The First Lawrence’s Goldfinch in Europe

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Lawrence's Goldfinch CSP February 27 2007 068

We’re happily, gratefully spoiled. Need a note from an obscure regional journal published half a century ago? One e-mail, and the text is on my computer desktop within minutes. Wonder what the type specimen of a bird looked like? I can see it in three dimensions on the museum’s website. Want the original account of a species’ discovery? It’s right there in my e-bookmarks. All pretty miraculous.

Sometimes, though, I’m surprised at how quickly information and objects could move even a century and a half ago. The beautiful and relatively uncommon Lawrence’s goldfinch offers an example.

John Graham Bell, Audubon’s companion on the Missouri and Theodore Roosevelt’s mentor in the taxidermy shop, first encountered this pretty little finch in Sonoma, California. He deposited his specimens in Philadelphia, where John Cassin published a formal description of the species in 1852.

Cassin named the bird

in honor of Mr. George N. Lawrence, of the city of New York, a gentleman whose acquirements, especially in American Ornithology, entitle him to a high rank amongst naturalists, and for whom I have a particular respect, because, like myself, in the limited leisure allowed by the vexations and discouragements of commercial life, he is devoted to the more grateful pursuits of natural history.

(Lest there be any worry that Cassin had slighted Bell, in the same paper the Philadelphia ornithologist named the pretty California sage sparrow still — again — known as Bell’s.)

Not much more than a year later, in mid-December of 1853, Charles Bonaparte was able to introduce the bird to his colleagues in Paris, in a letter describing the specimens brought back from the New World by Pierre Adolphe Delattre:

Our collection dazzles especially in the finches…. One… now appears for the first time in Europe, the pretty Lawrence’s goldfinch, discovered by Mr. Cassin in Texas and collected by Mr. Delattre in California.

As usual, Bonaparte could not resist going on to re-describe the species, but this time at least he preserved Cassin’s scientific name.

Bonaparte’s misidentification of the discoverer — it was Bell, not Cassin — and of the type locality — it was California, not Texas — suggests to me that he had not yet actually read the description published the year before. Then as now, though, news traveled quickly along the ornithological grapevine.

Just not yet at the speed of light.


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Venice, City of Canals and Birds

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Our friend Marc Chelemer was kind enough to report on a recent visit to one of our favorite cities in the world, Venice. Everyone knows Venice for its exotic architecture and spectacular art treasures — but not everyone knows that the Lagoon is also one of the most important wintering areas for wild birds in all of Europe. VENT is heading back to Venice and the Po Delta in October for another in our series of Birds and Art tours. Meanwhile, here’s what Marc found on a quick visit this winter:

Whenever I’ve traveled, I’ve tried to find a way to go birding, even if birding isn’t the principal purpose of the trip. My recent visit to Venice was no exception.

Venice was first settled three thousand years ago by fishermen and salt collectors. In the Middle Ages, the Venetians created large circles of wooden piles around hummocks in the huge lagoon, then backfilled the spaces to create flat, stable, habitable islands. Over time, those islands grew in size until they were separated only by narrow, easily navigable canals. Venice now is a city of 117 islands, dozens of canals, and more than 430 bridges.

Passerines and doves in Venice’s parks and gardens in December were those typical of southern European cities: European Robin, Eurasian Blackbird, Great and Blue Tits, the occasional Chiffchaff, Wood Pigeon, and Eurasian Collared-Dove.

European Robin curious

I found a Firecrest in one city park. Surrounded by water, Venice is also home to thousands and thousands of Yellow-legged Gulls and Black-headed Gulls, hundreds of Great Cormorants, and the occasional Little Egret along the canals. One day, I spied a flock of Jackdaws.

Jackdaws, Manciano

Out on the lagoon, there were frequently Great Crested Grebes and Eared Grebes as well.

To get out of the urban areas, I used the internet to find the Rome-based Italian Ornithological Society. The secretary outfitted me with a list of Italian species and their seasonal abundance in the Venice area, and a map of birding hotspots. He also put me in touch with Alessandro Sartori, a professional ornithologist whose specialty is the birds of the lagoon, specifically the gulls that winter there.

Ale, as he signs his e-mails, met me early on January 4. The best birding, he said, is by boat, but the weather and the short notice prevented us from using his keeled craft, so a car would have to do. Our destination was a place called Rio Piccolo.

On the drive there, Ale said that the lagoon was one of the very best places in all of Italy to bird, both in the winter because of the shallow open water, and in the breeding season because of its extensive marshlands. Some of the good spots, he sadly noted, were privately owned (“the richest people in all of Italy”), and were mostly given over by those owners, for a handsome fee, to fishermen or hunters. Rio Piccolo, a ghost town at the edge of the marsh, was one of the exceptions.

common greenshank
Once we got to the spot, we started seeing wonderful birds: Common Shelduck, Eurasian Teal, Redshank, Greenshank, Common Sandpiper, and Gray Plover (our Black-bellied) were present, as were many Great and Little Egrets and Gray Herons. There were dozens of the westward-expanding Pygmy Cormorant and numerous Little Grebes. We also saw Reed Buntings and Meadow Pipits.

Overhead, two flocks of silvery Graylag Geese winged by, looking ghostly in the muted morning light. Along a narrow canal, two tiny European Kingfishers provided visual delight. The European entrant to the family Alcedinidae looks to me to be a cross between a kingfisher and a hummingbird, so fast are the wingbeats, so bright the iridescence.

At the farthest point of our adventure, we strolled along a narrow path amidst a noisy flock of Goldcrests and a Eurasian Wren, on the way to the best species of the day: sixteen Greater Flamingos, some in full adult pink plumage, others—immatures—white with black primaries, all casually feeding in a shallow enclosed pond.

Greater Flamingo

Ale said that these birds would be spending the entire winter in this location. For me, it was only the fourth time ever in 45 years of birding I had seen any flamingo, and only the second time ever for this European species.


Too bad I had not brought my camera; my terrible iPhone photos provided the only documentation.

On the way back, the weather improved a bit, so we stopped at a private reserve owned by one of the wealthy land barons Ale had talked about. This gentleman had been convinced by Ale to make his property into a bird sanctuary; he had created ponds, marshes, and other attractive bird habitat. A short drive through the habitats yielded Common Snipe, more Teal, Jays, a Marsh Harrier in the distance, a Sparrowhawk, Eurasian Kestrel, Chaffinches, Green and Great Spotted Woodpeckers, and more.

Eurasian Sparrowhawk

One final stop at another of the “Count’s” properties yielded Eurasian Moorhen (they were very common) and another fine species: a Cetti’s Warbler clinging to a reed, out in the open. This bird is the European equivalent in behavior of a Geothlypis warbler: skulking, loud, hardly ever seen. Ale was quite happy.  It was only my second Cetti’s ever.

Cetti's warbler

When I tallied the list later, we had seen fifty species during the morning. I had eight other species on other days. My lifers on the trip were the Italian Sparrow (the equivalent of the House Sparrow in some areas, now a separate species) and the Pygmy Cormorant. It was wonderful to mix European winter birding with the magic of Venice. I can’t wait to go back in the breeding season, to venture out again, with sandpipers, ducks, and reed warblers aplenty just waiting to be found.

Marc Chelemer has been birding since he was 10, having been invited into the hobby by his father, who showed him a picture of a Scarlet Tanager in a 1940s edition of Peterson’s field guide. That was all it took. Over the next 45 years, Marc has birded throughout the United States, occasionally in Europe, once in Australia, and extensively in Costa Rica.  His favorite North American bird is the Blackburnian Warbler, based on a cherished early birding experience.  After an upcoming trip to Ecuador in March, Marc hopes to cross the threshold of having seen or heard more than 20% of all the world’s species. He wishes “Good birding” to one and all.

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Why Aren’t We Seeing More Siskins?

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Pine Siskin

It’s been a slim winter for pine siskins here in northern New Jersey, and I know why.

It has nothing to do with the food crop up north, the snow cover down south, or the curious biological clock that seems to govern these streaky nomads’ seasonal movements.

It’s because they’re invisible.

Siskins keep a stone in their nest that makes the nest invisible; you can only see the reflection of the nest in a bucket of water placed beneath the nest tree. Whoever can get such a stone and carry it will also be invisible. Or you can use the egg of the siskin, which also makes you invisible. You’ll be also be invisible if you carry the whole nest in a sack.


Pine Siskin

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I’m not a scientist, and I certainly wouldn’t play one on TV, but as an outsider and a layman, it seems to me that some Ontario birders are rolling over and playing dead for no reason at all.

In November of last year, a suspect oriole was discovered in the eastern part of the province. In the first, rather poor photos I saw — there are now much better ones out there — the bird was gray-bellied and dull-throated, with a clear black eye line. A perfectly reasonable consensus was reached that the bird was a Bullock’s oriole, a nice find indeed but hardly earth-shattering at the season anywhere in the east.

The story continued to unfold in the usual way: the exuberant posts from exuberant birders tallying a lifer, the inevitable accusations of harassment and bad manners on the part of photographers and those armed with audio recordings, the gradual settling down as the bird gradually settled in. And the “rescue.”

The absurdity of “rescuing” vagrant birds in the wintertime is something I’m happy to rant about any time you’re ready, but in this case, holding the bird in captivity provided an opportunity to conduct a little genetic analysis. As it turns out, material gathered from the bird’s droppings included mitochondrial DNA identifiable as that of a Baltimore oriole.

Meaning, of course, that among this bird’s female forebears was a Baltimore oriole.

Now come the retractions, the recantings, the regrets. You can almost hear the check marks being erased from birders’ lists. But why?

There is probably no Bullock’s oriole on the planet that does not have a bit of the Baltimore coursing through its veins. We know this, and we’re happy to ignore it when we identify birds in the field — just as we gladly ignore the fact that the family tree of nearly every mallard on the east coast is studded with black ducks, and that there isn’t a “black” towhee on the great plains that is not the product of repeated miscegenation. It’s biochemically messy out there.

For the past century and a half, we’ve known that there is no such thing as a species. For the past century and a quarter, birding in North America has been intentionally cast as an exercise in identification of species. If we want to keep understanding birding in that way — and many of us do — we have to both acknowledge and insist on the difference between what we do and what the scientists do. Our tools are our eyes and our minds, not blenders and litmus paper.

If I were in Ontario and cared, I’d count it. And I wouldn’t let a little thing like DNA get in my way.

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National Hat Day, Of All Things

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There are plenty of birds out there with caps and hoods and helmets, but precious few wear a simple straightforward hat.

Brazil’s white-vented violetear is one. Today it is classified once again in the humdrum genus Colibri, but for a while in the nineteenth century, it enjoyed the pleasing and mellifluous genus name Petasophora, the “hat wearer.”

Hector Bottai, wikimedia commons

Honestly, though: If you’d had that bird lying on your desk, would the crown have been the plumage character you’d have chosen to commemorate in the name?

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