish in time.

We all get scooped now and then, and it doesn’t feel very good. But really, Prince?

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Feb
02

The Very First Spring Overshoot

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It’s a familiar enough phenomenon to most birders in temperate North America. Every spring, birds more typical of southern climes appear north, sometimes far north, of their usual breeding range. As if the frenzied impulse of northward movement has simply become too much to control, warblers and rails and flycatchers just keep going, joining little flocks of residents or more expected migrants to startle and delight the human observer.

We call these birds “spring overshoots.”

It’s been happening forever, of course. But what I want to know is who first noticed it and who coined the term “spring overshoot.”

In 1892, Samuel N. Rhoads defined such events with great precision, as

the annual over-stepping of faunal limits by many species belonging to a more southerly district, and their subsequent disappearance toward the end of the spring migration,

but he doesn’t use our modern term, and neither does he explicitly claim to be the first to notice it.

Some student of migration out there knows the answer. Fill us in.

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