Tiny Cormorants, Tinier Kingfishers

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Am I the only one who wakes up on the plane at the end of a transoceanic flight completely, entirely, thoroughly, almost irretrievably discombobulated?

I stumbled out of the Venice airport this morning fully disoriented. Happily, the time it took me to walk the ever-widening circles required to find the car rental area was also the opportunity for the first of the day’s many score pygmy cormorants to fly over — and with that I was on my ornitho-feet again, reminded that I hadn’t landed just anywhere in Old Europe, but was on, indeed in, the Adriatic Sea.


I spent the day re-familiarizing myself with the area and the birds, and even got to witness two common kingfisher behaviors I never had before. I suspect that neither is rare, but it’s unusual that I get to linger over this bird, so often just an electric-blue flash and a nails-on-the-chalkboard squeak as it darts past on its way to one end or the other of its necessarily linear territory.

Today, though, I watched two different individuals hunting the “lagoon” at Lio Piccolo, a tiny insular peninsula or peninsular island with a single road so narrow that I could swear a time or two I was propelled merely by the rotation of the axles.


In any event, my slow progress was a chance to watch one kingfisher actually hovering over the water for a couple of seconds; it was less skilled than so many of the larger aquatic alcedinids are, but I was still impressed, especially since this was the first time I think I’d ever seen the species treading air at all.


Not long thereafter, I was more surprised to see a blue dot on a distant telephone wire: a common kingfisher, hunting from a perch far higher and far more exposed than I would ever have expected. Twice the little blue dart flicked its way down to the water, but twice it came up empty, no doubt to the amusement of the great cormorants hulking on the wires and poles around it.

A nice start to what is sure to be an exciting tour!


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Aut prodesse aut delectare?

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This coming year of 2017 marks the 250th anniversary of the start of one of the most ambitious publishing projects ever undertaken in eighteenth-century Italy, the Ornithologia methodice digesta of Salverio Manetti.

As in many contemporary works, the text of the lavishly illustrated volumes is bilingual, the inner of the two columns on each page in Italian, the outer in Latin, such that on each opening the vernacular is flanked by the eternal language of western scholarship.


The two texts are very nearly the same — but not quite identical. Manetti appears to have been aware that his two audiences, the vernacular and the erudite, brought different expectations to the text, an awareness made almost explicit in one of the few variant readings introduced by the translator.


In his introductory note, the author alerts Latin readers to his having provided in each volume but the last

a text that will teach the reader more and more about this field of knowledge.

The translation adds something: all of the volumes but the index contain

an instructive and entertaining text,

“un instruttivo e dilettevol discorso.”

Manetti and his publishers were covering their commercial bases.



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A Rare Sparrow in Chicago

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Ninety-five years ago today, a promising young birder notice several “different” birds in a flock of White-throated Sparrows in Jackson Park on Chicago’s lakefront. Closer inspection revealed that at least two of the outlanders were Harris’s Sparrows, a species considered rare then, and still scarce today, anywhere in Illinois.

Harris's sparrow, Arizona

Harris’s sparrow, Arizona

A nice find indeed for the seventeen-year-old birder. But he is better known nowadays for his connection to the Kirtland’s warbler, the Wilson’s phalarope, and one of the most notoriously vicious crimes in American history.

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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.

Categories : Famous Birders
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Fresno Mountain High

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Eighty-five years ago today, on September 16, 1931, the Dillwoods observed for the last time a long-staying snowy egret in the forests along Deer Creek, at an elevation of 7,060 feet in Fresno County, California.

Invoking the “life zone” principle linking altitude and latitude, Roland Case Ross noted that this unusual occurrence was equivalent to the bird’s

wandering into Nova Scotia and British Columbia, which places the Snowy Egret in Canadian Life Zone faunas a thousand miles northward.

Ross doesn’t come out and say it, but he had his suspicions about the cause of the bird’s abrupt vanishing:

It is significant to note the disappearance of the bird on the day “deer hunting” began.

Eloquent quotation marks if ever there were.

Snowy Egret

A snowy egret at a more expected location and elevation.

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