Sunday, January 30, 2011

Visual Respite from Winter

I will not complain about winter. Here in Vermont, we are used to it. I feel for the folks living in cities and suburbs along the coast, and those in the south and other places unaccustomed to snow. With lots of streets where do they put the snow? We've got room to plow it to the side and snowblow it across the lawn. We clear things up and go about our business.

That being said, after weeks of winter, I begin to crave color. Out my study window, sun sparkles off bright white snow. The bare branches and trunks of trees are brown and gray. The afternoon shadows are deep, but the sky is hazy and what blue can be seen is muted. The only color is on the dirty green mail box.

I need a visual respite from winter. Maybe you do too. I returned photographically to last year's late winter trip to Trinidad, enjoying the color of the birds, the green of the jungle, and something nearby in bloom.

I hope a few of these photos from time to time will provide a small visual respite from winter.

Bare-eyed Thrush
Purple Honeycreeper, female

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Birds of America

Wild Turkey, Vol 1, Plate 1

Having been frequently asked, for several years past, by numerous friends of science, both in America and Europe, to present to them and to the public a work on the Ornithology of our country, similar to my large work, but of such dimensions, and at such price, as would enable every student or lover of nature to place it in his Library, and look upon it during his leisure hours as a pleasing companion - I have undertaken the task with the hope that those good friends and the public will receive the “Birds of America,” in their present miniature form, with that favour and kindness they have already evinced toward one who never can cease to admire and to study with zeal and the most heartfelt reverence, the wonderful productions of an Almighty Creator.
–  "Introduction," Birds of America by J.J.Audubon, New York, Nov., 1839

If you tell someone that you are going to an Audubon meeting, or that you are a member of Audubon, they will probably conclude, correctly, that you are interested in birds.

Somewhere around the beginning of the twentieth century, many bird clubs began to reorganize themselves as Audubon societies. As bird clubs, the members (a majority were women) were primarily interested in watching birds. As Audubon societies, their interest expanded to protection and conservation issues as many birds were on a downward spiral from threats such as market hunters, sportsmen, and the “feather in the hat” millinery business.

They took the name of their societies from John James Audubon, c.1785-1851. Throughout the world, the name, Audubon, is associated inextricably with birds. Audubon was born in what is now Haiti, the acknowledged bastard of a well-to-do French merchant-slaver, Jean Audubon.” He was an artistic genius and a brilliant eccentric.

Audubon's study at "Millgrove" near Valley Forge, PA

Audubon’s father sent his son to France and provided him with the requisite education for a young gentleman: some letters, some art, some music, some military training. But as Napoleon’s need for cannon fodder grew, the young Audubon was shipped by his father in 1803 to America to avoid the draft.

In America, young John James tried to be a merchant in several different locations. He always failed. Once he was jailed for bankruptcy. His passion was wandering the woods, watching birds, shooting them, and painting them. His observation skills were honed, and his painting skills improved. By the 1820s he had a significant portfolio of bird paintings. He headed to England and from 1827 to 1838 he published the double elephant folio edition of “The Birds of America.” Based upon Audubon’s watercolors, most of the engravings were done by Robert Havell, Jr. of London; they were hand-colored under Audubon’s supervision. “The Birds of America” included 497 life-sized birds on 435 plates. The engravings also incorporated plants, mammals, reptiles, and insects.

Audubon’s contemporary and rival, Alexander Wilson (see last week’s column), died before he completed his work and needed friends to finish “American Ornithology.” Audubon had better fortune. He completed “The Birds of America,” and successfully sold it. He made a modest fortune. He did so by being a tireless self-promoter. He presented himself “as a colorful frontier character, ‘an American woodsman,’ acting and dressing the part with long flowing tresses and rustic, fur-trimmed attire.”  He generated publicity and sold his work to the highest circles of European society.

John James Audubon then continued his success. His original work consisted of four volumes of plates and five volumes of text, called “Ornithological Biography,” 1831-1839. Corrections and additions were published in “Synopsis” in 1839. All were sold by subscription.

Audubon quickly realized that  a more popular edition of his work was needed. In 1840-1844 he brought out an octavo edition in one hundred parts at a price of one dollar each. Every part had five colored plates. It was designed to be bound in seven volumes. The octavo edition was still expensive and also sold by subscription, but it was successful. There were nine editions. Brooks Library has the last octavo edition, 1871, in its collection. Dover Publications issued an unabridged replication in 1967.

Audubon made his last trip out West in 1843, the basis for his final work on mammals, the Viviparous Quadrupeds of North America. The work was completed by his sons; the text was written by his long-time friend, the Lutheran pastor John Bachman (whose daughters married Audubon’s sons). Audubon spent his last years in senility and died in 1851 at age 65. He is buried in the Trinity Cemetery at 155th Street and Broadway in New York City.

In 1886, George Bird Grinnel, a well-educated outdoorsman and editor of “Forest and Stream” magazine invited his readers to join the first organization dedicated to the protection of birds. “He called the new organization the Audubon Society after the man whose name no less then than now was inextricably associated in the public’s mind with birds. Within a few months, the Society attracted more than 38,000 members.” (Leahy) This original Audubon Society only lasted a couple of years. But the die was cast.

Great Egret - favorite of the "feather trade"

In 1896 two well-to-do Boston women organized the Massachusetts Audubon Society with 900 of their peers. Their purpose, in part, was “to work to discourage the buying or wearing of feathers and to otherwise further the protection of native birds.”

In the all important contest of promotion, sales, and name recognition, John James Audubon bested his contemporary Alexander Wilson. Audubon lived a longer life. He published his work twenty-five years later than Wilson when relations between America and England were improved and he could tap the societal resources of Britain. The robust growth of the American economy also gave him a much bigger home market.

Audubon and Wilson met one time, in Louisville, Kentucky. The encounter has given rise to many tales and accusations, all unworthy of these creative men. Both men were pioneering naturalists; neither lacked for ego. There is certainly enough material in Audubon and Wilson for several more columns. Keep coming back in the next several weeks.

In the meantime, good birding.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Turkey Trot

After months with Evening Grosbeaks coming daily - often in a flock of 50+, once 100+, today there have been NONE. What ungrateful birds! There has never been a lack of seed. In fact, most mornings I have filled feeders and cleared snow before sunrise, the task being done second only to the feeding of the cats (who will not tolerate any delay in getting their breakfast). You would think those grosbeaks were a bunch of corporate execs, who get their seed bonuses with nary a thought for the poor smucks who labor to make it possible.

However, early this afternoon I heard strange noises. Suspecting the cats had cornered some tiny intruder to the old farmhouse, I investigated. It was a rare instance in which the cats were innocent. The strange noise was gobbling. A flock of turkeys were transiting the yard on both ends of the house, and along the river. I got my count to 36, probably with half again as many being missed.

The Wild Turkey is a wary and skittish bird. As soon as I snuck onto the back porch for a photo op, they knew I was there and hurried away.

In addition to a maze of turkey tracks, there were other tracks close to the feeders following last night's snow. Our motion activated camera caught a Gray Fox - not much of a picture, but it shows what we miss when we are sleeping.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Bohemian Waxwing

This morning, with yet another storm pending, a single Bohemian Waxwing picked at one of the remaining apples on the tree outside our kitchen window. My thanks to my neighbor Dave who said "waxwing," and then stood around while I ignored him and tried to take some photos.

Evening Grosbeaks continue to be regular at the feeders, though the flock(s) are more variable in numbers than earlier in the month. The flock represented by the birds in the photo was in the 50+ range. (Note: The actual count reached 34 when something spooked them and they flew, including birds which had not been visible during the count, hence the estimate.)

Good birding!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Airy Castles and Brain Windmills

Alexander Wilson said of himself: I am “long accustomed to the building of Airy Castles and brain Windmills.” He used those words to describe his lifelong quest to write verse that would do justice to the poetic tradition of his Scottish homeland and his older contemporary, Robert Burns. In 1790, when 24 years old, Alexander published a small volume of his poems and tried selling the collection while traveling as an itinerant peddler. Neither the book sales nor the poems were very successful, and life as a packman was difficult

The poet came from a family of weavers; his father also worked as a smuggler and operated an illegal distillery. Alexander wrote a libelous poem about a mill owner who was cheating his workers; he tried blackmailing the mill owner, got caught, and went to jail. More serious was his involvement with the Scottish unrest toward English rule, typified by the popular pub toast: “To George the Third and last.”

In 1794, young Alexander Wilson, age 28, had just enough money to book passage to America. One suspects the sheriff may have been near at hand. He landed at Newcastle, Delaware, and walked thirty miles to Philadelphia with his pack and his gun. According to the summary of a modern writer, he “shot the first bird he saw (by most accounts a red-headed woodpecker, a species he did not recognize), and in the days to come, he was struck by how much more colorful the birds of this new country appeared to be. His ornithological path, like the wagon road to Philadelphia, lay open before him ....” (Scott Weidensaul, “Of a Feather”)

Alexander Wilson, the young weaver, peddler, poet, blackmailer, and political rabble-rouser, began a whole new course in young America, although it took him a decade to find his focus. He tried printing, weaving, day labor, and peddling. He landed a job as a schoolteacher, but that seems to have ended when he had an affair with a married woman.

What he did manage to do was to establish relationships with some of the most prominent and educated men of Philadelphia, men who recognized talent, and who encouraged and mentored the young Scotsman. William Bartram was a naturalist, botanist, artist and writer. Charles Willson Peale was a prominent American artist. Samuel Bradford, editor of “Ree’s New Cyclopedia,” employed Wilson and eventually became Wilson’s publisher. George Ord of Philadelphia was a wealthy and influential naturalist who championed Wilson’s work.

Even with prominent supporters like this, Alexander Wilson showed audacious ambition. Somewhere around 1803 he got the idea of creating a book which would document all of America’s birds. The idea was audacious because “Wilson still didn’t know very much about American birds, even how to identify the majority of them.” (Weidensaul)

Wilson learned the birds. His “American Ornithology” was published in nine volumes between 1808 and 1814. The last two volumes were published after his death. In addition to learning his birds, Wilson also had to learn how to draw, paint, and engrave. When the first volume was published he again became an itinerant peddler, this time selling subscriptions to his work. He sold subscriptions to President Thomas Jefferson and the president of Dartmouth College, but in general there was no great rush to snap up copies.

Wilson spent months in the field, and sometimes the old poet reemerged. After a 1200 mile walk to Niagara Falls, he watched an eagle soaring above the falls. The poet emerged:

Now 'midst the pillared spray sublimely lost,
And now, emerging down the rapids tost,
Swept the gray eagles; gazing calm and slow,
On all the horrors of the gulf below.

He set off from Philadelphia in freezing weather for Pittsburgh, 250 miles away, then traveled down the Ohio River 700 miles by small boat, and another thousand miles by horse to New Orleans. On all journeys he collected specimens and made extensive notes.

Wilson’s “American Ornithology” described over 250 species out of an estimated 350 species that were present east of the Mississippi. Wilson had limitations as a draftsman and artist; some of his birds are hard to identify.

Carolina Parakeet and the 3 Wilsonia warblers
Alexander Wilson’s impact on ornithology was deep and lasting. The Wilson Ornithological Society, founded in 1902, commemorates the “father of American ornithology” and continues to promote the scientific study of birdlife. Five species continue to bear his name: a warbler, plover, phalarope, snipe, storm-petrel. The Genus Wilsonia includes the Hooded, Canada, and Wilson’s Warblers.

Wilson died of dysentery and/or tuberculosis in 1813 at the age of 47. Volume 8 was published after his death. Volume 9 was written by his friend George Ord. Charles Lucien Bonaparte, nephew of Napoleon I and an accomplished naturalist, spent eight years in America. Bonparte admired the work of Wilson. He added notes and commentaries to Wilson’s work and had “American Ornithology” republished three times after Wilson’s death.

In the preface to the second volume, Wilson provided the viewers of “American Ornithology” a brief insight into why he undertook such a project. Wilson wrote of himself: “ ransacking our fields and forests, our sea shores, lakes, marshes and rivers; and in searching out and conversing with experienced and intelligent sportsmen and others on whose information he can venture to rely, he pledges himself, that no difficulty, fatigue or danger, shall deter him from endeavouring to collect information from every authentic source.”

Today, Alexander Wilson is nearly forgotten, while his contemporary and rival, John James Audubon, is synonymous with birds and birdwatching. There is more story to be told, as you can well imagine.

If Alexander Wilson had to be remembered only for the “Airy Castles and brain Windmills” which he crafted in verse, he would be just a blip in the passing of time. The color and variety of the birds in his new home took hold of his imagination. He joined with thousands of pioneers who were opening new frontiers. Wilson’s frontier was the study and description of birds, the science now known as ornithology.

Early on, Wilson sent President Thomas Jefferson some of his drawings. Jefferson, in turn, asked for Wilson’s help in identifying a bird. It was a Wood Thrush. Today many of us take for granted our ability to identify this woodland songster, by sight and by voice. We should thank Alexander Wilson. Wilson got us started in birdwatching.

Good birding!

Friday, January 21, 2011

LBJs - IDs for Exercises 11 & 12

Song Sparrow (default sparrow) - see! We don't need to use the breast spot to ID this songster.
Pine Siskin
American Tree Sparrow
Swamp Sparrow
Lincoln's Sparrow
White-throated Sparrow (l), Blue Grosbeak, female (r)
Fox Sparrow (foreground), White-throated Sparrow (2)
White-throated Sparrow (l), White-crowned Sparrow (r)
Purple Finch, female (foreground), White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco (background)
Song Sparrow (foreground), White-throated Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

LBJs _ Who Am I? - Exercise #12

These exercise began on December 6. This will be the last exercise, though there is still the ID post for 11 & 12, and there will be one addendum.

Each of these photos has more than one identifiable Little Brown Job. Though some are in the background and a little blurry, they recognizable. I hope a few readers will venture to ID the birds in the comment section.

LBJ #56

LBJ #57

LBJ #58

LBJ #59

LBJ #60
Good birding!

Sunday, January 16, 2011

LBJs - Who Am I? - Exercise #11

These exercises on Little Brown Jobs, which began back on December 6, are getting close to the end. They have not covered all of the confusing little brown birds, because I do not have photographs of many of them, and I am beginning to run out of decent photos of the ones I do have - and perhaps you are beginning to run out of patience for these exercises.

Here are five more photographs. We have seen each of these birds several times, so to add some interest, this time we only get the head of the bird.

LBJ #51
LBJ #52
LBJ #53
LBJ #54
LBJ #55

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Snow Storm Feeder Birds

Wednesday's snow storm made for a very active day at the feeders. Perhaps most surprising was 10 European Starlings. Since I evicted two pair from their nesting places in the walls of my house, they have been rare in the yard.

The resident Northern Cardinals came often through the day - 3 males, 1 female ...

At least one flock of Evening Grosbeaks continue at the feeders. At one point there were 15 on the platform, 4 on the wooden feeder, 5 on the bulk feeder, 3 on the sunflower tube feeder, 6 on the bulk sunflower feeder, 17 on the porch, an undetermined number on the ground and in the trees, and one on the window feeder ...

Also see previous post for Common Redpoll.

Visitors and residents included: Common Redpoll (75-100) , Black-capped Chickadee (10), Tufted Titmouse (4), Downy Woodpecker (6), Hairy Woodpecker (3), White-breasted Nuthatch (2), Mourning Dove (25), Blue Jay (35), Red-bellied Woodpecker (1), Song Sparrow (2), Dark-eyed Junco (25), Rock Pigeon (7), Red Squirrel (3), Vole (4)

Good birding!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

LBJs - IDs for Exercises 9 & 10

If you are following these LBJ posts, I hope they are getting easier for you. Exercise 9 was posted last Thursday. Exercise 10 was posted Sunday.

#41 - American Tree Sparrow - similar to juvenile White-crowned and juvenile Chipping. Note warm wash on sides, sometimes a breast spot. Study the bird guides for differences in size and shape
#42 - Chipping Sparrow
#43 - Indigo Bunting, female - Note traces of blue on the wings, finch-like beak
#44 - House Finch, female
#45 - Swamp Sparrow
#46 - Rose-breasted Grosbeak, female
#47 - Savannah Sparrow
#48 - Song Sparrow
#49 - Song Sparrow - See! You don't need to see the breast spot to ID this sparrow.
#50 - Pine Siskin

Good Birding!!


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