On February 24, 1921, Chauncey J. Hawkins delivered a paper at the meeting of the Linnaean Society of New York. His title and his topic: “Philosophical Ornithology.”
Reverend Hawkins suggested that the goal of the scientific study of birds should be explaining their relationship to the rest of the universe — an early statement of the project later to be known as “ecology.”
The Linnaeans weren’t overly enthusiastic.
In the discussion that followed, it was the opinion of the members that Mr. Hawkins’s paper was one of destructive, rather than constructive, criticism.
We’re a much nicer crowd nowadays.
I couldn’t have been more delighted to be asked to the Great Plains Snow Goose Festival this past weekend, in Lamar, Colorado.
I’ll confess that I had to open the atlas, too, but when I found out that Lamar was in southeastern Colorado, I was even more excited. I haven’t spent a huge amount of time anywhere in the state, with the high dry plains of the southeast by far the terra most incognita to me — at least until this weekend.
Ted, Hannah, and Andrew were waiting for me at the baggage claim when I got to Denver, and in just a few minutes we were on the highway headed south on a startlingly warm and dramatically windy afternoon.
I slept well and long in the “Fort Room” at Country Acres, probably to the crowing rooster’s frustration, then stepped outside to see the sun rise. An American kestrel was hunting behind the motel, while the parking lot out front was mastered by a different surveying falcon, one of several Richardson’s merlins that kept things exciting for birds and birders all weekend long.
The first field trip, a walk along the Willow Creek trail behind the community college, was well attended and a lot of fun; I was especially happy that Connie had come down for the day — we’ve been “e-friends” ever since she first wrote for me at Winging It, but had never managed to take to the field together.
The birds were every bit as good as the birders. Local Coloradans were happy to see northern cardinals, red-bellied woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows, eastern bluebirds, and eastern white-breasted nuthatches. The great looks and the birders’ enthusiasm made those birds more than special even for this easterner, but naturally I was drawn even more to the Oregon and pink-sided juncos, lesser goldfinches, and the Townsend’s solitaire perched low and close in the brush. A sharp-shinned hawk dropped in, too, no doubt enjoying the abundance of passerines as much as I was, if perhaps differently.
With a break of several hours until the next outing, a few of us simply stayed on Willow Creek, watching the season’s first mourning cloaks drift by while a Cooper’s hawk clucked and cackled from a branch above us, then took off into display flight with undertail fluffed and spread. The local great horned owls were invisible, but scattered pellets assured us that they were eating well. What was probably the same flock of pine siskins, with a few American and lesser goldfinches at the edges, buzzed us repeatedly.
The late afternoon walk was as much fun as the morning iteration, with many of the same birds putting on a show just as good. A different sharp-shinned hawk flashed over the trees in search of a meal, while two red-tailed hawks may have been more interested in scouting out a roosting site for the night to come.
The next morning started with a big breakfast at the Cow Palace before we all climbed into a minibus to look for raptors north and east of Lamar. I’m always a bit uneasy about raptor trips, but Pat had done as good a job of scouting as he did all morning of driving. We started off with a bang: the first of multiple ferruginous hawks, a northern shrike (with three for the weekend, nearly as common as loggerheads!), excellent close views of horned larks — the most abundant bird most people in North America have never seen.
Thurston Reservoir was paved with ducks, most of them redheads and gadwall; there were a few canvasbacks, wood ducks, and lesser scaup in the mix of fifteen species. The stunning cinnamon teal were probably the first arrivals of spring, and a bird I’d really been hoping to see.
A few scattered sandhill cranes had been standing on the pastures on the way in, but now, as it came time for their mid-morning loaf, small gangs began to fly in to the lakeshore. We checked every one for a black neck as they landed, legs a-dangle and wings a-tilt in the breeze.
But this was a raptor tour, and even at the reservoir the birds refused to let us forget it. There is apparently a harrier roost there: no fewer than nine birds came up out of the cattails to soar and glide together as the morning warmed. Our best views of ferruginous hawk — and we had many good views — were offered by a bird that blew in and circled right above our heads, certainly the highlight of the field trip and one of the most vivid memories I carried away from the entire weekend.
As we approached the Kansas border, raptors thinned out, though it was this segment of the trip that gave us, surprisingly, the only prairie falcon of the day. We ended at a sad and somber site, “Camp” Amache, where Americans imprisoned Americans in the 1940s.
After lunch it was time for a workshop I called “Bird-Shaped,” concentrating on how to make verbally explicit the impressions we form of the birds we see. After half an hour of slides and conversation, we retired to the parking lot, where mourning doves, Eurasian collared doves, and rock pigeons showed off their tail shapes, wing shapes, and flight habits. Thank goodness for the columbids!
After a fine banquet meal, it was time for a lecture. We talked about fishing in the sky, lives being saved by an island sparrow, and how you can get your own name attached to a goose you’ve already named for somebody else — the usual stuff. There was laughter at the right points.
And then, already, it was Sunday. The early morning was cooler than the days before, but as we moved north on our final birding ramble, the blue skies and warming temperatures made it easy once again to forget that it was February.
John Martin Reservoir was the location of my favorite mammal sighting of the weekend, a pocket gopher (sp.) working the sandy soil.
The water level was high and the dam road inaccessible, but we kept checking the gulls overhead. Finally a huge, barrel-chested white one appeared, soaring over dry prairie that I hope reminded this glaucous gull of its natal tundra. The birds that saw us off when it was time to move on were more at home in the habitat, I think: two greater roadrunners, my absolute “target birds” for the trip, ran and picked and poked and trotted along as we watched.
We kept moving, stopping at lakes and fields and puddles and pastures, listening to the moaning chorus of redheads and the frantic chucking of red-winged blackbirds on noticing a perched merlin. And then the lights of Denver and the airport, after a weekend when I finally got to know a new favorite place.
Greater white-front goose
great blue heron
lesser black-backed gull
great horned owl
eastern white-breasted nuthatch
American tree sparrow
pocket gopher sp.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.