Franklin’s Pipixcan

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It seems that the Terror has been found in the icy waters off King William Island, and poor John Franklin is in the news yet again.

This time, the discovery coincides with the peak southward movement of one of the birds named for Franklin, the graceful, squeaky-voiced gull still widely known in my youth as the prairie pigeon.


John Richardson named the species for Franklin in February 1832. In his detailed description, he directs the reader to the account of the same bird in Joseph Sabine’s “Zoological Appendix,” published two years earlier, in which Sabine unfortunately treated the bird Franklin had sent home to England as identical to Alexander Wilson’s (and Linnaeus’s) laughing gull — with the notable exception that Wilson’s “figure represents the primaries as entirely black.”

Richardson, of course, was right to distinguish the two, but he was wrong, alas, to believe that he was the first to describe the species as new. Less than a year earlier, in May 1831, Johann Georg Wagler had unpacked a box of specimens sent from Mexico by the Bavarian collector Keerl, and in it recognized a gull first described in the late sixteenth century by Francisco Hernandez de Toledo, who wrote from Mexico that

 this bird of the genus of gulls or diving birds is not at all unlike the gray species depicted by a recent author, in both size and color; but it has both crown and bill black, the latter rather curved and reddish at the very tip. The legs are black tending to deep red, the tail gray above, and the outer portions of the wing are in part white and in part black, with small bright white spots at intervals. It dwells around lakes and rivers, and eats small fish and insects. It is not a resident bird here and does not raise its young in Mexican waters. It is edible, but not well suited as food. It is aquatic and noisy, and gnaws on bones and eats whatever it encounters.

Wagler’s unflattering scientific epithet for the bird comes from Hernandez, who recorded that the Aztecs called it “pipixcan,” or “the thieving bird.”

It took close to a hundred years for Wagler’s priority to be recognized by English-speaking ornithology, and by the time pipixcan was officially restored as the gull’s scientific name, the vernacular name commemorating Franklin had been long and firmly established.

For observers lucky enough to be watching the great flocks move south these coming weeks, the name Franklin’s gull is a reminder of an explorer whose final fate is still imperfectly known — but whose spirit floats over every autumn on its way from one hemisphere to the next.

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A Berlin Birder

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Gottfried Schiermann

Gottfried Schiermann, a pioneer in the study of bird populations, died 70 years ago today in the ruins of Berlin.

His much younger friend Ernst Mayr would later describe him not only as “a superb field ornithologist”but as “among the highest of all human beings I have ever been fortunate enough to meet.” In the photograph above, Schiermann is admiring the nest of a Savi’s warbler, which he and Mayr discovered in the Kremmener Luch.

common crane

I did not know Schiermann, and I do not know anyone who knew Schiermann. But in a couple of weeks we’ll be watching common cranes at the Luch, and thinking of those whose early work in field and museum preserved that and the other precious wild spaces that make our birding possible.


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Not So Happily, Not So Ever After

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Screenshot 2016-08-31 12.53.56

Shufeldt and Audubon’s granddaughter were married on September 4, 1895.

We all know how that one ended up.

Florence Audubon, long after the divorce from Robert Shufeldt

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A Famous Name

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A 22-year-old Rollo Beck works on outfitting himself.

Rollo H. Beck exchange

I don’t know how successful this Nidiologist ad was, but it is a rare glimpse into the beginnings of one of the most remarkable careers in North American collecting history.

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Mountain Thunder

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Coronado National Memorial

They say that the name “Huachuca” means “thunder mountain,” and this most beautiful of the border ranges lives up to its name and then some this time of year.

The monsoon rains come almost every afternoon, brief and powerful, flooding the washes and pushing soil and rocks onto roads.

The storms announce themselves from a distance with some of the most awesome thunder I’ve ever heard.

desert in Monsoon

It begins as a rolling rumble from afar, then cracks and snaps before descending into the canyons, where it echoes from the high steep cliffs, bouncing back and forth between the walls until the thunder doesn’t so much sound as feel, less a sonic phenomenon than a solid mass that tumbles down the canyon to submerse anyone fortunate enough to be abroad in it.

Coronado National Memorial

It’s exhilarating and frightening all at once.

As the sublime should be.

Coronado National Memorial

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