Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 8

After a somewhat slow and shaky start, Audubon and his help were making their way through the Labrador Islands and towards the gulf of St. Lawrence. Some of the islands were dotted with rundown shacks and smokehouses. The boreal air held a heavy stillness that wass only occasionally broken by the call of some pelagic bird echoing through the misty sky. Apart from the occasional sighting of a fishing boat, the men were isolated. It must have been eery and unsettling at times, while wonderfully freeing at others.

On June 11th they passed through Cape George and Cape Porcupine, where the ice was still well-formed. They stopped near the Porcupine shoreline to trade with some Indians, and Audubon also came upon some Chimney Swallows and Blue Jays.

The St. Lawrence Gulf was a bit more settled than the outer islands. Little hamlets dotted the emergent green hills as they undulated into the distance, textured here and there with the recognizable rows of cultivation. Audubon and his crew put in at Jestico Island, which was speckled with wild strawberries and enhanced by the flurried activity of American Redstarts and Tawny Thrushes. About the Redstarts Audubon writes: "This is one of the most lively, as well as one of the handsomest, of our Flycatchers, and ornaments our woods during spring and summer, when it cannot fail to attract the attention of any person who may visit the interior of the shady forests."

They also observed mating pairs of Spotted Sandpipers, Guillemot, and Great Blue Heron. 
They collected black currants and the sailors killed a seal for dinner, while Audubon observed a pair of Red-Breasted Mergansers, "that had glutted themselves with fish so that they were obliged to disgorge before they could fly off."

June 12th was spent navigating from Cape Breton to the Amherst Islands in very heavy fog. Despite his father's prowess, Audubon was not much of a sailor. He spent most of his time sullenly below decks while they navigated the tricky sandbars that often linked the tiny isles. On June 13th the temperature dropped down to 40 degrees, a dip for which Audubon and his crew were poorly prepared. They went ashore Magdalene Island where they were met on the beach, much to their surprise, by a wild-looking woman who spoke about a third French, a third English, and a third of some other jargon Audubon claims neither he nor any of his crewmen could decipher. The woman nonetheless led them to a small Catholic Church, where, to their surprise, they were caught up in the middle of a La Petite Fete de Dieu (translate 'small party of God'?) festival. Despite the harsh conditions of the island and the apparent poverty of its populace, Audubon & Co. were treated to French wine and fresh herring. While the less ornithologically inclined made pleasant company inside the chapel, Audubon followed the preliminary rays of sun out into a nearby wood. He observed "Black-Capped Warblers" (I'm not sure if this would be a Black-Capped Chickadee or Black-Capped Vireo?), and Audubon gathered his first specimens of Piping Plover.

Audubon recorded: "So plaintive is the note of this interesting species that I feel great aversion to killing them. They are also the swiftest of foot of any water-birds, which I know, of their size." 
He later added in his Birds of America, "While migrating eastward, the Piping Plovers proceed in pairs; and should one of these on its way find a convenient place for breeding, and remain there, several others are often induced to take up their abode in the neighborhood."

It's not one of my favorite illustrations, but he gives a pretty charming account of the birds. I wonder what sorts of joy Audubon would have found with a digital camera on these expeditions, the greatest advantage of which is that it would spare the birds? Of course, one could argue that Audubon would be able to paint from photographs and memory, but what if that were not an option? I wonder, if he were forced for some reason to choose between photographs and his painting, which would he pick? As I've said before, there's something irreplaceably more personal in these painted renditions of the birds, even if they're only second-hand likenesses.