Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 7

The next several posts will focus on Audubon's trip to the Labrador Islands, one of the most dangerous and important voyages in his career. After the fairly successful publication of Audubon's Birds of America, it was essential that he quickly gather more and new species to document before he lost momentum. That is, before his name ceased to be the toast of England and the Ornithological world.

Audubon departed for the islands with his younger son John and a hired crew in early June of 1833. He chartered a private schooner called the Ripley for $350 a month plus provisions, and spent the summer months exploring, collecting, drawing, and painting in the near-constant daylight that such latitudes provide that time of year.

The first few days were spent in some apprehension as they struggled to pull the boat out from open water and into the numerous bays and inlets of the Labrador coast. The choppy waters and rocky shore were discomforting for the crew. On June 8th they successfully navigated the bay between the Seal Islands, known for their fur seal populations, and the Mud Islands, known for their mud pies. Audubon observed the nesting Storm Petrels and also collected specimens of Foolish Guillemot and Gannets, despite sea-sickness stealing everyone's appetite for the day.

Audubon recorded this about the Guillemots in Birds of America: "While on my way toward Labrador, they were constantly within sight, gambolling over the surface of the water, the males courting the females, and the latter receiving the caresses of their mates. These would at times rise erect in the sea, swell their throats, and emit a hoarse puffing guttural note, to which the females at once responded, with numerous noddings to their beaux. Then the pair would rise, take a round in the air, re-alight, and seal the conjugal compact; after which they flew or swam together for the season, and so closely, that among multitudes on the wing or on the waves, one might easily distinguish a mated pair."

The next day they struck out to the Canseau Island shore, where the men's stomachs could settle and Audubon collected Robin nests, as well as specimens of White-Throated Sparrow and "Savannah Finch". I must admit, I've never heard of a Savannah Finch, but sure enough here is Audubon's rendition:

 Despite the birding opportunities, Audubon's crew managed to pry him away and they spent June 10th catching lobsters. June 11th brought Audubon a Great Black-Backed gull, the largest gull in the world (a 30 inch bird). With his Gull and his lobster lunch, Audubon was a happy and gushing man:

"It is as the Eagle to the Vultures or Crows. So superior is it in strength and courage to the Fulmars, Lestris, or even Gannets, to say nothing of Gulls of all sorts, that at its approach they all give way, and until it has quite satisfied itself, none venture to approach the precious morsel on which it is feeding."

Next week Audubon lands in the gulf of St. Lawrence, and the action really begins. It's another short post this week, but the opportunities for pictures are at least on the up and up! As I've mentioned before, there is something inescapably beautiful, if also distracting, about these personalized depictions in the early bird books. All of the illustrations were hand-drawn and then copied through an etching process. The images lack the proper proportions and technical accuracy of today's field guides, but have been thoroughly personalized and provided with an exceeding attention to detail and love of the subject. I don't mean to downplay today's field guides, but you know that when you are looking at Audubon's models, you're looking at a specific and real bird which he shot, preserved, and spent many hours then trying to bring back to life for us, the reader, almost 200 years later. I appreciate that very much. 

On the way home from work...

I stopped by Encanto Park, only a slight deviation from the I-10 highway. I only saw the resident Lewis's Woodpecker at a distance, but it was very nice to just sit and observe for 15 minutes. There are plenty of Ring-Neck Ducks in the ponds, and always a few Kinglets and Gila Woodpeckers bumbling about. This Pied-Billed Grebe, done up right nice in his breeding plumage, was a special treat:

Here's a non-bredding Grebe, meaning it is without the namesake stripe on the bill, for comparison:

You can hear and see the Yellow-Rumped Warblers just about everywhere in the autumn and winter months. I must admit, I usually ignore them. But when it's a slow evening and there's not a lot of activity, you're forced to focus on every bird, and it makes me appreciate them once again.