Thursday, December 29, 2011

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 5

--Sorry to be getting this in late. I was without internet the last couple days, but hopefully things will get back on track. Last week Audubon had just returned from his work to reunite with Lucy Audubon after nearly a 5 year absence. While renown and respect for his work was beginning to grow, the money still wasn't coming in, but at least the Audubons were together.

While J.J. and Lucy were back together, his work was not yet done. He returned to England and then Scotland, this time with Lucy and his sons, John and Victor. While Audubon worked to promote his books, both those that were printed and the upcoming editions, his sons focussed on publishing and copying, while his wife dazzled their English friends with her wit and charm. It became apparent to both Audubon and those around him that he was still missing a real scientist in his undertaking. As he confidently notes: "I am now aware that no man living better knows the habits of our (North American) birds...I cannot however scribble tolerable english letters, and I cannot give scientific descriptions, so here I required assistance."

J.J. Audubon had more direct experience and field-time than any other ornithologist working in North America, but if his work was to be more successful and acceptable to those with strict scientific and terminological sensibilities, he would need a technical assistant. His first choice was Mr. William Swainson, but since Swainson was unavailable, Audubon went with the recommendation of Mr. James Wilson and set up a partnership with Mr. William MacGillivray. Again, it's impressive to see the names of Audubon's associates. There's not a man without at least one bird to his namesake. MacGillivray was very diligent, and with his technical focus Audubon's work gained strict scientific analysis to go along with Audubon's excellent, more personal accounts of each bird.

The Audubons returned to the U.S. in 1831, and J.J. immediately set out on a brief trip to Florida. On the way, he forged a friendship with Rev. John Bachman, a birding enthusiast and kindred spirit with Audubon. J.J. collected a few new species in Florida, and then promptly moved his family in the opposite direction, taking them up to Maine in 1832. At this point, his sons John and Victor returned to England to supervise his publishing, and Audubon hired on some help and set out on a treacherous journey to the Labrador Islands of Newfoundland, where he found and collected 73 new species. Unfortunately, many of Audubon's older notes, journals, and samples were destroyed in the New York fire of 1835, but his work had now gained enough support and momentum that it was moving along almost with a mind of its own.

His son John married Maria, Rev. Bachman's oldest daughter. The first Audubon grandchild, Lucy, was born in 1837, shortly before the latests and most extensive edition of Audubon's ornithologies was published in 1838. The Audubons now had enough money and established credit for J.J. to buy his beloved "Minniesland" (minnie being a scottish term for mother/wife) outside of New York City. The piece of land is today preserved and known as Audubon Park, and during the mid 19th century 11 of the 14 Audubon grandchildren were born there.

While Audubon does not directly comment on his change of fortune, I think it is very interesting that his success and comfort dramatically improved as he involved more and more of his family in his work. His early excursions were done in solitude, in part because his sons were still young and Lucy had to care for them. But during those early days, Audubon lost a lot of money and had a more difficult time establishing himself in the ornithological world. While reading Audubon's accounts, I often wondered at his frequent absences from his wife and children. Was it just an understood and necessary part of a young man's work in the early 19th century, or was he a little bit inconsiderate? At any rate, it certainly seems that when Audubon's family was able to help him more directly, his work became increasingly successful. In my limited experiences, I've always found birding to be much more enjoyable when I can share it with friends and family. While at times I recognize and sympathize with Audubon's yearning for the open country, for the secluded beauty of nature, it's always better with company.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Birding Fun in New Hampshire

The sun is up, the snow is starting to melt, and the birds are coming out here in New Hampshire. The first and most flamboyant representative of the avian world was this Black-Capped Chickadee. These handsome and chubby little birds are very curious, and while they can get bossed around by the Blue Jays, I still deem them to be the mascots of the wintery forest.

To my surprise, there was also a strong presence of American Gold Finches around Granite Lake. Since I've been rather spoiled with my Goldfinches, and seen either the non-molting finches in Phoenix or the American Goldfinches in Iowa during the Summer, this was my first sighting of the Goldfinches in their winter eclipse plumage. It's not quite a match for the dandelion yellow they display in the warmer months, but it was still neat to see.

Another unexpected sighting was this little Brown Creeper. Although Creepers are not rare, it's always a bit of a surprise to see them simply because they're small, camouflaged, quiet, and solitary. They range over the entire U.S. and don't mind the winter cold, but given their diminutive behavior, it's just one of those birds you seldom plan on seeing or anticipate like you might with some of the louder or more gregarious woodland birds.

They cling tight and close to the tree trunks, running (creeping) up and down and upside down, gleaning insects and whatever else they find with their decurved beaks.

The White-Breasted Nuthatch is another guaranteed sighting in the winter months. It behaves much like the Creeper, but with its black cap, white undersides, and larger size, it's much more conspicuous. 

Birding in this true winter setting, in these frosted woods, is much different from birding in the Arizona chaparral. Everything is much slower, much quieter, much more determined, and very placid. It's chilly and peaceful, with these little birds providing the only flashes of color and movement apart from the falling leaves and dripping snow.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Birding in New Hampshire

My stay in New Hampshire has been wonderful. There is little that strengthens the body and soul better than relaxing with family in beautiful country. That being said, the winter birds here are troublesome!

Birding in New Hampshire is totally different from birding in Phoenix, and not just because of the snow. Instead of compact and low lying chaparral, the winter birds spend their time in the tall pine, oak, birch, and cedar trees. With it being winter time, bird sightings are much fewer and farther between. I've seen Dark-eyed Juncos, Chickadees, Nuthatches, and Crows, and I was also able to add Golden-Crowned Kinglets and American Tree Sparrows to my list. Getting good pictures is another story, and it's much harder to be patient when it's 20 degrees outside.

Today I went down to the Otter Brook preserve to scout the woody margins. The ponds were all semi-frozen, and it was deathly quiet. The birds would come in little groups, seeming to take turns foraging in the area before moving on, and always wary of the optimistic photographer nearby. There was plenty to see and admire apart from the occasional bird, and I particularly liked how the ice held to the grass at the water's edge. It was like nice, shiny, frozen snot. Marvelous!

As one might expect, the Dark-Eyed Juncos were not deterred by the cold. I frequently saw the Oregon-Race Juncos in Texas, so in a way this was a new bird for me. Even though I could only take distant photos, their adorableness knows no boundaries.

I spent most of the time stalking a small group of American Tree Sparrows. The Tree Sparrows are one of the few songbirds that migrate into New England expressly for the winter, and these wary Sparrows seemed right at home in the frozen vegetation.

With a couple more days in Munsonville and Christmas around the corner, I'm hoping to get some better looks and pictures that do these winter specialists justice.

In the mean time, Merry Christmas dear readers. Peace and blessings be with you this holiday season.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 4

Poor Audubon. He had a talent and a love for ornithology, and he had a happy marriage. But from the end of the War of 1812 to the early 1820s he could not make a worthy investment to save his life, and indeed the deaths of his infant daughters weighed very heavily upon him.

Audubon took his family and moved to New Orleans in 1819, where he and Lucy found salaried positions as private teachers for some of the well established families there. While the Audubon family found some stability during this time, both financial and emotional, John felt his ornithological opportunities beginning to fade.

With Lucy still very popular and in high demand in New Orleans, Audubon decided to make a trip up to Kentucky and New York with his oldest (14) son Victor in the Summer of 1823. Lucy and the younger children were secure in Louisiana, and Audubon's sense of adventure, along with a growing desire to focus on his naturalist interest and be recognized for his work, drove the men up north. Audubon does not include details of this trip, although he and Victor were both way-layed with yellow fever in Louisville, and Mrs. Audubon had to come nurse them back to health despite their best attempt at self-sufficiency.

Audubon still had a fine reputation as an artist and a naturalist, but he had not done much to establish himself within the growing networks of professional and internationally recognized ornithologists. Leaving Victor to study painting and drawing in Shippingport, PA (Audubon assures us this was Victor's interest, and not at all prompted by his father), Audubon continued on to Philadelphia. With his connections in Philadelphia, Audubon was able to meet and hobb-nobb with the city's elite, and even find some venues for his artwork. It was during the spring and summer of 1824 that he acquainted himself with the likes of such bird-brained people as Charles Lucien Bonaparte (nephew to Napoleon), Sir Edward Harris, Dr. John Bachman, George Ord (who became Audubon's anonymous nemesis), Dr. Richard Harlan and many other distinguished and published people.

Looking at these last names, one can tell this was an auspicious gathering in American natural history. Almost all of them have at least 1 species of bird to their namesake, and some have many more. It was from this exposure that Audubon gained the necessary capital and encouragement to compile and publish  the first edition of Birds of America. At the time, the demand and funding for such things was to be found predominantly in England so Audubon had to remove himself to foggy Albion and delay his return to Lucy. Birds of America was published through 5 editions, with a total of 435 plates showing 1035 figures of birds in total. This was published much to the envy and  excoriating, anonymous criticisms of Mr. George Ord, who had spent his time as a professional ornithologist continuing post-humous work on Wilson's Ornithologies. As one might imagine, his work was made obsolete by Audubon's superior compilation.

It's amazing to think of these first birding books and field guides. All of the illustrations were hand-drawn and then copied through an etching process. They would have lacked the proper proportions and technical accuracy of today's field guides, but have been thoroughly personalized. Additionally, the author could blend colors and shapes in a more organic way, and create a product that was probably less accurate, but also more artistic than many of today's models.

Audubon's books sold very well in England (there was still relatively little time and interest for such things in America), and he was quickly encouraged to produce more editions on his return to America. With significant and respectable support from the naturalist community, and a paying constituency behind him, Audubon felt compelled to build on his success. He spent the late summer and early fall amidst the swamps of New Jersey, hiring on extra help to aid in his gathering of specimens. Over the course of 4 months he found and drew 95 new bird species and 66 eggs. With these add-ons now done, Audubon could finally head back to Louisiana. He set out on a ferocious pace towards New Orleans, and was reunited with Lucy, whom he had not seen for several years,  in November of 1829.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Eurasian Wigeon II: Return of the Wigeon

The clouds and the chill stayed with us here in Phoenix, despite the best promises of the weather channel that they'd go away. Luckily the Eurasian Wigeon is still around too, and I endeavored to get some improved images to share. Between the 2 ponds, there are probably 4 or 5 dozen wigeons, and they all are very diligent sentinels. They would not tolerate any sort of approach, and it became apparent very soon that'd I'd have to be pretty sneaky if I was to improve on yesterday's pictures.

The Wigeons were fancying the south-shore grazing, which worked out in that there was actually a bit of sunlight. However, there was very little cover and I had to approach them from Camelback road, which meant I was doing the bootcamp-style belly crawl over these little grassy hills much to the honking amusement of passing traffic. As soon as I peered above the final slope, the Wigeons began their retreat, but it did afford a good look at the Eurasian.

The grass was nice and wet. When combined with the 40 degree temperatures and slight breeze, it made for a chilly stake-out. These two nearby Mourning Doves must've thought I looked pretty silly.

After a few more (unsuccessful) attempts to get a good angle of approach on the Wigeons, they left the west pond and moved over to the adjacent and slightly smaller eastern pond. This pond provided a better opportunity since there's an oleander hedge that provides some cover. While the Wigeons stayed out pretty far from the shore, the view was much improved.

Unfortunately it was still too dim outside to get that higher shutter speed. While these photos came out a bit blurry, it was nice to see the wing coloration. This brisk morning was a great way to end my 2011 year of birding in Phoenix. I'll be in New Hampshire for the next 2 weeks, which'll be a whole new and awesome opportunity. Hopefully there'll be lots to share.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Eurasian Wigeon

It's been a week for lost birds! The day after Pops and I observed and photographed (albeit, somewhat poorly) a Lewis's Woodpecker at Encanto Park in central Phoenix, I saw a Eurasian Wigeon mixing it up with the Americans at the Biltmore golf course ponds.

It was another overcast and rainy weekend, and I was doing some Christmas shopping in the area. Around 3:30pm or so, the sun was finally breaking through the clouds. I drive by one of the golf course ponds on the way home from work, and remembered once seeing a group of non-mallards. I had noticed white flashes on the heads as I drove by, and since I do not yet have good Blue-Winged Teal photos I set out with the camera. The weather was now very pleasant, even if the grass was damp, and it was just great to be outside.

The western-most pond had a few Coots, one Pied-Billed Grebe, and a few Ruddy Ducks all contentedly floating away from the shore. To the east of this pond I saw a nice, brushy area where this pond was fed from a more elevated body of water, and I figured there might be some fun Sparrows or something in the scrub.
Indeed, it was teeming with that quintessential western winter sparrow, the White-Crowned.

Once you get in birding mode, it's hard to stop. There was another pond east of the Sparrows, and I was compelled to explore.

As I cleared the ridge, there was a large group of Coots and Wigeons grazing on the putting green on the opposite shore. Even at this distance, there was one head that really stuck out...

Unlike the Wigeons and Coots that I've photographed at Grenada Park, these waterfowl were not used to people approaching them. They took to the water very quickly, and stayed far away from the shoreline. I was still shocked to see that reddish-brown head floating there with the other Wigeons. You always keep an eye out for a Eurasian, but you never really expect to see it (especially not in central Phoenix).

These guys brought together some nice Christmas colors, and indeed this felt like an early Christmas gift.  I'll definitely be trying for some closer shots of the Eurasian--hopefully he sticks around--and it'll be fun to try and pick out a female in the flock.

I sent the sighting in to the Arizona/New Mexico Birding listservs, but it didn't get posted, so maybe this isn't actually that uncommon of a sighting. Either way, it's another cool new bird!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Lewis's Woodpecker

Here are some more recent photos of the Lewis's Woodpecker that's residing at Encanto Park. He's still pretty skittish, but I was able to get close enough to see him stretching a scratching a bit in the morning light.

*Original Post:
For at least the last week or so, there's been a solitary Lewis's Woodpecker residing at the Encanto Park in central Phoenix. Lewis's Woodpeckers are typically found at higher altitudes, amid the pine and oak scrub woodlands in Northern Arizona and the like. It's pretty unusual to see them flying amidst the palm trees down here in Phoenix, or at least you don't hear about it as much.

I've stopped by Encanto now several times to try and get some decent pictures, and it has not been an easy task. It hasn't help that it's been an overcast and rainy week, but this Lewis' Woodpecker is amazingly skittish. He's easy enough to see, and flies a fairly predictable circuit between several palm trees and the 3 oak trees bordering the west side of Encanto lake. However, I haven't been able to get within 40 feet of the bird before it takes off.

It'll be an arduous and ongoing project to come away with some nice Lewis's photos, but it's just such a beautiful bird and a unique woodpecker that it'll be well worth the trouble. In the mean time, it's a lot of fun to observe him flying from tree to tree guarding his nuts. Other Gila Woodpeckers, Starlings, and Thrashers have found some of his acorn stashes, and he's on a constant alert. At one point, Pops and I observed him laying into a Starling that had wedged itself into one of his larders. He just started hammering away, and when the bird finally forced its exit, the Starling had a noticeable limp.

Since he seems to be storing up food, and has already withstood at least one week with average temperatures oscillating between 40s and 50s, I'm hoping he'll stick around through the winter. If not, it has still been a privilege and a pleasure to see this cool bird inside the urban bubble.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

More Visitors from the North

Probably my favorite duck, the Northern Shoveler always provides the amateur photographer with the a shovel-ready job. Up to last week I had only seen Shovelers through binoculars, far away in the middle of Gilbert ponds and Irving lakes. I was very fortunate to find a group of them close to shore at the Papago Ponds. With their egregiously oversized bills, the Shoveler silhouette is unmistakable, and I find no greater pleasure in identifying a duck than spotting that heavy-set head out on the water.

The tell-tale bill is only the beginning of the Shoveler's appeal. With their chestnut sides, buffy breast, iridescent heads, and shimmering tales, the Shoveler combines the colors of the Mallard drake with filtering capacity of a baleen whale. Sometimes, it gets tricky to fit this awkward and wonderful concoction of a bird all in one frame. The lengthy bill and tail feathers necessitate a very horizontal crop. While the resulting rectangle isn't a very appealing shape to the eye, the Northern Shoveler demands that certain, special treatment.

From one angle the head shows purple, and from another it brings out a unique teal (so he actually combines Mallard and Green-Winged Teal).

The sieve-like projections on the sides of the Shoveler's bill allow it to filter small invertebrates out of the water and muck where it dabbles. This convenient apparatus allows the Shoveler to live off of a diet that is largely unattainable to many of the other dabbling duck species.

As with many birds, the male is the more fashionable of the breed. However, the female has her modest patches of colors, and she really doesn't mind if people stare at her outlandish nose, honest.

If ever I was to have a pet bird, it would be the Shoveler. He would fill my world with color and help me dig holes in my garden (I'd get a garden after I got the Shoveler). It was with eager anticipation that I awaited the arrival of the Shovelers this autumn. This is one outstanding bird that never disappoints.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 3

We left off with Audubon the adventurer. While his love of the outdoors and his fondness for drawing birds and observing bird behavior continued to grow, so too did his love for one Lucy Bakewell. Audubon ended that section of his account with a rather telling anecdote: "In my drawing of birds only did I interest Mr. Da Costa. He always commended my efforts, nay he even went further. One morning, While I was drawing a figure of the Ardea herodias, he assured me the time might come when I should be a great American naturalist." 

This artistic skill and ornithological zeal was not quite enough for Mr. Bakewell, and he set Audubon up to study the mercantile trades that he might better provide for Lucy in their married life. Despite the pose he struck as a Renaissance Man, Audubon was no entrepreneur. He invested in indigo and ham trades  (curious combination) into the Caribbean without any prophet to show. Apparently this commitment alone was enough for Mr. Bakewell, and John James Audubon married Lucy Bakewell on April 8th, 1808. They moved down to Louisville and bought a small department store. Their first son Victor was born June 12, 1809.

Despite his earlier financial setbacks, Audubon worked as part of a trade exchange between Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. This network was set up by Mr. Bakewell, who entered into a New Orleans trading venture with John Audubon's capital (and a fair bit more business sense). While the families did fairly well, it became steadily more clear to Audubon that his was not a mind for merchandise:

"Were I to tell you that once, when traveling and driving several horses before me laden with goods and dollars, I lost sight of the pack-saddles, and the cash they bore, to watch the motions of the warbler, I should only repeat occurrences that happened a hundred times and more in those days."

Over the next couple years the markets rose and fell; Audubon and Bakewell profited less and less with each ensuing season. This did not stop Audubon from taking increasingly longer treks out into the Kentucky wilderness and beyond, recording in great detail all the birds and quadrupeds that he encountered.

To revamp his funding and better establish his proximity to the wilderness, Audubon purchased  livestock in Louisville and drove it up to Henderson, KY, where he made a good return and bought several acres of property. He continued to improve his finances in the next year before being joined by Thomas Bakewell, who persuaded him to invest in a steam mill along with another Englishman named Thomas Pears.
"Up went the steam-mill at an enormous expense, in a country then as unfit for such a thing as it would be now for me to attempt to settle in the moon...Thomas Pears lost his money and we lost ours."

Audubon's fortunes went from bad to worse. After investing in some private banks, Audubon and Thomas Bakewell bought shares in a steamboat, and then resold to it a man who used counterfeit bills. The man, who Audubon only names as TB, attacked Audubon in the street for defaming his name. Though Audubon received several strong blows from TB's improvised cudgel, Audubon himself had taken to wearing a dagger, and severely wounded TB. While he was exonerated in court, Audubon's bills continued to pile up, and soon after the birth of his daughter Rosa he had lost the entirety of their fortune. Despite these continual setbacks, Audubon is not bitter in his recollections:
"She [Lucy Audubon] felt the pangs of our misfortunes perhaps more heavily than I, but never for an hour lost her courage; her brave and cheerful spirit accepted all, and no reproaches from her beloved lips ever wounded my heart. With her was I not always rich?"

Audubon sold his Pennsylvania estates to pay off his debts, lodging with nearby friends while he established himself as a draughtsman--finally, the technical and detailed skills he developed with his ornithological pursuits were paying for themselves.  Audubon's reputation as a sketch-artist quickly grew, and he was often employed to draw the recently deceased, but with a life-like countenance, that would serve as the centerpiece and funerals and remembrances. This professional practice in turn led Audubon to greatly improve his avian artistry, and soon he was drawing birds better than he had before his string of misfortunes.

It was not long before his avian sketches gained as much notoriety as his portraits, and in 1819 he was invited to Cincinnati College to work as a taxonomist and taxidermist for the university's museum. Although his family settled comfortably in Ohio, and Audubon even opened a drawing school, the family suffered its most grievous loss with the death of Rosa, their first-born daughter (Audubon does not dwell on this at all, and in fact later mentions that they had another daughter, named Lucy, who also died in infancy even before Rosa). To make matters worse, it turned out that folks in Cincinnati pledged and promised more than they could pay, and the Audubon funds continued to shrivel. Despite the generally ill-tidings of these years, Audubon's love of nature continued to grow.

"One of the most extraordinary things among all these adverse circumstances was that I never for a day gave up listening to the songs of our birds, or watching their peculiar habits, or delineating them in the best ways that I could; nay, during my deepest troubles I frequently would wrench myself from the persons around me, and retire to some secluded part of our noble forests; and many a time, at the sound of the wood-thrush's melodies have I fallen on my knees, and there prayed earnestly to our God. This never failed to bring me the most valuable of thoughts and always comfort, and, strange as it may seem to you, it was often necessary for me to exert my will, and compel myself to return to my fellow-beings."

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Visitors from the North

Northern Pintails are very handsome ducks. They're not too gaudily colored, but are very sleek and elegant looking when they're dressed to impress.  The male's heads are darkened with a rich chestnut brown. Their bills have diagnostic blue and black striping to add just a splash of color with the fine gray and black ensemble. And of course, their tales are elongated to show virility.

There are not one, not two, but three different shades of brown on the head. With the nice white breast and stunningly fine gray sides, these ducks are always in their gentlemanly morning suits, coattails and all. That being said, it can get tricky to keep the very intricate details of the bird's feathers in good focus without losing the pintail.

At the right angle, there's even a bit of rouge on the back of the head. A duck and a gentleman for all seasons.