Into the Hills

Sylvan Lake

We arose this morning to temperatures a full 55 degrees lower than those we’d basked in in Denver. And fog. And mist, and a little rain, too.

All that changed, suddenly, miraculously, within moments of our arriving at our first stop for the day, Sylvan Lake, more than 6000 feet up in the Black Hills. First the clouds lightened, then lifted, and soon enough the sky was actually blue — a rare enough sight at this location, and one that we enjoyed to its fullest.

Sylvan Lake

We saw several good birds up there, including an adult broad-winged hawk, two squabbling sharp-shinned hawks, a Clark’s nutcracker, and a gray jay. As usual, though, it wasn’t the rarities and scarcities that truly made the morning, but rather one of the commonest birds of the area, and perhaps its most charming: the white-winged junco.

white-winged junco

I love seeing this species (!) at this locality because it calls to mind the story of Elliott Coues, Principal Danby of Custer High, and their new junco from Sylvan Lake.

Coues had been stationed at Fort Randall in the early 1870s, but he paid his first visit to the Black Hills in 1895. On September 16 of that year he wrote from “picturesque and romantic” Sylvan Lake, where he had installed himself for a month of “much-needed respite from work and worry.” Coues may have escaped worry, but his work was with him always, especially in a place as birdy as Sylvan Lake.

Two birds in particular caught Coues’s attention: the pinyon jay, “one of the commonest birds,” and the breeding junco, which the visiting ornithologist tentatively described as a new taxon to be named Danby’s junco, Junco hyemalis danbyi. The proposed subspecific epithet was chosen in honor of Durward E. Danby, principal of the high school in Custer, the faculty and students of which Coues happens to have addressed earlier in the day on that September 16.

Coues noted that the differences between the nominate slate-colored junco and the Black Hills bird were obvious even “at gunshot range”:

The impression is that of a large gray rather than blackish bird, with the dark color ofthe breast fading gradually into the white of the belly [and] the gray of the back overcast with a brownish wash; and some of them show an approach to the characters of aikeni [the white-winged junco] in having an imperfect wingbar formed by the white tips of the … secondary coverts.

Two years later, in the pages of the Auk, Coues recanted. The Danby’s junco, he affirmed, was “simply the young of” the white-winged. Even so, Coues found a silver lining in his having described the Sylvan Lake birds as new even provisionally:

The naming of the supposed new form will prove to have been not entirely in vain if it serves to emphasize the fact that [the white-winged junco] is so thoroughly distinct from [the slate-colored] that it can be recognized at any age,

even in individuals that lack the eponymous wing bars.

The bird could not be mistaken for hyemalis at any age; the ‘aspect’ in life, even at gunshot range, is distinctive; for one receives the impression of a large gray bird.

We confirmed that impression over and over this morning as we watched our white-wingeds, the descendants or at least near relatives of the very birds described from Sylvan Lake exactly 122 years ago today.

Sylvan Lake


Mme Knip and Her Bird Book

Nicobar Pigeon by Pauline Knip
Nicobar Pigeon by Pauline Knip

Not every cause remains célèbre, but birders still recall, more than two centuries on, the noisy falling out between Coenraad Jacob Temminck and Pauline Knip, erstwhile collaborators on one of the loveliest of the illustrated bird books of the early nineteenth century.

Antoinette-Pauline-Jacqueline Rifer de Courcelles was born in Paris in July 1781; her marriage to the landscape painter Joseph Knip (he alone rates a Wikipedia article, by the way) ended in divorce, but she kept his name until her death in April 1851. A student of Pierre-Paul Barraband, Mme Knip specialized, like so many of her gifted female contemporaries, in scientific illustration, but, as a later biographer observed,

One has nevertheless encountered true artists in that inferior genre, to which they gave unexpected worth thanks to the genuineness of their exceptional talents. Mme de Courcelles, for example, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, while drawing and painting only birds, still managed to deserve a distinguished place among the artists of her day…. Even if one had no interest whatsoever in ornithology, no one could regret the time spent leafing through her splendid volumes.

In 1805, the artist provided the plates for Desmarest’s Histoire naturelle des tangaras, des manakins et des todiers, and three years later, she and Temminck began the publication of their Pigeons.

These pigeons, from our turtle doves and wood pigeons to the singular species of the tropics, they coo, they puff with pride; their wings life, their delicate and changeable colors shimmer in the sun; ingenious touches make the air and the light play among their silky plumes; their round eyes, even in the brute immovability, have the brightness and transparency of life…. Nothing better has ever been done in this genre.

It is not for her artistic skill that she is remembered, however. Elliott Coues tells the storyLes pigeons 

is one of the curiosities of literature…. The work was originally published in 15 livraisons, 1808-1811. At the ninth livraison, Madame Knip accomplished a piece of truly feminine finesse, by which she stole it from Temminck.

Knip intervened with the printer to change the cover of that ninth fascicle to make it seem that she was alone the author; apparently, to conceal her treachery, some copies were produced and sent to Temminck with his name on the title page. When the fifteenth was issued, though, she informed the binders that they were to omit all mention of Temminck, including the introduction and index he had written, “a bold trick, regardless of consequences,” says Coues.

What may have gone on under the surface would doubtless be even more curious….

Temminck himself identifies Knip’s motive:

The work she had thus mutilated was presented to her imperial highness Marie Louise, with the effect of gaining for Mme Knip the gratifying results her ambition had long coveted.

Only when he visited Paris from Leiden did Temminck find out what had happened. It was too late:

Every effort made to appeal against her arbitrary actions was useless, and it was not possible to raise my voice then against intrigues supported by such powerful protectors [namely, Napoleon and his second empress]; editors refused to publish my side in their papers, even in reply to an article published by [Mme Knip as] the new author.

I haven’t seen that article of Knip’s. Coues could not find it, either, and it is unmentioned in the most recent scholarship on l’affaire Knip and Temminck; it likely tells the story from a very different angle, one no doubt more sympathetic to the painter than the past two centuries of history and “delightful … gossip” have been.