Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Wednesdays with Audubon, Chapter 11

We left a soggy and stagnant Audubon stuck for 5 days without a favorable wind as he travelled through the Labrador Islands. I can only imagine the excruciating frustration of heading out on an epic, expensive trip of Summer birding, and having to spend 5 days inside a cramped boat. Salvation came the morning of June 29th and they set off towards American Harbor (I'm not really sure what or where that is).

Along the way they passed many small and rocky islands, almost all of which were dominated by a single nesting species, be it the Common Puffin, Razorbilled Auk, or Cormorants. They travelled some 50 miles in choppy seas before dropping anchor. Tired of his forced drawing for nearly the last week (forced in the sense that there was nothing else to do), Audubon was quickly off the boat and exploring this new, more diminutive portion of the Labrador coastline. He collected a few specimens, including the "Shore Lark (Horned Lark) and spent the afternoon pondering the identity of a dead, starved, and semi-frozen "snowbird" that he had never seen nor heard of before.

They spent the next few days mostly collecting the eggs of the Common Cormorant and American Ring Plover that nested near the shore. I wonder at times why they wanted so many eggs. What does one do with several hundred dozen cormorant eggs, other than drink eggnog while eating omelets topped with scrambled eggs and a small side of poached eggs.

Anyway, Audubon's painting of the Cormorants is beautiful.

On July 2nd Audubon took several men to begin a more thorough exploration of Labrador, which captivated Audubon with it's peculiar and specialized landscape: "The country, so wild and grand, is of itself enough to interest any one in its wonderful dreariness. Its mossy, gray-clother rocks, heaped and thrown together as if by chance, in the most fantastical groups imaginable, huge masses hanging on minor ones as if about to roll themselves down from their double-looking situation into the depths of the sea beneath. Bays without end dot the landscape, sprinkled with rocky islands where in every fissure some bird or another retreats to secure its brood."

The focus for July 4th and 5th was on the Great Northern Diver and Red-Necked Diver with Audubon acquiring his first specimens of these Loons as well as some unexpected Ptarmigan, which one of the more impertinent sailors tried to sneakily eat in the night, for which he was soundly beaten in the morning.

On July 5th Audubon also made an interesting observation about the breeding and molting birds up in Labrador: "The Scoter Ducks, of which I have seen many this day, were partially molted, and could fly only a short distance, and must be either barren or the young bachelors, as I find parents in full plumage, convincing me that these former molt earlier than the breeding Ducks. I have observed this strange fact so often now that I shall say no more about it; I have found it in nearly all the species of the birds here. I do not know of any writer on the history of birds having observed this curious fact before. I have now my hands full of work, and go to bed delighted..."

I wonder. Is this really the case with Scoters and other breeding waterfowl? Do the young or non-mating birds molt at a different time than the parent birds? Interesting stuff either way.